Japan can be both touristy and tranquil during the peak season of spring and summer depending on how you plan your itinerary. After spending three days in the country, narrated in my previous blog (Part 1), we enjoyed moments of serenity inside Zen temples like Ryoan-ji in Kyoto as well as in certain secluded spots in Nara park. Those moments made our trip to Japan totally worth it.
On Day 4 of our trip, we loaded our day pack with water, chocolates, wafers and some dry fruits and headed out for a city tour of Osaka. Known as the commercial center of Honshu, the second largest metropolitan area of the country has successfully merged its historically significant past with today’s ultra modern outlook, both co-existing harmoniously.From the ancient Sumiyoshi Taisha shrine (built in the 3rd century AD) and 16th century Osaka Castle to Universal Studios and colourful Minami entertainment district, Osaka filled us with a sense of awe.Our first stop was Sumiyoshi Taisha or Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine, the head of approximately 2,300 Sumiyoshi shrines throughout Japan. We walked over the lovely Sorihashi bridge that created a high arch over a duck pond – filled with fish and miniature turtles – to enter the shrine. The calm grounds and picturesque landscapes transported us to a long forgotten era in Japanese history. We learnt that the main shrine hall was a designated national treasure and the sacred trees inside the shrine complex were over 1000 years old.
After spending a memorable hour at Sumiyoshi Taisha, we walked to the tram station and took the tram to Tennojiekimae to visit yet another famous temple, Shitennoji. The temple was founded in the end of 6th century by Prince Shotoku of the Asuka period who supported the advent of Buddhism in Japan. The original temple had long since burnt down and was reconstructed several times over the centuries, keeping the original design intact. A five-storied pagoda stood in the inner precinct of the temple grounds. We had to purchase tickets to enter this area. We marvelled at the neatly kept centuries-old Gokuraku-jodo garden near the pagoda. We did a quick round of the garden and temple grounds while snacking on chocolates and wafers. having satiated our mind and body, we hailed two taxis (our first and only taxi ride in Japan :)) and headed for Osaka Castle.
The magnificent 16th century castle, perched on two raised platforms, was surrounded by impressive stone walls and moats. Though turned into a museum in the 1990s, much little of the interiors left intact due to its destruction in the 17th century, the castle stood tall as though keeping an eye on the modern city around it while reminding its inhabitants of its majestic, but somewhat tragic, past.
The inside was a bit of an anticlimax with a modern elevator taking visitors to the different levels of the castle. The history of the castle was artfully depicted on the walls. In the western citadel of the castle was a lovely garden, lined up with hundreds of cherry trees, and a teahouse. There was an admission fee of 200 yen to enter the garden. Since the cherry trees were yet to bloom, we skipped the garden and continued towards our next, and final, stop for the day – the bay area and Tempozan harbor village.
Osaka bay area – dotted with museums, theme parks, aquarium, observatories, and shopping centers – has a lot to offer to tourists, especially to a family with children. We took the metro (Chuo line) from Morinomiya station near Osaka castle and got down at Osakako station. Tempozan Harbor Village was just a 5 min. walk from the station. The marketplace in the village was bustling with activity. The dusk air was filled with the aroma of freshly baked bread and tempura fry. From fashion and jewelry
stores to food courts and gourmet restaurants, the complex welcomed local shoppers with its wide assortment of merchandise.
We headed for the aquarium (Kaiyukan). Unfortunately, the ticket counter closed for the day right before our eyes although the aquarium was open till 8 PM. We learnt that the ticket price was
pretty steep – 2550 yen for adults and 1300 yen for children. However, it is well worth the price if you are interested in watching marine life of the Pacific Rim in their natural habitats, recreated in the most innovative manner. From dolphins, sea lions, penguins and otters to whale sharks, sting rays and jellyfish,
one can find them all in this aquarium. We marvelled at the colourful lighting on the outer walls of the aquarium and then walked towards the Ferris Wheel. Deciding to take a ride to get a bird’s-eye view of the evening cityscape, we bought tickets (800 yen/person). The evening chill from the ocean hit us full force as we began to ascend, but the view from the top was mind-blowing! We could see the well-lit harbour and the city spread around it. Back on firm ground, we took a leisurely walk around the harbour, enjoying the laughter of children playfully chasing each other under the watchful eyes of their mothers.
