Our trip through Japan took place over 10 days (including travel days). My husband and I have both always been fascinated by Japan. He was more interested in the historical side of the country, and I was more interested in the modern side, which is why we decided to go to Tokyo and Kyoto on our first trip to Japan. As it turned out, we both had a great time in both cities!
One of our first visits in Tokyo was Shinjuki Gyoen (Shinjuku Park), a large garden and park in the Shinjuku district. It’s kind of like Tokyo’s version of Central Park, and wasn’t open to the public until the 1950’s. There are several sections of the park, the main three being the Japanese traditional gardens, the English landscape gardens, and the French formal gardens.
Right away, we visited the Japanese traditional garden section. It’s covered with bridges across many streams and ponds, and though we missed cherry blossom season by just a few weeks, we also missed the crowds. It felt as if we had the whole park to ourselves.
After Shinjuki, we went to check out some more of Japan’s natural beauty at the Meiji shrine - one of the largest shrines in Tokyo. This shrine is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the spirits of the Emperor Meiji and his wife. Located in the middle of a large forest, it’s incredibly popular and absolutely beautiful. We were so impressed at how pristine the area is.
Outside of the Meiji shrine are two trees that were planted when the shrine was built. As they grew, they grew together, and today they are tied to each other with a Shinto decorated rope. These two trees are meant to represent a happy marriage, and since this was our honeymoon, we obviously had to get a photo in front of them.
Another highlight of our honeymoom was our journey to Miyajima Island. We took the ferry there and the ride was quick and quite enjoyable, the breeze from the sea cooling us down on the warm, sunny day. Miyajima Island is most known for its floating tori gates. These gates are found at the entrance to Shinto shrines and mark the transition from the everyday world to the sacred one. They are often painted bright red.
The shrine on Miyajima is called Itsukushima Shrine, and the torii gate that accompanies it is huge, sitting out in the bay of the island. When the tide comes in, it looks almost as if the gate is sitting serenely on the surface of the water.
When we stepped off the ferry, we were immediately greeted by several deer. They were incredibly friendly and everywhere we looked.
We then made our way to the gate. This famous gate is known to be one of the most picturesque, providing one of the best photo opportunities in Japan. After seeing it for ourselves, we can say with full confidence that it delivered on its promise. We were also fortunate to see several shrine worshipers performing a ritual dance
From the island, we went up to the mountain, walking up several small and winding traditional Japanese streets. Many of the shops were still closed because we were there early, so it felt like we had the streets to ourselves.
Further up the mountain, we found ourselves in the midst of Momijidani Park – a beautiful forest heavily populated with deer. We continued exploring until we came across Daishonen Temple, one of the other many temples on the island with a seemingly endless amount of steps.
As we continued into Momijidani Park we were lucky enough to spot a tanuki. Tanuki are native animals to Japan that resemble raccoons and are the subject of many myths. We were so excited to see one! After much squealing over the tanuki sighting, we hopped on the gondola to take us to the top of Mt. Misen. At the top of the mountain we were treated to incredible views and a visit to an ancient shrine founded by the priest who first reached the summit.
While in Tokyo, we also explored Asakusa and found ourselves at Kaminarimon – a gigantic red tori gate replete with similarly proportioned lanterns. Built in 941, this gate is the first that leads to the temple of Senso-ji. After walking underneath the gate and down a long corridor of lanterns, we reached Senso-ji, the oldest temple in Tokyo. We were lucky to get there early and beat the crowds. It was beautiful and relaxing to wander around, which was a perfect start to the day. Next was Harajuku, a district of Tokyo long known for its fashion. But before we saw any sights there, we had to stop by a cat café.
These cafes are particularly popular in Japan. They sell cheap coffees in an area away from the cats, and then you drink it while you pet the cats.
After saying goodbye to the kitties, we set out to explore Harajuku. It was so much fun to walk down the famous Takeshita Street, lined with fashion boutiques, to see what everyone was wearing. Lastly, we visited Shibuya district. This district was extraordinarily busy. It’s famous for the Shibuya Crossing, a scramble crossing a five or six way stop. The lights are arranged so that there is a short window in which they all turn red, allowing pedestrians to cross the entire intersection. It was crazy, and very intimidating! Overall, it was very similar to Times Square in New York, but unique in its own right. At the end of the day, after some fruity drinks and karaoke, we took a look at how far we’d walked during the day – 8 miles!
The streets of Kyoto are much smaller, more organized, and much older than the streets of Tokyo. Kyoto has a mix of traditional Japanese style buildings and more Western style buildings. And of course, Kyoto has its share of temples and shrines.
We visited Wakuwakukan, where we were greeted by a wonderful woman who allowed us to participate in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. She explained to us that during tea ceremonies, all people are seen as equal, from emperors to peasants to samurais to farmers. She told us everyone is meant to respect the other person in the ceremony, and enter with a pure heart and soul. Doing so helps give you tranquility, and will lead your soul to greater harmony.
The tea used in the ceremony is called matcha tea, and though it is similar to green tea, it’s actually a powder. The entire ceremony was very ritualized, with each move purposeful.
After the ceremony, we had plenty of activities to choose from, as Kyoto is home to seventeen world heritage sites. First up was Kinkakuji Temple, also known as the Golden Pavilion, which is made entirely out of wood except the top portion which is covered in beautiful gold leaf. Next, we visited Nijo Castle, built by Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Up next was a visit to Sanjusangendo Temple – built in the late 1100s. After a temple filled afternoon, we went to the shopping district, where hilly and beautiful streets lead to the famous Gion district of Kyoto.
We also visited Arashiyama, located in the northwestern outskirts of Kyoto. It’s most famous for its bamboo grove, and while there, you can walk the length of the bamboo forest. The path is winding and darkened by tall bamboo shoots, yet incredibly soothing and relaxing. The grove was one of the most beautiful sights we saw in Japan. Afterwards we made our way over to Fushimi Inari Taisha – a shrine that is said to have over 32,000 torii gates. The walk through the gates takes almost two hours and takes you up the mountain to the main shrine at the summit.
After we explored the shrines of Inari, our guide brought us to a geisha walk through the Gion district of Kyoto. There, we watched two Maiko (apprentice geisha) pay respects to a nearby teahouse. We then roamed through several of the other districts, each of which is distinguished by their unique lanterns.