Grab a coffee, get yourself comfy and prepare to read my longest and most detailed blog post yet from the epic two weeks we spent in Japan – ‘the land of the rising sun’.
One Life Adventure’s 14-day tour of Japan has been one of my favourite overall so far, but it was also by far the most exhausting because so much is crammed into such a short period of time.
Flying to Tokyo straight off the back of One Life Adventure’s 10-day tour of Philippines and Wanderlands’ Travel 10-day Bali tour not too long beforehand definitely didn’t help. We knew the last month would be one of the most challenging physically.
Embracing new cultures and different traditions is why I love travelling. Whether that be onsening naked in hot pools, partaking in a kendo and sushi cooking class, or learning the art of traditional Japanese tea-making whilst wearing a kimono.
Day One – Welcome Meal
Our time in Tokyo didn’t get off to the best of starts. We stayed one night in a hotel close to what we thought was the hostel we needed to check-in at for the beginning of the tour. However, we got the wrong hostel.
This was an easy mistake because there were two hostels with the same name. The one we needed to be at was 40-minutes away. Luckily, we’d left enough time to get there before meeting everyone in the hotel lobby at 18:00 PM.
I feared that I would struggle to eat in Japan but Sarah – our wonderful and insightful tour guide was great in finding alternatives. (You would have struggled to find food anywhere across the country if you were a vegan).
I’ve found that the first night on tour is always a little awkward and stilted in terms of trying to learn names as well as getting to know a little bit about everyone.
Sarah guided us on the Metro (no easy task with a big group of 21 in incredibly busy train stations) to the district of Asakusa where everyone ate at a traditional Japanese hot-pot style restaurant. There was nothing on the menu for me, so I snook off and found the first of what has been many McDonald’s over the last two weeks.
Afterwards, we checked out the Buddhist Senso-Ji Temple – the oldest and one of the most important in Tokyo.
Sarah provided us with an abundance of facts and information throughout the two weeks but I won’t explain too much about the plethora of temples, shrines and pagodas we’ve seen (primarily because I can’t recall a lot of the information)!
Day Two – Harajuku, Meiji Shrine, Sega Centre & Maid Cafe
After an orientation of what to expect from our time in Japan, including some of the customs and basic Japanese words we could use, we headed to Takeshita Dori, a street in the Harajuku District – the birth place of Japanese teen pop culture.
There was a lot to do here ranging from eating a rainbow grilled cheese toasty or multi-coloured candy floss, to buying something Pokémon related or a souvenir from Daiso, the 100¥ store. Myself, Emily, Andy and Tara did most of the above and also had the time to go to a dog cafe.
Next, was a short walk over to the Meiji Shrine in Yoyogi Park. Sarah explained the importance of bowing at the Torii gate before entering; walking on either the left or right out of respect because walking down the middle would be disrespectful to the Gods, as well as the routine to follow of how to pray when at the shrine.
This included bowing, clapping our hands twice and then bowing once more.
After some free time where a small group of us went to a billiards bar in Shinjuku, myself, Emily, Andy and Rob then made the last minute decision to hot-foot it over to the Tokyo Skytree for panoramic 360’ degree views of the city skyline.
Later, we met the rest of the group in Akihabara – Tokyo’s electric town full of neon lights. It wasn’t too dissimilar to Las Vegas.
Em and I particularly liked the retro games floor in the Sega Centre where we found the original Crazy Taxi game as well as many other classics including Whac-A-Moll.
Admittedly, we also had a mooch around the six-story sex shop next door. Men were only allowed to go up to the top two floors. It’s top secret what was up there I’m afraid!
Later in the evening, we went to a Maid Cafe. This wasn’t one of the seedy ones, but I’m sure you wouldn’t have had to look too far to find one.
Seeing women dressed in maid cosplay outfits on the street trying to entice us to go into their cafe felt unethical. You wouldn’t find this anywhere else in the world!
We would’ve been thrown out if we were caught recording in the establishment, but I managed to clip one of their instagram stories.
