Japan - 13 Days in March
Updated: Aug 29, 2018
Japan should definitely be on your list of places to visit. The people are very polite and friendly, the streets are very clean, the cuisine is delicious and the heated toilet seats are a revelation!
During the shoulder season, most of the accommodation can be booked just in the few weeks leading up to your arrival date. Finding hotels and Airbnb flats is easy and there are a large selection to choose from. Most places offer, included in the room, a pocket Wi-Fi device or a smart phone with data. However, if you want to spend a night in a ryokan, and especially if you are looking for one with a private onsen and/or a nice view, you should book further in advance. Not all ryokans have private onsens and those that do, get booked up quickly!
There is a wide variety of Japanese cuisine to try. If you are planning a trip and want to experience all Japanese cuisine has to offer, it may be best to make reservations at those restaurants you know you want to visit. In some cases you can book online, in others you may need to ask your hotel to make the reservation for you.
JAPAN RAIL PASS
If you intend on travelling around Japan, I would recommend getting a Japan Rail (JR) pass. The JR pass allows travel on the bullet trains (Shinkansen) between cities and also on a lot of the local city trains, usually referred to as the ‘JR lines’. In Hiroshima, the JR pass can also be used on the sightseeing loop buses. To obtain a JR pass, a voucher has to be purchased before arriving in Japan. There are three options: 7-day, 14-day, or 21-day. I used TopTour Europe and opted for a 14-day pass at £295.50. On arrival in Japan, you have to exchange the voucher for your JR pass. This can be done at the airport or at certain train stations. Look for the JR ticket desks. It does not need to be done straight away and it’s worth noting that Day 1 of your pass is only the day you collect it. You can reserve seats on the Shinkansen, which I would recommend if you are travelling with someone as it can be difficult to get seats next to each other in the unreserved cars. To reserve seats, visit the JR desk at any train station at least 1-2 days prior to travelling.
On arrival at the airport you can buy a Pasmo card. Pasmo cards allow you to travel on those trains and subway lines that the JR pass does not cover, as well as local buses. I managed to use it in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. The card costs 3000 yen, of which 500 yen is a deposit and 2500 yen is useable credit. At the end of your trip, the Pasmo card can be returned and you will be reimbursed your deposit and any remaining balance.
You can plan your train routes using the Hyperdia application. Bear in mind, that there is no offline version.
Also note, most train stations have coin lockers where you can leave your bag for 500-700 yen while you explore the area.
DAY 1 - Sunday - TOKYO
Start your day with a stroll through Yoyogi park. You may be lucky enough to catch some cherry blossoms, and if you are, there will undoubtably be some locals picnicking under the beautiful pink canopies. Head towards Harajuku and the bustling Takeshita street, a narrow but long pedestrianised street, where the teenage trendies go shopping on Sundays. Saunter down this street observing the teenagers dressed up in identical outfits or sometimes like their favourite anime character. Continue along the streets towards Omote-sando until you find a restaurant called Maisen, a good place to stop for some tonkatsu: a breaded deep fried pork served with rice and shredded cabbage.
With a full belly, you can then drift towards illuminated Shinjuku, which comes alive as the sun starts to go down. If you want to stroll through Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, just bear in mind that it closes at 16:30. From the park, continue along one of the main roads, towards Shinjuku Station, where you’ll be taken aback by the constant stream of bright neon lights. Further past Shinjuku Station, head for the imposing Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Follow signposts towards the North Observatory, which has free entry and boasts some great night cityscapes. From here you get a good spot to overlook the Park Hyatt Tokyo Hotel featured in the film Lost in Translation.
For nearby evening entertainment, there are several themed bars and restaurants such as The Robot Restaurant, which is as bizarre as it is captivating! You can book ahead online and it isn’t mandatory to have dinner there. I booked tickets for the 19:50 showing without food, which cost 7,500 yen per person. There are four shows every day, each with three interludes to refill glasses. A must visit in this area, is the Golden Gai. This is a small area, where the streets are narrow and the eating and drinking establishments make use of every inch of the tiny traditional buildings. Each one with only enough space for a handful of people. There is a very popular ramen restaurant, Ramen Nagi, but be prepared for a long queue outside! If looking for a bar, the Albatross is a good place to start and be sure to try their very quaffable sakura liquor with soda. Please note that many bars, not just in the Golden Gai but throughout Japan, apply a cover charge of about 500 yen.
