Customer review: Japan
by Grove Admin
In October’s My Watford News collumn we featured Japan as our bucket list destination, find out more about this most striking and mysterious land with the highlights from Katie’s trip earlier this year…
The bright lights of Tokyo
Heading out to Japan at the beginning of May, we just missed the cherry blossom season but were still met with the incredible natural beauty and mix of ancient and modern cultures that Japan has to offer.
Travelling along the south of Japan’s main island, Honshu, we started in Tokyo and instantly fell in love. It’s hard not to with one of the cleanest and most polite cities I’ve ever experienced, almost like a vision of the perfect future city as imaged in the 1980s.
Imagine a cleaner, calmer, safer New York with multiple lovely green spaces, and of course there’s the whiskey, craft beers and food. We decided the best gyoza (dumplings) and tonkatsu (breaded pork) in Japan were in the Harajuku Gyoza-ro and Maisen in the Shibuya area respectively. Some other highlights for me included the Tsukiji fish market, the Meiji Shrine in Shibuya where we saw a wedding take place, Ueno park where we saw a baseball game and some Elvis impersonators break-dancing and finally, as a music fan, the 9 storey tall Tower Records building.
Like all the world’s great cities Tokyo is its own bubble and certainly deserves a holiday in its own right, but after 4 days we took advantage of the Japan Rail Pass – a great money saver for any tourist travelling around Japan – and jumped on one of the world-famous bullet trains.
Hakone: our own hot spring ‘onsen’ in a mountain spa hotel
For a bit of contrast to the city, our first stop was a spa hotel in the forested mountain area of Hakone. We lucked out at the last minute by finding a discounted hotel with a private onsen (a Japanese thermal bath powered by natural hot springs). From our onsen on the balcony we watched mists rolling around the lush green mountain forests and felt that we could be visitors to much more ancient Japan.
The ancient Capital of Kyoto
This feeling continued with our next stop in Kyoto. This city is steeped in history with multiple beautiful shrines scattered around the city as well as areas with traditional wooden houses where you might even (as we did) catch a fleeting glimpse of a geisha.
We spent several sunny day exploring the Kyoto area including the bamboo forest made famous by the film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon to the Fushimi Inari Shrine which has hundreds of stunning, orange torii ‘gates’ scattered across a hillside, which symbolise the transition from the mortal to sacred worlds. Finally, we took in the breath-taking Kinkaku-ji golden pavilion, which sits on a lake to reflect its loveliness.
Remembrance of Hiroshima
Onwards was the city of Hiroshima, rebuilt on a grid system this feels very much like an American city but with a calm and peace-loving heart in its Peace Memorial Park. We took an emotional morning to walk around the Peace Memorial Museum and had a reflective afternoon as we wondered around the park, with its many memorials to the different groups of people who were killed by the nuclear blast.
Feeling more energised again in the evening we ventured out to explore Hiroshima’s’ Okonomiyaki scene – these are savoury pancakes cooked with anything and everything else you could possibly want to eat – a new culinary favourite for me!
A Ryokan Inn on the island of Miyajima
The next day, we rolled ourselves back on to a train, and then a ferry, to the island of Miyajima. This small retreat is famous for its floating shrine with a giant torii gate welcoming visitors to the island.
On this island, we stayed in a traditional Ryokan, where futon mattresses are laid out on the tatami (straw) mat floors instead of having a bed. This along with the very friendly local deer population made our short visit to Miyajima a charming highlight.
Kurashiki and the castle of Himeji
Turning back around to make the trip back to Tokyo, via Osaka, we made a short stop slightly off the tourist track in a town called Kurashiki. Here, after escaping the central station and shopping area (which reminded me a bit too much of Watford) we discovered the historic part of town where a canal is surrounded by beautiful black and white old wooden warehouses. The tourists here almost all Japanese and absolutely delighted to meet some overseas tourists to practice English with. Because there weren’t as many English speakers here we thought it was a translational error when we were recommended a local “blue” beer. It wasn’t – the beer was dark blue and rather sweet tasting!
From this pleasant little town, we stopped for a day in Himeji where the famous castle stands proud over the city. As well as being beautiful, known as the white egret, this castle is an incredible feat of engineering. The wooden building is supported by two giant pillars formed of tree trunks, which you circle as you climb ever higher above the city. I also liked the number of small hidden spaces called “warrior hiding places” from where defenders could jump out at attackers as a last line of defence.
Osaka: a food lover’s paradise!
At the end of our day in Himeji we moved on to the fast paced life in Osaka. A foodie’s paradise, we had an incredible meal of Japanese beef which we cooked to perfection on our personal hotplate. This was followed by a dazzling stroll downtown, as Osaka centres around a canal surrounded by enormous illuminated adverts featuring the famous Glico man amongst others.
From this intense barrage of light we were happy to find ourselves back in Tokyo, and had a couple of days to consume as much whiskey and tonkatsu as physically possible and buy some fetching yukata (casual cotton kimonos) and Pokémon souvenirs.
Liked Katie’s adventures? Book our 10 day Essential Japan tour from £2499 per person and you too can experience a trip on the iconic bullet train, a city tour of Kyoto and Tokyo plus your own hot water ‘onsen’ in a spa hotel! Call now on 01923 440 000 to save £300pp or email firstname.lastname@example.org.