After spending a month wandering through Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun with my friend Tom, I wasn’t ready to leave. Japan is a friendly and inviting country with so much to offer, from the craziness of Shinjuku and Shibuya districts in Tokyo to the calming nature of Hokkaido and the unusually American beach island of Okinawa.
I remember the feeling of arriving at each new city and thinking “I could live here” and then arriving at the airport when it was time to leave and wishing I had just a little bit longer.
Arriving in Tokyo
Our trip to Japan, like so many others, started in Tokyo. Some of the highlights were wandering through the parks and forgetting that we were in a city of 35 million people. Tokyo’s residential neighborhoods were so quiet we were afraid to talk above a whisper. Even the electric cars followed suit without so much as a rumble as they slid down the streets.
Tokyo however wasn’t just calming parks, beautiful gardens surrounded by moats and quiet neighborhoods. When we stepped into the narrow alleyways of the Shinjuku District, with their neon signs 6 stories tall advertising food, drink and shopping, I finally felt like I had arrived in Tokyo. The hustle and bustle that I expected for the entire city was finally in front of me.
The crazy started just as the sun was setting, and after dinner it was in full swing with all of the bars and karaoke clubs opening up for the night, street performers setting up and young people and businessmen flooding into the streets.
Shibuya is another district to experience the neon lights, nightlife, shopping, and actually is home to the worlds busiest intersection with hundreds of people making their way through the maze of crowds and then vanishing on the other side of the street in an astounding 60 seconds. It is something not to be missed.
While there is much to do in Tokyo itself, a worthy day trip from Tokyo is to the Fuji Five Lakes where you can hang out on one of the lakes and take in the scenery or go for a hike up Mt. Fuji. I didn’t do that. The lakes were fine with me!
Travel to Kyoto – A City of Temples and History
After Tokyo, we moved on to Kyoto where there are so many sights to see, dating back to the time when it served as the capital of Japan. Temples and palaces are scattered across the city and are all beautiful in their own right, from golden temples to 5 storied pagodas and zen rock gardens. You certainly have to choose your destinations in the city wisely because there is more to see than you’re bound to have time for.
But there are two areas that are must see!
Firstly, Gion, the geisha district and setting for the book Memoirs of a Geisha. In Gion, you really can catch a glimpse of a geisha in full kimono and makeup getting ready to go out for the evening.
Second, be sure to hit the western side of the city that houses temples and shrines set on the riverside, near the mountains. It’s so picturesque you will be sure you have seen the exact scene on a Japanese painting somewhere!
Best Cities to Visit in Japan?
Other highlights of my month in Japan were so numerous, it feels unfair to pick favourites, but I’ll try!
Himeji was an unexpected highlight, as home to one of the great castles of Japan.
I loved catching a Japanese league baseball game while sitting with the local cheering section. We think we Americans are baseball fans!
Certainly our visit to Hiroshima, the location of the first A-Bomb attack, was a major high point in the trip. Hiroshima has since been rebuilt and has a great museum and Peace Park to commemorate those who lost their lives during the bombing. It now works to educate people on the history of the city.
Additionally, nearby Miyajima is not to be missed, with the famous torii standing tall out of the waters off the coast of the small island.
Chilling out on Okinawa Island
After traveling between cities and doing some serious sightseeing, we were grateful to take a break and hit the beaches of Okinawa island. This is an island paradise that felt like Hawaii, has a large American influence due to the military base, and has fantastic snorkeling and scuba diving right off the shores of relatively private beaches.
Tom and I also discovered walking paths along the cliffs with views of volcanic islands in the distance, such an epic view! Okinawa was simply stunning and actually led us to delay our flights back to the main island in order to enjoy a few more days of bliss.
Visiting the Mountainous Island of Hokkaido
At this point in the trip, we made the long haul from the far southern tropical islands to the far northern and very mountainous island of Hokkaido. We spent a wild week and a half hiking around the national parks near Lake Toya and Mt. Yotei.
It would have been wise on our part to find out ahead of time that you need an international drivers license to rent a car in Japan. A car would have been a welcome addition during this time that we spent in more rural areas. Knowledge for next time!
Instead, we got our fill of walking from both our campground on the edge of Toya Lake into Toyako town, and our campground 500 feet up the side of volcanic Mt. Yotei into Makkari town.
Also unbeknownst to us, was how quickly hostels and Airbnbs fill up on the summer weekends in this part of the country. We ended up spending this time of our trip camping and it turned out to be a great week and far cheaper than other available accommodations in the area, despite having to purchase a tent, a couple sleeping bags and basic cookware.
Some Basic Do’s and Don’ts of Japan:
Do: Eat at 7-11, Family Mart and Lawson’s convenience stores to save some cash but enjoy delicious meals. And bring your own water bottle and enjoy all the free drinkable tap water.
Do: Bring your umbrella if you are traveling during the summer (to block the sun and the rain).
Do: Get a Japan Rail Pass- it’s a bit expensive but 100% worth it if you will be traveling between any cities. The country is well covered by trains that are convenient, fast and clean, but surprisingly costly without the pass.
Do: Go to an all you can drink restaurant and try the plum wine, sake and highball, and then go sing karaoke. But do not plan this for the night before you travel anywhere…
Do: Try out a traditional Japanese onsen. There are many natural hot springs across the country.
Do: Read Japanese literature while traveling through the country like author Haruki Marakami and Memoirs of a Geisha.
Don’t: Throw your trash on the ground. Trash cans are hard to come by, but the Japanese are very particular about how and where to throw trash and recycling.
Don’t: Wear revealing clothing, especially if it shows tattoos because they are signs of gang affiliation and criminality.
Don’t: Be loud and obnoxious. Japanese are perhaps the most quiet and respectful people ever.
Don’t: Feel obligated to pay entrance fees to every temple. Many of them only require admission to a particular building, but you can walk the grounds and gardens for free.
Don’t: Expect a lot of living space in your accommodations. Japan is one of the most densely packed countries in the world and even expensive apartments are quite cozy in the cities.
Don’t: Rely on museums to provide too much historical content or detail. We found very few decent museums.
Japan – A Dream Destination for Travel
Overall, we had a great sampling of Japan during our month traveling around, with many varied experiences. We got a taste of traditional Japan with the palaces, temples and kimonos wearing gals. There was wild and crazy Japan with the nightlife in Tokyo and a baseball game in Fukuoka. Then finally the experience of Japan’s calming peaceful nature with the country’s beaches, lakes and mountains.
Japan is a destination perfect for travelers of any experience level who can benefit from the comforts of the cities or the adventures off the beaten path. So, pack your bags, go to Japan, and enjoy the culture, the food, the sights and everything else it has to offer!
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