I’ve never been so great at making decisions, especially when it comes to sorting through my travel memories and notes to tell you all about the best bits of my trips.
I’ve rarely had such a diverse and stimulating trip such as the one to Japan, with so many different spots, such stark contrast between the zen-like calmness of its gardens and the Vegas-like madness of its Dotonbori street. So many flavours, smells, people.
Nevertheless, I’ve tried my best to pick my TOP 5 Japanese spots, those you should not miss on your trip, or should be immediately adding to your bucket list
- Miyajima Island – just a short journey away from Hiroshima lies the island of Itsukushima, known as Miyajima, the shrine island. It’s most iconic sight is in fact the red floating torii of the Itsukushima shrine, which welcomes you (as a rather unassuming sight from afar I must admit) as you approach the island by ferry. The small town is concentrated around the Itsukushima shrine, which comes to life at sunset. When the tide is high, and the torii appear as if floating in the bay, take a stroll so as to arrive in front of it by sunset, you’ll be rewarded with a magical sight, even though you might need to fight off some over-keen photographers. Miyajima is just what you need if you have been city hopping in the hustle and bustle of places like Osaka and Tokyo. We spent two wonderful days relaxing on the island, strolling around and taking some time to hike Mount Misen. There is a cable car that would take you up the mountain, but if you are reasonably in shape and like to be immersed in nature take the time to hike from the bottom. The view from the top is incredible and on the way down you’ll have a chance to stop and visit the beautiful Dainganji temple. There are a few small ryokan on the island, we stayed at Sakuraya and were pretty happy. Quick insider tips: most restaurant close at 6 once the shrine shuts down to visitors, so if you like choice, have an early dinner, otherwise you are more or less stuck with two options (both of which quite OK); Miyajima is also famous for its maple leaf shaped cookies, filled with all sorts of creams. Buy some to bring home as a present, and try a few while you are there, but rather than indulging yourself in the packaged biscuits, look for a tiny stand selling the warm croissant version of them (YES, I’m for real. yum).
- Experiencing a traditional Japanese dinner at the feet of Mt. Fuji: Straight after landing we made our way to the 5 lakes area which surrounds what is probably Japan’s greatest landmark: it’s perfectly shaped, 4000 meters high peak Mt. Fuji. The trouble is, THERE WAS NO MOUNTAIN. Weather is unpredictable, and as we approached our hotel all we could see was fog, like, EVERYWHERE. As I prepared myself to give up to despair for possibly missing one of the most incredible sights I had travel so far for, my evening was magically rescued by the wonderful experience of a traditional Japanese dinner, served in the comfort of our luxury ryokan room. Wearing our soft yukata, we were served dish upon dish of unknown delicious food by the kindest and sweetest waitress. Everything looked so pretty and well put together that i did not even feel like eating it (and this has nothing to do wth the fact that I had no idea what half of the stuff was). There was something so strange about eating such wonderfully exotic food, in such a strange setting, that it made me forget the lack of Mt. Fuji for the entire night. I cannot even explain my excitement at opening my eyes at 5 am (jet lag baby) and seeing this majestic sight slowly piercing the fog right in front of out window, like, right in front of it. I proceeded to wake up at an interval of 30 minutes just waiting for that last cloud to lift, and I was rewarded with one of the most spectacular wake up calls ever. I definitely recommend staying at Shuhokaku Kogestsu Hotel and ask for a Fuji view room. It’s a little pricey but the location and the service is definitely worth it.
- Cute deers and giant Buddahs in Nara: No wonder this is one of the most popular day trips by travellers based in Kyoto or Osaka. Nara is definitely worth your time, if only for the thrill of being chased by a group or rather touchy deers as you try to gently feed them crackers. There are several temples to visit while you are there, but the biggest attraction (no pun intended) is surely the gigantic Buddha at Todai-ji temple. This 16 meters, 500 tonnes gold plated statue of Buddha clearly takes centre stage in what is an almost equally impressive structure, said to be the biggest wooden structure in the world. There are many other beautiful temples in Nara, so it is worth to wander around the main touristic area and follow the many signs available. However, my favourite part of this day trip was a beautiful traditional Japanese garden hidden away in a small side street on the way back towards the train station. The Isuzu garden is privately owned and open to the public for quite a steep fee. But please, trust my advice and pay the ticket. This place is absolutely magical. Everything just sort of blent together in a great harmony of water, green and flowers, and we saw it on a cloudy day. I can only imagine how wonderful this place must be on a sunny day. If you go, you might be approached by a volunteer from the Nara tourism agency, who will be glad to take you around the garden for free and tell you a little bit more about the history of this great little hidden gem.4. Strolling through the Path of Philosophy in Kyoto: Each Japanese city we visited had its unique flavour and beauty, and I loved them all, in different ways. However, Kyoto clearly hit a sweet spot. I am a little bit of a temple-hopping fanatic, and there is just so many of them that even I had to give up after around 30 km of straight walking under the sun. We stayed in Kyoto for 4 days, but you could spend twice as much and still not experience all that the city has to offer. We visited some incredible temples (a couple of favourites, otherwise we could stay here hours: Eikando, Ginkaku-ji, Higashi Hogan-ji) beautiful gardens, ate tasty treats at Nishiki Market (baked sweet potatoes, yum) and even grabbed a tea with some Geisha in the occasion of the Maiko dances, which only take place in the month of April. I can definitely recommend this experience if you are in Kyoto at that time (book your tickets here) but skip the special ticket with the green tea ceremony. It is a very commercial exercise and you are sitting in a room packed full with tourist making a lot of noise, so it is not worth the extra cash. A particularly beautiful moment in Kyoto was walking the Path of Philosophy from Ginkaku-ji temple in the Norther Higashiyama district. This Path, long just over 2 km, follows the cherry tree lined canals, so it must be an absolutely breathtaking view during the cherry blossom season. Another added bonus is that the path would take you along some quite and very residential parts of the town, and you’ll have a chance to catch a glimpse of Kyoto life beyond the temples.
Another unmissable part of Kyoto, in my humble opinion, is the short train ride to the Arashyama Bamboo Grove. This artificial grove is magical, and the few picture I took are definitely not able to recreate the light and the eerie silence. The grove is a short stroll away from the train station and you should combine your almost certainly failed photoshoot attempt with a visit to the private garden of the Okochi Sanso Villa, the luxurious home of a famous Japanese actor, now open for visits mostly for its impressive garden.
5. The Osaka Aquarium: I have to admit, besides the food, I was not terribly impressed with Osaka. it might be the short length of our stay, or being so tired with walking up and down temple steps, but I simply did not have the same feeling about Osaka than I had in Kyoto. However, with our hotel just a stone-throw away for famous food paradise Dotonbori, we indulged in some pretty delicious sushi, and some interesting street food experiences (Octopus dumplings are great, but if you don’t get along with garlic or onion you might want to give them a miss). My favourite part of Osaka was surely the trip to the Aquarium. I love fish and although i get a little sad at seeing them trapped and not in their natural environment, the Osaka Aquarium central tank, with two majestic whale sharks and tons of other magical creature was really jaw dropping. If you enjoy these kind of things or have small kids in tow, I definitely recommend a visit
I am not intentionally leaving out the melt in my mouth, get in my belly culinary experience of Kobe, or the limelight of Tokyo and the touching visit at Hiroshima, but I could simply ramble on about how amazing everything was for hours.
Japan is such a wonderful and strange place. On one hand a total clash of culture, on the other so close that you almost feel at home. I am already counting down the days to my next visit and to many more Top 5s.