One of my biggest dreams, ever since I was about 16, was to go to Japan.
I was always obsessed with Japanese food, the language and pop culture. So I tried for absolutely ages to save up enough money to go. And in September my dream was finally realised! I flew out a day before my birthday and had an absolutely amazing time. We (my partner and I) had to re-route last minute as Osaka-Kansai airport was damaged by a typhoon.
DAY 1: LONDON & SEOUL
I won't go into all the hectic rushing about at London Heathrow, but South Korea (Seoul) was a stop over, and we stayed there for about 10 hours. I didn't get to leave the airport, but the airport itself was kind of stunning!
There was a gorgeous planted part of the airport, with a live wall, and then up the escalator you see trees inside the airport. It's kind of weird, like a miniature forest, but a really lovely change to the usual concrete and glass structures you get at most airports.
Inside the Seoul airport is a cultural centre too, so we spent some time checking out some ancient ceramics and textiles. I also had a purple sweet potato latte at Starbucks. Next level amazingness! The only downer was that we had 10 hours lay over. Boooo!
DAY 2: SEOUL & TOKYO
Getting into Tokyo Narita was like a dream, but the airport is actually quite far away from Tokyo central. We arrived in the evening, and decided to taxi ourselves to our hotel first to dump our bags. We had a little wander around and found a 7/11 to try a bit of Japanese food. The egg sandwiches are nothing like the sandwiches you get in the UK. You absolutely have to try them if you ever go out there. Just having a place to crash and some delicious food was perfect.
DAY 3: TOKYO & KYOTO
Waking up, we decided to head to Naritasan Shinshoki Temple. We head there about 6am, and got there for morning prayers. The cherry blossom was still in bloom and all of the temple grounds were beautiful. There is a very short hike up to the main temple, and then a water garden below full of koi. Nearby, there is also a forest shrine and waterfall.
After exploring the grounds, we head back to the hotel to grab our bags- next stop, Tokyo Central! We found the metro system pretty easy to navigate, and ended up in central in no time. Central was a tiny bit disappointing to me, only because it felt so westernised and like a lot of the large cities I have already visited.
A lot of tourists fall into the traps like Tokyo Tower, but instead you can go up to the top of the Government building for free. There's a little bit of a wait, but it is well worth it for the beautiful view, gift shop and cafe at the top.
We then went on to find the Shinkasen (Bullet Train) so we could get ourselves into Kyoto. The train took about 2 hours, and the walk to our hotel was another half hour. We were surprised to see that the hotel was entirely unmanned, and that you got in with a pin code, and signed in at the front desk with your passport and email. Our room was super cute, and after dumping our bags again, we decided to wander around and explore Kyoto. We visited a couple of shrines which were quite close to the hotel, and then went to a Yakitori Restaurant to have our evening meal.
DAY 4: KYOTO: NIJOJO CASTLE
We had a bit of bad news and were told that our flight back home was cancelled, so that meant that we had to redirect back to Tokyo to get to back home. It kind of put us on a bit of a downer for the morning, so to cheer ourselves up we went to a 7/11 and got breakfast, then head to Nijojo Castle. The castle used to be the residence of the Shogun of Kyoto, and unfortunately you aren't allowed to take photos of the inside of the building. However, the entire inside is gilded with gold leaf and is absolutely stunning- well worth the visit! We had a gold leaf ice cream and brought a few souvenirs, then head back to the hotel for a nap (hey, we were super jet lagged!)
After a nap, we explored Nishiki Market. 100% the best market I have ever been to, the variety of stalls is amazing and a lot of the food stalls do tasters or free samples. I ended up eating an octopus on a stick, with it's insides replaced with a quail's egg. It was surprisingly nice!
Coming through the other side of the market, we ended up finding a Shabu Shabu restaurant. Shabu Shabu is a kind of Japanse version of do-it-yourself cooking. You are given a pot of hot broth, and a plate of meats, vegetables and noodles so that you can make your own ramen. Afterwards, we popped into a cocktail bar called L'EscaMoteur. It was themed like a Victorian apothecary and run by a french dude. It was awesome being able to have a proper conversation (my French is far better than my Japanese), and we indulged in some drinks that were set alight and put under cloches to be smoked! A lot of theatre for just one drink. By this point it was getting kind of late, we strolled through all the lantern lit streets back to the hotel to rest.
