Author: Deirdre Maloney
Date of Trip: September 2016
Just got back from two weeks in Japan and wanted to get some thoughts down before the blur of this amazing adventure got any…blurrier.
One of the reasons I feel compelled to write up a brief review and also some info/tips, is because I want to give back. After all, my “Japlanning”, as I called it, included a whole lot of information and links from lots of people who went there before me and took the time to write about it.
I’ll share one of those links now, as it was incredibly helpful in assisting Hubbie and me from the start as we figured out the cities we would visit and which ones we would use as home bases. Here it is: http://www.tofugu.com/japan/traveling-to-japan-for-the-first-time/
I also used a Fodor’s travel book to prepare for the trip.
After reading this link and doing other research, we decided to break up the trip in this way:
-Days 1-6: Tokyo, side trips to Kamakura and Nikko
-Days 7-11: Kyoto, side trips to Nara and Hiroshima
-Day 12-12: Mt. Koya
-Day 13-14: Back to Tokyo and our flight home to the U.S.
I’ve divided the blog about this trip into two parts. Part I contains information on Tokyo and the side trips to Kamakura and Nikko. Part II, which you’ll see if you scroll down, contains information on Kyoto, the side trips to Nara and Hiroshima, and Mt. Koya.
You’ll find that I don’t usually go into tons of detail about each specific sightseeing site, as I know there are lots of great books and websites that do this already. This post instead highlights the choices we made as far as our time, and how we squeezed in as much of what Japan has to offer into two short weeks.
One caveat…the info and opinions on this trip clearly revolves around the “world according to Deirdre”. You might have different priorities/interests and other people can certainly chime in with their own opinions based on their experiences.
To better understand our priorities, here are a few things to know about Hubbie and me:
-We aim to spend our travels gaining a sense of the culture, experiences and people. We definitely hit up must-see places, but try to skip the super-cheesy-touristy stuff if possible.
-We’re not big nightlife people…at all. Our idea of a fun evening is a good meal, an even better glass of wine, and back to the hotel early so we can have energy to explore the following day.
-We’re not big shoppers…at all. At the end of this trip we literally declared $25 worth of stuff when we got back to the states.
-We’re into walking a lot to explore an area, but not into great big nature hikes. If we’d gone to Mt. Fuji, for instance, we would’ve walked to where the great photo opp was, but wouldn’t have climbed the thing.
Part I: Tokyo and Daytrips to Kamakura and Nikko
Okay, now that we’re square, and before getting into the day-by-day itinerary for each day, a few more things…
Transportation: After LOTS of research, we decided to buy a set of 14-day JR passes: http://www.japanrailpass.net/en/ They weren’t cheap, but in the end the value was there because we could use them to and from the airport, to and from our day trips, and also around Tokyo and Kyoto on certain lines. Having it all taken care of allowed us to be flexible with our days and make changes based on weather and interests. One thing that was super helpful throughout the trip was the Hyperdia app, which helped us navigate both the rail and bus routes. It works on both the Android and iPhone. Here’s some info: http://www.hyperdia.com/en/
Tokyo Hotel: we stayed at the Millennium Mitsui Garden Hotel in Ginza: http://www.gardenhotels.co.jp/eng/millennium-tokyo/ I would definitely recommend this place for its convenient location, friendly and helpful staff, and relatively spacious rooms.
So what did we actually do while in and around Tokyo? Here’s a breakdown…
Days 1: Yay, we’re in Tokyo! I’m going to bed
We arrived late on Day 1, getting to our hotel at about 9pm. We literally went into one of the convenience stores (You’ll see Family Marts, Lawsons, and 7-11s everywhere) and grabbed some food to eat in our hotel room. Yep, that’s how we roll.
Day 2: Tsukiji, Asakusa, Ueno Park, Yanaka
The jet lag didn’t waste any time settling into our bones, and so on the morning of Day 2 we found ourselves staring at the ceiling at 3am. Though we’d originally decided to skip the idea of a crazy early morning to hit up the Tsukiji Fish Market for the tuna auction (thinking we would just arrive at about 9am to check out the vendors), the fact that we were up anyway, and also that we were staying nearby, compelled us to give it a go. We got there by about 4am but, alas, the actual tuna auction had been filled up since 2:30am.
