This is a very long and detailed post about our 7 days in Japan (Tokyo, Magome to Tsumago, Kyoto, Nara). Please ask if you have any questions.
My husband and i had been talking about taking a little trip this year, just the two of us. No dates, no destination. And then the end of the year came really near, so we ended up booking ten days in Japan very last minute. The country had been on our bucket list forever. I guess we kept on postponing because you need at least three weeks to see the whole country… But: we found cheap flights (485€/pp) on MOMONDO and just thought it would at least be enough to get an idea of the country.
culture shock? what culture shock?
We landed in Tokyo and stayed with friends from my in-laws. It’s lovely to experience the Japanese life from the heart of a home. Kayo and Yoshi treated us so generously it was a delight.
For the rest of it, we did not enjoy Tokyo so much. All we could hear before going was: a culture shock! But we did not experience a shock at all! Of course, we’ve been spoiled and traveled quite a bit. But we always find uniqueness about a place. To us Tokyo is just a big city. Yes, one with huge neon signs (Have you been to Time Square?) and the largest crossing in the world (Wow, people crossing the street! Really?), but we were not impressed.
Spending one day in Tokyo would have been enough for us. (Although in the meantime lots of people told me they absolutetly LOVED Tokyo, so i guess we’ll have to go back…)
Therefore i will only highlight one place:
We did love the Meiji Jingu Shrine! It’s a grand Shinto Shrine in a forest in the middle of Tokyo. A heaven of peace and quiet with a very authentic feel to it. We witnessed a lot of Japanese traditions there, going from beautifully dressed children celebrating their Shichi-Go-San, to couples being wed and businessmen seeking a blessing before striking a deal. A wonderful people watching place.
We strolled around Shibuya, Harajuku and Shinjuku afterwards.
We started day two at Tsukiji Market around 10.30, which is too late to see big tuna fish, but you can only enter the market at 10, so i’m not sure when or if you can actually see a lot of the big fish. Some vendors were extremely friendly, but most of them do not want to see tourists (Japanese and foreigners). It really is a working market with forklifts zooming by at high speed all the time. You can try to get in the auction moment, but reading all about it in guidebooks and blogs didn’t make us want to try. (Youtube it 😉
We went to Asakusa next: it’s like a christmas market. If you can only make one stop to buy Japanese gifts, it’s not too bad a place. Prices vary very much from one stand to another. Lovely typical lunch in a Noodle Bar, one with the plastic food outside that helps you choose what you want. This by the way is not for tourists but seems like a Japanese thing to do: no surprises. I visited Origami Kaiken in the afternoon, their staff was really friendly and helpful in english as well. There is a studio where they handpaint the paper and you can enjoy watching the dedication with which they work.
Dinner was very well spent at Yanaka-Uozen we enjoyed kaiseki (Japanese Haute Cuisine): a seemingly never-ending discovery of small dishes, each one more eye pleasing than the other. Nice Sake, in no way comparable to the plain alcohol flavour i had had before.
On the third day we took the bullet train (Tokyo-Nagoya)/train (Nagoya-Nakatsugawa)/bus (Nakatsugawa- Magome) to Magome and really started experiencing the true Japan: buying a bento box at the station, standing in line before getting on the train (you have not stood in a line if you never experienced the utterly organised Japanese way!) and watching all those stretches of land and rice fields on the way.
Magome is one of the post towns on the old route between Tokyo and Kyoto. It was quite busy with tourists for such a small town. We realised the next morning how beautiful and quiet the place is without the day trippers. The rustic looking tea houses and little shops are a perfect hiding spot from the cold and rain. We stayed in Tajimaya, a typical guesthouse.
The walk from Magome to Tsumago is just under 8km. It took us a little over 2 hours to hike the easy walk in the woods over rolling hills with beautifully coloured leaves everywhere! We rang bear bells whenever possible… not clear if there are any left in the area, but we weren’t going to take any risk.
To gain some time, we took a taxi ride from Tsumago to Nagiso station. We hailed a Japanese couple to join us in the seemingly only cab around, with the idea of sharing the cab. They insisted on paying… not sure why, but probably the genuine kindness of the Japanese?
A trainride to Nagoya and the Shinkansen to Kyotol ater, we ended day four in Kyoto and immediately had a more genuine feeling of the city.
I’d like to compare Kyoto to a goodhearted smart student in a class where Tokyo gets way too much credit for being bigger, more trendy and flashier.