We were simply amazed to see the long queue to catch the ferry to Universal Studios. During peak season, when schools and colleges are closed for summer holidays, the queues for entering the theme parks in Japan are more than a mile long. Since tickets cannot be purchased online, people spend the night at hotels near the park so that they can be the first few to queue up in front of the park gates way ahead of opening time. All this felt so insane! However, these parks are among the best in the world, so the craze is understandable.
On the way back, we enjoyed a hot meal at a small restaurant near Shin-Osaka station. Back in hostel, we called it a night as we had a long journey (on our very first Shinkansen “bullet” train!) planned for the following day.
I woke up to a cheerful morning on Day 5. After a simple breakfast at the hostel, I made my way towards the station with the others. This was the day when our JR Pass got activated based on the information we provided at the JR counter inside Kansai airport complex on Day 1 when we exchanged our vouchers (read how to get JR pass voucher and where to exchange it here). We showed our passes to the uniformed ticket checker at the ticket gate inside the train station, and he opened a side door for us to bypass the automated ticket gates. We were in! There were overhead digital signboards announcing train departures and arrivals with platform numbers displayed against the train names. Quickly we located the Shinkansen that was going to take us to Himeji and headed towards the designated platform.
The shiny blue Shinkansen standing at the platform looked quite state-of-the-art. We boarded an unreserved compartment and settled into the plush seats. You can also reserve seats with JR Pass easily by paying the reservation fee at any of the manned ticket counters at the station. Online reservation is possible too, but only with a Japanese credit card.
What would have made us 4000 yen poorer (one way Shinkansen ride), costed us nothing, thanks to JR pass! Our 7-day JR pass (From India: 24000 yen with taxes) covered unlimited bullet train rides that we made use of extensively during our stay. The train reached Himeji station in less than half an hour. After exiting the station, we walked on the lovely boulevard lined up with modern sculptures.
When we reached the end of the boulevard, the white, imposing structure of Himeji castle appeared right in front of us, glistening in the morning sun. We crossed over to the other side of the street and discovered some local tourists, dressed in traditional attire, taking a boat ride on the moat surrounding the castle.
Himeji-jo has remained intact since the time of its construction which began in the 1300s. We were amazed to learn that it took 200 years to complete the work. The castle, as it stands today, made up of over 80 buildings spread across walled enclosures connected by a series of gates and pathways, is a national treasure as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Luckily we found a cherry tree in full blossom in the courtyard in front of the main entrance.
We bought tickets at the counter and entered the lower level of the castle and began to climb up using a steep, narrow staircase. The rooms in each level were bare. As every level we climbed became progressively narrower, we gave up soon, and instead, focused on the view outside from a terrace. The densely populated city below looked tiny, spread across a gently undulating valley.
Being a warm day, we indulged in some matcha (green tea) ice cream, a popular flavour in Japan, from a stall overlooking the castle. As we started walking back to the station to catch another train to our next point of interest – Hiroshima Peace Memorial – a flea market, just being set up, caught our attention. What was meant to be just a peek, turned out to be a full on shopping expedition! The market was a treasure trove of Japanese antiques and World War II relics. I ended up buying an ornamental oriental soup set, a miniature model of an ancient merchant vessel, some stone-studded silver and ivory jewelry (antique), and (hold your breath!) a pair of fully functional binoculars used by wartime soldiers during WWII – all at bargain prices ranging from 200-2000 yen (USD 2-20)! Obviously we couldn’t just lug that heavy luggage for the whole day, so we decided to keep them in a locker in Hiroshima station and pick them up on the return leg.
Soon we were on our way to Hiroshima. On reaching the station, we headed towards the locker room, following the ‘coin locker’ sign. We chose a single medium locker, put all our purchases in it, and closed the door. After inserting four 100 yen coins in the slot, we turned the key to the left and pulled it out. The key was kept away safely for future use.
Read more about coin lockers in Japan here.
We took a bus from outside the station to go to the Peace Memorial. I couldn’t help noticing how perfectly the Japanese had rebuilt the entire city, and marvelled at the resilience of its residents who were trying to put the horrors of the nuclear holocaust behind them. We passed a posh mall with an interesting clock hanging on the outside wall. It was hard to tell, though, whether the giant-sized clock was just a fancy display to keep time or had some deeper meaning attached to it.
