How to Respectfully Experience Japanese Shrines and Temples
There are wells (purification fountains) on the way into shrines and temples, and if you rinse your hands, try to avoid touching the ladle anywhere but the handle, and pour used water into the gutter. You can also pour some water into your hand to rinse your mouth (don’t drink).
If you want to worship at a Shinto shrine, when you get to the offering hall toss some coinage into the offering box. If there is a bell, ring it, bow two times, clap your hands twice, and then bow one more time.
Don’t eat or drink anything other than water in the shrine or temple.
Be quiet and respectful; these are holy places.
Being Polite In While Traveling by Train in Japan
When waiting to get on the train, pay attention to the lines painted on the sidewalk, and be sure to stand in line.
Don’t talk on your phone; if chatting with a pal, try to be quiet.
If it gets crowded, take your bag off and hold it in front.
If you have an assigned seat, make sure that is where you sit.
Don’t be pushy, and make sure that you leave room for other people to get on and off the train.
How to Avoid Annoying Japanese People
Read ALL the signs, especially when you are in a shrine or temple. Many will tell you where you can and cannot go, and what you need to do while in any area (e.g. take off your shoes, etc).
Stand in line. This goes for lots of different places that you might not expect depending on where you are from. We even stood in line while hiking, and while that ad hoc happens in the US sometimes, it was not ok to move up in the line in Japan.
Learn and use please (“sumimasen,” which really means excuse me) and thank you (“arigato”) in Japanese. When you are in a restaurant, it is not impolite to hail your waiter by saying “sumimasen.”
Be quiet if you are in an Airbnb, because people live very close to one another, and the Japanese work day/week is very long.
Be quiet and respectful in Onsens and follow all rules while bathing.
Watch other people, and take note of their behavior. This can serve as your guide for how to act when you are uncertain.
Other Japanese Customs You Might Want to Know About (But Which Visitors Aren’t Expected to Understand)
Bowing. In Japan, there’s a complexity to bowing in which people of different standings bow to different depths. Bowing can also be casual or formal. Luckily, visitors aren’t expected to know how this all works.
Gift-giving is another important but complicated aspect of Japanese culture. Generally speaking, people don’t open their gifts in front of the gift-giver, and whenever you receive a gift, you are supposed to return the favor. Again, however, travelers aren’t expected to do this all properly.
Japan has a total of 33 national parks, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Spread out across its major islands, they showcase the vast variety of ecosystems and unique landscapes that characterize the natural world of Japan. These parks are also home to many important historic and cultural attractions, making them the perfect places to experience the multifaceted wonders of Nippon. I’ve only seen a small fraction of these special places, but they deserve a post highlighting how amazing they are.
Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park
As you may be able to tell from the name of this park, Fuji-Hakone-Izu has three distinct sections, one of which is home to Mt. Fuji (the highest mountain in the country), one is for Hakone, and one for the Izu islands south of Tokyo. Of these, I have visited Hakone and Mt. Fuji.
When I went to Hakone, it was my first time in Japan, and I wanted to have the chance to see Mt. Fuji, since we wouldn’t be able to actually visit the mountain. We heard that the journey through this part of the park would give us the best chance for a glimpse of the crown of Japan (although we didn’t actually get to see it that time due to cloud cover), so we bought a transportation value pass (for details click here). This takes you from Toyko via multiple different modes of transportation (train, funicular, cable car, boat, and bus) through the Hakone area. This includes a stop in a geothermal area where you can see some hot springs and buy special black eggs cooked in the searing hot waters of the mountain. You will also get to ride an oddly pirate-esque boat across Lake Ashinoko. Not included in the pass, but well worth the extra cost, is the Old Hakone Check Point, which was used during the Edo period to monitor people moving through Japan.
On our second trip to Japan, I did summit Mt. Fuji, which was a just-as-memorable-as-you-would-think two-day experience that I will devote an entire post to later this month. I will say that this mountain is busy, but makes up for the crowds with unimaginably beautiful views and a uniquely spiritual experience.
