Japan Highlights 2014-Tokyo, Kyoto & Osaka

So we’ve come to the final leg of our Asia adventure, and our final destination? Japan. We have heard of all the weird but wonderful things about this country but now was the time to finally experience it for ourselves. With ten nights lined up, we strategically planned our days between three of Japan’s biggest cities; Tokyo (of course), Kyoto and Osaka. I thought it might also be worth noting that if you’re planning to go to Japan, it’s worth checking out the Japan Rail Pass. It’s designed for overseas visitors to Japan and can save you a hell of a lot of money if you plan on doing a bit of travelling around the country.

We had originally planned for Tokyo to be our first stop but having left booking our accommodation so late in the day, we struggled to find a suitable (comfortable, good wifi, close to restaurants, good transport links etc) place to stay. So after a little re-jig of the plans, we decided to just stay the first night in Tokyo before moving onto Kyoto, Osaka and then finally back to Tokyo.

Tokyo- Day 1

Upon landing at Narita Airport, we headed towards the sign posted office to validate our JR passes before hopping onto the Narita Express straight to Shinjuku (which took about an hour). We had booked to stay in the Shinjuku Granbell Hotel which is about a 10-15 minute walk from Shinjuku station. We had been warned beforehand by friends who had travelled to Tokyo that rooms would be tight and compact, and tight and compact they were. That’s the price you pay for a place to stay that’s tucked away in the quiet back streets of the city, but close enough to the hustle and bustle of shops and restaurants. We didn’t get up to much on our first night in Tokyo as we were both absolutely shattered from travelling. One thing we did do though was go find a place to eat because tiredness and hunger don’t make a good combination. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to look up any places beforehand and thought we’d just wing it. You’d think having a stroll around the middle of Shinjuku that we’d come across somewhere decent to eat. We did not. A lot of the restaurants seemed to be situated in tower blocks, and photos and fake food props didn’t really sell it for us. By this time we were in danger of passing out from hunger so we did what terrible tourists do. We went to Burger King and boy a Whopper never tasted so good. Little did we know, and only found out when we came back to Tokyo at the end of our trip, that around the station is your best and safe bet if you want good food. The Lumine (divided into 3 buildings; Lumine 1, Lumine 2 and Lumine Est), owned by JR East (part of the Japan Railways Group), are situated above and next to the Shinjuku station and is home to over 200 shops and restaurants.

Kyoto

We arrived in Kyoto the next day and things seemed a bit more rural compared to Tokyo. First thing on our list to do was to visit the famous bamboo forest/groves situated in Arashiyama, just on the outskirts of the city. It’s a popular destination for tourists and for good reason too, and apparently the best seasons to visit are Spring, when the Cherry Blossoms emerge for a few days, and Autumn/Fall, as the leaves begin to change colour. We arrived in mid October so couldn’t have timed it any better. We took the train from Kyoto which was pretty straight forward, and then upon arrival, it was a fair walk to the forest. Once there, we lost ourselves amongst the high rise bamboo groves. It’s breath takingly serene and rather therapeutic listening to the bamboo sway and gently clash into one another in the gentle breeze. Nearby you can find the Tenryu-Ji Temple which is also a must see in itself. Although beautiful, once you see a temple, you’ve kind of seen them all right? Wrong! The Tenryu-Ji Temple is set in the most beautiful grounds that will make you want to take up gardening as a hobby. This is where the trees and it’s leaves in various autumnal hues, from warm yellows to fiery reds, can be seen and fully appreciated. Set against a mountainous backdrop, this was my favourite part of Japan.

The district of Gion was also another place we wanted to explore although we didn’t actually do the evening tour. We decided to make the most of the glorious sunny weather and head there during the day. Being Kyoto’s most famous Geisha district, we had hoped to see some Geishas in Gion (and we had seen a couple in Arashiyama) but I think they are mostly prevalent come dusk. The streets of Gion are quaint and scenic, lined with traditional wooden teahouses, and made for a nice leisurely, afternoon stroll. Not too far away, the Yasaka Shrine can be found, which is the most famous shrine in Kyoto and also otherwise known as the Gion Shrine. It’s huge and leads right into Maruyama park. This was a nice surprise and although there were lots of students milling around seemingly on their lunch break, there were quiet areas of the park where me and my boyfriend just sat and enjoyed the parks stunning vista and tranquil setting.