We reached the Peace Memorial Park in a short while and the bus dropped us at the entrance after crossing the Aioi Bridge built over the Motoyasu river. We began to explore the park and its exhibits.
You can read about our experiences at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park here.
After the tour of the park and the peace memorial museum, we headed towards the waterfront and spent some time watching the ferries chugging on the river. Another short bus ride took us back to Hiroshima station where we boarded a local bound for Miyajimaguchi.
On reaching Miyajimaguchi, we walked to the JR West Miyajima ferry terminal and boarded the ferry headed for the picturesque Miyajima island – also known as Itsukushima – to watch the sunset from the iconic ‘floating’ Torii Gate. During high tide, the gate remains submerged in water – as though floating – along with the shrine complex beyond, hence the nickname. As the ferry drew closer to the island, my heart skipped a beat looking at the giant orange torii gate that seemed to be giving us a grand welcome in the backdrop of lush green hilly slopes. This was exactly what I needed to lift my spirits after the emotional meltdown at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial earlier. It was quite a sight to behold!
Soon after the ferry docked, we began walking briskly towards the centuries-old Itsukushima Shrine complex to take a look inside before it closed for the day at 6 pm. The complex, located in a small inlet on the bay, comprise multiple buildings – including a prayer hall, a main hall and a Noh theatre (an old form of theater involving music, dance and drama) – connected to each other by boardwalks. All the buildings were raised above the sea level by supporting pillars that remained submerged during high tide. Unfortunately, by the time we reached the island, the water had already receded from the shrine complex, so we couldn’t enjoy the floating effect. The visit was still worth it though, as we had the entire place to ourselves 🙂 Tourists were setting up their cameras to shoot the iconic sunset from the torii gate that had also emerged from the water due to low tide.
After a quick tour of the shrine, we started for Senjokaku (literally meaning pavilion of 1000 mats), a shinto shrine located on a small hill close to Itsukushima Shrine. Although the shrine remains unfinished to this day – as General Toyotomi Hideyoshi (who also built Osaka Castle), who commissioned it to pray for the souls of his fallen soldiers, died before its completion – it is still worth a visit. We loved the climb to the top of the hill as a stag decided to follow us all the way up, begging for attention, and, of course, some food. The view of the neat rooftops of the Itsukushima shrine complex looked wonderful from the top of the hillock!
As dusk was approaching, we hurried down the path and dashed off to the torii gate to watch the sunset. The effect was beyond imagination. Every photo you come across of this famous sunset point cannot do justice to this wonderful experience. Despite the large gathering, everyone stood in awed silence, cameras capturing the brilliant orange hue illuminating the gate one last time before the electric lights took its place.
We savoured the scene for a little while longer until the chill air of the evening roused us from our reverie. We went for a stroll to cover the rest of the island, especially the quaint souvenir shops. The window dressing in every shop looked quite unique and attractive. It was closing time though, and the crowd was already thinning out.
We joined the other tourists to reach the ferry pier, and hopped into the returning ferry that started no sooner than we climbed aboard. In just 10 minutes we were on the other side. We took the local back to Hiroshima station and retrieved our shopping bags from the locker before taking a Shinkansen back to Shin-Osaka.
Day 6 found us very excited as we walked towards the station, luggage in hand, to take the Shinkansen to Tokyo. It was a free ride (without seat reservation) with our JR Pass. In just two and a half hours we covered a distance of around 400 km to reach Tokyo.
We were floored by the ultra-modern city the minute we stepped out of the train station. Tall skyscrapers with giant-sized billboards and LED displays, advertising the latest anime or manga, took us by surprise. We spotted many youngsters sporting the hairstyle of their favourite anime character. The shades of hair colour ranged from electric pink, blue and purple to shiny grey and green! We came to know they were actually Otaku (geek or a nerd) – a term referring to people obsessed with manga and anime and making that the center of their lives. It was all very new for us.
We took a metro to our hostel using ICOCA card to pay for the tickets (valid in Tokyo too). Leaving our bags with the reception, we set out to explore the capital of Japan. The famous Sensoji temple by the Sumida river bank was closest to our hostel, so we made it the starting point of our city tour.
