Osaka, (Japan)

“Large Hill”, “Old Naniwa, one of the Imperial Capitals of Japan”, “The nation’s kitchen”

Osaka, the second largest city in Japan during the day time, and third at night time, is only comparable to be second after Tokyo. A massive very modern agglomeration where a tourist should not be expecting to find old structures, ancient shrines, historical temples and overall, old Japan. Well, of course here and there you will come across some of these sites, but what you will come across at great scale is a thriving city day and night, a massive economic power in the country and huge in culture and the arts, entertainment and overall, food. This city has by nickname “the nation’s kitchen”, and that’s for a very well earned reason: its favorable location along the coast within easy access to the world and high quality ingredients, coupled with wealthy merchants and its people with somehow a keen desire for good and expensive products. For some, Osaka is the food capital of the world.

There is a phrase used to kindly describe its inhabitants with regards to their fame for food: “Residents of Osaka devour their food until they collapse”. I do believe with such an expression there is no further need to continue writing anything about food. It’s great everywhere as you will experience it, easy to find anywhere however it could be as “complicated” as is in Tokyo, where you need to prepay at machines where not even a sign in English exist, only images of the dish and of course the Japanese description, to then hand over the waiters the receipt. It’s really fun, believe me, and part of the emotion in not really knowing for sure what you’ve ordered until coming to your table!.

Like almost anywhere in Japan, World War II took its toll not only in loss of lives, but the lost of traditional architecture. Osaka was one of the worst, destruction here was on mass, hence why it is such modern today and very few historical places remain. Even the ones still standing are in majority reconstructions like the castle. Still, it’s an awesome city to visit, explore and enjoy, you can never be wrong at anywhere you are in Japan anyway. Continue reading

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Himeji, (Japan)

“The White Heron Castle”

On this second day trip from our base Kyoto, we visit another masterpiece of the truly old and once Imperial Japan, the ancient city of Himeji. This will be the last of the historical cities in trip trip, right after Nara and Horyu-ji we visited the day before, leaving for the last days another 2 of the modern and big cities: Osaka and Hiroshima, a last chance with deer in Itsukushima and returning to Tokyo for one more night and day to keep enjoying our time over there before the flights back to London. I must agree that after so many cities, we had enough of shrines and temples. Coming to this point it’s difficult to even distinguish any difference between them, or the ones in Nikko, Nara, Kyoto or who knows; however we did also know how important all the cities were and how valuable is the architecture, and after all, this is one of the major reasons why to come to Japan on a tour since not everything in the country is resumed just to it’s modern capital Tokyo and the major former imperial capital, Kyoto.

Himeji has a different sight other than shrines and temples. This is the most important and renown castle, the finest example of prototypical Japanese castle architecture. While the city badly suffered the raids from WWII and earlier, the 1923 Kanto earthquake, its castle miraculously remained standing still almost intact, therefore that this is the only of its kind, untouched for 400 years after its construction. However its history goes back to 1333 when a small fort was built on the hill, dismantled not long after to be rebuilt as the first permanent castle. Remodeled 2 centuries later, and few more times afterwards to become from 1618 what you mostly see today.

It is the largest and most visited castle in Japan, and has been listed an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The good news are the proximity to Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto on the east, and Hiroshima on the west, lying along the main Tokaido Shinkansen bullet railway line and as such, making it extremely easy and straightforward for accessing and visiting. As second place, this can easily be a half day trip since there is not much more to see in the city; this could possibly mean it’s your chance to spend the other half of the day for Horyu-ji if you could not manage when visiting Nara, or otherwise spending more time in Osaka or Kyoto, or wherever is from where you came from. The better you organize yourself beforehand, the more time you will have for doing anything extra or simply enjoying longer the places you like. Continue reading

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Nara and Horyu-ji, (Japan)

“Flat Land”, “One of the former Imperial Capitals of Japan from 710 to 794”

Nara, the first day trip from Kyoto, our second base in this Japanese tour after Tokyo and many other cities in between. A fascinating ancient city like no other in Japan, a close approach and feel on how the old and imperial Japan might have looked like with its many temples, shrines and constructions all around, where it seems time stood still. This is one of the former Imperial Capitals of Japan, from 710 to 794, and although very small, it is in the other hand a lengthily sightseeing time what it requires. I’ve also included in the title for this guide Horyu-ji, which is very near Nara and another of the masterpiece cities from old Japan; and while I am not sure if we would be having time to do both in the same day, I stick in creating the guide for both places. I know that if this would be me on my own doing this trip, or with some friends I know who are like me, then it would be definitely viable since we are very agile and speed things up, however, I will not consider doing this with my family this time, therefore time will tell if we can manage or not.

While reaching the important sights is easy, majority are just east from the train station, possibly your point of arrival into the city; you need to be prepared for long walks in between the temples and inside them. Some are really large, big complexes of buildings and structures immaculately preserved, spotless to perfection and care which in turn makes this city special. The only “downside” are the hordes of tourists with the same idea, visiting them of course. Notably in the early morning with the hundreds of tours arriving by bus, but getting quieter towards the afternoon. Yet again, careful with the afternoon. Remember you are in Japan and here the life starts very early, not later than 8.00am and everything is already opened, with closing times in between 16.30pm to 17.30pm, rarely later therefore plan your day accordingly. This is the same situation when you visit Kyoto or Nikko, to name the other major cities with plenty of sights but same timings.

