Wildly Incomplete Guide to Japan
Having been out of Japan for some
5 months now I still take every
pleasure in reviewing all the wonderful things I saw in that beautiful
archipelago. I have had several people ask me where to go and
see if they happen to be in Nippon for a week with nothing to do. The
tour guides of Japan are generally pretty good so I won't attempt to
recreate them here. I'm just going to give you my impressions of some
of the more famous places and tell you more about the not so famous
To begin with I lived in Japan for a year and spent more or less every
free day I had exploring it. A typical tourist can't hope to see as
much as I saw without having things become extremely blurry. When it
comes to traveling in general I highly recommend you figure out what is
interesting beforehand and go see that. I found that I most enjoyed
going to traditional places like temples and shrines and I also enjoyed
wandering around the various cities of Japan. I lived in Yokohama which
is an amazingly beautiful, historically relevant, and unfortunately
almost completely ignored city by tourist (even Japanese ones). I was
an English teacher for a company called Nova so I got quite a bit of
input on the culture as well. As a tourist you will not understand the
culture at all because as someone who tried desperately for a year to
understand it I never could either. Still Japan is a beautiful country
to visit if for no other reason than just to soak it all in. Its more
interesting than Orlando or Cape Cod so I'd say to pack you bags and go.
Here are some general hints on traveling in Japan:
1) You will need a lot of money- Japan
is not a cheap country to visit and with out
extensive local knowledge of where to find good deals on things you are
going to spend more than you thought you would. As an example I spent
roughly $650 for a six day trip to Kansai pinching pennies hard.
How much you spend over there depends significantly how cheap a hotel
you're willing to sleep in. I highly recommend staying in a capsule
hotel in Tokyo or Osaka. The price is right and its a more interesting
story to tell than staying at the Marriot. Hostels are also a good
option. I never stayed in a Ryokan (traditional Japanese Inn) so I
can't give any opinion about it. All I can say is that you will
probably be mislead into thinking the Japanese are more traditional
than they really are if you stay here. Food is another big expense and
I have tips below on how to save on that. Trains are the final major
expense you should plan on. If you are off and on the train all day in
Tokyo you can easily spend $20. Be warned - Japan is expensive but not
inaccessible to the budget traveler.
2) Your tongue will be useless -
Don't expect the typical pedestrian to
be able to speak english at any level that will be able to help you
out. Your butchered attempts at trying to pronounce Japanese probably
won't help either (They aren't used to foreigners speaking Japanese to
them and pronunciation is key so more often then not this will just
confuse them). At tourist facilities, some hotels, and certainly at
centers they will speak English. People who work for the railways (like
station attendants) typically won't. Even if they did speak very good
English I heard time and again as a teacher they were too scared to
attempt to talk to a foreigner. If you are lucky enough to have some
attempt to speak English to you, you should a) be extremely grateful
and b) be very kind, understanding, and forgiving of their mistakes in
English. That being said signs are generally in English, even on the
highways oddly enough. I highly recommend having a phrase book and
pointing to a key word to communicate. Also pointing at things and
attempting to play charades can work well or can make you look like a
real ass, it all depends on how clever the person you're trying to talk
to is. Finally when all hope is lost try to draw a picture or just
write what you want in very clear, simple English. Their reading
ability is nearly always better than their listening.
3) You will get lost - I promise
you that in a country that doesn't
believe in street names, or urban planning (in Tokyo I mean), you will
get lost many times on your trip. This is when you will badly wish that
you could just stop and ask for directions but generally you can't. If
you don't have a damned good map (in english) you are taking a real
chance by leaving your hotel. Even after I lived there for months I
would regularly carry both a railway and a street map with me. These
are absolutely crucial tools to a smooth trip to Japan. You can get
maps by mail before your trip from the JNTO (Japanese National Tourist
Organization) office nearest to you. Also major train stations will
also have tourist information centers where you can find a map and
possibly someone who speaks English.
4) You will take a train - Japan
runs on trains the way America runs on
the car. Their society would screech to a halt without them. A little
known fact is that the first train in Japan was a gift from America to
the Ambassador in Yokohama (it was a working miniature). The Ambassador
said it was a nice toy but didn't think it was useful in a mountainous
country like Japan. Famous last words. First I should note that trains
are generally more expensive than you think they should be.
