Sunday, August 6, 2017

Impressions from my Travel to Japan between Tokyo and Kyoto

If you are planning or dream to travel around Japan, you are in the right place. Here I tell you all about my trip of the ten magical days through this dreamland. It took me days to write this post. I wanted that it has all that can answer the questions and needs of a departing traveler (even in thought). I wrote it thinking of all the information that I wanted to find myself while I was organizing (and I have not found). Here is a nice practical Japan travel guide to plan your trip.

The cherry blossom is a magic. It cannot be felt without having lived it. Can you imagine, but it is different. I have seen for many years the pictures of bloom and has always been left speechless, but was always thousands of kilometers away from these new flowers, without really understanding it is an overwhelming and powerful spell.

We arrived in Japan in late March, when only a few flowers had timidly and prematurely popped up on the branches of Tokyo. Then, one day after the other, the magic happened. Just like in the cartoons the spell and a patina of glitter of the fairy's wand spread throughout. But with the flowers. And for real. A blanket of pink flowers was lying on Japan until they explode with color, energy, power, and joy.

The Japanese are crazy as they celebrated the hanami with picnics and parties under the trees, filled their mobiles with photos of flowers and their social selfies with cherry trees in the background. The women wore their beautiful kimono and made every magnificent view with their colors, their grace, and their elegance. These wonderful flowers sweep Japan day to day in a whirlwind of celebrations and joy.

Each temple became pinker and brighter surrounded by thousands of flowers. Each park seemed to be decked, every street became a watercolor. It's a magic, really. You cannot explain. I believe that Japan during the blooming of sakura is a special place, one of the special nature and man together they can give away. You don't believe. Go and see for yourselves.

I had never happened to travel to a place where really I did not understand even vaguely the sense of a speech or of a cartel. I speak English. In South America, North America, Europe, North Africa, Southeast Asia, I have never had any problems. In Japan, if a sign is in Japanese you won't understand even vaguely what it could mean. Because in fact, the worst part of not understanding anything is having to confess to the friendly Japanese who are trying to help.

When I first arrived I went to the airport ATM to withdraw the yen and the on the screen it was written in Japanese. Only a few buttons, in Japanese, were illuminated. I tried to push a few buttons, but nothing. I just looked around to see if I was the only one with this weird bubble of incomprehension. Everyone was a bit lost. Not that it was any consolation, it was just strange.

After a few days in Japan, you wonder really how many souls can live together in one country. There is the Japan with the temples, the zen, meditation, and introspection. There are the Japanese manga, anime, action figures and the maid cafe. There is the one of the thousands of neon signs, the intersection of Shibuya, the karaoke playing loudly in tiny soundproof rooms with phosphorescent drinks.

There is the tradition of the kimono, the onsen, the elegant gestures, and compounds, of the rituals. There is the Japan of the metro at rush hour, hordes of business man that flood the streets wearing all the same outfits that look like an invasion of Agent Smith of Matrix. And in the end, all these pieces, looking beyond the surface, meet, mingle, and create a unique, complicated, multifaceted, fascinating and elusive Japan.

The businessman goes to party after 6 pm under the cherry blossoms and finds himself there till 2 am in a karaoke with colleagues. And in the next room, there are the stylish girls dressed in kimonos. Even the manga shops of Akihabara have their own sacredness, like everything in Japan from the temples, the onsen to sushi. It is a mosaic that only makes sense with all its pieces.

The most absurd things in the world are all in Japan from soup of clams in cans, rice with chicken curry, rabbit shaped strawberry ice cream, café where you can caress cats, café where you can caress owls, bananas glazed and coated with sugar, Bar full of people all playing the same online game, shops just for cosplayers, where they sell clothes to dress up as manga or anime characters and toilets with more buttons than a spaceship.

Japan Travel Itinerary

As in all my post on the routes, below you will find the shortest route with schematic stages for each day so you can take a general look at the lap we did.

Day 1: Arrival in Tokyo - Night in Tokyo
Day 2: Tokyo - Night in Tokyo
Day 3: Tokyo - Kamakura + Tokyo - Night in Tokyo
Day 4: depart early from Tokyo - Nikko, arriving in Nikko in late morning - night in Nikko
Day 5: Starting early from Nikko - Kyoto, arriving in Kyoto in the early afternoon - night in Kyoto
Day 6: Kyoto - Night in Kyoto
Day 7: Kyoto - Nara - Kyoto - Night in Kyoto
Day 8: day in Kyoto, starting in the late afternoon towards Tokyo - Night in Tokyo
Day 9: Tokyo - Night in Tokyo
Day 10: Tokyo - back home (evening flight)

Day 1: Arrival in Tokyo - Night in Tokyo

Flights to Tokyo usually arrive around late afternoon, I landed at Haneda. Try to take a subway from the airport to the hotel (maybe ask for info while sending an email to the hotel as some have the shuttle at very good prices). Taking the metro on arrival is tiring, but I assure you that energy will be well spent. The taxi (I took myself) costs a lot, especially if you are alone. If you are four, it is fine, but just not really worth it unless it is late at night.