Day Three – Sushi making class, Imperial Palace, Shinjuku & Shibuya District + Yokocho Alley
This morning we learnt how to roll sushi; make miso soup and fry teriyaki fish. I struggled with the rolling element but still thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Sushi is neither to mine or Em’s taste but when else are we going to get the opportunity to say we’ve prepared raw fish in Japan?!
The rest of the afternoon was for us to enjoy at our own leisure. I probably should have headed back to the hostel, but I decided to tag along with Em and others to the Imperial Palace.
We must have walked two miles trying to find the entrance but to be fair, the Imperial Palace and grounds looked amazing in the beautiful crisp autumn colours.
Here you could eat peculiar meat on sticks including heart, kidneys and even tongue. We opted for the more traditional McDonald’s.
My energy levels were now extremely low, but I pushed myself and headed to the famous Shibuya Pedestrian Crossing. The plan was to have a look around the area and then go out for a few drinks on our last night in the capital, but by now I really needed sleep.
Day Four – Mt Fuji & Hakone
One of my favourite days in Japan was on day four because we had the perfect weather for sighting Mount Fuji, which can only be seen 25% of the time.
We left Tokyo on the ‘Romance Car’, checked into our overnight guesthouse accommodation in Hakone in the mountains and then used cable cars and ropeways to get to the Mt Fuji viewpoint.
‘The Fuj’ definitely didn’t disappoint. Japan’s most famous mountain looked absolutely spectacular.
This evening we helped make a traditional Japanese Nabe dinner before I tucked into my own microwave carbonara meal. 7Eleven, Family Mart and Lawsons have been such a lifesaver!
We then sat around the fire in the common room playing games like ‘through the glass door’, ‘two truths one lie’ and the obligatory ‘never have I ever’.
Day Five – Takayama Temple Stay
One of the aspects of the tour I was looking forward to most was spending the night in a temple on tatami mats.
Before arriving in the UNESCO World Heritage town of Takayama, we boarded our first Shinkansen to Nagoya. The video of the bullet train below hurtling through the station at 320 km/h looks much slower than the speed it was going.
From the thousands of vending machines lined along the streets, to the all singing all dancing toilets which do everything you could ever think of, to the unrivalled high speed public transport links, Japan are streets ahead of the world in terms of engineering and technology.
When we arrived, Sarah took us on a walking tour around the town where we sampled Sake – an 14-16% alcoholic Japanese drink made from fermented rice. It wasn’t great.
Onsening was top of the agenda in our free time. These are Japan’s hot springs and bathing facilities and can be found scattered throughout the country.
They are sacred places and the catch is, you bathe completely naked because swimwear can bring dirt in from outside. Another unique Japanese experience we can say we’ve both done.
While we were there, Pal, Shannon and Todd all went on an unguided hike overlooking the town…and they came back with a story that I’m sure they will tell their grandkids.
They near enough escaped death because there was a Japanese sun bear prowling at the top. These animals are extremely rare and are known to attack humans when they’re startled. Pal explained how she had screamed over to Shannon and Todd that there was a bear heading directly towards them.
If she hadn’t seen the bear, the likelihood is they would have been dead meat. Thankfully, they all managed to scramble their way back down unharmed. In what I’m sure would have been a terrifying ordeal, ultimately they all lived to tell the tale.
I’m glad we shared a private room with Tara tonight because I wouldn’t have been able to sleep a wink in the main area of the temple where ten people all slept. I’ve always been such a light sleeper.
Day Six – Kyoto
This morning we woke with the Buddhist monks at 07:00AM to take part in their morning prayer. I really appreciated joining in with the ceremony and learning more about their religion.
After the hour service, Em and I paid 3000¥ / £19 p/p to do a meditation session – another experience we’ve both never tried. I won’t lie, I don’t think it’s for me. I found it hard to sit still.
I struggled to concentrate on only my five senses and instead all I could think about was what others were doing around me.
