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

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33 Comments (1 pingbacks)

  1. 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.

    Reply

  2. 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.

    Reply

  3. 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.

    Reply

  4. 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.

    Reply

  5. 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.

    Reply

    • 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.

      Reply

  6. 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!

    Reply

  7. 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.

    Reply

  8. 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.

    Reply

    • 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!

      Reply

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