Back in May, I took the opportunity to visit Japan whilst in-between jobs. This post is a day-by-day walk-through of how I explored the country, solo.
If you only want to view my photos, you can view them all (including non-included ones) here.
- Tokyo (2 Days)
- Nagano (3 Days)
- Kyoto (4 Days)
- Nara (2 Days)
- Osaka (3 Days)
- Hiroshima (3 Days)
- Nagoya (2 Days)
- Tokyo (3 Days)
As a lot of my plans were up in the air before securing my job, I only really had the locations I wanted to visit in mind – rather than particular sights/activities. This is how things panned out though;
Day 1. Arrival In Tokyo
Arrived in Tokyo at 7:30am after a 15 hour flight. Received my rail pass and took both the monorail and the metro to Akibahara. I found my way to the hotel and they let me leave my bags there, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to actually check-in until 3pm. So, I went for a short wander to familiarize myself with the surroundings. Then, when it was time to return to the hotel – I was horribly lost and my map had flown away – additionally it was much hotter than I have ever experienced in Ireland. It was slightly stressful to say the least.
Where Am I...
It took me 4 whole hours to return to my hotel that day. I was suddenly very aware of the fact I would be moving constantly throughout the trip – and that it mightn’t always work out.
At 7:30pm, after unpacking and organizing myself, I needed to get some food. I hadn’t seen anywhere that seemed tourist-friendly in my hours of wandering, but I had one in mind which seemed to have a lower barrier than the rest of them. You order through a vending-machine-like computer and select your meal. Unfortunately, the interface was not very intuitive and one of the staff came over to aid me. Many miming actions later and I finally got a ticket out of the machine, which the attended promptly took and transformed it into… well, I’m not really sure what I ordered.
A local delicacy, maybe.
I got a good night’s sleep that night after the tiresome plane journey that day. I decided to leave tomorrow’s plans to tomorrow and relax in my comfortable but reasonably-priced hotel room.
Day 2. The Imperial Gardens
After a breakfast of chicken nugget and chips – something which originally seemed novel but grew to be repellent as I discovered most hotels offering this as the Western-Style breakfast – I headed to the top rated sight in Tokyo, The Imperial Palace.
The corner of the Imperial Palace grounds
Unfortunately, the palace itself isn’t open to visitors, but the gardens that are available to the public are spectacular. Being from Ireland, I found out that I’m not used to taking photographs when the sun is shining, so I can’t show you much. Think on a Dynasty-Warriors scale if you have played the games. The grounds are enormous and it’s seldom that I passed by another foreigner.
After making my way through the gardens, I continued North and came across a ceramics museum. After browsing through I headed on a long walk back to the hotel.
A shower’s-length later and I was ready to head for lunch again. Feeling I had embarrassed myself enough, I decided to head for another restaurant. The center of Akibahara was only a short walk away, so I strolled around looking for somewhere to eat. I ended up getting some delicious raw beef and a bowl of soup. My stay had a few conditions attached – I was obliged to order both a drink and a starter or they wouldn’t serve me. Hungrily and with no other obvious options, I accepted.
Welcome to Akibahara
Day 3. Nagano Temple City
My short stint with Tokyo had come to an end and it was time to move the next destination – Nagano. After my initial scare, I was incredibly grateful for the fabulous Japanese rail system – I found my way to the next hotel without a hitch (Although, it was a bit of a walk). I didn’t have much of a plan for Nagano, but when I arrived I discovered that the entire city attraction was entirely concentrated on the large temple at the furthest-most edge. So that’s what I checked out first.
This building is just the entrance to the larger temple hidden behind
This temple was huge. And so were the crowds, but it was a crowd of Buddhists, not tourists, which I didn’t mind. There was a very amicable atmosphere throughout the streets leading up to the temple, and both the store-owners and fellow-window-shoppers were more than happy to chat and often struck up conversation (albeit in two-way Pidgeon languages).
A lot of my time that day was consumed by travelling, so after I found a cozy Okinawan bar and got some tasty Soba noodles, I just headed back to the hotel.
