ENJOYING THE BUSY LIFE IN SHINJUKU AND SHIBUYA: Tokyo diaries part 2

I knew before I went to Tokyo that I wanted to stay somewhere around Shinjuku, so I spent I lot of my time in the area.

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SHINJUKU

One of the most popular areas of Tokyo is Shinjuku. As soon as you get off the station you’re overwhelmed by neon lights, bright screens and competing loud music.

There are shops everywhere, and a massive Godzilla head watches over you. This is the Tokyo of films. In Shinjuku you can shop at popular places like Don Quijote (don’t go there, it’s a nightmare) or Tokyu Hands; you can go to tourist traps like the Robot Restaurant (I didn’t visit) and you can enjoy lots of weird and wonderful bars.

It’s a good area to explore, and if you’re based around there, you will get to know it well.

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GOLDEN GAI AND BAR-HOPPING

Golden Gai is a traditional area of Shinjuku where you get hundreds of tiny little bars in a few narrow alleys. In the past it was mostly a local crowd, but when we visited it was very touristy.

There are lots and lots of bars in the area and around Shinjuku in general, so there are plenty of options. We went to From Dusk Till Dawn, which despite being mostly empty on a Friday night was a cool place with good music and friendly staff (drinks for Y700).

We also went to Capcom Bar, a videogame-themed bar where you can play games while enjoying food and drinks inspired by them. I tried the Hadouken (for Y700), which was good and looked great too. It’s a fun place to visit – even if it’s clearly very touristy it’s still an interesting experience.

TOKYO METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT BUILDING

A great option to see Tokyo from above is the Metropolitan Government Building. It has two observation decks (north and south) on the 45th floor and it’s amazingly free to visit (I visited twice and you need to wait a bit to get in but not much).

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You can get amazing views over the city day and night (the north tower is open until 11pm), and it’s definitely a highlight of any Tokyo trip – you get to see the city sprawling in all directions with no end in sight.

Tokyo is a whole world and this is the perfect place to spot its magnitude. I visited the south tower during the day and north tower in the evening and both were great.

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SHIBUYA

The Shibuya scramble crossing is a famous intersection which highlights how Japan is hectic and orderly at the same time. When the lights are green, up to 3,000 people can cross at the same time. It’s nice to watch it from the station and then join the crowds on the ground, which is really fun.

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Shibuya is an area at the heart of Tokyo where you can get lost for a few hours exploring the place and going into shops. It’s also full of neon signs and bright lights, but a bit less gritty than Shinjuku.

HARAJUKU

Harajuku is internationally famous as the place you see in photos showing Japanese girls dressed up in the weirdest outfits. The area is full of shops selling all sorts of kawaii tat. There are lots of little roads to explore and watch the local crowds – although it is very touristy so you’re really watching other tourists!

If you venture off the main roads things get a bit more interesting. I found Mojo, a hidden-away cafe serving nice pastries (two drinks and a pastry for Y1200) which was perfect for a slow break. And heading towards Omotesando is also a good option to escape the crowds.

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MEIJI JINGU

Meiji Jingu is an Edo temple localted in Yoyogi, a huge park next to Harajuku. The park is beautiful and so is the temple – a great place for a quiet break on a sunny day.

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FOOD AND DRINK:

AOYAMA FLOWER MARKET TEA HOUSE

A flower shop which is also a tea house is the perfect setting for an instagrammable drink. The Aoyama Flower Market Tea House is a popular place for tea with a light meal or dessert. I went on a Monday to avoid queuing (it gets very busy), and it was definitely worth the visit.

I had the Collette tea which was really good with the ‘Halloween’ eclair, very good too (both for Y1530). The whole place is decorated with plants hanging from the ceiling and little vases with flowers everywhere. A bit girly, but a perfect stop for a little treat.

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8ABLISH

We had lunch at this nice restaurant in fancy Omotesando. It is a vegan restaurant serving delicious set lunches with local beers and yummy dessert. A bit expensive at Y3000-4000 per person, but definitely a good option for a treat.

