Japan is the most well run, efficient machine I have ever experienced. I had been dying to visit Japan for a long time. Maybe it was the movie Spirited Away that intrigued me. Needless to say I wasn't disappointed. It's rare that I leave a place thinking I could see myself living there. You could spend a lifetime in Tokyo and not see a fraction of everything it offers. I felt like I was going 1,000 miles-per-hour in opposite directions, yet could turn the corner and find complete peace and solitude. The Japanese people are very polite, warm, yet guarded. They will go out of their way to help a complete stranger, or attempt to strike up conversation just to practice English. Significant history engulfs the cities I visited, especially Tokyo and Kyoto. I knew there would be endless opportunities for beautiful photography here, and I'd like to show you some. Again, this will not be an exhaustive day-by-day analysis of my trip, it will simply be a photo summary with very basic information on what I enjoyed the most to help you navigate Japan or hopefully give you some guidance.
I split my trip in late December between Tokyo and Kyoto. I stayed in the Hotel Villa Fontaine in Tamachi Tokyo off the JR Yamanote line. I took the NEX train from Narita airport to Shinjuku, and then to Tamachi. Transport to the city is very easy. Your best bet is to take the JR Narita Express train (NEX) to the center of the city. There are several options regarding travel here that should be mentioned. A Suica card can be purchased for about 2,000 Yen, or you can pick up a Pasmo card. They operate basically like debit cards and are good for the subways, train, buses, and various shops/vending machines in Tokyo. You may also purchase a Japan Rail Pass or JR Pass before arriving in Japan. This could potentially save you a lot of money in that it includes transportation within Tokyo, but also the bullet train and some ferry's. Take note that you must purchase this before arriving in Japan and receive it in the mail as they are not sold in Japan. The subway system is well run, impressively always on time, very clean, and very quiet. The Japanese culture is not one of boisterous crowds and loud talkers. People collectively keep to themselves and remain quiet enough so as to not disturb anyone nearby. After several trips you should be able to get the hang of where you are and how to get to where you want to go.
tsukiji fish market
The first couple days I roamed around Tokyo, more or less aimlessly, checking out some spots that had been suggested, or hopping into and out of markets/grocery stores. Quite often when I travel I find that some of the most interesting and unique aspects of a culture can be found by examining their food, so naturally I ventured to Tsukiji fish market to take some photos there. You'll want to get there very early in the morning, well before 8am, to see the majority of the commercial activity. There is a lot going on here too, so be mindful of the many consumers and construction devices like forklifts and crates.
I spent a little bit of time roaming around the Ginza district in Tokyo. It's essentially the 5th Ave of Tokyo. There are tons of shops, restaurants, lights; basically an overabundance of stimuli everywhere. You will find that instead of having long, several-block-wide strip malls or shopping centers as we do in the US., the Japanese decided to build up. Towards the sky. Walk into any building and you will see signs indicating where each business is located on each floor, and perhaps which door on that level. This part of the city is especially striking during the evening, however I typically didn't take my camera with me at night so unfortunately do not have any photos of it. Don't be too timid to discovered some of the more random or off-the-beaten-path places way up in one of the buildings.
From Ginza I took the Ginza line West to Harajuku in the Shibuya district. This cool part of town features a narrow avenue where there are still many shops and restaurants. It is also the site of where the cosplay teens hang out, dress up, and flirt with each other. Conveniently located just South of the gate leading to the Chiyoda ward, which houses the imperial palace and Meiji shrine, you can easily walk from here into Chiyoda city.
imperial palace/Meiji shrine
Great buddha, hasedera temple, enoshima
Kamakura is unique town on the coast, about 1 hour South from Tokyo. Upon exiting the train you will quickly find yourself on Komachi-dori Street, lined with cafe's, gift shops, and restaurants. I took an early training here one morning and walked around the town picking up some gifts for people. Kamakura is well known for its many temples, shrines, and beaches for you to check out. One of the biggest attractions is a large bronze statue of Amida Buddha. I believe for only 20 yen you can walk into the statue and see the interior of it. Take the Enoden Line to Hase in order to get to that Buddha. Per a recommendation from a friend back home, I hopped back onto the Enoden line and continued to Enoshima Island. There are incredible views here if you are up to venturing all the way to the top. You should be able to see Mt. Fuji here on a clear day. The three shrines located on the island make up what is called 'Enoshima Shrine,' but if you've had enough history for the day there are also beaches and an aquarium located nearby. The walk up to the top of the island should is certainly worth it, if only for the views.
