River at night in Kurokawa Onsen

Hot spring hopping in Kurokawa Onsen

Hot springs (or onsen) are synonymous with Japanese culture and for many, a part of every day Kurokawa Onsenlife. In fact thermal springs are so abundant in Japan that there are many dedicated onsen towns  that lend themselves to ‘onsen hopping’ – a rather charming way to sample a selection of the town’s best baths. Kurokawa Onsen is one such town, and whilst it is more difficult to access via public transport, it’s historic baths and rural location in the heart of Kyushu make this picturesque onsen town well worth a visit.

Kurokawa Onsen townEasily explored on foot, Kurokawa Onsen’s steep cobbled roads are lined with little gift shops and restaurants. Nestled among them are several ryokan which you can stay in for a small fortune, or for a much more reasonable price you can spend an afternoon making use of their onsen by purchasing an ‘onsen hopping pass’.  You can buy your pass at the visitor centre or from any of the twenty- four participating ryokan, which gets you into three baths of your choice and is presented on entry in exchange for a stamp.

It is customary to wear a yukata throughout town between bathing and most local hotels or ryokan provide these when you stay with them, along with a belt, jacket and small modesty towel. If you need to store your luggage there are lockers at the visitor centre in town. Just don’t forget your towel and camera!

There are maps displayed in town and you can find a helpful free English onsen guide at the Kurokawa Onsenvisitor centre explaining about each onsen clearly numbered on the map. Some are more sulphuric, acidic or alkaline and may be reputed to have specific health benefits.  You will find that some onsen may be closed due to maintenance – check at the visitor centre before you go.

Most of the onsen are gender separated although some are mixed.  We tried two that were gender separated, one of which was accessed by walking through a beautiful moss garden and we both had the onsen all to ourselves.

Cave bath at Kurokawa OnsenWe did also visit quite a unique but very popular mixed onsen in a cave. I enjoyed the onsen and it was possible to find a private spot away from other people, however I did feel a little exposed when dressing as there did not seem to be an obvious separate changing area for ladies. There seemed to be mainly men in the onsen, some with children, and not many of them used their modesty towels!

I believe it is possible to reserve certain onsen in the town for private bathing for an extra fee. If Foot bath at Kurokawa Onsenthis still doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, why not take advantage of one of the free foot spas dotted around town? Just take your shoes and socks off at the entrance and roll up your trousers to enjoy the hot springs and rest your feet.

There is something peaceful and very  Japanese about watching people strolling around the quaint streets of this beautiful rural town in their yukatas. Onsen hopping is a must for anyone that loves bathing in natural hot water and wants to enjoy an interesting cultural experience.

Note: Your onsen pass will set you back 1300 yen (£9) per person and is valid for up to six months.

Top tip: Kurosawa Onsen is accessible by bus, however getting there by car gives you more options for basing yourself slightly out of town where you can find less exclusive accommodation at a more reasonable price.

For more advice on what to do at a Japanese onsen, visit my blog post on how to onsen in Japan!

Azalea's on Kyushu, Japan

A day hike in Aso Kuju National Park

Hoarfrost in Kuju MountainsThe Aso Kuju National Park lies roughly in the centre of Kyushu and is made up of the Aso volcanic plateau and the Kuju mountain range. This range has several peaks over 1700m and remains volcanically active today. It’s ever changing scenery is most popular in June when the hills are littered with bright pink kyushu azaleas. However each season brings beautiful colours as trees turn white in winter with hoarfrost and the leaves of the white enkianthus  become red in October. We visited in early spring when there was still a bitterly cold wind and evidence of winter lingering on the trees at higher elevation.

A good place to start your hike is at the Chojabaru Visitor Centre in the north east section of the park, on the road to Beppu. If approaching the visitor centre from the south you will drive to it via the scenic Makinoto Pass. Entrance is free and there is information to read, maps and leaflets in English. An interesting twenty minute film about the area (with English subtitles) is available to watch if you have time. The staff at the visitor centre are particularly helpful and were able to suggest a hiking route for us on the day. You can purchase a very good hiking map of the area here for 300 yen.

