Cherry blossom everywhere, Mt Fuji on a cloudless day and the blinking lights of Shinjuku – Japan is an organized wonderland of postcard perfect sights and increadibly friendly people.
Read here how our 12 days passed faster than a Shinkhansen from Tokyo to Kyoto.
Things to cross of the bucket list
- See the cherry blossom
- Play the arcade in Akihabara / Buy a Nintendo Game System in Japan-
- Eat some of the worlds best Sushi at Tsukiji Outer Market
- Sing karaoke in Shibuya
- See Mt Fuji on a clear day
- Walk under thousands of Toris at Fushimi Inari
- Visit the site of the first atomic bomb
10.04. We are leaving Shanghai with a tear in our eye, especially after the nice evening with Rene and Jenny and shared memories and experiences. We get through passport and security in a breeze and are soon on our way to Tokyo Narita Airport. The flight is uneventful.
Narita airport greets us with Japanese efficiency, which we will never want to miss in just a few days (or hours). We take the airport bus dirwctly to our hotel, the Shinjuku Washington Hotel. We arrive after dark in a cold and rainy city. But that does not matter. We grab umbrellas and dive into Shinjukus night live. The rain grants us a special view at the mysterious and colorful Tokyo night. We have our first sushi north of Yasukuni Dori.Wandering through the rain, we reach the tiny alleys of Golden Gai. Its a district of hundreds of tiny bars, many with no more than 6 seats. We wander around and pick any one. Some craft beers later, we have a final cocktail of the evening on the third flor of a place no wider than 4 meters (including bar and staircase). Tokyo here we are!11.04. Last night was short, but this morning offers a special treat, the Tsukji Outer Fish Market (I wonder if we slept in on one single day on the entire trip…). Tsukiji Fishmarket was closed and moved, but the outer market remakns intact and is considered the best place to eat sushi. We reach Tsukijishijo conveniently by subway with a day path. The market is only three streets wide but filled with flavors. We drift with the crowd, try salmon and tuna sashimi, fried clams, sea urchin and whatever omes our way. After a while, we pick a small Edo-style sushi place. The corner bar has 8 seats and serves maki and rice bowl (kaizen). We mix a bit and watch the chefs skillful and fast movements.The sushi is by an unmeasurable distance the best I have had. The tuna is tasteful, the sea urchin is delicate. But I still canmot figure out what makes the chefs great except for choosing top ingredients. It is such a simple dish. Yet, it tasts fantastic.A full stomach makes happy. Happy, we visit the Empirial Palace; or what can be seen from the outside. That is the bridge leading to the palace gate. Rather a tick on the sightseeing list than a spectacular experience. We see a changing of the guard and cherry blossom, wich is nice.On the contrary to the following. A taxi brings us to Akihabara – Electric Town. This is the district of electronic shopping, arcades, mangas and maid cafes. We soak it in, wandering through the stores. We play for half a fortune at Taito Gaming station; Michi trying to win at the gripping machines (fails), I play an immersive Star Wars game. A bit dizzy but with mosz senses intact, we emerge back into teh sunlight.We pay a short visit to the owl and hedgehog cafe, where you can play with the animals. Then we move on to Ueno park.
We enjoy the colorful streets leading to the park. The park itself is home to monuments to the last samurai, as well as a number of small shrines. It is also the place to watch the Cherry Blossom in Tokyo. Although we are a little late, many trees are still in full bloom.We visit the Kiomizu- Kannon and the Kyoto style Gojoten Shrine.From Ueno, we walk westwards to Senso-Ji, Tokyos most sacred temple. it has a five story pagoda and large red lanterns hanging under the impressive gates.At dusk, we reach the Tokyo Sky Tree, a 643m television tower – not aczually neede but still built into the earthquake and high wind area. Nonetheless, the view from 450m is spectacular (although we cannot see Mt Fuji). We stay from dusk till dark and watch the city transform into a sea of lights.In the evening, after a quick Shinjuku Station dinner, we are drawn to Golden Gai, again. We drink at the DrunkMongolian, with good music and a snake shot (snake in alcohol) sponsored by two girls from Guam.Busy but fun day. I am very tired and sleep quite well.
