When my son was a sophomore in college, he had the opportunity to do a semester abroad in Japan. Before the semester was completed, he decided to stay the entire year! The following summer we decided to pick Jon up from Tokyo Christian University and have him take us on a tour through a country he had grown to love. With his travel experience and Japanese language skills, we began the trip in Tokyo and took the bullet train (shinkansen) to the area of Mount Fuji, Kyoto, and south to Hiroshima and Miyojima ending the tour at Disneyland Tokyo. Japan is an extraordinary place to visit! We found the people gracious, the history fascinating, the travel safe and its modernity and charm exhilarating. Here is the story of our journey to the land of the rising sun.
We flew into Narita airport and stayed at The Hilton Tokyo Narita Airport for two nights to adjust to the jet lag. Japan is 12 hours ahead of us here in the Eastern United States. The next day we ventured to one of the most popular Buddhist temples in Japan that was nearby, the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple. Built in the year 940, this temple is a wonderful introduction to historic Japan. Another draw to this area is Omotesando, a lively street with restaurants and stores that have been selling traditional crafts, foods and souvenirs for centuries. We were amazed at the site of chefs skewering live eel to make fresh unagi. Luck was on our side and the day of our visit in mid-July happened to be the Gion festival – a three day festival (matsuri) with a parade of floats and entertainers traveling down the Omotesando. The local people have celebrated this matsuri for over 300 years and it grows more and more popular every year. Click on the arrow to see slideshow below.
The next day we took the Keisei Line train to Tokyo and stayed at The Prince Sakura Tower in Minato-ku for five nights. This four-star rated hotel is modern and elegant with a Japanese garden, impeccable service and a sumptuous breakfast. It is conveniently located across the street from the Shinagawa Train Station.
Tsukiji Outer Market/Toyosu Market
The Tsukiji Market was the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. What was known as the “inner market” where the tuna auctions were held was closed in October of 2018 and moved to the state of the art Toyosu Market twice its size. Although tourists can no longer walk the floor like they did in the old market, there are observation decks in the new with three buildings comprising of seafood, fruit and vegetables. The “outer market” at Tsukiji is still a popular destination for those looking for the freshest sushi and kitchenware. Plan your morning strolling the alleyways, stop for lunch and take home some top-grade sushi knives.
Tuna auction at Toyosu Market
photo from Japan-guide.com
The main attraction of Asakusa is the Buddhist Temple Sensoji. Built in the 7th century, It is one of the most famous temples in Japan. Sensoji has two large entry gates, Kaminari that are striking with large red lanterns. Just outside the gates is the bustling shopping street of Nakamise, a good place to find Japanese art and souvenirs.
Known as the center of youth fashion and culture, Shibuya is a modern and colorful destination not to be missed. Visitors are drawn to the myriad of retail, dining and nightclub options but what makes it a “must see” is Shibuya Crossing. Rumored to be the busiest intersection in the world, it is quite the experience to cross Shibuya’s famous large intersection. When the light turns green, hundreds of people, to upwards of 3,000 people at peak times, cross at once passing each other under the vibrant neon signs and giant video screens. A surreal experience!
Visit a botanical park
There are several in Tokyo. Right in the center is lovely Shinjuku Gyoen. With a greenhouse and alluring pathways, it was a peaceful retreat away from the buzz of the city.
The Ghibli Museum
If you are fan then note that tickets are released one month in advance and sell within hours. Below is the link. Studio Ghibli is the movie studio behind films such as “Spirited Away” and “Princess Mononoke.” You will see their influence a lot during your travels, Totoro being one of the most beloved characters of Ghibli. Although we did not get museum tickets this time, there was a special anniversary exhibit of Studio Ghibli that we happened to catch. Be on the lookout for special exhibits! Our kids were thrilled they got to ride in the Cat Bus!
Lined with vintage boutiques and cosplay shops, Harajuku is a virtual runway of colorful and creative fashion where youth go to see and be seen. Walking down the main drag of Takeshita Street is wildly entertaining, and I found myself taking pictures of the kids in their wonderful getups. Follow Takeshita to Omotesando Avenue where there are traditional and upmarket boutiques as well as places to satisfy your sweet tooth and experience bubble tea.
Although serious at first, when she saw I took her photo she started to giggle in the cutest way.
Baseball Game at the Tokyo Dome
Going to a baseball game at the Tokyo Dome was so much fun! The Japanese have a rowdy team spirit that is infectious. It felt like one giant party! That day the team was giving away complementary team jerseys! I loved seeing the fans wave the huge banners in the stands. The easiest way to obtain tickets is at Bob Bavasi’s website at link below.
