Japan

Japan is an incredibly diverse country to visit – here you can do just about anything. With towering skyscrapers, any themed restaurant you could dream of, unapologetically loud pop culture in cities the size of countries, heavenly food, calming gardens, ancient temples, and home to the politest people in the world.   

Screenshot 2022-06-29 at 21.07.46.png

Useful Information

Currency: Japanese Yen

Capital: Tokyo

Language(s): Japanese, English spoken in tourist areas

Plug Sockets: Type A and B.

Ease of travel: 5/5

Ease of communication: 3/5

Ease of meeting others: 4/5

General costs: £££

I visited Japan for just over 2 weeks in August 2018 with my friend, Christie. Starting our journey in Tokyo, we sped south for Hiroshima and slowly worked our way back to Tokyo stopping at Kyoto, Kobe, Osaka, Nara, Hakone along the way.

Tokyo

Tokyo is big, bustling and boisterous. There’s so much to see and so much to do. The first thing that really hit me was the sheer size of the city – until you see for yourself, it’s difficult to appreciate just how enormous it is. Staying in an area that we thought to be quite central – it took 2 hours and 3 different trains to get to the central station. With the Greater Tokyo area packed with over 37 million people perhaps it’s not so surprising! There is so much to do here, I could easily have spent a month wandering around – but with only a few days, here is what we crammed in!

 

Things to do and areas to visit:

 

  1. Shinjuku

 

With soaring skyscrapers and streets lined with enticing eateries – this is business-centre Tokyo. And also home to a free (yes!) view over Tokyo. Whilst many flock to Tokyo Skytree, savvy travellers come to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building – here you can take a lift up to the 45th floor for a free panoramic view over Tokyo – with two viewing platforms, North and South – you can get a good sense of just how big this city really is.

Shinjuku Gyoen - Despite being in the centre of Japan’s busiest city, Tokyo still boasts beautiful gardens and green spaces, and Shinjuku Gyoen are a beautiful escape. With wide lawns, ponds, teahouses and an impressive greenhouse, it’s a lovely place to pass some time.

38817149_10155489166966246_5047579990145630208_n_10155489166961246.jpg
DSCF8654.JPG

Japanese Gardens

The view from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

DSCF8644.JPG

Japanese Gardens

2. Shibuya

 

Shibuya crossing was the draw to this particular area – rumoured to be the busiest crossing in the world – it’s a sight to behold and one that’s featured in a number of films and tv shows. Whilst interesting to cross, I think it’s definitely best to view from above.

 

We spent a while hunting down the best view – after a number of attempts to get to a reasonable height from nearby restaurants, hotels and shopping malls we couldn’t ind anywhere that would let us peek out of the window. we were on the verge of giving up when we noticed a sign saying ‘ free shibuya crossing viewing’. Surely not? Wouldn’t everyone be there?, we thought. Surely there must be a fee? But no, we followed the signs – up and up in an elevator, we passed out and into a large balcony with an incredible view directly over the crossing! And it was indeed completely free!

Shibuya Crossing

3. Harajuku

 

Harajuku (as in Gwen Stefani, yes) is a must-visit area of Tokyo – it’s loud, boisterous and brilliant.

 

Takeshita Street

This is THE famous street in Harajuku. With eclectic clothes shops, cafes, jewellers, make up stores and much more – it makes for an interesting walk and is the perfect place to try some new clothing styles.

 

Hedgehog Café

There is no shortage of themed-café in Tokyo, and animal cafes are rife. We chose to visit the hedgehog café here and absolutely loved it. We were able to ogle and cuddle (armed with thick gloves) the hedgehogs and learn a little about the animals too.

38812300_10155489167401246_601350246697533440_n_10155489167396246.jpg

Adorable hedgehogs

Rainbow Sweets

This has definitely become a bit of an Instagram trend, and it’s easy to see why. We followed the crowds and found a brightly coloured shop serving fluorescent sweets and giant rainbow-coloured candy floss!

 

Meiji-jingu

It’s surprisingly easy to get a break from the bustle of the area - Tokyo’s grandest Shinto shrine surrounded by beautiful gardens is just across the road from Takeshita street.

 

Kawaii Monster Café

This was ann interesting evening out, to say the least; bizarre and surreal are the two words that come to mind. To secure a ticket you have to a cover fee and order at least one drink and one meal (both of which are always multicoloured and a little bizarre) which you eat whilst facing a stage centred with a gigantic plastic cake. Every 30 minutes or so the cake would awaken and a huge dancing show starts.

