The biggest island in Japan lies in the middle of this long stretched country. You can drive in almost a straight line in 1800 kilometres from north to south but so much easier, you take the train! Honshu has an extensive railway network that in combination with local busses can take you almost anywhere you like. After ten incredible days in Hokkaido we take the Shinkansen train to Tokyo where our Japan adventure 2.0 starts. In 2,5 weeks we travel by train from this huge metropolitan to the enchanting Hiroshima in the south of the island.
Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. Crime rate zero. People leave their phone or wallet on the table of a busy cafe when they go to the toilet. An excuse note with money under the windscreen wiper after a small accident will wait there for its rightful owner. Honest to the core.
You’ll rarely see police in the streets, in fact if you see a police officer running by, he probably needs to pee.
Traveling through Japan is such a relief. Everything is well organised so you know exactly what you are up against. Everybody obeys the rules and trains for instance go exactly on time. Therefore we find it incredibly easy and relaxed to travel through this country. Want to know more about transportation in Japan? Check the main page here.
From Sapporo we take the train to Tokyo. Of course you can also fly but this is much more fun and it’s in our Rail Pass! This ain’t just any train either... this slick shiny bullet on steroids can speed up to 400 kilometres per hour. No this is not as fast as a plane, but listen up. It’s got comfortable seats that go all the way back, electric sockets, you can close the window blinds whenever you want, you have a large table (not that tiny thing you can barely put your laptop on) ánd super luxurious clean toilets! On top of that it has got WiFi!
And tunnels... ehm... about that WiFi...
You’d think in the country of technological advantages and high speed internet these two would go together just fine, but they don’t. Going through the long tunnels in the north of Honshu you’ll find yourself disconnected from the outside in every way. Of course you can just accept and take a nap, listen to some music or finally finish that book.
It’s a fantastic experience and we’ve measured 317 kilometres per hour before going into that tunnel where it totally speeds up and where we lost that internet connection.
We’ve enjoyed the relaxed and quiet time in this train with or without internet.
After a long journey in the super awesome Shinkansen Bullet train we arrive in Tokyo quite fit. This train is so incredibly comfortable!
We’ve reserved seats just before we entered the train at the booking office at the station. Usually if you don’t travel in rush hour this isn’t really necessary but some trajectories do require you reserve a seat. This one does.
Eventhough the train wasn’t full, we do arrive at Tokyo station during rush hour and WOW crazy world! The station is like an ants-nest... everybody is in a hurry and nobody is looking where they’re going. Metros are stuffed with people trying to squeeze in and even the stairways are full. Usually we take the stairs because everybody takes the escalator :-)
It’s only ten minutes walk to our hostel but we are tired after our 6.5 hour trip, so we jump in the trains ‘green car’, a first class wagon, and hope we won’t get caught. Only one stop so we jump out before we know it.
We’ve reserved the only double room in Hostel Den in Shin-Nihombashi, just 10 minutes walking north east of the central station. We’ve only reserved this hostel a few days ago and didn’t have much choice at this price range. We wanted a private room and there were only a few left on the booking sites. We do t feel like ‘shopping around’ after a long travel day, so booking ahead is important for us.
We pay €105 for two nights in a double room with shared facilities. We like this hostel very much, it is clean and has a good vibe. A basic but good kitchen and a small communal lounge area where we meet some great people from all over the world. There also is a fantastic rooftop terrace where you don’t even hear the traffic. The location isn’t perfect but it’s peaceful outside and in the end you’ll do everything by metro anyway.
We arrive in the end of the day so we won’t be doing anything anymore... new day after a good sleep.
Exploring Tokyo is not as easy as we thought, the city is huge and the things we want to see are far apart. We have already done so much the last weeks and Jos has a nasty cold so we decide to throw away our sightseeing bucketlist and just wander around to get the Tokyo feel.
We walk through the busy central station district with large office buildings and men in business suits who always seem to be in a hurry. We stroll towards Chiyoda, where we want to visit the palace and it’s gardens. There are little tortoises in the canal around the palace, so cute!
Unfortunately we are not in luck, the palace is closed just for today due to a special occasion. Now what?