We had dinner at Betayaki, not far from our guesthouse. Oh my: best okonomiyaki and yakisoba with a super friendly staff/owner. (If you like a little pun, you’ll love the Japanese menus and signs. Here you can have shurimp in every dish and enjoy a shit of plum wine with your food).
Day five was November 21st and at Toji there’s the Kobo-San Market taking place from dawn to dusk every 21st of the month. You can find bric-a-brac, fabric, food stands and the most beautiful second hand kimonos at 1000 yen! (You will regret buying an expensive cotton one, i know what i’m talking about). Wonderful people watching and treasure hunting place.
After the market, we warmed up and had excellent real coffee at The Next Door, which is also a hostel that i absolutely keep in mind for the next time we visit Kyoto.
We did not want to miss the gates of Inari, so that’s where a packed train got us in the afternoon. Do you know all those pics of orange gates and no one around: it’s a trap! It’s not like that at all! I can’t imagine a time of day when there is no one there. It was SO crowded! I ended up taking the outside pic, which looks nice and quite.
In all the shrines you find oracles. Bad fortunes are supposed to be tied at the shrine so that the god can take care of it. We bought an oracle from a vending machine and apparently picked an excellent one (it mentions ‘excellent’, i did not make that up). The fortune says: Your fortune will be better like the flowers enjoying their best in spring. Be good and faithful. Never get lost in illicit love.
A few other things:
- travel: the sooner, the better (hear, hear)
- business: do business in secret and you’ll be successful (anyone?)
It might actually be a bad omen to write it out and share it with the world…(oh no!)
We dined in Gion at Hohei (Gyouzahohei on tabelog) one of those sweet authentic bars 🙂 seven people working on the most delicious handmade gyoza in the tiniest place (17 seats). We were lucky to have a seat right away, but the line when we went out, was long!
Day six had quite some waw factor: no wonder with all the World Cultural Heritage sites!
The Kinkaku Ji Golden Pavilion is such a joy to watch. I could easily imagine a fairy tale princess in kimono playing with her doll on the porch. Do walk around the park to enjoy beautiful views of the golden roof and the surrounding mountains.
Ryoan-Ji Rock Garden is world famous. It has no trees, only fifteen rocks and white gravel enclosed by a wall made of clay mixed with rapeseed oil, which gives it a peculiar design (i would believe you if you told me Rothko got inspired by it). It is one of those places filled with mysteries and unknown symbols that give you an instant zen feeling walking in.
A bit further on, in Arashiyama, we visited the Tenryu-Ji Temple with what feels like an abundance of paths leading through the garden. It’s basically a loop, but with all the different perspectives it feels BIG. We went out at the north gate to enter the Bamboo forest. Supposedly this is a breathtaking bamboo grove, but the only thing taking my breath away was the lack of space with all the visitors there! Probably not the right time to visit, but i cannot imagine it’s ever not crowded this season. So not a must see, but it takes you to Okochi Sanso at the end of the grove. It is the estate of late Okochi Denjiro (1889-1962), a famous Japanese actor, and a beautiful example of traditional Japanese residential architecture. All the different parts in the garden where designed by the actor over the years and form a masterpiece you can dwell around in. Well-worth the 1000yen entry. This home would be a big hit on airbnb 😉
Dinner at Itoh Dining in Gion was nothing special and quite disappointing. The view on the river and Shirakawa-Minami Dori Street is worth the visit, but the food was rather underwhelming, Kobe beef included (perfectly cooked and melting in your mouth, but not very tasteful).
Our last day in Japan, was just LOVELY.
We hesitated between staying in Kyoto or going out to visit Nara, which a friend had absolutely recommended. We decided to take the trip to Nara (45min JR train-ride). It was an absolute wow experience!
What Nara is mainly about is the Nara-Koen area: a very well kept park with several amazing sites and somewhat 1200 tame deer living there.
We started off with a visit of Yoshiki-en Garden, a smaller, less visited garden which looked absolutely stunning with the maples turning yellow-orange-red. Entrance is free for international visitors, but we would have gladly payed!
Isuien garden is another traditional Japanese style garden. We were extremely lucky to have a lovely guide offer us a free tour in English. It made us realise that there is A LOT to know about gardens. She made us see turtles and cranes in bushes and trees, told us about their meaning of longevity and shared other traditional Japanese cultural knowledge (like the size of a traditional room being 4.5 tatami mats big). The view of the back garden looks like a miniature garden, it’s so meticulously designed, but the well chosen size of bushes and trees make you wonder how big the garden actually is…all a matter of perspective. One of our favourites in Japan, it felt very peaceful (not a lot of visitors always help in that feeling).
