The cherry blossom is a magic. You cannot feel it without having lived it. I have seen for many years the pictures of bloom and has always been speechless. I was always thousands of kilometers away from these new flowers. It has an overwhelming and powerful spell.
We arrived in Japan in late March, when only a few flowers had popped up on the branches of Tokyo. Then, one day after the other, the magic happened. Like in the cartoons, the spell and a patina of glitter of the fairy's wand spread throughout. But with the flowers. And for real. A blanket of pink flowers was lying on Japan until they explode with color, energy, power, and joy.
The Japanese are crazy as they celebrate the hanami with picnics and parties under the trees. They fill their mobiles with photos and selfies with cherry trees in the background. The women wore their beautiful kimono with colors, grace, and elegance. These wonderful flowers sweep Japan every day in a whirlwind of celebrations and joy.
Each temple became pinker and brighter surrounded by thousands of flowers. Each park and every street became a watercolor. It's a magic! You cannot explain. Japan during the blooming of sakura is a special place. You don't believe. Go and see for yourselves.
I had never happened to travel to a place where I did not understand even the sense of a speech. I speak English. In South America, North America, Europe, Africa, Asia, I have never had any problems. In Japan, if a sign is in Japanese you won't understand what it could mean. The worst part of not understanding anything is to confess to the friendly Japanese who try to help.
When I first arrived I went to the airport ATM to withdraw the yen and on the screen was in Japanese. I tried to push a few buttons, but nothing. I looked around to see if I was the only one with this weird bubble of incomprehension. Everyone was a bit lost. Not that it was any consolation, it was strange.
After a few days in Japan, you wonder how many souls can live together in one country. There is the Japan with the temples, the zen, meditation, and introspection. There are the Japanese manga, anime, action figures and the maid cafe. There is the one of the thousands of neon signs, the intersection of Shibuya. The karaoke play in tiny soundproof rooms with phosphorescent drinks.
There is the tradition of the kimono, the onsen, the elegant gestures, and compounds, of the rituals. There is the Japan of the metro at rush hour with hordes of businessmen. They flood the streets wearing the same outfits that look like an invasion of Agent Smith of Matrix. And in the end, all these pieces meet. They mingle and create a unique, complicated, multifaceted, fascinating and elusive Japan.
The businessman goes to party after 6 pm under the cherry blossoms. They find himself there till 2 am in a karaoke with colleagues. And in the next room, there are the stylish girls dressed in kimonos. Even the manga shops of Akihabara have their own sacredness. From the temples, the onsen to sushi, it is a mosaic that only makes sense with all its pieces.
The most absurd things in the world are all in Japan. There is soup of clams in cans, rice with chicken curry, rabbit shaped strawberry ice cream. There is a café where you can caress cats, a café where you can caress owls. You can find bananas glazed and coated with sugar. There is a bar full of people all playing the same online game. There are shops for cosplayers, where they sell clothes to dress up as manga or anime characters. There are toilets with more buttons than a spaceship.
Japan Travel Itinerary
As in all my post on the routes, below you will find the shortest route with schematic stages for each day. So you can take a general look at the lap we did.
Day 1: Arrival in Tokyo - Night in Tokyo
Day 2: Tokyo - Night in Tokyo
Day 3: Tokyo - Kamakura + Tokyo - Night in Tokyo
Day 4: leave early from Tokyo - Nikko, arriving in Nikko in late morning - night in Nikko
Day 5: Starting early from Nikko - Kyoto, arriving in Kyoto in the early afternoon - night in Kyoto
Day 6: Kyoto - Night in Kyoto
Day 7: Kyoto - Nara - Kyoto - Night in Kyoto
Day 8: day in Kyoto, starting in the late afternoon towards Tokyo - Night in Tokyo
Day 9: Tokyo - Night in Tokyo
Day 10: Tokyo - back home (evening flight)
Day 1: Arrival in Tokyo
Flights to Tokyo usually arrive around late afternoon, I landed at Haneda. Try to take a subway from the airport to the hotel. Ask for info while sending an email to the hotel as some have the shuttle at very good prices. Taking the metro on arrival is tiring, but I assure you that energy will be well spent. The taxi (I took myself) costs a lot, especially if you are alone. If you are four, it is fine, but not worth it unless it is late at night.
