I wandered and lost myself in Japan.

Japan has always been a mystery to me as it is to everyone else. It’s a puzzle how this nation brings balance to technology so advanced and tradition no time could actually trace. From the skyscrapers’ pride of Tokyo to the faith restoring temples of Nara to the boundless entertainment of Osaka, Japan surely is a worthy squeeze in your bucket list. Quite costly compared to some other countries yes, but every penny is worth our experience. I and my friend conquered Japan for 8 days; we visited different prefectures, each prefecture offering totally unique attractions and experience. 8 days won’t even scratch the land of Tokyo alone, but we tried to inject as may activities to 5 relevant prefectures as possible to see Japan in varied perspectives.

Before my itinerary, I would like you to understand things happening to Japan on a daily basis.

  1. Stand on your left, walk on your right.
  2. It’s normal to see people wearing masks either for health or personal reasons. Don’t freak out.
  3. Be sure to check the time, train line and platform number of your train. Several trains arrive at the same platform you are waiting and they might not be your train. So be wary of the three.
  4. Don’t litter. You will not find any trash bins even at public places so keep your trash with you.
  5. Always segregate your trash when you find trash bins.
  6. Don’t hesitate to ask Japanese when you are lost; they are one of the nicest people you will meet.
  7. Japan accepts cards but most hotels, stores can only be paid by cash.
  8. Planning to get some souvenirs? Visit some tax free shops. Prices are way cheaper and some discounts await foreigners.
  9. Buy JR Pass before traveling to Japan. This gives you a free ride to all the trains and buses by JR (Japan Rail) which covers most of the railways and bus transportation of whole Japan.

Day I

We arrived at the Narita International Airport via Cebu Pacific Air around 10:30AM after about 4 hours of travel . After clearing with the Immigration, we headed to the JR Office and activated our JR Pass to start our free ride. Boarding JR Narita Ltd Express to Tokyo was our first train experience in Japan, and the 2 hour smooth-sailing train ride gave us enough time to get a swish glance of Japan and minutes of naps. From Tokyo Station, we transferred to another JR Train, got off Uguisudani Station and checked in our homestay for a couple of days. The quest inside the diverse Tokyo started mid-aftertoon.

First stop was the district of Asakusa. We walked to the nearest bus station, the Ryusen Station and rode the Toei bus 8 going to Oku-Asakusa. First bus ride seemed to be lucky for us as the driver let us rode for free since we didn’t have small change that time yet. Asakusa district is famous for Senso-ji temple – a renown Buddhist temple. Several shrines and temples surround Senso-ji, making it a perfect initial visiting spot for 1st-day travelers. Long corners of traditional Japanese food await locals and travelers alike just outside Kaminarimon gate – the huge outer gate of Senso-ji. Varied flavors of bean paste can be tried at symbolic amount of money. I initially limited myself to one flavor but eventually gave up to trying all kinds as they are all mouth-flatteringly delicious! Several apparels and kitchenware can be found around as well.

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A good 3km walk was enough to break down our unexpected binge for bean paste. Tokyo does not seem to notice it’s getting dark as this busy city gets busier by hour. We reached Sumida Park a little before sunset, just in time to see cherry blossom trees on bunches and groups. Cherry blossoms are just magical sight to behold. That different shade of pink flowers, some are on full-carnation pink while others are white washed, will make you glance forever. Standing tall across the river bank is the Tokyo Skytree – a broadcasting, restaurant and observation tower in Sumida district. The tower’s modern intricate design lit with thousands of lights is a beautiful sight to behold at night.

 

 

We then had a leisure stroll in Roponggi Hills at night. This is not covered by JR Pass so we paid train tickets every time we changed trains. From Toyo Skytree Tower we walked to Oshiage Station and boarded a train to Higashi-ginza Station of the Asakusa line. From Higashi-ginza Station we then took a train to Roppongi Station via Hibiya Line. Roppongi Hills is a development project and a high end business district in Minato, Tokyo. Modern building infrastructures, high class restaurants and shopping centers among others are what await fellow people visiting this small metropolitan. After a 2 hour gaze-and-walk on the beautiful district, we headed home and tried some hot bowl of ramen at one of the local food corner in Uguisudani. We headed home a little past midnight.

