Temples, kimonos, paper cranes, cherry blossoms and geikos. These are the images of Japan I have carried with me since I was a little girl, helped along by Eleanor Coerran’s Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes and the various Japanese TV shows of my childhood.
A few years ago, I got to experience the Japan of my dreams first hand. And although I only had a week to spend there, it was a magical experience. I can’t wait to go back!
This is Japan through my lens.
Day 1: Sydney, Australia → Tokyo
Day 2: Tokyo
Day 3: Mt Fuji day trip – cancelled due to a typhoon so we spent the day in the hotel intead
Day 4: Tokyo → Kyoto via shinkansen (bullet train)
Day 5: Hiroshima and Miyajima day trip
Day 6: Kyoto
Day 7: Kyoto
Day 8: Kyoto →Tokyo Airport via shinkansen → Sydney, Australia.
This was a private, self-funded, tailor-made tour through Wendy Wu Tours. You can find similar itineraries here.
BEST TIME TO GO
It really depends on what you want to experience but in general, April (sakura season) and October – November are considered the best times to go. We went in October and were able to see the stunning autumnal colours. We also got to experience the joys of Typhoon Phanfone as it passed over Tokyo. Typhoon season reaches it’s peak in August and September.
Getting around Japan is relatively easy once you work out a few details. The best way to get around most cities is by using the subway system, whilst above ground trains (including the shinkansen) are the best way to travel between cities. Taxis are slower due to traffic congestion, and in Tokyo they are prohibitively expensive.
To use the subway system, you will need to buy an electronic fare card called an IC card. Suica is the most widely used card, but some areas of Japan use other brands so check beforehand. You can purchase these cards from vending machines at the station (the instructions are in English) or from the ticketing office. Simply top up with cash, tap against the electronic readers at the station before you enter and exit the station, and you’re good to go! To work out which train to take or what station to disembark at, download the free apps onto your phone – I used Tokyo Subway Navigation and Kyoto Metro Map. You just enter your origin and destination, and the app tells you which station to get off at. It even helps you exit the station on the right side of the road! Stations in Tokyo and Kyoto have English signage alongside Japanese (particularly for tourist attractions), but if you do get lost, people are very happy to help.
To travel on the shinkansen and other above ground trains, you will need a Japan Rail (JR) Pass, which you should buy in Australia before you arrive in Japan. You will also need to activate your pass at a JR office prior to using it for the first time. Shinkansen tickets need to be booked in advance.
Soon after landing, we made our way to Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Fish market. The inner market is a wet market, filled with vendors selling all sorts of seafood delights. The outer market has lots of sushi restaurants, as well as shops selling fruit and vegetables, utensils for preparing and eating seafood, and souvenirs.
Beautifully decorated trinket boxes
Fresh autumn mushrooms
Fresh fish at a stall inside the inner (or wet) market
Akagai (red clams)
Fresh maguro sushi to round out a morning wandering around the Tsukiji Fish Market
The streets around Tsukiji Fish Market are full of food stalls selling everything from ramen noodles through to these Kushiyaki (deep fried skewered meat).
Tsukiji Hongan-ji is a Jodo Buddhist temple in the Tsukiji district. This is the purification fountain outside the temple, where pilgrims wash their hands and rinse their mouth prior to entering.
Ornate temple doors
Refuelling with some delicious black sesame ice cream.
Tokyo Tower lighting up the city’s skyline
Day 2 involved a walking tour around Tokyo in the rain courtesy of Typhoon Phanfone. This is the Torii gate of Meiji-jingu, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the spirit of Emperor Meiji and his wife. Torii gates are found outside Shinto shrines, and marks the transition from the ordinary to the sacred.
Barrels of sake which have been donated to the Shrine.
Carved wooden door
Ema (votive tablets) inside the Shrine complex. Shinto worshippers write wishes and prayers on these wooden plaques, and leave them hanging up at the Shrine where they believe the Shinto spirits will receive them.
An imperial Hina doll on display at Meijii-jinu.
Just beside the Meiji-jingu shrine complex is Harajuku, the Tokyo district renown for all things quirky. Takeshita-dori (or street), is lined with shops selling cute items. Harajuku is famous for its crepes, and you’ll find several stores on Takeshita-dori.
