With the recent developments in the Philippines-Japan bilateral relationship + the positive changes in the immigration policies of the latter, visiting Japan has never been made easy as before! All you have to do is apply for a tourist visa (see Step-by-Step Guide here), make sure that your documents are complete, when approved – book that seat sale to Japan, plan your itinerary (or not!) and *poof*, “you have just landed in the land of anime, ramen, samurai and hachiko!” lol –> (that is definitely a biased statement).
Anyhoo, if it’s not obvious and you would ask me if I have been to Japan already…then I’d definitely say yes, more than Barack Obama had been as President of the US. Japan is my first out-of-the-country trip and since then, my love for the country has grown deeper and personal to the point that I took special courses on Japan studies as my specialization for my Master’s Degree in International Studies (which I just obtained last June from UP Diliman — this explains my recent absence in the world of blogging!)
Soooo, this post is definitely special and close to heart. To be honest, I had difficulty coming up with a content about Japan ‘cos the photos are just too many. Aaand, in most of my visits to the country, I really had no itinerary or whatsoever. I just decide which prefecture to visit a day or two before my flight…and that’s it. For those who are not familiar what a “prefecture” is, it’s a term used in Japan to classify cities or a certain portion of land as part of an administrative jurisdiction or subdivision. Back in the Edo Period, there were no prefectures but instead Japan was divided into fiefdoms, known as “han(s)”, which were then governed by shoguns or our modern-day land-lords. Come Emperor Meiji and the han system was replaced by the “prefecture system”. Today, Japan has 47 prefectures, 8 of which I have fortunately visited (oh shoot, that means, I still got 39 prefectures to go…easy Math). Okay, so much for the trivias. Hehe.
To make our lives easier…well mine, mostly…in today’s blog, I’ll be talking about 5 prefectures that I have been to, what I did, where to go, what to eat, and so on. First on my list is KYOTO.
This has got to be my favorite prefecture so far. Kyoto, as we know it is the “cultural center” of Japan. For most of its history (around 1,000+ years), Kyoto was the imperial capital. Many famous samurai clans, shoguns, and emperors have walked in this majestic land making it one of the top tourist destinations in the country. Well to be fair, Kyoto was the only prefecture that has escaped the atomic bombing in 1945. And some historians say, we owe whatever what’s left in Kyoto to then US Secretary for War Henry Stimson — for sparing Kyoto in the list of targets for the atomic bombing. Well there are so many stories behind this but from what I can remember, Kyoto was definitely a highly-ideal target for the US military before. Remember, Kyoto was home to many universities and military infrastructures that its destruction would most likely lead to the immediate surrender of the Japanese imperial forces. But it did not happen. Instead, Nagasaki was bombed in August 9, 1945. Why is it so? Records show that in Stimson’s diary written in July 24, 1945, he was particularly emphatic on bombing Japan’s imperial capital…”[for doing so] the bitterness which would be caused by such an emphatic act might make it impossible…to reconcile the Japanese to us rather than the Russians.” And to all history buffs out there, we all know that the last thing the Americans wanted to happen during this period was to bolster the Communist cause in Asia. Hence, Kyoto was spared from the atomic bombing (I do not suggest however, that this is “something” that we have to thank the Americans for…that’s a different story.)
The profoundness of history is one of the many reasons why I love Kyoto. Now, if this did not interest you, perhaps I shall move forward to my blog – i.e. “What to do in Kyoto?”
1. Go temple-hopping
What better way to feel and learn about Japanese spiritual practices than by visiting Kyoto’s famous temples:
- Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine: is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates which leads into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari dedicated to Inari, the shinto god of rice. On the ground you’ll see several fox statues believed to be Inari’s messengers. If you happen to have watched “Inari Kon Kon”, then this place is a must visit. Not only that, the torii gates are perfect for your instagram feed!
- Arashiyama Bamboo Grove: these soaring stalks of bamboo is a feast in your eyes and soul, giving that relaxing and calming vibe symbolic of Kyoto’s true nature.
