Japan Highlights

Japan – our final stop on the world tour.

We spent a little over 2 weeks in Japan traveling around:

  • Tokyo
  • Kyoto
  • Nara
  • Koya-san

Scroll down to see my highlights, including where to stay, things to see and do and places to eat, drink and be merry!


A few handy tips before traveling to Japan


Language and etiquette

Japanese culture is very formal and respectful, ramificating in every aspect of life. What I absolutely loved about Japan was the care that people took in completing tasks in their every day lives. Attention to detail, ceremony, routine and contemplation are all important in day-to-day living. Perhaps that is why Japan is the cleanest and safest country in the world.

Now, don’t kid yourselves – you are not going to learn the Japanese language that easily. People speak quickly, formally and dialect changes from region to region. It is an incredibly beautiful but seriously complex language. One word or phrase could carry a hundred meanings, depending in which context you use it. So if this is a flying visit don’t confuse yourselves with phrase books. If you are a beginner or a first time visitor it is important you learn just these few very common phrases. Learn these and you’ll get by.

Formality:

It is not enough to say thank you (Arigatou) when addressing a stranger. You must include the formal / polite ‘gozaimasu’;

Thank you Arigatou gozaimasu
Arigato gozay-mass
Thank you very much Domo arigatou gozaimasu
Domo arigato gozay-mass
Good morning Ohayo gozaimasu
O-hayo gozay-mass
 Hello Konnichi wa
Kon-nee-cheewa
Excuse me (to ask for something, to pass by or if you didn’t hear something) Sumimasen
Soomi-massen
Please O-negai shimasu
O-ne-guy-shee-ma-su
Cheers! Good health! Kanpai
Kan-pye
How much is this? Ikura desuka?
Ikoora dessooka?
Yes/No Hai / iie
Hy / Iye
 Goodbye (see you later) Dewa Mata

Never say Sayounara for goodbye. It’s like saying, goodbye – I will never see you again. Sayounara has a strong sense of finality to it, and so can be considered quite rude. Hence, it is not so common.

Another point on language – English is not widely spoken at all. I would advise (especially for restaurants), to make a note of all the questions you have; do you serve sushi? can we have a table for 2? etc. with the written Japanese translations next to them.

As everything is written in Japanese it can be really hard to tell what it is you’re walking into. You sort of just have to let yourself go and embrace whatever comes your way.


Getting around

Don’t worry – all station names are written in English, kanji and hiragana. Train announcements are made in Japanese and English on major lines. The trains are also super efficient. Here’s a good link I found relating to public transport in Japan: http://expatsguide.jp/travel-transportation/public-transport/rail-travel-in-tokyo-yokohama/

Litter

It doesn’t exist. Well, I certainly didn’t see any. Japan is spotless. There are no bins because people are expected to take whatever rubbish they have home with them and to dispose of it and recycle appropriately.

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Temples and Shrines

You will definitely come across some temples and shrines on your trip to Japan, especially if you are traveling to Kyoto. There are certain rituals, such as Misogi (a Japanese Shinto practice of ritual purification) and O-mikuji (selecting from the sacred lot), all of which you can partake in when visiting any shrine. It is also worth noting that if you enter any shrine you will be required to take your shoes off.

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Learn more abut the rituals by clicking on the following link:

http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/indepth/exotic/lifestyle/see.html

Tea

If you have the opportunity to take part in a tea ceremony, do, and get as much Matcha tea (powdered green tea) as you can get down you! The tea is offered cold in the summer months and hot in the winter. Whatever way you have it, it is delicious. We visited a traditional teahouse in Hama-rikyu Onshi Teien Park, Tokyo where you could sit and drink tea and eat cake. The ceremony of drinking the tea is explained on the menu.

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When to go

If you go during cherry blossom season the temperature and climate will be just right and of course you will see the beautiful cherry blossoms – BUT you will be going at the height of tourist season. It will be very expensive and overcrowded. A local told me the BEST time to visit Japan is actually in autumn, when the leaves start to fall. The colours are magnificent, the climate is good and there are fewer tourists than in the spring. We went in July – it’s just how our trip happened to fall. I’ve never known a heat like it to be honest – very hot, humid and uncomfortable. As soon as we stepped outside we were covered in sweat. Locals walked around with towels wrapped around their necks. You have to drink ionised water (such as Pokari Sweat) to replace lost salts in the body. It’s pretty intense but thankfully most places, including trains and buses are all fully air conditioned.