We just walk through the park and wander through some streets with expensive coffee and more businessmen. There seem to be a lot of men who don’t have to be in an office while they work...
Tokyo did not make a positive impression on us, we like big cities but this one... I don’t know, it’s like it’s got no soul.
We don’t feel like spending another day here so we look for our next destination and find a nice hotel in Nagoya. We want to save our time for the Osaka and Hiroshima area rather than spending it here.
So off we go the next day, we’ve had such a full program and still so much on our list so we sadly decide to skip the Japanese Alps around Nagano. We hear the snow is gone and they’re actually just ‘mountains’. Although we usually love the mountains we do decide to travel on...
Nagoya is only a stop to break up a too long trip to Kyoto. We book a hotel in the city centre without paying too much attention to the highlights. We arrive early in the afternoon and still have some time to go to the castle and gardens, but we don’t. We are just so tired, we get a cup of coffee and relax the rest of the afternoon.
We’ve had enough of sushi so looking for a nice change we come across ‘Bar Mexigan’ where we order a burrito. Small and expensive but tasty... still hungry... we buy an energy nut-bar at the seven eleven next door and order another beer at bar Mexigan. Hey, it’s Saturday and this is a really great bar! We are in a great spot with a good view over the street. Nothing better than watching people walk by. We meet two Japanese people who speak just a little English, they offer us a drink and of course want to take our picture. We are so easy ;-)
There is a group of French expats obviously hunting for concubines just beside us. When one of the guys has his attempt failing after buying her an expensive drink we laugh and join the conversation. Before we know it there are more beers on the table and we are looking for lady’s that could match Frenchie’s needs. After a few rounds we’ve spend enough money and roll back to our hotel. A night to remember...
Conclusion: Nagoya is much fun and probably has a beautiful castle too ;-)
We have a little over two weeks left in Japan which we want to spend in Kyoto, Hiroshima and Osaka. From our hotel in Kyoto we plan to visit different towns, so we won’t have to move too much. We stay at the Karasuma Rokujo hotel for four nights. We weren’t so sure about what we booked but as soon as we see our room we are in doubt that this was it. A huge room with two queen beds. WEEEHOOOO!
The manager behind the desk formally stands up and bows when ever we walk by. Makes us a bit uncomfortable but well, you get used to it...
Our hotel is very close to the Higashi Honganji Buddhist temple and about a kilometre from the station but the Gojo Metro station is only 200 meters away.
We make a plan what we are going to do while we’re here considering the weather. It will be raining a lot tomorrow and the day after...
Meanwhile we enjoy a nice curry at the CoCo Curry, a restaurant which you can find in many cities. Reasonably priced and very tasty! Do not be a hero and order spicy. Go for regular ;-)
The temple is big and we pass it anyway but nothing special. A large concrete surface where they could (should) have made a nice garden in my opinion. We keep wondering how did they create something like this? In that optic it is beautiful... we take off our shoes and enter the building. The silence is impressive and the gold decorations look beautiful. Sober on the outside but inside pomp and splendour!
By train we do a daytrip to Nara, a short walk to the station and the train goes every 15 minutes. Through the window we look at the grey and depressing buildings. We expected more from Japan but by now we haven’t seen a beautiful town yet.
As soon as we enter Nara the streets, eventhough touristy, look very nice. There are a lot of small shops from the station to the Kofuku-Ji temple. The park looks sober and the biggest temple is under construction. This is starting to repeat itself and we really have to see some nice VERY soon or we are going to dislike Japan. And I mean it!
When we walk passed the construction area we see deer. Not one or two but probably a hundred. They are everywhere and they just walk around owning the place. This is crazy! Whoah, but so cool! A deer is coming up to us but as soon as it smells we don’t have food on us it looses interest. Other people who have bought special deerfood are really being stalked... bothered by them, to the point of obsessive behaviour. Oh deer.
They are a bit smelly but oh so cute! We take a deer-fie and walk on. The park is big and has multiple temples and short trails.
Back towards the train station we explore some of the small streets, it’s actually got ambiance. This sort of changed our opinion about this country a bit, they do have nice towns...
