Let’s start this with a few observations.
Crocs is big in Japan, wouldn’t have thought… iPhone is everything. Everywhere you go, it is spotlessly clean. Rolling up your pants, exposing your ankles is the rage (dunno if this is just a summer thing – we were there in the sweltering heat of August). Many girls wear coloured contact lenses. Trains and train-lines are confusing in the big cities! There’s a huge variety of beers and other interesting alcoholic beverages to choose from. You’re not cool if you don’t have a handkerchief/face towel to dab the sweat of your face in summer.
In general, the Japanese people came over as much reserved, and quiet. BUT, they are incredibly friendly and helpful. The good level of English surprised us (remember we compare to Korea…).
Japan by FAR exceeded our expectations. Every preconceived idea we had was shattered. And although we shared many places with thousands of other tourists, it was still special for us. We spent two weeks exploring as much as we could see of the middle part of Honshu island. We started off in Tokyo, then Fujiyoshida, Matsumoto, Takayama, Kanazawa, Kyoto and Osaka.
Here are some FAQ’s answered:
How did you get around?
Intercity, we mostly used trains or buses. Sometimes, the terrain doesn’t allow for trains, so you have no choice but to bus where you’re going (e.g. when we went from Matsumoto to Takayama).
In the cities themselves, they have fixed bus routes. Many have special ‘tourist loop-buses’, which hit all the main tourist attractions. Subways are also very convenient to get around.
TIP: Do some research, or ask at tourist information – you can mostly always get a “Day Pass” ticket, which let you use either the buses or subway, or combination of both, for free for the day.
We discourage anybody to use the taxis, as they are very expensive (if you have a lot of moola to burn though, go for it) – with the other modes of transport it’s easy enough to get around without paying an arm and a leg.
Is a JR-pass necessary?
No, it isn’t, but then again, it depends. Firstly, it’s very expensive (considering that Japan is already an expensive destination). A 7-day pass is US$229, and a 14-day pass is US$365.
From what we’ve gathered, if you need to cover long distances in a short period, then the JR-pass can be handy, because it lets you on the bullet trains (Shinkansen).
Another viable option (the one we used), is the Seishun 18 Kippu ticket. It is around US$95 (¥11,850), and it gives you five days of unlimited nationwide travel on local and rapid JR (Japan Railways) trains. This works well if you have the time, and don’t mind changing trains a few times (plus you get proper time to view and appreciate the countryside).
What kind of accommodation did you use?
We booked most places through AirBnB, but other places (due to our flexible itinerary) we booked on the fly. We stayed in a more traditional guest house in Fujiyoshida, a dorm next to Lake Biwa (Omi-Takashima) and a Ryokan (splurge) in Takayama.
What did you eat?
Noodles, and loads of it! We just couldn’t get enough. We loved the ‘ticket vending machine’ restaurants – cheap (for Japan) and good eats. In Tokyo we also had breakfast sushi at the Tsukiji Fish Market – freshly made right in front of you by the old hands…
TIP: Find the supermarket (usually bottom floors of department stores), and buy a few things for a picnic lunch (salads/snacks/sandwiches) or even breakfast for the next morning. You save a lot this way. Another tip is to hit the supermarkets before closing time – lots of fruit and others on sale then (50% discount mostly).
When did you go?
We went slap bang in the middle of summer – also summer vacation for them. We’d recommend avoiding this time if possible (we couldn’t, due to our specific vacation dates…) – too many local travelers ON TOP OF the regular tourists, and the unbearable heat. Walking to and from is an eventuality, and you sweat bucket loads in that heat and humidity! Many times we commented on how nice it would’ve been in spring- or fall time (weather wise and aesthetically).
What were your favorite drinks?
I’ll do this by sharing a few pics.
We loved the variety we were presented with. We had a lot of milk tea’s, and they also have this amazing ‘Salt & Fruit’ drink that we almost bought on a daily basis! The wide selection of beers were a welcome sight – we did my best to ‘sample’ as many as we could 😉
Where to start with this crazy, interesting, bustling metropolis? We only spent 3 days in Tokyo, and felt like we needed a break after that – the pace is just non-stop. It’s such a vibrant city with so much to offer. It was also our first stop and introduction into Japan, and it was quite overwhelming at some points.