DAY 2 - Monday - TOKYO
Take a walk along the streets of Ginza and Nihomnashi, until you come across Kaneko Hannosuke. This is a great lunch spot to try some delicious and very reasonably priced tendon (tempura on rice). Just before the sun starts to set, jump on the subway and head over to the bustling Shibuya Station. As you wander around this labyrinth of a train station, you will encounter a plethora of food stalls and shops, and as you fumble towards an exit, you may come to a window overlooking the hectic Shibuya intersection. However, for an even better view, leave the station via Exit 6 and head for the Starbucks opposite. The best time to watch the swarms of people crossing this chaotic intersection is at dusk, with some illumination from the nearby neon lights.
DAY 3 - Tuesday - TOKYO
If you want to visit the renowned tuna auction, you will need to wake up early, well before the subway starts. This is worth considering when booking accommodation. There has been ongoing talk of relocating the tuna auction but for now it remains at Tsukiji Market. I stayed in an Airbnb in Ginza, which was an ideally located 15 minute walk away. Aim to get to the Fish Information Centre by 04:00 where you will be directed by a guard at the main entrance. There are two viewings of the tuna auction, at 05:25 and 06:15. Beware that entry is done on a first come first served basis, with up to a maximum of 60 people in each session. The sessions last about 25 minutes. While waiting for the start time, tourists are given a overview of the tuna fishing business. It was amazing to witness the sizes and volumes of the tuna, as well as experiencing the melodic auctioneers. The Intermediate Wholesalers area opens at 10:00 but if you don’t want to wait around for this, the Outer Market will just be starting to come to life, with most of the restaurants opening at 07:00. Wander around the Outer Market and find an appetising stop for a sashimi breakfast. There are several restaurants to choose from: Kaisendon Marukita serves a large bowl of rice with big chunks of fresh tuna sashimi, sea urchin and egg.
The advantage of waking up so early to see the tuna auction, is that you can visit some of Tokyo’s popular landmarks before the pesky tourists start to swarm. I recommend heading to Asakusa and visiting Senso-ji where you can enjoy the serenity of the temple. Stroll along the scenic riverside Sumida Park and across the river to the towering Tokyo Skytree, reaching a height of 634 meters. Entry costs 2060 yen and grants access to floor 350, which has panoramic views over Tokyo, and on a clear day provides views as far as Mount Fuji.
After this, head back towards Asakusa Station and meander along the narrow streets that fill the space between the station and Senso-ji. By now the stalls on Nakamise Street will all be open and buzzing with people. Visit Iriyama Sembei to grab some sembei (flavoured rice crackers) and watch them being hand-toasted on charcoal grills before scoffing them on the go.
Next on the list for this busy day is Ueno. Enter the large Ueno Onshi Park, starting with a walk around the beautiful and peaceful Shinobazuno Pond. Cross the park, aiming for the exit near the Tokyo National Museum. From here head towards Sendagi Station, passing the following landmarks along your way: Shitamachi Museum Annex, a preserved, century-old liquor store; SCAI The Bathhouse; Edokoro, the studio of painter Allen West; Enju-ji and other small temples; Yanaka Cemetery; Asakura Museum of Sculpture; then finish by taking the Yuyake Dandan (Sunset Stairs) to a small shopping street Yanaka Ginza. This walk will probably take you a couple of hours.
There should still be time for dinner at Gonpachi Nishiazabu in the Roppongi area. This izakaya (Japanese pub) is where the fight scene between The Bride and The Crazy 88s in Kill Bill was filmed. You can make a reservation via email firstname.lastname@example.org.
DAY 4 - Wednesday - TOKYO
The grand Imperial Palace can only be visited by guided tour, given the emperor resides there. The tours are free and last just over an hour, starting at 10:00 and 13:30. Alternatively, you can view the entrance to the emperor’s residence by Megane-bashi (stone bridge) and Niju-bashi (iron bridge), followed by a walk through the beautiful gardens. To access the gardens, enter via the gate near Otemachi Station. The grounds include a few guardhouses, the Edo Castle ruins and the beautiful Imperial Palace East Gardens. Here you can get lost among the countless beautiful cherry and plum blossoms, painting a scene of white and pink. There is also a very peaceful and picturesque Japanese garden around a small koi pond and waterfall. Leave the serenity of the gardens via the exit near Takebashi Station.
Head towards Akihabara Station where you will be hit with the contrast of electronics shops, anime and manga establishments, cat cafes and maid cafes. The main street through this district runs from the Kanda River to Suehirocho Station.
Refuel with a beautifully presented and delicate kaiseki meal and sake pairing at Ise Sueyoshi, in Roppongi. This is an expensive dining experience but worth every yen, not only for the tasty food and the variety of sake but also for the attentiveness of Chef Yuuki, who explains the source and combination of ingredients used in his unique dishes.
