I travelled to Japan purely because I got my hands on some ridiculously cheap flights and it’s a place unlike any I’ve ever been before. It was my first trip into Asia, with a stopover in Budapest on either end. Because of the cost of any of the tours I looked at I decided to do it alone, staying in hostels and taking bullet trains across the main island of Honshu to visit my main destinations of Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima.
Day 1 – Thursday 21st April – Arrive in Tokyo
- Turkish Airlines flight into Narita airport at 6:30pm
- Subway to Khaosan World Asakusa Ryokan & Hostel, in Asakusa district (~1 hour)
- Explored Asakusa & Ueno districts with another girl from hostel who’d arrived the day before
- Senso-ji temple
- Tokyo Sky Tree (lunch in food court… where I realised I was going to be using chopsticks for two weeks)
- Ueno Park
- Subway back to hostel
Day 3 – Saturday 23rd April – Tokyo: Mount Fuji (favourite day)
- Train to Shimo-Yoshida station (~1 hour)
- Walked up to Chureito Pagoda for first view of Mount Fuji & stayed for about an hour and a half for clouds to clear
- Train to Fujikawaguchiko (~10 mins)
- Shuttle to shiba-sakura festival, aka pink moss (lunch from food tents)
- Walk to Mt Kachi Ropeway, aka cable car – views of Mt Fuji and best cherry blossoms I came across
- Across the road from ropeway, sightseeing boat over lake
- Train back to Tokyo (dinner from supermarket)
Day 4 – Sunday 24th April – Tokyo: Ueno
- Ueno Park – dance festival and shrine blessing
- Tokyo National Museum
Day 5 – Mon 25th April – Tokyo: DisneySea
- Subway to Maihama stop
- Arrived at park ~9am
- Single rider queues!
- Packed lunch + dinner in restaurant
- Left park after fireworks ~10pm
Day 6 – Tue 26th April – Kyoto: Gion Corner
- Overslept following exhausting day at Disney – got train around midday rather than originally planned 9am, onto Kyoto (bento box lunch) (2h 40m)
- Bus to Gion Corner, walked through Maruyama Park to reach Gion Ryokan Q-beh hostel. Conveniently, the IC card bought in Tokyo can also be used for transport costs in Kyoto as well (like an Oyster card)
- Miyako Odori geisha dance (entrance very hidden away if you approach from the wrong angle) – absolutely spectacular, even though I understood nothing that was going on. Only happens for a few weeks each year so I got very lucky to see it
- Stumbled upon Kodai-ji Temple which had a night-time light show – best temple I visited
Day 7 – Wed 27th April – Day trip to Nara
- Train south to Nara (~1 hour)
- Todai-ji temple, aka the biggest wooden building in the world containing an enormous 15 metre bronze Buddha
- Todai-ji Nigatsudo temple complex. If you go up behind it you can find lots of tiny shrines placed on the path in the forest.
- Isuien garden, beautiful even in the rain
- More rain… escaped to shopping centre for lunch
- Kasuga-taisha temple
- Bus back to train station, then train back to Kyoto
Day 8 – Thu 28th April – Kyoto: Arashiyama & eastern temples
- I had booked a bike tour, but due to rain it was called off
- Instead I took a local train across to the opposite side of Kyoto to see Arashiyama Bamboo Forest and visit Tenryu-ji Temple
- I opted not to visit the nearby monkey park due to… more rain
- Instead I visited some more of the temples near to the hostel, then returned early to rest my aching feet
- Fish pancake dinner in Gion Corner
Day 9 – Fri 29th April – Kyoto: Fushimi Inari & northern temples
- Went out with a couple of people from the hostel to Fushimi Inari, aka the 10,000 red torii gates that take you up to a shrine at the top of one of the mountains that looks down on Kyoto. Went very early and missed the worst of the crowds.
Then returned to hostel to visit the nearby Kiyomizu-Dera temple which is built on stilts
- Bus up to the north of Kyoto where there are a lot of temples in walking distance
- Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion). Very shiny but you can’t go inside.
- Ryoanji zen garden (one of those with rocks in gravel)
- Ninnaji temple & gardens. Basically a palace.
- In the evening I had pre-booked at Samurai Kembu Theater for something more unusual. Samurai Kembu is an art/dance form with swords used to tell stories of the samurai (of which there aren’t any in Japan today). There was a show, followed by a 2 hour lesson in the basics of the performance.
HIROSHIMA & WEST HONSHU
Day 10 – Sat 30th April – Hiroshima: Parks & museums
- Early bullet train to Hiroshima (2h)
- Bus to Santiago Guesthouse to drop baggage (15m)
- Met up with person from the Kyoto hostel again as we’d discovered we were in Hiroshima at the same time
- Atomic Bomb Dome (the bomb detonated directly above this building. Everyone inside died instantly and all the buildings around were flattened, but the structure of this building was preserved because physics. Something about the impact bouncing directly back up which neutralised the initial force.)
- Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park & Museum
- Hiroshima Castle
- Ramen noodles for dinner. Made with tomato and beef, tasted strangely like bolognese.
Day 11 – Sun 1st May – Hiroshima: Miyajima Island (favourite day)
- Early train to miyajimagichi station (30m)
- Ferry across to Miyajima Island
- Walked along the waterfront to see the Itsukushima shrine, which has been built on the beach and looks like its floating at high tide
- Continued past the crowds to start on a hike up the mountain on a lesser used path. Saw lots of deer and a snake. Five minutes later saw a sign warning about the deadly venomous snakes. Huffed and puffed a lot up a very steep climb. Saw some fantastic views with no one else around, and 2 hours later reached the top for panoramic views all around the island.
- Took the easier route down the mountain – not the available cable car, but a route which had even paving and steps rather than through the forest. Stopped at Daisho-in temple near the bottom.
- Spent the rest of the afternooon relaxing on the beach, looking through the local shops and eating street food.
- Took the ferry and train back to Hiroshima main station, then started back east to spend the night at Himeji in Himeji 588 Guesthouse… which was unfortunately the 2nd worst hostel I’ve ever stayed in. If I’d been staying for more than one night I would have moved, instead I just put up with it.
Day 12 – Mon 2nd May – Himeji Castle
- Golden Week had begun so I knew the crowds would be crazy – I got up early, stopped in a cafe for breakfast and headed to Himeji Castle. I joined the queue immediately but still had to wait for about half an hour to get inside.
- After going right up to the top of the castle to get views across the city, I went back outside and around the gardens.
- Kokoen Garden
- Evening train back to Tokyo (4h), then onto final accommodation – Kadoya Hotel, in Shinjuku (aka the most NY-like part of Tokyo – skyscrapers everywhere, a massive train station and loads of restaurants).
Day 13 – Tue 3rd May – Tokyo: Harajuku, Shibuya & Shinjuku districts
- Subway down from Shinjuku to Harajuku station (5m)
- Walked through Yoyogi Park, passing through Meiji Shrine & Meiji Jingu Treasure House
- South-east of the park is Takeshita Dori, a street full of pop culture shops and crazy clothes and pancakes and 100 yen shops (and about 5 different shops selling socks)
Walked through the more upmarket street of Omotesando, then got the subway up a couple of stops to Shibuya
- For my one and only stop into Starbucks I went into the one with a giant view over Shibuya Crossing aka the busiest intersection in the world. When the traffic lights turn red, the entire road is covered in pedestrians.
- Cat cafe in Shinjuku
- Went up Tokyo Metropolitan Govt Building which has a free observation deck to watch the sunset
Day 14 – Wed 4th May – Day trip to Kamakura
- Local train to Kita-Kamakura station (1h)
- Took Daibutsu Hiking Trail through various temples (Engakuchi, Tokeji, Jochiji, Zeniarai Benten) and up on the hills above Kamakura (~2h)
- At the end of the hiking trail is the Daibutsu Great Buddha statue which was heaving with people
- Walked down to Yuigahama Beach
- Train back to Tokyo (standing all the way due to Golden Week again)
Day 15 – Thu 5th May – Tokyo: Ginza (& souvenir shopping)
- Subway up to the Pokemon Centre (where many people had requested I buy them gifts from) (20m)
- Dropped shopping off at hotel then subway back down to Ginza
- Gardens of Tokyo Imperial Palace (inner grounds & buildings are not normally open to the public)
- Looked around Ginza shops, including the enormous Sony centre where you can try out all the latest cameras and headphones and surround sound
- Back to Shinjuku to pick up bags then train back to Narita airport (1h)
- Flew out at 10:30pm
What I would change
Travelling during Golden Week. Japan has 4 national holidays over the space of a week at the start of May, and unfortunately I was unaware of this when I booked. It meant that everything was very busy, and I missed the Tsukiji fish market because I didn’t realise it would be closed during this time.
I couldn’t go to the Studio Ghibli museum because the limited tickets available in the UK were booked out for months in advance – if you want to go there, keep an eye on it early.
I was a little bit too late to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom – but this is very hard to predict, so there’s really not very much I could have done to change this unless I was much more flexible with my schedule and had travelled north instead of west.
Travelling solo rather than with a tour was definitely the best way for me to explore for two weeks. I could be flexible with what I saw depending on the weather and met plenty of other solo travellers in hostels. It also probably saved me about £1000.
Handy tip: If you are ever planning a trip to Japan, check out http://www.japan-guide.com/ for all the details you will ever need about how to get around, most popular sites and even the basics of how to navigate the subway so you know before you arrive.