I planned a two weeks itinerary (including two days of traveling) across the central region of Japan having in mind I needed a very good balance between the crowded and congested cities and the peace and the good fragrance of nature.
This is the reason why I travelled from Tokyo through the Chubu region and its green mountains (the japanese alps) to overnight at a gassho-zukuri farmhouse and I spent almost one day jumping on different trains to reach Mount Koya in the Kansai region, the center of Shingon Buddhism, where I found a small temple town on Koyasan’s wooded mountaintop!
In my opinion this is a very good itinerary to have a glance at the country with a limited amount of time BUT to be able to complete it you have to be prepared to wake up very early in the morning and to walk a lot (I counted around 180 km by foot). If you are going to travel to Japan read also How to organise a trip to Japan for some useful advices on “things to do before living”.
It is possible to find a multitude of detailed information on the web (one of the best site is http://www.japan-guide.com) reason why you won’t find here a list of all the “must see” or “must do” but only some suggestions based on my personal experience.
One above all is to take advantage of the information points: every main station in each city I visited has its own information point where a kind japanese welcome you in english asking where are you from and provide you with an detailed english map of the city or the surrounding area.
I enjoyed the first few days in Tokyo renting an Airbnb house in Akihabara from a very nice and precise japanese girl: this is in my opinion one of the best way to try to immerse yourself in the culture of the country you are visiting.
The apartment was exactly as I expected, a small place super well organized and equipped with a mini-size of everything you need. Akihabara area, well known for its uncountable electronic and manga shops and amusement arcades, is very well connected to the other main areas through the circular Yamamote Line, a JR line included in the JRP.
- Sumo district (Ryogoku station): If you go there hoping to see an asa-keiko probably you won’t. It is not possible to enter a stable unless you book it in advance and you should be accompanied by a japanese friend. In Hamacho it is possible to watch a training session looking from the street through Arashio-beya stable’s large windows.
- Kabuki-za Theatre (Ginza): the performances of the traditional kabuki are very interesting and funny. If you do not want to see the entire play it is possible to buy a ticket for individual acts (40 minutes).
- Photo-tour: in Tokyo there are few companies offering this service (I found only two of them and during the high season they are always fully booked!). You can book a few hours, half day or full day tour with a professional photographer who will accompany you to discover some area of the city giving a local and creative angle to the sightseeing.
An interesting collection of traditional small restaurants can be found in the walking only Memory Lane (“Omoide Yokocho“) – few minutes from the west exit of Shinjuku station – where it is possible to enjoy various kind of yakitori (meat or fish).
One day is enough. I would spend the morning visiting the two local morning markets and the the beautifully preserved old town. The rest of the day is worth to be spent at the Hida Folk village, an open air museum exhibiting traditional houses relocated from the mountainous district of Gifu Prefecture.
I chose an hotel in front of Takayama station: the city center can be easily reached by foot and you can take the bus to Hida Folk village and to Shirakawa-go at the bus station located right next to the station.
Remember to book the ticket to Shirakawa the day before!
Shirakawa-go and Ainokura
Shirakawa-go is a UNESCO world heritage site, located in the remote mountains that span from Gifu to Toyama Prefectures, and it is famous for its traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses meaning “constructed like hands in prayer”,
I spent half day exploring the main village (Ogimachi) and then I reached Ainokura, the most remote village where I stayed at one of the farmhouses (Gassho-zukuri minshuku are family operated, Japanese-style bed and breakfast). This experience have been amazing! The village is quieter and sees less tourist traffic: after a walk around reaching the higher viewpoint I came back to the house to enjoy my first japanese bath and the typical dinner served at 6 pm. In the morning they served their traditional salty breakfast: crispy seaweeds, wakame seaweeds, miso soup, white rice, deep fried tofu, soy sauce and tea.
