We were excited to hit the ground running in Japan, and packed quite a bit into the two weeks that we spent there. The cities we visited included Tokyo, Nagano, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, and Nara. Each one offered something unique and different to see, and we would be hard pressed to pick a favorite!
- Our First Night – We flew into Tokyo late one night (around 1 AM), and found our selves literally stuck in the airport. We were shocked that a city as big as Tokyo shuts down each and every night for hours! Not only did all transportation stop running, but our hotel also closed its doors from about 1 AM to 6 AM. We ended up sleeping in the entrance of the airport with a couple hundred other people that night while we waited for the city to come alive again.
- Vending Machines – Vending machines can be found any and everywhere (including every-other street corner even in neighborhoods). We were not only shocked by the amount of machines, but also the breadth of materials for purchase in any one location. Andy even bought a can of hot corn while waiting for the subway one night.
- Christmas – While Christmas is a western holiday, the Japanese have adopted the holiday and made it their own. There are two Christmas traditions that we noticed while we were there. The first is the fact that Christmas seems to have turned into a Valentines Day type of holiday during which couples go on dates. The second is that many people like to celebrate the day by eating Christmas chicken. It is believed that KFC started this phenomenon by marketing “Christmas Chicken” in the mid Seventies. Now you will see Christmas chicken being sold on every corner including in KFC’s!
Tokyo was both our first and last stop in Japan, and it proved to be a great place to explore and experience culture first hand.
- Palace – Once in Tokyo our first stop was the grounds of the former royal palace in the center of the city. While not much of it remains, it still is a beautiful place to walk around for a bit, and admission came at every backpackers favorite price – free!
- Sumo – Our first hotel was right beside the Sumo Wrestling arena. While we were not there during the normal season, we did stop by and see the museum.
- Shibuya Crossing – Shibuya district is one of the most popular shopping and entertainment centers in Tokyo. Its main streets are beaming with bright/flashing signage, billboards, and advertisements of every sort. One of the most famous tourist attractions in the area is to experience the world famous Shibuya Crossing – the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world (it’s not uncommon for 2,500+ to cross in a single go). The crossing was a bit different from what we are used to in the US because traffic stops in all directions, and pedestrians can cross in every-which-way (there are literally markings for crossing diagonally). We found a Starbucks at one of the corners with an excellent second story vantage point of the intersection. We spent an hour sipping coffee and watching the pandemonium taking place below.
- Temples – We visited many temples throughout Tokyo – both large and small. Each temple had a familiar feel that all temples throughout Asia have, but these also had a distinctive Japanese flavor mixed in. One of Andy’s favorite parts were the large colorful ‘drum like’ objects that we saw surrounding each temple. We later learned that these held sakè from different regions of Japan.
- Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building – There are many tall buildings throughout Tokyo that allow you to see an amazing view of the city, but most of these cost quite a bit. However, there is one building we found that allows you to view the city from the 45th floor for free. The view from these two towers are absolutely spectacular. If you take a close look at the picture of the sunset below, you can actually see the silhouette of Mount Fuji on the horizon.
- German Christmas Markets – Leading up to Christmas several German Christmas markets pop up around the city. We visited one of these markets and found that it was a fun place to get a bite while watching the Japanese style German market in action.
- Tsukiji Fish Market – This market is found in the middle of Tokyo and is the largest wholesale seafood market in the world. Tourists who would like to see the tuna auction must be waiting in line by around 3 AM. Only a few hundred tourists are allowed into the tuna auction, so if you are not there early enough you will not get a spot. The main fish market opens to tourists around 9 AM after the majority of buying/selling has already taken place. There is very little room between the stalls, and they seem to go on forever. We saw tons of creatures of the sea which we had only seen on TV. Directly outside the market is a secondary market for locals and tourists alike. This is where you can find small sushi shops with long lines that open around 6 AM and close by noon. We grabbed a small sushi plate here and it was easily the best we have ever had!
- Anime – While in Tokyo we opted to visit the district of Akihabara to get an up close and personal view of the Anime culture that we had heard so much about. Once entering this area our senses were suddenly bombarded by the sights, sounds, and lights. This was definitely a fun place to wander around for an hour or so.
We decided to spend one night in Nagano in order to visit the Snow Monkeys which are in the mountains about an hour away from the city. Nagano had a few surprises of its own for us including its enchanting mountain city streets and several sites left from the 1998 winter Olympics.
