Japan In 9 Days
Some say that trying to understand Japan is like trying to catch a whale with chopsticks. The mix of the old and the new is like nothing else in the world. It’s a hard task to explain exactly why Japan is such a mystical place, but much has to do with the Edo period. In the history of Japan the Edo period or Tokugawa period is the period between 1603 and 1868, when Japan was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate. The period was characterized by economic growth, strict social order, isolationist foreign policies, a stable population, “no more wars”, and popular enjoyment of arts and culture. Especially the isolationist foreign policy means that Japan, instead of looking out to other cultures like much of the rest of the world did, looked inwards. Cultivating a culture and way of living and being that was uniquely Japanese, and not influenced by other cultures.
After the devastation of the second world war, Japan rose to be one of the economic superpowers in the world, in just 40 years. So maybe therefore the strong traditional and religious beliefs are so extremely juxtaposed with the new neon modernism, especially in Tokyo. It’s the birthplace of Japanese Zen Buddhism, that emphasizes self-restraint VS K pop, meditation and insight into the nature of things VS Robot bars and being for the benefit of others VS Shibuya crossing. Maybe since there are so many people crammed into relatively small spaces that there is such extreme order, politeness, respect and cleanliness. The toilets at the underground stations are spotless. The street sweeper cleans his street with tweezers. There is no drinking, eating or smoking on the streets of Tokyo, it’s considered impolite to do so.
If you are a bit apprehensive about going to Japan, like we were, there is no reason to be we found out. If you like order and cleanliness, you will love it. We found that there were no problems finding reasonably priced hotels, cheap meals and getting to the right destination on the trains and underground. Everything is clearly marked; we had no troubles at all in Tokyo. Language barrier is a small issue, not many Japanese speak English, but with smiles and positive attitude, no worries. If you stand for more than 60 seconds at a street or by an underground map, you will have a new friend who will not only tell you which way to go, but who will gladly follow you to your correct exit. In short, we loved Japan more than we thought we would, and we need to go back and explore more. This is our “Japan in 9 days” trip – we got to see amazing things in our short visit, and it was enough days to experience and savor a small taste of Japan. Oh, and did we mention the food? It’s just amazeballs!
Our arrival coincided with the Sakura (March-April approx.), the blooming of the cherry blossoms all over Japan. It’s a big thing, maybe the biggest thing on the Japanese calendar. They have forecasts from January predicting when the Sakura will begin. We got lucky and had some spectacular Sakura moments, in Tokyo and Himeji especially. In Kyoto the Sakura was more or less over, so the blooming varies according to climate in the different parts of Japan.
Flight and arrival
Our flight from Oslo via Helsinki was with Finnair and codeshare with Japan Airways, convenient in the way of not having to detour somewhere to southern Europe before heading eastwards, and great new planes on all flights.
All our hotels were booked with Booking.com – we use this site on most travels, you can book without paying in advance, and also you can cancel or rebook most bookings until the same afternoon as you arrive. Convenient if you have to change plans in a hurry.
When arriving at Narita airport the first thing we did was to exchange our Japan Rail Passes. Look for the JR East Travel Service center.
We decided to do this at the airport, so we did not have to look for this service when arriving in Tokyo city center. You can decide when the pass will start to be valid when you speak with the people at the rail center. We timed it so that we had 7 days, including the day we went home, so that we could use it for the Narita Express train to the airport. We then paid for the one way with the train into Tokyo while at the counter, very convenient. Expect to be in line for a while, but it’s worth it, the people here were knowledgeable about the pass and how it works if you have questions. Read more about our personal experience and advice on the JR Railpass here on the Japan Rail Pass page:
Phrases and bowing
If you feel like learning a few useful words in Japanese, I would recommend “oishii” which means delicious, you can throw that word around a lot, and everyone will light up, just say it like you mean it! “Kanpai” is of course useful, cheers is a word you should know in every language. To say thank you there is several ways “arigato” is a simple thank you, “domo” is a friendly thank you, if you combine the two to “domo arigato” you have thank you very much. “Arigato gozaimasu” is the formal thank you very much, and this is a phrase you will meet often, and can use often. In any shop, restaurant, hotel or otherwise when you have no relation to the person you are talking to, and they or you want to say thank you, of course followed with a bow. If you add “domo” to this phrase, you have a formal thank you very much. Easy. Greetings go after the time of day, “Ohayo” is hello in the morning, “konnichiwa” is hello in the afternoon and “konbanwa” is hello after sunset. Good night is a mouthful “oyasuminasai”. Most of the hello and thank you expressions are followed by a bow, and it is courteous to bow back. There is a lot of bowing in Japan, so get used to bowing a lot. You can bow standing still, and we found that bowing while walking is perfectly ok. There is a whole science to bowing, I won’t even try to explain everything, just bow like you mean it, and keep your back straight while doing it, and you’ll be ok on most occasions. It’s better to bow like a beginner, than not to bow at all.
We were spat out at Shinjuku station, the world’s busiest transport hub, with close to 4 million travelers average per day (!) and 53 platforms in total, it’s quite the introduction to Tokyo. After looking for the correct exit, we kind of found it, and started making our way to our hotel. Thank god for Google maps on that first encounter with Shinjuku! We had made a booking for 3 nights at Shinjuku Granbell Hotel – it looked good, had what we thought was a nice location (it’s always hard to know with a new city) and the price was good. The hotel itself is in the sex hotel district of Shinjuku, but do not be alarmed. Those hotels are for the locals that still live home with mom and dad and need some privacy on their dates. You can choose to rest for 1, 2 or 3 hours, or stay for 24 hours. They are all themed, and more like Disneyland for adults, than a seedy thing. So, no worries, it’s completely safe (like the rest of Tokyo). The hotel is also not far from a very cool area known as a Golden Gai. The Golden Gais are old districts of food and drink, tight streets and even tighter bars and small hole in the wall restaurants. That these places still exist, not having been bulldozed a long time ago, is a stroke of luck. There are still a few very good Golden Gais left in Shinjuku. The bars/restaurants have places ranging from 5 to maybe 30 guests, tight squeeze for all, be sure that you will get to know thy neighbour. Most bars accept visitors, but also expect to be denied, even though the bar is empty. Most of them have a cover charge, some are free. Just try and sit down, you may get yelled at, just try the next place. It’s epic, like being in Blade Runner if it rains. It’s a must visit when in Tokyo.
It’s relatively easy to make your way around Tokyo. The public transport is excellent, and they are used to handling big crowds. The stations, trains and buses are spotless. Move with the crowd and you will go with the flow more easily. Note the footprints on the station floor by the platform’s edge, this is where you stand when boarding the trains. Let off passengers first. There are attendants everywhere, and the toilets are cleaner than most domestic toilets we’ve ever seen. We used the underground for the most part. All lines are colour coded with letters naming the lines, the M line is red for instance. All stations are numbered on each line, all stations, upcoming and previous are clearly marked on led signs in every carriage, both in local writing and western letters. We had no trouble finding our way around stations or ending up on correct trains. Probably the easiest setup ever seen on our travels. Buy a PASMO card at Tokyo Metro and fill it with desired amount of credits to ride around. Visit the metro site for maps and other ticket options.
What to see in Tokyo?
We spent 3 nights in Tokyo. It was enough time to get a feel for the city, and to see the major sights, but you will need weeks if you want to dive deeper into Tokyo. Like with every big city in the world, it’s impossible to do more than scratch the surface within a few days. So, you need to read up on sights that you like the look of, not necessarily the sights that anyone else likes. There are musts in any city, and there are places that maybe only a few will go to, but we feel that doing research is crucial to any big city visit with limited time to look around.
