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Japan, the land of the rising sun

by Ngoc Khanh Nguyen from France

Japan is a developed country, with a high standard of living and the longest life expectancy in the world according to the UNO estimations.

This very endearing country, characterized by its magnificent landscapes, cleanliness, modernism, non-existent crime and vandalism and miraculous civism.

I had the opportunity to travel there two times in a row on November, the ideal time to visit because of its fresh climate, lenient weather and beautiful landscapes enhanced by shimmering colours of Autumn. Believe me, travelling to Japan in Autumn would be cheaper as there are less tourists than in spring or summer.

The four must-see cities are the following :

Tokyo-by-night
Tokyo by night by Ngoc Khanh Nguyen

TOKYO

Tokyo, with its skycrapers reminds of New-York indeed. This New-Yorkan dimension is on the West side of the city, in Shinjuku district where we stayed. Our hotel, the Sun Members Hotel ***, offers comfortable suitable size suites, toiletries and an automatic laundry room in the basement. Breakfast – occidental, japanese and chinese buffet – is delicious. Its piano – renowned bar and restaurant. It is very well located, near to the train station and provides a good quality-price ratio. It is however still unrecognized by tourists : sun members tokyo shinjuku hotel

Shinjuku is the district to go out for people of all ages, with nightly lit and busy streets, its restaurants and bars full of people, its malls and massage salons.

The Observatory of the Tokyo city hall twin towers that are 202 meters high, located nearly 350m from the hotel, offers from the top a spectacular and staggering view over Shinjuku district and Tokyo (photo n° 1). If the weather allows it, you could contemplate the magical landscape of Mount Fuji rising proudly in the horizon, surrounded by resplendent sunset halo of lights.

The two other must-see districts are :

1/ Harajuku with Tashita Street, where hundreds of teenagers and youngsters wanderin cosplay in a totally crazy atmosphere. At the end of Takeshita Street, Omotesando, the « Champs Elysées » of Tokyo gather many restaurants and luxury shops.

2/ Shibuya is THE place to go out for young people. There is the famous worldwide « Shibuya crossing » where more than a thousand people cross within 20 seconds when lights change. Shibuya offers thousands of japanese or abroad cuisine restaurants or bistros, costing from 600 yens to 20 000 yens.

The-Daibutsu-in-kamakura
The-Daibutsu in Kamakura by Ngoc Khanh Nguyen

People interested in history and culture can find what they are looking for by visiting :

  • The EDO museum – Tokyo, which covers the history of Edo transformation before 1868 in Tokyo during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). The museum (entrance fee = 600 yens / person), is riveting with models of entire districts, daimyos palaces, samurai costumes and original engraving work exhibition, actual size reconstitutions of houses and shops, rickshaws and palanquins…
  • The UENO national musueum (an outstanding collection of paintings, armors, ceramics and Bouddha statues). This visit could end with crossing the Ueno parc, stopping by Toshogu, temple built to the memory of the 1st shogun Tokugawa, to go to Ameyoko, Tokyo’s last large open sky market.

The shintoist and buddhist temples are worth visiting.

It is very simple there to know the kind of sacred place whe are in : a shintoist sanctuary has a torii or shrine (a generally vermilion gantry, colour which sometimes used for places of worship), whereas a buddhist temple often has a gantry of rough lumber, darkened by time and with a very well-decorated gate.

Senso – Ji temple which is located at Asakusa, the heart of Old Tokyo is a Buddhist temple where Culture day is celebrated every November, 3rd. You will witness the traditional celebration of Jidai Matsuri (ancient feast in the honnor of the emperor which became nowadays Culture day) with processions, the heron traditional dance and a parade featuring floats decorated according to traditional themes as well.

The-Rainbow-Bridge-in-Tokyo
The Rainbow Bridge in Tokyo by Ngoc Khanh Nguyen

You can also plan a bus tour to Kamakura, where the first Bakufu sieged (shogun military regime) and visit the famous Great Buddha Daibutsu (photo n°2) as well as the Tsurugaoka Hachiman – Gu which is one of the most important shintoist sancturay of East Japan. This sancturay is dedicated to Hachiman, war God, who was in fact the protective God of medieval Japan.