Day 4. The Nagano Basin
Originally I had somewhat planned to do a cycle route around Nagano ending in a hot spring, but if there were any bike rental stores I couldn’t find them. Instead I headed to a small domestic village Imai by local train. I wouldn’t be surprised if I was the only foreigner there for many years. While Nagano isn’t renown as a tourist destination in the West anyway, Imai isn’t a tourist destination at all. Imai was just the train closest to my destination however and I wasn’t there for long. A pleasant hour and a half walk through the countryside and I arrived at Hachimanharashiseki park.
Really in the countryside now
The Nagano Basin has been consistently historically important, both in feudal times and as far back as being ideal fertile land in prehistoric years. The prefectural museum in the park was one of the best I went to during my trip – at the very least the most diverse. Afterwards, I walked around the park and saw the large memorial statue dedicated to a feudal war in the area. A hero valiantly protecting himself with only a fan from the general from the other army armed with a sharp blade. The park itself was beautiful and it wasn’t surprising that there were many people painting the gorgeous summer scenes.
This area changes dramatically with the seasons
A long two hour walk back through the middle of nowhere and I was finally back at my hotel. The ubiquity of vending machines is so much that even out here, with only the odd old woman bent double over crops, there is still a machine every so often. I was happy to rest my feet after a long day.
Oh, did I mention my view?
Day 5. Sanada’s House
Again, I took a very long walk into the openness of Nagano countryside. Perhaps too long this time as it was two and a half hours before I reached my destination, thoroughly worn out. Today I had chosen to visit the Sanada Residence. Despite not knowing much about it, I didn’t have many other options – the tourists that do visit Nagano don’t stay for long.
The ticket-sellers were thoroughly surprised to see a foreigner this remote and were delighted to invite me in and apologised profusely for the lack of English signs. What I assumed to be just be a fancy house was a fancy house AND a large fancy garden AND a large treasure museum AND a castle AND an army school, placed to train soldiers for the Sanada’s defence. These people were extremely wealthy.
Archery Range inside the military school
Despite being able to rest a while whilst browsing the museum and the premises, I couldn’t muster the energy to retrace the hours of walking ahead of me. I wander around for a while and found an abandoned train station where I concentrated all my powers of Japanese on the surrounding signs to decipher a single word – Station. Luckily for me it was the correct station and I got the bus back without having to endure even more blisters.
Day 7. Many, Many, Many Buddhas
Whilst the relaxed pace of the countryside was blissful, I had to progress onwards today. I made a mistake in my planning and instead of a single train journey, I had to take two, detouring significantly in the wrong direction. Nevertheless, I managed to arrive safe, unharmed and mostly still full of energy to Kyoto. Once the capital of Japan, Kyoto is known for being a popular day-trip location from Tokyo – so I assumed there would be an equal number of foreigners here as there was when I wandered the streets clueless on my first day. I was wrong – Immediately after stepping off the train at least 10% of the population was obviously foreign. Being very conscious of my skin tone, I could see how much it does stand out – and with the majority of white tourists being American, you are somewhat assumed to be too.
After walking to the first thing on my list, I quickly realised that Kyoto by foot was infeasible. The temple I went to see was a bit underwhelming so I decided to head swiftly to my next site – Sanjusangendo. The hall with a thousand buddhas. Photos aren’t allowed, but even if they were – it’d be hard to capture the infiniteness of the scene in a single frame. There were a few other people there also, everyone silently taking in the impressive scene, pausing occasionally to inspect the detail on the individual statues.
My feet were pleased that my hotel was right behind the train station as they had several blisters from the last few days. Whilst a tiny room, there was a lovely small bath which I soaked in for an age until I emerged for some ramen and heading to bed.
Day 8. Golden
Being more of a tourist destination, It was easier to find somewhere to rent a bicycle. All the forms were in English too. Today I visited Nijō Castle and the Golden Pavillion. The latter of which being undoubtedly the most popular sight in Kyoto. The mass of foreigners taking posed selfies, school trips and internal tourists detracted from the grandeur of the building itself – each one replicating photos that had been taken countless times.
