With just under three weeks to go (!) before we get on a plane bound for Tokyo, Tony & I figured it was probably a good idea to finally decide on some kind of an itinerary for Japan. I know many travel veterans subscribe to the whole “don’t plan too much” school of trip-taking, and indeed, my last post was all about the pitfalls associated with making definite plans, but bear with me: we are still new to flying by the seat of our pants, and at this point, I really haven’t wrapped my brain around the whole concept of NOT heavily researching destinations. In theory, I am all for opening ourselves up to the unknown and letting fortune favor us with the unexpected, but in practice, I just don’t know how to do that. Not yet. Check back with me in September after a month of traveling and we will see how I’ve progressed. But for now, I need to have some kind of plan lest I succumb to blind panic.
Here is how we are planning to break down our trip:
Aug 9 – 13: On the evening of the 9th, we will touch down in Tokyo, so this major metropolis made the natural starting point for our time in Japan. In a city of this size, I doubt the time we have there will be enough to scratch the surface (especially when you consider that we will likely be battling a wicked case of jet lag), but on the plus side, no matter where we turn, we will likely find plenty to entertain us and boggle the mind. We mostly want to use this time to try to decompress (probably impossible in Tokyo), but a few things we will make a priority are: dining on some of the freshest sushi in the world for breakfast at Tsukiji Fish Market, visiting the Imperial Palace, and witnessing the world’s busiest road crossing (Shibuya Crossing). We have heard that Tokyo is a great city to just wander (and wonder?!?), so perhaps if things get dire on the 12 hour flight over from L.A. we’ll make more concrete plans, but for now, this will do. On Aug 13, we do plan to take a day trip to Kamakura, which is nice little temple town and home to a very large bronze Buddha statue.
Aug 14: We will then head to Nikko, which has several UNESCO world heritage shrines, including the most lavish Japanese temple (read: so not very Japanese in style at all), Toshogu. It also is the birthplace of the “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil” monkeys! There is a lot of natural beauty around Nikko as well, as the town sits at the edge of a national park, filled with hiking trails and hot springs.
Aug 15 – 16: Upon leaving Nikko, we will activate our 14-day Japan Rail Pass, and head farther North to the city of Sendai, which we will be using as our base to explore the Tohoku region. We will spend one day in Matsushima, which is known for its beautiful coastline (considered one of Japan’s top three most scenic views, even following the 2011 tsunami). As we will be traveling in Japan during Obon, we chose to visit Matsushima in order to observe the impressive fireworks show as well as an ethereal lantern ritual in which families write the names of ancestors on lit paper lanterns and send them out to sea! The next day we will explore Yamadera, climbing 1000 stairs to reach this scenic mountaintop temple.
Aug 17: Although most people would rank Himeji as Japan’s best castle, we discovered that it is currently undergoing renovations, so we are instead heading to Matsumoto to spend a day in one of Japan’s best castle towns.
Aug 18 – 19: In order to save some time, we are going to take the bus to get to Takayama (though we have heard that the bus ride is incredibly scenic as it passes through the mountains). Takayama is known for its historic old town, where the Edo-style architecture has been preserved, so this will be our chance to step back into the past and get a sense of “Old Japan”. We may also take a half-day trip to the nearby Hida Folk Village, which is an open-air museum that has been constructed to look like a traditional mountain village, complete with authentic wooden houses that are famous for their distinctive thatched roofs.
Aug 20 – 21: Then it is off to Kanazawa, another historic Japanese city, considered by many to be full of as many cultural and historic jewels as the more famous Kyoto. It is often overlooked by foreign tourists, and features yet another “top 3” Japan attraction: Kenroku-en Garden. In addition to simply wandering around Kanazawa’s streets, there are several temples that could be worth a visit, including Ninja Temple (and yes, there are trapdoors!). Also, in exciting news, we just received confirmation that we will be Couchsurfing with a local while in town, which should add another amazing cultural dimension to our stay here!
Aug 22 – 23: Jumping on the bullet train, we will hurtle to Hiroshima in order to experience a different kind of Japanese history. We plan to devote the day to the Memorial Peace Park and all its various attractions. The next day, we will visit Miyajima island, considered one of Japan’s crown jewels. It is also known as Shrine island, due to the high number of shrines and is considered a very holy place. We will take in the famous floating torii, and see what other unexpected pleasures (like eating—or making—momiji manju… little cakes in the shape of maple leaves!) this place holds.
Aug 24 – 31: This week is our “Kyoto and surrounding environs” portion of the trip. If Tokyo is all about the modern, Kyoto is the heart of Japanese culture and history. Highlights will involve seeing the Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) and perhaps its sister temple as well Ginkakuji (temple that looks like it is covered in silver leaf), walking through the geisha district of Gion, trying to reach enlightenment at Ryoanji Temple, having our own “Memoirs of a Geisha” moment as we marvel our way through the hundreds of torii on our way to Fushimi Inari, and visiting the Arashiyama area of Kyoto so that we can stroll through the Bamboo Grove, see the monkey park, and visit Nenbutsuji Temple. We also plan to take some day trips from the city to Nara (to see the famous deer park as well as Todaiji Temple), Iga-Ueno (a town known for its Ninja history), and Kurama & Kibune (to do some light hiking, get some water fortunes, and eat nagashi somen).
Sept 1 – 2: Throughout our time in Japan, we expect to eat a lot of wonderful things, but our two days in Osaka will be all about kuidaore, an Osakan way of life meaning “eat yourself into ruin”. We intend to feast on takoyaki and okinomiyaki and anything else that strikes our fancy. If we can manage to walk after stuffing ourselves silly, we will definitely make it a priority to visit Kaiyukan, which is one of the world’s largest aquariums.
Sept 3 – 4: Our last excursion in Japan will be Mount Koya, which is one of Japan’s Buddhist epicenters and many practicing monks can be found here. For our last night in Japan, we hope to stay at an operating temple and greet the morning with prayers at dawn. Should be a memorable way to end our trip!
When Tony and I first began speaking about visiting Japan on this trip, we initially felt that we would have to limit our visit to a 2-week maximum for the sake of our budget. At one point we also discussed (albeit, briefly) scrapping Japan entirely because of the expenses involved, but it has long been one of Tony’s dream destinations, and if this trip is about living our dreams, then Japan had to be a part of it. As you can see, in the end, our final plan is to spend 27 days in Japan! We think that this will give us enough time to widely sample a country that has long fascinated us and which is so culturally rich and geographically diverse. We have tried to use this as an opportunity to travel a bit farther from the traditional tourist trail and catch a glimpse of parts of Japan that may be less well known to foreigners… Even still, we know we are just barely scratching the surface of this mesmerizing island nation, but as a first visit, we are quite happy with what we have planned.
And yes, we do have our exit tickets booked, but for now we’re keeping those under wraps! No need to get too far ahead of ourselves and we have to keep some surprises for future posts! 😉
Tell us: Have you ever visited Japan? If so, what were some of your favorite experiences? Never been but want to go? Tell us what you think can’t be missed in Japan!