The highlights of Japan? That is perhaps a rather ambitious claim for a two week tour of the Land of the Rising Sun and we do not claim to have discovered everything this wonderful country has to offer. However, we planned our tour of Japan to take in some of the “must see” places and we would highly recommend the route we took. We started in Tokyo and from there we travelled to Hakone, Hiroshima, Kyoto and finally to Osaka, visiting many iconic places along the way. We also learned a great deal about travelling in Japan and we share some of these tips here.
An additional reason for our visit to Japan is that our daughter works there. We did not need any persuasion to organise a trip to see her – and to take the opportunity to explore the rest of this fascinating country!
Touring Japan by Train
Most of our travel in Japan was by train (we also took the underground and the bus in cities, as well as a cable car in Hakone!). Travelling by train in Japan is very straightforward and the train stations are easy to negotiate.
We purchased a 14 day JR Rail Pass before travelling to Japan. This can be done online and the pass will be delivered to your home. However, the pass does need to be activated upon arrival in Japan. We did this at the train station in Narita airport in order that we could then use the pass to take the train into Tokyo. This process took about an hour and was in addition to clearing immigration. After a long flight, this felt like hard work, but it all went very smoothly.
The JR Pass gives access to all the trains on the JR network, including the shinkansen (bullet trains) but not the Nozomi and the Mizuho Shinkansen, which have very few stops. It is also worth noting that some of the local trains are not on the JR network and therefore tickets have to be purchased locally. It only makes sense to purchase the JR Pass if you are on a tour of Japan and intend to take long journeys every couple of days. Otherwise it is probably cheaper to simply buy the tickets as you go.
There are two levels of JR pass: the green and the ordinary pass. As we knew that we would be using trains as our main form of transport and that we would be carrying luggage, we opted for the first class “green car” pass. These carriages were wonderful. The seats were luxurious and there was lots of space. It was easy to reserve seats in these carriages, and if travelling at busy times, a reservation is well advised.
The shinkansen, of course, are modern and super-fast, but all the trains in Japan run on time and are scrupulously clean – no eating is allowed. Despite the language challenge, we found all public transport was very easy to use in terms of routes, tickets and passes. We rarely had to wait for a train to come along as there were so many and they were always bang on time.
Current prices for the JR pass can be found here.
The first stop on our tour of Japan: Tokyo
Our tour started in Tokyo. Narita airport, the main international airport which serves Tokyo, is actually quite a long way out of the city – about an hour and a half on the train!
The capital city is a “must see” for any visitor to Japan. Tokyo is a huge, sprawling and vibrant city that has many different areas, each with its own character. We stayed in a small hotel in the Shinjuku area. It was clean and comfortable and just a short hop to the nearest subway so that we could easily get around the city.
In amongst the hustle and bustle of the city, Tokyo has a number of parks to explore. Yoyogi Park in Shinjuku is one such park.
In this area is also the Meiji-jingu Shrine.
Ueno Park was one of our favourites. There are some interesting buildings and several museums in the Park and it was here we actually found some of the last remaining cherry blossoms in Tokyo. Unfortunately they had arrived early this year and so we had missed the peak. Ueno is a lovely park to walk around though and it was lovely to see at least some blossoms.
Ginza is another district of Tokyo. Ginza is a really buzzy, modern area, regarded as the high-end shopping section of Tokyo; much of it is pedestrianised at the weekend.
One of the most fascinating sights in Tokyo is at Shibuya, another “happening” district where there is a massive intersection of roads. All the pedestrian lights come on at once and this triggers a mass crossing of people from every spoke of the crossing. Shibuya is a great place to eat out as there are so many restaurants from which to choose.
One of the top places to visit in Tokyo though is the Sky Tree, the tallest free-standing steel tower in the world. It overlooks the city of Tokyo in every direction and the view is stunning.
It is possible to go up to either floor 350 or floor 450. The queue for tickets was the longest queue in which I have ever stood and it took about an hour to reach the desk. We found out afterwards that online bookings are available so that would be my advice: check the weather forecast (or go at night for a different perspective) and book ahead. The day we went, it was bright but a little hazy so whilst the views were good, it was not quite clear enough to see Mount Fuji.
