Japan’s capital is a fascinating, fun and fast-paced megacity. The first time I visited I was with friends so we spent out time racing around the city’s different districts, such as Shinjuku, Harajuku and Akihabara, as well as a 5.30am trip to the famed Tsukiji fish market, taking in as much as we could in the few days we had. But this time around I was with my parents and we only had one day to look around the capital before flying back to the UK. So instead of running around, trying to fit in as much as we could, we opted for a laid-back culture-filled day.


Our first stop was Tokyo Imperial Palace, home to the country’s royal family. The palace isn’t open to the public, and surrounded by high stone walls and a large moat (above), it’s hidden away from prying eyes. The palace gardens are opened to the public twice a year – on 2 January (for New Year) and 23 December (Emperor Akihito’s birthday) – so unfortunately, as it was October, we weren’t allowed in.

Nevertheless, we headed to the only part of the complex open to the public, the Imperial Palace East Gardens where we enjoyed a relaxing walk in the sunshine. We walked around the pretty traditional Japanese garden, before deciding to climb the foundations of the old castle tower, which burnt down in 1657, to enjoy the fine views over the park. The peaceful park was a lovely place to start our day.


After a spot of lunch, we made our way to Tokyo National Museum (above), which is situated in Ueno Park, a 300-acre site filled with museums, temples and institutions. The museum is the oldest and biggest in Japan, and is home to thousands of splendid art works and artefacts from all over Japan and Asia. Statues, armour, weapons, ceramic objects, maps and clothing from across the ages are among the varied collections of priceless objects on display.

The museum was fascinating, the lacquer objects and costumes, in particular, were sublime and I really enjoyed learning about Japanese culture and history from a Japanese perspective. I was also really intrigued by the exhibition on the Ainu, Japan’s indigenous population, and their culture as I briefly studied them at university, so it was interesting to find out more about them and to read about them from a Japanese view point.

But by far and away my favourite item on display was the Dogu figurine that looks like it’s wearing goggles – even though it dates from between 1000-400BC! I was mesmerised by the ancient goggle-wearing statue, the goggles just seemed so out of place on a 3,000-year-old figurine, and I made sure to buy a fridge magnet of it as a memento.

My final day in Japan was very chilled and relaxing, and the complete opposite of the frenetic, action-packed days I spent in Tokyo the first time around. I really enjoyed just ambling around the city and really taking the time to explore the places we visited in-depth. Tokyo National Museum was fantastic and I would have liked to have spent more time exploring the city’s other museums. But I’ll have to leave that til next time. Sayonara Japan…




To me, Kyoto will always be the ‘temple’ city. The first time I visited 10 years ago I was awestruck by the many beautiful temples in the city. So on my second trip, I made sure to revisit a few old favourites, such as the Golden Pavilion (above), as well as new sights, such as the Kiyomizu Dera Temple. There’s so much traditional Japanese architecture in Kyoto, I love wandering around and stumbling unexpectedly upon yet another stunning temple or tea house.

On my first visit to the city, my friend and I visited the Silver Pavilion (which oddly enough doesn’t feature any silver) and then followed the Philosopher’s Path, a peaceful 2km canal-side walk that runs from the pavilion to the district of Nanzenji. There were numerous really interesting, quirky boutiques along the way, as well as lots of small temples hidden up in the hills just off the path. I remember being amazed by how pretty and scenic the walk was, and astonished by all the temples I’d seen – and that day remains one of my favourite travel moments.


This time around my first stop was Nijo Castle, home to Ninomaru Palace, where the shogun used to stay on his visits to the ancient imperial capital. On passing under the wonderful Karamon Gate (above), we headed to the palace just beyond. Inside we walked around a number of large airy rooms featuring beautiful painted frescoes. The palace was very elegant, and despite the incredible painted walls, ceilings and sliding doors, had a charming simplicity to it.


After touring the palace, we ambled around the castle grounds (above), which were just as pretty as the buildings. The traditional Japanese gardens, with their lovely rock formations and water displays, felt very serene and it was a peaceful place to explore.


