A Little Photoessay… Two Weeks of Nuance & Culture in Japan

Last updated on November 11, 2021

The chaos of Tokyo crashed over me in waves when I first landed in Japan. I had booked my tickets on a whim—I found an affordable last-minute flight and jumped at the opportunity. Luckily, I had time to secure a Japan Rail pass, which allowed me to zip around the country on the speedy Shinkansen bullet trains for a discounted price, but beyond that, I had precious few things in place for my two week trip throughout Japan.

And perhaps it’s due to the tidy and orderly nature of life in Japan, but it all worked out, somehow. I had a few cultural snafus (it’s bound to happen to every traveler), I got terribly lost more than once (par for the course for me!), and I struggled to find vegetarian food. Those hiccups, however, only added to my wonder and joy. Despite usually working during all of my travels, I set aside my laptop and played the consummate tourist for two weeks, exploring the iconic and less-iconic parts of Japan.

And having spent only two weeks there, I can hardly claim expertise, especially since I spent them overwhelmed, my eyes wide and curious at every turn. Japanese history and culture are preserved to perfection. I delighted when I discovered a new cultural quirk. And I marveled at the feeling of anonymity when the crowds in Tokyo swept me through the streets. There was immense natural beauty and rich cultural heritage. It’s a country that I’d recommend to anyone with a curiosity about a thoroughly modern, technologically-advanced country that defies the idea of Westernized development.

Think of what follows as the storybook version of two weeks in Japan (my Japan Travel Guide shares the nitty-gritty details). This photo essay is a snapshot of what it looks like to sink into the travel experience in one of the world’s most fascinating countries, highlighting where to go, what to see, and the experiences you should seek out.

Kofuku-ji temple

Shukkei-en Garden hiroshima

arashiyama bamboo forest

girls posing selfie in Kamakura

Shibuya, Tokyo

Shibuya represented the Japan I had anticipated—bright lights, vibrant colors, pulsing energy, and so. many. people. A friend from college lives in Japan, a lucky circumstance that guaranteed mea familiar face to lead me through my first days in Tokyo. She navigated us through the metro’s maze and the surging mass of people while I tagged along in confused awe.

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo
The famous Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, Japan is rumored to be the busiest intersection in the world! This is the view from the Starbucks that happens when the light changes and pedestrians flood the intersection.
shibuya japan
School girls cross the street in the colorful Shibuya District of Tokyo, Japan.

Zojo-ji Temple & Tokyo Tower

After the heady rush of adrenaline in Shibuya, our next stop juxtaposed that modernity with a slice of quiet and reflection. At Zōjō-ji Temple, the Jizō statues humbled me. These petite statues live in The Garden of Unborn Children and are the first thing you see when entering the temple. Tiny gifts, clothes, and rock piles adorn most statues—it’s a pretty and sweet sight, and as a foreigner, I initially had no clue what they signified. These gifts shorten the unborn child’s trip to the afterlife. The statues rest under giant trees, and the pinwheels near each statue whir in the breeze. Beautiful and a little haunting, this temple was a fascinating first glimpse at Japanese beliefs and customs related to death and the afterlife.

Towering over this quiet garden and temple is the bright orange column of Tokyo Tower. With observation decks at 150 and 250 meters, views from the top include 360 degree sweeping views over the cityscape. I loved peeking into the neighborhoods. Like a bird soaring overhead, I peered down at the shapes and colors of streets and buildings.

Jizo statues at Zojo-ji Temple
Jizo statues at Zojo-ji Temple
Jizo statues at Zojo-ji Temple
Jizo statues at Zojo-ji Temple
A quiet section of Jizo statues, many of these were older but still as beautiful.
Zojo-ji Temple
A quiet garden at Zojo-ji Temple in Tokyo, Japan.
Zojo-ji Temple with Tokyo Temple in the background
Zojo-ji Temple with the tall Tokyo Tower in the background.
Glass-bottom views from top of Tokyo Tower to the ground far, far below.
tokyo tower in japan
Jutting into the sky, Tokyo Tower makes for impressive panoramic views of the city.
tokyo cityscape from tokyo tower
The impressive buildings of downtown Tokyo and sweeping views of the skyline from Tokyo Tower.

Meiji Shrine, Tokyo

Much of Japanese culture is centered around specific customs and rituals. When visiting the shrines and temples, tradition and culture are baked into every aspect. After entering the wooden torii gate at Meiji Shrine, we stopped to admire the large wall of saké barrels. These are decorative barrels, never filled with saké in actuality, but instead are representative of a larger donation. According to custom, Meiji Shrine accepts donations from saké producers across the country on behalf of the many smaller shrines. A decorative empty saké barrel accompanies each gift and is then displayed at the shrine’s entrance; shrines throughout Japan use this  gifted saké for celebrations and holidays. Each barrel is gorgeous and unique.

Once we admired the artful barrels, it was to onward to the temple, with a quick stop at the ablution pavilion, where water basins and ladles allow visitors to perform temizu, before entering, which is a symbolic cleansing signifying the removal of evil and pollution.

Yoyogi Park Torii Gate to enter Meiji Shrine 明治神宮
Yoyogi Park Torii Gate to enter Meiji Shrine (明治神宮)
sake barrels at Meiji Jingu shrine in Tokyo
Called kazaridaru, these decorational sake barrels line the entrance to many Shinto Shrines. The sake barrels bring together gods and people and are a large part of worship and festivals that take place throughout the year at the shrine.
Meiji Shrine religious hand washing
Visitors perform temizu at the ablution pavilion before entering Meiji Jingu, a shinto shrine in Shibuya, Japan

Hase-dera Temple, Kamakura

The train system in Japan is phenomenal, and affordable if you have time to secure the tourist-only Japan Rail pass before you leave. I took a day trip to Kamakura, a beachside town near Tokyo. At Hase-dera Temple, I found an enchanting moss garden that is surely where the fairies and elves live. The entire temple complex wound through the woods. Families worshipped and tourists wandered. I found a strange little inlet where few people peaked. Towering trees shaded the gentle mist cooling the entire garden, which kept the delicate floor of moss vibrant and healthy.

Elsewhere in the temple, I found more Jizō statues. I had first encountered Jizō statues at the Garden of Unborn Children in Tokyo, and was intrigued to see this other representation. Jizō is a beloved and popular Japanese Bodhisattva known to alleviate the suffering of the living and the dead. And a fun fact, Jizō is also the patron saint of travelers—I mimicked the locals and gave him a gentle splash of water for my journey.

Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan
Discover an enchanting misty moss garden at Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan.
worshipping at Jizō Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan
shrine at hase-dera temple kamakura
Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan
Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan
Little girl pours water
Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan
Hase-dera Temple in Kamakura, Japan
The main temple of Hase-dera in Kamakura, Japan.

Buddha, Kamakura

The most famous part of Kamakura is the gorgeous bronze Buddha statue at Kōtoku-in, which dates to around 1252. It’s a beautiful statue, and I love the way bronze streaked and aged over the centuries, visually marking the passage of time. The statue is 40+ feet tall and used to be entirely gilded, but now there are just faint traces of that gold on his face. The sign outside the temple noted that it is The Temple of Buddha and the gate of the eternal, marking it as an important spot in Japanese Buddhism. I didn’t make it to the interior viewing because the line was insane (I visited during Golden Week), but apparently you can view up into the statue and see the graffiti left there throughout the years.

Kōtoku-in temple giant Buddha
The Great Buddha at Kōtoku-in in Kamakura, Japan.
Kōtoku-in is a Buddhist temple of the Jōdo-shū sect in the city of Kamakura in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan
Daibutsu at Kōtoku-in temple in
Kōtoku-in buddha in kamakura

Temple and Beaches of Kamakura

Deep shadows hung over the city by the time I made it to my final stop in Kamakura, the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Temple. This is a beautiful temple complex, perhaps one of the most peaceful that I found in and around Tokyo. I watched the sun begin to set on the reflection pond while sitting underneath a blossoming arbor of gorgeous wisteria. Earlier in the day I had wandered to the nearby beach, but there was an algae bloom tinting the water orange, so I didn’t stick around long.

Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Temple
School girls return home after school and cut through the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Temple on their way home.
Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Temple Kamakura
Visitors leave Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Temple in Kamakura, Japan.
Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Temple
Visitors leave Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Temple in Kamakura, Japan
The torii gate at Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū Temple
Tsurugaoka Hachimangū is the most important Shinto shrine in Kamakura and is located in the very center of the city.
wisteria at Tsurugaoka Hachimangū shinto shrine
Beautiful wisteria at the Tsurugaoka Hachimangū shinto shrine in Kamakura, Japan.
reflection pool Tsurugaoka Hachimangū shinto shrine
wisteria at Tsurugaoka Hachimangū shinto shrine
Kamakura Beach with red tide algae
An algae growth in the water caused a red hue on Kamakura beach—but the kiddos didn’t mind!

Kiyomizu-Dera, Kyoto

Japan’s history fills every corner of the islands, and I could have spent months just traveling to the cities and towns near Tokyo. I visited Kawagoe one day, and it is a charming city known for handmade sweets. After a few days in Tokyo, however, it was time to head to Kyoto, a city drenched in history at every turn. During my weeks in Japan, I played the consummate tourist and spent my days far from my computer, instead wandering in and out of elaborate gardens and towering temples.

