Visiting Japan had been a goal of mine for years, and I finally got the opportunity in 2016. I began looking at tickets in the beginning of the year, looking for flights during the off season, and eventually found a nice price for a round trip ticket. A friend of mine was also interested in going, so we coordinated with an additional friend of his and picked some dates and started drawing up plans. We went for 2 weeks, covering the last week of October and the first week of November. We decided that our two weeks would largely cover Kyoto and Tokyo, with day trips out of each city to Nara, Osaka, and Mt. Fuji.
Due to a couple of considerations, including the fact that we wanted to be in Tokyo for Halloween (which would be towards the end of the trip), we decided to visit Kyoto first. This meant, of course, flying into Narita and immediately getting on a train to Kyoto. On one hand, this was exhausting. On the other hand, we got into Kyoto in the evening at a fairly sane time to fall asleep. I can't speak much for anyone else, but this made "adjusting" to Japan time very easy as I ended up getting a full night's sleep and waking up at a normal morning hour.
We booked an airbnb place that had 3 bedrooms and was located across from the Kyoto National Museum (which I'm a little embarrassed to say we never actually visited). It's about a mile away from the main Kyoto Station, which can be a bit of a walk when dragging luggage, but the place was fairly close to another line that had stops at a few of the temple locations we wanted to see. The neighborhood was quiet and every morning there was a mass migration of uniformed children down one of the main streets (I assume there was a girl's school nearby), giving the place a unique peak into the everyday Japanese life.
Day 1. This, I had scheduled as the "easy day." We were only visiting one stop. I did not, however, realize that the one stop was a mountain - I had assumed it was just a shrine with a bunch of gates. It wasn't until later (about halfway up the mountain) that I realized we were in for a trek. Turns out, it's about a 2.5 mile round trip; mostly up a whole lot of steps. This would actually be the start of an unexpected trend - it feels like nearly everything I wanted to visit required an uphill to get to; I assume that's because castles and shrines were built on the tops of hills for strategic reasons. That being said, the orange gates are pretty amazing to see and a little over halfway up you get a pretty good view of the city. Since Fushimi Inari is open 24 hours a day, I returned here a couple of nights later to get some evening shots. While the shrine is busy during the day, it's fairly clear at night. The trail up the mountain is also empty in the evening.
Gion & Path of Philosophy
Day 2. We started off this morning taking the train to Gion and walking through the main street towards Yasaka Shrine. None of us are avid shop-a-holics, so we mainly just peaked into the stores as we walked by them. From the Yasaka Shrine, we walked into the park and north to Chion-in, which is a fairly impressive sight as it's a large structure with very large steps. Then we trekked our way through the neighborhoods and to Nanzen-ji and the start of the Path of Philosphy - a famous walking path that goes alongside a waterway with a bunch of little temples along the way. It stretches from Nanzen-ji in the south to Ginkaku-ji in the north. Starting from the Gion station, as we did, the one-way trip is about 6km or 3.75 miles - not too bad for a day's stroll. The temples, despite being so many of them, all seemed to have their own feel and their own architecture. Nanzen-ji offers a pretty nice view of the nearby mountain from its second level; Chion-in is very sharp and reminded me of carved rock, while the gardens at Ginkakuji were very curated and sculpted. There's also a street lined with little shops on your way to Ginkakuji - they're a great place to pick up souvenirs or soft serve.
Sagano Road, Tenryu-ji, Nijo Castle, and Kinkaku-ji
Day 3. This was the last full day that we were going to be Kyoto, so we wanted to fit in a few last stops before leaving. In the morning we headed over to the Bamboo Forest of Sagano Road. This area is a nice stroll on a winding road through tall bamboo trees. It wasn't too crowded that morning and we were able to get some nice pictures. After the bamboo forest, we headed south through Kameyama Park and then back up and around to Tenryu-ji. Parts of the shrine were closed, but we were able to go into the gardens which has a fairly large pond.
Leaving the area, we headed into the central part of Kyoto to visit Nijo Castle. Nijo Castle is fairly large, taking up a couple of city blocks. There's an inner palace that you can tour, seeing the different rooms, how they're decorated, and learning about how they were used when the castle was still active. There's also a moat and outer gardens which provide a nice walk.
Our final stop of the day was Kinkaku-ji - the golden pagoda. There's not much else here besides the building itself, but it's a fairly unique sight to see. This place, however, is very crowded and it can be difficult to move around. The pathway leads from the front of the pagoda around to the back, and I found an opportunity to get a picture I liked from behind the building. Afterwards, we stopped and grabbed some soft serve at the food stand on the grounds.