Plan to visit the artificial island of O-Daïba by the automatic subway in Tokyo bay where you will find huge malls, the Rainbow Bridge (photo n°3) which connects the island to the land, a copy of the Statue of Liberty offered by Paris city and a small beach. This visit can end with a chilling evening at the « Onsen » to discover a leisure center a 100% dedicated to naked baths (separate bath for women and men). You can choose among various types of bath including a bath of hot sand or a hot bath for feet. The entrance costs 2000 yens/person and includes the towel and yukata rental (relaxed kimono made of cotton). It is possible to eat there on a rebuilt village square, still dressed with a yukata to the exit of the « onsen ». Dinner will cost from 1000 to 2000 yens/person.

The-Kinkaku-Ji-Temple-in-Kyoto
The Kinkaku-Ji Temple in Kyoto by Ngoc Khanh Nguyen

KYOTO

You can travel from Tokyo to Kyoto by Shinkansen, the japanese high speed train. During the trip and on clear days, you will be able to see the splendorous Mount Fuji on your right.

Kyoto is a city where 17 sited are listed as UNESCO World Heritage which kept the character of the old capital – until 1869 – of Japan. This city maintained a tradional architecture with tons of machiya (traditional wooden houses) that citizens of Kyoto try their best to maintain, even by transforming them into shops and restaurants.

Advised hotel : Hotel Daiwa Roynet Kyoto-Hachiyoguchi located in the south of the train station district.

The first day of visit can be dedicated to the south of Igashiyama district where you can walk in Kiyomizu Dera, listed on UNESCO World Heritage, which is an extraordinary temple built on  wooden poles on hillside.

On the way back up north, by Sannen-zaka and Ninnen-zaka, two subsequent roads with traditional 19th century stalls, you will get to Kodai – Ji, a splendid buddhist temple, and its neighbour Ryozen Kannon, then to Yasaka Jinja, the heart and cradle of Kyoto and to Hanamikoji – dori, on the the main roads of Gion, the medieval district of Kyoto where most of the inhabitants are dressed with kimonos and finally to Potoncho, an alley with a very « tradional atmosphere » with restaurants alongside where maïko (geisha students) or geïko (senior geishas) officiate.

Arashiyama
Arashiyama by Ngoc Khanh Nguyen

We had dinner at the Ganko Oyashiki Takasegawa Nijoen, a restaurant located in a particularly beautiful place where refined food (kaïseki type) is served for 6000 yens/person, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages included.

On the second day, we took the bus to go to 3 iconic Kyoto sites :

  • Kinkaku-Ji temple or Golden Pavilion, listed by the Unesco, is the usual name of Rokuon-Ji (imperial temple of deers garden). It takes this name from the Kinkaku (« golden temple »), a building covered with gold located in the garden and made the temple famous. The building is entirely covered with pure gold, except for the ground floor. It is used as a shariden and contains Buddha relics (photo n°4).
  • Arashiyama is a beautiful site praised by every japanese poet, with its bridge, its giant bambous forest that offers a magnificent walk. It belongs to Tenryu – Ji (« Divine Dragon temple ») and is listed on UNESCO World Heritage as well (entrance : 600 yens/person) (photo n°5).
  • Uji is a suburban region in the south of Kyoto where the best tea in Japan is cropped. You can visit the Byodo-In (entrance : 600 yens/person), Unesco site, a building that is a wonderful copy from the medieval era with a « mirror pond » and splendid buildings all around (photo n°6).

On the way back to Kyoto, you can have dinner at Porta underground mall, located in the futuristic train station of Kyoto in the « Porta dining » section, or on the 10th or 11th floor of Isetan or around the train station.

The-Byodo-In-Temple-in-UJI
The Byodo In Temple in Uji by Ngoc Khanh Nguyen

On the 3rd day, we planned a trip to Nara, Japan capital during the 8th century, by train (45 minutes) using the Kintetsu line (ticket : 1240 yens round trip/person). Once there, you can visit Nara with a Nara Bus pass (500 yens) to go from one site to another :

  • The Todai-Ji (entrance : 500 yens/person) is the biggest buddhist temple of Japan with a 250 tons gigantic Buddha statue (a man can stand on its hand).
  • The Kasuga – Taisha (entrance : 500 yens/person) is a shintoist sanctuary from Fujiwara clan which has been the occult power of Japan for three centuries as they were connected to the imperial dinasty for three generations. There are 2000 huge lanterns that sprinkle the land and 1000 bronze lanterns more decorating the main building (photo n°7).
  • Nara is a city – garden where hundreds of deers live freely and eat thanks to specific cookies sold to the tourists all around the city.

On the 4th day, we went to Isé sanctuary, in Isé city which was founded more than 2000 years ago, as the legend says.

