The first time I was in Japan was in May of 2015. I was there with a couple of friends, visiting our other friend (and business partner) who was there for the premiere of George Clooney’s Tomorrowland. I’m not going to get into the details of it all but I will tell you about the awesome 8-day experience I had in Japan. So let’s get right on it.
Was the same day as the red carpet premiere so I really wouldn’t include that. However, let me at least share some facts about our first day in Japan.
We landed at Narita International Airport which was in Chiba, Japan. A short drive from Tokyo where the premiere would be. This is actually what’s awesome about Japan, compared to my home country, the airport – which usually causes heavy traffic in the surrounding vicinity – is outside the main city. This was an incredibly smart decision considering Japan is roughly the same size as Alaska in the United States, but with more islands, and heavily surrounded by water.
Japan is comprised of 4 main islands; Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku. The 4 islands are divided into 8 regions, namely, Hokkaido, Tohoku, Kanto, Chubu, Kansai, Chugoku, Shikoku, Kyushu. While the 8 regions are further divided into 47 prefectures, which are… just kidding, they’re too many to name now. In spite of the distance from one region to the other, and the vast land difference that people need to travel to get from one side of the country to the other, ancient Japanese were still able to build an empire during a time when they haven’t even discovered metallurgy yet.
Let’s get into a short history lesson. Around 40,000 years ago, Japan was connected by a land bridge to the southern tip of South Korea. It was this time when humans started populating the vast islands and regions of Japan. Sadly, around 12,000 years go, during the decline of the last Ice Age, the land bridge connecting the two landmasses of Greater East Asia and the Japanese peninsula subsided in water and everyone in the Japanese peninsula is now stuck there. Sometime between 300 B.C. and 500 B.C. the bronze age was introduced to Japan, which kick-started the increasing demand for society to grow as a step to defend populations from bands of thieves and marauders. Now let’s get back to our tour of Japan.
For the night, after the premiere of Tomorrowland. We stayed at the Ueno Hotel in Taito City, Tokyo. It was a quaint little hotel, and because the weather was a bit chilly, the skies were very cozy looking. Not to mention, the hotel was inexpensive so we really got out money’s worth for that night’s rest.
Our trip began with an inspiring journey throughout the capital city of Japan, Tokyo. Asakusa was a beautiful destination with plenty of shrines and small bazaar looking huts on its shopping street. It was a bit crowded during our visit but it was beautiful nonetheless. Kibi Dango was an especially tasty stall along the shopping street. They serve rice cakes shish kebob’d into sticks, which they cover in soybean powder which makes this treat not only sweet but also the tiniest bit salty. To wash it all into your tummy, Kibi Dango also serves fermented sweet rice drink, which in all honesty I think was half-way between a non-carbonated soda and sake.
Because we were left by our tout guide to just roam around the city, we visited some really cool places – thank you Google!
Tsumida park was the perfect place to be, albeit being incredibly crowded. Since we were there in May, the Cherry Blossoms were in full bloom and some were already falling off their trees. It was an incredible sight.
Ueno zoo was also beautiful, but quite frankly, I suggest not to visit it in the tourist season months. It is quite jam-packed. Still beautiful though since we roamed around quite a lot we got to see the zoo’s inhabitants from the magnificent Sumatran Tiger, to the dominating western lowland gorilla. So sad we were 7 years too late, to meet Ling Ling, the Giant Panda living in the zoom. She died in 2008 but not before helping scientists and conservationists get a good grasp on how to help preserve the panda species.
I suggest if you’ll go commuting through the streets of Tokyo, might as well use the public busses, they give you a much better feel of Japan’s bustling community and much better sights around the city.
Now, of course, you never want to go to Japan without visiting and climbing up the Tokyo Tower. The most iconic landmark of Japan next to Mount Fuji. With a sprawling view of the city’s skyline juxtaposed amidst the more traditional palaces in the city, you may never want to ride the elevator down. I recommend you visit it around 4-5 pm so you can get a great sunset glimpse of the city before moving on to the rest of the trip.
