Japan in a nutshell

As I said previously, Japan was a real marathon, what the French would call an "avant gout" before the real thing later on. In my opinion, Japan is to Asia what a car is to a motorbike. Some prefer the motorbike because it's cheap, loud, and easily accessible. I personally prefer the car... and Japan. Of course South East Asia was great, but really, Japan, it's just a dream on Earth.

Sorry for the diary-type for this post, but I will go on day by day because I want to add useful information along the way.

Day 0.5
I can't say I saw anything that Tokyo has to offer, as I arrived at the hostel around 4 pm and all the temples I wanted to see were almost closed by then. But Tokyo by night is also worth seeing, so I didn't completely lost my day.

Day 1 - Fuji-san
There are several possibilities to go to Fuji-san. You can either go to the JR station Shin-Fuji and take a bus to the southern foot of the mountain, or take a bus from Tokyo station to the Five-lake region up north, which is the option I took, because I wanted to see the famous view from Motosu-ko.
The first JR bus is at 6:30 am to Kawaguchi-ko and depending on the traffic it takes from 2h30 to 3h. On the way, I was afraid of the bad weather, because the mountains around were surrounded with grey rainy clouds, but after we passed the tunnel, we saw we were blessed with a nice day, and Fuji-san was beautifully visible in the blue sky.
FYI: The first stop of the bus is for the Highland complex, where you can enjoy a roller coaster practically at the foot of the sacred mountain!
At around 9 am, the bus reached its final destination: Kawaguchi-ko.
Fuji-san @ Kawaguchi-ko
I immediately went to the information center to know when the bus for Motosu-ko will arrive, because there are so few of them. Actually, if you're in Japan before April, not all the buses run from Kawaguchi-ko to Motosu-ko, but the Information Center is very helpful to know what is available.

Arriving at Motosu-ko, you can walk around the lake, 13 km in perimeter, but be careful, it is a road, not a walkpath, so you have to share the same space as cars and bicycles (i.e., there is no sidewalk).
Interestingly, the road was closed for one part of the lake because of scree that were not being taken care of, so I was alone for the first half of the walk. After 2h (2/3 of the 13 km perimeter), I arrived at the sightseeing point shown on the 1000 yen bill, and was disappointed to see that while I was walking, Fuji-san completely disappeared behind rainy clouds.
Nevermind, I finished the walk, bought an "Omiyage" ("Houtou" which is the dish of the region), and went back to Kawaguchi-ko with the same bus, as I still had 4 hours before my bus back to Tokyo. I then took the sightseeing bus around the lake, but as there are very few of those in the afternoon, and Fuji-san was completely gone under the clouds, I only went for the first half before returning to the station, enjoying a "Udon" while the rain fell, and then it was time to go back.
Nothing more to see here...

Day 2 - Nikko
To go to Nikko with a Japan Rail Pass, you first need to take the Shinkansen to Utsunomiya, and then there is a special "local" Nikko-line to reach the World Heritage site.
the silhouette of the Shinkansen

and there were still tourists to ask if this was the train to Nikko...

timetable for the Nikko line to Nikko
Once again, it was a beautiful day, but compared to Tokyo, Nikko is a bit higher in the mountains, so the air can be rather chilly... And as I came from the Australian summer and the South East Asia dry season, I was quite sensitive to the cold...
The walk from the JR station to the Shinjo bridge is only 2 km, and every temple in the World Heritage site is in the same area.
the welcoming stone
Don't bother to pay 300 Y to actually walk on the Shin-kyo bridge, because the only interest is to have a picture of it.

Once inside the World Heritage site, you pay 1000 Y for 5 temples, and while Rinno-ji was a disappointment, as it was under scaffoldings and you cannot take any picture while inside, there is still plenty to see.
All five temples can be done in half a day, if you arrive early enough, but if you want to take your time and enjoy the serenity of the park, counting the transportation, you should allow one full day to the visit. As I had to move from Tokyo to Kyoto, I didn't linger.
Back at Tokyo station, I took my luggage from the coin locker (coin lockers are everywhere in Japan, which is very convenient if you want to travel light), and took a Shinkansen ticket to Kyoto.
The Tokyo to Shin-Osaka shinkansen
If you want to see Fuji-san while on the train, ask for a window on the right side (place E).
It was twilight when I arrived at Kyoto, which is a bit overwhelming when you're tired, as there are not maps every 50 m like in the Tokyo station. After finding the right bus (#26 on platform D), I finally arrived at the Utano Youth Hostel, which is by far the most amazing hostel I have been so far.