 

 

 

DAY II

We woke up early to start a few number of spots to visit in Tokyo. Strolling as early as 05:00AM, we headed to Uguisudani Station and caught the first train to Tokyo Station of the Yamanote Line. First time seeing the Tokyo Station, the busiest of all stations in Japan, I was awed by how big and clean and complex but organized it is. You can even compare it to one of the famous malls in Manila. We had our breakfast in one of the food counters there and gazed at all the busy people walking parallel and diverse. We then began a good 30 minute walk to Imperial Palace. Unluckily for us, it was closed on Mondays with exception to people with tickets for a Japanese play on that day. We decided to walk along the vicinity of the complex and then headed to Akihabara.

 

 

From Tokyo Station, we boarded to Akihabara Station of the Yamanote Line. Akihabara is commonly known as the electronic center of Japan. The area is easily recognizable as all of its buildings wear striking colors. Ranging mostly in reds, yellows and blues, looking on the establishments and skyscrapers alone is already an entertainment. Stores retail from a simple chewing gum to the longest of Katanas and weirdest of “toys” you could possibly imagine.

 

We boarded the train to Shibuya before lunch. From Akihabara Station we off boarded on Shibuya Station of the Yamanote Line and witnessed the busy Shibuya Crossing ourselves. The crossing is physically typical as it is a common crossing we always see but when the green human light signals a go, seeing people on all four corners converge on the crossing and diverge to their destinations is oddly satisfying. We actually crossed several times and had a really good laugh every time. We then sought for the statue of Hachiko and could not believe we had to stand in line just to take picture of the famous dog. We grabbed some lunch on one of the stores in Shibuya before heading to our afternoon itinerary. IMG_0970

We got off at Harujuku Station and visited Takeshita Street – a busy street known for retail of apparels, souvenirs and what not. A 15-minute walk from Takeshita led us to a diversion of Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine. We trailed Meiji Shrine first – it is the most important Shinto Shrine in the district of Shibuya dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife.  The trail to the train was as beautiful as the shrine itself. We exited Meiji Shrine and headed to its opposite park –  Yoyogi park. It is a quiet, well developed park graced with a river bank, a variety of bird species and several scattered cottages. Sakura season just finished on this area, so the trees were almost bare.

 

After 30 minutes of rest and sight-seeing, we boarded the train from Harujuku Station to Shinjuku. It is a highly developed business district of Tokyo offering visitors the tallest of skyscrapers, imposing government and private establishments and biggest of leisure parks. The area is a fusion of nature and cosmopolitan with pedestrians and bridges connecting the two. Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office, Central Park and Tokyo 2020 Olympic Office were among the sights to behold.  We headed back and reached home early at around 08:00PM. We grabbed some decent dinner and slept early for a jam-packed activity the next day.

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This pathway connecting the Shinjuku Park and Metropolitan Government Office complex deserves my jump shot 🙂

DAY III

The earliest on the waking up part, we checked out from our stay about 04:30AM and left Tokyo for Hakone! We caught the first train from Uguisudani to Tokyo Station and boarded the bullet train to Odawara via JR Tokkaido Shinkansen. Another first on our travel experience, bullet train is so convenient inside you can actually eat properly without being spilled on.  Reaching Odawara Station, we headed to the ticketing office and bought Hakone Free Pass . This pass provides unlimited use of Odakyu-affiliated buses, trains, boats, cablecars and ropeways in the Hakone area. We continued our travel going to Hakone by taking the train to Gora Station via Hakonetozan line. We reached Onsen Guesthouse Hakone Tent  at around 08:00AM. This homestay is highly accessible it is only around 400m from the train station.

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We then headed to the train station to start our journey within Hakone! We boarded Hakone cablecar using our Hakone Free Pass and reached Hakone Ropeway after a good 15-minute ride. Hakone Ropeway allows all visitors to witness the natural wonders of Hakone district at an aerial view. Covered by Hakone Free Pass, a 30 minute-travel from 4 stations provides a good grasp of sulfur fumes of Owakudani, the waters of Lake Ashi and the proud Mt. Fuji (should the weather permit). The ropeway experience was another first and surely a memorable one! With the ropeway ending at Togendai Station, we then headed to the ticketing office for Hakone Sight-Seeing Cruise. While the ride started at 10:00AM, we had the time to scan the surrounding land area of Lake Ashi and got amazed with how Hakone was blessed with all the elements of nature. We then boarded on a Japanese-style Gondola and traveled thru waters! The breeze was unbearably cold but the experience would not be complete if you stay inside the boat. Attractions await cruisers during the cruise. Shrines on the top of the mountain can be seen and small villages busy with their daily grinds were evident from afar. A good 30-minute boat ride ended when we reached Hakonemachi-ko. It is a decent residential and commercial place suitable to try known Japanese cuisines, may it be on a table plate in a resto or cued in one of the food stalls around.  Souvenir shops offer authentic Japanese novelties at a decent price. We tried matcha ice cream here and God knows how frolic we were on our first bite.

