Japan in 2 weeks: an amazing trip by Asell & Kevin

Tokyo, Kamikochi, Kyoto, Koyasan, Hiroshima, Miyajima Island
Overview

Japan had always been on top of our travel list but somehow we kept postponing it. We wanted to do it right. Japan is a huge country with a very rich culture and it seemed like a daunting task. Where should we start? How long would be enough? What would we really like to see? Those questions seemed overwhelming but as we started planning our trip and discussing Japan with friends who had already been there, a classic 2-week itinerary soon emerged: Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima & Miyajima. We wanted to see as much as possible so we also squeezed in Kamikochi (Japanese Alps) and Koyasan (Buddhist village on a mountain).

This Japan trip was amazing and, while it was fairly consistent with what we imagined from Japanese literature and movies, it did not fail to blow us away and surprise us in so many ways. Japanese culture is fascinating with its subtle mix of technophilia and ancestral traditions, especially in Tokyo where we could easily have stayed a whole month without getting tired of it. Food is also incredible; wherever you go you are unlikely to be disappointed. Outside of the capital we discovered breathtaking sceneries that will stay with us forever like the autumnal foliage of Kamikochi or the sunset falling on the great gate of Miyajima.

We hope that this trip can inspire you to visit Japan and that our words and photos can convey a tiny bit of our adventures in Japan. Check out my Flickr to see our full photo album.

Note: we stayed together two weeks in Japan and after that I stayed another two weeks on my own to hike the Kohechi Trail in Kumano Kodō on the Kii Peninsula and train in Aikido in Tokyo. In the coming weeks I will write a second trip about Kohechi.

Trip route

Step by step

Day 1: Tokyo | Meiji Jingu, Harajuku

We landed in Tokyo at 7:30 AM after a 12-hour flight. Needless to say we were quite jet-lagged and tired.

After picking up our Japan Rail Passes (see practical information), which took about 45 minutes as there was a long queue, we headed to our hotel in Akasaka-mitsuke. It was too early to check in – and we were trying to avoid sleeping – so we didn't lose time and started exploring the city.

For lunch we went for the first Ramen place we found on the way (幸楽苑赤坂店) and it turned out to be great: delicious and cheap, which is, as we found out, quite the standard in Japan.

We walked around in Harajuku and then visited Meiji Jingu, Tokyo's most famous shrine, dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife. It's a really beautiful location. There was a wedding procession when we were there so it was a very nice experience for our groggy eyes.

The walk is actually quite long and at that point we were on the verge of collapsing from fatigue so we crashed for a few hours at our hotel room. We woke up a few after hours after and had dinner in Roppongi at Jomon Roppongi.

Day 2: Tokyo | Sensō-ji (Asakusa), Akihabara

We got up early and visited Sensō-ji in Asakusa. This is Tokyo's most ancient temple (628 AC). It's undoubtedly one of the city's most impressive sights. The area around the temple is also quite enjoyable with all the little shops and picturesque streets and alleys. The visit takes about 2-3 hours at least in order to take the time to observe everything.

We continued the day with Ueno and the Ueno Onshi Park. We found the Shinobazu Pond especially amazing with its little boats and huge lotuses. Surrounded by the city buildings, it really has a unique feel. Just before lunch we then walked to Nezu. There are many temples. You have to explore the streets between Kototoi-dori and Yanesen to find them.

For lunch we had some tempura food and took the train to the famous 'Electric City': Akihabara. It's quite a bit of fun to explore the area with all its game arcades and anime buildings stretching on many floors that you need to reach through tiny escalators. Some of the games are really addictive, no matter how obscure they may look at first.

In the evening, we had a walk in Shibuya and finally witnessed and experienced the legendary crossing where as many as 2,500 people can cross at the same time! For dinner we went to a Shabu Shabu place where you get unlimited meat and vegetables for two hours. There's also an all-you-can-drink beer formula in case you are thirsty ;)

Day 3: Tokyo | Tsukiji Market, Hamarikyu Gardens

We started our third day in Tokyo by visiting Tsukiji Market where some of the biggest tunas in the world are auctioned every morning. We didn't go to the tuna auction as you have to be there very early to get a spot (before 4 AM from what we have read). Instead we arrived at Tsukiji Market around 9 AM and enjoyed some delicious sushi breakfast. The most famous sushi places at Tsukiji Market are Sushi Dai and Daiwa Sushi but they fill up pretty fast so in order not to wait we opted for Sushisay where we had the freshest and tastiest sushis of our life yet. For the sake of the experience make sure to pick the chef's platter to discover new types of sushi. In our case we were surprised to find so many types of tuna sushi (they vary depending on how fat they are).