Highlights of Japan: a day trip from Tokyo to Kamakura
This was one of the highlights of Japan for us. Whilst staying in Tokyo, we took a train down to Kamakura, a small and very characterful town with a rich history. This is definitely a trip worth making . The train took about an hour and we got off at the stop before Kamakura and followed the Kuzuharaoka Trail into the town. The trail was very scenic and took us past several shrines.
In the town itself, we visited the Great Buddha (it costs a few yen to actually go inside the Buddha and see how it was constructed). We also visited the Hasedera Temple and beautiful, extensive grounds.
The Hasedera Temple is very picturesque and there are wonderful views over the coast from the top.
On the way back from Kamakura to Tokyo we stopped at Yokohama, another large and vibrant city in Japan. Here we had one of the finest meals I have ever had, courtesy of one of Peter’s former colleagues and his wife. They took us to a traditional seafood restaurant and the food was wonderful.
My bones did creak a little after sitting and kneeling on the floor for nearly three hours though!
The second stop on our tour of Japan: Hakone
Hakone is a National Park, a mountainous area with volcanic activity, natural hot springs and fabulous views of Mount Fuji. Hakone is definitely one of the highlights of Japan.
We travelled by train from Tokyo to Hakone, first taking the bullet train to Odowara. In Odowara we had to swap to a non JR line and buy a ticket. We opted for the “Hakone Free Pass” which covered the train, the buses, the cable car and also the boat on Lake Ashi. As we would be using all of these, it made sense. It was not really “free” of course! It cost about $90 for a three day pass for the two of us.
We stayed in a town called Gora at the end of the trainline in Hakone. The train to Gora from Odowara was of a rather different vintage from the bullet train and provided a somewhat different experience. It is perhaps the steepest and twistiest train track on which I have ever been! It zig-zagged its way up the mountain at a speed of about 10 mph in places. Occasionally, the train would stop, the driver would get out, run down the track, get in at the other end and then take the train in the opposite direction!
When we arrived in Gora, we had to transfer to the cable car and go half way up the mountain before alighting to go to our ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). Our ryokan was fed by the natural hot springs and had its own onsen. This was a wonderful experience. We had booked in for dinner as well as bed and breakfast, so I had brought one posh frock for this. In the event, however, it was redundant: there was an expectation that guests wore the yukata and these were provided.
We experienced many different kinds of traditional Japanese food in the ryokan. It was all excellent – very tasty and beautifully presented. (If I am absolutely honest, however, I did find breakfast a little too much to deal with, especially when I was offered something which I can only describe as “fish custard”. I would have been very grateful for a slice of toast and got quite excited when I was offered “porridge” one morning. When it arrived, however, it was a sort of gooey rice concoction without an oat in sight.)
The onsen experience is pretty special, definitely one of the highlights of Japan. There are communal onsen where males and females bathe separately (no bathing costumes allowed), or there are private onsen for couples. This was included in our hotel booking.
The day after we arrived in Gora we had intended to take the cable car up to the top of the mountain and then the aerial cable car over the volcanic area to Ashinoko Lake. However, the winds were so strong that the cable car was not running. We decided to go over to the lake anyway and took the bus. This worked very well and we took a “cruise” on the lake which was covered by our “free pass”. It is a very beautiful area.
The following morning, the wind had abated so we took the cable car up to the top and then the aerial cable. The mountain steamed gently below us. It is quite a sight! Mount Fuji is also visible (sometimes!) from the cable car. At the top, it is possible to buy eggs which have been hard boiled in the volcanic springs. As a result they have turned black – but they still taste the same!
Stop number three on our tour of Japan: Hiroshima
From Hakone we took the train to Hiroshima, first the zig zag train down the mountain to Odowara and then the bullet train to Hiroshima. This was the longest single journey we made, but the bullet train made short work of it. We had to change once, but this did not even involve changing platforms! We had a good view of Mount Fuji along the way.
