Which countries come to mind when you think of your bucket list travel destinations? For us, one of them is Japan and has been for quite some time. We always hear about our friends’ amazing trips to Japan, and so we finally had enough and decided to go.
As we had only 1 week to squeeze in Japan (because we also planned on going to Seoul and Hong Kong), we decided to join a tour group. We booked it back home through a tour company called Jacco Tours. We purchased a 6-day, 6-city tour, which included stops in Narita, Tokyo, Hakone, Nagoya, Kyoto, and Osaka.
The tour costed $700 per person and included all accommodations at 4- or 5-star hotels, ground transportation, attraction entrance fees, and 3 meals per day. It’s not only a very economical deal, but it would allow us to experience a lot in a fairly short amount of time. The catch is that they really only market this tour package to Chinese people (ie. no English brochures). You would have a really hard time getting by on this tour if you don’t understand Chinese. Luckily between May and I, we have Cantonese and Mandarin covered.
The only drawback is that the days start really early and you’re on the road by 8am, and you end up spending a lot of time commuting between cities on the tour bus. On average, I would say we spent about 6 hours every day on the road, and had another 6 hours dedicated to eating and sightseeing. Luckily, we had a tour guide with a great sense of humour to keep the long road trips light and entertaining. Our group consisted mainly of Chinese people from Canada, United States, Malaysia, and Taiwan.
On the first day, we flew into Narita late in the afternoon and would spend the night at the Radisson Hotel. There’s really nothing to do in Narita except visit a couple of temples and go to the AEON mall. AEON (formerly known as JUSCO) is a chain of retail stores with locations scattered all throughout Asia, and is Japan’s single-largest shopping mall operator. We decided to head there and it was nice that there was also a free shuttle bus service from our hotel. With over 170 stores, the AEON mall in Narita is quite large. Its department store can be compared to Walmart in the sense that you can buy just about anything ranging from clothing to housewares and groceries. They also have a great selection of pre-packaged and bulk à la carte Japanese foods including sushi, tempura, robata, baked goods, and much more. As a snack, we picked up a freshly made okinomiyaki soba, which is basically a Japanese pancake filled with yakisoba and wrapped in a fried egg and topped with teriyaki sauce. With a lot of dining options inside the mall, we decided to stop into Yamato for some dinner.
Left: Narita is well-known for its grilled unagi (eel) dishes, so we decided to try their unagi nigiri. It was smoky, delicately tender, and delicious. Right: We sat at the sushi bar, where there were self-serve matcha tea. You can see the container of matcha and a tap for hot water. We’ve never seen anything like that before, so that was a neat little touch.
Left: Uni (sea urchin), salmon roe, and chopped fatty tuna sushi; Right: Toro (tuna belly) nigiri. The seafood at Yamato was fresh, the sushi was well-prepared, and the prices were decent.
With nothing else to do that evening, we decided to call it a night and rest up for a busy day ahead.
We woke up bright and early at 6:30am and had a buffet breakfast at our hotel. At 8am sharp, we boarded the tour bus and hit the road to explore Tokyo. We drove into Chiyoda, a special ward in central Tokyo where many government buildings are located. Our first stop was the Tokyo Imperial Palace, which is the main residence of the Emperor of Japan (currently Emperor Akihito). The palace sits along the Arakawa River and is encircled by moats.
Left: You can see the main palace residence just beyond the bridge; Right: Outside of the palace is a statue of Kusunoki Masashige, a decorated 14th-century samurai.
Unfortunately the palace isn’t open to the public, so after snapping some photos outside, we hopped back aboard the bus and headed towards Shibuya, Tokyo’s trendy and youthful shopping district. While we didn’t check out the famous busy intersection located in front of Shibuya Station’s Hachiko exit, we did get to see the beautiful Meiji Jingu Shrine instead.
It’s amazing that amidst the urban commercial sprawl of Shibuya that there’s a 175-acre forest just blocks away. This is where the Meiji Shrine is located. It is a Shinto shrine that was built in the 1920’s and is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken. The original shrine was bombed during World War II, but it was reconstructed in the late 1950’s with some public funding.
Above: Today, it is a popular relaxation and recreation area which is also a popular venue for traditional Japanese weddings. While we were there, there were actually several weddings taking place that day and we even saw one wedding procession march past us.
Above: There is a wall of empty sake barrels at the entrance of the garden. The barrels were donated and it’s actually common for there to be decoration barrels (or kazaridaru) on display outside of Shinto temples. Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan and those who practice it believe that sake brings their gods and their people together.
We can also see a cleansing fountain (left) and a prayer wall (right) where people can post their prayers and also read those left by others.
We soon left and headed to the Odaiba district for some shopping. A man made island in Tokyo Bay that was built in the 19th century to protect Tokyo against possible attacks from the sea, today Odaiba is a popular shopping and entertainment area, Our first stop was Decks Tokyo Beach, where you will find 2 malls, Island Mall and Seaside Mall, both of them geared towards kids, youth, and young adults. From the boardwalk outside, we were able to enjoy great view of Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo Bay as we enjoyed a quick lunch at one of the Chinese restaurants upstairs.
Afterwards, we walked over to the Venus Fort shopping mall, which features over a hundred shops, fashion boutiques, cafes and restaurants on three floors including a few outlets shops on the upper floor. It reminded me a lot of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, as it was modeled after an ancient European city with its painted sky ceiling.
Located next door is Toyota’s car theme park Mega Web. Here you can see all the latest and future Toyota products, visit some exhibits, and even go on some interactive rides. As the global leader in automotive vehicle sales, it’s no surprise that there’s a theme park dedicated to this company right in the heart of Japan.
Our next stop was Asakusa, another district in Tokyo, famous for the Sensō-ji, a very popular 7th century Buddhist temple and a major tourist hotspot.
Left: We indulged in this cute and refreshing black sesame ice cream burger; Right: A vendor prepares various grilled mochi ball skewers.
Left: Leading up to the temple is Nakamise, a shopping street that has been providing temple visitors with a variety of traditional, local snacks and tourist souvenirs for centuries. This shopping street was bustling with locals and tourists, and the temple is definitely an attraction you don’t want to miss when you’re in Tokyo. Right: Capturing some tourist moments in Asakusa.
Left: You can find lots of rickshaws that will take your around this neighbourhood. Right: Off in the distance, you can see Tokyo Skytree, currently the second tallest structure in the world, only behind the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
After exploring the area around the temple, we headed to Ginza, Tokyo’s most famous upscale shopping and entertainment district, featuring numerous high-end boutiques, clubs, cafes, and art galleries. It is the Tokyo equivalent of Hollywood’s Rodeo Drive or New York’s glamorous 5th Avenue.
Here we would stop for dinner at Carne Station, which is a yakiniku (Japanese BBQ) buffet. With dozens of piles of meats and seafood to choose from, a self-serve sushi bar, and draft beer on tap, it was a great way to end a long day of shopping and sightseeing.
Sadly, we only spent one night in Tokyo, so we didn’t get to see a whole lot. There were a lot of other things that I wished we had time to see, including the famous Shibuya crossing, Tsukiji Fish Market, Rappongi Hills, and much more. I guess they will have to wait until our next visit to Tokyo.
The next stop in our Japan tour is the small mountainous town of Hakone, known for its onsen hot springs and its proximity to Mount Fuji. Stay tuned!