Osaka Day Trip
Day 4. Headed to Osaka for a day trip. It's fairly easy to get there from Kyoto via train and doesn't take too long. For our day here, our goal was to see the Osaka Castle, stop by Hozen-ji, and then spend the rest of the day in Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan. It was threatening to rain all day, which would have been our first experience of bad weather since arriving in Japan. It started to sprinkle a bit in the afternoon, but didn't start really raining until we were already at the Aquarium, safely inside and out of the rain.
Upon arriving at Osaka Castle, we walked along the outside perimeter, looking at the high walls and towers, until we found the entrance. We also found what must have been a large number of school trips also converging on the site. We waited for one group of children to pass, many of whom wanted to say "Hello" (in English), before making our way in towards the main castle. It should be noted that this place gets crowded. Once going through the gates, there are people chatting and moving and taking selfies pretty much everywhere. If there was a guided tour here, we didn't take it, instead opting to see the outside of the castle and going over to one of the walls to get a good look of the city. We also grabbed some soft serve before heading out and grabbing a taxi to Hozen-ji Temple.
The Hozen-ji Temple is located within the streets of Dotonbori - an outdoor shopping mall with a lot of eats in the area. Hozen-ji is really less of an attraction and more like a small oddity. I had liked the pictures I had seen of the moss covered statues and wanted to see it for myself. It's outdoor, tucked away down a small side street, with no line or tourists or guides. We spent a short amount of time here before going on to our main attraction, the aquarium.
Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan
The rain was just starting to pick up as we made our way through the line and purchased our tickets. There was a sign out front warning us that there would be school tours on this day, and they were not joking. Our entire time in the aquarium was spent watching group after group of school children pass through. And in case you think Japanese school children are orderly, quiet, and well-behaved - you'll be delighted to know that they are just as noisy, easily distracted, and frantically energetic as any other children. As for the aquarium itself, it does not disappoint. There are a lot of exhibits - from otters to jellyfish to seals to whales. The views of the animals and how they're presented are pretty top notch. At the end of the tour, there's a group of touch pools, though I was reminded of the scene in Finding Dory and opted out of that experience.
Nara Day Trip
Day 5. We headed from Kyoto to Nara in the morning in order to visit the Deer Park and the Daibutsu (giant Buddha statue) at Todai-ji within it. From Nara Station, it's about 3/4 of a mile (or just over 1km) to the closest park entrance. Nara Park is fairly large and, while not strictly divided up, definitely has a few different "sections" within it. We entered near Kofuku-ji, a 5 story pagoda, and that's where we saw our first deer hanging out. As we walked further into the park, towards the National Nara Museum, the deer became more common and you could find vendors selling crackers for the deer. Note that these are wild animals, so they can get aggressive and bite-y (one of the people I was traveling with was bit later in the afternoon), but they are also fairly used to people and will eat out of your hand and allow you to touch them. A fun activity is to just people watch in this area as children and even some adults suddenly realize they're surrounded by deer looking for snacks and start to run away.
As we headed towards Todai-ji, we walked along a long street with a bunch of vendors selling souvenirs. There are plenty of deer-related and Daibutsu-related souvenirs to be had. Entering Todai-ji through the outer gate, I noticed that the building housing the Buddha is huge. From what I understand, the building is one of the largest wooden structures in the world. The main statue is directly at the entrance and is 15m (49 ft) tall and made of bronze. There are other fairly large and impression statues further inside the temple and a small gift shop at the exit. Ultimately, the statue and building are really impressive works and seeing them doesn't take too long. I initially wanted to come here for the statue, but the deer ended up being my favorite part of this outing. In fact, the Nara trip was probably my second favorite experience during my time in Japan.
Heading back out to the park, we ventured further into (and up) the hills of the park. There are a lot of shrines, big and small, to see throughout the park. It's easy to spend a lot of time strolling through it, if you're up for the walk. The further you head back into the park, the less populate and more wild it becomes. Grass fields will give way to dense trees and paved roads big enough for cars will give way to narrower walking paths (though often still paved). There is a second street lined with shops before you get really deep into the park where we stopped to eat (and grab soft serve - you may have picked up on this theme by now). We continued through the park coming across a number of different shrines with different purposes. At one point, we stumbled across a Shinto ceremony, but didn't linger too long as they had set people up to prevent outsiders from getting too close. With tired legs, we eventually made our way back to Nara Station and Kyoto for our last night in the city.
