Why Japan should be on your Honeymoon destination list
Ok, here we go! I have been meaning to write this for AGES. I’m pretty sure most people that know me well know about my obsession with Japan. Then there are those that don’t know me, but within half an hour of speaking to me I’m pretty sure I’ll have mentioned Japan! I’ve been lucky enough to visit and travel fairly extensively there not once (5 weeks) but twice (3 weeks) and I wanted to share why this creative destination should be on your honeymoon list! Japan has so much to offer everyone. This post is lengthy, but bear in mind I probably have about 2000+ photo’s from Japan so be thankful I’ve trimmed it down!
I was thinking how they hell am I going to do this. Where do I start. There is just so much I can share with you, plus this post will take on a slightly geeky element as I love video gaming and so does my husband. Therefore we did spend a large portion of our time indulging our passion, in particular Dan! BUT we also saw so much more than the dizzy heights of Akihabara and certainly more than enough to give you some inspiration for a honeymoon. I thought the best way I can do it is as an exploration of different locations we visited rather than an itinerary, but there are parts that I’d suggest as an itinerary. Like a pick’n’mix!
I’ve picked out the locations that I would definitely revisit and assigned photo’s to those areas. There are a few places that we went that I haven’t included, so this isn’t a limited list. I’ve tried to do it in an order of easy reach within each location, although most of Japan is pretty easy to get around so it doesn’t overly matter. Especially as the trains run to time, within the second I’ll add and to where your feet are as the doors of the train stop where your seats are. I also don’t want to give you an overload of information so I’m going to try and keep it snappy to each area. With regards to hotels, we stayed in a real mix of hotels, but the first time we used Toyoko Inns a fair bit, as they are relatively cheap and uber clean if you want to save some money; think of them as the Japanese version of Premier Inn! Then we splurged on where we wanted a bit of luxury.
I would highly recommend getting a SIM care whilst you are out there, so you can use data and google maps to get directions. I honestly don’t know how visitors or tourists get around Japan without that! It can be a tricky lace to navigate in terms of street directions. Alongside that I would also consider staying close to the main JR stations as it makes transport much easier and you will need to get a Japan Rail pass before you go. Like a multi-pass from Fifth Element! Start the day with a coffee and a hearty breakfast and plan your route! If you don’t already use FourSquare, then download it before you go, it will help you with food and restaurant recommendations. Although you can’t really go wrong in Japan, it’s pretty common to have smaller meals, so if you don’t like the place you’re in just move on! I don’t think we’ve had a bad meal either time we went, which is pretty impressive and says a lot about Japan.
I think the other thing I would say, is that you have to be fairly fit on your feet. There is a lot of walking involved which may seem obvious, even though it’s fairly flat you can easily walk 5-7 miles a day as a minimum if you’re sight-seeing. Plus a lot of the temple sights are surrounded by steps from being generally raised up. Get used to taking your shoes off too, I hope they don’t smell after all that walking, clean socks are a must! As a last cavet, this is literally just me saying what I thought of our two trips there, I am fully aware (thanks internet trolls) that there are other places to explore and that some of my knowledge might not be completely factual, but I love Japan and I just thought I’d share! With that said, I’m going to crack on and talk to you about these amazing destinations.
Tokyo and the surrounding areas; Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Akihabara.
Both times when we’ve gone to Japan we’ve stayed just outside Tokyo Prefecture; firstly Shibuya and then Shinjuka. I think the main reason for this is simply there is a bit more going on and the hotels were a bit cheaper. Shinjuku has a few slightly shady areas which are classed as red light areas and there are still parts that are Yakuza district. Shady does not mean unsafe I’d like to add! Never once did I feel uncomfortable, they are just too friendly for that! There is the main train line that goes round in a circle (we know as we went past our station a few times the first time!), that you can get to all the districts of Tokyo. There is literally loads of things to go and see in this area alone. The second time we went we used Shinjuka as a base and stayed in a hotel with a huge Godzilla on the top that roared on the hour at certain times of the day! See, this is why I love Japan! A giant Godzilla on top of a hotel is totally normal! Let’s talk about a few places we visited.
The Imperial Palace.
This is the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan, like our Buckingham Palace. It is a large park-like area located in the Chiyoda ward of Tokyo and a picturesque area to walk around, plus sometimes you can go further inside if the Royal Family aren’t there. If you visit in Spring time to see the Cherry Blossom, it’s a super popular place and you can hire a boat and row around the lake amongst the blossom. Pretty romantic, but be warned the queues can be 2 hours+ to do this in peak times! We didn’t go for this option surprisingly. Or another option around Cherry Blossom time is to grab a bento box and some beer, find a spot and breathe it in. This is called Hanami (flower viewing). It is a tradition dating back hundreds of years and is said to be seen as a metaphor for life itself, luminous and beautiful yet fleeting and ephemeral. Beware it gets incredibly busy at Sakura time, but if you find your own little spot, then it’s totally worth it. If you want to go for a beer afterwards try heading back into Akhibarra. Head on over to Hitachino micro brewery for a cold beer to soothe those achey feet! This place is under the arches by the river, and there are also some nice design shops in the arches too to have a look around.
