Text & Photographs: Manisha Mehta
Our avid reader Manisha Mehta is back from yet another international trip. After chasing the Northern Lights in Norway, she shares her latest travel experience to Japan.
What were our first perceptions, or should I say expectations of Japan? The cherry blossoms, punctuality and the rising SUN?
Well, the reality was not far from my expectations but so much more than that. Japan is a fantastic amalgamation of the old and the new. The traditional with the contemporary. The ancient with the fashionable. And the spiritual with the digital.
Our first port of call was Tokyo. We reached Narita at around 8.30 PM and our hotel was at Shinjuku Station, a distance of almost 80kms. Taxis are prohibitively expensive in Japan, in fact, it has the most expensive taxi fares in the world (I think more than 10,000 Yen for 24 kms!). The public transport, however, is very convenient and punctual. We headed to the JR East window at the Narita Airport to activate our JR Pass and caught the Narita Express train to Shinjuku.
Tip 1: If you’re looking to travel outside Tokyo, plan to buy the JR pass in advance, it’s cheaper. You can activate the pass on any date once you land in Japan.
Next day was wet and rainy- plans to visit the Tenryuji Shrine and Shinjuku Gyoen had to be shelved ☹ though we did brave the downpour and made our way to the famous Shibuya Crossing and the adjoining Hachiko Memorial. The best place to observe the mass of humanity crossing the road is from the first-floor window of a strategic Starbucks outlet overlooking Shibuya crossing. Since this was our only free evening in Tokyo, we decided to visit the Tokyo Tower despite the downpour. What a lovely decision that turned out to be! Going up the tower was pointless given the rainy, cloudy evening but the sight of the tower lit up and shining amidst the clouds was worth the drenching.
Tip 2: Most hotels will give out umbrellas for guests in case of a rainy day. Don’t forget to ask for one before you set out exploring!
It was bright and sunny the next day, perfect for indulging at the happiest place on Earth – Disneyland! There isn’t much I can write about that hasn’t already been written, rehashed, revised and revisited. Suffice to say, the kids had a fabulous outing. Since we were planning to stay till the night parade got over, we did not rush in for the rope drop. Rides are simple and fun for kids, though the walk around the park can get a bit tiring by the end of the day. The day and the night time parades are a big highlight. The floats are extensive and elaborate with a perfect eye for detail. There is a convenient direct bus to Disneyland from the bus terminal at Shinjuku station.
Tip 3: If you’re planning to use the public transport extensively, choose your hotel wisely. It’s best to be within a short walking distance around key stations.
Day 4 & 5
Travelling on the Shinkansen (Bullet train) was the highlight on Day 4. We took the train from Tokyo to Kyoto. The trains are quiet, comfortable and well…fast! We reached Kyoto (452 kms away) in just 2 hours and 40 mins.
Kyoto which means “capital city” was the erstwhile capital of Japan. It is famous for its numerous shrines, temples, palaces, Japanese gardens and the Bamboo groves. A couple of train stops away from Kyoto station and suddenly one arrives in a different world altogether. Single floor houses, quaint gardens and famous shrines nestled subtly in cosy neighbourhoods. More to see also translates to more walking!
Tip 4: Carry the most comfortable walking shoes you own, between navigating the subways, shrines, gardens and groves- the feet pay a very high price. We saw the most-visited tourist spot in Japan- the Fushimi Inari shrine with its famed Tori gates and the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove along with Tenryuji on the same day and returned with super sore feet. Most places are crawling with tourists unless you manage to visit them at 6:00 AM. But even with the rush- the serenity, beauty and tranquillity at each place is maintained and respected. Even our 1-year-old absolutely loved waddling between the orange Tori gates!
Our second day in the Honshu region was spent in Nara. It is the capital of the Nara prefecture with significant temples dating back to the 8th century when it was Japan’s capital. Todaiji’s 15m high bronze Buddha (Daibutsu) is must-visit along with the Deer Park. Considered in Shinto to be messengers of gods, deer roam freely in Nara with many tourists taking deerfies and videos of the friendly creatures. They are, however, wild, so please do take care around them as they can get aggressive when they smell food, or the deer crackers sold especially to feed them. We also took time out to visit Isui-en- a Japanese garden preserved since the Meiji era- and the Yoshikien Garden constructed in 1919. This green oasis will transport you to another era as you sit in the Teahouse and contemplate life amongst the natural beauty.
Tip 5: Nara is a 45-minute train ride from Kyoto station on the Nara line. There are shuttle buses from JR Nara station to the point of interests around the Nara Deer Park.
With two train lovers in the family (my husband and my son), the next day we made our way to the Kyoto Railway Museum. I’m not sure between the father and the son…who was happier! Shinkansens to touch and play on, train simulators, life-size moving models of trains which can be operated by visitors, details on the mechanism and maintenance of trains, steam and diesel trains parked in a Chuggington-type circular pattern…. absolute heaven! This place is not really on the main tourist highlight map of Kyoto, but I would highly recommend it in case you have any train crazy folks in the family.
