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  • Writer's pictureNaureen Chhipa

Japan Part I-- Two weeks in Japan

In this post, we'll explore the island of Japan in the time frame of two weeks. We'll Cover Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Lake Kawaguchi, Kamakura, Shibu Onsen & Miyajima with optional day trips. Part I will focus on Tokyo, Kamakura, nearby day trips, and Shibu- Onsen. For the rest, please see " Japan Part II-- Two weeks in Japan."

Japan-- an island full of eccentric characters, on-time trains, cultural values, and the best sushi in the world! I can keep coming back time after time and always find something new.

The best time to travel is late spring when the skies are clear, and sakura starts to bloom & early autumn, when there's less rain, temperatures are mild, and the colors of fall are at their deepest with beautiful shades of reds, orange, and yellows.

Ok, so you booked your flight to Japan, now what? -- Check out my previous post, "8 things to do before arriving in Japan." Use this guide as a check-off list of things to do before your arrival so you can maximize your time there and navigate through the town effortlessly without even knowing the language; it'll be your survival kit.

The worlds largest fish market in the world. Tokyo, Japan.
Tsukiji Fish Market

Day 1 -- Hello Tokyo

Start your morning having breakfast at the Tsukiji Fish Market-- the world's largest fish market in the world. If you want to experience their everyday tuna auction, arrive by 4:45 am. The auction starts at 5 am, and there's usually a big line. If you only want to go for breakfast and indulge in some of the freshest sushi on earth, then around 8/9 am will do. Fresh produce is exported from here daily to top restaurants around the world. This market is known for having the best quality fish meat out there, so go on and eat your heart out; you won't regret it!

After breakfast, head to Ginza for some upscale shopping, depatos (department stores), and upscale cafes. In this area, you'll find all the big brand name stores. Make your way to the Tokyu Plaza Ginza to end your window shopping experience in Tokyo style. For Lunch, Check out the "Shimbashi Yarakucho Gado- Shita" ( Restaurant district), which is under train tracks of the JR Yamanote line, best Sushi bowl ever! be sure to bring cash with you as most of these small shops are cash only. After lunch, head to the Imperial Palace to visit the east gardens and the famous Nijubashi bridge. This is a good spot for sakura (cherry blossom) watching during the cherry blossom season. The Imperial Palace is free to visit and open to the public. They also offer free tours, which you must register for a day in advance. The tour can last between 2-2.5 hours. After, make your way to the Asakusa district and visit the Senso-Ji temple (open till 5 pm, but the outside remains open at all times.) Next to Senso -Ji visit Dembo-In's secret garden only open to the public between late march to may--there's a hack to getting in offseason when doors are closed. Look for the entrance door, knock and ask for a reservation to view the garden; most visitors miss it, not knowing it's there. This general area is a great spot to indulge in all the local street food. You can also find gorgeous handmade crafts to take back home as souvenirs. Have dinner here strolling around this area. - end of day 1

Day 2--

Tokyo, Japan
Akiba Fukurou - Owl Café

Start your day exploring the district of Akihabara, best known as the electronics and Anime district. Ever wondered what it would be like to pet or hold an owl? Japan is full of animal cafes! There's an owl cafe, a cat cafe, a rabbit cafe, a dog cafe, a bird cafe, a snake cafe, a goat cafe--so many cafes! We opted for the owl cafe, although the rabbit one sounded pretty tempting. In all honesty, as cool as this experience was, we felt terrible for these birds

Wildlife Owls in Tokyo, Japan
Akiba Fukurou - Owl Cafe

as they're confined to a room and have strangers every hour come in to pet and hold them. This type of wild bird, in particular, does not like being pet regularly. As for the cats and dogs, I'm sure they're having a great time! We found these birds to be exotic wild little things. Playful yet demanding of their needs and own personal space. The place we visited was "Akiba Fukurou," and it's about 2,000 Yen in cash for an hour. Online reservation is required, and their hours are 11am-7 pm. For lunch, head over to "Kanda Yabu Soba" (hours: 11:30 am-8:30 pm closed on wednesdays) for some fantastic soba noodles made from buckwheat. Spend the rest of the day exploring that area. The Tokyo anime center is open till 7 pm, Super Potato and Radio Kaikan ( pop culture) are both open till 8 pm. Navigate this area at your own pace, depending on your likes. This is a video /anime /gaming heaven for all nerds out there, so have fun!

Fishing restaurant in Tokyo, Japan
Zauo Restaurant

After 5 pm, head over to Shibuya's district and experience the busiest crossing intersection in the world. "Hachiko Square" is better viewed from one of the cafes overlooking the square. You can see hundreds of people crossing in a minute, bird's eye style! This is also a trendy area full of shops, and a trendsetter generation, stroll around, and people watch for a bit. For dinner, check out "Zauo," a fishing restaurant (open from 11:30 am- 11:00 pm *reservations required.) Ever wondered what it would be like to fish your dinner? Well, here you can. At this spot, you eat what you catch! They also have an option where they fish it for you at an additional added price, but the whole vibe of this spot is to fish your dinner, then you get to choose how you want it cooked. We chose sushi and fried style.