12.04. Today, we sleep in until 7.30. This counts as a whole morning in bed, as far as this trip is concerned. After yesterdays feast, we plan to have breakfast again at the Tsukij outer fish market. Again, we eat delicious tuna sashimi, not so delicious sea urchin in a black bun and have fresh coffee. We explore the market hall at the back of the outer market. And we decide to buy a japanese kitchen knive with a magnolia handle and 32 fold damast steel.Then its finally time for full breakfast. We pick Sushi Zanmai, the first store of a large Sushi Chain in Japan. Its a comparatively large space. We sit at the bar and watch the chefs slice away on tuna, salmon and other delicassies. The selection is huge, the quality is ok, but less than yesterday.Full and happy, we take the Subway towards Shibuya. We go a bit north to Yoyogi station and walk to the Meiji Shrine, Tokyos most important Shinto Shrine. As soon as we walk through the torii gates, the old trees encapsulate us and drownd out the city noise. We enjoy the walk in the park and the Nai-en garden. The main shrine is large and spectacular. On our way to the exit, we pass donations on display, in particular sake and wine barrels, which had been donated by major donors in the past.From the quiet park, we exit into Harajuku, the teen and subculture district. We are again swept of our feet by crowds, noises, lights, dancers, smells,… We eat angle waffles and visit a punk rock store in Takeshita-Dori and drift with the crowds.Turning just a corner in Omotesando transports us into a different galaxy of amazing architecture and sophisticated shopping. A short subway ride later, we exit at the famous Shibuya Crossing. We take some time to watch the crowds stream by.
We drift through Shibuya with its bright commercial screens and large shopping malls.We go a bit further West to Shimo-Kitazawa, a more toned down bar and restaurant area. But impulses are too limited. We decide to go back to Shinjuku and visit the 8 bit cafe, a bar with Nintendo Music and old gaming consols. We play Mario Cart and old style games. However, the waiter is pushy to sell drinks, so we leave.
We drop our day gear at the hotel. Tonight, its karaoke at Shibuya. We drop all our gear, except one small backpack, as I have decided to buy a Nintendo Switch (at ca 75% the current geman price). The Shibuya vibe has changed completely from day to night. We drift among the crowds and find a place to eat. We have some after dinner beers and, at midnight, enter karaoke kan. Its fun and something to tick off the bucket list but it is not super special, a karaoke cabin.
We leave at 1:30 but find it difficult to get a taxi but the Japan Taxi app helps. Very tired, we go to bed. It is a short night. Lukas has some stomach problems, which will keep himtied to the bed the next day. Maybe the Chinese place we went to…
13.04. Another day, anogher late breakfast – but the weather is beautiful. We want to see the Sumo Wrestlers. Lacking time and opportunity to see a tournament, our best option is to visit a training center. We pick Arashio Sumo Stable. Its easily accessible via the Shinjuku Line and it has windows on the street, so no need to make arrangements in advance. We arrive in an inconspicuous neighbourhood. Behind a bike rack, we find the windows and 3 Sumos training woth a master. They train different moves such as the push and the judo roll. We watch for a few minutes. Then we visit a closeby shrine and head back to the hotel.Back at Shinjuku Station we buy our train tickets. We manage with the help of a friendly staffer. We get two tickets each, one actual ticket and a seat reservation, as the train mandates reservations (we learn the difference later). In the hotel, we use the fascinating luggage shipping service to ship my hiking backpack to our Kyoto Hotel for 2.100 RMB. Without the weight of the luggage we are bound for Nikko. Lukas will stay in Tokyo to rest and meet us at Mt. Fuji. We have a traditional japanese style brunch at one of the pervasive Wendys’ before heading to the station. The entrance gate rejects our ticket – but only until we learn, that we used our seat reservations… As everything in Japan, the trains turn out to be highly efficient. We take the JR line to Shimo-Imeichi and transfer to a local train to Nikko.We are warmly welcomed at the train station by the tourist information, who provides us with information and bus ticket for the region. Our Hostel, Sanga, is a block away from the railway station. Limmie (?) gives us an incredibly warm welcome and a traditional style room.