Our consolation prize was to line up for the famous sushi breakfasts offered in the small “restaurants” at the market. Here’s some info: https://foodsaketokyo.com/2011/07/08/where-to-have-sushi-at-tsukiji-market/
We originally got on the line for Sushi Dai, which opened at 5am. Since these places have about 10-12 stools at each place, and the line was forever long, we knew it would be hours before we ate. We decided to bail on the original plan and instead found a spot with a much shorter line, at a place between Sushi Dai and Daiwa Sushi. This one opened at 5:30am and we were eating within the hour. Perhaps the other two places, which are more famous, are better. But, frankly, our breakfast was awesome and I’m pretty sure our sushi palates aren’t sophisticated enough to have known the difference.
We then went back to the hotel and showered, and made our way up to Asakusa, where we saw the Senso-ji complex and walked through Ueno Park to see the Toshogu Shrine. We finished up the day by doing the Yanaka Stroll, which we found here: http://www.frommers.com/destinations/tokyo/250113 (Note: if you do this walk, leave enough time for the Nezu Shrine at the end. It’s awesome!)
On this first night we also discovered one of our favorite restaurants in all of Japan, and it’s Italian (yep, it is). It’s called Café La Boheme and it’s in Ginza. The food is delicious, the people who work there are extremely friendly and it’s incredibly reasonably priced. It’s also a fun experience because you can sit at the bar and watch the chefs make the food. https://tokyocheapo.com/food-and-drink/cheapo-eats-la-boheme-japanese-style-italian-pasta/ I won’t even tell you how many times we ate there, for fear you will judge us.
Day 3: Imperial Palace, Akihabara, Kabuki
We began the day by visiting the Imperial Palace. We opted to skip any guided tours and instead just took some shots of the main building, bridge and gate, which was fine. We then walked over to and then around the Imperial Palace Gardens, which was the truly worthwhile site.
Next, we made our way up to the Akihabara area to check out the techno-shopping experience. We’d saved Akihabara for this day, which was a Sunday, because that’s supposedly the day that the main street closes and is just for pedestrians. Turns out…not so much, though it didn’t really matter in the end. It frankly didn’t take long for all of that neon and noise to wear on us, so we walked around for about an hour or two and then made our way back to the Ginza area where we were staying, just in time to get tickets for the kabuki show that night. Here’s some info: http://www.kabuki-bito.jp/eng/contents/theatre/kabukiza.html
The schedule reflected a few different show times, and there was an option to see just one act of it, which worked great for us. The tickets for the 6pm show went on sale at 4:45pm. The show itself was…fine. I guess I was expecting more pizazz, especially based on what the theater looks like from the outside. Really, it felt like a somewhat understated comedy play. We were able to view a small monitor that translated the action into English, which was nice. In the end, not sure if this one is worth all of the hype you’ll most likely read about it.
Day 4: Kamakura Day Trip
I used my Fodor’s book, as well as two blog links to plan this day and understand the context. Here are the links:
We followed the first link’s advice for a large portion of the day, starting by making our way to the Hase station so we could begin with the Great Buddha. It was a snap to find it and didn’t take long to visit. On the way back to the train station, we stopped at the Hasadera Temple. Do not skip this place! It was lovely and fun and well-worth the stop.
We then made our way back a stop to the Kamakura station to check out the downtown area, where there are all kinds of places to eat lunch. We dined at a little restaurant, but afterwards I also couldn’t resist buying a steamed bun with red bean paste from a street vendor. Holy cow! If you go to Japan, you MUST try one of these. Seriously.
Just like the blogger before us, we then made our way to the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Temple before checking out the Hokokuji Temple. This last one is another one you must not skip! It was a slight hassle to get there, in that Hubbie and I had to stand on different street corners until we could hail a cab, but it was totally worth the amazing bamboo grove that awaited us. There’s a bus stop right near the temple, so after seeing it we easily made our way all the way back to the train station.