We spent the last half of our trip in Tokyo. One thing I learned while in Tokyo is that the city's main draw is its night life. I, however, am not a night life person. So while I don't consider my time in Tokyo to be a missed opportunity, I will say that Kyoto was more my speed. That being said, Tokyo provided the best shopping experiences I've had in any city. The variety of stores, their quality, and the amount of goods you can find is almost excessive.
Shibuya for Halloween
Day 6. We arrived in Tokyo on Halloween. We used the afternoon to check into our accommodations and, once evening came, headed into Shibuya to see the crowd and costumes. I was initially a bit worried about this, just due to how crowded I knew it would be. It was even more crowded than what I had expected. However, once I was there with the people and the costumes, the crowds didn't seem to matter. I camped out at a couple of different locations, getting pictures of the people as they walked by. Tokyo's take on Halloween is pretty different than the American Halloween. For starters, it's mainly celebrated by drinking-age people. Kids don't go door to door trick-or-treating; instead, young adults go bar to bar drinking in costume. As for the costumes, kigurumi, or animal onesies, are a popular go-to lazy costume. Beyond that, a mixture of cute and gore seemed to be the major theme - you'd have very cutesy character outfits matched with bloody face paint. Popular genres included Ghibli films like Kiki's Delivery Service, western fare like Harry Potter or Marvel movie characters, and video game/anime/manga characters.
Day 7. We visited the Chiyoda prefecture in Central Tokyo. Our main points of attraction were the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace, Hie Shrine, and the Hamarikyu Gardens. While the gardens were nice, I'd honestly rate this as a "pass" and for a day out. If we hadn't just been to Nara and Kyoto, I think these gardens could have offered a nice change of pace from the bustling Tokyo cityscape; but as it was, these experiences were kind of lackluster in comparison. Of the two gardens, I'd say that the Hamarikyu Gardens have a better view, as you can see some of Tokyo's skyscrapers tower over the trees from within the garden.
Shibuya - Round 2
Day 8. Back to Shibuya for round 2. From Shinjuku, we walked down into Yoyogi Park and through the Meiji Shrine. The shrine wasn't too crowded, but it looked like they were preparing for an event when we got there. I spent some time looking at the wishing tree inside the shrine and reading the wishes written in a lot of different languages. Whatever ceremony was happening that day was just getting started as we were leaving and we saw the start of a procession of Shinto priests. Unfortunately for us, the park didn't seem to have it's rumored collection of rockabilly members or other unique characters - those seem to be reserved for Sundays.
From the park, we continued walking south towards Shibuya station. Along the way, however, we wandered across the Disney store and I had to stop in and pick up some souvenirs. After this brief side quest, we continued on towards our next Shibuya destination - Neko Cafe Mocha; I figured I couldn't visit Tokyo without visiting a themed cafe, and a cat cafe seemed safer than a maid cafe and there didn't seem to be a corgi cafe in the city. It was a little difficult finding the place, but we found the building and headed up to the cafe. We didn't opt for drinks, just hung out with the cats. There were quite a few, all different types, though many of them were settling into the afternoon naps when we arrived. I feel like the theme cafe is something you have to experience just for the novelty of it, though I think I would have preferred a setting that was more of a normal cafe where there were also cats as opposed to something designed around the cat experience.
We then left the cafe and made our way to Shibuya station. We crossed through the infamous Shibuya Crossing, and it was quite crowded; though there had been more people there for Halloween. We didn't have the chance to seek out the Hachiko statue when we had been here previously, so we took this opportunity to stop by and get a picture and were greeted by an unexpected sight. I think someone had placed a heated pad under the statue and a cat was laying on top of the pad, right between Hachiko's legs.
Ueno Zoo & Akihabara
Day 9. We headed to the Taito area of Tokyo in the morning for a trip to the zoo. If you like zoos, this one has a lot to offer. There are tigers and polar bears, birds of all sorts, pandas, red pandas, lizards, elephants, monkeys - all the zoo staples. If you don't like zoos, I don't think there's much here that will change your mind. Personally, I enjoyed walking through the zoo and seeing all the different exhibits. My favorite exhibit was probably the monkey area, where it was large and open - the monkeys were separated from the crowd by a moat instead of glass. This allowed the zoo to put large structures, like rock pillars, inside the enclosure.
After the zoo we made our way to Akihabara. We walked around the neighborhood, which certainly has its own feel and design (large colorful billboards plastered with anime characters), and headed to Mandarake - a multi-leveled store covering all your Japan nerd needs. I headed in to explore the store a bit and just browse. Mandarake is tightly packed with people and merchandise, with tons of books or collectibles or whatever the theme of the floor you're on happens to be. Personally, I probably wouldn't come here to souvenir shop unless you have very specific needs (and even then, I'd try Nakano Broadway first).
