Whilst you could spend a year in Japan and not get bored I’ve put together a whirlwind tour of the highlights of this amazing country in two weeks. In this entry I will cover suggestions on where to go, how long to stay and how to get there. If you have a couple of days spare then you may wish to devote more time in Tokyo (you could spend the entire two weeks in Tokyo without getting bored) or Kyoto, or venture further afield to Hiroshima which unfortunately we missed out.
Day 1-5: Tokyo
The capital city of Japan, Tokyo is other worldly. There is truly no way to visualize Tokyo without experiencing it firsthand. Here are just a few great things out of hundreds you can do in Tokyo:
Shinjuku Gyoen Park:
This is one of the oldest, best kept and largest public parks in Japan. There is an entrance fee of 200 Yen but it is definitely worth every Yen especially on a lovely day or in cherry blossom season.
Walk around this crazy district and lose yourself in Shinjuku. It’s completely safe, fun and exciting to see what happens in the district that makes Times Square look like a dark and quiet street in the middle of the countryside. Shinjuku station is also the busiest station in the world and it is entirely possible to spend hours let alone days in the station it self. The Japanese are more ambitious when it comes to stations than the rest of the world, and instead create mini cities in these stations – cinemas, gyms, department stores and whole floors dedicated to dining.
Another of Tokyo’s fascinating and ridiculously busy districts, Shibuya is also home to the famous and often photographed Shibuya crossing. Seeing thousands of people crossing the X shaped Shibuya crossing in uniform discipline at the same time is a scene to behold. The towering buildings around the crossing have plenty of cafes where you can take in the view again and again (it doesn’t get boring). One tip is to ignore what the guide books says and do not go to Starbucks. This is Tokyo and there are plenty of weird and wonderful places to go to rather than a bog standard chain coffee shop.
For some people the Harajuku girls is the first image that pops into their mind when thinking of Tokyo. This district is the Mecca of Tokyo’s trendy teenagers and the go to place to shop for wacky floral skirts and school girl socks, to eat sickly sweet waffles and crepes, or to simply congregate and showcase their unique and colourful style. Then there are the rest of us, people watching in what is one of the most unique places I have ever been to. The pedestrian passage filled with shops was packed with school girls and tourists alike (mostly school girls) when we were there. There is a food court which looks like something out of Barbie world and plenty of (mostly sweet) food options.
The part I was most looking forward to – this is the Electronics district and the Manga Japanese nerd capital. Pop into the Manga megastores and be transported into Manga purgatory. These superstores have floors and floors of every type of Manga genre possible and are filled with suited business men and bespectacled teenagers alike. The back aisles on the higher floors are filled with more x-rated manga and seemed particularly popular with the customers. Whilst there it is worth having lunch in one of the many maid cafés. I won’t give much away other than that whilst it was an interesting experience it was definitely the weirdest place I have eaten in my life and I was out of there as quickly as possible.
Japan is famous for its hot springs as it is a volcanically active country and Onsens, public bathing hot springs are a huge part of Japanese culture. The Oedo-Onsen in the Tokyo Bay area is more of a tourist aimed onsen than the traditional onsens found around Japan in the mountain regions. We had read mixed reviews about this place however Zaynab was very insistent we go and decide for ourselves and we’re both glad we did. The onsen has a free bus that transports visitors from the train station at Tokyo Bay to the Onsen. When you arrive you leave your shoes in a locker and proceed bare foot to receive a kimono that you wear in the mixed areas of the Onsen. You are also given a wrist band with a chip you swipe for any purchases made in the facility – from food to treatments which you then pay on exiting (the Japanese just make everything seemless). The Onsen bathing areas are fully segregated with separate sections for men and women. There are both indoor and outdoor baths for you to choose from with pools of different temperatures – some cold, some hot.