At the airport, we bought Keisei Shuttle bus tickets (¥1000), that dropped us at Tokyo Station (takes around 1 hour). From there we hopped on the metro and checked in at our AirBnB.
(info on Suica card: http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/pass/suica.html)
TIP2: Forgot something? Look for the closest ¥100 store. We bought a charging cable for our Galaxy S4, a small converter, and a shower sponge.
What we did:
We had 3 days to explore Tokyo, so didn’t feel the need to rush like crazy people from A to B (although it ended up feeling like we did…). We planned according to what we wanted to see, and broke down Tokyo into the different areas we wanted to visit.
We went here to go check out the famous Hachiko statue, and of course to see the busiest street crossing in the world! The area has some cool narrow side streets, with quaint shops to walk around in.
We walked through a lot of tall trees, quite a distance, to reach the Meiji Shrine (admission: free).
TIP: On a budget / low on cash / just wanna have a good cheap meal? Look out for ‘vending machine restaurants’ – what an awesome concept! Usually, you can see pictures of the different dishes on offer, you enter your money, press the button under your picture (meal) of choice, collect the ticket, press button for change, and hand in your ticket at the ‘bar’ or, if bigger, kitchen area and take a seat anywhere. We had some of the best noodles of our lives at these restaurants – every time was a toss-up between soba / udon noodles. M also loved the tempura…
Tsukiji Fish Market
Now this is an experience that we’ll always remember. We woke up rather early to get down to the market to see the people in action, buying and selling and handling all manner of seafood. It is the world’s largest fish market, where they handle more than 2,000 tons of marine products per day. It’s quite a sight, with the busy atmosphere of the trucks, scooters, buyers and sellers all rushing around to move their products. Beware – your safety isn’t their first priority…
We had to wait till 9am to enter the main market area, so we decided, why not just get right to it, our main purpose of coming here – to eat sushi. At 8am we got in line at the most popular sushi restaurant, Daiwa Sushi. The 30min wait is most definitely justified as you leave the restaurant again, through the back door (and kitchen… seriously), with your sushi craving satiated, albeit with a thinner wallet… The sushi is prepared right in front of you, as fresh as it’ll ever get, and is absolutely amazing. To quote M, ‘the fatty tuna, it, simply just melts in my mouth’. (budget: they have a special set recommended by the chef, which is a bit of everything, which is ¥3,500. We also added some more salmon rolls ‘cause it was so good!).
We walked around the inner market area, admiring the different kinds fresh seafood, and interesting marine life we came across.
TIP: Need to know about the attending the tuna auction: ONLY 120 visitors are allowed per day. First-come first-serve basis. If you wish to view the auction, you have to apply at the Osakana Fukyu Center (Fish Information Center) starting from 5am.
From Asakusa station, we walked to Senso-ji Shrine. It’s a beautiful and majestic shrine, frequented by loads of tourists! The walk to the shrine is lined on both sides with souvenir shops containing any and every kind of souvenir you could think of.
We walked around Ueno park, and had a picnic lunch there in the shade. We tried to visit the National Museum, but sadly learned that it is closed on Mondays (note to self: do your homework). We also ended up exploring the side streets around Ueno station, and found some nice shops – we especially enjoy the shops with travel related, and quirky items.
This area is especially famous for its electronic shops. Admittedly, we just stopped here on our way down the Yamanote line as it was on the way. We didn’t have anything specific in mind to buy, but man, you can find anything you want related to electronics. Yodobashi Camera seems like a favourite.
Neon lights. Crazy amounts of people. Restaurants and bars and clubs. Pachinkos around every corner. This is one of the most popular entertainment areas in the whole of Tokyo. Shinjuku station is also the world’s busiest railway station – it handles more than 2 million passengers a day! Kabukicho (famous red light district) can also be found here, and it’s an interesting place for some people watching.
