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Japan was a country we had always dreamed of visiting but due to its expense we put it off for “one day”. Then the opportunity to house sit came along and how could we resist the chance to live in Kyoto rent-free for over three weeks?
We did agonise over the decision as what with the flights and travel costs to see some of the country while we were there, it was a financial risk. But we went with it and never regretted our decision.
We spent over five weeks in Japan and fell for the country more than we ever expected. In fact it has taken us nearly six months to finish writing about our time there as we had so many wonderful experiences.
We loved the quirkiness, the cultural differences, the super-polite people, the diverse temples, the artistic food, the contrast of modern and traditional, and the ease of travelling around in a country that is run with ultra-efficiency.
It’s time to round up our time in Japan, and look back at our highs and lows.
Where did we go?
Here’s how we spent our time in Japan in August-September 2011:
- 1 night in Osaka
- 24 nights in Kyoto (including a day trip to Nara)
- 1 night in Koya-san
- 2 nights in Hiroshima
- 1 night in Nagoya
- 1 night in Tsumago
- 1 night in Matsumoto
- 6 nights in Tokyo
Total: 36 nights.
After house sitting in Kyoto we used a Japan Rail Pass to travel to a number of places in Honshu (Japan’s largest island) before arriving in Tokyo. We would have loved to explore more places but we are glad we got to spend so much time in Kyoto.
Highs and Lows of our Time in Japan
Favourite City – Definitely Kyoto. This might be unfair as we spent by far the longest amount of time here but we did love it.
The downtown area with its concrete highrises and busy highways is unattractive but on the edges of the city you’ll find the temples, narrow stone streets, wooden houses, and bamboo forests of traditional Japan. Three weeks was not enough to explore it all.
Least Favourite City – Nagoya was a big, busy city which didn’t really appeal to us. We didn’t have much time to explore though and we only spent the night there as a base to get to Tsumago where we couldn’t afford to spend two nights (only traditional accommodation is available there which is pricey).
Favourite Temple – This is a tie between two very different temples in Kyoto. Otagi Nenbutsuji with its 1200 stone sculptures of Buddha’s disciples in strange poses is cute, quirky, and off the beaten track.
Fushimi Inari Taisha is a shrine featuring thousands of bright red torii gates snaking up through the forest into the mountains. It took us hours to walk through them all.
Favourite Activity – Learning to cook Japanese food with Emi at Uzuki. We had a private lesson in Emi’s house and she was happy to tailor the class to our needs as vegetarians. The insight into Japanese food and culture was fascinating, and the meal at the end delicious.
Biggest Disappointment – Not getting to hike the ancient Nakasendo trail from Tsumago because of a typhoon. Despite the rain Tsumago was a picture-perfect traditional Japanese village in the mountains and we highly recommend a visit. We’d love to return in better weather to hike the trail to Magome.
Favourite Meal – We had so many amazing multi-dish meals in Kyoto, the home of shojin ryori (Zen Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) that it’s hard to choose. Although eating in the tatami mat room of a temple was a highlight, the most accessible, delicious, and best-value meal was at down-to-earth Mikoan (sadly now closed).
Most Disappointing Meal – We were looking forward to trying Hiroshima’s speciality okonomiyaki, a kind of savoury pancake, and found a tiny restaurant that specialised in it with a friendly owner who spoke English (unusual in Japan) and understood we were vegetarian.
We sat at the counter while she made the okonomiyaki on the hot plate on the counter in front of us – piling on cabbage, bean sprouts, egg, and before we realised what it was – dried fish. We did our best to eat it, picking around the fish, but it did prevent us from fully enjoying the meal. Shame as it would have been tasty without the fish. (Update: we later learned it was probably dried seaweed, not fish).
Most Fun Experience – Simon loved playing the taiko drum games in the many arcades, but the most fun experience was definitely visiting Disney Sea in Tokyo.
Scariest Experience – Our first experience of communal baths during our temple-stay in Koya-san.
Most Memorable Experience – Spotting a geisha in Gion, and watching the early-morning chanting and fire ceremony after our night in a Japanese temple.
Best Deal – Getting a one week Japan Rail Pass. Although it was expensive it still saved us a lot and we loved being able to jump on trains whenever we wanted. The trains are comfortable, fast, and always on time. Bullet trains are particularly awesome. Read our guide to working out whether a Japan Rail Pass is worth it for you.
Worst Deal – Japan is expensive and although we found it worth the money we wish traditional ryokan accommodation wasn’t quite so pricey. It’s much cheaper to stay in business hotels but far less atmospheric.
Biggest Surprise – How wonderfully polite the Japanese people are. We had heard this of course but the people exceeded our expectations.