Tokyo Imperial Palace is top of the list on anyone’s first visit to Tokyo. Surrounded by parks and gardens, it is a quiet haven in the busy city, although quiet is not necessarily what you will get, expect throngs of people. Since it was the Sakura while we visited, it was busier than ever, thousands of people eating under the cherry trees, and thousands more walking the walls and moats taking in the awesome sights of the trees with their pink and white flowers. The area is big, some parts are closed off and only accessible to the Imperial Family itself, it’s their residence after all. We spent more than half a day walking around the different gardens, sitting down for tea looking at the moats with hundreds of rowing boats with couples looking for romance under the blooming trees. There are good guided tours, but none was available. For us a highlight was walking around the Nippon Budokan arena, built to host judo tournaments for the 1964 Olympics, for us it’s the venue for legendary “Live At The Budokan” albums from Cheap Trick and Bob Dylan, plus it hosted concerts by The Beatles (first band to play here) to ABBA on their last tour.
That same day we also visited Koishikawa Korakuen Japanese garden not far from Tokyo Dome. One of the oldest and best Japanese gardens in Tokyo, it’s well worth a visit. The garden reproduces famous landscapes in miniature and there are plenty of trails and hidden paths which lead to beautiful viewpoints over the garden. It’s a much quieter place compared to the Imperial Garden for instance, so if you have the time, make the visit.
Sensoji temple is a buddhist temple located in the north area of Asakusa (also nearest station). It’s one of Tokyo’s most popular and colourful temples. It’s also the oldest temple in Tokyo, dating from 645 AD. There is a 200 meters shopping street from the first to the second gate, selling typical Japanese souvenirs. Also there are plenty of snack bars, both in the shopping street, and out behind the temple. We found our visit a bit overwhelming, the crowds were extensive, and we had run a bit low on energy that afternoon.
Not something you do without paying a price. So, we had a quick look around, walked the grounds and took some pictures, and got out of there. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the crowds in Tokyo, and this was a case of overcrowding combined with an empty stomach – a bad combo. We found a good Izakaya (Japanese informal bar/small eatery) to have some snacks and a beer just to calm our nerves. The temple and the grounds around it were beautiful, we just did not have our best energy with us to handle the crowds.
Next day we made our way to The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku. It has two free observation decks at 202 meters above sea level, giving excellent views of the Tokyo skyline and all the way to Mount Fuji. Be there early to avoid queues, they open 09:30 a.m., so we suggest to be there at 09:00 a.m. latest. After our lofty visit, we took the train to Yoyogi Koen station and walked to Fuglen coffee shop to get some caffeine at the hippest Norwegian place outside of Norway. After getting your caffeine hit, walk the backstreets towards the busiest intersection (if you count the pedestrians and tourists taking photos while crossing) in the world. The Shibuya crossing has featured in movies, in every travel program from Tokyo, and well deservedly. It’s a spectacle to see and be there. Our best advice is to enter the Starbucks on the north side 1st floor, and get a seat by the window, and just do some people watching for a while. The ebb and flow of the crowds crossing are epic, and there is always some idiot trying to get that last photo while the crossing is empty, but he/she always ends up nearly getting run over by a car or a Mario Cart.
Its not a too long stroll from Shibuya to Harajuku. If you do the walk, then you should do the Cat Street, running between the two parts of the city. It’s hipster’s paradise, with lots of shops, cafes and smaller places that sell whatever you don’t need. From Shibuya you walk the Meiji-dori avenue north, and you will encounter the start of the street on the right, you will see the golden egg. Keep walking up the street, it will split up into smaller parallel streets, with lots of cool small shops. And it you keep heading up the hill, you will eventually be in Harajuku. Harajuku refers to the area around the Harajuku station, which is between Shinjuku and Shibuya on the Yamanote line. It’s the centre of all that is extreme in the Japanese youth culture, fashion and styles. It offers bonkers shopping, the people watching is epic. If you can find a place to sit and gawk at all the craziness walking by, this is the place to do it. It’s the sort of place you must experience. The Harajuku girls have been the topic of songs, movies and cartoons. This is cosplay central, and Tokyo’s centre of kawaii, the culture of cuteness in Japan. The whole area was mayhem when we visited, on a Saturday afternoon. Thousands of youth cramming the streets, the underground station was so full that no one seemed to be able to move, not getting in and not getting out. Everyone seemed to accept this, and just kept standing, making it a hive of pink and purple hair and the odd mohawk. We basically gave up, and opted to walk to the nearest station north of there, together with hundreds of other people, who got the same idea. One of the most bonkers “only in Japan” moments on our trip.
