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Exploring Japan: A Capsule Guide To This Historic Country

A country which fuses modern and ancient traditions seamlessly, Japan is a melting pot of culture, tech, art and history. Everything you want to say about Japan can be summarised as a perfect juxtaposition. Chaotic but ordered, futuristic and yet so deeply rooted in tradition, high-rises circling around historic gardens and shrines. This place on paper doesn’t work, but in reality it’s a place which offers you a wealth of different experiences in such a short space of time, and it’s enthralling.

We explored a taste of what Japan has to offer over a ten-day period, but to really immerse yourself in this fantastic country and get a taste of all it has to offer, you need at least two to three weeks, if not more. However I know this isn’t feasible for most people, so I have captured below what we did in our ten days, the must-sees, the top tips and every in-between to help you make the most of your eastern adventure.

First and foremost, wherever you go, the food will never disappoint. You have a choice of seemingness endless award winning and Michelin-starred eateries, upscale restaurants or the more traditional family run establishments who have been honing their craft for hundreds of years. The latter restaurants often specialise in one or two dishes, and have spent years honing the recipes to produce the best taste. Be prepared to eat little and often to really experience all the local delicacies during your visit.

No article about Japan would be complete if it didn’t mention the warmth of the Japanese people. Never have I experienced such a consistently high level of service, friendliness and willingness to talk and share stories. Everywhere could learn a lot from this culture.

If you are after more ‘top-tips’ and less of an itinerary, then scroll to the end of this guide!

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First and Foremost – Tokyo

Tokyo is a huge city where no two neighbourhood are quite the same. From futuristic Shinjuku and Shibawya to the quieter and shrine filled Asakusa and Ueno, Tokyo really does have it all.

We spent our first three days in the Asakusa area, as we found basing ourselves here allowed us to explore some of the top places we wanted to see. The Senso-ji temple is one of the most visited in Japan and it’s not surprising, it’s vast and surrounded by a maze of streets, market stalls and restaurants. I would recommended visiting this place at night or early morning on a weekday. Weekends can be really busy and it takes away some of the magic of the place.

After visiting here, take a short walk to Sometaro restaurant. A traditional eatery, specialising in the Japanese Okonomiyaki (a delicious omelette based dish with fillings of your choice. Here you take off your shoes at the entrance, sit on the floor at your square table with a hot place, and cook yourself an incredible omelette with the fillings of your choice. The atmosphere, friendliness of the staff and freshness of the food is the perfect recipe for a good evening well spent.

Other key places to explore in this area? The Ueno Park is a beautiful and large public park filled with endless shrines, statues and a beautiful pond and boathouse. Start at the Ueno station entrance, walk under the cherry blossoms if you are lucky enough to be there in season, and then explore all the garden has to offer before reaching the fantastic Tokyo National Museum.

When you’ve finished taking in all the museum has to offer, wander back towards Ueno and lose yourself in the market, street stalls and restaurants in the streets directly in front of it.

Lastly, this area is a great gateway to get to the Imperial Palace and Gardens, as well as the famed Tsukiji Market. This is a tightly packed series of small streets with vendors selling incredible local foods, snacks and crafts. Fill yourself on a series of small dishes from the stalls, or grab a seat in one of the bustling sushi or sashimi cafes in the middle of the market and enjoy some of the freshest fish you’ll ever taste.

One key learning for our first few days? Have an itinerary but plan in time to just wander. Japan has way more to offer than the big ‘must-see’ hot spots. Don’t miss the true nature of the city by taking the subway to each shrine and back.

Oh, and get lunch at one of the incredible Katsu Curry houses in the Kudanshita station area. We went for one under the railway bridge, in a tiny cafe which seated just ten people. We both chose a Katsu curry from the ticket machine outside, and gave our order slip to the hostess on entry, and then minutes later was served one of the most incredible curries I have ever eaten in my life. These cafes with ticket machines outside served some of the best food I had during my time in Japan. Try them or miss out!\

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Historic Kyoto

For logistical purposes, we left Tokyo and travelled south to Kyoto for the middle leg of our trip with a plan to come back and explore more of Tokyo and be nearer the airport at the end of the ten days.

