Author: Nghiep Q
Date of Trip: December 2016
Useful things I did before the trip.
I ordered the Japan Rail (JR) pass about one month ahead. Once it was ordered and paid for online, the Exchange Order was delivered by FedEx to our home address. Be sure to bring it to Japan! The Exchange Order and the passport are needed to obtain the JR pass for each traveler from the JR office at the airport. The pass allows for unlimited rides on trains operated by the Japan Rail company. It served us extremely well. We did not have to figure out the cost of tickets for each time we used the JR train. We just went through the gate monitored by the attendant and showed the pass. Since we took the trains everywhere, it saved us a lot of money. We even used the pass to reserve seats on several occasions while traveling on the high speed trains such as Kansai Airport to Kyoto, Kyoto to Hiroshima, Kyoto to Tokyo, etc. Normally, reserved seating requires an additional fee but it is included with the JR pass. We did have to pay for a few segments of rides since the JR lines do not reach all of the places we wanted to visit.
I also ordered a pocket wi-fi about two weeks before the trip. It was delivered to the post office at the arrival airport–Kansai in our case. The unit I received must have been a little older as the battery meter was not accurate. I ended up having to charge it every night. My estimate is it worked about 98% of the time. I had to reboot it several times over a two-week period. I noticed that the arrival hall had several kiosks offering rentals of those devices. We used it mainly for navigation. Having reliable wi-fi saved us a lot of time and potential headache.
I downloaded the Hyperdia app one week before the trip since it is free to use for 30 days. I used it to check the train schedules in real-time. This app was indispensable. During our two weeks, the app displayed the incorrect track number only once. I always double checked the information with the display board at the station and/or platform.
We used Kyoto as a base to explore the western region and Tokyo as the other base. Hence, we flew into Kansai International Airport. Since our flight was scheduled to land in the evening, I booked one night at the Hotel Nikko Kansai. The hotel is just across the sky bridge from the airport. After checking-in, we walked back into the airport to exchange money. My research indicated that the exchange rate at the airport is either the same or better than the rate in the cities. I can confirm that was the case the handful of times I bothered to check while in the cities. We also picked up the JR Pass and reserved seats for next day’s train ride (free service/upgrade with JR Pass). After a light meal of ramen, we even had a chance to do some window shopping before resting up.
The pocket wi-fi was picked up from the post office, located at the northeast end of the second floor, in the morning. The “Limited Express HARUKA” train ride from Kansai Airport to Kyoto Station took 78 minutes. Kyoto Station is massive but due to the ample signage in both Japanese and English, we were able to find our way.
The following is a brief summary of the places we visited from Kyoto.
Kyoto Station: The ground and second levels have numerous restaurants, bakeries, convenient stores, shops, tourist information centers and multiple JR offices. The ninth floor has a “Ramen Street” offering up ramen dishes from different regions of Japan. It was busy both times we went. But everything was organized and done efficiently to minimize the wait time. There is a “Skywalk” up in the rafters, high above the station. Oh, I almost forgot, the tenth floor has more restaurants. We did not eat there though.
Areas around Kyoto Station: To the north, there is the Kyoto Tower. We did not explore it. But we did venture around seven floors of the Yodabashi building. Each level of the department store sold a different category of goods. Underground, there are hundreds of shops and restaurants as part of the Kyoto Porta. To the south, there is an Aeon Mall. We explored the supermarket on the ground floor, many of the stores and ate at a restaurant on the fourth floor and at different stalls in the food court.
Kyoto Imperial Palace, Nishiji Market, Sanjo Dori and other shopping streets in the area: Unfortunately, the Imperial Palace was still closed when we arrived due to the New Year holidays. We ended up walking around the outside and through the park. Nishiji Market was lively though as well as the various shopping streets. We ended up having a couple of good meals in the area.
Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavillion), Fushimi Inari-Taisha (with thousands of torii gates), Kiyomizu-dera: We needed to use the buses in addition to the trains for these three sites. A day pass for the buses at a cost of ¥500 was a good value since the cost of a single bus ride was ¥230. The pass was purchased from the Bus Information Center on the north side of Kyoto Station. Each site was well worth the visit. We hiked all the way to the top of the mountain at Fushimi Inari-Taisha. We managed to capture beautiful pictures at Kinkaku-ji and Kiyomizu-dera. Unfortunately, we did not get a chance to walk around Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka (historic shopping streets) because the stores were closing by the time we were done at Kiyomizu-dera.
Tennoji Temple in Osaka: This temple is a short walk, less than 15 minutes, from the Tennoji Station. Before entering the temple, rinse your hands and mouth with the water by the gate. This is a ritual at all temples. If you want to climb the five-story pagoda, be sure to take off your shoes, put them in the bags provided at the entrance and carry them with you. On the way back to the train station, we ate at two places filled with locals. The noodles and gyoza were standard fare. The takoyaki, balls made of wheat flour batter with octopus chunks inside, was an interesting eat.
Dotonbori in Osaka: It is a covered shopping street (there are many such streets). It was a lively scene with people everywhere. Hozenji Temple is nearby. We saw locals formed a long line for the opportunity to pay respect to the statue of a deity covered in moss.
Osaka Station City: This is another massive structure. Shops and restaurants were on many floors. We had okonomiyaki, noodle-pancake with various toppings, for dinner there. It was also an interesting meal but we were on carb overload by the end of that day.