 

 

We took the path to Hakone Sekisho, a historic checkpoint between Tokyo and Kyoto to check on travellers and prevent women from leaving Tokyo. There was an Exhibition Hall with life sized human and horse re-creations, furnishings among others with audio recording to recount its historic period. We climbed up the hill to Onshi Hakone Park – an overlooking park covering a 360 degree view of Lake Ashinoko and Hakonemachi-ko. Walking thru the garden of Hakone was a strain – worthy experience as we saw good spots when we went deeper the garden. Cherry trees still blossomed in the garden. There was a jungle so deep you thought you were transported to some other places on earth, a serene lake with “hybrid” fish, big enough you won’t dare catch and eat them. Around 02:00PM we caught another scheduled gondola cruise that brought us to Motohakone-ko. It is much like Hakonemachi-ko so we just scanned the place and boarded the gondola back to Togendai Station.

 

 

The ropeway which had some mechanical difficulties while we were in Hakonemachi-ko, was already operational when we reached the station. We hopped on the capsule and made our way to Owakudani Station where we had to stop to take a closer look on the volcanic fumes. After 20 minutes of looking, walking and pictures, we hopped back on the next available capsule and toured back to Sounzan Station. We caught the Hakone cablecar back to Gora Station and walked our way to the guesthouse. Hakone Guesthouse Tent offers a private onsen, or natural hotspring, which I swiftly availed moments after we settled. It is a ryokan style guesthouse which means we had to live like a Japanese for a day. As we sought for something to eat for dinner, we scanned the neighborhood and saw how the district of Hakone lives simply and quietly.

DAY IV

We bid Hakone goodbye as early as 05:00AM and traveled back to the metropolitan as we were about to visit Kyoto prefecture. We took the train from Gora Station back to Hakoneyumoto Station of the Hakonetozan Line, then from Hakoneyumoto Station to Odawara Station of the same line. We then boarded on Tokaido Sanyo Shinkansen Hikari 493 and reached Kyoto Station after 1hour and 30minutes approximate. We changed to Tokaido-Sanyo Line and off boarded in Nishioji Station where we had a tiring 2km walk before reaching our homestay for the day.

Immediately after settling our luggages, we walked directly to Nishioji Nanajo bus station and boarded bus 205 bound to Kinkakuji temple. This is not covered by JR so we paid before leaving the bus. Kinkakuji Pavilion, or the Golden Pavilion, is a Zen Buddhist in Japan. One of the most popular attractions in the country, Kinkakuji is a World Heritage Site. It is a three-story building on the grounds of the Rokuon-ji temple complex.  The top two stories of the pavilion are covered with pure gold leaf. The pavilion functions as a shariden, housing relics of the Buddha’s Ashes. Kinkakuji is set in landscape garden in the go-round style. The location implements the idea of borrowing of scenery (“shakkei”) that integrates the outside and the inside, creating an extension of the views surrounding the pavilion and connecting it with the outside world. The pavilion extends over a pond that reflects the building. The pond contains 10 smaller islands.

 

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Trying the black siopao uniquely in Japan.

Outside Kinakakuji Complex, we strolled a good 2-3km until we reached a complex where Ryoanji temple is located. Ryoanji, or the Temple of the Dragon at Peace, is considered one of the finest surviving examples of dry landscape, a refined type of Japanese Zen temple garden design generally featuring distinctive larger rock formations arranged amidst a sweep of smooth pebbles raked into linear patterns that facilitate meditation. The temple and its gardens are listed as one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, and as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple, garden, the lake – they were all imposing Japanese masterpiece when it comes to landscape.

 

 

Another long hauled walk awaited us before reaching the Ninnaji temple complex, a large complex of varied temple designs. It is another part of the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto”, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the head temple of the Omuro School of the Shingon sect of Buddhism and was founded in 888 by the reigning emperor.

 

 

 

It was late in the afternoon when we headed to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. We took the JR bus to Kyoto Station and took the train to Saga Arashiyama Station via JR Sagana Line. I was mesmerized most by Tenryu-ji temple among all the temples I’ve seen and later learned that it is number one in Kyoto’s  so called Five Mountains. The picturesque temple is set with a landscape garden of pond, pine trees and the grove.