We decided to hike up Mount Minimata, at approximately 12km and 1700m elevation which in total took us around 4.5 hours including pausing for the obligatory photos and a lunch stop. The path begins at the visitor centre and winds gently up a concrete path for 2 km or so before turning into a gravel path. The views from quite early on are breath taking.

About half way up the path becomes very rocky and you begin to see steam billowing from a neighbouring volcano. The path going up through the rocks is quite difficult to miss as there are painted yellow dots lining the way. Shortly you will come to a covered rest area with benches which is where we decided to break for lunch. Note that there are no facilities here at all, but the remains of an old concrete shelter provided a much needed respite from the wind.

After this begins a steep and rocky trail towards the summit which we found to be very muddy and slippery, so do be careful if the ground is wet.
A ‘false summit’ near the top of the mountain brings temporary elation until you realise you’re not quite there yet. From here you can see the top of Mount Minimata and a further thirty to forty minutes through similar terrain takes you to the summit.  From here we were rewarded with a glimpse of the large caldera viewed occasionally through the shifting clouds.

After reaching the summit there is a circular route that takes you to three other peaks and back to the top of Mount Minimata. We did not do this due to time pressure but followed the same track back down towards the visitor centre after taking a few snaps.

Be warned that the weather can change very quickly on the mountain and you should be prepared for all conditions. The hike does not require technical experience but a fair level of fitness and agility are required to navigate steep uphill climbs over rocky and slippery terrain.

There is a myriad of hiking trails in this mountain range and I would recommend staying for at least a few days if you are a keen walker and time allows. We barely scratched the surface of this beautiful region which provides a welcomed escape from the expanse of Japan’s busy cities and an opportunity to reconnect with nature. The region is also known for it’s fantastic hot springs and within an hours drive is the much loved onsen town of Kurokawa Onsen – a great place to soak your tired muscles after a good day’s hiking!

Miyajima floating gate

An afternoon on Miyajima Island

Miyajima Island is one of those places that pops up in all the travel brochures and you almost feel obliged to visit it because it is mentioned so many times. It was added to our Japan itinerary without us really knowing an awful lot about it, but soon became yet another highlight of our Miyajima Island viewtrip. The island in Hiroshima bay is most famous for it’s red floating gate (or torii) which at high tide appears to hover elegantly in the waters close to shore. The torii is just part of the impressive Itsukushima shrine – a UNESCO world heritage site and said to be one of the top three scenic sights in the whole of Japan. There are many other reasons to visit this lush island which is surprisingly forested and mountainous . There are plenty of things to do here and much hiking to be had for the more adventurous. Sadly we only had an afternoon on the island but I felt i could easily have spent a whole day and night here.

Ferries are provided by japan rail (covered by your japan rail pass) from Miyajimaguchi and various other private companies which run fairly regularly from other nearby ports including hiroshima and some larger hotels. Typically the ferries don’t provide a return service that runs much later than 17:00, so plan to stay on the island or get there early to make the most of your day.

Forget taking a car onto the island as this is actively discouraged and the island is not particularly car friendly. Most places you will want to visit are accessible by foot. Allow a few hours just to stroll around the town and surrounding area taking in Daisho-in temple, the numerous shops and to soak up the atmosphere as you walk along it’s ancient streets.

Itsukushima shrine, Miyajima IslandItsukushima shrine, Miyajima IslandItsukushima shrine:  This world heritage site is an example of shinden architecture and is home to the famed torii floating gate. Overlooking the beautiful Hiroshima bay and a 15 minute walk from the ferry port, the shrine complex is centuries old and can be admired at both low and high tide. Various festivals and events are held at the shrine throughout the year including regular performances of the ancient  ‘Bugaku’ court – dance. Allow 30 minutes to stroll round the shrine and take a few snaps.

Admission 300 Yen (~£2)

Opening times as per website below:

January 1 12 a.m. 6:30 p.m.
January 2 – 3 6:30 a.m. 6:30 p.m.
January 4 – end of February 6:30 a.m. 5:30 p.m.
March 1 – October 14 6:30 a.m. 6:00 p.m.
October 15 – November 30 6:30 a.m. 5:30 p.m.
December 1 – December 31 6:30 a.m. 5:00 p.m.