Kiddy Land in trendy Omotesando has an entire floor dedicated to Hello Kitty. So of course, I had to see it 🙂
Our next stop was Shibuya station, one of the busiest stations in Tokyo.
A gloomy day in Shibuya
Shibuya crossing, the world’s busiest intersection.
After several hours walking in the rain, it was time for lunch in Kabukicho, the entertainment and red light district. We headed to Tsurutontan for a bowl of steaming hot Udon noodles with seasonal mushrooms. Easily the best Udon noodles I’ve ever had.
After lunch, we headed to Asakusa. This is the outer gate of Senso-ji, a Buddhist temple.
Senso-ji’s great red lantern was drawn up in preparation for Typhoon Phanfone.
The streets around Senso-ji are filled with shops selling incence sticks, delicious snacks and traditional masks like these.
Winding down after a hard day’s sightseeing with some tea and daifuku that I purchased from a stall outside Senso-ji. Daifuku are glutinous rice balls filled with sweetened red bean paste.
Starting Day 3 with a raditional Japanese breakfast of miso broth and rice with salted fish and pickled plum
Typhone Phanfone has arrived in Tokyo. It’s cold and the rain is pouring down. Our day trip to Mt Fuji was cancelled due to concerns about landslides so we spent the day at the hotel.
The sun makes a brief appearance.
One of the perks of hotel confinement was discovering the wonderful range of Haagen-Dazs flavours in the lobby convenience store. The pumpkin was pretty good, as was the sweet potato flavour.
Day 4, and it’s time to board our first shinkansen to Kyoto.
Enjoying a delicious sushi dinner in Kyoto.
Day 5. We took a shinkansen from Kyoto to Hiroshima. Hiroshima sits on the Ōta River.
A haunting visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which documents the horrific atomic bombing of the city during World War II and the aftermath. There are lots of artifacts on display but for me personally, this painting summed up the destruction and devastation very well. Overall, it was a deeply moving experience to visit this place, and I would highly recommend it.
Hiroshima Peace Park, a memorial built in an open field created by the atomic bomb explosion.
Autumn in Hiroshima.
The A Bomb dome. This is all that remains of one of the buildings closest to the hypocentre of the blast.
Paper cranes for Sadako. The Children’s Peace Monument has a statue of Sadako Sasaki, the little girl who died of leukaemia following radiation. Thousands of paper cranes folded by children all over the world hang outside this monument. In Japanese folklore, folding a thousand paper cranes leads to the granting of your wishes. Sadako’s wish was for a world without nuclear weapons and although her classmates helped her, she fell just short of a thousand cranes.
We then took a ferry to Miyajima. Before setting off to explore the island, it was time for some Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki.
Okonomiyaki loading…please wait!
The finished Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, topped with bonito flakes.
Deer roaming the streets outside Itsukushima shrine.
Floating otorii gate outside Itsukushima shrine. When the tide comes in, the gate looks as though it is floating on the water.
We were lucky enough to observe a traditional Shinto wedding ceremony.
The brilliant vermillion facade of Goju-no-to pagoda, inside the Itsukushima Shrine complex.
A sweet treat to enjoy on the shinkansen back to Kyoto. Miyajima momiji manju (maple leaf-shaped waffle cakes) are a Miyajima speciality and available from the little shops just outside the Itsukushima Shrine.
After arriving at Kyoto Station, we decided to check out Ramen Street. Kyoto Station is packed with eateries (floors and floors of), as well as a hotel and a cinema. Ramen street is filled with ramen noodle shops. At most places, you place your order and pay at a vending machine. You get a token which you hand in when your food is ready. This spicy pork ramen was divine – I haven’t found anything that comes even close back home. Definitely heading back here on my next trip!
Day 6 begins with a Kyoto city tour. Our first stop was Nijo Castle, which was home to the Tokugawa shogun.
Karamon gate leading to the Ninomaru Palace of Nijo Castle. Karamon gates are often seen outside castles and are considered a symbol of authority.
