Experience three weeks filled with impressive cities, mesmerising temples, lush nature and fantastic food with these travel tips. Use the itinerary below to plan your trip to Japan:
Before you catch your flight to Japan it is good to consider 2 very important things, ordering a Japan RailPass for train travel, and pocket WiFi in advance. Because once you've entered Japan it ain't possible to buy a RailPass, and there can be a waiting list for pocket WiFi.
Check out my tips and tricks in my other blog post 'Japan: what you need to know before you go' to be sure you can travel affordable and comfortable by train and use Google (Maps) in the middle of the streets.
We have started our Japan trip in Tokyo where we stayed for 5 nights. This was definitely not enough to discover all area's of this amazing city, so we decided to stay 2 more nights at the end of our journey. But even after that there is still so much more to discover!
The first day we've visited Sensõ-ji Temple, one of Tokyo's most iconic sights and the capital's oldest temple. I recommend to go there at the end of the afternoon just before sunset because the temple will be beautifully lit, which makes the atmosphere even more mysterious. We have stayed there for quite a while because I couldn't get enough of the vibe and the look of all the colorfully dressed girls in kimonos!
At the end of the busy Omotesando shopping street you will find the huge Yoyogi Park with the Meiji Jingu Shintõ Shrine and the Imperial Gardens which are beautiful in June when the irises start to blossom. We have visited the gardens in September, and even without flowers it is a lush and tranquil place to be.
During our visit of the Meiji Jungu Shintõ Shrine they where restoring the main hall for the shrine's 100th anniversary in 2020, so I only took a picture of the main gate from the inside. Despite this restoration work it was still a serene and beautiful place to visit.
At the entrance of the Shrine you will see a huge collection of sake barrels which were donated by sake brewers from all over Japan. Sake is used during purification rituals like weddings for example. You will not only see these barrels here, but at many Shintõ shrines in Japan.
Food in Japan is fresh, tasty and prepared with a lot of love and care. In the area Shibuya we ate at this restaurant. As you can see everything is written in Japanese (except: 'we only accept cash' in yellow at the window) so please don't ask me how this restaurant is called, just walk into a restaurant (there are hundreds of these) and let them surprise you with their tasty dishes :)
We ordered silky tofu in spicy sauce, coriander salad, dumplings and rice with vegetables. This was actually more than enough, but it was so tasty that we decided to order more :)
Are you a coffeelover as well? Then please check out my other blog about my favorite specialty coffee shops in Japan to find out where you can have a perfect cup of coffee in this cute little coffee bar Shozo.
This coastal town with dozens of temples is easy to reach by train from Tokyo, it takes about 1 hour which makes it a perfect weekendtrip destination for many inhabitants of Tokyo, so make sure to visit Kamakura during weekdays to avoid the crowds.
We have stayed here for 2 nights and I will only highlight a couple of the temples, because we've visited too many to show them all here.
Kenchoji Temple is the oldest (1253) Zen temple in Kamakura and to our surprise the least crowded. You have to walk quite a bit to get here but it's definitely worth the effort! In the back there is a garden where you can attend Zen classes in the attached building.
Hase-dera Temple has a beautiful Japanese rock garden where the gravel is raked to represent ripples in water.
Kõtoku-in Temple with Daibutsu (Great Buddha from 1252) is with a height of
11,4 meters the second tallest bronze Buddha statue in Japan.
Tsurugaoka Hachimangu is the most important and therefore most visited Shinto shrine of Kamakura. On the temple grounds you will also find small shrines like the one depicted below where it's not that busy and more serene.
The city of food, neon lights, food, a huge castle and food...
Some area's in Osaka are completely dedicated to food like Dõtombori and Shinsekai as the most famous. Nice to know: in 1970 the sushi belt (or sushi train) was introduced for the first time in Osaka at the Osaka World Expo.
Senbei with nori, is a freshly grilled, covered in soy sauce, rice cracker with a piece of seaweed:
The very famous and traditional Dango snack, is made of sweet rice flour balls:
Walking through the Shinsekai food area was quite an overwhelming experience, all the neon lights and bright colors felt like an attack on our senses, but I have to admit, we ate a delicious meal over here!