An added joy in Nara are the deer in the wild. They have been regarded as heavenly animals, protecting the city and the country. They generally come in the mornings and early afternoon in search for food, and they are totally used to humans. For a little money you can buy sika senbei (deer crackers) from the street vendors and feed them. Bear in mind you should not feed them with other food, and of course, let them be in peace. They are “sacred” animals and can lead you to prosecution for misbehaving. Continue reading

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Kyoto, (Japan)

“Kyo”, “The Ancient City”, “City of History”

Considered as the most beautiful and fascinating city in Japan, it is a must visit for anyone coming to the country. The old royal capital of Japan, a place where time stood still and never passed. The place where you can feel how old Japan used to be and at a great scale since this is a large city. I must say how lucky I am for returning once again after 5 years and for staying here much longer time than how this trip was done back in 2012 as a day trip from Tokyo , not staying overnight and really rushing as much as we could to visit as many temples and shrines as we could since there is a horrible downside anywhere in Japan you are: the closing hours of the sights, especially the temples, shrines, palaces and castles, rarely beyond just 17.00pm! When in Kyoto especially, you will need to plan your day to start as early as possible as it will end very early too. Simply concentrate in what has opening times to be done the first, and leave what is enjoying walking through the streets for afterwards as it’s for example, the district of Gion.

Although not a big city itself, the construction is much different to that in Tokyo. Here you will find small houses with few floors, small streets in quarters divided by the main avenues, and no compact at all; therefore and if you do not have much time to spare, be ready for taking the public transport more often than you though, or taxis since the public transport does not cover as much as anyone would like. The sights are very widespread through the city so it’s a long way in between. Unfortunately there are only 2 metro lines, the north-south and east to west, meeting at a station right in the heart of the city near the Imperial Palace.

This is a city of temples, shrines and palaces. One after another, with one larger than the other and so on. Each of the complexes is not just about a building itself, but many of them. Visiting each takes your time so calculate well in advance because of the early closing times. Majority of these places are listed UNESCO World Heritage Sites, however you do not need to go to every temple in the city, it would be pointless and will actually saturate you and make you very tired even bored of seeing very similar structures. That’s why it’s best to include in your list the “must-do’s” among other sights, and see how this goes and what’s your spare time if any for anything else. Continue reading

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Yokohama, (Japan)

“The first port in Japan opened to the outside world at the end of the feudal Edo period”

Believe it or not, as possibly you have not even heard of this city before, it is the most populous in Japan, and also its municipality the largest in inhabitants, (Tokyo remains the largest city by metropolitan area inhabitants). However if you take a map, it is even hard to know and see where Tokyo ends and where Yokohama begins. All is a continuous maze of streets entirely built up, with Yokohama all along Tokyo Bay. The main and principal port in the country, a massive commercial hub of the Greater Tokyo Area. Now when you think about the very short history of the city and in what it has transformed itself in barely 150 years, that’s fascinating to see such an unstoppable growth, to the point of being even scary in the rise of population and building.

It was only June the 2nd 1859 when the Port of Yokohama officially opened to the foreign world marking the end of the feudal Edo period when Japan held a strong policy of national seclusion, having little contact with the outside world. In a matter of few years since then it quickly became the centre and main base for the trade, a truly international city where each district was home to different nationals, among them especially, the British and the Chinese. The city nowadays boats the largest Chinatown outside of mainland China, which is one of its major sights and tourist attractions.

Should you consider this city as part of your Japan tour? Two facts here, but it does basically translates to time. If this is what you have, then of course yes! Do not even hesitate. But secondly, treat this city as if it would be another district of Tokyo. You can easily consider it when preparing your plans for Tokyo because in half a day you could enjoy most of its sights. The port area and the Chinatown are the highlights, so yes, it’s a great idea to come because it’s a worthy trip. From our experience, although before coming to Japan I planned Yokohama as a half day trip, we ended up coming here from the early morning until late at night. We loved every bit, and did not expect to find so much to see and do. We did also stay for a nice dinner by the harbour with the thriving life, countless restaurants and bars, and the lights of the skyscrapers in the background. Continue reading

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Nikko, (Japan)

“Never say ‘kekkō’ until you’ve seen Nikkō (kekkō meaning beautiful)”

Our second of the day trips from our base in Tokyo was for this incredible place, the first touch to the “real Japan”, although I’ve already known this when I went 5 years ago to Kyoto. Still in a way, much more secluded than the big metropolis, and completely surrounded by national parks and great scenery. It is everything combined, the beauty of the nature, the history of ancient constructions; shrines, temples and mausoleums and the people that makes this place one of the most remarkable landmarks in the entire Japan. Their people have a say for the city: Never say ‘kekkō’ until you’ve seen Nikkō, (kekkō meaning beautiful, magnificent). They are right; see it for yourself and enjoy this UNESCO World Heritage Site listed city.

