Expedition: The Great Escape: 2014-15
Adventure Time: 2 Weeks
Japan – our final stop on the world tour. The whole experience was AWESOME!
We spent a little over 2 weeks in Japan travelling around.
These are my highlights! Hit the links to scroll down to a specific location.
Tips before travelling to Japan
Language and etiquette
Japanese culture is very formal and respectful, felt in every aspect of life. What I absolutely loved about Japan was the care people took in completing tasks in their every day lives. Attention to detail, ceremony, routine and contemplation are all important in day-to-day living. Perhaps that is why Japan is the cleanest and safest country in the world.
The language is tricky. People speak quickly, formally and dialect changes from region to region. It is incredibly beautiful but seriously complex. One word or phrase could carry a hundred meanings, depending in which context you use it and how you say it. So if this is a flying visit don’t confuse yourselves with phrase books. If you are a beginner or a first time visitor it is important you learn just these few very common phrases. Learn these and you’ll get by.
Thank you very much
Domo arigatou gozaimasu
(Domo arigato gozay-mass)
How much is that?
Hai / iie
Hy / Iye
Goodbye (see you later)
It is not enough to say thank you (Arigatou) when addressing a stranger. You must include the formal / polite ‘gozaimasu’
Avoid Sayounara for goodbye. It’s like saying, goodbye – I will never see you again. Sayounara has a strong sense of finality to it, and so can be considered quite rude. Hence, it's not so common.
Another point on language – English is not widely spoken. I would advise (especially for restaurants) to make a note of all the questions you have; do you serve sushi? can we have a table for 2? etc. with the written Japanese translations next to them.
As everything is written in Japanese it can be really hard to tell what it is you’re walking into. You sort of just have to let yourself go and embrace whatever comes your way.
All station names are written in English, Kanji and Hiragana. Train announcements are made in Japanese and English on major lines. The trains are also super efficient. Click here for information I found relating to public transport in Japan.
Japan is spotless. There are no bins because people are expected to take whatever rubbish they have home with them and to dispose of it and recycle appropriately. Visitors are also expected to do this.
Temples and Shrines
You will definitely come across a few temples and shrines on your trip to Japan, especially if you are traveling to Kyoto. There are certain rituals, such as Misogi (a Japanese Shinto practice of ritual purification) and O-mikuji (selecting from the sacred lot), all of which you can partake in when visiting any shrine. It is also worth noting that if you enter any shrine you will be required to take off your shoes.
Click here to learn more about the rituals.
If you have the opportunity to take part in a tea ceremony, do - and drink Matcha tea (powdered green tea). The tea is offered cold in the summer months and hot in the winter. Whatever way you have it, it is delicious. We visited a traditional teahouse in Hama-rikyu Onshi Teien Park, Tokyo where you could sit and drink tea and eat cake. The ceremony of drinking the tea is explained on the menu.
When to go
If you go during cherry blossom season the temperature and climate will be just right and of course you will see the beautiful cherry blossoms – BUT you will be going at the height of tourist season. It will be very expensive and overcrowded. A local told me the BEST time to visit Japan is during Autumn when the leaves start to fall. The colours are magnificent, the climate is good and there are fewer tourists than in the spring. We went in July – it’s just how our trip happened to fall. I’ve never known a heat like it to be honest – very hot, humid and uncomfortable. As soon as we stepped outside we were covered in sweat. Locals walked around with towels wrapped around their necks. You have to drink ionised water (such as Pokari Sweat) to replace lost salts in the body. It’s pretty intense but thankfully most places, including trains and buses are all fully air conditioned.
Super-modern neon-lit skyscrapers meet traditional temples and cherry trees. Tokyo; Japan’s bold, bustling, animated capital. Easy enough to navigate but equally easy enough to lose yourself in completely – brace yourselves for one hell of a ride.
Places to Stay
Air BnB - Shimo-kitazawa (in Setagaya-ku district)
Air BnB was by far the cheapest option. We had a lovely studio apartment in Tokyo which was spacious enough for 2 people and in a lovely residential area just 10 minutes on a train from Shibuya Station. It was probably the same size as a hotel room but with all the home comforts. I would recommend this accommodation highly.
Nearest station: Higashi-matsubara (Inokashira line), 3 minutes walk (10 minute train journey to Shibuya).
Things to See and Do - Traditional and Relaxed
Asakusa and Around
Asakusa is a district in Taito, Tokyo, famous for the Senso-ji, a Buddhist temple dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon (the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy). Nearby Ryogoku is home to Tokyo’s most famous Sumo stadium Ryogoku Kokugikan. We really wanted to see a Sumo match but the tournaments are held only in January, May and September so we missed out this time.