Shinjuku at Night
Evening 9. After Akihabara, we headed back to Shinjuku. I had signed up for a photography workshop that would take pictures of Tokyo at night, in the Shinjuku and Shibuya neighborhoods. It was a small group and the instructor guided us through several spots. We got light trails of the cars, some alley shots of the tightly packed eateries, and finished the shoot getting shots of the crowded Shibuya crossing. It was a fun experience and it was unique to explore the city at night for photography purposes (as I said at the start, Tokyo is a city that really comes alive after the sun goes down).
Mt. Fuji Day Trip
Day 10. While planning our Japan trip, we booked a guided tour to visit Mt. Fuji and Hakone since no one really wanted to rent a car and attempt driving in Japan. We met with the tour at a nearby hotel and loaded up onto a fairly packed bus. There were multiple buses, each filled with people, each bus carrying around 50 people or so.
The tour started by taking us directly to Mt. Fuji's 5th station, which is about half way up the mountain. During the drive, our tour guide provided commentary about a number of different topics - the history of the different Japanese states we were driving through, the Japanese workforce and economy, relationships, home ownership, the school system and it's pressures (including suicide) - no topic seemed to be off-limits. Our guide had a dark sense of humor, which suited me just fine, but I'm not sure it was everyone's taste in comedy. The drive itself is nice - it's exciting when Mt. Fuji first comes into view and the views you get while approaching it are really nice. The view from the 5th station itself, in my opinion, is not the greatest view of the mountain but you are close enough to get a detailed look; and the views out over the nearby scenery (away from the mountain) are nice to look at.
We headed to lunch after leaving the mountain, which was at a restaurant inside a water park. The food was fine, nothing to write home about but not bad, and the park itself seemed kind of interesting. We didn't stay here very long, but I did get to see and film one of the rides that ended in a huge spray of water as it crashed down into a pool.
After lunch, we headed to Hakone, which is known for it's 5 lakes. The tour included a boat ride on one of the lakes and then a cable car ride up a mountain for another view of Mt. Fuji. The boat ride lasted 20 minutes or so and the weather was nice (if a bit chilly) so I stayed out on the deck taking pictures. The cable car ride up the mountain was packed and would be hell for anyone with claustrophobia. The view from the top of the mountain, however, was really nice. Mt. Fuji is fairly small from this distance, so a telephoto lens would be useful to capture any good images. But the view down into the lakes is pretty stunning, and there's some nice scenery in the immediate area that's also quite nice to for pictures.
Leaving Hakone, we headed back to Tokyo via the bullet train and pretty much called it a day. I enjoyed the experience of the tour, but wish I had a chance to get some better shots of Mt. Fuji itself. But it was nice to spend a day just going with the flow to someone else's plan and letting them guide you around.
Shopping in Tokyo
Day 11. For shopping, there was actually a bit of this here-and-there while in Tokyo, but I'm going to group a few days together since they all focused on getting souvenirs and/or gifts. I don't do a lot of shopping normally, but I can say that Tokyo offered a TON of shopping opportunities - especially for people who geek out over nerdy things.
First, for general souvenir shopping, we went to Tokyu Hands, Shibuya, Oriental Bazaar, and Loft. Both Tokyu Hands and Loft are fairly similar, offering a wide variety of goods. These are less souvenir shops and more general goods shops. The main attraction, for me, was the stationary. You can find whole floors dedicated to stationary - paper, envelopes, calendars, diaries, planners, note pads, you name it; they'll come in all varieties. I picked a few to bring back for friends, Ghibli or Hello Kitty themed items. Oriental Bazaar is more of a traditional souvenir shop, with all kinds of Japanese themed items. There's clothing, sake sets, good luck cats of all sizes, and a lot more. Finally, I put down Shibuya because there are whole streets of tiny shops and vendors here. It's easy to walk down and peek inside to see what's being sold. From what I saw, it was mostly clothing accessories and jewelry.
