the entrance to the Imperial Palace. the Kokyo Gaien or the Huge Imperial Palace Plaza starts from the Babasaki Moat to arrive at the vast Imperial Palace Plaza. You can wander through the huge Imperial plaza to view the outer fortifications of the palace and the various and gates and bridges that cross the string of moats that surround the palace proper. You can also see from here the Tokyo Tower and high-rise buildings at Kasumigaseki reflected in the water of Kikyo-bori Moat, for the restriction of the surrounding scenery around the Palace. The twofold keep (watchhouse) Tatsumi-yagura on the moatside gives us a trace of the old Edo Castle. the statue of the loyal Samurai, Kusonoki Masahige is located near the tourist bus stops in the plaza.
The palace buildings and inner gardens are not open to the public. Only on January 2 (New Year's Greeting) and December 23 (Emperor's Birthday), visitors are able to enter the inner palace grounds and see the members of the Imperial Family, who make several public appearances on a balcony. During the rest of the year, guided tours of the palace are offered in Japanese, with an English pamphlet and audio guide provided. Tours must be reserved in advance with the Imperial Household Agency. Reservations can be made over the internet
We started and ended our holiday in Tokyo, the capital of Japan and a huge, sprawling city with many faces. For the first few days we were in Asakusa – relatively quiet, almost suburban in places, with the beautiful Senso-ji Temple at its heart. As well as exploring our immediate surroundings, Chris and I visited the excellent Edo Tokyo Museum which has impressive displays about the history of the city from the Edo period through to the post World War Two technological revolution in Japan. With our fellow travellers we took a cruise on the Sumida River and visited the tranquil gardens of Hamarikyu tei-en. We also went to the Meiji Shrine where we were fortunate enough to witness a couple of traditional weddings.
At the end of the tour we stayed a night in lively Shinjuku, one of the city’s main nightlife districts. Chris and I returned here after our weekend in Nikko too, and managed to see a little more of the area despite being hampered by pouring rain and strong winds.
So in just a couple of days in total we were able to see at least something of this great city, and get a sense of the variety it offers, and yet we had barely scratched the surface. We will have to return one day ...
Next tip: the tea ceremony
The best known landmark in Japan, and indeed one of its most iconic sights, is Mount Fuji. There is however no guarantee that you will see it, as the weather is unpredictable and the mountain often shrouded in cloud. For your best chance, plan to spend several days in the area south of Tokyo around Hakone. We spent two nights in a small family-run guest house in Senkyoro and not only were we fortunate enough to see Fuji in all its glory, but we also had a wonderful day out making the most of our Hakone Free-Pass which gives unlimited use of most of the very varied forms of transport in the area – bus, funicular, cable car and even pirate ship!
In our day and a half in this region we managed to see a lot of the major sights. We visited the sulphur springs of Owakudani, from where we enjoyed our best views of Fuji and ate hard-boiled eggs cooked in the bubbling waters. We rode the pirate ship on beautiful Lake Ashi. We visited a workshop where a craftsman demonstrated his skills in marquetry and in making the famous “secret boxes”. We went to the Hakone Checkpoint, a reconstruction of one of the old check points on the ancient Tokaido Way. And we spent a lovely afternoon at the Hakone Open Air Museum where sculptures by world-renowned artists such as Henry Moore and Picasso are exhibited in a stunningly beautiful setting.
Even had we not seen Fuji at all, our couple of days here would have been among the most pleasant of the whole trip, made more so by the friendly welcome we received at the Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse.
Next tip: enjoying an onsen
From Hakone we travelled by bullet train to Osaka, which was a complete contrast – a large, lively city with a vibrant nightlife. We stayed for two nights in a hotel near the main station but only saw a limited part of the city as we chose to devote one of our days here to a day trip to Hiroshima (see next tip). Nevertheless we were able to visit the impressive, albeit restored, castle and the truly wonderful aquarium (see my video of some of the creatures there). We also sampled a little of the city’s nightlife with an evening on bustling Dotonbori – a street jammed with restaurants and bars – and another in the inevitable Irish bar.
As well as having plenty to see and do in its own right, Osaka would make a good base if you prefer to stay longer in one place; as well as Hiroshima, day trips to Nara and even Kyoto are feasible from here. But for me, a couple of nights were enough as I was eager to see Kyoto and was ready to move on.
Next tip: a day trip to Hiroshima
Hiroshima has of course an unenviable claim to fame. When the first atomic bomb was dropped over the city on August 6, 1945, it changed it forever: the lives of the people, the landscape of the city, its position in the eyes of the world.
There are some that consider a visit to Hiroshima to be a bit macabre, but we didn’t feel we could be so near and not see the city for ourselves, so we planned a day trip from Osaka, as did some of the others in our group. We travelled together then went our separate ways for the most part. While some explored further afield, Chris and I concentrated on the Peace Park and its surroundings. This park occupies the area that was at the centre of the devastation and serves as a memorial (or rather a whole series of memorials) to those who lost their lives and to the city’s subsequent efforts to rebuild and to focus its energies on promoting peace.
