Traveling to Japan is just simply like traveling to another planet. The feeling of being «logged out» from the real world is incredible. Japan is an unique destination, a place that will trap you since the first moment you land and will keep you dreaming awake until you get your plane back to your country. Japan will change your way of thinking, forever.
Let´s start talking about some basic tips that we should take into acccount when travelling to the country:
In Japan, people speak japanese. This could be something really obvious but despite other countries in south east Asia, the english language proficiency is extremely low and is only spoken in tourism influence areas. As soon as you leave the main cities, unless you have your text writen in Kanji in a piece of paper you will struggle to get yourself understood.
Japanese people are shy with the foreigners. Like it or not this is something that goes within the japanese culture. If you put this together with the language issue, you will easily understand that hanging out with the locals could be extremely difficult, even if you are an extrovert person. So at this point you just will need to accept it and embrace it. You don´t speak japanese and they don´t speak english. Despite this barrier the will try the impossible to help you out if you need it. You will be personally «escorted» to the place that you are looking for when asking for directions or you fill find yourself surrounded by 10 people trying to solve your problem. But said this, if you manage somehow to make friends with a japanese and he gets your into your social circle, then that´s another story. You will be able to see a new world of possibilities to explore the japanese culture.
Japanese people are tidy, meticulous and respectul up to a level that you will never be able to imagine. Forget about your concept of orderliness, as it will change completely as son as you land in Japan. The first time you see hundreds of japanese people in the underground at rush hour strictly following the «queueing» directions writen on the floor and you don´t know where to stand or when you arrive to this zebra crossing and everyone queues in strict order (and not remotely thinking about crossing the street even if there are no cars) you will know exactly what I am talking about. In Japan everything has a process and you will have to learn to follow it. It doesn´t matter if is about building a temple, wrapping a gift, a japanese will put all the existing efforts to ensure that he performs the task to achieve the highest possible standard. And this sometimes could be very shocking for the western cultures.
Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. This is something that you will see in every corner since you land in japanese soil. Police presence on the streets is almost unnoticeable and the severe criminal offences are practically unexistant. It doesn´t matter where and when you wander around in Japan, you will never feel unsafe, incredible, but true. The explanation to this phenomena can be found in two main reasons. The first one is that the penalties for criminal offences are very severe and the second and probably the most important one for them is the japanese mentality. A japanese who is planning to commit a felony is probably thinking more about the dishonouring and shame that this will carry rather than the penalty behind.
In Japan you can drink and eat safely everywhere. Those who have travelled around south east Asia know what I mean by this. As an example tap water in Japan is probably the one with the most thorough purifying processes in the world and even in those places where is not drinkable, there will be huge signs warning about it. Same rule applies to food, even the most humble restaurante located in a poor neighbourhood will meet the basic hygiene standards to avoid food poisoning so the risk of getting a «traveler´s diarrhea» is almost unexistant.
Japan is expensive: yes and no, all depends. The most expensive item in Japan is the tranportation (and this includes the flights, high speed and local trains, taxis…) and the accomodation. Excluding these main bits eating out and drinking are pretty much at the same level than any european city.
And now that we have done a brief introduction to Japan let´s get into the trip planning.
Although Japan can be visited almost anytime during the year is advisable to avoid winter time (January-February) unless your trip priority is winter sports because temperatures can be as cold as in Europe (or even more). June and July are also bad months as it tends to rain a lot. I travelled towards the end of May, begining of June and I have to say that the temperature was fantastic tending to warm. I had some eventual rainy days but overall the weahter allowed to fully enjoy the trip.
When it comes to this matter for me is as personal as the travelling decission itself. Depending on our priorities for the trip and the areas we plan to visit, we will need to plan our lugagge differently. Obviously is not the same planning to climb the mount Fuji or planning for mainly urban tourism. As a general rule my advice if you are planning to be changing locations frequently is to use a mid-size rucksack rather than a suitcase. You cannot imagine how happy, agile and free you can feel with your hands free as you see other people stuck with their wheeled suitcases everywhere. In Japan you get almost anything you want when it comes into drugs so I will only recommend to bring personal medication in case we need it and a «basic toolkit» not because is difficult to get some Paracetamol is because we won´t be able to explain it to the pharmacist.