Kiyomizu-dera is among the most celebrated temples in the country. Founded in 780, the name means “Pure Water” and was so named because the Otowa Waterfall trickles down a ledge and into the temple complex.

Kiyomizu-dera kyoto
The Kiyomizu-dera (officially Otowa-san Kiyomizu-dera) Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan. It was a hot day, so I welcomed the chance to follow paths through the forest until I found the temple and had a great view of the city and sat for a bit to take in the cool breeze and hum of traffic below.
Kiyomizu-dera
The bright orange tips and points of Kiyomizu-dera make this temple memorable.
Views from the main balcony Kiyomizu-dera temple
Views from the main balcony at the Kiyomizu-dera temple in Kyoto. From the main temple of the complex for Kiyomizu-dera, I spotted this mini orange beacon almost the green.
statue at Kiyomizu-dera temple
Rubbing for good luck, the statue is worn in many places around the knee and shoulders from decades of worshippers.
The main temple of Kiyomizu-dera
The main temple of Kiyomizu-dera, which literally means Pure Water Temple, is one of Japan’s most celebrated temples.

Exploring Kyoto, Japan

The Kyoto of my imagination was one that I had romanticized by reading Memoirs of a Geisha as a young’un. I pictured small lanes winding through low-slung buildings. I could hear the squeaking of carriages and the click of geisha heels. The reality is a far cry different. Kyoto is huge. It’s a modern city glinting with steel and glass. And yet, it’s still quaint and historic too. I found atmospheric lanes and aging wooden houses. While I didn’t spot a geisha, truthfully, I didn’t look too hard. Instead, I looked for the hidden gardens hiding towering bamboo. I watched a beautiful interpretive dance performance at small temple. I found historic aqueducts leading to tiny caves. A roadside cart converted into a cat hotel. I found the traditional, the ancient, and the quirky.

old building in Kyoto
After exploring the Nishiki Market in Kyoto, dusk was settling over the city so I set out in search of vegetarian food. Finding veg-friendly restaurants was a challenge throughout Japan, so I wandered the narrow back alleys, zigzagging through the light crowds, dodging bicyclists whizzing past me. I spotted this woman setting up for the pending dinner crowds. I loved the look of the old preserved wood and that colorful pile of veggies. I circled back an hour later when they were open for dinner and feasted on yudofu, a boiled, savory tofu dish popular in the region.
bamboo forest Kōdai-ji temple kyoto
Kōdai-ji bamboo
Tops of the tall bamboo in the small forest of bamboo at Kōdai-ji.
Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka Preserved Districts
Pretty streets of Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka Preserved Districts near Kiyomizu-dera Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan.
steps near Shoren-in Temple
Up, up, up to continue exploring the Southern Higashiyama Sightseeing District in Kyoto
The aqueduct at Nanzen-ji Temple
Views of the aged aqueduct at Nanzen-ji Temple.
Nanzen-ji Temple aqueduct
Exploring the Nanzen-ji Temple aqueduct.

the Path of Philosophy kyoto
The Path of Philosophy connects many of the main temples in the Northern Higashiyama District of Kyoto.
Path of Philosophy in Kyoto
Pretty cherry blossom trees were out of season during my walk on the Path of Philosophy in Kyoto.
Ginkaku-ji Temple sand garden
Ginkaku-ji Temple, also known as the Silver Pavilion has raked Zen sand garden (a large scale version of those tiny ones made for desks). The temple in this picture was originally intended to have silver foil laid over the outside, but in the 1400s the owner died before completing the plans, so it instead sits against the skyline and half-naked beauty.
Ginkaku-ji Temple gardens
The pretty gardens at Ginkaku-ji Temple are worth spending some time gazing at the beauty.
cats on the Path of Philosophy in Kyoto
Cats camp out on the Path of Philosophy in Kyoto.

Golden Temple, Kyoto

Kyoto’s Golden Temple, Kinkaku-ji, reflects beautifully in its garden pond. Throughout my time in Japan I found myself in awe of the precision of each garden and the fastidious care with which each temple scene is created. It’s all so reflective of the orderly and careful Japanese culture that I discovered over my two weeks in the country. This temple, which is formally named Rokuon-ji, was was oddly reminiscent of Myanmar for me. Very few of Japan’s temples and statues are gilded, so viewing this showy temple reminded me of all the vast amounts of gold leaf used throughout Myanmar on every surface of their religious statues and buildings.