Harajuku & Meiji Shrine
A great day trip out around Tokyo Prefecture is heading over to Harajuku area and the Meiji Shrine; which is between Shinjuku and Shibuya on the Yamanote Line. This was one of the first shrines we saw in Japan and it’s quite impressive, not my fave but definitely worth a visit! It’s a beautiful shrine surrounded by lush greengage, mixed in with the madness of Harajuku and youth culture with Kawaii fashion! Harajuku is an absolute gem of a place of really see the quirky side of Japan. On certain weekends they have festivals to in park there, including Rock N Roll dress-ups! Definitely try the street food, ranging from Takoyaki balls (be careful they are like molten in the middle) to creme brûlée wraps! Then there are the quirky shops, mainly down Takeshita Dori (Takeshita Street) that sells ALL sorts. Pop into the Daiso Harajuku – 100 Yen Shop for some cheap soveniers and the Tokyu Plaza (like a big John Lewis) for a break from the heat or a coffee. I say this as even though I’m not one for brands, there are some pretty unique locations of Starbucks across Japan, they are generally air conditioned and have Wi-Fi. The Tokyu Plaza one is located on the roof terrace, with amazing views!
A total shopping paradise! Honestly we could spend days here, so I’ll try not to go on too much, ha. If you like retro game shopping, this place is for you. Some of the shops span a whole block, like the otaku Yodobashi Akiba. You can literally buy anything electronic, plus if you’re hunting for rare game shinies then you’ll find things like PC Engines, Saturns, Famicoms, Neo-Geo’s and as many retro games as you can stuff in your cases and yes we brought an extra case to fit it all in! We all need more stuff in our lives! Plus if you’re lucky enough you will find whats called “treasure boxes”, these are like limited runs or special editions of games. If you really are looking for certain games, you need to get stuck in, as Japan has a culture of swapping there once prized possessions, so they can get new stuff. This ethos stretches to all things, I’ve never seen so many pre-used pristine collections of toys, games, all sorts… yo-yos for one! Who knew people still collect these! You can often find boxes that have been brought in and traded, full with pristine and sometimes even wrapped video games. You can see loads of old arcade motherboards like this and cult games that go from £500+ although these ones are often behind the glass counters! Head over to SuperPotato as a start (this is right by the Akihabara train station), although there are many other better retro stores but this one has a bit of a cult following if you just want a taste. Then there are also the figurines, you can buy really unique pieces and if manga is your thing then you are in for a real treat. We like manga, like “One piece” and “Attack on Titan” but if its your main thing then you will be spoilt for choice. I highly recommend you take a trip to the manga museum too, but that’s in Kyoto.
If you are looking for cool little knick naks that won’t break the bank then give the Gachapon machines ago, we ventured into some of the side streets and found an unmanned shop totally dedicated to Gachapon machines! You have to visit one of the many huge arcade shops too, they are normally spread over 6-7 floors and you exchange money for tokens in some of them to play or just get a stash of coins and get stuck in. There are some really cool machines to play on that you just don’t get here in the UK, like huge Star Wars space pods and multi-player robot fighting games. Even I would say though, it can get a bit much in these places with the lights and music. Before you leave make sure you get your photo taken in a Purikura booths, where you can have eyes like barbie and pose as vomit inducing sweethearts! Such a laugh! Only in Japan! I would be careful about going into any of the Maid Cafes, they are based on Cosplay Restaurants and originally were quite harmless fun, but they have grown to become pretty seedy and not something to be entertained at times; but of course that’s your choice! You can eat pretty cheap around this area too. There are loads of small noodle shops/ramen places, that you can get some noodles and tempura for around 800 yen, which is about £6. Also there are lots of burger and pizza places around this area if you are after a bit of western food. Also if you are after a bit of peace amongst the chaos, the head over to Kanda Myojin, an ancient shrine specialising in pleasing the gods of geekery. It’s actually really old, 730 AD and has some extraordinary buildings. You can get a digital blessing here, which kind of tops of your Akihabara visit! Oh and there is a photo of the giant Gundam statue below, which is in located over in Tokyo’s Odaiba waterfront, that I haven’t talked about in this post but worth including a photo as it was awesome! I’ll save that one for another time though.
If you can go when the matches are on then definitely go see a Sumo Match in Tokyo. The tickets range in price from where you sit and are pretty easy to book but not so easy to physically get! We were meant to collect ours at a 24/7 shop but the (very helpful) employee couldn’t get the tickets off the machine, plus we can’t read Japanese! We ended up going to the stadium in the end in great hope and managed to get our tickets straight away! It can be difficult to get past some of these hurdles with the language barrier but the Japanese so eager to help you so that nothing is really a problem in the end. It is considered honourable to be able to help another, so whats not to like about that. With Sumo matches you need to check when the matches are on (like any sport), but if they are, then they are basically on ALL day. Yep all day long, it’s amazing. The lower ranking matches start first, at this point you can sit where you want; like right down the front. Shoes off of course! Take Bento boxes and beer, this is normal! Then when it starts to fill up you will need to move to your allocated seats and then the more higher ranking matches start. You’ll see loads of matches as they only last for minutes at a time. Once a competitor is pushed out the ring thats it, game over. I think we stayed for about 6 hours in the end. Great way to relax and rest your feet for an afternoon. The rituals that the priest does before each match are some of the oldest in the world and haven’t changed since the sport began. There is also a little museum in the Tokyo Stadium which explains a bit more about it. Like why they slap their thighs… to warn off evil and they turn their palms face up after to show the gods that they hold no weapons. Fascinating!