When we got back to our hotel we made our way to what I believe was THE meal of the trip…at a simple little soba noodle place in Ginza. It’s called Kagari and it rocks! Our wait was about 30 minutes but it was well worth it. Here’s some info: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2015/06/19/food/one-tokyos-best-ramen-shops-hidden-ginza-station/#.V9snMJgrLIU
Day 5: Shibuya, Harajuku/Aoyama, Shinjuku
On Day 5 we headed to the west side of Tokyo, beginning at Shibuya station, home of the famous intersection and its “Shibuya Scramble”. Alas, it turns out that mid-morning is fairly low-key, so it wasn’t the greatest time for pics.
We then made our way to Yoyogi Park, passing the sports center and its Olympic buildings on the way. We walked around the park for just a bit before starting a self-guided walk, which begins with the Meiji Jingu Shrine and takes you through Harajuku and Aoyama, found at this link: http://www.frommers.com/destinations/tokyo/250111
After finishing up the walk we decided to head over to the Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku, which contains an observation deck with great view of Tokyo (and is free, unlike the Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Skytree observation decks). We got there by way of the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, which was a bit of a hassle but very nice. The problem was that the gate by the Formal French Garden, which we were aiming for, was closed…so we had to go FAR around the park to get in. It also turned out that the park turned out to be much further away from the Metropolitan Government Building then we thought. Needless to say, our little feet were pretty angry by the time we got there.
If we were to do this day again, we would do the Metro Government Building right after the Meiji Jingu Shrine/walk, as they are closer together. If time, we would then make our way to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. We would skip Yoyogi Park altogether.
Day 6: Nikko Day Trip
We basically followed this blogger’s link for the day, as it was great for us: http://www.travelclassics.com/library/japan_nikko.shtml
I HIGHLY recommend skipping one of the temples/shrines, or just doing them efficiently, because it is absolutely worth it to take the bus trip to the lake and to see Kegon Falls. (Fork up the extra few yen to take the elevator to the base of the falls, too.) Just be sure to look at the bus return schedule before you begin exploring the area. We almost found ourselves with a spontaneous overnight trip near the lake.
On to Kyoto…
Part II: Kyoto Daytrips to Nara and Hiroshima, and Mt. Koya
In this second part I’ll cover our trip to Kyoto and Mt. Koya.
Before the day-to-day itinerary, a few info points…
Kyoto Hotel: We stayed at Sakura Terrace: The Gallery: http://sakuraterrace-gallery.jp/en/ I would recommend this hotel as it is right near Kyoto station, and so it’s very convenient. It’s modern and the rooms are relatively spacious. There’s also free laundry and a free drink each night, which you can get either while sitting in the lobby or when you eat at their restaurant (which we did a few times).
Transportation: I think Kyoto was a bit more complicated to get around than Tokyo, where the metro and JR lines were everywhere. Here, a lot of it is by bus. It’s best to group the sites based on location, as getting to and from different areas can be time-consuming. Get a good bus map and make sure you check out the Hyperdia app I mentioned in Part I: http://www.hyperdia.com/en/
Okay, onto the day-by-day itinerary
Days 7: Yay, we’re in Kyoto…let’s go see a shrine!
The train ride from Tokyo to Kyoto took a few hours, but we arrived with enough time to store our bags at the hotel and head to the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine…the one with the 10,000 red gates. You MUST do this if you’re in Kyoto. Trust me. Just do it. It’s amazing.
We pondered the option of continuing to tour around for a while, but the hot and humid days in Tokyo had left our clothes in the kind of state where taking advantage of the hotel’s laundry facilities seemed like the best idea. So that’s what we did, much to the delight, I’m sure, of those who had to be around us for the remainder of the trip.Day 8: Northern Higashiyama District, Geisha District Night Walk
Whew…this day was a busy one! We made our way by bus (the 100 line) to the east side of Kyoto, which gave us a good look at the area. (Note: there are full-day bus passes available in a vending machine for 500 yen right in front of the bus stop. If you take more than two bus trips in a day, this pays for itself. The route 100 bus stop is on the north side of Kyoto station.)
We began far north at Ginkaku-ji, also known as the Temple of the Silver Pavilion. Despite the name it’s not as fancy as some of the others, but that’s part of its charm, and the garden is beautiful.
