Sunday, 13 January 2019

In the Land of the Rising Sun


Japan was undoubtedly one of the most exciting trips I’ve ever done. Even today, writing this after having come back from Morocco, I am still processing all the experiences and how amazing it was! So, here's a quick overview of the 2 weeks in the Land of the Rising Sun.
A sneak-peak of the itinerary: after two days in Tokyo, I went to Kyoto, spent time with cute deer in Nara and ate some amazing food in Osaka (I'm coming back there one day, even if it's just to eat that takoyaki!). On the way to Hiroshima, I made a brief stop in Himeji for a guided tour of the 'White Heron' castle and then spent a day on Miyajima after paying respects to the A-bomb victims at the Peace Memorial Park and Museum in Hiroshima. After that: a day and a half of museum-hopping on the artsy island of Naoshima, after which I headed to the Koya-san monastery to stay at a shikubō and do a Jyukai ceremony before coming back to the capital for one more day in Shinjuku (and yes, the Robot Restaurant is as bizarre as all the reviews say!). After a stroll around Kabukicho, the Tokyo nightscape from the NYC bar with live jazz accompaniment was just the perfect ending I needed for the incredible 2 weeks in Japan.
I got a quick fright when the flight was delayed because of typhoon Trami, but the plane departed just 4 hours later, as soon as the storm was over...
To relieve the impressions - and (possibly) provide some travel tips to friends and travel enthusiasts - below is the account of the 2 weeks in The Land of the Rising Sun...

Day 1: Tokyo

After a 13 hour flight and a couple of hours of sleep (interrupted by aeroplane food), I arrived in the largest metropolitan area in the world, Tokyo... Having been pleasantly surprised with how efficient everything was (even though I arrived at 4:50am, all the transportation was already up and running and despite the fact that the JR office was still closed and I couldn’t exchange my JR pass voucher for the actual pass, it was very easy to get to my hotel with the PASMO transportation card that I ordered together with my JR pass per post.
A funny anecdote from the flight: although I’ve been warned by friends and colleagues about the fact that Japan isn’t particularly vegetarian-friendly, I still had to smile, when the flight attendant asked me if I wanted “beef 🐄 or chicken 🐣?” (kind of like the “beef or cow” comedy skit). You might have guessed that my pescatarian diet was not accommodated, so I took the chicken option and just ate the vegetarian-friendly part of it.
For my first days in Tokyo, I chose to stay in Shibuya-Ku, just a minute’s walk from the infamous Shibuya Crossing, which is considered to be the busiest crossroads in the world. Because of that, I was so primed that this was the case that I was completely shocked when upon my arrival it was ... completely empty. I even took a video of one lonely car driving through VERY leisurely. To be fair: it was 6am and after I came to the Shibuya Crossing later that day, closer to the evening, I understood what all the fuss was about.

Accommodation (Day 1-2, Tokyo)

