Way back when, in high school, I got the opportunity to travel to Japan as a foreign exchange student. My trip was one month long, and consisted of one and a half weeks in Kyoto, one and a half weeks in rural Utsunomiya, and one and a half weeks in Tokyo. As a sixteen-year-old girl who had hardly left my small Midwestern town, Japan was definitely a welcomed culture shock.
I started out my stay in Kyoto, the former imperial capital of Japan. Home to nearly 1.5 million people, Kyoto was notably larger than my 500 person hometown. I accepted the city with open arms and began exploring.
I traveled through New Perspectives: Japan, a company that assists both American and Japanese high school student’s travel between the two countries. My time in the “Land of the Rising Sun” was carefully planned by NP:J, something I didn’t mind at the time because of my young age.
I had a homestay and attended school in Ustunomyia, but my time in Kyoto and Tokyo was spent traveling and sight-seeing. Below are some of the places I visited, and my recommendations.
Nijo Castle was built in the 17th century to be the residence of the Tokugawa Shoguns. The castle is made up of several buildings, rooms with sliding paper doors, and lush gardens. To prevent sneak attacks, Nijo Castle was built with “nightingale floors,” or floors that squeak when walked upon.
Ryoan-ji is a Zen Temple in Kyoto that is famous for the highly recognized Ryoan-ji Rock Gardens. The gardens are made up of raked gravel and fifteen moss covered stones, only fourteen of which can be seen at one time from anywhere in the garden. It is said, other than aerial views, that one can only see all fifteen stones at once through attaining enlightenment.
Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)
Kinkaku-ji is a Zen temple in Kyoto, most often referred to as The Golden Pavilion. Visited for its beauty and impressive views, the Golden Pavilion sits in an area of lush trees and is surrounded by water.
The Imperial Palace is the Japanese equivalent of The White House; it’s where the Emperor of Japan lives. While the actual palace is only open to visitors two days a year, New Year (January 2) and the Emperor’s birthday (December 23) , there are several parks and gardens included that can be visited.
The Asakusa district of Tokyo is home to some of the most famous shrines in the city. By foot, one can visit Sensoji Temple, Asakusa Shrine, and the Kaminarimon gate. Most temples in this region are more than 1000 years old, and survived the 1945 Tokyo Air Raids.
For something a little more different, head to the Shibuya district. Shibuya is home to the Meiji Shrine, Shinjuku Gyoen park, and the popular Harajuku shopping district. Shibuya is home to some of Tokyo’s finest shopping, entertainment, culture, and restaurants.
Take the Shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo, and you’ll pass Mount Fuji. Mount Fuji can sometimes be seen in the background of Tokyo Skylines, but the best views are from the train.
Nikko Edomura (Edo Wonderland)
Nikko Edomura, in the Tochigi prefecture, is a historical park built in classic Edo style and features actors portraying geisha, shoguns, and other period people. Highly recommended is the Grand Ninja Theater, which has daily showings of performances with sword battles and martial arts.
When she’s not reminiscing of past travels, Maggie works at Reading Glasses Shopper, where she helps customers find the best reading glasses. In her down time, she enjoys planning new travels, cooking, and stocking up on winter accessories.