Update: I revisited Japan in 2017 and the second trip was just as fun as the first, and I'm sure a third trip would not disappoint as well. I spent most of my time traveling to new places the second time around, and still, I feel like i've barely scratched the surface with Japan.
This time around, I finally made it to the "Fox Village" near Sendai. I arrived at the village excited and thrilled, but left with mixed feelings. It was really cool seeing so many beautiful foxes of varying colors, but I started to feel like there were too many foxes in such a small space. The grounds itself seemed spacious, but I did some quick googling in hopes of squashing my guilt. I can't confirm the source of this information as credible, but the online world seems to agree that foxes don't typically live in packs/groups and need lots of space. The foxes are said to play with each other and rough house, but others say this is purely violent and are actually fighting. This was sort of evident in some of the foxes that showed small gashes from scuffles with each other, but if there's a fox whisperer out there, you should let me know if this is normal or not.
Don't get me wrong, the foxes looked healthy and weren't violent, but I guess it's good to question the ethics of these places. I still don't have a solid opinion on this place, as the concept of the village is to rehabilitate and help the foxes, but I don't know the facts so I can't recommend for or against this place.
Booking a trip to Japan can sound pretty intimidating, but surprisingly enough, is isn't! The innovating technology caters to the public; giving every day nuances new life. The public transportation system that seems to run every other minute eliminates the need to rent a car, and the proximity of businesses and attractions gives new purpose to your shoes. This experience definitely tempts me to trade in my car keys for a train/bus pass.
Japan Rail Pass
Update: Go here and put in the cities you would like to visit. The calculator will tell you if a pass is worth it or not. https://www.japan-guide.com/railpass/
The minimal amount of research into Japan travel will almost certainly turn up posts and blogs toting Japan's famous rail pass for tourist. The Japan Rail Pass (JRP) is a godsend to any traveler wanting to canvas the entire country. The JRP is basically only available to tourists visiting the country. It gives an all access pass to a train system that encompasses the entire country, where stops can take you to sandy beaches, ancient temples, or electric metropolitan areas. The pass must be purchased before entering the country and it is not sold in the country. I purchased my JRP at a travel agency in San Diego where I received a JRP voucher. The voucher is then exchanged for the actual pass at any Japan Rail Pass office located in the train stations in Japan (look for the green Japan Rail Pass signs). You cannot ride the Mizuho and Nozomi trains with the pass, but this wasn't a problem. You can hop on any JR train, with or without a reservation. I chose to make reservations right before getting on to the trains at the JR ticketing offices to ensure I got a seat (vs standing). Using the rail pass I traveled through Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Tokyo, Hakone, Nagano, and Sendai.
Be warned that most of the Japanese banks and ATMs are not on the global ATM system, which means you probably won't be able to use many ATMs. However, there are many 7-11s around that accept international cards with a chip.
Osaka is the third largest city in Japan and offers a modern look into ancient Japan. You can explore one of Japan's oldest temple and go for a spin at Universal Studio. The park does have some difference from the US counterparts, such as Black Lake and Hogwarts Express Photo Op. The wait times aren't as bad as Disneyland or Disneyworld! If you visit the Shitennoji Temple and want to escape the crowds, be sure to stop by Gokuraku-jodo early. A simple walk in the garden can prepare you for a day of weaving through crowds.
Minami (Namba) is another popular destination in Osaka. Apparently, taking pictures with the Glico man is a popular photo-op, but once you get passed the crowds at the bridge you can explore the rest of the area and shop through Dotonbori near the canal. Dotonbori is a popular food destination, and I'd like to say I had the best Yakitori of the trip here at a little shop along the canal. This part of town was probably my favorite destination in Osaka.
The temples and environment in Kyoto was more preferable to Osaka in my opinion. Things felt a tad be slower in Kyoto, looked a bit prettier, and was what I was looking for. We began the day at the Ginkaku-ji temple and arrived just after it opened to find a sparse crowd. The temple and grounds were cloaked in foliage displaying a wide range of vibrant fall colors. Walking the temple grounds was much more enjoyable in lieu of the crowds, which we typically found in the early morning. I recommend picking a few highlight temples and areas to visit and get there early!
From here, we walked and bused around to random temples stopping for photos every so often. We found temples riddled with tourists and others without. In a city with over 1600 temples, just wear comfortable walking shoes and you're bound to find what you're looking for here.
Traveling to the Kiyomizu Temple will take you through a town with street loads of people. There are plenty of shops and restaurants along the hill to the temple. Walking up the hill isn't bad itself, but if you find yourself tired, dip into one of the shops for a break.
The Nanzenji Temple located in the Higashiyama area was originally constructed as an aristocrats retirement villa (wow, must be nice...). It was eventually converted to a temple. The area also features an impressive aqueduct that is reported to carry water from Lake Biwa at a rate of 2 tons per second (take that Rome!). Visiting the aqueduct offers a break from temples and shrines, if you need one.