We then walked to the northern starting point of the Philosopher’s Walk. (Note: right near the start of the walk was a little shop where a guy was making these awesome pressed-bean-type crackers. It’s fun to watch and even better to sample…which is undoubtedly why we bought two bags. Delish!)
We did the walk, laid out in my Fodor’s book, all the way to Nanzen-ji, a temple we planned to tour…but our hunger got the best of us and we decided to walk to the surrounding town and find a place for lunch first. Alas, it turned out there were really no restaurants that worked for us near there (though there’s supposedly one on the grounds. We didn’t look at it before venturing off the site). We wound up eating at a pizza place about a mile away, and so skipped this temple.
To ease our frustration, we made our way to Kiyomizu-dera, which was off-the-hook! This was one of my top favorite temples in all of Japan. It’s huge, with amazing views off of the deck and a short, fun walk around it. Don’t miss it!
We then headed further south to check out the 1001 statues of the Kannon at the Sanjusangen-do temple. It was…nice, but after a full day and then the splendor of Kiyomizu-dera, I probably would skip it if I were to do it over again and take a tea/coffee break before doing the next site, below. The statues are all in a few rows down a long hallway and you can’t take photos. I was probably cranky, but it just didn’t seem as worth our time as other temples/shrines.
What WAS worth it, however was the capper of the day, which was the nightly Geisha District walking tour. This was seriously the most fascinating 100 minutes of the trip for me, which is saying a lot considering the fatigue that had settled in after a long day. It’s about $10. Totally worth it…a MUST if you are in Kyoto. Seriously. Here’s some info: http://www.waraido.com/walking/gion.html
Day 9: Kinkaku-ji, Ryoan-ji, Arashiyama
On this day we took a JR line and then a bus to Kinkaku-ji, the temple of the Golden Pavilion. This one actually DID live up to the splendor of its name, since it’s covered almost entirely in gold-leaf. Check this one out.
We then took a short bus ride to the rock garden at Ryoan-ji, which was…fine. I guess I was expecting more, or maybe I’m just not Zen enough, but I’m not sure it lived up to all of the hype (it didn’t help that Hubbie got all smug because he “cracked the code” of the garden’s riddle fairly early on). I will say that if you go, it’s worth it to spend a few extra minutes strolling around the beautiful pond on the way out.
Next, we took the bus to the Arashiyama area, which was beautiful.
I found the terrific website, www.insidekyoto.com, with lots of info on Kyoto and the surrounding area, and this was the first time we experienced the site’s walking tours. We used Tour 3 on this page: http://www.insidekyoto.com/kyoto-walking-itineraries (Tour 2 covers much of the area we saw on Day 8. )Though we skipped Tour 3’s Okochi-Sanso Villa stop, we did do must of the rest of it, including the Gio-ji Temple.
HEAR ME LOUD AND CLEAR ON THIS…do NOT skip the Gio-ji Temple. It’s a bit out of the way and it’s small, but it was my favorite temple of the ENTIRE trip. Walking into the garden is like being in a fantasy, with its stunning green moss and charming little temple. If you have eyes, they will be filled here. If you have a heart, it will soar here. If you have a soul, it will open up here. So go.
(Note: do the Gio-ji later in the day, if you can, when the light sets this scene extremely beautifully. This shouldn’t be a problem if you follow the tour link provided above. Otherwise, you may just wonder what the heck was up with my poetic enthusiasm.)
Day 10: Nara Day Trip, Gion Corner Show
The folks at www.insidekyoto.com came through again on this day, and basically provided the full day’s itinerary, which we followed (though we found that walking through the grounds at the Kasuga-Taisha Shrine and skipping the shrine itself was fine). Here it is: http://www.insidekyoto.com/nara-itineraries
We got back in enough time to make our way back to the Geisha District (known as Gion) to see the famous show at Gion Corner. Here’s some info: http://www.kyoto-gioncorner.com/global/en.html
We got there as suggested, at 5:30pm for the 6pm show, and the line was already super long. We still got in…but it might have been better had we not. The show was…fine, but, even more so than the kabuki show in Tokyo, it wasn’t even close to the kind of performance I thought we might see (and I swear I wasn’t expecting THAT much from either). The show includes a sample of a tea ceremony, flower arranging ceremony, a Geisha dance (of particular interest, since we’d taken the tour a few night previous), a comedy skit and a puppet show. None of them are super involved, and the whole thing felt …touristy. If you have to make a choice, I’d absolutely recommend taking the Geisha District nightly walking tour over the show. Or just take the $25/person ticket price and use it toward a nice bottle of wine with dinner.