I’m going to go through the other days much quicker coz of I really don’t wanna bore you with unnecessary details plus my editor told me I can only write up to 1,600 words so…
Next on our stop was Hakone and the Hakone Ropeway where at the top, in Oakadane station, we can get a gorgeous view of Mt. Fuji from the hot springs, so if you’re in for a little traditional hot spring bath, this is the place! Another place you can go to is the Fujisan World Heritage Site, where you can learn more about this perfect cone-shaped mountain. Fun fact: Mt. Fuji was granted World Heritage site status by the UNESCO at a global meeting in Cambodia in 2013.
Another great place to stop in your journey across Japan is the Matsumoto Castle in the countryside of Nagano. Matsumoto Castle was one of the 12 original castles in Japan during the Sengoku Period which was a time of great turmoil and social upheaval around 1457 to 1615 C.E. In spite the fact that when the castle was built the Black Plague has just finished terrorizing all of Europe, it still in pristine condition now.
Matsumoto Castle’s black painted, wooden keep (donjon) is the oldest surviving such structure in Japan, dating from 1595. The black color gave Matsumoto Castle its nickname “Karasujo” (Crow Castle) and the brooding, somber color was designed to sow fear in the hearts of any approaching attacker. Matsumoto Castle is built on flat ground and is classified as a Hirajiro in Japanese (flat-land castle) and has a large moat and thick walls as a means of defense.
The next day we went up the Japanese Alps. Yes – Japan also has its own Alps. Something I didn’t know before was that “the Alps” are not a term unique to Switzerland. Honestly, if it were not for the Japanese text doting the houses here and there, I’d have thought I was still in Switzerland. The mountain was snow-capped all year round and always a perfect place to relax away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Going down the mountains we had to visit Kenrokuen, which google and our tour guide said was one of the most beautiful gardens in all of Japan. Especially during the cherry blossom season. Of course, no trip to Japan is complete without riding the Shinkansen Bullet train, the first one of its kind in the world traveling at speeds of up to 300 KpH.
The next day we visited the world-famous Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, best known for its wooden stage built on a cliffside, hanging 13 meters above the ground. There’s also a small shrine dedicated to the gods of love and matchmaking. So why not have something called Love Stones. Two stones situated 18 meters apart from one another. The inscription says that if you touch one of the stones and then walk to the other with your eyes closed and touch that, one of your wishes will be granted – preferably one about true love. Needless to say, I did not try this walk. I swear I did not. I didn’t.
The next day we started off at Heian Shrine in Kyoto, where they have a sprawling courtyard with the shrine in its perimeter, and a breathtaking garden filled with cherry blossoms that weep. That’s right, they weep – the climate in the area makes so much precipitation that the cherry blossoms are all stooped down with water droplets weighing on them. Also, if you’re into the mysterious Japanese vibe, this is the best place to go to since it feels like an old school samurai movie in Heian. I could swear I’d see a samurai fight a ninja in the courtyard.
One of the last places we visited before heading to Osaka for our flight was Uji. A quaint river town famous for its green tea and around 30 minutes drive from Kyoto. Here I experienced first hand, wearing a kimono, the traditional Japanese tea drinking ceremony. Finally, we went to Todaiji Temple in Nara, the oldest capital city in Japan. Where you can find a large bronze statue of Buddha. The surrounding park is also filled with wildlife, in particular a deer species native to Japan. Of course, a trip to Japan would not be complete without heading for the Dotonburi district in Osaka. A popular entertainment and food district. Here, there’s a nice little restaurant called Dotonburi Konamon Takoyaki that lets you make your own takoyaki.
The next day we’re on our way back to Dubai. I’d have to say, this was one of the best 8 days of my young adult life. I’m going back someday Japan. Just you wait!
Rhiz Manalo is the co-partner to CentrAsia Tours a Central Asia Tourism Agency offering tours across the Silk Road, Managing Partner of Digital Kitchen Philippines, experts in corporate and SMB digitization. He is a seasoned digital marketing expert, an experienced blogger, systems architect, web designer, and a loving father to a beautiful 7-year-old girl whom he misses so much!
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