Japan - Travel Diary
Japan is somewhere that was always been intriguing to me but all reports about how expensive it is pushed it pretty far down my list of places to go next. I was pleasantly surprised to find how affordable it actually was. And with many stones left unturned, I will definitely be heading back there!
We have arrived. Narita Airport is easy to navigate. Through immigration, pick up luggage, find the right train. The ticketing agent got us sorted and pointed us in the right direction for our train. Easy.
The first train station we negotiated was Shinjuku Station, one of the busiest in the city. Although there were many more people than I am used to it didn’t feel overwhelming. Everyone gets to where they are going without getting in anyone’s way, no one gets bumped and it all just works. For the big stations the best tip I have is to work out which exit you need to get to from within the station as it can be very complicated to get around the outside of the station on street level.
The streets are so lively and bright, it was energizing after the long flight. We found our hotel and were greeted very warmly in fluent English. Dinner and a few drinks at a nearby eatery cost $17 each.
First destination - Meiji Shrine. A peaceful walk along the path leading to the main shrine building, cocooned by the tall trees, the skyscrapers f the city felt so far away. After wandering around the courtyard, we returned down the same path (the gardens happened to be closed off while we were there) towards the Harajuku area. The infamous Takeshita-dori (Takeshita Street) is a narrow pedestrian alleyway lined with fashion boutiques and crepe cafes. Didn’t see any Harajuku girls but there were many teens in their Sailor Moon style school uniforms. In stark comparison after turning onto Omotesando, a spacious street lined with trees and full of all the top designer fashion stores.
On to Asakusa walking down Nakamise Dori lined with traditional-style stalls full of fans, chopsticks, local snacks and sweets, samurai swords – perfect for getting all your souvenir shopping done. At the end stands Sensoji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple. The huge crowd there is a mix of tourists snapping photos and people performing their traditional religious rituals. Afterwards we bought a boxed lunch and treats ($6-8 per person) from a convenience store and reenergized ourselves on the edge of the Sumida River looking over to the Tokyo Skytree tower. Convenience store food is amazing!
Shibuya Crossing is the most photographed intersection and appears in so many movies, of course I have to experience it. Apparently 1 million people cross it every day! With a ring of tourists around the outside capturing the chaos on their phones, we jumped right in with all the people, prams, and cyclists as we explored the Shibuya area. I even managed to bypass the line of people waiting for their photo and got a shot of the statue of Hachiko, a loyal dog who met his owner at the train station every day, even after his owner had passed away.
Back in Shinjuku on the hunt for dinner. We strolled through the streets of Golden Gai, checking all the tiny bars crammed in next to each other, such a great atmosphere. We ended up with wagyu beef and assorted skewers – Yum!
So, we ended up on the subway during rush hour, which every travel guide tells you to avoid these times. Everyone is so polite and respectful, even though you are all standing shoulder to shoulder you just gentle shuffle you way towards the door when it’s your stop. Most of the trains have announcements of the stops in English and the key thing is quiet – phones on silent and no loud talking. We also used Suica cards which are re-loadable payment cards (like the Oyster card in London) for public transportation which we had purchased before leaving New Zealand. Just tap on and tap off. It was much faster than buying individual tickets for each ride and trying to work out the cost and it can also be used to pay at convenience stores, vending machines (which are everywhere!) and even some chain restaurants.
The East Gardens of the Imperial Palace is probably my favourite place in Tokyo. We spent a long time there wandering along the paths, admiring the trees and stone walls and lazing about in the sun. I’m a sucker for a good Japanese garden and the Ninomaru Garden is lovely.
Next, we headed for Ginza. On weekend afternoons the central street of Chuo Dori in the Ginza area is closed to traffic and it fills with people. Tables with umbrellas down the middle and street performers line the sides; it feels like quite an event. Upmarket retailers, department stores, restaurants and art galleries.
Today we farewell Tokyo and head to Kyoto, but we are visiting Hakone on the way. We catch our first Shinkansen (bullet train) to Odawara where we store our luggage in the coin lockers at the station for the day, buy a Hakone Free Pass which allows unlimited travel on the transport services in the area and head out onto the sightseeing loop in the reverse direction in hopes there will be less people this way – I am not sure that plan worked!