We took the bullet train to Kyoto and it was an experience in itself. Clean, on-time, with roomy seats and so many different landscapes to see on route, including the incredible Mount Fiji itself, the three hour journey flies by.

Arriving in Kyoto you quickly get the sense that this city is a cultural and spiritual hub of Japan. There’s over 2000 different shrines, temples and statues hidden amongst the modern city centre. Explore traditional Japanese wooden houses in the Gion district, taste local delicacies in the sprawling markets and enjoy traditional tea ceremonies or stay in a local Ryokan to truly immerse yourself in the historic culture of Japan.

We stayed in a beautiful Ryokan, with traditional Japanese floor level futons, Kyomachiya Ryokan Sakura Urushitei 

just moments from the streets of Gion and the incredible river-side restaurants and bars. However there are so many options you may find yourself spoilt for choice when booking.

When here, there are many things you will want to see, do and explore but initially I would recommend just heading into the city centre, and walking from one side of the Nishiki market hall to the other, crossing the bridge into Gion, and taking in the sights, smells and atmosphere of this spiritual hub of Japan. You will pass so many shrines and temples on foot without a plan, the religious and historical air of the city will quickly embrace you.

Our top highlights of places to see in Kyoto included the Enryaku-ji temple, set on the mountains outside of the city with sprawling views and temples as far as the eye can see. Make sure you set aside time to hike up here though, it’s more of a day excursion than a quick visit place.

Kiyomizu-dera buddhist temple is much easier to access. Although less tranquil, it is perched on a  hill and provides incredible views, especially at sunset. Gion district is an area not to be missed, and we found an incredible bar hidden away in the streets here that looks like a house from the outside. It seats only six people, and here you can sample local Sake or beers alongside a tapas platter of three local dishes made by the lady who owns the bar. They’re delicious, especially the spiced cabbage.

After exploring the inner city, take a day to head out of Kyoto centre and visit the Kinkaku-ji

Golden Temple, and the Ryōan-ji rock gardens. Wander around during a morning when it’s emptier to enjoy the peaceful and tranquil vibes this place has to offer. Then hop on a local bus to Arashiyama. Home of the famous Bamboo grove, mountain hikes and Ōkōchi Sansō gardens, make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to wander around the shrines, forest and also the mountains behind the city.

Kyoto has so much to offer and for you to see, it’s hard to prioritise and make choices if you have time constraints, however we found that from the above, mixed with seeing many nearby shrines, eating at local restaurants and staying in a traditional Ryoken, really allowed us to get a sense of what this incredible city had to offer and make the most of our four days here.

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Back to Futuristic Japan

For the final leg of our ten day trip, we took the bullet train back to Japan but this time based ourselves in the futuristic and high-rise district of Shingawa. From here, we were well placed to explore for our final three days and get a taste of the modernity of Japan and all it has to offer.

Our highlights included immersing ourselves in the nightlife of the bustling Shinjuku district, filled with skyscrapers, entertainment and endless LED lights flashing 24/7. Here, we tried VR gaming experiences, taking in the sights from the top floor of our hotel, and trying some of the more modern and upscale eateries Japan is famed for.

Later on, we walked to the notorious Golden Gai area, a series of streets home to many tiny bars, often seating no more than ten people, in old style wooden and metal houses hidden behind the skyscrapers of Shinjuku. Spend the night exploring two or three of these historic institutions and their local cocktails, though be aware, not all accept tourists and some require a cover charge to protect themselves from people who indulge in just one drink and then move on. This was one of my favourite experiences of the trip, made better by taking the time to speak to the people in the tiny bars and discover more about their background and experiences of Japan.

Of course, we had one more day of walking around the historic gardens and shrines of the region, and sampling even more of the local dishes and market foods!

