Written by Kat Mackintosh
Japan is a small land with a vast cultural divide – Tokyo's neon lights, skyscrapers and 24 hour lifestylebuzz with the word NEW, while Kyoto's ancient grace proves that time and care can make even the little things beautiful – Zen and the opposite of Zen. Hiroshima represents the change from one to the other, and can be fitted into a nine day trip seeing the best of both worlds.
Tokyo is a great introduction to the Japanese contradiction – days here reach into your soul as well as your wallet and the best days do a bit of both. Shrines like Kanda Myojin are tucked between the city blocks and office workers come down in their lunch breaks for a few moments of silent reflection followed by the Shinto claps visitors quickly get used to.
If you only visit one shrine in Tokyo it should be Meiji Jingu – set in a large park it resonates with peace – but most visitors also visit Sensoji Temple as well, it's Tokyo's oldest and has a lantern lit and delicious smelling market leading up to the gates.
Tokyo's Imperial Palace doesn't quite deserve the attention its name suggests but is worth a stroll-by on your way to the old Edo Palace and controversial shrine to Japanese war dead, Yasukuni. For more of the historic visit the Edo-Tokyo Museum, conveniently located by the Ryōgoku Kokugikan, one of Japan's largest sumo arenas and a good place to drop off sports fans.
A trip to Tokyo would be incomplete without at least a nod to the deities of consumerism: Ginza and Shibuya are the famous shopping districts, Mitsukoshi is Tokyo's Harrods and Harajuku is youth culture central - it's like going shopping at a fancy dress party. It would be equally incomplete without a morning excursion to the Tsukiji Fish Markets, where you'll find a free seafood breakfast feast and a lot more.
Most visitors will want at least three or four days to soak up the bright lights of Tokyo.
The best was to get around Japan is on the Shinkansen or bullet train – it's smooth, comfortable, quick and runs almost exactly to the time table. Visitors van get a Japan Rail Pass at home, then it's a relatively painless process to have it validated on the day you want to start using it and to book your seats at the same time. You can get a pass for various durations – but if you forget to organise one before you arrive you won't be able to pick one up in Japan - they're strictly for visitors only.
If you don't know a lot about Japanese feudal history before you arrive in Kyoto you'll learn a lot before leaving. One of the first things you'll learn is that the Shoguns lived fairly nice lives when they weren't involved in wars or life threatening intrigues. Nijo Castle, the Ginkaku-ji moss garden, Toji Temple and its markets, and Chion-in Temple, which has Japan's largest bell, are some of the highlights and best places to catch a glimpse of ancient Kyoto.
The floating world of the geisha draws visitors to Kyoto and to Gion. One of the most famous geisha districts, here the narrow roads pass between bamboo fronted tea houses, or ochaya, and restaurants, where guests who can afford it are entertained by these timelessly lovely artists. If you can't afford it the show at Gion Corner will give you an idea of the traditional talents of the geisha. Marking the borders of Gion are the Niskiki Food Market, Yasaka Shrine and perfectly arranged Maruyama Park. Rokuon-Ji Temple, better known as the Golden Pavilion, is much loved by photographers, as is the Ryoanji Temple and Garden, probably the most famous of Japan's raked stone Zen gardens, and they're in the same neighbourhood.
One of the real highlights of Kyoto is the Fushimi Inari Shrine – equally photogenic - behind this shrine are thousands of vermilion tori gates set out together like a long corridor leading you all the way up to the top of the hill – definitely worth it if you can spare half a day.
Hiroshima is only a few hours away from Kyoto on the Shinkansen, so worth a day trip, but only if you can still spare three or four days in Kyoto.
For most people there's only really one reason to visit Hiroshima. However much the town's citizens would like to move on from its nuclear past it will never be able to shake the shadow of it. The bomb's legacy is visible all over town - as soon as you get off the train there's photos of the bomb damaged station. Catch the tram from the station to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Peace Memorial Park. You'll know when to get off because the haunting, yet iconic, skeleton of the Genbaku Dome comes into view.
If you still have a day or two spare you might want to consider tackling Mt. Fuji on the way back to Tokyo instead of just taking a photo of it though the window of the bullet train.
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This journey from Tokyo to Kyoto follows one of Japan's most famous ancient roads.
Kyoto lets you back into the world of old Japan, of religion, royalty, commerce and nightlife. Gion’s streets beckon warmly after a day of gazing in awe at Kyoto’s thousands of temples and shrines-proving there is still life in the beautiful old girl