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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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! :)
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.