The Real Japan
Twelve days of magic with Stuff Escapes
Imagine the entire population of the North Island in one place at one time. Welcome to Tokyo’s Shinjuku station. An average of 3.5 million people – locals and tourists – wander through this labyrinth each day.
All around us there are white shirtclad men on their way to work, businesswomen precariously balanced on their stilettos, uniformed school kids, and bewildered tourists frantically swapping between Google Maps and translate apps on their smartphones.
Sound chaotic? It is. And it isn’t. There’s an order to this chaos. Queues are orderly, commuters are polite, trains leave on time, and everything runs like clockwork. I find myself bowing in apology as I clumsily walk headfirst into another commuter. It was my fault, but the profuse apology is mutual.
Three stops later and we’re at Shibuya Crossing, where more than 1000 people seamlessly negotiate a pedestrian crossing in all directions at once. All the while texting, posing for photos, or wandering slack-jawed and overwhelmed.
The next day, train station bento box in hand, we speed across Japan in a bullet train, or shinkansen, headed to Kyoto. There, we wander the ancient geisha quarter in Gion, and jump on a bus to spend the day at Arashiyama – famed for its otherworldly bamboo forest – and marvel at the brilliantly orange torii gates at the Fushimi Inari Shrine.
That night we stumble upon a local ramen joint where we try our best to decipher the Japanese-only menu. We clumsily order by pointing at photos, mutter Honto ni gomen ne (I am so sorry), and cross our fingers. We then devour the steaming bowls of noodles steeped in rich, savoury tonkotsu broth.
Japan is a bit of a paradox – technologically advanced and yet steeped in ancient tradition. As Stuff travel writer Lorna Thornber put it, ‘‘if Japan were a person she’d be a very tough cookie to categorise – mild-mannered and super polite among strangers, but something of a wild child among friends’’.
Japan is already a firm favourite with Kiwi travellers but with the rise of skiing holidays and culinary travel, and next year’s Rugby World Cup, there’s renewed interest in the country.
It’s with great pleasure that I invite Stuff readers on an exclusive tour of Japan. In partnership with travel experts Wendy Wu, we’ve created the itinerary of a lifetime. You’ll explore the country with our guest experts – top chef Nic Watt, rugby expert Andrew McCormick, and Stuff Editorin-Chief Newsrooms Bernadette Courtney.
Days 1-2: New Zealand to Tokyo
Fly overnight to Tokyo. Experience a capital hurtling into the future while maintaining its links with the traditions of ancient ancestors. It’s a city of contrasts, famous for its neonlit landscape, towering skyscrapers, peaceful shrines, and lovingly tended gardens. Although it’s long been the political and cultural centre of Japan, Tokyo became the official capital when the Meiji Emperor moved it there in 1867.
Day 3: Explore Tokyo
On the former site of Edo castle, view the Imperial Palace, which is surrounded by moats and massive stone walls in the heart of Tokyo. As it is home to Japan’s Imperial Family, the inner grounds are not open to the public, except on December 23, the Emperor’s birthday.
Visit the Tokyo Skytree, a new television broadcasting tower and landmark of Tokyo. With a height of 634m, it is the tallest building in Japan and the second tallest structure in the world at the time of its completion.
Then head to Asakusa, Tokyo’s old town, where you can soak up the atmosphere of what Tokyo must have been like hundreds of years ago. Visit Sensoji, also known as Asakusa Kannon and Tokyo’s oldest temple.
The broadway leading up to the temple is called Nakamise and this shopping street has been providing temple visitors with traditional local snacks and souvenirs for centuries.
Tonight, you will board a Tokyo Bay Dinner Cruise to enjoy delicious dishes while cruising around Tokyo Bay.
Day 4: Tokyo’s sights
Explore Tokyo on a sightseeing tour by private coach. Head to Tsukiji Market – Japan’s ‘‘Food Town’’, where one can encounter all kinds of Japanese traditional foods.
A mix of wholesale and retail shops, along with numerous restaurants, line the streets, and new culinary trends are born here.
Next, you will have the chance to take part in a sushi-making class where you will learn how to make various types of sushi.
After lunch, visit the famous Shibuya district, Tokyo’s main centre for youth fashion and culture, whose streets are the birthplace of many of Japan’s fashion and entertainment trends. It is also home to the famous five-way ‘‘scramble crossing’’.
Your last stop of the day will be the Meiji Shrine – dedicated to the deified spirit of Emperor Meiji and a popular place for traditional Japanese weddings.
Day 5: Tokyo to Hakone
Depart for the town of Hakone by private coach. Throughout the day you will have opportunities to glimpse Mt Fuji, however please keep in mind that it is a notoriously shy mountain so it needs to be a clear day for proper views.
