This beautiful nation which gave us sushi, karaoke and Pokémon was the place I got to spend an amazing two weeks discovering during the summer (or should I say winter?) holidays only a few weeks back. It was here that I also forge what will definitely be lifetime memories with my sister as we explored Japan’s Honshu island, which I can best describe as feeling uniquely old and new, east and west, and big yet small all at the same time!
To give you an example, I fondly remember looking out of our hotel window in Shinjuku one morning to see an ancient-looking shrine crammed between two modern buildings. It reminded me of an old Japanese man grouchily sitting on a busy train between two young businessmen on their way to work! Unfortunately I didn’t take a photo of this funny site. But I did find its location on google!
Ever since coming back to the scorching Australian summer, people have asked me about my favourite part of the trip. However, this question is difficult for me to answer because there was so many great experiences that I can’t pick just one! If you are, or thinking of heading there yourself soon, I could not recommend the places I’m about to mention enough! If history, scenery, technology or even ramen appeals to you, then Japan is the place to be.
So without further ado, here are some of my favourite memories from Japan.
1 Kinkakujicho, Kita Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 603-8361, Japan
Photos alone simply do not do this place justice. Located in the Kita Ward of Kyoto, the ‘Golden Pavilion’ as it’s known to foreigners is a must-see site for any temple enthusiasts, or lovers of beautiful scenery. According to the brochure given to me by one of the friendly attendants, this Buddhist temple has been around since 1397 when it was acquired by the 3rd shogun of the Muromachi period. Gold foil on lacquer gives the shariden its beautiful sheen, which is reflected in the lake and surrounding gardens, said to represent the “Pure Land of Buddha in this world”. For me personally, just walking around the Kyokō -chi pond and visiting the surrounding tea houses while learning about the site was very peaceful and so enjoyable that this experience made it into my top 10!
Tips and How to get there:
There are many ways to get to Kinkakuji temple, including trains and subways. However, the most stress free option for central Kyoto in my opinion is taking the bus. From Kyoto Station, catching the 101 will take you all the way there in approx. 45 mins.
However, if you’re looking for somewhere to stay in Kyoto, then I definitely recommend Uraraka Guest House! The staff speak excellent English, and are super helpful in planning how to get to everywhere you want to go via bus, train or subway while in Kyoto.
They also sell One-day Kyoto bus passes, which I recommend if you plan on visiting multiple parts of Kyoto in one day. At only 500 yen they are great value for money. These passes are also sold at subway ticket machines, tourist centres and Kyoto Station Bus Information Centre.
Remember: Bring 400 – 500 yen, as that is the usual entrance fee, as well as a little extra if you’re planning on grabbing souvenirs here. The temple also has opening hours, which is 9am – 5pm.
Takeshita Street, Harajuku
1- Jingumae, Harajuku, Tokyo, Japan
This little street in Harajuku is consecutively ranked in the top 10 of places to visit in Tokyo and there is good reason as to why! Long, narrow and always busy, this pedestrian walkway is a famous shopping district among both tourists and locals. A mixture of unique cafes and Japanese clothing stores, it’s a great place to visit just for the busy and exciting atmosphere. Be warned though: this place will make you want to spend spend spend! Between the yummy ice-cream waffles, owl cafes, dolly wink eyelashes, and funky Japanese clothing, it was only when I got back to the quiet of my hotel room that I realised with shock that i spent a lot more than I thought.
Tips and How to get there:
No matter where you are staying in Tokyo, your best bet for transport is probably catching the Yamanote Line from your nearest train station to Harajuku station and walk 5 minutes to the entrance. The train system is so good in Tokyo that it is highly likely that it will only take you one to two train rides to get to Takeshita street, since the Yamanote Line goes in a circle around Tokyo.
Most shops on Takeshita street open between 10am – 11am in the morning until 10pm at night. If you want to head there early and attempt to beat the crowds, I highly recommend visiting Meiji Temple first, whose entrance is only a 2 minute walk from this street.
Remember: Have a budget in mind before going here to stop yourself from from overspending on all the lovely goods this street has to offer!
Meiji Jingu (Shrine)
1-1 Yoyogikamizonocho, Shibuya, Tokyo
While there are countless beautiful areas in Japan, nothing stood out to me as much as the surrounding landscape of Meiji Jingu. Built in honour of the Meiji emperor and Empress Shoken, it is full of beautiful architecture that blends in with the natural environment. Coming from Australia where we don’t have a distinct autumn season, seeing the orange and red leaves falling among the evergreen trees was simply breath-taking. The temple itself is intimidatingly large, with some of the most impressive landmarks being the wooden tori gates that guard the numerous entrances.