DAY 5: KYOTO: ARASHIYAMA
We woke up to gorgeous tropical rain, at about 25 degrees centigrade. It was about 5am when we head off to get a bus to Arashiyama. We had heard so much about the amazing bamboo forest there, but knew that it was going to get crazy busy there by about 8am, so head there early in order to take photos and to visit the many shrines and monuments around the forest grounds. I can quite safely say that this was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to in my life. The scenes from the top of Arashiyama brought me to tears.
We then went back down through the forest and over the Togetsu-kyo bridge ("Moon crossing Bridge"), over to the Arashiyama Monkey Park. The park is pretty cheap to get into, and it really didn't disappoint. We managed to see plenty of monkeys, and hand feed some of them too. The views from the top of the mountain were also phenomenal, so we did spend a good amount of time there.
After hiking back down, we grabbed a bus back into Kyoto, and decided to do a second run of Nishiki Market. My partner got his name engraved onto a pair of chopsticks, and both of us tried some wagu beef. We also scoured through some of the amazing anime shops and brought a ton of merch. We also discovered that the market had a shrine slap bang in the middle of it, which was really odd but kind of cool.
By this point, we had also become totally obsessed with all the crazy good food at the 7/11, so to save money we had started to buy some in the morning and take it around in our backpacks to save on the money we spent at lunch. Prices were so low for onigiri and sandwiches, so if you are looking on ways to save money whilst in Japan, I would totally recommend implementing this!
DAY 6: KYOTO: FUSHIMI INARI
One of the biggest tourist attractions in Japan has to be Fushimi Inari ("The Thousand Gates") which is a long hike up a mountain, covered by orange-red gates. There are lots of pit-stops and shrines along the way too, and the full hike to the top of the mountain took me (with my chronic pain condition) about 4 hours to complete. I adored the Kitsune monuments, as well as seeing wild tanuki along the forest walk, as well as plenty of cats hanging around the temple grounds. Again, it was raining, but we didn't let the weather dampen our spirits.
However, we also got to see some of the extent of the typhoon damage. Whole gates had been ripped out of the ground, and a lot of trees had been knocked down too. There were also warnings that wild boar were stampeding in the area. This is another place we had deliberately decided to visit very early, as we heard it can get crazy overcrowded after 8am. By time we got back down to the bottom of the mountain, the place was absolutely brimming with life. Tons of souvenir shops were open, as well as street food vendors. A lot of them were selling mochi or yakitori. Well worth a visit, but only early in the morning as the crowds really were a lot to handle! We also got to see some of the Mika who tend the shrines.
DAY 7: KYOTO: KINKAKUJI & GION
Kinkakuji (also known as the "Golden Pavillion") is certainly one of the highlights of Kyoto. The entire outside of the building is gilded in gold, and is very photo worthy. We didn't wake up as early as we usually would, and really paid for it with the amount of tourists that were there. The building itself is so beautiful though, and learning about it's history was interesting. I also had my first taste of matcha ice cream, which was delicious and much needed on the hottest day of our travel (about 28 degrees).
After heading back into Kyoto central, we diverted to Gion. I had heard to much about the Gion district and was scouring for ages to see if I could bump into a Maiko. No such luck, unfortunately, and to drown my sorrows I ended up finding a cute bar to eat in. We noticed straight away that if you learn just a few phrases in Japanese that people treat you very differently. I had a lot of people asking me if I was American too, and when I explained that I was English, they also became a lot friendlier. After a huge bowl of rice and teppanyaki beef, we took a walk down the waterfront. I was surprised to see a few businessmen drunk and having a good laugh, but it really was lovely to walk along, and a perfect way to round up our trip.
DAY 8: KYOTO & TOKYO
Honestly, the idea of going home made me cry so hard! I absolutely adored Japan and the idea of going just felt awful. My partner pretty much had to drag me out of the hotel room, and back to Tokyo. We honestly didn't feel the need to explore Tokyo so much. I think if I ever did go back I might go to Harajuku bridge, but really, Tokyo felt very similar to a lot of big cities I'd already visited- the only difference being the language and sign posts.
On the flight back, I reflected on how beautiful my time had been. I had seen some fantastic crafts, been inspired by all the gilding I had seen, and seriously enjoyed the food. I would really love to go back again, because I felt like my time there just wasn't long enough. Next time I might even go watch sumo wrestling!