Japan revisited from tech to temples and so much in between

When we left Japan, after our first visit in 2015, we felt that we would be back. Despite a fully packed couple of weeks we’d only just scratched the surface of the people, the cultures, and the country. Coming back so soon, as a result of Inside Japan’s photo competition, was a great surprise, honour, and pleasure.

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.

Whilst the number of overseas visitors to Japan has been increasing recently, there's still a window of opportunity to visit before the crescendo that will be the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and the Olympics in 2020.

Hamarikyu Gardens

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!

Tokyo - a city where tech meets tradition

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.

The view from the reception of the Park Hotel, Shiodome - day and night

Every guide we have met has brought their own individuality to our trip and creating truly memorable days. Kobe was certainly no different, even helping us plan our trip to Kamakura the next day, faxing us his suggestions later in the evening.

Day 2 – Sumo, sushi, and shrines

To try and get the most from our time we try and pack in as much as possible and in this style we started by trying to see some sumo practice. This probably is one experience to get some expert help with and book ahead, as the first stable that we went to was having a rest day and the second required reservations. That said at the second stable we did manage to meet the sumo as they were cooling down outside between sessions.

After a short trip on the ever efficient and cheap Tokyo metro we had a sushi breakfast at Tsukiji market. It's probably as fresh as it comes and hand made in front of your eyes if you get a seat at the bar. If you're staying at the Park Hotel, which is close by, the hotel will switch your breakfast voucher for a sushi breakfast voucher at Sushi Zanmai in Tsukiji and you get a plate of 12-13 sushi.

After a couple of days in the city we chose to head out this afternoon and visit Kamakura and its great Buddha, temples and bamboo grove. Being less than an hour it was a great contrast and included in our Japan Rail Pass.

Great Buddha at Kotoku-in Temple, Kamakura

Another fun thing to do is visit some of the smaller Japanese theme parks and museums such as the Toei Movie Park (all things Ninja in Kyoto). For dinner we stopped off at Yokohama and its Ramen Museum. Who knew that you could create a whole attraction out of Ramen, but I can assure you it does exist and is worth a mealtime visit: we can vouch for the Okinawa-style ramen.

Yokohama Ramen Museum
The bamboo grove at Hokokuji temple

Day 3 – Chasing the fall colours

The Autumn colours (koyo) make their gradual procession down the country and whilst the odd tree in Tokyo was turning, the trees further North and at higher altitudes were far more advanced. For convenience, we chose Nikko which can be reached by train in about 2-3 hours.

It became obvious as we closed in on Nikko that it was one of the busiest weekends with the leaves nearing their peak. To get to the colours we took a coach from Nikko up to Lake Chuzenji and the Kegon Falls. The impressive thing about the fall colours in Japan is the variety of vibrant colours, with each tree contributing to a patchwork of colour.

Kegon Falls, Nikko

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!

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A healthy diet
Kegon Falls, Nikko

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.

Hound dogs and halogen!

As the sun went down we took the 15 minute walk down to Shibuya and its famous crossing. Whilst being used to London, and having visited during the week, nothing could have prepared us for Shibuya at its peak. The lights, noise, flashing billboard trucks, and of course the thousands of people who swarm across the crossing every 90 seconds or so are a sight to be seen and an assault on the senses!

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.

With an eye on the clock the guard waits to launch another Shinkansen perfectly on time

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.

Kyoto culture

Our hotel had offered us an opportunity to meet a Maiko (a trainee Geiko). On our first trip we had realised that Geiko and Maiko are actually quite rare and therefore we took the opportunity. Spending a short time with and being able to talk to the Maiko gave us a brief but rare glimpse into another world.

Sunset from Kiyomizu-dera temple

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).

Early Autumn colours appearing in Kyoto

With Reiko, our guide’s help, this time we targeted some of the less well known options, and luckily there are many. Whilst visiting gardens may not be your thing, there is something about Japanese gardens that can often draw you in, especially with even the earliest of Autumn colours. Whist you could self-guide between the various places, the real benefit of a guide is to understand the mind of the gardener, and the significance of the plants, rocks, trees, and design. And, for kids, there is almost always a water feature stocked with fish and the inevitable gate, pagoda, or temple to explore or climb.

Eikan-do Temple in early Autumn

Having spent time in Tokyo, Kyoto feels almost village like both in scale and pace, albeit the size of a major UK city, and therefore is a welcome respite from the bright lights of Tokyo and as we were to find Osaka.

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, the original capital of Japan

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.


Osaka on the other hand, can only be described as a cultural immersion into modern day Japan. Whilst it doesn't have as much of the contemporary architecture of Tokyo, it's a shopping and entertainment epi-centre, and somewhere where the usually externally restrained Japanese come to let their hair down. During our short visit we explored both Tsutenkaku, and Dotonbori. Where our cultural immersion was capped by finding ourselves in a mosh pit of glow stick waving Japanese men at a performance by Kamen Joshi, a Japanese idol girl group.

Toy pet sushi vending machine

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.

Hoshinocho, Kyoto

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.

A fun game of character match

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.

View from the peak

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.

Exploration including Japan's steepest cable car & flying squirrels

So the end of another great adventure in Japan. What has it taught us? Well firstly, we were right when we thought that we’d only just scratched the surface on our first trip; secondly, it’s often the less well known places that provide as much as the ones that are the icons; and Thirdly, Japan, like the UK, is very seasonal, and with two seasons done we now have to find ways of doing the other two!

Our thanks have to go to everyone at Inside Japan who organised the East photo competition and our trip to Japan.

Also to ANA, Park Hotel Tokyo, Hyatt Regency Kyoto, Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku, & our guides Kobe and Reiko who all looked after us while we were in country.

© 2016 Af8images

Created By
Adrian Furner


© 2016 Af8images

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