In June 2018, I braved the 12-hour flight to Japan to spend 13 nights in a country I’d read lots about (but had never visited). People picture Japan as a futuristic mix of eye-popping megacities, fashion, food and weird vending machines. What most people forget though, is that Japan tourism is as much about heritage-rich temples and deep-rooted culture as it is sushi.
I went with my husband and another couple. If you want to know the best place to visit in Japan, have a read.
First Stop: Tokyo’s Bright Lights And Narrow Alley Restaurants
I’ll be honest- anybody asking me what I did on my first night in Tokyo isn’t going to get much. We were so wiped out after the flight, all we wanted was a meal and a comfortable bed. We got both at the Hotel Gracery Shinjuku. It’s 30 floors with stunning views, slap bang in the Kabukicho entertainment district and conveniently close to the main Shinjuku Station.
Tokyo is probably the most intense city I’ve ever visited. People are everywhere (and walking in every direction). Between the skyscrapers, fashion-forward Harajuku district and sheer buzz, it can be hard to get your bearings. Despite not many people speaking English, we got our maps out, walked around and took it all in. You’ll find hundreds of narrow, lantern-lit alleys dishing up Teppanyaki cuisine, although don’t expect Western customs. It’s shared narrow tables and chairs, but the food is fantastic.
The next day, we took a steep train up to Mount Fuji. It’s a bit of a hike after the train and I wasn’t lucky with the weather, but the city views from the top were spectacular. It feels like a city within a city here- gold Buddhas and temples everywhere. We also visited the National Museum of Tokyo, which has an amazing display of warriors and swords. We were near Kabukicho’s karaoke bars (which you do have to pay for), but it was worth it. We didn’t have time to visit Yoyogi Park or the Sensoji Temple, but I definitely managed to get a feel for the city in my 3 nights.
Next Stop: Kyoto’s Temples And Geishas
We reached all our destinations via Japan’s very modern (but somewhat confusing) bullet trains. Kyoto definitely felt different. This former capital still houses water-set temples, zen gardens, markets and traditional Geishas. I recommend going in the spring for the cherry blossoms.
The Gion district is Geisha heaven- you can feel the 1200 years of history here. Gold temples, exquisite architecture, tons of greenery and, as everywhere, delicious food. We watched a Geisha show, spotted reindeer in Nara, gawked at Buddha statues and lucked out with a chance to see silks being manufactured. People here are very kind, but quite regimented in their mentalities. When I wandered off at a cafe to look at pastries, the owner pretty much ordered me to go back “together” with my friends. I didn’t feel I’d abandoned them, but clearly, he did. The Japan guide to mannerisms is like the layout- everything has its place. Kyoto also has a lot of shopping, but be prepared for high prices.
Kobe: Hanging Herb Gardens And Calm
If you’ve trawled the internet for Japan tourist attractions, you might not see Kobe on the list. Smaller, less intense and ideal for a casual wander, Kobe is also cheaper than other cities and as I’m a steak fanatic I wanted to go as it’s renowned for cooking up some of the world’s finest steaks. I absolutely recommend the Nunobiki Herb Garden. Winding its way through green hills, it’s got hanging herb baskets, a glasshouse, a Fragrance Museum and all the relaxation in the world. The mountain backdrop against the harbour here is also really beautiful. We didn’t want an intense Japan tourism experience here, so we chilled out, got ice-cream and settled into our room at the ANA Crowne Plaza.
Hiroshima: A Haunted Past That Was So Moving
It’s impossible to think of Hiroshima without remembering that two atomic bombs were dropped here during WWII. People picture Hiroshima as this radioactive wasteland, but it’s actually a thriving city that has risen from strength to strength since the 1940s horror. It hits you before you even get there, though- the bullet train stop is actually called Hiroshima Bomb Dome.
The sights here are clustered around Memorial Peace Park, although Ground Zero is the Atomic Bomb Dome that most visitors miss because it’s hard to find. Alongside outdoor memorials, the museum exhibits are nothing short of humbling. There’s film, photographs and even a watch that’s still at 8.15 (when the bomb dropped). We also got the ferry to Miyajima Island, known for its famous Torii gate, water-set shrines, roaming deer and Buddhist temples. There was even a beach here, which was completely unexpected. Okonomiyaki are the traditional pancakes you’ll find in Hiroshima, although we ended up eating some form of Teppanyaki for most of the trip.
Osaka: A Cosmopolitan City And A Castle Experience
We wrapped up with 4 nights in Japan’s second major city, Osaka. You’ve got your neon billboards and fast-casual dining joints here, but Osaka is a foodie paradise (with a ton of culture to match). Shinsaibashi is the main shopping district. Dotonbori is basically Japan’s kitchen. Going to Osaka and not stopping here is like going to Paris and not visiting the Eiffel Tower. There’s also Kuromon Ichiba Market for street food and Universal Studios Japan.
Osaka is definitely more cosmopolitan. Lots of modern buildings and wide streets almost reminded me of somewhere in the US, but the tradition was all there. We visited Himeji Castle which is over 400 years old, the Shogun warrior site and the oldest castle in Japan. It’s white-painted, surrounded by trees and made up of 80 structures separated by labyrinth paths (and the cherry blossom I missed out on by going in June). We also stayed in a futuristic capsule room hotel- definitely an interesting take on an iPod!
Make It Yours
Japan just isn’t somewhere you can experience by Googling pictures. The cities are booming, the scenery is beautiful, the food is out of this world and I absolutely would go back.
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