Kyoto and Osaka
Migrating from Hiroshima to Kyoto (the former Imperial Capital of Japan) entailed another Bullet train and a bus.
Once we arrived, we were straight into a full day of sightseeing!
Kinjakuji Temple (also known as the Golden Pavillion) is a Zen temple in northern Kyoto. The top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. It was burned down in the past by a monk (the reason is unsubstantiated) and cost $7.1million to rebuild!
Nijo Castle is a flatland (one level) palace including the Ninomaru Palace, ruins of the Honmaru Palace and several BEAUTIFUL gardens! Throughout these gardens, it is said that there are more than 1000 rocks that are strategically and specifically placed! The interior of the palace is vast, beautifully decorated in Japanese art and royal family emblems! Shoes are not allowed to be worn (your toes get very cold without socks!) and the floorboards are built in a strategic fashion so that they creak (it sounds identical to wild birds chirping, no joke!) and this technique was intentionally used to warn the residence of people coming and going throughout the building, i.e intruders or unexpected guests! There are many many rooms in this palace. All without furniture, yet all with a specific use. There were many rooms where only the main samurai warrior was allowed (with the exclusion of his female maids and wife).
We then explored the Gion District before having a free night to explore.
The Gion District is definitely a must-see! If you have read Memoirs of a Geisha, the picture and ambience painted by the book are definitely representative of the real Gion District. Geikko and Meikko roam around the streets here in the plenty! A lot of visitors dress up as geishas here to get photos, however the REAL Geikko and Meikko begin to come out at night time. The difference between the real deal and a costume is very, very obvious as the traditional Geikko/Meikko have every single aspect of their outfit, bow and hair placed with perfection and care. As our Contiki manager said "you will KNOW the difference".
Our last night in Japan was spent in Osaka!
Osaka is a city that is so busy, alive and energetic (day and night!), it reminds me a lot of Vegas!
There are a lot of shops and crazily busy malls to lose yourself in (literally lose yourself!), which isn't really my scene at all. But there are also green smoothie shops hidden amongst the crowds, as well as picturesque walks outside along quiet canals to retreat to for a hit of vitamin D!
And what better way to celebrate our Contiki Japan adventure with a last traditional dinner. It featured long, flat, inbuilt stoves in the table that carried our feast of veggies, a selection of noodles, stir fries, meats, tofus and sashimi!
There was also a crazy savoury concoction referred to as a type of "pancake" made with cabbage, noodles, pork and flour in a teriyaki sauce. Dessert was a zesty, fresh gelato. After dinner celebrations continued on in karaoke bars and nightclubs in this crazily energetic 24-hour city!
Hakone is extremely cold, yet equally beautiful!
The scenery, nature and even the smell is rejuvenating and empowering. Spending only one night here was certainly not enough. The sunset alone was entirely unrivalled!
Views of the magnificent, snow-capped Mt. Fuji can be seen intermittently while driving through the winding curvaceous, hill-hugging roads. That view alone is worth an entire trip to Japan! We took a quick cable trip up a mountain to some natural sulphur pools.
The local delicacy here is black eggs. Eating one supposedly increases your life by seven years, two for fourteen years, three for twenty one years and if you eat four… well, you will probably be sick!
We also experienced a beautiful sunset river cruise in Hakone, before heading further up the mountain to our traditional Japanese-style accommodation and dinner. The isolation of this accommodation served only to enhance the uniqueness – it was almost like we had gone through a portal deep into traditional culture.
After showering in a traditional Japanese shower (sitting on a stool) and changing into our very own traditional Japanese-style robes and footwear (which is more than acceptable to wear around the hotel (regardless of what you are or aren't wearing underneath!), we made our way to a traditional Japanese-style eating hall (where you sit on the ground). There we enjoyed a very extravagant traditional Japanese banquet, with countless courses of soups, sashimi, sushi, salads, pickled goods, noodles and even our own little stove-cooker to cook our own Japanese-style stew!