In front of the shrine where you pay your respects, there is also a place where you can write down your prayers and wishes. Despite not being particularly interested in temples and shrines, Meiji Jingu was definitely an amazing place to visit and learn about Japan’s long history.
Tips and How to Get There:
Much like Takeshita street which is practically next door, take the Yamanote Line to Harajuku station and walk 5 minutes to the closest entrance. It’s another 10 minute scenic walk to get to the shrine. Even better, this famous attraction is open daily, and entrance is free!
Remember: Meiji Jingu is a famous tourist attraction in Japan, so its best to visit early morning to beat the crowds. Also this is a holy place, and therefore its wise to follow the same customs as the Japanese when visiting and paying respect.
Tsukiji Fish Market
5 -2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo, Tokyo
Famous for being the biggest fish market in Tokyo, Tsukiji Fish Market is definitely worth the visit if you’re a foodie or want to be amazed by how much tuna goes through here every morning. Seriously, I did not know that there was this many different kinds of seafood! Not only was was there fatty and lean pieces of tuna on display, but also eels, squid, puffer fish, and oysters the size of my head! The outer market opens between 5 – 9am, but if you’re lucky and arrive early (and I mean super early at 2:30am or earlier) you can witness what I’ve been told is a eye-opening tuna auction! Unfortunately at the time I went (December – January) the auction was closed off to the public since its their busiest time of year.
While here, we also dined on fresh tuna and salmon sushi at one of the cramped restaurants in the outer market. It was indeed some of the best sushi I’ve ever had! For those of you who hate narrow enclosed spaces and the strong smell of seafood, this experience might not be for you. But if you’re not, it’s definitely a worthwhile visit. Also get in quick! It has been confirmed that the market will be moving to nearby Toyosu in 2017/ 2018, so it won’t be around much longer.
Tips and How to get there:
If you’re heading early to see the tuna auction, the only transport available to you is taxi! But if you head down there later when the wholesale market opens (9 – 10am), the subway is the most convenient mode of transport. Catch the Oedo line from Shinjuku station or the Hibiya line to get to Tsukiji station which is next door to the market!
Entrance is free! But the fish market does not open everyday, so make sure to check it’s website for opening days before visiting.
Remember: Tsukiji Ichiba is first and foremost a place of business, and therefore its very important to be observant and follow the strict rules. This includes
- not obstructing the flow of traffic between stalls
- don’t stand and watch the stall owners cutting fish
- don’t enter unauthorized areas
- most importantly, don’t touch any of the seafood! (unless you’re buying it haha)
Nara, Nara Prefecture, Japan
If you’re a girl like me who always dreamed of being a Disney princess, visit the deer who follow you around like you’re Snow White at Nara Park! You can also feed them special crackers, which you buy from nearby vendors and they are very tame. Be careful though! If you take too long feeding them, they can bite your clothes and hands.
Nara Park, which is about an hours ride outside of Osaka, is a beautiful space, whose surrounding streets is full of yummy Japanese restaurants and souvenir stores. It also marks the entrance to Todaji temple, which boasts Japan’s biggest ‘daibutsu’ (Buddha). Seeing this Buddha up close was an awe-inspiring experience and the hall it resides in is full of equally beautiful Buddhist relics and pieces of history. Just walking around and learning about the temple and park, which has been around since the 1300s, was one of my favorite experiences while visiting in and around Osaka.
Tips and How to get there:
The most straightforward way to get to Nara Park is to catch the Osaka Loop Line from Osaka station to Nara station. Alternatively, to get there quicker, you can hop off the Osaka Loop Line at Tsuruhashi station and take the Kintetsu Nara line to Kintetsu- Nara station. Both are about a 20 minute walk to the park.
Remember: The Todaji temple is open from around 8am – 5:30pm, with an admission fee of 500 yen when I went. Also bring 150 yen or more to buy deer crackers. Another tip I can offer is that while you are feeding a deer, bow to it. If it likes you it might bow back!
Kyoto Fire Ramen Restaurant (Menbakaichidai)
757-2, Minamiiseyacho, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto Prefecture, 602-8153, Kyoto
In Japan, its safe to say that I had a lot of ramen – at least once everyday. My first taste of Japanese ramen was at a small two story restaurant in Shinjuku which served delicious tonkotsu (pork and chicken broth) ramen, and I’ve been in love ever since.We even waited more than an hour to slurp noodles at Michelin star ramen restaurant Nakiryu in Minamiotsuka, Tokyo (by the way, totally worth the wait!). But the greatest and my favourite ramen-eating experience was at Menbakaichidai owned by the serious-looking man above. Although in real life, he’s actually a very funny and lovely man!
