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Pack your bags: Japan

Why Japan?

I jumped at the chance to travel to Japan back in April, while at the same time convincing myself that an almost 14-hour airplane ride across the West would be worth it to experience "The Land of the Rising Sun." I have a love for Japanese food and culture.

The country of Japan is made up of a bunch of islands off the coast of East Asia. It's not big at all, in fact, it's a little smaller than California! Most of the country is mountainous and tall mountain ranges run through the center of the archipelago like a spine. We put Mt. Fuji at the top of our to-do list.

Because of Japan's proximity to the sea, Japan is known for its fresh seafood and fishing industry. I couldn't wait to eat real raw fish and visit the famous Tsukiji fish market!

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In the spring, the most beautiful sight in Japan is the cherry blossoms, which I had the pleasure of taking in first hand. The flowering cherry trees (sakura in Japanese) come into full bloom around the beginning of April. April is the beginning of many things in Japan: new school year, new business year for companies and work begins for graduates. Therefore, it's only fitting that the cherry blossoms represent new beginnings. When in bloom, people make special visits to parks and will picnic under the branches.

 

Mt. Fuji "Fujisan"

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Mt. Fuji is Japan's tallest mountain at 12,390 feet. The entire area around the base is a national park. In the summer people climb all the way to the top. Our tour guide said he had climbed the mountain some 30 times so far! Mt. Fuji is known for its significant influence on culture and art, not only in Japan but throughout the world. It's really breathtaking!

The Fish Market

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If you're eating fresh sushi here in America there's a pretty good chance it came from the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. Fish is sold and shipped all over the world from here. There's a big tuna auction in the morning and you can take a tour to watch the vendors sell their tuna to the highest bidder.

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Above: Inside the market

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Kyoto

We took a day trip to Kyoto to experience the food, nature and old-world charm of the city. Kyoto is reminiscent of old Japan. We took a walk through the fairytale bamboo groves, and then shopped along these quaint little streets filled with old private villas and souvenir shops. Kyoto seemed to be an area best explored on foot because there's something to see everywhere along the way. I thought it was beautiful. We also visited the Kinkaku-ji Temple, where there's a majestic "Golden Pavilion." It's known to be Kyoto's most iconic sight. At night, we trekked through these narrow streets, to the top of a hill to visit another temple, Kiyomizu-dera Temple.

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Above: Me in a bamboo forest.

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Above: As we went through the streets, we slowly climbed up towards a temple on the top of a hill.

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Above: Kiyomizu-dera Temple: It was specially lit up for cherry blossom season. It was otherworldly up there at night and you could see the city of Kyoto down below.

More than just sushi

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We wanted to experience as many amazing Japanese dishes and specialties as we could get our hands on. The most memorable meal I had was at a restaurant that only served octopus (tako in Japanese). We even ate live octopus! We tried to not feel bad for the octopus since their arms will grow back. I also loved the sushi because it was so fresh! The freshest I have ever tasted. I miss it. I was surprised to see that Italian food was very popular there as well as French pastry.

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Above: The live octopus: It wiggled on the plate and suctioned itself to the inside of my mouth!

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Above: The best ramen I've ever had.

 

Shopping

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Harajuku was my favorite area in Tokyo. And you can have fun just watching the people on the street here. This area is known for young people hanging out in costumes. It felt like the Soho of Tokyo with high-end shops but also a little more edge than some of the other shopping districts in the city, i.e. Ginza. There was also this fun store called Kiddyland there that housed every cartoon character known to man. Everything was so kawaii! (aka cute!). I also loved shopping at the stationary stores. These were everywhere in the city. The Japanese love their paper and pens! I spent a long time going from floor to floor picking up fun note paper, envelopes, stickers and pens. I couldn't really clothes shop in Japan because everything is one size! We stopped at an outlet mall after visiting Mt. Fuji and I think I bought some accessories because those were the only things that fit me.

 

Traveling through Japan

Airlines: Japan Airlines (JAL) or All Nippon Airways (ANA). We had a direct flight to Tokyo from NYC's JFK with ANA.

Trains and Subways: I recommend spending the money and buying a Japan Rail Pass. This way, you can get discounted travel on nearly all services of the extensive JR Transportation Network, including the Shinkansen or 'bullet train'. We took the train to Tokyo from the airport and also took the bullet train to Kyoto for a day trip. Since we were warned that taxis in Japan are very expensive we used the subway to get around the districts in Tokyo. It was confusing to me, but luckily we had someone who spoke Japanese with us. I would recommend it as it was efficient and affordable!

Have you been to Japan? I'd love to hear your Japan travel stories!

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