Where to eat?
This is a hard question. We prefer to just “find a place” that looks good and sit down and see what happens. Tokyo is of course known for good food, especially sushi. So, you will find plenty of places with decent food, if you want the gourmet Michelin star experience, you need to book years in advance, or be prepared to stand in line for hours. We ate at local hole in the wall like the Sugoi Niboshi Ramen Nagi in Goldengai Bekkan. Small place with just a bar counter with chefs behind it. Remember to look for the vending machine at the door in most small eateries in Tokyo, it’s where you make your order and pay, and then present your receipt to the chef behind the counter, and he will make up your order.
Do NOT sit down and expect service at the counter, we did, and was told to head out the door (we thought) but they just (we think) said that we needed to order on the machine by the door. Delish ramen noodles in heavenly broth followed. We also found a good tempura (deep fried in batter stuff) place, since Shinjuku is known for good tempura places. This place was recommended in several places, and we had a blast at tempura Tsunahachi Shinjuku So Honten, it’s worth the wait. Again, we were placed on a bar counter with a stern looking chef behind it, watching over a large cauldron of hot oil. We ordered a tasting of all they had, and we got everything from fresh eel to lotus root. Dining with locals on the chair next to you is always cool, Ørjan ended up befriending a slightly drunk local, both spoke in their native tongues, and had a great time. “Vikingu” was the only thing we understood of the flow of Japanese from the man, lots of “kanpai” and “oishii” made the conversation flow back and forth. Those moments are what we live for, great food, drinks and speaking across language barriers over the love of life. We also tried Korean bbq, there was a street just behind our hotel packed with small bbq joints. You sit at a small table, get the grill between you on the table, and basically grill whatever you order. Everything from small intestine and uterus to kobe beef and wagyu. We have a general rule, if the place if full of locals, GO! If its empty or full of what looks like tourists, avoid!
Tokyo to Hiroshima and Miyajima Island
It takes about 5 hours with bullet train from Tokyo to Hiroshima, with a change of trains at Shin-Osaka station, this is with the regular bullet trains. If you do the direct Nozomi train (does not work with rail pass) it takes about 4 hours.
We made our way to Tokyo station, had a bit of a faff finding the right train, the Tokyo stations are HUGE. There is no lack of information, it’s just that it’s a lot of it, and hard to find out exactly where to go. We found our train, found our seats, and right on time the train left the station. The sensation of the bullet train is like being on a low flying aeroplane. Comfy seats, lots of legroom and lots of scenery rushing by. A tip is to go into all the small shops offering bento boxes in all stations, these are like small to large prepared lunch boxes, with everything from mystery meat to mystery fish and beyond.
At Hiroshima station we stored our luggage, no problem getting this done at any station in Japan. Cost was nominal for 2 bags. From Hiroshima station you can take the tram to ground zero. You will need only 160 yen to travel by streetcar from the station to Kamiyacho Nishi stop near the Atomic bomb dome and the memorial park.
On August 6, 1945, during World War II (1939-45), an American B-29 bomber dropped the world’s first deployed atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The explosion wiped out 90 percent of the city and immediately killed 80,000 people; tens of thousands more would later die of radiation exposure.
To get to the site itself was a powerful, almost overwhelming feeling. We have like all other world citizens, grown up with the tales and pictures from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Both cities linked with the ultimate horrors of war. To see the Atomic Dome from the bridge across the river is soul crunching. Walking around the beautiful memorial park, with the cherry blossoms blowing like pink snow in the air, was something we will never forget. To walk past memorials, still with fresh flowers, there were ceremonies with wreaths being laid down still going on. At the children’s memorial a group of elderly women was being rolled in by wheelchairs to the monument, and they sat there crying, lamenting loss and pain for a full generation. Together we rang the peace gong on the grounds, hoping that history will not forget, that people will not forget, and that horrors like this will never be repeated. This experience was something beautiful, but also harrowing, and a place that should be seen by all that visit this area. Never have we been this close to world history, and felt it so raw.