Momijidani Park: This beautiful park is a favourite for cherry tree viewing in Spring, it’s maple trees in autumn and is popular with Miyajima Islandpeople and tame deer alike. The park makes for a pleasant stroll and leads up to the ropeway station for Mount Misen. There are one or two notable points such as a koi pond and a picturesque red bridge (pictured right). 

Mount Misen:  At 500m above sea level, Mount Misen is the highest peak on the island. For 1800 yen (return) you can take a cable car to the top or for the more adventurous you can take one of the three hiking trails that wind up to it’s summit. Expect your hard effort to be rewarded with panoramic views from the top. Lured by the prospect of souvenir shopping, I skipped the hike whilst my husband took the Momijidani path up the mountain – a forested route with great views across the island.

Shopping on Miyajima: if you’re looking for retail therapy, check out the shopping arcade for some lovely gifts. The main shopping street is also home to the world’s largest rice scoop – the rice scoop being a popular item to buy here, along with kokeshi dolls, maneki-neko (beckoning cat) ornaments, samurai swords and the obligatory ‘hello kitty’ paraphernalia.

Oysters on miyajima IslandMiyajima’s food:  Miyajima was one of the culinary highlights of our trip to Japan. We basically ate our way across the island. Conger eel and oysters are a specialty and you can buy these from street stalls or in restaurants. One if the best ways to sample lots of different food is to take in some street food, which is often cheaper too. We managed to find an an amazing okonomiyaki (savoury pancake) restaurant,  called ‘momo chan’, where they have an English menu and for a very reasonable price you can watch them make your pancake to order in front of you. Then there were the momiji cakes… lovely warm sponge cakes available with a variety of fillings; azuki bean, chocolate, sweet potato, apple, vanilla, peach, blueberry and of course – green tea. At around 90 yen each, you can just keep going! Even more Cafe on Miyajima Islandexcitingly you can see them being made. This shop in the shopping arcade had a small seating area at the back where you could enjoy a cup of green tea with your momiji cake whilst looking out at a beautiful Japanese garden (pictured right).

Top tips: Take a note of when high tide is in order to see the famous torii ‘float’ but don’t panic if like us, you can’t get there for when the tide is at it’s highest. The gate is still an impressive spectacle even at low tide and you can even walk out to it on the beach.

Don’t miss the views from the historic Machiya street of the pagoda, and of the town from the Yamabe path.

Stay: The Grand Prince Hotel in Hiroshima offers a free shuttle bus to and from the hotel from Hiroshima train station. There is an express ferry to Miyajima that leaves just outside the hotel and takes 25 minutes (cost 3,300 yen round trip). Not the cheapest option for getting to the island, but a great base to get there if your budget allows. For 10,500 yen (£73 +/-), our hotel room included a fantastic sea view and modern facilities. There is a lovely 5km running path that hugs the shore initially then winds through a wooded area. There are several restaurants to choose from and the sky lounge on the 23rd floor boasts both spectacular views and a reasonably priced bar menu.

Japanese girls in Kimono

Renting a kimono in Japan

As you visit popular tourist sites in Japan, you can’t help but notice how many people are wearing kimonos. Older ladies wearing them to a special engagement, teenage girls on a fun day out and couples hand in hand; the kimono is making a come back in Japan.  Dressing up to go sight-seeing may seem strange, but this unique experience will add fun to your day out and an extra splash of colour to your photos.

As a tourist it is easy to participate in this ancient tradition and you will find plenty of tourist-Kimono rental Asakusa Tokyofriendly kimono rental stores around. Prices vary from place to place and can be anything from 2,500 to 14,500 yen (£17 – £100) depending on which plan you choose. Typically standard kimono rental costs around 4,000- 4,500 yen (£25- £30). Optional extras include more elaborate hair styles, obi (belt), umbrellas, jackets and a greater variety of kimono.

