Japan · 10 Days · 35 Moments · April 2013

Essential Japan - Backpackers' Guide

7 May 2013

Shinjuku: Don Quijote For some more peculiar souvenirs, check out the Don Quijote shopping centre at Shinjuku. You will be able to find really everything here, from cosplay costumes to Pokemon socks and just about everything that can have an anime print. Kabuchi-cho avenue is also a spectacular sight by night.
Ginza-dori The huge Ginza-dori avenue is shopping heaven! You will find storehouses of any brand you can think of, intertwined with fancy cafés, restaurants and cute sweets shops. Shopaholics can easily spend the whole day here.

6 May 2013

Chuzenji lake and onsen Chuzenji is a village 45 minutes by bus from Nikko. You can visit a beautiful lake, a waterfall and an onsen (hot spring) here. Note that this village is high in the mountains, so it was really cold even in early April. Dress accordingly.
Hippari Dako After visiting the temple complex, satisfy your hunger at Hippari Dako on the main street of Nikko. The food is delicious and you could spend hours reading the little notes that cover the whole restaurant.
Nikko Two days before leaving Japan, we're heading back to the Tokyo area. Thanks to the Shinkansen, it's possible to go all the way from Kyoto to Nikko, a mountain town north of Tokyo, in one go. Nikko is home to a very famous temple complex, which can be reached in a 20 minute hike from the train station. Note that the weather is significantly colder here than in Tokyo.

5 May 2013

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum From Miyajima, drive back to Hiroshima and go straight to the Memorial park. You will see the dome that was the only remaining building in Hiroshima after the atomic bomb dropping. Continue to the Peace Memorial museum, which explains the comprehensive history of the atomic bomb and shows a meticulous protocol about the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Also, there is a very graphical display of burnt and dead people and detailed explanations of diseases. You should not visit this part with children. Still, I think that this Museum is one of those places that everyone should see in his live once, to be reminded of keeping the world peaceful in the future.
Floating shrine on Miyajima island Leave Kyoto early to catch the Shinkansen to Hiroshima. First, head to the Miyajima island south of town. The island is significantly warmer than the rest of the country that we have visited so far. The cherry blossom was in full bloom, which made the visit on the island very enjoyable. The main attraction of the island is the floating shrine. Unfortunately, the tide was low when we visited, but still the sight was beautiful.

4 May 2013

Nara Nara is an ancient capital of Japan and a must day-trip while in Kyoto. When getting off the train, just follow the crowds to the shrine with a huge buddha statue. You can spend the rest of the day strolling around the city, watch the deer that are just about everywhere, and check out the pretty shops along the main drag.

3 May 2013

Gion Gion is the old district of Kyoto and famous for the Geishas. If you encounter one, please be mannered and don't photograph them. Just enjoy seeing her in all her humble grace. The passage along the river is gorgeous by night, especially during sakura.
Nishiki Market Nishiki market is a good place to have lunch and get some Japanese snacks.
International Manga museum The Kyoto international manga museum is the best of its kind in Japan. A must for every fan!
Insider Tip: Cat Café Nekokaigi To me, a trip to Japan wouldn't have been complete without seeing a cat café. I have found this cat café serendipitously after visiting the Manga museum. The cats at the Nekokaigi Cat Café are in impeccable condition, they visibly get taken care of every day. You can also just have a drink and read (well, look at) cat mangas. The fee is ¥800 per hour, drinks cost extra.
Fushimi Inari Shrine Another Kyoto classic is the Fushimi Inari Shrine in the south of Kyoto. Calculate about 1.5 hours for the trail that leads you to hundreds of flamboyant orange gates.

2 May 2013

Insider Tip: Hirano shrine A friend from Kyoto brought us to this rather unknown shrine in the northern part of the city. It is particularly popular among locals during the cherry blossom season. Just wander underneath the beautiful cherry trees, discover the sometimes pretty peculiar shrine offerings and watch families doing buddhist rituals. If you would like to try something unusual, try cherry blossom tea from the stalls.
Arashiyama temple complex and bamboo grove Arashiyama is a district at the north-western edge of Kyoto which is home to a big temple and park complex. The most famous site is the bamboo grove that is just behind Tenryu-ji temple. Entrance to the complex is free, while the temples cost extra. Tenryu-ji has a pretty garden inside and is recommended (¥600). Try to come not too late in the afternoon, because it gets dark inside the bamboo grove quite early. Also, bring enough time as the complex is pretty large. See if you can get a map of the area to not get lost. To get to the complex, take the train to Saga Arashiyama and follow the signs to Tenryu-ji.
Kinkaku-ji The golden pavilion Kinkaku-ji is perhaps Japan's most famous temple. Photographers may spend hours capturing this pretty temple that reflects in the surrounding pond. The site is pretty crowded and commercial, with a lot of booths selling charms and tourist souvenirs. Still, this temple and adjoining park are too pretty to be missed! (¥400).

