Japan has been on “the list” for years. We wanted to experience a society that feels mysterious, and the juxtaposing of modern and ancient drew us in. When we decided to do a big trip, Japan was it. We would finally get to see this amazing country first hand.
Now what to do with 8 days in a country that offers a tourist so much to experience? From Sapporo in the north down to Yonaguni in the south, each city, each island, each prefecture, has its own personality and attractions. Eight days didn’t feel like enough, but we wanted to see as much as we could while setting our own schedule. Narrowing down what to do was difficult, but for our first (because there will be a next time!) trip to Japan, we focused on Tokyo, Hakone, and Kyoto.
We landed in Tokyo in the early evening, our driver-in full suit and white gloves (we would soon find this was standard for taxi and transfers) was waiting for us with our name on a sign board. The journey to the hotel was about an hour and a half, we flew into Narita Airport, which is further from the city than Haneda, but our flight
options were better into Narita. When we arrived at the Hilton Tokyo, in Shinjuku we decided to take a nap then go to dinner. We didn’t wake up until the next day.
We woke up obnoxiously early the next day and went to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market (it opens at 5AM and you should go before 9AM to see the bustling of the market). It was overwhelming how perfectly the chaos was organized. There were people on carts taking the morning catches to the vendors, locals doing their shopping, and wares and fish I didn’t recognize. We wandered and watched and then had sushi for breakfast, although we passed on having a beer with our breakfast like many of locals were doing.
From the Fish Market, we hopped on the subway and ambled down Takeshita Street. This street is full of Japan’s latest fashions. Young adults and tourists were popping in and out of the many clothing shops and themed cafes. The street is famous for their crepes-we had to stop and have one.
Just a few blocks from Takeshita is the Meji Shrine. As the path to the shrine rambled on, we stopped in our tracks upon seeing the first tori gate welcoming us, and it hit us-we were in Japan. Hours ago, we meandered through a district that is a pop-culture bellwether and crossed the street to a shrine that was built in 1920. At the Shrine, we sauntered through the grounds and the gardens. The gardens were so tranquil, we had no inkling we were in the middle of a metropolis larger than New York City.
From the Shrine, we ventured to one of Tokyo’s most photographed areas- Shibuya Crossing. Even though we were there before evening rush hour, it was packed. We observed this perfectly orchestrated bedlam before doing a few crossings ourselves. There is a Starbucks that overlooks the crossing for an elevated view.
Our last day in Tokyo, we started our sightseeing at Hamarikyo Garden. This is well planned garden, where the flower species are staggered so there are blooms all year long. The garden is full of lakes and teahouses and even a duck-hunting blinds built in the late 1700s. After admiring the gardens and having a bit of serenity before getting back into the city, we boarding a boat to take us north to Asakusa. The hour-long boat ride was a great way to see Tokyo from a different perspective. You could see how the neighborhoods changed from sky-rise buildings to smaller homes. We even got to see where the ships dock at the fish market.
A few blocks from the dock is the Sensoji Temple. The complex is huge, with building and shopping everywhere you turn. Walking into the main hall feels otherworldly and the five storied pagoda looms over you. After taking in all we could at the Temple, we took a short subway ride to Skytree. Although very touristy, I’m glad we fit this into our itinerary. Skytree is hard to miss, it’s 2,080 feet high and you can go to the top observation deck, overlooking Tokyo at 1,480 feet. On a clear day, you can see Mt Fuji. This could be an all-day experience, there is tons of shopping from chopsticks to Pokémon and the views are absolutely stunning. It’s hard to imagine how massive Tokyo really is until you’re at the top seeing nothing but urban landscape.
Hakone is a onsen (hot spring) town about an hour and a half from Tokyo for locals and tourists alike. It feels very rural compared to Tokyo and while it would take three days to see everything, but we only had one. On our way to Hakone, we stopped at Odawara Castle. This was one of my favorite stops in Japan. It’s beautiful and the town feels sleepy. The museum at the Castle was full of ancient armor and relics. After touring the castle, we walked back to the train station and after a short ride, we were in Hakone.
Trains and gondolas are the way to get around in Hakone. At each stop, there’s a little village with shopping, restaurants, and hotels. We only had time to explore one and we chose the Owakudani Station. What’s interesting about this stop, is that you go over a volcanic area with sulfur vents. The smell is overwhelming and the landscape is eerie. There is hiking you can do in the area and even eat a hard-boiled egg that cooked in the steam of the vents that turn the egg shells black. After exploring, we got back on the gondola and took it to our ryokan.