We rented near to Senso-ji temple in the Asakusa area of Tokyo. I reserved before we visited and paid slightly extra, in advance, to get an early appointment (in hindsight I possibly wouldn’t have paid the extra as it only saved us about half an hour). We chose the standard couple’s plan which included the kimono, obi, socks, shoes, bag, dressing service and hair styling.

KimonoOn arrival we were greeted and given time to choose which kimono we wanted. There are plenty to choose from and the ladies advised which obi would be a good match. You can choose your shoes (or ‘Geta’) and a small bag to take your valuables with you.

The ladies were really sweet and spoke a little English. We were ushered into a changing area behind a curtain (gender separated) where they give you special socks and a light garment to put over your underwear. They dress you in your chosen kimono before styling your hair. You are given a bag to place your clothes in, as well as anything else you don’t want to take with you.

Kimono rental Tokyo

The whole thing took around one hour and we were not there at a busy time. Unfortunately for us, it was raining heavily outside so taking pictures was more of a challenge. However l still managed to get my fix of cherry blossoms and the experience became a real highlight of the trip. We were amazed at the acknowledgement we received from local people when wearing our kimono, and several tourists wanted to have their picture taken with me which only added to the memory!

Kimono rental shop Tokyo

TOP TIP: Several kimono rental stores have an English page on their website and accept reservations online. I used Kyoto Kimono Rental wargo who have a particularly good website which is easy to navigate and they have shops in a variety of locations (not just Kyoto). The picture on the left is the Asakusa (Sensoji temple) branch which was not that easy to find however google maps got us there, and this is what the outside of the shop looks like.

Don’t plan to go too far in your kimono as walking becomes slightly more challenging. Rather, rent your kimono near to a particular place you want to visit and somewhere that makes for an interesting backdrop on your photos.

If travelling during peak season, reserve ahead to avoid disappointment. Ideally allow at least a whole morning or afternoon for kimono rental, and don’t forget your camera!

Beppu Beach Sand Bath

Sand bathing on Kyushu

Bathing in hot volcanic sand is one of the more unusual things you can do in Japan. Beppu, on the island of Kyushu is famed for its hot springs and has been offering is visitors sand baths for hundreds of years. Claimed to be beneficial for a number of ailments, the heat and minerals provided by the hot sand are thought to have many therapeutic effects.

‘Beppu beach sand bath’ as it’s name suggests is on the shore, only a few kilometres from the centre of Beppu and can easily be accessed by car or foot.Beppu Beach Sand Bath

On arrival you will pay the entrance fee of 1030 yen (~£7), be given a ticket with a number written on it and then pointed towards the relaxation room to wait until your number is called. We went on a Sunday around 1pm and had to wait one hour.  The difficulty comes when they announce your number over the loud speaker in Japanese, unless your Japanese is particularly good! We just checked the numbers of people around us and guessed when it was our turn before showing it to the ladies at the reception who then gave us our yukata to change into.

There are separate changing facilities for men and women, which are small but there are lockers to store your belongings for 100 yen. After stripping down to your birthday suit you can then put on your yukata with obi belt and head out to the beach. I took with me my towel and camera which I left on the side.

Beppu Beach Sand BathThis is where the fun starts! You are shown to your ‘hole ‘ in the sand where you lie down with your head on a wooden block. The ladies then shovel hot black sand all over you leaving just your head poking out. It’s surprisingly heavy so bear in mind that you won’t be able to move very much for the 15 minutes they leave you to relax. I wouldn’t say the sand was unbearably hot or sweaty, just a pleasant temperature and it was a really nice experience. One of the ladies, seeing my camera at the side offered to take pictures of us.

After about fifteen minutes you will be prompted to get up which is easier than you might Beppu Beach Sand Bathimagine and you will need to head to the shower facilities to wash off the sand. There is a separate bathing area with soap provided, but no towels.

I would highly recommend this experience but bear in mind that you may have to wait and that the washing facilities are very basic, bring a towel and 100 yen for the locker.

Top tip: Probably not for the claustrophobic or for those with a fear of being buried alive!

Opening hours of the sand bath’s at Beppu beach are 8:30 – 18:00 between early March and early November and is closed on the fourth Wednesday of every month.