- Kinkaku-ji Temple: known for it’s “Golden Pavilion,” Kinkaku-ji is perhaps Kyoto’s most impressive sight. Do not be surprised to know that the top two floors of this temple is actually made of gold – which literally translates to “kin” in nihongo.
2. Indulge in their matcha sweets & local cuisine
While Kyoto is famous as a matcha “hot-spot” – as evidenced by its matcha ice cream, matcha mochi balls, matcha green tea, etc. – it is actually Shizuoka that is the home of green tea in the country. Nonetheless, it’s worth a try to have a taste of Kyoto’s variation. Much so their local cuisine – which imbibes rich flavor and aromatic taste.
3. Feel the nature and go sight-seeing
For me, Kyoto is Japan’s oasis. The cool breeze of air, the sound of birds and the flowing river, the friendly greetings of locals, and the peaceful vibe of Kyoto is what made me love the prefecture the most. I was literally in tears with my kareshi when we arrived in Kyoto’s country-side; having in mind the sacrifices of the great samurais that have walked this road to independence.
Gifu is probably the dreamiest place I have ever been to….so much so that I’ll be writing a separate post about this soon. But just to give you an idea of why I love this place so much, Gifu is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites and by this picture alone, I think it is obvious why. However, It’s quite expensive to go to this prefecture as it is mostly accessible only by cars/buses, but it’s definitely worth a visit.
Tokyo is one of the most populous metropolitan area in the world. Most of what we know about Japan and its pop-culture can be found in Tokyo namely; “Shibuya: The Shopping District,” “Akihabara: The Capital of Geek Culture,” “Roppongi: Tokyo Business District,” etc.
If you are up for fun and crazy adventure, then Tokyo should be on top of your list. There are so much things to do in Tokyo but you really have to prepare your pockets as it is also one of the expensive cities in the world.
Here are some tips to maximize your coming trip:
1. Have fun in Tokyo DisneySea/DisneyLand
When choosing between Tokyo DisneyLand or Tokyo DisneySea, I personally recommend trying out DisneySea first as the latter is unique to Japan. Inside, there are seven themed areas which would require a day or two to finish. If you’re up for a thrill ride, you must definitely try the “Journey to the Center of the Earth”!!! For the light-hearted, “Indiana Jones” is perfect. Just be ready for long lines especially during weekend. One tip: get yourself a Disney FASTPASS to your desired ride(s) if you want to skip lines. You’re welcome.
P.S. We booked our discounted DisneySea Tickets here (click the link or you may use the search bar below for discounts).
2. Spend a day in park/temples
Tokyo boasts not only wonderfully-built structures but also large green spaces and beautiful flower parks perfect for that Sunday picnic with family or friends. Add to that the purifying and enriching experience of walking along hundred-year-old temples and/or shrines — an oasis of serenity amidst the bustling city of Tokyo. Don’t forget to bring your favorite book! It’ll be a perfect way to relax.
Also, if you are looking for souvenirs, I suggest buying from the stalls found inside the temples/shrines as they are relatively cheap and unique!
For the list of temples, click this link to view.
3. Visit contemporary art museums
Recently, Tokyo have become a haven for art-lovers in the city. Art museums, such as the Mori Art Museum shown in the gallery above, were partly elite/government-led-initiatives aimed at improving the tourism industry of the country. Well, even without this support, the Japanese people are really known for its creativity and innovativeness — this being one of the reasons why Japan was able to achieve rapid economic growth between the post-WWII period and the Cold War.
You might also want to visit teamLab‘s large-scale collection of interactive installations that animate the history and nature of Japan.
4. Get a wonderful view of Tokyo's skyline from their high observation decks and famous towers
Notice how the first-world countries compete to having the tallest skyscraper in the world? I would say Japan is quite competitive in this regard as it houses the tallest tower in the world topping off the Canton Tower in 2011, and the second tallest structure in the world next to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. Thus, your trip to Tokyo wouldn’t be complete without experiencing Tokyo Skytree and the wonderful 360-degree view it offers of Tokyo’s skyline. Other famous observation decks in the city are Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Metropolitan Government Observation Deck, and the Mori Tower. What a sight to behold!
