For Nihon / 日本
January 17, 2024
Marking the milestone of our first wedding anniversary, my wife and I embarked on a dream that had long occupied the first spot on our travel bucket list: Japan. It was a jam-packed 2 weeks of filled with lots of inter-city travel, and a whirlwind of adventure. We were rewarded with incredible views, food and moments of unforgettable serenity. I’ve compiled this photoset alongside our itinerary, which I’ve found to be a time-consuming but very rewarding activity. I’ll try to link to all the cool spots (some which you may already know, and some under-the-radar). At the end, I’ve shared some lessons we learned from our trip. I hope it helps!
Tokyo / 東京
Our trip started in Tokyo, where we stayed with Pallavi’s sister for the first couple days so we could get accustomed to everything. Here’s our morning view from the bedroom. It’s no epic landscape by any means, but it is beautiful in its own way. New, unfamiliar places always have their way of grabbing our attention. We loved waking up to the sound of happy children at the playground below.
We spent our first day wandering around and eventually heading up to Mt. Takao (which was a bit far away from the city centre and took up the most of the day). The view up top was nice though, and a great vantage point for appreciating how gigantic Tokyo actually is. What we saw here was just a slice of the largest metropolis in the world. 🤯 I recommend taking the chair lift up if you end up going.
We also got our taste of dango (だんご), a traditional snack typically made from rice flour. It seems to be commonly sold at shrines and temples. They’re typically heated by a modest charcoal fire and seasoned with red bean paste or shouyu / sesame syrup. Super fun to eat, too.
We ended the day by heading back to the city and exploring Shibuya, soaking in the nightlife and enjoying people watching. Seeing the busiest intersection in the world was on our todo list, so we walked out from Shibuya station to experience the crossing for ourselves. It’s quite an amazing feeling – the sheer density of people that move through this intersection. There are lots of cool rooftop vantage points for watching the crossing. We opted for Mag’s Park Rooftop Shibuya Crossing. The vantage point is not too close or too far, so you can really soak in the chaos of the scramble.
By this time, it became very clear to us how organized Japanese society is. The trains were never a minute late, passengers were always polite (especially to elderly or handicapped folks), and the streets were spotless. Everywhere felt safe, including walking around super late in quiet streets. We wrapped the day up by grabbing some late night yakitori (bbq chicken skewers), tempura and sushi at a neighborhood izakaya.
The next day, we went to Meiju Jingu, a beautiful Shinto shrine in the Shibuya ward, dedicated to deified spirits of Emperor Meiji (the guy responsible for Meiji Restoration) and his wife, Empress Shōken. It’s surrounded by a large forested area, which is pretty cool given that it’s right in the middle of a densely built up city and offers lots of relaxing nature walks.
Our next stop was Asakusa. We dressed up in kimonos and explored Sensō-ji, a shrine dedicated to the goddess of mercy. It was very crowded and hectic, but the temple itself was very beautiful.
The experience of wearing kimonos was really cool too. Wearing a traditional outfit definitely gives you a heightened sense of appreciation for any culture. Lol at my socks, though.
Our first dose of ramen was at a small shop called Ramen Watanabe. Absolutely visceral.
We ended the evening by heading up to Tokyo Skytree and enjoying panoramic views of the Tokyo metropolis. I will say, looking at the city from the top feels like you’re seeing it from an airplane. It’s a little too high up, and I would’ve preferred a lower vantage point to hone in on specific points of the city. Nonetheless, it was still a sight to see.
We called it a night after a dinner and some late night strolling. Even the most mundane scenes were catching my eye. I couldn’t resist the urge to photograph every single alleyway or ordinary intersection we came across.
We got up the next day and headed straight to the Shinagawa Station to catch the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen to Osaka. While eating is forbidden on local trains in Japan, I love that the bullet trains let you relax and enjoy a drink or a nice meal. Most stations are outfitted with an overwhelming set of options for to-go food, and of course we couldn’t resist picking up some classic Bento boxes for the journey.
Compared to the hectic commuter trains within Tokyo, the Shinkansen is the complete opposite: quiet, relaxing, and extremely comfortable.