I liked this city very much. I started walking around Kenrokuen, one of the best landscape gardens (although I imagine it really shines during the spring) reaching the castle town where I took a free english tour with the nicest japanese guide. Among other things he explained how the city was completely renovated during the previous year before the inauguration (march 2015) of the new high-speed Shinkansen railway line connecting Takayama to Nagano: the brand new line is now bringing a tons of turists to discover the city!
The rest of the day can be divided among the geisha district, the samurai district and the crowded local market.
When I arrived in Kyoto my expectations were particularly high and probably the result of irrealistc imagination. It wasn’t love at the first sight and above all it was very complicated to face the worst public transportation network in Japan: the bus lines are very intricate, the waiting time is really discouraging and the traffic effectively impact on the amount of time spent to move to one place to the other.
Despite this introduction there are some very special and unforgettable places in the city.
I spent the first half day exploring the Arashiyama area on the west side: here you can enjoy a short trek to reach Iwatayama Monkey Park, where a multitude of wild Japanese macaque monkeys live in the forest, and you can loose your self into the famous and breath-taking Bamboo grove.
It was the 16th of August and at 8 pm the Daimonji festival started. I found myself seated among a multitude of people watching the magnificent giant bonfires of the Daimonji chinese character (meaning “large” or “great”) on mount Nyoigatake.
The second day has been dedicated to visit the Imperial Palace, the central covered market and the est area of the city.
In my opinion the best place in the city is the preserved historic Higashiyama district where the narrow lanes, wooden buildings and traditional merchant shops invoke a true feeling of the old city. I made here the second so exciting encounter with some beautiful gheisha (the first I met were in Gion): looking into an open door of a garden I was so terribly lucky I found one of them posing with a little umbrella in front of a professional photographer!
Fushimi Inari shrine and Uji (day trip from Kyoto)
Fushimi Inari Shrine is a shinto shrine in southern Kyoto. It is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates, which create different trails leading into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari. The torii are dedicated to Inari, the shinto god of rice and marked with the donator’s name and the date of the donation.
I reached the summit of the mountain in less then an hour but it is possible to stop and came back freely.
In the afternoon I was in Uji where I met Keiko a super nice end friendly woman who works at the Hibi-kan plantation located in a village near Uji. During the visit at their magnificent tea plantation she walked me through the history of Japanese tea and the process of the harvest, processing and preparation of different quality of tea. Two lessons learned above all – I am so ignorant..: (i) it exist only one kind of tea plant, different kinds of tea are the results of different fermentation processes; (ii) the top tea quality is made using the first three or four little and soft leafs harvested by hand.
It takes a long journey to reach the “parallel universe” of Mount Koya, the world headquarters of the Kōyasan Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism, designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites in 2004. The city is accessible by a cable car from Gokurakubashi Station at the base of the mountain.
The valley was selected for the eight peaks of the mountain resembling a lotus plant and the town of Kōya nowadays includes a university dedicated to religious studies and 120 temples, many of which offer lodging to pilgrims.
The opportunity to have a little glance to their lives is priceless. In the afternoon (4:30pm) I took part of a meditation session and although the monk spoke in japanese, a short explanatory note was provided: the meditation had to be carry on watching the big A letter in Sanskrit. I spent the rest of the day in the fascinating tatami room making an handwritten copy of a buddisth sutra (a practice called “shakyo“), the Heart Sutra: this practice is a form of meditation who should bring you to a state of peace of mind. It was difficult to complete all the sutra but the concentration required really brings you in a “parallel universe” where there is no place for other thoughts!
The dinner was served at 6pm and instinctively you go to sleep soon after the sunset thinking about the early wake up: I joined the buddisth cerimony at 6:30am and the Goma fire ritual at 7am.
Nara has been the Japan’s first capital and it is full of historic treasures, including some of Japan’s oldest and largest temples. The main one is Todaiji Temple: the massive wooden building houses one of Japan’s largest bronze statues of Buddha. The area is surrounded by a large park famous for the multitude of wild deers: it is funny to spend some time watching them and trying not to be assault offering them their favorite crackers!