Updated: May 18
Japan is the country that MUST be on everyone`s bucket list! From people, culture and food to architecture, design and amazing scenery, this country has it all!
Japan is our favorite country so far! It was on our bucket list for a long time and now is on our bucket list of the countries we want to come back to. Because it is just incredible!!
Due to lack of time, we spent only a week here, which is definitely not enough! We divided our time in between Kyoto, Nara and Tokyo mostly and we had 3 days in Kyoto, 2 days in Tokyo and half a day in Nara.
And now I don`t even know what to start with as I am all so excited about it! ☺
Contrary to the main perception about Japan, the country is not expensive at all. The prices are even lower than in Europe and the standards much better.
We used Airbnb for finding a place to stay and we were very happy with what we got. Now, you might wonder if we also used any capsule hotels, but unfortunately not. Even though it would have been interesting, we thought it might be a bit uncomfortable for a couple.
So, in July 2015, we stayed 4 nights in Kyoto at Eizan railway Takaragaike 103 for about 200 euros. The place was small but had everything we needed. There were also two bikes in front of the houses that we could use for the duration of our stay.
After that we went to Tokyo for another 3 nights where we stayed at Ikebukuro Sakura for about 125 euros. We were pleased with this location as well and we would recommend both of them.
Anyway, even if these two are not available, there are plenty of cheap options in both Kyoto and Tokyo. And because Japan is so nice, you don`t even have to worry about the quality of the accommodation as here everything is clean and nice and tidy!
Well, this is the bit that can get a bit more expensive, but traveling by train in Japan is an experience on its own!
We landed and departed from Nagoya and therefore we needed to get around the country somehow. We did some research and, indeed, the best way to explore Japan is by train.
Individual train tickets can be very expensive but tourists have the privilege of buying a rail-pass that gives access to the Japan Rail network nationwide.
The pass is not that cheap either - 255 USD ( 7 days )/ 407 USD (14 days ) / 521 USD (21 days ) for the whole network - but if you don`t need to get around the whole country you can buy a regional pass which is a bit cheaper.
Anyway, the fast trains are really amazing and the travel time is SO short, therefore you can save this time for something else.
Basically, the pass can be ordered online at www.japan-rail-pass.com and it would get delivered to you in a few business days, depending on your location. ( But we would recommend ordering well in advance so that you will be sure that it is going to arrive before your trip. )
The Japan Rail Pass is valid on all the JR lines all over Japan ,except the Nozomi and the Mizuho Shinkansen.
The pass is valid on the Tokyo Monorail and some lines of Aoimori Railways.
More information can be found on the official website.
When to go
Well, this is hard to say, as it depends what you want: cherry blossom, mild temperatures,less tourists, autumn colors, winter activities etc.
In our opinion, Japan has to offer you something nice all year round!
However, the most touristic and expensive months are March - May, around Sakura ( the cherry blossom ). The best time to see blossoms in Tokyo or Kyoto would most likely be the last week of March or the first week of April.
End of April to beginning of May marks the "Golden Week". There are a number of vacations during this time, plus a lot of Japanese locals take their vacation, therefore everything is going to be crowded and expensive.
Mild temperatures are also experienced during fall, when it`s best to see Kyoto.
Winter is usually less appealing to tourists which means that you would get cheaper prices during this time. Also, being less crowded, many of the Japan highlights will probably look much better in front of your photo camera.
Japan's weather in Winter, is quite dry and sunny along the Pacific coast and the temperatures rarely drop below 0°C. The temperatures drop as you move north, with the Central and Northern regions experiencing snowfall. Southern Japan is relatively temperate and experiences a mild winter.
And on top of that, we all have that cliche in mind when it comes to Japan: the wild monkeys ( Macaque ) that bathe in the hot springs, right?
Well, winter is the best time to go to Yudanaka and experience that!
We actually went there during summer and it was great! The temperatures around 30 °C during the day and it was quite humid but mornings and evenings were absolutely pleasant and fantastic. So, in our opinion, summer is a great time to go as well. Beware, there are still going to be a lot of tourists. ☺
What to visit
Well, I would say... EVERYTHING! But I know this is not possible, unless you are going there for 3 months or so, which most of us can`t afford. ☺
Therefore, I will summarize everything to what we did and perhaps a bit of what is on our to do list for the next time.
As I mentioned earlier, we visited Kyoto, Nara and Tokyo and our favorite was Kyoto. There are a lot of places to visit in all of them, but I will highlight our priorities.
When I think about it I have in mind a single things: temples. There are so many temples around the city and they are all amazing.
However, the ones you might wanna visit first are: Fushimi Inari - Taisha ( the famous orange one ), Kinkaku - Ji, Kyomizu - Dera and Tenryuji. Fushimi Inari and Kyomizu - Dera are relatively in the same direction, therefore you can combine them in a single trip.
After that, you might want to go to Arashiyama Bamboo forest and Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama. Tenryuji Temple is in the same area, as well.
Arashiyama Park Kameyama Area is nice to go visit, as there is a nice view point over Kyoto.
Tips for girls: in the same area, there are a lot of places where you can get dressed like a geisha for the day and then you can walk around the temples, take pictures, etc. ☺
Apart from temples and touristy places, Kyoto is an incredible city to just walk around, bike around, have incredible sushi and other types of Japanese food, enjoy lots of tea or just simply relax in the parks. Kyoto city center is amazing as well, but by night looks stunning.
Nara is actually very close to Kyoto and you can do the trip in half a day. You can use the JR pass to go there, which is quite handy.
Apart from being a smaller and more local town with proper Japanese flavor, Nara is well known for one single thing: the deer that roam freely in the city center. And they are so used to people that they tend to be very confident among people. ☺
Here, we visited Nara Park, went to Kofuku- Ji Temple, walked around the town and had one of the most incredible sushi ever!
As you would imagine, Tokyo is the biggest and one of the most crowded cities in Japan. There are a lot of temples over here as well but, unless you don`t get the chance to go to Kyoto or some other smaller town, we would not really recommend visiting the temples in Tokyo. Maybe one or two would be fine, but the truth is all of them are extremely crowded ( compared to Kyoto or Nara ) and you won`t understand anything from your experience. Senso - Ji Temple pagoda might be on your list.
You might want to experience the crowds of Tokyo at the world`s busiest in junction - Shibuya or you might wanna do some famous anime and manga shopping.
Speaking about shopping, although we are not too much into it, Tokyo is definitely the city for that! There is good taste in absolutely everything and there are so many nice things made by Japanese designers that it would be impossible not to buy something. And they are pretty cheap as well.
We don`t remember any area name for shopping but if you just walk around you`ll find nice shops in the end. However, if you are interested in expensive, famous designer stores, Ginza district is the place to go.
Another famous thing to do in Tokyo: cat cafés. A cat café is a theme café whose attraction is cats that can be watched and played with. We went to Calico Cat Cafe in Shinjuku and the experience was so cool and unusual!
On out to do list for the next trip
- Experience rural Japan/ bike in rural Japan
- Mt. Fuji sightseeing and trekking
- Visit Hiroshima
- Visit the famous Sushi Dai restaurant in Tokyo
- Go to Yudanaka in winter
Next is our photo gallery, for which we used our Japanese Olympus OM - D M5 with 3 prime lenses: 12 mm, 25 mm, 75 mm. Enjoy!