Osaka / 大阪市
We started out our excursion in Dōtonbori, a well known district filled with shops and vibrant nightlife. As dusk rolls around, the luminescence of the lights completely take over the streets. The sensory overload of Japan’s metropolises unfolded before my eyes in the same way that it did in Shinjuku—street signs competing for attention, countless lanterns casting a soft glow, the aromatic allure of cramped restaurants, and the hum of massive crowds—all of it happening at once.
It’s an incredible feeling, but only one I could do in doses. We enjoyed some takoyaki, yakitori and soba noodles at a shop then headed to a quiet, secluded sake bar to decompress. The place was kinda hidden on the 3rd floor of a quiet building called Sake Ichiro. The sake was delicate and complex, and met some fellow Coloradans who were coincidentally sat right next to us at the bar. The owner was really kind and helpful in educating us about sake.
After several hours of chatting and drinking, we became quite inebriated and hungry, and decided to head back to Dōtonbori’s main street for an Osaka classic: okonomiyaki. A savory pancake dish with various toppings and sauces. It was very fulfilling.
Ending the night with a nice dip at our hotel’s sento (public bath), because the amount of walking you end up doing in Japan is ridiculous. Our feet were literally hurting so the sento came in really clutch.
The next day, we visited Namba Yasaka Shrine. It was a beautiful sunny day, and we got some coffee and onigiris and headed straight to the famous Lionhead temple to pay our visit.
Pallavi sat down by the shrine to fill out and hang an Ema (えま) for us. In Shinto Buddhism, worshippers write their prayers & wishes on these wooden plaques and leave them hanging at the shrine, where the kami (カミ) (spirits / gods) are believed to receive them.
We then went to Osaka Castle, the entire park and moat surrounding the castle was gorgeous. Aside from being an architectural marvel and a culturally significant icon of Osaka, it also resembles the unification of Japan which happened under the 16th century feudal lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
Our time in Osaka came to an end quickly as we made way for Nara.
Nara / 奈良市
We arrived in Nara by dusk, and headed to a cute little ryokan (旅館, traditional Japanese-style inn) in the Naramachi Historic District. This used to be an old merchant district, and has the quintessential Japanese aesthetic. Boutiques, shops, cafes, restaurants and several traditional residential buildings now line the district’s narrow lanes. I love the shoji screens which are so prevalent in ryokans. They diffuse light softly and evenly, making the indoor atmosphere quite pleasant.
We stopped by for dinner at a small restaurant owned by a former Geisha. This experience was high one of top highlights as it felt as if a Japanese grandma had invited us to her home and served us a hearty meal she crafted right in front of us. She was incredibly sweet. The icing on the cake was it was late, and no one else was there, so we really felt like we got an intimate, private experience. She had the shop decorated with lots of old photos of her as a Geisha. The shelves were adorned with traditional Japanese ceramics and kitchenware. It was such a vibe. Her restaurant is Ajimi Restaurant. Definitely visit if you’re in the area.
Early morning walks around the Naramachi District couldn’t be missed since we had to leave that day. Left alone with my own thoughts and my camera, I strolled through quiet streets and desolate alleyways alone. Greeted by the birds singing their morning songs, or the occasional passerby on their walking or biking commute to work. Watching the sun slowly rise and light up the horizon. It’s the little joys in life.
Obviously we couldn’t miss the deer park, so we made our way, visiting epic Tōdai-ji temple and its gigantic Buddha statue along the way.
Right outside, we bought some rice crackers from a street vendor and proceeded to feed the beautiful deer that are roaming all over the place. It’s crazy to think these deer have somehow evolved to learn that bowing results in food, and they’ve perfected the art of wooing every tourist that crosses their path – us included.
Our time in Nara was too short.
Kōyasan / 高野山
We headed off to the Wakamya prefecture to stay in Kōyasan. A small, secluded temple town – also known as the center of Shingon Buddhism. We had to take a train, cable car to the top of Mt. Koya, and then a bus to our final destination. The views along the way were beautiful. As the train zoomed through tunnels and hills, the serene Japanese countryside settlements revealed themselves.
