The last leg of our six week trip away from New Zealand was spent in Japan. None of us, in our family of five, had ever been to Japan before, and we were so excited to get our first taste of the place (food being a much anticipated delight, as well as the culture, historical temples, shrines and modern day architecture). Our oldest daughter had taken Japanese language classes for 3 years at school, which turned out to be of great use to us in navigating train timetables, menus and even how to operate a washing machine and fancy settings on Japanese toilets!
We arrived as the sun rose in the sky over Japan, seeing Mt. Fuji – glowing on the horizon – and covered in a blanket of winter snow.
We landed at 7am local time, after a long, but comfortable, flight from England.
We took a bus ride to our hotel and organised to leave our luggage there, whilst we took our first steps in the bustling city of Tokyo. Check in at our hotel wasn’t till 2pm, so we had to make sure we kept moving (and awake!).
We took a stroll through bustling Shibuya onto a park and the Meiji Jingu Shrine, discovering that hundreds of locals were making the same journey – as it was still the start of the year and many were visiting to lay down positive intentions for the year – be that in business, for success in studies, for health reasons or family. Despite the volume of people there was a harmonious vibe, with everyone walking at the same pace and very orderly.
By the time 2pm came around we were all quite desperate for a nap (the 9 hour time difference between Japan and England was taking its toll!). We fell into deep sleeps, forcing ourselves to wake up at 4pm and get back out exploring! Out on the streets of Shibuya the lights, sounds and smells soon awoke our senses.
Day two we explored the narrow streets of Harajuku – home to fashion boutiques, ‘Cat Street’ and yummy Gyoza!
We walked along Takeshita Street – a hub for the teenagers of Tokyo.
We successfully worked out the train timetables and took a train to Akihabara – aka ‘nerd’ heaven!
Alice loved the claw machines in the massive ‘SEGA’ store.
We also experienced a ‘Maid Cafe’ – a very strange and quirky experience.
Day three we woke early, at 6am! We did some stationery shopping in the morning (and I got a couple of new books), before catching a ‘Bullet Train’ to Kyoto!
The bullet train arrived on time – to the second – and was a wonderfully smooth ride, taking just over 2 hours, from Tokyo to Kyoto, travelling at speeds of up to 320 km per hour!
We enjoyed marvellous views of Mt. Fuji as we sped along.
We arrived in Kyoto late afternoon and found our way to our accommodation for the next four nights – a gorgeous villa with futons, an onset, bamboo flooring and – of course – heated toilet seats!
Our first impressions of Kyoto were ‘wow’ – so many little shrines and gorgeous narrow streets with so much character.
The distant hills were dusted with snow and as we made our way past a shrine it started to snow! There wasn’t enough to snow for it to settle – but it was magical all the same.
We dined at Sugar Hill (which was ‘oishi’ – yummy!) and came across a Pokemon trail – which made our eight year old daughter very happy!
Day four was our first full day to explore Kyoto and we were spoiled with choice as to what to do. We decided to visit the Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine, made up of hundreds of trunks of wood, painted in bright red, with black Japanese characters painted on them.
The ‘torri tunnels’ lead along winding footpaths up a forested mountain with so many shrines.
If we’d had more time we would have spent a day here, hiking up to the top of the mountain. There were lots of fox statues everywhere.
In the afternoon we walked the Pontocho area – a narrow alleyway full of gorgeous little bars and restaurants (and the occasional Geisha too).
Our walk led us to Nishiki Market; a colourful market selling a wonderful variety of food and souvenirs.
I loved the roasted sweet chestnuts.
Hubby and our three daughters loved the shrimps!
Day 5 we caught a train from Kyoto to Arashiyama and walked over 15km through the beautifully scenic place, tucked along the base of the Arashiyama Mountains (meaning “Storm Mountains”).
We started our day walking from the train station, across the Togetsu-kyo Bridge, to the Iwatayama Monkey Park. It was a climb up to the monkeys, but worth it for the views over Arashiyama and to see the monkeys!
After our busy morning we were quite famished and enjoyed a scrumptious Udon lunch before heading to the beautiful bamboo grove.
Day 6 was spent in Southern Higahsiyama, walking through a neighbourhood crammed with temples, shrines, museums and craft shops. Chawan-zaka lane was abuzz with people, leading up to the Kiyiomizudera Temple. Kiyomizudera (清水寺, literally “Pure Water Temple”) is one of the most celebrated temples of Japan. It was founded in 780 on the site of the Otowa Waterfall in the wooded hills east of Kyoto, and derives its name from the fall’s pure waters. The temple was originally associated with the Hosso sect, one of the oldest schools within Japanese Buddhism, but formed its own Kita Hosso sect in 1965. In 1994, the temple was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites.
Strolling through the colourful streets was delightful.
In the afternoon we browsed some shops and meandered around Yasaka Shrine as dusk fell.
There were some amazingly tempting smells coming from the street food stalls, but we had dinner booked at Tenamonya – Teppanya Tavern and didn’t want to spoil our appetites!
Dinner was amazing! The owners of the restaurant, since 1998, have been greeting guests with their wonderful hospitality, happiness, humour and wonderful food.
They gave us a special ‘origami’ crane to take with us, a token of happiness, good health and peace.
Day 7 we said a sad farewell to beautiful Kyoto and boarded the 11.19am bullet train to Tokyo (which, of course, arrived on time – to the second!).
We spent a relaxed afternoon in Tokyo playing in a local park with a frisbee, having relay races and browsing some shops, as well as catching up on our journal entries.
Day 8 was our last full day in Japan. We started our day in Ginza, visiting some amazing stationery shops (our oldest daughter was in heaven!). I loved being able to choose some beautiful cards, buy stamps at the same place and have a tranquil place provided to write before posting them, all on one floor of Itoya Ginza.
We then went to check out Tsukiji Market (if you love fish then this is the place for you!). Hubby and our oldest daughter watched an act of traditional Japanese theatre at Kabuzi-za.
We lunched at a lovely vegetarian tempura place before hopping on the train to Asakusa, to visit the incredible Sensoji Temple.
We entered the temple precinct through the majestic Kaminari-mon (Thunder Gate). The enormous lantern we passed weighs 670kg!
There were thousands of people in the temple precinct area, but everyone moved slowly and without any pushing. The atmosphere was calm, happy and peaceful.
Sophie and Alice loved the chocolate coated bananas!
Day 9 was our last day in Japan and after a final morning in central Kyoto, packing up and lunching at the sushi-train (with automated screens to order food, which is then delivered by a little conveyor belt system to your seat!) we took a bus ride to Narita Airport (a couple of hours away – nap time!).
We watched the sunset over Japan before boarding our flight back home to New Zealand.