And even more fun than just visiting this temple, I met up with an ALA reader Moira and her family. We had emailed in the lead-up to her round the world trip about the route and how she would school her two children from the road. I was delighted to discover that my impromptu trip to Japan meant that I would cross paths with them during their last stop. We wandered the temple complex and then found a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant nearby to talk travel. Hearing their stories of a year on the road together was a highlight of my time in Kyoto.

Kyoto's Golden Temple, Kinkaku-ji
Kyoto’s Golden Temple, Kinkaku-ji, reflecting in the garden pond. The precision of each garden, and the fastidious care with which each temple scene is created, is so reflective of the orderly and careful Japanese culture I have found this past week. This temple, which is formally named Rokuon-ji, was was oddly reminiscent of Myanmar for me. Very few of Japan’s temples and statues are gilded, so viewing this showy temple reminded me of all the vast amounts of gold leaf used throughout Myanmar on every surface of their religious statues and buildings.
school kids at Kyoto's Golden Temple, Kinkaku-ji
School kids jump to say hi at Kyoto’s Golden Temple, Kinkaku-ji.
Kyoto's Golden Temple, Kinkaku-ji
A sly peace sign there from one of the girls.

Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto

Having already confessed to reading the book, I’ll cop to seeing the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, too. For anyone who has seen it, the movie beautifully ends with the orange gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine. The torii gates create a long tunnel snaking up the side of a forested mountain. It’s just as stunning in person. Light dappled through the tree and slanted through the tightly packed gates, which are donated by Japanese businesses because Inari is the long-believed patron of business. The shrine dates to 711, which is so many centuries back that my mind boggles.

伏見稲荷大社, Fushimi Inari Taisha
The beautiful orange gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社), a shrine in Kyoto.
Orange torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine
school girls at Fushimi Inari Shrine
torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine
Orange torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine
garden Fushimi Inari Shrine
Fushimi-Inari Shrine
School girls walk through the iconic orange torii gates Fushimi-Inari Shrine
Fushimi-Inari Shrine

The Gardens of Nara, Japan

Perhaps the prettiest garden in all of Japan is in Nara. I say this having not visited them all. Instead, I merely assert that I can’t imagine anything prettier than Isuien Garden. Traveling through Japan taught me more about garden landscaping than I thought possible. Isuien Garden a technique called shakkei; it borrows the surrounding landscape to form a perfectly stacked composition. The far temple is a part of Todai-ji temple and the mountains beyond reflect prettily in the pond waters. I wandered these gardens on a warm Saturday afternoon and then decided to sit on a bench for a bit to read and absorb the scene.

Isuien Garden in Nara japan
The pretty Isuien Garden in Nara. Traveling through Japan taught me more about garden landscaping than I thought possible. This is garden uses a technique called shakkei; it borrows the surrounding landscape to form a perfectly stacked composition. The far temple is a part of Todai-ji temple and the mountains beyond reflect prettily in the pond waters. I wandered these gardens two weeks ago on a warm Saturday and sat on a bench for a bit to read and absorb the scene. :)
Isuien Garden in Nara japan
Isuien Garden in Nara japan

Okochi-Sanso Villa in the Arashiyama District
Isuien Garden in Nara japan
The gardens of Japan.

Todai-ji Temple, Nara

Todai-ji is one of the world’s largest wooden buildings; parts of it date back to 728. This is perhaps my favorite of the dozens of temples I’ve visited in Japan, and it’s because of Komokuten, one of a pair of fierce, giant guardians of the Great Buddha. The massive guardians were an unexpected addition to the temple; they are there to guard the Daibutsu, which is the largest bronze Buddha in the world. They make an impressive addition to an already stunning temple.

Todai-ji
Todai-ji is one of the world’s largest wooden buildings; parts of it date back to 728. This is perhaps my favorite of the dozens of temples I’ve visited here in Japan.
Komokuten in nara, japan
This is Komokuten, one of a pair of fierce, giant guardians of the Great Buddha in Todai-ji temple in Nara, Japan. The massive guardians were an unexpected addition to the temple; they are there to guard the Daibutsu, which is the largest bronze Buddha in the world.
Komokuten Todai-ji temple in Nara, Japan
They make an impressive addition to an already stunning temple. Todai-ji is one of the world’s largest wooden buildings; parts of it date back to 728. This is perhaps my favorite of the dozens of temples I’ve visited here in Japan. Nara as a whole, with its bowing deer and wooded forests was just lovely.
Aging copper at Todai-ji temple in Nara, Japan.
Aging copper decorates the doorways at Todai-ji temple in Nara, Japan.

