Two week road trip – Part IV: Osaka & Nara

After a day of onsen soaking in Beppu it was time to start heading north back towards Tokyo, but not without making a few more stops on the way. The first stop was Osaka, Japan’s second largest city.

I had originally planned to visit Himeji castle as a day trip from Osaka; however, while on the Osaka bound Shinkansen from Kyushu I was studying Google Maps (as I’m prone to do) and realized that my train would be stopping at Himeji. So, I cancelled my dedicated day trip plan and decided to visit the castle right then and there (cheers to efficiency!). With my Japan rail pass in tow it would be no problem to hop back on the next Shinkansen in a few hours and finish the trip to Osaka.

Travel Tip: Himeji castle is an easy 15 – 20 minute walk from the train station, so no need to stress about local bus transport when you arrive. I was travelling with my big backpack so also made use of the storage lockers they have at the station to avoid carrying it around the castle with me.

The beautiful Himeji castle

No shoes allowed. Ever!


Having only spent two days in Osaka, I didn’t really experience much of what this modern, bustling city has to offer. It mostly served as a base for a day trip to Nara. That said, I did explore the city a bit and visited its castle, of course!

A rainy day at Osaka castle

The view from the top of Osaka castle

Nara (and surrounding areas) day trip

I met a great guy named Miłosz from Poland at my hostel in Osaka and we both wanted to visit Nara, so we decided to go together. But before we got to Nara we made a few memorable stops at some of Japan’s many UNESCO World Heritage sites and other important monuments.

Road tripping with Milosz

Byōdō-in – a buddhist temple in the city of Uji in Kyoto Prefecture:

Ujigami Shrine –  a Shinto shrine in the city of Uji (located near Byōdō-in):

Thirteen-storied pagoda (the largest stone pagoda in Japan), located in Tonoshima, on the Kamo River:

Todai-ji – a Buddhist temple complex located in the city of Nara:

Todai-ji is huge!

Kasuga-taisha – a Shinto shrine located in Nara that’s famous for its many bronze lanterns, as well as the eerie stone lanterns leading up to it:

No visit to Nara would be complete without a couple obligatory photos!

Deer are regarded as messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion.

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Two week road trip – Part III: Fukuoka & Beppu


I had planned to spend just one full day in Fukuoka, the capital of Fukuoka Prefecture on the northern shore of Japan’s Kyushu Island, so had to be selective about how I spent it. My original plan was to visit three main places (Nanzoin Temple, Dazaifu Tenman-gū shrine and Daihonzan Naritasan Kurume Temple); however, further research revealed that there was quite a lot of distance between each of the locations.

In the end, I decided to just visit the Nanzoin Temple because it’s home to the world’s biggest bronze statue – a giant reclining Buddha. Can’t miss that!

The Nanzoin Temple is about a 35 minute train ride from Hakata Station in Fukuoaka. You depart the train at Kido-Nanzoin-mae Station and from there it’s just a few minutes walk.

There are many other interesting aspects to Nanzoin aside from the giant Buddha and it’s a large complex with numerous shrines and statues scattered throughout.

Greeted by a cat at the temple entrance

In addition to the cat, visitors are greeted by Fudou Myouou, a fierce Buddhist deity.

You would think that a giant Buddha would be hard to miss, but somehow I didn’t see the signs that directed visitors to its location. I searched the complex valiantly, walking down every pathway I could find in hopes that the Buddha would reveal itself.

After a 1km uphill walk through a bamboo forest I decided to turn back to the main complex. Mind you, it was pouring rain and I was wearing my pack (12 kilos or 26 pounds) during this ordeal. Not fun.

I did not find the Buddha here

Alas, I found the giant Buddha!

Buddhas usually come in one of three basic poses – sitting, standing and reclining. This reclining Buddha is a whopping 41 meters long, 11 meters tall, and weighs 300 tons!

The reclining pose represents the Buddha at the point of his death entering Nirvana (nehan).

Buddha feet

No visit to Fukuoka is complete without having ramen, the city’s most famous food!


After Fukuoka, a two hour train ride brought me to my next stop Beppu, a small city in Ōita Prefecture on the island of Kyushu. Beppu is renowned for its onsen (hot springs) and has eight primary geothermal hotspots known as the “eight hells”.

Aside from enjoying the onsen, there’s really not much to see or do in Beppu. I stayed two nights, but wished that I had only spent one or none.