I wanted an authentic Tokyo experience in terms of accommodation, so I booked a capsule hotel “The Millennials Shibuya (150-0041 Tokyo Prefecture, Shibuya-ku Jinnan 1-20-13), which I highly recommend to everyone! It was tiny and awesome and so convenient. It might not be perfectly suited for older people or if travellers with kids, but as a solo traveller - it was a dream accommodation I never knew already existed.
My location was perfect to start the day at the Meiji Shrine, but on the way there, a natural route lay through Harajuku (Tokyo’s fashion district), so I started in Cat Street and made my way to Takeshita Dori, which is the centre of Tokyo’s “kawaii” / “cute” culture. Walking along all the animal cafes (cat and hedgehog being the most common ones), I had to - as I was starving - make a stop-over at Santa Monica’s Crepes to get my “breakfast”, which consisted of matcha ice-cream with LOTS of whipped cream wrapped in a soft pancake.
In Japan, it's considered extremely impolite to walk and eat, so I found myself a quiet place (behind some transformer vault, which, nonetheless, was actually a pretty good spot as from there I could watch the cats in one of the cat cafes through its glass window (haha, saved myself paying ¥300 for 10 minutes of interaction with those furry bastards).
At this point, my friend Yuya, with whom I did a volunteer camp 16 years ago in Switzerland, messaged me that he was ready to join me, we agreed to meet at the Meiji Shrine and so, I started walking to our rendezvous point through the Yoyogi Park.
A little bit about the Meiji Shrine: it’s the final resting place of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. To get to the shrine, you’ll stroll through a forest of hundreds of Gingko trees: it’s pretty magical and puts you in the right mood for “encountering divinity”. Speaking of another kind of divinity: as sake is considered a spiritual (pardon the pun) offering, it is intrinsically connected to the gods. So, when I was researching cool spots for photography at the shrine, I came across a sight, which consists of rows of kazaridaru (decorative sake barrels), with intricate and varied designs. While the barrels are empty, they represent decades of donations of sake brewers from all over Japan, made as a homage to Buddhist deities.
At this point, my friend Yuya caught up with me and we started exploring the shrine together. We were lucky to witness a Shinto wedding ceremony that took place on the premises (see pics) and then went to have a look at the multiple stalls to understand what activity was drawing more crowds than the shrine itself. As it turns out, there was a large shop set up for ... "spiritual protection". I realized that Shintoism was a surprisingly entrepreneurial religion. Not sure why, but I somehow thought that Buddhism and Shintoism will be less materialistic than Western religions. However, as it turns out they both readily guarantee some “divine support” in exchange for some very real cash. Haha, so, if you ever wondered how much the safety of your family might cost... We found a pretty exact “quota”: it’s exactly ¥1,000! (ca. £6,79).
Well, so while visiting the shrine I didn’t quite reach Nirvana (haha, maybe tomorrow at the Senso-ji Buddhist temple?), but I was definitely feeling much more blissful, even despite sleep deprivation (of about 40 hours at that point) 😳.
To distract myself from that tiring thought, I suggested checking out the Kawaii Monster Café, a curious place that is full of elements drawn from all things ‘kawaii’. Once inside, you could visit one of the four different areas: Mushroom Disco, Milk Stand, Bar Experiment and Mel-Tea Room. Check out the photos and the videos, because I don’t think words can describe well what it actually is...
After that over-the-top-sugary experience and before leaving Harajuku we quickly dropped by the iconic Kiddy Land - a five-floor toy emporium, full of memorabilia of everything from Hello Kitty to RoboCats (yep, you heard it right: RoboCats! And - nope - I do NOT know WHY).
Then we headed to the waterside for the digital art museum, hoping to see the EPSON teamLab Borderless MORI Building Digital Art Museum. However, as it was hopelessly sold-out (like not just for that evening, but for a month in advance😆), we still tried to make the most of the location (Odaiba is the setting for many famous animes, manga, and Japanese dramas), so we first hopped on Odaiba’s Ferris wheel to see the panoramic view of the city, and then checked out the coolest building around: the Fuji TV’s HQ. And, being totally geeky, also visited the Gundam statue outside of the DiverCity mall.
As we were doing that, the weather changed dramatically and we were caught up in the worst rain I’ve experienced in a while. The only two indoor activities that were still possible that day were: Ichiran ramen and Roppongi Hills Observation Deck. As Roppongi is a neighbourhood known for its bars and restaurants, it was perfect: we chose the Roppongi branch of Ichiran Ramen.
I wanted to do Ichiran ramen since I’ve heard of the concept: it’s a quintessential solo ramen dining experience (sometimes also called ‘anti-social ramen’). You buy your tickets from a machine (see video) and then repeat your order by filling out a form, which you pass through a window to the chef. Then you eat your “personalized” tonkotsu ramen in a semi-private booth. For tonkotsu, pork bones are simmered for hours until they break down into a creamy, fatty broth. As you can imagine (spoiler alert!), it was anything but vegetarian... The basic tonkotsu ramen with red pepper can be personalized in numerous ways. I did: seaweed and pickled mushrooms, asking for ramen to be ‘bari katai’ (Hakata slang for ‘extra firm’ or ‘al dente’).
After that delicious (and slightly odd) experience, we went to the nearby Roppongi Hills and the Mori Tower. Mori Tower is actually an office building, but the top floors house the Mori Arts Center and the 52nd floor is Tokyo City View Observation Deck (238m).
As we feared (but hoped we’d be wrong): because of the weather the Mori Tower was closed, so I am postponing further acquaintance with Tokyo’s panoramas until the next time, when I’m in Tokyo again on the way back to London...

Day 2: Tokyo (Tsukiji, Nakagin Capsule Tower, Ginza, Sensō-ji, Asakusa, Omoide Yokocho)