It was late afternoon when we arrived in Hiroshima. We took the tram from the train station to our hotel. This was remarkably easy. The instructions, in English, were very clear.
Hiroshima is definitely one of the “must see” places in Japan. It has a lovely feel to it and is much less frenetic than Tokyo. We visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and the museum, both of which are very moving. It has to be said that a whole tourist industry has grown up around the dreadful events of 1945, but the emphasis is very much on remembering, learning and peace. There was a tone of respect everywhere we went.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial, (also referred to as the Genbaku Dome) was originally the exhibition hall in Hiroshima. It was the only building in the area left standing when the bomb dropped. It is now a world heritage site. In this city, which has been completely re-built and is very modern, the dome is a poignant reminder of the past.
This is the cenotaph for the victims of the bomb. Through the arch, one can see the eternal flame and also the Memorial Dome. Beneath the arch is a stone chest, which contains the names of all those who died as a result of the bomb.
This is the Children’s Peace Monument. It was erected in memory of Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who died of leukemia as a result of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and of the thousands of other child victims.
The museum in the Peace Park presents the facts of what happened when the bomb exploded on Hiroshima and concentrates on the stories of individuals. This is very moving. On display are the actual clothes that people, children, were wearing when the bomb exploded. Reading their stories, often told by relatives, brings home what an atrocity this was.
President Obama visited the museum and left behind a message of hope for peace and some paper cranes, which he folded. Again, I found this very moving.
Another of the top places to visit in Hiroshima is Shukkeien, a beautiful garden in the middle of the city. It was destroyed by the bomb in 1945, but has been restored. The garden is designed to represent a whole landscape, mountains, valleys, islands, seas… in miniature.
Hiroshima is a lovely place to simply wander around. At one point we walked along river bank, where there are numerous cafes and restaurants. We had tea at one and were served by two delightful ladies, who clearly enjoyed practising their English!
Highlights of Japan: a day trip from Hiroshima to Miyajima
Whilst staying in Hiroshima, we did as most tourists do and took the ferry over to the island of Miyajima. Miyajima must be included on any list of the highlights of Japan. It is a short train ride to the port and then the ferry takes about 15 minutes. It sails right past the famous Torii Gate of the Itsukushima Shrine, sitting out there in the water. The ferry is included in the JR train pass.
We took the cable car (actually, two cable cars) up to the top of Mount Misen – except it wasn’t quite the top! It was another half hour’s walk to the summit. The views from top are fabulous and it is worth the climb.
We had opted to walk down rather than take the cable car. In retrospect I don’t think I would recommend this. It is steep and stepped almost the whole way. The steps are huge in places and quite uneven, so it is really hard going. Having said that, it is a beautiful woodland trail. A few hardy souls were actually making their way up the trail!
Back in the town, we sampled some of the street food. The wild deer which wander the streets are quite friendly!
Miyajima is very touristy, but has a lovely, laid-back feel to it and is quite beautiful. Hiroshima as a whole should definitely be on the itinerary for any tour of Japan and visiting was one of the highlights of the whole trip. It was memorable, moving and informative, but also fun. Highly recommended!
Stop number 4 on our tour of Japan: Kyoto
The next stop on our journey through Japan was Kyoto. Kyoto is the former imperial capital in Japan and has a rich history, as well as being a very modern city. Temples abound in Kyoto! We spent a couple of days exploring, mainly using the buses for which we bought a day pass.
The first “must see” in Kyoto, however, is the railway station. It is quite a piece of architecture! We took the escalators (no lifts) up to the Sky Garden on the 11th Floor. The views over the city are awesome, but better still is the view over the station itself.
Kinkaku-ji, The Golden Pavilion, is one of the top attractions in Kyoto. It is very beautiful and set in wonderful gardens, but when we visited on Saturday morning, it was also very busy. Nevertheless, it is a must see.