If you arrive in the late afternoon I suggest you leave the backpacks at the hotel and spend the evening in Shibuya for a first nice strong impact with Japan. If you too have wept hopeless tears for the story of the dog Hachiko, know that his statue is right in front of Shibuya Station and is easy to find as it is the one with the line of tourists to take the photo!

From the station continue to the Shibuya Center Gai intersection, the central lane of Shibuya. Enjoy wandering around the neighborhood randomly and let yourself be dazzled by the lights.

Day 2: Tokyo's Tsukiji, Akihabara, and Shinjuku - Night in Tokyo

Wake up at 3:30 am to go to Tsukiji Market to see the tuna auction. Have a nice breakfast of sushi.

At 9 am move to the Akihabara district and spend the morning here. Wander the narrow streets of the otaku neighborhood that is par excellence and explore the mega shopping malls. If you are fans of manga, anime or if you are a little nerd this is the place for you. When you're tired or you get hungry, take a break in a café. After lunch, take the metro and go to the Shinjuku district to spend the afternoon and evening.

First stop is the Shinjuku Gyoen Garden to see the cherry trees (remember that it closes at 4). From here move to the Government Building for a panoramic view of Tokyo. I advise you to go there in order to be on at dusk, so you do your calculations based on what season it is. In the evening stroll in the area of Kabukicho and Golden Gai, the center of Shinjuku.

Day 3: Tokyo - Kamakura + Tokyo - Night in Tokyo

Wake up early to be able to make good use of the day as all the temples close between 4 and 5 pm and this means that in the late afternoon you will have nothing to do. When you're ready, take the first train to Kamakura (from Tokyo it is about an hour drive). Bring some snacks for mid morning because you will have lunch later on. I advise you to stop for lunch along the paths that lead to Kamakura station, after visiting the three main temples. Otherwise, pack the lunch.

Get off at Kita-Kamakura and walk. You will see after 10 minutes the Engaku-Ji temple stop and enjoy it, then I advise you to also stop at Kencho-Ji. Continue to the south, to encounter the Hachiman-gū Tsurugaoka, the most beautiful of Kamakura in my opinion. It will take an hour to can see it around. Leave the temple to the center of the city to reach the Kamakura station. You can go to Wakamiya Dori, a narrow street full of shops, or Komachi-Dori, a large tree-lined street. I advise you to have lunch here.

After lunch, leave for the Kamakura station. Take a bus to Hasedera (almost all those taking a bus from the station are going to the Big Buddha, so it's easy to find the right bus, but at worst you should ask. You can just say Daibutsu and they will understand). Take the bus at the foot of the Great Buddha Daibutsu and then reach Hasedera by foot for 15 minutes.

From here return to Kamakura Station by bus (you can walk on the foot that takes half an hour, but on the road, there is nothing to see, so you can safely take the bus), and take the train back to Tokyo.

If you are still loaded spent the night in Shibuya in a nice karaoke! Once back at the hotel take the backpacks, and point to wake up early the next day you go to Nikko.

Day 4: depart early from Tokyo - Nikko, arriving in Nikko in late morning - night in Nikko

Even at Nikko, the attractions are mainly temples and temples close at around 4/5 pm. Unless you want to stay out you have to be active from early in the morning and then maybe go to bed at 9 pm, because the train takes about two and a half hours from Tokyo to Nikko.

Once in Nikko leave the backpacks at the hotel and walk towards the temple area, which is all close. It takes half an hour walk from the station. We made it on foot because we were curious to see the village, otherwise, you can also take a bus if you are a bit lazy (Nikko is not very special as a country).

First, visit the glistening red Shin-Kyo holy Bridge. Continue to the right and devote at least an hour and a half to the phenomenal Tonsho-Gu Sanctuary, where there is one of the temples with the three monkeys, so this shrine has become world famous. After Tonsho-Gu, based on the time you have left, go to the other temples Futurasan-Ji, the Taiyu-in, and Rinno-Ji.

For dinner, we ordered a typical kaiseki dinner with 13-course Japanese cuisine and after dinner, we were soaked in the steaming onsen throughout the evening. Then we go straight to sleep on the futon!

As I said, the same day you can also return to Tokyo, in the evening instead of staying for the night in Nikko.

