Tokyo grew on me in unexpected ways, to the point that I know refer to it as my favorite city in the whole world. Of course, this is highly subjective, but as I think anyone who visited this mad city would agree, Tokyo is a different world altogether. You'll probably either love it or hate it, but there's little space in between for this place to leave you cold. What makes Tokyo so special
in my eyes is simple: the people. Don't expect neither futuristic, nor beautiful architecture. But with over 13 million people walking it's streets every day, the capital of Japan definitely has a soul and multiple personalities. Best places to see my point proven right are a stop at Shibuya and a stroll through Yoyogi Park on a Sunday.
Kyoto is the most Zen city I know. And while most buildings and even the people here keep a low profile, from time to time it's impossible not to be surprised by a pretty lady in kimono crossing your path or the worship places that dot the city. Kyoto has more temples and shrines than any other place in Japan. Seeing them all would be a tremendous task, as one would need to spend months on end here doing nothing but sightseeing. What's even more surprising, is that not only the large or popular temples and shrines are an eye candy, but the quiet and hidden ones too. However, my favorite attractions in Kyoto
remain the Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine and the Golden Pavilion, but if you are in search of a bit of peace and quiet in the middle of nature, don't miss the famous Arashiyama bamboo forest
, on the outskirts of Kyoto, either.
is home to some of the most lavishly decorated temples and shrines in Japan and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Far from the tempered traditional Japanese architectural style, the buildings here are gilded and adorned in excess. It is a beautiful and unique sight. The paths connecting the temples are framed by a forest of giant cedar trees, no less impressive than the man-made structures. The whole complex can be seen in approximately 3 hours, but it takes a 2-hour train ride to get here from Tokyo, so it is better to plan your day in advance and start early.
Nara was once the capital of Japan and therefore remains a very interesting place to visit. It can be easily reached by JR from either Osaka or Kyoto in just under 1 hour. The shrines and temples of Nara
are included on the UNESCO Heritage Sites list, and though there's plenty to see and do here, all the attractions are pretty much grouped together and walking from one to another is extremely pleasant and entertaining. Everything is encompassed inside the Nara Park and intriguing Japanese elements can be found every step of the way, plus over 1,200 sika deer roam freely all over the place and visitors can even buy them crackers and feed them. This is a must visit place especially if you travel with kids or are an animal lover yourself.
is just 1-hour train ride from Tokyo, a quiet little residential town that can make for a very pleasant and relaxing day trip. Its most famous sight is the Great Buddha (Daibutsu) at Kotoku-in, the second largest bronze Buddha in Japan. But there are many Zen temples and Shinto shrine to be discovered here and one day might not be enough to explore them all. Compared to big cities like Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo or Nagoya, Kamakura is an oasis of peace and quiet that you will come to appreciate once you've spent a few days in any of the above mentioned metropolises.
Magome-juku was the forty-third of the sixty-nine stations of the ancient road that connected Kyoto and Edo (today's Tokyo) during the Edo period. Nowadays it consists of a beautifully restored row of wooden houses along the former post road. Most houses were built in the mid-18th century by common people and therefore are nothing grant, just extremely interesting. They host shops, restaurants and little exhibition rooms, which makes a day trip to Magome
both a relaxing and educative one. In my opinion, Magome is a cute open air museum stripped of the joys of daily life, lined along a pedestrian only cobblestone street, which makes it quite unusual and unique. Also, only a 3 hour hike away, there is the post town of Tsumago, and if you have time, the hike and the town in itself are worth the trouble.
Nowadays Takayama is famous for its well preserved old town dating back to the Edo period. One doesn't visit Takayama seeking religious enlightenment, but rather a certain enlightenment related with design and architecture. The old wooden houses hosting souvenir shops, restaurants and sake breweries are painfully charming, and walking along the little pedestrian streets is like stepping back in time. There is a wealth of detail related to the daily life and Japanese traditions to be discovered here. It's like the time stood still. Some of the houses are even open to the public, exhibiting local crafts and arts, providing a window into understanding the lives of the local merchants. Also not to miss, not far from the town center, is the Hida Folk Museum.
For us, Matsumoto Castle
, also known as the 'Crow Castle', was the most beautiful castle we visited in Japan. Situated a 2-hours and a half train ride from Tokyo, it's black and white facade are of an unspeakable elegance. The town of Matsumoto doesn't stand out in any other way, but even so, the castle in itself it's well worth the trip. Visiting Matsumoto Castle is an interesting experience to say the least. Expect to have to take off your shoes at the entrance, steep and slippery stairs, low ceilings and dark interiors. Matsumoto Castle is one of the four castles designated as 'National Treasures of Japan' and the oldest castle donjon remaining in Japan.