If you arrive in the late afternoon, leave the backpacks at the hotel. Spend the evening in Shibuya for a first nice strong impact with Japan. Have you too wept hopeless tears for the story of the dog Hachiko? Know that his statue is right in front of Shibuya Station and is easy to find. It is the one with the line of tourists to take the photo!
Continue to the Shibuya Center Gai intersection, the central lane of Shibuya. Enjoy wandering around the neighborhood and get dazzled by the lights.
Day 2: Tsukiji, Akihabara, and Shinjuku
Wake up at 3:30 am to go to Tsukiji Market to see the tuna auction. Have a nice breakfast of sushi.
At 9 am move to the Akihabara district and spend the morning here. Wander the narrow streets of the otaku neighborhood that is par excellence. Explore the mega shopping malls. If you are fans of manga, anime or if you are a little nerd this is the place for you. When you're tired or you get hungry, take a break in a café. After lunch, take the metro and go to the Shinjuku district to spend the afternoon and evening.
First stop is the Shinjuku Gyoen Garden to see the cherry trees (remember that it closes at 4). From here move to the Government Building for a panoramic view of Tokyo. Be there on at dusk, so you do your calculations based on what season it is. In the evening stroll in the area of Kabukicho and Golden Gai, the center of Shinjuku.
Day 3: Tokyo - Kamakura
Wake up early to be able to make good use of the day as all the temples close between 4 and 5 pm. This means that in the late afternoon you will have nothing to do. When you're ready, take the first train to Kamakura (from Tokyo it is about an hour drive). Bring some snacks for mid morning because you will have lunch later on. Stop for lunch along the paths that lead to Kamakura station. First, visit the three main temples. Otherwise, pack the lunch.
Get off at Kita-Kamakura and walk. You will see after 10 minutes the Engaku-Ji temple stop and enjoy it, then also stop at Kencho-Ji. Continue south, to encounter the Hachiman-gū Tsurugaoka, the most beautiful of Kamakura. It will take an hour to can see it around. Leave the temple to the center of the city to reach the Kamakura station. You can go to Wakamiya Dori, a narrow street full of shops, or Komachi-Dori, a large tree-lined street. Have lunch here.
After lunch, leave for the Kamakura station. Take a bus to Hasedera. Almost all those taking a bus from the station are going to the Big Buddha. So it's easy to find the right bus, but at worst you should ask. You can say Daibutsu and they will understand. Take the bus at the foot of the Great Buddha Daibutsu and then reach Hasedera by foot for 15 minutes.
From here return to Kamakura Station by bus. You can walk on the foot that takes half an hour, but on the road, there is nothing to see. So you can take the bus, and then the train back to Tokyo.
If you are still loaded spent the night in Shibuya in a nice karaoke! Once back at the hotel take the backpacks, and point to wake up early the next day you go to Nikko.
Day 4: Tokyo - Nikko
Even at Nikko, the attractions are temples and they close at around 4/5 pm. Unless you want to stay out you have to be active from early in the morning. Then go to bed at 9 pm, because the train takes about two and a half hours from Tokyo to Nikko.
Once in Nikko leave the backpacks at the hotel and walk towards the temple area, which is all close. It takes half an hour walk from the station. We made it on foot because we were curious to see the village. Otherwise, you can also take a bus if you are a bit lazy.
First, visit the glistening red Shin-Kyo holy Bridge. Continue to the right and devote at least an hour and a half to the phenomenal Tosho-Gu Sanctuary. Here there is one of the temples with the three monkeys, so this shrine has become world famous. After Toshogu, based on the time you have left, go to Futarasan-Ji, Taiyuin, and Rinno-Ji.
For dinner, we ordered a typical kaiseki dinner with 13-course Japanese cuisine. After dinner, we got soaked in the steaming onsen throughout the evening. Then we go straight to sleep on the futon!
As I said, on the same day you can also return to Tokyo, in the evening instead of staying for the night in Nikko.
Day 5: Nikko - Kyoto
If you were staying in Nikko it will take half a day to reach Kyoto (about 5 hours). You'll have to go by train to Tokyo with the path opposite of that of the previous day and then take a Shinkansen to Kyoto. It will take two and a half hours to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto.
