A trip to Japan... Tokyo, Hakone & Kyoto



City Views Senso-Ji Nakamise Dori Meiji-Jingu Shibuya Harajuku Sometaro
Imperial Palace
Tsukiji Fish Mkt
Ueno National Museum Trains Idiosyncracies

With a population closing in on 13 million, Tokyo is one of world's mega-cities. Officially known as the Tokyo Metropolis, it is not really a "city" at all, but is actually one of the 47 Japanese prefectures. Tokyo is made up of 23 wards that are each governed as separate cities. The vast sprawl surrounding Tokyo proper is one of the most densely populated regions on earth. Depending on your definition of "Greater Tokyo", 35 to 40 million people occupy Tokyo and its suburbs.

Formerly known as Edo, it rose to prominence in the 17th century when the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu made it his base of operations. It functioned as the Capital of the Edo government for 263 years before the Shogunate was overthrown and the Imperial government restored. While it is a modern city, resembling New York to some degree, it definitely maintains a character all it's own with pockets of traditional Japanese culture interspersed between Glass towers and neon signs. The city is vast but easily tamed using the massive Tokyo subway and rail network. Getting to our hotel from Narita airport was probably the most trying travel experience in Tokyo and that only took an hour or so by rail.

Initially, I was not excited about Tokyo, preferring the history of Kyoto and the scenery of Hakone. Tokyo was just the place we landed, but I soon found myself longing for at least another day. There were far more temples and shrines to study than I had envisioned and I thoroughly enjoyed dodging forklifts at the Tsukiji Fish Market followed by a cup of coffee in the surrounding food market. I often judge a destination by the strength and quality of its coffee and Tokyo scored well on this account. Most of all, I truly enjoyed just wandering, gawking at the fashionistas in Harajuku, watching the signal change at the worlds busiest intersection - Shibuya Crossing - or watching a wedding ceremony (rehearsal)? at Meiji-Jingu.

Tokyo turned out to have a certain charm. It is hard to escape the ever present crush of humanity at peak hours in the business districts, though it surprisingly quiet early in the morning and one can always find a booth selling tempura or fish on a stick.

Tozan Railway Fujiya hotel
Funicular & Ropeway
Lake Ashi Miyanoshita  

Hakone is a town located inside Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. With many natural hot springs and views of Mt. Fuji, the park is the most visited national park in Japan. It's a half an hour from Tokyo by shinkansen to Odawara station and then about 45 minutes on the Hakone-Tozan scenic railway. We stayed in Miyanoshita at the Fujiya Hotel, a beautiful historic hotel that reminded us of the Stanley in Stephen Kings, "The Shining". Built in 1878, the hotel was the first western-style resort hotel in Japan.

The highlight of the park is a unique self guided tour called the Hakone Round Course. It begins with a funicular railway that runs up the mountain side and transfers to a ropeway (tram). The tram traverses the mountain, then transfers to a boat ride across Lake Ashi. The boat ride is pirate themed and a bit Disneyesque but quite entertaining nonetheless. Unfortunately, weather did not cooperate and the views were, well...wet. Still, we stayed in a grand old hotel, hot tubbed in a bath heated with natural hot springs and wandered the autumn leaves of a beautiful Japanese garden. Not too shabby. Other sites in the area include the Open Air Museum, Hakone Jinja Shrine and Great Boiling Valley.

City Views Nijo Ji Hime Ji Sumiya Ryokan
Teramachi Arcade
Kennin-Ji Yasaka Jinja kiyomizu-Dera Gion Kyoto @ Night Kinkaku-ji Nishiki Market

When one thinks of traditional Japan, Kyoto is what one visualizes. Located in the Kansai region and originally known as Heian-kyo, ("tranquility and peace capital"), the city officially became the capital of Japan in the year 794. The capital was moved to Heian-kyo from Tokyo to lessen the influence of Buddhist clergy - somewhat ironic since ancient religious icons are one of the primary tourist attractions of the region. In the 12th century, the name was changed to Kyoto which means literally "Capital City". Kyoto remained the capital of Japan until 1869, when the seat of government was returned to Tokyo.

While Kyoto has seen many fires, wars and natural disasters, it's historic status spared it much of the devastation visited on other Japanese cities by allied carpet bombing, during WW II. The city was originally considered as a target for the atomic bomb but was dropped from that list as well. As a result, the area is replete with examples of various stages of Japanese culture. Ancient castles, temples and shrines dot the landscape and the Kansai region has a large number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

I enjoyed Tokyo greatly and Hakone was beautiful but Kyoto is the reason to go to Japan. Much of the city is like any western city (though it appears there are height restrictions on buildings in central Kyoto) but a walk through the Higashiyama district finds a hidden gem around virtually every corner. Restaurants and entertainment in Gion, shopping at the Teramachi Arcade and a walk through the Nishiki Food Market (Who doesn't love fish on a stick) are memories I'll keep for a lifetime. I hope to return to Japan. I'll visit the National Parks in the North, the ancient capital of Nara and the beaches of Okinawa but I will most definitely return to Kyoto.


All photos on this page are originals by & copyrighted by Daren Willden, unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved.