Japan was not very high on my list of priorities, but luckily it was right at the top of my husband’s bucket list. So when we planned our first trip to Asia, we both compromised a little and we tailored an itinerary that included both Japan and SE Asia. But even after buying the flights to Tokyo, my expectations didn’t skyrocket.
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The truth is, after 3 weeks in Japan, I was sold. Strike that. I was actually sold after the first few hours in Tokyo once I starting getting over jetlag. The scenarios revealing in front of me were so different from everything I had previously experienced and so unbelievable, that I gave in and only days into our trip, I already knew Japan was the most amazing country I’ve ever been too and probably I’ll ever go to. Its culture is so uniquely beautiful, the customs so incredible and the people so civilised, that it almost makes my eyes water.
During our trip to Japan, we used a JR Pass, and this gave us great mobility and flexibility when it came to exploring different parts of the country. It also made the formalities swifter, as we avoided the queues in front of the ticket offices.
But what we both liked best about this travel style was that all in all, we didn’t need much planning ahead and we could allow spontaneity to take over from time to time. So we ended up exploring quite a few places in Kanto, Chubu and Kinki regions in central Japan. Here are only the ones we consider a definite must see.
BEST PLACES TO VISIT IN JAPAN
Tokyo grew on me in unexpected ways, to the point that I now refer to it as my favorite city in the whole world. Of course, this is highly subjective, but as I think anyone who visited this mad city would agree, Tokyo is a different world altogether.You’ll probably either love it or hate it, but there’s little space in between for this place to leave you cold. What makes Tokyo so special in my eyes is simple: the people.
Don’t expect either futuristic nor beautiful architecture. But with over 13 million people walking its streets every day, the capital of Japan definitely has a soul and multiple personalities. Best places to see my point proven right are a stop at Shibuya and a stroll through Yoyogi Park on a Sunday.
For a comprehensive list of attractions, we wrote an article about our favorite places in Tokyo.
Where to stay in Tokyo:
- Ryokan Asakusa Mikawaya Honten – a budget-friendly Japanese inn located in the traditional area of Asakusa. They have Japanese style rooms, ideal for cultural immersion.
- Tokyu Stay Shinjuku – newly opened mid-range hotel in Tokyo’s commercial district. Great location and free WiFi.
Kyoto is the most Zen city I know. And while most buildings and even the people here keep a low profile, from time to time it’s impossible not to be surprised by a pretty lady in kimono crossing your path or the worship places that dot the city.
Kyoto has more temples and shrines than any other place in Japan. Seeing them all would be a tremendous task as one would need to spend months on end here doing nothing but sightseeing. What’s even more surprising, is that not only the large or popular temples and shrines are an eye candy, but the quiet and hidden ones too.
However, my favorite attractions in Kyoto remain the Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine and the Golden Pavilion, but if you are in search of a bit of peace and quiet in the middle of nature, don’t miss the famous Arashiyama bamboo forest, on the outskirts of Kyoto, either.
Where to stay in Kyoto:
- Kyoto Guesthouse Lantern – budget accommodation in Gion, the most charming geisha neighborhood in the world. Traditional facilities with a small Japanese garden.
- Hotel Granvia Kyoto – located above the JR Kyoto station, which makes it ideal for exploring both Kyoto and the nearby area. Amazing breakfast, beautiful rooms, and friendly staff. We personally stayed here and we can’t recommend it enough.
Nikko National Park is home to some of the most lavishly decorated temples and shrines in Japan and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Far from the tempered traditional Japanese architectural style, the buildings here are gilded and adorned in excess. It is a beautiful and unique sight.The paths connecting the temples are framed by a forest of giant cedar trees, no less impressive than the man-made structures.
The whole complex can be seen in approximately 3 hours, but it takes a 2-hour train ride from Tokyo and a pretty long walk from the station to the park. And that’s more than 5 wasted hours, without even counting the time you need to get from the hotel to the JR station.
So in all honesty, joining a Nikko National Park day tour from Tokyo is the most comfortable way to visit these gorgeous temples. You will not only have a knowledgeable guide to keep you entertained and explain you all the awesomeness you’ll be witnessing, but you will also enjoy the benefits of a courtesy hotel pick up and an air-conditioned coach.