The official currency in Japan is the YEN and the currency exchange (as January 2018) is 1 USD = 108,567.
When it comes to the budget requirements to plan a trip to Japan, as with the lugagge all depends the sort of trip we have in mind and what really matters to us. In my case and as I was a solo traveler I had to assume all the accomodation expenses but this is something can be easily shared if you travel accompanied. On the other hand the flight for example was extremely cheap so I could balance this with the accomodation costs.
As a general rule for a two weeks trip around Japan I will recommend to budget around $3.000 – $3.700 per person. This includes everything (flights, Japan Rail Pass, accomodation, food, drinks, temple tickets and shopping). Budgeting this money I was able to travel comfortably around the country and treating myself from time to time. At the end of the day we are in Japan and we don´t know when we will come back, don´t we?
As with the budget, all depends what our priorities are within the trip and most important how many days we have available. I travelled during 16 days (14 effective ones if we remove flight and jet lag) and I was able to get a great picture of Japan. My itinerary for the trip was: Tokyo-Kyoto-Nara-Hiroshima-Miyajima-Tokyo.
Despite being an island Japan is quite big so depending on the time we have available we should prioritize where to go and what to see. The minimum time I would recommend is two weeks so you can enjoy all the beauty of Tokyo for a few days and then discover a little bit some other prefectures.
My itinerary was as following:
- TOKYO (4 nights)
- KYOTO – NARA (4 nights)
- HIROSHIMA – MIYAJIMA (3 nights)
- MONTE FUJI (1 night)
- TOKYO – KAMAKURA (3 nights)
The mayority of international flights arrive at Narita International Airport. From there you will find several ways to get into Tokyo. Although there are private cars for hire to get you to the hotel this is probably the less recommended way to navigate into Tokyo due to the traffic and the cost. The most eficcient and fastest way to commute in Japan is the train. If we have already purchased a Japan Rail Pass we have the Narita Express service included. This super fast service will take us into Tokyo in about 40 minutes.
IMPORTANTE NOTICE ABOUT THE JAPPAN RAIL PASS
I could be talking for hours about the JR Pass but because is not the sole objective of this post I will only provide you with a few tips so you can buy in your country of origin and reedem it once you arrive at Japan.
In a nutshell the JR Pass is a temporary season ticket that allows you to unlimited travelling within the JR network for a limited period of time. The JR Pass is highly recommended if you are planning to cover more than one long distance trip ussing the Shinkansen as the train tickets are very expensive. It is very important to apply for the JR Pass while you are in the country of origin as you are only allowed to send the physical documentation to a non japanese address. There are several websites where you can buy it so I will post the main ones that I found on the web:
The purchasing process is quite simple: you will have to choose the right pass for your trip depending on the trip duration and the areas you are planning to visit. Although most people buy the «standar» pass which allows you to travel along the whole country, If you are planning to visit just an specific area it might be worth considering just purchasing a JR pass for that specific area. The prices as per July 2017 are as following:
- JR Pass 7 days: $270
- JR Pass 14 days: $430
- JR Pass 21 days: $550
With any of the above you will have unlimited travelling within the JR network including the JR Line and JR Yamanote in Tokyo.
TOKYO – ASAKUSA
One most iconic hot-spots in Asakusa is the Sensō-ji temple. The first thing we will notice when arriving there it would be the Thunder gate called Kaminarimon, that is flanked on both sides by two huge sculptures of the God of wind Fūjin and the God of thunder Raijin. Once we cross the Thunder gate we will get into the shopping area called Nakamise-dōri where we woulc find many locals dressed up with the traditional japanese kimonos. Asakusa is the perfect place to get in touch with the most traditional Tokyo as during the Edo Period it was the main concentration area for the Kabuki theaters.
Once we have visited Asakusa we can keep walking through Ueno´s Park (specially if we are visiting Japan during the cherry blossom known as Sakura) and walk along the traditional neighbourhood of Yanaka to perceive a taste or a residential Tokyo that has nothing to do with the craziness of Shibuya. If you fancy heights the Tokyo Sky Tree is your call. With 634 meters and a mention in the Guinness World Record (200 meters more than the Petronas Twin Tower in Kuala Lumpur) you will enjoy an unique view of Tokyo.