After having slept through the night like a baby (well, being awake for 48 hours prior to that 'helps'), I headed to the Tsukiji market for my long-awaited sushi breakfast. Navigating the little streets of Tsukiji in search of an egg omelette on a stick or an octopus yakitori 🐙🍡 is an amazing and highly recommendable experience. Although I was really happy with my sushi breakfast, looking back, my TIP for Tsukiji would be to go for different “courses” at different stands and have enough tasting sessions to fill you up Vs. actually having a sit-down breakfast.
After this, I did a little detour to see the Nakagin Capsule Tower, which is a bit of an architectural wonder. Today it’s a mixed-use residential and office tower in Shimbashi. Designed by architect Kisho Kurokawa, it’s situated in Ginza, which is actually a posh and expensive shopping district (slightly reminiscent of Las Vegas). Ironically, the capsule tower looks like something out of Blade Runner and (thankfully) doesn’t have the 'fake slickness' of the neighbourhood surrounding it.
When it was built in 1979, it was the world's first example of capsule architecture built for permanent and practical use. Today some of the capsules have fallen into disrepair, but some are still used as apartments and rumour has it: a couple of capsules are rented on Airbnb, but you can imagine that one needs to “book WELL in advance” 😉😋.
Just because it was one stop away, I’ve also really quickly dropped by the Tokyo Station (disappointingly, it doesn’t look Japanese at all, but rather resembles Amsterdam Centraal).
I quickly walked to the Kikyo-mon Gate of the Imperial Palace and back as you can’t visit the palace itself (unless it’s the emperors' birthday!). TIP: Bear in mind that even although the East Gardens of the palace are open to the public, you will need to check before you’re going as there’re one or two days a week when they’re closed. Based on the schedule I’ve seen, there’s not the rhythm of rhyme as to when, so just check.
Next of the “must do” list for the second day was Sensō-ji - Tokyo's oldest and most famous Buddhist temple, situated in Asakusa. The same grounds also house a five-story pagoda / Shinto shrine, which is somewhat unusual, because Buddhist and Shinto shrines don’t necessarily “mingle” often.
Another sight not to miss around there is a long and pretty street leading from the metro to the main temple, Nakamise Dori. It’s a good place in case you are looking for souvenirs or a snack (I got myself a taiyaki - fish-shaped pancake-like treat filled with azuki (sweet red bean paste)). You typically buy a taiyaki from street vendors. And my “hot” TIP about that is .... to ask for a HOT one 😋.
I lingered for a bit in the very photogenic neighborhood of Asakusa (the contrast of the traditional streets with stalls and shops with Tokyo’s modern SkyTree in the background is quite stunning) and also around the outer of two large entrance gates: Kaminarimon (aka “Thunder Gate"), which might also be worth one’s attention at least from the photographic (if not historic) point of view.
After all that I needed a break (and honestly also to do my laundry 😆😊 as everything I was wearing yesterday in the rain was still soaking wet 😱☔️).
When I arrived at the hotel, there was a pleasant surprise awaiting me: my hostel turned out to be even more awesome than I initially thought as between 17:30 and 18:30 they had a FREE BEER 🍺 hour, so I enjoyed a glass before doing my chores and heading to Omoide Yokocho to meet Yuya for dinner. My secret TIP about Tokyo so far is this area by itself. Interestingly, my friend Yuya who has lived in Tokyo his whole life has never been there until that day, but even he pointed out that it was pretty amazing! So, Omoide Yokocho is a tiny neighbourhood in Shinjuku, and is known for its yakitori restaurants housed in post-war Japanese architecture style buildings. It is culinary heaven, but to preserve your appetite, it’s better to not translate its name. Okay, in case you as curious as I am: it means as the “Piss Alley” 😆. The restaurants are all crowded in impossibly narrow walkways, which combined with a mixed crowd and the smell of yakitori wafting through the streets, made it not only an unforgettable authentic dining experience but also provided me with my perfect, “quintessentially Tokyo” night city photo. 
I also learned a couple of interesting titbits over dinner from Yuya who was graciously providing welcome cultural commentary on what was going on around us.
So, at the beginning of the meal, we were served a kabocha (marinated pumpkin), which would have confused me as I didn’t order it. Technically, you don’t have to eat it and then you also don’t pay, but it’s considered polite and also allows the restaurant to include a service charge (haha, which they do in the UK anyway only without providing anything in return). Then I enjoyed some pickled tako (octopus), but as yakitori is the food of choice in Omoide Yokocho, we went for that and tried different ones.
Naturally, I ordered sake and learned that unlike in the West, traditionally sake is supposed to be served in a “masu”, which is a box in which the sake glass stands emerged into an additional “shot” of sake. The idea is that once you’ve finished your glass, you take it out and then still have a “bonus serving” of sake at the bottom of masu. This is meant to make a person drinking it feel even more welcome.
I drank a “Hakkai-san“ sake, which led to a comment that “san” is not only a polite way to address = someone (that much we’ve learned about Japan even from watching not necessarily historically correct movies like “You only live twice” 😆😋hehe, Bond-san), but also (“ a mountain ⛰). Makes sense if you think about it, right? So, I was pleased both culinarily, but also intellectually/culturally, and walked away from that dinner definitely with an enriched understanding of the Japanese drinking and eating culture, but also some helpful vocabulary to make the next sake party a success 😉😋🍶

Day 3: Kyoto

Fushimi Inari Taisha – a seemingly unending path of over 5000 orange torii gates (donated by sponsoring companies from all over Japan) spread out all the way up to the top of the mountain.
  • TIP 1: Because of where it is situated, try to combine it with either your arrival or departure to/from Kyoto. It's easy to leave the luggage in the locker and explore the shrine before going to your hotel. 
  • TIP 2: arrive toward the end of the day to set different lighting as well as the music hour: the shrine truly changes character with light.
In Kyoto, I was staying in Gion (the town’s famous Geisha district with narrow lanes and hidden alleys). As I arrived quite late, I decided to not overcomplicate things and simply asked the receptionist what he’d recommend. It turned out to be an authentic traditional place called Gion Manzara, which specializes in obanzai (Kyoto home cooking). I took an 'assorted obanzai', which included simmered chicken liver with ginger, omelette with white fish, cod roe with konjac (potato) noodles and simmered versions of eggplant, pumpkin, octopus and tofu skin and taro (Japanese potato). On the side, I also had Lotus root with minced squid and cod roe as well as the long-awaited unagi (grilled eel, served with Japanese pepper). The dinner was so delicious that's I've learned my first food-related Japanese phrase: “gochiso-sama deshita” (= “that was delicious”).

