Day 1: Tokyo Shock We woke up to the sunrise at the Hilton Tokyo Hotel in Shinjuku, a ward that houses most of the prominent hotels and office complexes in Tokyo. Nishi-Shinjuku is home to the largest concentration of skyscrapers in Tokyo including the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, KDDI Building and Park Tower and the Hilton is right amidst these. The hotel is also situated right above the Nishi-Shinjuku subway station and that made our travel around Tokyo effortless. The first shock was the cost of breakfast. Tokyo is the most breakfast as an option with your room booking. It will work out cheaper.
Our first stop for the day was the Tokyo Imperial Palace or Kokyo in Japanese. To reach there, we had to experience the second shock. Shinjuku Station. One stop from our hotel this station serves as a hub for many of the subway lines and also the train lines connecting West Tokyo to the suburbs and Tokyo. The number of people walking through the station shocked us and with good reason.
Shinjuku Station is the world’s busiest railway station. Over 3.5 million people go through its passageways every single day. With the shock, came the amazement that not once did we feel the rush impact us physically. No one shoved, no one ran in and out of trains and everything seemed to just magically function perfectly. Trains came exactly on time, people stood in lines before the trains arrived in the exact spot of the doors, and there was a calmness about it that didn’t make sense.
One of the key requirements in traveling in Japan is learning to use public transport. A good idea is to buy a JR Pass before you arrive in Japan, it can’t be bought in Japan, and it can be used on all local trains but not the subways. Another idea is to buy a SUICA pass at the airport or any of the stations, a rechargeable card that can also be used on all local trains and subways. The leftover amount can be refunded at the airport. Another alternative is to buy daily passes instead of paying for each trip. We continued on the Marunochi line to the palace, which is a large park-like area located in the Chiyoda area of Tokyo close to Tokyo Station and is built on the site of the old Edo castle. The total area including the gardens is 3.41 square kilometres (1.32 sq mi). During the height of the 1980s Japanese property bubble, the palace grounds were valued by some as more than the value of all the real estate in the state of California. The East gardens are open to the public and we spent a few hours exploring the grounds and imagining how it might have looked like during the height of the Meiji period.
Having walked in to an appetite, we headed to the Ginza district an upscale area of Tokyo with numerous department stores, boutiques, restaurants and coffeehouses.
Ginza is recognized as one of the most luxurious shopping districts in the world and is home to some of the best restaurants in the world. We went in search of Kondo a Michelin two-star tempura heaven. Unfortunately they were completely booked for the entire duration of our trip but Japanese shock again, the hostess walked us down the street to Ten-Ichi. Since 1930 Ten-Ichi has rightfully earned its reputation as Tokyo’s go-to spot for tempura. The dignified dining area at the flagship Ginza restaurant has hosted royalty and corporate titans and now us. If you’ve had tempura before, anywhere else in the world, erase those memories. That is not tempura. As we sat in front of the chef with the boiling oil in front of us, as the geisha came and tied the bib around us, and as each vegetable was carefully dipped in batter and fried perfectly and put on our plates and as each succulent piece worked its way from our tongue to our stomach, we knew we would be there for a while and order everything on their menu. We did.
Our final stop for the day was the Sensoji or Kinryū-zan Sensō-ji Buddhist Temple, founded in 628 AD in Asakusa in the Taito ward area. It is Tokyo’s oldest temple, and one of its most significant, being inducted as an Important Cultural Property by the Japanese government in 1951. Dominating the entrance to the temple is the Kaminarimon or “Thunder Gate”. This imposing Buddhist structure features a massive paper lantern, chochin, dramatically painted in vivid red-and-black tones to suggest thunderclouds and lightning. Beyond the Kaminarimon is Nakamise-dori with its shops selling souvenirs from Godzilla dolls to all the traditional wagashi or Japanese sweets. The temple is dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon (Avalokitesvara). According to legend, a statue of the Kannon was found in the Sumida River in 628 by two fishermen, the brothers Hinokuma Hamanari and Hinokuma Takenari. The chief of their village, Hajino Nakamoto, recognized the sanctity of the statue and enshrined it by remodeling his own house into a small temple in Asakusa, so that the villagers could worship the Kannon.
