On Top of Mt. Fuji
If you've been keeping up with this blog, you know that I love to write about the best places to go in Japan (like Toyko, Kyoto, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ginza, Arashiyama, Ibaraki, and more)! Then, I shamelessly plug these tours—the same tours you can take with us to see these amazing sites for yourself. Recently, I got the chance to experience one of our more popular tours. After living in Japan for six years, I sometimes feel like I've seen and done it all. Yet, after experiencing this tour, I found that there's still so much left for me to do!
I followed a shorter itinerary (a little over a week long) from Toyko to Osaka. Even though I’ve lived in Japan for quite some time, and I’ve seen many of the country’s highlights, this tour opened up entirely new worlds for me. It took us to far-flung destinations I’ve wanted to visit for a long time but didn’t believe I could travel to on my own. I also learned so many things about Japan from our guide, Billy, that I would have never known without heading out on this wonderful experience! Here are my reflections on the Golden Route of Japan Tour, including Kyoto’s Aoi Festival.
After departing from the hotel, we headed towards Tokyo’s Imperial Palace. As you step onto the wide grounds, you find yourself surrounded by strategically-planted Japanese black pine trees cut in bonsai-style. You immediately know this is it: You're in Japan! We stopped by the statue of Kusunoki Masashige, a samurai famous for his devotion to Emperor Go-Daigo and crossed the gravel path to the Nijyu Bashi (Double Bridge), which leads to the inner grounds of the palace grounds. The Imperial Palace grounds are off-limits to the public except on New Year's Day and the Emperor's birthday when the royal family gives a public address.
We boarded the bus for the next destination, Tsukiji Fish Market. Be warned, this place is almost always crowded, even in the early mornings. Besides the foot traffic, cars and delivery scooters are guided through by traffic police, so take care when walking through here. Each morning, fishmongers, chefs, and merchants bid on the freshest tuna catches.
If you want to see the auction, you must go to the Toyosu area of the market very early. In the afternoon, the Tsukiji Fish Market is a maze of stalls and booths as local fishers and farmers sell their seafood, fruits, and vegetables at wholesale prices. You can even find pocket-sized snacks—perfect to munch on while you walk! I highly recommend trying the tamagoyaki—a sweet Japanese omelet—which can be found on the main road.
After fighting through the crowds back to the bus, we headed out for Tokyo Tower. Inspired by the Eiffel Tower's design, Tokyo Tower stands at 333 meters (1092 feet) and was the tallest satellite tower in the world when it was built in 1957. Interestingly, the topmost portion was made from decommissioned U.S. Army tanks that were donated, then melted down.
We rode the elevator 150 meters to the main observatory deck where we could get a 360° view of Tokyo below! By this time, the afternoon became a bit hazy so we couldn’t see Mt. Fuji, but everyone had a great time naming the buildings they recognized and braving the Sky Window. This window is on the floor and looks straight down to the ground. It’s strong enough to support weight but standing on it still gives you that crazy tingling feeling like you’re about to fall!
For lunch, we had a bit of an unusual experience. Instead of simply going to a sushi restaurant and eating a prepared meal, we had to make it! We watched a sushi chef demonstrate the proper way to remove the scales and skin, then slice the fish. Then, together with the chef, we took a bit of our vinegared rice and pressed the fish onto it. We worked until our lunch was ready to eat. There were additional side dishes for those who found that sushi alone wasn't enough, as well as fish alternatives for vegetarians and people who are not fans of raw fish.
Our final stop for the day was the Asakusa Sensoji Temple, perhaps the most beautiful Buddhist temple in all of Tokyo. The temple is dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. As the legend goes, two brothers caught a small, gold idol of the Goddess of Mercy in their fishing net and Asakusa Sensoji Temple was built to enshrine it.
This temple is home to Japan's largest paper lantern, emblazoned with the word 'Thunder' across its front. We strolled through Nakamise Market (a traditional, Japanese-style market with some of the best souvenirs in Tokyo), picked up fortune papers, and sneakily snapped shots of temple pilgrims dressed in kimono. After exhausting ourselves with fun, it was time to head back to the hotel and prepare for the next day.
We woke up particularly early this morning and boarded our private coach all the way to Mt. Fuji. The top of Mt. Fuji’s climate is much colder than the base (even in the summer!), but the sun shone as we drove through the lush forests and up the mountainside. We were able to get some great views from the bus, but by the time we reached the top, a strange, donut-shaped cloud encircled the peak.
The top of Mt. Fuji was cold and windy, so I was happy that I had decided to wear a cardigan AND a jacket. Some people opted for scarves and hats, and I didn't blame them at all! We had a great time taking in the views below, checking out the mountain’s shrine, and enjoying a piping cup of coffee at one of the cafes. If you go to Mt. Fuji, take advantage of their post office and send a postcard right from the peak!
After descending the mountain, and sometime during our lunch break, the weather turned on us. The rain came down in sheets, but luckily the bus had umbrellas available for anyone who forgot to bring their own. We had one more volcano to explore, but luckily, we could ride the Hakone Ropeway to Owakudani. We stayed dry in our little cable car, and although the rain made everything a bit cloudy, we could still see lush, green treetops below our feet.
At the top, we looked down from the observation deck on the 3,000-year-old Owakudani Volcano. It spewed forth devilishly yellow, sulfuric gases in great bursts accompanied by a strange whooshing sound that howled through the air. Some of the guests were brave enough to try the blackened boiled eggs, which are said to extend your life by seven years per egg. Me? I was just happy to get on the bus and out of the rain!
On this particular itinerary, we stayed at an Onsen Hotel that night. I’ve never been happier to get into a hot bath, public or not!
Since our schedule that day took us from Atami to Kyoto (a five-hour drive), we saved some time by taking the bullet train from Atami to Nagoya. It might be surprising to hear from an ex-pat like me, but it was my first time to board the Shinkansen. I giggled along in excitement with the guests at the prospect of riding at speeds up to 300 km/h, but deep down I didn’t believe it could be as exciting as I had built it up to be. Boy, was I wrong!
As soon as we entered the platform, a train zoomed right by us in the blink of an eye! The entire group exclaimed in amazement with a roar that was even louder than the train, and we all agreed we’d pay money just to watch them go by. When our train came, we got so excited to board we almost forgot to let the departing passengers through.
We arrived at Nagoya station about an hour later and met our bus driver outside. From there we went to Hikone Castle. Hikone Castle has stood the test of time; it survived through the post-feudal era when many castles were destroyed. It’s considered one of the four most beautiful castles in Japan but be prepared—getting up the hill to the castle takes a bit of dexterity and strength.
Not only are the castle stairs steep, but there's a significant distance between each step, making it difficult to climb them quickly. Historically, these steps helped protect Hikone Castle from invaders. I can see why—we climbed the first set of stairs and crossed a small bridge to find… more stairs! We had to climb at least two more sets of stairs (in addition to the previous set!) before we reached the castle itself. And, what was inside the castle? Stairs!
The stairs inside became more like ladders and were somewhat difficult to shimmy up and down, but the view from the top of Lake Biwa was worth it! Thank goodness the grounds are filled with benches and vending machines where you can rest.
Our morning started in real, Japanese-style: experiencing history in modern times. Our main event on this tour fell on May 15th, the Kyoto Aoi Matsuri. Celebrated since the eighth century, the Kyoto Aoi Matsuri is one of Japan’s oldest festivals. Every year, court officials in the Heian period would make an outing from the Kyoto Imperial Palace to the Kamigamo Shrine to offer their prayers. Years ago, onlookers were attracted by these parades of officials. The same traditions ring true today -- new crowds flock here each year to celebrate.
Unlike most festivals in Japan which run amuck with excited attendees filling the air with raucous laughter, the Kyoto Aoi Festival is a solemn and graceful procession held in silence. The 500 parade participants dress in Heian-period clothing and ride horses, drive ox carts, and carry bushels of hollyhock flowers through the same path used by court members long ago. These days, officials from Kyoto’s police department and local government often participate. The main person to look out for is a lone woman who sits on a palanquin.
Every year, the city of Kyoto elects one unmarried woman to serve as the Shrine Princess of the parade. She prepares herself by participating in purification rituals and wears 13 layers of kimono during the parade. At the end of the procession, she performs a Shinto ritual at the Kamigamo Shrine. Outside of the shrine, traditional dance is performed.