They do not allow anyone under the influence of alcohol, people who have heart disease, high blood pressure, pregnant or menstruating women to enter the sand baths.

Mount Fuji from Lake Ashi

The iconic Mount Fuji – a day hike from Hakone

Hakone is a popular day trip from Tokyo. It also serves as a good base for hiking and taking a trip out to Lake Ashi for that classic view of Mount Fuji. If you have time, spend a couple of nights here to make the most of the area.

Keen to avoid the crowds, we embarked on a hike from Hakone Yumoto to the far side Lake Ashi and then took the cable car and train back to Hakone Yumoto station. This route takes in a section of the ancient stone pathed old Tokkaido road, a historic tea house, great views of Mount Fuji (weather permitting) and a peaceful amble  along Lake Ashi.  From start to finish the hike was around 15 miles, took approximately seven hours (including stops) and includes several kilometres of steep uphill climb at the start. Not for the faint hearted!

Starting from Hakone Yumoto on the south side of the river, head uphill  in a south westerly direction looking out for signs for the old stone path. After approximately one hour you will come to a stone path off to the left through some woods, clearly signposted as the old Tokkaido path.

Follow the path through a short section of woods, over a river and out the other side. You want to follow signs to the village of Hatajyuku. The path begins to criss-cross a road quite steeply up hill, but is fairly well signposted along the way.

You will come to the village of Hatajyuku which is famous for wood craft and would make a good pit stop if needed as there are public toilets available.

From here the path again criss crosses a road and there are several sections of steep steps to climb until you eventually reach a turning to the left signposted Moto Hakone. After winding through a forested area you will find Amazake Chaya, an atmospheric tea house built in 1881 for travellers journeying along the old Tokkaido. Try the hot, sweet sake for a real treat (400 yen) and help yourself to as much tea as you want.

You can journey through the avenue of cedar trees on your way to the old check point, if you wish to visit it (entrance 500 yen). Allow 20- 30 minutes to look around the exhibition hall and visit the recreated check point building.Following the path roughly one hour from here you should reach the far eastern shore of lake Ashi, arriving in the small town of Moto Hakone. There are a few shops and cafes here If you want to break for a while. If you walk along the shore with the lake on your right for a few minutes you will see the classic view of Mount Fuji across the lake.

The route along the southern shore of lake Ashi is largely undeveloped and not often visited by tourists. In fact, in the three hours it took us to hike along it we met only two people and saw the odd fisherman. There are lovely views of the lake along the way as the path hugs the shore closely for the most part, with the occasional foray into some wooded areas. We came across a couple of small, secluded beaches.
The path itself is very easy to follow although towards the end becomes more undulating and there are tree roots to be avoided underfoot.

On reaching Togendai we took the cable car to Gora, changing at Sounzan then took the train back to Hakone Yumoto station.

TOP TIP: I’d highly recommend picking up a hiking map from the tourist information office which is just opposite the station. Although most sections of the old Tokkaido path are well signposted, it came in handy at a couple of points.

If you want less of a cardiovascular work out you could do the same route but in reverse as Lake Ashi is over 2000 feet higher than Hakone. Get an early start and check train/cable car times before you go to avoid missing the last ride back to Hakone. You might want to allow longer than seven hours for this hike if you want to enjoy it at a more leisurely pace.

Capsule hotel

Staying in a capsule hotel

For some reason capsule hotels have always captured my imagination and so I had to see it for myself. Originally designed as a  small, cheap and convenient space for businessmen to sleep in after a heavy night out, the humble capsule hotel has really taken off in Japan. Now arguably a rival to more conventional and expensive accommodation, capsule hotels welcome women and tourists tooCapsule hotel room. Some are single sex, others mixed (although on separate floors) and I have even heard of one or two that have double capsules for couples. Whilst you can’t do much apart from sleep or read in your capsule, there are other facilities such as showers, lockers, toilets etc. so that you have everything you need. Ranging anywhere from £15-£60 per night per person, capsule hotels vary greatly in quality but the basic principle remains the same and the experience itself feels quintessentially Japanese.