It’s the gate of the Todai-Ji temple you see in the background, where we went next.
I had seen pics of the Buddha and was not impressed at all, wondering what the fuss was all about. Well, let me tell you: i was overwhelmed. Not any photograph does justice to this wonder.
To start with, the temple is one of the largest structures in the world (i shoot with a 35mm lens and could not get it all on the pic, thank you iphone…). You can see how small people are, it’s really an amazing piece of architecture! The golden thingies on the rooftop are not bullhorns, but fishtail. They represent an imaginary waterline, therefore protecting the building underwater against fire.
Once you get in, your eyes just have time to adjust to the light before the grandeur of the Great Buddha hits you. Tears welled up in my eyes, i was just really overtaken and affected by the peacefulness of the Buddha. His hands message “fear not” and “welcome” which are the only message a religion/belief should emanate in my opinion.
That was it! We took the train back to Kyoto and a Shinkansen to Tokyo and flew back the next day.
Our trip really was a gradual crescendo and absolutely got us more than an idea of the country: i loved it!
Toilets: average of 16 buttons. Even in the woods in winter when you need to use a toilet and you’re ready to squeeze your buttocks in awe of touching the cold toilet seat: it’s cosy and warm. Delightful! (and nothing like someone else sat there before you to preheat the seat)
We’ve been back two weeks and i really miss the food!
Okonomiyaki, also called Japanese pancake, but more a savoury combination of an omelette and a fluffy pancake. DIVINE! The Bonito (tuna) flakes and Aonori (seaweed sprinkles) as seasoning on top are my new all time favourite Japanese flavour.
The rice is heavenly: sticky, but full and still you feel every single grain melt on your tongue.
You cannot leave without trying: yakisoba, bento, gyoza, yakitori, soba, teppanyaki, udon and sake. I will make a food quick guide next time we visit 😉
We booked our trip quite last minute. If we’d had more possibilities, i would have chosen an airbnb in Kyoto, but the only places available were either extremely small or really out of the way.
We were lucky to stay at Japanese Friends’ appartement in Tokyo.
Tajimaya in Magome (18.400yen, supper and breakfast included) not a lot of choice and quite the same prices. Traditional ryokan style inn, gives you a feeling of how the Japanese (used to) live. Don’t expect anything fancy, the food is very copious and delicious.
Fujitaya BNB in the Nishishichijo Ichibecho Neighbourhood. Informal atmosphere, small rooms with just tatami and a few hooks on the wall, shared toilets and bathrooms, basic breakfast, clean). (43.000yen/3 nights)
Nothing to visit around, but easy access to the whole city with three bus lines (202-205-208) around the corner. supermarkets and restaurants everywhere. Easier to actually get a spot on a bus than when you stay in busy neighbourhoods.
Japan Rail Pass: we bought a JR rail pass in a Belgian travel centre (online too, but we were a bit short in time to receive it by mail on time). It’s a bit complicated to know if it’s the cheapest, but it is very convenient for sure. you just have to go to the station once to exchange your order in an actual ticket and that’s it. For the rest of the time you just flash the card on any JR rail and travel ‘for free’. We calculated the price based on the Shinkansen trips we would make but ended up taking JR trains in Kyoto and Tokyo too…
We never reserved our seats, there was always enough room and we figured the time spent in line to reserve a seat was the same as the time being early and stand in line to enter the train…
Tokyo: get a Pasmo. You can charge/recharge it with any amount. Since a lot of the trips in Tokyo have different fares, it makes it very complicated to pay per ride. The card is also valid in other big cities, although we had to validate it for Kyoto when there.
Metro map is very clear, the system with numbered stops is super easy and explicit.
Kyoto: in Kyoto most of the rides are bus rides, you pay 230yen per ride, but if you change busses, that really mounts up quickly. A one-day pass is only 500yen and takes you everywhere. You can purchase it on the bus or in machines at the station.
With a busmap you get everywhere, it’s very easy to use.
In any bus, you have to pay the correct fare. Usually you get in the bus at the back and get off in the front where you pay your fare. The machine lets you exchange 1000yen notes (and sometimes coins) in order to have the right change.