Day 2: Rain, Rain, Go Away Japan is almost synonymous with Typhoons. The outer islands on average lie on the paths of 5 or more typhoons every year, while the mainland experiences three. July to October are rainy months, and like Chicago in the middle of a winter storm or Delhi is peak of summer, life goes on. Every one carries an umbrella, the see-through plastic model is almost a must have accessory and facilities are built around it. Buildings have machines that wrap your wet umbrella in plastic as you enter or have umbrella lockers at the entrance. Even men’s restrooms have an umbrella hook next to the urinals. So day 2 was just a routine wet Sunday for the Japanese but for us tourists a real wet blanket. We did try to venture out but got caught in the downpour, and after not being able to handle the rain as gracefully as the locals, we decided to call it a day and return to the hotel. We did spend time in the malls around Shinjuku station and this by itself was an experience. When millions of passengers pass through your hallways, then it makes perfect sense to tempt them with everything from food to the latest fashions. Tokyo fashion is often spoken in the same breath as New York, London or Paris but Tokyo beats them all in individualization and expression. The variety in fashion and accessories is unrivalled and the retail numbers we heard and designs we saw in Tokyo gave, us “I wear khakhi’s from Gap” everyday people, a very fashionable headache.
We mustered courage after lunch and decided to make our way to the Edo-Tokyo Museum. The Edo-Tokyo Museum was founded on March 28, 1993, as a facility to preserve the historical heritage of Edo-Tokyo. It was a great way for us to learn more about Tokyo’s history and culture. Upon crossing a replica of the “Nihonbashi” Bridge, one enters the Edo-Tokyo Museum permanent exhibit from 1590, when Tokugawa Ieyasu first built Edo, (renamed Tokyo at meiji Era) the Edo-Tokyo area has enjoyed a long 400 years history. The permanent exhibit at the Edo-Tokyo Museum showcases politics, culture, and an insight into the lifestyle of the people from its birth to present day Tokyo. For dinner, we braved the weather further and took the Shonan-Shinjuku train to Yokohama, a city thirty minutes south of Tokyo to Razzo, a charming, family run, Italian, wood-fired oven, pizza place. It might be Japan, but a well made margherita pizza is always satisfying.
Day 3: Sacred Mt. Fuji located on Honshu Island, is the highest mountain in Japan at 3,776 m (12,389 ft). An active stratovolcano that last erupted in 1707–08, Mount Fuji lies about 100 kilometres (60 mi) south-west of Tokyo, and can be seen from there on a clear day. Mount Fuji’s exceptionally symmetrical cone, which is snow-capped several months a year, is a well-known symbol of Japan and it is frequently depicted in art and photographs, as well as visited by sightseers and climbers. It is a Special Place of Scenic Beauty, a Historic Site, and was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List as a Cultural Site on June 22nd, 2013. Our journey to Mt. Fuji wasn’t the adventurous, hike up to the peak but a rather, tame, touristy version of taking an organized day tour through Gray-Line Tours in Tokyo. The pickup from the hotel was convenient at 8 am and the air-conditioned bus with comfortable seats took us to the fifth station, 2,300 m in two and half hours.
There are many legends about Mt.Fuji, one of the most well-known being that “She”, the goddess of Mt.Fuji, is temperamental and was so busy once that she refused to even come out to see her father who had come visting. As a punishment, he cursed that she won’t have any flowers and thus the barren top of the mountain. This also meant that, much less important, tourist visitors were at the mercy of the goddess to get a glimpse and hoped as we did to get a view of her in entirety, we never did get a chance to see the peak. The drive up to the fifth station was fall-perfect, and the fifth station had plenty of views of the mountain and its various landscapes.