TOKYO – SHIBUYA y SHINJUKU
If there is an snapshot that comes into everyone´s mind when we mention the word Tokyo is the famous Shibuya crossroad, which is the most crowded one in the world. There are thousands of videos circulating on the internet about it, but you really have to cross it at rush hour to understand the reason why behind its reputation. Shibuya is to Tokyo like Picadilly Circus to London or Times Square to New York, an iconic place known across the world, always crowded and with noise and lights coming from all over the place. A visit to Shibuya should start in front of Hachikō´s square where we find a bronce statue honouring this Akita breed dog that according to the story when his master Hidesaburō Ueno died he stayed for 9 years in the exact place around the station where he used to go with him.
Once we have revealed every little corner at Shibuya it´s time to face north to see in first person the eccentricity of Harajuku. In this neighbourhood there is an unique mix of all the latest alternative chothing trends in Japan (Cosplay, Visual Key, Gothic Lolita…). It´s maximum representation could be found walking along Takeshita Street.
If we keep walking facing north we will reach Shinjuku well knownfor its huge train station and also been captured in well aclaimed films like Lost in Translation. Similar to his close parent Shibuya, this frenetic mix of shops, restaurants and hotels holds the mini neighbourhood of Kabukichō. In this japanese version of the dutch Red Light District we will see lots of little entrances to shops covered by curtains with signs offering «Information Services for Adults». If we are attracted by the idea of having dinner served by «Cyber-waitresses» ridding robots, the Robot Restaurant is our call.
TOKYO – AKIHABARA
Anyone born in the 90´s and into videogames will fall in love with this neighbourhood. Akihabara is the origin of Sonic, Mario Bross, Street Fighter, Dragon Ball and everything connected with Anime or Manga (and this also includes de adult version or Hentai)
This area is more than a simple neighbourhood, is a whole underground culture with its own well defined personality, is almost a religion for thousands of people called Otaku. As you walk around Akihabara´s you will be able to find from any cutting edge technological gadget (new or second hand) or that little figure from your favourite cartoon series that you always wanted when you were a kid. But there is one thing even more impressive than this mini-figures, and is the collector´s card market. Seeing how the shops categorize, buy and sell these cards is just unreal. (Some of them start at ¥100 but they can reach up to ¥50.000 / $480).
The big advantage for tourists is that pretty much all the shops offer tax-free prices just showing your passport.
But what could be better after doing some shopping that going for some gaming? All you need to do is going to one of this huge amusements places where you could check by yourself the level of insanity of «Otakus» for the manga world. As soon as you get in you will see people from all ages hitting buttons, pads or even caged in metalic structures pretending to be Cyber-Robots. But if you want to see something surreal you can´t miss a Pachinko. Seeing all this japanese people gambling on this asian version of a western slot machine in an extremely noisy environment (due to the metalic balls used to play) will redefine the concept of adiction that you already have in your mind.
And it is impossible to close our chapter dedicated to Akihabara withouth mentioning AKB48 a music band which originally started with 48 members but as they are rotational it changes year on year. They have entered in the World Record Guinness as the band with the highest number of members in the world. This teen army is a real landmark in Japan and the tickets for their concerts are sold out in minutes every time they go on sale.
How to get there: Hibiya Line (grey) to Akihabara station
TOKYO – TSUKIJI y GINZA
Visiting Tokyo and not going to Tsukiji is like going to New York and not visiting the Statue of Liberty. It doesn´t matter if you have been in a fish market before, Tsukiji is just the next level. As soon as you visit the biggest fish market in the world you realize the reason why Japan is the origin of sushi.
Going to Tsukiji means a (very) early start or in the worse case simply not sleeping. Due to the massive afluence of tourists over the last few years the access to the tuna auctions have been restricted and there is a limited number of people accepted every day. If you fancy being part of this exclusive experience, you will have to be there at 5 a.m. and being lucky enough to get one of the limited tickets which grant access. I personally decided to skip the touristic activity and trying to get into the wholesalers area that is strictly forbiden for tourists. And I made it, I was wandering there for about an hour until I was kindly invited to leave by a police officer…but all I would say is that what I saw it was worth the risk.