We stayed at the Nihonbashi Bay Hotel in Tokyo which felt remarkably clean and modern. It had a separate lounge and dining area (complete with the obligatory vending machines), wash room, toilet and locker room. Pyjamas, towels, toiletries and ear plugs are provided as standard and a room here will set you back a mere 5,500 yen per night (~£37). The capsules themselves were actually bigger than I anticipated, with room enough to sit up. There was a plug socket and controls for lighting, an alarm clock and a fan. What more could you need!

Capsule hotel

The only downside is that there is good reason they provide ear plugs. There is just a thin blind at the entrance to each capsule so if you’re a light sleeper you may struggle with the snorers and rustling from neighbouring capsules, followed by the symphony of early morning alarm clocks. I was in a upper level capsule and even though there are steps and handles to hold on to, I would suggest that a reasonable amount of agility and flexibility is required to get into it.

I did feel slightly like a convict swinging my legs out of the capsule in the morning looking out at all the other guests in identical pyjamas. I would say a couple of nights in a capsule hotel would be my limit but overall we found it to be a great experience and it provided us with a basic, cheap but comfortable  (and memorable) stay. A must if you visit Japan!

TOP TIP: try and organise your luggage before you get there as there may be limited space for major luggage upheavals in the locker room. Have what you need for that night and the next morning more accessible if possible.

If you are looking for a double capsule, you can book Tokyo Kiba Hotel through booking.com though be warned that it gets booked up well in advance, particularly in high season.

Cherry Blossoms, Japan

Eight reasons to visit Japan

Japan is a pretty unique travel destination. In the three weeks we spent there in spring 2017 we barely scratched the surface but had some amazing experiences and found it’s rich culture to be one of a kind.

1. Scenery

All too often Japan’s wild places are left out of the tourist itinerary. This is a hugely mountainous country with some seriously stunning scenery and plenty of hiking trails to enjoy. Cities are generally crowded, busy places but you don’t have to go far to escape the mayhem for a few days. The Japanese Alps and Nikko National Park are only a couple of hours by train from Tokyo. For those seeking natural beauty in Japan be assured it is never too far away.

2. People

 Despite having travelled a fair bit, there is no place I’ve been to where people have been so helpful and welcoming as in Japan. Yes, you get the usual pushing and shoving on the metro in central Tokyo, as in any city, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the number of people who will go out of their way to help a lost or confused tourist. Lots of people speak English, and even those who can’t will make an attempt to communicate.  You will find that there are even ‘tourist friendly’ taxis in certain areas who have multilingual drivers willing to help you find your way.

3. Cherry blossoms

I had to mention them. They’re among the first things people think of before they go to Japan and when you’ve seen them first hand you understand why. There seems to be something about them that has captured the hearts of the Japanese people. In cherry blossom season parks are mobbed with families having picnics, young couples taking selfies and older folks dressed formally enjoying the moment as if it were their first time. I’ve seen cherry trees in England – I even have a couple in my garden, but the cherry trees in Japan are no ordinary trees. They are HUGE, and there are a lot of them. Join the locals and take a picnic in one of the city parks. It doesn’t get more Japanese than this.

4. Food

Oh, the food. Too many times have I come back from a trip and wished I’d eaten a few less hamburgers and chips. And yes, I may have eaten my whole body weight in rice in Japan  but I’ve eaten a whole lot of other amazing food too. From pickled vegetables to buckwheat noodles, raw horse meat to lotus root, fried burdock to steamed dumplings – Japan has it all! Surprisingly, it is not that difficult to find good food at a very reasonable price in Japan. A decent lunch, for example, can be bought from as little as around 350 yen (~ £3).

5. Trains 

 It wasn’t until I arrived here that I understood why the trains are so integral to the Japanese way of life. The Japanese are proud of their train system, and rightly so.  Numerous types of trains make up the complex but efficient rail network, the fastest being the famous Bullet train (Shinkansen) which reaches speeds of up to 200 mph.