Nikko National Park
Nikko National Park includes a huge complex of shrines among a wildly beautiful, mountainous countryside. This is one of the most spiritual places that I have ever been in my life, but it is also very popular. So, the real moments of still and introspection are those that you can steal in a crowd, or find on a quiet trail among the trees. This National Park is also home to Mt. Nantai, Kegon Falls, and Lake Chuzenji. After Mt. Fuji, Mt Nantai is one of the best places for a visitor to get a challenging hike in, but you will need to plan ahead if you are going to make it up the steep trails of this mountain to the summit.
Setonaikai National Park
I visited this park while staying on Miyajima island of Hiroshima Bay, which is home to the ocean-side Itsukushima-jinga and Mt. Misan, in the western side of the park. For anyone like me, that isn’t super fond of snorkeling, the island is your best destination for this part of the national park, because the rest of Setonaikai is marine, complete with finless porpoises and beautiful forests of ocean plant-life.
It’s quite a journey from Miyajima to Nara (around 4 hours if you catch the right trains; could be a bit longer if you end up on a local train from Kyoto), but there are some special sites here that make the travel time worth it.
Todai-ji is one of my favorite shrines/temples in Japan (which is really saying something, because I have been to a lot of them). It houses a massive, beautiful Buddha statue, and hosts a healthy population of Nara deer as well (the town’s mascot). I have three pieces of advice for this area. (1) Make a point to visit the temple; it is a work of art. (2) Stop by Buddha’s “nostril,” a little hole in a giant, wooden support beam of the temple, and see if anyone tries to climb through. The experience is said to grant a bit of enlightenment, but it looked far too small for me to try (and most other people). But a few kids went through and it was adorable. (3) Please DON’T feed the deer, for your safety. The first time I visited, I bought some food for them at a shop and they bit my legs as soon as they saw I had something. Not worth it.
Yagyu Kaido is also accessible from Nara, and although I have not gone myself, it looks to be a great place to hike through one of the older forests on Japan. I would suggest staying an extra day if you’d like to give this a sufficient amount of time, however, because the trip from Nara to Nikko is considerable and the temple deserves at least an afternoon/morning to explore, if not more.
Day 12: Survive the Train to Nikko
Today shall be a day of trains, so I’ll add a few tips on finding food and keeping your sanity during train travel days in Japan.
First, when it comes to seating, I would highly suggest that you reserve yourself a seat on the shinkansens. This may mean that you have to wait a bit, but the non-reserved cars tend to be more crowded. Reserving a seat is free with a JR pass, is done the day-of at the JR station, and may allow you to sit next to your travel partner(s) if you have them.
For food, there is no lack of snacks inside the train terminals, but if you aren’t a fan of cold bento boxes and convenience store food (or just get tired of them), your best bet for a good meal is outside of the ticket booths. In the big cities, like Kyoto and Tokyo, you are likely to be near a department store, with lots of options, and many of the smaller stations with shinkansen stops have somewhere to get a hot meal.
Anyway, in order to make it from Nara to Nikko, you will need to take a train back to Kyoto, and then take a Shinkansen to Tokyo, and another from Tokyo to Utsunomiya, and finally the special train from there to Nikko. All of this in included on the JR pass.
Suggestion for accommodations: Minshuku Narusawa Lodge – the owner will pick you up from the train station and help get you oriented. There is also a nightly trip to an onsen (for extra cost, but very enjoyable).
Day 13: Temples, Temples, Temples, Oh My!
Today is the day to explore Nikko’s many temples! According to UNESCO, there are 103 religious buildings in Nikko, and when you get there, you won’t doubt that number. From the lodge (if that’s where you stay), it is about a 30 minute walk up to the area, but I would suggest getting two-day bus pass down at the JR train station. This will be handy today and tomorrow, and get you all around town; there is a ton to see, so you don’t want to waste too much time walking between sites.
I have two favorite places to visit in the complex itself. Tosho-gu is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the major Japanese historical figure, Tokugawa Ieyasu. It was VERY busy when we went there the last time, but the intricacy and vibrant paintings/carvings of this shrine are well worth the hordes of children and tour groups that you may need to brave.
After the swarms of people, my personal favorite spot in this area is a short hike north of the main complex to a set of three small shrines along a creek. There aren’t many people that come here (due to the walk and its relatively small size), so I have found this place to be extremely peaceful and more spiritual than almost anywhere else that I have been. I’m not going to just throw the name at you though, because I’d hate to see people crowd this area. If you are really interested, you will be able to find it on a map of the complex. The hike is only 15 minutes or so from Tosho-go, to the north.
