The top tourist sites of Japan

Rocket News 24 recently posted an article summarising the top 25 travel sites in Japan, as voted by tourists on Trip Advisor Japan. I’ve been to nine of them, have a blog about 6 of them, have photos of two of the others [both in blue on the list below], but sadly nothing to prove I’ve been to Shinjuku Gyoen, so you’ll have to take my word on that one! I’ll definitely try to get to as many of the others as possible in the future.

[Edit May 1 2017: In the four years since posting this, I have been to many more of the sites on the list, and have added some more links/photos!]

1. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (Hiroshima City, Hiroshima Prefecture)
2. Fushimi Inari-taisha (Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture)
3. Tōdai-ji (Nara City, Nara Prefecture)
4. Itsukushima Shrine (Miyajima City, Hiroshima Prefecture)
5. Kinkaku-ji (Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture)
6. Kiyomizu-dera (Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture)
7. Jigokudani Monkey Park (Yamanouchi Town, Nagano Prefecture)
8. Shinjuku Gyoen (Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo)
9. Narita-san (Narita City, Chiba Prefecture)
10. Tsukiji Outer Market (Chuo Ward, Tokyo)
11. Hakone Open-Air Museum (Ashigarashimo District, Kanagawa Prefecture)
12. Sensō-ji (Taito Ward, Tokyo)
13. Nara Park (Nara City, Nara Prefecture)
14. Kurokawa Onsen (Minamioguni Town, Kumamoto Prefecture)
15. Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka (Kyoto City, Kyoto)
16. Nikkō Tōshō-gū (Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture)
17. Mount Fuji (Shizuoka Prefecture and Yamanashi Prefecture
18. Kenroku-en (Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture)
19. Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji (Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture)
20. Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium (Kunigami District, Okinawa Prefecture)
21. Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum (Nagasaki City, Nagasaki Prefecture)
22. Hase-dera (Kamakura City, Kanagawa Prefecture)
23. Sankei-en (Naka Ward, Yokohama Prefecture)
24. Meiji Shrine (Shibuya Ward, Tokyo) [below]
25. Okunoin (Koya Town, Wakayama Prefecture)

Here’s the original link in full:

http://en.rocketnews24.com/2013/08/23/top-25-travel-destinations-in-japan-hiroshima-peace-memorial-museum-on-top-for-second-year-in-a-row/

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Bangkok กรุงเทพมหานคร

IMG_2077Finally concluding my mini Thai series, we arrived in Bangkok Hualamphong station at around 11am, around 4 hours later than originally planned (and booked), and completely exhausted. We had breakfast at the station before trying to head across town to our hostel to check in and have a proper lie down after a rough night without much real sleep. We took a mixture of the metro and the coolly named Bangkok Sky Train to our hostel just down the road from the Myanmar Embassy.

Having checked into our room on the 4th floor (no lift!), we lay on the bed for a few minutes and as our room was so dark promptly fell asleep and had a doze for a few hours, making up for the lost sleep from the night before. We woke up around 5 o’clock, and not wanting to completely waste the day grabbed some dinner and headed to the Asiatique night market, a short ferry ride from Saphan Taksin BTS station. Asiatique is based in the renovated warehouses of an old trading company, and while what’s inside is pretty much the same tat you find in most markets, the surroundings were quite cool.

IMG_2116The following morning we were back bright and early at Hualamphong to take the train to Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya is the remains of the old capital city of the Ayutthaya Empire, founded on an island surrounded by three rivers, dominant in the area for 400 years between the 1350s and 1750s when it was routed by the Burmese overnight and razed to the ground. The train took just over two hours from Bangkok, and a third class ticket only cost 15 baht.

Being our first real day in Bangkok we weren’t really sure of the temple etiquette yet so I was wearing the only pair of trousers I had with me, jeans, and it was an absolute scorcher of a day. The actual site of the ruins is over quite a large area, so we rented bikes to get around, and headed for a small passenger ferry to take us across the river, rather than the bustling main road bridge.

