Name one travel route around Japan most Australians would know, whether they’ve visited the country or not…
… The Golden Route.
It’s almost like a rite of passage amongst Aussies visiting Japan, especially first timers, to set off on the Golden Route from Tokyo to Hiroshima, Osaka, Kyoto and Hakone.
The route ticks off key Japanese sites and attractions – like the Osaka Castle, Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kiyomizudera Temple and even a robot restaurant – and has been frequented so often by Australians that it could even be considered the most traditional way for those from the Land Down Under to explore The Land of the Rising Sun.
But despite its popularity, there’s one thing this traditional route doesn’t completely embrace – traditional Japan.
Yes, the Golden Route takes visitors to Fushimi Inari Shrine where they can dress as a Geisha, and yes, there’s even a chance to learn about the country’s World War II history at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, but where’s the traditional overnight stay at an Onsen or the chance to learn about Samurai and their genius defensive tactics?
Where can visitors take part in an authentic Japanese tea ceremony and explore one of the last remaining Geisha districts?
The Golden Route may be the traditional way to see Japan, but to experience traditional Japan visitors need to travel the non-traditional route, like we did:
Start in Tokyo? Orrrr not…
For a first timer, it was surprising that my initial experience of Japan wasn’t going to include the bright lights, busy streets and big ads of the bustling capital.
No, instead we travelled from Sydney Airport to Narita Airport where we caught the Narita Express to Tokyo and then immediately hopped on over to another bullet train and straight for Nagano. It was dark by the time we arrived, but that was okay because after a full day of travel we was more than ready for bed, and Nagano is the perfect place to be in order to…
See Tateyama Mountain Range
Early bird catches the worm, or in this case, the early bird makes her way out of Nagano (a stunning drive past the yellow, orange and red Autumn leaves, rice fields, and locals casually riding on bikes) to Tateyama Station aka the starting point for Japan’s famous Alpine Route.
As well as receiving a bit of a workout (not too much though thanks to trains, trams and cable cars that take visitors between each level), the half-day climb up the Tateyama Mountain Range gives visitors the chance to learn about the tallest dam in Japan, Kurobe Dam, which sadly claimed the lives of 171 people during its construction between 1985 and 1963.
Join a traditional tea ceremony
From Tateyama it’s a quick bus ride to Kanazawa – the ‘Ancient City’, which managed to retain its old Japanese atmosphere after the second world war.
Wooden buildings, spacious gardens and a small population of 460,000 make this city feel warm, authentic and world away from the overwhelmingly busy city a first timer to Japan would expect.
A highlight of the city is the celebrated Kenroku-en Garden, which was once connected to Kanazawa Castle and is today the ideal setting for a traditional tea ceremony.
Ladies dressed in kimonos served me and my kneeling travelling buddies with traditional Japanese sweets before pouring us some warm, green tea.
Initially the experience felt a little awkward, because we weren’t too sure of the rules, but the ladies were kind enough to let our imperfections slide, making the ceremony both sweet and humble.
Before visiting one of the last remaining Geisha districts
It’s hard to imagine that only some 75 years ago the now aged wooden structures making up the Higashi Chaya District would have been filled with beautiful, intelligent and talented young ladies training to become highly coveted Geisha.
So much has changed in less than a century for the area, but as one of the last remaining Geisha districts it’s still revered and respected by visitors, many of which are holding out hope of catching a glimpse of a professional entertainer.
We were told that although many of the houses have been abandoned by Geisha, there is one house that is frequented by Geisha in training, but they mostly visit when tourists aren’t around.
And exploring the Ninja Temple
Okay don’t get disappointed, the Ninja Temple is a little deceiving in that it has absolutely nothing to do with ninjas. However, it does have everything to do with Samurai and let me tell you, they’re equally (if not more) interesting.
The Ninja Temple was designed by Samurai to protect their Emperor in times of war. It’s filled with creative traps, carefully placed natural light, secret exits and even two hidden floors.
Although all the brilliant tricks were never actually put to use, they make for a great museum today, just remember to watch your step ;).
Oh, don’t forget to try an Onsen
It wouldn’t be a traditional Japanese experience without sleeping on a futon or sitting around a table that’s only centimetres off the ground.
At Kagaonsen-kyo, visitors get a choice of either a traditional room or a modern room. Thankfully we were given a traditional room, which we shared with an amazing Japan expert (hey Olivia!).
We didn’t actually dine in the room, however, we did have a robust Japanese dinner in a private venue featuring several courses and dozens of plates – needless to say, we were stuffed by the end of the night and ready for that futon.
In Kyoto, it’s all about the shrines
Similar to the Golden Route, the Traditional Route takes visitors to two of Japan’s important and ancient temples – the Fushimi Inari Shrine and the Kiyomizudera Temple.
When we arrived, the temples were flooded with visitors. We were told for optimal and quiet viewings, try and get there are early as possible (thanks Gemma!).
Where you can dress as a Geisha
I’ll admit, at first it felt incredibly weird and unbelievably embarrassing, walking from the Geisha dress-up store to Fushimi Inari Shrine in traditional robes. But after a few minutes (maybe 10, it took a while to adjust my breathing – so many layers around the waist, so many!), we came to appreciate the lengths these ladies went through to play their role in society.
We highly recommend wrapping yourself in one of these gorgeous silk garments at least once in Japan. Even if it’s for a couple of minutes, it’s worth the effort (and sweat, so hot).
Take in a sky high view of Osaka
Yes, Osaka has the craziest variety of shops and you’ll want to spend your days making your way through the many, many (oh so many) retail stores, but take some time out (give your credit card a break) to visit Umeda Sky Building for a 360-degree, sky high view of the city. It’s both breathtaking and a peaceful escape from the Osaka crowds.
Before trying local dishes & drinks
When in Osaka, visit Okonomiyaki Restaurant to make your own Okonomiyaki dish. It’s a delicious egg pancake with a shrimp filling.
And when you arrive in Tokyo, join a group of amazing Travel Agents for a night on the town where you should definitely try Sake. How do we say this nicely… sake will shock your taste buds, burn your throat a little on the way down and then taste kind of nice.
And finally, shop, shop, shop in Tokyo
There’s nothing more traditional about a visit to Japan than shopping in one of the most unique cities of the world. Tokyo is literally a bubble of colour, kind people, interesting dining venues, fun escapes, craziness and best of all, the environment and its offerings are nothing like the western world!
I’m so grateful to Agents Gemma, Carly, Brad and Alex for letting me tag along on their half a day in Tokyo. I’d never have experienced the over-the-top style of Harajuku (or purchased my new favourite pair of shoes) or experienced the rush of the crossing or found cute off the beaten track stores in Shinjuku without you guys.