We left bustling Kyoto to visit the Miho Museum, located in a remote region up in the mountains. The Miho Museum was founded by religious leader Mihoko Koyama, one of the richest women in Japan, and designed by world-renowned architect I.M. Pei. To build the museum's foundation, excavators dug deeply into the mountain. Upon completion, every rock and pound of dirt was put back, and a ceremony was held to thank the mountain for tolerating the construction.
The museum and welcome center are separated by a tunnel that does not echo, as well as a suspension bridge. For those who don’t want to traverse the kilometer-long trek, a shuttle comes by every 15 minutes or so to pick up and drop off passengers. The Miho Museum features several permanent exhibitions of traditional art, religious artifacts, and everyday objects from ancient civilizations from around the world including Egypt, Greece, and Rome. During our trip, we discovered a traveling exhibition on Noh Theater masks. Some were crafted centuries ago, while others were made in modern eras.
Our group was now well-rested after two easygoing days, and we were ready to dive into a busy schedule—what a busy schedule we had! Our morning started with a fashion show at Nishijin Textiles. Nishijin specializes in making kimono, and a tour of their museum includes a fashion show. Models stepped out one-by-one to show off the latest designs by Nishijin.
Some garments were in muted colors with short sleeves, and others featured bold colors and wild patterns with long sleeves. In Japanese culture, unmarried women wear long-sleeved kimono with bright colors. Married women, on the other hand, wear simpler kimono with short sleeves. The simplicity of the married women’s kimonos, however, took nothing away from the beauty and grace of the materials.
Then, we went to the famous Golden Pavilion, called Kinkakuji in Japanese. Even though I’ve been here a few times before, as well as some of our group members, all of us were still amazed by the wondrous sparkle of this Zen Buddhist temple. Kinkakuji was first built in the 1300s, and I have always wondered how such a magnificent place could have survived these hundreds of years.
Our guide, Billy, taught us that that was not the case. In the 1950s, a monk suffering from mental illness set the original Kinkakuji on fire, and the structure had to be rebuilt. However, even after hearing this story, Kinkakuji remains a favorite destination for me, and I always encourage my friends and family to come here when they visit Japan. From Kinkakuji, we took a long drive to the Arashiyama District of Kyoto for some more temple action.
After lunch, we traveled across the Togetsukyo Bridge, which sweeps across the Hozu River, to arrive in the Arashiyama district. Tenryuji Temple is one of the most important Zen Buddhist Temples in Japan because it’s dedicated to Emperor Go-Daigo. We explored the temple buildings, then moved on to the Zen Garden and the traditional Japanese garden.
Heading behind Tenryuji Temple, the grounds around us grew dark and thick as we found ourselves in the Arashiyama Sagano Bamboo Grove. We walked a short way up the path for pictures, but upon reviewing my photos I realized something disturbing. Many of the bamboo stalks had been vandalized by people carving their names. I thought how unfortunate it is that so many people would want to do such a thing, but surprisingly I found that this vandalism only began in April 2018. Hopefully, this “trend” isn’t here to stay. From here, we headed back to central Kyoto to go to Kiyomizu Temple.
Kiyomizu Temple is one of Kyoto’s most famous temples dedicated to Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. We arrived at the same time as several school groups. Kyoto is a popular place for Japanese schools to take their students, so you’re sure to see school children in their uniforms at almost any time of the year. Kiyomizu Temple is famous for its great wooden stage that juts out from the great hall and looks down on Kyoto from above. However, the favorite place for most school children is the shrine dedicated to romantic love, located behind the main stage.
Here, you can test your love prowess at the love stones! Down the hill from the main stage are three natural springs that descend from the mountains. It’s said that drinking from one spring grants wisdom, another luck in love, and yet another brings wealth. One of the guests joked that he would drink from all three, and some of the other guests decided to do the same. However, I found out later doing so is seen as being selfish, so if you want to drink from all three, plan to make three separate trips!
