Turning Japanese – part 1: what we did
12 June 2016
Tokyo has always been on the top of my list as places to visit and now I’m so glad to be able to say, “I’ve been there!” – and oh my, what an amazing country Japan is too!
We (me and Baz) had such a fantastic trip exploring Japan. The weather was perfect, the people were super polite and friendly, the scenery and landscapes were stunning (especially in Kyoto), the food was AMAZING, and I just fell in love with all the places we visited. As I was preparing this recap post of my trip, it was becoming absurdly long so I have decided to break it up into two posts. This first one will cover a few of the things we did and saw in Japan – and as we like to eat our way through every city we visit, the second post will cover what we ate in Japan.
As tourists, to help us to get around all the places we visited in Tokyo (and Japan) it was worth getting a JR Pass, which offered unlimited train travel for a fixed price. The pass is pricey though, but a one week pass costs the same as a single ticket from Tokyo to Osaka so any day trips and certain subway lines (you can only use the JR pass on JR subway lines) within Tokyo during those 7 days would be free. I did loose my JR Pass within my 2nd day of using it and was gutted! (DO NOT LOOSE IT!) And I ended up buying a single ticket from Osaka to Tokyo which cost £88.00!
At first glance, the Tokyo subway system is certainly a bit mental, and Baz grasped it a lot better than me. It wasn’t always clear how to change between stations. Tip: Download the Tokyo Subway Navigation app – it’s free and works offline, but it only covers lines run by the Metro system.
What we did and saw in Japan…
What we did in: Tokyo
I’m going to try to break down what we did by neighbourhood because there is a LOT to see in all the places we went to. A useful suggestion is to use Citymapper (or google maps is another good one too) on your phone to plan the places you want to visit. Head to the ‘Go’ section, hit the ‘Get me somewhere’ tab and type in a place you want to go and hit the “search” button.
1) Greeted by Godzilla!
2) Sensōji Temple
One of the most famous (and entertained) streets was the path leading up to the Sensōji Temple, a huge Buddhist temple in the Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo.
3) Kabukichō (Red Light district)
This was exactly what I expected Tokyo to be like: loud, colourful and mental! Here’s where the ‘cool kids’ hang out. You’ll find a fantastic range of shops, 24 hour restaurants and funky bars, find Godzilla! Go to a club, or karaoke bar and absorb all the entertainment. It’s a super busy district with something for everyone. You’ll be dazzled by all the neon lights and signs at night; when the area really comes to life! So brace yourself, jump in and enjoy it all.
4) Meiji Shrine
Located in Shibuya, and one of my favourite shrines in Tokyo (and there are a lot of them!!). The famous Shinto shrine is wonderfully serene and austere, not colourful or flashy like other Asian places of worship, and was less of a tourist trap than Senso-ji, in Asakusa. The 40-foot-high (12-meter) torii gate at the entrance is stunning and you won’t want to stop staring at it. We stopped by at the cleansing station where we could dip into a communal water tank and purify our hands and mouth before offering up a prayer. The water was so cold and refreshing! You can also write wishes on little pieces of paper and tie them onto the prayer wall, or do as the locals do — toss some yen into the offering box (it’s near the enormous taiko drum), bow your head twice, clap twice, and bow once more. Very serene and touching.
5) Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
One of the most beautiful parks in tokyo and we were lucky enough to catch the very last cherry blossoms of the season still hanging in there (for their dear life!).
6) The Shibuya Crossing
It would be a shame to had come to Tokyo and not take a walk across the famous intersection outside Shibuya Station. Packed with tourists, shoppers, couples and commuters, we waited for the lights to turn red at this busy junction. The traffic comes to a complete stop and pedestrians from all different directions surge into the intersection, like ants spilling out of their nest. We also gazed from the Starbucks in the Tsutaya building on the crossing’s north side, observing this moment of organised chaos!
7) Ueno Park
This is a fairly huge park, just beside Ueno station. Featuring a shrine, several temples, a zoo and museums– don’t forget to pop by the National Museum which is nearby too. Worth your time for sure.
8) Tokyo Skytree
If the girls were good enough for Gwen, then I had to check out what all the excitement was about! Harajuku (head over to Takeshita Street), is an area lined by many trendy shops, fashion boutiques, used clothes stores, fun crepe stands and fast food outlets geared towards the fashion and trend conscious teens. A mecca for ‘kawaii’ (means cute in Japanese), and you’ll be ‘oooh-ing’ and ‘ahh-ing’ everywhere you turn.
10) Tsukiji Fish Market
We had to be up nice and early to make our way over to the Tsukiji Fish Market. It’s incredibly hectic here; and we had to do our best to not get run over by the “Turret trucks” (fish carts), avoiding getting shouted at for taking photos, and trying to eat fishy foods whilst being surrounded by dead fish. It was all pretty crazy but a great insight the world’s largest ‘working fish market’! A visit to Tsukiji Market is best combined with a fresh sushi breakfast or lunch at one of the local restaurants.
What we did and saw in: Yokohama City
What we did in: Osaka
What we did in: Kyoto
Kyoto is a spectacularly picturesque city for the richness and beauty of its temples, shrines, gardens and landscapes. I was in awwwwe with this city. We only had time for a day trip and I’d advise if you ever get the chance to come here to spend a few days exploring. We didn’t even manage to scratch the surface of Kyoto’s delightful offerings.
Here was our list of Kyoto attractions that we considered a must-sees (roughly in order of importance and appeal).
- Kinkaku-ji Temple, the famed “Golden Pavilion” one of the most iconic sights from my whole trip, rising above its reflecting pond like an apparition.
- The Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. It was my first time I had seen bamboo growing like this, and standing amid these soaring stalks of bamboo was like being in another world!
- We managed to end the evening with a visit to the Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine, the most important shrine in the entire city! After dinner downtown and we took an evening stroll on Pontocho Alley for a spot of geisha spotting too.
What we did in: Nara
Nara was within easy day trip distance of cities like Kyoto and Osaka. We got up close and personal with the semi-wild deers at Nara-koen Park, visited MORE AWESOME temples including the famous Daibutsu (Great Buddha) at Todai-ji Temple which was absolutely stunning! Kasuga-Taisha Shrine and stuffed our faces on Nara’s local street food at the markets and bought a load of Nara delicacies including kakinoha-zushi (pressed blocks of sushi rice with fish wrapped in Persimmon leaf).
What we did in: Kobe
I found Kobe as a port city full of elegance, charm and sophistication, less than an hour by train from Kyoto and Osaka which made it perfect for a day trip. We also tried Kobe beef for the first time here; just an incredible experience. We had two different cuts and you could really tell the difference in taste and texture; both were delicately subtle in flavour and practically melted in my mouth. It’s hard to accurately describe how the meat just fell apart as I started to chew.
We left Japan with very full and happy bellies (read part 2) and enough green tea ice cream and mochi in our systems to last us two months. Hope you enjoyed reading and find out things we did in Japan – certainly a country I’d love to visit again, soon!
I’d love to hear from you in the comments below if you’ve been to Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe or Nara and would like to share your thoughts and favourite places in the city.