My first visit to Japan came with a manga/anime/J-pop tour theme to celebrate Rosa’s 18th birthday. The HYPERJAPAN J-Pop & Go! tour was her choice and I loved it.
We did loads of things that I would never have done if I’d come to Japan on a different trip – from spending an afternoon in an Owl Cafe, to dressing up as a serious samurai and acting out a sword fight with a team from the Japan Tate-do Association.
The trip was non-stop which meant we saw and did lots. We had a really good group – 16 of us in all; there was a mixture of solo travellers (generally in their twenties) and family groups (like me and Rosa), from the UK, the US and Italy. Everyone got on together, mixing at meals, on train journeys and out and about on the tour.
It wasn’t expensive at all if you’re used to London prices, and transport is no more complicated or intimidating than London’s system. All of the signs are in English as well as Japanese, and the Japanese equivalent of the Oyster card works in all of their big cities. The Shinkansen bullet train is as speedy and efficient as people say (but not really that different from getting a train up the East Coast Main Line….)
It was HOT, and humid – around 30°C every day, until our last full day when it got a bit cooler and rained a bit (still shorts and T-shirt weather though). It rained more on the day we left – sad to see us go…
In our two weeks, we really only scratched the surface of what Japan has to offer. We started in the capital. Tokyo was buzzing – lots of shops and sights to see that are all easy to get to on the tube and the train. We did lots of sightseeing at the start of the trip – the teen hotspot of Harajuku to the Meiji Shrine right next door; the Tsukiji Fish Market and the Shibuya Scramble Crossing (without the 1 million people per hour!); the electronics and anime emporium of Akihabara and Ikebukuro; and Ueno where we pottered around Ueno Park and Tokyo National Museum.
We made it to Asakusa and Sensō-ji, the 7th century Buddhist temple, and across the river to the Edo-Tokyo Museum and Yokoamicho Park which has memorials to the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923, and the air raids of World War II.
Back in Ikebukuro, our base at the start of the trip, we went up to the top of the Sunshine 60 skyscraper for fantastic night-time views out over Toyko. Followed by a successful late night shop in one of the 100 yen shops – everything and anything for 70p!
Hakone was a complete contrast – home to hot springs and Mount Fuji (who kept herself hidden in the clouds), and the Hakone Open-Air Museum; a sculpture park set amidst the trees and hills of the national park.
At 500m it was nice and cool, and the park was lovely place to walk around – there’s even a stone channel fed by a hot spring where you can sit and ‘cool’ your weary feet. Smashing! The guest house we stayed at also had its own private indoor and outdoor onsen (hot spring baths); imagine a smaller version of the baths in Bath, without the Roman/Georgian grandeur, and you’re pretty much there.
In Kyoto, even with two days, we only saw four temples/palaces, and the old area where the geisha live and work; just a few small streets really, set around a small river. Lots of Japanese tourists there too – many of them dressed up in traditional outfits, which made for lots and lots of photos….
Hiroshima was a complete contrast to the busyness of Tokyo and Osaka. We spent most of the day on Miyajima Island with its high, tree-covered hills at the centre and temples scattered around the slopes and stretching out into the bay. Beautiful.
In the afternoon, back in Hiroshima, we went to the Peace Memorial Hall, and then through the Peace Memorial Park to the Peace Memorial Dome and the Children’s Peace Monument. All very moving, and peaceful.
To lift the sombre mood, Charlea – our fab tour leader – took us for okonomiyaki for dinner. Okonomiyaki are pancakes cooked on a hot plate. In Hiroshima we had them made right in front of us, with all 17 of us squeezed into a tiny restaurant. We filled it up, and we filled up! We had okonomiyaki in a few other places, too – the concept is the same, but the fillings vary. But they’re always yummy.
In Osaka we stayed in Namba, aka ‘party-town’. It has a very holiday feel with the ‘street of eats’, lantern-lit riverside walkways, covered food markets and lots of air-conditioned arcades where you can shop, stroll and shelter from the sun. Osaka also has karaoke and a Samurai stage sword-fighting workshop; we got to dress up as samurai, ninjas, princesses and soldiers. I loved it!
In my ‘room’ in our ‘capsule hotel’ in the evening I felt like I was on a mission to Mars…
Back in Tokyo at the end of the tour, we had a super morning at the Studio Ghibli Museum, and time to shop before our final evening as a group. We went to the amazing Robot Restaurant Show – think a high energy carnival parade inside a relatively small dark room, with seats on either side of a central aisle.
Then add giant robots, some carrying people dressed as mermaids or forest animals, drumming on big kettle drums or playing guitar (like the best air guitarist ever). Then other people dressed up as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles along with neon-light sporting creatures all performing a series of short plays. Some of which came with fireworks! Really, really fun.
This was followed by dinner at an izakaya, the perfect end to a great trip.
I do want to return to Japan – next time to the mountains, in the winter time, for some trekking….
So – a big thank you to IJT for running the HYPERJAPAN tour in the first place, to Charlea, our wonderful tour leader, and especially to Rosa, for choosing the trip, for introducing me to the world of anime and manga, and for wanting to embark on travels with her aunt!
Read more about the Travels of Mary Loosemore on her website, SparklyTrainers.
For more photos from the trip, take a look at Mary’s Japan, August 2017 photo album on Flickr. All photos © Mary Loosemore
If you fancy taking on Japan’s Golden Route, with added samurai costumes, capsule hotels and platefuls of okonomiyaki, take a look at our HYPERJAPAN J-Pop & Go small group tour.