We visited the museum at the heart of the park, the eternal flame and various monuments, and the Atomic Bomb Dome (left as it was on the day of the bomb). But despite the inevitable sombreness of the exhibits in the museum, it is those efforts for peace that I will remember most about our visit to Hiroshima. More particularly, I will remember the many groups of Japanese school children whom we met, who were here to learn about the devastation of war in the hope that they would grow up determined never to allow another “Hiroshima” to happen. They were also here though to practice their English on any Western tourists they could persuade to be “interviewed” by them. I lost count of the number of times we were asked, “May we ask you a few questions” in often halting English, to be rewarded with broad smiles, photo opportunities and often a small gift of origami or similar. I also liked hearing a group sing as they laid paper cranes at the Children’s Peace Memorial – do check out my video of them.
Next tip: next stop, Kyoto
For over a thousand years Kyoto was the capital of Japan and it is probably the best preserved of all its cities. Its historic value saw it dropped from the list of cities to be targeted by air raids and the atomic bomb during World War Two (some say because the wife of a senior US commander had fallen in love with Kyoto when they honeymooned there before the war), and is still treasured today. It was top of my list of places I wanted to visit in Japan and I was sorry we couldn’t spend longer – it is therefore the place that could possibly lure me back one day.
Despite having less than two days here we managed to pack a lot in. We visited several of the most famous of its hundreds of temples and shrines, including the spectacular golden Kinkaku-ji, Ryoanji with its Zen garden, Kiyomizudera (possibly the most visited of all), Sanjusangendo with its 1,001 life-size statues of Kannon (the goddess of mercy) and the more tranquil Tenryuji in Arashiyama to the west of the city.
We also had a walking tour of Gion, visited a karaoke room and spent some time enjoying the striking modern architecture of the city’s main station at night. I would have loved another day to see a few more of the temples at least, but ...
Next tip: all about geisha
While Kyoto and Tokyo were high on my list of places to see in Japan, as well as Fuji in the south and the Northern Alps, I knew little about Takayama before visiting. So what a lovely surprise it was to discover this charming town which was to prove one of my favourite stops on the tour.
This mountain town captivated me with its crisp cool air (so refreshing after the heat of Kyoto), lively morning market, friendly locals, and beautifully preserved old houses. We visited a couple of the latter that have been restored and opened to the public, as well as a number of interesting museums including one dedicated to the twice-yearly festival, which unfortunately we had just missed, and another to the traditional karakuri ningyo or mechanical puppets. We also enjoyed some of the nicest meals on the tour here, eating the fabulous Hida beef cooked the traditional way (grilled on a hot plate) and in possibly the best beef burger I have ever had! Not to mention the sake brewery ...
But there was no time to visit more than one of the shrines, nor to take the short trip out of town to the renowned Hida Folk Village (some of our group did do the latter, but they saw less of the town itself as a consequence). So, like Kyoto before it, Takayama left me wanting to see more and spend more time, and could well lure me back.
Next tip: some amusing signs
As well as visiting some of the most famous cities in Japan such as Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima and Kyoto, we wanted to see something of the countryside, especially as we were to be there during the autumn when the displays of turning leaves are nearly as renowned as in New England. So we chose our tour accordingly, with this one giving us a few nights in the Japanese Alps in Kamikochi National Park.
We stayed at a large guesthouse in the heart of the park, perfectly located to enjoy the walking trails along the Azusa River. Unfortunately perhaps, it was here that we experienced the worst weather of our trip, as we were on the northern edge of a typhoon that swept across Honshu, leaving quite a few people dead and many houses destroyed on a small island south of Tokyo. In Kamikochi its impact was less strong, but very high winds and driving rain kept us in on the late afternoon of our arrival – although we were able to enjoy the antics of some of the park’s Macaque monkeys right outside our window. The next day was still wet but the winds had eased, and we were able to go for a walk. Some of the group went with Andrew in one direction but Chris and I decided to do our own thing as we wanted a more leisurely walking pace with more time for photos. And despite the weather (or perhaps because of it) the landscape was stunning in several places and we got loads of shots – turning leaves, rushing water, marshy inlets, moody skies.
That night as we sat in the guesthouse’s small coffee shop the guy who was on reception came hurrying in to tell us that the clouds had lifted and we would be able to see the “white mountain” in the moonlight. We followed him outside, despite the chill, and sure enough we could see the snowy heights that had been hidden by cloud since our arrival. The next morning was frosty but bright and clear, and we cut short our breakfast to make the most of our last hour or so here and to capture the beauty of Kamikochi before we left.
Next tip: autumn colours
We broke our journey back to Tokyo from Kamikochi with a few hours in Matsumoto. The city has one of the relatively few complete and original castles in the country, that is to say, it has never been destroyed and rebuilt as most have been (unsurprisingly in a country where castles are constructed mainly from wood). It is certainly an impressive sight, and if you want you can go inside to see the structure more closely and also some displays of weapons etc., though the labels are mostly only in Japanese. And be warned, touring inside means climbing up and down some very large and slippery wooden steps in bare feet or (worse) socks.
As well as visiting the castle we had time to browse the shops along quaint Nawate-dori, have some lunch in a bakery there and visit its Yohashira Shrine.