IMG_2134We visited many sites around the city, the best being Wat Mahathat, where there is a famous carving of Buddha’s head among the roots of a tree [Part 2 of my famous trees of the world series! Find Part 1, the world’s widest tree, here]; Wat Phra Sri Sanphet, which had three fantastic bell shaped tower ruins, Wat Panan Choeng next door which was a temple containing a very large sitting Buddha, and Wat Lokayasutharam, the site of a long reclining Buddha.

It was such a scorcher that we had to stop several times to reapply suncream and to buy more water along the route – definitely not a day to be wearing jeans and a black t-shirt!

The following day we headed to a floating market in Taling Chan, on the outskirts of the city. Although not as famous as bigger markets further out of the city, we were pushed for time and it was much closer than those others, not requiring seemingly a two hour journey to get there. The hostel receptionist told us although we could get there by a mixture of train, ferry and bus, that the easiest way to get there on a Sunday was just a taxi from outside as the traffic wouldn’t be so bad. We flagged down a taxi easily enough, and headed towards the market. Twenty minutes later, it became clear that the driver had no idea where he was going, and was in fact cruising around hoping to spot a sign.

IMG_2245Even after asking for directions twice, he dropped us at what could have been the right place (as there was a market), but after inquiring with a friendly lady we were told that we were still 15 minutes by local minibus away. Very helpfully, the kind lady helped us onto the minibus and did her best to try to tell us where to get off again. The minibus was like a large tuk-tuk, and letting the old ladies and school kids sit down, I ended up standing on a little grill at the back, hanging on.

Probably about an hour after we were supposed to, we arrived at the floating market and actually saw some other people this time so knew we were in the right place. We were bustled past stalls of coconuts, spices, flavoured chicken and beef, and other exotic goods we weren’t exactly sure about, down to the water front, where narrow boats surrounded a large jetty, with people cooking fish, seafood and other meats in the boat before passing them up to the vendors on the jetty. We tried some satay chicken, but as it was only about 11am we weren’t that hungry yet.

Round the corner, we booked on to have an hour cruise of the surrounding area “by local boat”. We hopped on, and a silent guide led us around the back canals of Bangkok, making clear why the city was once called the ‘Venice of the east’. Although we were slightly disappointed with the cruise (we expected to visit the floating markets by boat, but only really went through one slowly for about a minute) it was nice seeing the more local side of Bangkok, and a side probably more usual many years ago.

IMG_2312We left the market and braved another a taxi to take us to the Grand Palace, home of the Kings of Siam and Thailand since the 18th century. We were forbidden entry uncovered, so before entering had to join a long queue to be given some sexy grey jogging bottoms and a long dress (sweating in jeans all day the day before had put me off doing so again!). Once inside, however, it was truly spectacular. Wonderfully colourful buildings, with plentiful gold edging, it certainly looked far grander than old Buck House! There were more Buddhas (the Thais can’t get enough), but really the buildings were the main attraction. Just around the corner from the Grand Palace was the similarly grand Wat Pho temple, where we saw yet another massive reclining Buddha, before returning back to the hotel.

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The midnight train going… somewhere? Please?

On our last night in Phuket, we arranged with a very pleasant lady a ticket to Bangkok. The plan was that we would get picked up from our hostel and taken to Phuket city, where we would take a coach bound for Surat Thani, a four or five hour drive away, connecting with a night train to take us to the capital.

We knew this could be done, and we’d read online that tickets could be bought from most agencies in Phuket. We’d been asking around a bit all week but with no luck, so when we found an agent in a little hut by the side of the main road who said “yeah, no problem I can do that”, although alarm bells were being prepared they weren’t yet ringing full blast. We booked a top and bottom berth on the night train and went to bed on our last night in Phuket with peace of mind that we would be collected at 12.30 the next day and wouldn’t have to worry about anything.