When in Japan, sushi is an obvious must. One great place we discovered which was as cheap as chips was Musashi, tucked away in Kyoto station. I was given a heads-up from my sister who had visited the place a few weeks before me. I must say it was tricky to find as the station is huge and there are a plethora of shops, cafes and restaurants but people were more than willing to help us find it despite the language barrier. It’s a conveyor belt kind of set up and the chefs make the fresh sushi in the middle right in front of you.

 

Osaka

Our third city in Japan was Osaka, once the capital of Japan many moons ago. Unlike the previous two places, we were smack bang in the middle of it all. Situated right by Mio Tennoji, where the main building comprises of twelve floors of shops and two floors of restaurants, we got lost amongst the crowds every time we left the hotel.We did have the most amazing view of the city though, what with being some fifty floors up.

Being all templed up, we decided to take a visit to Tennoji Zoo. I’m not really a zoo person but even I was in complete awe being able to see tigers and lions pacing up and down in their territory. We did get slightly emotional when seeing the bears behind the walls and I’m not much of an animal lover so that’s saying something.

On the second and last day of our stay in Osaka, we went to see the great Osaka Castle. Now there were mixed feelings about the castle. On the one hand, the design and architecture is simply stunning. Rising out amongst a skyline of high risers is a beautiful white castle with a distinct blue-y, green hued rooftops, embellished with gold details and complete with moat (I learned what a moat was on this trip). It was jaw-droppingly beautiful. Unfortunately that’s where all the excitement ends though. I’m not sure why I thought that the castle would be intact as it used to be. It was more like a bland museum on the inside. Even when we stepped out on one of the castle’s balcony (or should I say ‘I’ due to my boyfriend’s dislike for heights, the view was nothing outstanding but that could be to do with it being rather crowded up there where everyone is waiting to get the one good, uninterrupted photo opportunity. We probably spent more time on the grounds, admiring it from the outside than looking around it on the inside. I’d definitely recommend going to see it, but I wouldn’t bother paying to go inside it.

Tokyo

Finally, the last leg of our Japan trip took us back to the capital, Tokyo. We went back to stay at the same hotel we had booked on our first night in Tokyo but upgraded to a slightly bigger room. We had already sussed out the areas we wanted to explore, namely Shibuya and Harajuku as well as Shinjuku of course, which was where we were staying.

Shinjuku is the place you want to be if you want to shop til you drop. You can easily get lost in the Lumine and end up spending a fair few hours in there (much to the despair of my boyfriend).We also spent a fair few mid mornings brunching at the Lumine, which homes New York brands such as Sarabeths and Dean & Deluca, and Portland export Slappy Cakes (can you tell I love American brunch much?).

Of course we had to pay a visit to the infamous Shibuya crossing, the intersection just outside of Shibuya station.  Watching the cars stop and the lights at all the junctions go red was a surreal experience, as people surge through the middle from all sides. We actually found that we got a better, semi-birds eye view from up inside one of the many surrounding malls. Shibuya is also home to many shops and a lot of the high street brands that we are familiar with. We did spend a good amount of time in Uniqlo as it’s a lot cheaper in Japan. Obviously after hours of shopping, you’re going to need to refuel and in Tokyo, L’occitane actually has it’s own cafe (I’m not sure where else in the world they have cafes as they don’t have them in London to my knowledge) which is actually rather good.

Harajuku is also a great place to go to shop (spot any trends here?). Omotesando is apparently known as Tokyo’s Champs-Elysees and is the area you want to be if you’re after designer labels and high-end brands, or for us,  just a nice stroll and a bit of window shopping. We paid a visit to Bill’s situated on the top floor of the fairly new Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku complex. Western brunch is a big deal in Tokyo and there was a queue when we arrived as it had just opened. We only managed to bypass the queue because we agreed to sit in an area with floor to ceiling windows and where we subsequently found out was a bit of a sun trap (the words ‘sweat box’ springs to mind). The food was actually very good and is more reminiscent to Bill Granger’s Granger& Co menu as opposed to his Bill’s menu in London. If you’ve had enough of the shops and fancy embracing nature, then Yoyogi Park is a great place to check out. Being one of Tokyo’s largest parks, it’s home to wide open lawns, ponds and large, forested areas. Adjacent to the park is where the Shinto Meiji Shrine can be found. This shrine is a dedication to Emperor Meiji, who passed away in 1914, and his consort Empress Shoken, who passed two years later. It’s serene and spacious grounds consists of pathways that make for a peaceful and relaxing stroll.

 

And there you have it. Travelling around asia has been a wonderful experience, especially as I never thought I would have the opportunity to do it, and time sure does fly when you are having fun. Sometimes you just have to seize the day and as the youth of today say, ‘YOLO’!

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