Nara: We visited Kofukuji (a temple), Todaiji (a temple with a giant Buddha) and Kasuga Taisha (a shrine). There were countless deer around. Purchase crackers if you want to feed and pet them. Watch your steps though as deer dropping were everywhere. There were ladies with broom and pan trying to clean up but they were vastly outnumbered. We caught the rapid train. The ride from Kyoto took 58 minutes (it would have taken 70 minutes on the local train). The Hyperdia app helped us planned accordingly. There is a branch of Vie de France, an excellent bakery, inside Nara Station. This branch had the sweet rice balls which are crispy on the outside with different fillings such azuki, red bean paste, inside. We tried to find this item again at other branches but had no luck. Since we were there on New Year’s Eve, there were numerous food stalls offering up countless variety of dishes. I sampled as much as I could.
Miyajima and Hiroshima: We used the high speed train from Kyoto to Hiroshima and went on to Miyajima by way of a local train and then a ferry. Since there was a large crowd at Miyajima, by the time we completed our visit and got back to Hiroshima, it was already early evening. My plan was for us to catch the Meipuru-pu sightseeing loop-bus in Hiroshima (no additional cost for JR pass holders). I went into the JR office to ask for directions because I did not see signage for the Granvia Hotel where the bus originates. At that moment, I realized I had not reserved seats back to Kyoto. When I inquired, I was told all of the reserved seats had been taken. Our group decided to skip Hiroshima and take the train back as soon as possible rather risk being stranded in Hiroshima. The train we caught was packed. I had to stand the entire ride back to the transfer station at Shin-Osaka (85 minutes). Lesson learned.
Himeji Castle and Koko-En Garden: The walk from the Himeji Station to the castle took about 15 minutes. Notice we typically opt to walk. I personally find it to be a more immersive experience. The entrance fee was ¥1000 to enter the castle and ¥1040 to enter the adjacent garden also. It was a no brainer to pay the extra ¥40. The castle is as impressive as I expected based on the pictures I have seen. The garden has a very peaceful, zen, feel to it.
Kobe: We stopped by Kobe on the way back from Himeji. Since we did not have a lot of time, Chinatown was the choice stop. We got in one queue after another to purchase small samples of the available food. We had different varieties of dumplings, peking duck, beef stew with noodles, and of course grilled Kobe beef steak.
The following is a brief summary of the places we visited from Tokyo.
Tokyo Imperial Palace: On the day of our visit, there were two scheduled, mandatory, guided tours, at 9:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Both are free and on a first come, first serve basis. Although we arrived at 9:40, tickets for the 9:30 tour were still available. The tour did not actually commence until 10:15 as time was needed for the check-in procedures which included inspection of passports. The tour lasted just over one hour. It was nothing special. The tour guide offered only Japanese commentary. There were a limited number of audio guides in alternative languages available. I got the second to the last one. Unfortunately for us, the adjacent East Garden that is usually opened to the public to explore was closed that day.
Mount Fuji, Chureito Pagoda, Kawagugchiko (the largest of the five lakes in the area): The first stop was at Shimoyoshida Station. We hiked up to Chureito Pagoda for an awesome photo spot of the pagoda and Fujisan. The hike took us more than the reported 20 minutes because there was a foot of snow on the ground. After the visit to the pagoda, we continued onto Kawaguchiko. The visit to the lake was cut short since we had reserved seat tickets back to Tokyo. By the way, one portion of the ride was not covered by the JR pass.
Kamakura: Another temple with a huge Buddha statue. Somewhere between the temple and the train station, we stopped by a shop which made octopus crackers. They were made from placing octopus dredged in flour onto a hot flat top and then clamping down with an adjustable screw. A few minutes later, the octopus and flour mixture was cooked and came out paper thin. It was a good eat. I had planned for us to also visit Kencho-ji. But we skipped it and went to Yokohama.
Yokohama: Chinatown was once again the choice. It is supposed to be the largest one in Japan. It was another delicious stop. In addition to street food, many of the restaurants offered options for set menu and all you can eat variety.
Tokyo Skytree, Tokyo Tower: We went to both, shopped there, but did not pay the entrance fees to go up either structure. If you want a panoramic view of Tokyo, one can be had for free at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.
Tokyo Disneyland: There is a shopping mall adjacent to the park. We also explored the hotel grounds and two Disney gift shops.
Odaiba City: We continued to this stop after the Disneyland area. There is a Legoland Discovery Center and a lot of shops in different buildings. Unfortunately, it was raining so we did not get a chance to go outside Diver City to visit the life size Gundam statue.
We also spent time at places such as Akihabara, Ryogoku, and the like. But I don’t have much to report about them.
Some additional notes:
We packed light. Each traveler had one piece of carry-on luggage. I booked hotels with self-service laundry facilities. This was especially helpful when using the train to switch hotels. The Limited Express train from Kansai Airport to Kyoto had luggage storage areas. The Shinkansen had overhead racks which were just large enough to hold carry-on size bags. Although the last row of each train car had space for large pieces, there were just not enough for everyone. People had them in front of their seat and in aisles. In addition, there were not a lot of elevators at train stations. Some smaller/older stations did not even have escalators. I felt bad for people who had to carry large pieces of luggage up and down the stairs.
Virtually every Japanese person we had interacted with was polite and courteous. We went to many places with large crowds but they were orderly (unlike what we experienced in China). The system is set up well to move large amounts of people. Of course, the cooperation of the people is the key for it to work as planned.
Overall, it was a fantastic trip. I am looking forward to the next opportunity to return to the land of the rising sun.