Through the gate, protected by Fujin (the god of wind) and Raijin (the god of thunder) is Nakamise-dori, the temple precinct’s shopping street (really touristy and really pricey – don’t buy anything here).
At the end of Nakamise-dori is the temple itself and to your left you’ll spot the 55m five-storey pagoda, which is a 1973 reconstruction (most temples and shrines in Tokyo are reconstructions following the bombing Tokyo endured during WWII).
In front of the temple is a large incense cauldron: the smoke is said to bestow health and you’ll see people rubbing it into their bodies through their clothes.
To the right of the cauldron is an area for O-mikuji.
O-mikuji means “sacred lot.” Traditionally you would shake a small box until a small bamboo stick fell out. The stick had a number on it and according to the number, you were given an o-mikuji by the priest or miko. This would come in the form of a scroll or paper with your written fortune. For a small fee (usually one coin) you can draw a bamboo stick from a box and find your scroll in a box with corresponding character. At this temple the o-mikuji has the English translation.
The O-mikuji predicts the person’s chances of his or her hopes coming true. If the prediction is bad, it is a custom to fold up the strip of paper and attach it to a pine tree or a wall alongside other bad fortunes in the temple or shrine grounds. The idea being that the bad luck will wait by the tree rather than attach itself to the bearer. In the event of the fortune being good, the bearer has two options: he or she can also tie it to the tree or wires so that the fortune has a greater effect or keep it for luck.
This is where you come to for cherry blossoms. I wasn’t here during the season but if it is a bit busy the Mitaka District has the Inokashira Park where the locals like to hang. Ueno is a beautiful park, home to a number of temples and shrines and the Tokyo National Museum.
Make sure you visit Tosho-gu Shrine. Here you can partake in the ritual ‘misogi‘ before entering the shrine. Also, take the opportunity to write a wish or blessing on a Japanese wooden wishing plaque ‘Ema’ (picture-horse). These are small wooden plaques on which Shinto worshipers write their prayers or wishes. The Ema are then left hanging up at the shrine, where the kami (spirits or gods) are believed to receive them.
From the entrance to the shrine you will also see a 5-story pagoda (now inside Ueno Zoo) and nearby ‘The Flame of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’ memorial to the victims of the atomic bomb.
Imperial Palace Gardens
As we couldn’t really get near the Imperial Palace (there is a bridge you can walk out onto that offers a good view) we went to the Palace Gardens instead which are open to the public. We didn’t see the palace itself, however these gardens were just amazing – like something out of a painting.
Tsukiji Fish Market
Tsukiji Market is better known as one of the world’s largest fish markets, handling over 2,000 tons of marine products per day. It was scheduled to move to a new site in November 2016.
Definitely one of my favourite experiences in Japan. We left really early in the morning as wholesalers were selling to traders. Not too early, mind you – we maybe got there for about 07:30 / 08:00. It is very very busy and messy (don’t wear open shoes) but totally thrilling!
Stop off at one of many local vendors preparing sea food to go. The food is fresh, cheap and delicious! There are some great sushi restaurants nearby also. This is definitely where to come to get the best sushi. Sushi is not so common in the rest of Tokyo, where Ramen and Yakitori tend to dominate the restaurant scene.
Just take your camera and prepare to be wowed!
Hama-rikyu Onshi Teien Park
Another lovely spot in Tokyo, tucked away, a gem of green space with a traditional teahouse set in the middle of the garden’s pond. The teahouse offers Matcha and Japanese sweets in a tea-ceremony style. We came here after Tsukiji Fish Market.
Start: Nezu Station
Finish: Yanaka Ginza
Length 2km; 2 hours
Given its history of earthquake, war, fire, and development, little of pre-World War II Tokyo survives. The neighborhoods in the northeast section of town are an exception, filled with museums, galleries and shops. It’s quiet, peaceful and it gives you a sense of old Japan.
When Tokyo becomes too busy or overcrowded, Yanaka makes for a lovely walk. We took the Lonely Planet suggested route from Nezu station through to Yanaka Ginza. You can do this walk after visiting Ueno Park if you have time, although it’s best to do this walk early as the temples close at 17:00. Or start at Yanaka Ginza and then finish off at Ueno Park.
Kototoi-dori - traditional, wooden two-storey merchant’s houses, with a shop on the ground floor and the living quarters above – remain alongside the mid 20th Century concrete buildings.
Temple Gyokurin-ji: Just inside the grounds on your right, a stone wall guards a narrow alley: follow it. This twisting path, hemmed in by temple walls, takes you deep into Yanaka’s most atmospheric quarters.