District of Shinjuku - Golden Gai. Tokyo, Japan
Albatros Bar

After dinner, head over to the district of Shinjuku and experience the nightlife. Roam around two main street alleys that come to life after dark: Golden Gai & The Roppongi area. Favorite bar: Albatros; despite the $5 cover fee, this was my favorite bar. Great cocktails with a cozy yet artsy atmosphere. Most Unique bar/ restaurant: Robot Cafe; I've never seen anything like it anywhere else! So over the top, you're in another world ruled by neon-colored robots, and everything is way over the top. This place requires a reservation and an entrance fee as it's mostly a show, offering entertainment, food, and drinks. I recommend eating before arriving as food is just ok, you mostly go for the show. While in this area, keep in mind that most places you'll find here are tourist traps, and most bars will have a cover charge.

— end of day 2

Conveyor belt sushi restaurant in Tokyo.
Sushi Donut - Uobei Susi

Day 3

This is your last day to experience Tokyo fully, so instead of a detailed itinerary, I'll give you places to eat and optional things to do depending on your personal preference. EAT-- Fresh sushi can be found all over Japan, but we discovered two amazing spots where the locals hang out and eat. The first stop is Uobei Sushi. Uobei is a conveyor belt sushi restaurant that's super modern, fast, and very budget-friendly. We loved the experience of ordering through an iPad and having our food delivered through a conveyor belt so much we had lunch here twice! If you visit, don't forget to try their famous sushi donut and go early, lines can be long, and the wait time can range from 20min-2hr. Our second sushi spot is inside a mall. Sushi No Midori, it was the longest line we ever made waiting for a table in Japan ( and we arrived at noon when it opened ). If you are a raw salmon lover like myself, I highly recommend the salmon salad- the best I've ever had! They also have a giant sushi roll; 2+ people best enjoy this roll as it's eight pieces of sushi, and each piece is the size of your hand! *Tip: if there's a line and you have to wait, do what we did and find a bar inside the mall, have a beer, then come back and see what number they're at or go shopping; its a mall after all ;) be sure to keep checking for your number, though, so you don't miss your spot. If you had to choose between the two, I would recommend Uobei.

DO-- Check out sumo; you can do this at a tournament or drop in at an early practice and watch them train. You can purchase tickets online or at most 7evelens. You need to make reservations online ahead of time to check out a sumo practice. Also, attend a Tea Ceremony. Nothing screams out more Japanese tradition and culture than a tea ceremony. See how it's all done by the experts and enjoy a rich cup of matcha. An excellent place for this is Happoen Garden, reservations are required, and the last entry is by 3 pm; this place is also closed on sat./sun. End by revisiting your favorite spots and go souvenir shopping.

--end of day 3.

Kamakura, Japan
Great Buddha

Day 4-- Day trip to Kamakura

Only 1.5 hours away from Tokyo is Kamakura, a great day trip to take. Kamakura is home to the Great Budha, stunning beaches overlooking Mt. Fuji, and its famous 5 levels of green tea ice cream! Start your day by checking out these top temples: Hase-Dera, for its giant Buddha you can climb into. Hokoku-Ji for its bamboo/green tea and Tokei-Ji Temple.

Beaches in Japan
Beach town of Kamakura

Kamakura is home to several sand beaches, making it a popular destination among locals during summer. This beach is ideal for sunbathing, swimming and surfing. Take a stroll on the beach. Where the skies are clear, you can spot Mt. Fuji and have an epic view you'll never forget. The official beach season is from July -August. You can also see seaweed being dried here and Hawks flying overhead, so beware of eating snacks.

Green Tea Ice cream
Kamakura Cha Cha

Finally, before heading back to Tokyo, check out the downtown area near the train station. Downtown Kamakura is the perfect strip to find excellent street food, shops, sweets, and drinks, including local beers. I'm obsessed with green tea ice cream, so I went to Kamakura Cha Cha, where they have 5 green tea ice cream levels! Each level gets stronger in intensity. It was so yummy! and you can only find this type of ice cream in this area. Other Favorites: Komachi (grapefruit juice with a little kick) with a full belly head back to Tokyo.

* Other day trip alternatives or add ons : Hike Mount Nokogiri-- Where you'll find beautiful buddhas craved out of stones and stunning views over looking Mt. fuji on a a clear day. Bike in Hitachi Seaside Park-- for stunning views of epic landscapes overflowing with flowers. This spot is seasonal so I recommend going to their website to see what flowers are in bloom when you visit, this will determine if this day trip is worth taking. Best Times to visit are Summer for Nemophila's and Autumn for a really epic field of Kochia "summer cypress"that turns from green to crimson, an unbelievably dramatically stunning sight.

Akura Sengen Shrine
Chureito Pagoda

DAYS 5 & 6 --

Overnight stay in Lake Kawaguchi

Lake Kawaguchi is about a 3 hour trip from Tokyo with some fascinating stops along the way, so instead of making it a day trip, I recommend staying overnight. Lake Kawaguchi is part of the Fuji Five Lakes, and it is at the base of Mt. Fuji, so the views can be stunning from this spot. Keep in mind that Mt. Fuji is not always visible because of clouds. Best times to see Mt. Fuji are early morning (before 9 am)and during the late afternoon. Lake Kawaguchiko is the most accessible of the five lakes via train/bus and is also a hot spring resort town full of activities.