DSCF8601.JPG

Rainbow candy floss!

38857308_10155489167326246_8115402020745117696_n_10155489167321246.jpg

Kawaii Monster Cafe

4. Kabukicho

 

Kabukicho is known as Tokyo’s red light district. Although a little more concealed than its Dutch cousin – you’ll still wander through streets lined with cabarets, love hotels, maid cafes and adult shops.

It makes for an interesting walk at night – but more importantly for us, is the home of the Robot Restaurant. If you want a ridiculous evening in true Tokyo style, then you need to go to this showing. It’s loud, quirky and utterly crazy.

41298622_10155547467751246_4669881919050088448_n_10155547467746246.jpg

Tokyo Robot Restaurant

5. Senso-Ji

 

Tokyo’s most frequently visited temple – featuring a huge 5 storey pagoda, giant lanterns, the incense cauldron and fortune-telling (omikuji) stalls. after wandering around the huge complex and for a mere 100yen you can see what your fortune holds, and if you get bad fortune, (like I did) no need to fear! Simply attach it to a pine tree and your bad fortune will wait around the tree instead of following you home.

DSCF8509.JPG

Senso-Ji

DSCF8514.JPG

Senso-Ji

DSCF8522_edited.png

My not-so-good fortune

6. Shopping Centres

 

Tokyo is home to some very interesting shops including many enormous anime stores, technology shops, and toy stores where you can buy more hello kitty memorbilia than you can dream of.

Once you get bored the shops, keep an eye out for stores offering the popular pastimes of ‘purikura’ and ‘cospuri’.The experience is clearly aged at females (primarily teenage girls). Males are only permitted to enter in the majority of places if they are with a female. I found this oddly refreshing. The process inside was simple – first, select your costume, then head over the dressing table to apply make up, style your hair (the one we went to had hair curlers and straighteners!) then select your photobooth. Once inside you can choose your background, your filter, add messages – if you’re not sure how to pose the machine will suggest different poses to try (hands under the chin, crossed fingers, shocked face etc.) The photos actually made great keepsakes (although the photobooths clearly add in some photoshopping effects and safe to say the pictures were not particularly realistic!) A word of warning – if you’re vertically gifted, the dresses might not cover your buttocks (not such an issue for me, let’s face it).

PHOTO-2018-08-02-09-24-51.jpg

Our photos featuring the best of the machine's pose-suggestions!

6. Food

 

It’s definitely hard to go wrong here – even the 7/11 sushi was good, although the best sushi we had was at the fish market. 

DSCF8499.JPG

So much sushi

Hiroshima

After a few days in Tokyo, we headed south to Hiroshima on the super speedy Shinkansen. Once nestled on the train, we started to look up accommodation – to our horror we discovered that almost everywhere was booked up! How could that be?! We ended up booking one night in a hostel and one night in a hotel as it was the only availability we could find. Once we arrived in Hiroshima it didn’t take long to realise why it was so busy; it was the 73rd anniversary of the bombings and a huge memorial event was underway – the city was packed!

 

1. Peace Memorial Park

Our first stop was to take a look around the famous peace park, which is a vast area featuring the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, and the Peace Memorial Museum. The park was full of outdoor galleries with displays of photographs from the bomb aftermath, personal stories and newspaper cuttings from papers around the globe. Further along the park we came across more stalls with interactive displays about how we can promote peace.

 

The Peace Memorial Museum was very educational and is a must-see.

38955284_10155491407386246_5074293217847934976_n_10155491407376246.jpg

Atomic Bomb Dome

38846461_10155491407571246_17739877084823552_n_10155491407566246.jpg

Peace Memorial

As the sun started to dip in the sky we noticed crowds forming along the Ota river, arms filled with colourful paper lanterns.

 

We followed the crowds and discovered that it is tradition to take a lantern, write a message of peace or the names of family members to remember on the outer lining; the lanterns were then lit and would be set to float down the river.

In true Japanese fashion, this was done in an incredibly organised and polite fashion with neat lines of participants patiently waiting their turn; event organisers lit the lanterns and placed them carefully in the river (and collected them all the next morning!).

38874479_10155491407656246_3445146130302631936_n_10155491407651246.jpg

Peace Lanterns

39010494_10155491407441246_8677449077551529984_n_10155491407436246.jpg

Our lanterns!

IMG_3501.HEIC

Origami cranes

In the evening we headed for some delicious Japanese food and then, of course, to karaoke (our new favourite pastime!). The next morning we headed to our next nights’ accommodation, which was a lovely hostel a little down the coast from Hiroshima in Hatsukaichi. From here we made our way to Itsukushima island.