We had after being tipped by a friend, heard that just south of Hiroshima was Miyajima island. Easily reached by local train from the station, and the ferry is included in the railpass, about an hours’ time from Hiroshima. The small island is best known for its giant torii gate, which at high tide seems to float on the water. It’s ranked as one of Japan’s three best views, so during daytime, expect plenty of day travellers. The official name of the island is Itsukushima, but it’s more commonly referred to as Miyajima, which is Japanese for “shrine island”. The main shrine is Itsukushima Shrine, and like the torii gate, it’s built over water.
The whole island is dotted with shrines, and we had booked a cool traditional ryokan for the night. So, when we arrived in the afternoon, the biggest crowds had gone home. Our room for the night had traditional tatami mats on the floor, and futons straight on the mats. The afternoon was used to look at the torii gate, wander around, and find the small and excellent Miyajima Island Brewery a great find with craft beer and lovely food. We had also been told that we needed to try the okonomiyaki when at the island. This is kind of a savoury pancake, a speciality for the region. We found a small hole in the wall place (again) and entered. It was mom at the huge grill plate, and daughter at cutting vegetables. After using gestures, smiles and laughter, we hoped we had ordered the legendary pancake. And it did not disappoint, made in front of you, it’s pancake batter, noodles, cabbage, sweet soy sauce and lots of goodness galore. All built up until you have a huge stack of omnomnom set up in front of you. It was delish! So if you are in the area, it’s a must!
Next morning we got up bright an early and made our way by ropeway up to the top of mount Misen. At 500 meters above sea level, it gives a commanding view of the sea and inland beyond. There are several Buddhist structures near the peak. You can walk up the whole way, there are 3 hiking trails, but for us the walk from the ropeway all the way up to the top was good enough, it was a way from the cable car exit to the top itself. When at the top, we found out that there were several cool sites along the trail to the bottom, so we decided to walk all the way down again. We ended up having several peaceful sit-downs in shrines all alone, just looking at the effigies, pictures and feeling a peaceful spirit filling our souls. The way down was long, but worth it. The views from the decent were spectacular.
We picked up our bags from the hotel and took the ferry and train back to Hiroshima station that afternoon. We boarded the train for Himeji.
Himeji Samurai Castle
Why Himeji? The nerdy reason is that the Himeji Samurai Castle is a wonder in the game Civilization, so I did some research, and it was on the way, and it looked very cool. We arrived in Himeji in the evening, so we just had a nice meal at a local izakaya, and went to bed. Next day we woke up early, knowing that being early at all major attractions in Japan is key, and that we had a train to board to Kyoto that afternoon. The Himeji Castle is a hilltop castle, it’s also known as White Egret or Heron Castle because of its brilliant white exterior and supposed resemblance to a bird taking flight. The castle is regarded as the finest surviving example of prototypical Japanese castle architecture, comprising of a network of 83 rooms with advanced defensive systems all around. It dates all the way back to 1333, being rebuilt, remodelled and reinvented for centuries to come. It’s the largest and most visited castle in Japan. It’s UNESCO World Heritage listed, and is designated as a national treasure in Japan.