On the Tokyo-Kyoto route, after about 45 minutes, on your right side, you can see the silhouetted Mount Fuji. Choose seats along the window of the train on the right of the direction of travel.
Once in Kyoto eat something. We took some sandwiches as we reached the hotel. We ate them walking with backpacks on our shoulders. We leave the backpacks at the hotel and come out to explore the city.
You have all afternoon available, but remember the temples closes at 4/5 pm. We chose to explore the South Higashiyama area.
We reach by taxi (one of the few taken throughout the trip, but we did not want to miss a minute) to Shoren-In Temple. In the map, it is also found as Awata Palace. It is a unique beauty, especially its gardens with ponds, koi carp. The cherry blossoms in sacred silence.
From there, walk down to the Maruyama-Koen Garden. It is especially beautiful during the cherry blossom season. Here girls in kimono pose for photographs in front of trees in bloom. Then stroll down the unmissable Sannen-Zaka to reach the magnificent Kiyomizu-Dera. It is one of the most beautiful temples that we saw throughout the trip.
We were lucky. As it was the time of the cherry blossom, the temple was also opened in the evening and lit in a very suggestive manner. We wandered around the Kiyomizu-Dera for a couple of hours (the view of Kyoto is spectacular). And then from there, we climbed the hill. We spent the evening in Gion, the typical and historical neighborhood of Kyoto.
Day 6: Kyoto, Kyoto Higashiyama North and Central zones - night in Kyoto
In the morning we wake up early. We spent this day visiting North Higashiyama in the morning till early afternoon. We visit Kyoto Central after lunch till the evening. We reached the Nanzen-Ji complex. To visit it takes at least an hour, but do not miss the gardens. From there begins a beautiful walk north along the Philosopher's Walk. It is one of the most picturesque places in the city, especially during the cherry blossom season.
We detour at the small hidden temple of Honen-in. This temple is unforgettable for the peace that reigns. Forget the crowds of tourists and the overlapping selfie sticks. In this temple, there is peace and serenity pervaded by an aura of sacredness.
Go ahead and reach the less sacred Ginkakuji with the official name that you find on maps is Jisho-Ji Temple. Our next stop is the Nijo-Jo Castle, but remember that the last entry is at 4:30. If you're in good time, get on the bus and get to this impressive castle in the heart of Kyoto.
Since it was the season of cherry blossom, many places were also open in the evening and lit in an impressive way. We were lucky and we returned to enjoy the castle with evening lights. While we waited for the opening night we went to visit the Kyoto Imperial Palace Park. Go at sunset (if you were able to enter the castle go after the visit).
In this park, the cherry trees are wonderful with so many different shades of pink. If you have reached the park at dusk, it's amazing.
Day 7: Kyoto - Nara - Kyoto - Night in Kyoto
Rise early! The first stop of the day is the Fushimi Inari-Taisha that gives its best in the early morning. Then go on a trip to Nara. This wonderful sanctuary is south of Kyoto, in the same direction of Nara. From Kyoto Station take the Nara line. After 10 minutes you will be at the Inari station, right in front of the sanctuary.
We had breakfast at the mini-market in front of the Fushimi Inari-Taisha! Spend at least an hour at this shrine and enjoy the mystical path along the hundreds of orange torii. There is a special atmosphere in this place in the morning that vibrates and shines.
Come back to the station and start at the Nara line towards Nara and in about an hour you'll be at your destination. Visiting Nara is very simple as the distances are small. All the temples and shrines are within the park and the walk is straightforward.
The center of Nara is very nice to visit and the walk from the station to the park is worth in itself. From Nara Station continue along Sanjo Dori, the main street of the city. It leads straight to the park to Kofuku-Ji. It's a pagoda with 5 floors and 50 meters high (the second highest in Japan).
From here move on inside the park. It's time to meet the famous deer of Nara. In Japan, deer is a messenger of the gods and treated with the respect. Until 1673 there was capital punishment for killing a deer. By the second half of 1900, the deer have gone from sacred to a national treasure. There are over 1200 in Nara.
Deer are curious but not at all shy. When they see the food they stop to think, and think only of eating. In particular, they are mad about the Shika Senbei that are in every corner of the park. If you want to experience the thrill of feeding the deer, buy a packet of these crackers.