Coming from “the big city”, Tokyo, 140 kilometres distance in between and where temperatures were at the maximum of the year, around 30 centigrade; here in Nikko it can all change quickly. Generally, slash it in half, usually around 15 to 20 max. Be prepared and know this beforehand, it can get quite chilly especially towards the afternoon and of course during the night. Also this is a high humidity region where rain is normal. Don’t get caught by surprise!. Yet bearing these facts, we were not impacted at all and in fact, we did struggle a little bit with the high temperatures and humidity. You’ve been warned anyway, please do check the weather in advance and keep a track with the daily fluctuations.

As for visiting the historic area, a day is well more than enough, hence why this is the perfect day trip from Tokyo, and if you were wondering, why the hordes of tourist buses coming for the day since the morning then disappearing later in the afternoon and almost no one by the evening. Perhaps if I could recommend a good tip, is getting some pre-packed food with you for your lunch. The reason is simple, once you are in the UNESCO area, within the 3 major shrines there is almost nothing to grab bearing the cafe at one of the museums, but gladly there are plenty of vending machines all over; still, heading back to the nearest area with some better choice is not straightforward but rather a great loss of time in having to do a back and forth. Continue reading

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Nagoya, (Japan)

“Chū (middle) + kyō (capital), the Middle Capital”, “Nagoyaka, meaning peaceful”

Our first destination from our main base in Tokyo, we come to one of the “newest” and thriving cities in Japan, Nagoya. A city almost entirely devastated during WWII, including its ancient castle that was being used as military barracks back in the time and reduced to rubble, then raised from the grounds to become the fourth largest city in Japan and one of the nation’s major economic centers, fast growing in every sense and not just in population but also in economy and industry home to some of the giants in automobile and railway with headquarters and production chains such as Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi and the Shinkansen to name some; and a constantly rising tourist destination.

Although not a highlight for many tourists when visiting Japan, it is nevertheless a great day out whether you are coming from Tokyo or Kyoto. It’s merely an hour away in the Shinkansen bullet train train from any of these cities, and for anyone holding a Japan Railway Pass this route is included and you can benefit from the super high frequencies and comfort. With a day being enough for every sight, there is not really a need for any further time unless you are lucky enough of having plenty of days for touring and enjoying your time as you wish. However, for the average tourist either on their own or as part of a tour, a day is ideal. Prepare yourself for commuting by metro every now and then since distances are big once you are outside of the main core around the castle. After all, remember you are in a very large city when comparing it to European standards. Over 9 million inhabitants live in the metropolitan area.

So while this city is often bypassed by the tourists, it does really have its charm and beauty. Likewise Tokyo and Hiroshima, is very modern and new as we saw in part due to its past history of war. For us, it was a decision in between coming here or the area of Fujisan by the Mount Fuji, which in any case, you will see from the train window whenever you commute in the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen line between Tokyo and the west (weather permitting). While it’s a great place for nature and landscapes, it’s also a difficult place to pre-plan because you never know what’s the weather going to be, but expect high chances of clouds to the point of almost not seeing the volcano.

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Tokyo, (Japan)

“Edo”, “Town for Otaku”, “Tō (east) and Kyō (capital)”, “The East Capital”

It’s been almost 5 years since the first and only only time I’ve been to Japan. It was October 2012 when we found great tickets on an odd open-jaw combination. London-RomeMoscow-Tokyo, and the return Tokyo-Moscow-London. Fun times back then, but a great joy in the overall trip. It was 8 of us, the very first time I was travelling with a greater group than 6 friends, but we survived and returned with the best experience possibly in our lives back in the days; and still, 5 years after and having visited 87 countries so far in the world, Japan ranks among the best top 5 in the list, no hesitation. In this occasion, 4 of us travelling, my family. My brother repeating with me, and my parents. We had spoken for a long now about when to go to Japan together, switched destinations all over many times; been to France, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, China, South Korea… and finally Japan, including a stop-over in Doha to enjoy an entire day there and break the long journey; for me a returning place but for my family the first time in the Middle East.

Let’s start from the first experience: landing in Japan is landing in another world. Don’t expect the technology difference with the rest of the world is that big anymore, as contrary, they seem to be more old dated and fashioned in many ways. But their superb mentality, cleanliness, education and politeness will shock anyone. Not to mention the attention to detail and the perfect functionality of everything, like their transit systems, the busiest in the world, where everything just work without failures, on time, to the precision.

Tokyo will be for majority of the tourists coming to Japan, their main port of entry in the country, and so, the first place they will get to see. It is without any doubt, one of the most impressive and fascinating cities in the world, but not the place where to see the traditional and old Japan. For that, you will need to include in your tour some of the historical cities such as Nikko, Nagoya, Kyoto, Nara, Horyu-Ji, Himeji-Jo, Osaka and Hiroshima to name a few. All of these were in my plan, together with a visit to nearby Yokohama which you can treat as a “district” of massive Tokyo, although it is an entire different city.

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