The next segment of our Japanese journey was my most favourite…a week-long road trip in Hokkaido prefecture. While the public transport system in Japan is fantastic, when you have two kids under six, nothing beats having a car. The northern mainland of Japan, Hokkaido, is known for its volcanoes, onsen and beautiful ski slopes. But the biggest highlight for me was finally seeing and clicking endless pictures of the Sakura (Cherry blossoms). While mid-May is when the cherry blossom season is at its end in Tokyo, if you’re lucky you can catch them in the northernmost islands along with Daffodils, Tulips, moss phlox and azaleas.
We decided to stay at the Airport hotel in Sapporo since it was late evening when we landed. Next morning, we picked the car and headed off toward Biei. The drive through rolling hills, gentle valleys, carpets of flowers and tilled fields. A delightful change from the hustle of the city. The lavender fields were not yet in bloom, but the drive was still very tranquil and beautiful.
Day 9 & 10
With Higashikawa as our base, we headed over to explore the rugged Daisetsuzan National Park the next day. This region is home to steaming, volcanic Mount Asahi (yes, you see the steam escape through the volcanic vents near the summit!), caldera lakes, geothermal springs and a Mount Fuji look-alike, Mount Yōtei. We took the ropeway up to the summit of Mt. Asahidake, covered in fields of snow. A stunning vista indeed. The area around the Sugatami station is known as Kamuimintara (Garden of the Gods), best enjoyed in the months of June-July when the entire mountain-side explodes in a riot of colours. Our next stop was at Blue Pond, a man-made pond with deep blue colours due to the presence of natural minerals in the water. A perfect place to introspect and ponder the mysteries of life!
The next day saw us driving towards the Shiretoko five Lakes area with slight detours to visit Bihoro Pass, drive around Lake Kussharo and marvel at the bamboo bush reforestation at Shari. We were fortunate enough to see the red fox and deer in the wild. The panoramic views of the cliffs, lighthouse, waterfall and the sea at Onnebetsumura make for the perfect picture postcards.
Tip 6: most panoramic viewpoints are 30-40 mins walk away from the entrance. Some paths are stroller friendly, others are rocky or with steps. It’s usually a good idea to check on the path before starting off.
Day 12 & 13
Utoro was our base for the next two nights. A delightful little seaside town, it was flanked by the snowy peaks of Mt. Rausu on one side and the sea on the other.
We would also recommend driving through Shibestsu and the Notsuke peninsula. The fishhook-shaped peninsula jutting into the Nomura Strait is one of the largest sandbars in Japan. The tidal flatland presents a unique topography, sunken forests, wildfowl and native flowers.
Kushiro was our last stop on the circuit. “The town of mist” facing the Pacific Ocean, is the most populous in this region and gives off an industrial feel. Fisherman’s Wharf and EGG Garden are the two main attraction in this town, though we did not spend much time in either. We made our way to the Memorial Park at Beppogenya and spent the time under the shade of numerous blooming Sakura! Sheer luxury.
Japan is a contradiction in terms of its people are fiercely private and very respectful of others’ privacy and space, while at the same time they are very warm, helpful and set high standard for hospitality. If you’re standing around at a corner looking lost, someone is bound to stop and ask you if you need help and probably come along halfway to make sure you find your way! We missed many sights and experiences due to the weather or lack of time, but this only ensures that we will be back. 😊
- Do not eat openly in public spaces especially while travelling in trains or buses. Find a discreet corner. (It is mentioned in most travel literature on Japan since it is considered disrespectful to eat in public.)
- In 15 days I did not hear the mobile ringtone anywhere in public spaces. It is considered rude to talk on the phone when in the trains etc.
- Travel light. Expensive taxis imply using public transport, endless escalators etc. It’s much easier when you carry lighter, limited luggage.
- At the risk of repeating, be prepared to walk. A lot. Wear comfy walking shoes.
- Vending machines and ice cream cones are available almost everywhere. Binge!
- The Japanese toilets are just amazing- warm seats, water sprays with pressure settings, privacy option with sounds to mask your ‘sounds’ and a deodorize button! One of a kind indeed.
- Contrary to expectations from a digitised country, credit cards are not accepted everywhere in Japan, in fact, souvenir shops/cafes in most tourist spots accepted cash only. Remember to always carry some cash with you. ATMs are present in most 7-11 supermarkets and withdrawing money is easy.
- While toilet paper is available in all the washrooms we saw, hand towels are not present. Toilets are equipped with hand dryers. If you’re particular about wiping your hands, it’s better to carry your own hand towel.
You may also like to read Manisha’s travel story on Norway, when she went Chasing the Northern Lights.
Text & Photographs: Manisha Mehta
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