If you're not going to Nagano and you want to see monkeys, I'd recommend stopping by the Arashiyama Monkey Park just outside of Kyoto. Nagano, often experiences times where the monkeys aren't there (mating season). The Arashiyama park is home to over 130 monkeys, basically ensuring you'll get to see and interact with the monkeys. Outside of the zoo, Arashiyama and Jigokudani (Nagano) are one of the few places where you can interact with the monkeys in the wild.
Fun fact, the temple above is called Kinkakuji. It is made of gold, and was recently burned down by a fanatic monk in the 50s.
Nara was probably my favorite place in Japan. Nara is considered to be the best cherry blossom viewing point in Japan. However, during the fall months, Nara provides a spectacular view of temples and shrines cloaked with an array of vibrant autumn colors. This was the first permanent capital of Japan, and is home to the beloved sacred deer.
The deer in Nara are protected and are considered to be a messenger of god. Aside from the deer, Nara is home to a park (Nara-koen area) that encompasses the east side of the city. The park is home to approximately 1200 deer that you can feed. The deer have learned to bow in exchange for treats, but be warned, they'll surround you, nudge, and nibble on your clothes until you run out of treats.
Located in the park is the Kofuku-ji temple, which was transferred from Kyoto as a result of fires and struggles of power. Only a dozen are left standing.
You'll notice these water features at the temples. They are not for drinking, but rather they are for washing your hands.
The size of the park is intimidating, but take your time and be sure to visit all of the sites and temples. The path to the Todai-ji temple is Nara's main attraction. The temple is massive! It can easily handle the crowds and tour groups scampering around. I really felt at peace when I visited this site.
The temple is large enough to fit these huge sculptures. You could easily spend hours staring at the details!
If you're all "templed" out, I'd recommend dipping into town and checking out an owl cafe. These guys were freaking adorable and probably contributed to Nara being my favorite in Japan. The owl cafe here is cheaper and not as busy as the ones in Tokyo.
Hakone is a mountain town with numerous hot spring resorts. If you only have a day or two to spare in Japan, Hakone is a must. You'll experience the magnificent Japanese countryside, mountain scenes, and the historic Mt. Fuji. Be sure to purchase the Hakone bus pass (Hakone Freepass), which is available at Odakyu stations. This pass got us around town, as it's not really a walk-able area.
The best views of Mt. Fuji are along the Ropeway. You'll also be able to squeeze a ride aboard an old Japanese warship, which departs from the Togendai port. The cruise takes you around Lake Ashi, eventually returning to your departure port. The cruise really provides a good break to kick back and take in the sights, or get drunk, which a group of old Chinese men decided to do. It was sort of adorable.
About 90 minutes from Tokyo, Nagano is a quaint ski town that hosted the winter Olympics in 1998. Nagano is home to many public onsens and ryokans that offer private onsens. If you travel a bit further towards Yudanaka, you'll find Japanese Macaques (snow monkeys!). Their thick fur help insulate them, but they still feel the cold so they adapt and bathe in the natural hot springs.
I ended the Japan trip in Tokyo where I stayed at the space hostel in Tokyo, which was sort of far from all of the cool things, but it was a short enough train ride away. The hostel doesn't accept card so be prepared to pay with yen. Though, there are numerous 7-11's around Tokyo to withdrawl money. If you're up for it you can stay in a hotel with a giant Godzilla statue peeking in your window!
Tokyo definitely lived up to the hype. The city seemed to be broken up into different neighborhoods and had something to offer to everyone from food shaped kitchenware to anime alleys. My all time favorite place was the Tsukiji fish market. The sushi here ruined my tolerance for sushi in my hometown, San Diego. I didn't realize sushi could be that great..Do yourself a favor and live in your ignorance because I definitely crave this every single day. I can't tell you which restaurant we ate at, but you can't go wrong here. We showed up around lunch time, found a place with a moderate line, and binged on marvelous sashimi and nigiri. I opted to stray away from rolls and dove straight into sashimi and nigiri, and this is where I discovered my love for otoro (tuna belly). This stuff was so tender, it literally melts in your mouth. I'm probably rambling, but this definitely deserves it.
My next favorite place in Tokyo was Harajuku, which corresponds to Harajuku station and stretches through Takeshita Street (I just realized how funny the street name is..). These streets are filled with shops, basically selling Japanese culture. You'll find the latest fashion trends and statements. I actually found a Broncos throwback jacket at a thrift shop along these streets. You never know what you'll find! You can also buy wonderful socks here. Apparently it's a thing, but they're pretty comfy.
The Shibuya station hosts the Shibuya crossing. This is another one that makes it on the top 10 things to do in Tokyo list. The crossing is the most efficient cross walk I've seen. It's nicknamed the scramble for a reason. Once the walk signs are on, people scramble across the intersection in all different directions, and seem to always make it across in time. There is actually a Starbucks you can sit at and watch the scramble. Just be patient, order a coffee, and find a seat!