After this sushi breakfast we visited the Tsukiji Market. After the tuna auction early in the morning, the market opens again its doors to the general public from 9:00 AM. Access is not allowed to all the areas – make sure to grab a map at the entrance to know where you can and cannot go. This is a place of work and there are many mini-trucks driving around so be very aware of your surrounding.

Next to Tsukiji Market are the beautiful Hamarikyu Gardens so we went there for a walk. With its magnificent trees cut in the tradition of Japanese gardens surrounded by the buildings of the city, this is easily one of the highlights of our trip. We even preferred it to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden but maybe that's because we were in Hamarikyu quite early so the gardens were very peaceful. In the middle of the gardens is a very nice tea house where you can enjoy matcha green tea.

After that we went to the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower for a breathtaking panomara of Tokyo. We also visited the Mori Arts Center and Art Museum in the same building (the ticket gives you access to the observation point and the museum).

For lunch we enjoyed some delicious gyozas at Harajuku Gyozaro in Omotesando.

We used the rest of the day to chill and do some shopping in Omotesando and Harajuku. We also had great coffee at Omotesando Koffee. The place is very popular though so we had to wait a bit.

In the evening we visited Shinjuku and tried Okonomiyaki – delicious savoury pancakes that you can customize to your liking – for the first time. Finally, we had some drinks in one of the little bars of Golden Gai. This area is very picturesque and definitely had a Blade Runner feel – the alleys of Golden Gai allegedly served as inspiration for Ridley Scott's 1982 sci-fi classic.

Day 4: Tokyo | Chilling in Shimokitazawa and Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

Our fourth day in Tokyo was quite laid back. In the morning we just walked around in Shinjuku and Gyoen National Garden. The park is quite impressive and just like with New York's Central Park you get this feeling of urban jungle with the skyscrapers surrounding nature.

We had lunch in Shibuya at Ippudo Shiromaru Base. We went there because of the recommendation from a friend as well as good online reviews but we didn't really like it. We had the ramen with pork and egg and it was just really too fat.

In the afternoon we went off the beaten path and headed to Shimokitazawa, a hip neighborhood in the west of Tokyo (about 15 minutes by train from Shibuya). Shimokitazawa is full of indie clothing shops and coffee places, to the extent that some have started calling it the 'Williamsburg of Tokyo'. There's not necessarily more choice than in Omotesando or Shibuya but the atmosphere is definitely worth it.

In the evening we indulged in some fried food at the Gaburi Chicken just near our hotel.

Days 5-6: Kamikochi 'Japanese Alps'

On the 5th day (Thursday) of this trip to Japan in 2 weeks we took a train to Matsumoto, then another one followed by a bus to reach Kamikōchi. For our first venture outside of Tokyo we were quite surprised of how easy and smooth it was to get there.

Kamikōchi is a high mountain valley in the Hida Mountains that are part of the Japanese Alps. Kamikōchi is about 18 km (11.1 mi) long and between 1,400 m (4,600 ft) and 1,600 m (5,200 ft) high.

It was undoubtedly one of the places we were longing to visit the most, because of all the pictures we had seen while preparing our trip. We were not disappointed – the scenery is beautiful with amazing autumnal colors.

We arrived in Kamikōchi around midday and after dropping our bags and getting a quick lunch we started hiking the valley. The weather was perfect: sunny with a nice breeze to keep us fresh. We hiked the northern part of Kamikōchi until the Myojin Pond and then went back on the other side of the Azusa River to explore the southern part and Taisho Pond. The mix of autumn foliage, Japanese vegetation and mountain scenery was stunning and unlike anything we had seen before.

The valley is mostly flat and the trail is not difficult at all so it's really accessible to everyone. We noticed that most people were wearing bells on their backpack and we should have understood why when we saw bear warning signs. Especially around Taisho Pond there's a sign indicating that a bear has been spotted there. It was getting dark and there were not so many people so we started to worry a little but fortunately we didn't encounter any furry creatures.

We spent the night at Kamikochi Nishi-Ito-Ya-Sanso in a traditional Japanese room. The highlight was undoubtedly the dinner with a florilège of dishes including fresh fish from Kamikōchi. Like with most places in Japan it's recommended to book in advance. We did so by email and only had to pay upon arrival.

The next day we got up early and reached the end of the trail in the northern part of Kamikōchi. This is where the trails to reach the surrounding mountains start. If we had time we would have loved to stay a couple of extra days to hike one of those mountain trails. Funnily on the way back we were interviewed by a Japanese TV channel. After the usual questions like where are you from, why did you come to Kamikōchi, they asked us about 'Karasawa'. We first thought of the famous director Kurosawa – did he ever film in Kamikōchi?? – but they informed us it was a very famous mountain in the Japanese Alps. This put a stop to the interview. The anchorwoman and her team obviously wanted to gather our impressions on this natural landmark but we shamefully had never heard of it. If only we had read a bit more about the place! Needless to say we felt a bit dumb. Hopefully we haven't become some kind of meme in Japan by now – that is if our feat ever aired on TV.

In the afternoon we returned to Matsumoto and travelled to Kyoto (with a transfer in Nagoya) where we arrived late in the evening.

Days 7: Kyoto | Southern Higashiyama and Gion

We started our visit of Kyoto with Tainai-Meguri (gate) and Kiyomizu-dera, a beautiful temple perched on a hill with breathtaking views.

We then walked on the busy but charming street Sannen-zaka and stopped at Kasagi Ya for a nice tea break with delicious Japanese sweets like rice cakes with shaved ice (kakigōri).

After that we continued exploring Higashiyama with Murayama-kōen (park) and Shōren-in, another buddhist temple.

Note that there are many temples to visit in Kyoto but each visit can take quite some time so you may want to make a selection beforehand in order not to rush and take the time to appreciate each temple. This is what a Japanese friend from Kyoto recommended to us before our trip and we soon realized it was the good approach to visit Kyoto in three days.

In the evening we headed to Gion the geisha and entertainment district of Kyoto where many restaurants are located. We had another delicious okonomiyaki in Gion Tanto.

In Kyoto we stayed at the lovely Ryokan of Ms. Uemura who have been welcoming guests in her home for over thirty years. The place is ideally located in southern Higashiyama just next to the beautiful street Ishibei-koji. This area was magical and embodied exactly how we imagined cute traditional Japanese streets. Ryokan Uemura represented the quintessential authentic Japanese experience with its rustic but very comfortable facilities. It was a pleasure to chat with Ms. Uemura every day and to enjoy a great breakfast in the morning before heading for a full day of walking. Note that there's a curfew at 22:00 so we had to plan our evenings accordingly.

Day 8: Kyoto | Golden & Silver Pavilion Temples, Philosopher's Walk

On our second day in Kyoto we started early in the morning by visiting the Golden Pavilion Temple (Kinkaku-ji) located in the northeast part of the city. Kinkaku-ji is Kyoto's most famous temple and undoubtedly one of the most beautiful. It also has a fascinating story: the temple was burned to the ground by a schizophrenic monk obsessed by its beauty. The visit is quite quick as you can only see the temple from outside but it's definitely worth it. Kinkaku-ji was stunning at this time of the year with the autumn foliage perfectly blending with the golden colors of the temple. We have seen pictures of the Golden Pavilion Temple in the snow and it also looked breathtaking so we may come back if we ever visit Japan during winter.

After that we struggled our way back by bus to Higashiyama and had a great lunch at Omen. It was one of the best meals of our trip: Omen serves delicious soba (noodles) dishes with a very subtle and hearty mix of vegetables. Highly recommended!

We then visited Ginkaku-ji (aka Jishō-ji), the Temple of the Silver Pavilion. It was easily our favorite temple experience in Kyoto with its magnificent zen garden. There was something incredibly calming and inspiring about this visit. I guess each temple is likely to touch everyone differently and Ginkaku-ji really hit a special chord with us.

After that we followed the legendary Philosopher's Walk leading us to visit more temples like Honen-in and Anraku-ji. Tokyo's iconic pedestrian path is famous for its cherry trees so, unfortunately, it was not that impressive in November. This is just one more good reasons to come back to Japan for the cherry blossoms season!

To conclude this day we had a nice dinner at Shishin Samurai Cafe & Bar & Restaurant (Samurai Restaurant). Despite its name that made us fear a tourist trap, the place felt very authentic with its dim-light atmosphere and samurai artefacts everywhere. The concept is very well-thought of with the dishes and drinks on the menu pertaining to famous samurais like Yamaoka Tesshū (I highly recommend the great biography of this great sword warrior by John Stevens, The Sword of No Sword). Although warmed up rather than cooked on spot, the food was very tasty and the selection of sake was also very nice.