Expect this to be a major part of your budget. The Japanese have taken
a kind of free market view of their public transit system and because
of that it is a complete mess. There are around 26 major companies in
the Tokyo area alone that run private train systems. Going from point A
to point B will frequently involve going between 2 or more of these
systems. You will have to leave one and then buy a new ticket for the
next. Fortunately they all work very similarly. You pay based on the
distance you are going. At nearly every train station in the country
you will see a board listing all the train stations on the line above
the ticket machine (this may not be true in very rural areas).
Hopefully the sign will be written in English but if it isn't try to
play the match-the-kanji game with your bilingual map you didn't leave
your hotel room without. After that all
you have to do is figure out what station you will get off at, put that
much yen into the machine, and then push the button for the right
price. Typically you have to use these machines and can not buy your
ticket from a person. If this all sounds complicated there is an easy
(but time consuming) solution. Just buy the cheapest ticket possible
and when you get to your destination put your ticket into the fare
adjustment machine near the gates (if there is no machine give it to
the attendant, they will understand) and put in more money. A new
ticket will come out and you're all set. For train directions try
The Shinkansen is a whole other ball of wax. These are the bullet
trains that run through the whole country. They are about as fast and
much more convenient than air transport but oddly they are also more
expensive. Expect to pay around $120 one way from Tokyo to Kyoto, a 2
hour ride. You can buy a shinkansen ticket at a machine but you will
then have to stand in line to buy an 'express ticket' and then put both
tickets into the gate (this is idiotic I know, even the Japanese
couldn't explain why to me). If you plan on riding the Shinkansen at
all I would highly recommend getting the JR train pass which your
travel guide can tell you more about.
5) You will eat in Japan - and when you
do you can make it an adventure or pretty much the same stuff you get
at home. Mcdonalds is everywhere as are the frequent french bakeries.
Wendy's is around here and there and so is Subway. Of course I don't
recommend those things. I should note that the Japanese are obsessed
with food but after you spend some time there it isn't hard to see why.
Their food really is pretty good if you can get used to trying new
things. I ate almost exclusively the cheapest thing I could that would
taste good. I don't think most people would follow my dietary habits
but if you want to save money but still try some new stuff then here's
6) You will be confused by the
Temples and Shrines - but that is ok because so are
the Japanese. The Japanese relationship with religion is very strange,
even unimaginable, for a typical American. Having spent a lot of time
talk to a lot of average Joe Japanese in class this is the conclusion
I've come to- Japanese people just don't think about bigger things like
this. Shinto is the native Japanese religion but nearly no Japanese
person born since 1960 really believes in this. It is a taboo topic
associated with emperor worship and WW2 and people who talk about it
are considered crazy. Buddhism comes in many shapes and flavors just as
christianity does. I'm no professor of theology but it seems to me
Buddhism and shinto have done a lot of mixing. Shrines are for Shinto
and Temples are for Buddhism. A surefire way to distinguish them is
that only shrines have Tori (usually bright red) gates and only Temples
have pictures of Buddha or Pagodas (they hold sacred Buddhist
writings). Sometimes a shrine and temple may be on the same property
which makes things confusing. This is the case at Hase Dera in Kamakura
and also Kiyomizudera in Kyoto. I studied the mythology quite a bit to
try to understand the symbols I kept seeing at the various temples and
shrines I went to so I understand what they mean probably just as well
or better than your typical Japanese person. The point I want to drive
home is that religion is more or less irrelevant to your younger
Japanese person. Temples and shrines are tourist facilities, out door
art museums, cultural centers, and a fun place to go on new years but
they are NOT there for religious purposes for the vast majority of
Japanese. They may be superstitious but the Japanese are not a
- Eat at Yoshinoya or Matsuya- the ubiquitous beef bowl
and curry shops throughout Japan. You have to put your money into a
machine, push a button to get a ticket, and then give this ticket to
the staff who will bring you food shortly. Beef bowls are the Japanese
food you won't find at any sushi place in the US. They are fatty beef
on top of rice with fried onions and soy sauce to your own taste. You
will have to eat this with chopsticks. Another chain in Tokyo I
recommend is called Pepper lunch and has a great steak tips and rice
dish if you don't mind cooking it yourself.
- Eat Onigiri frequently - One of my staple foods while
in Japan was the tasty rice triangle filled with mysterious stuff
usually from the sea that is known as the onigiri. Every single
convenience store in the country (7-11, Lawsons, Circle K, Family Mart,
ect) sells them and 'conbinis' (convenience stores) are a disease to a
Japanese city. They cost about 120 yen and make an excellent
snack, 3 make a meal. You can also find other delights at the conbini
such as oden, the soupy stuff near the register, and various America
(corn) dogs and other fried food. You must not forget to pay 105 yen
and get yourself a coffee milk! I probably drank 200 of these in Japan!