Are you into Ghibli Studio films? Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, to name a few! Then the museum is a MUST see. It’s near enough a day trip, go early and then spend the afternoon around Inokashira Park. The museum itself is located in Inokashira Park in Mitaka, a western city of Tokyo. It is a beautiful museum, totally dedicated to its craft. Featuring internal and external spiral staircases built from iron, interior bridges, and balconies stretching throughout the building’s height. These stairways lead to exhibits, dead ends, and across bridges. These characteristics are meant to reflect Miyazaki’s building designs displayed in his film work. There is even a replica Cat Bus there! You need to book before you go (or even before you fly I would say), tickets are limited per day. It’s actually a really nice way of crowd controlling, but really can’t just turn up. Most of the parks sell ice cream across Japan in vending machines, so don’t be afraid to try them. There is a whole host of items you can get from the vending machines in Japan but that could be a complete separate post! Try the little cafes as most of them will do matcha green tea and also green tea ice cream, which is delicious. I seem to remember most of them are like 99’s but with green tea flavour mixed in! Unfortunately (and on purpose!) you can’t take photo’s at the museum, but in a way thats quite nice.
Ok firstly Japan’s gardens are the best in the world. FACT. The Japanese are so focussed on details that when it comes to the maintenance of the gardens, even if you aren’t into nature, then you would still be super impressed. I LOVE wondering around National Trust Properties in the UK and I’ve got a list of Botanical Gardens I’m trying to tick off too, so having all theses gardens at your disposal in Japan made me very happy. They hold so much history too. Shinjuku Gardens is just one of them and very nice to walk around. It used to belong to the Imperial Palace and actually only opened it’s grounds to the public in 1949, so it’s a garden fit for Royalty! It also boasts an impressive Botanical Garden too, although we never got round to seeing this, we ran out of time. Watch the open/closing times! It’s another place to take lunch via a bento box, and sit under the trees to have lunch. You can pick decent bento boxes up everywhere, the Japanese don’t really each sandwiches! The train stations have good options for bento boxes, they are like little works of art too; neatly presented and a lot of them don’t have any raw fish in, it all tends to be cooked produce. Shinjuku is another firm favourite hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) spot, so you can come across large crowds during cherry blossom season, the park is large enough though to accommodate that and still gives you a break from the hot and bustling streets of Shinjuku.
Shibuya is constant and definitely the place to go late afternoon and spend an evening here. Its has an electric energy about it and a great atmosphere after the sun sets. Make sure you go see the crossing, it’s mental! There is no time for stopping on it, it turns back into traffic in no time! Again, there is a Starbucks (Japan’s Starbucks are pretty epic in themselves, the design is pretty unique depending on their location!), right on the crossing that is really good for viewing points for the crossing and from what I remember the railway station had a good view point too. Both look down on the crossing. We didn’t do too much here, as we were using it more as a base, but there is always a buzz about the place. There is also one of the best-known stories about a dog in Shibuya. The story of Hachikō, a dog who waited on his late master at Shibuya Station every day from 1923 to 1935, eventually becoming a national celebrity for his loyalty. Cute! The fashion here is amazing to see. Japanese girls and women are so well turned out. They really take pride in their appearance. Mostly wearing giant heels, how the hell they walk in some of them all day is impressive, and I say that as people generally do walk and use public transport. Our system is totally shameful in comparison. I guarantee you’ll end up turing into a little bit of a train geek too, all the noises and sounds. Each station has its own unique song and theme! It’s great for a night out, lots of brand name shops if that is your thing and famous for it’s karaoke! You can hire booths and take in alcohol and be as loud as you want. Halloween is meant to be especially good around here! The Japanese LOVE to dress up and party! There are some cool tattoo places around here too.
Tokyo Sky Tree
If you want to get some amazing views across the city, then go up the Tokyo Sky Tower; it’s the second tallest building in the world, after the Burj Khalifa. Boasting absolutely amazing views across the city. Even I was brave and didn’t have a panic attack. I don’t like heights at all and this place definitely makes you gasp! There is a section of glass floor just to warn you, but you can avoid it easily enough. It can be pretty hazy in Tokyo as well, which will obviously have a bearing on the views, but you should still be able to see the immediate view in front of you. It has its own train station so it’s not difficult to find either!