We made our way to a lake resort in Hakone, designated as a Geopark by UNESCO. Most of the town is within the borders of the volcanically active Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, centered around Lake Ashi. With advance notice, we were provided with a vegeterian entree, a fried potato dish. No complaints. We then rode up the Hakone Sky Gondola, the Hakone Ropeway, the funitel line linking between Sōunzan and Tōgendai via Ōwakudani. Owakudani is an ancient Crater where you can smell sulfurous fumes and see clouds of steam rise from crevasses.
There is a small temple on the slopes worth visiting as well as souvenir shops. Black colored shell eggs (Kuro-tamago) or black icecream are hot sellers. The tour then included a more relaxing, cruise on Lake Ashi, though the ship was a pirate ship. The last thing we expected to see in the middle of a lake in Japan was a pirate ship but now we’ve been there, we’ve seen that. Lake Ashi is a crater lake that lies along the southwest wall of the caldera of Mount Hakone and many resorts line the shores.
Our return trip provided the perfect end to a long day. Instead of a long, boring road-trip, as all return bus trips are, we decided to take the Shinkansen from Odawara to Tokyo on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen line. We had read about the bullet train, even seen a few videos but when you are standing at the platform, and when a Shinkansen that is skipping Odawara runs past the platform, there is no feeling that describes the sound and sight of this speed-demon. All the adjectives, all the “Is that a bird? Is that a plane?” jokes hold true. Wow! is not an adjective that I use lightly, but Wow! The trip back took us 45 minutes and a short 15 minute ride on subway later we were back in our hotel room.
Day 4: Tokyo to Kyoto in 2 hours. A relaxed morning at the hotel with an expensive buffet breakfast and we were all set to head to Kyoto. 476km away, a full day journey would have awaited us anywhere in the world. Anywhere, except Japan. We made our way to Tokyo station and boarded the Shinkansen to Tokyo. On the Tōkaidō Shinkansen line, the Nozomi N700 series trains, the fastest bullet trains, cover the route in 2 hours 20 minutes stopping at Tokyo Station, Shinagawa Station, Shin-Yokohama Station, Nagoya Station and Kyoto Station on the way to Osaka and then ending in Hakata. During certain stretches, the train could reach speeds of 300 km/h (186 mph). The word nozomi in Japanese means “hope” or “wish” and we certainly wished we could get to Kyoto fast and we did. In comparison if we had taken a flight, the flying time alone would have been 1 hour, add to that the hour to check in and an hour or more to get to Narita and you quickly see why it makes more sense to take the bullet train. The one-way cost on a Nozomi train from Tokyo to Kyoto is about $135.
We arrived in Kyoto just in time for the Jidai Matsuri Festival. We has sent our suitcases ahead of time through courier service, a common service available throughout Japan. For a small fee, hotels will move your luggage for you anywhere in Japan. Very convenient. With just a carry on, it made it easy for us to head straight to the festival and parade path. The Jidai Matsuri, Festival of the Ages is a traditional Japanese festival (also called the matsuri) held on October 22 annually in Kyoto, Japan. It is one of Kyoto’s renowned three great festivals, with the other two being the Aoi Matsuri, held annually on May 15, and the Gion Matsuri, which is held annually from 17 to July 24. The Jidai Matsuri begins with the mikoshi (portable shrines) brought out of the Old Imperial Palace so that people may pay their respects. The mikoshi represent emperors Kanmu and Kōmei, respectively. The five-hour, two-kilometer costume procession begins in the afternoon, with approximately 2,000 performers dressed as samurai, military figures, and common people, from the earliest eras to the Meiji era. These are followed by Japanese women who are dressed in elaborate jūnihitoe. And, finally, the mikoshi are carried from the palace and are accompanied by a costumed military band that is playing the gagaku. The procession ends at the Heian Shrine. We took a subway from Kyoto station to Higashiyama and walked to the Heian Shrine and found a place on the parade path. It was an excellent introduction to Kyoto and the history of Japan. We then found our way back to the hotel and called it a day.