Somewhat miraculous that I managed to avoid any crowds in the immediate foreground
I was much more impressed with the grounds of Nijō Castle. Similar in design to the Imperial Palace gardens in Tokyo, the area is carefully crafted by many gardeners creating the peaceful atmosphere the Japanese are famous for. It was possible to enter some of the individual buildings also, including some interesting bird-themed museums and restored wall paintings.
The castle houses over 400 trees, with 50 different varieties
That evening I was starting to feel a craving for food that tasted somewhat like home, so I ordered a pizza in the restaurant I went to the day before. As a compromise, I chose the local variety – described with toppings such as spring onion and beef hormone. Unsure of what this was I thoroughly enjoyed my meal. I later discovered that it was a bad translation of Horumonyaki – roughly translated as discarded goods. Common ingredients being brain, stomach, genitalia, birth canals. It was delicious, but perhaps I shouldn’t have Googled it later…
Day 9. Mountainside Temple & Monkey Reserve
Having the bike let me explore Kyoto very efficiently so I took the train to Arashiyama. The main attraction here was the Monkey Park high up on the side of the nearby mountain. Initially avoiding it, I searched for the Bamboo forest. I didn’t find it immediately and instead found myself walking up and along the mountain’s edge to a small Buddhist temple. The resident monk was happy to see me and gave me some pamphlets on Buddhism and its main beliefs. Since visiting Nagano, Buddhism increasingly became a feature of my trip.
Panorama from the balcony
As I couldn’t find the bamboo forest, I gave up on that goal for now and went to the monkey park. A decent trek up the mountainside and I entered a small opening in the trees where the monkeys lived. These monkeys are the most Northerly monkeys in the world. During the summer it seems their nutrition comes almost entirely from the tourists handing out feed. Several of the monkeys hung on the windows with their palms outstretched, knowing it would soon have some food in it.
I discovered my spirit animal
After descending and travelling back to the train I spied a sign for the bamboo garden (finally). The forest was quite nice, but not as impressive as the thousands of photographers make it out to be. It was a nice walk nonetheless and ended at a nice ornamental garden.
Day 10. Day of Rest
Carrying heavy bags around from place to place and a tendency to severely underestimate distances left me exhausted by day ten and I spent a lot of the day chilling out and recuperating. Not wanting to waste a day however, I headed to the Kyoto National Museum later on. The museum building seemed unremarkable from the outside, but inside stood giant buddhas, spirits and other large figures. They had extensive katana, calligraphy, pottery and art sections throughout also – Although the calligraphy was somewhat lost on me.
One of the museum buildings closed off while I was there
Whilst travelling there, I got interrupted by some school children who wanted to practise their English. I was impressed by their authentic enthusiasm for learning the language, much more diligent than school kids are in the West. After some stilted back-and-forth conversation, they gave me a lovely card with a poem their class had written – hoping for peace between citizens of all nations.
Day 11. Nara Deer Park
After my longest single stay, came my shortest. My next stop was Nara, famous for its large deer park and Tōdai-ji temple. On arrival I had to wander around for ages until I discovered my hotel as the location was wrong on my GPS. Eventually I found it and was able to check in as my room had been cleaned early.
After settling down in the larger, more traditional hotel I headed to the temple via the deer park. Thousands of stone lanterns line the paths around the park, noticeably getting more frequent as you near the temple.
One of lots and lots
The deer in the park are very used to visitors and hone in on anyone with feed from within a large radius. They’ve obviously figured out the mannerisms of people who have bought some. The park is home to not only the Tōdai-ji temple but also various museums, botanical areas and general chill-out areas. I checked some of them out, but the main attraction was, of course, the temple – which houses the largest bronze Buddha in the world.
Buddha towers over everyone at 15m (50ft) Tall.
At the entrance to the temple was a lovely English-speaking tour guide showing people around for free. Before entering the temple we performed a purification ritual using the water from a fountain at the front of the building. Many people lined up to burn incense, fanning the smoke towards themselves for its believed healing powers. Around the back of the Buddha is a hole in a pillar the same diameter as the nostril of the Buddha – if you can crawl through it, the act is supposed to bring you years of luck. And you can brag to your friends about how you can fit inside a Buddha’s nose.