Ok. This is my ultimate favourite city in Japan and so far perhaps the world. It is a beautiful place full of history and it somehow enchants you. Your senses are filled with the old world of Gion and the new of the Kyoto Station. If you want to make the best of this place, you need 5 days here. There is a lot to see, and a few day trips just out of the city. There are loads of temples and castles to see around here, most can be viewed in half a day too. There is also a really cool Pokemon shop in one of the shopping plaza’s, which if like me you are obsessed and a collector you’ll want to visit there, Japan’s “toy” shops are epic! I’m trying not to go full nerd on you here and keep this whole post suitable for all, but also in Kyoto there is the Manga Museum to visit as well, it’s a slightly odd place but goes through the history of comics/graphic novels in general and its collection comprises of 300,000 items includes such varieties as Meiji period magazines and postwar rental books.
Kinkaku-ji, or Golden Pavilion in Kyoto.
Definitely go here. It’s a Zen Buddhist temple thats been rebuilt a lot (like most of Japans temples). This is just such a wow moment, the Pavillion is surrounded by the most calm silky water, that reflects the golden shimmer of the gold leafed walls. The gold employed was intended to mitigate and purify any pollution or negative thoughts and feelings towards death and it definitely did that for us! It is beautiful. As with most of the iconic sites it can get busy… My advice, ignore the crowds and go for a whisked green tea here. The Golden Pavilion is set in a magnificent Japanese strolling garden; a landscape garden in the go-round style. The location implements the idea of borrowing of scenery (“shakkei”) that integrates the outside and the inside. Most people walk past the little stalls selling it freshly whisked green tea. Don’t. Just sit and take it in instead, do some forest bathing here. Look up and around you. You won’t regret it.
Another World Heritage site which will take about half a day to walk around. Like many temples and castles it has been rebuilt many times due to fires and war, but the original designs still tend to stick. This castle is pretty ornate and has very impressive gardens. It has several gardens and groves of cherry and Japanese plum trees and again if you go in Cherry Season, put this one on your list. We ignored the crowds and went into a little side restaurant in the grounds, amazing that so many people ignored this gem! We sat outside and had hot noddles for lunch overlooking one of the gardens, that had running water coming in from the moat that surrounds the castle fortification. It was just so peaceful and picturesque. Most of the cherry trees are clones too, but the trees that are here are very old and there is an officially blossom season declarer that inspects the trees here to say, the season has begun. I can’t remember what he’s called now! That said if you want to see the Cherry Blossom, you really have to become a bit of a weather watcher. We waited and waited to book our Spring trip and I feel so lucky to have been able to have seen the blossom at it’s best!
This is a Buddhist temple in eastern Kyoto. This temple has amazing views and architecture. Like most they take about half a day to go round. It’s a very old temple, originally dating back to around 778! There is not a single nail used in the entire structure. It takes its name from the waterfall within the complex, which runs off the nearby hills. Kiyomizu means clear water, or pure water. There are a few brightly coloured Pagoda’s here, all of which are stunningly intricate. I have a bit of a thing for dragons and there are also some really amazing guardians here around where you cleanse your hands, and the iron work on the lanterns is so impressive.
This is really good for an afternoon wonder, the long corridors of shops seem to never end. Buy some snacks and take your time shopping. Roasted chestnuts are the choice of snacks (if in season), you eat them out a little bag, hot from the oven! The little bag also has instructions on them for various origami shapes too. The Japanese love chestnuts, you’ll find them in a lot of dishes. Along the market, you’ll find fresh tea shops, loads of silk print shops, all the fish galore including some good oyster selections, hand crafted knifes, tiny tiny book shops and much more. Really good for shopping and gifts!
This place. So amazing. If you imagine traditional Japan then this most likely the picture you’ve got in your head. If you love the old romantic feel of wooden buildings and traditional inns then explore this place. I would suggest going late afternoon, as the atmosphere changes at night plus you’ll see lots of Geisha around here. The geisha in Kyoto do not refer to themselves as geisha; instead, they use the local term geiko. While the term geisha means “artist” or “person of the arts”, the more direct term geiko means essentially “a woman of art”. They are happy for you to take their photo but you must ask as a lot of them are working. The Shirakawa Canal runs alongside the streets and makes the whole place pretty unqiue; dividing the cobbled streets up. Its another great place to view Cherry Blossoms too. We found a fantastic Takoyaki bar here, 3 seats in the whole place and thats all they cook! It’s really common in Japan to move from place to place, small plates a glass of sake then onto the next place! We also went into some speak-easy type bars, there is a fantastic French inspired one towards the end of the canal too. The cocktails in there were amazing and came with theatricals! Again this is a place to utilise the Foursquare app.
Definitely a day trip of walking, in the park alone we did 8 miles. We took a bus and then a train to Nara which was about 45mins away from our hotel in Kyoto. Then we got another bus to Nara Park where it was about a 10min walk to Tōdai-ji temple, the worlds largest wooden building which houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha. There are over 1,200 wild sika deer roaming the park which are said to be sacred as one of the four gods from the shrine within the temple appeared on Mt. Mikasa-yama riding a white deer. Quite an entrance! They are quite bullish but oh so cute! You can buy crackers for them, which they absolutely love to eat but it’s like catnip for deer! The school kids go a little crazy over it all! The deer can be polite if they choose and they are known to bow if you offer them a cracker. The park is so beautiful. Full of small gardens and waterfalls, all landscaped differently and then left for nature to take over. We decided to walk back to the train station seeing a little more of Nara along the way, it’s very quaint, the streets were so clean and all the drain covers are beautiful ironworks of the deer! Go get some ramen for tea, there are loads of options around the area and it replaces much needed liquid, washed down with a cold beer!