Day 5: UNESCO World Heritage Epicenter Kyoto must be the greatest city for world heritage. There are an unbelievable, 17 different sites that are part of the UNESCO World Heritage List and UNESCO had to just combine them all into one listing calledHistoric Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities). Our day started with toast, coffee and juice for $14 a head at the Kyoto Brighton Hotel, an uncharecteristically large hotel for Japan, very close to the Kyoto Imperial Castle. The hostess did take pity on us and gave us an extra basket of bread rolls. We bought an all day bus pass, absolutely worth it as the SUICA pass doesn’t work on Kyoto buses, but in the interest of getting started with our sightseeing, took a taxi to Kinkaku-ji, “Temple of the Golden Pavilion”, officially named Rokuon-ji “Deer Garden Temple”, a Zen Buddhist temple and our first UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Golden Pavilion is a three-story building on the grounds of the Rokuon-ji temple complex with the top two stories of the pavilion covered with pure gold leaf thus making it one of the most visited and photogrpahed buildings in Kyoto. The pavilion functions as a shariden, housing relics of the Buddha (Buddha’s Ashes). Designated as both a National Special Historic Site and a National Special Landscape, and it is easy to understand why. The landscape is part of the Golden Pavilion and the Pavilion is part of the landscape.
A short bus ride away from Kinkakuji is Ryōan-ji or Shinjitai, Kyūjitai, The Temple of the Dragon at Peace, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, Zen temple belonging to the Myōshin-ji school of the Rinzai branch of Zen Buddhism. The temple garden is considered to be one of the finest examples of a kare-sansui, a Japanese rock garden, or zen garden, in Japan.The garden is a rectangle of 248 square meters. Placed within it are fifteen stones of different sizes, carefully composed in five groups; one group of five stones, two groups of three, and two groups of two stones. The stones are surrounded by white gravel, which is carefully raked each day by the monks. The garden is meant to be viewed from a seated position on the veranda of the hōjō, the residence of the abbott of the monastery. The stones are placed so that the entire composition cannot be seen at once from the veranda. They are also arranged so that when looking at the garden from any angle (other than from above) only fourteen of the boulders are visible at one time. It is traditionally said that only through attaining enlightenment would one be able to view the fifteenth boulder. We did not attain enlightenment. The temple also has a wonderful garden of trees, lakes and bridges and is worth exploring.
Ever the lovers of public transport, we found our way to Ryoanji Tram Station, SUICA pass works, and took the tram to Arashiyama, switching at Katabiranotsuji. Arashiyama or Storm Mountain, a nationally-designated Historic Site and Place of Scenic Beauty is home to Tenryū-ji, more formally known as Tenryū Shiseizen-ji, the head temple of the Tenryū branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism, and founded by Ashikaga Takauji in 1339, primarily to venerate Gautama Buddha. It is also an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple is held in high esteem, and is ranked number one among Kyoto’s so-called Five Mountains and its grounds are expansive. Before we could explore the area we had to rush to our lunch reservation. Tenryu-ji Shigetsu within the remple complex serves Zen vegetarian cooking which combines six flavors, which represent the virtues of cleanliness, thoroughness, neatness, conscientiousness, flexibility and lightness. The six flavors must harmonize these qualities. If you are a vegetarian, or not, make reservations here and experience traditional Japanese culture and food here. Each dish was different, and yet as a meal it all felt complete. The meal is $35 a person and one of our best experiences in Japan. After lunch, we spent time exploring the paths around the temple and in Arashiyama. The Bamboo path is very Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon inspiring.
From Arashiyama, we made our way on the JR train, back to Kyoto city and went to the Heian Jingu Shrine. The Heian Shrine is a Shinto shrine located in Sakyō-ku, Kyoto, Japan. The Shrine is ranked as a Beppyou Jinja (the top rank for shrines) by the Association of Shinto Shrines. It is listed as an important cultural property of Japan.
The Jidai Matsuri festival ends here. The architecture design was a reproduction of the Chōdōin (Emperor’s palace in the former eras) in 5/8th scale (in length). The large red entrance gate is a reproduction of the Outenmon of the Chōdōin. The architecture of the main palace mirrors the style and features of the Kyoto Imperial Palace, the style from the 11th-12th century (late Heian eriod). The Shrine’s torii is one of the largest in Japan. As the sun sets at 5 in this season, our days ended early.
