Sake, Sushi, Soba, Sumo, Udon, Yakitori, Tempuras, Umeshu, Yuzu, Hibiki, Nikka, Zen garden, Shrines, Geisha, Mangas, matcha, tea ceremony, lanterns the scramble crossing, the robot restaurant, cat and dog cafes…. all of these I wanted to see with my own eyes and here I was in Japan. A childhood dream come true!
Flying to Narita airport in Japan with a Mauritian passport does not require any prior VISA, you will get it upon arrival for a period of 3 months in the country. Their currency is called the Yen. A euro is about 130 Yen.
Japan has two main religions; the Buddism and the Shinto. Shinto is a Japanese religion whereas Buddism was imported in the 6th Century from China and the two religions have co-existed.
Japan has always been an intriguing country for me, not only for its culture but also for its history, traditions, language, gastronomy, advanced technology…
Transport in Japan
At first, it might look scary to take the train or the subway line just because they look confusing with the connections and all the lines. But once you sit down to take your time and go through it and actually use the train all becomes suddenly clear. And I promise that at the end of your trip to Japan you will feel like all locals, at ease with public transport as you will be using them a LOT.
To move all over Japan it is better to get yourself a JAPAN RAIL (JR) PASS. You buy one at the ticket office at any train station and it is better you get one valid until the date of your departure. This pass is valid for reserved and non-reserved ordinary car travel on all Japan Railways (JR) Group Shinkansen “bullet train” (except for the “NOZOMI” AND “MIZUHO” SERVICES).
The JR PASS itself does not ensure seating options. If you want to use reserve seating, be sure to get seat reservations before boarding (no additional payment needed), present this pass at the ticket office at a JR station and you will be given a car number together with a seat number. Do not stress, you will not miss your station as train announcements are made in multiple languages. Catering services are also available onboard.
Japan’s high-speed bullet trains, also known as Shinkansen trains, offer visitors an experience like no other with speeds reaching up to 320 km/h. The main Shinkansen lines with bullet trains include Tokaido, Sanyo, Tohoku, Joetsu, Nagano and Kyushu. Popular routes include Tokyo to Osaka and Tokyo to Nagano with frequent and punctual departures. Hop on and off the rails in cities like Kyoto, Nagoya and Yokohama along the way.
To travel on Japan’s bullet trains you can choose from 3 different rail passes. The Japan Rail Pass covers the entire country of Japan whereas the JR East Pass allows for travel in Eastern Japan including Tokyo, Nagano and Mount Fuji. Kyushu Rail Passes offer the flexibility of exploring the entire island of Kyushu, or only the Northern part of Japan’s third largest island. All these passes represent great value, as they include travel on Japan’s bullet trains.
Itineraries which you will definitely cover
From Tokyo to Kyoto
Estimated travel time: 2h49
Travel included with a: Japan Rail Pass.
From Shin-Osaka to Hiroshima
Estimated travel time: 1h40
Travel included with a: Japan Rail Pass.
From Tokyo to Shin-Osaka
Estimated travel time: 2h33
Travel included with a: Japan Rail Pass.
From Hiroshima to Hakata
Estimated travel time: 1h08
Travel included with a: Japan Rail Pass.
From Tokyo to Akita
Estimated travel time: 3h50
Travel included with a: JR East Pass.
From Hakata to Kagoshima
Estimated travel time: 1h17
Travel included with a: Kyushu Rail Pass.
When in Tokyo, you can buy 24 hours, 48 hours or 72 hours ticket passes to the Tokyo subway, while all over Japan, with the Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) and you, can reserve your seat and the tickets will look like above.
Japan’s capital with skyscrapers, museums, the Imperial Palace and Meiji Shinto Shrine are the most visited places while in Tokyo. This city has two souls, it lives differently at night than it does during the day. Daytime, everyone is busy working, business people in their attire walking down the streets, some visitors here and there. Restaurants are everywhere, the choice is yours where to grab a bite.
Ginza is the shopping area in Tokyo with high-end brands like Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, Channel… just name it and numerous shopping mall with great local designers. If you are a shopping person this quarter is definitely your stop. At least it was mine my first day in Tokyo.