Second Biggest Surprise – How few western tourists we saw in Japan.
Would we go back? – Absolutely! There is so much more we want to see in Japan and we’d love to experience the different seasons – cherry blossom viewing in spring and snowboarding in winter, as well as the different islands.
Update: We did indeed go back in September/October 2017 and again in February, March and April 2019. See our 2 Week Japan Itinerary and the best places to visit in Japan for some of our favourite places. We also spent 10 days in Tokyo and loved it even more this time—see the coolest things to do in Tokyo.
Read More About Our Japan Trip
If you are planning your own trip to Japan here are some posts we have written about our experiences and recommendations.
- 72 Random Observations About Japan
- Planning A Trip to Japan: Dos and Don’ts
- How Much Does it Cost to Travel in Japan?
- Where to Stay in Japan: A Guide to Accommodation Options
- A Vegetarian Survival Guide to Japan
- Exploring Kyoto’s 2000 Temples and Shrines
- Learning to Cook Japanese Buddhist Cuisine in Kyoto
- The Best Vegetarian Restaurants in Kyoto
- Otagi Nenbutsuji: The Coolest Temple in Kyoto No One Has Heard Of
Hi I am a vegetarian going to Tokyo in a few weeks, would like to ask if you all still have the restaurants that you have visited? Would prefer if is a full vegetarian restaurant. Thank you :)
I can’t actually remember the restaurants we ate in Tokyo. I don’t think we ate in a vegetarian restaurant but I know there are some.
Japan was incredible to us, we were always told it was an expensive place to visit but were surprised how the prices compared to back home in Australia. Our trip was just too short and really would love to visit Kyoto again in the future. Your blog just floods back to great memories of Japan. It’s a country not to be skipped of your going to Asia. Thank guys for your inspiring site – wehave been reading it for a while now :) Wayne & Elena
Thanks guys. I’ve heard Australia has got really expensive (even more so than when we were there 5 years ago) so I’m glad it wasn’t too bad for you. Definitely worth it for sure.
Hi, i’m planning a trip to Japan end of September and this is my first visit to the country. My flight is to Tokyo (Haneda Airport). And i wouldn’t want to miss the cultural sights of Kyoto. I have gone through your sharing on Kyoto. It’s so helpful, but i have only 6D5N (included the day spends on flight). Would it be possible to squeeze everything in kyoto into 1.5days?
– Kiyomizudera 清水寺 & 奥丹
– Jisyujinja 地主神社
– Kiyomizuzaka 清水坂
– Sanneizaka 产宁坂
– Ninenzaka 二年坂
– Ishibekoji 石坪小路
– Yasakajinja 八坂神社
– Hanamikoji ST. 花见小路
– Gion Corner
– Kyoto Tower
– Nishikichiba 锦市场
Do you think it is doable in 1.5days? Or i should take out any one of these to replace with other impressive place that i have missed out? Also, i have no idea which one to start with. Appreciate if you could share your experience with me:) thanks in advance^^
I think that’s too much in 1.5 days I’m afraid as you won’t have time to relax and soak up the atmosphere of the lovely temples. But then we travel slowly and aren’t very good at doing more than 1 or 2 things in a day. You might be able to do more than us.
I would look at photos of the temples you are interested in online and try to choose the ones that look most attractive to you, then take a look at a map and work out a route. For example Yasakajinja is in Gion so you can combine it with a stroll through there which doesn’t take too long.
Our favourite place was Fushimi Inari shrine which would take half a day but was really different to everything else so worth considering.
You found the communal baths scary? Your partner would have loved em, I know as a guy I loved communal baths in Japan, I felt like godzilla with tiny Japanese men scattering everywhere, oh god it was funny.
He was actually just as freaked out as me. Glad you enjoyed your experience – humour is the way to go!
Sounds like an amazing trip! Kyoto sounds like such a great city to visit. I’ve always wanted to go to Japan and Kyoto is definitely on my list of places to go when I do. I’m surprised that you didn’t see a lot of western visitors though. Thanks for sharing!
Wow guys I love your website so much you are an inspiration I have been working abroad now for 3 years and love love travelling so much. I’m also vegetarian and planning a 7-10 trip to Japan for next month. I am basing myself in Kyoto and then planning to do some day trips to Nara, Kurama and possibly Kobe which part of Kyoto do you think is the less busy and touristy to base myself in?
We had a house sit in Kyoto so our area didn’t have any hotels in the area. I would say anywhere outside of the downtown central area would be good – we liked the edges of the city near the hills the best.
great article i came this across while surfing lonely planet, very well described about the Japanese cuisine, otherday my english friend was asking me about the “Yakuza” and said he is scared of them but want to meet them, write someday about it and i will tell him to read your article. good job mate.