All in all, I would say we had a good taste of Tokyo. I don’t think you could ever say you’ve seen it all… What was also something very interesting to witness, was the men setting off to work. It seems like there’s a national apparel standard: black pants, white shirt. Watching them all on the way to work, waiting at a street crossing, and briskly crossing all at once on green, looks like a flashmob of sorts without the music (it’s sometime eerily quiet, even on the trains).
Because we only had the Seishun 18 Kippu ticket, we could only take local JR trains. Therefore, after quite a few stops and train changes, we eventually made it to Fujiyoshida. The trip there through the countryside was really scenic, and because we had the time, arriving a bit later didn’t matter to us…
We arrived and walked to our guesthouse – Mai Chi. We were heartily welcomed, and felt right at home. We would recommend anyone to go stay there – Mai is really resourceful and can suggest things to do in the area. We just strolled around the quaint streets of the rural town, and took in the view of the majestic Fuji mountain. We also found the supermarket, and stocked up on some snacks and drinks and, lo and behold, we also found some wine from our hometown Paarl back in South Africa! For dinner we went to a small restaurant close to the train station where we had homemade meat udon noodles – the best of our whole trip!
The next morning we woke up early to visit the Shengen Shrine. From the entrance, you walk on a gravel path lined on both sides with huge cedar trees. The air was still nice and brisk so early in the morning in the shade, with basically no other people there (save for a handful of locals), and the few sun rays that made it through the trees made for an unique atmosphere. The temple you arrive at, after crossing over a stream was really beautiful amongst the massive trees.
This early morning outing of ours worked up our appetites, and we arrived back at the guesthouse to sit down for a nice traditional Japanese breakfast. Loved it. If ever there’s a next time, I’d like to visit the ‘five lakes’. It’s one of those ‘have to do’ things in the area.
Again, after a few train changes (and an hour wait at one station for next train) we made it to Matsumoto. 5 hours later. We checked in to our AirBnB, and immediately set off exploring. We walked to the Matsumoto Castle and had a look around. It’s surrounded by a moat with freakin giant carp swimming around.
We found a department store, looked for the supermarket, and bought all the necessities. We got some dinner to be had at our own place and also breakfast for the next day.
TIP: Try to find a supermarket. Close to closing time (think around 7pm) there’s lots of discounted food and fruit. Buy breakfast for the next morning. Feel like celebrating something, or just to unwind – supermarkets always have decent (drinkable) wine for around ¥500…
The next morning we returned to the castle (have to enter the castle itself before 4:30pm) to explore the inner parts of the castle itself (entrance ¥610). The architecture was impressive, made mostly of wood. We walked/climbed all the way to the top most level. Cool fact: Matsumoto castle is the oldest castle in Japan still in its original form.
TIP: find out where you can rent the free bikes – give your weary legs/feet a break!
We really enjoyed our stay in Matsumoto. So much so that we said we would live and teach there if we had to choose between all the places we went in Japan!
We bought our bus tickets (¥1140) to Takayama (as there are no trains in that direction). It took around 2h20min on some windy roads through the mountains along some crystal clear rivers. It’s a very scenic route, with some lakes and waterfalls also along the way.
We booked ourselves into a Ryokan (traditional Japanese guesthouse) for one night ($85pp). On arrival at Takayama bus station we were picked up by the Yamakyu Ryokan minibus. Very professional and friendly from the outset – we knew we were in for a treat.
You sleep tatami style, and at night the workers come in and make up your bed (futon on floor with bedding). You have your own personal kimono and slippers to wear on the premises. There is a male and female onsen (public bath). A traditional Japanese style dinner and breakfast is also served in the common dining area.
Our favorite part of the whole experience was definitely the dinner! You each get 12 different little dishes to eat. It ranges from sashimi, to a little meat broth stew, rice, and loads of other unique food items. We were so full after this dinner that we felt a bit uncomfortable walking around to be honest. But it was so worth it – words can barely describe it!
That night, we walked down to the night-market. It has a real lively atmosphere, with people eating and drinking on the street, with even a few live street performances by some bands.
