Japan wasn’t entirely what I had expected. The technology was definitely advanced (such as heated toilet seats!) and the people extremely considerate (amazing queuing skills!). However what I wasn’t expecting was that the majority of things aren’t written in English and most people don’t speak English. Which makes sense as their economy does not depend on tourism, but it was still a shock! Food shopping for the first time in Japan was an interesting experience!
Japan is definitely a more expensive country to visit in comparison to it’s Asian neighbours. Our budget was 3 times higher for here. You need at least $75 a day to cover travel, accommodation and food.
In general you can pay by card but a few guesthouses we stayed in or restaurants we went to only accepted cash. TOP TIP: Not all ATMs accept foreign cards so you need yo use the international ATMs which are available in most 7/11s.
If you’re interested in learning more about my spendings for my 7 month trip, check out my blog “How to Travel on a Budget in Asia“.
Visiting Japan during sakura season has always been high on my bucketlist, as I’m sure it is on yours too.
If you want to visit whilst the cherry blossoms are in blooms your best chance is the last week of March and first week of April. Make sure you check out the sakura calendar before planning your trip. The blooming will depend on location and weather, with full bloom generally starting to the south west and moving north east.
When you are in a city if you look on google maps you will be able to see cherry blossom spots so you know the best spots to see them!
GETTING AROUND (JR PASS)
Before arriving in Japan have a look either on google maps or Hyperdia to look at the destinations you wish to visit. Calculate the overall cost to travel around and then compare with the price of the JR pass. The JR pass does NOT include all trains (private trains and certain metros/buses for example) so make sure you check this. It does include a bit of transport within the cities though (the JR lines).
There are different passes on sale for different areas, check out the Japan Rail Pass website for more info.
We flew into Osaka and out of Tokyo so I’m going to write my top things to do in Japan in order of when we did them:
Osaka was exactly how I imagined Japan cities to be. Loads of brightly coloured streets with beautiful signs written in Japanese (it just looks so much more creative than English).
Make sure you head to Osaka castle for a picnic and Shinsaibashisuji Shopping Street and Dotonbori for lots of shops and restaurants.
WHERE I STAYED:
I stayed at the Hotel She Osaka near Bentencho station, I loved the interior decor of this hotel as well as the fact that each room has it’s own vinyl player! You even get 15% off if you book directly through their website!
2) Nara Park
A nice morning or afternoon trip out of Osaka (JR pass valid) is to Nara Park. Here you can experience deer from extremely close! You can even purchase special biscuits for them but beware they can get pretty crazy!
Easily my favourite city in Japan, make sure you spend at least a couple of days here! TOP TIP: Avoid staying here over the weekend as it is even busier then.
You might also want to consider staying in a traditional Ryokan, there is something for all budgets!
Get lost in the cute vintage streets of Gion, whilst trying to spot geishas. TOP TIP: the best time and place to spot geishas is from 16h00 to 17h00 on Gion corner. They are however extremely rare so don’t come here expecting to see any!
This is the most popular area in Kyoto to hang out in your Kimono so make sure you head this way! Gion Shirakawa is a super cute street next to the canal and you could also stop off at Gion Komori a traditional tea house on this street.
4) Ayashima bamboo park
To the west of Kyoto lies the Ayashima bamboo park. It was a lot smaller than I imagined and busy even at 9am, but it was still beautiful to see the wind dance through the bamboo!
TOP TIP: Go very early (6/7am) to avoid the crowds. It’s only one long avenue (about 100 m long) so can get crowded very quickly!
We had the BEST day dressing up in traditional Japanese kimonos and getting our hair done! You can rent them for the day from 9am to 5pm.
In general the prices start from around 3800 yen for the day and this includes the clothes, the dressing (you definitely need help – so many layers!) and a hair style. The price will depend on the category of kimono you pick and the hair style you wish to have.
TOP TIP: Avoid renting your kimono in Gion – it seemed to be a lot more expensive here.
6) Fushimi inari
Voted by tourists as the top thing to see in Japan, the Fushimi Inari shrine is absolutely spectacular and will not disapoint! Over 4km of orange arch shrines creating tunnels up a mountain is definitely quite a site. You can easily take a JR train 2 stops here from Kyoto station (about 10 minutes)
TOP TIP: As it’s quite long it is quite easy to avoid crowds however if you want to be mostly alone then as usual come early (after 8am there were quite a few people already), this also ensures a beautiful light shining through the arches.
7) Hokkaido Temple
My favourite street in Kyoto leads towards Hokkaido temple and past it to the cutest stairwell overlapped by a single cherry blossom tree. This is a great place to get some photos in your kimono (although there will probably be a lot of people).
On August 6, 1945, during World War II, an American B-29 bomber dropped the world’s first deployed atomic bomb over Hiroshima. The explosion wiped out 90 percent of the city and immediately killed 80,000 people; tens of thousands more died later on from radiation exposure.