This city is famous for Geisha’s, who are most commonly found in the Gion District. These are unmistakable female entertainers primarily because of their pale white makeup. We were lucky enough to spot four in our three nights here.
This evening, a local guide took us on a walking tour around the Gion District.
Day Seven – Fushimi-Inari Shrine, Kiyomizu-dera Temple & Traditional Tea Ceremony
I got up in the early hours of the morning to watch England slump to a 2-1 defeat against France, which didn’t put me in the best of moods for the rest of the day.
I can take losing, but not when the officials made several horrendous decisions. Moan over. I’ll see England win the World Cup at least once in my lifetime!
Feeling dismayed, we headed on the metro over to the Fushimi-Inari Shrine – dedicated to the Shinto god of rice.
The Shrine is famous for the thousands of red Torii gates, which companies and individuals pay donations starting from 400,000¥ to erect because they are said to bring good fortune. My mood marginally improved when we arrived. Spending an hour ambling through the Torii gates was incredibly cool.
One of Japan’s most famous temples was next on another action packed itinerary. The Kiyomizu-dera ‘Pure Water‘ temple complex sits high in the mountains and provides spectacular views of Kyoto and the surrounding areas. The autumnal colours were amazing to see.
At the complex, we used cups attached to long poles to drink from one of the three Otawa Waterfall streams. Em and I chose to drink from the ‘fortunate love life’ stream while others drank from the ones dedicated to longevity and success.
In the afternoon, we all rented kimonos for 3800¥ / £24 p/p and some of the girls got their hair done for an additional 1100¥ / £7 for when we took part in a traditional Tea Ceremony.
I’m not a big tea drinker, but Emily most certainly is. Unfortunately for her, she didn’t like the matcha tea we made.
Day Eight – The Golden Pavilion & Kendo Class
This morning we got the Metro to The Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) – a Zen temple with two top floors completely covered in gold leaf, formally the retirement home of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. It’s been burnt down several times including once by a suicidal monk.
We were then supposed to reflect on our time so far in Japan at the Daitoku-Ji Zen Garden, but unfortunately the grounds were closed due to reconstruction work.
Another particular highlight from our time in Japan came later this afternoon when we took part in a three-hour kendo workshop in a dojo. Star Wars Director, George Lucas visited Japan to study this martial art closely, which he adapted in the films through the use of lightsabers.
Wearing the uniform whilst being taught the basics by our Bushido instructor and then going head-to-head with Pal was incredibly good fun, but I’d forgotten she had told us earlier that she was a black belt in karate. Let’s be honest, I didn’t stand a chance when she came charging towards me!
Day Nine – Arashiyama & Osaka food tour + Karaoke
This morning we took the train to Arashiyama, a town surrounded by mountainous valleys.
I was exhausted, but I wasn’t prepared to miss out on seeing the Bamboo Forest and Iwatayama Monkey Park. I’m not the biggest fan of monkeys (especially the ones in South East Asia), but Sarah assured us that these ones were much friendlier.
Thankfully we were able to rest our legs afterwards as a local guide punted us down the river in a private row boat for the next hour.
We then hopped on the metro back to our hostel in Kyoto to pick up our luggage before getting more trains to Osaka, our next destination for the next two nights.
Tonight, we spent the last night with everyone doing One Life Adventure’s 10-day tour of Japan by doing one final Japanese tradition – karaoke! However, beforehand we had sampled some of the cities finest foods in the Dotonbori area ‘the kitchen of Japan’.
I had Katsu pork on a skewer stick, Okonomiyaki (a Japanese pancake) and Taiyaki (a Japanese fish-shaped cake). I wasn’t prepared to try the fried octopus pancake balls, Katsu shrimp and Katsu lotus fruit.
Karaoke was a really good laugh. I belted out some classics including Don’t Stop Believing by Journey, September by Earth Wind and Fire as well as Since You’ve Been Gone by Rainbow, which I killed (and not in the good way)!
Afterwards, we continued the good vibes by partying into the early hours.
