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Trip Report 12 days in Japan

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This trip report is by high school age son who went to Japan with his grandparents this past July. For the first several days they were in Tokyo on their own and on day 4 they joined a Globus Tour Group.
For a full report with pictures, here is a link to the post on my blog.

DAY ONE. Tokyo

My first day exploring Japan was in Tokyo where we flew direct from Boston. Me and my grandparents wisely decided to get a private tour guide for the first couple of days to allow us to settle into Japan at our own pace. We started our day by going to Tokyo Tower. The view from the top is impressive and the entry fee is relatively cheap. The lower floors are packed with things to see and buy (an Aquarium and an anime-themed park are the highlights). Next, we went on to visit Odaiba, a large artificial island in Tokyo. Among points of interest on Odaiba are many, many different shopping malls and National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. Also notable is a gift from France, a miniature sized Lady Liberty that is worth at least a photograph.

We then visited Akihabara, another MUST experience in Tokyo. This Tokyo street in is an anime-lovers paradise, but the bright lights, explosive advertising, and hustle and bustle can be universally enjoyed. For all you anime-aficionados: the shops here sell everything from old manga to dvds to action figures to old-school toys. Even those unfamiliar with the anime-culture can find something interesting!

DAY 2. Nikko.

Day two began with a train ride from the grandiose Tokyo Train Station and a car ride up to the mountaintop town of Nikko. It is a very picturesque place and for someone who had only been to Tokyo so far it gave me a different look at Japan. The spirit of ancient times permeates the atmosphere and along with the magnificent views make for a magical experience. Be sure not miss the Shinkyo Bridge, a bridge that was only used by Imperial Officials, as it is an absolutely breathtaking sight. The Kregon waterfall is also an impressive view to behold (it may not always be possible to adjust the plans due to weather, but note that an unfortunate fog obscured the view during our visit).

The greatest view of the day has to go to Sannai: this area holds many temples and shrines that harken back to the edo period and the air has this special “elder” quality that simply mesmerizes.
Food wise, be sure to try the local dish of Yuba. You can find Yuba in practically all the menu items - from Yuba ramen to Yuba hamburgers. Yuba is a fermented soybean that is specially processed and could be traced back to the ancient Buddhist vegetarian monks in the area. Although it wasn’t my cup of tea, my grandparents absolutely adored it!
DAY 3. Kabuki Theater (attempt), Hama Rikyu Gardens.

Day three began with our family group attempting to watch a traditional Kabuki Theater.
Kabuki spectacles go on for many hours, so people usually watch in acts. Tickets must be purchased on the day of, by waiting in line, and we were unfortunately unable to get them. Word to the wise: if you plan on watching such a show come VERY early with everyone in your group (one person in line can only buy one ticket). Bring personal entertainment as well because you may be waiting for hours! With that out of the way we visited the beautiful Hama Rikyu Gardens.

The gardens are a magnificent sight: if I had more time, I could spend hours there. There is a quaint tea shop inside with an enchanting scenery. With the gardens all viewed we retired back to our hotel to prepare for the day ahead.

DAY 4. Meeting up with our Globus Group. Yoyogi Park. Taito District.

Our day began with us joining the rest of the GLOBUS group- as we began the group part of our trip. Our first stop was Yoyogi Park in Shibuya. This nice park featured several temples as well as a scenic walking paths to a revered well. We continued on to one of Tokyo’s many tea houses for a classical tea ceremony. A practiced professional demonstrated his craft and served each of us a teacup full of traditional green tea and a sweet. I was even given the honor of preparing some tea for our tour guide!

After drinking our fill of Green Tea (which quickly became my beverage of choice in Japan) we went for some free time in Asakusa, located in the Taito district of Tokyo. A real hustle and bustle gives the area charm, and the temple and labyrinth-esque shopping scene offer plenty to see. That night our group went on a walking tour of Tokyo. Within a walking distance to our hotel (we stayed in Tokyo Hilton Hotel in Shinjuku area in downtown Tokyo) we found ourselves in a narrow street that was packed with small restaurants. This was no tourist attraction: I could feel that this is where only Japanese people go to eat. I highly recommend exploring Tokyo by foot in the night: it is generally safe as long as you stick to crowded locations and can give you a completely different vibe of the place.

DAY 5. Kamakura. Mount Fuji.

The day began with the group leaving Tokyo and heading south along the coast on a bus to Kamakura where we visited a Buddhist temple, complete with an enormous statue of the Buddha himself. The 750-year-old Great Buddha statue offers a lot of photo opportunities and the surrounding park and temple are fascinating as well. The rain started pouring at this point, which made me thankful for my umbrella I brought with me everywhere. From there we proceeded to the town of Hakone for a scenic boat ride on Lake Ashi.

I highly recommend this cruise: the views are amazing, and on a non-cloudy day you can Mount Fuji in all its glory! The air itself offers a feeling of wonder that made me feel giddy, with a quiet body of water around us and Japanese structures sticking out from beneath the mountain tops that stretched above the clouds.

From there we made our way to one of my favorite places on this trip: the Hakone open-air museum.

The many varied structures that you can explore at your own pace, combined with a surreal fog made for a wonder of a time. Inside you can find an exhibit dedicated to Picasso featuring many of his ceramics. To end the day I went to our hotel’s bathhouse (we stayed in Fuji View Hotel in Lake Kawaguchi area) and enjoyed a traditional Japanese bath: outdoor pool in a completely naked (gender separate) zone. Thankfully I was the only one there and had the entire bathhouse to myself, which was a liberating experience that relaxed me to my core.