Our next stop was the iconic Golden Pavilion (above). I remember being captivated the first time I laid eyes on the gleaming building, and second time around, it didn’t disappoint. The pavilion is part of the Rokuon-ji Temple, more commonly known as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The Golden Pavilion, or Kinkaku as it’s known in Japanese, derives its name from the gold foil that adorns its upper two storeys and it’s quite possibly the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen. The gold is so effective, and set against the backdrop of the lake (the pond of Kyoko-chi), it gleams and shimmers to wondrous effect.

You can’t go inside the Golden Pavilion – you can only look at it from various angles, but it’s sheer splendour makes it a must-see. Having gazed admiringly at the pavilion, we then explored the rest of the temple complex, enjoying a walk through the wooded park past various shrines and the simple, wooden Sekka-tei Tea House.


The next day we rose early and made our way to the Kiyomizu Dera Temple, high up in the tree-lined mountains that look out over the city. The Buddhist temple, which was founded in the 8th century, was rebuilt in the 17th century, and it’s dominated by an enormous wooden hall and viewing platform (above).  There were lots of steep hills and steps to walk up and down as the temple complex was so high up, and I found this incredibly difficult as my knee was playing up and it was very painful. But the scenery and the views over the city were spectacular – and almost made the pain worth it.


Following our trip to the temple, we had a quick tour of Gion, Kyoto’s famed Geisha district – although I didn’t see any Geishas – before heading back to the train station to get the bullet train to Tokyo.

I love Kyoto. From the temples to the tea houses, the old Geisha district and the palaces, it’s filled with incredible examples of traditional Japanese architecture, history and culture. I’ve been to a lot of cities all over the world, but Kyoto left me awe-struck with its many splendid sights – and despite having been lucky enough to visit twice, there’s still much of the city I haven’t seen.



Japan’s ancient capital (pre-Tokyo, pre-Kyoto) Nara was memorable for two things – its abundance of beautiful temples and the deer that roam Nara Park and the surrounding streets. The city, which is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, lies to the east of Osaka and is only an hour away by train, so on my sister’s recommendation, we decided to spend a day there – and it proved to be a fantastic trip!

img_6227On arriving in Nara, we immediately set off for Heijo Palace on the outskirts of the city. The imperial site was built at the turn of the 8th century to house the emperor and his court, but it fell to ruin and its remains were only excavated in the 1970s. Today the site, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, is surrounded by fields and has a rural feel to it. We made our way to the formal audience hall (above), which was rebuilt and opened to the public in 2010, passing fields and the imperial archaeological sites along the way. It was quite a trek from the train station, but the hall, sitting by itself in a large plot of desolate land (above), looked imposing and was worth the time it took to get there.


On stepping inside the large hall, my eye was drawn to a big throne in the centre of the room and I immediately made my way over to have a closer look. While I was absorbed by the throne and the various information panels, one of the guards drew my attention to the elegant painted animals along the ceiling (above), which represent the 12 animals from the lunar calendar, as well as the animals of the points of the compass. They were lovely and I’m not sure I would have noticed them had the guard not pointed them out – so I was very grateful to him for doing so!

img_6229After the palace, we headed back towards the centre of Nara to visit some temples. The first of which was Kohfukuji Temple, a temple complex home to a series of buildings, including two pagodas, the National Treasure Museum and the Eastern Golden Hall. We didn’t have a great deal of time to see everything at the temple complex, but we made sure to have a look inside the Eastern Golden Hall (above), which stands next to a towering five-storey pagoda that is the second tallest in Japan, where we admired some magnificent wooden statues.

IMAG0773Then it was on to Todai-ji Temple. The temple complex was incredibly busy and there were far more people here than in any of the other sites we’d visited. It was originally built in 752AD and its main hall Daibutsuden (above) was fabulous – it’s said to be the largest wooden building in the world. From the outside the building was beautiful, but on stepping inside, we realised it was home to a far more spectacular site – a series of colossal buddhist statues.

The enormous statues sat just inside the hall and consisted of the great Daibutsu (aka Buddha, above left) in the centre, with two Bodhisattvas on either side. The bronze statues were mesmerising and I found it hard to take my eyes off them. Eventually, I peeled myself away to tour the rest of the hall, which is also home to wooden models of the temple complex and more ginormous buddhist statues.