Takayama is very much popular amongst tourists. It was packed when we were there. But even all the people can’t take away from the experience – it’s an amazingly beautiful place. It still has a very traditional touch, especially the preserved old town area. Back then, Takayama was famous for its skilled carpenters and their high quality timber. The Takayama Festival, held in spring and autumn, is regarded as one of Japan’s three most beautiful festivals (next to Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri and the Chichibu Yomatsuri). A side tip: try the warm meat buns, they’re delicious!
The architecture is stunning – think lots of stained wood, and then some more! Takayama is easily explored on foot, and there are loads of galleries, museums, sake breweries and temples to visit at your leisure.
We also rode bicycles to the Hida Folklore Village (entrance ¥700) where you can see over 30 traditional houses from the surrounding rural areas. It was a nice and peaceful walk, and interesting to see the old houses.
TIP: when planning a day trip to Shirakawa-go, don’t wait till the last minute. We missed out on the opportunity to visit, because all of the bus tickets there were already sold out. It’s such a popular thing to do, so plan ahead.
We got bus tickets to Kanazawa (¥3390) via Shirakawa-go. It took us about 2h10min, so not to bad. At the big Kanazawa station, we stored our backpacks in some coin lockers and set off exploring.
TIP: get a day pass bus ticket. It costs only ¥500, and then you can hop-on and hop-off at the main attractions as much as you like (whereas a single trip on a bus is around ¥200). There are 2 different loop buses that pass the main attractions – just get a map at the tourist center. Easy traveling!
We hopped on the loop bus, and got off at the Kenroku-en garden. Really nice to walk around, so well maintained, and really beautiful. After strolling around there, we hopped next door to check out the Kanazawa Castle Park – nothing too special about it (that’s after seeing Matsumoto castle). It’s a model of the old one – the main keep of the castle was destroyed in a fire in 1602, and never rebuilt…
We checked in at Dera’s Homestay (Fumiyo picked us up in her car), which was huge. It was a fully furnished house, with everything you’d ever want/need. Even the fridge was stocked with some drinks and snacks! We felt so welcomed, and after a hard day of exploring, this was what we needed.
We walked around the Higashi Chaya District with its beautiful wooden architecture. We walked into this one shop, which turned out to be a beer/sake tasting shop, and decided to try the local Kanazawa beer. I can hands down say it was the best beer I’ve ever tasted – smooth with a little hint of a sweet aftertaste.
OMI-TAKASHIMA (LAKE BIWA)
We took the train down to Omi-Takashima, where we got picked up and checked in to Pension BBC. We only stayed here overnight, kind of to break up our trip down to Kyoto, to not travel too much on one day. For what you pay (¥5180), you don’t get much, but the location is good.
We walked a ways along the edge of the lake to where we could see a big camping spot with a nice stretch of beach, and spent some time there swimming and relaxing. As luck would have it, there was a festival that night, and we were treated to a big fireworks display. We also had some nice festival food.
We took the local train from Omi-Takashima to Kyoto (¥890). After some train changes again, we arrived at our accommodation for the next few days. We booked an AirBnB, situated between Kyoto and Osaka. The nice thing about this place was that we had our own space to do as we please, a rooftop terrace, a nice supermarket to stock up on some necessities and a brilliant onsen not to far away.
We biked to the onsen, and paid the ¥850 to get in. I greeted M and we went our separate ways, meeting up in an hour and a half again. Nakedness ensued… You get a key to a locker, and a wristband thingy to purchase things with at the vending machines (unbeknownst to me at the time…).
I walked to my locker, dodging the naked men on the way, and situated myself. The first thing that caught me off guard, was the cleaning lady. RIGHT in the middle of the room, between the nakedness, she walks around mopping the wet spots on the floor… Now, I’m not a prude (we do the sauna/Jimjilbang thing in Korea too), but that was a bit weird, having a female in there. I mean, don’t they have a male cleaner to do that? Anyhooo, dropped my pants, locked everything into my locker and proceeded to the showers (dodging the cleaning lady). The correct etiquette is always to go wash yourself properly before entering any baths or pools.
Now, in Korea there are always heaps of clean washing cloths to take into the shower, but I didn’t find them here… I also didn’t see the little towels you dry yourself off with when you’re finished (as in Korea)… I realised I had a minor problem – how will you dry yourself?
