Japan Trip Report
My husband and I started out planning a 2-week trip to Japan and by the time we stuffed everything into the itinerary, it was 20 days! But that was OK, because we had recently retired and were enjoying the luxury of having time. It was our first trip ever using public transportation only, which I was worried about, but shouldn't have been. For travellers who love to be on their own but are leery of driving on the "wrong" side of the road in many countries, Japan is a perfect choice because transport is so easily left to others. Here's how our trip broke down:
Tokyo: 3 nights
Hakone: 2 nights
Kanazawa: 3 nights
Kyoto: 5 nights
Koyasan: 1 night
Hiroshima: 2 nights
Miyajima: 1 night
Flew home from Osaka
When I initially proposed this itinerary on the forums, some people thought we were too busy. But it worked out fine for us; we didn't feel rushed at all. A couple of general thoughts: April was warmer than we anticipated; I brought one of those compressed down coats that squishes down into a bag, and I only wore it one night. Money-wise, we were surprised at how cash-oriented a society Japan still is. Even some hotels wanted cash. So don't count on using your credit card for everything. And don't worry about making your own way through a country that doesn't use the Roman alphabet; before you can even get a confused furrow in your brow, a Japanese resident will be at your side trying to help you, even if they only know two words of English. These must be the kindest people in the world.
I tried out a new app called Track My Tour so my kids could keep daily track of us; it has some photos, so if you're interested in photos and a quicker summary of this whole trip, see Japan http://tmt.li/tPs9d. I thank everyone who answered my questions in the Fodor forums and who provided detailed trip reports so I could plan my own trip without fear!
Here we go!
April 7-8 GETTING TO TOKYO
We took off from Miami at 9:30 am, changed planes in San Diego and arrived at Tokyo's Narita with no problems between 5 and 6 pm the next day. I had read that the Limousine Bus would take us right to the ANA Intercontinental, where we were staying on our annual free night from having the IHG credit card and on a combo of hotel points and cash. We found the bus easily; it was a bit under $30 apiece for a ride that was a little over an hour -- and we were the first hotel dropoff. The pocket wifi package that we had booked through Rentafone was waiting for us at the hotel. By the time we got up to the room and settled in, we decided JAL had fed us so often and well that we weren't even hungry, so we just opted for a little CNN and going to sleep early.
April 9 BACKSTREET TOUR GUIDE
We took a taxi the short distance to the station where we were to meet our guide from Backstreets because I was paranoid about getting lost on the subway and holding up the group. At 9 am we met Mayu, our 25-year-old guide, and the other tour members, including couples from LA, Las Vegas and Chicago, and a man from Brazil. Mayu was incredibly organized, chipper and thoughtful and we thoroughly enjoyed seeing her culture through her eyes. We would be on the go until after 5, and we would walk 8 miles! We covered a lot more ground than we could have on our own because she wasn't stopping to figure things out.
Mayu took us on the subway, helping us figure out how it works, which was great. We started out at the famous fish market, which was very crowded on a Saturday. But we squeezed through it all, ogling all the different sea creatures the Japanese consider tasty, and going into several food shops where Mayu knew there were samples set out so we could taste some things (tiny chewy dried fish kids love as snacks). She suggested some specialties to try from street vendors, including a sweet with something I'd never seen before: a white strawberry. Extremely sweet! Other vendors were selling kitchen goods. Then she guided us into one of the numerous small sushi restaurants for a late breakfast. The places were all busy, but she had made reservations and they were ready for us. We all had 5 pieces of nigiri sushi that were excellent, plus tea.
After that we headed to Sensoji, Tokyo's oldest Buddhist temple and a very popular one. It has a huge beautiful gate and several other impressive buildings. Mayu explained temple etiquette to us, including how to purify yourself with water before going into the temple and how to do the bowing-clapping-praying-bowing ritual. So interesting and we never would have known the nuances without her. We also bought little prayer boards, wrote messages and hung them up with everybody else's. Then she turned us loose for half an hour because between the gate and temple are dozens of shops and food places that made for great browsing. Nearby she pointed out the Tokyo Tower and the Asahi headquarters next to it whose building looks like a glass of beer with a foamy head --another thing we would have been clueless about!