In fact the menu reiterates this when it says: “The chef may look angry but he is not. He was born this way.”
A family business, this small 9 seat restaurant had only one thing on its menu and that’s fire ramen noodles! I don’t want to give too much away about the ‘fire’ aspect of the noodles (hint: by fiery they do not mean spicy which is what I thought when initially walking in haha), but if you’re really curious just search #fireramen on Instagram to see the magic at work. The best part of it all was that the restaurant was just next door to where we were staying. So if you’re heading to Kyoto and are on the hunt for some quality ramen, do not miss this place. Trust me, it’s fucking good!
Tips and How to get there:
From Kyoto station, you can catch the Karasuma line to Marutamachi station and walk 15 minutes to the restaurant. There are also buses you can take from the station as well!
Spotting Geisha in Gion
Specifically Hanami-koji, Gion, Kyoto
Geisha, arguably Japan’s most unique cultural icons are skilled female entertainers who spend many years training in the arts (shamisen, dance and tea ceremony to name a few) before becoming full fledged Geiko. In Kyoto alone, where geisha remain quite traditional, there are only 100 Maiko (apprentice geisha) and 100 geiko left. Therefore, when my sister and I walked around Gion and its neighbouring district Potonchō during the late afternoon, we doubted that we would spot any. So imagine how excited we were when we did!
Confirmed by a Japanese photographer who was taking photos nearby, these two young Maiko I photographed above (as evidenced by their colourful kimonos and half-painted red lips) are authentic! Accompanied by maybe an older lady, they popped out of an okiya as we were walking through the back streets of Gion!
As they passed us, I excitedly asked for permission to take photos of them to which the older lady said ‘hai hai’ as they continued to walk away. Luckily, because the Maiko’s okubo (the high wooden shoes) slowed them down, we were able to take lots of snaps before they disappeared around the corner!
Tips and How to get there:
Geisha can be found in other parts of Japan, but Gion district in Kyoto is by far the most popular as its considered the birthplace of traditional geisha. The part where we spotted two maiko was one of the wooden narrow streets within Hanami-koji. However they can be spotted in other parts of Higashiyama, Gion Kobu and Miyagawacho districts as well, usually in the afternoon when they go to entertain at various tea houses.
From the bus depots just outside Kyoto Station, you can catch the 205 or 206 Shijokawaramachi or Gion bus stop respectively, which is only a 5 minute walk from Hanami-koji.
Remember: Not all ladies who have white painted faces or wearing elaborate kimonos are geisha. In fact, the senior geiko daily kimonos are more subdued and they may not paint their face when in public. There are many services in Japan who offer tourists the chance to dress up as geisha for a day – as a general rule of thumb, those who don’t stop to take photos with you are more likely geisha, as they are professionals who are paid to entertain and are very busy getting from one tea house to another. More information about spotting geisha can be found here.
What would be a best experiences in Japan list without Mt. Fuji! 100- something kilometres outside of Tokyo, this mountain is the tallest in Japan and also one of its most sacred. Our tour guide, Nana, told us that every Japanese person wants to climb Mt. Fuji at least once in their lifetime – and I understand why! From a distance, Mt. Fuji indeed looks like it floats among the clouds, and its snow capped peak was very beautiful from afar, as well as up close. We were lucky on the day we went on our tour to Mt. Fuji, as the sky was mostly clear and, despite the icy snow, we were still able to visit the fifth station of Mt. Fuji!
Tips and How to get there:
Mt. Fuji is far away from Tokyo and therefore perhaps the best way to get there is by taking a tour! There are many tours available on websites like viator.com or japanican.com, but my sister and I did not book until we got to Tokyo, in case the prices of the tours offered at our hotels were better. We ended up going with jptours ‘Spectacular Mt. Fuji’ which I highly recommend as they were reasonably priced (13 000 yen, which is about $150 AUD) and very enjoyable! Our tour guide Nana, was also super friendly and very informative.
This tour not only takes you to Mt. Fuji’s fifth station (if you go on a good day!), but also the biggest of Fuji’s five lakes called Kawaguchi, a beautiful nearby village called Oshino Hakkai (which also has lots of souvenir and snack stores) and ‘Ninja village’, which is also very picturesque!
Remember: If you go at the same time we did (late December) dress warm! When we went to the fifth station, the weather was -5°C.
If you’ve managed to read all of this mammoth blog post, you might have noticed I’ve only touched on 8 of the many beautiful sites and experiences of Japan! If you want to know of more sites to visit (I went to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima) or need more inspiration, feel free to check out the itinerary for my trip here.