Anyways, I enjoyed my time lazing in the hot pools, went into the sauna, and there’s even an outside area with some massage pools, and flat bamboo loungers to lie down on and ‘rest’ for a while!The best I came up with for my dilemma – drip dry a bit outside, and use the hair dryer to dry my hair and occasionally run it over my body. I got dressed, still a bit damp, but at least it was hot too.
Just before I left, I pay attention to the vending machine contents, and look at my bracelet that I can charge things to… Washing cloths, towels and other toiletries – you live and learn hey.
We took the train to see the bamboo grove. We strolled through the gently swaying, lush green bamboo with the sun’s rays piercing through every now and then. After some walking, without planning, we happened upon a small train stop. We found out it’s the ‘Sagano Romantic Train’, which runs along a river and through the mountains. The trip is very scenic – I can just picture it in fall time with the beautiful leaves all changing colour. Tickets were ¥620/person for a 30min ride.
We took the bus here, and walked the short distance from the bus stop to the impressive little temple. You have to make peace with the fact that you’re gonna share ‘the moment’ with loads of other tourists – it’s one of the most popular sights in Kyoto. Entrance is ¥400 and you walk along a set route.
Nijo Castle (¥600 entrance)
This designated World Heritage Site is quite impressive to say the least. You walk through the splendid Karamon gate, and you’ll then see the Ninomaru Palace in front of you. Take of your shoes, and take a leisurely stroll through the palace – everything is made of dark wood and it creaks as you walk… The palace is surrounded by a traditional Japanese landscape garden, which also has a large pond. Due to the variety of trees, it’s quite a sight to behold in autumn time.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple (¥300 entrance)
This is a cool temple, situated in the east of Kyoto up in the ‘wooded hills’. It takes a rather strenuous hike (and in that heat too) uphill to get there. In 1994 they added this temple to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites. The most popular feature is the wooden stage, that sits 13m above the hillside below, and allows for nice views of the surrounding area. Also popular is to drink from the waterfall, which is divided into 3 separate streams – people use cups attached to long poles, and the water is believed to have special properties…
The walk up/down-hill is filled on both sides with curio shops and drink/ice-cream stands.
TIP: Get the ‘day pass’ bus ticket (¥500) – you can hop on/off as much as you like for the day. It can really save you money if you’re doing a lot in one day (considering a single ride is around ¥230). Traveling long distances can take some time though, keep that in consideration…
We felt ambitious and walked from the Kiyomizu-dera temple to the Gion district. We walked down the main road, lined on both sides with loads of pottery stalls. Very unique, and some pottery we came across was really beautiful. At the river, we took a right and strolled at our own pace along the river till we hit the Gion area.
We walked around the narrow alleys in the area – there are some nice buildings with lots of stained wood used, which was really appealing to us. We also spotted 3 geisha’s, which was cool to see. Note: we learnt that it’s apparently rude to use the term ‘Geisha’ in Japan (connotation to prostitute…). Geiko is better. And an apprentice Geiko is called a Maiko.
In this area there are lots of traditional restaurant options, but be ready to pay, it is quite expensive…
This was one of the coolest sights in Kyoto for us. There are thousands of these red torii gates that straddle the trails weaving up and around the mountain. The shrines are dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice.
After Fushimi Inari you can hit this one; it’s I think one train stop away. It’s a nice and zen temple to explore. Entrance is ¥400, and you also have the option to go into other halls at an extra cost.
Ginkakuji (aka Silver Pavilion)
I have no idea why it’s known as the silver pavilion, as there is no outstanding ‘silver’ anything visible… It is a beautiful area though, with the pavilion next to a pond, and there’s also a nice zen garden. Very popular with tourists, very busy… Entrance is ¥500.
We decided to take the “Path of Philosophy”, as we heard it’s a nice stroll along a stream down to some other temples. Make sure you’re wearing proper walking shoes, it’s not just a short walk.