After you’ve had your fill of temples and shrines for the day, walk over to Kamangafuchi gorge to take in the powerful beauty of the river as well as the watchful eyes of the 70 Jizo statues that are lovingly clothed with caps and aprons here.
If you’re staying at the lodge, I would highly recommend taking a trip to the onsen tonight. It is affordable, friendly to foreigners, and a must-do, cultural experience for Japan. (But you will be bathing naked with strangers, so be mentally prepared and go with an open mind).
Day 14: Up Into the Clouds at Mt. Nantai
If you are a hiker, I would suggest that you wake up early today and take the bus up to Mt. Nantai. This is a serious, uphill trek, and if you want to hit this, get as much of a mountaineering start as you can. This also is not as developed as Mt Fuji, so expect more along the lines of US trails in terms of bathrooms (ie there aren’t many). Also, please be aware that this trail is pretty undeveloped and rugged; I would only suggest this if you are in shape and have experience on the mountain. Even if you don’t have time for the hike or don’t want to risk it, be sure to visit the shrine at the bottom of the mountain and send up good thoughts/prayers to the mountain spirits.
Mt Nantai is also near a lovely lake, a waterfall, and plenty of food. So, we made a day of it when we went up here. Afterwards, we tuckered ourselves out by taking the train all the way over to Sendai (Nikko-Utsunomiya-Sendai).
Day 15: Restful Urban-cation in Sendai
After all that you have done, take a day in Sendai to get some rest. There are a few little things to do here, but we’ll get to the best attraction tomorrow. If you get antsy, go check out the giant statue of Sendai Daikannon. It is the 6th largest statue in the world, and absolutely beautiful. There is also Zuihoden Mausoleum, but I would prioritize the statue, because it is unlike anything else you have done so far in the Japan (if you follow this itinerary).
Day 16: Temple of the Mountains in Yama-dera
Yama-dera is the best attraction in the area near Sendai, and if you ask anyone about what to see while you are there, this is the place that will pop up. It is about 1.5 hours on a JR train over to Yama-dera. Once you arrive, you will take a stroll through the small village at the base of the mountain. If you are going to need some energy in order to climb up 1,015 steps, stop by one of the restaurants here and grab some grub.
Otherwise, follow the signs to the base of the staircase, and purchase your ticket for the temple, then get huffing up the hundreds of steps. Luckily, the struggle is worth it for the beautiful views of the valley, and opportunity to visit some of amazing shrines that are perched on the edge of the mountain cliffs. There’s no better reward for making up a steep incline than all this Japanese beauty (except ice cream, which you can get when you get back down).
After this, take the afternoon to get back to Tokyo. That will involve taking the train back to Sendai, and then a shinkansen back to Japan’s capital.
Day 17+: Exploring the Urban Jungle of Tokyo
Depending on how much you love cities, gauge how many more days you’d like to spend in Tokyo. If you haven’t see Akihabara, Shinjuku, or Harajuku yet, check them out. Otherwise, you may want to catch a train to one of the surrounding cities. Yokohama has a really cool Chinatown, and Kawasaki is home to one of the most special arcades you will ever see which has a couple floors modeled after Kowloon the Walled City.
Once you are happy with your city experience, head home!
Get a 21 day JR pass. You will need to plan ahead to do this, because your paperwork will be sent to you via mail. You won’t want to do this last minute.
Day 1: Arrive in Tokyo
Once you get to Tokyo, pick up your JR pass at the airport. You can then take the monorail and JR trains (subway lines will cost you extra, but when you get tired of walking you will likely end up taking them) to get to your accommodations. Just show your pass to the staff at station entrances when entering JR stations. Google Maps can help you find your way via trains and by foot if you pick up a pocket wifi at the airport as well, or if you have international data.
I would suggest taking a rest today. Walk around near your Tokyo accommodation, and eat some good food. (But avoid scam restaurants like this one!).
Day 2: Tokyo DisneySea
If you are a Disney fan, take your second day in Tokyo to visit a park that’s only in Japan, Tokyo DisneySea! There are some totally unique park environments here, and some familiar rides as well, including Indian Jones and the Tower of Terror. There are also some interesting food combinations/interpretations here, including Mexican food with a Japanese twist. The park isn’t huge, so it is likely that you will spend around a half day here.