However, its not the time to enjoy the room. We want to take the bus to see Kengo Falls. The tourist bus system in Nikko is very efficient. The bus safely takes us from 550m up to 1200m along a steep and winding road. But we were not expecting what awaits us: Snow, and a lot of it.We have a short snowball fight and visit the waterfalls. Aparently, its one of the highest waterfalls in Japan.Then we stroll down to the lake and enjoy the setting sun.However, we leave before it gets dark, as temperatures drop substantially. Down another set of bends, the bus takes us back to Nikko. Ramen dinner and then a nice and cosy futon.Our host informs us, that she was unable to change our room type with bookin.com (I had booked 3 persons in case Lukas would be able to join) but was not successful. She even gave us a small present and a post-it doodle. We fall asleep almost instantly.14.04. We pack in the morning, grab some local delicassies from Family Mart for breakfast (bauzi and egg sandwich). The first tourist bus of the day takes us to the deserted Shinkyo Bridge, the place where the monk Shodo Shonin first crossed the Daiya river.We walk into the Unesco Heritage area. We walk past portable shrines, which armies used to take to battle areas.First stop is Rinno-ji temple with three sitting buddhas and a pillar, which holds 1000 volumes of the sutra.Second, we visit the magnificent Toshogu Shrine. Ancient cedar tree line the road to the temple. We enter through a traditional curved (Pi shaped) gate. To the left is a five story pagoda.Ahead is the first gate, which leads into the holy storage and stable area. We see an inticate three monkey carving (speak no evil, hear no evil, see no evil) on the stable wall.Between drum and bell tower, we ascend to the magnificent inner gate.Inside, we first visit the inner sanctum gate. Amazing colors, design and carvings.We take of our shoes to enter the meditation hall. Each tile in the cassette ceiling shows a different, hand stiched dragon. Unfortunately, no-picture rules are strict (as these are practicing shrines). Over the gate to the mausoleum lies the sleeping cat, opposite to the sparrows – all intricately carved in wood.Through old cedar trees, we climb to the serene tomb in the forrest above the temple.We almost skip the hall of the roaring dragon for our unwillingness take of our shoes. It would have been a miss. We are guided into the central hall. A giant dragon is painted on the ceeling. A monk demonatrates that only at the exact spot under the dragons head sounds echo.
On our way down, we meet the first tourist hordes, but we are still early enough. We make a short stop at the Futurasa Shrine. Notable is a lamp, which casts shadows and was attacked by a samurai mistaking it for a monster.
Last stop is the Taiyuin Mausoleum. Its entrance gate is situated at the quiet end of the walkway. We turn left through the lower gate and up a wide, turning staircase. The inner gate, again, is beautiful. Carvings of dragons anf cranes decorate the entrance. We can only access the ante chamber of the inner sanctum. We see brass art works and feel the serenity of the mausoleum.We take the bus back to Nikko, collect our luggage and hop on the train back to Tokyo Asakusa Station and onward to Tokyo Station. There, we redeem our Japan Railpass Vouchers and get on the Shinkhansen to Odawara. Odawara is the gateway to the Hakkone region. We take a short train to Hakone Yamoto before we switch to the train to Gora. A few times on the ride, the train changes directions to climb the steep tracks. Cherry blossom welcomes us also at Gora station. We walk the remaining meters to our hotel. After check in, we take a quick walk around the tiny town of Gora. Yamaji, a few meters from our hotel, offers wholesome local food. As we finish, Lukas arrives and we are reunited.The Gora Park lends itself to a stroll after dinner. The park has been turned into a light show. Quite fun to watch.Back at the hotel, we do what Hakone is famous for: We visit the Onsen. We put on our Yukatas and sandles and head down to the basement. The onsen is separated into men and women. First step is self clensing (which is actually the whole point of the public bath). Rules are simple: be thorough, do not splash your neighbour or the bath. After cleaning its gime to get cooked. The bath water is unbearably hot (Michi find it to be below her normal bathing temperature). It only takes a few minutes for me to be done. A cold bath and a quick jump into the whirlpool and off to the room. We play a few rounds of Mario Cart on the new Nintendo Switch and go to sleep.
15.04. Japanese morning. I go to the Onsen for my morning shower. Quite relaxed, I am ready for a Japanese breakfast, served at the hotel, with Onsen eggs and many more or less tasty dishes. After breakfast, we take the cable car and ropeway to the Owakudani outlook. We are after Japans most recognized landmark, Mt Fuji. The mountain can be see only between 60 to 150 days per year. We count our chances.
At first, the elusive Mt Fuji remains hidden in the clouds. But after a few minutes, the clouds part and we can see the peak; the snow blanket drawn deep down.Happy, we eat some black eggs, cooked in the hot springs and the shell blackend by oxidization – basically very hard boiled eggs.We decide to go a bit closer and take the bus to Gotemba. From a park, we have an even more beautiful view on the mountain (5 Lakes may have offered an even more spectacular view, but we had chosen Hakone based on the weather forecast, accesibility, alternative activities and cost).Very happy, we have lunch at a truck stop inside a small church building. Then we get on the trains towards Kyoto.We change trains twice but reach Kyoto quickly and efficiently. Our “Ostay” hotel is a self checkin place – the owner is maybe the only unhelpful guy we dealt with Japan. Anyway, the location is good. We explore Nishiki Market, which is already pretty closed down around 19:00. We walk down Pontocho Alley and find a small, Edo Style skewer place. We have a 10 skewers menue. The cook shows, just how tasty deep fried food can be. Every skewer is fried to perfection (beef medium rare, etc.) and is eaten with one of 5 sauces. The athmosphere is relaxed, calm, efficient.16.04. Today, our backpack is due to arrive from Tokyo. As there is no onat the hotel, I contact the owner. After some struggeling, he proofs to be utterly unhelpful. We adjust the route to be able to get back to the hotel on short notice.