We arrived at Koyasan Saizen-in Temple. This was a temple lodging (shukubo 宿坊) where we got a taste of a monk’s lifestyle, eating vegetarian monk’s cuisine (shojin ryori) and attending the morning prayers. A monk greeted us and led us to our ryokan for the evening. We were quite exhausted from all the inter-city travel and hauling our luggage around day-after-day, so we decided to stay in for the evening to decompress.
The tatami (畳) area of the ryokan served as a sort of tea and dinner room. It was soothing to lounge around for a while, enjoying the peace and quiet. Shortly after settling in, the full dinner course (and some sake) was brought to our room. It was a gigantic meal served in kaiseki style, centered around soybean-based foods like tofu along with seasonal vegetables.
We got up refreshed and headed out to roam around town and explore the Kongobu-ji Danjo Garan temple complex. This place was a treasure trove of holy sights. Composed of many religious structures, both Buddhist and Shinto. Consisting of a shrine, bell tower, pagodas, storage areas for ancient scriptures, ceremonial halls dedicated to various deities, and the site where only Kobo Daishi was allowed to meditate.
The Konpon Daito Pagoda as seen from ground-level. The vermillion color struck by the sun made for a photogenic subject.
We spent the rest of our day aimlessly roaming around town drinking coffee, eating onigiris and enjoying the peaceful vibe of the town before heading back down the mountain.
Kyoto / 京都
Japan’s ancient capital definitely lived up to the hype. For the first day, we visited Kinkaku-ji, Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which is a Zen Buddhist temple. The temple itself is coated with gold leaf, making it a striking subject nestled within the autumn foliage. It was serene to walk around the park and explore the temple from its various angles, although the hordes of people moving through here certainly takes away from the magic of it.
We spent the rest of of the day in Higashiyama, walking around and people watching. This district is the most pristine of Kyoto’s old townscapes. Even though it was quite crowded, soaking in the lights, the crowds of people moving through the streets, the cute storefronts and the traditional Japanese architecture was refreshing. It felt as if we were transported to 15th-century Japan.
We woke up early to catch the train to renowned Fushimi-Inari-taisha shrine, dedicated to Inari, the god of fertility and rice. The 10,000 torii gates are as incredible in real life as one may imagine. No wonder it’s on every travel video about Japan. It’s iconic, bold, and beautiful. It feels like you’re walking through a tunnel to some forbidden oasis. There’s really nothing quite like it.
The place was jampacked with people by 9am. The farther we hiked along the path, the less crowded it got. By the time we got to the peak of the mountain, it was quiet enough to set up the tripod for a quick self-portrait.
Along the way, there were shops selling ice cream and small torii gates. We even made a pit stop for some warm, comforting soba noodles before heading up to the peak.
We then dashed over to the Arashiyama district on the western outskirts of Kyoto to check out the bamboo forest.
Wrapping up our adventure for the day, we headed back to Gion to Pontoncho: a narrow lane in Kyoto known for high-end restaurants and bars.
There were countless izakayas here where we sampled a little bit of food and drinks at a handful of places before ending our night at a Japanese-Korean fusion restaurant called Ponto-cho Linamha.
I’d be remiss not to share more food photos.. the kimchi assortment and Kobe wagyu sashimi hweh were the winners of that meal.
Kanazawa / 金沢市
The next morning, we took a 2 hr express train to Kanazawa, which is the capital city of the Ishikawa Prefecture. It is on the opposite side of the island, northwest to Tokyo, making it a little off the beaten path. I must say, we were surprised with how cool the city was. It was nowhere near as touristy as the other cities and a lot less crowded, too.
Some of our favorite moments from the trip were in Kanazawa. Maybe it’s the quietitude, maybe it’s the low-key vibe of the place itself. And, it had some amazing sushi. We started our day at the Omicho Market and some world class sushi, which Kanazawa is known for.
The main highlight of our time there was Kenroku-en. A serene, strolling style landscaped garden; considered one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan.
We spent a few hours here during sunset and it was one of our favorite things about this trip.
Heading back into town, we caught the Kanazawa castle under the dusk light. I love the way these castles light up at night.