Follow this delicious dinner with a trip to some of the bars in Shimo-kitazawa, a small bohemian area hidden away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre. Mother’s Ruin is a cosy basement bar with a giant lizard sculpture on the roof and chunky wooden tables. Then walk into Little Soul Cafe and you’ll be overwhelmed with the never-ending number of vinyl records lining the walls. The relaxed atmosphere of this bar and the music make it the perfect place to enjoy a selection of Japanese whiskey.
DAY 5 - Thursday - LAKE KAWAGUCHI
Travel to Kawaguchiko, a picturesque little town on the shores of Lake Kawaguchi, where you can spend the night in a ryokan and attempt to catch a glimpse of the majestic Mount Fuji. I recommend Fuji Onsenji Yumedono and Hotel Konansou, both have rooms with private onsens. If the weather is good, the Kachi Kachi Ropeway (cable car) gives unparalleled views of Lake Kawaguchi and Mount Fuji. If you fancy tasting some sake, then pay a visit to the Ide Sake Brewery or for a coffee head to Fuji Cafe Cup’s, a glass-fronted cafe boasting a great view across the lake from the top floor.
DAY 6 - Friday - KYOTO
Travel to Kyoto after breakfast so that you arrive with hours remaining in the day to explore Gion. Wander the small streets lined with wooden teahouses, keeping your eyes open for geiko or their apprentices, maiko. If you’re there between 17:30 and 20:00 you should be able to catch glimpses of geiko shuffling to their next appointment or through the window of a teahouse entertaining guests. Jump off the train at Sanjo Station and stroll down Pontocho alley; cross over Shijoo Bridge and head towards Shirakawa South Street, which follows a tributary of the Kamo River, until you come to Gion Tatsumi Bridge. You may recognise this scene from the film Memoirs of a Geisha. Continue along this narrow road until you reach the bustling Shijo Dori, heading towards Hanamikoji Dori. If you visit in April instead of March, continue down this lantern-lit street to Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theatre, which hosts picturesque odori (dances).
If you’re feeling adventurous, finish the evening with a tasty kaiseki meal at Michelin-starred Yonemura. You may be lucky enough to find the on the menu, dishes such as the poisonous fugu (globefish) and snapping turtle.
DAY 7 - Saturday - KYOTO
Start the day with a visit to Kyoto’s great castle, Nijo-jo, allowing about an hour to explore the grounds. Make sure to stroll down the picturesque plum tree grove. It is also worth entering the Ninomaru Palace, where you can view different chambers, each one with a beautifully painted and elaborate wall or sliding door. Photography is not permitted inside Ninomaru Palace so you will have to take my word for it!
Following this, catch the train to Keage Station, where you can visit a few temples before starting on the Philosopher’s Walk. Most will charge a nominal entry fee of 300-500 yen but well worth it if you feel like some tranquility. Konchi-in and Tenju-an are two small Buddhist temples with very peaceful zen gardens (Japanese rock gardens). Tenju-an also has a calm koi pond, where you can soak up the serenity while watching the large koi. Continue strolling the grounds towards Nanzen-ji and finish with a visit to Nanzenji Hojo garden, another picturesque zen garden.
From here, head towards Tetsugaku-no-Michi and the start of the river that leads the Philosopher’s Path. Following this shallow river, with koi and ducks swimming up and down, is a narrow path beautifully lined with a variety of plants and trees, some of which you’ll hopefully find in blossom. With the sun shining, this makes for a very peaceful and pleasant stroll.
The path leads to the Ginkakuji-bashi Bridge, where you turn off to visit Ginkaku-ji, a popular zen temple. Here you will find a serene pond glistening in the light. The grounds surrounding the pond are beautifully covered in a layer of moss creating a unique moss garden. However, due to a larger number of visitors, it’s not quite as peaceful as some of the smaller temples. Make sure you get there before closing time at 17:00.
Next, catch the train to Inari to visit Fushimi Inari-Taisha. Don’t be concerned that the sun will shortly be setting! It will probably be around 18:00 by the time you arrive at the Shinto shrine and there should still be plenty of light to see this and take some snaps before starting the mountain trail. There is a loop trail that leads up the sacred Mount Inari, which consists mainly of well-lit stairs passing underneath thousands of vermilion torii gates. Enough light is provided by the street lamps to tackle this trail after sunset. You will also notice lots of fox statues scattered across the shrine grounds. These are thought to be messengers for Inari, the Shinto god of rice. I would recommend persevering with the trail until at least checkpoint 6. Here you will be rewarded with a beautiful night cityscape of Kyoto, sparkling behind a couple of the famous torii gates in the foreground.