YEBISU BEER MUSEUM

Ebisu is a nice area just one stop from Shibuya. There you can find the Yebisu Beer Museum, a grandiose bar with a small gallery where you can learn about Yebisu beer and taste the different varieties. You can get any of their beers for just Y400 or a tasting set of three for Y800 – it’s definitely worth a visit!

RAINBOW RAW FOOD

Also in Ebisu we went for lunch at Rainbow Raw Food, a vegan place serving a nice selection of light meals. We had the sushi lunch set (Y1500 per person) which was really delicious – and the only time I had sushi in Japan so definitely a good thing to do.

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EXPLORING GINZA AND THE IMPERIAL GARDENS: Tokyo diaries part 1

I spent lots of time in Tokyo, but the first area I discovered was around Ginza and Tokyo Station, as that’s where my first hotel was.

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GINZA AND NIHONBASHI

On my first day in Tokyo, I headed to Ginza, an area full of major retailers. It’s a good area to visit, as it’s full of flagship stores and bustling with people. Nearby Nihonbashi is equally impressive. Even if you don’t like shopping, it’s interesting with lots of flagship stores.

I visited Uniqlo (spread over 13 floors!), Muji, Mitsukoshi (a famous department store) and G. Itoya (a great stationary shop). Shops around Ginza often cover many floors and have anything you need (and even more that you don’t).

Ginza is considered to be a more Western part of Tokyo, with its ample avenues. To me it’s still very much Japan, completely OTT, but a bit less hectic than Shibuya or Shinjuku.

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TOKYO STATION

Tokyo Station is massive and manic, and it has lots of shops and restaurants around and inside it. It’s a useful place to visit for tickets and to get information, but it’s also an interesting stop itself.

Inside the station there’s T’s Tantan, a vegan favourite as it serves ramen (which is rarely vegan-friendly). The food was really delicious and definitely worth a visit (lunch for two including drinks for Y3000). The restaurant is located inside the JR barriers at Keiyo Street, so you need a valid ticket to get in.

Just outside Tokyo Station is Hitachino Brewing Lab, a nice bar serving Hitachino beer. You can try one of their nice beers for around Y700, or sample a float of three for Y980.

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IMPERIAL GARDENS

After many days of rain there was finally a break, so we went to the Imperial Gardens (free to visit). It is one of the largest green areas in central Tokyo, and a good place to spend a few hours. There are ample green areas, an orchard, and many historical buildings which used to serve as lookout posts.

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MOMAT

Tokyo’s Museum of Modern Art is behind the Imperial Gardens. The place hosts many different exhibitions and you can buy different tickets – we visited the permanent collection for Y500. It is a great museum with lots of interesting artworks by Japanese artists, so definitely worth a visit to get to know their work.

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KABUKI THEATRE

One of those things you think about doing before you go to Japan is seeing some Kabuki, and it was actually quite easy to do. Kabuki-za is a famous theatre in Ginza, and it has performances every day.

You can buy tickets on the day for a single act (the whole thing lasts four hours, so an hour-long act is enough). You join the queue about 1h30 before it starts and you get a ticket for Y1000 to Y1600 depending on the performance. You can rent an audio guide to translate it, but they also give you a written summary before it starts (all the details are on this website, look for the single act instructions).

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We went late one afternoon and it was a great experience. The theatre looks amazing and brand new, and the set and costumes are perfect – I don’t think I’ve seen this level of care in a production before.

The plays are quite old-fashioned – it’s all funny expressions and funny lines (I gather), so you only need to try it once!

HUGE BUDDHAS AND CUTE STREETS: Day trip to Kamakura and Yokohama

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I decided to take a day trip to Kamakura, which is not very far from Tokyo.

The main draw of Kamakura is the Great Buddha statue (tickets Y200), which really is huge and impressive.

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Nearby is Hasedera temple (tickets Y300), a beautiful temple with lots of things to see: there’s a great garden, lots of little Buddha statues and caves with wall carvings.

