Tired, uncomfortable, grumpy, anxious, hungry, thirsty, and just plain miserable. These were all the feelings that instantly vanished when I got off the plane in Tokyo.

Arriving late at night, I thought I’d be ready for bed. Usually when I arrive late into a city, I grab a quick bite and get some good rest to prepare for my first morning stroll to find my bearings and see what this new place has to offer. Tokyo was having none of that…

Tokyo - an attack on the senses!

A stay in the Shinjuku District is a monstrously awesome combination of skyscrapers and neon lights

We’d chosen to stay in the Shinjuku District, a monstrously awesome combination of skyscrapers and neon lights. I absolutely love cities and this was amazing. I had absolutely no idea what any of the signs said (I certainly didn’t know a word of Japanese), but I was thriving off it.

In my quest to consume something other than airplane meals, we dumped our stuff and set off to find some food and have a drink. It seems like an odd thing, but somewhere, someplace, somebody is making a plastic display version of every meal you can find anywhere in Japan. Thank goodness for that, as it made reading a Japanese menu and deciding what to eat significantly easier. As it turns out, we later came across some shops where you could buy these in Namba, Osaka!

Discovering the city with a guided tour

Travelling around Japan - Samurai park in Tokyo

As we often suggest to people booking trips with us, when you’re in a city for only a short while, it’s a good idea to get in a guided tour. It’s an even better idea to make sure you have a good guided tour, and I can guarantee one of our consultants can get you the best!

We were taken around the various districts of Tokyo all of which have their own distinct atmosphere and I highly suggest reading Adam’s blog about it. This city has an endless supply of amazement on offer, whether it be the sheer politeness of the people, the high tech devices in the Akihabara district, the efficiency of everything, the food, the stores, the fact there was less litter in the entirety of Japan than on Brighton Beach, or just the culture - there was one thing that amazed me beyond anything that I’ve ever seen anywhere else…

… Amongst the concrete jungle that is Tokyo, there are hidden glimpses of a completely different time in Japan. A Samurai garden, Koishikawa Korakuen, which our lovely tour guide took us to, was one such glimpse. Walking through this garden I can honestly say felt like I was in 1600’s - at the same time as having at least a dozen skyscrapers in sight. I understood there and then just what it was abouth this country that makes Japans so unique; in a place so futuristic that toilets have a computer in them, there is also an enviable appreciation of old times and tradition. This became more apparent when our guide showed us another garden that had a small rice field for local schoolchildren to come and grow it. This, he said, was to teach appreciation to students of the hard work many rice farmers have and continue to put in.

Traditional Japan: ryokan and onsen 

A small village called Tsumago was my favourite place

Whether you’re staying in Japan for only a few days, or planning to travel around for longer (I recommend indefinitely!), leaving the cities in search of old Japanese hidden gems stuck in ancient culture is a must.

In many places, you can spend a night in a Ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn), another must! Amongst all the places I was fortunate enough to visit, a small village called Tsumago was my favourite. I don’t know how I would have found this place if it weren’t for our Japan packs (they’re amazing - ask your consultant), but I am sure glad we had it on us.

The streets of this small village are laced with old Japanese styled exteriors, little gardens, and monuments and taking a lantern-lit stroll through the streets after dinner gave an amazing connection to the environment that surrounded us. We walked up and down the main street imagining what all off Japan must once have looked like. And once we were done, if was off to the ryokan’s onsen (geothermal bath) to finish the night.

The Fujioto Inn ryokan in Tsumago was easily my favourite that we stayed in during this trip. The view of the garden from the room was amazing and the owner was the nicest man I’d met in Japan. As we left in the rain the next day, he handed us umbrellas to set off through the rain and continue along our way.