We start with breakfast at Nishiki Market. At 8:30, only one store is open. We have omlette and fish/chicken breakfast.
Our first sightseeing stop is Nijo Castle. Nijo is one of the few remaining fortifications in japan and the starting and end point of the Shogunes (1543 – 1616). It is also famous for its squeaking floor boards, making a Nightingale-like sound, warning of intruders. The castle has beautifully painted rooms (pine trees, lions,…). The outside garde is serene and beautiful. The main castle is under renovation.From Nijo, we walk one block to the Imperial Palace. The grounds are spacious but we do not find them overly spectacular.Next to the Imperial Palace is the small and old Rozan-Ji temple, built as a living place for a Japanese writer.From Rozan-Ji we take a taxi to Ginkaku-Ji, the silver pavilion at the start of the Philosophers Path (its very important to be precise as there is also Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion. We realize the misunderstanding half way. The taxi driver does no even charge the detour). Ginkaku-Ji is one of my personal favorites. The temple is not too crowded. It has a serene athmosphere with a small Zen garden a pond and a hill.From the temple we walk south along a small stream under thick cherry blossom – this is called the Philosophers walk.We visit Honen-In temple and explore the Eikan-Do complex.At Nanzen-ji we see our first Geisha! The temple complex is large and has an aqueduct.We take the subway back to Nishiki Market. But again, many stores are already closed at 18:00. We find some snacks to eat but nothing big. We give up on the market. It becomes a joke to us.Now comes the big moment. I have called Yamoto Courier services and arranged the delivery of my bag at 19.00-21.00. When we arrive at the hotel, my backpack is already waiting for me. Nothing is ever stolen in Japan. Awesome country. Looking for celebatory drinks, we try two of Lukas recomedations but one is closed and the other full. So we drift through Pontocho Street, and have drinks at a Japanese Bar and the Stardust. then, we call it a night.17.04. We get up early, as always. Its a big sightseeing day. We take a taxi to beat the crowds to Ryogen-In. This complex features a beautiful flower garden and a Zen garden with 15 stones, which can only be see simultaneously be the enlightened. We see only 14.Second stop is Kinkaku-Ji (Golden Temple) – this time intentional. Its very crowded already but the temple is beautiful. Its fun to watch and listen to the tourists (“This would be perfect in Florida. In Florida we also have rain”).We have a small western style breakfast with great coffee. Then we visit Daitoku-Ji. The complex is almost deserted. We wander beautiful Zen gardens almost by ourselves.At Daisen-in we are unfortunately not allowed to take fotos. The garden tells the story of life as it flows from birth to the eternal sea and death.We now make a journey from the tranquility of the Zen Gardens to tourist madness of Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. We would definately skipp this, next time. Its short patch of Bamboo trees over a path crammed with tourists trying to take pictures. The view on the river is small compensation.We visit Shiogamo-Shrine and walk through the park.Then we take the subway to Fushimi- Inari Shrine. This famous shrine for the god of rice and sake has thousands of torii gates (donated by businesses). Its very crowded at the bottom but higher up, we have spots for ourselves. We do not walk the full circle but branch of half way and turn back to the subway.We get of at Gion in a light drizzle. We walk the streets and see a Geisha entertaining her guests a dinner as well as see one on the street.The weather clears and the sunset turns the city in deep red.For dinner, we find a tempura place at Pontocho Alley where grandma cooks with her kids. Food is great.We have tempura snacks.We want to visit our first restaurant again, but the place is full. Instead, we fill up on mediocre bar food at a random place. We end the evening with Whiskey in a japanese bar.
18.08. Its time to pack. However, we have one more temple to visit, which is Kyomizu Dera. Its not far from our hotel. Therefore we walk and arrive just before the tourist hordes. We are greeted by bright orange gated and dragon water fountains. The main temple is under renovation but the viewing platforms, overlooking Kyoto, are accessible.Michi walks the path between the lovestones blind, as supposed to – its our 12th aniversary.We follow the footpath to a small pagoda. From here, we take some final pictures. Then we walk downhill, back to our hotel and are on or way to Hiroshima. The trains are very busy (maybe due to Easter travelers). We have reserved seats from Kyoto to Kobe but need to squeeze into the non-reserved cars Kyoto – Hiroshima Shinkhansen (Michi organizes seats).In the blink of an eye, we arrive in Hiroshima station. We reach our hotel, the Sansui Ryokan, directly with the street car.The host is a very nice elder lady. She even has a welcome sign with our name. The ryokan room is nice (tatami mats and futons). The weather is perfect, again. We walk towards the Peace Memorial Park but stop at a random for excellent Rahmen on the way. The Memorial for the Atom Bomb is impressive and emotional. It helps to make the dimensions relatable with monuments and personal stories.