If you end up having some time to explore other parts of Tokyo in the second half of your day, consider shopping in Harajuku, or checking out the anime capital in Akihabara. The JR train will get you everywhere that you need to go.
Day 3: Exploring the City
Spend the day seeing some of the different areas of Tokyo. I have mentioned a couple above, but some other neat locations are Meiji shrine and the park surrounding the temple. There is also a beautiful garden in Shinjuku that is a great place to spend an hour or so, and escape the crowds for a bit.
Day 4: Journey to Mt. Fuji
Mt. Fuji’s hiking season is from early July to early September; it is illegal and extremely dangerous to attempt the summit outside of the hiking season. So, if you plan on including this in your trip, make sure you plan accordingly. I would also suggest that you try to get out on the trail during the very first week of the season, as it will only get more and more busy once school lets out.
In order to get there, take a bus from Tokyo to Mt. Fuji’s Fifth Station; note that you should plan on buying your tickets for this ahead of time so that you are guaranteed a seat. You can do this online here. The ride takes around 2.5 hours and is on a mountain road, so take some motion sickness medicine if you struggle with that.
The fifth station is a pretty big tourist stop, so it can be quite busy there, but it is also a great area for resources for those of you trying to travel light. They have rain gear that you can rent, along with some other equipment options if you need trekking poles; never rent hiking boots, as you NEED to hike in shoes that you have already broken in. There are also a bunch of options for a hot meal before you set off.
When we did this hike, we decided to just make it to the hut where we were staying for the night on the first day, and since this was the highest hut on the mountain where you can stay the night (Goraikokan), I think that this worked really well. Although, be aware that this is a popular place to stay, and you will need to be proactive about reserving yourself a spot there. Also, Goraikokan is at a relatively high altitude for most of us, so be sure to plan ahead to prevent altitude sickness one way or another (here are some tips).
Day 5: Summit Mt. Fuji and Return to Tokyo
If you are a strong hiker, summiting from Goraikokan will most likely take longer than you are expecting, because there is a good chance that you will be forced to queue up near the summit. When we went, I think we spent about an hour in line, and we were lucky that it had cleared up a bit when we started down, because there were times that the line was in both directions.
Depending on how early you get to the top, how much energy you have, and when your bus home leaves the 5th station, you may want to walk the trail that circles the summit. Otherwise, enjoy the top and then start the long hike downhill. This part of the trek destroyed my legs, whereas, I was just fine hiking up. Be ready for a long, steep walk down the mountain.
We caught the bus back to Tokyo once we got down, and then we basically just ate dinner and fell asleep (you probably won’t sleep well at the mountain hut, unless you enjoy sleeping shoulder to shoulder with strangers).
Suggestion for accommodations (budget): Khaosan Tokyo Samurai Capsule – This is the first capsule hostel/hotel that I have ever stayed in, and I wish all hostels were like this! You had your own space, and the staff here are great!
Day 6: Traveling to Kyoto
After our adventure on Mt. Fuji, and a night’s rest in Tokyo, we hopped right on the Shinkansen (or bullet train) to Kyoto (my favorite city in Japan!!). It takes about 3.5 hours to make it from Tokyo to Kyoto, and that’s not including the city trains you may need to take.
This may be a an all day affair, depending on when you leave, but if you get to Kyoto and have some time, try walking around the Gion area. The architecture and atmosphere in this area is absolutely beautiful, and there are some beautiful canals that you can walk along. Plus, plenty of food.
Day 7: Kyoto
Take the train over to Inari-Jinja (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3915.html). This shrine here is one of the coolest locations in Kyoto, and will be familiar if you ever watched Memoirs of a Geisha. Here, you can hike through tunnels of torii gates, and if you are so inclined (which I highly recommend), you can hike up Mt Inari to the shrine at the top of the mountain. The trail to the summit is really unique, and it is a great place to experience some Japanese forests (which surprisingly, you don’t get much of on Mt. Fuji).