The city is about two and half hours from Tokyo in the limited express train, so could make a feasible day out from there. The castle’s age and beauty certainly make it worthwhile.
Next tip: our final stop, Nikko
When we booked our tour with Inside Japan the website made several suggestions about add-ons and we decided it would fun, as we could spare the time, to have a few days at least exploring on our own. Nikko was close enough to Tokyo to do in a few days and as a UNESCO World Heritage Site seemed well worth seeing – and it was!
At the heart of Nikko is an expansive site which includes the magnificent Toshogu Shrine (the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, which ruled Japan for over 250 years until 1868), as well as several other smaller shrines and temples. It is one of Japan’s most visited places however, so don’t expect to have it to yourself.
To get away from the crowds there is also an interesting walk along a river valley to see a large group of Jizo statues, the deities of lost children. The town itself has some fascinating antique shops and further afield (though we didn’t have time for this) is the Okunikko National Park with waterfalls, a lake and a hot spring resort.
Nikko is only about two hours from Tokyo and many people do it as a day trip, but to see the shrines properly you really need to stay one night at least.
Next tip: manhole covers (yes, really!)
Tokyo Skytree is a broadcasting tower with a restaurant and observation deck, located in the Sumida area of eastern Tokyo. The massive tower was built from 2008 to 2012, and--at 2080 feet--is the tallest tower in the world. While technically the tallest tower, Dubai's Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world, and it stand hundreds of feet higher than the Skytree.
The tower was built to broadcast TV and radio across Japan, and it hosts transmitters for 9 TV stations and 2 radio stations. It also has two observation decks, at 1150 and 1480 feet above ground. At the Skytree's base, visitors will find a huge shopping center with over 300 shops and restaurants.
Tickets to the observation tower cost as much as 3,000 Yen per adult (almost USD 40).
Open Daily, 8am-10pm
Nagoya, located just southwest of Tokyo, is the largest city in Japan's Chubu Region and the third largest city in Japan. The city's most familiar landmark is Nagoya Castle, built from 1610 to 1619, but was destroyed in World War II and rebuilt in the late 1950s. Another famous city landmark is Atsuta Shrine, one of the two most respected Shinto shrines in Japan; this anient landmark is said to have been built in the period of 71-130 AD under Emperor Keikō.
Nagoya is a major stop on the Shinkansen between Tokyo and Kyoto.
Osaka is Japan's third largest city by population after Tokyo and Yokohama, and the third largest metropolitan area in the world with 19 million residents. The city is an economic center of Japan and is home to major technology companies like Panasonic, Sharp, and Sanyo.
I took a quick trip to Osaka from Tokyo in September of 2013. We rode the high-speed shinkansen bullet train from Yokohama, so it was a short, easy trip. Immediately after our arrival at Shin Osaka Station, we took the JR train to Okaka castle, where we enjoyed the fantastic views, the nice museum and the wide open spaces. Later we headed to our hotel, the Midosuji Hotel, in the busy Namba & Dotonbori areas, just steps from the station. That night we had dinner at a few small restaurants near the hotel, and the next morning we awoke early for the short trip to Nara, then Kyoto.
We stopped at Nara for an afternoon while traveling between Osaka and Kyoto, and it was a fantastic visit. This ancient town boasts thousands of tame deer, some great temples, a giant statue of Buddha, and a busy town with lots of restaurants and shops.
Today Nara is a popular historic site due to its UNESCO World Heritage Site, collectively called Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara. These sites include eight locations in Nara including five Buddhist temples, a Shinto shrine, a Palace and a primeval forest.
Nara is an easy day trip from either Osaka or Kyoto.
Japanese city parks are evolved from Japanese gardens that has history of about 1,400 years. But the concept of Public City Park in modern sense is just barely over 100 years old in Japan. The first western styled Urban Park is Hibiya Park in Tokyo opened in 1903, 27 years after Ueno Park was opened as a public garden. Hibiya Park has huge lawn area, rose garden, and Japanese garden areas. Hibiya Park set the basic standard of Japanese urban parks, its fusion of Western and Japanese gardens was adopted to later park projects such as Tsuruma Park in Nagoya, Meiji Shrine Gardens, Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens in Tokyo and lots of other parks in major local cities. Japanese city parks often tag planted trees with their plant names and their biological names for children's education. Himalayan cypress trees are some of the most popular park trees in Japan. During winter children enjoy picking up the cedar roses of the cypress about twice as large as pine cones. Cedar roses are favorite decorations for Christmas trees, so even adults are eager to pick up cones to please their children.
In many of the local cities the castle ruins are often transformed into public parks. As many of the Prefectural capital cities are developed from castle towns. These parks often attach with amusement parks with rides, zoos and botanical gardens.
After the post-war rapid growth era, however, urban parks lost popularity over suburban huge parks or amusement parks or theme parks in local cities. Today, popular parks are often located at the suburban areas with huge parking space because most of family tourists use private cars to get there. Some of the suburban parks tend to be huge, and the most notable example could be Showa Memorial Park in Tachikawa, Sanuki Manno Park in Kagawa and Okazaki Chuo Sogo Park in Okazaki.
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