There weren't many western tourists over here because it's a bit of a dodgy area with lots of homeless people and it has the reputation of being Osaka's most dangerous neighborhood, but we felt totally safe like everywhere in Japan.
This Shinsekai area is famous for kushikatsu, which is deep-fried meat and vegetables on a stick. We decided not to eat in one of the huge restaurants, but in a small covered street where there were tiny restaurants and a more relaxed atmosphere.
Our very tasty dinner consisted of miso soup, raw cabbage with deep-fried chicken, rice with salmon, avocado and lots of spring onion. It was so good that we ended up here twice during our 5 nights stay in Osaka :)
Ema wishing plaques are small wooden plaques where worshippers can write prayers or wishes on, which they hang close to a Shinto shrine or temple. There are many different varieties; for example with horses, foxes, flowers and even Hello Kitty (!)
But I liked these with a 'geisha' the most. Every plaque had the shape of a face and the hair printed on it, so worshippers can draw the face themselves :)
Osaka Castle is one of Osaka's most famous landmarks and a must see when you visit the city. The construction started in 1583 and after that it was destroyed
(and re-built) 3 times before the current reconstruction of 1931.
It's nice to walk through the gardens and overlook a part of the city from up here.
One of my favourite coffee bars in Osaka was Mel Coffee Roasters. Please check out my blog post (Japan: the best 'third wave' coffee bars) about coffee in Japan for more of these must visit coffee bars.
Osaka is the perfect place to stay from where you can make day trips by train to nearby cities like Kobe, Himeji, Nara and Hiroshima.
From Osaka we took the train to Kobe (20 minutes by rapid train) to spend a couple of hours with some sightseeing, but we weren't very enthusiastic about the city to be honest. So we have visited one of the main shrine's (Minatogawa) and walked to the shore to see the harbour. But if you are interested in eating the world famous Kobe (or Wagyu) beef, then this is the place to be!
Us sitting on the steps in front of the torii gate of the Minatogawa Shrine:
View over Kobe's harbor:
From Kobe we took the train further to Himeji to visit Himeji Castle in the afternoon. Himeji town itself isn't very special in our opinion, but the castle is definitely worth a visit!
We were the last visitors of that day and they immediately closed the gate behind us which gave us the feeling we had to rush a bit, but which also meant we had to share the castle only with just a handful of other people :)
Himeji is the largest castle of Japan and one of the 12 original castles which were never destroyed. When walking around those huge wooden chambers you really realize you are in the land of samurai and ninjas...
Spectacular view from the top floor of the castle at the end of the day when te sun starts to set and the light gets more dramatic.
At the end of the day we took the shinkansen back to Osaka (30 minutes by shinkansen or 1 hour by rapid train).
The rapid train took us from Osaka to Nara in 45 minutes (from Kyoto it takes less than 1 hour as well). Nara was Japan's first permanent capital and has 8 Unesco World Heritage Sites, like for example the impressive wooden Todai-ji Temple which was the largest wooden structure in the world until 1998.
The most famous inhabitants of Nara are by far the 1.200 deer who roam freely in Nara Park. Most of them are very curious and friendly :)
Some visitors buy 'cookies' made of deer food so they can feed them. But be aware, when you walk around with a bag of these cookies, they can get a little too enthusiastic!
Some 'customers' waiting in line for deer-cookies:
As not only deer get hungry we decided to walk into the old town to get lunch. We ended up walking the many narrow and winding streets of Naramachi Area with lots of traditional merchants houses and found Bolik Coffee where we had this very tasty lunch.
We all know Hiroshima from that one horrible day, August the 6th in 1945 when the first atomic bomb was dropped which wiped out 90% of the city.
Today Hiroshima is a flourishing city again and a must see when you want to learn more about the war and to honour the victims.
Ground Zero is the place situated under the exploding bomb. This building was standing at that point and it partly survived the attack while the rest around it vanished.
From here you can walk through the impressive Peace Memorial Park to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. At the time we visited the Museum they were undertaking renovations which were completed in spring 2019. So we couldn't see the full exhibition but there was still enough to see and learn about what happened here.
