We always knew we would visit Japan at some point, yet I had always postponed it by fear of being unable to see the Japan I was fantasizing about. The problem was that I wasn’t twelve years old anymore, and going to Harajuku would not make my day anymore. Instead, I was looking to get a taste of Japanese design and crafts, see some traditional architecture and manage to witness the enchanted countryside portrayed by Miyazaki.
This looked hard to achieve. Even more so because researching anything Japan-related without speaking Japanese feels extremely limited. Unfortunately the lack of English out there is not a myth.
I started by buying a guidebook, which gave me a little bit more knowledge but didn’t really help me figure out where I wanted to go. This was an elusive destination and I didn’t feel up to the task of organizing the whole trip, I needed help and I needed to trust someone else with the itinerary. I turned to a small agency which seemed willing to organize off-the-beaten-path trips (90% of the country qualifies as obscure if you look at most of the traveling agencies offerings, there isn’t much outside of Tokyo-Kyoto trips).
We quickly settled on a Honshu trip (the main island) centered around the Kansai area (Osaka and Kyoto). I had made the choice of not going to Tokyo (which puzzled everyone around me), because I knew it would take too big a chunk of the trip, and I knew my job would inevitably catch up with me in the form of a tiresome shopping marathon. I settled on doing Tokyo another time, because I kind of knew that I would be back (also maybe not that soon!).
In the end, this rather compact itinerary felt like an excellent introduction and made me completely fell for the country (is it Japan, the circuit or the circumstances, we’ll never know!). I got to see and experience what I was dreaming about, and way more, despite how unreal this sounds!
WHEN : LATE MAY
HOW LONG : 15 DAYS/14 NIGHTS
TRAVEL AGENT : ABROAD (A JAPANESE AGENCY, AND FABRICE, MY FRENCH CONTACT THERE)
TRANSPORTATION : PARIS-KANSAI AIRPORT FLIGHT WITH LUFTHANSA, A LOT OF TRAIN, A LITTLE BUS, TAXI AND METRO. TRANSPORTS ARE TOTALLY PAINLESS, DON’T BE AFRAID TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THAT!
WEATHER : MOSTLY SUNNY AND WARM (25°C/77°F), SPRING AT ITS VERY BEST
TOURIST CROWD : VERY FEW TO NONE EXCEPT AROUND MAJOR LANDMARKS IN OSAKA AND KANAZAWA, A MANAGEABLE AMOUNT IN KURASHIKI AND SHIRAKAWAGO AND LOTS IN KYOTO UNLESS YOU GET GET OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
The St. Regis (3 nights)
We’ve visited quite a few other Japanese cities since, but Osaka retains the charms of a first love. It just has an incredibly cool vibe. I loved the crazy 80’s architecture, the amazing night lights and the relaxed feel of the Minami neighborhood. We spent one day with a great guide there, exploring hidden corners and meeting locals, and that definitely helped make it special.
We also spent half a day outside of Osaka to see the Yodokô guest house by Frank Lloyd Wright, an excellent field trip to escape the city.
We booked a fancy room at the St. Regis because I canted to get that “Lost in Translation” feeling, and the view was in fact incredible, but be advised that you do tend to get that disconnected feeling once you’re up there.
Turugata (2 nights)
We then took the train south to Kurashiki, also called the little Kyoto. The city still has a beautiful old quarter of ancient wooden mansions lined up along a canal. It’s kind of touristic but you’ve got to admit that it’s also very pretty. Walking around at night in the deserted, lantern-lit neighborhood is absolutely magic.
I insisted on staying in a ryokan -a traditional Japanese guesthouse- because I was in love with the architecture, but they hardly spoke any English, making the experience a little troubling at times! This was advanced-level and we were definitely rookies and admittedly not ready for that 12-course-kaiseki dinner.
Kurashiki is a good starting point to go and spend the day in Tomo No Ura and on Sensui-Jima, which might be my favorite memory of Japan yet (they have a lead on paradise it seems).
Beniya Mukayu (2 nights)
It was a radical change of scenery when we went north to Kaga and to the tiny town of Yamashiro-onsen. I had fallen in love with the pictures of Beniya Mukayu and it turned out to be even better than I thought. You could say that it set up a new standard for us, one that will be very hard to uphold! A guidebook might tell you that there isn’t much to do in the area but who trusts them, right? Walking around we stumbled upon an enchanted forest, marveled at the pavement’s colors and ate a fabulous bowl of soba. Sometimes it feels like we have dreamt our time there.
Sumiyoshi-ya (2 nights)
A little bit up north was Kanazawa, with its infinite bounty of fresh fish and craftsmen. This is not a flashy town, but it sure holds its lot of treasures. The Kenroku-en garden is definitely worth it, that teahouse close to perfection, Sanaa’s 21st century museum a little disappointing but is still pretty interesting, the geisha quarter undeniably charming and the streets south of the garden filled with great independent shops like the Factory Zoomer.
This is also where I ate the best sushis of my life (do I say “best’ too often?). I would come back for these sushis alone!
Koemon (1 night)
The mere idea of “Japanese Alps” seemed to cute to pass on, so we took a bus to the small village of Shirakawa-go, right in the middle of the mountains. Sure, it is touristic and it might look artificially preserved (not more than a historical village in France though) but I was still pretty charmed. Staying there for the night has the added benefit of having the village all to yourself in the morning and in the evening, when the tourists bus are gone. Going to the onsen at night in full traditional Japanese attire is a pretty great experience, not something that would easily be replicated!
Note that you’re only allowed to spend one night in a row in a b&b like Koemon.
Akane-an (4 nights)
We finally ended our trip in Kyoto. We had our very own “machiya”, a traditional wooden townhouse, and it suited us perfectly, we had much more freedom than in a ryokan, yet we could still experience traditional architecture firsthand. Kyoto was a litlle disorientating at first because of the massive tourist crowds (Montmartre style, if you follow me). After seeing countless temples in an enchanting silence, we simply could not handle the situation. We quickly let go of the “must-see” list and wandered the city to find some peace off the beaten path. This worked pretty well and soon enough we were happy again!
The Tenjin-san market was a highlight and so was the famous Kokedera.
IF I COULD RE-DO IT
I would probably pick a more relaxed hotel in Osaka like the very tempting (and affordable!) Hostel 64.
I would add a couple of days around the Inland Sea, because by God, this is just too beautiful.
I would maybe start the trip with Kyoto and end it with Osaka, maybe spending one less day in Kyoto which I liked but whose heavily touristic side feels like an unnecessary annoyance when the rest of the country is almost tourist-free in comparison.
I would try to find a more approachable hotel in Kurashiki.
Having a car to visit the Japanese Alps would definitely open up some trekking possibilities, something we would have loved to do.
IF I GO BACK
….which I already did! I would have to see Tokyo and would love to explore Kyushu, Japan’s southern, most volcanic island.
My issue now is that I’ve read too much about Japan and there seems to be an infinity of great places to visit. I’m curious about Hokkaido under the snow, about Northern Honshu, about temple-clad Shikoku and by tropical Okinawa. Next time…s
_________________ See all my Japan posts here. See all my itineraries. All this talk about wandering and going off-the-beaten-track would not have been possible without a portable wifi allowing us to use the itinerary function of Google Maps. It works like a charm in Japan and makes it easy to take any bus, train or metro without thinking twice. Don’t dream of navigating big cities without a GPS either, there are no visible street names and in any case everything is in Japanese! You can also use Hyperdia to plan you train trips. Know that train tickets don’t have to be bought in advance unless you’re traveling during peak periods like Golden Week or New Year’s.