There are treatments on offer too from massages to foot treatments. In the shared area of the Onsen guests wear their modest kimonos and can order food, tea or icea cream with a number of options available. There is also a ‘sleeping room’ with reclining leather chairs and silent surrounds which is great for a nap when the relaxation of the hot springs gets too much(!) The Onsen is open till late and many customer arrive after 5pm due to reduced entry fee. I would recommend arriving early when it’s less busy and you can easily spend a full day here. As this is in the Tokyo Bay area you should definitely check out the area when you’re finished at the Onsen.
The Tokyo skyline is beautiful and distinctive. Take a trip to Tokyo Bay for the best view of the skyline in the evening and have dinner in the bay at one of the many restaurants offering great views. After dinner take a walk along the river for closer breathtaking view of the city. We ate in an Indian Halal restaurant here which was surprisingly good and have become obsessed with Manchurian prawns which we first tried there, ever since.
Day 5-7: Fuji Five Lakes
Natural Beauty at its best! Mount Fuji and the surrounding lake areas are definitely worth a visit if your itinerary allows. The distinct and formidable Mount Fuji serves as a focal point of course and the views are spectacular. The journey into Mt. Fuji is itself reason enough to visit. Train – cable car – ship – ticket details. Very good value for money.
Depending on where you sit on the adrenaline scale a trip to Fuji-Q highland may fill you with either excitement or dread. For us we could not pass up the opportunity to experience a Japanese theme park so we arrived in the early morning (first in the queue at the gates, which as it turned out was not that long and not really necessary) with high expectations. Rides with Guinness records of the steepest ascent and quickest drops and a haunted house that is actually scary (terrifying) made this theme park definitely the best we have ever been to – and that’s without mentioning the relatively quick moving queues and the breathtaking views of Mount Fuji whilst suspended upside down in the air. If this is your type of thing then I would definitely recommend it, like most things the Japanese do, they exceed at theme parks too.
Day 7-9: Mount Koyasan
A trip to Japan is not complete without a visit to Mount Koya (check out our Mount Koya entry), the world headquarters of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. This town sits in an 800m valley between 8 mountain peaks – which makes the journey to get here half the fun. Home to a religious university, 120 temples and the largest graveyard in Japan, Mount Koya has a distinct spiritual and historic feel to it.
The rooms are traditional Japanese style with sliding wooden doors and windows. Food is served in trays and laid out by the monks. In the morning before breakfast is served guests are invited to morning prayer where you can observe the monks meditating in the temple. Incense sticks are lit, guests are silent and still and the monks meditate in a hypnotic melody.
During the day explore the grounds of your temple stay – most of these are set around beautiful traditional Japanese gardens. The town it self is great to explore – with a very simple one line bus route going in two directions it is incredibly easy to navigate and explore. Exploring on foot is great to get a feel of the town and watch young Buddhist boys on their morning ‘commute’ to their religious monk schools. There are numerous restaurants and cafes around the town – meat eaters in need of their animal fix will find some available in a few of these restaurants. The more traditional offer only strictly vegetarian food in compliance with Buddhist dietary requirements of course.
Day 9-13: Kyoto
What is there to say about Kyoto that has not already been said. A great place to visit and one Google search will tell all there is to know about Kyoto. A great place to visit. Kyoto is a great place to just walk around.
A couple of good places to go in and around are:
A stunning little village close to Kyoto where you can rent bikes and cycle the town, visit the famous bamboo forest or hop on a stunning old train and boat trip tour. A great place to spend the day.
The Famous Bamboo Forest
- Himeji Castle (We did not get a chance to visit as it is closed for refurbishment until 2015)
- Nijo Castle – A great place to view the cherry blossom. In the cherry blossom season they open up the castle gardens for a night walk. We were lucky enough to see wonderful different cherry blossom trees lit up.
- Philosophers Path – A walking path that follows the tree lined canal around Kyoto. Interestingly the route is called the Philosophers Path because of the 20th Century Philosopher and professor Nashida Kitaro used this path as daily meditation.
- Shimbashi – The Geisha District
In Gion this is the famous Geisha district. Well worth a visit and lovely street. This is apparently the nicest street in all of Asia. However, I personally found the Japanese Bridge in Hoi-An, Vietnam to be nicer. But who am I to argue with Lonely Planet?