Day 3 - Kyoto
Obviously you cannot do Kyoto in only 2 days, so my selection of temples was rather strict. For instance, I didn't do the Palace, nor the Higashi-Honganji temple, as it was under scaffoldings. I really advice you to look at the temples websites (each one has its own) to see what is under repair at the moment.
The Utano Youth Hostel is situated near Road 29, which is in my opinion the road that shows exactly the kind of Kyoto you would expect. Traditional houses, little streets leading to temples, and just on this road you can go from the Kinkaku-ji to the Daikaku-ji. And if you're tired, you can jump on one of the buses that ride along this road, for 220 yen the trip. Just this would be enough to fill one day, and you can even finish it in the famous Bamboo Path which is not far south from the Daikaku-ji. So that was basically the program for that day. I started at the Kinkaku-ji, around 30 min walk from the YH, and then followed the road 29 and the indications for all the temples in the area. Here is a very short selection of my pictures - from Kyoto onwards, I shot around 200+ photos per day, thank you, numeric age...
The temple of Gold...
The Bamboo path
FYI, the entrance of the Bamboo path is free of charge, as it is not (contrary to what I have read in some travel guides), in the Tenno-ji park.
My advice to you is to wake up early, because even though the entrance to the temples is usually around 8 AM, before that you can find locals doing their jogging in the park. That's in fact how I had the most exquisite experience with a local: as I was waiting for the cashier to open for the Ryonan-ji, I met a lady, still healthy despite her age, who thought I was lost. When she saw that I could understand her, even if my speaking was still a bit rough, she actually took me on a tour of the park, explaining to me different things about the birds, the blooming trees, and the mountain in the park. A really unique and genuine experience, I loved it.

Day 4 - Ginkaku-ji and Gion
It was already time to go... From the Utano YH, there is the 26 line direct to Kyoto Station, so I left my luggage in a locker there, and then walk from the station to the shichijo subway station. As I was in a rush, I took the Keihan railway to Demachi-yanagi station, but if I had more time, I would walk along the canal, as the cherry trees were blooming above the water.
From the Demachi-yanagi station, you walk straight to the Ginkaku-ji, which is much less silver than the Kinkaku-ji was gold.

FYI, there is a lot of options available to sightsee in Kyoto. Some buses are specially for tourists, going to all touristic spots, and all the buses that go near one of them have its name written in english. So if you're in a hurry, take one, knowing it's 220 Y whatever the length of the ride, but I would really suggest to just walk in Kyoto, because that's the only way to have a real feeling of Japan.
After Ginkaku-ji, go south to Gion, where you can enjoy Kyoto "the old way", with girls in yukatas, and small traditional shops, especially between Kodai-ji and Kiyomizu-dera.

After Gion, I once again took the Keihan line to Fushimi-inari.
You'd think you'd get tired of all these red tori, but you're not...
As the afternoon was not waiting for me to pass, I took the JR line from Inari to the Kyoto station, took back my stuff and took the first JR line to Osaka, which didn't take long. The ride from Osaka to Nagai on the Midosuji subway was almost as long. When I arrived, I was surprised to see that the Nagai Youth Hostel was actually inside the Nagai Stadium, and that Sumo fighters were living there. It was really impressive, as was not the rest of the hostel. Let's just say that after the Utano YH dream, the Nagai YH was a nightmare.

Day 5 - Nara
As I couldn't stay 3 nights in a row in the Nagai Youth Hostel, I decided to take extra money from the already tight budget to book a room in a guesthouse in Nara. So I left my stuff in Osaka, kept only a small backpack, and from Nagai, took the Midosuji line to Tennoji, and from here the JR line to Nara. It took almost an hour to get there, and the first thing on my list was the Daibutsu-den, where everyone goes, and as it was still early, I could enjoy it all to myself.
There is much to see in Nara, and there are a lot of visitors, so as most travel guides suggest, you should book a night there to have pictures with only you on it.
all within walking distance
The Nara City Information Center suggests 7 hours in total, including walking time and visiting time, but if you want to go even further with less people, there are some interesting sites on the west side of the JR station to do on the second day. And you'll see, after a while, you won't even take pictures of the 1500 deers...!
Edit: on the main road in the city centre, there is a lot of shops preparing and selling green tea paste. Here is how they do it:

Day 6 - Kurama-dera
From Nara, the same train that got me there goes on to Kyoto, and very regularly. You then arrive at Kyoto station, and from here, you take a bus (4 or 17 on platform 2) to Demachiyanagi station, where the JR Eizan line leads you to Kibune then Kurama.
What I didn't do but suggest you to do, is stop at Kibune, walk all the way into the mountain from Kibune to Kurama, and then relax at the exterior Kurama Onsen. The walk can be steep, but it's not as long as I first imagined, and the brochure explains all there is to see along the way.

A day should be enough to do everything, and then take your time at the Onsen. Be careful, taking pictures is not allowed in the Onsen, and so are tattooed people...

Day 6.5 - Himeji
A gentle local I met when I came back at the Nagai Youth Hostel after Kurama warned me that Himeji was also under scaffoldings, but as I had nothing else to do and my plane was in the afternoon, I decided to go anyway. You can either take a regular JR line to Himeji, which take less than an hour, or take the Shinkansen which takes less than thirty minutes. And even with the scaffolding, it was still pretty to look at.

And that was it... It was of course way too short, but I saw everything I wanted to and still had time to seat in a park, take in the japanese atmosphere and have 8h sleep (which was not so much needed by my brains but by my legs). If, no, when I will go back, I will do the North, the Aoyama region, around 3 days in Tokyo and at least 5 days in Kyoto, and maybe a bit of the South. But even though it was nowhere as cheap as South East Asia, it was still worth it, and I do not regret any minute of it.


  1. I'm so jealous right now !
    What I advise when you go back to Kyoto is to rent a bike instead of taking the bus, it's one of my fondest memories to be able to get lost in the small streets around here !

  2. The more it goes on, the more I want to go to Japan. Blimey, seems such a great trip !
    Moreover, it would be such a shame not to use all those tips, I feel compelled to do so.