My first trip in what feels like a lifetime. Japan, what a place, what a ride!
Coming from 30 degree days in Sydney to 10 degree days in Japan was a shock to the system, but one I would relish over the next 14 days.
I had no plans and had only booked the first two nights accommodation in Osaka and then it was Google, discussions and decisions as to where the train would take me.
When booking online you really don’t know what you are getting. I had read other bloggers notes and trip advisor and various other sites to get a feel for Japan. Most of these people thought Japan was expensive and the hotel accommodation was going to be a killer. I was pleasantly surprised.
I had envisioned myself sleeping in capsule hotels every night to save money. And when you suffer from claustrophobia like I do this was my worst nightmare. On the contrary, the accommodation was amazing! I even had 4 nights in a Ryokan. I stuck well within my budget and found it large, comfortable and extremely clean. Let’s just say Google was my best friend and every place I chose to stay was truly memorable.
Enough of the accommodation!
I travelled Osaka – Kyoto – Takayama – Yudanaka – Tokyo
One of the places I thought I would never miss was Mt Fuji but time didn’t permit it and the weather was overcast. I had already seen so many amazing sights by the time I arrived in Tokyo I was not at all worried about missing it. On my flight from Osaka we were fortunate enough to fly beside Mt Fuji and the majestic, familiar sight was protruding grandly through the clouds and I felt like it had just made my holiday. Had I been on the ground I would never have seen the peak.
I loved everything about Japan. The atmosphere, people, places, transport, tranquility, safety and experience made this a place I know I will return to another time. I didn’t have enough time to see the whole of the Islands and chose places that were accessible and I could achieve in the 14 days I had. I have been telling everybody they really must visit.
Highlights of Osaka
Osaka Castle was magical. The place was fairly quiet and the tourists appeared to be Japanese only. Walked the gardens and paid to go inside the Castle. Well worth the price. The gardens of the Castle offered the intrepid traveller a place to sit and dwell. Whilst bird watchers photographed the flocks of birds flying in unison around the turrets of the castle others just sat in what appeared to be a meditative state surrounded by the gardens beauty and the castles majesty.
After visiting the castle it was a wander up the streets – the temples tempting the soul to investigate their depths. In the evening it was into Osaka to experience the lights, people and develop a sense of the Japanese culture.
As it was Christmas I headed to Kita-Ku Osaka – one of the 24 wards of Osaka and the cities commercial centre. This was a winter wonderland. Everywhere I looked I could see the lights sparkling. I was told that Japan didn’t really celebrate the western tradition of Christmas – how wrong were they.
Maybe it was the time of year and the fact that I love, love, love Christmas but Osaka has now become one of my favourite cities of the world. Big call, I know but it was clean, exciting, different, easily accessible and offered so much.
Top 4 highlights of Kyoto
Nestled amongst the foothills of Kyoto and based at the end or beginning of the Philosophers walk is Ginkaku-Ji (officially named Jisho-ji; unofficially named the silver pavilion). Peeking out of the branches of the Japanese maples, I caught glimpses as I walked through the gardens of the majestic silver pavilion. It didn’t let me down. I felt at peace in the tranquility and beauty of the surrounding gardens and the pavilion standing tall, as if at attention.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
Walking around the foothills of Inari the orange torii gates beckoned me. I was soon enveloped in the Fushimi Inari Taisha, the head shrine of Inari. With its 5000 vibrant orange torii gates, it did not fail. One after the other, the vibrant orange tori gates captured the essence of tranquility. Walking through the 5000 gates gave me a sense of peace, awe and wonder at the people who decided to create such a grand statement.
I was so excited to be visiting the bamboo forest and thought this was going to be the highlight. It was definitely the pinnacle of the journey but once I hopped off the bus and began the walk there were many defining moments. Walking beside the river watching the small tourist boats was a reflective moment as I remembered other times I had done similar. The surrounding mountains were just losing their autumn colours but still gave a sense of the different colours that autumn beholds. I didn’t get to see any monkeys but this was not a concern. The views as I climbed higher gave me a sense of how immense they were and how small I was in the scheme of things. I got to see a couple who had just said ‘I do’, dressed in all their traditional regalia. Finally arriving at the bamboo forest! Guarding the path on either side and straining their way towards the sun, the bamboo forest was as beautiful as I had envisioned.
Aptly named, the golden pavilion. It’s top two tiers are completely covered in gold leaf and the sight of it makes you take a breath. After you pay your entry fee the first thing you see is the golden pavilion reflected perfectly in the pond surrounding its base. The only thing you have to battle at this point are the tourists. Everybody wants photos and no wonder. The path winds past the head priest’s former living quarters, gardens and a place to toss a coin (I presume this is for luck) finally ending in the tea gardens that display their autumn colours sovereignly.