Later that day, I went to Shinjuku at night. Whether you start or end your trip in Tokyo, an evening wandering through Shinjuku is a must. Ah, the bright neon-spangled skyscrapers of Shinjuku! It is like an urban jungle of lights and karaoke bars, cat cafés, department stores, restaurants and izakaya, so mesmerizing for the first time. Walking down the little alleys down the Kabukicho road you will find a few “Izakaya”, it is an informal Japanese pub. They are casual places for after-work drinking. They have been compared to Irish pubs, tapas bars and taverns. The best place to meet with locals in the evening. You meet up there over a couple of drinks and some most amazing tasty but inexpensive food, in fact, my first experience of Yakitoris were in an Izakaya (see photos below). Lucky me! I could not be more in touch with the culture than this. The dishes are generally small and inexpensive, so order a couple of different to share by everybody at the table.
Well, you must be saying what is a Yakitori I am talking about? Well, it simply is a Japanese style of skewered chicken, meat, seafood or even vegetables, they are grilled over a charcoal fire.
After making a stop at an Izakaya and had a few beers, I am pretty sure you gonna keep walking the small alleys of Kabukicho to discover the depth of this city. Robot restaurants, dog and cat cafes, manga shops, more restaurants and pubs,
Shibuya is one of the twenty-three city wards of Tokyo, but often refers to just the popular shopping and entertainment area found around Shibuya Station. In this regard, Shibuya is one of Tokyo’s most colourful and busiest districts, packed with shopping, dining and nightclubs, serving swarms of visitors that come to the district every day.
A prominent landmark of Shibuya is the large intersection, the Scrabble Crossing, in front of the station’s Hachiko Exit. The intersection is heavily decorated with neon advertisements and giant video screens and gets flooded by pedestrians each time the crossing light turns green, making it a popular photo.
I took this shot of the scrabble crossing from Starbucks coffee which is right in front.
About 452 km away from Tokyo, but with the bullet train and the JR pass, it is just 2 hours and 49 minutes away. Kyoto was once the old Japanese capital now known for its zen garden, Shinto temples, Geisha show and Gion district.
Three rainy days in Kyoto and I still wanted to make the most of it. I already had in mind where I wanted to go first. My first day I went to the Gion district. There is so much happening there.
- Visit and shop at the Teramachi Kyogoku Shopping arcade and the Shinkyogoku Shopping arcade. It is like a clothing market and other souvenir and accessories shops all the way. The good thing is that the arcade was covered, so I could leisurely walk and have a look and the kimono shops and which souvenir I was going to bring back from this trip.
- The Nishiki food market.
- Hanamikoji Street is a cute street on which you will find a variety of traditional Japanese restaurants and Geisha houses and if you are lucky you can find them casually passing by. I suggest you make a stop there for lunch. Afterwards, if you continue on the same street you will find the Kennin-Ji Temple, the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto with the famous twin dragons painting on the ceiling. No matter where you stand, it looks like the dragon is staring at you. It measures 11.4m by 15.7m (the size of 108 tatami mats) and is drawn with the finest quality ink in thick traditional Japanese paper.
Also later in the evening, still on Hanamikoji Street, the Gion Corner theatre is where you can watch a young geisha show. I also learned that there are two types of Geisha, the Maiko and the Geiko. Geisha are ladies who have trained for years in the traditional Japanese arts to become the perfect entertainers. Well, at Gion Corner you can watch different aspects of Japanese traditional culture such as Maiko dance, court music, Japanese harp, comic play, puppet play, flower arrangement and tea ceremony. The showtime is usually every day starting at 6pm.
You can also experience Kyoto in traditional kimono! There are several shops from which you can rent a kimono for a day together with the traditional hairstyle. If however, you are looking to buy a nice kimono for yourself or as a gift to someone close to you, I recommend you go to Mimuro, found not far from the Kyoto City Shimogyo Library. Kimono can be in silk or cotton fabric.
Something you will see pretty much everywhere and in many forms is the matcha; green tea matcha, matcha latte, matcha ice cream, matcha sweets, matcha chocolate.
Another thing which I also enjoyed in Gion when it starts getting darker is to walk down the Pontocho Alley. This alley is famous for the pubs and restaurants you will find. The atmosphere of the dimmed light makes it very romantic. A must do, while in Kyoto.