TOKYO


Super-modern neon-lit skyscrapers meet traditional temples and cherry trees. Tokyo; Japan’s bold, bustling, animated capital. Easy enough to navigate but equally easy enough to lose yourself in completely – brace yourselves for one hell of a ride.


Places to Stay


Air BnB

Shimo-kitazawa (in Setagaya-ku district)

Air BnB was by far the cheapest option for staying in Japan, and by far the best! We had a lovely studio apartment in Tokyo which was spacious enough for 2 people and in a lovely residential area just 10 minutes on a train from Shibuya Station. It was probably the same size as a hotel room but with all the home comforts. I would recommend this accommodation highly. We had a bit of trouble with Wifi a few times but other than that it was absolutely perfect:

https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/370759

Nearest station: Higashi-matsubara (Inokashira line), 3 minutes walk (10 minute train journey to Shibuya).


Things to See and Do


Traditional and Chilled


Asakusa and Around

Asakusa is a district in Taito, Tokyo, famous for the Senso-ji, a Buddhist temple dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon (the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy).

Nearby Ryogoku is home to Tokyo’s most famous Sumo stadium Ryogoku Kokugikan. We really wanted to see a Sumo match but the tournaments are held only in January, May and September, so we missed out this time.

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Senso-ji

Through the gate, protected by Fujin (the god of wind) and Raijin (the god of thunder), is Nakamise-dori , the temple precinct’s shopping street (really touristy and really pricey – don’t buy anything here).

At the end of Nakamise-dori is the temple itself, and to your left you’ll spot the 55m five-storey pagoda, which is a 1973 reconstruction (most temples and shrines in Tokyo are reconstructions following the bombing Tokyo endured during WWII).

In front of the temple is a large incense cauldron: the smoke is said to bestow health and you’ll see people rubbing it into their bodies through their clothes.

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To the right of the cauldron is an area for O-mikuji.

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O-mikuji means “sacred lot.”  Traditionally you would shake a small box until a small bamboo stick fell out. The stick had a number on it and according to the number, you were given an o-mikuji by the priest or miko. This would come in the form of a scroll or paper with your written fortune. For a small fee (usually one coin) you can draw a bamboo stick from a box and find your scroll in a box with corresponding character. At this temple the o-mikuji has the English translation.

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The o-mikuji predicts the person’s chances of his or her hopes coming true, of finding a good match, or generally matters of health, fortune, life, etc. When the prediction is bad, it is a custom to fold up the strip of paper and attach it to a pine tree or a wall of metal wires alongside other bad fortunes in the temple or shrine grounds.  The idea being that the bad luck will wait by the tree rather than attach itself to the bearer. In the event of the fortune being good, the bearer has two options: he or she can also tie it to the tree or wires so that the fortune has a greater effect or he or she can keep it for luck.

This place is incredibly touristy so don’t plan on spending a lot of time here, especially if you’re heading to Kyoto. The temple is very cool though, and you even get a good view from here of the Tokyo Sky Tree.

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Ueno Park

This is where you come to for the cherry blossoms. I wasn’t here during the season but if it is a bit busy the Mitaka District has the Inokashira Park where the locals like to hang. So it may be a little less touristy there. Come during a week day and arrive early in the morning. It is a beautiful park, home to a number of temples and shrines, the Tokyo National Museum, and zoo. (We didn’t go into the zoo though. I generally don’t agree with them and I heard that some of the enclosures were too small for the animals).

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Make sure you visit Tosho-gu Shrine. Here you can partake in the ritual misogi before entering the shrine. Click here for more information about shrines:

http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/indepth/exotic/lifestyle/see.html 

Also, take the opportunity to write a wish or blessing on a Japanese wooden wishing plaque ‘Ema’ (picture-horse). These are small wooden plaques on which Shinto worshipers write their prayers or wishes. The Ema are then left hanging up at the shrine, where the kami (spirits or gods) are believed to receive them. They bear various pictures, often of animals or other Shinto imagery.

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From the entrance to the shrine you will also see a 5-story pagoda (now inside Ueno Zoo) and nearby ‘The Flame of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’ memorial to the victims of the atomic bomb.