 

2. Itsukushima (or Miyajima)

 

This small island is home to the famous floating torii gate, Itsukushima Shrine.

It is a quick (5 minute) ferry ride from the mainland across so fairly easy to access. Once on the island, it’s a short but scenic walk to get to the gate. It is definitely important to time your visit well by looking at the tide-times before you arrive. We ended up getting there slightly later than expected because we got distracted by the deer on the island. I managed to walk reasonably close to the gate – Christie, being much taller, made it closer still!

39057710_10155491408111246_955349637441519616_n_10155491408106246.jpg

 Itsukushima Shrine

3. Rabbit Island

 

There are a lot of animal islands in Japan – cat island, monkey island, sheep island to name a few. Here in Hiroshima we were very close to Okunoshima (i.e Rabbit Island). Just a 15 minute ferry from the coast is this cute little island packed with adorable hopping bunnies. They are incredibly nosy (especially if you have a packet of rabbit food in your pocket!).

38924302_10155491408441246_1798548779612241920_n_10155491408436246.jpg

Okunoshima Island

38872287_10155491408411246_4751568885600223232_n_10155491408406246.jpg

Okunoshima Island

Kyoto

Onwards to our next stop, Kyoto, where we based ourselves for the next 5 days.

Kyoto is a must-see on every Japanese itinerary, you simply have to visit! Not going would be like not seeing the Eiffel Tower whilst in Paris.

It is a lovely city and very much in contrast to Tokyo, Kyoto is quaint and calm.


There are countless temples and shrines to look around and zen gardens to relax in. The shopping in general around Kyoto is pretty good and it was here I bought one of my favourite souvenirs; I like to buy pieces of art when I travel and so had intended to do so here but had a few stumbling blocks in my way. Firstly I was travelling onwards to Australia, and so couldn’t take in anything with wood in it, and as I was essentially moving to Australia for a couple of years, there wasn’t a lot of space in my suitcase. I was delighted when I discovered the abundance of cloth-art here.

39339104_10155501845721246_8562498005905702912_n_10155501845716246.jpg

Kyoto

1. Heian Shrine


As one of the closest to our hostel, this was the first shrine we looked around. It was simply stunning.

2. Fushini Inari Shrine

Probably the most photographed shrine in Kyoto – you’ll have definitely seem images before. Fushini Inari Shinto shrine is incredible. The shrine is made up of thousands of bright orange torii gates leading up along the mountain. We went in the middle of the day (when it was the hottest) as we thought it would be less crowded. It was less crowded. It was also sweltering. Several bottles of water are essential to bring along.

PHOTO-2018-08-09-15-12-46.jpg

Okunoshima Island

3. Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

 

Another famous site is the Arashiyama bamboo forest. This huge forest is filled with soaring bamboo stalks and is the perfect place for a stroll. Beware of the tourist shops nearby though which had hugely hiked up prices!

39217461_10155501845126246_824931353475678208_n_10155501845116246.jpg

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

4. The Kimono Experience

 

Walking around Kyoto, we saw lots of people, mostly tourists, dressed up in kimonos and walking around. At first we weren’t sure whether we should do it too – would this count as cultural appropriation? We spoke to a few locals and the hostel staff and looked online and overwhelmingly the response we got was ‘As long as you’re going to a Japanese-owned company and wearing it whilst in Japan, it’s not appropriation – wearing a kimono to a costume party in Glasgow, that would be different’. And so we decided to go for it.
We asked our hostel for some recommendations and headed on our way. Similarly to purikura, males could only enter the kimono hire shop if they were accompanied by a female.


We were welcomed into the shop and asked to pick a kimono. I picked a lovely purple coloured one. We were then dressed in the kimono and obi and handed some tabi socks and zori kimono shoes. Next step was hair & make-up – our hair was styled beautifully, followed by make-up. We had the option of traditional make-up (which involved something that looked like thick white face paint) or our own day-to-day make-up. Given I had been having some issues with breakouts, I opted for the less make-up heavy option! Next we had photos taken and set off around Kyoto. It was surprisingly difficult to walk in the kimono – the shoes were very challenging at first and the tight kimono around my legs made my movements very limited. It was also incredibly warm – with several layers and 35 degree heat, it was sweaty! But, after an hour or so, we got the hang of not tripping over!

DSCF8468.JPG

My beautiful kimono

Osaka

Basing ourselves in Kyoto, we took a day trip to Osaka, Tokyo’s younger and cooler sister.

