Japan was great – and I’d heartily recommend Inside Japan Tours. Lots of emails / calls / info before we went (Not too much! But more than I’ve ever got from other operators), and a very capable, and likeable, tour leader who spoke Japanese and knew the itinerary inside out plus plenty of varied places for eating, shopping and seeing.
The trip was non-stop which meant we saw and did lots. We had a really good group – 16 of us in all, with a mixture of solo travellers (generally in their 20s) and ‘grown ups with their kids’ (like me and Rosa), from the UK, the US and Italy. Everyone got on together, mixing at meals, on the train journeys and out and about on the tour.
It wasn’t expensive at all if you’re used to London prices (I didn’t spend anything like the £50/day budget suggested), and trains / tube are no more complicated / intimidating than London’s system. All signage is in English as well as Japanese. Their equivalent of the oyster card works in all their big cities – everywhere we went to. The Shinkansen bullet train is as speedy and efficient as people say (but not really that different from getting a train up the East Coast Main Line….).
It was HOT, and humid – around 30C every day, until our last full day when it got a bit cooler and rained a bit (still shorts and T-shirt weather though). And it rained more on the day we left – sad to see us go 🙂
In our two weeks, we really only scratched the surface of what Japan has to offer.
Tokyo was buzzing – lots of shops and sights to see, all easy to get to on the tube and the train. We did lots of sight seeing at the start of the trip – from the teen hotspot of Harajuku to the Meiji Shrine right next door, the Tsukiji Fish Market, the Shibuya Scramble Crossing (without the 1 million people per hour!), the electronics and anime emporia of Akihabara, Ikebukuro and Ueno – where we also pottered around the Park and Tokyo National Museum.
I made it to Asakusa and Sensō-ji, the 7th century Buddhist temple there, and across the river to the Edo-Tokyo Museum and Yokoamicho Park which has memorials to the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923 and the air raids of World War II. Back in Ikebukuro, our base at the start of the trip, we went up to the top of the Sunshine 60 skyscraper for fantastic nighttime views out over Toyko, followed by a successful late night shop in one of the 100 yen shops – everything and anything, for 70p!
Hakone was a complete contrast – home to hot springs and Mt Fuji (who kept herself hidden in the clouds), and the Hakone Open-Air Museum which is a sculpture park set amidst the trees and hills of the national park. Nice and cool up at 500m, and the park was lovely place to walk around – and half way round there’s a stone channel fed by a hot spring where you can sit and ‘cool’ you weary feet. Smashing! The guest house we stayed at had its own private indoor and outdoor onsen, hot spring baths. Think of a smaller version of the baths at Bath, without the Roman / Georgian grandeur and you’re pretty much there.
In Kyoto, even with 2 days, we only saw 4 of their temples/palaces and the old area where the geisha live and work, which is just a few small streets really, set around a small river. Lots of Japanese tourists there too – many of them dressed up in traditional outfits, which made for lots and lots of photos….
Hiroshima was a complete contrast to the busyness of Tokyo and Osaka. We spent most of the day on Miyajima Island, with its high, tree-covered hills at the centre and temples scattered around the slopes and stretching out into the bay. Beautiful.
In the afternoon, back in Hiroshima, we went to the Peace Memorial Hall, and then through the Peace Memorial Park to the Peace Memorial Dome and the Children’s Peace Monument. All very moving, and peaceful.
To lift the sombre mood, Charlea – our tour leader – took us for okonomiyaki for dinner. Okonomiyaki are pancakes cooked on a hot plate and in Hiroshima we had them made right in front of us, with all 17 of us squeezed into a tiny Okonomiyaki place. We filled it up, and we filled up! We had okonomiyaki in a few other places – the concept is the same, but the fillings vary. And they’re always yummy.
In Osaka we stayed in Namba, aka ‘party-town’, which has a very holiday feel with the ‘street of eats’, lantern-lit riverside walkways, covered food markets and lots of airconditioned arcades where you could shop and stroll and shelter from the sun. Osaka also offered karaoke and a Samurai stage sword fighting workshop too, where we got to dress up as samurai, ninjas, princesses and soldiers. I loved it! And in my ‘room’ in our ‘capsule hotel’ I felt like I was on a mission to Mars!
Back in Tokyo at the end of the tour, we had a super morning at the Studio Ghibli (animation studio) Museum, and time to shop before our final evening as a group when we went to the amazing Robot Restaurant Show – think a high energy carnival parade inside a relatively small dark room, with seats on either side of a central aisle. Then add giant robots, some carrying people dressed as mermaids or forest animals, or drumming on big kettle drums or playing guitar (like the best air guitarist ever) and with other people dressed up Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or neon light strip sporting creatures, all performing a series of short plays. Some of which came with fireworks! Really, really fun. Followed by dinner at a izakaya (Japan’s equivalent of a tavern), it was the perfect end to a great trip.
And I do want to return to Japan – next time to the mountains, in the winter time, for some trekking….