First stop is the quaint village of Hakone-machi which is home to the military checkpoint of the Tokaido highway linking Tokyo and Kyoto. A walk through the ancient cedar grove leads to Motohakone and beyond that Hakone Shrine hidden amongst the trees and its huge torii gate sitting in the water on the edge of Lake Ashi. The whole Hakone area is supposed to give amazing views of Mt Fuji, but the day we visited there was low mist hanging about – equally stunning, I think.
There is a fantastic bakery (very busy) nearby the ship terminal in Motohakone, we grabbed lunch there to enjoy onboard the pirate ship cruise across the lake. After disembarking the ship at the opposite end of the lake, we board a ropeway that takes us up into the clouds and to the geothermal area of Owakudani. Walking trails explore the area and you can purchase hard boiled eggs cooked in the naturally hot water with shells blackened by the sulphur to prolong your life by seven years!
Back onto the ropeway that takes us down and transfer onto a cable car for the final descent towards Gora. There is a large number of hot spring resorts in this area, ideal for an overnight stay. We continued onwards onto a mountain train that takes us back to the beginning of the loop over bridges, through tunnels, down switchbacks and passing tiny stations on the way.
Back at Odawara, we retrieved our luggage (what a great system) bought our next Shinkansen ticket, boarded our train and flew towards Kyoto at 270km/h. It doesn’t feel fast onboard, but if you’re standing at a station when one passes through, it’s pretty extraordinary!
We headed to Fushimi Inari Shrine by train first thing in the morning and were blown away by the masses of torii gates as we wound our way up the forested mountain side. The shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice and each torii gate is donated by individuals or businesses for luck or a wish. There are dozens of fox statues all throughout the area holding keys to the granaries in their mouths. It’s definitely a bit of a climb and with the heat of the day creeping up there were a few moments I wanted to quit but It’s such a lovely place I’m glad I didn’t.
Then back on the train to Nara, which is famous for the tame deer that roam freely around Nara Park and the town. Very cute when they are waiting at the traffic lights to use the pedestrian crossing. Not so cute when they chew a hole in your map! As we walked towards Todaiji temple we saw the deer approaching people and bowing to them in return for crackers. We ate our lunch in the park, always on the lookout in case some might steal our food! We headed back towards the train station through the grounds of Kofukuji Temple and its five-story pagoda and caught the train back to Kyoto.
We purchased a one-day bus ticket for 600 yen (about $8) which allowed unlimited rides on the bus network as the tourist destinations aren’t well serviced by trains. Our first stop was Nijo Castle and then on to Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion. The gold leaf covered structure is really a sight to see looking across the pond to it. There was huge number of people there but it’s easy to see why it’s so popular. After a stroll through the garden we headed to Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion, although it’s not silver). Inside the temple grounds its much quieter with much less people, this is my favourite temple or shrine of the trip. Following the path past the sand garden then on through the moss garden as you wind your way up the hill and back down giving great views over the temple grounds and the city beyond. Our final stop leads us to Kiyomizu-dera, a huge wooden structure built with no nails, and built out from the hillside offers impressive views over the city, especially with the surrounding trees starting to show their autumn colours. Leading up to the temple gate we walk through a shopping street packed with people and a huge variety of vendors. There are many different shrines and structures to explore around this area. I had wanted to go on the Sagano Scenic Railway but when I checked the tickets online they had sold out for the rest of the day, so next time I will plan to do this first thing in the morning.
With our bags packed we depart Kyoto bound for Osaka for the day before we fly home. We leave our luggage at Tennoji Station then head off to Osaka Castle to explore the castle grounds. Tokyo and Kyoto streets were so clean there weren’t even leaves on the ground however Osaka doesn’t appear to be as nicely manicured. We spend the remainder of the afternoon wandering around a large mall near to Tennoji Station, finishing off our shopping and perusing the stores. And finally, we catch the Haruka Express train to Kansai Airport. Looking forward to flight to rest my weary feet!
Our transport costs for the week was about $400 each. I could have paid much less by taking slower trains or transferring lines but I prefer to pay a bit more to maximise my time. The train from Tokyo to Kyoto took up a big portion of this.
We spent about $370 each on food, drinks, shopping, entry fees, etc. Our accommodation costs were about $200 per night at 3-star hotels.