Fushimi Inari Shrine
This shrine that everyone should recognise, it’s famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates! Fushimi Inari Taisha is the head shrine of the god Inari (RICE GOD!), located in Fushimi Ward in Kyoto. The shrine is just outside the Inari Station on the Nara Line (JR), a five-minute ride from Kyoto Station. Its such a fascinating sight to see, and old, so old! These gates date back to 711 A.D! There is said to be over 10,000 Torii gates, each one bearing the donors name; giving thanks for their prosperity and in hope of good fortune in the future. We did the whole hike which probably took us over 4 hours in total; with some stopping to take photos. Many, many photos! Take a bottle of water with you in your backpack, obviously not much around in the hike up to the top. Its really busy until the half way point and then most people turn back. If you can I would highly recommend to keep going. You’ll find yourself alone amongst the brightly colours gates, just think of all the feet that have travelling underneath you. The history here is mind-blowing. Be warned, you’ll absolutely get wobbly legs coming back down which is daunting on the uneven cobbled steps, but easily fixed by huge bowl of ramen after, with extra noodles! Loved doing this.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
This delightful sight is another day trip out of Kyoto; take the JR Sagano Line from Kyoto Station to the Saga-Arashiyama Station – the journey is around 15 minutes from the station, it is around a 10 minute easy walk to the bamboo forest. This place is one of the most popular sights in Japan so it gets incredibly busy. There are lots of recommendations to go super early, but we were too tired for that but I think if you’re keen to get shots of this place without others around, then definitely do go early! Arashiyama is a pretty little town, with lots of craft shops and traditional sweet shops. You’ll walk over a wide bridge to get there, that protects you from the Oi River, with the backdrop of Mount Arashi (Arashiyama). A beautiful welcome and I think this sight and bridge area has been used in many historical paintings. It was raining when we went to visit the Bamboo which made it difficult to take in the full effect of it but it’s astounding to see, even more so is the Temple before you walk into the grove. The Tenryu-ji Temple is impressive, the gardens are truly beautiful and it’s easy to see why it’s considered one of the top 5 Zen temples in all of Kyoto. The grove is a little deceptive, you think it’s this massive walk way but it’s quite tiny. We were a little disappointed, but still really glad we got to see it, the temple beforehand makes it a complete package. Take a break at the end of the Bamboo walk and grab a steamed bum and a hot Yaki-Imo (Baked Sweet Potato)!
Kurashiki & the Bikan Canal
We arrived and travelled to from Kurashiki from Hiroshima via the bullet train, it took about hour and half altogether, with a short trip to the hotel via a taxi. We stayed at a very nice hotel, we actually felt a bit out of place when we rocked up… bear in mind the first time we went we were practically backpacking! We got a lovely gift from the hotel here (not an uncommon event!), of two porcelain turtle chopsticks rests. We were only 5 minutes from the Bikan area. This is an old merchant quarter. It contains many fine examples of 17th century wooden warehouses (kura) painted white with traditional black tiles, along a canal framed with weeping willows and filled with koi. The area has no electric poles in order to make the area more closely resemble the look of the Meiji period! It was beautiful; very romantic setting with a feeling of being untouched. We walked around the canals and had coffee and cake, a Japanese cream tea effectively, freshly baked hot scones! We decided to stick with the Bikan area for dinner as it was very scenic, so we found a noodle place. Hilairous! We were the only ones in there and it was a good job as it was cook your own noodles, with add your own seafood and absolutely no English, we made a little mess sorting ourselves out with this but had a good laugh in the process! A great place for a bit of rest from the busy cities.
Another city where there is loads to see and a total foodie place too. If you want to eat sushi, do it here! We had some the best sushi in a random side-street local place! Always a good tip if you see a place filled with Japanese!
It’s pretty easy to get to, it’s a five-minute walk from Osakako Station on the Osaka Municipal Subway Chūō Line. It is one of the largest public aquariums in the world, with a total volume of 10,941 tons of water!! The largest tank is 30 ft deep and holds 5,400 cubic metres of water and a variety of fish including manta rays and whale sharks. Oh the whale sharks! They were so gracious, probably my favourite! Most of the habitats are from the Ring of Fire area from the Pacific Ocean. I’m not one for Zoos preferring to see my animals in the wild, but there are some cases where conservation is better than destruction and even extinction. Japan has a bad reputation in the case of whaling too, but we need to remember not to tarnish all with the same brush and end up boycotting the positive research that is being done at this centre. At the aquarium you’ll see turtles, jellyfish and seals too! Then seals loved the attention from behind the glass, generally it’s just one big game of swimming as fast as they could past you, occasionally stopping to stare! We spent about 3 hours here and totally got pulled into the gift shop, couldn’t resist buying something whale sharky!