- Ghetto Sushi- They will often have sushi you can buy
in the grocery store that is much cheaper than going to a restaurant.
More often than not it will come in a plastic box with a variety to
choose from. It is very fresh and filling and about the only place I
bought sushi in Japan.
- Do the Bento - Bento's are boxed lunches for sale at
conbinis, grocery stores, train stations, and even special bento shops.
They are a horrible waste of plastic but contain a variety of yummy,
interesting food. Normally they will include a substantial portion of
white rice, some fried thing, and other mysteries to ponder.
- Have a Taiyaki - if you see something at a conbini or
festival that looks like a waffle in the shape of a fish grab it up and
enjoy the red bean anko deliciousness that is Taiyaki. Duraiyaki is
very similar and instead of being shaped like a fish is just two honey
pancakes with Anko inside.
- Ethnic Noodle Joints - are outstanding places to get
lunch for 4 bucks. These are very traditional, working man, down to
earth kind of places where nothing will be in english. Fortunately you
can point at the soba or udon you would like and enjoy the real deal.
You can spot an ethnic noodle joint because it will nearly always be
near (or in) a station, have cursive Kanji all over it, and frequently
have red lanterns outside. You may also be able to enjoy Yakisoba
(something like Lo Mien) or an okonomiyaki (japanese omelet, sort of)
at one of these places which I would recommend, especially in Hiroshima.
- The dude outside the station - who is turning over
fried balls of batter is making Takoyaki - octopus tentacle balls.
These are substantially more delicious than they sound although they
certainly aren't health food. This could be a real experience because
these dudes are nearly always crusty old men and you can be assured
this is the real ethnic stuff you can't find in the US. Some friends of
mine have had interesting conversations with said crusty old dude but I
was never lucky enough myself.
Ok so now
its time to get into the real nitty gritty. You've got a lot
of money, a phrase book to point at, a good map, and a reasonable clue
of how to use the train system. You are ready to see Japan but what
should you see. Well generally I think people go to Japan to see either
the technological side of the society (Tokyo) or the more traditional
side. There is no reason one tour can't include both.
Japan is divided into two main sections Kanto, eastern Japan, and
Kansai, western Japan. Exactly what those two terms refer to is quite
open for debate, many students had different ideas about this.
Generally Kanto is Tokyo and its surrounding area and Kansai is Kyoto,
Osaka, and Kobe. These are the places that nearly all foreigners visit
and also the places I spent my time. I lived in Yokohama (in Kanto) for
9 months and got bored so I moved to Kyoto (Kansai) for the remaining
3. I can give you a good perspective on both because I spent time in
For the very trained eye or a true Japanese fanatic you could notice a
difference between Kanto and Kansai in a lot of different ways. This is
something like how Boston and Austin are both American cities but still
very different. For someone who doesn't start out with the idea they
need to see Kyoto I would recommend staying in Kansai. Although you can
certainly take the Shinkansen between Kyoto and Tokyo its very
expensive and Kyoto doesn't have anything you can't find in Kanto for
the uneducated visitor.
So for someone who wants to just see Japan I would say to see Tokyo,
Nikko, Kamakura, and Yokohama. For someone who has read up on Japan and
really wants to see Kyoto then by all means take the Shinkansen down. I
personally don't think Kyoto has much to offer you can't find in Kanto
unless you're a history buff. Still, seeing it will provide a view of
Japan outside of Tokyo which is good all by itself.
David Berry said that Tokyo looks like a parking garage without all the
charm and I'd say he's pretty dead on about that. It is
crowded, loud, and confusing. There isn't any must see spot in Tokyo so
what I would recommend is finding some places you think are interesting
and walking around that area. Visiting different
parts of Tokyo is like visiting different cities so its hard to say
Tokyo is this or Tokyo is that. I never really liked Tokyo that much
but other people I knew loved it. Its fun and worth a look but don't
spend your entire vacation there.
Ueno - is an older part of Tokyo and it shows. Its run down
standards but by American it is still quite clean. There are many large
museums in this area including the Japanese national museum. Although I
wasn't impressed I think the museum is worth visiting for a tourist.
They have some decent urban temples in Ueno park, along with a lot of
camping homeless people and the occasional street performer. There is a
lot to see in this area and I would
recommend a day up here. Also close to Ueno is 'America street" where
they have a lot of tacky Americanish stuff for sale. You can also find
an area famous for selling motorcycle stuff.
