For the adventurous traveller looking for a sensory overload of tradition fused with technology; the beauty of green nature juxtaposed with ever-rising structural grey skyscrapers; where the past and the future co-exist — then look no further than the land of the rising sun –— Japan. This amazing country with its unique culture, history and futuristic insight has only been accessible to western culture for 160 years. Now its waiting for you to discover its secrets. Traveling Through Tokyo
As the capital of Japan, with a population of over 13 million people, Tokyo is a sprawling metropolis that could overwhelm even the most adventurous traveller. Despite the panoply of temples, shops and people this city has managed to find order and balance to allow everything to exist in harmony. Although hectic motion pulses through the city, chaos is absent. Everyone is relaxed, polite and happy to wait their turn, whether it is waiting at the crosswalk lights, getting on or off the metro or queueing at a restaurant. It is a contagious, peaceful and soothing energy that will take you over. If you are in doubt this harmony can exist, then visit the Shibuya crossing at Shibuya station. This iconic intersection is a modern representation of Japan, with people streaming from all directions to cross while the oncoming traffic patiently waits its turn, the visual embodiment of patience and balance. Tokyo is a large city, made up of 23 wards, so there is no one city centre. They have a fully functioning transport system with buses, metros and trains, that arrive on time and connect to every location in the city, this makes travelling a dream. One minute you can be enjoying some feline companionship in a cat café or discovering the latest technology at Akihabara, and the next you could be visiting the 12 metre tall Godzilla head at the Hotel Gracery in Shinjuku while enjoying some gyoza and sake for lunch. The key to successfully enjoying Tokyo is planning your day. While there, download the Tokyo Metro Subway Route Planner. The app will give you the fastest transport route and the route with the fewest stops. You’ll be zipping around the city with ease. Don’t forget to keep hydrated by using any of the numerous vending machines to get a cold water or hot coffee in a can. They are just fun to use. In the morning, take a visit to the bustling Tsukiji Fish Market. The tuna auctions are open to the first 120 members of the public from 3am. The market receives shipments of fish from all over the world including exotic seafood such as swordfish, sea urchin and the notoriously poisonous blowfish which are transported around the market on three wheeled turrets. There are plans to move the location of the market for the upcoming Olympics in 2020, so if you get a chance, go see it as soon as possible. While in the area, why not visit the Namiyoke Inari Shrine, throw a coin in the box, ring the bell to attract the attention of the Shinto god, Inari, bow twice, make your wish in your heart, clap your hands twice and bow again. If you’re lucky your wish may come true. Then hop on a metro and visit the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. It’s Tokyo’s oldest and most colourful temple. After entering through the Kaminarimonthunder gate, you can pick up some Japanese souvenirs at the 200 metre shopping street, Nakamise. Speaking of shopping, a must see in Tokyo is the renowned Harajuku area, where vintage fashion meets upcoming designer trends. If you want to see the Harajuku youth culture then head there on a Sunday and see Gothic Lolitas, rockabillys and every type of free spirited fashion. Just turn a corner and you will find yourself at Omotesando, known as Tokyo’s Champs-Elysees, filled with famous brands and up-scale stores along the kilometre stretch. Tokyo has too much to offer to fit into one trip but you can take in the views of the city from one of the many observations towers, including the Tokyo Skytree in Sumida Tokyo’s tallest structure, the Tokyo Tower in Shiba-koen or the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, which is free to enter. We recommend you visit at night to get the full impact of the Tokyo skyline. The city has many highlights throughout the year from the cherry blossom season in April, the sumo seasons in January, May and September or for a chance to meet the Emperor then visit on New Year’s Day. Just make sure whenever you plan to go you make time to enjoy the sometimes silly but always fun karaoke.
