So you are planning to spend two weeks in Japan? You have booked your flights and are ready to go. But what exactly will you do? Where in Japan will you go?
I had never even been to Asia before. Yet a trip to Japan had always ranked fairly high on my bucket-list destinations. Our recent holiday certainly wasn’t disappointing. Japan must be one of the most beautiful places we have ever visited, with a unique culture and an incredible heritage of traditions. Our holiday also turned out to be a lot easier and cheaper than we had anticipated.
This Two Week Itinerary for Japan is the first post in a Series about Japan. Over the following months, I will introduce you to some must-see cities and equip you with heaps of helpful tips and advice. Hopefully, these blog post will make planning your own trip to Japan a little easier and cheaper.
Deciding what to prioritise – when visiting Japan – can be difficult and confusing. There is a myriad of options and alternative routes. However unless you are a Digital Nomad, recent graduate, on your honeymoon or just filthy rich, two weeks is probably the maximum amount of time you have available in your itinerary.
The suggested Journey is something of a whirlwind trip. This first-timer’s itinerary will, however, introduce you to some the main sites that Honshu has to offer. You could of course book an all-inclusive package tour. Indeed, this can be a very reasonable option if you don’t have the time or patience to plan your own journey. You will, however, without a doubt, save quite a chunk of cash, by planning and booking everything yourself.
Hopefully, the following Itinerary will ease the pain of doing so. When it came to planning our recent journey to Japan, I relied on two main sources: my Dad’s first-hand experience and an extremely useful website called Japan-Guide.
Two weeks is a very meagre amount of time to allocate to a trip through Japan. Although this itinerary covers the basics, we could easily have extended our journey by another week. Whether you’re staying for one week, two weeks, three weeks or potentially a month, your general route will stay the same. You will start your Journey in Tokyo, then travel to Takayama, Hiroshima and Kyoto. These four cities will form the base of your itinerary. You can then add as little or as many supplementary side-trips – to locations such as Hakone, Kamakura, Nikko, Shirakawago, Mijayima Island and Nara – as you like.
Whether you stay a week or two in Japan, my top tip is to buy a Japan RailPass before you go. The JR Pass is the VIP of all train tickets. Your Japan Railpass gives you unlimited access to all JR Trains (including certain bullet trains). You only need to travel three times on a Shinkansen Train to cover the cost of the pass. If you plan to follow this suggested itinerary, the JR Pass will definitely be money well spent. In order to save some money, my Partner and I bought a one-week JR Pass for our two week trip in Japan. I will be writing a detailed guide about the Japan Railpass in the near future. But, for now, you can book your ticket at jrpass.com.
DAY 1-8: TOKYO
While Gary and I were very keen to see more of the country, we decided to stay a whole week in Tokyo to save on costs. Booking a Hotel over a longer period (especially on Expedia) often drastically cuts down the price. It also meant that we only needed a one week JR Pass – which saved us another 100£.
We certainly didn’t regret spending a whole week in Tokyo. There is so much to see and do. In act Tokyo ended up being our favourite city and actually trumped Kyoto in our mind. If you are keen to explore both the ancient traditions and architecture of the country as well as the space-age side of Japan, Tokyo has to be your go-to city.
Tokyo is a very big city. In order to see as much as possible within a week, you are going to want to group sites to visit by district. This will save you time, as well as money. Far better to walk from site to site than to spend half of your day in the Underground system.
While we were in Tokyo we also took a couple of side-trips to the surrounding areas. While there is a lot to see in the city centre of Tokyo, there are some amazing towns on the fringes of the city, that shouldn’t be missed.
If you are looking for suggestions on what to do in this city, I have written a far more detailed itinerary for our 7 days in Tokyo, but here is a rough summary what we did:
DAY 1: FLIGHT TO TOKYO
DAY 2: GINZA, YURAKUCHO, MARUNOUCHI AND THE IMPERIAL GARDEN
DAY 3: SHIBUYA, HARAJUKU AND SHINJUKU
DAY 4: DAY-TRIP TO HAKONE
DAY 5: SUMIDA AQUARIUM, TOKYO SKYTREE AND RYOGUKU
DAY 6: UENO, ASAKUSA AND ODAIBA
DAY 7: TSUKIJI FISH MARKET, AKIHABARA AND KANDA
DAY 8: DAY-TRIP TO KAMAKURA
DAY 9: TOKYO TO TAKAYAMA
On the morning of your 9th day in Japan, head to Tokyo Station to activate your 7 Day Japan Rail Passes at the Japan Rail Travel Service Centre. Your Japan Rail Pass will be valid from the day you activated it. You will need your Passport and the vouchers you received by mail. I will be writing a much more detailed guide to buying, activating and using your Japan Rail Pass really soon. If you have paid extra for Green Car, go right ahead and book your seats too.
Then board the Shinkansen Hikari Bullet train to JR Nagoya Station. The journey will take about an hour and a half. Within Nagoya Station change trains and board the Limited Express Hida train to Takayama Station. If possible try to grab a seat on the right hand side. This journey takes 2 hours and a half and is one of the most magnificent Train Journeys through the Japanese Alps (often compared to the Alps of Europe). I guarantee that this train journey will be one of the highlights of your trip to Japan.
Takayama (高山) is a city in the mountainous Hida region of Gifu Prefecture. The city is also commonly referred to as Hida-Takayama, to differentiate it from a couple of other villages named Takayama. It is a prime destination for travellers who wish to add a rural element to their japan itinerary. Because of its remote mountainous location, Takayama’s has clung on to its traditions, more so than most other Japanese Cities. Takayama is famous for its highly skilled carpenters, so make sure to grab a wooden souvenir in this town. The skill of the regions carpenters is especially apparent in the floats, create for the annual spring and autumn festivals.
