Ever since I got into watching Japanese anime and fell in love with classic movies like Tokyo Story and Rashomon, it’s been a dream to visit this island famous for its samurai, advanced tech, and delicious food!
Although I’ve always felt positive about Japanese culture (
despite its troubles), I was under the impression that people who traveled to Japan were exaggerating how amazing everything was.
I’ve watched my share of Japanese cinema and seen my share of the world and it was hard for me to imagine what Japan could be offering that would impress people from advanced countries so much. They’ve got to be behind at some stuff, right?
Well… after spending 10 incredible days in the winter of 2018, I can safely say that Japan is uniquely amazing in many ways and it does make a difference to experience it first hand.
For most visitors, Tokyo is the start and end of their trip to Japan. It offers endless options for food, nature, culture and history. Well known for its excellent public transportation, I was surprised to learn that different metro lines were operated by different agencies and many were privatized.
Insider tip #1: If you have a JR rail pass, you can use JR-operated lines for free, which cover most of the city. Tip #2: If you want to see Tokyo from above, head to Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku. It’s free to go up to the 45th floor and take in the views. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see the elusive Mt. Fuji, too!
You can experience the hustle and bustle of Tokyo in the famous Shibuya crossing reminiscent of Times Square in NYC. This is also home to the statue of “Hachiko”, a dog known for its loyalty, featured in popular culture many times including the movie with Richard Gere.
Eating seafood in the morning is strange to many cultures but it’s the norm in Japan. I was surprised at how quickly I adopted this tradition — it definitely helped that the seafood was especially tasty in winter months. Grilled fish is often served with plain rice, miso soup, various pickles and tea.
Another part of Tokyo that reminded us of NYC was Odaiba, where there is a replica of the Statue of Liberty and the L-O-V-E sign. Against the backdrop of Tokyo skyline and the Rainbow Bridge, you feel like you’re in Brooklyn!
After a few days in Tokyo, we hopped on the “Shinkansen” — the bullet trains of Japan — to make our way to the snowy north, enjoying fresh strawberries we bought from Tsukiji Market on the way.
The Japanese macaque is native to Japan, known as the “snow monkey” due to being the . On top of that, this is the only primate to live in such cold climate . only troop of macaques known to have learned to bathe in the natural hot springs
Many people travel to Nagano to observe this curious phenomenon, as did we. After getting off the train, we took an hour-long bus ride to the entrance of a park and hiked another 45 minutes under heavy snow to arrive at the springs. It was truly remarkable to watch these animals enjoy the bath… and envy them! It gets very crowded later in the day, so try to get as early as possible. This is what it’s like before 11am:
There are three great gardens of Japan and one was within our reach. Another few hours on the train and we were in Kanazawa! Although winter is not the usual time to visit these gardens, they are actually beautiful in any season. Plus, winter is time for “yukitsuri”, in which ropes are elegantly tied between trees to support the weight of the snow.
Kazanawa is also known for its well-preserved pre-modern Japanese architecture, especially the Higashi district with its many geisha houses. Throughout our travels, we noticed that many Japanese tourists rented geisha outfit while visiting such areas.
A trip to Japan is incomplete without experiencing “izakaya”, a Japanese-style tavern in which various vegetables and meat are served grilled or fried. Lotus has a cultural significance in Japan and its root is very tasty. Ginkgo nuts were a surprise to us, since its tree is infamous in Washington DC for its terrible odor.
Despite being in the middle of a mountainous region, Takayama offers a unique experience, with its traditional architecture of turf wooden houses. In winter, this region gets a lot of snowfall, presenting a very romantic experience for us to enjoy.
Takayama is where we stayed in a “ryokan”, a traditional Japanese B&B where you eat and sleep on the floor and get to enjoy the “onsen” experience. These are public baths typically fed by a hot spring, traditionally separated into men and women sections. It was a delight to be in an outdoors hot tub, snowing all around!
Kyoto, with its narrow charming streets and historic temples, is the perfect compliment to Tokyo. We followed the Philosopher’s Path from our hotel to Kiyomizu-dera and caught great views of the city at sunset.
We literally rang into the New Year at another iconic temple, Kurodani. Before midnight, we gathered around fire to warm up and take turns to ring the bell, with a backdrop of Kyoto city. Past midnight, we joined Buddhist monks’ chants to pray for a fruitful new year. What a delight!
Fushimi Inara draws millions of people over New Year for a pilgrimage through hundreds of orange torii gates, which are believed to make wishes come true.
Arashiyama is a bamboo grove on the outskirts of Kyoto. Serenity now!
Situated within the bamboo forest is Tenryu-ji Temple, where you can get a taste of the traditional vegan cuisine of Buddhist monks. As it is with most Japanese dishes, it is essential to prepare a meal with balanced flavors and colors.
We decided to take the bus for an adventure but it was surprisingly convenient to get to Kinkaku-ji (aka Golden Pavilion), originally dating back to the 14th century. The pure gold is meant to prevent negative thoughts. Serenity!
Less than an hour train ride from Kyoto is Nara, famous for its deers, beautiful public parks and many UNESCO World Heritage sites…
Nara is home to the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha, which is part of a larger temple complex from the 8th century (Todai-ji).
Hiroshima can be reached in 2 hours from Kyoto by train. The city itself does not have much to offer but it’s totally worth it just to walk through the Peace Memorial Park. The Atomic Bomb Dome in the back is one of the only remains from a city flattened by super-powerful bombs. It was very moving to watch the footage and read the commentary in the museum.
Miyojima is a small island off Hiroshima, home to the most photographed place in Japan: Itsukushima “floating” Torii Gate. Although not as magical as it appears in photos due to the crowds, it should be on your checklist if you already made it to Hiroshima. You should also try “momiji”, a sweet that originated on the island.
In addition to the floating gate, the island is also famous for its local oysters, rich in flavor especially during winter.
Zen Buddhism and Shintoism are the two main belief systems in Japan and they have influenced each other quite a bit. Contrary to other widespread religions, there is less emphasis on meditation and customs tend to vary quite a bit. In general, I was surprised to see how many temples there were and their popularity.
Osaka was a great stopover for food on our way to Kyoto. With its neon-filled pedestrian streets and industrial look, it couldn’t be more different than Kyoto!
Between Kyoto and Tokyo is Hakone, a must-see on a clear day, with its lakes and mountain views. From the train station, we took the bus to catch a cruise across Lake Ashi.
Thanks to volcanic activity, this is one of the prime areas for onsen. We reserved our spot at Hotel Green Plaza Hakone, offering a hot bath with direct views of Mt Fuji in the clear skies. What an amazing end to this amazing trip!
One of the highlights of Japan was the food. We especially enjoyed the various types of noodle soup (ramen), rich in “umami” flavors and a great way to warm up on cold evenings, usually served with “tempura” vegetables or seafood.
In Tokyo, the best places are often hole-in-the-wall type restaurants where you queue up at the door and place your order through an automated machine.