After Inari, head back over to the Gion area. There are plenty of shrines to explore there, but I would suggest Kennin-ji, the oldest zen shrine in Kyoto, and where you can see a HUGE dragon mural. Afterwards, consider catching a performance at Gion Corner, which has a nice little show with six different traditional Japanese preforming arts, including Geisha dances.
If you didn’t have the chance yet to enjoy the canals in Gion by night, please do so tonight. I absolutely love this area.
Day 8: Kyoto
Take today to visit some of the other shrines/sites in Kyoto that you haven’t seen yet.
You may be tempted to visit the Bamboo Forest, which is in a ton of pictures and blogs, but I thought that it was too busy and the forest was so small that it really wasn’t worth visiting. The area surrounding the forest is pretty nice, however, so if you really feel the need to check it out, you can spend some time in the area.
I would suggest that you brave the crowds to check out Kinkaku-ji, or the golden pavilion, however. It is a really unique spot, so I think it is well worth the lines and hordes of people. But if neither of these is on your list, there is plenty to do and see in Kyoto; I think you could spend a full week in this city and still not run out of things to do.
Day 9: Hiroshima and Miyajima
Take the shinkansen to Hiroshima; it takes about 2.5 hours, but it is likely that you will need to transfer, so give yourself some time by getting an early start. Once you are in the city, be sure to visit the Atomic Bomb Dome, the Peace Park, and Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. This is absolutely one of the most moving places that I have ever been.
After a sobering afternoon, take the train over to the Miyajima ferry terminal. It is a short ride over to the island, and is covered by the JR pass. If you get there before it closes, check out the Itsukushima Shrine, which has a massive torii gate in the ocean. It is a wonderful place to unwind. If you get in too late for that, feel free to stroll around the town in Miyajima. Lots of things will close early, but the views are beautiful, and there are also deer that mingle among humans here, so it is a very cool place. Please don’t feed them anything though, especially things that aren’t edible (like maps… seriously, people feed them maps.).
Suggestion for accommodations: Hotel Sakuraya– this is a small bed and breakfast with traditional Japanese baths and a prime location on the shore.
Day 10: Miyajima
Sleep in, have a nice breakfast in town, and then take the gondola (or trail) up to the top of Mt. Misan. Not only are the views from the mountain absolutely stunning (you can see the ocean in both directions as well as the big island of Japan surrounding the island), but there is a complex of shrines on top of the mountain. These ancient buildings are home to a sacred fire, and are perched in some of the coolest spots just about anywhere. If you enjoy hiking, definitely take the trail down, because it is a great way to see the forest, as well as some famous anti-erosion landscape engineering. Specifically, there are dams and artificial waterfalls meant to prevent flooding and erosion on the island here, and they are all very sensitive to the nature of the surrounding forest.
(With mostly pictures of yummy food in Japan- see specific section below for pictures of the scam).
Signs that you are falling for a Tokyo restaurant scam (aka what happened to me when I got swept into a basement restaurant in Skinjuku).
(1) A man with a menu catches you on the street; when you express interest in the menu, he ushers you very quickly into the restaurant.
(2) Your waiter asks you if you speak Japanese first thing, testing you. In every other restaurant, people just spoke Japanese to us and gave us an English menu when they had it.
(3) When you ask for water, you are informed that there is only sparkling water, in other words, only water you have to pay for. Every other place that we went served us free water or tea right when we got there.
(4) The “Kobe” beef on the menu is only priced at 1600 yen. But everything else looks insanely expensive.
(5) NONE of the pictures on the menu match what you get (e.g. sashimi picture has 5-6 pieces, but the waitress informs you that there are only four when you go to order; picture of gyoza has 12 pieces but they only serve six; your soup looked like it had meat, but it comes out meatless). This is very odd for Japan, as most places have pictures that reflect what they will serve.
(6) Every thing that you order is tasteless and seems to have come from the frozen aisle at a second-rate grocery store.
(7) When you get your tab, you are slammed with the most expensive meal of your trip (by far). If you are lucky enough to get a hold of a menu to calculate how much you spent, and try to contest the cost, the waiter will tell you something about added taxes. In EVERY other restaurant that we visited, the price on the menu is what you paid.
(8) You will notice the staff treating Japanese customers and foreigners differently. They will give their Japanese customers wet clothes, but you, a foreigner, will literally get a toilet paper roll to use as napkins.