All of the mentioned places to do are within walking distance once you are there. So, really take your time. It deserves a whole day and evening.
The second day I went to the west part of Kyoto, called Arashiyama, the district of Sagano. It is faster and cheaper to go to the Kyoto station use your JR pass and take the JR Sagano line to Saga Arashiyama station. It is about 15 mins away.
Points of interest in Arashiyama:
The Bamboo Forest, the Tenryuji Temple and the Kinkakuji Temple (the gold- coloured temple), the Ninna-ji Temple, the Ryoanji Temple and the Kitano Tenmango Shrine.
The Bamboo Forest
Once you are off the train, walking to the bamboo forest takes about 1o mins on foot. Well, I did not expect that the bamboo would be that huge. They were super tall, some species of bamboo can grow till 15-20 meters high. I really enjoyed this leisurely walk under the shade of the tall bamboos, and after the rain, I can tell they were greener and it felt cool temperature wise.
The Tenryu-Ji Temple
Within the vicinity of the Bamboo forest, is the TenJiu-Ji Temple, a World Culture Heritage Site. Tenryu-Ji meaning “Temple of the Heavenly Dragon” This Temple also has a magnificent lake and a huge Zen garden, one of the oldest in Japan and holds a vast amount of local plant varieties. The tranquillity and the resiliency can be seen and felt by walking through this garden.
The Golden Pavillion, The Kinkaku–Ji Temple
All over Japan, even more in Kyoto, there are so many Temples and Shrines to visit. Each one is beautiful and holds so much history. I wish I could have done all of them. But there was this golden-Pavillon which was intriguing to me so much. Kinkaku is a Shariden, a Buddhist hall containing relics of Buddha. The Pavillion is part of a temple that is formally named Rokuon-ji Temple but commonly known as the Kinkaku-ji Temple.
The garden and building, centred on the Golden Pavillion, were said to represent the Pure Land of Buddha in this world. Gold foil on lacquer covers the upper two levels of Kinkaku, and a shining phoenix stands on top of the singled roof. The first level is built in the Shinden style of the 11th- century imperial aristocracy; the second level is in buke style of the warrior aristocracy, and the top level is in the Chinese zenshu-butsuden style. Overall, Kikaku is representative of Muromachi-period architecture.
The pond with the Golden Pavillion and islets large and small is the centre of the garden. Rocks donated by various provincial lords of the period are placed throughout the garden.
You cannot enter the Golden Pavillion, but I looked up for pictures of the inside feel of the Golden Pavillion, the third level and it is just breathtaking.
The Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine
My last day in Kyoto before I hit back to Tokyo I went to visit the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine. It is an important Shinto Shrine in the south of Kyoto. Shinto meaning “the ways of Gods” is the indigenous faith of the Japanese people and as old as Japan itself. It remains Japan’s major religion alongside Buddhism. The Shinto Gods are called Kami. Tori gates mark the approach and entrance to a shine. Most torii are made of wood and many painted orange and black.
Foxes are thought to be Inari’s messengers, this is why you will see many foxes statues across the Shrine grounds. But the biggest fox statues you will find are the one right at the main entrance of the Shrine on both sides.
Famous for its several thousand of vermillion torii gates, there is a trail that leads into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount. Inari, which stands at 233 meters. It takes about 20 -30 minutes to reach the top from which you can enjoy a top view of the Fushimi area.
Japan, for me, has been a cultural and food tour trip which I did enjoy every minute. I have tried all the food possible and all I had was amazing. Here is a little food gallery. Also try the Umeshu, Yuzu and sake.
I wish I had more time in Japan, there are so many places I wanted to go but unfortunately lack of time. So, if you are visiting Japan soon please consider going to those places as well:
Nara, Osaka (a little like Tokyo), Kanagawa, Hiroshima, Climb the Mount Fuji, Miyagi Zao Fox village, Honshu, Tara in Saga, Hakone Shrine, Kamikochi…
I hope you enjoyed this blog post. Comment below if you have been already and share with us your experience or comment if you found the post helpful.
Also, Instagram accounts to follow to make you discover more of Japan are:
All seasons are good for visiting Japan, isn’t that fantastic!
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