Ginza is to Tokyo what Oxford Street and Regent Street are to London. Ginza is the high-end luxury shopping area where you would be able to find all the world´s top brands spread across huge shopping centers. As in Akihabara, you will be able to get everything tax-free (10% discount) just by showing your passport.
Where to sleep: during my time in Japan I was staying in different hotels, but the majority of them were from the APA chain. They are affordable mid-level hotels, with a correct service but with one disadvantage: the rooms are tiny (but this is something common across the whole country) and they only thing you can do there is sleeping. But if don´t take this into account they are a perfect accomodation choice with prices around $100-$125)
The two ones I stayed in very well connected with underground lines and main places to visit are:
ODAIBA: AN ARTIFICIAL ISLAND IN TOKYO
And if you think that you have already seen everything in Tokyo, the answer is no. You still have Odaiba Tokyo´s artificial island (with its own statue of liberty). The truth is that after walking around Tokyo it seems that nothing is going to get your attention anymore, but getting in front of this «mini-Manhattan» will shock you again.
Odaiba was initially designed with an strategic and defensive purpose and it was turned into a leisure and shopping area in the 90´s. Since then and despìte the fact it never achieved the urbanistic development that initially aimed for, several companies as Fuji TV moved their HQ there. There is a great variety of food and drink places where you can have a great dinning experience with an amazing view of the city. You can say hello to ASIMO at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation or have a relaxing bath at Oedo-Onsen-Monogatari.
How to get there: take the automated train Yurikamome from Shimbasi (Ginza Line) or Toyosu (Yurakucho Line) to any stop within the island (Telecom Centre, Daiba or Aomi).
After travelling around Tokyo over a week you will easily be able to get a clear picture of how japanese people enjoy the nightlife. However you will realise that the language and the culture make the «hang out» adventure a little bit more difficult for the visitor (specially if you are a solo traveller) compared with other countries from South East Asia. The best thing you can do if you travel on your own is trying to find a local who can introduce you into the «real culture» the one that you won´t be able to get into by yourself. In my case I was extremely lucky as I met Kengo (my brother´s friend). He is part of an small group of japanese people who speak fluent spanish due to his job and is just an open gate to the japanese culture. Thanks to him I could not only had my second incredible fine dinnnig experience (where I could taste the best tuna tataki ever or even whale meat!) but also experiencing a real Karaoke experience singing «Do you remember» along with a japanese guy.
Visiting Kyoto is the best way to get in touch with the traditional Japan, exploring temples, culture and food. After a few days in Kyoto you will understand the «other» Japan. As well as Tokyo, you will need a few days to get all the charm of the city, but in my case with 3 days I had enough to get a good taste.
KIYOMIZU-DERA – GION
When I visited Kiyomizu-Dera temple it was at dusk and despite it was been refurbished and therefore partially covered, the views and the atmosphere made the call well worthy. Its name means literally «pure water temple» and in fact like in all the bhudist and sintoist temples in Japan we can perform the «temizu» to get purified before entering into the sacred building.
According to the legend some adventurous pilgrims used to try luck jumping from the main building area cliff and if they survived to the 10 meters fall they would get a wish granted.
How to get there: local bus 206 towards Kiyomizu-michi or Gojo-zaka. The general admision ticket is 300 JPY and the special night one 400 JPY. Opening times 6:00 AM to 6 PM
Once the night is down, is the perfect time to visit the Gion neighbourhood enjoying a real Kaiseki fine dinning experience while we explorer every street corner and Okiya trying to spot a Geisha. I was lucky enough to meet a japanese guy in the 9 Hours hostel who was travelling for work and whom with I enojoyed one of the bests food experiences in the whole journey. When you start wandering around Gion you will quickly realize that the menus of the most exclusive restaurants are only written in Kanji so is almost impossible to know what are the offering. The big advantage of having a local companion is that you can rely on him to choose the food. And of course this experience couldn´t be as perfect as it was withouth a Sake experience. Only when someone explains to you carefully the distilling process and how the level of rice grains polishing affects the quality (and the price) of this alcoholic beverage is when you can appreciate the difference in taste. Thank you very much Ken for your kindness and all your tips during my time in Kyoto !