The story of an innocent victim:
Sadako Sasaki was 2 years old when the bomb was dropped and she survived.
At the age of 12 she got leukemia from the radiation and started folding cranes, because traditionally it was believed that if one folded 1.000 origami cranes, one's wish would come true. Unfortunately she didn't have the time to fold all 1.000 of them, and died after folding 644 cranes... But her friends and classmates completed her goal. To this day Sadako Sasaki is a symbol of the innocent victims of nuclear warfare.
In the Peace Park you see hundreds of thousands of these cranes, folded and sent by children from all around the world.
At the end of the day we were feeling a bit under the weather because of all we've seen and the stories we've heard. At this moment we are very aware of the fact that we live in peace and are able to go everywhere we like and do whatever we want to. That's so precious!
Before heading back to Osaka we wanted to eat Okonomiyaki, a savory 'pancake' with chopped vegetables, noodles and egg where Hiroshima is also famous for.
It is not very healthy because of all the sauce, but you should definitely give it a try!
From Osaka we took the shinkansen to Kyoto and the journey only took about 15 minutes! Here we stayed for 5 nights to visit as many temples and as much winding streets as possible :)
One of the most famous temples is Kinkaku-ji Temple (Golden Pavilion). It seems like it's very serene over here, but in fact there were dozens of people standing behind me when I took this picture. The surrounding gardens are really beautiful and I am very glad that I've seen it, but don't be disappointed when it's very crowded here.
In the geisha district Gion we went to Gallery Cafe and drank sake. Normally we are used to get it in small cups, but this time it was served in masu, a wooden box which was originally used to measure rice. A ceramic cup was placed inside the masu and the sake was poured until it overflowed the cup and the box, which is a sign of generosity.
When you visit Ginkaku-ji Temple (Silver Pavilion) it is nice to go there on foot via the Philosophers Path after you have visited the Nanzenji Temple (or vice versa). This is a lovely 2 km path along a small canal with many cherry trees and bridges. It is extra popular in April when the cherry trees are in full bloom. The path gets its name due to Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan's most famous philosophers, who was said to practice meditation while walking this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University.
The Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji Temple) is not covered in silver like the earlier mentioned Golden Pavilion is covered in gold:
View over Kyoto and the Silver Pavilion:
Close to the Philosophers Path you will find Omen where they serve fantastic home made udon noodles. It is an extremely popular restaurant with often waiting lines up to the sidewalk, and it was totally packed when we arrived late in the afternoon. We were lucky to get the last table and at the moment we received our food the restaurant was empty. So my advice: go there between lunch and dinner to get a table because you really should taste it! :)
The Fushimi Inari Shrine is famous for its more than 5.000 torii gates. A torii gate separates the physical world from the spiritual world.
Just before the main gate of Fushimi Inari you will find a tea house on your right hand side. Here you can escape the crowds of the shrine and drink a cup of matcha tea in a beautiful traditional wooden building with garden where we had this amazing view:
Gion is the charming area with wooden (tea) houses where maiko (geisha apprentices) and geishas work.
Pass the Baton in Gion is one of my favourite shops in Kyoto. Here they sell beautiful (made in Japan) knitwear on the left and on the right you will find a stylish cafe.
☞ 77-6 Sueyoshicho (closed)
Our dinner at Oku in the heart of the beautiful Gion area was an amazing experience and we loved every single bite of the 7 course menu!
☞ 570-119 Gionmachi Minamigawa (closed)
When you walk through the charming and steep streets (Sannenzaka area) from the Yasaka Pagoda towards the Kiyomizu Dera Temple you will encounter many of these girls who are beautifully dressed up in kimono's. But note it can be extremely busy over here during the day, so it's best to visit this area early in the morning.
Construction works were going on at the time we visited, so I only took a picture of the Shrine:
After climbing al the stairs you will get rewarded with this view over Kiyomizu Dera (which literally means 'Pure Water Temple') and the city of Kyoto.
Back to Tokyo
We've spent the last days in Tokyo walking around and eating lots... while looking back and realizing we have made a journey of a lifetime!
When evening fell it was time to wave Tokyo Tower and its amazing city goodbye.
Hopefully we'll meet again one day...
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