We then walked back into town for some dinner and strolled through the quiet streets of Katamachi. It was very peaceful, and definitely a much needed respite from the dense crowds of Kyoto and Osaka.
We wrapped up the day at the famous Higashi Chaya District, which is filled with teahouses where geisha’s perform and lots of shops and cafes. The rain made for a picturesque and romantic walk through these history-filled streets. Not every day has to be filled with insane landscapes / iconic monuments, and some days you can just relax and soak in the atmosphere of whereever you are. This place was a good reminder of that.
We then took the Hokuriko Shinkansen back to Tokyo for our bus to Fuji, which traversed some serene countryside landscapes on its northwest side. Highly recommend!
Fujikawaguchiko / 富士河口湖町
Seeing Mt. Fuji with the fall colors was one of our top goals for this trip. We made it to the small town of Fujikawaguchiko in the evening and hunkered down for an early morning trip to catch the sunrise at the revered Chureito Pagoda.
Aaaand there it stood, the epitome of Japan—an icon laid bare against the canvas of blue hour—washed over by the warm embrace of the rising sun. It was serene. It was spiritual. I couldn’t stop hitting the shutter button on my camera. A sublime moment which engraved itself into my soul. Many say you should live the moment with your eyes and not your camera, and there were certainly moments where I did that, but I just feel like I live it more vividly through my camera. We were sleepy, but also on cloud 9.
The afterglow of seeing Mt. Fuji so clearly had us stoked. The rest of the day was spent lounging around at a nearby cafe, and catching up on some much needed sleep. We then decided to catch the sunset by Lake Kawaguchi. The north side of the lake is ideal for getting an awesome view of the mountain among the trees; great spot for more photos! I recommend walking around the entire perimeter—Ubuyagasaki Shrine is a good spot to aim for.
The next day, we decided we hadn’t had enough of the Fujisan sunrise view, so we made our way around the entire lake to the northern side to get another vantage point. Much of the leaves had already fallen by now, but there were still some trees that made for great foreground elements.
Back to Tokyo for our final few days.
Ending our trip in Tokyo! We spent another few days in Shinjuku, staying close to the Yamanote Line so we could get around the city quickly (that’s a pro-tip for ya). We visited a micropig cafe in Harajuku called mipig cafe, which was strange but also cute. They’re very friendly and just want to cuddle and sleep on your lap, so you basically go to a dedicated place to do that. From what I saw and heard, the animals are treated well so I didn’t have ethical concerns, but I guess your mileage may vary depending on the cafe. I would’ve loved to check out an owl cafe – next time!
We headed over to teamLab Planets after that. We went at 2pm and it was heavily crowded. Again, crowds take away a bit of the magic, but it was still a cool experience. If I were to do it again, I’d make a reservation well ahead of time and use the first morning slot of the day to avoid the crowds.
Back in 2022, on our winter trip to Alaska, we had made two Japanese friends during our time in Fairbanks: Kanako & Yuika. We had promised them we’d make it to Tokyo to meet up with them one day, and so we did! And we met Kiely, who happens to be a dope videographer. It was a lot of fun hanging out at an Izakaya, catching up over some sake and food.
The rest of our evening was spent people watching in Shinjuku and Omoide Yokocho, which is a picturesque cluster of alleyways where you’ll find some great food and drinks for people watching. I thought New York City was cool with its cute lil Times Square. Shinjuku is an order of magnitude crazier than that. Tokyo is truly a beast of a city, and we barely scratched the surface. Of course, last day blues kicked in as we embraced our last night in Japan before heading back home. We chowed down on some yakitori at a local izakaya, and splurged on A5 kobe wagyu beef at a local horumon restaurant.
To conclude: Japan is the epitome of society that is operating at its zenith. Cleanliness and unwavering politeness everywhere, and a government that places great trust upon its citizens. Bathrooms so clean it was almost as if they were shrines for humans themselves (they are, but I digress). The incredible high technology toilets in the most cramped izakayas blew my mind. There are many things I wish other countries would take as learnings from Japan. The highly fusion-based cuisine that emphasized natural flavors of the foods, but also doused them in a million sauces at the same time. The aesthetics of each city, and the importance of ancient shrines that stand as towering sentinels surrounded by concrete jungles. Beyond the urban spawl, the quiet hills of the countryside, and the peaceful nature of it all. The iconic landscapes and temples – endless photographic exploration. We only scratched the surface, and I imagine we will surely return again to explore other parts like Hiroshima and Okinawa.