Shibuya & Harajuku - These are the teen culture epicenters of
Japan and only a few stops apart on the Yamanote line. Shibuya is very
crowded and you can find quite a few large television screens there.
You could compare it to Time Square except this is much more crowded
and confusing. Shibuya is focused on high school age girls where as
Harajuku attracts a slightly older and goth oriented crowd. Shibuya is
a major transit hub so chances are you'll pass through here any way. If
you do its worth taking a look. Meiji Shrine is located adjacent to
Harajuku but besides the fact that such a large forest exists in
central Tokyo I'd say this is missable too. The walk from Harajuku to
Aoyama is pleasant and feels very different than the rest of Tokyo.
Shinjuku - This is one of the main business districts of
Tokyo, sort of the downtown. It does have some skyscrapers but if
you've been to NY this won't impress you. I would recommend going up
the to Tokyo government towers and taking the view. Other than that
there is a lot of shopping and eating here and on the east exit side a
lot of strip clubs, pachinko parlors, and love hotels. This is the
busiest train station in the world (well train stations really because
JR, Odakyu, Kintetsu, ect all have a Shinjuku station- its very
Odaiba - is about the only place in Tokyo I really enjoyed
is the Japanese vision of what the future would look like in the 1980's
so to me it looks a lot like something out of Star Trek: The next
generation. Only in Japan would they run out of space and so decide to
build an island in the middle of the bay. Odaiba is wildly different
than the rest of tokyo with wide, uncrowded streets, and open space
available. It has a special train you can take to get over there too
which is completely automated. That's fun for a one time deal. I would
recommend just walking from one end to the other even though this is a
long walk. There are a lot of pretty buildings on the island (and some
really strange ones too). The museum of emerging science and technology
is certainly worth a look if you like that type of thing. The Toyota
megaweb is a glorified car showroom but fun all the same. Venus fort
shopping mall is unbelievably ornate and certainly worth a walk
through. The Panasonic center has some interesting new inventions to
take a look at. Basically when you hear about the really quirky stuff
in Tokyo you can find it here.
Roppongi - is the main entertainment district (along with
Shibuya). If you go there on a Friday or Saturday night it is possibly
the only place in Japan where foreigners will outnumber Japanese.
During the day this also has some office towers and Roppongi hills is a
new, very upscale living and shopping development (which is NOT located
on a hill). The Tokyo tower (a blatant rip off of the Eiffel Tower) is
also here but is somewhat expensive so I never went to the top.
Central Tokyo - This is the other main business district of
Tokyo, especially for financial stuff around Tokyo Station. I didn't
spend much time here
myself because oddly this is on the eastern side of Tokyo and not
central at all. The palace
is here but you can't see anything there besides a rather boring
bridge. There is a nice park in the area and the station itself has
some nice architecture. The capital building (the diet) is in this area
and worth a peak if you go for that type of thing.
Akiharabara - Is about the only place in Tokyo I would
recommend avoiding. This is supposed to be where you can find the
newest, cutting edge technology. What it really is is a lot of over
priced stuff pitched mostly to tourist. Keep in mind that any computer
you buy with either have a Japanese keyboard and Operating System or be
a US model you could get at home. I am a computer technician by trade
and after comparing prices and models both here and at home I can tell
you, you aren't missing anything if you miss Akiharabara
Asakusa - There is a popular shrine here but like nearly
urban shrine or temple in the country it is completely missable. It has
a long row of shops, some nice wood carvings, and the typical Shrine
stuff. Historically it is important but as you can't see history most
tourist will find this boring.
many people opt to take a day trip from Tokyo up to the temple town of
Nikko. I went there twice but did it both times as a day trip. As this
is almost 5 hours from where I lived I never got to see as much of it
as I would have liked. I would say that Nikko is absolutely fantastic
and a must see on your trip to Japan. To begin with the "hear no evil,
speak no evil, see no evil" monkeys are from here. If you are very
lucky you can even see a real wild monkey. There is a famous mountain
and some waterfalls in a different part of town (this is missable). The
real treasure of Nikko is probably the most ornate, gold covered,
ridiculously beautiful shrines in the country. Combine that with
secluded walks along cedar lined avenues and you've got yourself a hit.