Come back to the main drag in Osaka on the night time and spend some time around the Dontonbori Bridge. Walk across the Dōtonbori bridge and along the river, there are loads of food places around here. This place was a former pleasure district and was famous for its historic theatres, which have sadly all gone now. It’s full of shops and restaurants, and its many neon and mechanised signs. It was very influential in for Blade Runner and the aesthetics. It looks like daytime at night, it’s so bright! Great for a night out.
Nipponbashi, aka DenDen Town & Umeda Sky Building.
This is basically Osaka’s answer to Akihabara and probably not for everyone, more retro game hunting! The area is filled with shopping arcades and alleyways filled with tiny shops selling all kinds of electronics components and specialty electrical goods. Plus a bit of manga for good measure. We spent an entire day wondering around here, then on the evening we ventured to Umeda, to go up the Umeda Sky Building. This is not for the faint hearted. It consists of two 40-story towers that connect at their two uppermost stories, with bridges and an escalator crossing the wide atrium-like space in the centre. I got to the escalators and couldn’t go any further, it was ridiculously high and the escalators are practically transparent (google it!). I had to send my brave husband the rest of the way to the rooftop observatory whilst I sat on the floor as my legs refused to work. He said it was amazing but quite knee wobbly as the roof was open with just a piece of glass around the edge! He brought me some postcards of the view and that was good enough for me; I closed my eyes the entire way down in the lift too! If you venture back outside at the base of the towers, as there is an urban garden with walking trails and water features, it looks really juxtaposition on a night with the softness of the plants against the cold steel of the building. If you go down into the basement you’ll find an underground market that attempts to recreate the atmosphere of Osaka in the early 19th century. It’s quite strange! We had researched a restaurant that is renown for cooking Okonomiyaki; a Japanese savoury pancake containing a variety of ingredients e.g. pork, shrimp veggie etc it was delicious! Especially with several cold Kirin beers!
The castle is another of one of Japan’s most famous landmarks and it played a major role in the unification of Japan and setting up a government rather than the waring Shoguns! The history here is quite fascinating and they have some great examples of Samurai Armour and Swords. The castle is easily accessible from Osakajōkōen Station on the JR West Osaka Loop Line. It is a popular spot during festival seasons, and especially during the cherry blossom again, when the sprawling castle grounds are covered with food vendors and taiko drummers. The site has also been used in a few films, Godzilla and James Bond to name a couple! Climb all the way to the top for great views over the city and an impressive gold fish with a dragon like-head is called a shachihoko. They were placed on the roofs of gates and castles as they were believed to help prevent fires. According to old Japanese legends, if a fire broke out, they would spit water out of their mouths onto the flames!
Universal Studios, Osaka
A great day out, if not a little expensive. I think if you watch when the kids holidays are you’ll be pleasantly surprised how quiet this place can be. We didn’t have to que for very long on any of the rides. It’s pretty central to Osaka, about 30 minutes via two trains and of course it had its own stop too. The Terminator ride/show was a little bizarre…like a pantomime terminator. He’s behind you! Weird! I think one of the best rides for me was “Hollywood Dream” a totally crazy roller coaster where you choose your own music to listen to as you go round! It was a real shame that the biohazard/resident evil ride wasn’t on but we still grabbed a zombie photo shoot and some other swag! It was a long day that mainly consisted of an ice cream diet and laughing at the kids running away from the animatronic dinosaurs they brought out at the Jurassic Park section to exercise! Plus there is also a Harry Potter section there now. A great fun day out, I didn’t really take many photo’s though. just enjoyed the rides!
Both these places were amazing experiences! Most people are aware of the tragedies that Hiroshima suffered; mainly being the first city targeted by a nuclear weapon, when the United States Air Force dropped an atomic bomb on the city at 8:15 a.m, on August 6 1945, near the end of World War II. I would say the Hiroshima site and museum takes a full a day to go round. Take your time there. It’s unbelievable. And sad. We only had one day here and really an afternoon to do this and it wasn’t long enough. I would probably recommend staying overnight. It is ironically a beautiful setting now and has so much history in one place. Its often quite busy with a few school trips. The kids are very polite although noisy!! They tend to come up to you and ask you questions in English to practise the language and then present you with little gifts. Like an origami crane. They bring bunches of paper cranes to hang on the structures. In Japan, the crane is a mystical creature and is believed to live for a thousand years; which is obviously why I have one tattood on my wrist! Traditionally, it was believed that if an individual folded 1000 origami cranes, your wish would come true. It has also become a symbol of hope and healing during challenging times. The Atomic Bomb Museum is extremely educational and shocking. Such power used in such an incredibly devastating way. It’s a little scary to think that we still haven’t learnt from the past. Beautiful memorials and bronze statues. I brought a book in the museum as I just didn’t get time to reading all the information that there is.