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Imperial Palace Gardens

As we couldn’t really get near the Imperial Palace (there is a bridge you can walk out onto that offers a good view) we went to the Palace Gardens instead which are open to the public. We didn’t see the palace itself, however these gardens were just amazing – like something out of a painting.

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Tsukiji Fish Market

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Tsukiji Market is best known as one of the world’s largest fish markets, handling over 2,000 tons of marine products per day. It is scheduled to move to a new site in  in November 2016.

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Definitely one of my favourite experiences in Japan. Basically we left really early in  the morning as wholesalers were selling to traders. Not too early, mind you – we maybe got there for about 07:30 / 08:00. It is very very busy and messy (don’t wear open shoes) but totally thrilling!

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Stop off at one of many local vendors preparing sea food to go. The food is fresh, cheap and delicious! There are some great sushi restaurants nearby also. This is definitely where to come to get the best sushi.

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Sushi is not so common in the rest of Tokyo, where Ramen and Yakitori tend to dominate the restaurant scene.

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Just take your camera and prepare to be wowed!

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Hama-rikyu Onshi Teien Park 

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Another lovely spot in Tokyo, tucked away, a gem of green space with a traditional  teahouse set in the middle of the garden’s pond. The teahouse offers Matcha and Japanese sweets in a tea-ceremony style. We came here after Tsukiji Fish Market.

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Strolling Yanaka

  • Start: Nezu Station
  • Finish: Yanaka Ginza
  • Length 2km; 2 hours

Given its history of earthquake, war, fire, and development, little of pre-World War II Tokyo survives. The neighborhoods in the northeast section of town are an exception, filled with museums, galleries, and shops. It’s quiet and peaceful, and it gives you a sense of old Japan.

When Tokyo becomes too busy or overcrowded, Yanaka makes for a lovely walk. We took the Lonely Planet suggested route from Nezu station through to Yanaka Ginza. You can do this walk after visiting Ueno Park if you have time, although it’s best to do this walk early as the temples close at 17:00. Or start at Yanaka Ginza and then finish off at Ueno Park.

Lonely Planet Guide: MAP

From exit 1 of Nezu Station head up Kototoi-dori (1). Here a handful of traditional, wooden two-storey merchant’s houses, with a shop on the ground floor and the living quarters above – remain alongside the mid 20th Century concrete buildings. Don’t miss the shops selling sembei (rice crackers) and wagashi (Japanese sweets).

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Pay a visit the temple Gyokurin-ji (2). Just inside the grounds on your right, a stone wall guards a narrow alley: follow it. This twisting path, hemmed in by temple walls, takes you deep into Yanaka’s most atmospheric quarters.

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When you emerge from the back alleys, head left and you’ll soon spot a pretty cluster of temples, including Enju-ji (3), which has some fantastic gnarled trees. Double back towards the fork in the road marked by an ancient thick-trunked Himalayan cedar tree (4). On the left of the tree is a classic, old-school corner shop.

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Continue past the corner shop to the studio of painter Allan West (5). The next landmark is SCAI the bathhouse (6), a centuries old public bathhouse that became a contemprary art gallery in 1993. One block over, the Shitamachi Museum Annex preserves an old Yoshida Sake Store (7) built in 1910. It’s free to enter. *8 was a coffee shop – Kayaba Coffee – which we didn’t stop off at. 

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From here double back in the direction of Nippori Station, taking a left at the fork and then heading down the narrow road to the left of the Yamazaki shop. Continue on and enjoy the stroll past temples, tiny galleries and craft shops.

When you reach an intersection with lively vendors – that’s Yanaka Ginza (9). Carry on East to Nippori station. We didn’t go but supposedly the Yanaka cemetery is very pretty and worth a visit.


Ghibli Museum – Mitaka

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I am a huge Studio Ghibli fan, so I had to go. Getting tickets however, is not so easy. If you plan to visit during high season even locals need to enter a lottery for tickets and tickets (at the time of purchase) could only be purchased in Japan, meaning obtaining them in advance is difficult.

Buying tickets through Japanese residents

We had a friend who lives in Tokyo who managed to get tickets for us. As we were traveling in holiday season, she herself had to enter a lottery for the tickets but if you book far enough in advance you should be able to get tickets.