Shrine in Japan
Chureito Pagoda

Before arriving in Lake Kawaguchi, stop and hike the Chureito Pagoda (Akura Sengen Shrine). This Pagoda is easily accessible via train and the rest by foot. Once at the top, you can see one of Japan's most iconic pagoda shots with Mt. Fuji in the background. It was too cloudy for us that day, so we couldn't see her entirely. She's hiding behind those clouds.

"Fuji-San is a lady, and that lady is shy"

Honestly, we tried three different times and never got a clear view as she only fully comes out approximately 80 days of the year. You must be lucky to spot this beauty. We only saw her once entirely from the train window on our way to the hike.

Traditional Japanese Cuisine
Soba Noodles

After your hike, it's time to get back on the train and head to Lake Kawaguchi. If you have extra time before the train arrives, I recommend grabbing a bite at the train station; they have a small cafe with really yummy soba noodles. Once in Lake Kawaguchi, the town is very easy to navigate via a hop on hop off bus. Get a map of the town so you can check out all the activities it has to offer.

Best place in Japan to view Mt. Fuji
Lake Kawaguchi

There are hot spring baths "Onsen," different Festivals offered throughout the seasons, the Fuji Q amusement park, boat tours and art museums. Lake Kawaguchi is a great base to climb Mt. Fuji if that was on your list. Nearby you'll find Aokigara, also known as the sea of trees or suicide forest, and different cave systems to explore.

Shibu Onsen, Japan
Snow Monkey Park

Days 7 & 8 --

Overnight Stay in Shibu Onsen

Our journey to Shibu Onsen was perhaps the most complicated yet relaxing of them all. Not too far from Tokyo lies the Japanese Alps and the small charming town of Shibu Onsen in the Alps. Shibu Onsen is a hot spring town in Yamanouchi full of ryokans, culture, and tradition; It's also just a couple of bus stops away from the snow monkey park making this town the perfect spot for a weekend getaway.

Staying in the Onsen town of Shibu Onsen in Japan
Ryokan Kokuya

Getting here is not that difficult but still requires planning as you must take a Shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagano, followed by a train to Yudanaka and a local bus to Shibu Onsen. Despite the travel, I highly recommend this journey. We stayed at the ryokan "Kokuya" and had the best stay of our entire trip! At the entrance of Kokuya, you are greeted by a bamboo basket filled with eggs soaked in the town's hot spring water and fantastic staff.

Kokuya Ryokan
Traditional Japanese Meal

Staying here can be a bit pricey at around $500 a night, but that gets you a Traditional Japanese room (the size of a loft ) with a tatami floor mat, your private onsen on the patio overlooking a koi pond. Dinner and breakfast ( 8+ courses each ) and the key to all the Onsens in town as you need a special key to enter even the public ones. The town has nine pubic onsens, and you can get a stamp on your towel for each one you visit. The goal is to collect all nine stamps.

Private Onsen of one of the rooms at Kokuya Ryokan
Private Onsen

Soaking in an Onsen — an onsen is a Japanese hot spring. As an active volcanic country, Japan has thousands of onsen. We loved relaxing in these naturally extremely hot waters, sometimes way too hot for our comfort zone! But after 45 min of slowly soaking in, we got the hang of it! Before entering an onsen, brush up on proper etiquette as onsen bathing is part of Japanese culture and tradition. You must be fully naked, throughly scrubbed down, and tattoos are not allowed in a public onsen. Most public onsens are gender separated.

Snow Monkeys bathing in an onsen in Japan
Snow Monkeys in the Japanese Alps

Visiting the snow monkey park in Jigokudani -- There's nothing like it. I've never seen a more expressive animal than this one. With a simple glance, you can tell what they're feeling and what they want. During winter, these are wild monkeys gathered at an onsen (hot spring) in Jigokudani (near the onsen town Shibu Onsen) to relax, warm-up, and pick out each other's flees. Talk about teamwork!

Wild Monkeys in Japan
Snow Monkey Park

If visiting from Shibu Onsen, take a local bus from the town, and the park is just 10 min away. Once there, there's a hike before finding these little guys. As I said before, they're wild monkeys, and you're entering their space, so be aware of not petting them and giving them room as they can become aggressive if felt threatened.

Photographing Snow Monkeys in Japan
Snow Monkey Park

Things to do in Shibu Onsen :

* Stay at a Ryokan

*Go sake tasting in town -free!

*Take a soba noodle cooking class

*Visit all 9 public baths w/ key

*Visit the Snow Monkey Park

*Visit Kaminari daki ( waterfall )

This ends our Japan part I adventure! This could be a 3-10 day itinerary with all the add ons. Up next, we're heading south on our Japan part II blog covering Kyoto, Osaka & Miyajima with additional add ons!

Thanks for Reading!

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