Day Trip to Nikko
Nikko is a town at the entrance to Nikko National Park, most famous for Toshogu, Japan’s lavish shrine and the mausoleum of Tokugawa leyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. The park offers scenic mountainous landscapes, lakes, waterfalls, hot springs and wild monkeys. You will see art carvings of monkeys displaying the gestures of “hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil.” At the entrance of Nikko’s shrines is the beautiful red Shinkyo Bridge. A beautiful and peaceful setting into Japan’s past, Nikko is a 2.5 one-way journey by train. Pack a lunch and bring an umbrella just in case. Our rainy and foggy day there made for some moody photographs. Click on the arrow below for the slideshow.
Day trip to Mount Fuji
The easiest way to travel to the Mount Fuji area is through a tour. We used Viator and booked a bus tour to Fuji 5th station that included lunch, a Lake Ashi boat ride, Mt. Komagatake Ropeway and bullet train returning to Tokyo station. Mount Fuji is most visible in fall and winter and rarely in the spring and summer. When we were there in July it was hidden in the clouds. Still, we were happy to be there and took some hilarious pictures of my daughter not seeing the mountain.
Once the capital of Japan, Kyoto is a city on the island of Honshu. It's famous for its numerous classical Buddhist temples, as well as gardens, imperial palaces, Shinto shrines and traditional wooden houses. It’s also known for formal traditions such as kaiseki dining, consisting of multiple courses of precise dishes, and geisha, female entertainers often found in the Gion district. There is so much to see and do in Kyoto that we soon realized we should have planned more days there. We spent two nights and then took the train down to Hiroshima and Miyojima and traversed back to stay another night. In hindsight, I would allow for at least five days in Kyoto. The best way to arrive is through the bullet train, the shinkansen called the Nozomi. It takes about 2.5 hours from central Tokyo. The train stations offer a program where you can send your luggage on ahead freeing you up for the journey. We found this incredibly helpful. In July the festival of Gion Matsuri takes place and hotels are hard to come by. We spent a pretty penny staying at the Ritz in Kyoto but it was very special.
Kyoto’s famous geisha district is located around Skinjo Avenue between Yasaka Shrine in the east and the Kamo River in the west. The narrow streets are lined with wooden merchant houses comprising of shops, restaurants and ochaya (tea houses). The geiko (Kyoto dialect for geisha) and maiko (geiko apprentices) entertain at the ochaya by engaging in light conversation, serving, leading drinking games and performing traditional music and dance. Although dining at the ochaya is a costly and an exclusive experience, there are cultural shows available to tourists where they can experience a tea ceremony, ikebana (flower arranging) and bunraku (puppet theater) and dance performance by real maiko. If you are fortunate, you might see a geisha walking about.
The Higashiyama District
In the eastern portion of Kyoto is one of the city’s best preserved historic districts. Situated between Kiyomizudera and Yasaka Shrine, narrow lanes and wooden buildings are filled with small shops and cafes. You will feel like you stepped back in time. Beautiful!
Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion)
The Golden Pavilion is a zen temple in Northern Kyoto whose two top floors are covered in gold leaf. Although you cannot enter it, just walking the grounds is nothing short of spectacular. The pavilion is situated away from the crowds so it makes for beautiful photography.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
There is a scene in the film “Memoirs of a Geisha” where one of the characters run down the corridor of the thousands of famed red torii gates. Fushimi Inari is a Shinto shrine in Southern Kyoto. Behind it are the entrance of two parallel rows of gates called the Senbon Torii that leads to a trail and wooded forest of the Sacred Mount.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
On the western outskirts of Kyoto, is one of the most stunning forests you can walk through. A walkway cuts through the towering bamboo and makes for a perfect zen walk. I used it as the background art to this page.
Monkey Park in Iwatayama
We thought it would be fun to take a break and travel up the mountain to see the macaques monkeys. There are about 120 Japanese Macaques living there and you can even feed them. There are also great views of Kyoto.
I caught this baby monkey and koi having a "moment"
Built in 1997, Kyoto’s futuristic train station is architecturally impressive and worth a visit, especially at night when it is lit up. The digital staircase was amazing! There is a major department store and dining options.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
We took the 2.5 hour skinkansen to Hiroshima to tour the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. There is a museum dedicated to documenting the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in World War II. Displays of belongings left by victims, photos and other materials convey the horror of the event. There are also exhibits describing life before and after. One of the many impressionable items was a wristwatch stopped at the time of impact. At the end of the park is the A-Bomb Dome, which is one of the few buildings to remain standing after the bomb. It was a sad and sobering day to say the least. A reminder to never take peace for granted. Pack a lunch for the day's journey because it might prove challenging to find. At this point we were weary of Japanese cuisine. Plan a walk around the grounds of Hiroshima Castle which was reconstructed after the bomb. From here we boarded the local train to the ferry boat to make our way to the beautiful island of Miyajima.