Arriving and departing Tsumago turned out to be quite fantastic as well. Thanks to our Japan packs, we easily found our way from Tokyo to a nearby village called Magome by train. After we stepped off the train, we started wondering if we were in the right place. With almost no one in sight save the ticket lady, coming from Tokyo we’d thought we had dropped off the planet. Luckily, before any panic could set in, we spotted the first of many easily navigable trail signs to Tsumago. Did I mention this trail is not only filled with magnificent views and monuments but is also an ancient samurai-hiking path! I love Japan!

Kyoto – the heart of Japan

Kyoto is Japan's cultural heart

Next, Kyoto. Japan’s cultural city. I learned two lessons about the Japanese here, but more on that later.

There is literally too much in Kyoto to write about. Kyoto is a mix of the old and the new and a perfect balance of it. With hundreds of temples (I dare you to try and see all of them), restaurants, bars, shopping districts, and even a castle, there is no wonder why this has become their cultural capital.

Gion district and the Geishas

See colourful geisha walking around the Gion district

We spent the first half day walking through the Gion district. Here, you’re again exposed to old Japan, but with a more modern twist. There are tons of little restaurants and bars around the area it’s great to just walk about and admire everything going on around you. Even more of a highlight - amongst those walking around you are the famous Geishas!

After exploring the Gion District, we went out to look for a place to have a few drinks. We came across a gypsy music-playing pub down a lane so thin we couldn’t fit side by side and we’d found our night’s hangout. We spent the next few hours talking with the bartender/owner (and everyone else who came in that night), and he offered us his advice on where to go and what to see in the next day.

After about two hours, the bartender realised that having not been in Japan for very long, we probably hadn’t tried dried squid. What a treat! Being Canadian, I was delighted to discover such a thing exists; it was like I’d lived my entire life not knowing of a new flavor of beef jerky! He also let us try all the local spirits made exclusively in Japan. Shortly afterwards as we we’re leaving, lesson one was learned: You really can’t tip in Japan.

Inaritaisha Shrine

The next day we took the bartender’s advice and headed off to his favourite shrine, the Fushimi Inaritaisha Shrine. This quickly became our favorite and we spent an hour or so hiking through all the paths. When you’re not immersed in shrines, there are very good viewpoints along the way.

Along the way, we came across a Dragon parade, where around 15 monks were carrying a dragon down from one temple and through the street and into shops. On a pit stop, we discovered that Green Tea is not just a tea, but actually a flavour for every other food item that exists.

After seeing more temples and shrines than I could count, we ended up in another little Japanese bar where we met another nice bartender who spoke very limited English, and chatted the night away. It was at this point lesson two was learned (by Annie): It is possible to accidentally find yourself in a bow off.

Mt Koyasan

Mount Koyasan is a very spiritual site

Next we set off to Mt Koyasan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site - an old and very religious site in Japan. Here, you can’t help but marvel. One part of the site is a massive cemetery and walking through you cannot help but admire the age of the shrines around you. The trees must have been there for so long - they were the widest and tallest I have seen anywhere. At night, if you stay in a temple, you can go on a guided monk tour through the cemetery where they teach you about the upkeep of the cemetery and whom the shrines are for.

We stayed overnight in a temple and in the morning were lucky enough to take part in the monks’ morning fire ritual where they wish for a fortune for those they love. The entire ritual lasted about an hour or so and was a great insight into what actually goes on in all those temples we had seen in so far in Japan!

What makes Japan unique?

Throughout my entire time in Japan, it seemed like there was a balance between old and modern, which is maintained by a strong appreciation of tradition from the times gone by. It’s something we’d never experienced in another country and made us instantly fall in love with Japan. It’s amazing to see two such extremes coexisting effortlessly and so perfectly side by side. Alas, it had been time for use to leave. Happy, delighted, amazed, surprised, and just plain impressed.

Interested in travelling around Japan?

If you’d like to explore Japan and don’t know where to start; we can help to tailor-make the perfect trip - including flights, trip ideas, tours, accommodation (including traditional ryokan and some onsen bathing). Just call +44 1273320580 or email for a quote. Here are some ideas for how to include Japan in your itinerary or create a unique tailor-made holiday:

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