This is the first in a series of nine posts about our travels between June 2017 and February 2019. In total, we went on seven trips and spent significant time on the ground in thirteen countries across four continents and five islands.
When, where and how
Maggie and I spent 10 days in Japan in December 2017, including Christmas Day, but we retreated to the peace and quiet of our home in Melbourne just before the beginning of Hatsumode, the colourful-but-crowded Japanese period of en masse visits to Shinto shrines.
This was our first visit to Japan. We chose this time of the year for several reasons: we get a kick out of spending Christmas in other countries; major sites are not overcrowded; and early winter is not overly harsh in the south of Japan. In fact it was dry most of the time, we only used an umbrella once, briefly, and I needed to wear thermal undergarments on just two mornings.
Instead of booking a complete tour, our travel agent helped us to put together a diverse itinerary of free time, specific short tours and rail transfers between cities. Our ten nights were spent in hotel accommodation in Tokyo, the lakeside town of Hakone, the old imperial capital Kyoto and Osaka.
We flew to and from Japan via Singapore, partly because there were no direct flights available from Osaka to Melbourne. In hindsight, it would have been smarter to book direct flights between Melbourne and Tokyo and use a bullet train to get to Tokyo airport from Osaka, a journey of little more than three hours!
As you would expect, we moved from city to city by bullet train, having obtained a Japan Rail Pass before we left Australia. We also used local train services in both Tokyo and Osaka. We cannot overstate how impressed we were with our train travel experiences.
Sights and experiences
Tsukiji (Tokyo) fish market tour & sushi class (morning)
Our guide led us on a very interesting exploration of the streets of seafood stalls in the outer market. The sushi class was excellent and the instructor, 30 years a sushi chef, was a charming and effective teacher. At home, we have continued to apply what we learnt.
Tokyo highlights tour
This full-day tour with the Sunrise Tours company was varied and mostly interesting and our tour guide was very good. It began with the lookout on top of the famous Tokyo Tower and ended at the beautiful Sensoji temple and neighbouring pagoda at the top of the popular Nakamise Shopping Street. As you would expect, it also included a traditional tea ceremony, which wasn’t quite our cup of matcha, although the surrounding Japanese garden setting was quite attractive. Overall, a long day but a very satisfactory introduction to Tokyo, both old and modern.
Mt Fuji tour
Much to our surprise and disappointment, this turned out to be the weak leg of our itinerary. The ‘5th station’ on Mt Fuji, the highest point for coach tours, was well short of the standard you would find in other countries for such an iconic landmark, in terms of interpretation items, viewing spots, signage and convenient access to light snacks etc. And our view of the snow-capped summit was facing directly into the morning sun. (Our photo flatters the view!)
Then we had another long drive to catch a boat for the short trip on Lake Ashi to the base of the Komagatake ‘ropeway’, or cable car as we would call it. This piece of infrastructure looked like a relic from the second World War but it worked safely enough and the views of Mt Fuji and the lake were very impressive.
The town of Hakone is at the southern end of Lake Ashi and is a popular summer-time destination for Tokyo residents. It was an attractive and restful place to spend a day and two nights, including a good variety of dining options and quality souvenirs.
Kyoto & Nara day-tour
This was one of the best tours we have ever experienced (except for the hilariously bland buffet lunch we were offered during the break between the two halves of the tour). The itinerary was packed with world-class sites, our guide was close to perfect and it all went like clockwork. Not to be missed (except the lunch)!
Kyoto was the Imperial capital of Japan from the late 8th century until 1869 and contains several outstanding buildings from those times. Today, the city’s historical virtues are protected by restrictions on the height and colours of new buildings, helping to make it one of the most beautiful cities we have ever visited.
To begin, we visited Ryōan-ji temple, home to the world’s most famous dry landscape Zen garden, as well as a lovely pond and surrounding garden.
Next, we visited the site of the Golden Pavillion, a breathtakingly beautiful structure and one of 17 World Heritage listed sites in Kyoto. The original building was destroyed in 1950, when it was set ablaze by a suicidal novice priest. It was rebuilt in 1955. We also marvelled at the meticulous work done to maintain the quality of the site’s gardens and pathways.
The last Koyoto site we visited was the grounds of the old Imperial Palace, an area covering more than 70 hectares in the centre of Kyoto. It was a place of contrasts, with vast imperial buildings and classic, finely-detailed gardens and water features.