When we were in Kyoto, the lady who we stayed with via Air BnB said she helps to source tickets for her guests who will then travel on to Tokyo. So if you can, buy tickets through someone who is a resident in Japan.

Buying tickets through booking agents

I’ve recently looked into it again and apparently there are offices you can buy tickets from internationally. Click on this link for more information. However, these are about 10 x more expensive! Ask your host first and ask any of your friends before you travel if they know anyone who lives in Tokyo who could help you out.

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Photography is forbidden inside the museum but you can access the roof and have pictures with Laputa’s famous robot. Every ticket also doubles up as a special cinema ticket where you will be able to watch a short Ghibli film, screened exclusively at the museum.

Coming here was a dream come true.


Crazy and Fun


Shibuya

Here you will find the famous Shibuya crossing!

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Hachiko Memorial

Hachiko was an Akita dog remembered for his remarkable loyalty to his owner. Every day he would meet his master at Shibuya Station, until one day in 1925 he never returned. But there Hachiko sat, day after day for more than nine years after his owner’s death, waiting in vain for his return.

During his lifetime the dog was held up in Japanese culture as an example of loyalty and fidelity. A statue of Hachiko (a popular meeting point), sits outside Shibuya station.

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Akihabara – Electric Town

Akihabara (Akiba) is mental. Besides the advertisements there’s not much to see from the outside, you have to venture into the buildings to experience the world, a little bit like The Matrix.

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You really don’t know what’s inside because you can’t read what it says on the outside. Just brace yourselves. This is the land of video games, arcades, anime, cosplay, porn, electric circuits and fuses all rolled into one.

To make some sense of it all pick up an English map at Tokyo Anime Center Akiba Info. My favourite spots were:

Super Potato Retro-kan

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http://en.japantravel.com/tokyo/super-potato-in-akihabara/2410

“While most stores only focus on what’s new in the gaming world, Super Potato is a chain of retro video game stores in Japan filled to the brim with equipment and merchandise for games that you’ve long forgotten. Their shop in Tokyo serves as a kind of flagship store for the chain and includes a vintage video game arcade, leaving lovers of old school video games grinning from ear to ear. “

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Mandarake Store

Eight floors of anime, TV superheroes, characters and mascots, and manga comics, new and used. Start at the top and work your way down.

The corner stores that are several storeys high filled with everything your mind can imagine really. As everything is written in Japanese you are going in blind. Just walk into buildings, jump in the lifts and each level will open the doors to a completely new world.

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Vending Machines

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There are endless amounts of vending machines in Japan. Seriously fill your boots as the little toys, gizmos and gadgets from these machines are ace and make excellent souvenir gifts! My favourite character was this little guy –

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Maid Cafes

Nearly went into a maid cafe but decided against it when we saw the queue of people – dirty old men. Was more like a brothel. There are plenty of girls dressed as maids handing out brochures in the street so you won’t ‘miss out’. But if you want to go to a maid cafe then there are many to choose from.

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Shopping Tip

Click here to learn about tax free shopping:
http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2450_how.html 

Very important in Akihabara as there are many tax free stores.


Different stores will appeal to different people so read up about all the places to see. Lonely Planet was pretty useful: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/japan/tokyo/akihabara-and-around/things-to-do


Shinjuku

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Shinjuku  is a major commercial and administrative centre in Tokyo, housing the busiest railway station in the world (Shinjuku Station) and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. The best time to enjoy Shinjuku – at night.

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Don’t miss: Golden Gai

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Golden Gai (The Golden District) is made up of a few blocks packed with tiny, rickety old buzzing bars and restaurants. It is one of those rare places in Tokyo lucky enough not to have been bulldozed and redeveloped.

The number of punters who can squeeze into each establishment ranges from about five to thirty, though most of them are on the smaller side. Most bars accept visitors now, but some still only welcome regular customers – if there’s a price list or anything in English posted out front, you’re probably not about to cause an awkward scene. Alternatively, just walk in, smile politely and see what reaction you get; chances are that if it’s a regulars-only bar you’ll be told there’s no room (empty seats or not).

A more affordable and very fun option, though, is to wander in nearby Piss Alley – a colourful but entirely inaccurate translation of the Japanese name, Omoide Yokocho (more literally “memory lane”). The name may not be appealing, but you’ll definitely spot something among the dozens of tiny restaurants to take your fancy, and the atmosphere is always buzzing.

