Tag Archives: Japan

Travel Guide: Tokyo

People love Tokyo. Rave about it. Spend days there and then return for another visit.

I have to admit, I don’t quite get it. I liked being in Tokyo because it’s just sort of cool to be in a city of 9.2 million people with the greater population totaling around 13 million. Unlike many other major cities, Tokyo is clean and it functions and people are so polite and helpful. It also, oddly, doesn’t feel crowded at all, perhaps because it sprawls. As a friend pointed out when I shared my lack of enthusiasm of Tokyo, the city is fascinating because there’s no other place like it.

Tokyo was the last stop on my Japan trip with my parents when they came to visit Singapore. We were based in Kyoto and Hiroshima before spending the last two days of our trip in Tokyo. We took the shinkansen (bullet train) from Hiroshima and passed the enormous Mt. Fuji on the way. I was too enthralled with staring out the window to take out my camera; it rose up out of nowhere and then the landscape flattened out again. I’m using to seeing mountain ranges, not singular mountains. Really quite cool.

Once we arrived at Tokyo station, we had to navigate the metro to the hotel. I don’t know whether it’s better to say that I went the wrong way or that I lost Mum and Dad, but everyone arrived in the end. Tokyo’s metro is confusing because it’s comprised of multiple train systems that seem to overlap but tourist passes only work on some of them. Multiple train lines are located in the same stations so you really do need to know where you’re going and how to get there. If you’re not looking at the correct map, it’s really easy to get on the wrong train going in the correct direction. If this happens, your ticket won’t scan on the way out and you have to pay the ticket agent in cash. Not a big deal but best to avoid since you’ve paid for a pass anyway.

After reuniting, our first stop was the Meiji Shrine in Yoyogi Park. I was definitely more interested in the walk through the trees than the shrine itself. It was nice to see grass and feel wide open space after a long train ride and an abrupt reintroduction to urban life.

From there we made our way to Harajuku to walk down Takeshita Street where there’s something for everyone as long as you’re open to it.

Takeshita Street felt like a place of relatively few rules or boundaries where kids could act like adults and adults could remember being kids. It was a fantastic place to look around and laugh at the juxtaposition of Tokyo business suits and teenagers wearing the height of Japanese fashion trends.

After some browsing in shops along the way, our last stop for the evening was Shibuya Crossing. Like everyone else, we crossed the street and then looked out the windows of the train station across the road.

In contrast to the lights and glamor of Shinjuku where we were staying we spent much of the next day in Asakusa, a neighborhood typical of traditional Tokyo.

We enjoyed looking at all the little shops and stalls but were not fond of the crowds leading to the temple. Senso-ji is a popular tourist attraction and was extremely busy on this Saturday morning. I was more than happy looking at the intricacies of the gates and leaving the temple itself to devotees.

The weather in Tokyo was the best we’d had so we took the opportunity to walk across the river on our way to the Tokyo Skytree. Much like travelling around Europe, it wasn’t hard to find. We headed for the tallest building and followed the signs as we got closer.

There are two options if you’re interested in the observation deck of the Skytree, which is the world’s tallest tower. You can take the lift up 350 meters and stop there or go all the way up to 450 meters. There’s a third option that is an open air guided tour complete with hard hats, but Mum vetoed that. The view from 450 meters was astounding enough.

It’s dizzying being up there, too! It’s really, really high!

We wandered around some more for the rest of the afternoon and then found Popeye, the bar that sells the greatest variety of beer in Tokyo and also brews its own. Their happy hour deal included a free appetiser with every beer ordered. Dinner, anyone?

To close the day, we looked down on Tokyo at night. The observatory at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is free, open late, and 200 meters up. Pretty cool view from up there, too.

And then it was back to vibrant, bright Shinjuku for bed. I’d wanted to visit that neighborhood since I read my first Haruki Murakami novel and there we were. I don’t know if I’ll make much of an effort to come back to Tokyo, but I’d love to visit Japan again. There’s so much more see and experience. But then, that’s true of every place. Mum and Dad, thanks for joining me on this adventure! I’m already looking forward to the next one.

Travel Guide: Hiroshima and Miyajima

After my parents and I spent four nights in Kyoto and visited Himeji and Osaka while based there, we boarded an early shinkansen (bullet train) for Hiroshima where we spent two night. The train ride itself was easy and comfortable and we arrived in warm, sunny Hiroshima around late morning.

It was in Hiroshima where I met my new favorite Japanese dish, okonomiyaki. What a great and customizable way to eat all sorts of things! It was also in Hiroshima where the weather markedly improved, making for far more comfortable wanderings through town.

The main tourist attraction in Hiroshima is to visit the Peace Memorial Park and that was our plan for the rest of the day. I’m struggling with which verb to use to describe what it feels like to stand in that park and think about what happened there. To think about where we are now and whether we’ve accomplished anything at all.

What really got to me was not the Atomic Bomb Dome . . .

not the paper cranes of the Children’s Peace Monument . . .

and not the memorials scattered throughout the park.

What really got me was feeling of life throughout the park. Vivacity. The everyday living of everyday people. As we all are; as we all do. People were picnicking under cherry blossoms and I didn’t want to stop watching them. It makes so much sense to memorialize the 150,000+ people who died as a result of the atomic bomb by filling a park with beauty and life. Beauty and life, laughter and smiling children, families and friends. The park was a place for people to connect with others, learn about each other, and know each other.

