I’ve been to Venice, Italy a few times, always landing,…
Of course I’ve always wanted to go to Japan, but it was never at the top of my list. When I finally found myself in this beautiful country, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been there sooner. Japan is incredibly breathtaking and the Japanese people couldn’t have been more nice and helpful to show two Americans around their country for a couple weeks.
I was lucky enough to travel with one of my best childhood friends, Taylor, and in just 12 days, we were able to give ourselves quite the tour and immersion into the Japanese culture. We were able to see many parts of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Yamanouchi, and I can definitely say I will be back in Japan again one day to see more of the country.
We began and ended our trip in Tokyo, one crazy city. It is extremely large and has so many different areas that each have their own character. As we took public transportation everywhere (mainly trains through our Japan Rail Pass we purchased), we were amazed at just how spread out everything was in Tokyo. Although there was quite the learning curve figuring out which rail lines to take to go everywhere we wanted, we caught on pretty quickly and soon found ourselves zipping from one area to the next. Along the way touring all over Tokyo, we tried nearly every type of Japanese cuisine: sushi, ramen, soba, sukiyaki, tempura, udon, and okonomiyaki. Every meal we had was delicious and there was almost always an English menu available. We were also given traditional Japanese tea at every meal.
We had about seven days in Tokyo and did our best to see and do as much as we could in that time. From the temples of Sosoji, Zozoji, and the Imperial Palace to the streets of Ameyoko, Kawagoe, Akihabara, Tsukishima, Ginza, Shibuya, and Shinjuku, you can always find yourself in a different area than the last.
I was surprised just how removed you feel from the bustling city full of crowded crosswalks and train stations when walking around each temples’ grounds. They really provide the perfect atmosphere to observe (and practice if you’d like) the Japanese rituals involved when visiting temples. We thought that Zozoji Temple and the surrounding area, including Tokyo Tower, had a really cool vibe full of street performers, gardens, and hidden corners to explore. We also took a rickshaw, with an English-speaking guide, around the streets of Sensoji Temple which was really fun. Our female rickshaw runner was very strong and also showed us some cool places and views off the beaten path.
And of course we made it to the wild Shibuya crossing, gaming and anime center in Akihabara, high-end fashion and shopping district of Ginza, and more quiet streets of Kawagoe and Tsukishima. Although each very different, these streets are all filled with small but fantastic local restaurants and shops.
I can definitely see why Tokyo is so loved; rich with traditional and modern Japanese culture.
We then made our way to Kyoto on the Shinkansen (bullet train), with a great view of Mt. Fuji on the way. The bullet train goes about 160 miles per hour and is a very smooth ride. It took about 2.5 hours to get there and as soon as arriving, you could already tell this was no Tokyo. Kyoto is famous for its temples so you can imagine that it has a more rural feel to it. It does have its city-like parts, but the city of Kyoto is mainly tucked in between lush, forested, rolling hills.
We visited several temples and shrines that were recommended to us over our few days in Kyoto. The Fushimi Inari shrine was actually a 5 minute walk away from where we were staying so we ended up going there twice, once at night and once during the day. It turns out it’s much less crowded at night, so we enjoyed our visit much more and were able to take better pictures at that time. We also made our way to Kinkakuji (the Golden Palace), Ryoanji Temple, Tenryuji Temple, Kiyomizu Dera, and Arashiyama (the bamboo forest). Ryoanji Temple is known for its rock garden and the fact that you cannot see all 13 rocks in the garden at one time. I didn’t know what to expect beforehand but I quickly realized that although the temples were beautiful, it wasn’t just about the temples. Each temple requires a small admission fee that gives you access to the grounds associated with each temple as well. We really enjoyed walking through the gardens, streams, and lakes taking in as much serenity and beauty as possible, especially at the Tenryuji Temple.
One night we had one of the best meals I’ve ever had. Kyoto is famous for its Wagyu beef so we definitely had to see what all the rave was about. We ate at Hiro Kiyamachi where you actually cook your beef yourself right at your table. We ordered about six different cuts of beef and some vegetables and took our time grilling each marbled, seasoned type of beef. And I can honestly say that the Wagyu beef we ordered that night was the most tender, well-seasoned, and delicious beef I’ve ever had. We had a great experience there, and I highly recommend it!
We then took the bullet train to Nagano so we could visit the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, outside Yamanouchi. The bullet train took about 3.5 hours to get to Nagano and then there was one additional express train we had to take to get all the way up into the mountains. Yamanouchi is a very small, quaint, and extremely traditional Japanese village that has about 25 small inns to stay at (along with one or two hotels on the outskirts). The inn we stayed at gave us access to nine local onsens (natural indoor/outdoor hot springs), each with their own healing purpose. These onsens are a big part of the Japanese culture and most locals make their way to an onsen multiple times per week. It was a really cool experience to check out a few of the onsens the town had to offer (they can also be found almost anywhere outside of Tokyo and in Kyoto as well).
The next morning, just as the sun was making its way through the trees and above the snowy mountains, we went to the monkey park. From the entrance, you have to walk a relatively flat trail about a mile through the trees to where the monkeys are. The walk, in and of itself, was very nice as it snowed the night before, which made for some great views and lighting through the trees.Once we made it to the mountain and onsen where the monkeys are, we had to watch where we stepped as there were hundreds of little snow monkeys running all over the place. They walk, run, and hop around through the tourists, inches away from you. They’ll eat, climb, scratch each other’s backs, and enjoy their local onsen. Each had its own personality and they really just continued on with their morning as if we weren’t there. It seems as if they are very used to human contact. All in all, the monkey park was super fun and a definite highlight of the trip.
We made our way back to Tokyo for a couple days and hit any of the last minute places we wanted to visit or shop at before heading back to the states. This time in Tokyo we felt like locals, as we knew we were going to take the Seibu Ikebukuro Line and get off at Ikebukuro where we would then take the JR Yamanote Line and take to where we were trying to go.
Our trip to Japan was incredibly memorable and we really enjoyed diving into the Japanese culture and experience.