I took a 10-day retreat to Japan with my husband to explore and get to know the country. Despite the countless times I have traveled to Japan, I’ve never had a chance to venture outside of Tokyo. We bought the Japan Rail Pass for unlimited bullet train travel and visited seven amazing locations: Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto, Miyajima, Osaka, Nara, and Mount Takao.
They were some of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
As my first meal in Tokyo, I sought out Rokurinsha, a restaurant renowned for its tsukemen, a type of ramen that consists of a very thick and flavorful broth and a bowl of alkaline noodles for dipping. I love tsukemen and according to Chef David Chang of Momofuku, Rokurinsha makes the best tsukemen in the world. We waited more than an hour in line and oh, my, god he was right. It was one amazing bowl of ramen that I will one day return for.
After an overnight stay in Tokyo, we went to Hakone, a small retreat outside of Tokyo that many visit for their famous onsens, or natural hot springs. We stayed at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese-style inn, with a beautiful private onsen in our balcony. For dinner, we had a traditional delicate multi-course Japanese kaiseki dinner in the dining section of our room.
We planned our longest stay in Kyoto and it was much needed! Every corner I turned, there was another shrine or historic temple to admire and explore. There were also geishas and locals dressed up in traditional yukatas and kimonos in small alleys around the city. Traditional venues aside, Kyoto was also unexpectedly urban with skyscrapers and a bustling downtown.
From Kyoto, we took a quick side trip to Nara, the ancient capital of Japan from 710 to 734 during the Nara Period. Many of Nara’s UNESCO World Heritage shrines and temples were in a park along with about 1,200 wild deer roaming the premises. The deer have been protected and honored as divine and spiritual animals.
The “Three Views of Japan” refer to three most celebrated and beautiful sights in Japan as described by scholar Hayashi Gaho in 1643. One of them is the Torii at Itsukushima Shrine on the Island of Miyajima off the coast of Hiroshima. We stayed the night at a modern Ryokan on the Miyajima Island to visit the torii. No words can describe the breathtaking sight of the grand red-colored torii that seemingly floats in the vast ocean. During high tide, the base of the torii is submerged in water, but during low tide, people can walk right up to it. The torii was built there as a gateway separating the human and the spirit world to guard and protect the Itsukushima Shrine.
Finally, off we went to Osaka, the food capital of Japan. Osaka is famous for its street food like okonomiyaki (the best way for me to describe it would be a kitchen sink omelette pancake) and takoyaki (octopus balls). Due to its proximity to cities like Kobe and Saga, the beef in Osaka is also outstanding. And the city is alive, 24/7. For me, I prefer the serenity of Miyajima and the scene of Kyoto but Osaka was fun to explore.
We ended our trip with a visit to Mount Takao, where we opted to hike the slopes instead of taking the cable car or lift. The final hike, just like the entire trip, was rejuvenating and rewarding.