Day 12. Mount Wakakusa
The next day, I walked through the park again and spontaneously decided to climb the mountain at the park’s furthest edge. It was a long, hot, and tiresome hike but the view was worth it at the top – where some of the quieter deer had secluded away from the crowds and 360 degree views of Nara.
Significantly quieter and serene at the top
Annually, the locals set the mountain ablaze along with a fireworks show. If visiting in late January/ early February I’d recommend trying to see if you can catch it. After descending the mountain I gave my feet some rest and plunged into my traditional Japanese bath.
Day 13. Oh, so hot.
After transferring to Osaka, I began to melt. The temperature outside was intense and I stopped at almost every vending machine to replenish all the lost liquid I had spent walking there.
I thought an indoor, air-conned attraction would be best this time and I went to Osaka’s national museum. The exhibits were very engaging and fun – in particular a spectacular panorama opening unexpectedly as I was walking through a palace scene. There were small recreations of older Japan – notably the 60s when Western culture started to permeate the island.
After visiting the museum, I headed over to the nearby Osaka Castle – which was a large feature of many of the museum exhibits.
My photo has appeared on some Japanese websites talking about Osaka Castle which is cool
The grounds of the castle, while not as vast as Kyoto and Tokyo, were relaxing to stroll around – even in the heat. Inside was another museum, but it wasn’t as interesting as the other ones I had been to and I got around it fairly quickly. Once I reached the top though, there was another lovely view.
One scene viewable from the top
Day 14. Fishies.
The next day I took the metro to Osaka Aquarium – one of the largest in the world. I hadn’t really been to any form of aquarium before so I was very impressed. Along with the expected dolphins, sharks and traditional tropical fish, there were some very exotic animals – some of which I thought were extinct – like a capybara.
Unfortunately the glass was thick so it was hard to take good photographs
I intended to also go to the nearby Universal Studios, but I had to get a ferry across AND buy my ticket which was more than I was willing to pay for a few hours of entertainment. The aquarium took me a long time to get through though so I’m glad I didn’t buy the other ticket aswell.
Osaka Ferris Wheel outside the Aquarium Entrance.
Day 15. Dotonbori
A lot of sites mention Dotonbori as the essential Osaka attraction, so this became my next destination. I believe it is more alive at night time however – during the day it could have almost been any other crowded Japanese city shopping district. Still, I got to eat some nice things and walk along the river, which was nice. I also got some super cheap shopping done. Only a euro for a fairly decent quality belt.
The image of Osaka
A few of the buildings had large mechanical moving fronts like this crab.
Day 16. Peace
My next stop – Hiroshima – was the furthest West I would travel. Hiroshima is of course famous for the Atom Bomb dropped by the Americans in 1945. It has been rebuilt since then and the architecture is noticeably styled with the design of the following decades.
It’s hard to summarize the impact the Hiroshima Peace Museum and the surrounding areas had on me, and I feel like I won’t do it justice so I won’t try. Needless to say though, the atrocity of the bomb and the general insanity of war is portrayed very effectively and the entire city seems to orient around the hope for world peace. Several volunteers asked for signatures on petitions for various peace causes. One thing many people wish is for all world leaders to visit Hiroshima to see the destruction for themselves. There were also hundreds of thousands of paper cranes scattered around the area, donated by various groups, companies and individuals.
The Peace Bell - All visitors are encouraged to toll the bell once, the continual soft ring around the park is warmly comforting
I think of all the places I visited, The peace gardens are my top must-go location.
Day 17. Hiroshima Bay
The peace gardens are Hiroshima’s most notable visiting area and it’s usually a day-trip on itineraries based around Kyoto. However, I had a few extra days in Hiroshima so I got to explore a little bit more. I decided to head to Hiroshima Bay on foot, having heard recommendation of the views.
A long walk, but worth the blisters – A gorgeous beach and mountain view wraps 270 degrees around the coastal inlet. Despite it being so beautiful, there wasn’t many people there, I really like some of the pictures I took there, but it doesn’t do the place justice.
The entrance to Hiroshima Port
Day 18. Hiroshima Castle
Another overly hot day, but I managed to will myself to go out into the heat. Hiroshima Castle was not as large and grand as the other castle was somewhat nice simply because of that fact. The museum there was much more casual and informative than the previous ones that covered similar things. Unfortunately I didn’t get to the interior of the castle itself as the front was crowded with a youth Sumo tournament – which was entertaining to watch too.
