Being somebody who loves sushi , cherry blossom trees & all things kawaii (cute), it’s safe to say I was pretty excited when we booked flights to Japan between the 27th March – 12th April 2017 when the sakura bloom would be in full swing! We visited Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, Hiroshima, Hakone, Takayama, Kanazawa and back to Tokyo at the end before heading home.
The reality of cherry blossom season in Japan completely blew my expectations away. It’s taken very seriously (with good reason), there’s a sakura forecast online so you know exactly where you can view the best blossoms in Japan, there’s themed marshmallows, saki, beer, bath bombs & so much more. It feels as important as Christmas.
We flew from Edinburgh to Tokyo Narita airport via Frankfurt and the only way I can describe arriving in Tokyo is being pleasantly disorientated, it doesn’t take long to be in awe of this place & it’s where my love for Japan began…
We picked up our pocket Wi-Fi at the airport, an essential for me after taking one look at the Tokyo tube map. I’m used to the Glasgow Subway which has 15 stops in a simple wee circle!
We decided to opt for the JR pass to allow us to jump on the Shinkansen bullet trains & see as much of Japan as possible in the two short weeks we had, this has to be booked before arrival & you also pick this up from the airport.
We arrived at our hostel, the Khaosan Tokyo Origami in Asakusa which had a fun & friendly atmosphere from the moment we stepped through the door, the next thing we know we are heading out to sing Karaoke until 4am with a bunch of fellow hostel guests which was so much fun.
Over the next few days we visited the following places in Tokyo:
- Takeshita Street (yes, really) in Harajuku. This is a really funky area famous for it’s teenage culture & boutique fashion stores. I had to fight the urge to sing some Gwen Stefani! It was raining this day & with it being one of the busiest spots in Tokyo, the sea of brolly’s was quite a sight.
- 7-Eleven – this might seem like a strange one to mention, but this 24-hour grocery store was an absolute life-saver for food on the move during the day or after a night out, and they are EVERYWHERE. They are full of Japanese gems I’d never tried before, my favourite thing I discovered was the pork & egg rice balls (onigiri) which the cashier will even heat up for you in the microwave, they are delightful & my face lit up every time a 7-eleven had those little rice balls stocked on their shelves.
- Sensoji – this beautiful temple is round the corner from the hostel (another bonus), and is Tokyo’s oldest temple keeping you in touch with traditional Japan, even amongst Tokyo’s shiny new futuristic ways! I expected Japan to be stunning but the way this temple was so perfectly preserved still surprised me, and we still had Kyoto to come!
- Shinjuku – this is a shopping & skyscraper district which is home to the busiest railway station in the world. You shouldn’t miss Tokyo’s Metropolitan Government Building, as you can visit the 45th floor observation deck looking out onto the tallest buildings in the city, and it’s free!
- Tsukiji Fish Market – this was without a doubt my favourite part of our time in Tokyo. We went here to get sushi for breakfast and once I got over the idea that was a little strange, I will forever be a sushi snob following this visit. It was the freshest, most delicious sushi I have ever tasted made up by masters of their craft right in front of us.
I arrived in Japan’s old capital, Kyoto with high expectations and again, they were exceeded. I was so happy we had five nights here to explore, we were treated to a beautiful temple on every street and we were even lucky enough to spot some real Geisha’s which I was told was really rare when visiting Japan!
- The first side trip we did from Kyoto was Nara. I had the most amazing day feeding some of the 1,200 friendly/cheeky wild deer some crackers & explored the beautiful temples and of course the Great Buddha Hall – Todaiji. We met a lot of people who were giving Nara a miss but my advice would be to definitely go!
- Of all the many hundreds of temples we saw in Japan, my favourite was in Kyoto – Kinkaku-ji. This is a gold leaf covered Zen Buddhist temple surrounded by typically Japanese perfect landscaped gardens, and a mirror pond with the gorgeous temple reflecting in it.