Want to know where we got scammed? Here is the address, name and pictures. I would love if you avoided this thieves’ den.
Doracon Asian Dining (Link is to Tripadvisor, where you can see other people’s experience with this place.) 3-21-2 Shinjuku | B1F Nanae Bldg., Shinjuku 160-0022, Tokyo Prefecture (Formerly Panda Kitchen)
How to avoid getting ripped off:
(1) Avoid any place that fits this description.
(2) Don’t be afraid to just get up and leave if you are brought into a restaurant, and you end up not feeling right about the menu or wait staff.
(3) If you start to feel worried, you can ask about taxes and extra fees as this was the preferred method of this scam house to triple or quadruple the cost of what you are eating (and which is already overpriced). Take note of all prices.
(4) Don’t be afraid to contest the receipt. Japanese law states that menu prices should include taxes, and furthermore, there are laws against misrepresentation and false pricing. That being said, I have heard that the Japanese police will not really help you out if you bring up a problem like this to them. Best thing is to avoid or leave the scam restaurant before you order anything.
Manage to get to Christchurch, and let yourself rest. Be sure to note that if you are traveling from the US, you will lose a day when you fly to New Zealand.
If you’d like wi-fi throughout your trip, pick up PocWifi which is available at the Christchurch International Airport.
Pick up your rental car, and be ready to drive on the left side!
Depending on the time of the day and your energy level, you may consider dropping by the grocery store to pick up food for the rest of your trip.
STAY IN CHRISTCHURCH
Day One: Mt. Vernon and Recovery
Mt. Vernon is a great park for hiking (and bike-riding) just outside of Christchurch. There are some excellent views of the city to be had here, as well as the lakes on the other side of the mountains.
I did the Sugarloaf Loop when I visited, which took me a little less than a hour, but you may take longer or shorter depending on your hiking ability. The Sugarloaf Loop passes through some beautiful bushland, with plenty of birds, but also through grasslands offering you different views of the surrounding territory.
For those of you looking for longer hikes, there are many trails out in Mt. Vernon. Spend the day exploring and picnicking. Recover from the flights to New Zealand.
If you haven’t road-tripped in New Zealand before, be aware that the roads are single lane in either direction, so expect to be patient.
Hooker Valley is a well-known and popular trail in Mt. Cook National Park, because it leads to the base of New Zealand’s highest mountain, with a beautiful view of a lake and several river crossings as well. Signs say that it is about a 3-hour trek, and while it is somewhat crowded, it is well worth it.
Drive over to the Makarora side of Mt. Aspiring National Park, this will take about 2.5 hours. If you want to stop by the visitor center, it is in Wanaka, which is only slightly out of the way.
Driving through the park will take some time, so budget a few hours. I drove into Thunder Creek Falls and then turned around and hiked on the way out. Thunder Creek doesn’t have much of a hike, but it is has a waterfall that’s worth seeing.
Some of the short hikes that I did that day included Haast Pass Viewpoint, which gave you a nice little workout, since the trail is fairly steep. Blue Pools is another short walk that I did while here; the trail is flat and well-maintained, so this is quite easy. There are also a couple trails that continue on past the pools if you’d like to tack on something longer.
In fact, there are many long trails in Mt. Aspiring, for those of you with the time and energy to look around. As with all trails, just be sure that you have enough water, food, and clothes for the journey and the conditions. Avoid hiking above the bushline if there is any chance of bad weather.
Wanaka is a great place to grab dinner! Protip: Eat by the lake for good views.
It takes about three hours to drive from Wanaka to Te Anau (your base camp for Fiordlands National Park and Milford Sound). Queenstown is along the way, amidst absolutely gorgeous mountains and at the edge of an alpine lake. Ben Lomond is one great (4+ hour hike from the town), but it would be worth walking around Queenstown a bit as well.
After spending a relaxing, lovely afternoon in Queenstown, finish off your drive to Te Anau and mentally prepare yourself for one of the most beautiful places in the world. Fiordlands!
STAY IN TE ANAU
Te Anau Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park (Budget)
Day Five: Fiordlands National Park
If you want to see Milford Sound via the water, plan ahead and book a tour for once you get down there. It is about a two-hour drive from Te Anau all the way to the sound. Be prepared to drive behind very slow buses, and I would suggest not trying to pass, the roads are very curvy and busy. This is one of the most beautiful drives of the trip though, so just enjoy the views. Stop at the Chasm on the way in.
