Before 2016, I’d never really ‘done’ Asia. Unless you count a stopover in Singapore airport back in 2004, which you probably wouldn’t. When I got the opportunity to visit Asia earlier this year, I asked friends which countries I should see, and had all sorts of recommendations, from Cambodia and Vietnam to South Korea to Indonesia. But it was the fact that several of my friends have visited Japan and all of them raved about what an amazing country it was, that made me add it to the list. (I’ve written about my trips to Hong Kong and both Bangkok and Ko Samui in Thailand if you are interested.)
I’m a reasonably seasoned traveller but I’ll admit I was worried about the language barrier before I went. While I’d heard efforts are made to have tourist signs in English, some areas could also be entirely Japanese. It turned out to be OK in the end, but I definitely struggled a little and got lost quite a few times, even with the benefits of smartphone apps.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
If you are going to Japan for more than a few days and want to visit places other than Tokyo, you must get the Japan Rail Pass – it is an exceptionally good price, giving you unlimited travel around much of the country. There are several companies offering the pass in the UK – I used this one. You MUST purchase and collect (or have it delivered) the pass before you travel – it is only available to foreign tourists and cannot be bought once you are in Japan. The purchase price gives you a voucher, which you exchange for the actual pass at a listed rail office when you arrive.
Tokyo is so huge that even if you stayed a month, you’d likely only get to see a small proportion of the city. Work out your ‘must sees’ before you go, so that you can plan your days and nights. I did not visit any cultural places in Tokyo because I knew I was visiting Kyoto where there are more temples and shrines than you can shake a stick at. But if you’re only going to Tokyo, make sure you look at some of the city’s attractions.
Narita airport is about an hour’s drive into Tokyo and I took the airport ‘Limousine‘ bus, which made drop offs in severa central areas of the city. I don’t mind admitting it took me quite a while to find the way to my hotel once I got off the bus. Tokyo is HUGE, and individual areas or districts can themselves be the size of a small town and not walkable. So the limousine bus I thought was dropping me in the area I needed still turned out to require another taxi ride to actually get me to my hotel.
But then I arrived and my goodness, I was not disappointed. A friend in Tokyo had recommended the hotel to me and as soon as I googled it, I knew it was the only place I could stay. (Hotel Gracery in Shinjuku.)
LOOK AT IT.
I am such a fan of monster movies that any hotel with a Godzilla head could take all my money. It was a good place to stay and very well connected to the trendy areas of Tokyo, with most major attractions just a few stops on the metro. After checking in, I had a wander around to find food (spoiler: there are places to eat literally every few steps and you will have a real difficulty deciding where to eat) and settled on a restaurant which had hot plates at each seat so you could grill your own Wagyu beef, washing it down with an ice cold beer or sake. Within an hour, I was already in love with the city.
The first night I headed to the famous Shibuya crossing, just to see what it was all about. If you’re not a fan of selfie sticks and also dislike people who stand in the middle of a busy crossing with their selfie stick, you’ll probably get quite annoyed here. Yet those who criticise selfies have clearly forgotten the disappointment of taking rolls of film on holiday, snapping lots of pictures and having to wait weeks to see how they turned out, only to discover you looked hideous in all the photos (or only the top of your head was visible.) And you had to PAY for the privilege of this, so I’m glad those days are gone. Anyway, I digress – here are some pictures of the crossing.
A friend recommended that I visit the Golden Gai area of Tokyo – a tiny series of winding alleyways containing over 300 very small bars (the majority have only around 5 seats for patrons.) It turned out to be very close to Hotel Gracery so I wandered through the alleys until I found a bar with a woman server who spoke both English and Japanese. Not all bars in the area are welcoming of tourists – some are definitely only for Japanese people, so it’s worth asking if you can come in and take a seat rather than assuming you can. I enjoyed my time here – the Japanese people present were keen to speak to me, even in somewhat broken English. One businessman from Osaka said it was his first time in Tokyo, which I found surprising until I remembered there are many English cities I have never visited.
The Harajuku area of Tokyo is young, fashionable and heaving with culture. The closest London place I can think of that compares is Camden. Like Camden, Harajuku has plenty of street food, and it’s a great place to grab a beer and eat freshly grilled Yakitori.
If you’re into Manga, comics and film culture, take a train to Nakano and visit the Broadway shopping centre. It is more of an indoor market with independent shops and paraphernalia to suit all tastes. As a Godzilla fan, I found hundreds of figurines and memorabilia, including an original film poster which was on sale for the bargain price of £600. Obviously I didn’t buy it – I don’t have that sort of money for a poster, lovely though it was.