91 Days in Japan .. BOOKED! :) Not this year but we are def. thinking of doing Japan in 2013! Great post, food and pictures!
Yay! We definitely recommend it and would go for Kyoto as your base. Tokyo is a little overwhelming!
Thanks for this concise review of your trip. I spent one night in Tokyo around Christmas and fell in love. I can’t wait to get back to Japan and see it properly.
It doesn’t take long to fall for the place does it?
That’s a shame about the okonomiyaki! Hiroshima definitely has the best – though after having it for a few days in a row, I couldn’t bring myself to eat anymore the rest of the trip.
Japan is truly an amazing places. Even though we only spent 3 weeks there, it easily became my favorite place that we’ve visited thus far and it’s at the top of my list of places to return to soon.
I know! It would have been so good without the fish :(
I enjoyed reading these fun observations of such a great country. I loved what little I saw of Japan when I was there 3 years ago. I plan to go back next year and stay in Kyoto, so I will use your posts for information then.
Thanks Jenna. Let us know if you have any Kyoto questions.
I’m in Japan at the moment – agree with many of your comments except the “expensive” part. This may be true relative to Thailand, but not compared to the US, Europe and Australia. Actually compared to Australia I’d describe it as “cheap”. There are many Royakans and family guesthouses that are much cheaper than the one you guys found – the trick sometimes is finding things here when you don’t speak Japanese. The JR pass is nice for going up and down the country fast, but if you’re not in so much of a rush, there’s also much more budget-friendly options such as traveling by bus.
Glad you are finding some budget friendly options.
What a wonderful post with great pictures! Thanks for sharing your experience with us. This brings back memories of our Tokyo trip last summer. I couldn’t agree more with the Fun part – Disney Sea was totally awesome. Studio Ghibli was cool and fun too.
Totally agree on your surprises too. We’ve had some of the best customer service in Tokyo. We attributed the lack of Westerners due to the earthquake and tsunami a few months earlier. Most intimidating for us at first was looking at the Tokyo subway/train maps and walking through Shinjuku station during rush hour. I wish we had more time to spend in Japan like you did and truly enjoy the place, culture and people. We would love to go back and head straight to Kyoto.
We’re jealous you made it to Studio Ghibli. All the tickets were booked up when we got to Tokyo so booking in advance is a good idea.
We are besotted with Japan and can’t wait to go back. The Rail Pass is indeed a must to get around out of the bigger cities and seeing other smaller places. We really loved Osaka after spending a week there, it gets a bit overlooked by its swankier cousin Kyoto and can be cheaper to stay in. It makes a great base to go to Kyoto, Nara, Himeji and Kobe.
Accommodation options are getting cheaper and more plentiful and hopefully will stay that way even after the disaster in March last year. While Japan is expensive compared to Thailand budget travel, the rewards are supreme. No hassles, wonderful people, great food, and everything works beyond expectation.
We didn’t see much of Osaka so can’t really judge it. It is a good base though – we passed through multiple times to get to various places.
We agree that Japan is worth the money compared to SE Asia.
Couldn’t agree more with most of your points. I’ve lived in Japan for a year and a half and I’m still amazed at the politeness of the workers at my local combini each time I walk in. It’s amazing.
The ryokan price is quite annoying, seeing as business hotels are often much cheaper and therefore, where I end up staying. I hate the lack of atmosphere though. If you do venture back, I found the most amazing ryokan/hostel in Ito, which is on the Izu pennisula and about an hour from Tokyo. It’s part of the K’s house chain (which was voted the #1 hostel chain in the world last year) and is called K’s House Ito Onsen. 3400 yen for a private room in the most amazing building I’ve been inside of in all of Japan!
That onsen hostel sounds amazing! We stayed at K’s House in Hiroshima and it was fantastic.
What a fun trip it was to follow! Great photos, too.
I want to see Japanese bamboo groves so much! Kyoto is the first place I want to visit in Japan. :D If you miss Kyoto too much, you can watch a beautiful movie ‘Virgin Snow’ that is set there.
The bamboo groves are cool. Thanks for the movie tip!
I really enjoyed your post. I had been to Japan 3 times (Tokyo x 2 and Kyoto x 1) and Kyoto is my favorite city. Being a Buddhist, I enjoyed visiting the temples in Kyoto. Being a young person, I enjoyed checking out all the fun and cool stuff in Tokyo. I did find Tokyo less vegetarian-friendly than Kyoto.
Anyway, my best friend and I are planning our next trip to Tokyo (Sept 2012) and your blog has been a great help.
The temples in Kyoto are the most impressive of anywhere we have been, and it’s definitely more vegetarian friendly than Tokyo. Good luck with planning your next trip!