If you see the Sound early in the morning, consider going on a walk on your way out of the park. I hiked Gertrude Valley (which is dangerous in avalanche season, so stop by the Visitor Center in Te Anau to get some up-to-date information on the trails before heading out). Whatever trail you end up choosing, Fiordland won’t disappoint. This had some of the best views I have ever seen in my life.
Wake up early and make the two-hour drive down to Bluff, where you can catch the Stewart Island Experience ferry. I would suggest buying your tickets ahead of time for this, just so you know that there is space for you, and when to arrive.
The ferry is about an hour over to the island; check out the town and national park visitor centers when you land to pick out what you’d like doing. There are some GREAT day trails here, but be careful walking them. I almost broke my hand out there because of the stairs on the trails, which can be extremely slippery.
I ended up doing Golden Bay, Ryan’s Creek and some of the smaller trails around town. All of them were beautiful (sans slipping and hurting myself). But I would have liked to have planned ahead to do some of the longer trails out there.
Also, if you are interested in some backpacking there is a three-day Great Walk that you can do on Stewart Island. I wasn’t able to, but I heard some really great things about it.
Day Seven: Return to Christchurch or Stop Over in Dunedin
Catch the morning ferry off of Stewart Island, and get ready to head north again. It is a long but doable 7.5 hours straight up to Christchurch from Bluff. Dunedin is on the way, so if you aren’t into driving the narrow, slow roads of New Zealand for almost 8 hours, spend a night in Dunedin.
STAY IN CHRISTCHURCH OR DUNEDIN
Day Eight: Christchurch City Central
Check out Christchurch’s botanical gardens and the free Canterbury Museum. Both are wonderful! If you’d like to see the city’s downtown, consider buying a tram or walking tour.
The morning after my day sliding down stairs and worrying about a broken hand, I was up before the sun and out on the dock for my boat ride back to the mainland. After an hour on the cold boat, and a quick walk through some very frigid wind, I was ready to climb back into my little car.
However, after about three hours in my little car, that feeling had died off a bit. See, I had about 8 hours of driving to do to get from Bluff to Christchurch, and those hours feel so much longer here than in the US. Simply put (and the signs here will remind you of this fact) the roads in New Zealand are different. They are curvy and they are narrow, with only one lane on either side. That means that when you are tired from driving for 3+ hours, you might become more tired when a giant semi-truck turns out in front of you and you are suddenly trapped going half as fast as you’d like.
Needless to say, I was exhausted when I finally pulled into my Christchurch hotel, and ready for some rest after a surprisingly stressful week (wonderful as well).
The day after I arrived in town, I moved a little closer to the city central, and took a walk down to the botanical gardens. Unfortunately, I chose a cold, windy day to walk down there, so I ended up retreating into the Conservatory. I fell in love with the rows and rows of potted plants, and the beauty of the greenhouse’s antique architecture. I even managed to find a saguaro in there, which was a nice little reminder of home.
Getting out of the wind for a bit made me decide that walking around downtown wasn’t an option at the moment, so once I peeled out of the conservatory, I walked right over to the Canterbury museum. This particular Christchurch attraction is free, so even though I am not a huge fan of museums, I knew I didn’t have anything to lose. Turns out, the Canterbury museum is just my kind of institution, i.e. they are very good at immersive exhibits. I especially loved the exhibit on the Paua Shell House (which I had no idea what that was when I walked up), where they showed a movie about the history and story of the house that became an attraction in the southern town of Bluff when the residents started pinning polished Paua shells to their walls. It was quite an enchanting little story, and after watching the movie, it was really delightful to go into the next room and get to experience a recreation of that Kiwi landmark.
When the weather was better, I did get the chance to look around the Botanical gardens more. This is a great place to walk and explore; there are beautiful ponds, different groupings of plants, and even some species from my home desert.
As for seeing downtown Christchurch, I did walk around a bit, but there wasn’t much to see on your own. I would definitely suggest the gardens and the museum for anyone looking for some cheap things to see, but if you want to get the most out of visiting the city itself, definitely grab a tour.