We saw a lot of girls in kimonos, and Mayu told us that it's very popular for girls to rent kimonos and spend the day cruising around in these traditional outfits. She said it's popular among Chinese visitors as well. We hopped on a subway and had lunch in a lovely, quiet local noodle restaurant that we all loved. Afterwards, we walked thru an amusement area where adults were strapping themselves into belts and flying up into the air off trampolines. We cruised thru a mall, inspecting a plastic food store (had to buy a sushi fridge magnet), and then took the subway to a big pop culture area where maid cafes are the thing -- the servers are dressed up (kind of like milk maids!) and serve "cute" food with smiley faces for example that the Japanese can't get enough of. That led into the intense technology area with huge stores filled the latest and greatest tech offerings plus lots of anime. Here too were girls dressed up as characters handing out fliers.
We werent done yet. Back on the subway we went to the Yanaka district, the one historic architectural area that wasn't blown up in the WWII air raids. Walked around admiring the houses and then went thru a beautiful cemetery colored pink by Sakura in "petal-drop season." Mayu explained that the writing-covered sticks you see by each grave are from memorial services for that person. Then we really were done. We all thanked Mayu profusely and headed back to our hotels to rest our feet!
I have to thank Rachel from the Fodor Forum for suggesting Backstreet Guides for our first day in Tokyo. Our tickets were a little under $100 apiece and included both meals, and Mayu alone was well worth it. The best part was that we could ask her in English questions about local culture and really understand the answer. For example, we asked her about face masks and she confirmed that some people wear them because they have a cold and some people because they don't want to get one -- but she said she also wears one sometimes when she doesn't feel like putting on makeup! In short, she was a real person who spoke great English, and a fun resource. I booked a couple of months in advance for Backstreets during Sakura. I tried to get in on a sake tasting tour in Kyoto a couple of weeks before arriving and they were booked.
April 10 TOKYO ON OUR OWN
We discovered a fancy pastry shop with a few tables and coffee to go off the hotel lobby. It was run by the 2-Michelin star French chef from the restaurant upstairs and had beautiful inventive goodies; I had a custard-filled Danish with real cherries.
We took off for the imperial palace gardens. We grabbed a cab because it wasn't too far but we'd have brain damage figuring out the subway changes. The first thing we saw was blooming cherry trees overhanging the palace moat with a swan swimming by. Gorgeous. We had not reserved weeks ahead to tour the palace, but we strolled the grounds. It was a pleasant change from the crowds of yesterday; plenty of people were flocking in on this beautiful day but the grounds are immense so it felt great. We had heard there might be free bikes but the entry guard said no.
Tho the high temperature was supposed to be 67 on a cloudy day, there wasn't a cloud in the sky and it was at least 75 and all of Tokyo was overdressed. We were happy to see that the Sakura were still blooming and some of the many different irises were already blooming too. Remnants of the old castle provided high viewing points. We saw a beautifully blooming camellia grove, a lovely waterfall into a pond. These weren't the most impressive gardens we'd ever seen but for early April they were nice. We could see where our own landscape gardener got some of the simple ideas for our garden, such as a rock standing on end and a stone column standing on its own.
After almost two hours we were hot and tired. We walked over to a nearby station (Tokyo) to take the subway to Harajuku or "cool Tokyo." Takeshita street was supposed to be the magnet for fashion-conscious teens and it didn't disappoint. Endless wacky clothes spilled out of small contemporary shops. In between were lots of crepe shops, displaying rows and rows of plastic crepes wrapped around ice cream and fruits. Lots of candy stores also. But the most interesting thing was the kids who dressed up in all kinds of garb to parade down this street. Two girls would often dress alike in fancy short dresses even with pinafores, maybe holding a black ruffled umbrella. Their hair might be died or they might wear wigs. Their purses were usually unusual too, coordinating with their outfits. The shoes were amazing. But the crowding was just immense in this narrow street. People were flowing everywhere.