Day 10 – Osaka Castle & Shinsekai
For the first time in Japan, I spent most of the next day hungover so it was a good job we had the morning and most of the afternoon free. Unfortunately, this time was ultimately wasted by trying to sleep off how I was feeling instead of exploring the likes of AmericaTown, Den-Den Town or the Shinsaibashi shopping district.
Day 11 – Nara & Koyasan Temple Stay
Batteries somewhat recharged, it was all systems go once again as we got the train to Nara – a former capital of ancient Japan, famous for the friendly local deer which roam freely.
We paid 200¥ to hand feed animal-friendly cookies to them. They’ve been taught to bow their heads back if you bow to them before handing over the food.
They took a liking to my food straight away. Rob dropped his wallet and seemed more than happy for the deers to take it. Some were more greedy than others!
After dropping our bags, we walked around the Okunoin Cemetery – the largest and one of the most sacred places in the country. Here, we checked out the many temples, shrines and halls including one filled top to bottom with lanterns.
Tonight, we enjoyed our last night staying in a temple.
Day 12 – Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
No rest for the wicked. We packed our bags and were on the move once more, this time viewing Konpon Daito Great Fundamental Pagoda before travelling on the train back to Osaka and then via Shinkansen to Hiroshima, our final destination.
The reason we paid the extra money to book onto the 14-day tour of Japan was to visit Hiroshima and learn about the city’s devastating past by visiting the museum and the Peace Memorial Park. This was an extremely difficult experience.
On 6 Aug 1945 at 8:15 AM, The United States dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima as they believed that ending World War II with an atomic bombing would help prevent the Soviet Union from extending its influence. They also did this to justify to the American people the cost of the A-bomb development which commenced in June 1942.
Three days later, at 11:02 AM on 9 Aug, the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Tragically, 339,907 people have now died to this day from acute exposure and from the long-term side effects of radiation.
Like when we visited the 9/11 museum in New York, reading the personal stories and seeing the artefacts, belongings and memorabilia was tough.
A local guide then educated us further by showing us around the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. We said a prayer at the eternal flame, saw exactly where the atomic bomb first hit and viewed the still-standing Atomic Dome.
Day 13 – Miyajima Island
Sadly, today was our last day on what has been an epic whistle-stop two weeks in Japan. By now, I’d crashed and was ready for a break.
Summoning what little energy I had left, we got a tram from Hiroshima to the ferry terminal of Miyajima Island. Once on the island, Sarah showed us around the Daishō-in Buddhist Temple, Itsukushima Shrine and partially submerged huge Torii Gate.
Once back in Hiroshima, we ambled around more shops and then I took myself off for a much-needed nap. Tonight, we went out for one last group meal at Kemby’s Brew Pub.
Day 14 – Goodbyes & Shinkansen to Tokyo
We said our goodbyes in the morning to Andy, Bacon and David and then went to catch the Shinkansen back to Tokyo with Rob and Tara.
It was such a shame to end the tour on a sour note, but it took an additional six hours to get back to the capital due to power cuts on the line.
For anyone looking to explore Japan, I honestly couldn’t recommend this tour highly enough. A special thanks to Sarah who helped us have the trip of a lifetime.
Day 15 – TeamLab Planets
With the tour now finished, we still had one full day left in Tokyo. We decided to check out teamLab Planets, which was an immersive experience similar but better to the one we did did previously in Brisbane.
Next, we fly to Bangkok in Thailand where we intend on chilling out over the Christmas period. This is going to be a tough period of time for us both, but we’ll get through it together.
As always, if you’d like to keep up-to-date with our adventure, you can either enter your email at the bottom of this article to receive instant notifications every time I post a new blog; click the Follow ‘Al’ Around The World link, or drop me a follow on Twitter at @AlecW95 or on Instagram at @AlecW95 or @alatw95.
Alternatively, you can follow Emily on her travelling TikTok account at @emstraveladventure.
Thanks for reading, until the next time…