By train we go to Saga Arashiyama station where we easily find the way to the famous Bamboo Forest for it is printed on the street. Even if the signs wouldn’t be there we could just follow the crowd because man it’s touristic here! We almost back down from visiting the forest but well we’ve come this far... The ‘Forest’ is actually a narrow path from Saga station to Torokko station. The bamboo looks truly incredibly when we peek through the posing people.
After walking for five minutes on we reach a part where people stop and turn around. They’ve made their selfies and go on to the next. We like this way of sightseeing because more room for us! The rest of the Bamboo Forest we are almost alone and we can enjoy the real scenery. This is so ZEN!
When we walk on we arrive at the park. The park looks deserted, obviously not on the tourist route. But it’s good for a short walk and has a great viewpoint over the Katsura river. Clearly there aren’t many people that know this...
Through the park we follow the riverside back to town where it starts to get more crowded by the meter. From the riverside we have a great view over the little boats and the Togetsu-Kyo bridge.
Just when we thought we were really liking this town we discover the coffee costs €5. No stupid people, this is not ok!
We quickly forgive, because we’ve had a fantastic day! Japan still has so much beauty to discover...
Perhaps the most visited attraction on this island and we understand why. The bright orange shrine is a real beauty. We combine our visit to Nara with this special orange shrine in Inari and follow the herds of tourists up the stairs to the first temple. The Torii is what they’re all here for...
We start to get to know the tourists here, they go up to the first ‘checkpoint’ take pictures and leave as quick as they came. Great, now we are all alone!
We walk up the trail and discover a mysterious graveyard. It is very quiet and there is a smell of fresh flowers all around. It is built up in layers and through the small steps we slowly explore the different levels of the cemetery.
Continuing the way to the top of the hill other tourists are hard to find. I can understand this is the most popular place to visit but why do people only walk for three minutes?!
Our way to the top is brutally interfered by a heavy shower which makes it impossible to continue. Everything is slippery and muddy so we decide to go back to the train station and call it a day.
We move base and take the train to Hiroshima. There is a lot to do here so we’ve made reservations for four nights.
Our hotel is in the centre of town. What is the centre of town you might wonder... you could consider anything between Hondori station and the central station of Hiroshima a good area to stay in. Because of the busy weekend that’s coming we stay in two hotels, 1. Urbain Hiroshima, good location, small rooms but recommendable hotel. 2. Court Hotel, we would recommend this hotel for its location not for its staff. The rooms are all the same, I think Japan only has one designer when it comes to hotel rooms and bathrooms.
Dining in a restaurant is quite expensive in Japan, there are some cheaper options like ramen (noodle soup) but that doesn’t stop our hunger.
Then we discover Okonomyaki. In the Okonomimura building there are many Okonomiyaki restaurants one of which is on a tourist website and is totally full. We decide to pick another one called Sarashina and the owner is totally thrilled to have us. Sit, sit!! We get a glass of water and an English menu. Okonomiyaki is a pancake filled with noodles, egg, cale, herbs, sauce and meat or fish baked on a hot plate with a high show content. The owner / cook explains how to eat ‘the thing’ and so we do. It tastes super! Exactly how it looks... heavy but yummy. It’s like a calorie bomb! Sooo glad to have discovered this!
Hiroshima has a charming tram riding through town but also the Meipu ru-pu sightseeing bus. It is free for JR train pass holders and passes all the main attractions every 30 minutes. There are several bus stops through the city, our first stop: the obvious when you’re in Hiroshima, we visit the Atomic Bomb Dome.
In 1945 Hiroshima was victim of the first atomic bomb in history.
On August 6th the notorious American Enola Gay flew over Japan and dropped the uranium bomb over Hiroshima aiming for the Aioi bridge. Three days later a second bomb was dropped on Nakasaki, a city in the south of Japan. This resulted into over 250,000 casualties due to radiation effects and made made an abrupt end to the Second World War.
Close to the Atomic Bomb Dome, at the former Aioi Bridge is the Prefectural building ‘Genbaku Dome’. While almost the entire city is reduced to rubble this building still stands after all these years. A few renovations have been done to stabilise and reinforce the building for seismic activity.
Surrounded by dramatically formed trees, the site looks beautiful and it’s incredibly impressive to be here.