A short train ride out of central Kyoto is one of the top places to see in Japan, the shrine Fushimi Inari Taisha. This comprises thousands of vermilion Torii Gates up the side of a mountain and is quite spectacular. They go on for miles, and whilst the lower sections are quite easy, the higher ones are much steeper. It turned into quite a hike for us. It is also a bit of a maze in places with paths and Torii Gates leading off in different directions, so it is quite easy to lose your group if you do not stay together. Just saying….! Fushimi Inari Taisha is an iconic place and definitely one of the highlights of Japan.
The food in Kyoto is excellent. We ate in a couple of different restaurants down near the river on a very narrow, characterful street called Pontocho Dori. With wall to wall restaurants, this street has a lively vibe.
Highlights of Japan: a day trip from Kyoto to Arashiyama
Arashiyama, an area just outside Kyoto requiring a 15 minute train ride is another place to see on any tour of Japan. It is very beautiful. It was also very busy when we visited at the weekend.
We walked up the hill to see the wild monkeys there, which was quite entertaining. The monkeys are wild, but of course, are very used to people and are completely non-plussed by having so many folk around.
Also in Arashiyama is the Tenryuiji Temple and gardens, a world heritage site. We wandered through the gardens but on this occasion did not visit the temple. We did visit the bamboo forest though and this was one of the highlights of the trip.
We enjoyed Kyoto enormously and would definitely like to return. However, it was very busy and I think we might opt to avoid weekends and holiday weeks in future. We tried to book a theatre/dance show, but it was absolutely fully booked before we even arrived in Japan, so I think the word is, if you do want to see any of the traditional shows which are available in Kyoto, book well ahead.
The final stop on our tour of Japan: Osaka
Osaka was our final destination on this visit to Japan. It took a little over 10 minutes on the bullet train from Kyoto to Osaka, although the bullet train goes into Shin-Osaka and we had to take another train into the city proper. This took a few minutes and then we were in the centre of Osaka.
Osaka is a modern city and on the surface there does not appear to be a great deal for tourists. Even the castle is a modern re-construction! However, we enjoyed our stay – and the food! – there very much.
We really enjoyed the beautiful river walk in Osaka. We had missed the cherry blossoms unfortunately, but when in bloom, they must be spectacular. The path is very well tended with lots of other colourful blossoms and it made for a lovely walk.
We also ventured up to Osaka Castle, which is actually a very eye-catching building with a fabulous moat. It is definitely worth seeing.
Osaka is renowned for its cuisine and it is indeed a foodie’s paradise. Walking along the river bank, we came to the place where hundreds of stalls had been set up and about 98% were selling food, food of every description. You can eat anything on a stick! We had lunch there and particularly enjoyed the tokiyaki, one of Japan’s best known streetfoods. They are sort of dough balls filled with octopus and a few other goodies and then covered in the sauce of your choice. Very tasty! They were also very hot, hence the expression on Peter’s face!
In the evening, we caught the tube down to Dotonbori, the “downtown” area of Osaka, and it was buzzing! It was very busy and very colourful, especially down by the canal – an extravaganza of neon!(probably LEDs these days!)
Restaurants were in abundance and it was difficult to choose where to eat. Whilst we were exploring, we had some barbecued crab from one of the street vendors, which was delicious. Crab seems to be very much the speciality here in the way that oysters are in Hiroshima and there are restaurants which sell only crab, prepared in every way imaginable. Eventually, we went into a Japanese restaurant slightly off the main drag, mainly because it had not yet opened and there were a number of Japanese people waiting to go in. It turned out to be an excellent choice and we enjoyed our last sushi and sashimi of this trip.
Although we flew into Tokyo, our flight home was scheduled out of Osaka. It is worth noting that whether one takes the shuttle or the train, the journey to the airport in Osaka will take at least an hour from the centre of the city. We opted for the train as our JR Passes were still valid. It took us straight into the airport. Another point to note is that as well as factoring in time for check in and security, it is also necessary to go through passport control upon leaving Japan; this took rather longer than going through security.
Our visit to Japan was memorable, interesting and illuminating. Here I have described the highlights of our trip and tried to include some top tips along the way. However, there is so much more to write about this wonderful country and what we discovered on our tour that another post is in the making!
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