- The next side trip we did from Kyoto was Osaka, the speed of the Shinkansen had us there in no time. We’d looked out our books & got comfy on the train, next thing we know we’re pulling up in Osaka ready to discover neon signs and a sea of people. Dotonbori (cover photo) was everything I expected from Japan in a nutshell, we had conveyor belt sushi because Osaka is where it originated and it’s safe to say I will never return to a Yo! Sushi again.
- We visited the Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shinto Shrine which I’d seen all over Instagram ahead of the trip & I was so excited to see it in person. It was a gorgeous sunny day & I was amazed at the amount of Torii Gates you hike through to get to the top & it’s a brilliant view over Kyoto which is an excellent reward! Don’t be fooled by this photograph though – I waited a long time not to get any other people in it , Fushimi Inari is a very popular spot so the earlier you get there the better to have it all to yourself (too much saki for us the night before).
- Another surprising highlight of Kyoto was the train station – the building is super futuristic and absolutely enormous, it’s an attraction in it’s own right with it’s LEDs lit steps to create awesome light shows.
We arrived in Hiroshima and headed straight to our Roku Hostel, another favourite from the trip. We had the most incredible Okonomoyaki in Hiroshima at a place called Hassei (my new favourite Japanese dish).
The visit to the Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima Peace Park and the Museum was absolutely haunting. There’s a Flame of Peace which will burn until all the world’s nuclear weapons are destroyed and the museum is so thought provoking by showing the extent of the damage caused by the bomb.
We also managed a little side boat trip to the tiny island, Miyajima in Hiroshima Bay, which to my surprise was full of more wild deer & of course the famous ‘Floating’ Torii Gate which is pretty spectacular.
Next, we visited the mountainous city of Takayama which is beautifully traditional, ornate and has even more amazing Japanese food discoveries I’d never tried before.
Hida Beef Buns – these are incredible wee fluffy buns filled with Tayakama’s famous & deliciously juicy, Hida Beef. Warning: these are ridiculously hot when you just buy them, watch out for burnt tongues all round!
Yakiniku – another Takayama Hida Beef discovery, this is Japanese grilled steak which you order & get to cook yourself (as rare as you like) on your own little BBQ.
We visited Kanazawa next & stayed in the perfect little place – Hatchi Hotel Kanazawa. The rooms were comfy, modern pods and the showers are unbelievable. A brilliant luxury after nearly two weeks in hostels (as fun as they are)!
The Kenroku-en gardens were my highlight in Kanazawa, so beautifully designed and well preserved. Japan made me wonder just how big a business landscape gardening must be.
Tokyo Round Two
Before we knew it, we were heading back to Tokyo for three nights & I couldn’t contain my excitement. I was so happy to be going back because we saved some special sights to the end before we had to head home!
- Shibuya – we headed to Shibuya to do some shopping, I picked up a popular Japanese branded Anello bag in an awesome one-stop-shop called Tokyu Hands which has pretty much anything you could ask for. We spent enough time in there for Shibuya to get dark so we could see it in it’s neon glory. The best thing for me about Shibuya is the world’s busiest crossroads. It was unbelievable standing here where over 1,000 people are thought to cross each time the lights change at peak hours, yet the incredible politeness of the Japanese doesn’t make it feel manic, stressful or like you’re an obstacle – we have a lot to learn from this country! I could have stood there watching all night but there was more sushi to be had.
- My friend said this photograph of me standing at the crossroad looked like a movie-still.
- Akihabara – another surreal experience, this is the Anime & Manga district in Tokyo where we saw so many unusual sights. Real life Mario Kart, cat cafe’s and rows & rows of naughty anime comics to name a few.
- Golden Gai – a few tiny alleys filled with closet-sized bars that used to be used for prostitution until 1958. We found a rock one where the owner “Johnny” played all the tunes we wanted.
- I’ll finish off with another food mention – my favourite Japanese dish, Ramen. I loved it before Japan & I love it even more now. I have no idea how they make it so good in Japan but any opportunity I got, I was in the queue for some good old noodle soup!
I hope you’ve enjoyed my little round-up of Japan, these really are just the highlights and were so hard to choose. I always like to make my own mind up about the places I go but I’m pretty sure you will love Japan just as much as I did.
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Much love & arigato gozaimas for reading!