- Jigokudani Monkey Park – Once we arrived in Nagano we quickly parked our bags at our hotel, and caught a bus to the Monkey Park. The park is essentially a river with various bubbling hot springs that cut through the surrounding mountains. In the 60s locals built a pool out of the hot-springs for the monkeys, and they have been inseparable from it ever since. During our visit we got to watch the comical spectacle of monkeys relaxing in the hot water, climbing the surrounding cliffs, and scavenging for bits of feed left by the park’s caretakers. It was such an amazing experience as we really were RIGHT THERE with the monkeys (the little guys were literally scurrying around our legs)!
Kyoto was the imperial capital for over one-thousand years. Today this city is one of the major tourist stops in Japan, and for good reason as it has a plethora of palaces, temples, and shopping streets to visit. Every guidebook/blog that we read told us to book as many days as possible here, and so we ended up staying for almost 4 days.
- Market Street – The apartment we rented ended up being close to one of the biggest street markets in city. This was a great place for tourists and locals alike to shop and indulge in local delicacies.
- Geisha District – Gion is a district in Kyoto that feels special from the minute that you arrive. On our very first night we wandered into this district and were absolutely enchanted by its old world feel and charm. It was on this night that we saw a real Geisha on her way to work. Since so many people dress up in Kimonos to take pictures at the temples we thought she was just a local in an elaborate costume. It was not until a day or two later when we realized that we had been walking through Gion district and had seen a real Geisha.
- Fushimi Inari Taisha – This temple is on the outskirts of Kyoto on the edge of a small mountain. From the first shrine at the base of the mountain there are multiple trails snaking there way up the hill; each dotted with numerous smaller shrines. The magic of the area lies in the torii gates that follow each of the trails up the side of the mountain – there must be thousands of them! It is almost surreal to meander through this area.
- Kinkakuji Temple – This Zen Buddhist temple was originally created in the late 1300’s, and while it has endured many ups-and-downs through the years, it is one of the most popular places to visit in Kyoto. This is due to the Golden Pavilion found on the grounds. We visit this pavilion at sunset and were amazed by how spectacular it truly was.
- So many other Temples – We wandered by so many other amazing tourist sites in the town including multiple temples and palaces each with its own unique draw. Its true what we were told, you really should spend as much time as you can just to see this magnificent city.
We took a day trip to see the famous Osaka Castle, which comes complete with a moat in the middle of the otherwise concrete jungle of a city. This castle was built in the late 1500’s by Toyotomi Hideyoshi who unified Japan during his rule. The view from the top of this castle was pretty neat!
We decided that we could not pass up the chance to see the city of Hiroshima and spend a day or two learning about its past. While we did visit some of the local temples and castles, the most interesting places we visited are those listed below.
- Peace Memorial Park and Museum – In the center of Hiroshima on a small island lies a park which was created to remember the atomic bomb which fell only about 500 feet away from it in August of 1945. On one end of the island is the Aioi Bridge which is in the shape of a T and was used by the bombers as a visual landmark for where to drop their payload.
- Genbaku Dome – This building is also only a few hundred feet from where the atomic bomb was dropped (the Hypocenter) in 1945. Because it was almost directly below where the blast went off, the building managed to stay partially erect and is now a monument that stands as a reminder of the devastating effects of nuclear war.
- Itsukushima – Itsukushima is a small island in Hiroshima Bay. We caught a ferry over to spend the day exploring. It had several pretty unique temples we visited, we wandered some small tourist shops, sampled some local food, and visited the Great Torii Gate. The Great Torii Gate is essentially a giant torii gate that sits just off the coast, and at high tide it is surrounded by water, but at low essentially sits on dry land. We also got to see a handful of deer wandering the streets of the city which was pretty cool, but nothing compared to how many we saw at our next stop…
We stopped in Nara for the day to see the deer that roam through the city and bow for biscuits. The deer are technically wild, as they come from and return to the nearby forest each morning and evening, but they spend the majority of their day begging for food from tourist and locals alike. They will eat almost anything (keep a CLOSE eye on your belongings), and we even saw one snatch and devour a 1,000 Yen note (roughly $10) from a woman buying a souvenir – We laughed about this for days! We were also happily surprised by the different temples that can be found around the park grounds.
After several weeks wandering the beautiful cities and countryside of Japan, our time in this magnificent country finally came to an end. We thoroughly enjoyed everything we experienced here, including the countless temples and shrines, the deer wandering the otherwise super-modern cities, and the truly unique cultural following of the many Anime universes. Japan truly is a unique country and certainly ranks among the top of our favorite places we have visited. But for now, we are excited to be taking a flight back to the good ol’ US of A and start our adventures seeing a bit more of this country we call home!