Miyajima, and a traditional Ryokan
From here it is really easy go to the ferry and spend a night or two on the beautiful island of Miyajima, watch the ferry times though! Go and see the floating tori gate (Itsukushima Shrine) and spend a little bit of money staying in a traditional Ryokan, We stayed at the Iwaso Ryokan (where the president stayed in the same room!) and had a traditional served meal, this was amazing. Not cheap though but if you are going to experience a traditional inn it’s a nice place to do it. We went up high into the mountains on these very narrow roads that our driver seemed to make light of. I remember when we got there, they wouldn’t let us lift a finger! We both felt quite bad as these beautiful and tiny (but feisty!) Japanese women insisted on carrying our backpacks and they are about 20kg each! We had to let them take over as it would have looked very rude and impolite. We went here around the start of Autumn and all the windows looked out onto the maple forest which had just begun to turn golden. The first time we went to Japan we were on our honeymoon, so this little Island trip was pretty special as honeymooners! I remember clearly we were invited to freshen-up either via the hot spring baths or private bathroom then wear the traditional robes called Yukata including the Japanese socks and clogs! It’s common to stay clothed in these if you stay at traditional inns. We had a private dining experience in our room with our Maiko tending to our every need. I would highly recommend in some form doing this. It was a traditional Japanese meal with about 9 courses, mainly fish dishes. They then finished serving they make up your bed, although not before we went and had a dip in the hot springs first! Separately of course, as sexes aren’t allowed to mixed as you have to go in the springs naked. The whole ryokan was such a brilliant experience, full of tradition, luxury and even more appreciation for Japanese culture. On the island you can do a hike up and around the Itsukushima waterfall. You will definitely start to understand and appreciate where the beauty of the 6 elements of Japanese gardens comes from by visiting this wonderful place!
Yet another beautiful journey here. Music on, winding through the Alps, rocking with the train! We saw some impressive dams, ravines and waterfalls. Trains are surely the only way to travel in Japan. Our hotel had such an impressive view, with the mountains protecting the city and the train tracks beneath. We spent the afternoon exploring Matsumoto and it’s Castle. Matsumoto Castle is also known as the “Crow Castle” because of its black exterior and is one of Japan’s oldest Castles (over 500 years). It is a work of art! We stayed here watching the evening light change on the castle’s walls for quite a while before grabbing some Soba noodles. Matsumoto is known for it’s noodles, in particular their soba noodles are famous and they hold regular cooking competitions at the Castle! Just north of Matsumoto is the world’s largest wasabi farm too. Apparently, Wasabi can only be grown in extremely clean water so there is much local pride in this product. Matsumoto is a fascinating little town and we would have loved to have stayed longer, but we only had the one night. I would probably suggest 2-3. I managed to buy a relatively cheap antique Kimono too, something I had hoped to find on our travels! There are lots of tiny little traditional streets with shops that look as though they haven’t changed for centuries. A very peaceful place.
Yudanaka (snow monkeys) & Obuse
We travelled from Osaka to Yudanaka to see the Snow Monkeys, experience a Sake Tasting, and to wonder round the hot spring town, adventuring to Obuse to visit the Hokusai Museum and generally eating amazing food! Yudanaka is quite a small town that’s part of a ski resort, there are loads of them around here as it’s next to a mountain range with one of the longest sky runs in the world! We stayed in a hostel, but we have our own private room with ensuite. It’s a lovely hostel, not exactly what you think of when you imagine hostel! It just looks like a Ryokan really. The owners are super friendly and like to chat and help you however they can.
We got a personal guide for the Snow Monkeys as it’s recommended and a bit easier for travelling round, and even though David (who was American) was great and very knowledgeable you could totally do this area without a guide. First he took us to the Snow Monkey Park. What a strange place! Basically the monkeys live in the forest but kept coming down to use the local hot spring that was for humans this was a long time ago… so the inn owner built them their own pool and they’ve been coming ever since and because of that it’s turned into an accidental tourist trap! It’s a really small pool, we thought there would be a few but it’s just one small pool. It was quite warm the day we visited so unfortunately not one of them ventured in the water, as it’s about 40 degrees! It was great seeing them and learning about the other wildlife. I imagine to see the whole place in the winter with the snow would be quite something, perhaps better than the time we went! It was a really beautiful walk to get to them, through a forest of cedar trees. Our guide took us to a local udon noodle place for dinner, oh my the food was amazing! Broth and noodles with a poached egg in. Very good and they accommodated my diet too. I will eat a bit of fish but generally I’m vegetarian and dairy free. We went to a free sake tasting in a tiny little brewery. The owners/family used to paint and change the paintings to suit the season, so there were beautiful hand painted silks hung up. It was really interesting learning about the sake brewing process too. It’s quite an acquired taste, so it was good find out more as I’ve now discovered which sakes I don’t like and why! We went to an old hot spring town; 1,300+ yrs old called Yamanouchi. It’s famous as the Samurai used to visit here during all the civil wars to heal their wounds in the hot springs from war! Dan, our guide was explaining it’s quite run down and forgotten about, which was evident. Such a shame as the river runs right through it and you can see it’s old beauty, apparently a lot of these old towns in the north are the same. We then went for a foot bath which was SO nice. These hot spring baths are dotted around all over the town. We found out there is one right by the station where we’re staying. Our guide dropped us back and recommended we grabbed a cold beer from the shop and went and soak our feet, so we did just that and chatted the night away!