We also walked around in the Shijo-Kawaramachi area. Loads of shopping and dining opportunities. Good place for some people watching if you’re into that 😉
Day trip from Kyoto to Nara
The trip to Nara took us about an hour and a half. We walked to Nara park from the station, which takes about 15 minutes. The first stop was at Kofukuji Temple. Here we also have our first encounter with the free roaming deer. They are all over the place! We see people everywhere feeding them – we later see the ‘cracker’ vendors where people buy the deer crackers for ¥150.
We got seats and watched the other silly tourists interacting with the deer. Beware though, they can get a bit aggressive/greedy if they know you have crackers on you…
We proceeded to the Todai-ji temple (entrance ¥500). This might be the most impressive, and visually pleasing temple we have ever visited! It’s just so immense… Until 1998 it was the largest wooden structure in the world, and to think that its current size is about one third smaller than it was originally (burnt down twice during wars). Inside is also the biggest bronze buddha in the world.
We walked up the hill to the Nigatsudo Hall, which also is very charming, with its hanging lanterns, and great view of the city. We then took a leisurely walk, map in hand, to Kasuga Taisha Shrine. It’s famous for the hundreds of stone lanterns along the paths.
Last stop was the Isuien garden, which we read is a must see, and we could see why. It’s really beautiful. It’s a typical traditional Japanese style garden, and strolling through it is really calming and a nice reprieve from the masses. At ¥900 it’s a bit steep, but we’re glad we did it. Also has a small art museum.
We walked around town a bit more, looking through the quaint shops. We ended up spending around 6 hours in Nara, and it flew by…
We were nearing the end of our travels in Japan, and last stop was going to be Osaka. We got a day pass ticket – you pay ¥800 and can take the subways and buses as many times as you’d like on the day. Plus you get a discount at some sightseeing places. We dropped our bags at our charming accommodation for the last two days, and set off exploring.
Firstly, we visited Osaka Castle (¥700). You walk up loads of stairs and read about the history on the different levels, and see some artifacts (most impressive were the samurai swords, lying there perfectly polished and shiny, after all these years!). You get a nice 360 view from the top level. Be prepared again, as you’ll most likely share the castle with hundreds of others (with the ‘day pass ticket’, you skip the queue, which is really nice – ours was about 60m long!).
We made a quick visit to Shittenoji temple, but after Kyoto, it’s not that impressive by any means… (we were also templed-out at this point).
We went to the Tempozan giant ferris wheel. This was our first ride ever on a ferris wheel, and we had some spectacular views from the top, especially after sunset and you can only see the city lights! (¥700 after discount)
On our last day, we decided to visit Himeji Castle. Often described as the most ‘spectacular’, ‘must visit’ castles in Japan. Himeji castle also stands in its original form, without any damage from earthquakes, storms or wars like many others.
The JR train there took around 1 hour. We could clearly see why Himeji is the ‘most visited’ castle in Japan – there were bus loads of people! Also, the castle was undergoing renovations for a few years, and they just finished earlier this year.
We queued for our tickets, and then eventually, we queued to actually get into the castle. This all took about an hour, and outside in the sweltering heat, zero fun. We walked up a lot of stairs, with all the masses, and I must confess it wasn’t a nice experience. You have nice views from the top level of the surrounding castle grounds though. But all of that, for not much to see inside – dunno if it’s “all that time, sweat, and people around you” worth it.
Visually, from the outside it is spectacular, there’s no disputing that! I can just imagine the beauty of the blossoming trees all around, in springtime. After the castle, we walked around the Koko-En gardens. We bought a combination ticket for the castle and garden (¥1040) – bargain, because for only 40 yen more (castle entrance is ¥1000) you can visit the immaculate gardens, and get your zen on…
Back in Osaka, we hopped over to the Shinsaibashi area again to walk around and shop (shops closes at 9). We had an amazing last dinner at another ‘vending machine noodle and soup restaurant’. We still have not tired of the noodles here – it is SO good!
I know we missed (or skipped by choice) some sights, but we saw and experienced what we wanted. Japan is definitely a land of superlatives, and it crept deep into our hearts. The whole trip enriched us so much, that we fully recommend it to anyone considering to visit, you’ll certainly not be disappointed!
Safe travels people 🙂
[TIP for planning: japan-guide.com is an awesome site. Also, hyperdia.com is invaluable to check out train times and such.]