The main thing I had to worry about in Beppu was to find an onsen that would let me in. You see, I have tattoos and Japan culture frowns upon such art because it’s associated with Yakuza (Japanese mafia members), who are heavily tattooed.

This article does a great job of explaining why tattoos are taboo in Japan and provides some tips and tricks that foreign visitors can use to find tattoo-friendly onsen.

When I arrived at the Beppu train station I stopped at the visitor information booth to inquire about the local bus schedule (the best way to access and tour the various onsen). I also asked the lady working there if she could suggest any places that were accepting of tattooed guests and she gave me some great recommendations. She was even kind enough to draw the bus route on my map so that I wouldn’t get lost!

When you visit onsen you enjoy the water fully naked, so needless to say I don’t have any many photos from my time in Beppu other than these shots of the geothermal steam that constantly hangs over the city ; )


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Two week road trip – Part II: Miyajima day trip

Hiroshima’s top tourist attractions can be visited in one or two days (I did it in one), but I decided to stay an extra night so that I could take a day trip to Itsukushima, commonly known as Miyajima, a small island in Hiroshima Bay.

The island is easily accessible from Hiroshima. To reach the ferry departure point, I took the JR Sanyo Line from Hiroshima to Miyajimaguchi Station (25 minutes). And because it’s a JR line, I was able to use my Japan Rail Pass.

From Miyajimaguchi station it’s about a 5 minute walk to the ferry pier. The route is well marked too, with signs clearly directing you to the “ferry”.  If you have a JR Pass you can use it to board the ferry operated by The Japan Railways Group (another company called Matsudai runs a competing ferry service).

The trip to Miyajima takes 10 minutes and the ferry runs frequently, so there is no need to pre-book a ticket or anything like that. Just hop on the next ferry leaving the pier!

The ferry departing to Miyajima island

The island’s giant gate (torii) marks the entrance to Itsukushima Shrine and is one of Japan’s most iconic images. All of the photos I’d seen of the torii were at high tide. Upon arriving at low tide, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that you can walk right up to the torii (so long as you don’t mind a little mud!).

The torii at low tide

The torii at high tide

Five-storied pagoda

Itsukushima Shrine at low tide

The highlight of my trip to Miyajima was undoubtedly Mount Misen (弥山), the island’s highest peak. The hike to the top was about 3 kilometers and took around 75 minutes to complete. For those not inclined to hike, there is a ropeway gondola that will take you close to the top.

The summit provided breathtaking views of the small islands dotting the Seto Inland Sea.


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Two week road trip – Part I: Okayama, Matsue & Hiroshima

After a few days back in Tokyo it was time to hit the road again and starting making the most of my 21-day Japan Rail Pass investment. The next two weeks would take me from Tokyo all the way to Kyushu (Japan’s southernmost island) and many places in between.


My first stop was Kurashiki city in Okayama prefecture. Located on the Takahashi river, this historic city is sometimes referred to as  the venice of Japan.

The canal in Kurashiki City

An artist at work as visitors float by enjoying the scenery

After enjoying the water landscape I randomly came across a temple that was completely void of any other people. Without a single tourist or local in sight I had the entire place to myself just as the sun was beginning to set.


The next day I took a slow train to the city of Matsue, the capital city of Shimane Prefecture. Matsue is not a place that many western tourists think to visit, and I had never come across it during any of my preliminary Japan research.

Upon arriving at the train station I met up with Kazuko-san, who had travelled there from Tokyo by overnight bus. Our first order of business was going to meet up with her longtime friends for lunch.


The ladies and I at lunch

After lunch, Kazuko-san and I strolled around the Matsue castle before heading back to our hotel to escape the rain.


No Japan itinerary is complete without a visit to Hiroshima or Nagasaki.  Every visitor should try to visit one, if not both, of these historic cities to better understand their symbolic importance. I did not visit Nagasaki, but my time in Hiroshima was sobering and also surprisingly uplifting.  The sobering part is obvious – a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum brings to the light in graphic detail the horrors of August 6th, 1945 and the painful aftermath in the decades that followed.

The uplifting part comes from experiencing the thriving, vibrant and peaceful city that Hiroshima has rebuilt itself into. Check out this wonderful BBC article, How Hiroshima rose from the ashes to learn more about the city’s inspiring resurgence.


The remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, commonly known as the A-Bomb dome.