When you emerge from the back alleys, head left and you’ll soon spot a pretty cluster of temples, including Enju-ji, which has some fantastic gnarled trees. Double back towards the fork in the road marked by an ancient thick-trunked Himalayan cedar tree. On the left of the tree is a classic, 100 year old corner shop.
Continue past the corner shop to the studio of painter Allan West. The next landmark is SCAI the bathhouse, a centuries old public bathhouse that became a contemporary art gallery in 1993. One block over, the Shitamachi Museum Annex preserves an old Yoshida Sake Store built in 1910. It’s free to enter.
Yanaka cemetery is very pretty and worth a visit - full of cherry blossoms.
Ghibli Museum – Mitaka
I am a huge Studio Ghibli fan, so I had to go. Getting tickets however, was not so easy. If you plan to visit during high season even locals need to enter a lottery for tickets which (at the time of purchase) could only be purchased in Japan, meaning obtaining them in advance was difficult.
Buying tickets through Japanese residents
We have a friend who lives in Tokyo who managed to get tickets for us. As we were travelling in holiday season and she herself had to enter a lottery for the tickets but if you book far enough in advance obtaining tickets shouldn't be a problem.
When we were in Kyoto the lady who we stayed with via Air BnB said she helps to source tickets for her guests who will then travel on to Tokyo. So if you can, buy tickets through someone who is a resident in Japan. Air B&B Hosts or hotels may be able to help!
Buying tickets through booking agents
I’ve recently looked into it and apparently there are offices you can buy tickets from internationally. Click on this link for more information. However, these are much more expensive! Ask your host first and ask any of your friends before you travel if they know anyone who lives in Japan who could help you out.
Photography is forbidden inside the museum but you can access the roof and have pictures with Laputa’s famous robot. Every ticket also doubles up as a special cinema ticket where you will be able to watch a short Ghibli film, screened exclusively at the museum.Coming here was a dream come true.
Things to See and Do - Crazy and Fun
Here you will find the famous Shibuya crossing!
Hachiko was an Akita dog remembered for his remarkable loyalty to his owner. Every day he would meet his master at Shibuya Station, until one day in 1925 his master never returned. But there Hachiko sat, day after day for more than nine years after his master's death, waiting in vain for his return.
During his lifetime the dog was held up in Japanese culture as an example of loyalty and fidelity. A statue of Hachiko (a popular meeting point), sits outside Shibuya station.
Akihabara – Electric Town
Akihabara (Akiba) is mental. Besides the advertisements there’s not much to see from the outside, you have to venture into the buildings to experience the world, a little bit like The Matrix. Just brace yourself. This is the land of video games, arcades, anime, cosplay, porn, electric circuits and fuses all rolled into one.
To make some sense of it all pick up an English map at Tokyo Anime Center Akiba Info.
My favourite spots were:
Super Potato is a chain of retro video game stores. The shop in Tokyo has a vintage video game arcade.
Eight floors of anime, TV superheroes, mascots and manga comics. Start at the top and work your way down.
The surrounding stores that are several storeys high are filled with everything your mind can imagine. As everything is written in Japanese you are going in blind. Just walk into buildings, jump in the lifts and each level will open the doors to a completely new world.
There are endless amounts of vending machines in Japan. Little toys, gizmos and gadgets from these machines are ace and make excellent souvenir gifts!
Shinjuku is a major commercial and administrative centre in Tokyo, housing the busiest railway station in the world (Shinjuku Station) and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. The best time to enjoy Shinjuku – at night.
Don’t miss: Golden Gai
Golden Gai (The Golden District) is made up of a few blocks packed with tiny, rickety old buzzing bars and restaurants. It is one of those rare places in Tokyo lucky enough not to have been bulldozed and redeveloped.
The number of punters who can squeeze into each establishment ranges from about five to thirty, though most of them are on the smaller side. Most bars accept visitors now but some still only welcome regular customers – if there’s a price list or anything in English posted out front, you’re probably good to go. Alternatively, just walk in, smile politely and see what reaction you get; chances are that if it’s a regulars-only bar you’ll be told there’s no room (empty seats or not).
Nearby 'Piss Alley' or Omoide Yokocho (more literally “memory lane”), is another little street containing dozens of tiny restaurants and watering holes.
Just a good old fashioned fun theatrical cabaret show with giant robots and scantily clad girls. It’s totally family friendly though. There is a story line which gets muddled and lost in the chaos and it is probably the maddest performance you'll ever see. Don’t miss it!
