Updated: May 11, 2019
Japan is a country where ancient meets modern. Shinto shrines dating back hundreds of years are now dwarfed by skyscrapers. The contrasts are obvious.
After first visiting Japan during the hanami (cherry blossom) season, I knew I had to return to see the autumn colours. The palette of fiery reds, yellow and orange dominates the scenery. It is unlike anything I have ever seen on my travels.
Along with the Japanese aesthetic for well-manicured gardens and temples to the juxtaposition of modern skyscrapers and bullet trains, it's hard not to get a sensory overload. Starting off my trip in Tokyo, my journey took me south to Mount Fuji to see the final Sumo Grand Tournament for the year in Fukuoka, then back to Kyoto and Osaka.
Japan has unique sights and experiences that will leave an impression on any visitor. Here are my highlights.
Tokyo - A megalopolis of 13 million people that is constantly on the move and bathed in neon, at times, it's hard to know where to look. Omotesando is the area between Shibuya and Shinjuku renowned for retail therapy and the latest in modern design in all facets from architecture to fashion.
The landscape in Tokyo is constantly evolving and moving upwards. The Skytree now dominates the skyline and on a rare clear day, Mount Fuji can be seen. But it’s not called the shy mountain for nothing. I spent my evenings in Tokyo exploring some fine dining. I enjoyed Restaurant Luke and the piano bar at the Park Hyatt Shinjuku made famous by the movie, Lost in Translation. I have now ticked off another one of those 1000 pop culture things to do while travelling.
Mount Fuji - A 2.5-hour drive from Tokyo brings you to the great outdoors and five lakes that surround Mount Fuji. Now I say approximately as we drove around in circles. Our GPS could not work out whether the car was on the overpass or on street level. And receiving instructions in a foreign language also didn't help. Once we were out of Tokyo, it was smooth sailing and the change in pace was welcomed.
Hiring a car for this part of the trip is essential if you want to explore at your own pace. You can do day trips from Tokyo to the Mount Fuji region. But staying longer and driving around the different lakes to catch views of the mountain from differeng angles is a much more rewarding experience. We stayed at a resort on Lake Kawaguchiko, which had its own onsen and served a five-course meal as part of the package.
I don’t even remember the room as I spent the entire night outside in freezing conditions photographing stars and trying to stay warm in the car. I watched the sunrise over Fujiyoshida, a temple pagoda on a hill.
Fukuoka - A bullet train or two later, we arrived in the southern end of the main island in Fukuoka for the final grand sumo tournament for the year. The tournaments run for two weeks. Sumo is the epitome of Japanese culture and tradition. The rituals and ceremonies on the day is something to respect and remember. Bouts only last a short time but there’s so much going on it’s very entertaining.
Kyoto - I set off early to photograph the Arashiyama district and Bamboo forest on the western edge of the city. Surprisingly, it didn’t take long to the wilderness. It was great to be out wandering around early in the morning and to be able to take photographs without too much interference and clutter.
This situation drastically changed at lunch time when I headed back to the main street, which was flooded with tourists looking for a lunch spot. There are hundreds of temples and shrines to visit in Japan, but Kokedera (the moss temple) is one of my favourites. The temple is not open for general admission. You need to write a letter to the temple to request permission to visit. Part of the entry conditions is you have to attend a calligraphy lesson before accessing the temple gardens. My effort to trace the calligraphy script looked like a finger painting exercise gone wrong. Fortunately, I completed it before my legs went totally numb from sitting on the ground and was able to get some awesome shots in the gardens.
On special occasions, some of the larger temples like Kiyomizudera have night illuminations in the gardens. These nights lights attract huge crowds. Despite the crowds, seeing the temples in a different light is worth the effort. This temple is being restored. It’s a unique building with no nails at all.
Osaka - There are plenty of things to see in central Osaka, such as the Umeda building and Osaka Castle. But on this trip I wanted to see something different so I headed to Minoo Park. At the end of a 45-minute hike was a waterfall with the countryside in its brilliant autumn phase. The area is also known for momjii, maple leaves deep fried in batter. They are sold in just about every store you walk past up the path. In terms of treats, this one is okay and not too weird on my scale of unknown foreign foods experiments.