Finally, we rounded up our trip with a visit to the famous Tokyo Flea Market, held on Saturdays in the city, and came away with some vintage porcelain and fabrics at a really good price. It’s pretty big so if you are after a bargain or a more traditional souvenir, leave yourself a good morning to make the most of your time here.

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Japan Top Tips

  • Japan is a huge country in terms of both area but also cultural and historical experiences and sights. Make sure you leave yourself enough time to immerse yourself in all that the country has to offer, both old and new. We chose to only visit Tokyo and Kyoto in our time as we realised we didn’t have enough time for more. Plus, it gives us an excuse to go back and do the Mount Fiji area and Osaka at a later day!
  • A lot of the signs, information cards and train guides are now in English, so don’t be worried about this or the language barrier, it’s not really a problem any more. However it’s good to learn a few key phrases in Japanese as it’s really appreciated there if you can at least order a drink, and say please and thank you in the local language.
  • Best seasons to visit for weather is end of March to early May, and then during the autumn. If you chose the March option as we did, you may also see the Cherry Blossoms in bloom.
  • Don’t just flock from shrine to temple to market, leave yourself time to walk to these places, take the back roads, and see more of the country than just the tourist filled hot spots. Japan has an awful lot of offer and it’s often not in the main places that you truly get to experience it.
  • The transport network is fantastic. Get yourself a Passmo card (you can buy it from the large underground stations from machines where you will also top it up) to use on the subways to get around for low-cost during your stay. If you plan to travel regularly by trains, then the seven-day pass is a steal. However be warned, you have to buy it before your trip and have it sent to your home address, so give yourself plenty of time to buy one (we didn’t realise this and lucked out!) https://www.japan-rail-pass.com/
  • Tipping isn’t expected or customary. We usually would just round up our bill and leave this.
  • On that note, take cash with you. For a very modern place, most traditional shops, markets and restaurants take cash only.
  • Be polite and respectful. Remember the temples you are visiting are still functioning religious sites, and so consider this before taking photos in religious places or of statues where it’s deemed disrespectful.
  • Wear socks or take a pair with you if wearing sandals. You will regularly need to take off your shoes or change shoes from outdoors to indoors, especially in shrines or traditional restaurants. If you are going barefoot under sandals, pack a pair of socks to make it easier.
  • Don’t eat and walk, it’s considered rude. So when you get your street-food from the markets, stop and properly savour the tastes before walking on again.
  • Get organised. The city can be expensive to explore if not planned properly. Buy your train tickets in advance, use a passmo card for the subway, and eat like a local where possible.

 

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We never ate a bad meal in Japan, and the food was all incredible and reasonably priced. For our highlights (and this was hard to whittle down):

  1. Sometaro – Asakusa – A place where you make traditional Okonomiyaki on your own hot plate
  2. Crown Ace Ueno – Katsu Curry Cafe
  3. Tsukiji Market – for incredible fresh food right from the vendors, and the freshest Sashimi and sushi at the market restaurants I have ever tasted
  4. Muraji Ramen in Kyoto – In the Gion district, this tiny restaurant seats only 15 people and you are at a shared table. The Ramen here was the best I ate during my time, and I would wholly recommend you go for the three dish special which includes Ramen, fried chicken or local Japanese fried rice, and the Matcha Ice-Cream for dessert. We got one light ramen, and then the dark ramen as this meal deal and it was plenty of food for two!
  5. Botejyu Kyoto – Okonomiyaki, but this time served to you by a chef rather than cooking yourself. Both the traditional dish and also the fried noodles are delicious. Arrive early or reserve a table however, or you may be disappointed as there’s always a long wait after 7pm.
  6. L’Escamoteur – This fantastic bar has a hidden door to the bathroom, brilliant cocktails and great staff. Word of warning though, you will pay more for two drinks then you did for dinner at the local restaurants in the city, but it’s worth it.

I hope you get to experience Japan. The country is the best place we’ve ever visited. The warmth of the people, the incredible food and the endless sights, nature and experiences made it the most memorable trip we’ve ever taken. 

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