Day 6: More than a 1000 Buddhas. First stop, Sanjūsangen-dō, a Buddhist temple in Higashiyama district of Kyoto, Japan. Officially known as “Rengeō-in” or Hall of the Lotus King, the temple name literally means Hall with thirty three spaces between columns, describing the architecture of the long main hall of the temple.
From the Edo period, archery exhibition contests called Tōshiya are held on the west veranda of this temple. The duel between the famous warrior Miyamoto Musashi and Yoshioka Denshichirō, leader of the Yoshioka-ryū, is popularly believed to have been fought just outside Sanjūsangen-dō in 1604.The main deity of the temple is Sahasrabhuja-arya-avalokiteśvara or the Thousand Armed Kannon. The statue of the main deity was created by the Kamakura sculptor Tankei and is a National Treasure of Japan. The temple also contains one thousand life-size statues of the Thousand Armed Kannon which stand on both the right and left sides of the main statue in 10 rows and 50 columns. Of these, 124 statues are from the original temple, rescued from the fire of 1249, while the remaining 876 statues were constructed in the 13th century. The statues are made of Japanese cypress. Around the 1000 Kannon statues stand 28 statues of guardian deities. These very closely resemble the deities from the Indian Vedic Period. There are also two famous statues of Fūjin, the God of Wind and Raijin, the God of Thunder.
A few kilometers away is Kiyomizu-dera, officially Otowa-san Kiyomizu-dera, an independent Buddhist temple in eastern Kyoto. The temple is part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities) UNESCO World Heritage site. One of the most beautiful temples in Kyoto, it is built on hilly slopes, halfway up Otowa Mountain and overlooks Kyoto. The temple was founded in 798, and its present buildings were constructed in 1633, by Tokugawa Iemitsu, and does not contain a single nail to hold the main hall together. The Main Hall (Hondo) of the temple is designated as a national treasure. The temple has many other important cultural properties including the Deva gate, west gate, three-storied pagoda a
nd bell tower. The streets leading up the hill to the temple are filled with souvenir shops and restaurants and is a great place for shopping. Try the cream puffs, a specialty from this region of Japan.
A break from the temples led us to Nijō Castle. The castle consists of two concentric rings (Kuruwa) of fortifications, the Ninomaru Palace, the ruins of the Honmaru Palace, various support buildings and several gardens. It is one of the seventeen assets of Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto which have been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The castle area has several gardens and groves of cherry and Japanese plum trees. The Ninomaru garden was designed by the landscape architect and tea master Kobori Enshu. The garden has a large pond with three islands and features numerous carefully placed stones and topiary pine trees. Though it started raining while we were on the grounds, the rooms inside provide a great respite and a view into Japanese living.
Our day ended with a cultural performance at the Yasaka Hall, in Gion Corner. Every evening, two one hour shows are held and they give tourists and visitors a view into different cultural aspects of Japan. The traditional Japanese arts performed are Kyo-mai dance performed by Maiko dancers, Flower Arrangement, Ryurei style Tea Ceremony, musical instrument Koto Zither, Gagaku Court Music as performed in Imperial courts, Kyogen Theatre, a comical play and Bunraku Puppet Theatre. The ticket is around $25 and we found it a little steep for just an hour’s performance. There was enough content to those truly interested occupied for 2 hours and would have then made it worthwhile.
Day 7: Tokyo missed and souvenirs We took the Nozomi Express, Shinkansen back to Tokyo and headed straight to the Meiji Jingu Shrine. Our suitcases, were independently on their way back and would meet us at our hotel at night. Meiji Jingu is a Shinto shrine.
Shinto is called Japan’s ancient original religion, and it is deeply rooted in the way of Japanese life. Shinto has no founder, no holy book, and not even the concept of religious conversion, but Shinto values harmony with nature and virtues such as “Magokoro (sincere heart)”. In Shinto, some divinity is found as Kami (divine spirit), or it may be said that there is an unlimited number of Kami. You can see Kami in mythology, in nature, and in human beings. From ancient times, Japanese people have felt awe and gratitude towards such Kami and dedicated shrines to many of them. This shrine is dedicated to the divine souls of Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken (their tombs are in Kyoto). After their demise, people wished to commemorate their virtues and to venerate them forever. So they donated 100,000 trees from all over Japan and from overseas, and they worked voluntarily to create this forest in the middle of Tokyo.