It is an absolute sacred place of shintoism to worship Amaterasu, sun goddess, who was considered as Tenno’s ancestor (emperor of Japan) until 1945.

On the way back, we stopped at Mikimoto Pearl Island (small island of Oshima), where the famous company Mikimoto cultivates pearl oysters, by passing near the Meoto-Iwa, the « Married rocks » which the unexplained origin goes back far.

Suggestions for dinner :

  • Ganko – sushi restaurant : pretty, modern and chic japanese setting (about 3300 yens/person)
  • Kobe beef (« wagyu ») dinner in the Porta dining zone
the-kasuga-taisha-sanctuary-in-nara
The Kasuga Taisha sanctuary in Nara by Ngoc Khanh Nguyen

HIROSHIMA

Hiroshima  is well known all around the world for being the first atomic bomb’s target in the history, on August, 6th 1945. But it is also a modern and dynamic city with history and a future. It is located on south-east of Honshu by the inland sea, arround 700kms from Tokyo.

Advised hotel : Oriental Hiroshima Hotel****, very famous in Hiroshima and well located between the train station and the Peace memorial downtown. Rooms’ size is appropriate and toilet products are offered. The breakfast buffet is all right.

When in Hiroshima, you must visit the Peace memorial, the Peace museum and the Eternal flame. It will be a very moving and intense visit as war stigmatas will forever remain carved on every rock, tile, road corner… You can also go to the Dome, a remnant that survived from the atomic bomb and end by visiting Hiroshima castle, rebuilt exactly like in 1958 after it was destroyed in 1945.

On the second day, we went to Miyajima island by boat from Hiroshima (ticket : 3600 yens back and forth/person). The island offers Itfukushima site with the most photogenic shintoist sanctuary of japan, its torii bathing in the sea but accessible at low tide (photo n°8). Photo enthusiasts will find multiple occasions to picture the torii, the sanctuary and the park where the deers live freely.

 OSAKA

Osaka is the third biggest city in Japan, behind Tokyo and Yokohama, with 2,66 million citizens.

This city is worthy of being a part of Japan tour : a disheveled and warm atmosphere, laughs, humour, that are all in a studious and endearing enveloppe. Osaka ? You will really feel a difference with all the other japanese cities.

itfukushima-shrine-at-miyajima-island
Itfukushima shrine at Miyajima island by Ngoc Khanh Nguyen

Dotonbori is a popular street along the eponymous canal which is located in the south of Namba district. It is a hot touristic spot, by day or night. The walk is above all entertaining with shops, game rooms, restaurants and bars.

The gigantic Kani Doraku is a famous and busy crab restaurant with a volumetric and shifting façade, impossible not to notice as well as many others in the district that must be tested.

Osaka castle is of the most famous in Japan. It offers a spectacular panoramic view over the city and a big park bordered with fire red maples and gingkos bilobas of gold colours (photo n°9).

The castle has been fired, damaged or rebuilt many times until the 19th century, and bombed during World War II. This is why the dungeon (8th floor) of Osaka castle was rebuilt with reinforced concrete (the renovation finished in 1997), allowing to build a fenced observation platform (to prevent suicides) for visitors who will discover Osaka and the surrounding park from the top. Inside the castle are many interesting things exhibited such as diaporamas, models, reconsitutions. On the ground, the plaza at the foot of the castle, you can eat or rest at some stands. The plaza is surrounded by a park, which partially stemmed from big ancient moats that were finally dried and filled. This park is as a green lung to the city, like the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, where people walk or picnic at the end of the week.

Osaka-Castle
Osaka Castle by Ngoc Khanh Nguyen

CONCLUSION

Urban districts are named Ueno, Namba, O Daiba, or Gion. You will remember for a long time how clean and unnamed the streets are, the extreme punctuality of public transportations, the straight-lined aspect of main named streets and the limbo side of small streets where you can get lost in one minute. Not to mention elevated highways, cutting open towns.

You will be astounded by tight crowds, especially in the end afternoon and evening, and will miss once home, how naturally disciplined Japanese are, thanks to their education. You will mainly miss how secure this country i,s allowing people to wander at 3 in the morning without danger.

The landscapes (especially in Autumn) that are adorned with shimmering indian summer colours will be immortalized for sure on your photo and video cameras. You will feel nostalgic looking at those souvenirs.

Japan, unique country, will enable you to keep a picture of it, unique as well.

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