When we went in 2015 we couldn’t purchase tickets on the door, we had to purchase them in advance online:
Park Hyatt Tokyo – New York Bar
The New York Bar, backdrop of the critically acclaimed film, Lost In Translation situated on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt Hotel offers sweeping views over the Tokyo skyline and flippin fabulous cocktails! It is completely free to go up and it pays to stay and have a drink or two. From 8:00 pm however, a hefty cover charge is applied. We hesitated and then thought, what the hell! We were here only once and we got to watch a brilliant jazz show! Great treat!
Don’t forget to:
KARAOKE (there are plenty of suggestions in Lonely Planet and other guidebooks for places to Karaoke).
Pick your food from a vending machine. You won’t know what you’re ordering but it’s fun guessing. You could always ask if you have a guidebook with you with the food translations.
Buy vending machine toys and gifts!
Enter the land of photobooths!
Eat, Drink and Be Merry
You’re never far away from fake food or shokuhin sampuru (samples). In Japan, food models are considered an art form and hey, for tourists they are incredibly handy for knowing what food is served in a particular establishment.
My top picks from where I remember:
Tsukiji Fish Market (soon to relocate to Toyosu). You’ll find the best sushi here. Sushi isn’t as common in the rest of Tokyo with yakitori and ramen dominating the restaurant scene.
Shinjuku – Golden Gai Quarters
Traditional Teahouse Experience in Hama-rikyu Onshi Teien Park
Anywhere that is recommended for Ramen. Ippudo is a great chain. Didn’t go to the one in Tokyo but the one in Kyoto is incredible. I love how in some Ramen restaurants you are given a bib for slurping!
Park Hyatt Tokyo – New York Bar. If you have a bit of cash just do it. The food’s not incredible but the ambience and cocktails are great! Hey, it’s the Lost in Translation bar! Well worth the cover charge – a last night in Tokyo splurge.
Travel – Out of Tokyo
Getting the Bullet Train to Kyoto and Further Rail Travel.
If you are travelling around Japan by train you need to do a bit of research in advance. Look into the different travel passes available. National trains can be expensive.
Tokyo to Kyoto: bullet train (single tickets purchased at the station)
Kyoto to Nara (day trip - Kansai Pass)
Kyoto to Koya-san (via Osaka - where we left our bulky luggage in the station locker - Kansai Pass)
Koya-san to Osaka to collect luggage and catch flights - Kansai Pass.
There are different passes you need to consider buying before travel:
The JR (Japan Rail) pass is for tourists and at the time had to be purchased before entering the country (they are valid for 7, 14 or 21 days). If you are going to travel on a bullet train more than once it is definitely more cost effective to buy a JR travel pass (which you can use on some of the metro lines as well). We flew into Tokyo and out of Osaka so didn’t buy a JR travel pass as we only took the bullet train once.
Once in Kyoto we brought a 3 day Kansai Thru Pass which you can buy in Japan once in the Kansai Region. You don’t have to use it 3 days in a row – it can be used on any 3 days within a certain time frame.
If you get really stuck it’s worth asking your hosts at your accommodation for guidance. Best advice though – plan your routes and research which tickets to buy because once you’re in Japan very few people speak English and it is confusing as hell. You don’t want to spend your travel days trying to figure things out
Kyoto, once the capital of Japan is home to thousands of classical Buddhist temples, gardens, imperial palaces, Shinto shrines and traditional wooden houses. Steeped in tradition, this is Japan at its best!
Things to See and Do
Stay the night in a Ryokan
A pricey accommodation option (hence the 1 night for us). We stayed at the Matsui Inn and I totally recommend it!
One of the traditional ways of preparing and serving food in Japan is the multi-course dinner ‘Kaiseki’. It is terribly formal and expensive. Let’s just say my taste buds weren’t feeling it too much and I left needing some Ramen to fill the empty space. However, if you want to keep it traditional, Kyoto is filled with places that serve food the old fashioned way.
Nishiki Market, rich in history and tradition is renowned for its foods and goods. Make sure to stop off at Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine while you’re there, located towards the end of Nishiki Market.You can also donate a coin and receive your fortune
Gion (Geisha District)
Gion is one of the most exclusive and well-known Geisha districts in Japan. The Geisha are locally known as Geiko, meaning “child of the arts” or “woman of arts.” If you are in this area at the beginning of November don’t miss Gion Odori, the traditional Geisha dance put on by the women of the Gion Higashi Geisha district.
Temples and shrines
Daitoku-ji Zen Gardens and Temples
Daitoku-ji is a world of Zen temples, perfectly raked gardens and wandering lanes. The temple serves as the headquarters of the Rinzai Daitoku-ji school of Zen Buddhism.
I absolutely loved it here. There were hardly any tourists and it was incredibly peaceful. In Daisen-In Temple there was a small shop selling prayer beads.