For nerd-specific items, we visited Hakuhinkan, Mandarake, Don Quijote, Disney Store, Nakano Broadway, a Pokemon Center. As I mentioned earlier, Mandarake in Akihabara has a lot of collectibles, but unless you've got a lot of money and enjoy perusing shops looking for rare finds, it's more of a sight-seeing opportunity and less of a shopping opportunity. There are several smaller Mandarake outlets in Nakano Broadway, along with a lot of other stores with particular themes, that I found much easier to look around in and explore. There's even a grocery store on the bottom floor that offers a good variety of Japanese snacks, which are a great to bring back for friends or coworkers as Japan has a lot of unique and interesting flavors chocolates, potato chips, etc. Don Quijote in Shinjuku is a random store with a wide assortment of goods. I feel like it's a one-shop flee market. The Disney Store in Shibuya or any of the Pokemon Centers are must-sees for fans of those properties. The Pokemon Centers often have unique items that can only be purchased at the store. Finally, my favorite shop was Hakuhinkan. This is a place where I could have spent all my money. It covers all sorts of nerd fandoms with quality items. There's Harry Potter stuff, tons of Ghibli plush items, items for all kinds of anime and manga, board games, Hello Kitty items, all sorts of Funko Pop figures, and even a collection of Toy Story items that transform and combine into a Voltron-esque mecha.
Mt. Nokogiri Day Trip
Day 12. On my last full day in Japan (which ended up being my favorite day of the trip) I took a day trip to the other side of Tokyo Bay. I took the JR line out of Tokyo and around the bay to a small town that houses the Hama-Kanaya Station. There's a ropeway that will take you to the top of the mountain. If you want to hike up the mountain, you'll need to continue on to the Hota Station after Hama-Kanaya and walk back to the entry; there's a tunnel along the road that connects the two towns and there's no sidewalk or shoulder in that tunnel, so walking isn't really an option. You could also hire a car from Hama-Kanaya or find a friendly local heading that direction and have them drop you off at the road leading to the mountain's entrance. I stopped off at a local grocery to pick up some afternoon snacks (drinks, onigiri, etc.) since I knew I was going to spending quite a few hours on this outing. The top of the ropeway puts you right at an observation point and the view is pretty spectacular - you have the city, Tokyo Bay, and a ton of forested mountains.
There are several attractions on Mt. Nokogiri; the observation points, 1,500 carved arhat statues, the Hyaku-shaku Kannon (carved into a quarry wall), and the Nihonji Daibutsu, which is a stone carving of the Buddha that's over 100 ft. tall. Note that this is a mountain, so there are lots of stairs and a lot of elevation change as you make your way around the area. When you come in from the ropeway, the Daibutsu is basically the furthest thing from you as it's near the other entrance. I first visited a couple of the observation points before heading to see Hyaku-shaku Kannon. Along the way a fairly massive school tour showed up and I was in the midst of hundreds of school children also visiting the mountain. While initially planning on taking the trail through the 1,500 arhat statues before finishing my visit at the Daibutsu, I decided to change course a bit and head straight to the Daibutsu after seeing the Hyaku-shaku Kannon so I'd have the opportunity to get in a few pictures before the children showed up.
The Daibutsu is definitely a sight to see - aside from the sheer size of it, the carving has a lot of little details and the way it merges into the sloping mountain behind it makes for interesting visuals. Off to the side of the statue are tables that you can sit at that have a partial view of the bay and town below. I sat here and ate my lunch as the school children began arriving at the statue. I relaxed for a while as they played and ate their own lunches. After about half an hour I headed back up to the trails that held the arhat statues that I had bypassed before. There are so many and I don't think any two are identical. They usually show up along the side in groups and are located along a few different branching trails, so it's an easy to just wander around and look at them. Finishing up, I decided to walk down the mountain instead of going back up to the ropeway.
When I got back to the road I was met with the aforementioned tunnel that prevented me (quite unexpectedly) from getting back to Hama-Kanaya Station. After a brief "Um... what do I do now?" phase I started following some signs that I assumed were pointing to another station about 2.3km away (though I couldn't actually read the signs, I really just hoped that's what they said). I eventually arrived at Hota Station, which is tiny and picturesque and was staffed by someone who didn't speak a word of English but we were able to figure each other out enough to get a ticket back to Tokyo. I got back into the city in the early evening, got some dinner, and called it a day.
- Speaking Japanese isn't necessary, but you generally won't find a lot of English spoken here - especially outside of Tokyo
- From my experience, Japan is the land of the school children - nearly every attraction had a school tour going through
- Familiarize yourself with the train system - while exceedingly complicated, the methodology used by the train system is "going towards [insert location]" instead of saying something like "north-bound" or "west-bound" train
- Plan for variety - Japan's greatest attraction, in my opinion, is how it blends the old and the new, technology and nature, the traditional and cutting edge, and a number of other opposites
- Stay close the main train line - there's a line in Tokyo that loops around the city that makes it very easy to get to everything you want to see