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The Robot Restaurant

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It looks like you are about to enter some sort of weird outlandish sex show but don’t worry, it’s just a good old fashioned fun theatrical cabaret show with giant robots and hot girls. It’s totally family friendly, in fact. There is a story line, which gets sort of muddled and lost in the chaos, and it is probably the maddest spectacle you will ever behold. It is in your face but in a wonderful way. Don’t miss it!

When we went in 2015 we couldn’t purchase tickets on the door, we had to purchase them in advance online: http://www.shinjuku-robot.com/pc/

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Park Hyatt Tokyo – New York Bar

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The New York Bar, backdrop of the critically acclaimed film, Lost In Translation situated on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt Hotel offers sweeping fews over the Tokyo skyline and flippin fabulous cocktails! It is completely free to go up and it pays to stay and have a drink or two. From 8:00 pm however, a hefty cover charge of Y 2,400 (exclusive of tax) is applied. We hesitated and then thought, what the hell! We were here only once and we got to watch a brilliant jazz show! Great treat!

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Live Entertainment:
New York Bar features live entertainment with jazz performances every night; Monday to Wednesday from 8:00 pm to 11:45 pm, Thursday to Saturday from 8:00 pm to 0:30 am, Sunday from 7:00 pm to 10:45 pm.

A cover charge of 2,400 JPY (exclusive of tax) is applied Monday through Saturday from 8:00 pm, and Sunday from 7:00 pm (staying guests are exempt).

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Don’t forget to:

KARAOKE (there are plenty of suggestions in Lonely Planet and other guidebooks for places to Karaoke).

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Pick your food from a vending machine. You won’t know what you’re ordering but it’s fun guessing. You could always ask if you have a guidebook with you with the food translations.

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Buy vending machine toys and gifts!

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Enter the land of photobooths!

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Places to Eat, Drink and Be Merry


You’re never far away from fake food or shokuhin sampuru (samples). In Japan, food models are considered an art form and hey, for tourists they are incredibly handy for knowing what food is served in a particular establishment.

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My top picks from where I remember

Tsukiji Fish Market (soon to relocate to Toyosu)

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You’ll find the best sushi here. Sushi isn’t as common in the rest of Tokyo with yakitori and ramen dominating the restaurant scene.

Shinjuku – Golden Gai Quarters

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Traditional Teahouse Experience in Hama-rikyu Onshi Teien Park

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Anywhere that is recommended for Ramen. Ippudo is a great chain. Didn’t go to the one in Tokyo but the one in Kyoto is incredible. I love how in some Ramen restaurants you are given a bib for slurping!

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Park Hyatt Tokyo – New York Bar

If you have a bit of cash just do it. The food’s not incredible but the ambiance and cocktails are great! Hey, it’s the Lost in Translation bar! Well worth the cover charge – a last night in Tokyo splurge.

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Travel – Getting the Bullet Train to Kyoto and Further Rail Travel.

If you are travelling around Japan by train you need to do a bit of research in advance. Look into the different travel passes available. National trains can be expensive.

Our trip:

We travelled from Tokyo to Kyoto by bullet train.

From Kyoto we took a day trip to Nara and then (via Osaka) we travelled to Koya-san where we stayed for our final few nights.

We were actually flying out from Osaka so we left our luggage at Osaka Train Station in a locker and travelled with hand luggage to Koya-San. (Warning – there are lockers everywhere but try and get to the station early as lockers fill up fast). We then returned to Osaka to collect our luggage and catch our flights.

Click here for more info on luggage lockers at Osaka train station.

The JR (Japan Rail) pass is especially for tourists which you must buy before entering the country (they are valid for 7, 14 or 21 days). If you are going travel on a bullet train more than once it is definitely more cost effective to buy a JR travel pass (which you can use on some of the metro lines as well). We flew into Tokyo and out of Osaka so didn’t buy a JR travel pass as we only took the bullet train once.

Once in Kyoto we brought a 3 day Kansai Thru Pass which you can buy in Japan once in the Kansai Reigon. You don’t have to use it 3 days in a row – it can be used on any 3 days within a certain time frame (see details on websites below).

There are lots of passes you can get it just depends where you want to go. There will be several train lines going to the same destination but when you have a pass you may only be able to get on some trains and not others. We got kicked off the train on the way back from Nara as we didn’t know we were on the wrong train and had to wait half an hour for the right one to come.