Accommodation (Day 3-5, Kyoto)

Day 4: Kyoto (Kiyomizu-dera)

Home to 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, over 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, the ancient city of Kyoto is what I imagined traditional Japan to be: sacred shrines tucked in among shopping arcades, time-honoured teahouses nestling among modern businesses and mysterious geisha scuttling down backstreets among the tourists and souvenirs.
Stroll up Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka - historic and well-preserved streets, full of shops with traditional gifts and produce.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple. Situated on Mt. Otowa, this 113-meter tall veranda (built without any nails!) is a pretty impressive sight! Following my guidebook's advice, I tried to be there “bright and early” to “beat the crowds”. But what guidebooks don’t tell you is that it’s impossible to beat the crowds in Kyoto. Even before all the shops were open, the crowds were already there. 
For lunch, I enjoyed soba noodles with shrimp tempura (served in a cute little tofu bag floating in broth, garnished with spring onions).
Sanjūsangen-dō (aka Rengeō-in)- it’s hard to stand out among hundred’s of temples in Kyoto, but you’ll easily remember Sanjūsangen-dō by the 1001 golden statues of Kannon in a 120 meter-long hall: a sight you don’t see every day. Also, this temple probably rivals the title for the most oddly specific descriptive title: as there’re 33 spaces between the columns, the temple came to be called “Sanjūsangen-dō”, which literally translates as “a hall with 33 spaces between columns”).

Attend a Traditional Tea Ceremony (e.g. at Camellia FLOWER, 349 Masuyacho, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto): an informative and humbling teaching about harmony, purity,  tranquillity and respect. 
LEARNING: Respect in the Japanese culture is ingrained into the national psyche: for example, when taking a wagashi sweet during a tea ceremony, you always ask the person after you to “forgive you for taking the sweet before them”, which you do by saying “Osakini” (= “excuse me for going before you”).

Day 5 Kyoto (Kinkaku-ji, Ryoanji, Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Tenryu-ji)

Kinkakuji (AKA the Golden Pavilion; sometimes also Rokuon-ji): After the owner, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, died, according to his will, the villa was converted to a Zen temple. A World Cultural Heritage Site since 1994, it’s a Buddhist hall that contains relics of Buddha. 
Ryoanji Temple and Rock (Zen) Garden from the Muromachi period (ca.1500) was created by a respected Zen monk Tokuho Zenketsu. It measures 35 by 10 meters and contains no trees, just 15 rocks and gravel (this type of garden is called "karesansui", which translates as the "dry landscape"). The gardener places rocks in a bed of gravel in strategic locations to symbolize islands and mountains, and rakes on the gravel suggest flowing water.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest - get lost in the maze of bamboo paths and shrines during a morning hike. Btw, did you know that bamboo is grass (not a tree?!)
Tenryu-ji temple (“Temple of the Heavenly Dragon”, est. 1339) - the most important of the area’s five great Zen temples (“Five Zen mountains of Kyoto” AKA Kyoto gozan). Arrive at Tenryū-ji Temple through the North Gate from the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.
Don’t miss the 14th-century temple’s gardens - they have survived the fires and wars that damaged the buildings, and have remained in pristine condition for centuries.
Possible extension: Sagano Romantic Train
Nighttime: Shimbashi, wander through Pontocho Alley, full of lanterns and intimate wood-panelled restaurants – a quintessentially Kyoto experience.
Finish the day with a drink at a wonderfully crazy bar L’EscaMoteur.