We wrapped up our journey by heading to the Gion District for a bit of shopping, followed by dinner. This is where geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) live, and we wanted the chance to see one for ourselves. Typically, it is rare to meet a geisha or a maiko and even more uncommon for travelers, as you must be either invited or have someone vouch for you first. For most people, your only chance to catch a glimpse of one of these beauties may be as she dashes from her home to work.
Don’t be fooled if you’re walking in Gion and you see a woman in a decorative kimono with a white face casually strolling through the streets. There are many shops where you can do a “Kimono Experience” and dress like a geisha. Real geisha and maiko are hesitant to have their picture taken or be followed by non-customers, plus they must hurry to their classes or jobs.
One trick to find a geisha or maiko in Gion is to pay attention to the taxis, as most geisha and maiko use them as their main mode of transportation. Unfortunately, not every taxi is necessarily reserved by a maiko or geisha, and we ended up waiting by a reserved taxi...only to watch a couple of tourists casually stroll from their hotel with luggage in hand!
We began our day in Uji—the birthplace of Japanese green tea—to enjoy (what else?) a tea ceremony! After a brief and informative explanation about the history of the tea ceremony in Japan, our main instructor came in to join us. She was a maiko! Finally, we got the chance to speak to, learn from, and interact with an artist who is well-practiced in traditional Japanese arts.
She taught us the names of each of the tools and showed us the proper way to stir the tea (never in circles, always in a “W” formation) to get the frothy top that Japanese green tea is so famous for. After enjoying our tea and snacks, our beautiful instructor performed two dances for us and then held a short question and answer session. Finally, we were able to take pictures with her, but we were warned to absolutely not touch her even by accident. I think everyone was a little sad to leave our new friend behind, but it was time to head to the Fushimi Inari Shrine.
Like Kinkakuji, the Fushimi Inari Shrine is a must-see place in Kyoto. The shrine's main (and most unique) feature is its thousands of Torii Gates that stretch across the expansive grounds. We started at the bottom of the hill of the shrine’s main entrance. Along the road, multiple food stalls sold mouthwatering Japanese food like takoyaki, fried dough balls filled with octopus; okonomiyaki, a savory pancake originating in Osaka; and kakigori, Japanese shaved ice. However, the most tantalizing treat along the path was the fried sweet potatoes, cut in easy-to-eat sticks. After a quick snack, we headed into the main part of the shrine.
A large, painted map showed us how much the grounds and paths sprawl across the forest. There are a few short routes and some longer ones. Since we didn’t have much time, we had to take one of the shorter routes, but we still were able to see plenty along the way. One of the guests tried to count the torii gates she passed by but quickly gave up around 57. We continued on the path but almost took the wrong turn to the long route. It’s easy to get lost here, so be careful when exploring the Fushimi Inari Shrine. After this Shinto shrine, we went to a Buddhist temple in Nara.
You might have heard of Todaiji Temple, the place where the Great Buddha of Nara sits. And, you might have seen a video of the Nara Deer Park, where thousands of wild deer walk right up to humans to beg for food and treats. We disembarked from the bus and made our way across the temple grounds.
The Buddha dwarfed the crowds as they meandered around the temple. Exiting Todaiji Temple, the deer almost immediately swarmed us looking for a treat. Don’t give the deer any outside food! You can buy deer-specific feed for just 100 JPY at one of several booths around the park. Watch your six around these critters! The polite ones will bow to you to get food, but the rude ones will bite you right on the tushy!
Our last stop for the day (and last stop for the entire tour) was in Osaka’s Dotonbori-Shinsaibashi area. In comparison with traditional Kyoto, Osaka is a modern city with a lot of attitude! The large, neon-lit shops illuminated the streets, which swarmed with crowds in semi-organized excitement. Although there were a lot of people, the open sky gave an air of freedom, and I didn’t feel overwhelmed as I browsed the duty-free stores. It made for a surprisingly relaxing shopping experience, as well as a great place to wrap up our tour with a group picture!
Although I’ve traveled through Japan many times on my own, I’ve never had such an informative and in-depth experience before. Without a doubt, taking the Golden Route of Japan tour can cater to both first-timers to Japan and those that have been here many times. Not only could I see these historical sites, but I learned a lot and had a ton of fun!