The Cenotaph is build directly under the explosion site (the bomb exploded at Aug 6th 1945 at 8:15 at 600m above the city). Under the dome are the names of the victims engraved (140.000 +/- 10.000. Counting was difficult as all city archives were destroyed). Behind the arch burns the Flame of Peace – in stylized hands – until all atomic bombs have been dismanteled.On the other side of the river stands the A-Dome. One of the remaining buildings in its state after bombing. Almost directly underneath the explosion, the walls remain intact. Its a grave reminder of this tragedy.There was no radioactive cleanup necessary, as the material was spread over a wide area (due to the high altitude explosion) leaving the radiation within normal limits (during the blast, people were hit by gamma rays).
Back on the other side of the river is the Peace Bell, the Childrens Peace Monument (with paper cranes) and the Memorial Mound, containing the ashes of ca. 70.000 victims.The museum helps to give an overview and to tell personal stories.After the Peace Memorial Park, we visit Hiroshima Castle. A reconstruction of the original.We decide to try the bar at the 33 floor of the Rihga Royal Hotel. From there, we have a stunning view over the city. We enjoy burgers, beer and sunset. Later, an elder japanese gentlemen invited us to whiskey to drink to peace and remembering. The people in Hiroshima are noticable open and approachable. This is just one of some encounters we had.
After leaving the Rihga Royal, we visit the A Dome, again.
At night, we explore the entertainment (red light) district a little bit but head home, soon.
19.04. We take the first ferry of the World Heritage Line to Miyajima (although more expensive than JR, the speedboat takes us in 45min from the A Dome to the island). We pass oyster frams (the area is known for big, meaty oysters) and an oyster plant, where each worker opens an oyster every 10s. The shells are dumped in the river and then excavated by ships. We reach Miyajima ahead of the crowds. First, we see the famous deer, which live in the city.
Next, we walk to the famous Torii Gate (one of the three most famous views kn Japan). We had made sure to arrive at high tide. So we see the gate floating on the water.
We explore the town and listen to prayers at Daishon-in Temple.
We take a boat back around 11:30 but have to push hard against the crowds streaming onto the island.Back at the jetty, we have Okonomiyaki at Nagataya. Okonomiyaki are local savory pancakes and Nagataya is the best place to eat them. The pancake is enough for the whole day but very tasty.
Last sightseeing stop is the Shukkei-In park. The park is plesant but not spectacular after seeing Kyoto.
Michi and I take a short break at the hotel and re-pack for the trip home. At night, we first take the customary picture at Sansui Ryokan (they must have thousands of pictures hanging on the walls).
Then we head to the entertainment district. First a small dinner and watching some baseball (the Horoshima Carps play the Yokohama Baystars. We had seen the Baystar team yesterday at the Rihga Hotel). Next, we visit the MAC Bar, an institution from the 70. They feature a huge CD and vinyl collection. But again, its the people that make our day. The barkeeper couple are just the nicest people (and speak excellent english). A Japanese gentleman and his daughter join us, celebrating his birthday – he even offers cake. Its a very nice evening and the end of our travels together. Michi and I will go to Osaka, while Lukas will go to Tokyo.
20.04. We take the 8:13 Kodama Shinkhansen to Osaka. We painfully learn that there are many stations on the way and the train goes very slow – remember not to take the Kodama (although, in all fairness, we are in the “Hello Kitty Train”, so mayby just enjoy it) – Time to update the blog.
Actually, while writing these lines, the train turns out to be amazing – a true Japanese experience. It is entirely build in Hello Kitty style. There are two carts at the end of the train without seats but a Hello Kitty store and picture opportunities.
We spent our last day in Osaka with shopping. Osaka is Tokyo on steroids. The Namba Area is packed with restaurants and shos of all kinds – cosmetics, clothes, anime, CDs(!), game centers,… It is increadibly crowded. First we shop at Tower Knives, then we just roam, buy sweets and fun stuff (we have fried skewers for lunch not great but a lot). We end our Japan trip in non-japanese style with Hamburgers in Shinsaibashi.