I'm planning a trip to Japan with my husband this upcoming November. We'll be flying into Tokyo but are open to visiting other cities. I'm a little overwhelmed by the massive number of things to do in this amazing country. Any tips on great things to do/see and how to structure a 2 week trip?
A long-time reader stepped up to the plate for this one....
Sarah is a native of Colorado who unexpectedly fell in love with Seattle and the PNW. She moved to Japan six months after getting married, where she now spends her time drinking coffee, eating raw fish, blogging, and angsting about her homemaker status.
Here is Sarah's guide to travel in Japan, complete with train, toilet, and "morning seto" tips, a couple of key Japanese phrases, and (gasp) a little bit of etiquette:
First off, you need a Japan Railways (JR) Pass. Japan has outstanding public transportation and an extensive line of high-speed trains that will get you anywhere you need to go, but it’s not cheap. The JR Pass will allow you unlimited travel on any JR train, including a Reserved seat on the swanky Shinkansen (aka the ‘Bullet Train’), for a set period of time. The passes are $357 for one week, $569 for two, and $727 for three. Not sure you’ll travel enough to warrant it? You can check train prices here. (The Tokyo-Kyoto-Tokyo hot lap alone makes the weekly pass worth it.) For a detailed breakdown on the JR Pass, read this. You have to purchase and pick it up before you enter Japan and have to activate it once you arrive (can do so at the airport or at a major train station). Your time begins at that point, so if you’re staying a week and a half and the first bit is in Tokyo, don’t register the pass until you want to begin travelling.
Speaking of the Shinkansen: they are amazing. The best way to travel. Clean, fast, reliable, frequent. There are unreserved (自由席, jiyūseki) and reserved (指定席, shiteiseki) seats. Since you’re travelling in style (read: JR Pass) you can get a Reserved ticket for no additional cost, and it’ll give you an actual assigned seat. Stop by the station’s JR Office (they usually speak English) to get the ticket. Live large and ask for a window seat. There are varying speeds of the trains. The JR Pass holders cannot ride the Nozomi (のぞみ), the quickest one, so make sure not to hop on those. The other ones are okay and only a bit slower.
To really experience the Shinkansen, you’ll need to get an Asahi and Eki-Ben before you get on. At the station, usually on the platform, there are shops selling bento boxes, which are Japanese boxed lunches, and they are delicious. Grab one of these, grab an Asahi beer, and get on the train. Trains stop briefly, so move fast. If you miss a train, panic, then remember they run about every 10 minutes (though you’ll have to ride in the unreserved car if you missed your reserved train). Regain composure.
Also: The Japanese line up. For subways, for trains, for everything. You line up in the subway, move to the side when the doors open, let everyone off, then get on the train. It’s a beautiful thing. Look for the end of the line and try not to cut. (You probably will accidently cut a couple times. It’s okay; happens to the best of us.)
To determine your ticket price on subways, look at the map and find the stop where you want to go. There will be a price next to it (say ¥150). Buy a ticket for that amount and put it in the ticket machine booth when you enter and exit. You won’t need to say your actual destination when you purchase a ticket, just buy it for the price.
Now that you’ve got transportation down, a couple other things that will make travel here easier. Cash. Japan is still, for the most part, a cash based society. Hotels will take credit cards, but most other places won’t, so stock up on some ¥. The best place to get cash is either Post Office ATMs or those at 7-11 (they seem to be the most reliable in accepting international credit cards). Japan is a very safe country, so as long as you’re smart and careful, I wouldn’t worry too much about carrying money on your person. Tipping isn’t a thing here. Smoking still is common, so be ready. Grab a handkerchief and some travel Kleenex, as some public restrooms don’t have toilet paper or paper towels (though most are decently clean). And when you have a choice, pick ‘Western’ toilets over ‘Japanese.’ Trust me.
Dress up a bit. People are pulled together here. That said, pack light. You’ll be dragging your suitcase up and down stairs, in and out of subways, and through some crowded sidewalks. On that note: rollie bag. Trash cans can be hard to find, so I’d recommend a purse that is big enough to hold an empty cup of coffee until you return to your hotel.