Kinkaku-ji temple or Golden Temple is one of the most important landmarks in Japan. Back in time, this building was planned to be the resting place for Ashikaga Yoshimitsu Shōgun. After his death the place became a Zen temple. In 1950 an obsessed japanese writer Yukio Mishima set it on fire, reducing it into ashes. It was completely rebuilt in 1955 and converted into a sacred object wharehouse. The image of this temple surrounded by vegetation reflected into the water is hard to forget. But as any other touristic place is crowed with visitors at all times and trying to get a «selfie» with the temple can be mission impossible as the viewpoint is always packed.
How to get there: the main entrance to the temple can be easily reached by Kyoto City 205 Bus from Kyoto station to Kinkakuji-michio or tha Kyoto City 59 Bus from Sanjo-Keihan to Kinkakuji-mae. Admission Fee is 400 JPY ($3,7) and opening times are from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M.)
ARASHIYAMA – FUSHIMI INARI
Arashiyama bamboo forest is another mandatory stop in Kyoto. Despite the atmosphere created with the sunrays seeping among the bamboo steems is really unique the massive touristic afluence in such an small area can diminish a little bit the magic experience. Nevertheless is definitely a place to stop by before leaving Kyoto.
Fushimi-Inari is proabably one of the most stunning experiences in Tokyo. The visit starts at «Sakuramon» or «Sakura Gate» where you could find the first of 32.000 red «Tories» spread along the whole sanctuary. From there we start the climb through these sacred arcs that finishes about an hour later (4 kms) on the top of the hill. If we start the visit during the dusk we will have the opportunity to see the sun falling under the Kyoto roofs from one of the viewpoints. Once we start the descent, is important to pay attention to the path as the directions are not always really obvious and is very easy to get lost.
How to get to Arashiyama: Sagano/San-in line from JR to Saga-Arashiyama or Hankyu line to Arashiyama station
How to get to Fushimi-Inari tha: Nara line from JR to Inari or Keihan line to Fushimi-Inari.
This city located in the outskirts of Kyoto, that once upon a time was the capital of the country, is a must if we are into nature. The first thing that will draw your attention as soon as you leave the station and you walk to the Nara-Koen entrance are the deers wandering around and that don´t seem to be scared by the human presence. During all the time you spend in Nara you will cross paths with these lovely animals, that are also considered sacred creatures in Japan. If on top of all this, you have the chance to meet a lovely australian who spends the whole day with you sharing this «deer experience», what else can you ask for? Well, maybe that you find out that she is a handmade jewelery designer? Here is the link to her website if you are curious: Sofía Fitzpatrick
And now it´s time to stop by in the place with the highest emotional load from the whole trip. Visiting Hiroshima is like travelling to the past to witness one of the worst atrocities in the history of makind. A memory that hardly could be erased from those who had the chance to walk around the rebuilt streets after the nuclear holocaust.
Seeing all the hotspots in here turns out fairly easy as the majority of them are nearby the Genbaku Dōmu or Atomic Bomb Dome, a building which has became part of UNESCO world heritage sites and an icon of the nuclear devastation that wipped out the city on the 8th of August 1945 at 8:15 A.M. Enola Gay´s target was dropping The Bomb just above the Aioi Bridge very easy to spot from the air due to it´s «Y» shape. The Bomb nicknamed Little Boy finally was detonated a few meters away from the bridge and about 500 meters of height just above the Genbaku Dōmu.
During our visit to the Dome is very likely that you run into Mito Kosei known as «A-Bomb In-utero Survivor» due to the fact that his mother was at Hiroshima, carrying him in her womb on the 8th of August 1945 when the bomb was dropped. Since then he dedicates his life to explain all the people who gets there the horror and the history about The Bomb helped with dozens of free tourist guides, translated into all different languages. He also has a blog that is really interesting if you want to know more about him and the Hiroshima´s history: A-Bomb In-utero Survivor Speaks.