Day 11: Hiroshima
The first was that Hiroshima had come up during the previous day’s walking tour, and I felt like it was important that we visit it, even if it would be hard. The second was that, by this point, we were frankly looking for a day trip that offered something besides temples and shrines.
We followed another tour from insidekyoto.com, here: http://www.insidekyoto.com/hiroshima-and-miyajima-itineraries (My Fodor’s book also laid out a nice route in the Peace Park itself.) Instead of going to the garden afterwards, we went to the Hiroshima Castle, which was interesting and a nice way to end the heavier day.
(Note: this day was a good example as to the one of the benefits of getting the 14-day JR pass, which allowed us to be flexible with our planning without having to factor costs into the decision.)
Day 12: Onward…and upward…to Mt. Koya
It was the post from that very first link I mentioned in this blog that led us to decide to go to Mt. Koya and stay overnight…and I’m so glad we did! Now, getting there certainly wasn’t easy. We wound up taking several trains, a cable car, and a bus to our final destination. To make things easier, we actually stored one of our two suitcases (the larger one) in a locker at Kyoto station, and picked it up the next day on our way back to Tokyo. Despite the logistics hassle of getting there, I would recommend Mt. Koya to anyone.
We stayed at the Fukuchi-in: http://fukuchiin.com/lodging/, which was terrific. We got there early and dropped off our bags so we could explore.
There are two different areas to see in Mt. Koya. One is a set of temples, the other is the Okonoin Cemetery. Since the cemetery was the first priority, we began with the walk through it, which ends at the Lantern Hall and nearby mausoleum. We followed this walking tour, which was wonderful: https://thelongnwindingroad.wordpress.com/2012/11/20/a-walk-through-japans-largest-cemetery/ If you make your way all the way to Mt. Koya, for heaven’s sake DON’T skip this!
We then made our way back to town, took a bus to a stop right near Kongobu-ji, and ate a wonderful noodle lunch across the street and up just a bit from the temple. After lunch, we actually walked out past Kongobu-ji for the moment, out to Danjo Garan (we were going to go all the way to Daimon, the great gate, but realized our walking feet were getting less…walky). After Danjo Garan we visited Konbobu-ji, which led us back to our hotel.
After checking into the Fukuchi-in, I quickly left it to attend a lovely 30-minute, English-speaking meditation at the Ekoin Temple, which was about a 20 minute walk. It’s also right on the bus route. It was at 4:30pm. I made it back in time for a quick soak in the onsen, then on to our amazing vegetarian dinner, which was delivered to our room. The next morning I attended a special, more in-depth meditation ceremony at our own inn at 6am. I then got ready for the day before our breakfast was brought into our room.
I cannot say enough about how special these less-than-24-hours were at Mt. Koya, especially for someone like me, who appreciates both the Buddhist perspective and vegetarian food. Even if you don’t share this appreciation, the peace and diversity of the experience make it worth it.
Day 13: Back to Tokyo
It took a bus, cable car, and six trains, but we finally made it from Mt. Koya to Tokyo and prepared for our flight home the following day. We finished off our visit that evening by getting some photos at the base of the Tokyo Tower and returning to our favorite Italian place, Café La Boheme.
This time around we were staying in Shibuya, so we made or way back there and got to see the scramble at night and walk around the area before hitting the proverbial hay. The next morning, we made our way back to the airport, and, ultimately, back home to the states…exhausted, satisfied, and somewhat changed from the entire Japanese experience.
Until next time, Japan.
I hope this information has been helpful. Feel free to post any questions or thoughts here. And thanks to those who went before us and helped make our trip to special!