Beautiful Miyajima is a journey to get to but so worth it. Set in the Seto Inland Sea and the western end of Hiroshima Bay, the mountainous island is covered in forest with the highest peak being Mount Misen. The World Heritage Site of Itsukushima Shrine is located there, most famous for the red Torii gate in the water. Depending on the tide you can walk right up to the gate or enjoy it at high tide as it seems to float with beauty and grace at sundown. Miyajima is populated by 500 sika deer. They can be aggressive so be prepared to have them follow you around. We wanted to experience a traditional Japanese ryokan, so we stayed at Iwaso. Our Shinkan Annex Deluxe room had tatami mats and a corner view of their beautiful grounds. At days end we relaxed by the stream with a Kirin Ichiban while the kids searched for critters in the water. Heavenly! Our stay included breakfast and one very special dinner where they outfitted us with summer kimonos with sandals. Our private dinner included several courses and shabu shabu.(thinly sliced meat and vegetables that you cook in broth at the table). It was an adventurous and memorable meal and I’ll include pictures below. At night futons were laid out for us. My husband did not love the idea of sleeping on the floor, but it was a unique experience that we are glad we did. The island is wonderful to explore. You can take a skyway up the mountain or hike and enjoy breathtaking views. There is a small shopping village where you can grab excellent coffee at Miyajima Coffee and have a tasty lunch at Okonomiyaki Kishibe. Miyajima was so peaceful we did not want to leave. Probably our favorite experience of the trip. Click on the arrow below for the slideshow.
Tokyo Disney and Disney Sea
We have always been Disney aficionados and have visited several parks around the world. Tokyo Disney and Disney Sea did not disappoint! Tokyo Disneyland is like most other parks with some additions such as a Pinocchio's Journey and larger Toontown but Disney Sea is something totally unique. The park is centered around the myths and legends of the sea and is divided into ports and attractions such as Mediterranean Harbor, American Waterfront, Port Discovery, Lost River Delta, Arabian Coast, Mermaid Lagoon and Mysterious Island that takes you to the center of the earth with Captain Nemo. The park is a full immersive experience and quite astounding! I enjoyed seeing all the kids dressed up and noticed that Donald Duck has a big fan base here! There are resorts where you can stay close to the action, but it is very easy to navigate from central Tokyo by train for a day trip. One of the fun and unique things is the transportation in the parks. The monorails and resort buses are “Disneyesque” in design featuring Mickey Mouse cut out windows and accoutrements. You can’t help but smile! The parks also have their own shopping and entertainment center called Ikspiari that is just outside. There are 140 shops, restaurants and attractions ranging from unique Japanese boutiques to western retail and restaurants. If you are a Disney fan, I recommend a two day stay at one of their resorts and seeing both parks.
Sinbad ride at Disney Sea
Weather in Southern Japan is hot and extremely humid in the summer. We are from Florida, so we are used to humidity, but it was even more intense so plan accordingly. Transportation can be a challenge if you do not know the language. We were fortunate to have our son who was fluent and knew his way around. Still, when we needed help, there was always someone willing to direct us. Look into aps that can help you can plan your commute. I do recommend booking tours for day trips. When traveling to a new destination, take advantage of sending your luggage ahead and take the skinkansen! Another novelty in Japan are the toilets. They are so entertaining! They can come with lights, music, sounds of birds and rushing water. Some even open on their own. I think one of the most surprising things about our trip was the food. We expected healthier fare, heavy on sushi, but we found that noodle and curry restaurants were the most common. There are a lot of noodle dish variations and many restaurants cater to a specific kind. Interesting novelties were ramen bars where you chose your ramen and paid through a slot machine. Simple and good! We soon grew weary of the limited choices though and sought western and international cuisine. Major train stations can have good options. Ours had the French bistro Paul. We also found some great Indian food in Tokyo. That said, some of our favorite things were matcha (green tea) products, especially cake and ice cream and shabu shabu. Do try everything you can at least once! Our kids loved unagi but it was not my cup of tea! Click on the slideshow arrow below for more pics. I hope you feel inspired by this article. Japan is truly an amazing destination. Our son Jon has since returned and is pursuing his graduate degree work at a university in Tokyo! Perhaps we will visit again for his graduation. Sayounara!