On leaving the great hall, I spotted another fascinating sight, a wooden statue clad in a red cape (above right). The statue, Binzuru, is said to help with healing and as I stood admiring it, various people came up and rubbed parts of it – according to the custom, those suffering with an ailment will be cured if they rub the corresponding body part on Binzuru.


My favourite part of Nara, however, wasn’t the many astonishing temples or the remains of the imperial palace, but the herds of deer that roam the city’s streets. For Nara is home to some of the tamest, yet most assertive deer I’ve ever met. There are even road signs to warn traffic about them. The animals roam around Nara Park and the surrounding area, and are very cute, yet they’re clearly used to tourists. They’d brazenly come up to you in the hope of being fed deer crackers, which were being sold by nearby vendors. I even saw a few deer nipping at people in a desperate bid to get at the crackers they were holding. It’s the only place in the world I’ve seen deer, firstly, roaming the streets, and secondly, so comfortable around people. The deer I’ve come across in the likes of Richmond Park in London usually keep their distance, but these ones were super friendly (probably on account of the ubiquitous deer crackers).

Nara was a wonderful city with so many beautiful and interesting buildings to explore, not to mention the novel sight of tame deer wandering the streets. We only spent a day in Nara, but there was lots we didn’t get to see and I could easily have spent another full day exploring the city. Definitely worth a trip if you’re in the Osaka/Kyoto area!



Japan – food


One of my favourite parts about travelling is the food. I love trying new foods and seeking out regional specialities – and my trips to Japan have been no exception.

The first time I went to Japan 10 years ago, my friend and I decided in our wisdom to eat nothing but Japanese food, morning, noon and night. I lasted three days. On the fourth day, we visited Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji fish market at the break of dawn where I was given raw tuna and crab to try, and then I cracked. I was desperately craving western foods and ended up demolishing an entire tub of Pringles-like crisps for lunch and a bowl of cereal for dinner.

For my second visit, I decided to be much more sensible, opting for a mostly western breakfast and then Japanese lunch and dinner, with the occasional sandwich thrown in. As much as I’d like to eat nothing but local food on my travels, I find my body sometimes struggles to adjust to the new foods. This plan proved far more successful and I ended up enjoying a much broader range of foods, too.

One of my favourite Japanese discoveries is takoyaki (above). When I mentioned to my brother-in-law’s sister-in-law that we were going to Osaka, she squealed in delight and insisted I had to try takoyaki while I was there. I therefore made it my mission to track it down. Takoyaki are balls of batter stuffed with octopus and topped with mayonnaise and takoyaki sauce. I found some for sale in the grounds of Osaka Castle, and while I was a little unsure of it (I’m not the biggest fan of octopus), it turned out to be really tasty and I was glad I’d sought it out.

Another food I really enjoyed was chocolate and melon bread. They’re small sweet rolls with a swirled chocolate and pale green melon design. I found them in a cafe called Afternoon Tea in the shopping centre attached to Sendai’s main railway station where we had breakfast each morning in Sendai. It was so good I had it every day (along with another bread or pastry offering, such as red bean paste buns) and I wish we could get it in the UK!

Other firm Japanese foodie favourites from my travels were green tea ice cream, which I had on both trips to Kyoto, and is simply delightful, and cassis and orange juice, which I first tried in Sendai. Although it sounds a bit of an odd combination, the two work really well together and it ended up becoming my cocktail of choice in Japan.

Japan is home to some weird and wonderful foods, and I particularly enjoyed discovering some of the more unusual foods the country had to offer. In Matsushima, for example, we found a stall selling a huge variety of ice cream flavours (above) – some everyday, others decidedly less familiar. I wasn’t brave enough to order the jellyfish or whitebait ice cream (although I was intrigued), instead opting to try the wasabi ice cream, which really tasted of wasabi and was unlike any ice cream I’ve ever had. I also tried what I thought was a grilled squid lollypop (above) from a street food vendor where all the young Japanese were queuing up. But on eating it, I think it was reconstituted white fish… But that’s part of the fun of trying different foods when you’re abroad, following the locals’ lead come what may and enjoying (or in some cases immensely disliking) the new experience.