Day 6: Nara Deer Park

Before leaving Kyoto, get a breakfast/lunch box at the JR Isetan department store.
Take Limited Express train from Kyoto to Nara, it'll save you 30 minutes (1 hour Vs. 1,5 hours)
Google Map of the main sigts in Nara
Japan’s capital before Kyoto (794 AD), Nara was called Heijō back then. Today the town is most famous for its tens hundreds of deer roaming the parkland of Nara-kōen.
Go down Sanjō-dōri when exiting the station through the East exit & watch how mochi is traditionally made @ Natatanidou.
Five-storied Pagoda- constructed by the empress Komyoh in 730, the second highest pagoda in Japan (50.1 m). It burned down many times, the current version was erected in 1426 but mimics the archaic architectural style of the medieval period around the original building date.
The Southern Round Hall - 9th Station on the pilgrimage route of the “33 Kannon Temples it Westen Japan”, constructed in 813 by Fujiwara no Fujutsugu in memory of his father.
Eastern Golden Hall - houses the Medicine Buddha (Yakishi Nyori), the 12 Heavenly Generals are considered masterpieces of Japanese wooden relief carving (itabori). Fun fact: differently from European tradition, the iconography of the 12 generals was never fixed, so every artist interpreted their look “as they pleased”.
Kofuku-ji - 1989 registered as UNESCO World Heritage.
Isui-en garden – a really nice zen garden, FREE for foreigners.
The Great Buddha is the largest (15m) bronze statue of Buddha in the world and Todai-ji Temple itself - the largest wooden building in the world, which is even more impressive when you know that the current structure (rebuilt in 1709) is only two-thirds the size of the original.
So what’s the ‘big’ deal with the Great Buddha (Daibutsu)? It depicts Rushana, the Cosmic Buddha who presided over all levels of the Buddhist Universe. In 752 this Buddha’s eyes were symbolically opened, whereby an Indian priest stood on a huge platform and painted the eyes with a huge brush. Life’s been rough for the Buddha since then: 9th-century earthquake toppled his head, his right hand was melted in a fire in 1189 and later also in 1567, so only some parts of the statue are still original, the rest is a patchwork of “prosthetics”.

Curious observation: while being a very reserved culture, the Japanese like being overly dramatic about the vision of what might happen. 

Don't miss Nara's local delicacy persimmon leaf sushi (Kakinoha-Sushiin Tanaka (5 Higashimuki Nakamachi, Nara, Nara Prefecture 630-8215, Japan).

Accommodation (Day 6-7, Osaka)

Day 7: Osaka

“Japan’s capital of street food”, Osaka is known for its weirdness and craziness...
If you're as hungry for impressions as I am and want to see EVERYTHING, get an Osaka Welcome card (¥700), which includes museums, temples, theatres, transport (or just a day transport card: ¥800 weekdays, ¥600 - weekend)
Osaka Google map
Start the day at the Osaka Castle (1583) - stunning and historic, 16th century Osaka Castle is one of Japan’s most famous landmarks, and Osaka’s most recognisable site.
Take the shorter line (oh yes, there'll always be a line!) on the right: you’ll walk up to the 5th floor using stairs), but it’s much quicker than queuing with everyone for the elevator.
TIP: Don’t miss the FREE audio guide (left of the entrance).
Learn about Hideyoshi Toyotomi & how he unified Japan after winning the important battles like the Summer War of Osaka (1615) and Ishiyama War (1576).
Continue on to the Hep Five Ferris Wheel (on the 7th floor of a mall): great panoramic views of the city and a funny little bonus: you can listen to your mobile playlist through an amplifier during the ride!
Recharge with a kushikatsu lunch (kushikatsu are skewers of meat, seafood, or vegetables, breaded & deep fried to a crispy golden finish, served up with a variety of dipping sauces or flavoured salt). Believed to have originated at the Kushikatsu Daruma restaurant in the Shinsekai district of Osaka in 1929.
Drop by the Umeda Sky Building (173 m), it’s quite pretty from the outside, no need to go up to the observatory (¥700 / ¥1,500). 
Extension, if there’s time, could be Abeno Harukas - viewing platform, before SkyTree in Tokyo was built, it used to be the tallest building in Japan.
Nearby you’ll also find the Gate Tower Building - one of the weirdest photo ops you’ll ever encounter: a land dispute-meets-architectural-quirk: the government planned a highway, the landowners planned a building – the compromise was a highway that runs through floors five to seven, and an elevator that skips from the fourth to the eighth floor. Awesome, right?
Head to the Shiteno-ji temple before switching gears and heading into the culinary heaven of Shinsekai.
Don’t forget to try poisonous fugu (blowfish) in Shinsekai (or Dotonbori), Zubo
raya is a good place to do so (look out for a large inflated blowfish hanging outside its branches). 
Blowfish is deadly poisonous, its preparation is strictly regulated in Japan and requires a certified chef (training take a minimum of 3 years). Go for fugu sashimi - a standard way to serve fugu: for a first-time experience, you’ll feel its subtle flavour better. But it can also be served in a shabu-shabu style hotpot, as tempura, vegetable stew, or deep fried as fugu kara-age.
Have drinks in Dotonbori and eat a takoyaki at Wanaka Honten

Day 8: Himeji

Himeji Castle (aka “White Heron”), built between 1601-1609, 72m tall.
A secret spot for the best photo opportunity (Himeji castle with the garden in the foreground) is when you turn from the main gate to the left and go up in the direction of the Long Hall.
CURIOUS RANDOM FACT: The outer gates in Himeji are called the first gate (ichi-no-mon) and the inner gate - the second gate (ni-no-mon: 二の門). As reading kanji sometimes feels like trying to 'decipher' a rebus, this one is actually a good example to practice on as the first gate reads: 一の門 and the second gate: 二の門 - kind of makes sense, right?