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Kamakura is a great place to visit, as aside from the temples there are lots of cool shops and cafes, and the town centre is really cute.

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Nearby is Yokohama, so you can visit both on the same day. Yokohama has a famous Chinatown, so I went to check it out. There are lots of food and souvenir shops as you’d expect from any Chinatown, but what really struck me was how nice and tidy it was – definitely the neatest Chinatown I’ve seen!

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Yokohama also has the Red Brick Warehouse, a historical building which was made into a shopping centre – but a nice one, with independent shops and plenty of cafes and restaurants.

This is a good option for a day trip not far from Tokyo.

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GETTING THERE:

Kamakura is served by a JR line from Shinjuku. The trip takes about 1h20. Once there, everything is within walking distance.

Yokohama is also on the JR line, and the best stations near the city centre are on the Negishi line. It is about 30min from Kamakura and 50min from Shinjuku. Tickets from Tokyo are cheap (Y800 – Y1000, or free with a JR pass).

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ZEN IN THE CITY: My experience meditating in Japan

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Before I went to Japan I knew I wanted to do zen meditation, so I did some research to find some alternatives. There weren’t that many options for tourists, but I did find some, mostly in Kyoto.

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The three experiences I had were all different and each of them were good in their own way: I learnt a lot about zazen and how to incorporate some of the practices in my routine.

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SHOURINJI:

The first zazen session I attended was at Shourinji. Bizarrely, I got bitten by a scary mukade centipede not long before I was due to get there, but I thought the meditation could help calm me down (it did). The session was all in Japanese but you get a handout in English explaining everything.

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It was a good session and the place was packed (there were maybe 50 people there). As is usual in these sessions, you meditate 15 minutes twice, and that is followed by a dharma talk and some green tea.

This temple is located close to some other sights, so it’s a good one to go to. You just need to email them in advance to check their availability and pay Y1000 on arrival (a cheaper fee than the other sessions I attended).

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SHUNKOIN

I’d been following Shunkoin’s website for months before going to Japan, and it was the top place I wanted to visit for zazen. They run sessions for 1h30 almost daily, including a tour of the temple grounds and tea afterwards (you pay Y2500).

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The best thing about it is that Rev. Takafumi Kawakami not only gives a dharma talk in English, but also he translates the concepts and the practice of zazen into Western concepts, making it really relevant to the audience.

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When I visited he spoke at length about the concept of homoeostasis and how it prevents people from breaking their preconceptions (for instance, even after he said you don’t need to be cross-legged for zazen, most people still chose to sit like that, because it complies with the image they have of meditation).

He also talked about the difficulties everyone has in concentrating and related that to big data – I might well have found my guru!

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NANYOJI

My last zazen session was at Nanyoji, which I found through this website. The zen master Rev. Keiho Nishigaki agreed to pick me up at Hyoruji station (close to Nara) and drove me to his temple. There were four other people there, all of them locals who come for the zazen most Saturday evenings.

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He explained all the formalities to me in English before we started. After the session, we had tea and biscuits and he drove me back to the station (with some more biscuits to take with me).

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This was the most authentic experience I had with zazen, as it was clearly a temple for locals, most of them rice farmers. It was great to learn more about the formal aspects of zazen (such as the greetings and how to get on and off the tatami). It was also great to be welcomed in a temple that is not there just for tourists.

To book, you need to email in advance. The suggested donation is Y3000 and that also includes some Soto Zen books.

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When I spend a good amount of time in a place I like to experience something local, and zazen is definitely something to try in Japan, as you get to see temples in a completely different way.

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FRIENDLY DEER AND PEACEFUL PAGODAS: 3 days in Nara

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Most people visit Nara on a day trip from Kyoto, but I decided to take it slow and spend a couple of nights there.

Nara is most famous for its park where deer spend the days lounging about by the temples and being fed by tourists.

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NARA PARK

Nara Park is the city’s main draw, and where you can spot and feed deer. They are literally everywhere and get very friendly with the tourists – they even know to bow to ask for deer cookies. If you go early you can avoid the crowds and make friends with the deer all by yourself.