Osaka Castle


Osaka Castle is enormous and one of the most impressive castles I’ve ever seen. Even the walk up to the castle is grand as it sits in a large park enclosed within giant stone walls and surrounded by a huge moat. My brother and sister had been talking non-stop about the castle in the run-up to our trip to Osaka and so I was really looking forward to seeing it for myself.

My first glimpse of the castle came at night, when we decided to take a night-time stroll over to the castle park, which was around the corner from our hotel. The castle is floodlit at night and the beautiful structure illuminated on high before us was incredible. It was hard to capture the sheer scale and beauty of the castle on my phone’s camera (below).


Two days later, we headed over to the castle for a closer look and to explore the museum within. The castle was destroyed and rebuilt a number of times over the centuries, and the present version of the castle tower opened in 1931. It was remodelled extensively in 1997 and is now home to a museum that recounts the history of Osaka, the castle and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the general who founded the castle in 1583.


On entering the museum, you’re taken in a lift to the top of the tower where there’s a viewing platform from which you get splendid views across the sprawling city and the pretty park below. From there, you make your way down the tower and around the various displays in the museum. Among the artefacts on show are screens and prints that depict the military battles that took place in and around Osaka, letters, armour and some gorgeous items of clothing.


I didn’t really know anything about Osaka’s history or the castle before my visit, so I found the museum really interesting and I was fascinated by all the objects on display. It was really compelling and well worth the visit, and certainly lived up to my siblings’ hype.


Matsushima – in pictures




The pretty, coastal town of Matsushima is one of the nihon sankei, aka the three most scenic places in Japan (the others are the island of Miyajima near Hiroshima and Amanohashidate, a pine-tree topped sandbank in Miyazu Bay). Nestled on the coast in the centre of Miyagi prefecture, the town’s beautiful bay is dotted with more than 250 small islands.

Browsing the shops and cafés that line the shore front, it’s hard to imagine that five years ago this peaceful, picture-perfect spot witnessed one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory – the massive 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck off Japan’s north-east coast on 11 March 2011. Matsushima, unlike its neighbouring towns and villages along the coast, was spared the full devastating effects of the enormous tsunami thanks to the islands in the bay, which acted as a buffer against the huge waves, reducing the tsunami’s impact on the town. Nevertheless, the wall of water that hit the town was immense – I visited one shop on the shore front that had a sign in its window indicating the water level, which reached my shoulders.


During my visit, the sea is calm, it’s a warm day and the serene bay is full of people enjoying the sunshine, the sights and the weird and wonderful Japanese snacks (wasabi, jellyfish or whitebait ice cream anyone?). We decided to take a boat trip around the bay, in and around the many islands, to fully appreciate the spectacular natural defences before us, and so we hopped on a relaxing cruise that lasted around three-quarters of an hour. The oddly shaped, tree-topped islands were spectacular and the bay very much deserves its scenic reputation, it’s an incredibly pretty part of the world.

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Following the boat ride, we headed over to Godaido Temple (above), a small temple on a little island just off the shore, accessible via little wooden bridges filled with small stalls selling souvenirs and kitsch toys. The teeny island was teeming with tourists taking pictures of the ancient wooden temple and having joined the hoards and snapped our own photos, we headed back to the mainland to visit the Zuiganji temple.


The temple itself was closed as it was undergoing an extensive, years-long renovation, but we were still able to walk around the tree-lined grounds and admire the sights. Chief among these were the small caves underneath the cliffs that overlook the park, which were home to lots of interesting shrines and statues (above).

On leaving the temple, we passed a couple of small shops selling fresh oysters. I’d never tried oysters before, but my brother-in-law promptly handed me a rather large, raw oyster. “Swallow it whole,” came the order from my father. But it was alarmingly big and I couldn’t bring myself to swallow it, so I stood there, chewing for a good five minutes – much to my family’s amusement – before I got any of it down my throat. It certainly wasn’t one of my most glamorous moments.


We finished our day with a trip to Fukuura Island, a largish island off the coast accessible by a long red footbridge. The island was full of picturesque little coves and beaches, some of which we had to clamber down fairly precarious paths to get to, and there was a small wooden temple on the island, too. It’s incredibly idyllic and was the perfect place to while away the remainder of the afternoon.