After catching the train back to Kyoto, head to the 10th floor of Kyoto Station, where you can feast at one of the many options down Kyoto’s Ramen Koji (street).
Day 8 - Sunday - KYOTO
Catch the train to Kitano Hakubai-Cho Station, from here you can either hop on a bus or take a 20 minute walk up the hill to Kinkaku-ji. It will probably take you about an hour to walk around the landscaped gardens of this impressive Buddhist temple. Be warned there will be more tourists here than at any of the previous temples but you’ll be dazzled by the temple’s glittering gold leaf facade shimmering in the sunlight and across the water.
Reasonably close to Kinkaku-ji, on the same side of Kyoto, is the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Walking underneath the towering bamboo stalks as the sun’s rays try to penetrate the dense canopy is a unique experience. However, the narrow paths get extremely crowded, detracting somewhat from the magical feel of the forest. As well as the main tunnel, there is also a smaller, and less busy area just past the Nonomiya Shrine. Back towards the train station, you will pass several food stalls serving yakitori and gyoza, a good place to stop and grab a bite to eat.
Aim to catch a train to Nara at about 14:00. This will get you there by 15:30, giving you enough time to stroll through Nara Park towards Todai-ji, which houses Japan’s largest bronze Buddha, an imposing statue. Along the way, you will pass Kofuku-ji and it’s neighbouring five-story pagoda, as well as the numerous and surprisingly tame deer that roam the park.
Every year there are a series of events known as the Omizutori, which are held at the Nigatsu-do, not far from Todai-ji. Depending on the dates of your trip, I recommend attending if you can. In particular, the spectacular Otaimatsu, which starts after sunset and involves the burning of giant torches from the wooden balcony of Nigatsu-do. This ceremony lasts 20 minutes and the awestruck public coo from the slope below as burning embers shower down from the balcony. People start to gather on the slope as early as 17:00, in order to guarantee a good viewpoint. I would recommend standing on the left side of the slope and not too close to the front of the hall so that you get a wider perspective. The giant torches are carried up an enclosed corridor that runs up the left side of the slope to the hall, so standing on this side also enables you to see the initial phase of the ceremony. Finish the evening with some okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) at Kameya before catching the train back to Kyoto.
Day 9 - Monday - KAGOSHIMA
Travel to Kagoshima. After checking in to your hotel, explore the old centre, Tenokuchicho. Here you’ll find narrow streets with several restaurants and bars. If you want to try shabu-shabu, a hotpot dish with thin slices of meat, venture into Juraku Restaurant.
Day 10 - Tuesday - KAGOSHIMA
Spend the day exploring the small town, where most things are within walking distance. There is a great atmospheric little cafe in Chuocho. Half way down the street that runs parallel to Heiwa Dori and next to an Italian restaurant, you’ll stumble upon this great little find, who’s name in English I have been unable to discover! The owners don’t speak English and there are no English menus but their hospitality is outstanding and they will serve you a coffee accompanied with some small Japanese cakes. If you didn’t get a chance to try tonkatsu in Tokyo, or you did and you liked it, then aim for Kuro Katsu Tei for lunch.
After lunch, saunter down to the Waterfront Park near the Dolphin Port. Here you’ll encounter the most spectacular view of Mount Sakurajima, billowing clouds of volcanic ash from it’s crater. The middle or end of the afternoon provides the best light with which to enjoy this magnificent sight. If you’re lucky, you may also spot the massive ocean sunfish, the heaviest known bony fish, swimming in the clear waters between the ports.
Day 11 - Wednesday - KAGOSHIMA & HIROSHIMA
Catch an early morning ferry from Sakurajima Ferry port onto the looming volcanic island. Within walking distance of the ferry drop-off point, are the Tsukiyomi Shrine and the hot spring foot baths, where you can give your feet a nice relaxing soak while taking in the volcanic scenery that surrounds you. Make sure you take some tissues or cleansing wipes, otherwise you will be left with yellow stains all over your clothes due to the sulphur in the water. There are a couple of different bus tours to choose from, and both depart from the ferry-drop off point. If pushed for time, get a one-day pass for the Sakurajima Island View tour bus (500 yen), which runs a loop from the Sakurajima Port to the Yunohira Observatory. This tour lasts about an hour, visiting the Karasujima observation point, the Akamizu View Park and the Yunohira observation point, the closest and safest distance you can get to the active volcano. There is another tour bus that does a loop around the whole island, passing the Arimura Lava Observatory, which costs 1200 yen.