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Inside the park there are also some really cool temples and shrines. Kasugataisha (tickets Y500) is filled with lanterns in all colours and shapes, and Todai-ji (tickets Y500) is the world’s largest wooden structure and home to an amazing and huge Buddha statue.

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TOWN CENTRE

Nara’s centre is full of narrow streets with little shops and cafes, and it looks picture-perfect. There are tons of deer-themed souvenirs (as Japan really knows how to market everything) as well as a disproportionate amount of cat-related stuff (Nara has its own ‘cat district’).

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OTHER TEMPLES

A bit far from the town centre there are a few other temples to visit in Nara.

Yakushi-ji (tickets Y1100) is an impressive complex with lots of different buildings and a colourful pagoda (there are two, but one was being restored when I visited). Nearby is Toshodori-ji (tickets Y600), another large temple with a nice garden.

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A bit further is Horyuji (tickets Y1500, depending on what you visit), another large temple complex with lots to explore.

The best thing about these is that the distance from Nara’s centre means that there’s hardly anyone else there.

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You can reach these temples by bus (a map with all the details is available at the Information Centre, Google Maps is not there yet), so it’s not difficult to get to them.

HOW TO DO IT:

  • GO: Nara can be easily reached by train from Kyoto (45min on the JR line, 30 on the Kintetsu line – although the latter is not included in the JR pass). You can definitely see the main highlights in a day, but if you have more time you get to explore with ease and escape the crowds.
  • STAY: I stayed at Route 53 Guest House which was a good budget option at a great location. Nara is cheaper than Kyoto and quite small, so it’s not very difficult to find good accommodation.

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10,000 RED GATES AND MAGICAL TEMPLES: 4 days in Kyoto

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Kyoto is famous for its temples, but nothing prepares you to the scale of it. There are temples all over the city, and it’s hard to decide which to visit.

I bookmarked the main sites in Google Maps and started exploring from the southeast.

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Every temple is different: Sanjusangendo has 1,000 golden Buddhas, Kiyomizu-dera has great views, Fushimi Inari Taisha has 10,000 tori gates going all the way up the mountain.

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But they’re all great, so whichever you choose to visit would be fine. The temples are such a big part of Kyoto that you really can’t walk more than 5 minutes without spotting a shrine somewhere.

The most popular temples can get quite crowded, especially on weekends, so it’s good to visit on weekdays or early in the morning. Some temples are free to visit while others charge an entrance free (usually Y400-600), but it’s always worth the price. The only thing is that it does add up when you’re visiting many temples in one day.

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It’s tricky to decide where to go, but these were some of my favourites:

Sanjusangendo with its golden Buddhas.

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Zenrinji which is the most magical place, with free green tea and lovely gardens.

From there you can follow the Philosopher’s Path, a quiet walkway by a canal where cats hang out, artists sell their watercolours and carps swim nearby.

The path takes you to Ginkakuji, a temple with beautiful gardens.

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Kinkakuji with its golden pagoda.

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Fushimi Inari Taisha with its endless tori gates. It get really crowded, but if you take the time to climb all the way up Mount Inari over a couple of hours it’s pretty quiet at the top.

Off the main path you can also find an amazing bamboo forest – which was completely empty when we visited.

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Kenninji with its twin dragons and quiet zen garden.

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KYOTO BACKSTREETS

Kyoto also has lots of little backstreets with traditional-looking buildings.

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In Eastern Kyoto you can find Ninenzaka, a pedestrianised area full of little shops selling handicraft (for which Kyoto is famous) and local delicacies. This is also where you can rent a kimono and pretend to be a geisha for the day. It’s a busy area but a cool place to visit.

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One of the cute cafes around there is the Hello Kitty Cafe, where you can sit down with Hello Kitty herself and enjoy a ridiculous ice cream sundae (Y1030).

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Elsewhere, Gion corner and Pontocho are also full of cafes and bars that look authentic and cool.

