Japan had been on my wish list for the longest longest time. But I kept putting it off because ‘it’s so expensive’!! Only to realise that no matter what, it won’t get any cheaper… so we should probably just get on with it. It was booked in February, which is the furthest in advance I have EVER booked a holiday, but on the plus side gave me loads of time to plan and get excited!!
What We Did
We flew into Tokyo and had 4 days there (one day with a guide), exploring the city, going to the famous Harajuku and Shibuya districts, visiting the museum, watching a Kabuki theatre show, eating sushi at the fish market, gaming in Akihabara, going to the famous Robot Restaurant, drinking in the bar seen in ‘Lost in Translation’ at the top of the Park Hyatt hotel, and wandering the gardens of the Imperial Palace (you can’t enter the palace itself as it’s still the home of the Japanese royal family).
Then we travelled (by bullet train!) to Hakone -the mountainous national park area famous for being where Mount Fuji is. We explored the park, visited the open air sculpture museum, took a cable car across the volcanoes, rode the pirate ship (yes you read that correctly) across Lake Akhi and soaked in our private onsen spa bath -not to mention sleeping on futons and eating kaiseke meals in our ryokan (traditional inn).
We had a brief stop in Himeji to visit the castle and then carried on to Hiroshima, where we had a sobering visit to the Peace Park, the museum and the Bomb Dome, before taking the ferry to Miyajima island and seeing the famous floating torii gate (spoiler alert: it doesn’t actually float- it’s obvious if you visit at low tide).
Then from there on to our final stop, Kyoto for 4 wonderful days – what a fabulous city it is. We went to Nijo Castle and the famous Golden Pavilion with our guide, wandered through the Philosopher’s Path, Gion and Pontocho districts, and also visited Fushimi Inari Taisha (a shrine with torii gates all the way up the mountain), Arashiyama bamboo forest and took a day trip to Nara, the old capital where the world’s largest wooden building holding one of the world’s largest Buddhas can be found. Nara is also famous for the deer you can feed… I must be the only tourist in the world who didn’t enjoy this experience. They’re quite aggressive and your hand ends up covered in deer slobber. Ahem, anyway…
Where We Stayed
Tokyo: Villa Fontaine Shiodome. Very well located hotel with covered access to both Shiodome and Shimbashi stations so you can access either without getting wet. Modern and comfortable, room not huge but perfectly adequate. Breakfast was a generous buffet with lots of choice with a mixture of Japanese and Western food.
Hakone: Suimeisou, a beautiful traditional-style ryokan where we had our own onsen spa on our balcony overlooking the river (if you’re a couple it’s nice to have a private onsen as the public ones are single-sex so you won’t get to be with your partner while you’re there). Just a few steps off the main street and a couple of minutes’ walk from Hakone-Yumoto station. We had our meals in our own private dining room and they made up futons for us in our room 🙂
Hiroshima: Hotel Flex. Probably the only place I wouldn’t entirely recommend. The room was tiny – by the time the 2 of us and our (moderately sized) luggage was in, there was no space to move at all. Breakfast was a small sandwich, tea/coffee and juice. On the plus side, it had a nice location overlooking the river and was close to the station.
Kyoto: Ibis Styles Kyoto Station. You know what you’re getting with an Ibis; it wasn’t fancy but the room was comfortable and functional. It’s ideal if you’re arriving/leaving by train – the hotel is literally visible from the Shinkansen platforms! Breakfast was quite a decent buffet but as the breakfast room is small we sometimes had to wait for a table.
We had a lot of great food in Japan and most of it wasn’t pricey which was the best bit of all!
Tokyo: Tokyo is famous for sushi and the best place to eat it is at Tsukiji fish market -which conveniently for us was only 10 minutes’ walk from our hotel. It was lovely wandering around, seeing all the interesting sea creatures and then eating super-fresh sashimi for breakfast! Other memorable meals in Tokyo: ‘sukiyaki’, thin slices of beef cooked on a hot plate on the table with a sauce of brown sugar and soy sauce, then dipped in raw egg before you eat it (I know, sounds vile but tasted AMAZING), some of the best ramen I have ever eaten at Ippudo, and teriyaki skewers in the shacks in the ‘Golden Gai’ (the tiny streets of old Tokyo near Shinjuku station).
Hakone: Our meals in Hakone were mainly eaten in our ryokan and were eye-opening both in terms of variety and some of the things we ate… sea snails, jellyfish and oysters all turned up as well as the more ‘usual’ items of lobster, beef, sushi and fruit.
Hiroshima: The famous dish of Hiroshima is ‘okonomiyaki’, a savoury pancake with loads of toppings. We tried it at Okonomi-mura and it was DELICIOUS (and very filling). We also had delicious tempura and sampled shochu (the Japanese spirit) at Mametanuki, a Japanese izakaya (pub) on Miyajima island.
Kyoto: Definitely where we had the best meals of the trip. Meals that stood out particularly were: pork tonkatsu at Tonkatsu Wako in the food court above the station, tempura in the same food court (at a restaurant which I don’t currently have the name of but can find out when my friend J returns my Lonely Planet book to me!), ‘kaitenzushi’ or conveyor-belt sushi at Chojiro, teppanyaki at Kyoshikian, and possibly the best beef I’ve ever eaten in my life at Haafu.
I have a lot more I want to write, including my ‘tips on the Japanese train system I wish someone had told me before we went’ post, but for now here’s some photos to whet your appetite…