Japan for the First Timer

First trip to Japan for me and I can confidently say it is one of the most peaceful, safe, clean and easy places I have ever travelled to! Think nothing of wandering through a train station at midnight making your way home from a little sake sampling. Don’t stop twice to think about using public facilities, you will be surprised at the cleanliness. 

Confidently grab your JR or subway ticket from the automated machines knowing that working these machines out will be the most difficult part, as directions are well signed, trains run at very regular intervals and, if your stuck on which exit to take, help is always on hand from locals who all generally seem proficient in the basics of English.

First stop Tokyo! Two nights here allowed us to sample only the tip of what this city has to offer. A quick visit to Shibuya on our afternoon Pop Culture tour left me wanting more and realising this was
an area that would come alive at night, with it’s shopping and bar scene brought to life by the concentration of Neon!

Think Times Square on a smaller scale. From here it was an easy train ride from Shibuya to Harajuku to take a wander down ‘Cat Street’. With the expectation of seeing a street full of pedestrians in interesting and quirky ‘fashion’ I was a little underwhelmed that it wasn’t as crazy as I had anticipated. It may have been the day or the time of day but nevertheless the street was relatively quiet however, did not completely disappoint with a number of ‘hello kitty’, frill socks and
coloured hairdos to be seen.

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Last stop on our Pop Culture tour was a visit to Akihabara past the techno ‘geek’ area to an interesting experience at a Maid Cafe. To this moment I am still unsure what the whole thing is about but picture a milk bar type set up, Japanese girls dressed animated maid style and the option to order a drink or meal, then select a ‘maid of your choice’ to have a photo taken with. Apparently this is big, for who again I’m not sure as the clientele was wide and varied but it does leave the question ‘why?’

First tour over and time to check in to our accommodation at Shinjuku Washington. This hotel located in a relatively financial district ticks the box for value. However if you are looking for room to move you might like to look elsewhere. Clean, comfortable and no frills you can confidently stay here with easy access to the biggest train station at Shinjuku which will get you everywhere.

Looking for a little more head just down the road to Keio Plaza where a large inviting lobby awaits, a little more English is spoken and you’ll have room to throw a suitcase or two on the floor without tripping over on your way to the bathroom. Keio Plaza is well suited to the Western market and families in particular with options available to accommodate a family and a pool in the hotel.

Wanting to step it up you can head further down the road in the Shinjuku area to the Hilton. Superb and everything the Hilton brand is about. Comfort, luxury, space and facilities including a 24 hr
restaurant/bar suitable those who arrive on late flights or come in late with a midnight craving or for any other reason you may be up in the wee hours.

The last hotel we visited in Tokyo was Mercure Ginza. In a totally different area and tucked away amongst high-end shopping and dining this hotel is a little gem. Modern, fresh and surprisingly
spacious feel for yet again, small rooms.

So with only skimming the surface in two days, Tokyo highlights included a set-menu dining experience at Gompachi Nishiazabu Restaurant (of Kill Bill fame), an easy walk from Roppongi station;
Sensoji temple in Asakusa where you can buy a Omikuji fortune kindly translated into English; and seeing the sheer scale of the city from the Seaside Observation Deck.

Onwards from Tokyo it was time to experience the Shinkansen! This very pleasant, quiet, and extremely speedy ride takes just on 2.5hrs to travel the 513.6km distance between Tokyo and Kyoto. With large, reclining seats, plenty of leg room and a drinks/snacks cart doing the rounds this is a very civilised way to travel.

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Stepping off at Kyoto station again reminds me how much we can learn from the Japanese. Another huge, modern station with a vast number of shops and restaurants again surprisingly easy to navigate. A couple of questions to the locals and we found ourselves only metres from the accommodation for our 2 night stay at Hotel Ibis Kyoto Station. A great value hotel, perfect location, with compact, modern rooms. Can’t go wrong here!

The feeling when you arrive in Kyoto is completely different to Tokyo you almost feel the warmth of the culture greet you. The old Capital of Japan was the pick of cities for me. A morning tour gave us a look at some traditional highlights including Nijo Castle, Golden Pavillion and the Imperial Palace.

A very informative tour and one that would be well received by lovers of history. Our evening tour was a little more experiential with a visit to beautiful Gion Corner where we kept our eyes peeled for Maiko and Geiko sightings as we wandered along the gorgeous traditional tea houses before joining a Tea Ceremony, after a Zen Style supper, think tempura ‘everything and anything!’

Along with the Hotel Ibis we also got to check out the Granvia Kyoto which has access from inside the Kyoto station and two different wings with a large number of comfortable, spacious rooms. You
wouldn’t think this hotel was on top of a train station as there was certainly no noise indicating that.

Next was on to the Westin Miyako Kyoto Hotel. Quite traditional in decor and everything you would expect from a Starwood lobby and service. What was unknown until this trip was that this property also has a limited number of traditional Ryokan rooms. A great option for those wanting this experience in a brand they trust.

Two days for me was not enough in this city and I think there is far more to be seen and experienced in ‘the Old Capital’. Kyoto highlights would have to be a trip to the quaint precinct of Arashiyma
where you can wander the idyllic streets to the Bamboo Grove or I suggest hire a bike once you get to the station as this is the perfect place to cycle around; sampling some small local bars (and finally
some Japanese Sake) in the back streets of Gion- Shijo; and Gion area in general – a place you could stroll, take your time and just immerse yourself in the locals and the culture.

For me Japan is a country that lends itself to all kinds of travellers, from those wanting to hit the slopes for a bit of winter adventure, to those wanting to stroll the streets and gaze at the cherry
blossoms. This is a country where culture has been woven with Western influence to allow even the most timid of travellers to confidently land.

SAYANORA!

Written by Cassandra Neiling

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