Kyoto was the capital of Japan until 1839, before the Emperor left to move to Tokyo without telling the people of Kyoto. While Kyoto may not have the Emperor in residence anymore, it does embody the heart and soul of traditional Japan. Kyoto is in fact the only city not bombed and destroyed in World War II, making it a must see for visitors to Japan. By hopping on a bullet train in Tokyo, travelling at 320 km/h, you will arrive in Kyoto in just under three and a half hours. One of the first things you will notice is that Kyoto, much like most Japanese cities, has its fair share of neon and concrete, but there are many traditional treasures for you to discover including Gion, home to Japan’s Geisha District. Here you can enjoy a thoroughly unique experience, book an authentic tea ceremony with a real Geisha or a trainee Maiko who will chat with you and perform a traditional dance. The buses, metros and trains of Kyoto run as smoothly as those in Tokyo but unfortunately, it is not as easy to get around the city. This is due to the city constantly finding ancient treasures, shrines and discoveries when they attempt to connect the underground metro lines. You will have to use taxis to reach many of the tourist sites so once again we recommend you plan your day carefully. Nijo Castle, home to the first shogun, is one of seventeen historic moments of ancient Kyoto. Entering at the large east gate will lead you to the Ninomaru Palace. The separate areas of the palace are connected by nightingale floors, designed to sound like chirping birds when walked on to alert the palace security to intruders. Try your best to see how far you can walk before you give yourself away. Hop into a taxi and go to the Kinkajuji Temple, home of the Golden Pavilion. This is one of the most popular sites to visit in Japan. For a bit of shopping, head to Kiyomizu-dera. At the base of the hill keep an eye out for some traditional bowls or sake sets, handmade by Kyoto artisans which would make great souvenirs or unusual gifts. At the top hill, past the beautiful red pagodas and dragon statue, you will reach Kiyomizu-dera Temple and have an amazing view of Kyoto. After all this walking around it is always good to relax and enjoy some traditional Japanese food with some sake or plum wine. There are endless choices including okonomiyaki, ramen noodles, sushi, udon soba, or some tonkatsu. Just keep practicing with those chopsticks and will be a pro by the time you visit again.
There is so much to discover in Japan, so we heartily recommend you plan as much of your trip before you go so that you make the most of your trip. Unique Japan Tours, based in Dublin can arrange all aspects of your trip including transport, hotels or tickets and help you create a unique journey of a lifetime, whether you’re a couple, a group or travelling alone. So what are you waiting for? The land of rising sun is waiting to be discovered.
The sweet toothed traveller will notice that Japan has exciting flavours of Kit Kats including sweet potato, strawberry cheesecake, sake, and melon. Some flavours are exclusive to certain areas such as rum and raisin in Tokyo and matcha tea in Kyoto. Tokyo also have an exclusive dessert called Tokyo Banana, a cake with banana filling. There are fourteen varieties to enjoy.
Everyone loves a souvenir to remind them of their travels so keep an eye out for the Eki ink stamps. First introduced in 1931, Japanese National Railways used the stamps as a campaign to encourage people to discover Japan. There are 5,000 located across tourist sites including train stations, museums and tourist centres. So make sure to invest in a small notepad and start stamping on your travels.
The JR Pass is a rail pass exclusively for overseas passengers, valid for all JR Group buses, metros, ferries, trains and bullet trains. Once you have validated your JR Pass, you can plan your travels, pre-book your seats and use all the JR Group’s mode of transport for free. Be warned that this pass will not be resupplied if it gets lost.
The Low Down
Discover the joys of tradition
If you are travelling through Japan and are looking to escape the neon and concrete of the city and experience the old traditions of Japan, then Takayama, at the heart of the Hida Mountains, should be your destination. This old town, with its narrow streets and overhanging roofs is steeped in the traditions of the Edo period and is a great for a short break from the hustle and bustle of the city. You can pack a small light bag for a couple of days and ship the rest of your large luggage by Takuhaibin, an easy to use delivery service to your next city location. To reach this old town area take a train to Matsumoto and enjoy the view of endless paddy fields and mountain ranges in the distance. At this stopover, you can visit the Matsumoto Castle, one of the few original castles in Japan. Pick up a bento box for your lunch before continuing your journey by bus through the heights of the Hida Mountains. When you reach Takayama, you will be taken over with the tranquility and peacefulness of this beautiful town with its old style tea houses, craftsmen, micro sake breweries and traditional shops. In the morning, enjoy the market on the bank of the Miyagawa river as the merchants sell local farm produce, flowers and handmade crafts. Discover the Lion Dance Ceremony Exhibition Hall, filled with traditional Japanese puppets and be awed by the beauty and size of the elaborately decorated floats housed at the Takayama Festival Floats Exhibition Hall. Be adventurous and enjoy some of the local delicacies such as shabu-shabu, sushi, imagawayaki and sashimi. The delicious tasty food will have you coming back for more. There are many shrines and temples in the town which has given Takayama its nickname of ‘Little Kyoto’. After enjoying all the treasures of Takayama, why not head back to your ryokan and relax in an onsen, a soothing traditional hot spring bath. Let all your cares and worries float away and you wonder why you’d ever want to leave such a beautiful place.