Japan is a universe unlike any other place you’ve seen before. A country that was closed to the rest of the world for 268 years must be very special! And Japan is. It would take a lifetime to understand the Japanese, but if you only have a couple of weeks to travel there, these are my recommendations of places essential to get a taste of Japanese culture.
My first advice is to enter Osaka and go out to Tokyo, or vice versa. There are several airlines flying to these two airports (I did it with Turkish Airlines, via Istanbul) which allows you to take a linear route and make better use of time. The second tip is to get the JR Pass, the unlimited travel pass of the Japanese railways. You will save a lot of money if you take this route that I propose; But look! You can only buy it outside of Japan.
It is not the most touristy city in Japan, but if you enter Kansai airport it’s worth spending a few hours because it has some things of interest. The main one is its castle, that although it’s been reconstructed since World War II, it still reflects very well the spirit of the Edo architecture. It is still surrounded by the cyclopean ramparts and carefully manicured gardens. Interesting contrast between the castle and the nearby skyscrapers. Apart from this, you have to go by day in the Umeda neighborhood and eat in one of the many restaurants in its alleys. And at night, to the district of Dotombori.
Kyoto is 15 minutes from Osaka’s shinkansen (bullet train). And it is the jewel of every trip through Japan. In Kyoto you can stay as many days as you want and you would not end up seeing the amount of temples, shrines and places of interest that you treasure. My advice is to spend as little as three full days.
One of them is visiting the Higashiyama hillside, with its many religious sites, including the Chion-in shrine (eye, the main pavilion is closed for renovations). From there you can go down the gardens of Maruyama kōen to Gion, the geishas district, spend some time shopping on the main street and then dine in the busy alleyway of Kawaramachi.
Another full day and you will travel the opposite side, Arashiyama, with the famous bamboo forest (you will be disappointed in how small it is) and its many temples, including the beautiful Tenryū-ji and its zen garden.
On the third day I would go to Nijō-jo, the castle of the Tokugawa area, a marvelous enclosure of palaces, walls and gardens, which is preserved as it was when the warlords wielded power during the Edo period .
And in the afternoon I would take the JR line to Fushimi Inari, the famous shrine whose orange torii travels more than four kilometers of roads through Mount Inari (on specified dates there may be thousands of visitors that saturate everything). It is worthwhile to calmly walk your paths and go up to see sunset over Kyoto from the top of the sacred hill Inari.
In Kyoto you can walk more than on the Camino de Santiago. There are only two metro lines (plus another suburban train whose tickets are different) and do not reach all the tourist attractions. The bus network is more extensive. It is best to buy a combined subway and bus card, which costs 1200 yen per day and 2000 yen for two days (the single metro goes for 600 and the single bus, 500).
A little less than an hour by train from Kyoto, Nara is another must visit. The main street is a pleasant pedestrian and commercial street that leads to the Nara kōen, a kind of wonderland with numerous Buddhist temples, museums and about a thousand deer that run free and do not hesitate to steal food from tourists. The Tōdai-ji is a must-see, where the famous giant Buddha of more than 16 meters tall lined with 130 kilos of gold awaits. And the five-story pagoda of Kōfuki-ji. Nara is often visited as a day trip from Kyoto, although it has a good hotel offer that allows you to enjoy a calmer ride at sunset, when the horde of day visitors is gone.
To understand Japan, I think it is essential to spend at least one night in this set of temples, the most important place of Japanese shingon Buddhism. You can go from Kyoto by combining the JR, then a private line and finally a cable car that climbs to the top of these eight peaks of the Kii peninsula, with more than 110 temples. In most of them they have shukubō (inns) where they spend a night surrounded by Buddhist spirituality and simplicity; In some even invite to pray with the monks. Shukubō usually have their own website, but they are in Japanese. It is best to book through the Koyasan Shukubō Association, which acts as a reservation center. Book with time, at least about 10 days before your arrival, to ensure.
The Japanese capital is one of the most active and vibrant cities in Asia. I particularly confess that I do not like the big cities and I am overwhelmed by the mega-cities so I am not a fan of Tokyo and I would not spend more than a couple of days. But depending on the interest you have for museums, shopping centers, manga shops, kawaii fashion, love hotels, neon and other frikadas you can be not two, but twenty days without boring. Tokyo is also a perfect base for exploring the center of Honshu Island on day trips, taking advantage of Japan’s excellent rail network.
Is it worth going to Fujiyama? It is the question that all travelers ask. And the answer is yes … whenever you go, make sure you go on a clear day. This perfect volcano has subjugated all Japanese writers and when you have it in front, with its symmetrical snowy summit cut over a clear blue sky, you understand why. But seeing it on a day like this is a lottery, because it is usually cloudy. Al Fuji you can approach by several places.
The most commonly used are Hakone, on the southeast slope, and Kawaguchico, on the north. As both can be reached in day trip from Tokyo combining the JR shinkansen lines with other private ones my advice is to check the weather forecasts on the internet the day before: if you are clear that it will make a good day, go ahead; If not, forget the Fuji. To beat up there to see nothing is a waste of time. It is better to change plans on time and go elsewhere. You can come back equally happy from Japan without your selfie in front of the Fuji. If you decide to go by Kawaguchico – what I did – the best combination is the Chuo line from JR to Otsuki (one hour) and there change to the private line Fuyikyu Railway (1,140 yen per way), which takes another hour to the station End ofKawaguchico.
Inescapable visit! I loved Nikkō’s leisurely and melancholy atmosphere, with its old stone walls eaten by moss, tall cedars and wonderful temples. Of course, a place that can not miss on a first visit to Japan. The entrance to the temples is not cheap, but it is worth it, at least that of the Tōshō-gū (1,300 yen), the mausoleum of Ieyasu Tokugawa, the sogún that closed Japan to the foreigners and established a strong military regime of samurais that lasted More than two and a half centuries. Gigantic trees escort pavilions, oratories, altars and pagodas in this spectacular ensemble, while the white ceremonial gates, the red torii and the bronzes that top the curved roofs acquire special shades with the rays of dusk. It is not worth so much the Rinnō-ji, another centennial temple whose main attraction is the pavilion of the three great buddhas (8 meters).
In addition, it is covered by scaffolding for a restoration that will not end until 2019. Nikkō is reached from Tokyo in the shinkansen to Utsonomiya (one hour) and from there on the small train of the Nikkō Line (43 minutes), both approachable with the Pass JR.