Day 9: Kyoto | Fushimi Inari-taisha, Arashiyama (bamboo forest)

For our third and last day in Kyoto, we started by visiting the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine, Kyoto's most famous attraction, even more so since it was featured in Memoirs of a Geisha (2005). The shrine is famous for its many red gates (torii) leading to various shrines up a small mountain. The climb reaches 233 metres (764 ft) and spans 4 kilometers (2.5 miles). The whole circuit takes about 2 hours to complete.

In the afternoon, after having some tasty soba lunch we visited the Bamboo forest, Arashiyama, located in the southwest part of Kyoto. The walk was really amazing with a path surrounded by bamboos so thick and so high you can barely see the sky. At the end of the bamboo road is Ōkōchi Sansō, the former home and garden of Japanese actor Denjirō Ōkōchi famous in the 20s. The garden is especially stunning and offers a breathtaking view of Kyoto. You can also enjoy a complimentary matcha green tea offered with the entry ticket to the garden.

Finally, to conclude our stay in Kyoto we enjoyed our first yakiniku in Japan at Kyo no Yakinikudokoro Hiro Sembon Sanjo Honten. Yakiniku consists of grilling meat and vegetable dishes on a grill with charcoal placed in the middle of the table. It's very similar to Korean barbecue although you may want to refrain from bringing this up.

Day 10: Koyasan

After Kyoto we continued our 2-week trip to Japan with Kōyasan, one of the most prominent epicentres of Buddhism in Japan. Kōyasan is the home of Shingon sect founded by Kōbō-Daishi in 805.

The trip to Kōyasan from Kyoto was not too difficult albeit a few changes: you first need to reach Osaka and then from there Shin-Imamiya to Gokurakubashi (Kōyasan train station). There are limited express and normal trains to Gokurakubashi. The former is faster but more expensive than the latter (and also less frequent). After that you still have to take a cable car to climb the mountain Kōyasan lies on and a bus to reach the town's centre.

We arrived around midday and went to the temple where we were going to stay for the night to drop off our bags. We then had lunch at one of the restaurants in the center of Kōyasan near the tourist office for yet another one of those homy Tonkatsu dishes (rice with eggs and pork cutlets).

We spent the rest of the day visiting the different temples of Kōyasan. We were especially impressed by the Konpon Daito Pagoda with its joyful bright orange color. In the evening we returned to our temple (Kumagaiji) located just near to the Okunoin cemetery.

After a good Buddhist dinner, entirely vegetarian with a lot of tofu, we had a walk in the Okunoin cemetery at night. Okunoin is the mausoleum of Kōbō-Daishi. It is surrounded by the largest graveyard in Japan. Walking there at night was a fascinating experience, especially because we were almost alone in the alleys of the cemetery. The path to the mausoleum is actually rather long (about 3km) so you have time to get lost in your thoughts and reflect on those thousands souls resting in peace – according to Buddhism the dead are in a state of eternal meditation. The mausoleum itself is very impressive, especially with all the beautiful lanterns surrounding the edifice. We came back the next day and it was just not the same with the crowds of tourists swarming the place and sun shining instead of the intimacy of the night.

Day 11 (morning): Hiroshima

After Kōyasan we headed to Hiroshima by train via Osaka. Hiroshima is sadly known as the place where the first atomic bombing in history took place, claiming the lives of over 140,000 people.

We arrived late in the evening and went straight to our hotel. We picked the Grand Prince Hotel Hiroshima because of its location just near the water and Hiroshima's port – we thought it would be practical to reach Miyajima island the next day. However, we soon found out that it was actually quite remote from the city center (at least 20 minutes by tramway) and on top of that we learned that the Japan Rail boats to Miyajima (free with the Japan Railway Pass) departed from another location. Nonetheless, the breathtaking view of our room over Hiroshima Bay largely made up for those inconveniences. For dinner we had the best okonomiyaki of our trip at Nagataya!

The next day we visited briefly Hiroshima in the morning. We started with Genbaku dome. The atomic bomb exploded directly overhead of this building that caused it to keep its structure intact while almost everything else around within a radius of 1 mile was entirely destroyed. The building has since been preserved as Hiroshima Peace Memorial.