1 May 2013

K's House Backpacker Hostel K's House is a huge western-style hostel chain in Japan. The Kyoto branch is extremely clean, has friendly staff and a generous common area with adjoint bar/cafe. The hostel is located in 10 minutes' walking distance from Kyoto Central station. Rates from 17€. Book well in advance if you plan to stay in Kyoto in high season, especially during sakura (cherry blossom) celebrations.
Transfer from Mt. Fuji to Kyoto Take a last relaxing morning dip in the hostel onsen and make your way to Kyoto, which takes about 5 hours. Catch Fujikyuko Line from Kawaguchiko to Otsuki (47min, ¥1,110). From Otsuki onwards, you can use the JP Rail Pass. Most likely, you will have to backtrack to Shin-Yokohama (via Hachioji) and catch the Shinkansen to Kyoto from there. Check train itineraries at: http://www.hyperdia.com/en

30 April 2013

Authentic Japanese dinner Ask the owner of Kawaguchi Station Inn for a cheap dinner option, and he will point you to this tiny joint at the edge of the village. The lovely owner speaks only broken English and the menu is entirely in Japanese, but you willl get great Japanese food and an authentic experience.
Fuji viewing platform At the southern end of Kawaguchi late, a trail leeds up to the Fuji viewing platform (400m height difference). If you feel tired, take the ropeway (¥400). Seeing the holy Mt. Fuji from the viewing point in all his glory is a truly awe-inspiring moment. Take your time, enjoy the surroundings and views on the lake. If you are not powered out yet, you can do a well-signposted hike to Mitsotuge-yama.
Kawaguchi lake A mere 5 minute walk from Kawaguchiko train station lies the pretty Kawaguchi lake. Just talk a walk along the waterfront and take in the views. If you feel romantic, you can rent a swan-shaped paddle boat.
Kawaguchi-ko Station Inn Kawaguchiko Station Inn is a great budget option in the Mt. Fuji area. It is only a stone's throw from the train station, and the owner is very friendly and accomodating. The rooms are very clean and homely - everyone is obliged to wear slippers (try to bring your own if you have big feet ;). In the basement, there's a common room with free tea, free origami sets and Kimonos to try on. The best feature of this hostel is the onsen (hot pool) in the attic. The weather was very chilly in late March, so hopping into the steaming hot water before going to sleep was just wonderful. All in all, excellent value for 20€/night.
Transfer from Tokyo to Mt. Fuji Time to leave this nutcase of a city! Head to the village of Kawaguchiko to take in the views of the famous Mt. Fuji and Kawaguchi lake. The most convenient way to get there is the Fujikyu bus that leaves from Yaesu south bus terminal at Tokyo Central station (2.5hrs, ¥1,550). Check the timetable at: http://transportation.fujikyu.co.jp/english/gettinghere/02.html There are also trains going to Kawaguchiko, however, you have to switch trains at least once (2h, ¥2,560). Even worse, the JP Rail pass is not valid on the Fujikyuko line that leads to Kawaguchiko, so you will have to pay an extra ¥1,110. Train timetable: http://www.hyperdia.com/en

29 April 2013

Yokohama's Chinatown South of the Minato Mirai lies the very pretty Chinatown of Yokohama. You will see streets lit of with garlands, impressive temples and gates, cute shops and many places with great Chinese food.
Landmark tower The view from Landmark tower in Yokohama will just blow you away! The transfer from Shibuya is only 25 Minutes. Come in the late afternoon to see the sunset and the lit up Yokohama by night.
Harajuku Harajuku is the craziest district of Tokyo. Come here on Sundays to see young people dressed up as manga figures, lolitas, cosplay, goths, and any dress you can think of. The area gets super crowded, but it is a lot of fun to spot these people between all the tourists.