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Tenryu-ji temple with its back facing the entrance gate for the visitors.

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Tenryu-ji temple set on a beautiful lanscape of pond, rocks and the forest.

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A little uphill the Tenryu-ji temple is the otherworldly Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. These bamboos perfectly stand tall, rustling synchronically as the sudden gush of wind gently touched each bamboo culm. These groves signify both calmness and mystery of the whole forest, perfect to clear the minds of the people visiting but just enough to think about what lies within the deeper part of the grove. It was a good 40 minute walk, back and forth the grove, and the experience was satisfying. We strolled around the complex, took pictures on some relevant spots and headed out the complex to try another macha ice cream (of course). We went back to our homestay a little past 07:00PM and grabbed some decent food in one of the convenience stores around.

 

DAY V

We left early to visit a place where the “Memoirs of a Geisha” was filmed – Fushimi Inari Shrine. From Nishioji Station we boarded the train to Inari Station. The Shrine was a 2 minute walk from the station and you can actually see it from the station platform. Famous for thousands of torii gates, the trail leads to a forest of Mount Inari. Inari is thought as the Shinto god of rice. Foxes are Inari’s messenger, hence the fox statues around the shrine.

 

We hailed goodbye to the memoirs of Fushimi Inari Shrine and boarded a train to Nara. We got off at Nara Station and looked for Takama Guesthouse , our homestay for a night. It’s Japanese type house with common living room and kitchen which you can use at your convenience. One perks of the house: free coffee and tea! After checking in, we immediately headed to Nara Park for leisure walking. Deer-feeding is a common activity in the park where a deer walks towards you so you can feed it. Just about 1km southwest of the park is the Kofukuji temple that’s used to be the family temple of the Fujiwara, the most powerful family clan during much of the Nara and Heian Periods. While the temple is free to view, two areas require symbolic entrance fee – the Eastern Golden Hall and the National Treasure Museum.

 

About 900m north of the Kofukuji is the Todaiji temple. Before going to the temple proper, we went thru the Nandaimon Gate first, a wooden gate guarded by two scary looking statues side by side. Tagged as the Great Eastern Temple, Todaiji is one of Japan’s most famous and historically significant temples and a landmark of Nara. The temple was constructed in 752 as the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples of Japan and grew so powerful that the capital was moved from Nara to Nagaoka in 784 in order to lower the temple’s influence on government affairs. Its main hall is the Big Buddha Hall, the largest wooden building of the world. I never imagined I could see a Buddha as big as that. It’s made of bronze and as if guarded by two “bodhisattvas” beside him. Several other smaller buddhas and miniature model of the building were on display as well. Another interesting activity inside the temple is squeezing yourself on a pillar with a hole on its base as big as the nostril of Big Buddha. It is believed that Buddha will bring enlightenment to those who could squeeze themselves out the hole.

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The Nandaimon gate where two gigantic, fierce looking statues are visible at both sides inside the gate.

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The iconic Todai-ji temple.

 

Seated at the right wing just outside Todaiji is a statue named Pindola seated in a lotus position. Buddhism believes that he is one of the four Arhat, or those who have attained nirvana in their lives. Faithful followers believe that rubbing their sick body parts on the statue would heal them as this statue possesses some healing powers. Going around the huge Nara Park made us discovered several other attractions, both nature and infrastructure, history or modern period. We saw Nara National Museum, Hokkedo Hall and Mount Wakakusayama, a grass covered hill perfect for Sakura viewing during peak season. We finished before sunset and ordered some hot dinner which we took and ate in the guesthouse.

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He is Pindola, believed to have powers to heal ailing body parts.

DAY VI

We checked out the homestay and headed to Osaka at around 09:00AM. We boarded a bus to JR Nara Station and took a train to Shin Imamiya Station via Yamatoji Line. We checked in at Hotel Shin Imamiya which is literally very near the station. We left our baggage on the lobby and immediately headed to Tsutenkako Tower in Shinsekai, a good 1km walk from hotel. The tower’s northern half was modeled from Eiffel Tower, while the southern part was modeled from Coney Island in New York. Surrounding the tower are long corners and stalls of authentic Japanese food. You can choose from the simple street Takoyaki and kushikatsu to sumptuous flavors of ramen and sake.

