I was determined to see the snow monkeys that hang out in the hot springs just outside of Nagano. This is the only time I’ll say unfortunately it was pleasantly warm out while I was there, so there were no monkeys in need of warm water to defrost their butts. Thankfully, the tourism staff introduced me to the live webfeed of the hot springs before I made the journey there, or paid for the bus and park entrance. As the monkeys live in the surrounding mountains and only come down to warm up, you should aim for the cooler months to see them in person.
Kyoto has a bunch of great options for things to check out. From the bamboo forest, to the streets of old Kyoto, to Fushimi Inari Taisha. All options are pretty thick with tourists no matter what time of day you go, so accept it and go anyways. I hopped a train from Osaka and walked from the train station to the base of Mount Inari. If you think getting there before 7 a.m. will help you avoid the crowds you would be as wrong as I was. It wasn’t packed by any means, but there was already a smattering of people moving through the famous red torri gates that weave a trail up the mountain. There are shrines all the way up. After awhile it does become same-same, so you can choose how far up you want to go. The summit is anticlimactic as you’re in the forest and you don’t really know you’ve reached the peak until the trail starts descending.
Have you ever wanted to watch fat, friendly deer harass tourists for crackers? Nara is the place for you. A large park in town, affectionately named Deer Park, is full of wild deer who are well accustomed to people getting up close and personal. Locals sell special deer treats and the deer will bow to you to ask for one, but will quickly determine if you are not holding and move on to more interesting things.
Hiroshima was incredibly emotional and it’s impossible to talk about this trip without mentioning it. I swear the air is a little thicker and the gravity is a little stronger here. Without going into too much detail, what I will say is nobody wins in war and unfortunately civilians paid the price. The museum is a must, though be warned it is extremely graphic and disturbing. It is beautifully done and it will absolutely ruin your day. And if that doesn’t get you, there are monuments dedicated to the prisoners of war, those who suffered and perished in the war at the hands of the Japanese that essentially say we did wrong, we are sorry and we will do better. Cue tears.
Japan has many active volcanoes and the lower part of the main islands, Kyushu, is a great place to go to get close to them. Mount Aso and Sakurajima are both accessible to tourism though Sakurajima. You can’t get anywhere near the extremely active crater, but there are hardened lava fields you can go check out. With Mount Aso, you may get up to the crater but it varies by day if you’re allowed close to it or not. As the activity was high and the crater was closed, I hiked up an adjacent mountain to get a view over the lowland speckled with farms. It’s a beautiful area to see whether or not you want to get close to the volcano.
I would have loved to hike Mount Fuji, but the climbing season ended at the beginning of September. It is a spectacular region to visit though, with lots of hiking and exploration possibilities in the five lakes region. I found another mountain to hike off Lake Motosu, called Mount Ryuu Ga Take, which would have had a spectacular view of Mount Fuji had it not been bashfully hidden behind clouds. I did get a great shot of Fuji at sunrise from the train station as I left for Tokyo though so I’ll take that as my send off.
Tokyo is its own beast. It is bright, exciting, bustling and, yes, crowded, though the crowds were far less overwhelming than I was expecting. Train stations are jam-packed, but because everyone is on a mission to get somewhere, it’s kind of like being in a beehive where you all just somewhat seamlessly move around each other despite the density. Malls and tourist attractions are another story and if you get pedestrian road rage, I would avoid at all costs or at least go in prepared to move like molasses. Tokyo has all of the big city sparkle you think it will, with an endless amount of entertainment at your fingertips.
I should mention that if you are a skiing fiend, the North island is where you need to go! Fly into Sapporo then you can take the train to any number of ski resort towns to get some of that famous Ja-pow.
If you ever have the opportunity to get to Japan, I strongly encourage you to take it. It’s safe, easy to navigate and the accommodations were all so nice it has effectively ruined me for backpacking other countries. Book that ticket, order a rail pass and, most importantly, prepare your belly and eyes for treats. Enjoy!