Being aboard a Shinkansen could almost be described as a luxurious experience as most have wide aisles, oodles of leg room, reclining seats and even vanity stations. Neatly dressed staff bow as they enter and leave a carriage, and wheel past a trolley with refreshments available for purchase. Some of the larger train stations are a destination in themselves with big brands, gift shops and countless restaurants. In kyoto station for example,  there are several floors dedicated to shopping and dining. You could easily spend a whole day there and not see everything it has to offer. See my blog post on using trains in Japan.

6. Onsen

 In case you hadn’t noticed, I love hot springs. It would take a lot for me not to use one if given the opportunity, but I must admit that even I had reservations about whether I would feel comfortable at an onsen. Friends had warned me that the locals would stare because they are not used to seeing a westerner, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. The Japanese are generally very courteous, quiet people and I probably felt more comfortable baring all at the onsen  we visited than I do in the changing room at my local gym back home! We must have used about twenty onsen during our three week stint; most were private, some gender separated and one mixed. All were unique and there are a few that I will never forget. For more on taking an onsen, visit my blog here.

 7. History

Japan is steeped in history and you don’t have to look very far to see it. Whilst you may find it possible to overdose on shrines and temples, there is something quite magical about seeing them lit up in the evening, or smelling the incense waft past you as you explore the grounds. Japan’s unique culture extends from a fascinating history; from Samauri warriors to Sumo wrestlers, Maiko to Geisha- there is  nowhere in the world quite like it.

8. The toilets

With more buttons than you can shake a stick at, Japanese toilets are fantastic. At first it seemed odd (and confusing) to have so many functions on the normally humble toilet, but after a short time I was sold. Why wouldn’t you have heated toilet seats? And why not wash your backside after using the loo? With no detail spared, you can even play flushing sounds to drown out any embarrassing bodily noises. The only thing missing is a good book, but despite that oversight, these may be the best toilets in the world!

It’s official. I love Japan!

Tokyo skyline

One crazy afternoon in Shibuya

Using trains in Japan

The trains in Japan are surprisingly easy to use.  With an extensive rail network in and around major cities it makes for a more efficient way of getting about compared with driving. What’s more, most stations have English signs and once you’ve got the hang of it, it will become a breeze.
Japan is a tourist friendly country and you will find that people will go out of their way to help you if you’re looking lost. It took us a good thirty minutes on arrival in Tokyo station in rush hour on a Monday morning to figure out which platform we should be on, but in that time about five people  who spoke good English approached us to try and help.

Here are some general tips for understanding how to use the trains:

1. Allow plenty of time at the station to find your platform if you are new to using the trains. I would suggest at least thirty minutes to allow time for buying your ticket also.

2. The first thing you will need to do is head for the ticket machines, which are clearly marked in English. Sometimes there will be separate ticket machines for Shinkansen, so it is worth knowing in advance which type of train you want to take. Look for a button that says ‘English’, normally in the corner of the screen. The next thing you must select is the number of people you need tickets for, usually on the left.  From here you will either need to select the line/ train that you want or select an payment amount if it is a local train. If it is the latter, usually above the screen will be a guide for how much it costs to get to each stop.

                                  

3. Look for the screen displaying the train times and platform. These normally alternate between Japanese and English and will often be found above the ticket gate. It is useful if you know which line you want and where the train terminates.

4. When you get to the platform you will need to join or form a queue next to the carriage that you want. It will be clearly marked which cars are reserved and non reserved, although it is helpful to be able to recognise the Japanese symbols. Some carriages will be women only and certain seats are priority only.

5. Some trains will be marked as ‘local which generally means that it will stop at more places en route but will be considerably slower. Make sure the train you get on stops at your station. Similarly, you don’t want to spend unnecessary holiday time day on a train that takes twice as long to get from a to b.

(If you plan to purchase a Japan rail pass you just show it to the station staff at the side of the ticket gates).

Using the trains is part of the experience when visiting japan and is not something to be anxious about. Why not pick up a bento box to enjoy on your journey to add to the experience. These are sold at station platforms and even on board some shinkansen.

TOP TIP: The train stations in some of the larger cities of Japan such as Tokyo and Kyoto are particularly impressive and are almost destinations in themselves. Kyoto station for example, has fifteen floors so expect to find plenty of shops and restaurants. Head to the eleventh floor for food and you will not be disappointed.