First, we came upon the ‘Thunder gate”, or Kaminarimon, which was the outer entrance gate of the temple. Almost hidden behind cherry trees in full blossom, the gate transported us back to ancient Japan. After entering Kaminarimon gate, we came across a long and busy shopping street (I later learned that it was called Nakamise-Dori), teeming with tourists, on the way to the temple. From piping hot hand-made noodles and tempura to sushi, traditional sweets and dumplings, the eateries had plenty to offer to visitors. Traditional curio shops sold a variety of goods ranging from Japanese lanterns, religious bells, kimonos, Japanese fans, and Japanese wood-block prints – popular since ancient times – to utility items like mobile covers and straps, printed t-shirts, toys, miniature dolls, good-luck charms and much more. The whole street was a riot of colours and aromas attacking all five senses at once!
At the end of the shopping street was another gate called Hozomon Gate that opened to the temple’s main hall. There was a five-storied pagoda in this hall. We walked up to the purification fountain decorated with stone dragons, and washed each hand by pouring water with the other using one of the ladles kept in the fountain. We also sprinkled some water on our face and then began to walk towards the temple. After getting shoved and pushed a few times by the large crowd of tourists and local pilgrims, we reached the bottom of a set of staircase that led to the main prayer hall.
Inside the prayer hall, we found an enormous golden shrine of Kannon-sama, the goddess of compassion and benevolence, separated by a glass wall. Only priests were allowed to enter the shrine. The ceiling of the prayer hall was covered with vivid paintings narrating scenes from the life of the goddess. We paid our homage to Kannon-sama and exited the temple.
Since Japanese stationery is considered among the world’s best, we decided to check out one of the largest general bookstores in Japan – Maruzen Marunouchi. The fact that we had a stationery lover among us also helped reach this group decision faster 🙂 After checking on google map, we took the metro on line 3 Ginza from Asakusa to Nihombashi Station. From there, we transferred to Tozai line to go to Otemachi station. The bookstore was about 300m from the station.
Maruzen Marunouchi Main Store was huge and looked like a ‘book museum’. Similar to a museum, the store had art-floor like displays on each floor. In addition to books and stationery, we were amazed to find eyeglasses and watch corners, a cafe on the third floor, and a small art & craft gallery. We took time exploring the entire store and then picked up notepads and a few beautiful doll-shaped paper bookmarks as souvenirs.
With the intention of familiarizing with Tokyo’s manga and anime culture, we decided to cover a few of the places frequented by anime lovers. My first thought was the Ghibli Museum, but, when we were planning for our Japan trip, we had learnt that tickets had to be purchased online several months in advance during holiday season due to very high demand. Instead, we headed for Tokyo Anime Center – the hub for anime marketing – before proceeding to Akihabara district – a haven for Otaku.
Walking back to Otemachi station from the bookstore, we took the metro on Tozai line to Iidabashi Station. From there, we transferred to Namboku line and caught the metro for Ichigaya station in Shinjuku. Tokyo Anime Centre was inside DNP Plaza located just outside this station. The center opened a whole new world of anime to us, showcasing the commercial side of this thriving industry. We had a glimpse of the latest news and exhibits from the anime world and enjoyed video promos of latest releases. All the anime characters looked so adorable!
In the evening, we headed towards Akihabara (or Akiba in Japanese) Electric town – a major shopping center for electronic goods, video games, manga and anime merchandise, and computer accessories – known as the mecca of Otaku.
The first thing that caught our attention on exiting Akihabara station was the trendy AKB48 cafe*. On entering the cafe, it became clear to us that it was a popular J-Pop girl group themed shop. The name AKB48 is actually a combination of Akiba – where the pop group’s theatre is located – and the group’s 48 members (the largest pop group in the world!). Huge screens inside and outside the cafe were playing the latest concerts of the pop group. Besides dine-in facility, the cafe also featured a gift shop where one could buy stationery items, cookies in different containers with the group’s photos, and few other branded keepsakes. It was a fun place to be, especially for pop music lovers. It was too crowded though, so we just moved on.
*Note: AKB48 cafe closed down permanently in November 2019 due to renovation work in the area.
We were quite taken by the deep-rooted manga and anime culture reflected in the icons displayed prominently on the shops in the area. The multi-storied Yodobashi Camera Multimedia electronics store looked quite imposing from the outside, its walls lit up with signage of all known electronic brands in Japan.
