Introduction to JapanJapan is different, exciting, beautiful, friendly and easy to travel. The food alone is worth the trip itself.
Different because it has it's own unique history, culture, tranditions and ways to do things. It is a fascinating blend of modern and old. It has spectacular urban developments and untouched wilderness in the mountains and along the coasts. Japanese gardens are a blend of these two where nature is cultivated in beautiful settings. There is a lot to see in addition to the well known temples and Tori-gates. The Tori-gate to the right is the most famous one, in Miya-Jima, a short train and ferry ride from Hiroshima. Despite of the language barrier, I found the Japanese very easy to communicate with, and they always try their best to understand, and if they give you an andvise, I found it was always the correct. Where else do people approach you to assist if you look like you are lost?
Japan ItinerariesLess than 2 weeks: Make one city your base, and make day-trips from there. Kyoto or Tokyo are the two options which are logical choices, because they also have a lot to offer themselves.
2 - 3 weeks: Plan a stay in both Kyoto and Tokyo exploring the cities themselves and making day trips.
3 weeks or more: Plan for staying overnight in places in addition to Tokyo and Kyoto. Suggestions include the Japanese Alps and along the coast around the seaside town of Ito.
A Japan rail pass is a great deal allwoing unlimited rail travel on JR lines across Japan for 1, 2 or 3 weeks. It must be purchased before you enter Japan. The fast Shinkansen whisks you far away in a couple of hours making day-trips even to places far away viable. I find it more comfortable to do this, and keep your luggage at the same hotel for a period rather than lugging it around, checking in and out of places. The Shinkansen is an experience in itself. Green gard is their 1st class, with larger seats and less crowded cabins. Most travelers will find economy class perfectly fine.
Tokyo and day-tripsThe capital Tokyo has so much to offer for every interest, that it is impossible to cover it all. Your itinerary will depend much on your interests. Food is on everybodys list, and you can have great experiences in Tokyo on foot even at very reasonable prices. Day-trips can be made to many nearby places, even climbing Mt. Fuji on a summer day is possible to achieve on a day-trip - if you are in good shape. The fish market is a favourite of mine, including the Tuna Auction starting around 5am (you need to be there around 3am to secure yourself one of the limited spaces.) Check this information, because the auction may be re-located in the near future. I visited in 2017. After visiting the fish market, take a short walk to the nice Hamarikju Garden. The busy district of Shibuya with all its people and neon is best experienced around sunset. Check out the Shibuya Crossing - supposedly the worlds busiest pedestrian crossing. Other remarkable districts are Shinjuku, Ginza and Akihabara. For a look-out head to the Tokyo Government Building for a free - spectacular lookout that is also easy to photograph. Tokyo Skytree is taller, but best seen from outside as a spectacular stucture. Going up is pricey, and the view is like from an airplane, and photography is more difficult. The Royal Palace Eastern Garden is a nice day-time place to visit and relax.
Kyoto and day-tripsKyoto, the capital before Tokyo, has a lot of attractions reachable by foot or local public transport including the famous Kiyomizu Dera Temple (check if it is under refurbishment), nearby Kyoto old city, the Gion Geisha district, Nishiki food market and the old royal palace and gardens. A bit further away, but still reachable by local public transport are the beautiful bamboo forest, the touristy Goldener Temple (Kinkaku-ji pavilion), and nearby a number of Zen-gardens. Don't fall into the trap of trying to see too many temples. Save a temple visit for Nara, the town that was the capital before Kyoto, reachable by local train on a day-trip from Kyoto. The Todai-ji temple houses a large beautiful Buddah, and is claimed to be the worlds largest wooden building. Nara also has a large population of wild deer roaming the streets and mingling with people. A day-trip to Himeji less than one hour away on the Shinkansen is my number one recommended day-trip. The Himeji Castle is absolutely spectacular, and the most fascinating building I visited in Japan. Contrary to most castles, Himeji Castle is still the original wooden structure. Hiroshima is a bit further away, but can also be seen on a long day-trip from Kyoto. I also managed to take a day-trip all the way to Nagasaki, and will also recommend that if you have an extra day thinking you have seen it all in Kyoto.
Other places to stay overnightStaying a couple of nights in Tsumago or another traditional mountain village would be high on my list. The hike to the nearby Magome village is a nice easy hike where you can return by local bus or walk back. 2-3 hours each way on the old Kiso road (actually more like a good trail) between the two villages. Staying in the coastal town of Ito near Tokyo is a nice option in summer, with nice coastal walks and beautiful scenery. Ito itself is a nice, lively town. Hiroshima is also a place to consider for an overnight stay, as it may have more to see than you can manage on a day-trip.
I would love to come back one day - and in fact I did so in the late spring of 2018 for a business trip where I added a one week vacation in Japan afterwards.
2nd trip to Japan 2018The Japan Alps are great for both summer and winter ativities. My trip was during in between seasons. Downhill ski-tracks were closed, but still too much snow in the higher altitides for hiking. If you like to have the place to yourself in peace, this is the time to come. It is also easy to find acomodation at this time. Some ski-resorts had closed down as the ageing Japanese population is doing less downhill skiing.
House in a Gassho village. I visited two of these historic farming villages with a very remarkable and beautiful architecture. They are easily reachable on a day-trip using local buses from Takayama (which itself is a beautiful town with a historic disctrit worth visiting).
My 2nd visit to Japan included a one night stop in Tokyo to one thing that I missed on my first trip: To enjoy the view from the Tokyo City View Roppongi. If you want to photograph city views, this is the best place. You get to be outside on the roof with no glare from obstructing windows. Best experienced during sunset when the night lights are turned on. You also get a good view of the Tokyo Tower, Tokyos copy of the Eiffel Tower. The Tokyo City View also gives a much better perspective of the city than if you visit taller Tokyo Sky Tree which I suggest to skip, because it is just too tall to get an interesting view (most is in the haze), and the windows create terrible glare which you cannot mask, as they are out of reach. Tokyo Sky Tree is a spectacular tower best viewed from the ground.
While at the top of Tokyo City View, I was also rewarded with this fireworks. The Tokyo City View is a large roof with plenty of space to move around. Bring your tripod. (The Tokyo sky Tree observation deck is packed people and different businesses making viewing and photographing in some directions difficult. To the left is what you can get with a powerful telephoto lens at the Tokyo Sky Tree. More distant areas was covered in haze. For an indoor city view, go to the Tokyo City Hall observation deck which is free (as of 2017), and often with interesting exhibitions. This is a very friendly place with helpful staff.
A Zen garden is a garden with rocks. You find these all over Japan, and it is worth visiting a couple of them. Being made with rocks, one should think they are maintenance free, but green stuff will start showing up if you don't maintain it. For visitors, walking on the rocks is an absolute no-no. A Zen-garden is a relaxing place if you wish to slow down during an hectic tourist itinerary.
If rocks are not your thing, you find many different gardens in Japan, this one uses moss as one of the decorative elements. Japanise gardens are very diverse and can use many different decorative elements.