The view from Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park looking through to the A-Bomb Dome

Walking past Hiroshima castle

A stroll through Hiroshima’s serene Shukkei-en garden

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Nikko day trip

Back in Tokyo after my trip to Kanazawa, it was time again to venture outside of Tokyo. I departed early in the morning to visit Nikko, a small town in Tochigi prefecture north of Tokyo. The main draws in Nikko? The Toshogu Shrine and a beautiful, cascading waterfall.

Kissing shinkansens

The picturesque walk from the train station to Toshogu Shrine.

The shrine’s crowded entrance.

The view at the waterfall revealed the earliest signs of autumn colors beginning to show.


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Exploring Kanazawa

After spending a night in Matsumoto I traveled by shinkansen to Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture.

My first Shinkansen!

I had a few hours to kill before meeting up with my couchsurfing host Karina later in the afternoon, so I used to the time to visit the Kenroku-en garden and the Kanazawa castle.

A picture perfect day for wandering the garden.

After spending an hour in the garden, I made the short walk over to the adjecent castle. Having been destroyed and rebuilt after numerous fires during the course of its history, the castle went through its most recent major restoration in 2001.

The impressive pillars are Japanese cypress, with American cypress used for the primary ceiling beams.

After finishing up at the castle I met up with my couchsurfing host Karina. It was her day off work, which allowed us to spend some quality time together as she was gracious enough to show me around Kanazawa as only a local could.

On the beach with Karina.

The next day we explored the local market, neighborhoods and a hidden gem of a temple!

A pear the size of my head!

A well-preserved Edo-era district.

A great little local temple that we discovered after deciding not to visit the more well-known (and expensive) Ninja-dera temple.


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Matsumoto Castle

Although I could spend ages in Tokyo, there is so much to see throughout Japan! Alas, it was time for my first overnight trip outside of Tokyo. The destination? Matsumoto – an idyllic mountain town in Nagano prefecture.

The city’s main draw is its impressive castle. Protected by a mout, the castle is often referred to as the “Crow Castle” (烏城 Karasu-jō) because of its black exterior.

View from the castle’s top floor.

The inside of the castle is home to impressive artifacts that help bring its storied history to life.

Samurai armour on display inside the castle

Some of the earliest guns used to protect the castle from invaders.

After visiting the castle I explored the rest of the small city and ventured into the Matsumoto Timepiece Museum.

After spending the afternoon wandering around Matsumoto it was time to go back to the castle to see it at night. If you’re lucky enough to visit the castle, I definitely recommend viewing it during the daytime and making a return visit at night because they are completely distinct experiences. See for yourself below…

The lit up castle is breathtaking!


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Sankein Garden in Yokohama

Located just over an hour from Tokyo by train, the Sankien Garden in Yokohama makes for a pleasant and peaceful day trip to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city.

An impressive pagoda atop the hill

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Arrival in Japan

I arrived to Japan’s Narita airport on September 29th around 3:30 PM local time. Narita is located quite far from central Tokyo (nearly a two hour drive), so I took the very convenient Airport Limousine Bus service into the city.

My hosts Takei-san and Kazuko-san met me at the bus stop (Westin Hotel) closest to their home in Tokyo’s Meguro district. I was feeling pretty out of it after having just come off the 13 hour flight and operating on virtually no sleep, so we stopped for a quick dinner at a diner on the walk home. After getting settled in at the house I went straight to bed. Little did I know, my gracious hosts had a big first day planned for me!

Takei (right) and Kazuko (left)

My first full day in offered a whirlwind introduction to Tokyo. To get me acclimated to the neighborhood, Takei walked me around and showed me the sights, including a trip to the local temple.

The house I stayed at in Meguro

The neighborhood temple complex

More from the neighborhood temple complex

After walking around the neighborhood, we went to the Meguro metro station where Takei helped me purchase my very own Suica metro card.

My very own Suica card

After a very nice lunch, we walked through a local garden (Takei’s favorite) and stopped for a matcha tea break.

My Japanese grandparents 🙂

Fresh matcha tea!

The next stop on our intro to Tokyo tour was an owl cafe! I’d never heard of such a place before, so when they told me we were going to an owl cafe I thought they meant we were going to an owl-themed (i.e. wallpaper and decorations) coffee shop. Boy, was I wrong!

To end the day, we went to the famous Akihabara district – home to a plethora of electronic device and appliance shops.

Having fun at Yodobashi shop in Akihabara district


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