If you have to do Nikko in one day its ok but I wouldn't feel cheated
if I spent two here.
is, in my opinion, the most beautiful but also most under
appreciated city in Japan. My opinion is biased though because I lived
and worked here most of my year in Japan. Yokohama is just a few miles
from Tokyo (20 minutes from Shibuya to central Yokohama on the Toyoko
line) but is a world
apart. It was a treaty port with America and where Japan was opened up
after 500 years of isolation. It is also where Macarthur (the American
Shogun) had his command
post after W.W.II. That is why I said its historically important but
nearly no Japanese person will say the same thing. Because the city was
build largely by foreigners it has a distinctly international feel to
it. Its downtown is basically on a grid pattern with wide streets.
You could spend a very pleasant day walking through Yokohama to
different idea of urban Japan besides Tokyo. This is the tour I
suggest. Start out your day by arriving at Saguragicho station and
visiting the Landmark Tower - the tallest building in Japan. If you are
so inclined you could walk around the very beautiful mall and do some
shopping. From there take a peak at the Nippon Maru - the Ship you saw
on your way into the Landmark Tower. Walk down Nihon Odori taking a
look at the Jack, King, and Queen towers (from the outside only, these
functional buildings you can't really visit). The Kanagawa prefectural
museum also has some beautiful architecture. Be sure to take in
Yamashita park and its views of the bay and landmark tower. From their
walk down to Chinatown and enjoy some overpriced food. That should take
up your entire day. There are other things to do in Yokohama, like
Yamate- the foreigner settlement, or Shin Yokohama's quirky Ramen
"museum" but I wouldn't say these are essential things for a tourist
with limited time.
If you find yourself with the misfortune to have to use Yokohama
station please be warned this is one of the largest and most complex
stations in the entire country. There is nothing here worth seeing
other than a lot of shopping and a wild network of miles and miles of
confusing, similar looking, underground mall.
I should say that I am extremely biased towards Yokohama but that is
because I consider it one of the most beautiful cities I've ever seen.
Secondly only to Boston or perhaps Sydney. If the charm of the place
doesn't hit you right away it probably never will. It isn't like the
rest of Japan though and maybe that is why I liked it so much.
is possibly my favorite place in Japan, outside Yokohama. Kamakura is
just a short train ride beyond Yokohama (just over an hour from
and if you plan on visiting both Yokohama and Kamakura staying in
either place a few nights makes a lot more sense than trying to stay
somewhere in Tokyo. It is another temple town full of shrines and
temples and the once capital of Japan about 900 years ago for about 200
years. You can read about this in your guide. I spent nearly every free
weekend I had there for months because I thought the place was so
great. Besides just having temples it was hell of a convenient place to
get out into the woods to do some hiking. You could pack Kamakura into
1 full day but if you also want to visit near by Enoshima make it a two
I have a tour of Kamakura I have taken other people on and they enjoyed
it. The problem with this tour is it is nearly impossible to follow
without an excellent map and possibly a tour guide. For the brave
though I would suggest getting off at Kita Kamakura station and
visiting Engakuji for its stunning wood carvings, scenic pond, a
Japanese cemetery, and even Buddah's tooth! This is high on my list of
favorite temples in Japan and I've been all over Kyoto. There are some
other temples in the area which you can visit if you want. After you
are done cross back over the train tracks and get to the main road and
walk south (the direction the train you took in traveled) down that
main street perhaps half a mile. On the right hand side of the road you
will come to a sign for Jochiji. This will lead you down a path
up some steps and through a gate to the entrance to the temple.
Directly to the left is a small path that is the start of the trail.
You can follow this trail for a long while, perhaps a mile. It will go
past a minor temple and a park. You will eventually get to a paved road
and a fork where you can go down the hill or continue on the path. Go
down the hill and you will see a Tori gate and the entrance to a cave.
This is Zeniaraibenzaite (Zen Ari Benten is what I thought it was
called). This is the money washing temple but you can read all about
that in your guide. Leave the temple the way you came in and walk down
the hill and walk through the suburban neighborhood. You will
eventually have to take a right (you're first?) but at any rate you can
follow the signs to Sasukeinarijina. At this shrine you will walk
through about 100 tori gates up a long path to see a shrine to the fox
god inari. You will have to look around a while but if you keep
climbing up you will find a path that leads back the trail you were on
before. At this point the trail becomes extremely difficult and easy to
become lost as there are several branches of the trail. I always looked
for the daibutsu kanji (大仏) on the sign. It is tough to find but
if you do you will eventually come to some steps to walk down onto a
busy street that has a tunnel behind it. If you find this simply walk
down this busy street (away from the tunnel) and the Daibutsu will be
on your left after about a quarter mile. This is the picture above. I
like the Daibutsu but always thought it was a bit too touristy for me.