I much preferred Kyoto to Tokyo. It is smaller and quieter, with enough culture to last you a lifetime. Following the advice of a friend, I made the city my home for a week and travelled by train to the places I wanted to visit. Japan has a reputation for being expensive, but I managed to get a whole Airbnb apartment to myself right next to Nishiki market for just £30 a night. The market itself is great – you can buy sushi and other food to go, Japanese pickles and all manner of other food and drink.
Kyoto rail station is an attraction in itself, resembling a space-age colony on another planet. It was also a bit of a downfall for me in that it had many beautiful shops selling jewellery, sweets, clothing and other things that I wanted to buy.
My visit to the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) happened to be on an exceptionally cold day and I had only packed one jumper for my whole trip (I’d assumed late March would be reasonably warm.) I probably didn’t get to see as much as I wanted because I was whizzing round the footpaths trying to keep warm and keeping an eye out for any potential warm spots. These were found in the market section of the attraction where people can buy gifts and also hot food and drink. It is a stunning temple well worth a visit – the surrounding trees and lake make for exceptionally good photographs. I was lucky to have a blue sky, as it had been cloudy on the way there.
The next day I visited the Fushimi Imari shrine, intending to just wander around the main entrances and foothills of the mountain. I certainly wasn’t dressed for hiking several miles uphill (I was wearing thin ballet pumps for shoes), but somehow once I got started, I continued all the way to the top and all the way back down again. My feet were fairly sore afterwards but I was able to bask in the satisfaction of having climbed a mountain that people have been climbing for centuries. The earliest structures of the shrine are over 1,000 years old.
But the best thing about this shrine is the Yotsutsuji intersection, where you can stop for views over the city and more importantly, BUY MR. WHIPPY ICE CREAM. I had never had ice cream half way up a mountain before, and somehow it tasted even better than at ground level.
I hadn’t planned it, but was lucky enough to be in Kyoto during Hanatoro, meaning ‘flower and light road.’ Many of the city’s temples and shrines put on light and flower shows and have extended opening hours into the night. I found it breathtakingly beautiful and am not ashamed to say the whole thing made me a bit tearful.
A friend recommended I try the narrow Pontocho alleyway near the river for good eating and drinking – famed for traditional tea houses and Japanese architecture. I eventually found an English-speaking restaurant and filled up on beer and ramen.
Nara is a city with a park that has very tame deer wandering about the place and this is really why you go there. At least if you’re me. Temples and shrines? You can see them all over Japan. You can buy ‘deer cookies’ cheaply and feed the residents and once they realise you have cookies, you will be playfully butted and chased until you give up your cookies.
I also started to see some early plum and cherry blossoms coming out, which was nice.
I didn’t get to spend much time in Osaka so I did two things – go and see the famed lights of Dontonburi, and take a trip up the Sky Garden to see the city from high. Both were worth it.
The view from the Sky Garden made me think of Blade Runner.
I knew I couldn’t visit Japan without visiting this city, but I wasn’t prepared for the emotion I felt at seeing the A-bomb done and memorial park. The city is thriving and yet there is a tranquility as you wander the streets. It broke me and I got through several tissues as I read signs, dedications and explanations.
As I made my way back from Kyoto to Tokyo on the bullet train (to catch my flight to Hong Kong), I hoped I would see Mount Fuji in all its glory – it had been cloudy on the way out. I wasn’t disappointed. I audibly gasped as I saw its snow capped peak towering above the countryside. It is a beautiful volcano and you can see why it has inspired artists and poets for centuries. The surrounding area has seen an increase in volcanic activity recently, and some tourist attractions and hiking trails were closed off for safety. I took the train from Tokyo to Hakone and booked a boat trip across Lake Ashi, which famously has a wonderful view of Fuji.
The night before I left Japan, I treated myself to cocktails in the Park Hyatt Tokyo, listened to some live music and chatted to fellow travellers. It was just what I needed. Sadly, the weather didn’t play ball and it was too cloudy to see much of the city. Only when the thousands of buildings start to light up did I see anything.
I could honestly add hundreds more photos to this post, but I’ve chosen the best ones. Suffice to say, Japan is a stunning country, there is so much to see and the society is unlike anything I’ve ever seen elsewhere. Imagine London if nobody was rude to you, pushed or shoved past you on the tube, was respectful of your space and everywhere was spotlessly clean so that you could literally eat your dinner off the streets. You can’t can you? But that’s Japan. I hope to go back there soon.