Now for WHERE to go:
TOKYO (3 days)
Obviously. You’ll probably fly in here. It’s a fun, big city. Stay in a hotel on the Yamanote (Green) JR line. The city is so flipping big it can be hard to traverse and staying on a major rail line will help. You cannot walk from neighborhood to neighborhood very easily. Before you book, use Google maps to see how long of a walk it is from your place to the nearest subway stop. Aim for less than 10 minutes. I usually use HotelsCombined to find a place; Agoda is another good place.
A couple notes:
1. Hotels commonly charge by the person in Japan. (You’re not being ripped off.)
2. Hotels are tiny here. Please don’t bitch about it. They just are.
Roppongi is the place for nightlife. I like Shinjuku and Shibuya for a great mix of day and night activity. Ginza is high class shopping, Tokyo Station and the Dome are a bit boring. This is a city to really see modern Japan (the fashion! the design!), so I wouldn’t hit too many shrines except Meiji-Jingu. If you go on a Saturday, you have a good shot of seeing Shinto weddings, which are very beautiful. Whenever I see one, I can’t help but stop, watch, and get a bit misty eyed (which might disqualify me from being in the evil club of mean hipster brides, but whatever.) When I’m in Tokyo, I love to just walk around and people-watch like there is no tomorrow. The style, the energy of the city, it’s all great. Don’t miss: Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, Takeshita for the people watching alone. Kate Spade’s Tokyo Travel Guide would be worth a look if you’re going to be in the city awhile; I’ll be referencing it on my next trip there. Tip: restaurants and bars are upstairs and downstairs in Japan. It is not sketchy to go down or up several flights of stairs to find a place to eat or drink.
KYOTO (3 days)
You have to go. It’s really as simple as that. This is the cultural destination of Japan, one of the few cities that escaped the massive bombings at the end of WWII. I always stay at Ryokan Nishiyama. It’s a traditional Japanese inn with an onsen (and beer vending machine) downstairs. Stay in a tatami room and don’t miss the Japanese breakfast the next morning.
The easiest way to see Kyoto is by bus, and you can buy an all day pass for ¥500 (~$6). A great place to get the pass and some helpful maps is the Tourist Information Center (TIC) in Kyoto Station. Swing by it when you first arrive. Consult a guidebook for which temples look best to you, pick a couple that are CLOSE to each other and accept you can’t hit them all. My favorites are Kiyomizu-dera, Fushimi-Inari, Arashiyama’s Tenryu-ji and bamboo grove, and Nishiki Market.
My Kyoto party trick is to go to the Gion District for lunch. Dinners in this area can be crazy expensive, but the lunch sets are about half the cost and just as classy. I’d recommend the Shabu Shabu. Also in the Gion district, you can dress up as a maiko (geisha apprentice), which I hear is totally cheesy… and awesome.
My favorite restaurant in Kyoto is Japonica, right down the street from Ryokan Nishiyama. It’s hipster Japan. It’s so hipster it makes Portland look amateur. I love it. [Editor's Note: I love YOU.] The Octopus and Avocado salad is one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth.
NARA (½ day)
This is an awesome side trip from Kyoto. Catch the JR train express (not local) from the Kyoto Station. It’s about 30 minutes down to Nara. See the Daibutsu; walk around the Todai-ji Park. Stop by a kombini (more on them below) pick up lunch, and picnic. Sake is recommended. Watch out for the deer. They are aggressive little bastards.
HIROSHIMA / MIYAJIMA (2 days)
I love Hiroshima. Besides the Peace Park, A-Bomb Dome, and Peace Memorial Museum (which is incredibly moving – and not uncomfortable to visit as an American), this city has a wonderfully relaxed vibe. It’s not touristy, really, and it’s quite walkable. While you’re down there, save at least a day to see Miyajima and the floating tori gate. It’s an easy trip down from Hiroshima and your JR pass will work on the ferry to the island. If you can afford it, stay on the island. Don’t miss the A-Bomb Dome, Peace Memorial Museum, Mt. Misen, Itsukushima-jinja. Eat okonomiyaki and grilled oysters.