The next obligued stop in our visit to the city before visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is the Memorial Hall where all the pictures from the victims are exhibited and you can also search by name and surname in the official database. If you walk downstairs you will get to the main area where there is a 360º mosaic wall made with all the victim´s names. The sound of the water falling from the central fountain as well as the low lighting and the silence make the place a perfect place to stop and think about what happened there.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is probably the best way to size the nuclear horror occured at Hiroshima. During the visit, the mix of real objects recovered after the bombing and lots of multimedia content will help us to understand the devastating effect that The Bomb had over the city. Due to the historical relevance and social awareness that Hiroshima has developed within the japanese culture, the place is often visited by school kids. It is amazing to see that despite the massive amount of kids wandering around everywhere how organized, respectful and quiet they are. If you visit the museum it is very likely that you come across a bunch of them, and they will ask you some questions in english for their «homework». In return you will receive an origami crane in return. Trust me is a heart-touching experience.
Once we have finished our visit to the Museum and have at least an approach on the atrocity size a good way to pay a tribute to all the victims of this horror is walking around the Hiroshima´s Memorial Park and keep a few minutes of silence in front of the cenotaph where we could see the Genbaku Dome in the horizon.
And we could not leave this place without stopping by the Children´s Peace Monument, erected on the memory of all the kids who died in nuclear holocaust. Around the monument you will probably see lots of kids carrying long paper cranes strips. This tradition dates back from Sadako Sasaki´s story. Sadako was a 12 years old girl who died a few months after the bombing, due to the effects of the radiation. She became famous as she spent her time at the hospital making paper cranes as it was believed that everyone who was able to get up to a thousand will get a wish granted.
As I have probably said before, one of the biggest advantages of travelling on your own is the improvisation. The beauty of improvising is that sometimes you can get into unique and unexpected experiences as the one I am going to describe right now. I was walking towards Hijiyama Park after a long day visiting the city when I saw and old building that looked like a temple. As I was entering into the premises and old man came up to greet me. He didn´t speak a word of english as I didn´t speak a word of japanese, but something inside me was telling me to stay with him. I took my Iphone, opened my real time translation app and managed to find out that he was not only a monk but also that he was at Hiroshima the day the bomb was dropped. He pointed out the lighting rod on top of the building clearly damaged by the detonation. After over half an hour with the app back and forth narrating the history of nuclear´s holocaust I asked him to write down something for my in my traveler´s diary. He wrote WA (Peace), KEI (Respect), SEI (Purity) y JAKU (Loneliness) that later on I would find out thanks to my friend Jun, that in reality that was his spiritual name. After meeting Wa-Kei on my way to the viewpoint I came across with the Radiation Effects Research Foundation whose main objective is to study the radiation effects from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki´s bombing as well as the Fukushima´s accident on the population. As I was trying to gather some information about the foundation with the security guard my friend Jun Kitamura (Press Technical editor for the foundation) came up and not only offered to me a guided tour to the center but also gave me a lift to the city on his way back. Is hard to describe how intense is the desire of the japanese people to communicate with the visitors. It is a real shame that language was such a difficult barrier to overcome.
As the night falls in Hiroshima is time to explore the night life opportunities that the citty has to offer to a visitor. The truth is that after such a deep emotional experience during the day you will expect a more conservative city when it comes to the nightlife. Nothing is further from reality. A few blocks away from the historic buildings in between the Atomic Dome and the Enko river we could find a whole universe of bars, restaurants and karaoke places that are not really far away from Shibuya´s madness in Tokyo. In this area you could find one of the best places to taste the typical dish from Hiroshima: Okonomiyaki. The place is called Okonomi-mura and within its three floors we will only have to choose our favourite one, sit down and order !
How to get there: the easiest way to get to Hiroshima is on the Shinkanssen from Tokyo (5 hours) or from Kyoto (3 hours)
Where to stay: same as in Tokyo one of the best value for money options is to stay in the APA chain. In this ocassion I stayed at APA Hotel Hiroshima Ekimae. This hotel is very convenient as it is very close to the train station and about 15-20 minutes walk from the historic downtown. With a room rate around $100- $120 per night it makes it a perfect solution for the Hiroshima´s stay.