Soon we were hungry and tired of the crowds. We saw few restaurants among the retail. And the ones we did had long lines for tiny places -- the lobster shack had about 50 people in line! We tried wandering the backstreets but weren't coming up with anything satisfactory so we went into one of the many vertical malls to check out the Bill's Cafe that a shopgirl had suggested. Long line. Then I noticed that a modern accessories store called Hands had a cafe sign shining from the back. Voila, several empty tables. We shared an absolutely delicious plate of rice, avocado, greens, a runny egg, soy, and a lot of something raw and pale, which we assume was ground-up fish but could have been chicken. They even had beer.
Post-lunch, we walked along a boulevard known for contemporary architect-designed boutiques, which were interesting -- one even had a glass pyramid. We were done with crowds tho -- it was really like walking in NYC at rush hour (although not as bad as Takeshita street). So we headed over to the nearby famous Shinto shrine for some peace, passing some kind of protest in front of the grounds. We English speakers were clueless as usual!
The Meiji Shrine is set in 200 acres, and it was a long walk through a forest to the shrine. Along the way were long tall rows of sake barrels covered in straw and beautifully decorated, an offering by the brewers to the temple. Finally we got to the shrine, which was huge. You pass under a giant wooden gate. Our timing was good: just as we were finding a seat to rest, a wedding procession was lining up. The bride, in a white hooded gown, and the groom, in black, were preceded by several temple officials and followed by a fellow holding a red umbrella over the couple's heads. Following them was a long procession of their guests. The bride was Japanese and the groom was Caucasian, so the guests were a diverse crowd. Sundays are apparently popular for weddings.
In front of the temple were boards holding hundreds of small wooden plaques, on which people had written their prayers and wishes. I paid my 500 yen and wrote one. Someone else had written "Please don't let Trump become president!" It was a long walk back to station. I'm sure we could have done this better, but we ended up taking the train one stop to the appropriate subway station that would take us the longer way back to our hotel.
Chris wanted to eat at a small local place, but by now it was Sunday night at 7 and we weren't sure what would be open. The hotel is attached to a big complex with a bunch of restaurants in it. We asked the concierge if there was a noodle shop, and she said yes, but when she called, it was closed. So we went across the street toward where we had come from the station. We passed a couple of modern Chinese restaurants, a bunch of closed places, and finally decided on a small shop that was bright with fluorescent lights. We figured out that it was the kind of place where you look at the menu, then you choose your dish -- S, M, L -- by putting the appropriate amount of money in a ticket machine and it spits out your ticket. One customer and the lone worker helped us with this. Chris had a medium beef bowl with rice and I had a small duck udon. Both were good, but the udon was quite salty, even for me. I think mine was $3 and Chris's was $5. Cold green tea that I loved came with it. We sat at a booth and we were done in half an hour. We laughed that the only people we saw coming in here on a Sunday night were lone guys of various ages!
As this was our last night at the Intercontinental, we went up to the bar in the 36th floor to enjoy the view and a drink. Unfortunately the Tokyo Tower, the star of the skyline, can't be seen from anywhere except one Ladies Room (which a waitress happily escorted me to view, and it was ablaze in orange). Tokyo's skyline doesn't have that "pop" that Chicago and NYC have, but it was cool enough. I had a cherry blossom fizz, one of several special cocktails for the season. It was Sakura liqueur, a little champagne, and tonic water with a cherry blossom sprig in it. Tasty and beautiful! Of course it was $17 -- far more than dinner! We checked our phone pedometer: We had walked 8 more miles today.
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Japan Trip Report