Enjoy a stroll through this museum like town and its beautifully preserved Old Town. There are numerous attractions including a small number of museums devoted to the craftsmanship of the locals and old private houses that lie in the area between Miyagawa River and the extremely picturesque Shiroyama Park. Browse the various shops selling traditional wares and taste some of the best Sake in the region.
Alternatively you could follow the 3.5 kilometre long Higashiyama Walking Course (東山遊歩道). This pleasant route leads you through Takayama’s Temple Town and Shiroyama Park – the former site of Takayama Castle. On the way to the ruins of Takayama’s former Castle you will discover dozens of Temples and Shrines
THE OLD TOWN
Many buildings in the beautifully restored Old Town of Takayama date back to the Edo Period (1600-1868), when Takayama was a thriving merchants town. Sannomachi Street, to the south of the Old Town, survives in a particularly pretty state, with many old buildings that have been converted into cafés, shops and sake breweries. The shops are typically open from 9am to 5pm. You will also be able to gain a glimpse of traditional life, by visiting one of the old private houses. The former living quarters of the local merchants often exhibit traditional household goods and the local arts and crafts.
Hida Minzoku Kokokan
The Hida Minzoku Kokokan, or Hida Archeology Museum, is one of the oldest buildings on Sannomachi Street and it is open to the public. Take notice of the architecture and visit the old well in the courtyard. Both have barely changed since the Edo Perios. Admission costs 500 yen (currently 3£).
The Hirata Kinenkan, also known as the Hirata Folk Museum, is an old merchant home and former residence of a candle maker. It is open to the public for 300 yen (currently 2£) and numerous household items and historic documents are on display within its living quarters.
The Old Sake Brewery
Sake is particularly good in Takayama and several old sake breweries can be found in the old town. You will recognize them from the enormous sugidama (balls made of ceadr branches) hung over their entrances. Apart from watching the old craft of Sake Making, you should also attempt to purchase a sample from one of the local breweries.
The Kusakabe Heritage House is one of Takayama’s oldest merchant homes. It used to be the residence of the very wealthy Kusakabe family, who were very succesful money lenders. Entrance costs 500 yen.
The Yoshijama Heritage House
The Yoshijama Heritage House, former residence of the Yoshijama family and sake brewery, is located right next to the Kusakabe Heritage House and is also open to the public for a fee of 500 yen.
The Takayama Spring Festival (April 14th and 15th) and Autumn Festival (October 9th and 10th) are ranked as Japan’s most beautiful Festivals. If you visiting Takayama outside of the Festival season, you can head to the Takayama Matsuri Yatai Kaikan (高山祭屋台会館), where four of the hundred year old autumn festival floats are exhibited for the rest of the year. Admission to the Yatai Kaikan cost 820 yen (currently 5£).
The Karakuri Museum is another museum you might want to visit if you cannot participate in Takayama’s Festivals and a slightly cheaper alternative to the Yatai Kaikan at only 600 yen (currently 3£). The Museum has a collection of mechanical dolls mounted to the festival floats and over 2000 shishimai (lion dance) masks from all around Japan.
Matsuri No Mori
The Matsuri No Mori Museum is located outside of Takayama’s city center. It showcases all the key aspects of the Festivals. A 50 meter long hallway, lined with eleven minituare replicas of the festival floats and gold-lacqured folding screens depicting Kyoto’s Festival floats, leads to the main exhibition space. In the main exhibition space you will find full-sized replicas of the floats with machine-operated Karakuri Dolls. You can get a real close vie of the elaborate design and decoration of the Festival Floats. The Museum also has to huge Taiko Drums on display, said to be the biggest drums in the world. Admission is 1000 yen (currently 5.5£), making it the most expensive of all three festival museums.
Center 4 Burgers
I haven’t really recommended any Restaurants in this Itinerary because I am saving the information for a special post on the food we ate in Japan, but I wanted to make sure to recommend this place to you. Is it a little odd that I am suggesting you go and eat a Burger in Japan. Yes. In act it’s pretty sacrilegeous. But honestly these Burgers are amazing. In fact according to my boyfriend this was the best Burger of his life. If you don’t pay attention you might walk right past the “Center 4” sign. The entrance is more of a back entrance and you wonder whether you are strolling into someone’s private house. This long corridor is actually built in the traditional Unagi no Nedoko style, Eeel Bed Architecture that is very distinctive for this area. Do order the Hida Beef Burger, the burger is made from a particularly tender beef reared in the local area. Velvety soft and full of flavour the beef will melt in your mouth.
DAY 10: MORNING MARKETS AND SHIRAKAWAGO
Try and get up early today, there is a lot to see and do.
Takayama Morning Markets
Two morning markets (朝市) are held in Takayama between 6h30 to 12am every day. The Jinyae-Mae Market is located in front of the Takayama Jinya, whilst the Miyagawa Market sprawls along the Riverbank of the old town. You might be surprised to notice that the river is filled with red and white Koi Fish. Quite an entertaining sight. The Market stands sell local crafts, snacks and farm products such as vegetables, pickles and flowers. It’s the perfect place to enjoy your breakfast.
Head back to JR Takayama Station and purchase a ticket from the Takayama Bus Terminal. The return ticket will set you back 4300 yen (currently 23£). Then board the Nohi Bus to Shirakawago Village. The journey should take approximately 50 minutes.
Note: Unfortunately we were extremely unlucky and booked our excursion on a National Bank Holiday. We were stuck in Traffic for 3 hours and almost missed our bus back to Takayama. Make sure you plan ahead for any eventualities and board the bus early in the morning, to avoid bitter disappointment. You never know what might happen.
Shirakawago is a small extremely historic area in the north of Gifu. Declared a UNESCO World heritage site in 1995, Shirakawago is famous for its old farm houses, built with a traditional Thatched Roofs.
These old Farm Houses area aptly named Gassho-Zukuri, or “constructed like hands in prayer”, because their thatched roofs are built to resemble a Buddhist Monk’s hand pressed together in prayer. This architectural style, developed over many generations, protects the farm houses from the heavy snow in the area. The roofs are built with traditional methods and without nails. The attic space is used to cultivate silkworms.
Ogimachi is Shirakawa-Go’s largest village and main tourist destination. Although Ogimachi is the perect day-trip destination, you might want to stay overnight in one of the farmhouses to get the full experience, if you have a little spare time. The village is made up of several dozen well-preserved gassho-zukuri, some of which are more than 250 years old. Many of the farmhouses have now been converted to restaurants, museums or minshuku ( a Japanese style Bed and Breakfast). Some of the armhouses have been relocated to the open air museum on the other side of the river in an effort to save them from destruction.
MYOZENJI TEMPLE AND HOUSE
The Myozenji Temple is pretty unique. Instead of the traditional tile roof of Japanese Temples, it features a thatched roof, that makes it blend in with the rest of the town. The Temple is connected to a farmhouse, residence to the priest. The 300 yen admission (currently 2£) to the farmhouse include access to the temple hall.
The Nagase-Ke House was the residence of the Nagase Family, a famous family of doctors in the area. The farmhouse displays tools for farming and raising silkworms, as well as several medical tools. Admission to this farmhouse costs 300 yen.
The picturesque Kanda-Ke House is one of the best-preserved farmhouses of the village. The windows on its upper floor offer the most amazing views across the village. Admission will set you back 300 yen.
The Wada-Ke Hosue – home to the wealthies family of the village and original leaders of Ogimachi, the Wada Family – is thelargest gassho-zukuri farmouse in Ogimachi. It is open to the public for 300 yen.
Before you leave Ogimachi, make sure to head to the Shiroyama Viewpoint, to the north of Ogimachi. The walk to the viewpoint takes about 15 to 20 minutes from the village center. It offers great excellent views of Ogimachi and its farmhouses.
The food in Takayama was excellent. In fact, it was probably the very best food we had in Japan. I can definitely rest assured if I suggest you have a curry at Jakuson Curry House. Do try and book both restaurants I mentioned in advance or head there early. Otherwise. you might get disappointed. Both restaurants are extremely popular and have limited seating.
DAY 11: TAKAYAMA TO HIROSHIMA
The Journey from Takayama to Hiroshima is pretty long and will probably take at least half a day, so leave early. From Takayama Station board the Limited Express Hida train to JR Nagoya Station. The Journey will take two hours. Try and sit on the left-hand side to take in the views of the mountains and the river. In Nagoya, change trains an board the Shinkansen Hikari train to JR Shin-Osaka Station. This will ad another 40 minutes to your Journey. In Shin-Osaka board your final bullet train for the day. The Sakura Shinkansen will get you to Hiroshima in an hour and 40 minutes.
Hiroshima (広島) is probably one of the most famous cities in Japan. Its fame is based on its very tragic history. On August 1945 an Atomic Bomb was dropped on the city, destroying Hiroshima almost in its entirety and killing millions of people.
Astonishingly the city was rebuilt relatively fast and rumors that Hiroshima would be uninhabitable proved false. Some destroeyed monuments, such as Hiroshima Castle, have been rebuilt while the ruins of the A-Bomb Dome can be found in the Peace Memorial Park.
I don’t believe a trip to Japan would be complete without a visit to this fabulous City with such a tragic pasts. Everyone should visit Hiroshima at least once in their life. It is an important lesson for the world and to be honest I believe some politicians would do well visting Hiroshima.
HIROSHIMA PEACE MEMORIAL PARK
If there is one place you absolutely have to visit in Hiroshima it is the Peace Memorial Park (平和記念公園). This 120 000 square meter park has to be one of the most prominent features of the city. The area in which Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is located was once the political and commercial center of the city. This is why this exact location was chosen as the target for the Atomic Bomb. After the war, it was decided that the whole area would be redeveloped as a park dedicated to spreading the message of peace around the wold.
Every year on the anniversary of the dropping of the bomb aceremony is held in the park. A moments silence is preserved at 8:15 am, the precise moment of detonation. Then speeches are held for the lost souls and wreaths are laid at the base of the Cenotaph.
PEACE MEMORIAL MUSEUM
At the center of the Peace Memorial Park is the Peace Memorial Musuem. The Museum is made up of two buildings with exhibits focused on the events that led up to the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6th 1995, details about the nuclear bomb and the human suffering it casued. Some of objects, on display, are extremely upsetting but serve as a great reminder that we should never take peace for granted.
THE A-BOMB DOME
The A-Bomb Dome, also known as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, are the ruins left over from the former Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. At the center o the explosion, it was one o the few buildings that partly remained standing. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a ghostly link to Hiroshima’s past.
THE CHILDREN’S PEACE MONUMENT
Visitors to Peace Memorial Park will almost definitely notice the Children’s Peace Monument. Built from funds donated from all over Japan, to commemorate Sadako – who was two years old when she was exposed to the A-Bomb and died nine years later from the after-effects of the radiation – this monument sees millions of visitors a year, who come to pray for world peace and the peaceful repose of the many children that were killed by the atomic bomb. Sadako believed that folding paper cranes would help her recover from Leukemia. She kept folding them until she tragically passed away on October 25, 1955, after an eight-month struggle with the disease. Her story of Eternal Hope spread around the world and approximately 10 million cranes are offered each year to the Children’s Peace Monument.
DAY 12: DAY-TRIP TO MIJAYIMA ISLAND
To reach the Ferry Port you will need to head to Hiroshima Station and board the JR Sanyo Line to Miyajimaguchi Station. The ride takes half an hour and is covered by your Japanese rail pass. Alternatively, if for some reason you decided not to buy a Japanese Railpass, avoid taking the JR Sanyo Line (the journey will set you back 410 yen) and instead take the tram line number 2 from central Hiroshima bound for Miyajimaguchi for 260 yen ( currently 1£).
It is a short walk from Miyajimaguchi Station to the ferry pier. Ferries from two competing ferry companies (JR and Matsudai) depart daily to Miyajima Island. Although the journey on both ferry lines take 10 minutes and cost 180 yen ( currently 1£), choose the JR Ferry. It is included in your JR pass.
Miyajima is a small Island less than an hour outside of Hiroshima. It is particularly famous for its wild roaming deer and the giant Torri Gate, which at high tide seems to float on the water. The island has a long history as a holy Shinto Site. Mount Misen, was worshiped by the locals as early as the 6th century. If you have a little extra time in your itinerary, you could stay overnight at one of the island’s Ryokans. The island can get a little overcrowded during the day, but the area becomes much quieter and peaceful in the evening. After sunset, the shrine and the torii gate are illuminated daily until 23:00. So if you are staying overnight take an evening stroll and enjoy this beautiful sight.
Miyajimi is easily explored by thought. A pleasant and relaxing way to explore the island is to take a stroll along one of it’s many charming walking trails. Some of the walking paths will lead you through the town and along the surrounding seaside, past numerous lookout points and clusters o cherry trees. I you are looking for a more substantial hike, you can follow three different trails up to the top of Mount Misen: the Daisho-in Course and the Omoto Course.
The centuries-old Itsukushima Shrine (厳島神社) on Miyajima is the source of the Miyajimi Island’s fame and most common name. Officially named Itsukushima, the island is commonly referred to as Miyajimi or Shrine Island. Both the Shrine and its Torii gate have been built in the ocean. The shrine is located in a small inlet, while the torii gate is set out slightly further in the Sea. Itsukushima Shrine is a complex of buildings, including a prayer hall, a main hall and a noh theater stage. All buildings are connected by boardwalks and rest on pillars, seemingly floating above the sea. This shrine is completely unique in Japan.
Note that if you want to see the Shrine in its most magnificent state you might want to have a look at a Tidal Calendar of the area. Itsukushima Shrine is most picturesque during High Tide, when it seems to float above the water. At low tide, the water drains out of the bay and you get the opportunity to walk out to the Gate and see it up close and personal.
You can even hop onto a boat cruise, which will take you around the bay and through the Torii Gate. The cruise lasts thirty minutes and reservations are required. You can make a reservation at your local Ryokan or the tourist information desk.
Entrance to the Shrine cost 300 yen (currently 2£) or for 500 yen (currently 3£) get combined tickets for the treasure hall.
The second most important temple on Miyajimi Island is the Daisho-in Temple (大聖院). This temple is one of the most important temples of Shingon Buddhism. It is located at the base of Mount Misen, a little further inland then Itsukushima Shrine. Within the temple grounds there is a cave filled with 88 icons representing the temples of the Shikoku Pilgrimage.
As you are climbing the Temple’s many steps you might want to perform the following Buddhist Ritual. Along the stairs is a row of metal wheels, inscribed with sutra (Buddhist scriptures). Turn these wheels while you are walking up to the temple. Each turn of the wheel is said to be the equivalent of reading the full sutra.
The ascent from the Daisho-In Temple to the summit of Mount Misen takes about 1.5 hours.
Mount Misen (弥山) is the highest peak on Miyajima and reaches heights of 500 meters above sea level. The summit offers spectacular views across the island and the Sea. On a clear day you can see as far as Hiroshima.
Although there are three trails that lead up to the summit of the mountain, I would recommend you take the ropeway to the top, unless you are very fit. The ride up the mountain takes about 20 minutes, costs 1000 yen (currently 5£) for one way and 1800 yen (currently 10£) for a round trip and requires a transfer of ropeways along the way. Please note, that even if you take the ropeway, you will still need to walk a considerable amount to reach Mount Misen’s Summit and therefore do need good stamina. From the Ropeway’s Upper Station, you will have to follow a very steep hiking trail that leads to the Shishi-iwa Observatory. The hike takes about 30 minutes.
On the way, five minutes before you reach the summit, you will encounter a set of Five Temples. Most of these belong to the Daisho-in Temple at Mount Misen base. It is said that Buddhism was first practiced on Mount Misen by Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon sect and one of Japan’s holiest religious persons. Of particular interest are the Misen Hondo (Misen Main Hall) and the Reikado (Hall of the Spiritual Flame). The latter protects a flame, which Kobo Daishi is said to have lit when he began worshiping on the mountain. It has been burning ever since, and was also used to light the Flame of Peace in Hiroshima’s Peace Park.
There are three paths from the summit to the base of Mount Misen: the Momijidani Course, the Daisho-in Course and the Omoto Course. Although Momijidani Cours is the shortest path, it is also the steepest, consisting mainly of steps. Trust me I know, since we raced down it before darkness hit and my body punished me for it the next day. The Daisho-in Course is not quite as steep as the other two and also affords the best views. All three trails take about 1.5 to 2 hours. Deer can sometimes be seen along the mountain’s paths. Much rarer these days are wild monkeys, as most monkeys were moved off the island to a monkey park in Inuyama in recent years.
Okonomyaki is a popular dish in Japan. Several different versions can be found around the country. The original Okonomyaki originates in Hiroshima. Here the ingredients are layered to form a crazy sort off pancake, rather than being all mixed up. The layers of Okonomyaki typically include Batter, Udon Noodles, Cabbage, Pork, a Fried Egg and a good helping of Okonomyaki Sauce. You can then add additional ingredients such as squid, octopus, garlic and cheese. The process of making a Hiroshima Okonomyaki is very precise, utterly unique and mesmerizing. Hiroshima has a five storey building dedicated Okonomyaki. Some places even teach you to make your own. On Miyajimi Island I recommend you try and grab a table at Otafuku Okonomyaki. It is one of the best Okonomyaki Restaurants in the area.
DAY 13: HIROSHIMA TO KYOTO
Check out of your Hotel. Head to JR Hiroshima Station and board the Sakura bullet train to Shin-Osaka. The journey takes 91 minutes. In Shin -Osaka swap trains and board the Hikari bullet train for Kyoto Station. The train ride from Osaka to Kyoto only takes 15 minutes.
After you checked into your Hotel, head out to explore Kyoto. There is a lot to see!
Kyoto is the seventh largest city of Japan with a population of 1.4 million people. It was once the capital of Japan. Other the centuries, Kyoto has been destroyed by multiple ires and wars and was rebuilt again and again. Due to its historic value and its countless temples, shrines and other historically priceless structures, it was actually dropped from the list o potential targets for the atomic bomb and even spared from air raids during World War II.
There is so much to see and do in Kyoto and you could easily spend a whole week in this city. I will definitely return to Japan someday for a Kyoto-Centric Itinerary.
Sanjusangendo (三十三間堂) or Rengeo-in, is a temple in eastern Kyoto, famous for its 1001 statues of Kannon. Kannon is the representation of the goddess of mercy. The temple was founded in 1164 and rebuilt a century later after the original structure had been destroyed in a fire.
Built out of timber and with a 120 meter long Hall, Sanjusangendo is the longest wooden structure in Japan. In the center of the main hall sits a large, wooden statue of a 1000-armed Kannon (Senju Kannon) that is flanked on each side by 500 statues of human-sized 1000-armed Kannon standing in ten rows. Each 1000-armed Kannon is said to be equipped with 11 heads and 1000 arms. The statues however only have 42 arms each. Subtract the two regular arms and multiply by the 25 planes of existence to get the full thousand. The sight of the 1000 Kannon Statues is truly mind-blowing. Unfortunately it is forbidden to take photos of the inside of this Buddhist Temple.
Kiyomizudera (清水寺) is one of the most celebrated temples of Japan. It was founded in 780 on the site of the Otowa Waterfall in the wooded hills east of Kyoto, and derives its name “Pure Water Temple” from these waters. The temple was added to the list of UNESCO in 1994. The main hall of the temple, which was built without any nails, juts out 13 meters above the hillside below and contains a small statue of the eleven-faced, thousand armed Kannon.
If you are here with your partner or are looking for the love of your life you will be excited to explore the Jishu Shrine, a shrine dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking. In front of the shrine are two stones, placed 18 meters apart. Successfully finding your way from one to the other with your eyes closed is said to bring luck in finding love. This is pretty difficult, since the walkway is generally crowded with visitors.
The Otowa Waterfall is located at the base of Kiyomizudera’s main hall. It is divided into three separate streams. Each one represents a separate wish: Longevity, Success at School and a fortunate Love Life. Visitors use cups attached to very long poles to drink water from from one of the streams. Drinking from all three streams is considered greedy.
TH temple is open from 6am to 6pm and entrance costs 300 yen (currently 2£)
Part of the fun of visiting Kiyomizudera is the approach to the temple along the steep and busy lanes of the atmospheric Higashiyama District. It is one of Kyoto’s best preserved Historic Districts and features narrow lanes, wooden buildings and traditional merchant shops.Recent renovations to remove telephone poles and repave the streets have further improved the traditional feel of the district. Recent renovations to remove telephone poles and repave the streets have further improved the traditional feel of the district. The streets of Higashiyama are lined by small shop, cafess and restaurants, which have been catering to tourists and pilgrims for centuries. The products on sale range from local specialties such as Kiyomizu-yaki pottery, sweets and pickles to the standard set of souvenirs. In March the streets of Higashiyama are lined by thousands of lanterns and the temples, shrines and shops are illuminated to celebrate Hanatoro.
Upon exiting Kiyomizudera Temple, walk down the temple approach while exploring the shops of Higashiyama along the way. Turn right just before the fork in the road and head down the Sannenzaka stairs onto the somewhat quieter shopping streets below. Turn right again, walk down the Ninenzaka steps and you will reach Kodaiji.
Although not one of the most famous temples, Kodaiji (高台寺) is an outstanding temple in Kyoto’s Higashiyama District. It is definitely worth the 600 yen entrance fee (currently 3£). The Temple was built in 1606 to commemorate Toyotomi Hideyoshi – one of Japan’s greatest historical figures – by his wife Nene. Nene has also been enshrined at the temple.