Around Nara

Oh the whole, Nara is a sweet city. Although I know some people visit for several days, I took a day trip from Kyoto and found it was enough time to soak in the vibe. The bowing deer add an unmistakable charm to the visit, and I delighted in feeding them all day long each time I met one in the parks and temples all over town. I love that the cookie in the first photo makes it look like the deer is smiling.

Besides the deer, the massive temple, and that gorgeous garden, there are several other beautiful spots. I spent the last hours of sunlight admiring the view from Nigatsu-dō Temple, and wandering among the moss-covered stone lanterns at Kasuga-taisha Shrine.

nara bowing deer
bowing deer Nara, japan
An elderly man has a conversation with the bowing deer about his cookie.
Bowing deer of Nara
I fed a cookie to the bowing deer, but he didn’t bow because he was laying down. But he did nod his head in thanks. :)
nara japan
A little boy feeds the deer in Nara, Japan.
Kasuga-taisha Shrine
Kasuga-taisha Shrine
Nigatsu-dō temple
Views from Nigatsu-dō Hall and Temple as the sun is setting.
sunset Kofuku-ji Temple
Sunset overlooking Kofuku-ji Temple.
park in nara
Kasuga-taisha Shrine
Kasuga-taisha Shrine in Nara, Japan.
Sunset over the stone lanterns at the Kasuga-taisha Shrine in Nara, Japan.

Eating All the Things

Japan isn’t the most vegetarian-friendly place in the world—that distinction goes to India—but boy is there plenty to eat. Soups were always easy to find and tasty to consume. And in Hiroshima, I had my hands-down favorite dish of the entire trip, okonomiyaki. It’s a savory pancake-like dish and the vegetarian version has noodles, batter, egg, and piles of cabbage—then it’s all topped with a tasty sauce.

hiroshima style okonomiyaki
A vegetarian version of the okonomiyaki in Hiroshima, which is basically thin pancake batter, egg, piles of cabbage, green onion, and sauce.
Seaweed and spinach, yum!
Seaweed and spinach ramen at a hole-in-the-wall in Tokyo.

Hiroshima Shrine

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. It’s a necessary visit for anyone traveling through the city, but especially fellow Americans. It makes for a somber morning while visiting, but worth visiting.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial
Colorful origami paper cranes at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial
Views of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial
A statue to the origami paper cranes Hiroshima Peace Memorial.
The Atomic Bomb Dome at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial
The Atomic Bomb Dome at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.

Miyajima Island & Floating Torii

Head to Miyajima Island and plan to spend the day. I know that many people pop over just to see the floating torii, but it’s a gorgeous island. I was down to my final day of travel before needing to journey back to Tokyo for my flight home, so I decided to make a good adventure out of it. I took the cable-car to the near top of the mountain, and then hiked the last 30 minutes for sweeping views of the Japanese coastline. I hiked back down in time for a stunning sunset. And as if the hike and shrine were not reason enough to spend the day, they have bowing deer, too! :)

bowing deer miyajima island
A little girl pets one of the bowing deer on Miyajima Island.
bowing deer of japan
A bowing deer got up close and personal with me, too bad I was out of cookies! Nothing to find her.
Itsukushima Shrine with the tide in floating
Boats motor out so that visitors can see the Itsukushima Shrine while the tide is in.
ferry to miyajima island
On the ferry over to Miyajima Island to see the Itsukushima Shrine, the floating Torii gate.
cable car on miyajima island
Views from the cable car going to the top of Miyajima Island!
views from Mt. Misen
The Miyajima Ropeway goes halfway to the top of Mt. Misen. Then you have to hike for 30 minutes for the panoramic views around Miyajima Island.
Mt. Misen miyajima
A pile of rocks on the way to the top of Mt. Misen on Miyajima Island.
tide out on Itsukushima shrine
The tide left as the sun began to set and all the visitors took to the sand around Itsukushima Shrine and played with the reflections in the water.
Sunset on Miyajima Island, Japan.
Sunset on Miyajima Island, Japan.
Selfie with the floating torii gate!
Sunet over Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island
Sunet over Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island.

Visiting Japan was an experience almost frozen in time. I had long dreamed of visiting, but the cost and the culture clash had always kept me from booking my ticket. I hiked mountains, visited temples, slurped soup, and studied the people. It was a fascinating and contradictory two weeks and among the most interesting places I’ve ever traveled.

Japan Travel Guide

Planning a trip to Japan? This detailed Travel Guide to Japan outlines possible routes, nitty-gritty details, and a collection of tips and advice sourced from the ALA community. And visit the Japan Rail site, where you can secure the JR pass before you leave home—it saved me hundreds and freed me to visit more places since the train costs were all included in the pass.

Read more