The Tōkaidō Road was revered by artists and poets for it's beauty, and the elation with which they wrote and drew about it: especially in the series of paintings: 'The Fifty Three Stations of the Tōkaidō', meant that people began to travel it purely for leisure – which means it was probably one of the world's first classic touring routes. The 53 stations, or inn stops, were built a days walk between, when the road reached its height in popularity in the 17th century.
Japan today is a country of vast contrasts, and travelling this route offers up an opportunity to experience modern Japanese travel and modern Japan, as well as ancient Japanese travel and ancient Japan, using both the Shinkansen and walking: pilgrim or postman style. Travelling this way you should be able to complete this trip in ten days – that's if you don't fancy the walk via 53 inns.
In old Japan all roads started at Nihonbashi (literally named Japan Bridge), which marked the centre of Edo or Tokyo and the zero marker for all journeys. But before setting out on your journey it may be worth getting acquainted with some of the old treasures of Tokyo. The Tokyo Imperial Palace requires pre-booking if you want to do more than stroll around the lovely gardens, but it's still a good place to start because it's right beside the Imperial Palace East Garden, on the site of the old Edo Palace. The Yasukuni Shrine to great shoguns and other Japanese war dead is nearby, after which a wander though the old Tokyo booksellers district, where you can pick up some cheap books on Japan's history if you're not totally prepared, will drop you at the Kanda Myojin Shrine.
For even greater immersion into the past, visit the Edo Tokyo Museum by the sumo stadium - this museum has some wonderful artefacts and beautifully reconstructed models of an old wood block printing workshop and a wooden theatre.
Visiting Tokyo's shrines and temples, most of which are still in regular use today, is another good way to feel as if you're immersing yourself under the waves of Japan's rich cultural heritage. Senso-ji Temple, Hase Kannon Temple and the Meiji Jingu are some of Tokyo's most memorable.
If it's the neo neon side of Japan you want to see, shop for clothes in Ginza and Harajuku, electrical goods in Shibuya, shop for treats in Mitsukoshi, make sure you go downstairs for a look at the toffee-shiny wonderful treats of the food hall, and appreciate the vibrant, ever moving layout with its pockets of green and temple roofs from a bird's eye point of view from the top floors of Tokyo City Hall. If it's Japan in action you're here to see, the Tsukiji Fish Markets are worth getting out of bed THAT early for.
After absorbing as much culture from Tokyo as you can, board the Shinkansen to Odawara: the gateway to the Hakone National Park and Mount Fuji. Getting a Japan Rail Pass, which you have to buy BEFORE you leave home, means you can get around more easily and change your itinerary to add more detours if you have time. In Hakone, as well as a potential Fuji pilgrimage, appreciate the sights that have inspired so much art and poetry on Lake Ashi, and see some full sized old buildings and artefacts at the Hakone Open Air Museum. Make sure you try one of Hakone's famous black eggs cooked in valley water: supposed to add seven years to your life.
Board a slower train for the next leg of your journey if time permits, and stop at a few more of the 53 on the way to Kyoto: the beautiful ancient heart of Japanese culture. Gion's floating world streets, haven't lost all their mystery, scents and flashes of colour, and in the clearer air of Kyoto the temples are at their freshest and most abundant.
An afternoon stroll along the Philosopher’s Path is the perfect introduction to Kyoto - certainly a path which encourages you to ponder as you plod. The route passes some of Kyoto’s most beautiful old houses, temples and shrines, and along a willow and cherry tree lined canal, home to fat, happy carp. Ideally you’ll reach the end of the route just as evening is beginning to set in but with time to see the moss garden of Ginkaku-ji.
This small city is quite easy to get around with a map and enough confidence to travel on the metro, which is easy once you get the hang of the place names. Chion-in Temple, with Japan’s largest bell, perfectly arranged Maruyama Park and beautifully colourful Yasaka Shrine are laid out around Gion, and the Nishiki Food Market is just on the other side of the river.
If you don't know a lot about Japanese feudal history before you get to Kyoto you'll learn a lot before leaving. One of the most basic things you'll pick up on is that the Shoguns lived fairly nice lives when they weren't involved in wars or life threatening court intrigues, and Nijo Castle proves that. Toji Temple is right next door.
Rokuon-Ji Temple – possibly more familiar under the name Golden Pavilion, Heian Jingu, Sanjusangendo and the Ryoanji Temple and Garden, Japan's most famous zen garden, are other Kyoto highlights, but the spectacular Fushimi Inari Shrine is one of the most magical places in a magical old city.
Kyoto is an excellent base for several day trips, a selection of which are included in most Golden Route tour itineraries. Hiroshima is only a few hours away by train, and it's a return day trip to Miyajima Island for the the Itsukushima shrine and famous floating toji gates, or Himeji Castle. Osaka, with its castles, gardens, and rising foody culture, is only 30 mins from Kyoto on the Shinkansen, and Nara, for the ancient monuments and deer park, is only a little further.
Mount Koya, where Buddhism was founded is on the old Nankai railway line from Kyoto, and is a lovely backdrop for a short walking pilgrimage if you haven't managed to leave the rails yet. It's a nice way to finish what was originally a very long walk.
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This nine day classic offers the contrasting best of Tokyo's neon and Kyoto's ancient grace.
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