In the afternoon, catch the Shinkansen to Hiroshima, arriving with enough time for a stroll along Enko River. Next to the Aioi Dori bridge you will find a small oyster haven, Oyster Conclave Kaki-tei. Grab a riverside table and enjoy the widely varied oyster menu. I recommend trying the smoked oysters, oyster tempura and oysters with champagne cream.
For dinner, you must try the Hiroshima okonomiyaki, different to the rest of Japan due to the addition of soba or udon noodles. Hassei is a small but busy okonomiyaki restaurant, where you can sit at the sizzling counter while the chefs cook the okonomiyaki in front of you. Given the popularity, you may have to wait for a table, but add your name to the list and head to Bocca Rosso, an Italian wine bar opposite, where you can have a drink while you wait.
Day 12 - Thursday - HIROSHIMA & MIYAJIMA
Start the day exploring the grounds of Hiroshima-jo. If you need somewhere nearby to grab breakfast, there’s a small boulangerie nearby called Letoile Filante, where you can sample some Japanese or French pastries. From the castle grounds, it’s a short walk to the Atomic Bomb Dome, the iconic ruins of the Industrial Promotion Hall and the epicentre of the explosion. Crossing over the Motoyasu River, you’ll find the Peace Memorial Park, a leafy space scattered with memorials. Be sure to follow the Pond of Peace to the cenotaph, a curved concrete monument at one end. Standing in front of this, look through the curvature of the cenotaph across the pond towards the Flame of Peace and in the distance behind this, the Atomic Bomb Dome.
On the other side of the river, is a small pier where you can catch a ferry to Miyajima. A one-way trip costs 2000 yen and takes 45 minutes. During the voyage you will be shown short video clips, which explain some of the sights that you pass along the way. However, you are not able to go out onto the deck and have to remain seated inside during the length of the trip. Alternatively, you can catch a train on the San-yo Line to Miyajimaguchi Station, from where you can take a short ferry ride to the picturesque island, using your JR pass for the entire journey.
Docking at 14:00 allows enough time to climb to Mount Misen’s summit at 535 meters above sea level. Pick up a map at the ferry port, take the Momijidani route up to the top and then descend along the Daishoin route. Before starting the hike, stroll down Omotesando shopping street, where you can grab some fish cakes to eat. There are several oyster restaurants but the queues are likely to be quite long. Trekking up the mountain will take about 2 hours, passing through the Momijidani Park, up a steep stone staircase, to finally reach Mount Misen Observatory with a beautiful 360 degree panoramic view.
Trekking down the mountain will take about an hour. This route is more scenic but has several steps giving your legs quite a work out! You will pass Nioumon Gate, then along the Yujo stone-paved road, past the impressive 150 metre high Makuiwa rock, the Shiraito-no-Taki Waterfall and finishing at Daisho-in, a Shingon temple. Be aware that Mount Misen Observatory shuts at 16:00 and Daisho-in closes at 17:00, so if you want to enter the temple then start your hike earlier.
Saunter down to the beach to admire the vermilion torii of Itsukushima-jinja at a close distance, but wait for the tide to come up and the sun to set for the classic view of the ‘floating’ torii. The JR ferries back to Miyajimaguchi run until 22:14, which means you can have dinner on the island and Mame-tanuki is one of the few places still serving.
Day 13 - Friday - HIMEJI & OSAKA
Leave Hiroshima and travel to Osaka, making a stop at Himeji along the way. Himeji castle is a short walk from the train station and a Unesco Cultural World Heritage Site. It’s magnificent white exterior, resembling a white heron taking flight, also gives it the name “Hakuro-jo” (White Heron Castle). Entry into the castle and it’s grounds costs 1000 yen, which is considerably more than most other attractions. A stroll around the grounds takes just under two hours, including visits to the 7 floors of the Main Keep, where you can admire the interior wooden structure. Grab a coffee at Castelo Coffee before heading back to the train station.
Next stop, Osaka. Near the train station, soaring into the sky you’ll find the strikingly unique Umeda Sky Building. The two shiny towers are joined at the top by the Floating Garden Observatory. However, this is not a green ‘garden’ at all but simply a roof terrace providing you with a 360 degree panoramic view of Osaka. Entry is 1000 yen. Back at Osaka Station, you can use your JR pass to get to JR-Namba Station, a short walking distance from the buzzing Dotonbori Canal. Push past the crowds on Ebisu Bridge to get a view of the canal, then meander down 1 Chome Dotonbori taking in all the bright neon lights and eye-catching billboards. You will find a large selection of bars and restaurants. A must try is takoyaki, fried octopus balls, though these are an acquired taste! If pushed for time you can catch the Midosuji Line from Namba all the way to Shin-Osaka to catch the Shinkansen. The last train back to Tokyo is at 20:10.