First stop is Hakone shrine. This shinto shrine was very popular among Samurai during the 12th century and is hidden in a dense forest. In fact, the shrine is so well hidden that it would be easy to miss were it not for its magnificent torii gates.
Next stop is Hakonemachi where you will board a Pirate Boat to take you to Togendai. Both are ports on the shores of Lake Ashi, an enormous volcanic crater created by an eruption 3000 years ago.
After Togendai, we will continue via Rope Way towards Owakudani.
The first thing you will notice in Owakudani is the smell of sulfur from this active volcano.
There are walking trails around Owakudani that lead to steam vents and bubbling pools.
The eggs they sell in Owakudani are boiled in the volcano’s natural hot springs and are said to prolong life by seven years.
Tonight, you will stay in a Japanese style room with a delicious meal and access to onsen – baths that use mineral water from the naturally heated springs.
Day 6: Hakone to Kyoto
Today you will board the famous Shinkansen bullet train, which
reaches speeds of up to 300kmh, to Kyoto.
Visit Fushimi Inari Shrine, which was used in the movie Memoirs of a
Geisha. It is home to more than 10,000 red torii gates, which form a path up the mountain behind the temple.
After visiting the shrine, quench your thirst at a sake brewery. During a tour of the brewery you will learn about the traditional brewing process, then sample its different types of sake.
Enjoy a special Maiko Dinner at a local restaurant. A maiko is an apprentice geisha in Kyoto and western Japan. Maiko perform songs and dances, and play the shamisen or other traditional Japanese instruments for visitors.
Day 7: Kyoto’s gems
Visit Nijo Castle, built by the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate as the Kyoto residence of the Shogun. It’s surrounded by stunning gardens.
The ornamental building was completed in 1603, and is well-known for its Momoyama architecture, decorated sliding doors, and ‘‘chirping’’ nightingale floors.
Kinkakuji – also known as the Golden Pavilion – was originally built as a retirement villa for the Shogun. After the death of Shogun Yoshimitsu, it became a Buddhist Temple at his request, and is now one of Kyoto’s most famous temples with its top two floors completely covered in gold-leaf.
Our first stop in Arashiyama is Tenryuji temple. Ranked among Kyoto’s five great Zen temples, Tenryuji is the largest and most impressive temple in Arashiyama.
Founded in 1339 at the start of the Muromachi Period, the temple is considered important cultural property and ranked by Unesco as a World Heritage Site.
On the way to Nonomiya shrine, your path will lead you through Arashiyama’s famous bamboo groves, unlike any other place in Japan.
The bamboo has been used to manufacture various products, such as baskets, cups, boxes, and mats at local workshops for centuries.
Nonomiya shrine is a Shinto shrine where, in ancient times, unmarried imperial princesses stayed for at least a year to purify themselves. The shrine is referenced in numerous works of literature, most notably in the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji.
Day 8: Explore Kyoto
Kodaiji is an outstanding temple in
Kyoto’s Higashiyama District. It was established in 1606 in memory of Toyotomi Hideyoshi – one of Japan’s greatest historical figures – by Hideyoshi’s wife Nene, who is also enshrined at the temple.
You will then take part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
A tea master will demonstrate how to prepare for a tea ceremony, how to conduct as a host, and how to make a bowl of green tea.
Gion is the famous geisha district, where, if lucky, you will be able to see them as the hurry to their appointments.
Day 9: Kyoto to Hiroshima
Board a bullet train bound for Hiroshima.
In the centre of the city, Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park covers more than 120,000 square metres and is dedicated to the legacy of Hiroshima as the first city in history to suffer a nuclear attack.
Before the atomic bomb, the area where the peace park now stands was the political and commercial heart of the city, and for this reason it was chosen as enemy pilots’ target during World War II. It was decided that the area was not to be redeveloped, but instead devoted to peace memorial facilities.
The park’s main attraction is the Peace Memorial Museum.
The museum covers the history of Hiroshima and the advent of the nuclear bomb.
It provides visitors with an opportunity to hear eyewitness testimonies and learn about the devastating effects the A-bomb had on the city of Hiroshima and its people.
Day 10: Hiroshima to Osaka
Miyajima is a small sacred island on the Inland Sea. It has been a holy place of Shintoism for centuries.
Here you will find perhaps the most photographed site in Japan: the Floating Torii Gate, which has been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site and is considered one of Japan’s ‘‘three most beautiful views’’.
Later today, head to Osaka.
Day 11: Explore Osaka
Your whole day is free leisure time.
Day 12: Osaka departure
Depart Kansai Airport for New Zealand.
Japan’s maiko and geisha perform songs, dances and play musical instruments.
The Floating Torii Gate, above, is perhaps the most photographed site in Japan.Take part in a traditional teamaking ceremony, left.Below, Kinkakuji is one of Kyoto’s most famous temples, with its top two floors completely covered in goldleaf.