Before going to the station, grab a local culinary speciality in Himeji is anago (unagi (eel), usually served with a bowl of rice and some seaweed. A recommended restaurant: Yamayoshi Anago.

Accommodation (Day 89, Hiroshima)

Rihga Royal Hotel (730-0011, Naka-ku Motomachi 6-78, Hiroshima)

Day 9 (Hiroshima and Miyajima)


Pay respects to the victims of the World War II atomic bomb in Peace Memorial Park, an area dedicated to the legacy of Hiroshima. The park contains a number of memorials to the atomic bomb – a very moving place to visit...
  • Hiroshima Peace Museum shares the horrific details of the dropping of the bomb and the aftermath of the devastating event.
  • Atomic Bomb Dome - was only 160 metres from the centre of the bomb and the metal framework of the building remained intact as the bomb exploded almost directly overhead. The building is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996 and stands almost exactly as it did after the bomb dropped.
  • Also do pass by the Cenotaph, The Flame of Peace and the Children’s Peace Monument

In the evening (after visiting Miyajima)
  • Visit the Peace Memorial Park at night
  • Oyster okonomiyaki dinner with Sunni at Okonomimura (〒730-0034 Hiroshima-ken, Hiroshima-shi, Naka-ku, Shintenchi, 5, 新天地5−)


  • Get to Miyajima from Hiroshima with JR Pass: from Hiroshima Station (or anywhere in the local JR Sanyo Line) to Miyajima-Guchi Station, it’s a 5-minute stroll to the port/terminal, take the ferry for Miyajima Island (15mins trip, every 15mins). 
    • Curious fact: Miyajima's deers hang out at the station when it gets quieter, esp. in the evening. 
  • Try Momiji Manju - shaped like a Japanese maple leaf, is a steamed bun filled with a bean-jam filling.
  • Ō-Torii (Grand Gate) of the Itsukushima-jinja Shrine (6th century) OR commonly known as the ‘Red 'floating' torii gate’. It’s floating as, in order to avoid angering the gods on the island, the main temple buildings were built on stilts on the shores of the island. The Ō-Torii is one of the most photographed sights in Japan.
  • Try to stay till dusk: the gate & the shrine behind it (as well as other traditional buildings) are floodlit & the atmosphere is magical. 
  • At low tide, you can walk across, the sand to take a closer look. The water starts coming back at around 18:00 (high tide), you can take amazing pictures and videos of water rising slowly!
  • Take a cable car for fantastic views across the Inland Sea from Mount Misen, the highest point of the island.
  • Hike up from the cable car station to the peak of Mt Misen to see spectacular views of the surrounding islands.

    Day 10 and 11 (Naoshima)

    Located in the Seto Island Sea, south of Okayama, Naoshima is popularly known as “a contemporary art island” with 20+ art exhibits including several museums designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando.

    Getting to Naoshima

    • Take a Sakura train from Hiroshima to Okayama
      • From Okayama Station, take the JR Uno Line to Uno Station. You may be required to transfer trains at Chayamachi Station. From Uno Station, walk across the street to the ferry terminal.
      • The ferry passage (20 mins) is NOT included in the JR Pass and costs ¥290 one way.  Boats arrive at one of two ports on Naoshima, either Miyanoura Port on the West side of the island or Honmura Port to the East.
    • Most ferries arrive at Miyanoura Port. The ferry terminal provides coin lockers (¥300-500) for your luggage as well as bicycle rentals (standard bicycles (with gears) can be rented for ¥500 per day and ¥300 (no gears) / electric bike - ¥1,500-2,000 per day. Although there're buses (see below), my advice is to explore Naoshima by bike!
    • Most of Naoshima’s attractions are located on the Southern half of the island (the north is occupied by a Mitsubishi industrial site). One or two buses run each hour (each ride = ¥100). The ride from Miyanoura to Honmura takes ca. 10 mins, and the Art House Project and Ando Museum are within walking distance of the Honmura terminal. 
    • The ride south to the Tsutsujiso bus stop lasts around 15 mins. This stop is located at the east gate of the Benesse House complex, and from there you can take a free shuttle bus to the Chichu Art Museum, Lee Ufan Museum, or Benesse House. Each of these attractions is located five to 10 mins from the bus stop.

