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3 week Japan itinerary - request feedback!

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Seeking feedback on our 3-week Japan itinerary, 21 Sept-11 Oct 2013.

OK, I've spent a loooong time reviewing other posts and trip reports, as well as several guidebooks and websites, and finally have a draft itinerary ready for feedback - thanks in advance! As some background - we currently live in Bangkok and have traveled throughout Asia, but this is our first trip to Japan. Generally we don’t like to pack too many places into our trip; we’d prefer 3 home bases with time to wander and explore. We also try to include at least one smaller town where we can relax a bit. Highlights for us include ethnographic museums, local crafts, flea markets, exploring backstreets and old neighborhoods. Hubby also enjoys anything technical – science/technical/transportation museums, factory tours, etc., though he also likes visiting gardens, local culture, etc. We prefer to leave time each day to wander a bit. Although we are very active, a knee injury makes hiking/climbing and too much walking a problem, so we need to plan some breaks.

Our draft itinerary limits our stays to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Kanazawa, with some day-trips added in. I’d love your feedback - there is just so much to see that it’s hard to prioritize. (Note that the specific sights for each day are still TBD...I just wanted to pencil some ideas in now to be sure I can fit in the sights we most want to see).

Day 1 (Sat 21 Sep) – Arrive in Tokyo.

Day 2 (Sun 22 Sep) – Tokyo
Hope to book a full-day tour w/ Chris Rowthorn to give us an introduction to the city. Tour includes Shinjuku, Harajuku (seeing this area on a Sunday is one of our priorities), Meiji Shrine, and Shibuya.

Day 3 (Mon 23 Sep) – Tokyo
Central Tokyo – Tsukiji Fish Market, Imperial Palace and Garden, Ginza.

Day 4 (Tue 24 Sep) – Tokyo
Akihabara (definitely want to see the anime/manga area, bookstores) and the Edo Museum, which I think will be a highlight for us.

Day 5 (Wed 25 Sep) – Tokyo
Ueno Park and museums, Yanasen area, Yanaka neighborhood.

Day 6 (Thu 26 Sep) – Tokyo
Wander the Asakusa area. Visit the Sky Tree.
Take a Kojo Moe night factory tour in Yokohama or Kawasaki. (Buses leave from Tokyo).

Day 7 (Fri 27 Sep) – Tokyo
Museum of Emerging Science (take the elevated train to Odaiba for this). Visit the Toyota History Garage?

Day 8 (Sat 28 Sep) – Tokyo – Day trip to Nikko

((Other activities to try to fit in someplace for Tokyo – kabuki, sumo, visit the motorcycle street near Ueno, kite museum. Still trying to find an English-language motorcycle factory tour somewhere in Japan, not having much luck.))

Day 9 (Sun 29 Sep) – Travel from Tokyo to Kanazawa via train

Day 10 (Mon 30 Sep) – Kanazawa
Haven’t made specific plans yet – but we want a few days to relax in a smaller city and see the sights at a slower pace. Want to see Kenroku-en and Gyokusen Gardens, the Ninja Temple, etc. Perhaps stay in a ryokan.

Day 11 (Tue 01 Oct) – Kanazawa

Day 12 (Wed 02 Oct) – Kanazawa

Day 13 (Thu 03 Oct) – Kanazawa – Day trip to Shirakawa-go

Day 14 (Fri 04 Oct) – Travel from Kanazawa to Kyoto by train
TBD depending on arrival time.

Day 15 (Sat 05 Oct) – Kyoto
Philosopher’s Path (Ginkaku-ji, Nanzen-ji, etc.)

Day 16 (Sun 06 Oct) – Kyoto
Central Kyoto – Imperial Palace Park, Nijo-jo Castle, Nijo Jinya.

Day 17 (Mon 07 Oct) – Kyoto
Eastern Kyoto – Higashiyama, Gion. Museum of Traditional Crafts, Kyoto National Museum.

Day 18 (Tue 08 Oct) – Kyoto
Fushimi-Inari-Taisha? Not sure if it would be too much hiking for hubby. Any feedback on how much walking, how steep, etc?

Day 19 (Wed 09 Oct) – Kyoto? - TBD

Day 20 (Thu 10 Oct) – Kyoto? - TBD

Day 21 (Fri 11 Oct) – Depart Kyoto, return to Bangkok

So, my primary question is re: the overall itinerary. I feel pretty confident that we'll fill all our days in Tokyo, but am not as sure about the rest of the trip. Although Kyoto looks beautiful, I worry a bit about "temple fatigue," and some of the sights outside Kyoto seem a bit tricky to get to (we're prepared to get lost quite a bit in Japan's train/bus/subway system, but after 3 weeks, that might get tiring). Do we have too many days planned for Kyoto? While we'd prefer not to stay in too many different places, we're open to adding one more place and shortening the Kyoto stay if recommended. Note that we've opted not to visit Hiroshima, and if we add a stop, I'd probably want it to be in the general vicinity of our existing stops, vs someplace much further away.

