Our honeymoon in Japan was a trip about 20 years in the making.
My fascination began in Year 6 Social Studies where my teacher Mrs Bird passed on her passion for Japanese culture. I remember her distinctly bringing in a Japanese wedding kimono and pottery and I was enchanted by the perfection of those crafts and the customs we had learned about. Our class excursion that year was to an amazing Japanese restaurant - now long gone – but in 1990, when Japanese food was far from ubiquitous in Perth as it is today, I still remember every dish on the menu and how different and beautiful each was.
Although going on to study Japanese in high school, it would be many years later before we enjoyed the best steak of our lives overlooking a park full of cherry blossoms in the middle of Tokyo.
It was worth the wait, and the planning. Our trip to Japan exceeded even my sky-high expectations. It was probably the best planned itinerary of our trips to date, thanks to some incredible luck with weather and some delightful hosts.
Kyoto – 3 nights Kinosaki Onsen – 1 night Kyoto – 1 night Shibu Onsen – 1 night Kanazawa – 2 nights Shira-kawa-go – 1 night Takayama – 2 nights Magome - 1 night Tokyo – 5 nights
Trip taken – March-April 2012
Recommended for Given the extensive train travel and public transport used on this itinerary, families with very young children or mobility issues may want to dial it down a notch and take a more relaxed pace, but there really is something for everyone here. It is a great balance of city sights and natural wonders, action and relaxation, modernity and tradition. Solo travelers get a special mention as ryokans are one of the few accommodations that charge on a per head rather than per room basis.
Spotting geiko (geisha) in Gion after eating the world’s best icecream
Onsen hopping and crab dinner at our traditional ryokan accommodation at Kinosaki Onsen
A night in a temple in Kyoto
Hanging out with snow monkeys in the snow in Shibu Onsen
Hiking the old postal route between postcard-perfect towns of Magome and Tsumago
Cherry Blossom festivities, Tsukiji fish market auction and amazing teppanyaki lunch in Tokyo
Spots we missed Although our timing was perfect for enjoying snow and cherry blossoms, we were out of season for sumo wrestling and autumn leaves, so next time will plan our trip around these.
We loved Kyoto and would absolutely return, but would explore the region further, including Nara. Hiroshima and Miyajima Island are also on the list for next visit, as are the Iya Valley and Okinawa.
Planning a successful first trip to Japan
1. Choose a variety of accommodation
There are a couple of different types of accommodation in Japan.
The traditional ‘ryokan’ experience can be eyewateringly expensive, or relatively budget – either way, it is worth seeking out these ‘only in Japan’ accommodations.
Business hotels are the other broad option, and although they look pretty non-descript (that is kind of the point) when you get sick of sleeping on the floor it is good to mix up a stay in one of these hotels with more traditional accommodations. There are also some unexpected side benefits to many business hotels which often provide good value, including a range of complimentary features. One we stayed in Kanazawa was a two minute walk to the train and bus station and offered extensive complimentary breakfast, laundry facilities and a beautiful ‘sento’ or public bath.
2. Make space in your itinerary for a couple of Onsen towns
Favourites of the Japanese, onsen would have to be one of Japan’s most pleasurable holiday experiences and there are resort towns dedicated to their fabulousness – many within striking distance of major centres.
Once you acquaint yourself with bathtime etiquette and get over the initial shyness of bathing naked with a bunch of strangers (trust me, no-one is looking at you) – it is one of life’s great pleasures to slip into the piping hot thermal waters of these public baths, gad about town in a kimono eating snacks and enjoying the convivial atmosphere of historic towns like Kinosaki Onsen or Shibu Onsen.
3. Japan Rail
As for Europe, these passes are superb value and travel by Japanese rail is an unmissable experience - famously reliable and speedy, it is the only way to plan a multi-destination itinerary.
4. Plan to be lost in translation
Japan is, almost without exception, so well organised that communication need not necessarily be the issue non-Japanese speakers might imagine it to be. Even the smallest railway stations have information centres or people in charge that can point you right if you are lost, or assist to arrange onward travel.
Nevertheless, if you are not a Japanese speaker, your trip’s success will certainly come down to some careful planning as communication can be a difficulty. Make sure you print out your hotel names, maps and directions in English and Japanese, or carry with you on a digital device.
But above all, don’t be afraid to ask for help or directions – we found Japanese people went out of their way to assist us – on more than one occasion abandoning their own shop or route to deliver us to our destination.
And don’t forget to take your sense of humour – although I would acquaint yourself with the basics of Japanese etiquette so as not to deliberately offend - there will always be the odd cultural gaffe or communication barrier. As long as you are sensitive to this possibility, you will no doubt find Japanese people to be incredibly forgiving of foreigners’ faux pas.
Your planning, patience and good humour will certainly be rewarded.