Obuse (pronounced as though it sounds French!)
Fantastic, very traditional little town where the famous artist Hokusai (the wave) spent a large portion of this life. Hokusai walked to here from Tokyo! WALKED. It is something like 240km, plus he was 70 when he did that! When he was here he made it his final home and it’s here that he painted “the wave” amongst other famous pieces. We went to the museum which was great to see his original works, especially as it was just about to be sent to London for a few years. He was an absolutely amazing painter, he vision and tonal palette is really quite something to see. Especially when you think a lot of the paintings were created by wood blocks. Obuse is a lovely town too, a very well looked after town where everyone has open gardens that you can wonder round, perfectly preened little gardens!! We went to another mini sake tasting here and then also stumbled upon a fresh coffee and patisserie cafe. It was so tiny, but did the most delicious cakes. Don’t be afraid to try all these places. We often share snacks and treats so we can keep exploring and keep the price down! We also tried miso paste that you can buy by the barrel and wondered around the craft shops. There was an exquisite paper shop that made these really fragile paper mobiles, I would have loved to have brought one back but I don’t think it would have faired well in my suitcase! We also had lunch in the sake brewery where they cook the catch of the day by charcoal grill and the rice in large kiln! Very very nice!
A quick stop-over at Takayama
We only stopped here as a bit of a in-between travel journey on our first trip. If I remember right this was following Osaka, we were making our way over to Mount Fuji. The day was mainly spent travelling to Takayama via bullet and local trains. It take about 4.5 hours in total from Osaka. But, wow. The journey. Breathtaking sights winding up the Japanese Alps following the Kiso River (nicknamed the Japan Rhine!) and listening to the gears of the train. Just radiant; acid greens and serene mountain crisp running water. I remember taking a whole card of film and photos! Very easy on the eyes! The view from our room is incredible! It overlooks Takayama and the Alps. We also totally rearranged the room to take full advantage of it too! Aahh and relax. It was our wedding anniversary here so we decided to book a joint private hot spring, which sat right next to an open balcony looking out onto the alps. If spending your wedding anniversary in a hot spring bath in the Japanese Alps wasn’t enough then I’m sure a shooting star would top it off nicely. That was kind of an incredible moment. We also ventured into Takayama via the free hotel shuttle bus and then caught a local bus to the Hida Folk Village. This is an open air museum of close to 30 old farmhouses illustrating the traditional architectural styles of the mountainous regions of Japan. Many of the buildings were brought to this location from their original sites in order to preserve them. Kind if like the Black Country museum, ha! The village is very picturesque, as it is built on a hillside overlooking the Takayama Valley and surrounds a large pond. Some of the houses are nearly 500 years old, there are still workers there that keep the fires alight as it helps to maintain and preserve the wooden houses. It smelt great! Like winter with all the open fires! We then caught the bus back into Takayama and had a Hida burger (local beef) we walked around Takayama’s old preserved streets and brought some sake in a barrel!
This is a place I’d like to go to again and stay in a slightly different place, closer to the mountain. We stayed at Lake Ashi at a very swoosh hotel! I’m pretty sure we dropped the “honeymoon” word in where we can! Mount Fuji towers over the lake and our hotel. It was nearly dark when we arrived so we spent the rest of the evening chilling and enjoyed an extremely tasty French meal with a hearty bottle of red wine to wash it down! It’s not an easy place to get around unless you want to spend a silly amount sailing on a pirate ship on Lake Ashi; random! So we were forced to just relax and enjoy the view. Our hotel looks out onto Mt Fuji; which is an impressive 12,400 ft (Japan’s highest mountain) and is still highly active! Scientists are watching it’s every move as the pressure in the magma chamber is very high, but it could stay like that for centuries! It was quite rare to get a good view with all the mist this time of year but we did get to see the top of the mountain in all it’s glory. I didn’t want to put myself through the stress of the cable car so Dan ventured up the Hakone Ropeway on his own, which included a visit to the Sulphur Park (great boiling lake), avoiding the black eggs they cook up there! He said the views where impressive of the surrounding area but the views of Mt Fuji were actually more clear from our lakeside position, so I’m glad I stayed put! We spent our time here lakeside just relaxing in the shade under the huge trees with books and games! It was a tough!
There you have it! Our little Japanese adventure. I hope it proves useful for those of you that are thinking of venturing there but are feeling a little unsure on where to start. I am happy to offer advice on any other elements and give you links to hotels for example, but in general Japan is becoming more and more easier to travel round and its a fantastic cultural experience. For us our next adventure there would be to see some of the South Islands, down to Okinawa. Think Kill Bill!
Let me know what you think of the article and remember it’s just a collection of my thoughts on our adventure! Oh and I’ll be adding some Japanese prints onto my NEW Print Shop soon.