Hasedera temple and Buddha
senso-ji temple/taito city
Taito city another ward in Tokyo located within the Asakusa district. It is just NW of the Imperial Palace. Easiest way to get here is via the Asakusa line. There are several temples here however the most famous one is Senso-ji, Tokyo's oldest temple. Immediately South to the entrance for Senso-ji is Hōzōmon, a two-store gate leading up to the Senso-ji grounds. There are small shops and and food stalls lining the pathway towards the temple, and if you happen to be here during the Spring you may be able to attend the Sanja Matsuri festival, a huge Shinto festival that sees some two-three millions visitors per year.
Kyoto was by far my favorite experience in Japan. There is a lot of history here, mixed with a lively metropolis, active city, and incredible food. It was Japan's capital until 1869 and retains much of Japan's most salient structural and cultural traditions. Among the many (about 1600) temples here, some of the more popular attractions include the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine, and the iconic Arashiyama bamboo forest located in Western Kyoto. Definitely make time to visit Pontocho too. It's located just West of the Kamogawa river and features small cobblestone alleyways packed with restaurants, tea houses, and bars, many of which overlook the river. I'd recommend checking out this area at night as it is more striking then. Per usual, I made a few solid plans but spent the majority of my time aimlessly walking the downtown area taking photos while drunk, and eating in places that smelled and looked good.
If coming from Tokyo, you'll likely take the approximately 140 min via JR Tokaido Shinkansen train from Tokyo and arrive in Kyoto Station. I ended up purchasing a 3-day package trip to Kyoto that included my bullet train transportation to Kyoto plus 3 nights at the Rihga Royal Hotel immediately adjacent to Kyoto Station. It ran me 45,000 Yen (appox. 400 USD), but considering everything included I found it to be much less expensive, plus I actually forgot to buy the rail pass before I left the U.S. Shame on me. Next time. Japanican.com has a bunch of deals you can find for essentially everything under the Sun, so peruse it if you feel so inclined. Getting around is just as easy as it is in Tokyo, and the aforementioned IC cards (Suica/Passmo) will work in Kyoto too. Now, some pictures.
There are namely two items on most people's list to visit in Kyoto, the bamboo forest in Arashiyama, and Fushimi Inari-taisha, where large vermilion arches line a pathway up the Inari mountain for 4 kilometers. Arashiyama is located just West of Kyoto and is easily accessed by taking the JR Sagano Line from central station, about 15 minutes. Another big attraction at Arashiyama is Tenryu-ji Temple, one of the more popular temple's in Kyoto with beautiful views and gardens throughout. Knocking out both in one trip is easy, as the bamboo forest is just Northwest of the temple. To get to Fushimi Inari-taisha, you can either take the train from Kyoto station, or walk, as it is not far. Take the JR Nara line to JR Inari Station and simply walk out of the station and you will find the shrine, easily visible. There is a nice landscape view about half way up called the Yotsutsuji intersection. Every now and then you'll come across a small shop selling gifts, small packages of food to eat, and various drinks. There's no shortage of incredible photos of both of these spots, but I'll still post a few I took.
After Kyoto I took the train back to Tokyo to spend my last night there, and for an early flight the next morning to Vietnam. I decided to go to the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku, after having watched how insane it looked on Anthony Bourdain's show. Naturally, the Japanese did not disappoint. There's little that can be effectively conveyed about the show through words, so I'll just have to show you and it will be your responsibility to attend. In short, after purchasing a ticket, you're led down an intensely bright and multi-colored stairway to a large room with a bar, several large chairs, and a band dressed as robots playing jazz music. The walls are lined with mirrors to make the room feel dramatically larger. After some time everyone enters the showroom, a long empty space sandwiched in between two stands where people sat, eating handed out popcorn and booze.
I spent the rest of the evening again walking around downtown Tokyo to take it in one last time. I walked through Golden Gai in Shinjuku, a small labyrinthine establishment of crammed tiny bars colorfully decorated. Afterwards I checked into my hotel, suitably named Hotel the Hotel, to gear up and prepare for an early flight to Vietnam. Japan had been good to me, leaving me with a thought that I rarely feel when I visit a place: I could see myself living here.