Japan, Itinerary and tips for your First Trip

The post gives you all the detailed  information you need for your first time summer trip to Japan (Tokyo, Hakone, Mt Fuji, Yokohama, Kyoto, Nara). Article includes essential tips, hotel, food and attractions.

It was 23rd September 2016 and we were at the airport waiting to take our flights all the way to JAPAN. A trip combining work and play, we flew into Narita Airport near Tokyo via Japan/American Airlines and as soon as we landed, we noticed nothing but cleanliness, organization and a functional system. Narita Airport is huge and spacious and has everything from post office to shopping, although surprisingly food choices are limited, almost nothing for vegetarians. Immigration, customs and baggage claim was as smooth and rapid as it could get. We then picked up our pre-booked pocket Wifi from japan-wireless (http://japan-wireless.com/) and let me tell you, the process couldn’t be more seamless. We reserved it online, showed the printed voucher and our passport and they handed us the hotspot, all ready to go. It took 30 seconds to set it up and worked like a charm amongst the 6 of us for the entire 12-day trip. We then got our currency exchanged and our JR passes. Vouchers for JR passes must be bought in your country at least 3 days prior to your departure date and we bought ours from http://online.jtbusa.com/. The pass is totally worth it if you plan to visit multiple cities in Japan and is very convenient since most likely your primary means of transport will be the train. Google Maps and hyperdia.com accurately routes an itinerary for you with train schedules and timings. We took the Narita express to Tokyo station and from there on, hailed a cab to our hotel.

Stay in Tokyo: We stayed at the Villa Fontaine Hatchobori Hotel which is about a 10-15 min walk from Tokyo station. The hotel is reasonably priced and served good continental breakfast every morning. However, the rooms were quite small to where it was difficult to accommodate luggage for two people and still have some space to walk around.

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Room at Villa Fontaine Hatchobori, Tokyo

Every hotel room in japan had the following features different from that seen in the US:

  • Hotel rooms provided a lot more toiletries including toothbrush, toothpaste and razors.
  • Iron is not available in all rooms and is available by request, although requests need to be made for every day that you want it.
  • There is an electric kettle to make your own tea instead of a coffee maker.
  • You get new clean night wear every night.
  • Every toilet had an automated bidet as well as toilet paper.
  • Every hotel room had a refrigerator.
  • Semidouble beds are not double beds. They will only fit one adult.
  • Every hotel provides umbrellas in case of rain.

Commute in Tokyo: We decided to stay close to Tokyo station as all JR lines travel through it and therefore, was convenient to commute to different suburbs. Keep in mind that if you only plan to use JR lines, you will most likely find yourselves walking a bit from the stations to the nearby popular tourist sites. However, all train rides will be included with your JR pass. There are JR busses available too in the city but we didn’t explore them much as we figured it would take longer to get to our sites of interest with the given traffic. Alternatively, there are passes available for Tokyo Subway that may be more convenient for the city, but comes with an added expense (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2017.html).

Site Seeing in Tokyo: We spent 2 days and 3 nights in Tokyo. The first day we walked to the Imperial Palace and wandered around the park. You don’t really get to see the palace from inside. It’s a giant park that has more than one entrance. Attached to it is Chidorigafuchi where we wanted to rent out boats but couldn’t find it on our walking path. We tried to ask some people for it and they couldn’t give us accurate directions. Although it’s close to the Imperial Palace park, its not a short distance; may have to take a cab to it. If you can find it, I would recommend spending more time there than at the Imperial Palace park coz after a point its more walking without seeing much.

After grabbing a bite for lunch, we walked back to Tokyo station and took a JR train to Shinjuku. It’s a very active suburb of Tokyo with lots of stores to shop at and restaurants that looked like reasonably priced. We walked to the Samurai Museum, which was very enjoyable. The tickets are about 1800 yen and includes a guided tour, live performance of a samurai, learning some moves with him, taking pictures with him as well as taking pictures in samurai and kimono costumes. If time permits, it might be worth going to the Shinjuku National Garden as well.

Second day, thanks to jetlag, we had a 4am run to the Tsukiji fish market. It was a very pleasant 20 min run from our hotel, however, it took us a while to find the right place once we got to the area. Turned out that contrary to popular belief, the market does not open for tourists until 10am and tuna auction is not always open to the public. On days it is open, you need to be there by 3am and line up as there are limited seats for the auction but I hear its sight to see and shouldn’t be missed! By 5am the wholesale stores and nearby restaurants begin to open up and we were able to get some sushi and sweet rolled eggs to try out.