Below are some useful sites. If you get really stuck it’s worth asking your hosts at your accommodation for guidance. Best advice though – plan your routes and research which tickets to buy because once you’re in Japan very few people speak English and it is confusing as hell. You don’t want to spend your travel days trying to figure things out.

JR Pass: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2361.html

Kansai Pass: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2357_005.html

Guide to train tickets: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2359.html


KYOTO


Kyoto, once the capital of Japan, is home to thousands of classical Buddhist temples, gardens, imperial palaces, Shinto shrines and traditional wooden houses. It’s also known for formal traditions such as kaiseki dining, consisting of multiple courses of precise dishes, and geisha, female entertainers often found in the Gion district.


Things to See and Do


Stay the night in a Ryokan

A pricey accommodation option (hence the 1 night for us). We stayed at the Matsui Inn and I totally recommend it!

One of the traditional ways of preparing and serving food in Japan is the multi-course dinner ‘Kaiseki’.

It is terribly formal and expensive. Let’s just say my taste buds weren’t feeling it too much and I left needing some Ramen to fill the empty space. However, if you want to keep it traditional, Kyoto is filled with places that serve food the old fashioned way.

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Nishiki Market

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Nishiki Market is a marketplace in downtown Kyoto located on a road one block north and parallel to Shijo Street. Rich with history and tradition, the market is renowned as the place to obtain many of Kyoto’s famous foods and goods. It’s nice to have a wander through this market and items are reasonably priced.

Make sure to stop off at Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine while you’re there, located towards the end of Nishiki Market.

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You can also donate a coin and receive your fortune

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Gion (Geisha District)

Gion was originally built to accommodate the needs of travelers and visitors to the shrine. It eventually evolved to become one of the most exclusive and well-known geisha districts in all of Japan. The geisha in the Gion district (and Kyoto generally) do not refer to themselves as geisha; instead Gion geisha use the local term geiko. While the term geisha means “artist” or “person of the arts”, the more direct term geiko means essentially “a child of the arts” or “a woman of art”.

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It is touristy however, so some of the original charm has been lost unfortunately. If you are in this area at the beginning of November don’t miss Gion Odori, the traditional geisha dance put on by the geisha of the Gion Higashi geisha district.

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Temples and shrines


Daitoku-ji Zen Gardens and Temples

“Daitoku-ji is a separate world within Kyoto – a world of Zen temples, perfectly raked gardens and wandering lanes. It’s one of the most rewarding destinations in this part of the city, particularly for those with an interest in Japanese gardens. The temple serves as the headquarters of the Rinzai Daitoku-ji school of Zen Buddhism. The highlights among the 24 subtemples include Daisen-in , Kōtō-in , Ōbai-in , Ryōgen-in and Zuihō-in.”

Read more: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/japan/kansai/kyoto/sights/religious/daitoku-ji#ixzz4FWdiuZ4M

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I absolutely loved it here. There were hardly any tourists and it was incredibly peaceful. In Daisen-In Temple there was a small shop selling prayer beads.


Arashiyama & Sagano Area

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Famous for: Bamboo Forest

I think this is probably my favourite area in Kyoto. Set at the base of Kyotos’ western mountains, temples weave in and amongst lush hilly surroundings. It is absolutely beautiful and it is where Seamus proposed.

We took a small local train to Arashiyama station.

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From Arashiyama station we walked to Tenryu-ji Temple and exited the north gate to the bamboo grove, visiting Okochi Sanso, then walking north to Gio-ji Temple.

This walk will take the best part of a day – you won’t want to rush.

Tenryu-ji Temple

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Bamboo Grove

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Okochi Sanso

Okochi Sanso is the former home and garden of the Japanese period film actor Denjiro Okochi. Admission is Y1000 which seems hefty but tea and cake is included and the views are unbelievable. It really is worth it.

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Stop off for tea….

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Maybe even get engaged!

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Gio-ji Temple

One of my favourite spots in Arashiyama, Gio-ji Temple presides over a grove of thick moss as though it had just been picked straight out of a fairy tale. Most tourists wander straight past the entrance, the temple itself being very small but it is worth coming here for a bit, if only to take in a little bit of the magic.