The park was a peaceful place, a living memorial to lives lost. And maybe a sign that we have indeed accomplished something.

And Hiroshima really did parks beautifully. As the sun began to set we walked through Shukkeien, a charming garden built around a koi pond. We watched turtles move slowly from their perches on rocks back into the water and carp jumping to catch bugs in the air. I really enjoyed the moss covering the ground, which seems to be a feature of Japanese parks. Interesting, there doesn’t appear to be grass anywhere.

The next morning we took the ferry to Miyajima, an island populated by about 2,000 people and very friendly deer.

We spent the morning wandering the little streets full of restaurants and souvenirs shops . . .

. . . and checked out the temples and shrines.

The real attraction for me, though, was the hike up Mount Misen. I was very happy to be in the forest and in the sunshine. The climb was more challenging than I expected because it was mostly stone staircases heading directly uphill, but I was so happy to be in the air. It was good to feel my legs and lungs working and I peeled off layers and rolled up my sleeves as I went.

The view was spectacular . . .

. . . and I cannot deny that the shrines were lovely.

I was basking in the feeling of the climb as we sat at the Miyajima Brewery before dinner. Looking down to the beach we saw locals digging for clams.

Friends had told me that it was important to stay until the sun went down and there was no question that we would. The pink sky over the torii gate quietly closed a day spent outdoors by the sea.

Our time in Hiroshima and Miyajima was a restful couple of days in a beautiful place and we left for Tokyo the next morning relaxed and refreshed. Stay tuned!

Travel Guide: Kyoto and Around

April is cherry blossom season in Japan and it’s as beautiful as everyone says. April is also early spring, which means the weather is highly variable. Umbrellas and layers were key to feeling comfortable wandering around Kyoto, Japan’s Imperial capital beginning in the 8th century. It remained the seat of power in Japan for over a thousand years and historic monuments, shrines, and temples abound. Renting a kimono for the day is a common activity in Kyoto and it was fun to see people dressed up – almost like going back in time!

This was my first trip in Asia with both parents and it was a fully immersive experience. (Dad and I went to Thailand and Vietnam a few years ago when I first moved to Singapore.) We took the shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto immediately after we landed and that made for a long day of travel; we were glad to finally be there!

We settled in and then went to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, which was beautiful in the rain. The sound of the trees and smell of the earth was a lovely change from urban life in Singapore.

The next morning was sunny and we started early at Fushimi-Inari, a Shinto shrine known for its red torii gates. Fushimi-Inari is guarded by foxes and statues of them are located around the mountain. It was a beautiful walk and felt other worldly, as though passing through each set of gates was a doorway to somewhere else.

The view on the way up was stunning, too.

My dad wanted to visit Tofukuji Temple because he’d read that it has beautiful gardens, which I’m sure it does once spring actually blooms. But trees were budding and the ground was covered in moss and that was good enough for me.

From there, we went to Nishiki Market, a covered arcade of streets selling all sorts of food products, clothing, and souvenirs. I was mostly interested in the food stalls and we returned a couple days later to explore further. It was so enjoyable to smell new smells, taste new tastes, and just look around. Markets are always a travel highlight for me because they bring so much life there in so many different forms.

We ended the day wandering through some lovely streets with little shops and visiting Kodaiji Temple. The gardens around the temple included a bamboo forest and an exquisite cherry tree in full bloom, which was definitely the main attraction.

I really appreciate how Japanese gardens are sculpted and landscaped but not manicured. It makes them lovely in a very believable way.

Among the many nice elements of traveling in Japan is the convenience of trains. The Japan Rail pass allows foreign tourists access to most of Japan’s trains (like the Euro Rail Pass) and trains don’t require reservations. They are also very clean and extremely timely and comfortable!

Kyoto is an easy base for day trips and we took one out to Himeji Castle, Japan’s largest castle and one of very few that have remained intact. I was really glad that we opted for the guided tour. The tour guide was knowledgeable and friendly and more than made up for the lack of signage.

From there, despite the chilling rain that had begun to fall, we got back on the train to visit Osaka where we hoped to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening. Mum and I walked around the moat of Osaka Castle (Dad got a little lost or left behind – long story), occasionally putting up our umbrellas for the rain that alternated with patches of bright sunshine.

When it began to hail, however, we realized we needed another plan. After battling the driving rain and wind to get to the train station we returned to Kyoto and sheltered indoors to dry off. Not all plans work out and travel is an adventure, right?

Our last day in Kyoto was the nicest we’d had and I’m especially glad it was sunny because we went to Kinkaku-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple, and it was utterly stunning.

We walked to a pretty shrine surrounded by a garden of cherry blossoms and food stalls on our way back to the center of town . . .

. . . and then spent the rest of the morning in Nishiki Market where I took most of the photos above. From there, we visited the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts, which was informative as well as free! It was useful in explaining much of the handiwork we’d seen and some of Kyoto’s history, particularly in terms of the geisha culture that still exists in a much smaller form.

After dinner in Gion, Kyoto’s most famous geisha district, it was time for one more sleep before boarding an early train to Hiroshima.

We had experienced all kinds of weather, tried new food, visited beautiful places, and were excited for something new. Stay tuned!