In the afternoon, we were taken to Nara, which had been the Japanese capital in the 8th century. First, we were guided through Todaiji Temple, the world’s largest wooden structure and home to the Great Buddha, a bronze statue 15 metres high. As with most other sites we visited, there was no over-crowding, which made our guide very happy!
The other highlight of the afternoon was a visit to Kasuga Tahisha shrine, set in verdant woodlands and famous for the vast number of stone lanterns which line the pathways leading to the shrine. We had limited access to the main shrine, as preparations were underway for the imminent Hatsumode festivities.
Miyajima & Hiroshima tour
Our enjoyment of this tour suffered a little by comparison with our experiences in Kyoto and Nara on the previous day. This was especially the case with the famously photogenic shrine on Miyajima Island, which our guide struggled to bring to life; it didn’t help that our tour group was large and it was a windy day. However, we still enjoyed ourselves, had the island’s signature dish for lunch – okonomiyi – and bought some souvenirs before returning to the mainland to visit the atomic bomb sites and memorials. This was a very worthwhile experience, providing us with a brief but thorough coverage of the bombing event, its consequences, its ongoing significance and the various memorials.
The final pre-booked item on our itinerary was a half-day tour in Osaka, concluding with lunch at a kushikatsu restaurant. This tour was excellent, beginning with an extended visit to the impressive Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine. It is one of Japan’s oldest shrines and attracts vast numbers of Japanese visitors during Hatsumode. We then moved by tramcar and subway to Shinsekai, one of Osaka’s bustling food precincts. After a short tour, we sat down to our kushikatsu lunch, one of the many Japanese cuisines we tasted for the first time during our journey.
After the tour, we followed our guide’s instructions to make our way to the famous Dotonbori food precinct. What a place! We didn’t eat there but it was still worth a look, with plenty of culinary eye-candy, technology, colour and a happy throng of people. Don’t the Japanese do queuing well?!
Food and beverages
During our ten days in Japan we ate a wide variety of Japanese food, much of it coming as our first experience of the particular cuisine. We wouldn’t go looking for some of those food styles again but we still enjoyed the experience. We only had one bad result. On our first night in Tokyo, we were very tired by the time we reached our hotel and, unusually for us, we hadn’t done any dining-venue research on the net before leaving Australia. We ended up paying an excessive amount for a feed of unexciting teppanyaki in a restaurant attached to the hotel. A costly lesson learned.
We soon discovered that there were two sure-fire ways to find dining venues: upper floors in multi-storey shopping malls; and along streets and arcades close to or within train stations. The latter should not come as a surprise: 48 of the world’s 50 busiest stations are in Japan; and Japanese office workers are more likely to dine on their way home from work than their counterparts in other countries.
We also wised up to the fact that Japanese beer is a good match for Japanese food and, unlike when at home, we only drank wine before or after meals.
At out hotel in Hakone, we struck gold in the form of a head chef who had trained in France, then worked in Vienna before coming back to Japan. We hadn’t planned on going French for two nights but we were more than happy to do so!
In Kyoto, we found the delightfully quaint Cafe Nakayama, which served a fine cup of tea, filtered coffee and various snacks. We had three light meals there!
In Osaka, we discovered the Daimaru store in the Osaka station complex and took full advantage, stocking up on sushi-related tools and crockery and patronising the store’s floor of better restaurants for one lunch and two dinners. One of the latter included a burger that was ethereally light and flavoursome. We wish we knew how they did it!
Here are some examples, including the ubiquitous sushi train.
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Japan and would rate it around 9 out of 10, with only a couple of flat spots.
We found Japanese people to be incredibly courteous and helpful; city streets and buildings are tidy and clean; and they use technology extensively and effectively to make things happen.
The places where we stayed and the sites we visited or viewed, encompassed an attractive mix of Japan’s rich cultural heritage, beautiful scenery, colourful urban spaces and much of its varied cuisine.
We were also very impressed with the aptly named Sunrise Tours, the local company (in the land of the rising sun) which operated most of the organised tours we did. There was always clear information, flawless logistics, good coaches, excellent drivers and, with one exception, very good guides.
I will finish with a favourite memory, from our wonderful bullet-train experiences. As we sped across the countryside, a steward would enter our carriage and bow. Then he or she would walk through the carriage, checking that everyone was comfortable and then, before exiting through the far doorway, turn and bow to us again. Ah, the simple delights of international travel!