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    DAY 6. More of Mt. Fuji.

    Thankfully the skies cleared up this morning as we woke up in our hotel on lake Kawaguchi and my prayers were rewarded: Mt. Fuji was – however vaguely - visible! We stopped at a small town across the lake for a few hours of photo opportunity. There was a nice farmers’ market nearby where I browsed the produce. From there we continued onwards to a town of Matsumoto with its authentically recreated Matsumoto Castle that was a glee to behold.

    I even posed with some resident samurai and ninjas! The inside of the Garrison featured interesting displays telling the story of the samurai who fought in the castle. Watch your footing: the stairs are very steep, and as someone who is 6”1’ and towers above the average Japanese person I felt out of my element. A nearby Matsumoto City Museum had many fascinating pieces of Japanese history on display.

    Finally, it was time to hit the road again to our next town and hotel to unwind. This prefecture, Takayama, is renowned for its beef dishes.

    I decided to go running; and rediscovered the reason why I recommend running in foreign lands: no tourists were milling about, and the sun illuminated the rustic town in a warm glow. I ran along the river and even discovered an empty shrine high up in the hills!

    Later that day, for dinner, my grandparents and I walked until we found a nice Italian-inspired diner, where we discovered other members from our group. I enjoyed a very delectable steak and spaghetti. However, my night was just beginning: I was eager to go try my hand at some Karaoke with a fellow teen in our group. After asking at the hotel for the nearest Karaoke Bar and a quick walk, we arrived at our destination. Now to clarify: although called a “Bar”, Karaoke locations are simply a collection of private Karaoke-equipped rooms that you rent hourly; you can order beverages and snacks over an intercom. The song selection was sufficiently varied and there were plenty of American songs: Japanese people really love their Michael Jackson! After singing until my vocal chords blew out, we made our way back to the hotel to get ready for our early morning adventures.

    DAY 8. Takayama.

    Rising early at the behest of our group guide, we made our way to the Takayama’s morning market. The streets worth of stores offering every sort of product under the sun were on display, with samples of teas and local snacks offered up at every turn. Unable to restrain myself I purchased a bag of wasabi tea, Sake cups, and a wooden samurai sword, all at affordable prices.

    We marched on to see some interesting locations: first, the temple of 1000 Buddhas. This magnificent temple has an atmosphere of solemnity, and while no photographs were allowed inside the temple, take my word that this was a temple you cannot afford to miss.

    Next, we continued to a Hachiken-Machi, a building used for imperial offices in Edo Period (1692-1868).

    We then returned to the hotel where I set off on another run, this time accidentally running into a pole as I crossed the entire town from top to bottom.

    We joined our tour group for a special group dinner at the hotel, where we all came dressed in kimono, which I found very comfortable.

    DAY 9. Shirakawa. Kanazawa.

    After a bus ride through the mountains, we began our sightseeing day by visiting remote town of Shirakawa, home to several Unesco World Heritage sites. This beautiful village is relatively untouched by modernity: its houses are all of unique ancient Japanese style called Gassho-Zukuri (“joined hands” style thatched houses that could be only found here). You feel as if you are in a storybook (at least until you find yourself in one of the many gift shops).

    Natural beauty of this place got me completely enchanted as we walked around the town before continuing to our next destination of the day, Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa, dating to 1670s.
    This park is very serene and I enjoyed it immensely (despite the intense heat!).

    We continued to our next planned activity, which was a fun trip to a specialty shop where we added our own designs to traditional Bento Boxes. (For those that don't know: Bento Boxes are essentially Japanese lunch boxes).

    We arrived at our hotel in Kanazawa where I spent the rest of the day shopping at a local mall, managing to secure a very cheap tank top that seemed to be the only appropriate clothing for the scorching temperatures.

    DAY 10. On to Kyoto.
    In the morning we traveled along the Sea of Japan to an amazing Fushimi-ku area in the city of Kyoto, where a majestic temple and a glorious mountain path laid in store.

    I managed to climb only halfway up but the trek was too long to do in the time limit our group imposed. I managed to snag some nice gifts in the form of fans in the many shops that were in the surrounding area. We continued our tour with an excursion to the Geisha district of Gion.

    Geishas are a very interesting part of Japanese history and I highly recommend reading “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden for an in-depth insight on the topic. My grandparents and I found dinner in a small restaurant with very good food, and despite language barriers we were able to order and eat our fill.

    DAY 11. Kita-ku. Nara.

    We started our most intensive sightseeing day in Japan by heading to Kita-ku, an unperturbed park with a magnificent castle and an ancient tree that has been alive for hundreds of years.

    A quick pit stop for lunch quickly followed, but with a twist: we made the food! At a cooking class we made our own sushi, beef stir-fry, and other traditional dishes.

    We continued onwards to Nara, an oldest capital of Japan also known for its reverence for deer. As we explored the city and its temples I took photos with deer and almost started a brawl with a particularly rambunctious herd.

    We ended our day by stopping at the major mall in Kyoto station where I went off with some newfound group friends and their family for some nice shopping and exploration of the futuristic mall/train station.

    DAY 12. Free day in Kyoto.

    Today was a free day, which after intense sightseeing of the last couple of days, my grandparents and I decided to spend shopping.

    We ended our tour with a group dinner at the hotel buffet that was enjoyed by all. We said our goodbyes and all continued on our separate paths in life come morning.

    My grandparents and I really enjoyed exploring Japan with the group tour. We were able to see many different (some very remote) areas that would have been quite difficult, if not impossible, to reach on our own, and I made new friends.

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