Your tour is not over yet! After you leave the Daibutsu walk down the
street away from the temple to the touristy shops. At the light take
cross the street and go down the side street to Hase Dera, my personal
favorite temple in all of Japan. This temple offers sea views, a giant
golden buddha, a wheel to turn, beautiful architecture, a cave with
stone carvings, and the most beautiful garden I've ever seen. This is
absolutely not to missed!! Finally go back to the light and continue
walking down the street away from the Diabutsu and you will very
shortly see a train station for the Enoden mini train. This train will
take you back to Kamakura station where you can enjoy shopping and
relax before heading out of Kamkura. This is a long trip and you should
expect to spend most of the day walking. Also I would not attempt this
without a very good map. I wish I could go to Kamakura to straighten
all this out and get exact directions. Unfortunately I'm a few months
out of Japan now and this is the best I can do.
An alternative to this tour is to just visit Kita Kamakura and either
walk into town and see Kenochi or take the train to Kamakura station.
Perhaps go to Hachi mangu (missable in my opinion) get on the enoden
and see Daibutsu and Hase Dera. Even though its hard to find and a bit
of a walk do try to find Zeniaraibenzaite, its worth the effort.
summary these are temples I highly recommend to visit:
Enoshima is an Island that is just a few minutes from Kamakura (but
technically in Fujisawa city). It is a popular (but dirty) beach in the
summer but a nice little island to visit all year round. You can see a
wide variety of temples on the island, easily a day in itself. I would
recommend visiting it if you weren't planning on going to Kyoto.
- for its wood carvings, pond, bell, and beaautiful architecture.
- Zeniaraibenzaite - for its charming setting, waterfall, money
washing cave, and good luck charms
- Daibutsu - A Kamakura must! It isn't as big as the Nara Daibutsu
(Dai = Big butsu = Buddha) but has its own charm.
- Hase Dera - my all time favorite temple in Japan!!! This is a
- Trurigaoka Hachi Mangu - Historically very important but tour
books make too much of this temple. Its ok but nothing amazing.
- Kenochi - Has a cool trail that leads up the back through one of
the only shrines in the country to Tengu (the bird god of martial arts)
and a beautiful view of the city and ocean
My final word on Kamakura is that I am envious of you being able to
experience it for the first time. I've visited it too many times so its
lost its charm for me. You get the chance to be charmed for the first
Is a popular natural area even further west of Tokyo than Yokohama and
Kamakura. It is often visited by foreigners because they think they can
see Mt. Fuji from here. Having tried to see Mt. Fuji 5 separate times
and failing each time I wouldn't go there solely for this reason. (I
even climbed Mt. Fuji and I don't think I ever really saw it). If you
are hell bent on seeing Fuji you had better visit Hakone early in the
morning in the middle of the winter. At nearly any other time of year
the mountain will be completely covered in fog and impossible to see.
That doesn't mean your trip to Hakone will be a complete bust. Its a
very pretty place with a couple of cute towns, a nice park, a lake high
in the mountains, a sort of palace I think, and even a historical
reenactment center. It forms the
dividing line between eastern and western Japan and was once a stop on
the Tokaido (eastern sea road) highway. Hakone is not a single location
but rather a region you can visit. What most people do is take a
series of transports around the area using Odakyu's Hakone free pass.
This will include a mountain train ride through the woods, a type of
funicular, a rope way over a volcano, a ship across a lake, and a bus
ride back to the start. There are some towns and parks to see along the
way. It is also famous for its onsen (hot springs) but having never
taken the chance to soak naked with other Japanese I can offer no
opinion on that. If the idea of getting out into the woods for a day
and hoping to see Fuji is appealing to you than Hakone might be worth
it. DON'T go there just to see Fuji though because chances are
overwhelmingly high that you won't.
Mt Fuji - is one of the
most recognizable symbols for Japan and a popular tourist attraction.
It looks to beautiful in all the pictures of it there is no wonder why
people want to see it. The trouble is it is nearly always covered with
fog. If you look closely you will probably see that almost all clear
pictures of Mt. Fuji are in the winter and early in the morning. If you
do see it in the fog you can kind of make out its outline, which is
massive, but not be really sure what you're looking at. I have seen Mt
Fuji from as far away as Handeda Airport in Tokyo. At one museum I went
to they suggested the streets around Tokyo Station may have been laid
out to give better views of the mountain. Certainly go could get a good
view of it from Landmark Tower in Yokohama early in the morning on a
clear day. Don't get your hopes up too high though, its pretty elusive
for such a big, nonmoving thing.