Advice For Future Japan Visitors!
These were based on our personal experiences. Take from them what you will.
- Learn a little bit of Japanese! It’s a fun language. At the bare minimum, learn basic words like greetings / please and thank you, but I personally think you should aim for more than that. I used JapanesePod101 to do a couple lessons each day for about a month before we left. Learning some of the formulas to structure your own sentences (like saying where is X, is Y okay, I want Z) and numbers is immensely helpful, but you can go as far as you’d like. Plus, you get a sense of immersion that is unlike anything else if you really try to assimilate the culture and language. Do not use Duolingo unless all you care about is memorizing vocabulary. Watch videos on YouTube from Japanese teachers like Ninjapanese. She is awesome.
- Be prepared to do an insane amount of walking. We clocked 15K - 25K steps a day. Get ready for feet pain! Use the sento (public bath) provided by your accomodations to help you body recover faster from the physical demands of nonstop walking, especially in Tokyo.
- Spend some time researching the history of the places you’re going to. It’s going to provide you with context and the experience will be richer in the moment.
- Do your big ticket items early (6am - 9am). Most famous landmarks became uber crowded by 10am – this could ruin your experience, especially if you’re excited about taking photos and videos. I’m SO glad we braved through sleep deprivation and decided to go early morning for some of our excursions.
- When you enter a station, take a deep breath and take your time reading through all the signs (and translating them with Google Lens if you need to). Lots of them rotate through a ton of information and you’re really not gonna miss much by rushing through a station stressed out because another train will come (promptly) in a few minutes anyway. Learn your destination / line names so you can distinguish between trains that are bound in opposite directions but run on the same line name.
- Buy your Shinkansen passes a couple days before your trip so you’re not in a rush on the day of. Take your time at the English-speaking ticket counters if you need to, or use the ticket vending machines. Here’s a YouTube tutorial showing you the entire flow.
- Some trains will be have reserved seating in a few of their cars. Make sure you’re paying attention to these details but those cards require a base fare ticket AND a reserved seat ticket. Two tickets per person – I know it’s confusing. Which brings me to the next point…
- If you’re confused, go to the ticket counter / info center (most stations have em) and ask. Japanese people are extremely kind and polite and we pretty much never ran into rude people anywhere!
- Carry a daypack at all times cause you are going to be carrying around all of your trash with you most of the time. Don’t be like me with onigiri wrappers stuffed into my pockets (or do). Or, you can eat / drink at the place you bought it and use their trash cans.. which brings me to a follow up point…
- Do not eat on trains unless it’s a Shinkansen / regional train. Eating on commuter trains is highly frowned upon in Japanese society.
- Avoid buying JR pass (the rates are high as of late 2023) if you’re only doing the golden triangle. It’s not worth it if all you’re going to do is go to Osaka/Kyoto/Nara. Do load up a Suica card on your phone for easy tap-in and out flow through the stations.
- Account for transit times when planning your itinerary. Everything takes time and there’s lines everywhere most of the time. Getting food at a well known restaurant? Lines. Buying a Shinkansen ticket at the English-speaking counter? Lines. Using the ticket vending machine to print out your online train reservation? Lines. Famous mochi / ramen spot? Lines. Lines everyyywhere if you’re going during high season.
- Look up restaurants on Google Maps in Japanese (like すし for Sushi, or ラーメン for Ramen) instead of typing them in English. You’ll get more interesting suggestions.
Feel free to hit me up if you have any questions. Jaa Mata!
Hello! Thank you so much for visiting my blog. I hope you enjoyed reading through it somewhat. Photosets like these allow me to share my photographs with more context and depth, and I find them rewarding to create. I hope to do more of these in the future. Let's also connect on Instagram or Twitter.