Due to the history of Hiroshima the main stop for visitors has to be the memorial park, here you can see a flame that will burn constantly until nuclear weapons no longer exist. The park is where the bomb fell and is also where you will find the Genbaku Dome, the only structure left standing in the area where the atomic bomb exploded.
9) Miyajima island
To tie in with your trip to Hiroshima head to Miyajima island (the JR pass will work on the boat!) to marvel at the magical submerged Itsukushima shrine.
TOP TIP: The shrine is only submerged at high tide so make sure you check the tide calendar to plan your visit. As when the tide is out the people flock around the base of the shrine.
Between Hiroshima and Osaka/Kyoto lies the tallest wooden structure in Japan, Himeji castle. It was beautiful to see from the outside but I found the interior very underwhelming (especially considering the amount of people visiting). Personally it was my least favourite part of the trip.
Words, or even photos, cannot describe the sheer size and amazingness of Mount Fuji. One of the most beautiful physical landscapes I have ever seen! Please be aware though that it is hard to see it due to mist! So make sure you check the weather forecast before arranging your trip here.
TOP TIP: If you are thinking of climbing Fuji then your best time to visit in July/August. If you want to catch it snow capped then head there for winter/early spring.
11) Lake Kamaguchi
Your JR pass will work from Tokyo to Otsuki and you will then need to change trains and buy a ticket to Kamaguchi station (around $10).
Lake Kamaguchi is the most iconic of the 5 lakes in the region primarily due to the “diamond fuji” where (if you are extremely lucky) you’ll be able to catch Fujis reflection.
Make sure you hire bikes and cycle around the lake!
WHERE I STAYED:
I stayed at the Asobi Factory which I would definitely recommend. It’s run by a young couple who have just finished travelling the world. The guest house was built from scratch a year ago so it’s all very new. They offer pick up and drop off to the station as well as bike hire.
Onsens are relaxing hot spring spas which can be inside or outdoors. Most onsen have a strict no clothes policy so you will need to enjoy them in the nude!
There are onsens all over Japan but for me experiencing one whilst looking at Mount Fuji was an indescribable memory.
Not all onsens have a view of Mount Fuji and most are privatised for hotel guests. I stayed one night at the Hotel Mount Fuji near lake Yamanaka in order to use their amazing onsen.
*please note that photography (nor swimsuits) are not permitted in onsens – the hotel kindly let me in to take a photo during the closed period)*
13) Chureito pagoda
Another iconic view of Fuji is from the Chureito pagoda. It’s free to enter but you will need to climb 400 steps to the top, however the view is definitely worth it!
You can get the train here (the one that runs from Otsuki to Lake Kawaguchiko), the stop you need is Shimoyoshida.
If you’re coming to Japan you 100% can’t miss out on Tokyo!
Make sure you enjoy Tokyo from up high at one of the many viewpoints. Including Tokyo tower, the skytree, the Government Metropolitan building and Bunkyo tower.
On a good weather day you might even be able to catch site of Mount Fuji!
TOP TIP: If you’re on a budget the Gov building and Bunkyo tower are both free to visit!
15) Walk around
As with most cities the best way to explore is by walking around.
Head to Shibuya to see the supposed busiest intersection in the world. There are also plenty of shops here and it reminded me a bit of time square.
From here you can visit the temple Meiji Jingu.
Then head east to Chiyoda park. Here you can go rowing in a moat! A boat (fits 3) costs 800 yen for 30mins or 1600 yen for 60mins. During cherry blossom season the moat is surrounded with sakura, such a beautiful site! I would avoid this area on the weekend though during this time.
You should also check out the beautiful Senso-ji temple. TOP TIP: If you want to avoid the crowds aim to go super early morning (6-8am) or at night.
Another way to explore the city is by Mario Kart! You might see a load of these buzzing around Tokyo (much to my delight!). Unfortunately, due to my license being British, I was not able to hire one :(. Find out more info here.
An hour and a half train ride out of Tokyo (so an easy day trip) is the Hitachi seaside park. You will need to get a train from Tokyo or Ueno station to Katsuta station (pronounced Kat-sta). This is included in the JR rail pass. You then need to catch a local bus from platform 2 to the park, this is 400 yen.
The park has both amusements (a huge wheel etc) and beautiful gardens. The daffodils and the rolling blue hills were my favourite (both to the west of the park).
If you have time and a JR pass I think it’s worth a little trip but if not then it wasn’t the favourite thing I did either.
Unfortunately due to our limited budget we weren’t able to do everything we wanted. When we come back to Japan I would want to check out Harry Potter World in Osaka (there’s also Disneyland in Tokyo), Nachi falls and the beautiful island of Ishigaki-jima.
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