This little island located about 50 kilometers from Hiroshima has gained popularity over the past few years due to its main touristic hotspot Itsukusima Shrine. This huge red «tori» that seems to be floating on the sea offers one of the most spectacular views from the island. The decission about staying in the island or visiting just during the day relies on evyerone´s personal priorities and the available time. In my case, I had an early start and I could see the island with no rush at all.
The first place that we will be stopping by after leaving the harbour it will be Miyajima´s main street or «Omotesando» which is plenty of places to buy drinks, food or souvenirs. As well as in Nara we will be able to see «holy deers» wandering around the island and they are even more adventurous and less scared by the human presence than their Nara cousins. Just be warned that If you decide to feed them you will probably have them chasing you trying to take any edible item from your belongings.
Once we have visited the «leisure» area a good choice to have an stunning 360º view from the highest point in the island, is climbing the Misen Mountain to enjoy an stunning view. There are two ways to climb to the top, using the ropeway (1.800 JPY = $17) or trekking through several paths available. This second option is probably the best one, as you will enjoy an amazing walk on your way to the top. Just a few tips to enjoy the experience with no issues:
- Size properly our resistance. You don´t really need to be an olympic athlete to hike to the top of this mountain 535 metters above the sea level, but the total distance of 2,5 – 3 km with an univeness above 21% it can take from 90 minutes up to 2,5 hours depending on our pace.
- Plan the route properly. Taking into account the figures stated above you will probaly need around 4 hours to ascend and descend so bear in mind the dusk, as the way down under low visibility conditions can be really dangerous
- Take plenty of water. This was my biggest mistake, I wrongly assumed as we are in Japan that there would be vending machines along the way. I was clearly wrong as there was not a sole water source until to reach the top. And I can tell from experience that hiking a mountain for over 90 minutes with high humidity and no water is definitely not a good experience.
- Beware of the snakes. During all the way up you will see signboards warning about the poisonous wildlife, specially vipers. I was lucky enough to not crossing paths with any but just in case I wouldn´t go off track.
To descent I took the wise decision to take the ropeway because it was late and I didn´t want to get stuck in the dark. And after the long walk what could be better than trying the delicious stuffed bread typical from the island (if it can be accompanied with a local beer even better)
How to get there: taking the train from the main Hiroshima station to Miyamaguchi and from there taking the Ferry to Miyajima. It is very important to check out carefully the ferry timetable if we don´t want to get unintentionally stuck in the island.
This stunning mountain, the highest in the country with 3.776 metters, has become one of the landmarks of Japan as famous as the «toris» or the «geishas». Although there are some routes to get to the top, we will need not only a good condition and some hiking skills but also having a good equipment and doing it under certain periods where the weather conditions are optimal. Taking into account that I went there off season and I didn´t meet any of the criteria mentioned my aim with Mount Fuji was purely artistic and spirtual: I just wanted to observe it and shoot it with my camera.
So with this objective in mind I decided to spend one night in the sorroundings of the Fujisan on my way back to Tokyo. The experience was simply unforgeteable, but said that it was one of the hardest of the whole trip. The reason was not only because of the long distance covered in one day but also the inherent difficulties of an «off track route in the «rural» Japan where the language was a real issue in some really critical moments during the experience.
In terms of accomodation I stayed at Mount Fuji Hotel because the priority was having the best possible view of the mountain as close as possible because the photoshoot would start really early (around 4 A.M). Mount Fuji Hotel´s value for money is excellent and the views from the room that you can see in this picture is just stunning. Breakfast is not included in the basic rate but is really worthy, but probably the best thing apart from the Fuji´s view is the onsen. You can literally can see the Fujisan as you are submerged in hot water completely naked…hard to explain with words…
But getting there on your own is not as easy as commuting in Tokyo. To get there you can get the Chuo line from JR from Shinjuku station to Otsuki where you will have to change to Fuji Kyuko towards Fujisan. Once you arrive to Fujisan station take any bus which stops at Yamanakako (I can´t say the names as they were only written in Kanji). Once you get there you will have to call the hotel reception (If you manage to get someone who speaks english over the phone) and hopefully they will send the shuttle service to pick us up. I insist once more, when you get out from the touristic Japan communication can get really hard, something you have to get ready for.