Matsushima is a world away from Japan’s frenetic big cities and made for a fantastic day trip from Sendai, where we were staying. It was easy to see why it’s revered as one of the three most scenic places in the country and I will definitely be adding the other two nihon sankei to my itinerary on future trips to Japan.




Japan – travel tips



Japan tends to be mild in spring and autumn, very hot in summer (temperatures often hit the mid-30°Cs) and colder in winter (although it remains mild in the southern parts of the country). There’s also a six week rainy season during June and July, which is best avoided if possible. The first time I went to Japan, we unwittingly arrived in the middle of an extended rainy period and it was very, very wet. Autumn and spring are great times to visit – plan a trip around March/April time and you may be lucky enough to catch the country’s famed cherry blossoms.


The currency is the Yen and I’ve found it’s worth taking quite a bit of cash to Japan as it can be hard to find cash machines that accept foreign bank cards, even in some of the major cities. If you do get stuck, the cash machines in the 7-Eleven stores and post offices usually accept foreign credit/debit cards, and I found that major stores tended to accept my debit card, too.


If you’re planning to travel around Japan, it’s worth investing in a JR pass before you leave as it usually works out much cheaper than buying train tickets while you’re there. The rail passes, which can only be used by foreign travellers and must be purchased outside Japan, can be used on most of the country’s trains, including the Shinkansen bullet trains, and you can choose between a seven-, 14- and 21-day pass. When you buy your JR pass you’ll receive an exchange order that you’ll have to swap for your pass once you’re in Japan – you can do this in the country’s major railway stations.


Be warned, Japanese hotel rooms are, on the whole, tiny. I could barely squeeze my average-sized suitcase into my hotel room in Kyoto. Love hotels, meanwhile, may be cheap, but they’re designed to be discreet short-stay hotels for couples looking for some privacy.


It goes without saying, but make the effort to speak some Japanese – it really is appreciated. My (very poor) attempts at the language were welcomed everywhere and I’d often be met with beaming smiles, even when all I’d uttered was arigato gozaimasu (thank you very much).


Have fun embracing all the incredible gadgets and technology. Everyone looks at me like I’m nuts when I say this, but my favourite is the heated toilet seats – and the little tap on top of the toilet that automatically comes on when you flush it. Genius.





The land of the rising sun is a curious and contrasting mix of traditional old culture and the hyper shiny modern new. I’ve been lucky enough to visit Japan twice now, and both times I’ve come away a little awestruck by its beauty, customs, people, food and technology. The people are incredibly polite (I don’t think I will ever get used to being bowed to) and very friendly. Japan is a country like no other and as such is one of my favourite countries.

Japan is a series of islands, the largest of which, Honshu, is home to the country’s most famous cities – Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. To the north is Hokkaido, and to the south, Shikoku and Kyushu, and that’s not counting all the thousands of much smaller islands that make up the entire Japanese archipelago.

The first time I went to Japan, I mostly stuck to the fairly typical tourist route – Tokyo and Kyoto, but for my second trip I headed further afield to some of the smaller cities and the coast, too. I really enjoyed the contrast between the big, fast-paced cities and the quieter life beyond them. Plus Japan has some stunning and diverse scenery (lush green mountains, snow-topped volcanoes, and picturesque coves and beaches) that I didn’t get to appreciate on my first trip. If I was to go again, I’d definitely look to go off the beaten track and visit some of the lesser known areas of this fascinating country.

Getting around Japan is very easy – the trains and metro systems are reliable and simple to use. I travelled by the Shinkansen Bullet Train on both trips and it was a great experience; it’s not that expensive and is a very quick and efficient way to travel across the country. The metro systems in the cities were also very easy to navigate, as were the local trains and buses.

One of my favourite things about Japan is the shopping. They have some incredible clothes shops – I particularly like Natural Beauty Basic (a women’s fashion chain) where I picked up quite a few unusual pieces at very reasonable prices. There’s lots of pretty, traditional crafts and quirky kitsch items to discover, too, while no trip to Tokyo is complete without a visit to Akihabara, the electronics district, to marvel at all the incredible gadgets for sale. I also found myself looking out for all the weird and wonderful flavour KitKats while I was there, such as green tea, chilli, blueberry cheesecake and even wasabi.