I just got back from a truly incredible trip to Japan with Topdeck on their Japan Highlights tour. I got to experience some of the best places, from cities to mountains and bullet trains in between. It really did what it says on the box – the highlights of Japan. Did I mention it was incredible?
To give my personal highlights I’ve broken down my trip into the locations we visited, to go into a little detail on just why each place was amazing and cannot be missed!
Tokyo is crazy. Crazy busy. Crazy fun. Crazy good food and drink. The beating heart of Japan, it quietly hums under bright lights and buzzing energy. On our first day, after meeting with our group and trip leader, we got to experience so many different parts of the city on a day tour with a local guide. I learnt and saw so much, from cultural etiquette (don’t eat while walking) to the history of temples, to where to find the weird and quirky corners of the city.
While we were there we had plenty of free time to hit up any individual must dos and get to know each other around the city. We also had an optional activity to go to the Robot Restaurant. It’s not an actual restaurant, it’s more of a crazy experience. So when you think of Tokyo you think weird and wonderful or crazy and quirky then you can’t miss out on this activity.
Leaving Tokyo was our first experience of the bullet train as we headed up to the Japanese Alps. The humidity dropped, the busyness decreased and the views got better and better. Here we stayed in a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn that was very authentic: we slept on mattresses on the floor, had traditional robes and you had to walk around the place in slippers.
Hiroshima – Miyajima
We moved on to Hiroshima and, although we were staying in the city and dropped our bags at a hotel, we went straight over to the island of Miyajima. The island is known for its temples, shrines and the giant floating Torii Gate. There are wild deer that live on this island who have no fear of people. In fact I am not even sure if they notice people; they are constantly on the hunt for food, whether that is from a sneaky treat you give them or eating the map straight out of your hand.
Next we explored the Hiroshima peace park and got to pay homage to those that were killed by the first atomic bomb to ever be dropped. It was a heavy morning but I was glad to have the opportunity to pay respect to something that is such a big part of Japan’s history. It would have felt wrong to go there and miss that.
Mount Koya is one of the world’s most sacred mountains, with over a hundred temples and home of Koyasan Buddhist monks. We stayed in a monastery and were served traditional Buddhist food made by the monks. All natural, vegan and customary Japanese style food. A night time wander through the historic cemetery made me feel truly zen, and a little more ok with the early morning wake-up to listen to the monks chant and do their morning prayers.
It’s a tricky place to get to. It was so worthwhile having a trip leader who organised everything for us. I’m used to travelling where you have to pre-plan and think through everything. Having someone take me straight there was really nice. Also, you only pack an overnight bag so all your bigger bags, suitcases or backpacks are looked after and taken on to Kyoto. Win!
I loved Kyoto! It was my favourite city in Japan. We stayed in a really nice hotel where we could walk to most parts of the city easily. The city is bustling and busy but wasn’t as crazy as Tokyo. There was tons of shopping, restaurants and nightlife.
On top of that it was really easy to get from Kyoto to some of Japan’s iconic sites – from the 10,000 red Torii Gates of Fushimi Inari to the Bamboo Forest of Arashiyama. Kyoto is steeped in history, so if you’re into learning about samurais or wandering the old streets searching for geishas, then you only need take a tiny step from the metropolitan city centre to do so.
Another incredible experience was the optional activity on offer in Kyoto – getting dressed up as a geisha or samurai. All traditional clothing and makeup was used; they wrap you in the 7 layers of clothing and quiet literally paint your face. I didn’t even look like myself which was terrifying but amazing all at the same time!
Just a small skip away from Kyoto was our final stop on this incredible tour: Osaka. A larger city and somewhere that was not as walkable so we were grateful for the amazing metro system. Osaka has amazing street eats and shopping areas. Large parts of the city centre have shopping streets that are under cover so you can wander and grab food or pop into a shop for souvenirs, even on rainy days. That night we had our final meal as a group. Our trip leader organised a cosplay themed night and after dinner we hit the karaoke bar… a real Japanese experience!
The last morning of our tour we had our final breakfasts and said our goodbyes. Some people had planned to stay a few extra days, some were straight off to the airport home or their next adventure. Osaka city is so well connected to the airport, our guide explained how easy it was to get there, back to Tokyo or anywhere anyone was headed!
Overall, I don’t have one highlight from the trip, the whole of Japan was my highlight. Every area or city had a different vibe and set of experiences. Japan is going down as one of my favourite countries and this trip as one of my favourite travel experiences.