After a cherry blossom flavoured sponge cake and fruit dessert we headed back to our rooms. When we first walked into the rooms, there were only two tables and cushions on the ground. The beds are traditional Japanese-style futons that the staff set up for you while you're at dinner.
Then after relaxing in the Onsen (traditional communal hot baths) for a bit, sleep takes over so easily to prepare you for another day of adventuring.
To get to Hiroshima from Hakone, is a full days' effort!
But it is also very exciting! Going from point a to point b means taking a trip on Japan’s bullet train, formally known as the Shinkansen!
After a day of travel, we arrived at our hotel for a group teppanyaki dinner!
The next day was a day of adventure!
We ventured from Hiroshima’s Memorial Peace Park and Museum, to Miyajima Island and the Itukushima Shrine!
The Hiroshima Peace Park and Museum is such a quiet and clean place. Although rich in history and culture, it can also be incredibly confronting (there are wax dummies in museum showing the impacts of the nuclear bombs etc) and sad.
Have you ever read the book One Thousand Paper Cranes? Thousands and thousands of paper origami cranes can be found throughout the park in glass cases and hung from statues/memorials. These symbolise peace and resilience and are there to pay respects to the victims.
Miyajima Island is so, so awesome, steeped in history and surrounded by picturesque beauty! Accessed by a short ferry ride (be sure to absorb the views!) the island features blue water, brightly coloured shrines and countless temples!
Deers here are wild, although incredibly friendly and approachable, especially if there is food involved. Warning: they will try to eat anything, from maps to t-shirts, to fresh squeezed juices, ice cream and apples! You name it — a deer will try to devour it!
I found the brightest/fullest cherry blossom tree I had seen the entire trip at Miyajima island! Itsukushima Shrine (seen at Miyajima Island) is best known for its "floating" torii gate. Yet another one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites we were able to experience while roaming Japan!
Straight to the capital to immerse ourselves in the adventure and delight that is Japan.
From the very outset, a city full of energy and all things bizarre!
Walking the streets, negotiating the subway system, using the bathroom and ordering lunch were all everyday tasks that proved to be interesting to say the least!
Food is often ordered on a vending machine, squeezing into a restaurant requires talent (they are tiny!), management of chopsticks is a fine art, crossing the street means being submerged in a blur of bodies and figuring out what you are ordering/eating quickly becomes a surprise!
Not to mention the outrageous fashion!
Tokyo is home to the world’s busiest crossing. If you do one thing in Tokyo, I recommend you experience it once, twice or fifteen times! From among the stampede at ground level, as well as from above and at a distance, watching the swarms of people scoot, squeeze and scramble through, across and among one another, in a somehow orderly fashion, is endlessly entertaining!
Sushi School is also a must for Tokyo! You are watching and learning from Japan’s finest dushi chefs about how to make sushi from scratch! You can then indulge in your creation, as well as tempura vegetables and soup, and receive your Qualified Sushi Chef certificate!
Also on the list of must-see sights while in Tokyo is the Asakusa Sensoji Temple – Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist Temple, also known as the Temple of the Asakusa Kannon.
Bodhisattva Kannon is renowned and revered for being compassionate and relieving suffering. Devotion to Bodhisattva Kannon is demonstrated through treating everyone we encounter with kindness, (sounds pretty good to me). In the main hall, a prayer can be said by placing your hands together and chanting “Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu” (which translates to "I place my trust in Bodhisattva Kannon").
You also have to see the Imperial Palace — the main residence of the Emperor of Japan, Tokyo’s Tsukuji Fish Markets (biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world), Maid Cafes (an only-in-Japan sort-of-thing), check out the arts (anime and J-Pop music).
Last but definitely not least — the Robot Restaurant in the red light district is INSANE! There is no other word for it! Such a random, quirky and wonderful experience. Definitely worth it!
* Results from BAM may vary. Strict adherence to the program is required for best results.