Nara was once the capital of Japan and, therefore, remains a very interesting place to visit. It can be easily reached by JR from either Osaka or Kyoto in just under 1 hour. However, Nara is interesting enough to spend the night.The shrines and temples of Nara are included on the UNESCO Heritage Sites list, and though there’s plenty to see and do here, all the attractions are pretty much grouped together and walking from one to another is extremely pleasant and entertaining.
Everything is encompassed inside the Nara Park and intriguing Japanese elements can be found every step of the way plus over 1,200 sika deer roam freely all over the place and visitors can even buy them crackers and feed them. This is a must visit place especially if you travel with kids or are an animal lover yourself.
We published more photos from Nara here.
Where to stay in Nara:
- Guest Villa Houou – a gorgeous villa situated in the middle of a traditional Japanese garden. The hotel has a hot spring bath and organises karaoke nights for total cultural immersion.
Kamakura, also called the Eastern Kyoto of Japan for the great number of temples, is a quiet little residential town just 1-hour train ride from Tokyo. For that, Kamakura can make a very pleasant and relaxing day trip away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.Its most famous sight is the Great Buddha (Daibutsu) at Kotoku-in, the second largest bronze Buddha in Japan. But there are many Zen temples and Shinto shrine to be discovered here and one day might not even be enough to explore them all.
However, if you get tired of temple and shrine hopping, I highly recommend you join a Japanese cooking class, so apart from the photos, you also take home with you the knowledge of how to cook traditional Japanese food. Why do I recommend this cooking class? Because you will learn washoku, an approach to achieving nutritional balance and aesthetic harmony at the table, which is a Japanese culinary philosophy that has been added to the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list.
Now, if you are rather in the mood to get a taste of the beautiful landscapes and serene religious monuments of Kamakura, sip green tea overlooking a rock garden and enjoy a delicious Japanese lunch without the hands-on culinary experience, this Kamakura day trip from Tokyo is just perfect.
Magome-juku was the forty-third of the sixty-nine stations of the ancient road that connected Kyoto and Edo (today’s Tokyo) during the Edo period.Nowadays it consists of a beautifully restored row of wooden houses along the former post road. Most houses were built in the mid-18th century by common people and therefore are nothing grant, just extremely interesting. They host shops, restaurants and little exhibition rooms, which makes a day trip to Magome both a relaxing and educative one.
In my opinion, Magome is a cute open air museum stripped of the joys of daily life, lined along a pedestrian-only cobblestone street, which makes it quite unusual and unique. Also, only a 3-hour hike away, there is the post town of Tsumago, and if you have time, the hike and the town in itself are worth the trouble.
Nowadays Takayama is famous for its well-preserved old town dating back to the Edo period. One doesn’t visit Takayama seeking religious enlightenment, but rather a certain enlightenment related with design and architecture.The old wooden houses hosting souvenir shops, restaurants, and sake breweries are painfully charming, and walking along the little pedestrian streets is like stepping back in time. There is a wealth of detail related to the daily life and Japanese traditions to be discovered here. It’s like the time stood still.
Some of the houses are even open to the public, exhibiting local crafts and arts, providing a window into understanding the lives of the local merchants. Also not to miss, not far from the town center, is the Hida Folk Museum.
Where to stay in Takayama:
- Auberge Hidanomori – a warm and pleasant home away from home situated in a stunning traditional Japanese house with all the facilities of a modern hotel.
For us, Matsumoto Castle, also known as the ‘Crow Castle’, was the most beautiful castle we visited in Japan. Situated a 2-hours and a half train ride from Tokyo, it’s black and white facade are of an unspeakable elegance.The town of Matsumoto doesn’t stand out in any other way, but even so, the castle in itself it’s well worth the trip.
Visiting Matsumoto Castle is an interesting experience, to say the least. Expect to have to take off your shoes at the entrance, steep and slippery stairs, low ceilings and dark interiors. Matsumoto Castle is one of the four castles designated as ‘National Treasures of Japan’ and the oldest castle donjon remaining in Japan.
Matsumoto Castle was one of our 3 favorite day-trips from Tokyo.
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Where to stay in Japan:
When it comes to accommodation, I usually use and recommend Booking.com. But for Japan, I can’t help but recommend Agoda, the leading accommodation site in Asia, with discounts up to 80% off and more properties to choose from than any other website.
How to move around Japan:
The best way to travel around Japan is by using a Japan Rail Pass, a very convenient and economical way to see the country. For train route ideas and city guides, you can check out the Japan by Rail book.
Before you go to Japan we highly recommend you read the following books for a better understanding of the Japanese culture and lifestyle: