Highlights from a second visit to Japan

From Busan in South Korea we took another overnight ferry – the final one on this trip! – to Shimonoseki in Japan. This was my second visit to Japan and Alex’s third. The last time we visited was in 2007 and it was the first time I’d ever travelled outside of Australia. It’s a wonderful country to travel in: efficient transport, great food, clean, safe, and the people are honest, helpful and kind. The only downside is it is a bit on the expensive side, but you can minimise costs by staying in hostels (which are some of the cleanest in the world) and enjoying cup noodles and supermarket sushi (both quite decent in Japan) for some meals.

Lanterns, Kyoto

We spent significantly longer in Japan than any other country on this trip – a little over three weeks (27 Oct – 18 Nov). Three weeks is a good amount because it ties in nicely with the longest Japan Rail pass you can get, but even so it still didn’t feel like enough time. All up we visited Hiroshima, Miyajima Island, Okayama, Naoshima Island, Kyoto, Osaka, Shibu Onsen, Nagano, Sapporo, Sendai and Tokyo. I’ve already mentioned some of these places in a previous post so I thought I’d just highlight some of the new ones this time round which really stood out.

Miyajima Island

Miyajima is an easy day trip from Hiroshima and famous for the “floating” red torii marking the entrance to Itsukushima Shrine. It’s the most famous of the three most beautiful views in Japan. It’s worth staying to observe the torii at both high and low tide: at high tide you get the floating effect and at low tide you can walk right up to it across the sand. Other things you can also do while visiting the island are to hike or take the cable car up to the top of Mount Misen, eat local delicacies (including grilled oysters), and befriend the wild deer that roam around freely.

Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima

Naoshima Island

Naoshima is a cool and arty place. You can visit as a day trip, which is what we did, but it would be even better to stay at least one night to give yourself more time to explore everything it has to offer. We hired bikes to get around and visited the bizarre 007 Museum as well as the modern art museum section of Benesse House. There’s a cute cafe near the entrance to Benesse House which serves delicious and somewhat unique Japanese food and is run by a nice girl who took orders, cooked and served all by herself. If we’d had more time we could have checked out the Art House Project, Chichu Art Museum and Lee Ufan Museum. We almost visited the surreal I Love Yu bath house but hadn’t brought soap and towels with us and we didn’t want to pay extra for new ones.

Yellow pumpkin, Naoshima Island

Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen museum, Osaka

This museum gets a special mention all of its own just because it was so much fun! Maybe it’s not for everyone, but if you’re as much a fan of authentic Japanese Nissin Cup Noodles as we are this is a must visit. For those that don’t know the humble Nissin Cup Noodle, is is quite simply, the best cup noodle you will ever eat. But! Only the Japanese ones are worthy of this qualification. You can get Nissin Cup Noodles in other parts of Asia, even in Australia, but they’re not nearly as amazing as the original Japanese ones. Truly.

Momofuku Ando was the inventor of instant ramen (ie 2 minute noodles) and part of the team that later perfected the cup variety. The museum is on the outskirts of Osaka and dedicated to the development of these products but the best part is the My Cup Noodle Factory. Here you get to create your very own one of a kind cup noodle, from designing the cup itself to choosing which ingredients are added. The museum is free but it’s ¥300 to participate in My Cup Noodle Factory. (Well worth it in my opinion!) The factory section is very popular so head there first to make sure you get to do it before the museum closes.

My Cup Noodle Factory

(Credit goes to our friend Hamish for mentioning this place to us. Catching up with Hamish was a another highlight of our brief time in Osaka!)

Shibu Onsen and the Jigokudani Monkey Park

We knew we wanted to visit the famous monkey park and picked Shibu Onsen as a base because it is the nearest town. Staying in Shibu Onsen turned out to be even better than the park we’d come to visit and is quite simply one of the loveliest experiences we’ve ever had in Japan! It’s a small hot spring town with 9 public baths which are free to use if you’re staying in local accommodation. It’s perfectly acceptable, in fact actively encouraged, to walk around Shibu Onsen wearing your yukata – you can even wear it to visit the local restaurants in between baths. Our favourite of those restaurants was the soba house Yariya where the food was delicious and staff lovely – they even gave us a small piece of art as a gift. We stayed at Senshinkan Matsuya and it’s quite possibly the nicest ryokan we’ve ever been to: super nice owners, beautiful room, excellent breakfast, right in the centre of town, free lifts – and it was actually the cheapest option we could find! Amazing, and highly recommended.

The monkey park was great fun too. It’s better to visit when the weather is cooler as the monkeys are more likely to be bathing in their personal hot spring: winter would be a particularly enchanting time to go. But even when they’re not bathing they’re great fun to observe. There are so many of them and they have lots of character!

Jigokudani Monkey Park

Sapporo

The last time we visited Japan we went south to Okinawa, this time we went north to visit Hokkaido. We based ourselves in Sapporo at Jimmyz Backpackers, a great little hostel run by one super cool dude. We wandered around town and visited some of its unusually western buildings, admired the stunning autumn leaves at Nakajimakoen, devoured super tasty soup curry, and maybe tested a little bit too much beer at the Sapporo Beer Museum. Nothing particularly fancy, but we had a really enjoyable time because Sapporo is just a really nice and laid back town. (The people seem to have particularly cool fashion sense too.) I’d like to go back to Hokkaido one day and spend some time exploring the rest of what it has to offer as it feels quite unique and distinct from the rest of Japan.

Nakajima Park, Sapporo

[more photos]

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First timer’s guide to Japan

Japan was the first country I ever visited outside of Australia. I spent three weeks there in April 2007 and absolutely loved it. This is the general list of info I give friends as a starting point for further research when they’ve asked me for recommendations on what to do and see there.

Getting around
I highly recommend getting a Japan Rail pass. You’ll have to buy it before you get there (it can’t be purchased inside Japan) but it gives you free passage on any Japan Rail (JR) trains which includes some shinkansen (bullet trains). Take note in Tokyo that while it allows free travel on the Yamanote (city circle) line it doesn’t cover the other inner city lines as they’re not operated by JR.

JR passes are expensive but worth it if you’re planning on doing several trips between cities. You can get more detailed information including pricing at the official Japan Rail Pass website and Hyperdia provides comprehensive timetable information. The trains always run on time.

Shinjuku at night

Accommodation
Hotel and hostel rooms are tiny but very clean. If you want to treat yourself, stay at a ryokan (traditional inn) or minshuku (like a B&B). They can be a little expensive but really are something special. Japan Guesthouses is a great site for finding ryokans and similar accommodation in Japan. For another uniquely Japanese experience you could stay in a capsule inn. We spent one night in Capsule Inn Namba in Osaka just for the experience and it was interesting! (We chose that one because at the time it was one of the only ones we could find that allowed female guests, but this might be more common now.)

Language
As with any country you might visit it’s definitely worth making the effort to learn some basic phrases such as thank you, excuse me, yes, no. (Japanese pronunciation is easier than you think!) I’d also recommend taking a phrase book as not everyone you will meet will speak English and it comes in handy… such as when you’re desperately trying to find the platform your bullet train will depart from in the next 10 minutes. In general I found people in Tokyo were less impressed with my attempts at Japanese than those further south, who were often quite delighted to hear us having a go.

The lovely flavour of the wind in the meadows

Places to go
My favourite city (that I’ve been to so far – I plan to go back one day and see more!) is Osaka. You have to see Tokyo as well but Osaka is a bit more relaxed and friendly. (I like to think Osaka is to Tokyo what Melbourne is to Sydney.) Osaka is also very close to Kyoto, so if you’re going to one you should make time for the other. Kyoto is popular because it’s full of temples and shrines, although you do have to seek those areas out. It’s easy to arrive in Kyoto expecting to be transported back in time but if you don’t seek out the traditional areas it looks like any other modern city.

If you’d like to see somewhere that is completely traditional, Tsumago is the place to go. Tsumago is a beautiful old postal town on the Nakasendo highway which connected Kyoto and Tokyo. (It’s more of a hiking trail now.) The town is more or less a living museum – there are laws in place to make sure the residents don’t modernise their homes too much (by installing TV antennas etc) to preserve the historial look of the buildings.

Tokyo recommendations
Tokyo is HUGE. It’s the biggest city I’ve ever been to and it feels somewhat never-ending. It’s easier to tackle if you break it down into districts. The ones I’ve been to are:

Harajuku: A great place to check out on a Sunday – young trendies dress up in all sorts of costumes and crazy fashion outfits and stand around the train station posing for photos. There’s also a super cool multistory toy shop called Kiddy Land opposite the station. I’ve never seen sidewalks as crowded as the ones in Harajuku, it’s a sight to behold in itself!

Asakusa: A great place to go to see the sakura (cherry blossoms) in Spring. There are also lots of temples in the area and a cool (albeit somewhat touristy) market.

Akihabara: The electronics district. Full of video game arcades, techy shops and anime/manga shops.

Shibuya: Popular shopping district home to that famous intersection/pedestrian crossing and Love Hotel Hill.

Shinjuku: Popular nightlife area and home to Tokyo’s red light district.

Obaiba: Waterside area with theme parks (including a ramen museum!) and shopping centres with cinema complexes. The trip to Odaiba is half the fun as you ride the Yurikamome elevated train which weaves its way between skyscrapers. It feels like something out of Blade Runner.

Side street, Harajuku

Kyoto recommendations
Johnnie Hillwalker operates an excellent walking tour which explores some of Kyotos temples, shrines and small workshops. The tour ends at the beautiful and famous Kiyomizu temple which offers wonderful views of the city.

The Path of Philosophy is a popular place for hanami (sakura/cherry blossom viewing). The path is roughly one kilometre long and you can take detours along the way to visit various temples and shrines.

Before you get sick of temples and shrines (it happens!), one other place I highly recommend is Fushimi Inari Shrine. It sits at the base of a mountain and features trails that climb up the mountain to lots of smaller shrines. Inari is the god of rice and the patron of business and the paths are lined with stunning red torii (ornamental gates) donated by Japanese businessmen.

A nice day trip is to visit Arashiyama on the outskirts of Kyoto. Once you get there you can ride the Sagano Torokko Ressha (Romantic Train) along the Hozu River to a departure pier then take a boat back into the heart of Arashiyama. The boat tour takes about two hours and both trips (on the train and down the river) are very picturesque. There’s also a monkey park on the top of a mountain in Arashiyama!

Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto

Osaka recommendations
Osaka’s aquarium is one of the biggest in the world and it’s the best aquarium I’ve ever been to. A giant tank runs up the centre of the building and a path winds its way around it in a spiral. The aquarium is home to some very cool residents, such as its famous whale shark and a tank full of giant deep sea crabs.

Dotonburi is a popular shopping and entertainment district full of neon and mechanised signs and lots of different places to eat, including stalls offering Osakan specialities takoyaki (octopus balls) and okonomoyaki (Japanese pancake).

Denden Town is Osaka’s equivalent of Akihabara in Tokyo; the main electronics district with its own fair share of video game and anime shops.

The Umeda Sky Building offers an excellent view of Osaka (particularly spectacular at night, imho). The basement houses a replica of a Japanese street from the early Showa Period which includes places to eat.

A nice day trip from Osaka is to take a train out to visit the stunning Himeji Castle.

Himeji Castle

One last general thing I highly recommend you experience at least once is to visit an onsen (bath house). Secret Japan has a great database of onsen including photos and ratings.

All in all this is just a tiny sampling of what Japan has to offer. Japan Guide is an excellent resource for further research into what there is to see and do in Japan. (It also has some really useful guides to Japanese etiquette, which I would recommend checking out as etiquette is taken very seriously in Japan.)