Whereas our first trip was in the height of Summer, this trip was early in the fall, and as our plane descended over Mt Bandai it was possible to see that, in advance of the Winter snows, the peaks of the mountains were pink with the Autumn colours.
Often our first thoughts of Japan are its technology and the great metropolis that is Tokyo, however, 70-80% of Japan is mountainous countryside, rich in nature and history. Getting a balance between the two is easily possible and a must, even on the shortest of trips.
Day 1 – Robots, royalty, and parklife
Having a personal guide can be seen as a luxury, however, on our first trip we really found our guides invaluable. They provide a mixture of local orientation, experience, and insights that helps you to get much more from your trip. As with all official guides in Japan, Kobe, our guide had passed the stringent exams to gain official accreditation, and with his help we agreed a flexible itinerary for our day. It started with Hamarikyu Gardens, one of the large green spaces in Central Tokyo, which the Shoguns used for duck hunting and falconry. Overlooking the lake, we enjoyed a tranquil break from the city, as well as green tea and cake, whilst Kobe gave us insights into the traditions of the tea ceremony.
Even though it was October, the temperature was high at 28 degrees C, so we spent some time in the gardens of the Imperial Palace. We even managed to squeeze in a trip to Honda HQ, to watch a display of the impressive Asimo human robot, great for an 8 year old who loves Supercars!
Another great thing about guides is they know the best places to eat, and for us it was a traditional Ramen restaurant near the famous Shibuya crossing. Superb ramen for about ¥500. After a trip through the food hall of a local department store, we ended up back on the other side of the city in Asakusa with its temple and shrine, ending our day with an ice cold Asahi beer, in the bar at the top of the Asahi HQ, looking out over the Tokyo skyline at sunset.
Whilst we perhaps associate Japanese food with sushi, it is really varied and contributes to the higher than average life expectancy. Our culinary highlight of the day was Nikko Age Yuba Manju. They consist of a red bean core surrounded by tofu, deep fried with a salty shell and only made in Nikko. They are simply addictive!
Day 4 – Parklife
Friends who are regulars, or who have lived in Tokyo, were insistent that we should spend a Sunday afternoon in Yoyogi Park (central Tokyo). We weren't disappointed. After watching rockabilly groups dancing, now world famous through YouTube, we picnicked amongst the locals with their skateboarding dogs, and full on badminton and frisbee tournaments.
Day 5 – From Pokémon to Maiko
One of the highlights of most trips to Japan is to use the Shinkansen. For us, it never disappoints whether it's the ultra efficient operation, or the white gloved guards who bow on entering and exiting each carriage. It all contributes to making a 2-3 hour journey seem like mere minutes.
After a leisurely start and sending our main suitcase off to our next hotel in Tokyo by Takkyubin. We left the bright lights of Tokyo for the historical Kyoto.
Having managed to visit a lot of the Kyoto ‘top 10’ on our first visit, we decided to try and finish the collection, catching the sunset from Kyomizo-dera, a temple that sits on a hill top with views across Kyoto. This is one of the top attractions that means that it's almost always busy. As a photographer, the end images of a serene sunset hide the chaos and jostling that went on behind the camera and this was certainly the case today with many well mannered but enthusiastic parties of Japanese school children there.
Day 6 – Kyoto revisited
One thing you realise about guides is that if as we did on our previous visit list many of the top sights, as being on your to do list and assuming that they are all releatively close, it is like throwing down the gauntlet. Be careful what you wish for as guides will try their best to help you achieve your to-do list. With their professional knowledge they will help you achieve much more than you could achieve on your own, but consider the pace that you want as well as the to-do list. On this trip we consciously opted for a more relaxed day with a mix of locations relatively close together (we still walked 12+ miles).
Day 7 – from Nara to Neon
One of the great things about Kyoto is its connectivity, with many other sights possible as day trips. We decided to combine two potential day trips into one to maximise our time, and therefore planned a triangular trip to Nara, the first ever formal capital of Japan, and Osaka, as we had heard that it had a different feel and great food.
When you plan days like this in the splendid isolation of your home before travelling it's easy to underestimate the cultural diversity that you're taking on.
Nara is a great day trip (~1 hour by train from Kyoto) with many options from: the roaming deer, purported to be the messengers of the gods, which seems to give them the right to be mischievous; to Todai-ji temple, which is said to be the world’s largest wooden building and contains one of Japan’s largest bronze statues of Buddha at 15m tall. It's a great cultural immersion of a historical nature.
Day 8 – from temples back to towers
One thing that we’ve found in Japan is that if your hotel’s in a good location, then getting out early before the crowds is worth the effort. Kyoto is a great walking city, and you’re almost guaranteed to find its best by exploring without too much of a formal plan. We headed to the Hoshinocho area as we’d seen a nice pagoda there. We weren’t disappointed and spent a great few hours in a relatively quiet area that, whilst the shops were undoubtedly tourist focused, the architecture and ambiance was traditional.
After stocking up on bento boxes all round at the station we were soon back in Tokyo, albeit this time basing ourselves in Shinjuku. On the basis of recommendations, we went up the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building for sunset. It’s free and gives good views from the 45th floor, however, note there are two towers and one closes earlier than the other.
Day 9 – Flying Squirrels, Mt Fuji, & Onsens
Whilst the cities are fun, it’s too easy to overlook the areas of countryside just outside of them. We took the train out to Mt Takao, about a 55 min journey that takes you to the western edge of the city. At 600m high its peak gives views back into Tokyo and out to Mt Fuji (on a good day). We thought we were smart and bought three one day passes that included return trains, and two single journeys on either the chair lift or the cable car that takes you the first part of the climb. What we hadn’t planned for was that the ticket machine would spit out 12 tickets like we’d won the jackpot on a slot machine, and all in Japanese. Luckily, the Japanese railway system is heavily populated, by UK standards, with helpful staff and they helped us find the right ones to at least get us to the platform.
Sadly, by the time we made it out to Mt Takao, up the chair lift and the 60 min walk to the summit, the weather had closed in, it was raining and the views were no more, just like the elusive flying squirrels who inhabit the area.
There was only one thing to do, hire some towels and go to the public onsen at the foot of the mountain. What better way to spend a wet afternoon, than sitting in outdoor thermal pools looking at the rain splashing down and the beautiful autumn colours. Luckily, we had been to private onsen before and also read the handy guide in a recent edition of East, so we managed to get the etiquette right.