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn dating back to the 8th century. There are all kinds you can book, but this was our splurge. Upon arrival, we left our shoes at the door as the floors were covered in tatami mats. We were seated in the bar and given a welcome drink as were checked in. When we arrived to our room, our hostess showed us how to dress in the provided yukata (bathing clothes). Then we were left to relax in our private onsen on the balcony of our room overlooking the mountains until dinner. This was a welcomed treat as were averaging 12 miles a day on foot. We would soak until we were too hot, cool down with a beer, then get back into the onsen until dinner time. If you would like to experience a public onsen there are a lot of etiquette rules that I’d be ecstatic to share.
Dinner was served in our room, and each of the 9 courses were better than the last-even if we didn’t recognize what we were eating. After dinner and another soak, we slept on traditional futons. The next morning, we were served a traditional Japanese breakfast in our room, then said goodbye to Hakone and the wonderful ryokan. Our stay marked one of the best cultural experiences we’ve had to date. We were off to Kyoto by bullet train. We spent the evening in Kyoto and had the best tonkotsu I’ve ever tried.
It was an early morning as met our driver at our hotel to take us to Miyajima Island Hiroshima. We arrived via bullet train to Hiroshima, then ferried to Miyajima Island where the Tori Gate in the water welcomed us. This is another place I wish we had all day to explore, as the water receded, you could walk right up to the gate. The town had so many specialties restaurants-we had oysters-and there was so much more to explore and so many deer to pet.
After our time on the Island, we went to the A-Bomb Dome and began our tour of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. The A-Bomb Dome is sobering. As our guide let us take in the magnitude of which were seeing, she led us to the Children's Peace Monument, then the Museum. This day was certainly thought provoking and was wholeheartedly different then the wide-eyed days had already spent in Japan, I am fortunate we were able to absorb part of the history.
The next day, back in Kyoto, we took the train to Fushimi Inari. Stone foxes dominated the shrine, and everywhere you looked, there were orange tori gates-one after another- leading you to another part of the shrine. As we climbed up the mountain, there were offshoots of smaller shrines. The tori gates and shrines went all the way up the mountain. That evening, we were picked up from the hotel and taken to a restaurant across the city in the mountain foothills. The opened-air restaurant was situated next to the river, and after we were served another multi course meal, met two Maikos and watched them preform.
On our last full day, we ventured to Ryōan-ji Temple, dating back to 1450. We were there early-before the other tourists and school children, and it was so serine. You can wander the temple grounds, which takes you to a perfectly manicured rock garden. There are 15 rocks in this garden, and only 14 are viewable at any angle.
From Ryōan-ji Temple, we taxied to Arashiyama, which is just west of Kyoto. Arashiyama is an outdoor district where bicycling is popular. We began this part of our journey walking the paths of the bamboo forest and popping into the local shops that line the entrance and exists. From there, we found an amazing, small sushi restaurant for lunch. When my husband ordered the fatty tuna, the chef held the fish us for us to admire before slicing it. This was the best sushi we have ever tried and it took us months to have sushi after we came home-we were ruined.
It’s a good thing we had a solid lunch, because we then ventured to Monkey Park. You literally have to climb a mountain to get there. But when we made it to the summit, over 100 Japanese macaques were there to greet us. You can feed them from a building in the middle of the park but keep your distance when wondering the grounds! This is their home and they take no issue with running in front of you. Between being fascinated by the monkeys and the stunning views of Kyoto from the top of the mountain, the hike was worth it. We relaxed by the Togetsu-kyō Bridge taking in the gorgeous scenery until we made our way back to the hotel.
That evening, we wanted Kobe beef for dinner, and wanted to do it right. The hotel made us reservations (and delivered a package to our room with our reservation time, the address of the restaurant, and the best way to get there) at one of the best Kobe restaurants in Kyoto. The restaurant itself was very small-only seating about 15 guests. As the chef prepared our meal at the teppanyaki grill in front of us, he joked that he doesn’t catch eggs in his hat like the chefs in America.
The next morning was our last, and since our transfer wasn’t until the afternoon, we had time to explore Nijō Castle. We saw the shogun’s receiving rooms and gardens, then climbed the defense towers to get one last look at Kyoto before our flight home.
Our visit to Japan was one of our best trips yet. The culture, the people, the food, has left us wanting more. This didn’t feel like a vacation, it felt like we were transported to another world. We were able to come into contact with the ancient and modern of this country-happening all within the same day. Japan-we will see you again!
Carrie has many more stories to share of her journey to Japan! Contact her to learn more and begin planning your next bucket-list trip:
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