Day 5: Starting early from Nikko - Kyoto, arriving in Kyoto in the early afternoon, the Higashiyama neighborhood South - night in Kyoto

If you were staying in Nikko it will take half a day to reach Kyoto (about 5 hours). You'll have to go by train to Tokyo with the path opposite of that of the previous day and then take a Shinkansen to Kyoto.
If you went back to stay in Tokyo, it will take two hours and a half to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto.

On the Tokyo-Kyoto route, after about 45 minutes, on your right side on a sunny day, you can see the silhouetted Mount Fuji. Choose seats along the window of the train on the right of the direction of travel.

Once in Kyoto eat something on the fly (we took some sandwiches as we reached the hotel and there we ate them walking with backpacks on our shoulders), leave the backpacks at the hotel and go to explore the city.

You have all afternoon available, but remember the temples closes at 4/5 pm. We chose to explore the South Higashiyama area.

We have reached by taxi (one of the few taken throughout the trip, but we did not want to miss a minute) to Shoren-In Temple which in the map is also found as Awata Palace, a truly unique beauty, especially its gardens with ponds, koi carp, the cherry blossoms and the sacred silence.

From there, walk down to the Maruyama-Koen Garden, which is especially beautiful during the cherry blossom season. Here girls in kimono pose for photographs in front of trees in bloom. Then stroll down the unmissable Sannen-Zaka to reach the magnificent Kiyomizu-Dera, one of the most beautiful temples that we saw throughout the trip in my opinion.

We were lucky because as it was the time of the cherry blossom, the temple was also opened in the evening and lit in a very suggestive manner. We wandered around the Kiyomizu-Dera for a couple of hours (the view of Kyoto is spectacular). And then from there, we climbed the hill and we spent the evening in Gion, the typical and historical neighborhood of Kyoto.

Day 6: Kyoto, Kyoto Higashiyama North and Central zones - night in Kyoto

In the morning we wake up early. We spent this day visiting North Higashiyama in the morning and early afternoon and Kyoto Central after lunch to evening. We reached the Nanzen-Ji complex. To visit it takes at least an hour, do not miss her gardens. From there begins a beautiful walk north along the Walk of the Philosopher, one of the most picturesque places in the city, especially during the cherry blossom season.

About half of this beautiful walk to the right following the signs we detour at the small hidden temple Honen-in. This temple, protected by vegetation and attention to detail, is unforgettable for peace that reigns. Forget the crowds of tourists and the overlapping of selfie sticks. In this temple, there is peace and serenity and is pervaded by an aura of sacredness.

Go ahead and reach the less sacred Ginkakuji with the official name that you find on maps is Jisho-Ji Temple. Go there because it is great, but expect an atmosphere definitely more earthly compared to Honen-in. Our next stop is the Nijo-Jo Castle, but remember that the last entry is at 4:30. If you're in good time, get on the bus and get to this impressive castle in the heart of Kyoto.

Since it was the season of cherry blossom, many places were also open in the evening and lit in a truly impressive way. We were lucky and we returned to enjoy the castle with evening lights. While we waited for the opening night we went to visit the Kyoto Imperial Palace Park. I advise you to go at sunset (if you were able to enter the castle go after the visit).

In this park, the cherry trees are wonderful with so many different shades of pink. If you have reached the park at dusk, it's amazing.

Day 7: Kyoto - Nara - Kyoto - Night in Kyoto

Rise early! I'm sorry but this time it is needed because the first stop of the day is the Fushimi Inari-Taisha that really gives its best in the early morning, and then you go on a trip to Nara. This wonderful sanctuary is located south of Kyoto, just in the same direction of Nara. From Kyoto Station take the Nara line and after 10 minutes you will be at the Inari station, right in front of the sanctuary.

In the morning all the small bars/shops/bakery are closed. We had breakfast at the mini-market in front of the Fushimi Inari-Taisha! Spend at least an hour at this shrine and enjoy the mystical path along the hundreds of orange torii. There is a special atmosphere in this place in the morning that vibrates and shines.

When you are satisfied at this special place, come back to the station and start at the Nara line towards Nara and in about an hour you'll be at your destination. Visiting Nara is very simple as the distances are small and can be done very well on foot. All the temples and shrines are concentrated within the park and the way to do it is fairly straightforward.

In addition, the center of Nara is very nice to visit and the walk from the station to the park is worth in itself. From Nara Station continue along Sanjo Dori, the main street of the city that leads straight to the park to Kofuku-Ji. It's a pagoda with 5 floors and 50 meters high (the second highest in Japan).

From here move on inside the park. It's time to meet the famous deer of Nara. In Japan, deer are considered messenger of the gods and are treated with the respect that it is up to their shape (until 1673 there was capital punishment for killing a deer and by the second half of 1900 the deer have gone from sacred to being worshiped and a national treasure to be protected. There are over 1200 in Nara.

Deer are curious but not at all shy. When they see the food they stop to think, and think only of eating. In particular, they are mad about the Shika Senbei that are sold in every corner of the park. If you want to experience the thrill of feeding the deer, buy a packet of these crackers.

After pampering the deer head towards the Isuien Garden and finally reach the monumental Todai-Ji. It is one of the most important temples of Japan, which houses a gigantic bronze Buddha, 15 meters high and weighing 250 tons. From here continue around inside the temples of the park, the Karakuni shrine, the Todaiji Nigatsudo, the Tamukeyama Hachiman-gu shrine, the Kasuga sanctuary and finally the Wakamiya shrine.

End your walk in the park and get back to the center of Nara. If you still have time you can stop at the incredible owl cafe, where you can caress each type of owl, barn owl, or while sipping a coffee! Get back then by train to Kyoto and go to bed early.

Day 8: day in Kyoto of the area Arashiyama and northwest of the city, starting in the late afternoon towards Tokyo> Night in Tokyo

Guess what? Wake up super early! Start the day at Arashiyama bamboo forest which is really a show early in the morning when it is still not overrun by tourists behind every barrel. Spend at least an hour with a nice walk in this natural temple. After this immersion in nature, we dedicate the day to 3 beautiful temples of the city, the Ryoan-Ji, Kinkaku-Ji, and Daitoku-Ji. From one to another move by bus, as they are well connected.

Reach the Ryoan-Ji first that will take a couple of buses from Arashiyama or Heavenly Dragon Temple, famous for its Zen garden. The garden is very beautiful. From there, move to the Kinkaku-Ji or Golden Pavilion. This temple is really sparkling and huge (it is covered with gold leaf), surrounded by a scenic lake and a landscaped garden. Certainly worth your while, despite being the most popular tourist spot of Kyoto.

Finally, the Daitoku-Ji. This is not only a temple but is a complex of temples that is vast. The best part, in my opinion, is the gardens. Keep at least a couple of hours to visit everything. Head back to the hotel to retrieve the backpacks and go to the station to catch the first train to Tokyo. You will arrive in the evening. Leave the backpacks at the hotel and if you are true warriors go for an evening at Roppongi as we did!

Day 9: Tokyo (1), the Asakusa area, Ueno and Yanaka, Shibuya - Night in Tokyo

Spend the morning at the Asakusa district. Stroll along Nakamise Dori (a strategic road full of souvenir shops) to reach the most famous temple in Tokyo, Senso-Ji. Enter the temple through the Thunder Gate, the giant super-red Kaminari-mon. Once inside you will see on your left the famous five-storey pagoda (particularly picturesque at night when it is illuminated).

Do not forget to take a omikuji (note of fortune) before leaving. Go to the drawers to the wall and look for the one with the corresponding kanji (or ask a Japanese). Open and take your note. Before lunch, move to the Ueno district. I recommend you a walking tour starting from the park, concluding the walk in the Yanaka district.

Ueno Park during flowering is one of the most famous places for the hanami. At the park there are several points of interest, you see how much time to devote in the Tokyo National Museum, National Science Museum, the National Museum of Western Art, Ueno Zoo, Kiyomizu Kannon-do, the Ueno Tosho-Gu Shrine. Even just a walk in here is still worth it.

To me, graveyards are not too friendly and in fact, I shudder from head to heels when I step inside. But in Japan, they are different and are experienced differently, almost as if they were a place of relaxation and peace. Some people stroll, some read the newspaper, some walk with the dog. And the sakura here is special. Yanaka Ginza is the center of food, the family-run restaurants, small workshops of artisans. It's your last night in Tokyo, so go to bed only when your knees don't allow any more.

Day 10: Tokyo Harajuku and central Tokyo - return home (evening flight)

This day we dedicated to the Harajuku district. The area is particularly famous for a lot of young flashy clothes. our first stop was at Yoyogi Park and Meiji-Ju. We caught the fog and rain, but this made it even more impressive and a unique park. After a long walk, we left the park and we dived into the heart of the most fashionable and colorful district of Tokyo.

Omotesando is an elegant wide and European avenue. Takeshita Dori is a delirious street, full of people, shops, and colors. Cat Street is a small street of boutiques, with neat and tidy architecture. Stop to eat at a place that inspires you and enjoy the last bit of Japan. In the afternoon, I recommend you take a walk to Kitanomaru Park, in the center of Tokyo, surrounded by a moat where they navigate the rowing boats. During the season of sakura, this is truly a magical place.

If you still have time do one last jump in the Tokyo neighborhood you liked best. We have been to Akihabara (where the geek in me would live forever and ever). And in the end, we went to take the plane back home.