As far as climbing Mt. Fuji you can read my impressions of that from my
words section. At the top is probably the closest experience you'll
ever have to being
on Mars. All the rocks are completely red and there is no life up there
besides humans (there are lots of these). It is a bit touristy at the
top and you can mail postcards if you walk around the crater to the
true summit. If you regularly hike mountains and the idea of walking
uphill for 8 or 9 hours sounds appealing than Mt. Fuji could be a fun
time. Make no mistake though, its hard work! The thing they say about
elderly people climbing the mountain is really true but they walk up it
very slowly. I would recommend the same course of action. I have known
people who arrived late at night and in a mad dash up the mountain
gotten to the top in 6 hours. I took much longer. It is cold up there,
even in the summer, so bring a winter jacket. The oxygen is quite thin
as well starting at the fifth station so be sure to take time to adjust
(hence my recommendation to take your time). If I were to climb it
again I would start in the mid afternoon (3 or so) and take my time up
the mountain. I'd go to bed early and wake up very early to get to the
top before sunrise. I'd bring enough food to last my whole trip and
especially water. I would anticipate a lot of pain. I'd take the bus
again from Shinjuku, that was convenient and cheap. I'd be sure to go
Is most famous for being where Tokyo's main airport is. It is pretty
far east of Tokyo and probably a bad choice for an airport location. If
for some reason you find yourself coming in at an odd hour on your
flight and would like to spend a night recovering here there is a
beautiful temple in town worth seeing. It is odd because many of the
buildings are sparklingly new and the grounds are quite large and feel
like visiting a very beautiful park. There isn't much else to keep you
in the town besides that.
Kyoto - Outside of Tokyo Kyoto is a must see for
most visitors. I lived in Kyoto for three months and was really
miserable so be warned that my opinion is biased. I don't think Kyoto
is all that special. There are several
large temples that are famous
throughout the country. For the foreign visitor they aren't anything
you can't see in Nikko or Kamakura. If you have your mind made up you
want to go to Kyoto here are some hints. It is a very easy city to
navigate because the central area is on an almost perfect grid system
unlike most other Japanese cities. The southern part of the city has
the main train station. This station was controversial when they built
it because it is in a modern, and I think very beautiful, design. I
think it is important to remember that Kyoto is a real city with modern
day people and more importantly its a city with a future. They have an
economy based on education, software (Nintendo is based here), and
pharmaceuticals besides tourism. The station
shows that Kyoto is a real Japanese city and not a history museum and
that is why I like it. Here are some random highlights
that come to mind:
Kiyomizudera - has the famous stage on the side of the temple over
looking the forest. Its ok and has some shopping in the area but it
isn't amazing. Be warned the hill to walk up to it is a bit steep and
if you have trouble walking long distances you might want to skip this.
The golden pavilion - a blatant tourist trap. It makes a nice postcard
but you won't be moved by seeing this temple. This is the only temple
in all of Japan that I was annoyed after I saw it. Once a monk burnt it
down because he thought it was too much about money. I agree.
The silver pavilion - isn't silver at all but is very pretty with a
small but well kept up garden. There is a hill side view where you can
get a panoramic view of the city. This is a nice temple and I would
recommend it although its a bit difficult to reach.
The stone zen garden - has a large garden and pond. The raked gravel
and meditating on stones are anyone's guess. This zen stuff is
irrelevant to your average Japanese person.
Nijo Castle - This is pretty decent with some nice rooms inside and a
garden outback. This isn't so much a castle I think as it was a palace.
It has a special floor that squeaks when you walk on it to warn about
ninjas and such. I'd recommend it.
The imperial palace - the tour doesn't show you anything interesting
but the park around it is nice enough to walk through on the way to
somewhere else. If you really like the idea of seeing where royalty
almost never visit then by all means check it out but bring your
passport and go early in the day. Tours change by season and you can
only see it on a tour as security is a bit tight.
Sanjusangendo - is a very long hall filled with hundreds of statutes
and that's about it. The statues are interesting, particularly if you
like Japanese mythology, and its close to the museum so this is one
temple worth seeing in Kyoto.
is a popular day trip from Kyoto. It is another temple town which you
could spend a day or two at. The main attraction is the great Buddha of
Nara which might just be the biggest Buddha in the world. It is pretty
big, even bigger than Kamakura's, and pretty old but since it is
indoors its pretty dark too. Around that you can also find a large,
sprawling temple complex whose name I never knew but is very pretty.