    Accommodation (Day 10, Naoshima)

    • Oyajino Umi (761-3110 Kagawa, Naoshima, cho 774, Japan). NOTE: check-in from 17:00 until 19:00

    Things to do in Naoshima:

    • Chichu Art Museum - the museum was built underground to avoided affecting the beautiful natural scenery of the Set Inland sea. Artworks by Claud Money, James Turrell, and Walter de Maria are on permanent display in this building designed by Tadao Ando. 
    • Benesse House Museum - with several site-specific artworks, it’s a facility integrating a museum with a hotel, based on a concept of “coexistence of nature, art and architecture”.
    • Lee Ufan Museum - a museum resuming from the collaboration between internationally acclaimed artist Lee Aydan and architect Tadao Ando. A tranquil space where art, architecture and nature come in resonance with each other, inciting to quiet contemplation. 
    • Art House Project - artists took 5 old wooden houses, a temple and a shrine and turned them into works of art, weaving in the history and memories of the period when the buildings were lived in and used. 
    • Tadao Ando Museum - for approximately 25 years, Tadao Ando has been involved in creating facilities in the natural surroundings of Naoshima. From the Benesse House Museum, Oval, Minamidra, Chichu Art Museum, Benesse House Park and Beach, Lee Ufan Museum, and now the ANDO MUSEUM, all of Ando’s buildings are designed with an emphasis on activating and inheriting the beautiful landscape of the Seto Inland Sea. 
    • Yayoi Kusama’s “Pumpkin” - they're two of these: the red and the yellow ones, on opposite sides of the island.
    • Naoshima Bath "I♥︎湯" ( translates as “I love Yu”, which is a pun on the Japanese word Yu meaning (‘hot water’- this is an art facility created by artist Shinro Ohtake where visitors are actually able to take a bath. "I♥︎湯" was created to provide both a place for Naoshima residents to rejuvenate and as a venue for exchanges between Japanese and international visitors and locals to take place. The exterior and fittings of the bathhouse, from the bath itself to the pictures decorating the walls, the mosaics, and even the toilet fittings, all reflect the universe of the artist. (open 1:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m.)
      • The best time to visit I♥︎湯 is in the evening after you've finished your sightseeing and just before dinner.

    Accommodation (Day 11, Osaka)

    Day 12 and 13 (Koyasan)

    • Buy Koyasan Heritage Pass at Shin-Osaka.
    • Get a ‘Common Ticket for Visiting Temples’ (works for all temples) @ Kōya-san Shukubo Association information centre (600 Koyasan, Koyacho, Itogun, Wakayamaken, 648-0211). Otherwise, you’ll need to pay separately for Kongobuji Temple (the HQ of Shingon sect of Buddhism), Reihokan Treasure Museum, Daishi Kyokai, Daito, Kondo, Tokugawa Family Mausoleum
    • Get an audio guide (¥500 rental) from the tourist centre - it’s all you need to know about Koyasan in one. You can return it the next day by noon. 
    • Kōya-san was founded in the early 9th century by the monk Kūkai (known as Kōbō Daishi) who studied Esoteric Buddhism in China for two years before achieving enlightenment and coming back home to found a temple in Kōya-san. Since then, it has been one of Japan’s holiest mountains and became UNESCO World Heritage in 2004.
    • 800m above sea level, there’re 117 temples (the main area is called Kongōbu-ji) clustered around the Shingon school of Buddhism. The main postulate of the Shingon school that is different from the mainstream teachings is that enlightenment can be achieved in one lifetime. 
    • You don’t need to be a Buddhist monk to feel the highly charged, slightly surreal atmosphere about this group of temples suspended among the clouds. A dramatic climb with a cable car and a bus taking a winding road up the mountain to get you into the mood for some real magic.

    Things to DO in Kōya-san

    • Stay in a shikubō (temple lodging). There used to be 1,812 temples in Koyasan in 1832, however today 117 temples survive and are active, 52 of them provide lodgings. 
    • Attend otsutome (Buddhist ceremony/dawn prayer service at the temple) (around 6am or 6:30am) & observe the priest and the monks chant Buddhist sutras in the main temple. 
      • Don’t show up in your pyjamas 😴 🤣
    • Attend a Jukai ceremony at Daishi’s Kyokai (centre for religious outreach activities) in the Jukai-do (precept hall) [FREE with Koyasan World Heritage Pass, otherwise ¥500]. 
      • Jukai is a formal traditional ancient Buddhist ceremony conducted by a fully ordained Buddhist master. Usually, the idea is to take refuge in the Buddha and receiving the Ten Wholesome Buddhist lay precepts. Anyone (regardless of religious beliefs) can receive these, and it's believed to guide you to living a wholesome and virtuous life. 
      •  to the Ike of the Buddha, and has been preserved in Japan for 1,200 years. A moving and fascinating experience.
    • Try Shojin-Ryori (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) dinner in your shukubo and sleep with futon-beddings Japanese style room. Adapted by Japanese monks from China, shojin ryori is entirely vegan and is based on the concepts of five flavours, five cooking methods and five colours. A meal should include a grilled fish, a deep-fried dish, a pickled dish, a tofu dish and a soup dish. 
    • Try Kōya-Dofu (freeze-dried tofu) and Goma-Dofu (Sesame Tofu) - made of toasted and ground white sesame seeds boiled together with starch from the powdered arrowroot. - [x] Do a night walk / guided tour of the Okynoin cemetery.