After that we visited Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum which was a really poignant experience. The museum covers all the aspects of the tragedy: the immediate consequences of the atomic bombing but also the lifelong effects of radiations on survivors and the following generations. The story of Sadako Sasaki is especially heart-wrenching. She was two years old when the atomic bomb hit Hiroshima and died ten years later from leukemia by radiation exposure. Just outside the museum is the Children's Peace Monument commemorating Sadako and the thousands of child victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Day 11-12: Miyajima Island (Itsukushima)

After visiting Hiroshima, we reached the beautiful island of Miyajima in the afternoon. We had to take a train to Miyajimaguchi in order to get there for free by ferry with our JR passes.

The sacred island of Miyajima (Itsukushima) is famous for its giant gate (Torii) that serves as entrance to the Shrine of the island. The stunningly massive gate seems to float at high tide and when the water recedes it's possible to reach it by walking. This reminded us of the Mont Saint-Michel in France that we love and indeed the two destinations have been twinned since 2009.

We were blessed to be able to admire the island and the gate at sunset with a gorgeous pastel and orange colored sky. We then had a delicious dinner at Mametanuki where we ate huge steam oysters and a delicious assortment of sashimi. We also tried the local beer of Miyajima and it was probably the best one we had in Japan.

That night the Itsukushima Shrine was exceptionally open and there was a captivating spectacle of Kagura (Shinto theatrical dance) – or at least we think that's what it was.

After a good night sleep at guest house Mizuhasou (highly recommended), we took up the challenge of climbing Mont Misen, the sacred mountain of the island. There are different hiking trails leading up to the top of Mont Misen and we picked the Omoto Route because we wanted to go through the Komaga Forest and its large fir trees. This took us a bit more than one hour and a half – the climb is quite steep but very doable. However, just like in Kamikōchi we were scared by another warning sign: no bear this time but snakes! This spoiled our fun a bit as we were literally scrutinizing our every step.

The view from the top of Mount Misen over the Hiroshima Bay was stunning and even more appreciated after the climb. We descended back to the town center of Miyajima through the Momiji Dani Route along the Momiji River.

We then said our goodbyes to Miyajima and the many deer that stroll all over the island to return to Tokyo.

Days 13-14: back to Tokyo

Back in Tokyo for a couple of days before our flight home, we mostly went shopping for nice sneakers and souvenirs for friends and family.

We also visited the famous jazz bar DUG that is featured in the novel Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami where we tried out different Japanese whiskys.

 

Practical Information

Japan Rail Pass

This is a must have for any trip to Japan. Only available to foreign visitors, it allows you to take any JR train (and even boats!) while in Japan. We paid 333 euros per person for 2 weeks and made great use of it. Just consider that a return trip to Osaka from Tokyo costs about 200 euros on its own. Important: the Japan Rail Pass can only be purchased outside of Japan so you need to purchase it before your trip. You will receive a voucher to be exchanged at a Japan Rail office once in Japan (there's one at Narita Airport).

The only annoying thing with the JR Pass is that you can only book tickets at a JR office (you cannot use the automatic machines). For long distance trains (e.g. Tokyo-Osaka), it's best to book your tickets 1 or 2 days in advance to make sure to have a reserved seat.

We used and we received our passes very quickly by registered mail.

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Internet

Wifi is not as conveniently available in Japan as you would imagine. 7-Eleven, Starbucks and Family Mart are a safe bet if you need internet.

Payments

Most restaurants and small shops don't accept credit cards so it's best to always carry cash with you.

Useful links

Restaurants hunt

Tabelog

Gurunavi

Navigation

Tokyo Metro App for Tourists (very well done and doesn't require an internet connection)

HyperDia: train itineraries in Japan

Photos

Full photo album of this trip on Flickr

What to read

Haruki Murakami: perhaps the most famous contemporary Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami's novels are poetic tales where ordinary characters embark on mystical journeys. A Wild Sheep Chase is a great introduction to Haruki Murakami's universe where the surreal transcends the monotony and ever growing pain of life.

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa: regarded as the father of the Japanese short story and great influence to Haruki Murakami, Akutagawa's short stories are the perfect read to get acquainted with the oneiric symbols of Japan. Save it for Kyoto where some of the stories take place like Rashōmon.

Ryū Murakami: you'd better have a strong stomach to enter the ultra-violent world of Ryū Murakami. In the Miso Soup takes place in Kabukicho, the red light district of Tokyo, and gives great insight into Japanese culture and Tokyo's underworld.

What to listen to

Nujabes: if you like hip-hop, Nujabes is one of the most influential Japanese producers. Nujabes' beats are unique for their aerial and melancholic feel. The artist unfortunately died in 2010. Here's a great track to get you started: Feather – Nujabes

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