5. Experience Hanami (Cherry-blossoms viewing)
This have got to be my favorite! If Japan is famous for anything, it would be their sakura or cherry blossom which beautifully ornaments every corner of the city during spring of the year. In most places, sakura lasts for only a week or two. As such, thousands of tourists flock to the country on March/April, hoping to witness the beauty of this wondrous spectacle.
For tips or guide on how to experience hanami, visit this link.
6. Dine, shop, and play games at Tokyo's famous shopping district
Prepare your wallets and go on a shopping spree in Shibuya, Shinjuku, Harajuku, and Roppongi Hills! Here you’ll find unique “otaku” items, crazy fashion trends, and huge outlet stores that’ll surely make you cry…cry out of budget. Haha! For those who have few to spare, watch out for vintage items and thrift stores that are affordable enough for everyone to enjoy. Not only that, get a taste of authentic Japanese cuisine within these busy districts. Although, I recommend trying out restaurants found at the outskirts of the city. Also, don’t forget to have fun crossing the famous “Shibuya Crossing”.
7. Try dining-in in one of their maid cafes at Akihabara
Maid cafes have only become a “thing” in Tokyo during the early 2000s. And guess what? This unique cosplay-themed-cafe is inspired by French maid uniform usually composed of a dress and a petticoat. So, it’s definitely not a crazy and unique Japanese innovation! Besides, the idea of maid cafes goes a long way back in history…as early as the feudal period. Remember geishas? If you do then perhaps you have the slightest conception of where the maid cafes were inspired from.
Tip: Do not expect a lot from their food. Their menu is quite expensive especially for a french fries…hahaha! But it’s the experience and service that you actually pay for.
Let’s now move to Osaka. Located south-west of Tokyo, Osaka is the second largest metropolitan area in the country. Compared to Tokyo’s modern pop-culture, I suppose Osaka has a stronger local atmosphere. In addition, I have observed that people from Osaka are generally comedic and more friendly than Tokyo’s quiet and serious populace. Perhaps, this has something to do with the general atmosphere that the location promotes. Tokyo is the hub of all major businesses and enterprises and it’s therefore not surprising to see people caring only for themselves. Osaka is where you’ll feel lighter…It has few tourist spots compared to Tokyo but it’s definitely a must-see prefecture. Another fun fact: people stand on the left in escalators in Tokyo and other prefectures except OSAKA –> they do the opposite. I have asked this unique practice to several of my Japanese friends, but even they have no answer. Hehe. Maybe the people in Osaka just wants to differentiate themselves from the rest. Maybe. (If anybody knows why, please let me know in the comment section below! Haha)
Now, for those wondering what to do in Osaka, here are some few recommendations:
1. Eat your heart out
Osaka is often called the food capital of Japan and when I went there last August, I could not help but agree more. From humble takoyaki stands to a 3-floor okonomiyaki restaurant, Osaka has a lot to offer. Make sure to try their wobbly-fluffy happy pancakes for dessert!
For complete food guide, click this link.
2. Visit Universal Studios
If you would look at the map, Osaka is at the center of all major tourist destinations such as Kyoto, Nara, Tokyo, etc. Thus, when in Osaka, it is also recommended to visit Japan’s version of Universal Studios. Make sure to never miss Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey!!! It’s one of the coolest rides in the US’ franchise!
3. Shop and experience the night life in Osaka
I’ve been to several shopping districts in Japan but I would say, Osaka has one of the cheapest offers! I came home with a new luggage, a pair of shoes, and a luxury watch when I came to the city. I prefer buying stuff from Osaka than in Tokyo for this reason.
It’s intriguing also how different the night life in Osaka is. It seems to me that most of the people partying in the city are really up for fun…meanwhile, back in Tokyo, partying is one of the so-called “custom” after work. It’s not even appropriate to call it “party-ing”. Huhu.
4. Tour Osaka Castle
It has been a custom for me and my kareshi to visit the major castles found in every prefecture. The reason why we do so stems from our interest of not only the Japanese modern culture but more so their history and origin…and this you’ll definitely learn by touring in one of their castles.