They have the tallest pagoda in Japan in another area and a lot of deer
that are quite friendly. By the time I visited Nara I was so sick of
temples and shrines I couldn't stomach seeing another one. For that
reason I didn't enjoy Nara that much but I still think that it makes a
nice place to visit and I would recommend it.
Osaka - is
a cool city and certainly high on my list for places to live in Japan.
Its pretty low on places for the average visitor to see though. Again
to the very trained eye or the history buff Osaka is wildly different
than Tokyo. It has a different dialect, a different culture, different
food, and a very different feel. For someone in the country for a week
though this will be more or less invisible. It's not that I don't like
Osaka its just with limited time this shouldn't be a priority to visit.
Osaka is a beautiful city in its own way I think but it doesn't have
the intensity of Tokyo or any of the famous sites. Umeda is the
northern business area which has nothing for a tourist except shopping.
Further south on the same street is Shinsaibashi and finally Namba,
likewise these are business districts without much to offer a tourist.
America town (mura) has really nothing to do with America and is
basically just a copy of Shibuya for western Japan. Dontonbori, the
eating street, does have good food I'm sure but I wouldn't go to Osaka
for the food. Den Den town is not really about selling electric gadgets
as much as it is for very poor Japanese porn. Osaka castle is nice
enough and might be a good reason to visit Osaka but if you only see
one castle in Japan go see Himeji. Tennoji
in the south has a nice park and zoo located in it. There is also a
temple there but I never saw it myself. Finally universal studios Japan
was something that never interested me so I can offer no opinion on it.
Kobe - has
a lot in common with Yokohama. They were both treaty ports more or less
build by foreigners. They both have a chinatown. They both have
beautiful buildings and a basically gridded street system. What Kobe
has that Yokohama doesn't is the beautiful backdrop of mountains. Kobe
is another city in Japan I love as a place to live but again will have
only limited appeal to a tourist. The Chinatown is much smaller than
Yokohama's but worth a peak if you were already in Kobe. Kitano is the
foreigners settlement and is very pretty and worth walking through.
There is a very nice urban temple there high on the hillside that
offers a very beautiful view of the city (this is where the picture on
the left was taken). Basically if you're going to
go to Kobe I'd suggest just walking around and going to Kitano.
is a small city with the most famous castle in Japan located in it. The
castle is very beautiful and worth walking around but when you see it
you have to keep in mind this was a real castle and not a temple so it
isn't very ornate. There are some interesting little historical
highlights to see and all in all it could make a pleasant day trip.
Himeji is located perhaps an hour west of Kobe by regular train. That
makes it two hours west of Kyoto by regular train. For a tourist on
limited time I would only recommend it if you had the JR unlimited
Shinkansen pass and took the Shinkansen there (maybe 30 minutes from
Kyoto). If you were to combine
this with half a day strolling around Kobe that could make a full but
Nagoya - The most I saw of Nagoya was from the window of
the Shinkansen as I passed through on the way to Kyoto. It is mainly an
industrial and somewhat a business center. These are good times for
Nagoya and I understand the downtown is growing. Still it never seemed
that interesting to me or to most of the Japanese I spoke with so this
probably isn't worth a look.
Hiroshima - I tried one night to take the night bus here
but it was sold out so I never got here myself. Other people I know
that visited it said it was moving and could well be worth seeing if
you're sick of temples.
Hokkaido - is the northern most island in Japan. Again I
never got there myself but I tried. They have a very famous snow
festival which is impossible to go to unless you book a hotel room well
in advance. A different type of Japanese people called the Ainu live
here but from what I've been told they don't affect the culture much.
The relationship is much like what native americans are to americans,
minus all the idealization. It is a very popular place for the Japanese
to visit themselves but having never been there myself I don't know how
much a foreigner would enjoy it.
Okinawa - is wildly different than the rest of Japan. It
has little in common culturally with mainland Japan as their temples,
castles, food, music, traditions, and history are very different. If
you want to see Japan don't go to Okinawa. This would be like going to
Hawaii to experience the wild west. It is very beautiful though and you
can read about my trip there on my words page.
So that's it for me folks. I went
to Japan without the slightest interest in it and absolutely fell in
love with the place. Its a fascinating, beautiful country with a
complex elusive culture. I would recommend it to almost anyone with a
sense of adventure in them. If you have any more questions its best you