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NISHIKI MARKET

Right in the centre of Kyoto is Nishiki Market, a traditional market selling all sorts of Japanese food. Although not particularly veggie-friendly, it is a great place to visit to take in the atmosphere and spot local delicacy.

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Around the market there are also lots of other shopping streets selling souvenirs and Japanese handicraft.

Alternatively, Sanjo-Kai Shotengai is another nice market, located close to Nijo Castle (and mush less crowded).

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ARASHIYAMA BAMBOO GROVE

I headed to Arashiyama early to try and avoid the crowds. The area is famous for its bamboo forest, but it’s also a nice place to wander around as there are lots of cute shops and the Tenriji Temple.

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The bamboo groves are really impressive and unlike any forest I’d seen before. You can spend some time taking photos and just taking in the atmosphere – it’s definitely quieter than most other places in Kyoto!

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FOREVER MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART

I’m a big fan of Yayoi Kusama, so I was happy to discover there was an exhibition of her artwork in Kyoto. The Forever Museum of Contemporary Art (tickets Y1200) is located in East Kyoto close to some of the main temples in the area. The museum has five large exhibition rooms and they had lots of Yayoi Kusama’s work on display, which was a great opportunity to see some of her work in Japan.

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HOW TO DO IT:

STAY: I stayed at this Airbnb which was really good. Kyoto is not as expensive as Tokyo and there are plenty of options.

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GO: Most people go to Kyoto via bullet train, and that’s what I did. The service from Tokyo is regular and takes a bit under 3h. Plus it’s definitely something to experience in Japan!

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TRANSPORTATION: Kyoto has great transportation links and it’s fairly easy to navigate the system with Google Maps. You can use an IC card (their equivalent to an oyster card) on most transportation. Urban trains are often JR-operated so are free with a JR pass. Especially in Eastern Kyoto, many of the temples are within walking distance.

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VISITING TEMPLES: The main draw to Kyoto are the temples, but there are so many it’s hard to choose which to visit. I went to lots of them, and from my experience all the larger temples are worth a visit, so in a way it doesn’t really matter which you choose – they’re all different and each has something special to offer.

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WHEN TO GO: I visited in October for four days, but you can easily spend a week there. At times it was still really hot at 30 degrees, which made all the walking a bit difficult. Some of the main temples (such as Fushimi Inari Taisha) get really (really) crowded at weekends, so visit early on a weekday – but the main sights are always busy, so you never get the place to yourself.

Checking out some temples off the beaten path is a good way of enjoying them with a bit more time and space.

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SHOPPING: Kyoto is famous for handicraft, and there are tons of shopping areas in the city centre selling yukatas, furoshiki, Japanese dolls and lots more. Prices tend to be good, but often vary from place to place.

Most temples also have little shops selling souvenirs and amulets. There are usually labels in English to indicate if something should be used as an offering only or if you can take it home with you.

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FOOD: Kyoto has a good amount of veggie places. The area around Nishiki market is full of options – we visited Cafe Matsuontoko which served delicious vegan burgers (meal for two including drinks for Y3000).

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CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE BY TRAIN: How to plan your itinerary

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It’s very easy and convenient to travel around Central and Eastern Europe by train. The distances are generally not very big and the trains are good and run on time.

Itinerary planning:

We visited Munich, Prague, Brno, Vienna and Budapest. All of them were easy to reach and had good connections.

Another alternative would be to head towards Poland instead, or start out in Romania.

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Booking tickets:

As ever, Seat 61 had all the best tips for booking everything online. The booking process in the various sites was easy and tickets very cheap – the key thing for international trips from Germany is to buy the ticket from the website of the other country you’re visiting: for instance, tickets for the same train from Munich to Prague were much more expensive on Bahn.de than via the Czech website.

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Roadworks:

A few weeks before our trip, I got an email informing of changes to train times and taking a bus replacement for one of the legs of our trip. The email was in Czech, but other than that things went as planned and we didn’t have any issues.

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On the trains:

All the trains we took were punctual, well-equipped and generally very good. Express trains usually had a good cafe on board and served a good range of snacks and drinks.