The Osaka Castle was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the preeminent daimyō and successor of Oda Nobunaga, in the late 1500s as a symbol Japan’s unification under his rule. It was the largest castle at the time. Few years later, the castle was destroyed by the famous shogunate in history; Tokugawa Ieyasu. Today, this structure stands to remind the people of Osaka the past glory of their city.
The park found inside the castle is one of the famous hanami spots during spring of the year. So, better book that trip to Osaka on March/April!
I’ve got a quite personal take on this prefecture as it is my kareshi’s hometown. Most of my visits to Japan is in Shizuoka, specifically Hamamatsu, and I consider this as my second home. You may ask me, what’s in Shizuoka that would make want to visit it? I’d say they sell the best and freshest seafood in Japan (e.g. unagi!!! sushi!!!) because they are situated just beside the Pacific Ocean. Not only that, they also boasts few tourist spots unique to their prefecture. Let’s go!
1. Visit Nakatajima Sand Dunes in Hamamatsu
The Nakatajima Sakyu, or Nakatajima Sand Dunes, serve as the largest sand dunes in Hamamatsu, Japan and one of Japan’s three largest sand dunes. It is located along the coast of the Pacific Ocean and when we went there last winter, it was unbearably chilly and windy. Haha.
When you get there, do not forget to try Hamahru Stone Oven Cafe – a humble food truck that serves pizzas and breads baked in a stone oven. The owner, who is also the baker, is veryyy friendly!
2. Learn about Ieyasu's life in Hamamatsu Castle
Remember Tokugawa Ieyasu from the Osaka Castle? He built his own here in Hamamatsu. The Hamamatsu Castle served as Iesyasu’s retirement home for his last few days after losing from the disastrous Battle of Mikatagahara.
Once you go there, you would notice that the walls were made out of big stones and are not aligned. It is said that. “The masters didn’t waste time and money on making the walls smooth and well aligned, they threw them together to reflect the state of war at the time. What’s more, the stones are laid in the Gobo-zumi style, meaning the largest face of rock is facing inwards, into the embankment quite a way, so what you see is not the main face of the rock, but just the ends of the longish stones set into the earthen base, making for a disorderly looking, but strong, very thick wall.”
It was also in Shizuoka that the final remains of this famous Shogunate were laid to rest. If you are not aware who Ieyasu is, he is just the last shogunate before the Meiji era.
Kunōzan Toshōgu marks his original burial place and is the oldest of the Toshogu shrines around the country.
To go there, you have to ride a cable car known as “Nihondaira Ropeway”. This was the first shrine I ever visited when I first came to Japan in 2016.
3. Take your partner to a romantic date in Hamamatsu Park
The first time my kareshi brought me to Hamamatsu Park was summer. He told me that his father used to bring his mom here often when they were dating. Now, it’s us who’s doing the “thing”. Isn’t it sweet? Huhu. I could still remember that day…like a scene from the “Garden of Words” anime. Huhu.
During summer, you can enjoy the park with its vibrant flowers and cool air.
On the other hand, it looks completely different during winter. The Flower Park is adorned by a beautiful illumination display of 1,000,000 bulbs shining in the night sky, lighting and flower decorations in the Crystal Palace greenhouse, and a magical lit up fountain display.
4. Enjoy sunset in Benten-jima Island
On Benten Island, Lake Hamana, Hamamatsu, Shizuoka, is a red 18m torii, floating on the surface of the lake. Usually, every month before and after the winter solstice, it is possible to see the sun setting right into this red torii, which also happens to be the emblem of Benten Island. The red torii is also believed to be a spiritual and mystical ‘power spot’ for the locals. We were lucky enough to have captured this rare occurrence.
There you have it! It’s such a relief to finally document and share with you guys some of my memories in Japan. Note that whatever’s written is here is taken from the context of me being a tourist and not as Japan-studies specialist. I hope that I have provided you with relevant travel guide, tips and recommendation to traveling Japan. I have still a lot to share so keep posted! Let me know if you have few questions in the comment section below.