12.30 arrived and we were collected and taken across to Phuket City to take what we thought would be the 1pm bus we’d booked, but what apparently had always been planned to be the 2pm bus. Not quite what we’d had in mind, but still never mind we had a seat on the bus and it should still arrive in Surat Thani in time for the train we’d booked.

IMG_2037After a 45 minute wait in the bus terminal, we were finally allowed on the bus, and what a cracker! We took our seats towards the back (there were only about 10 people on the coach so we had plenty of choice), past the towel on the floor mopping either the leaky air con or a whole in the roof, avoiding some of the wet seats, and choosing a spot where we might be able to relax a bit without fearing for our health in any other manner.

The coach ride took four hours, and we slowly picked up more travellers along the way. Eventually, we were brought into Surat Thani on the verge of dusk. We pulled up alongside a main road, and were greeted by cries of “Samui!” and “Bangkok!” by people who were looking to take the tourists on to further destinations. Not really having any other choice, we went with the man shouting Bangkok who took us over the main road, and down a little side road to what might as well have been his garage with a desk in it.

“So, you want to go to Bangkok?”
“Yes, we’ve already bought our tickets.”
“Already have your tickets? Can I see them?”
“We don’t have them, we came here to collect them.”
“Hmmm. You can buy new ticket?”
“We don’t want a new ticket, we want our tickets.”
“Hmmm, where you buy ticket?”
“Phuket.”
“I don’t know.”
“Great.”

IMG_2044Just at the point when I thought we were stuck and had been screwed over, the man’s wife called him over and had a word him; he returned to his desk, opened the top draw and pulled out an envelope. Two tickets to Bangkok. They weren’t for the train we’d booked, or for the berths we’d booked, but they were still tickets to Bangkok and they were on a train that left that evening, so whoever’s they were, we said “great yep they’ll do”.

“So where’s the station?”
“Station?”
“Yes, station.”
“I call you taxi.”
“Can we walk there?”
“No, it’s 20 minutes in taxi or tuk-tuk. I give you good price.”
“Sure you will.”

A 20 minute tuk-tuk ride later and we arrived at Surat Thani station. We were tired and hungry, and just wanted something to eat and to have a sit down. I checked with the guy in the ticket office that the pieces of paper we’d been given were actually legitimate tickets (they were) and asked him which platform the train would depart from (platform 1). It was due to depart in an hour and a half, so we had a little wander along the platform and found a cafe where we had some dinner.

With departure time approaching, we headed back to the platform and asked a guard to check that we were in the right place and that our train was coming soon. “Not yet, 90 minute delay.” Great. The 90 minutes soon turned into 120 minutes, which was made even worse by the fact the train we should have been on wasn’t delayed by nearly so much. Tired, and getting bored of reading our books having done it all day, we swatted away the flies and waited forlornly with the other passengers on the platform.

IMG_2043Shortly after half past eleven, the train finally arrived. Scurrying along to the other end of the platform, we hopped on and went to look for our bunks. The corridor was narrow, restricted by luggage placed in racks every six feet and hemmed in by curtains pulled across sleeping Thais. We found our beds and climbed in and finally had a little relax. Shoving our bags into the rack somewhere so they wouldn’t fall out during the night, we pulled up into bed and pulled our curtains across to try and get some kip.

We were in a second class berth, and both had upper bunks after our ticket fiasco. The lower bunks are supposedly slightly bigger, and the fear of falling out is only allayed by two 2-inch wide straps I imagine there to keep you from falling off. In the bunk there was a little pocket to keep valuables, and a reading light which was rendered completely redundant as the main lights of the carriage stayed on all night and the curtains didn’t really keep much out. Bedding-wise we were furnished with a pillow and a sheet, though the air con was whacked up so high we needed to get more clothes out to actually keep warm throughout the night.

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Still, we’d made the train, and for 10 hours rolled across the Thai countryside (presumably, we had no window on the top bunk to check) and struggled to get off to sleep what with the light, the cold, and the constant bumping and noise of the train, before we arrived the next morning in Bangkok Hualamphong station.