Written by Valerie Tkaczyk.
Japan has always been near the top of my travel bucket list and so I finally decided to plan a trip for my significant other and I. We planned to spend some time in Tokyo and Kyoto before departing from Osaka.
Before leaving for Japan, we decided to purchase the Japan Rail (JR) Pass. This pass is only for tourists and must be purchased before traveling to Japan from an authorized seller. It is a great deal and permits unlimited travel on many JR lines throughout Japan, including the bullet train (with some restrictions which I never had a problem with). Once you purchase the pass, you are mailed an exchange order, which you have to exchange upon arrival in Japan.
Trying to research rail times and routes was overwhelming, but after arriving in Japan, we realized that it was not so complicated after all. Almost everything we wanted to do and see in Tokyo was located close to a station along one of the JR lines that loops around the city, so it was very convenient. Our hotel was a 5 minute walk from one of the stations on that line as well.
Tip: There is a website (which also has an app) called Hyperdia, where you can research train times and routes.
Akihabara is known for its many electronics and anime shops. It was a good place for window shopping and people watching. This is also where we saw our first glimpse of plastic food replicas in restaurant windows, which we learned is quite common.
Senso-ji Temple is Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple. This was a highlight for us because a group of Japanese university students asked to give us a free tour to practice their English. After touring the temple, they took us for a traditional Japanese dessert and we walked around the area a bit to a park and lesser known temple.
Shibuya has a lot of shopping options, but we went to see the famed Shibuya crossing outside of the train station. It is thought to be one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in the world.
Harajuku is a great place for shopping and Takeshita-dori is a pedestrian-only street lined with fashion boutiques and cafes. Here is where you may be able to spot some interesting fashion statements. Harajuku is also known for crepes, which are rolled into a cone shape and filled with your choice sweet and fruity options.
Shinjuku is more of a business district, but the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building has an observatory on the 45th floor with free admission. If you’re lucky and it’s a clear day, you may be able to spot Mount Fuji in the distance.
After spending a few days in Tokyo, it was off to Kyoto aboard the Shinkansen (bullet train). We just happened to be taking the Shinkansen on its 50th anniversary, which I thought was cool. The Shinkansen we took was included with our JR Pass, so we didn’t have to pay any extra. It’s a good idea to reserve your seats at the station before proceeding to the train. The trip from Tokyo to Kyoto took only a couple hours.
Kyoto Station is not just a train station. It might sound silly for a train station, but it was quite the happening place! It is one of Japan’s largest buildings and it contains a shopping mall, many restaurants, galleries, department and grocery stores, a stage with staircase that can seat 5,000 people (which turns into a light show every evening), and a rooftop garden area with views of Kyoto Tower and the city.
Gion is a geisha district that we strolled down one night. Something that I wish we would have done (and will do next time) is to see a traditional Japanese artistic performance at Gion Corner. We decided we wanted to see a show when it was too late to get tickets. It is recommended to purchase tickets as soon as you arrive in Kyoto for a performance closer to the end of your stay. Tickets can be purchased at the tourist information center in Kyoto Station.
The Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) is a zen temple whose top two floors are covered in gold leaf. It is quite an amazing view to see in person.
Tenryu-ji Temple is a really cool temple that is built in a way that it is harmonious with nature. There are long halls with open walls so that you can view the beautiful Japanese garden surrounding the temple. Next door to Tenryu-ji is Arashiyama’s famous bamboo grove.
Iwatayama Monkey Park is a bit of a walk up a mountain, but it’s worth it to see the Japanese macaques. They are roaming around freely and you are allowed to feed them from inside a building. There is also a great view of Kyoto from the mountaintop.
Nishiki Market has five blocks of narrow shopping streets lined with mostly food items. It is interesting to walk through and see what the vendors have to offer (and maybe try something if you’re hungry!)
Nijo Castle was built as the Kyoto residence for the first shogun of the Edo Period. It is surrounded by a moat and has beautifully manicured grounds, but our favorite part was the nightingale floors, which were designed to chirp as an alarm system for ninjas.
Fushimi Inari-taisha (Shinto shrine) was probably my favorite thing we saw on the trip. The red arches (torii gates) are often thought of when people think of Japan. I didn’t realize until we got there, but the path is around 4 kilometers long and winds up the mountain. There are thousands of sub-shrines to view along the way. It was a bit of a hike, but well worth it.
Our trip to Japan was wonderful and we definitely plan to go back because there is so much to see and do. Next time, we would like to go back to Tokyo and Kyoto for more, but also visit Mount Fuji, Nara, and Koyasan for an overnight stay at a mountaintop Buddhist temple.