28 April 2013

Odaiba From Shimbashi, you can directly catch the Yurikamome Line to the artificial island of Odaiba. Yurikamome line is fully automated, so there is no driver and you can sit in the very front of the train and take in the view when the monorail passes the rainbow bridge. Odaiba island is famous for the great view on Tokyo, especially by night, a popular onsen (hot springs) and some pretty crazy shopping centres. Get off at Daiba stop.
Insider tip: Free Nippon TV Tower While being in the Shinbashi area close to Hama-rikyu park, take the chance to go on top of one of the many surrounding skyscrapers. Nippon TV tower is free to enter. Your adrenaline will rise while taking the glass lift (no good idea if you are afraid of heights).
Hama-rikyu park Hama-rikyu park is right at the exit of the Tsukuji fish market. It is a typical Japanese-style garden with manicured trees and ponds, which is a stark contract against the skyscrapers that surround the garden. Admittedly, the park is quite pale and bleack in late March, but was still enjoyable. We mainly came for the tea house that is located inside the park but was closed for unknown reasons - I hope you will be luckier! Park admission: ¥300.
Tsukiji fish market Tsukiji fish market is another Tokyo classic. To see the actual fish auction, you must register at the office by 5am. Access is restricted to a certain number of visitors, so if you are unlucky, you might not be allowed to enter. We decided to avoid this hassle (and sleep in) and arrived in the late morning. You can still browse the dozens of stalls and shops outside the auction hall, which sell fish and sea food that you would never think is edible. You can finish the visit by having breakfast (or lunch) at one of the many stall at the western end. You should definitely not come here if you get sick easily or would not be able to bear seeing stuffed endangered animals like tigers and turtles - it's sad but true, these are also being sold here. The market is closed on Sundays and Wednesdays. HEADS UP: The market might be moved to a new location within the next two years. Check the website for up-to-date information.
Insider tip: Kintaro Sushi Almost straving after our long first day in Tokyo, we found this awesome running sushi just by the Senso-ji complex. Take any sushi you fancy from the conveyor belt and stack the empty plates - the plate colour indicates the price of the sushi.
Senso-ji temple in Asakusa The famous Senso-ji complex is only two stations from Ueno park, at Asakusa. After entering the complex through a huge gate, you pass through dozens of shopping stalls. At the heart of the complex is a huge 5-storey pagoda and shrine, which are extremely pretty by night. Watch locals walk up to the shrine and make their wishes.
Ueno Park Ueno park is a huge green space just behind Ueno station. It is very close to New Koyo hostel, so we decided to visit it in the late afternoon. We were thrilled to see the first blooming cherry trees, discover the temples and shrines within the park and try of the food stalls around the lake. The Tokyo National museum is also located here. It is a very relaxed place in this hectic city and it was great to see locals having a stroll after work.
New Koyo Hostel At 23€/night, New Koyo was the cheapest hostel we could find in Tokyo. The interior is not exactly appealing, as the single-rooms (yes! no dorms!) with heavy metal doors spread the charm of a prison. But everything is clean and the neighbourhood is nice and save, with a handy 7/11 shop around the corner. The location is also pretty convenient if you come straight from the airport: the hostel is a 10 Minute walk from Minara metro station, which is two stops from Ueno, a major transportation hub. Ueno is one of the first stops of Kansai airport express in Tokyo (which is the cheapest way to get into Tokyo from Narita airport).
Transport in Tokyo and Japan GETTING FROM NARITA AIRPORT TO TOKYO: The cheapest option is the Keisei Limited Express (¥1,100): https://www.keisei.co.jp/keisei/tetudou/skyliner/us/nrt_access/tokkyu.html GETTING AROUND IN TOKYO: Make yourself familiar with the mind-boggling Tokyo network to avoid being completely overwhelmed at arrival: http://www.mappery.com/maps/Tokyo-Subway-Metro-Transportation-Map.gif GETTING AROUND IN JAPAN: Japan Rail (JR) has one of the world's most modern and extensive railway networks. With speeds of up to 300km/h, the Shinkansen (bullet train) is the most convenient mean to travel between major cities. Check timetables and fares at: http://www.hyperdia.com/en/ Using buses may be cheaper, but given the little time we had for our trip, we decided to stick to the rather expensive trains. For doing the itinerary as proposed, it pays off a lot to use the 7-day JR Railpass outside of Tokyo, which can be purchased at Japanese travel agencies in major cities world-wide (¥28,300)