So, it was a bigger deal than we thought initially. If you want to see a samurai castle, it does not come any better than this. The castle itself visible from most of town, since it’s perched on a hill, and it’s an imposing structure. The closer we got, the more excited we got. We were first at the gate when it opened, and we had many parts of the exterior and interior for ourselves the first hour or so. The whole complex, with defensive moats, curved walls, secret entrances, secret attack hallways, trap doors, loopholes, shooting galleries and all over being just awesome, was a highlight in Japan for us. Not to mention all the cherry trees blossoming in the grounds around the castle, made it something we will remember for a long time. Inside they have a cool AR phone function, so that you can point your phone camera at areas, and samurais appear with full regalia, furniture and interior like it was hundreds of years ago. It looks like the castle is 5 floors, but there are floors hidden in the foundation as well. The paths surrounding and entering the castle are built so to confuse attacking enemies. Some paths even turn back on themselves. All around and inside the castle there are ingenious contraptions to make an attack and siege of this castle as difficult as possible. So, to stop on the way to or from Hiroshima, to visit this gem of a castle, is well worth the hours. And if you get there early like us, it’s like walking around in your own castle on a hill.
Bullet train from Himeji to Kyto, just a few hours, and you arrive in what is one of the best-preserved Japanese cities, due to not being bombed like so many other cities, in WW2. Kyoto is considered the cultural capital of Japan, and a major tourist destination. It has a plethora of Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, palaces and gardens. On arrival we checked in to our hotel in downtown Kyoto, and got a bus to the Philosopher’s Path that runs between Ginkakuji and Nanzenji temples in the northern part of the Higashiyama district. It’s known to be THE place to see the cherry blossoms along the canal, it’s the city’s main hanami (cherry blossom viewing) spot. Unfortunately we came a week late for the blossoms, and the trees were bare, so even though the walk was nice, we are sure it’s spectacular when the hundreds of trees are pink and white with flowers. Still the 2 kilometres long walk was a nice experience, with temples dotting the route, and small coffee and tea houses along the way.
We only spent 3 nights in Kyoto, and we needed to sort out where we wanted to go, and what we wanted to see. There are so many places, shrines and palaces, so making your own list of priorities is essential.
Again, to get up early and get to a major tourist destination is key. We knew that we wanted to see the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine. So, we chose to rise early, combining Fushimi Inari with the bamboo forest of Kyoto the first day.
The shrine actually has a good website where you can find out how to get there (by train from city central) – there is a greeting from the head priest and general info. The place itself is one of the most iconic Japanese places, and you will see a photo of the torii gates in any brochure about Japan. The enshrined deity of Inari Okami was put on this site at 711AD, and the shrine itself celebrated its 1300th anniversary in the year 2011. We arrived at sunrise, to have most of the complex alone. Just a few intrepid tourists like us had made that early trek. And it was pure adventure to walk along the hallways made up of thousands of torii gates lining the paths up the mountain. There are 5 shrines and around a thousand torii gates donated by families and businesses for good fortunes. We walked the paths, we witnessed the head priest on his morning walk, and before the major influx of tourists came, we felt very peaceful. If you want to read up more about the shrine itself and the meaning of the Inari, please do – it’s quite fascinating.
After visiting the Inari shrine, we took the train (JR Sagano line to Saga Arashiyama station or Henkyu Railway to Arashiymama Station) to the Arashiyama Bamboo grove, after the torii tunnels of Fushimi Inari, the most photographed place in Kyoto. It is said to be unlike any other forest, and we can understand that feeling, but when we got there, it was chock a block of selfie sticks, bicycles, people, kids, strollers and souvenir sellers. It was pandemonium. We walked through the crowds on the path, and we got an impression of how it would be to go alone, walk this path in peace and quiet. So, go early, like always. We came out the other end, and walked along the lower lake, wandered around the village, but our mojo had left us, and we headed back to Kyoto central.
The afternoon and evening were spent at the Nishiki Market in central Kyoto. A narrow five block long shopping street lined by more than a hundred shops and restaurants. It’s known as Kyoto’s kitchen, and there is everything from fresh seafood, to knives, cookware and Kyoto specialities such as dried seafood and sweets. Just walking the market, stopping for small treats along the way, getting free samples and buying a proper Japanese knife to slay your own sushi when you get home, is very cool. Almost everything sold in the marked is locally produced. Just one note, and that goes for the whole of Japan: it is considered bad manners to walk while eating. So, stand still, or sit down for your meal or samples. We ended up at a local izakaya again and had fried gristles and cows’ stomach in cabbage for dinner.