A short walk from the shrine is Oriental Bazaar, a great stop for souvenirs. Good souvenirs to bring back are paintings of Mt.Fuji by Hokusai”, kimonos for women and children, Hello Kitty memorabilia, Wagashi – Japanese sweets, origami instructions and paper, and Japanese dolls. We took the train to Yokohama and checked-in at our Hotel.
Day 8: Yokohama. Yokohama, a sister city to San Diego, Frankfurt and Mumbai, is the capital city of Kanagawa Prefecture and the second largest city in Japan by population after Tokyo and lies on Tokyo Bay, south of Tokyo, in the Kantō region of the main island of Honshu. It is a quick 30 minute ride by train or less and is well connected to Tokyo by road. Yokohama was destroyed by an earthquake in 1923 and thousands of lives were lost.
The city was rebuilt only to be destroyed again, this time by man, during WWII. On a single morning on May 29, 1945 in what is now known as the Great Yokohama Air Raid, B-29s firebombed the city and in just one hour and nine minutes reduced 42% of it to rubble. Today, Minato Mirai 21, built on reclaimed land in Yokohama is home to some of the biggest corporations in the world, the tallest building in Japan including the tallest Landmark Tower and one of the newest urban business districts, while continuing to be the center for tourism. We woke up at the Pan Pacific Yokohama Bay Hotel Tokyu with a view into Tokyo Bay. The hotel had a great buffet and we spent the morning with our friends who took us up to the observatory deck on Landmark Tower, Japan’s tallest building. The sky wasn’t clear and we couldn’t see Mt.Fuji but the views stretching out on to the Bay and the views of Yokohama were expansive. Yokohama is a good place to stay. It is a quick ride from the organized chaos of Tokyo, is home to many of the biggest corporations and yet has quaint, purely residential neighborhoods. On a 10 day trip, it is worth taking some time to visit Yokohama.
Day 9: Narita, is home to the Tokyo International airport. Since we had a flight that evening, we had moved from the Yokohama hotel to the Hilton airport hotel and gotten back to our Americanized comforts. Since our flight was not till 6 pm we had most of the morning and afternoon to explore and after some consideration of heading back to Tokyo, we decided to instead explore the Narita area. We are glad we did. Narita is also home to Narita-san Shinshō-ji, a Shingon Buddhist temple located in central Narita, Chiba, Japan. It was founded in 940 by Kanchō Daisōjō, a disciple of Kōbō Daishi. It is a lead temple in the Chisan branch of New Shingon, includes a large complex of buildings and grounds, and is one of the best-known temples in the Kantō region. It is dedicated to Fudō myōō (“Unmovable Wisdom King”, known as Ācala in Sanskrit), who is usually depicted holding a sword and rope and surrounded by flames. Often called a fire god, he is associated with fire rituals. For those flying through Narita it is defintely worth it to reserve a few hours to see Naritasan. Adjacent to the temple is the Naritasan park, and is perfect for some peaceful strolling after long flights into Japan.
Our Japan trip was short. 9 days is not enough. We can plan another 10 day trip and visit Tokyo and Kyoto again and not see a single thing we have already seen. To explore all of Japan, consider moving there. Tokyo is a very livable city. The cost of living might be very high, but it comes easy comforts. Great fresh, food choices, good housing away in the suburbs, almost non-existent, violent crimes or even petty ones, great schools and universities, respectful culture, un-corrupted traditions, uninhibited fashion, and cutting-edge technology. The Japanese might be the ever-present tourists, but their own country is the perfect tourist destination for the rest of the world.
Journey dates: 17th October – 27th October, 2013
Travelers: Shwetha Shrivatsa, Karthik Raja and Anika Raja