The temple almost looks like a traditional Japanese Residence, with a lavishly decorated interior and set in beautiful Zen Gardens. The main hall was originally covered in lacquer and gold, but was rebuilt in a more modest style after it burned down in 1912. The building is surrounded by beautiful gardens designed by some of the leading contemporary masters of zen gardening.
One of these garden is a rock garden that consists of a large field of raked gravel meant to represent the vast ocean. The other garden is an impressive Tsukiyama style Garden featuring a pond, man made hills, decorative rocks and beautiful pine and maple trees. Within the Tsukiyama style Garden sits Kaizando, the Memorial Hall Nene would pray for Hideyoshi and which now enshrines wooden images of both of them.
Hideyoshi was a fervent tea ceremony practitioner. The temple compound therefore contains two gorgeous Tea Houses, one of which was designed by the tea master Sen no Rikyu.
Yasaka Shrine (八坂神社), also known as Gion Shrine, is one of the most famous shrines in Kyoto. It was built over 1350 years ago and is located between Higashiyama and Gion. The temple shrine is combinded with a dance stage, lit by hundreds of lamps in the evening. Each lantern bears the name of a local business in return for a donation.
Arguably the most famous festival in the whole country, the Gion Matsuri, is celebrated on these temple grounds. This summer festival dates back over a thousand years and involves a procession with massive floats and hundreds of participants. The Gion Shrine is also hugely popular in spring, when thousand of cherry trees blossom in the nearby Maruyama Park.
DINNER WITH GEISHAS IN GION
Gion (祇園) is Japan’s most famous Geisha district. Located just off Shijo Avenue, it is an area steeped in history with a high concentration of traditional wooden Machiya Merchant Houses. Taxes in Gion were once based on street Frontage, so the buildings in this area are built with a narrow Facade but extend up to meters in from the street. Many of the Machiya Merchant Houses have now been converted into shops, restaurants and Ochaya. Ochaya are Teahouses where Geiko (Kyoto dialect for Geisha) and Maiko (geiko apprentices) entertain. Gion is a very scenic but also a very expensive place to dine. Indeed, at 5000 yen, our dinner at was the most expensive meal we had on our whole Trip through Japan. We got our money’s worth though, with a delicious Kyoto style Kaiseki Ryori (Japanese haute cuisine) served by a beautiful Lady clothed in full Kimono attire.
Many tourists visit Gion hoping to catch a glimpse of a geiko or maiko. Some tourists literally hound them and it is unfortunately not an uncommon site to see a whole gaggle of tourist following a Geisha on her way to or from an engagement at an ochaya, Please don’t do this! Act respectful and not like a Ruthless Paparazzi!
In order to be entertained by a Maiko or Geiko while dining at an ochaya you need to be introduced by an existing customer. The services of a Maiko or a Geiko are highly expensive and exclusive. As expert hostesses, a Maiko’s or Geiko’s duty is to ensure everyone’s enjoyment by engaging in light conversation, serving drinks, leading drinking games and performing traditional music and dance. A few companies and travel agencies have recently started offering lunch or dinner packages with a maiko to any tourist with a sufficient budget.
A more accessible experience is the cultural show held everyday at Gion Corner at the end of Hanami-koji. Aimed at foreign tourists, the show is a highly concentrated introduction to several traditional Japanese arts and include short performances of a tea ceremony, ikebana, bunraku, Kyogen comic plays and dances performed by real maiko.
The most popular area of Gion has to be Hanami-Koji Street. Another scenic part of Gion is the Shirakawa Area which runs along the Shirakawa Canal parallel to Shijo Avenue. The canal is lined by willow trees, high class restaurants and ochaya, many of which have rooms overlooking the canal. As it is a little off the beaten path, the Shirakawa Area is typically somewhat quieter than Hanami-koji Street. Shijo Avenue, which bisects the Gion district, is a popular shopping area with stores selling local products including sweets, pickles and crafts.
DAY 14: DAY-TRIP TO NARA
This is the last day-trip of the two week itinerary. If you are only planning to take one day-trip make it Nara!
One day is sufficient to see most of the sights within Nara. You can start your day-trip either form Kyoto or Osaka. Nara is pretty close to both. You might, however find it more relaxing to stay one night in Nara if you have the extra time.
From JR Kyoto Station board a JR Nara Line limited express train for Nara. The train ticket is included in your JR Pass and the journey takes around about 45 minutes ( a little more if you don’t get on the express). From the station make your way along Sanjo-Dori and head towards Nara Park.
Nara (奈良) founded in 710, was Japan’s very first permanent capital. As the influence and political ambitions of the city’s powerful Buddhist monasteries grew to become a serious threat to the government, the capital was moved to Nagaoka in 784. Nara is full of historic treasures, including some of Japan’s oldest and largest temples.
From JR Nara Station head up Nobori-oji Street. You will probably start to encounter Nara’s famous Sacred Deer on your way to the Park and Temples.
Kofukuji (興福寺) used to be the private temple of the Fujiwara Family, the most powerful family clan during much of the Nara and Heian Periods. The temple was established in Nara at the same time as the capital. At the height of Fujiwara power, the temple consisted of over 150 buildings.
Today, only a couple of buildings remain. These are of great historic value and include a 50 meter high five story pagoda and an additional three-story pagoda. The five-story Pagoda is an important landmark and Japan’s second tallest Pagoda, coming close second to Kyoto’s Toji temple.
