I was dying to go to Japan ever since I first watched Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and even more after Memoirs of a Geisha. I finally went there in summer 2013 and I just loved it. Back then it was not a very common destination for Asia travellers although in my mind wrongly since it is the perfect place for “Asia beginners” as it is easy to travel, safe, and the food is great and safe as well. Since a close friend is planing to go this spring, I am taking this as an occasion to share my travel experiences and recommendations for a Japan round trip.
Start with but do not just go to Tokyo
One important advice in advance: don’t ever go to Japan in July-August: you wouldn’t believe how hot it gets there – trust me, it is not fun. Second piece of advice: if you know for how long you will stay and which places you want to visit, don’t forget to book a Japan Rail Pass online (you have to book it from abroad before arriving in Japan, for example here). It is the best value for money for travelling across the country by train (more information below). Third, don’t worry about Japan being too expensive – it is not – at least not more than the average European country.
Now, back to Tokyo. It makes sense to start from there as you will probably fly in via Narita Airport. Tokyo is crazy big – it counts about as many inhabitants as my entire home country – 9 million, and around 37 million in the greater metropolitan region. Hence, there is not one city center but as typical for cities of that scale, there are many different districts waiting for you to explore. You may want to visit Shibujya and Shinjuku to have all the stereotypes one connects with Japan confirmed: supermodern, skyscraper-dense, traffic-intense, crowded metros and streets busy all day and night. Roppongi is popular for its nightlife – restaurants, bars, clubs. Ueno in the North is the cultural and historical part of the city. Certainly worth a visit is the closeby Sensoji-temple (best to reach vom metro stop Asakusa). You may also want to consider taking the monorail to Odaiba, an artifical island in the Tokyo bay, to see the Statue of Liberty replica. The statue was originally built to celebrate Japan’s ties with France and was only meant to stay for a year but since it was so popular a replica was created which is still here today. So Tokyo is the place for fancy nice restaurants, exploring the nightlife and perhaps do some shopping.
From top left to bottom right: (1) famous crossing just outside Shibuya Staion (Exit Hachiko); (2)Shinjuku area at night; (3) traditional-style restaurant in Shinjuku area ; (4) typical sight outside a tempel; (5) Statue of Liberty replica in Odaiba (6) Buddha statues outside Zojoji temple.
Only a daytrip away: surf beaches, national parks and Mount Fuji
If you are looking for a charming old town – stop looking, you will not find it in Tokyo. However, retreats from the busy and neat city are not far: Only a one-hour train ride away is Kamakura, where you cannot only visit the second- tallest buddha statue of Japan, the Daibutsu (13,3 m tall) built in 1252 but also chill at a Hawaiian-like beach bar on Yuigahama beach, which is only a 10-minute walk from the Kamakura station.
Tokyo is also a good starting point for a trip to Mount Fuji (or Fuji-San). Busses will take you up to the 5th Station on 2305 m. If you want to hike up to the very top of Mount Fuji this will take an estimated 6 hours from the 5th Station (3 to go back down), so you will need to plan in 2 days as you will have to stay overnight. However, please note that the official climbing season is only from July to mid-September (learn more here). Organised bus tours to Mount Fuji are offered by many operators, I booked mine for example with STA Travel. Daytrips often also include a visit to the Hakone National Park or one of the five Fuji-lakes. This will show you a very different side of Japan: vast, calm, undisturbed landscapes. If you consider spending more time there, this could also be a good opportunity to enjoy the popular Japanese hot springs (onsen). A list of places can be found here.
From top left to bottom right: (1) view on Mount Fuji; (2) Yuigahama beach, Kamakura (3) Lake Ashi (4) view on surrounding area from Mount Fuji.
Cultural highlight of Japan: temple city Kyoto
Less than 3-hours on the shinkansen away (that is the Japanese fast train) is Kyoto, the country’s former capital and cultural heart. Coming from Tokyo the city will appear small, almost like a village with a population of only 1.5 million. There are so many temples you might have a hard time deciding which ones to visit. There are a few hot spots of course. On my trip, I chose to visit the golden Kinkakuji temple, which is one of the most famous ones, Ginkakuji temple (or the silber pavillion), a typical Zen-temple, Kiyomizu-dera temple for its beautiful view over the city, Sanjusangen-do temple for its 1001 golden buddha statues and finally also the Toji-temple to admire its five-story pagoda, one of Kyoto’s landmarks. Another must-see in Kyoto is of course the traditional Gion district: streets of beautifully restorated wooden houses with artisanal shops invite you for a relaxed stroll. If you are lucky you may even see a traditionally dressed Geisha (or a tourtist dressing up as one). If you are interested you may also want to attend a geisha performance to experience their skills. A nice change to all the temples is a visit to the 400-year old Nishiki Ichiba Food market: it is open until 6 pm and is a perfect opportunity to shop for some Japanese candy.
From top left to bottom right: (1) Sanjusangen-do temple; (2) Golden Temple; (3) lampions outside a temple; (4 +5) Gion district; (6) view on Kyoto from Kyoto Tower; (7) watching the sunset from Kiyomizu-dera temple; (8) Toji temple pagoda.
A popular attraction not far outside Kyoto is the Fushimi-Inari-Shrine. 10.000 red Torii guide the way up to the shrine, which is the main shrine out of around 40.000 Inari-shrines in Japan. The hike up to the shrine is 4 kilometers, so plan half a day for the trip.
Learn about one of Japan’s darkest chapters in history: a visit to Hiroshima
When drafting my Japan-tour, I decided that I also wanted to visit Hiroshima. The city, forever linked to and known for the atomic bomb that was dropped on it in 1945, was certainly one of most impressive experiences of my trip and I recommend anybody to go there and visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and take a walk in the Peace Memorial park. While the tragedy of Hiroshima today lies 60 years in the past and nuclear bombs have largely disappeared from our minds as an actual imminent threat to our existence, we should never forget what this weapon is capable of destroying and how long-term the effects are on people and the environment. In the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum you cannot only learn about the details of the strategic planning of the attack but also see relicts of affected items and measure radiation exposure.
In stark contrast to its dark past, the city vibe is surprisingly light and easy and you should definitely try the city’s speciality, okonomiyaki, a pan-fried dish based on batter and cabbage that can be served with many additional toppings (meat, noodles, vegetables…). Another experience you may want to combine with your Hiroshima visit is to spend the night in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese-style guesthouse (a list of places all over Japan can be found here but you can also find some on booking.com).
Left: Downtown Hiroshima; Right: Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku dome).
A daytrip to the Island of gods, Miyajima
While staying in Hiroshima, you may also want to take the chance and spend a day on Miyajima Island which is only a 10 minutes ferry ride from Miyajimaguchi-Pier next to Miyajiaguchi Station. Home of the Itsukushimka shrine, a World Heritage Site, it is considered a holy island and one of Japan’s most scenic spots. Best known it is perhaps for the great floating Torii which is built 200 metres offshore, which you will already see arriving from the boat. Miyajima is also popular for its large and very tame deer population. You will run into deers on the street, in front of shops, and if you do not watch out, they will try to eat your city map. While strolling through the old district and its surrounding areas you should try some of the island’s special foods: Miyajima is popular for oysters and eel, so do not miss out on trying either the traditional Anago Meshi, grilled eel on rice, or eel steam dumplings, and fried oysters. For desert you may want to have one of the typcial maple-leave shaped sweet bean paste cakes. If you are up for a hike, you can go up to the top of Mount Misen (around 1.5-2 hours hike or you simply take the cableway) and be amazed by the panoramic views of Seto Inland Sea.
From top left to bottom right: (1) deer strolling on the promenade; (2) Itsukushima shrine torii; (3) eel dumplings; (4) Itsukushimka shrine.
We finished our trip in Osaka (2 hours by train from Hiroshima) from where there are many international flight connections. Osaka is not really reknowned for many sights but you may want to spend one day to see Osaka-jo, Osaka castle and landmark of the city, do a boat ride on the Dotombori river or visit America-mura, a young, creative and vibrant area close to Shinsaibashi where you may be able to see and find Japanese pop culture inspired fashion, accessories and outfits. Of course there is much more to see and do in Japan. This tour was however a perfect start to experience some of the different sides of this multifaceted country and has definitly made me want to go back.
Additional tips regarding the Japan Rail Pass:
Although you need to purchase it in advance, you still have to pick up your actual pass in Japan. For seat reservations too you will have to go to a counter at one of the train stations. Train schedules and travel durations can be found here. It is a bit complicated but the information will help you plan and organise your trip and make the most of your time. It can be useful to look for hotels close to your train station so you can just store and pick up your luggage which will allow you utmost flexibility for exploring your destination. More info on how to use the Japan Rail Pass can be found on www.jrpass.com.
Hope you will enjoy Japan as much as I did!