Japan Round Up

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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.

Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), Kyoto

Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), Kyoto

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.

Otagi Nenbutsuji temple, Kyoto

Otagi Nenbutsuji temple, Kyoto

Favourite ActivityLearning 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.

Meal at Uzuki Cooking Class, Kyoto

Meal at Uzuki Cooking Class, Kyoto

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.

Tsumago

Tsumago

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.

Set dinner at Mikoan, Kyoto

Set dinner at Mikoan, Kyoto

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)

Okonomiyaki Restaurant, Hiroshima

Okonomiyaki Restaurant, Hiroshima

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! We fell in love with Japan even more and are desperate to return again. See our 2 Week Japan Itinerary for where we went on our latest trip. 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.

Kyoto

Other Destinations

Are you planning your travels for 2018? See our Travel Resources page for our favourite tools and gear to help you plan the perfect trip. 

Leave a comment and let us know if you have any questions about Japan, or share your own Japan highs and lows.

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33 Comments (1 pingbacks)

  1. 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 🙂

    Reply

  2. 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

    Reply

    • 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.

      Reply

  3. 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
    – 白川
    – 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^^

    Reply

    • Hi Newell,
      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.

      Reply

  4. 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.

    Reply

  5. 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!

    Reply

  6. 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?

    Reply

    • 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.

      Reply

  7. 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.

    Reply

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