Although we were planning to check out Akihabara Radio Kaikan – the iconic 12-storied store catering to the needs of J-pop and anime lovers – rain spoiled our plans and we rushed inside Yodobashi Camera instead. Once in, we were far from disappointed! The 9-storey electronics store didn’t just offer consumer electronics and accessories, cameras, computers and video games as we initially thought. We were amazed to find toys, bikes, home appliances, eyeglasses, fashion wear, shoes, bags, CD and DVD collections, and even musical instruments.
We found listening stations near the music collection for prospective buyers to sample the music before purchasing it. There were dozens of small restaurants on the 8th floor, and even a golf practice range on the 9th floor!
After exploring Yodobashi camera, it was time to check out the popular discount store, Don Quijote, also home to AKB48 pop group located on the top floor of the building.
Don Quijote – consisting of eight floors – turned out to be a shopper’s paradise! From food & liquor, grocery & household items, medical supplies, and multi-brand cosmetics to toys, souvenirs, leisure goods, CDs/DVDs/Blu rays, sports & workout equipment, and electronics & accessories – the store seemed to offer everything under one roof!
What’s more, you could actually shop for as long as you wanted since the store was open 24/7! We picked up a few cosmetics and face masks and were told they were duty-free. Now that’s called sweetening the deal!
On the fifth floor was a unique anime-themed cafe called ‘maid cafe’, or meido cafe in Japanese. Such maid cafes are very popular in Japan, featuring waitresses in maid cosplay costumes bringing anime characters to life. We gave it a miss though, and headed back to Akihabara station to catch a metro back to our hostel.
While in Japan, 7-11 stores were like lifesavers as we could find fresh ready-to-eat meals at affordable prices and avoid the hassle of cooking after a long day of travel and sightseeing. However, it is extremely difficult to find off-the-shelf vegetarian meals which leaves vegans and vegetarians with little choice but to cook something in hostel kitchens.
On Day 7, we continued to explore Tokyo. The cherry blossoms were finally quite apparent in the city, so we decided to visit the popular parks to enjoy the blossoms in full glory. But, first we wanted to soak in Edo history and culture. Tokyo was, in fact, formerly known as Edo.
I was quite familiar with the story of 47 Ronin (Ronin means “leaderless samurai”), the 47 loyal samurai of the lord of Ako (Ako Gishi) who avenged their master’s wrongful death in the 18th century. We headed for Sengaku-ji temple where the 47 Ronin were buried. The place turned out to be a peaceful haven, much revered by the locals.
Next, we made our way to the Fukagawa edo museum, popular for its life-size reproduction of a Tokyo neighbourhood from the final years of the Edo period (around 1840). The museum’s light and sound effects made the period come to life as we walked through the ‘streets’ passing from one exhibit to another. We covered shops, houses, a theater, tavern, boathouse, and a fire tower depicting the lifestyle of people in that era. The museum is a must-see if you want a glimpse of day-to-day life in premodern Japan.
After walking through history, it was time for celebration. We headed for the venue hosting the season’s most important event – Hanami in Ueno park. After all, this was why we were in Japan during spring season in the first place!
Needless to say, right from the point of entry, Ueno park was crowded to its fullest capacity. While locals were partying with family and friends, enjoying the holiday season, visitors were busy taking in the sights, sounds and smells. Right from the traditional dancers in their colourful kimonos to the wide array of modern and traditional food, the open-air carnival under the cherry blossoms was quite entertaining. Despite the crowd, we were immersed in the season’s celebration.
In the evening we headed for yet another popular entertainment district -Shibuya – to enjoy its nightlife.
Although rain played truant once again, we continued to make our way through a mass of open umbrellas at the famous pedestrian crossing known as ‘Shibuya Scramble’ to one of the flashy pachinka parlours, Japan’s popular form of gambling. The parlour was quite an eye-opener. Multiple floors were filled with engrossed players hooked to their gaming stations lined up in neat rows across the rooms.
After a walk-through, we continued towards Nonbei Yokocho, a back alley lined up with tiny bars and restaurants that dated back to the 1950s. The restaurants served authentic traditional udon that was simply out of the world!
The cherry on the cake was the late evening walk in Sumida park against the backdrop of a beautifully illuminated Tokyo Skytree. The park being close to our hostel, it didn’t take us long to finally settle for the night after the stroll.
There was so much left to explore and we were just getting started!