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Sweetened Rolled Eggs

After a shower and some breakfast at the hotel, we strolled around the Ginza district, which was a 10 min walk from our hotel and is a high-end shopping district in Tokyo. After lunch, we took a short break following which we took a cab to the Meiji Shrine. A JR train would be cheaper but would have taken us longer and we didn’t have enough time as the shrine shuts at 530pm. The shrine is very peaceful and you enter it walking through tall green trees, which change color during the fall. One downside of the shrines is that there is no information given about them and whatever little is available is in Japanese, so you really do not get the history behind them unless you Google it. We spent about 30 mins at the shrine and then hailed a cab to the Shibuya Square. A JR Yamanote line goes to Shibuya Station in case you decide to take a train. Shibuya is called the ‘Times Square of Tokyo’. This is another very active area of Tokyo with a dense crowd filled with commuters, shoppers, students and tourists. This is where you will find the famous intersection where when the lights turn red, all traffic comes to a stand still in all four directions and the pedestrians fill up the intersection, looking like insects crawling out of their space. This is best viewed from the second floor of Starbucks located on the north side.

shibuya
Famous Crossing at Shibuya Square

We then strolled the streets of Shibuya for some street shopping and headed our way to find some dinner. Post dinner, we took a JR train from Shibuya station to the Hamamatsucho station to get to the Tokyo Tower. The walk from the station to the tower is about 15 mins. We got some night views of Tokyo from the top for a fee. I would recommend visiting the tower only if you haven’t ever seen city views from a tower before.

Other sites of interest that we missed out: a)  Akihabara that is popular for its stores for electronics and games. b)  Kabuki-za in Ginza for some traditional Japanese drama. Shows are organized monthly on only a certain days and therefore pre-planning is needed. You can get tickets for the entire play or for one-hour segments of a certain play, incase of limited time. More information can be found on http://www.kabuki-bito.jp/eng/top.html. You may need to line-up the ticket counter before it opens as tickets are sold out pretty fast. c) Visiting the National Art Museum may be worth for art lovers.

Day-Trip to Hakone: Moving on from Tokyo, we made a trip to Hakone, a mountainous town, west of Tokyo, known for its hot springs, active volcano and views of Mount Fuji. A day-trip to Hakone is well laid out for you with a Hakone Free pass. We took a JR train to Odawara and bought the Hakone Free pass for about 40USD at the station. The pass includes the Tozan train ride, ride on the cable car, gondola as well as the cruise on lake Ashi. Views of Mount Fuji can be seen on a clear sunny day for which I admit, you have to be lucky. Regardless, the Hakone tour is fun and presumably even more spectacular in the fall or winter. More details on the tour can be found at http://www.2aussietravellers.com/a-day-trip-to-hakone/.

Stay at Yokohama: Our hotel at Yokohama was Yokohama Bay Hotel which is one of the hotels closest to the convention center. It can be a bit pricey but you can find a good deal if booked early. Our room was a giant suite with two double beds, dining table with 4 chairs, a bathroom with a walk-in shower as well as a tub supplied with bathrobes and bath salts among other toiletries, and a patio overlooking the beautiful bay and the lit up Ferris wheel. Having said that, our friends stayed at Hotel Edit and while the lobby was new and contemporary, the rooms were smaller than Yokahama Bay, although bigger than the room in Tokyo. The hotel did serve complimentary elaborate breakfast buffet every morning, which was definitely a plus in addition to being 5 mins away from Sakuragicho Station.

Site seeing at Yokohama: We spent three days in Yokahama to attend work-related conference and therefore weren’t able to explore Yokahama entirely However, we did manage to visit the Cup-noodle museum, which was interesting, but not quite as elaborate as I had expected it to be for the price (about 8 USD). The museum closes at 6pm, which means you should have been done seeing everything by 6.

Trip to Kyoto: At the end of the conference in Yokohama, we moved onto visiting Kyoto, a city that is urban yet traditional in its culture, filled with shrines, temples, shopping markets and geishas. Travelling to Kyoto to and fro from Yokohama or Tokyo allows you to fully recover the cost of a 7-day JR pass and gives you the comfortable experience of a shinkansen (Bullet Train). Every tourist must experience a ride in a Japanese shinkansen, which is not only extremely comfortable but is impressively efficient and punctual. In general, the railway system in japan runs by the clock and therefore is a very effective means of transport for locals as well as tourists. It took us a total of 3 hours to travel to Kyoto from Yokohama.

Stay in Kyoto: Our first night in Kyoto was spent in a Ryokan Inn, which gives you an experience of traditional Japanese living. Ryokan Inns are available from the very basic, least expensive to the fancy, highly expensive ones. We stayed at Kamogawakan Inn, located in the heart of Kyoto by the river and close to several stores and restaurants. The rooms were very different from what I had ever seen before. They featured matted floors, sliding doors, public and private baths and involved wearing kimono-like night wear (Yukata), sleep on the floor, removing your shoes before stepping onto the matted floor and a traditional Japanese breakfast laid out for you in the morning at your preferred time. To me, this was the best part of my trip and a must for every tourist visiting Japan.

The remaining three nights in Kyoto were at Sakura Terrace Gallery Hotel, located close to Kyoto station to make our commute easy and convenient around the city. Alternatively, Airbnb can be a cheaper option. Notably, there are only two JR lines running through the city and so you may have to hail a cab from the stations to your destination or get a one or two-day bus pass that allows you to use all buses unlimited throughout the city. The passes and bus stops are located outside of Kyoto Station and so staying close to the station still makes it comfortable and efficient.

