As promised in my last post, I’m finally getting around to writing about my recent trip to Japan. The memories are still fresh, and I want to get it down before everything I did starts blending together. Below you’ll find a brief itinerary from my trip and some of the best highlights (there were many).
- Friday: Arrived in Tokyo
- Saturday – Monday: Tokyo
- Monday – Thursday: Kyoto
- Thursday – Saturday: Osaka
- Saturday: Departed from Tokyo
With only about a week in Japan, I had to be selective about what I saw. Japan is a beautiful country with sprawling cities and gorgeous landscapes, and I could have easily spent a month (or a year) and never been bored.
I met a friend I’ve known since middle school who now lives in Hong Kong, and we both had an open-minded attitude toward our daily activities, which I just made sure aligned with our loose schedule.
Now, for the highlights…
Tokyo was my introduction to Japan, and it wasn’t what I was anticipating. I expected it to feel like New York, or what I’ve seen of Beijing or Shanghai: people on top of people, constantly swarming around the city. With 13 million inhabitants, how could it be otherwise?
It turns out…pretty easily. While certain parts of the city (Shibuya, Shinjuku, Akihabara) were always bustling, others were downright quiet, even on Friday and Saturday night.
The city was also immaculately clean. There was no trash anywhere—the streets looked like they’d been scrubbed inch-by-inch. And it was safe, too. I’m pretty sure if I’d dropped my wallet one night, it would have been returned to my hostel by the next morning.
There is so much to do in Tokyo, but parts of the city really light up at night. We visited Shibuya (where the famous Shibuya Crossing is located) and Shinjuku (home of Golden Gai, which was amazing), and we were never disappointed. The bars close around 5 a.m., and they are packed right up to closing. The only downside: trains stop running around midnight, and cabs are expensive.
Tsukiji Fish Market
Speaking of late nights…
One night, after a dinner of beef tongue followed by a whiskey bar, an absinthe bar, and a dance club called Jumanji, we walked to the world’s largest fish market. Though we weren’t able to see the early-morning tuna auction, we did indulge in a breakfast of the best sushi I’ve had in my life. Was it pricey? Yes. Was it worth it? Definitely.
Meiji Jingu & Yoyogi Park
Meiji Jingu is a Shinto shrine near Shibuya. It was built as a dedication to Emperor Meiji and his wife. The shrine itself was nice (once you’ve spent a couple days in Japan the dramatic effect of shrines starts to wear off), but Yoyogi Park, which surrounds the shrine, is a serene place to temporarily escape the city.
The entrances to the park are marked by massive wooden gates, which lead to long, straight paths, beneath towering trees, that culminate at the shrine. Along the path there were markets where visitors picked out mini gardens and floral arrangements. I also walked through the interior garden, which features secluded paths, ponds and Otsuri-Dai (or “Fishing Spot”) where Emporer Meiji’s wife used to spend her time.
Just because I want this to be a blog post and not a novella, I’m not going to go into detail about everything I saw at each stop. Suffice it to say there is no shortage of incredible things to do and see in Japan. Here are some of my other favorite spots in Tokyo:
- Harajuku Gyoza-ro: Little restaurant near Shibuya that specializes in dumplings. Get an order of the fried, an order of the steamed, and a beer.
- Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building: A great spot for views of the sprawling city. Go up after dark to get the full effect. Don’t worry about the line to go up—it moves quickly.
- Mandarake Complex: Part of the hyperactive Akihabara area, which is paradise if you love manga, anime, video games, etc. (I don’t, but it was definitely worth seeing.) The higher up the complex you go, the naughtier the items on sale.
- Tokyo Tower: We stopped by Tokyo Tower on the same night we ended up at Tsukiji Fish Market, and it was stunning by night. All the buildings around the tower glow orange in its light, and it was dead quiet in the area. Erie in a way, but very cool.
- World Breakfast All Day: Breakfast restaurant I stumbled upon after finding my original destination closed. They serve traditional breakfasts from around the world. On the morning I visited, the special was a traditional Thai rice porridge breakfast called “joke.”
Compared with Tokyo, Kyoto was basically a quaint resort town. After leaving Tokyo’s 13 million people, the 1.5 million in Kyoto felt sparse. Yet Kyoto was stunning like Tokyo, but in completely different ways.
Kyoto was spared the bombing of World War II, so it preserved some traditional Japanese culture better than the other major cities we visited. While it was still a modern city, parts lacked the shiny newness of Tokyo, in a very endearing way.