Entrance to the Temple Grounds is free, but admission to the Kofukuji’s National Treasure Museum and the Eastern Golden Hall costs 800 yen (currently 4£). The recently renovated National Treasure Museum exhibits part of the temple’s great art collection and is an absolute must-see for lovers of Buddhist art. Among the many outstanding exhibits is the three-faced, six-armed Ashura Statue, one of the most celebrated Buddhist statues in all of Japan.
NARA PARK AND NARA’S SACRED DEER
Nara Park (奈良公園) opened its doors 1880. It is the location many of Nara’s main attractions, temples and museum.
Nara Park is home to 1200 deer who have become the symbol of the city and have been designated as a Natural Treasure.
According to Japanese legends, Deer are messengers from God. It is said that the mythological God Takemikazuchi rode into Nara on the back of a white deer when it was proclaimed Capital of Japan. Since then the deer have been regarded as heavenly animals, protecting the city and the country. They are allowed to roam freely in the Town and can even enter Temples. There are a lot of snack vendors around Nara that will sell you “Shika Sembei” (deer biscuits) to feed to the deer. Be careful though these shy and gentle creature can become a little aggressive at the sight of these tasty treats. Some Deer are a little more polite and may even bow to you, in typical Japanese fashion.
A small pack of biscuits costs about 100 yen (currently 0.5£)
Todaiji (東大寺) is one of Japan’s most famous and historically significant temples. It is also an important landmark of Nara. The temple was constructed in 752 as the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples of Japan. It grew so powerful that the capital was moved from Nara to Nagaoka in 784, in order to lower the Temple’s influence on government affairs.
Todaiji’s main hall, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) is the world’s largest Wooden Building. The current Hall is a reconstruction dating back to 1692 and is only a third o the size of the original Temple Hall. The massive building houses a gigantic bronze statues of Buddha (Daibutsu). At 15 meters tall, this Daibutsu is one largest in Japan. This seated Buddha represents Vairocana and is flanked by two Bodhisattvas.
Kasuga Taisha (春日大社) is Nara’s most celebrated shrine. It was established at the same time as the capital and is dedicated to Takemikazuchi – the Deity who is said to have rode into the newly built City on a the back of a white Deer, swearing to protect for eternity.
The shrine’s Offering Hall can be visited free of charge. Beyond it is an inner yard which provides a closer view of the Shrine and its inner buildings. Furthest in is the main sanctuary, containing multiple shrine buildings that display the distinctive Kasuga style of shrine architecture, characterized by a sloping roof extending over the front of the building.
Kasuga Taisha is famous for its hundreds of lanterns. Bronze lanterns can be found hanging from the buildings, while as many stone lanterns line its approaches. All Lanterns have been donated by the Temple’s many worshippers. The lanterns are lit twice a year during two Lantern Festivals, once in early February and once mid-August.
There are many smaller auxiliary shrines in the woods around Kasuga Taisha, twelve of which are located along a path past the main shrine complex and are dedicated to the twelve lucky gods. Among them are Wakamiya Shrine -an important cultural property known for its dance festival – and Meoto Daikokush – which enshrines married deities and is said to be fortuitous to matchmaking and marriage.
If you are interested in Buddhist temples, you might want to consider taking an additional trip to Horyuji Temple. From JR Nara Station, take the frequently departing Yamatoji Line to Horyuji Station. the Journey takes 12 minutes and costs 220 yen (currently 1£). From there it is a 20 minute walk or a short bus ride by bus number 72 to the temple. The Bus Ride costs 190 yen one way (currently 1£) and departs every 20 minutes. Get off at the Horyujimon-mae bus stop.
Horyuji Temple (法隆寺) was founded in 607, is one of the Japan’s oldest temples and contains the world’s oldest surviving wooden structures. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993. The temple grounds are vast and contain an agglomerate of buildings, including the Central Gate (Chumon), the Main Hall (Kondo) and a five-story Pagoda.
The central gate is guarded by two muscular deities. These two Statues, although commonly seen at the entrance of Buddhist Temples, are the two oldest ones in Japan. The main hall houses some of Japan’s oldest statues of Buddha, rare creations surviving from the Asuka Period. More ancient statues of Japanese Buddha from the Heian Period (794-1185) can be found in the nearby Lecture Hall (Daikodo).
In the center of the Temple Grounds stands an octagonally-shaped Yumedono (Hall of Visions). It is dedicated to Prince Shotoku and houses a life-sized statue of the prince surrounded by statues of Buddha and various monks.
The Gallery of Temple Treasure was added to the temple grounds in 1998 to exhibit the temple’s large art collection. The exhibition includes various statues of Buddha as well as Buddhist relics, artwork and paintings
Admission to all of the buildings of the Horyuji Temple costs 1500 yen (currently 8£). If you are passionate about Buddhist Art and History it is well worth paying the price.
DAY 15: KYOTO TO TOKYO
Sadly this was our last day in Japan. We tried to make the most of it and crammed a couple more sites into the day. We did however, have to check out of our Hotel in the morning. We therefore, had to find a place to store our luggage whilst we were exploring Kyoto. All major train stations in Japan have coin lockers. Even some of the smaller ones.
Kyoto Station has a very large selection of coin lockers ranging from:
- Small Coin Lockers (approx. 35cm x 43cm x 57cm) that cost 300 yen (currently 1.5£) for 24 hours
- Medium Coin Lockers (57cm x 43cm x 57cm ) that cost 400 yen (currently 2£) for 24 hours
- Large Coin Lockers (approx. 117cm x 43cm x 57cm ) that cost 500 yen (currently 3£) for 24 hours
In Order to use a Coin Locker you will need to 1) find an empty one, 2) put in your luggage, 3) insert the coins (100 yen coins only), 4) close the door and turn the key and 5) take the key with you. Do make sure to get to the station as early as possible. The Coin Lockers are highly sort-after and you could have a hard time finding an empty one, especially of the larger size.
