Day 1: Kobe to Kyoto
Day 2: Kyoto
Day 3: Kyoto to Tokyo
Day 4: Tokyo to Nara to Kobe
Day 5: Kobe
For my time in Japan I bought the Japan Railpass. It costs around $250 (it depends on the current exchange rate) and has to be bought before you arrive in Japan (I bought mine from STA) and no more than 3 months ahead of time. This allows you to travel on any trains (except the Nozomi trains). I honestly pays for itself if you travel any great distances ( ie Tokyo to Kobe or Kobe to Hiroshima) and it saves you time each time you go to the train station.
Kobe: Although we ported in Kobe I only got to spend a limited time in the city. We took the train from the port into the downtown train station and then branched off from there. There was an awesome crepe place right by the station although I can’t remember what it was called. Also near the train station was a clock, which every hour on the hour had toy children pop out of the wall and sing “It’s a Small World After all.” Very reminiscent of the ride at Disneyland.
Kyoto: One of my all time favorite cities. The train station is large and beautiful. Guidebooks will tell you the tourist office is on a floor that requires many floors or escalators to reach although we found the help we needed from the Japanese tourist office right in the midst of the station. WE received maps and the man helped us to book a Ryokan (traditional Japanese Inn) which was conveniently located just across the street from the station. On our first night we attempted to see Sanjusangendo but we arrived just a few minutes to late and were not able to get in. Instead of feeling defeated we decided to follow the Kamogawa River to Gion, the Geisha district. Now there are two parts of Gion, the super touristy area were apprentice Geisha walk the streets just to get their pictures taken by the horde of people and then there are the back allies which are a little darker and punctuated by streams but you just might see a Genuine Geisha going to work.
After such a long trek food was in order but, nowhere to be found. Eventually we wandered back to the train station. Just outside we found some stairs which we thought might lead to a subway system. In actuality they led to a sort of underground mall filled with little shops and food. Since all Japanese restaurants have plastic displays of in their windows we just chose the one we thought looked tastiest and went in. Really what else can you do?
Things worth seeing in and around Kyoto:
Fushimi Inari Shrine: Just a short local train ride from Kyoto this temple is well worth your time. I also recommend going earlier in the morning before all of the tourist buses arrive and ruin the ambiance. With 4 kilometers of torri gate lined paths winding up a mountain and around a lake the place is truly magical. You might even be able to see a Shinto Priest walking past you. The day I went was a little rainy which just added to the magic of the place.
*Note: This place can be seen in a scene from the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha”
Sanjusangendo (Hall of the thousand Kannons): This place gets it’s name literally from the thousand golden Kannon inside. There is one large central statue and then hundreds of smaller ones surrounding it. It’s a pretty amazing thing to see.
*Note: You can’t take pictures inside so postcards are a worthwhile purchase.
The Golden Pavilion: One of the more touristy spots of Kyoto, it will probably be packed with tourists but don’t let that detour you. It is beautiful and worth a visit. The current golden pavilion that sits on the lakeshore is actually a replica of the original golden pavilion which was burned down in 1950 by a suicidal monk.
Nazen-ji Temple: It takes a little effort to find this place, it’s a little off the beaten path and there aren’t many signs but if you learn to read a map you should be able to find it. What’s really cool about this place isn’t the shrine itself but if you follow a path up a hill behind the shrine it leads to a small waterfall and a pagoda.
Tokyo: My time in Tokyo was short and I wasn’t able to experience as much as I would have liked. Tokyo is a obviously a HUGE city and there is so much to do there. We stayed in the Askakusa district where we found one of the few capsule hotels that would allow women to stay. After dropping off our backpacks we went to see Sensoji Temple and stumbled upon a pretty touristy area around it. Later we ventured upon the rail line which took us to the Shinjuku district. It was full of signs and lights and colors. It looked exciting but in reality it wasn’t very, a great place to take pictures though. Then we took the train to Shibuya, one of the coolest crosswalks in the world and it is basically the Times Square of Tokyo. All 5 directions open up at once and then it’s basically a free for all. There’s a sky bridge over one of the streets which is a great place to get a picture of the chaos.
Nara: I debated whether to go here or not but in the end I’m glad I did. Next to the train station there was an awesome tourist office which set me up with a great map and pointed me in the right direction to the Todaiji Temple. Todaji Temple, built originally in 743 AD the building was destroyed twice by fire. The current structure was completed in 1709 and it is the largest wooden building in the world. Inside is an enormous statue of Buddha which was originally cast in 751 and parts including the head and hands have been replaced later due to damage. I have to admit one of the more alluring and most interesting aspects of the temple were the tame Deer that wander around the temples grounds. You can buy crackers to feed the deer but be wary because many of them are aggressive and when they see you have the crackers all hell brakes loose. They tried to eat my clothes, it was ridiculous, but oddly fun at the same time.