Japan is one of the most exciting destinations to visit, as my whirlwind adventure last year only proved. Together with my family, I was lucky enough to explore this incredible nation last year, taking in the fascinating culture, thriving cities and scenic views on a spectacular journey by rail.
We began our trip with a full day touring Tokyo. On the surface, Japan's capital is a very modern, almost 'western looking' city, but its atmosphere and culture was completely different, contrasting kitsch elements (a giant Godzilla looming from between the skyscrapers comes to mind), to hints of historic Japan, such as the the serene gardens of Harmarikyu and the markets around the Asakusa Temple.
After an intriguing first glimpse into Japanese life, it was clear that we were immersed in a very distinctive culture filled with contrasts, which we couldn't wait to explore further.
Our first experience of the Bullet Trains saw us travel from Tokyo all the way down to Hiroshima. Despite opting for one of the 'slower' services, we still reached speeds of up to 180mph, making short work of an otherwise long journey.
Hiroshima was devastated in World War II, yet despite this, the modern city can simply be described as beautiful. During our visit we took in the site of the A-Bomb, where a museum and memorial now stand, for a poignant period of reflection. After time to explore the city's more recent past, we ventured across to Miyajima Island, where Hiroshima's ancient heritage awaits discovery. Reached via tram and boat, Miyajima Island offers up fantastic photographic opportunities, a wonderful street of souvenir sellers, and the famous Itsukushima Shrine, a traditional Shinto shrine also known as a 'torri gate.' We also had some delightful encounters with the local deer population who inhabit this charming island.
Travelling by Bullet Train once more, our next stop is Kyoto - my favourite city, as it offers up a real glimpse of old style Japan. Famed for such features as the Gion district, Pontocho Alley and the Geisha District, as well as the beautiful temples and shrines, Kyoto is a city that deserves plenty of attention. With its traditional architecture and many local people to be seen wearing authentic kimonos, walking through Kyoto can feel like an immersion into Japan's ancient history - somewhere I found it difficult to leave behind.
After a full day exploring Kyoto, we travelled the next day to Nara - the historic capital of Japan. The centrepiece of this historic city is the Todaiji Temple, the largest of the seven temples Nara is known for, along with its Great Buddha. Whilst this fascinating sight is a must-see, we were also captivated by the statue of Binzuru - a small, cloaked figure outside of the temple, who, legend has it, can cure all ailments by touching the affected area on the statue.
After Nara, we returned to Tokyo, so we could spend some time climbing Mount Fuji. The climb itself was hard work, since we did not opt to use the cable car which provides easy access to the summit, but the views at the crater's rim, caught just as the dawn sun was rising, were unbelievable.
After Fuji we headed to Hakone, for the final leg of our tour. This is an area famous for its hot springs and views of Mount Fuji from Lake Ashi, where curiously, the scenic ferry ride across the lake takes place on board a replica pirate ship. Despite being only 50 miles or so from Tokyo, this beautiful wooded area and seems a million miles from the capital, which is easily reached via the special 'Romance Car' train service.
Japan never failed to amaze us, throughout our trip. From the temples to the tea houses, the Bullet Trains to the food, and even the friendly people in the street, this fantastic nation was a welcome surprise from start to finish.