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We were a little bit tired from the heat at this point and a went to find a main road and stumbled on this beautiful temple which exited onto a main road.

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Fushimi Inari-taisha

One on my lifetime wish list, Fushimi Inari Taisha is the head shrine of Inari located in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto. The shrine sits at the base of a mountain and includes trails up the mountain to many smaller shrines which span 4 kilometers and takes approximately 2 hours to walk up.

Since early Japan, Inari was seen as the patron of business. Merchants and manufacturers have traditionally worshipped Inari as a result, and each of the torii (red shrine gates) is donated by a Japanese business. First and foremost, though, Inari is the god of rice.

There is nothing quite like it anywhere in the world.

Leave early! We got there for about 07:30-08:00 and there were people already making their way back down. By the time we were coming down ourselves – 10:00 am there were hundreds of tourists making their way up. You really want to enjoy the solitude of this shrine so make a point of leaving early.

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As you explore the shrine you will come across hundreds of stone foxes. The fox is considered the messenger of Inari and the key often seen in the fox’s mouth is for the rice granary.

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Kinkaku-ji

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Another beautiful, extraordinary temple I had to see – Kyoto’s famed ‘Golden Pavilion’, Kinkaku-ji is one of Japan’s best-known sights. The main hall is covered in brilliant gold leaf, shining above the reflecting pond. However, the number of tourists is overwhelming. We went about an hour before closing and it was still mayhem – throngs of people pushing their way to take photographs made for a slightly hectic experience. I’m not sure it would be any calmer earlier in the morning but early or late would seem to be the best times to go.

Beautiful as it was, I did prefer the more peaceful spots of Kyoto such as Arashiyama and the temples that line the Philosopher’s walk.

Philosopher’s walk

We started at Nanzen-ji and ended at the Ginkaku-ji Temple.

It’s less popular to go from the south to the north (the Path of Philosophy can be approached from the north or the south) but it was less busy in the south and more peaceful. Ginkaku-ji temple was really busy.

Lonely Planet gives you a good run down of shrines to visit along the way.

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Places to Eat, Drink and Be Merry


There are plenty of decent food options to choose from in Kyoto, you won’t go far wrong. However, one place that stood out for me by miles was Ippudo which specialises in Ramen and Gyoza. Don’t let the queues outside put you off. The wait isn’t long and is certainly worth it!


NARA


An easy day trip from Kyoto, Nara is the capital city of Nara Prefecture located in the Kansai region of Japan. Eight temples, shrines and ruins in Nara remain: specifically Todai-ji, Saidai-ji, Kofuku-ji, Kasuga Shrine, Gango-ji, Yakushi-ji, Toshodai-ji, and the Heijo Palace.

Together with the Kasugayama Primeval Forest they form the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara” a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Todai-ji

Nara’s main attraction is the famous Daibutsu (Great Buddha). The Daibutsu statue itself is one of the largest bronze figures in the world, standing just over 16m high, consisting of 437 tonnes of bronze and 130kg of gold.

The Daibutsu is housed in Todai-ji’s Daibutsu-den (Great Buddha Hall), which itself is the largest wooden building in the world.

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There is much to see around Nara and you can buy food to feed the friendly deer. It’s a great day out! Again, start early as it does get packed, especially during holidays or at the weekend.

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KOYASAN


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Mount Koya (Koyasan) is the centre of Shingon Buddhism, an important Buddhist sect which was introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi, one of Japan’s most significant religious figures. Koyasan is also the site of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum and the start and end point of the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage.

Koyasan is also one of the best places to experience an overnight stay at a temple lodging (shukubo) where you can get a taste of a monk’s lifestyle, eating vegetarian cuisine (shojin ryori) and attending morning prayers. Around fifty temples offer this service to both pilgrims and visitors. I recommend you book in advance.

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A highlight: Oku-no-in, a memorial hall to Kobo Daishi surrounded by a vast, forested Buddhist cemetery. For more information about Koya-san click here. We got most of our recommendations from the Lonely Planet Guide Book.

This was an incredible and beautiful place to end our trip.

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And that was the end of our 9-month trip

To be continued…


Check out my highlights and travel tips for everywhere else I travelled to: CubaMexico, Colombia, Ecuador, The Galapagos Islands, Argentina, LA, Fiji, New Zealand, Indonesia

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