Nara – Noboriojicho (Deer Park)
Nearly 1200 deer roam freely around Nara. They have been declared a national treasure (I’m not so sure if I lived there whether I would think they were a treasure) however, I don’t and I loved them. After seeing my first deer I also spotted a cart selling deer food, which I purchased. Once the deer smelt the food they wouldn’t leave me alone and were bunting me for food. I saw one woman just give the deer stalking her all her food in fear. It was such a surreal experience wandering with deer, crossing the road with deer and watching them chase down the tourists. It was such an experience and I would highly recommend the adventure.
Highlights of Takayama
Whilst travelling to Japan, I was determined to get away from the new Japan and venture back to traditional Japan – Takayama was the place. Takayama was definitely not just traditional but somehow you felt like you were in the old world. Some parts of Takayama date back to the Edo Period, where the wooden merchant’s houses line the streets. As you walk up and down the streets the shops and houses are right beside you – there’s no footpath. There is however, water trickling between the road and the shop fronts, like a moat protecting the inhabitants. There were a lot of tourists walking these streets and I found it difficult to take a photo of one of the streets without someone in it. However, my patience paid off. Well worth the visit and definitely worth staying into the night and checking out the lights.
Highlights of Yudanaka
Upon arrival in Yudanaka I rang the hotel and Heday-San (the owner of Bozanso) drove down and picked me up. On the way up the hill to the hotel he pointed out all the restaurants and told me he would drive me to the Snow Monkey Park the next morning. The Bozanso was in the perfect location and the rooms were extremely large.
The Snow Monkey Park was fantastic! I hired snow boots as it was snowing and there was mud everywhere (well worth the 800 yen). The walk from the entrance is about 1km and the views are stunning. The snow was falling and the green of the leaves was pushing through the snow giving it a winter wonderland appeal. When I saw the first monkey I couldn’t believe it! I honestly wondered whether I would be lucky enough to see any. (The snow monkeys live most of the year in the mountains and venture down when it is snowing. I was there for the first snow). The monkeys were amazing! They have red faces that appear to glow when sitting in the hot springs. Unlike humans, the snow monkeys retain the heat from the hot springs. There were a lot of them and they run right beside you. They have adapted well to humans and are not afraid.
Highlights of Tokyo
What can I say: Tokyo was all that it was cracked up to be. Shopping, shopping and more shopping. The Tsukiji Fish Markets and the auction was going to be the highlight for me. I booked a taxi for 2.30 in the morning and arrived at the fish markets just before 3. I was so excited and the markets were already buzzing with workers when I arrived. I hadn’t realized that the auction was closed for the month of December. I was so disappointed as I walked back to the hotel. Yes, I walked about an hour and a half to my hotel because the taxi ride was not in my budget. I had checked online the previous day and there had been no mention of the auction being closed and even the concierge at the hotel apologized as he had also looked. I went back to the markets later in the morning, as it is only open to the public for one hour each day.
If money is no object then shopping in Chuo-Ginza is well worth it. From Luis Vuitton to Bulgari to Tiffany & Co they were there. Another shop well worth a look at was the Wako window, showcasing when I was there polar bears and penguins.
The Imperial Palace in Chiyoda City was another must see. Not only does is it have a palace it also houses one of the most photographed double bridges and didn’t disappoint.
Senso-Ji, (yes another temple) completed in 645 is Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple. If you have the time the presence of peace and tranquility can be found away from the crowds. It truly is a breath of calm from the busy pace of Tokyo.
Before leaving Australia I spent a lot of time researching travel through Japan. It appeared that the best value was to purchase the tourist ‘Japan Rail pass’. You must purchase it before you leave Australia (I paid $589). When you arrive at the airport you take the receipt you received in Australia and swap it for the pass. It is like having money in your pocket. If you lose it you will not get another one. When you start the pass it must be used consecutively. You can purchase a 7, 14 or 21 day pass. I chose the 14 day pass.
It allowed me access on all JR trains, Shikansen (bullet train) and JR buses. In the cities the pass didn’t work as well. The cities are made up of mostly subways and metros. You must pay separately, however, they were relatively cheap. The JR pass was worth the money as long as your travel is mainly out of the cities.
The bullet train was fast and clean. Not many people on board as it is a very expensive form of travel without the JR pass. One of the train highlights for me was the train from Takyama to Yudanaka. Wow! The train was only two carriages and you could stand with the driver. Well worth the time it took. The train wound its way through the countryside where the mountains held the first dump of snow. Around every corner there was a new sight to behold.