Day two was rise and shine with the sun, as per usual. We headed for the most famous sight in Kyoto, the Kikaku-Ji, the Golden Pavilion. Built in 1397 as a residence for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the structure was completely covered in gold leaf, earning its name The Golden Pavilion. It became a Zen temple after his death in 1408.
Day two was rise and shine with the sun, as per usual. We headed for the most famous sight in Kyoto, the Kikaku-Ji, the Golden Pavilion. Built in 1397 as a residence for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the structure was completely covered in gold leaf, earning its name The Golden Pavilion. It became a Zen temple after his death in 1408.
It’s not a straightforward journey from Kyoto central to the Golden Pavilion. From Kyoto Station you can take the city bus number 101 or 205 for about 40 minutes. It’s faster to take the Karasuma Subway line to Kitaoji station, and then a taxi for 10 minutes, or like us, walk for half an eternity from the station to the temple. The walk was about 40 minutes, and we made a stop for some noodles for breakfast. We again arrived early, so after entering the complex we had a very nice view across the water to the pavilion itself. The whole complex is artificially made, the pond itself made to reflect the pavilion in all its golden glory. The structure is impressive, it’s the only building left from Yoshimitsu’s home. It has burned numerous times and was last rebuilt in 1955. The complex is a must on a Kyoto itinerary, but get there early, we almost had to fight our way back out again when the crowds picked up.
We had a cool walk through some residential areas, before entering the bus taking us back to the Kyoto old town area and the Yasaka-Jinka shrine which overlooks the Gion entertainment district and is the venue for the city’s biggest annual festival, the Gion Matsuri. Considered to be the spiritual heart of Kyoto, this is the place to come if you want to see what role the Shinto religion plays in the life of locals. People flock here for weddings; we saw several wedding parties hustling for the best photo op on the stairs of the temple. Newborn babies get blessed, there are prayers for love and success, and there are food stalls, picknick benches and all around a good vibe. Just your everyday gaily painted shrine, a great place for people watching. After visiting the shrine, it’s just a walk across the road and you are in the Gion district.
This is the traditional entertainment district of Kyoto. It’s known as the geisha (or geiko to be Kyoto correct) district, known for its kabuki theatres, such as the magnificent Minamiza Kabuki theatre. We just basically got lost in the streets and alleys of Gion. Lucky us spotted three maikos getting off a small bus, walking incredibly fast, and disappearing into a teahouse to prepare for the evening. In Kyoto a geisha is called a geiko, if you are in training to become a geiko, you are called a maiko, and training can be as long as five years, and currently there are about 100 geiko and 100 maiko in Kyoto. Walking around in Gion, you will spot small shrines, temples and tea houses everywhere. Yasui Konpiragu is an especially cool place – it’s a power stone monument to break off bad and initiating good relationships. Also the Kenninji temple, the oldest zen temple in Kyoto, has gone modern with a website. Sit down and meditate at one of the magnificent stone gardens.
A few days in Kyoto is like Tokyo, just enough to scratch the surface of a magnificent city. There is so much to see and do, but as usual, find what you want to see, and what is a must see, and find the middle ground, you can’t see it all. Kyoto was full of surprises, but we also experienced what we dubbed to be “outshrined” – we felt like we saw one too many shrines at one point, and you probably will, they are out of this world.
Last day we took the bullet train back to Tokyo, and spent the last night just in transit waiting for an early flight the next morning back to Norway. Our Japan adventure had been just that, and adventure. When we left we thought that we would maybe not return, feeling that we had seen quite a bit of the must sees of Japan, but after a while we felt the pull to go back. The experience was a powerful one, we loved the cleanliness, the politeness, the way things worked, even with a million people trying to board the same subway train. How everything was organized, how the hypermodern is juxtaposed to the traditional and the zen mentality. We need to go back, and we are now Japanese ambassadors for all who ask “Is it hard to travel around Japan?” we say NO!