TAKAYAMA (2 days)
This is a bit off the beaten path, but if you’re looking to see mountains and a slower pace of life, head to Takayama. It’s a beautiful little town that is somehow traditional yet a ‘real’ city. It’s known for the Hida Beef (which many people here claim is better than Kobe) and sake breweries, and I think that’s a damn fine combination. From Takayama, you can head to Kamikochi to see the Japanese Alps or Shirakawa-go to see rustic thatched houses and old villages. This is a perfect place to catch your breath and just walk around after the business of Kyoto and Tokyo.
SAPPORO & HOKKIDO (3+ days)
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Whew. That’s too much for two weeks, isn’t it? If I were you, I’d figure out what I really wanted to see and go from there. Are you more into ancient culture and history? Kyoto. Fashion and neon lights? Tokyo. Want to drink coffee and just wander away from crazy crowds? Hiroshima. Want to see nature and small(er) town life? Takayama. Want to be adventurous, love to ski, and have some time? Sapporo. I am the kind of person who likes to travel slow and take places in, so I’d hit fewer spots and stay longer. However, this may be your one-and-only-shot to see Japan, so if you want to hop around and see everything, I fully support.
Ideally, I like to put Tokyo last on itineraries since it’s crazy (in a good way) and can be overwhelming to those new to Japan and still jetlagged.
A few good-to-know things about Japan:
Kombinis: Convenience Stores are all over the place here. Lawson’s, Family Mart, Circle K, 7-11. They are amazing. The food is totally decent to pick up for an on-the-go meal, they have good coffee, snacks, & ice cream. You can also buy beer, chu-hi, and sake. (Sake is called Nihonshu here. Sake just means alcohol). It’s also a good place to pick up hair ties, deodorant, Meiji chocolate covered almonds… all your basic necessities. (Seriously. Get the almonds. Oh, and grapefruit Chu-Hi Strong, but be warned, its 8% and goes down like juice).
Most coffee shops have ‘Morning Setos,’ which is basically a special where you get toast and an egg with your coffee if you come in before 10:30 or 11. It’s one of the few “deals” in Japan, and you’ll feel totally in the know when you order it. Look at you.
Department stores have grocery stores and sweet shops in their lower levels. It’s like a wonderful world of perfectly crafted miniature sweets down there. Worth at least a stop in. Muji is my favorite Japanese home store and Loft my favorite department store. While you’re out shopping, a Japanese manicure is one of the best (temporary) souvenirs you can get, especially if you ever wanted tiny cats painted onto your nails. Drug stores have aisles and aisles of hair and makeup that your inner 14-year-old girl could only dream of, so stop in and grab some fake eyelashes.
Karaoke. Do tourists do this? If you’re brave, speak a bit of Japanese, and see a Joy Joy, hop on in. I wasn’t a fan of karaoke back in the States, but the private rooms, unlimited drinks, and growing appreciation of Rhianna as an artist* have won me over.
Lastly, on the language thing: Most Japanese studied English in school, but it’s not safe to assume that people will be bilingual, especially outside of Tokyo, and it’s always helpful to know a couple words. Remember su-me-ma-sen, which basically means ‘excuse me’ or ‘sorry.’ I begin about every sentence with it, especially if I am going to be asking for help or asking something in English. Also hai (said like an abrupt ‘hi’) means yes, but often people use it as a sign that they are listening to you, not necessarily agreeing with you. Japanese people, I have found, are very accommodating and patient with visitors, and more polite than most other places I’ve been. It’s an easy country to travel.
I think that’s it for me! I absolutely love this country, and I’m so excited you’re visiting. I’m sure whatever you do and however you schedule your trip, you’ll have a fantastic time.
*I dare you not to feel damn good singing “We Found Love” into a microphone after a couple of Chu-Hi’s.
(Photos by Sarah herself)