After pampering the deer head towards the Isuien Garden. Finally, reach the monumental Todai-Ji. It is one of the most important temples of Japan. It houses a gigantic bronze Buddha, 15 meters high and weighing 250 tons. From here continue around inside the temples of the park. There is the Karakuni shrine, Todaiji Nigatsudo, Tamukeyama Hachiman-gu shrine, Kasuga sanctuary. Finally, visit the Wakamiya shrine.
End your walk in the park and get back to the center of Nara. If you still have time you can stop at the incredible owl cafe. Here you can caress each type of owl while sipping coffee! Get back then by train to Kyoto and go to bed early.
Day 8: Arashiyama
Guess what? Wake up super early! Start the day at Arashiyama bamboo forest. It is a show early in the morning when it is still not overrun by tourists behind every barrel. Spend at least an hour with a nice walk in this natural temple. We dedicate the day to 3 beautiful temples of the city, the Ryoan-Ji, Kinkaku-Ji, and Daitoku-Ji. From one to another move by bus, as they are well connected.
Reach the Ryoan-Ji first that will take a couple of buses from Arashiyama. The Heavenly Dragon Temple is famous for its Zen garden. The garden is very beautiful. From there, move to the Kinkaku-Ji or Golden Pavilion. This temple is sparkling and huge. Covered with gold leaf, it has a scenic lake and a landscaped garden. It is worth your while, despite being the most popular tourist spot of Kyoto.
Finally, the Daitoku-Ji. This is not only a temple but is a complex of temples that is vast. The best part is the gardens. Keep at least a couple of hours to visit everything. Head back to the hotel to retrieve the backpacks and go to the station to catch the first train to Tokyo. You will arrive in the evening. Leave the backpacks at the hotel and if you are true warriors go for an evening at Roppongi as we did!
Day 9: Tokyo (1), the Asakusa area, Ueno and Yanaka, Shibuya - Night in Tokyo
Spend the morning at the Asakusa district. Stroll along Nakamise Dori (a strategic road full of souvenir shops). Reach the most famous temple in Tokyo, Senso-Ji. Enter the temple through the Thunder Gate, the giant super-red Kaminari-mon. Once inside you will see on your left the famous five-story pagoda. It is particularly picturesque at night.
Do not forget to take a omikuji (note of fortune) before leaving. Go to the drawers to the wall and look for the one with the corresponding kanji (or ask a Japanese). Open and take your note. Before lunch, move to the Ueno district. I recommend you a walking tour starting from the park, concluding the walk in the Yanaka district.
Ueno Park during flowering is one of the most famous places for the hanami. At the park, there are several points of interest. There is the Tokyo National Museum, National Science Museum. Then there is the National Museum of Western Art, Ueno Zoo, Kiyomizu Kannon-do. There is also the Ueno Toshogu Shrine. A walk in here is worth it.
To me, graveyards are not too friendly and in fact, I shudder from head to heels when I step inside. But in Japan, they are different and experienced, almost as if they were a place of relaxation and peace. Some people stroll, some read the newspaper, some walk with the dog. And the sakura here is special. Yanaka Ginza is the center of food, family-run restaurants, small workshops of artisans. It's your last night in Tokyo, so go to bed only when your knees don't allow any more.
Day 10: Tokyo Harajuku and central Tokyo - return home (evening flight)
This day we dedicated to the Harajuku district. The area is particularly famous for a lot of young flashy clothes. our first stop was at Yoyogi Park and Meiji-Ju. We caught the fog and rain, but this made it even more impressive and a unique park. After a long walk, we leave the park. We dive into the heart of the most fashionable and colorful district of Tokyo.
Omotesando is an elegant, wide and European avenue. Takeshita Dori is a delirious street, full of people, shops, and colors. Cat Street is a small street of boutiques, with neat and tidy architecture. Stop to eat at a place that inspires you and enjoy the last bit of Japan. In the afternoon, I recommend you take a walk to Kitanomaru Park, in the center of Tokyo. It has a moat where they navigate the rowing boats. During the season of sakura, this is a magical place.
If you still have time do one last jump in the Tokyo neighborhood you liked best. We have been to Akihabara (where the geek in me would live forever and ever). And in the end, we went to take the plane back home.