THE ONSEN EXPERIENCE
Visiting Japan and not visiting an onsen or public bath is missing out one of the best possible experiences of cultural clash that you will get in life. The water from these public baths is heated de to the geothermal power produced naturally by the volcanic activity. Apart from the obvious relaxing benefits it also has several health benefits due to the unique degree of mineralization. There is also an artificial version of the traditional onsen called «sento» where heated tap water is used instead.
The first time that you take part in one of these «onsen rituals» can be slightly awkward because there is a well defined protocol and strict rules that must be followed if we don´t want the locals staring at us. These rules are basically summarized in the leaflet above and are as following:
- Take off your clothes before you get in
- Take a shower befor you get in
- Keep your towel off the bath tub
- Use the shower while you are seated and turn it off when you are not using it
- Do not wash your clothes in the onsen
- Get dry before you leave the onsen
Just adding to all the above a couple of personal tips after my personal experience in the onsen. The idiom «when in Rome, do as the Romans» is probably which helps the most in here yo fully enjoy the experience. The fist time you visit an onsen, just watch and try to imitate what the locals do as if you were doing it your whole life. Make sure to show clearly that your are washing your body thoroughly as this is the part that bothers more the locals from the foreigners.
And lastly bad news for the tatoo lovers. If you have any on your body you will probably find hard to get in and even if you get in everyone will be staring at you or in the worst case, being invited to leave. The reason is simple: the japanese mafia AKA, Yakuza use this form of body art as a distinctive sign of their hierarchy. So by banning them from these places they are basically trying to keep the onsen «clean» from gangsters.
And after this, is time to get the alarm clock at 3:30 and leaving all the photographic material ready to shot the dawn at Fujisan. With less than 4 hours of sleep I woke up like a zombie and coffie in hand I got the camera, the tripod and the remote waiting for the first sunrays. Is hard to explain what you feel sitting down watching the sunrays lighing up gradually the snowed mountain. The different tones that the mountain acquires as the morning arrives is just stunning. One of the most incredible experiences for sure.
Once I woke up from the amazing «dawn experience» I went back to the hotel to enjoy an amazing typical japanese style breakfast witnessing once more the mountain and getting fuel for an amazing Yamanakako lake route which would take me over 4 hours (15 kms)
How to get there: JR Chuo line from Shijuku station to Otsuki and from there change to Fuji Kyuko towards Fujisan.
Where to stay: Mount Fuji Hotel (20.000 – 25.000 JPY) / ($180-$250) for a double bedroom.
Kamakura is one of these ideal places to visit as where are in the Tokyo whereabouts (less than an hour by train). Kamakura is a quiet place located in the Kanagawa prefecture and with a wide eating out options and the beach has become a well appreciated weekend destination by the locals. This point is important in order to plan our route as the trains tend to be crowded, specially during the weekend.
The main hotspot in Kamakura is the Kōtoku-in with the giant bronze Amithaba bhuda but you can also enjoy visiting the several temples located around the town. One of the most famous ones is Kenchō-ji or the one that I visited myself Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū where along with Rebecca, another solo traveler that I met on my way I could witness a live japanese wedding, another great memory from the trip.
How to get there: Yokosuka JR line from Tokyo or Shonan line from Shinjuku from Shibuya, Shinjuku or Ikebukuro)
¿WHY SHOULD I GO TO JAPAN?
Simply because you haven´t seen anything like Japan before and at some point you will be wondering if you are on the Earth or you have been abducted by aliens and you are in the outer space, but also because…
- You will try the best sushi ever and you could slurp ramen without being noticed
- Is the safest and probably the cleanest country in the world
- You will trapped by the lifestyle and respect of the japanese culture
- You can experience the contrast of a crazy Tokyo with a peaceful Kyoto within a 3 hours train trip
- You will be able to experience an unique «language isolation» experience that will force you to find a new way to communicate with people.
Ultimately, because getting to know Japan will change the way you see the world. Get ready and share your experience on your way back, I will be looking forward to hear your story !