 

In one exit of Shinsekai district comes the entrance to Tennoji Zoo. Opened as the third zoo in Japan, Tennoji zoo houses 1000 animals on 230 different species. Several zones and areas, including African Savanna, Asian Rainforest, among others, could be seen inside this 11 hectare zoo. Thanks to this zoo I was able to see hippopotamus, a koala though he was so elusive to the visitors, and a while polar bear!

 

After a fun viewing with the animals, we then went to a major tourist destination in Osaka – the Osaka Castle. From Shin-Imamiya Station we boarded a train to Tinnoji Station via Yamatoji Line. We then changed line in Tennoji Station and made a drop on Mimoriyama Station. A good 2km walk from the station was enough to see few scenic spots before hitting Osaka Castle. As early as 1583, this castle’s intent was to be the center of a new and unified Japan, as envisioned by Toyotomi Hideyoshi . Inside is a museum with information about the castle’s history, important wars and saga, battle gears used per war period and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Osaka castle was reconstructed and repaired internally that the ground floor serves as gifts and souvenir shops while the top most floors are hotels and observatory.

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The most important castle in Osaka prefecture in terms of history.

After an informative tour, we headed back to our hostel to catch some rest before going to Namba. From Shin Imamiya Station, we took a train to Namba Station via Yamatoji Line. We headed to Minami, or the “south” and walked the streets of Dotonbori. Famous for shopping and entertainment, Dotonbori street runs parallel to Dotonbori canal and is greatly viwed at night. It’s lightened by great number of neon and street lights, one of them the famous Glico Running Man which we exhaustedly searched for. Several tours and detours around Dotonbori led us to several food tries too. Chocolate sprinkled bananas and steamy takoyakis, among others are the must tries on this street. We headed home at night to prepare for an early morning of activities the next day.

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DAY VII

Time to close those history books and wear your best costume as we were about to embark the rides of Universal Studios Japan! We headed to Shin Imamiya Station and got the 06:00AM trip to Nishikujo Station of the Osaka Loop Line. We then transferred to Sakurajima Line and off boarded at Universal City Station, all covered by the JR Pass. As the gates opened, we hurried to find The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The concept is that every visitor is a new student of WWHP so each one was provided with lockers to secure belongings. We had a tour with the school corridors, witnessed ourselves the talking people on the wall frames and even visited Professor Dumbledore’s office! And of course, Hogwarts experience would not be complete without the heart pounding ride! The ride was so vertigo-inducing you would want to stop and walk out the platform but it’s so intense you wouldn’t want to miss every detail of the experience: the ride with the broomstick, encounter with the dragon, dementors siphoning your fear, the Quidditch tournament and of course, the battle with Lord Voldemort. I would never forget WWHP! After the rides came the souvenir shops where they sell commemorative items like wands, keychains of the four houses and some other worth-collecting stuff.

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The entrance to the Wizarding World while that one familiar soundtrack is constantly played.

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I am home!

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The driver of the Hogwarts Express is super friendly!

The rain did not stop us from riding as more rides as possible. Just outside the Wizarding World is the Flying with the Hippogriff ride. It’s a mini, low flying roller coaster conceptualized as Hippogriff, a flying creature in the movie. We visited several movie inspired shops especially the Ollivander Shop. Mr, Ollivander himself was there, talking the dialogues straight from the book! It’s in his shop that I bought my Dumbledore’s wand.

 

 

Wizarding experience is next to nothing if you forget every wizard’s and witch’s favorite drink, the butterbeer! It’s non alcoholic, it’s sweet and definitely delicious.

 

Exiting WWHP, we also tried several other rides. There’s a Jurassic Park inspired ride, where we encountered vicious dinosaurs while we were on a boat. Minions, Spiderman, Jaws – themed rides were enjoyable too! USJ was a superb break from all the histories and traditions we have heard for the past 6 days! As much as we wanted to experience every itsy-bitsy detail of the theme park but exhaustion got the best of us, not to mention the heavy rain. We decided to go home late in the afternoon, grabbed some dinner and counted some early rest.

DAY VIII

We had the chance of going into leisure walk around the vicinity in the morning and took some whatever souvenirs we can. Nearing lunch, we checked out from our hotel and headed straight to Kansai International Airport. Japan offers everything her visitors could ever ask for, and more. It is a country of rich history, nature, cuisines and entertainment. I wish I could wander and lose myself once again here.

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さようなら 日本. Sayonara Japan.

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