Site seeing in Kyoto: The first day we took the JR Nara line to visit the Fushimi Inari Shrine. The shrine is located just outside of Inari Station. The shrine was one of the most beautiful and traditional shrines we visited on the trip. The shrine sits on the base of the mountain and includes a trail up the mountain, which may take about 2 hours to the top. On the way, you will pass a pond, smaller shrines and little souvenir shops, all through the cool scenic green trail that’s covered. On our way back, we stopped at the shops to buy some souvenirs as well as for some street food for lunch. Luckily, we found some delicious noodle booth, available with a no-meat option.

We then took the train back to Kyoto station and change to the San-In JR line to Saga-Aarashiyama. This is also one of the must-see attractions of Kyoto and if you can get there early enough, you can rent bikes to visit the monkey park, in addition to going to the popular Tenru-Ji shrine and the bamboo forest. It’s about a 6 min walk from the station to the shrine and takes about 30-40 min to visit the shrine and the bamboo forest. We then strolled the streets of the cute Aarashiyama town and tried some Matcha float and Japanese roll cakes and headed our way back to grab some dinner.

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Bamboo Forest at Aarashiyama

The next day we planned on visiting the Kinkakuji or the Golden Temple. You can either take a bus outside of Kytoto Station all the way to the temple, or take the San-In JR line to Emmachi Station and catch a bus from there for a faster route. As the name suggests, the temple is made of gold and sits in the middle of a pond that makes for a picturesque site. We then took the bus back to Higashiyama, had lunch and spent a couple of hours shopping at the popular Nishiki Market and several other markets close to it. Walking through the Geisha district, we took the cab back to Kyoto Station to our hotel. Remember, that if you want to see Geisha’s on the streets, you need to visit the district during the night. The third day, we took the JR Nara line to Nara. Nara is a small town an hour away from Kyoto that’s known for its shrines (a popular one is Todai-Ji shrine) and the Nara park which is deer sighting park. Funnily, a deer bowed at us just like the Japanese! (probably just a co-incidence but I was thrilled regardless!).

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Deer Park at Nara

Following lunch in Nara, we headed back to Kyoto, and called it the end of our trip. The next day (4th October 2016), we traveled to Narita Airport from Kyoto Station via the bullet train and Narita express, dropped off our pocket Wi-Fi at the airport post office and took our flights back to the US.

Food in Japan: As a vegetarian who does not eat fish as well, let me tell you that finding food was the most challenging tasks on the trip. Though difficult, it’s not impossible to find vegetarian options close to you. You will only have to spend some time browsing the net to find something that suits you. If nothing, there are always Indian and Italian restaurants that will definitely have vegetarian options along with options for meat-eaters in your group. Surprisingly, we found more vegetarian-friendly restaurants in Kyoto than in Tokyo. Despite challenges for savory meals, desserts and sweet treats in japan are heavenly and if you happen to have a sweet tooth like me, you are in the right place. There are plenty of options with a variety of cookies, cakes, ice creams and drinks; all will make your trip completely worthy of the visit.

Surprising facts about Japan:

  • Many restaurants do not allow take outs.
  • Eating and walking on streets is looked down upon.
  • Littering is prohibited but trash cans are not available every corner. You are expected to lug your trash until you find a bin.
  • Many restaurants will not customize food for you.
  • Japanese are polite yet firm and don’t shy away from saying ‘No’
  • Many hotels do not allow visitors of guests to visit in their rooms.
  • Many businesses do not open until 10 or 11am. Planning accordingly will save time.

Japanese words that we heard or used the most:

Most locals do not speak English so knowing a few japanese words always comes in handy. Besides, I would suggest downloading ‘Google Translate’ and ‘Learn Japanese’ apps on your phone to aid in communication. People whom we found knowing a bit English were those at the JR ticket counters and receptionists at the hotels. Waiters at restaurnts may understand a few words in your sentence to get the message. Following are some words that are easy to learn and you may use frequently.

  • Arigato Gozaimas: Thank You.
  • Sumimasen: Excuse Me
  • Bejitarian: Vegetarian
  • Kohi : coffee
  • Ocha: tea
  • Mizu: Water
  • Biru: Beer
  • Ohayo Gozaimas: Good Morning
  • Konnichiwa: Good Afternoon
  • Hajimemashite: How do you do?

 

Relevant Links:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tokyo
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyoto
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yokohama

One-day Kyoto Itinerary: http://www.insidekyoto.com/must-see-kyoto-1-day-itinerary

Nara Itineraries: http://www.insidekyoto.com/nara-itineraries

Tips for Vegetarians: http://en.rocketnews24.com/2015/09/28/10-vegetarian-foods-you-can-order-at-almost-any-japanese-restaurant/


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