Ninomaru Palace, which housed the reception chambers and living quarters of the shogun. The walls of each room are richly decorated with gold leaf and wooden carvings (photography is not allowed inside the building). To protect the occupants from surprise attacks, the palace has “nightingale floors”, wooden floorboards designed to squeak like birds whenever someone walked on them.
The ornamental gardens of Ninomaru Palace
Cherry tree grove
Autumn colours over the inner moat of Nijo Castle
Wandering amongst the towering bamboo trees. So peaceful!
We then headed over to Arashiyama to stroll through this magnificent bamboo grove.
Lunch in Arahiyama – chicken yakitori, goma dango (fried glutinous rice flour balls) and takoyaki.
After lunch, we made our way to Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavillion), a Zen Buddhist temple.
Japanese maple leaves
Girls dressed in kimonos visiting Kinkaku-ji
Kiyomizu-dera is an independent Buddhist temple in the hills of eastern Kyoto. The path leading up to the temple is lined with shops selling all sorts of goodies (sadly, they don’t permit photography). From the top of the temple, you can get beautiful views over Kyoto.
Ema outside Kiyomizu-dera
The views of Kyoto from Kiyomizu-dera.
Next it was time to take a very meditative and peaceful walk on the Philosopher’s Path. This pathway runs from Ginkaku-ji to Nanzen-ji, and passes by several other shrines and temples. It follows a canal lined with cherry blossom trees, and during sakura season, the fallen pink blossoms fill the canal. Even in autumn, it was stunning and a great place for meditation (hence it’s name). Easily one of my favourite places in Kyoto!
Wooden kokeshi doll sits on the steps outside a tea house on the Philosopher’s Path.
Our final stop for the day was a traditional tea house, where we got to participate in a Japanese tea ceremony. The host follows a series of finely choreographed movements to prepare and serve Matcha (Japanese green tea) to their guests. There are different ceremonies for summer and winter, and tea utensils have to be placed in certain positions on the tatami mat. The host performs each movement mindfully, and the whole experience is akin to meditative practice. Japanese sweets are served with the tea to balance the strong matcha flavour. These ceremonies are a true art form, and often incorporate other arts like preparing a traditional meal to serve to guests (called Kaiseki) and flower arrangement. It can take up to 10 years to become a proficient host.
Finishing the day with some fresh gyoza
On day 7 I caught a local train to visit the famous Fushimi Inari-Taisha, a Shinto shrine. Inari is the Shinto spirit of foxes, (amongst other things) and you’ll find several statues of foxes in the temple grounds. The shops around the temple sell an ancient form of a fortune cookie.
Water purification fountain outside the entrance to the shrine.
Brilliant vermillion coloured doors
Ceiling details of one of the outer buildings
O-mikuji are fortunes written on strips of paper, which you can purchase at Shinto shrines like Fushimi Inari-Taisha. Kyou o-mikuji (bad paper fortunes) are tied to metal wires on the temple grounds.
Ema (votive tablets) outside the shrine
The inner shrine is located on the mountain behind the main shrine. The path into the mountain is lined by thousands of vermillion torii gates.
Then it was back to old Kyoto to visit Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavillion), a Zen Buddhist temple.
Ginshadan (sand garden) and kogetsudai (sand formation symbolising Mt Fuji).
The Japanese garden of Gingaku-ji is world renown.
Moss covered log
Bento lunch box – simple, but seriously delicious
Kokeshi dolls are traditional dolls made from wood which lack arms and legs.
I made my way to Gion, a timeless district where the appearances and customs of ancient Japan have been preserved. This is Shimbashi-dori, a beautiful tree lined street that marks then northern border of the Gion district.
A bride in traditional kimono poses for photos.
Autumn in Gion
As the afternoon progressed, I made my way to Hanamikoji-dori in the hope of catching a glimpse of a maiko or geiko. This street is said to be the best place in Kyoto to see these elusive women as it is lined with with tea houses or ochaya (where geiko and maiko entertain clients), and there is a large geisha house (okiya) on the corner of Hanamikoji-dori and Shijo-dori. After 2 hours pacing up and down this street alone, it was amazing to see not one, but 8 of them going to their evening appointments. Total fangirl moment! The evenings are the best time to see maiko and geiko.
© 2017 Sunshine and Gelato