When we walk along the river we meet an old man. He is sitting on a bench while he feeds the birds. He speaks a little English and tells me about the birds and that he comes here everyday. When we leave he gives me a photo of his birds. This is so touching!
We are ready for something different and take the Meipu bus to the beautiful Shukkeien Gardens on the other side of town. The Feng Shue gardens close to the train station are colourful and peaceful. There is a large pond with turtles and huge carp fish and it is surrounded by flowers, little temples and small bridges. Totally zen!
The gardens are very big, after walking around the pond for two hours we’ve only seen half of the park. We have a picnic on a bench with a view over the water and watch people walk by. Yep, we’re zen.
After our visit to the gardens it’s only a few minutes walk to the Hiroshima castle. The park surrounding it isn’t very attractive but there are some trees in the park that have survived the atomic bomb. Amazing to see them big and green.
The rest of the park is quite boring and unattractive. We walk towards the castle where we meet a group of kindergarten school kids on their day out. So cute! The castle has a big part under construction so we decide not to enter. There’s an entrance fee of ¥370 (€2.85), we’ve already spent so much on entrance fees today...
It’s a hot day today, the humidity is obviously quite high which makes it sticky and hard to breathe. We take it easy and hope to find some cool winds on Miyajima Island just half and hour south of Hiroshima by train.
We get off at Mijayimaguchi station and walk directly to the ferry which is only five minutes away. We take the right hand entrance of the ferry and we do not need to get a ticket and show our Rail Pass. This way the crossing is free!
We wait in a long line but not too long because the ferry goes every twenty minutes. Aboard the wind feels so nice and the island looks very promising. After fifteen minutes we are there and when we go ashore we see the crowd. People, tourists... everywhere! It is like an ants nest. Oh.my. ok we’ll just do that thing again, we go where others don’t. We soon discover that it is not going to be our day, the temperatures rise quickly and with this humidity we can hardly set one foot in front of the other.
We manage to climb the long stairs up to two beautiful temples and enjoy the view over the bay. Our plan was actually to go further up by cable cart
but there is a line of people from here to Tokyo, so we wisely decide to skip this expensive tour.
We walk around the incredibly touristic town where deer walk around like they own the place. Those deer again! Still cute!
After our four day stay in Hiroshima we are going towards Osaka. We have planned a stop in Okayama for a few days from where we have some nice places to visit.
When we arrive at Hiroshima Station there are no Shinkansen trains going towards the north. There has been an earthquake just an hour ago with its centrepoint a few kilometres from Osaka. The earthquake was quite a big one, with a scale of 6.1.
Shit now what?! Fortunately there’s a normal train going, so we hurry to the right platform to catch it. This train takes 2.5 hours instead of 30 minutes, but there is nothing we could do about it.
We’ve booked a room in Okayama for two nights at Hotel Maira, the hotel is close to the train station and next to a charming canal with trees and benches. It has free (incredibly sweet) bread in the morning and free coffee, soda and ice-cream all day long.
The staff is very friendly but still we have to wait until it is three o’clock. Even someone coming in at ten to three has to wait. Rightttt...
Once we can enter our nice room we are totally happy with our choice.
We don’t do much more in this town than walk around the area and visit the large shopping centre around the corner. We see there is a bakery here so we’ll buy a fresh baguette here in the morning.
We sleep in and while I prepare the rest Jos goes out to buy a baguette. On google maps he saw a bakery that is closer to the hotel but it’s still closed. Ok, back to the other bakery then. It is already 10 am so hopefully they still have some. The bakery’s just opening and doesn’t have bread yet. WHAT?! It is ten in the morning and the bakery doesn’t have fresh bread yet. This is weird. The baker says he’ll have fresh bread at eleven...
After this sad SAD disappointment we drink our coffee without bread and find a nice spot outside to read and relax.
We planned to go to two small towns, Kurashiki and Takahashi. They are quite close and are apparently very charming. We have done so much the last three weeks we don’t have the energy to go anywhere today. So we resign to the fact that we’ll have to miss visiting these towns for our Train Pass is almost expired.
We even skip the Okayama castle and Korakuen gardens... what are we doing?!