Philosopher’s Path is less a thing to see and more a thing to experience. What I mean is that the path itself isn’t particularly special; however, it’s a great place to walk, clear your head, take in the city and appreciate its people. Along the path there were men and women painting and drawing views along the path (I peaked over a few shoulders and literally each creation looked professionally done), children walking and talking with teachers, vendors selling homemade goods, and little restaurants full of good food. I started my first full day in Kyoto with a walk along Philosopher’s Path, and it definitely put me in the right head space for the remainder of our visit.
Kinkaku-Ji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, is a Zen Buddhist temple and one of the most popular destinations in Japan. While it buzzes with tourists, it’s still worth a visit. You can’t find anything like it in the United States.
And, with so many people visiting the site, the chances of making new friends at Kinkaku-ji are very high.
Monkey Park Iwatama
Another brand new experience from Japan: meeting monkeys in the wild. We started this day with a walk through Arashiyama Bamboo Forest before climbing the mountain to the monkeys’ hangout. The monkeys make the rules up there (one of them took a swipe at my friend’s leg), but you can purchase bits of apple to satiate them.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
Now we come to my single favorite place we visited in all of Japan. Fushimi Inari Taisha is a Shinto shrine to the god Inari. After the head shrine, visitors walk approximately two hours up a mountain and visit other shrines along the way. The entire pathway winds beneath about 10,000 orange torii gates, and it’s stunning. Tourists tended to peel off the higher up the mountain we walked; so by the time we reached the top, we were virtually alone. All I can say is that those who didn’t venture to the summit missed out.
As I mentioned, you see a lot of temples in Japan. However, the Kiyomizu-dera Temple is worthy of a visit to appreciate Japanese architecture. The pagoda features three tiers of the traditional swooped roof design, and the temple itself was built without a single nail. The steep streets leading to Kiyomizu-dera are also stuffed with fantastic little shops and restaurants.
- Nishiki Market: Shoulder-to-shoulder shopping for Japanese wares and street food. Also a great place for street photography.
- Honke Owariya: This is only in the honorable mentions because I don’t have any good photographs to accompany the description. Honke Owariya is the oldest soba noodle restaurant in Kyoto—it was established in 1465.
We talked to people in Tokyo and Kyoto who had disparaging things to say about Osaka. Here’s my theory as to why: Osaka is the third largest (and likely second most well-known) city in Japan, so it’s got rivalry with Tokyo akin to New York vs. Los Angeles in the United States. Plus, it’s a big city that is notably grimier than Tokyo, which probably earns it a few demerits in the eyes of Kyoto’s residents.
All that being said, we loved Osaka. It felt metropolitan in a way that superseded even Tokyo. The people were very business-minded, often biking home late at night still dressed in immaculate suits and dresses. Plus, the nightlife was nothing to shrug at.
We didn’t spend a great deal of time in Osaka. Our arrival day was delayed by a migraine I developed in Kyoto, and we spent the other day on a day trip to Koyasan (which I’ll highlight below), but Osaka did not deserve the bad rap it got from the other stops on our route.
A friend of a friend told us that Koyasan was a quick trip you could take during a visit to Osaka. That turned out to be…not very true. The commute to Koyasan ended up taking about four hours each way. And while Koyasan was beautiful, I can’t say I’d recommend spending that much time traveling if you’ve only got a short while in Osaka.
That being said, I did thoroughly enjoy what we saw in Koyasan. According to Japan Guide:
Mount Koya (高野山, Kōyasan) is the center of Shingon Buddhism, an important Buddhist sect which was introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi (also known as Kukai), one of Japan’s most significant religious figures. A small, secluded temple town has developed around the sect’s headquarters that Kobo Daishi built on Koyasan’s wooded mountaintop.
The area is littered with shrines and memorials of all sizes from hundreds of years ago. I imagine visiting at night elicits an almost haunting atmosphere, which I’d like to experience on an overnight stay if I ever return.
After exploring the mausoleum area, we found some pretty good hiking on the mountain, got lost, and eventually took a cable car back to the bus that began the four-hour journey to Osaka.
One week was not nearly enough time to spend in Japan. Part of the reason it took me nearly a month to write this summary is because we crammed so many experiences into that short amount of time, the prospect of typing it all out was daunting.
If I return (and believe me, I intend to go back), I hope to spend much, much more time exploring the country. There are sandy beaches and snowy mountains I didn’t get close to seeing. There are other cities I’d like to see, and I also need to get to know Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka better. But for as rushed as the trip was, I’m glad to have gotten so much out of it.
Until next time, Japan.