We go from what was probably the worst experience of 2012 in the previous entry to the best. Our 15 day trip to the land of the rising sun - Japan.
The idea was thrown up around mid year and Eleonor didn't seem overly keen initially but after some investigation we found it could be done within an affordable budget. For the first time we decided to travel independently from tour groups and Qantas were throwing a special at the time we enquired which sealed the deal for us.
Prior to leaving, we had a number of friends telling us about how amazing the place is. We had no idea how right they would be.
Our experience started in Tokyo, what better place to start? Our early arrival meant we had plenty of time to spend in the city prior to checking in at our hotel based in Shinagawa. We decided to explore Shibuya (above) and Harajuku. With plenty to see and do in the massive city we visited the Tokyo Tower, Imperial Palace and the Tokyo Skytree the following day.
From the beginning we quickly realised how great this place was. The people were so polite - everywhere, the food was great and the whole place was quite clean.
Out of Tokyo, we headed for the hills to visit Takayama and Kanazawa. We had purchased a Japan Rail Pass prior to travelling and this entitled us to unlimited travel on JR services including trains and certain Shinkansen (bullet trains). Takayama and Kanazawa were more relaxed places with our Takayama hotel offering a traditional feel and Onsen baths for those keen while Kanazawa offered nice gardens and walking tours.
Kyoto and Osaka were next. The former being the ancient capital of Japan with castles, temples, gardens and shrines to satisfy everyone. Eleonor encouraged us to go on a bike tour of Kyoto which proved to be an affordable and effective way to see the sights of the large city.
The colours in Japan in Autumn were wonderful. As shown in the image above from Kyoto. Trees varied from green to red through shades of orange and yellow. We may have missed the cherry blossoms which are popular in Spring but we weren't disappointed.
There was a contrast between Kyoto and Osaka, with the former offering a look at ancient Japan and Osaka offering a look at modern, commercial Japan. In Osaka we visited Universal Studios, Osaka castle and the developing Umeda area.
A visit to Japan most definitely requires a stop in Hiroshima. Not only for the historical significance of being the first city to have an atomic bomb detonated above it but it is a fantastic place. There's plenty to see in the Memorial Park and while we spent a day there, it would be easy to spend more time walking around and taking it all in.
Hiroshima is also the home of car manufacturer Mazda. I wanted to check out a different place to Toyota which is heavily promoted through Japan tourism brochures. The free tour of the plant was interesting and showed the history of the company and the manufacturing process and distribution of their current models. We also visited Miyajima with the popular Torii gate that can appear to be floating on water at certain times in the day.
We continued west to Hakata and Fukuoka. Eleonor wanted to see a Sumo tournament seeing we were visiting the land of the Sumo. We were able to time our trip with the final tournament for the year and enjoyed a day full of Sumo wrestling from the lowest ranks to those of higher rank and respect from the excitable crowd. Ganbareh!
From Fukuoka we flew back to Tokyo aboard a shiny new 787 Dreamliner, before their current spate of problems. Flying was a 1.5 hour journey which was easier to take than the proposed 6 or so hour Shinkansen ride! We had a few more days to enjoy in Tokyo before finally heading home.
We loved everything Japan had to offer. The people were great, friendly and helpful. While there are plenty of them over there, the places never feel crowded as everyone keeps more to themselves as compared to say, China where everyone wants to sell you something.
The food was great and served quickly wherever we went. We got quite used to being greeted and farewelled from every restaurant we visited. We certainly missed that upon returning home.
Public transport was reliable, clean and fast. We only had one train arrive late, which admittedly threw our travel plans slightly out of whack as we missed some connections but overall, things went well.
The weather for November was reasonable but got colder the further west we ventured and the closer to Winter we were getting. We saw a fair bit of rain during our stay with some entire days washed out, including those we were at Universal Studios in Osaka and a day of exploring museums in Tokyo. We did find the weather to be extremely variable during our time but there's never much you can do about it.
We would highly recommend anyone thinking of going to do so and would say that Japan would be an ideal first destination for those who have not yet ventured to Asia. There's not much of a culture shock there. Everyone appears to have a basic understanding of English and even in the public transport network announcements are made in both Japanese and English.
We're looking forward to going back again some day :)