Hiroshima Castle from outside the moat
After watching the contests for a little while, I headed back via an art museum which had some spectacular screen paintings as well as some newer art from current artists.
Day 19. Returning East
Chosen as a halfway point between Hiroshima and Tokyo, Nagoya was the penultimate stop on my trip. A very modern city with high fashion on every street. After a few hours on the bullet train and checking in, I went to the city’s science museum. Despite being totally in Japanese, it was very accessible and also very fun – there were lots of interactive exhibits that displayed how concepts worked like a manmade tornado, optical illusions, several demonstrations given by the staff including a very interesting metalworking one and a huge area to cover. Whilst not a big fan of traditional science interests like space exploration, I thoroughly enjoyed the way the pieces were presented here and somewhat understand the appeal now.
Outside the Science museum are several monuments to societal progress
Day 20. Toyota
I spent the following day inside another museum, this one concentrated on Toyota Motor Industries. I’m not a fan of cars, but Toyota has a surprisingly interesting history, starting with automating the textile industry. I tagged along with a Japanese group tour and was able to fully understand the guides despite my low-level Japanese. The guides seemed genuinely interested in the museum and were very accommodating – there was one woman who was very pleased that I had already read one of the pamphlets she was giving out.
The museum itself, like the Science museum was enormous and I spent a good percentage of the day there. Whilst Nagoya isn’t the most interesting city, they certainly know how to do museums well.
Day 21. Akibahara
Finally, I return to Tokyo for my last 3 days. Having not travelled to Asia before, I thought a few days buffer for mishaps would be beneficial. I wouldn’t have put it past me to have gotten completely lost and had to sleep on the streets for several days.
The train trip was long enough and for much of the day I waited to be able to check in to the hotel as carrying around so many bags was tiresome. Especially as my bags were starting to bear the weight of travel and break down. In case they degraded any more I searched Akibahara for a new bag, whilst also taking a more thorough tour than I had before.
I managed to grab a great bag for a reasonable amount and stumbled upon a fan-run market, where I found infinite things that I wanted to buy. Luckily for my wallet, the space I had for new purchases was limited so I didn’t have to file for bankruptcy. The market, which was scattered in-between all the streets in Akiba, gave me much more of a cultural insight into the life of Japanese otaku than the famed shops themselves. I recommend researching it if you travel there yourself.
I returned to the hotel I stayed in at the start of my trip, which certainly solidified the fact that my journey was coming to a close.
Day 22. Tokyo National Museum
Continuing in the same direction as Akiba, I eventually reached Ueno, home of Tokyo’s national museum. I figured this would be a good site to visit considering my very positive experience with both Nagano & Kyoto’s museums. I wasn’t mistaken, as Tokyo’s museum was equally splendid – or should I say museum complex as the area has three distinct museums focussing on different elements. A specifically Japanese museum, a broader Asian museum and a feature exhibition museum – all several hours worth of content.
Some of the earliest Japanese pottery works based on humans
Day 23. Giant Robots
What kind of anime geek would I be without visiting any anime tourism sites though? Whilst I tried keeping my visit relatively non-weeaboo, I had to check out the 1:1 scale Gundam robot in Tokyo. Surprisingly, it did take me a while to find the giant robot as it was hidden behind some larger buildings.
It's hard to give a sense of scale of the robot, but it's about 5/6 stories tall.
The robot is very impressive, but there’s only so long that you can spend looking at any sort of monument and I was disappointed that there was no accompanying museum. I instead satisfied myself with the nearby shopping district, picking up some interesting sweets to bring back home.
Day 24. Early Flight
Alas, all journeys must come to an end, and today was the last day I would have in Japan. Emerging out of my hotel at 4:00am, I made my way to the train station through several empty streets.
The final photograph I took before getting on the train to the airport
My flight was so early that I had to wait for the station to open and catch the first train. 3 hours later and I boarded the plane which (after a long 15 hours) would return me to the cold, sullen reality of home and the reality of having to work.