Luckily the Shinkansen is going again. For safety reasons after the earthquake the tracks needed to be checked. So there was no Shinkansen, but now everything appears to be safe. There have been some aftershocks so we cross our fingers it won’t happen again.
Our Train Pass is only valid for another two days so we have some decisions to make. We’ve decided to book a hotel in Osaka for our last four nights and do things from there.
Once we get out of the train we can walk underground to our hotel almost all the way. So this is where all those people are! There are enormous shopping centres under the city where it’s nice and cool.
Our plan was to go to Kobe on our way to Osaka, now that we still have our Train Pass. We would have put our backpacks in a locker and then take the train back to Himeji where there is supposed to be a great castle and park.
You’ll probably understand... we didn’t. We are tired and really need a couple of days doing nothing. Choices choices.
We’ll go there tomorrow, it’s only an hour to Kobe and so much easier without our bags.
Our hotel Wing in Osaka just opened a week ago and is brand new. They have a great hotelbar in Gatsby style with... yes... here it comes... don’t tell anyone: free wine for hotel guests from 5 to 6 pm! Every day! YEAH! A tasty Italian white or a strong Chilean red, they keep ‘m coming... we are about to get an acute alcohol addiction and we still need to get some dinner so like zombies we roll to the nearest supermarket and get some sushi.
The next day it rains, not mildly... it really really rains. Heavily! So... here’s our day doing absolutely nothing! Oh, we do something: free wine from 5 to 6 ;-)
We finally the rain has stopped so we can do something useful. Eventhough our energy is gone, doing nothing is no fun either. We explore Osaka today. We don’t see any evidence of the heavy earthquake from a few days ago and we haven’t felt any aftershocks so I think we’ve been lucky.
The Dotombori area is fantastic, large shopping streets, nice restaurants and bars along a river where there’s is lots to do. After some shopping and exploring we walk back and look for an Okonomyaki restaurant close to our hotel. As soon as we enter the restaurant we are welcomed with yells and the cook sits us down at the long bar. ‘Sit! Sit! Please!’ We get chopsticks, a glass of cold water and the menu. Eventhough it is an English menu it’s not totally clear what everything is. The couple next to us is happy to explain. This time the Okonomyaki is prepared in the open kitchen, fine by us because the smoke and smell that comes of it is quite intense. This tastes excellent again!
When we leave the restaurant the staff bows and yell their goodbyes...
On our final day in Japan we thankfully wake up to a clear sunny sky and have a dry day ahead of us. We want to exploit this opportunity to the fullest and visit the Osaka Palace and it’s surrounding park.
By metro we go to Temmabashi station and walk ten minutes to the park. From the outside we can see the palace wall and it’s watch houses on the corners. We enter through the Otemon Gate and have a choice to go left to the Nishinomaru Gardens, which are paid, or straight towards the palace. For now we skip the gardens because there is maintenance and we have to stop spending money! Ahhhhrrrggghhhh... our budget... it’s vaporising in this money pit called the Pacific!
So we’ve decided to only do free things today. The palace is very nice to see on the outside and there is a big line of tourists waiting to get in. It’s a sign. We don’t get in. The entrance fee is €6 per person so we just walk around the palace and check it out from every side. How did they ever make this piece of art! Beautiful.
We enjoy the views and when we’ve really really had enough of this unique Japanese structure we walk the way back towards our hotel and arrive just in time for the free wine happy happy happy hour!
In four weeks time we’ve done more each day than in the months before and still we could not see everything on our list.
So, what is still on our list and what we’d really like to mention is:
Visit the authentic villages Takahashi and Kurashiki close to Okayama.
Go to the west coast by train from Okayama and check out the Tottori sand dunes.
In Sakaiminato in the Tottori area you can also find the 44 meter high Eshima Ohashi bridge which is supposed to be awesome.
In Amanohashidate also on the west coast you will (probably) enjoy a gorgeous view over an enormous sandbank connecting different parts of the island.
We didn’t get to see Kobe, south of Osaka and Himeji an hour further south by train. In Himeji there is a castle that is worth watching and a few kilometres by foot you can go to the Sanjo station by cable cart and enjoy the view over the area.
Phew... we must come back...