Here neon signs and brightly lit lanterns flank the stunning waterways, and gorgeous sunsets, it's a charming city. 
There’s lots to do here – by day we explored Osaka castle and the Nakanoshima rose garden. By night Dotonbori comes alive with the lively night market. Here I tried Tsukemen (i.e dipping noodles) for the first time – one taste and I was hooked.

It was also in Osaka that we discovered that not all ‘karaoke bars’ are just karaoke bars – especially if the hourly rental price seem a little steep.  If you know you know..

IMG_0638.JPG

Dotonbori

IMG_0626.JPG

Osaka Sunsets

Nara

Nara was one of the places we were particularly excited to visit – this is the home of the famous bowing deer. Yes you read that correctly; the deer in Nara park are famous for their unusual quirk – bowing to humans in order to be given food. It’s incredibly cute, and you can easily see why they have learnt this behaviour.

 

When we arrived at the station we headed to the main park – here we bought some deer rice crackers to feed them – and suddenly were surrounded by a few hungry animals. After feeding, bowing and getting poked by their antlers, we headed over to the second biggest tourist attraction here, the Todai-ji Temple which is 100% worth a visit.

DSCF8161.JPG

My deer pal

Bowing deer!

Kobe

We were keen to try some Kobe beef, and Kobe city was the obvious choice – another easy city to visit from Kyoto. Christie had been recommended a steak restaurant to try, 'Aoyama', and so we contacted them, confirmed our booking, and made our way across. The experience was incredible! It was quite a small restaurant which worked really well as we all sat around the chef’s top table as he prepared the dishes. Most of the diners were tourists, with a couple of Japanese eaters as well.

 

The preparation was all part of the performance and the chef was fantastically comical, posing for our photos along the way. He told us that he was 100% certain that he could say a sentence in each of our languages. I was sure I would throw him with when I offered up ‘Welsh’ but to my amazement he listed off 3 sentences in perfect Welsh! Particularly impressive considering my boyfriend of 5 years can only manage ‘nos da’.

DSCF8180.JPG
DSCF8191.JPG

Our delicious dinner

Precise prep work!

Our time in Kyoto had come to an end, and we headed back up to Tokyo for a few more days. It was here we opted for a day trip to the countryside.

Hakone

After a busy few days in Tokyo, the natural place to relax was in the beautiful town of Hakone. This small town is set in the most beautiful green countryside and is home to a whole host of hot springs, or onsens. We had visited an onsen earlier in our trip, and were trying to decide which one to visit – and when we found the Yunessun Spa Resort online, we decided it would be perfect.

 

This onsen had all the typical features – with lots tubs of varying temperatures nestled outside with dramatic mountainscape to gaze at. However it also had some slightly quirkier options – a green tea onsen, a sake onsen, an iced coffee onsen and a red wine bath! Looking online it looked that there also used to be a ramen onsen but this had since been removed as people had been eating the noodles (Yuk!). Whilst I have to admit, the coffee and wine baths felt a bit of a gimmick, the other baths were really enjoyable (the green tea bath smelt wonderful) and it was fun to just do something a little different.

IMG_4206_edited.jpg

Stunning Views

IMG_4112_Facetune_13-08-2018-18-36-37.HEIC

The Coffee Onsen

And then it was time to say goodbye to Japan – but definitely not forever!

Top Tips for Japan:

 

  1. Don’t underestimate how large Tokyo is, and how long it can take to get around.

  2. To travel around Japan we bought a JR pass. You have to purchase these passes before arriving in Japan, and then collect them on arrival. Here we were able to take trains all over the country on the famous Shinkansen. It is advisable to reserve a seat beforehand!












     

  3. The Japanese are on the whole incredibly polite people – we were advised by the hostel staff that it’s rude to blow your nose in public, and eating on-the-go is impolite.

  4. Bring cash! I found it quite surprising that it wasn’t as cashless as other countries. ATMS are everywhere however.

  5. Try ALL the food. And buy a bottle of colourless soda! No, I don’t mean lemonade – here you can buy colourless coca-cola, colourless fanta, even colourless coffee.



















     

  6. Enjoy the toilets – they come with about 30 different buttons – some play background noise, others spray a mist into the air, some warm up the seat, the list goes on.

  7. Don't leave without singing your heart out at karaoke - and yes there are lots of English-language song options!

PHOTO-2018-08-05-17-01-48.jpg
PHOTO-2018-08-01-17-01-58.jpg
IMG_0811.PNG