FUSHIMI INARI SHRINE
The Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社) is an important Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto. Fushimi Inari is the most important of all shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto God of Rice. Foxes are thought to be his messengers and several fox statues can be found around the Temple Grounds. The Shrine is particularly famous for its thousands of vermilion Torii Gates. The Torri Gates straddle a network of trails that lead into the wooded forest behind the Temple.
At very back of the Temple’s Main Grounds is the entrance to a Torii Gate covered hiking trail that will take you to the top of Mount Inari – a sacred mountain that also belongs to the Shrine Grounds. The hike to the summit of the mountain and back takes about 2-3 hours. Along the way, you will encounter a set of smaller shrines with stacks of miniature torii gates that were donated by visitors with smaller budgets.
All Torri Gates have been donated by individuals or companies and some of them are inscribed with the donator’s name and the date of donation. The cost o a Torii Gate starts around 400 000 yen (currently 2150 yen) for a small sized gate and increases to over one million yen for a large gate.
There are several restaurants along the trail to the summit of Mount Inari. Most of them offer local dishes such as Inari Sushi and Kitsune Udo (Fox Udon). The main ingredient of bot dishes is Aburaage (fried Tofu), said to be a favorite food of foxes.
Do not feel obliged to hike all the way up to the summit. Most visitors venture only as far as Yotsutsuji Intersection, about 30-45 minutes into the trail and roughly half way up the Mountain. Here the trail splits into a circular route to the summit and offers magnificent views across Kyoto.
Arashiyama (嵐山) is a pleasant but very touristy district in the western outskirts of Kyoto. Arashiyama is particularly popular during the cherry blossom and fall color seasons. There are several local attractions in the area, as well as a plethora of small shops and restaurants. But the most iconic landmark of the area has to be Togetsukyo Bridge (“Moon Crossing Bridge”). It was originally built during the Heian Period (794-1185) and most recently reconstructed in the 1930s. The bridge looks particularly attractive in combination with the forested mountainside in the background. North of central Arashiyama the atmosphere becomes less touristy and more rural. One of the most enjoyable and convenient ways to explore the area is on a rental bicycle. These are available for around 1000 yen (currently 5£) near the train station.
ARASHIYAMA BAMBOO GROVES
The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is one of Kyoto’s Tourist Destinations and and one of the most photogaphed sites in the world. But no picture can capture the feeling of standing in the midst of this sprawling bamboo grove.
Indeed standing amongst the soaring stalks of bamboo is quite an out-of-world experience. The bamboo is used by locals to manufacture various products, such as baskets, cups, boxes and mats. You can access the Bamboo Grove directly from the main street of Arashiyama. The path through the Grove leads directly to the entrance of Okochi-Sanso Villa.
OKOCHI DENJIRO VILLA
Okochi-Sanso Villa is the former villa of the popular actor Okochi Denjiro. It is located at the back of Arashiyama’s bamboo groves. Okochi Sanso consists of several different gardens and buildings, including living quarters, tea houses and gates. The buildings can only be viewed from the outside. The 1000 yen admission (currently 5£) includes matcha green tea and a snack.
MONKEY PARK IWATAYAMA
For 550 yen you can visit and feed the monkeys of Iwatayama Park. Located in the Arashiyama mountains, the entrance to the monkey park can be found just south of the Togetsukyo Bridge. After hiking up a steep hill for about 15-20 minutes, you will find an open area with over a hundred monkeys roaming freely. Enter the feeding house and buy your choice of treats (peanuts or bananas) for 100 yen and proced to feed the monkeys. You will also enjoy the incredible views across Kyoto from the top of the mountain.
DAY 16: FLIGHT HOME
Our flight back London took over 15 hours, with a one and a half hour long stop-over in Istanbul. We flew with Turkish Airlines and were heading towards the sunset, in constant pursuit without ever catching up to it. The Jet-Lag when we returned Home was pretty bad. We had promised ourselves not to give in to it but uickly lost the battle and spent most of the enxt day in Bed rather than enjoying a day-long Star-Wars Marathon.
That`s it, my recommended 14 days itinerary to see the best of Japan. This is, however, a quite packed itinerary. If you want to take things a bit slower, you can cut down on the temples and shrines and choose either Kamakura or Nara. You can also skip both of them as you will be able to see plenty of shrines and temples in Kyoto and Tokyo. Then you can put in an extra day or two in these main cities.
The suggested itinerary can also easily be expanded to suit a three-week trip, that would give you more breaks from traveling, and more time to enjoy each place. You can buy a three week JR Pass, but bear in mind that they are more expensive than the two-week and one week ones.
If you prefer castle to temples, then you should visit the beautiful bright white Himeji Castle on your way from Kyoto to Hiroshima/Miyajima Island. If you are travelling to Japan to explore the local cuisine, I suggest you head to Osaka. Because of our limited time in Japan, we skipped this city but are definitely planning to see it soon.
If you have any questions, pop them down below (in the comment section) and I will do my best to answer them as well as I can.
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If you are planning a trip to Japan, you might want to consider buying one of the following guidebooks. All of these books are ones that we used ourselves on our trip and that I highly recommend.
Read reviews for Hotels, Restaurants and attractions in Tokyo, Japan on TripAdvisor
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