    Things to VISIT in Kōya-san

    • Kongobu-ji - Koyasan’s principal temple, constructed initially by monk Kakuban upon permission of Emperor Toba. The entire area of Koyasan actually used to be called Kongobu-ji.
    • Banryutei - the largest stone garden in Japan (2349m2)
    • Shinbetsuden - a large annexe constructed in 1984 to accommodate visitors gathering for the 1150th anniversary of Kōbō Daishi’s entrance into eternal meditation. 
    • Watch the sunset 🌅 at Daimon (1795) - it’s rated among the top spots in the world to watch the sunset).
    • See Okynoin cemetery in the morning and at night. The cemetery has 200,000+ gravestones, ranging from historical figures to commoners. The path is lined by hundreds of centuries-old towering cedar trees.
      • See Kobo Daishi’s Mausoleum is honoured with a blaze of 10,000+ lanterns, donated by rich and poor over the centuries. 
      • Notice Gorinto (Five-tiered stupa) - along the path to Okunoin, you can see many five-tiered stone stupas: these are gravestones it memorials. The five tiers and the Sanskrit letters inscribed on them represent the five elements taught in Buddhism, from the bottom up: earth, water, fire, wind, and space. The (elements from the body of the cosmic Buddha Mahavairochana, and also our own bodies and the physical world, and are not destroyed at death. In death, therefore, and integration with Mahavairochana is possible. 
      • Notice Ojizo-san - Buddhist statues wearing bibs. The name of this bodhisattva is Jizo Bosatsu. Jiso is believed to watch over and protect children in the afterlife. The bibs are placed on the statues by those who have lost children, with the prayer that Ojizo-San will watch over them as a surrogate parent, and also for the long life of living children.
    • Reihokan Museum - built in 1921, displays many of the artworks held by the temples in Koyasan.
    • Danjo Garan complex - the town’s spiritual centre, includes:
      • Konpon Daito (The Great Pagoda) - construction began in 816, present building from 1937).
      • Kondo (constructed in 819, current building from 1932)
    • Tokugawake Reidai (Tokugawa family Mausoleum) - built in 1643.
    • Nyonindo - because Koya-san was a monastery for men, women were forbidden to enter Koya-san until 1872. For this reason, Temples, especially for women, were built in the periphery if Koya-san. Of the original seven such temples, only one now exists.
    • Shop for souvenirs (only cash) at Juzuya Shirobe (771 Kōyasan, Kōya-chō, Ito-gun, Wakayama-ken 648-0211)  - use Koyasan Heritage Pass to get a discount.

    Accommodation (Day 12, Koyasan)

    • Jimyo-in Temple (455 Koyasan, Koya-cho, Ito-gun 648-0211, Wakayama Prefecture) - dinner & Breakfast included, room with a garden view: simply amazing!
    • Grab a makunouchi bento box to eat on the Shinkansen from Osaka to Tokyo. Makunouchi is a popular type of Japanese bento which consists of mostly rice along with fish, meat, pickles, eggs and vegetables and an umeboshi (a salt pickled plum).

    Accommodation (Day 13, Tokyo)

    • 9h - Nine Hours Shinjuku North - (169-0073 Tokyo Prefecture, Shinjuku-ku, Hyakunin Cho 1-4-15), breakfast 7:00 - 10:30 at ‘GUSTO’ (choose your favourite one in the morning sets).
      • They replace these actions with the time spent: one hour + seven hours + one hour.
      • It's officially the weirdest place to sleep ever: I was feeling like I’m part of some illegal scientific experiment 👽

    Day 14: Tokyo

    • Caught a show @ Robot Restaurant 🤖 in Shinjuku: an awesome over-the-top program that is inspired by the various traditional influences and festivals (e.g. Matsuri). It’s filled with floats, robots, bright lights, taiko drums, bikini-clad women, and techno music. Apparently, all the decorations and interior cost approximately 10 billion yen to make!
    • Walked around Kabukicho District, briefly checked out Golden Gai.
    • Grab a cocktail, enjoy some quality live jazz and an amazing nighttime view of Tokyo at the iconic New York Bar at Park Hyatt Tokyo (3-7-1-2 Nishishinjuku; 52F, Shinjuku 163-1055, Tokyo). In case you are not a Sofia Coppola’s fan, it’s the bar from her "Lost in Translation" (2003). Vita took an L.I.T. (“Lost in Translation”), I drank chilli coriander cosmopolitan and Yuya enjoyed a beer.

    Day 15 - The Way Home

    • Peaceful Tokyo sunrise after Typhoon Trami: Mount Fuji in the background and the fleets of cargo ships sailing off to distant shores... Sayonara, Japan! I hope to see you again soon.

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