Hotels - While we're not usually budget or high end travelers (4 star hotels generally, with a splurge here and there), I'm a little overwhelmed by the hotel prices in Japan, especially when I realize we'll be there for 20 nights. Priorities for us are a clean and quiet place (hubby is a very light sleeper), and one that is close to the sights or whatever form of public transportation we'll be using most often. Oh, and we want a private bathroom. We'd like to stay in the lower end of the $100-$200 range if possible, but that seems tough. So far we're looking at apartment rentals in Tokyo, as the prices seem more reasonable and the reviews better than for hotels at that price range; most seem to be in the Shibuya area. But I haven't had much luck finding a place in Kyoto yet, though I'm checking recommendations from other posts, like the Granvia, Comfort Inn, Dormy Inn, Toyoko, etc. We'd like to stay at least a few nights in a nice ryokan, but haven't decided whether to do that in Kanazawa or splurge on one night in a really nice one in Kyoto - any suggestions?

Thanks in advance for your suggestions! Once we have the basic itinerary and the lodging nailed down, then I can move on to the other details, but I first want to make sure I have a good framework in place - thanks so much for your feedback!

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    I really like the idea of your not racing around from city to city every second night. That will give you a huge amount of flexibility, make the trip a lot easier, and help you get a much better sense of place.

    For Tokyo, I'd add in one or two (or more) of the city's gardens. They're gorgeous in their own right, and they offer a great contrast and respite from the city streets and hubbub. Also, Tokyo is one of the best cities anywhere to explore on foot without much of a specific destination -- just head down a street or alley that looks interesting. While you're sure to get lost, there's always going to be a subway or train station hat's not terribly far away, and there's always going to be people who will try to help you get un-lost.

    For a hotel in Tokyo, the Mitsui Gardens Ueno might be exactly what you're looking for. You can get a room for well under $200, and the hotel is within easy walking distace of Ueno, Asakusa, and even Akihabara -- my room overlooked the motorcycle street. If you choose this place, be sure to sign up for their free member club, which offers a small discount. Staying in Tokyo for that many night, you might want to consider moving to the other side of town (Shinjuku or Shibuya areas) for a few nights, mostly to save time in seeing sites.

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    For Apartment hotels in Tokyo and Kyoto have you looked at the Citadines brand? Reliable and clean but of course not the biggest in terms of size.

    http://www.citadines.com/japan/tokyo/shinjuku.html

    http://www.citadines.com/en/japan/kyoto/karasuma_gojo.html

    For business hotels I like the Dormy Inn brand a lot mainly for their on-sight onsen facilities. I also like the Comfort Inns of Japan and the Toyoko Inn brands are always consistent.

    You can do just the lower section of the Fushimi-Inari torii gates but if you hike to the top it does consist of seemingly endless stairs and it is a trail up the mountain so there are steep areas and many steps involved. Lots of mosquitoes too if you are there in the fall as parts of the trail run along a small creek and is through a very lush and wooded forest....just be aware.

    I like your pick of Nikko but advise you to do at least an overnight. IIRC it is at least a 2-hour train journey to get to Nikko and there is quite a bit to see if you include a trip up to Lake Chuzenji and you should. The drive up on the Irohazaka Hwy is worth the price of admission in itself.

    Keep in mind that just about every site in Nikko is uphill with lots of stairs so take it slow and easy for your knees.

    I don't see too many days for Kyoto but that is all up to of course your preferences. I am not much of a temple person either but find Kyoto to be a fascinating town with lots to see and do. If you find yourself getting bored in Kyoto just hop on that train and Osaka and Kobe are literally minutes away. I don't see Arashiyama on your Kyoto list....a must with the time you have there imho

    http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3912.html

    Don't miss Kinkakuji or Sanjusangendo either while you are in Kyoto.

    I don't like ryokan in major cities but that is just my preference. I like to do a ryokan in the wilderness areas or in an onsen town. That said there are lots of nice ryokan in Kyoto and north of the city near Biwa-ko. There are also a couple of onsen towns pretty close by like Arima Onsen and a little farther away there is Kinosaki Onsen if you favor eating kani(crab) for your dinners.

    http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3525.html

    http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3558.html

    Aloha!

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    You are going to have a wonderful trip!

    > Day 5 (Wed 25 Sep) – Tokyo
    Ueno Park and museums, Yanasen area, Yanaka neighborhood.

    I was surprised by how extensive the museums in Ueno Park were, and by the depth of their collections. I had planned only 1/2 day, and wished I'd given them a full day. But it was the day of my flight, so I couldn't linger. And since I didn't stay, I don't know what I would have thought about what I missed!

    > Day trip to Nikko

    I second hawaiiantraveler's Nikko advice. As he said, seeing most of Nikko's temples requires climbing stairs, so that might be a consideration for you. As I recall, you can get to (and enjoy) Lake Chuzenji and Kegon-no-Taki without so many stairs. If you visit only 1 or 2 of Nikko's shrines, a visit to Lake Chuzenji would be reasonably do-able in a long day trip. BTW, if you do go to Nikko, you might want to check out its small, but excellent, museum of Japanese screens.

    http://www.nikko-jp.org/english/toshogu/bijutsukan.html

    > Day 10 ... – Kanazawa
    Haven’t made specific plans yet – ... Want to see ... Gyokusen Gardens

    Yes, yes, yes! Be sure to have tea there (if they still offer it)

    > Day 18 ... Fushimi-Inari-Taisha? Not sure if it would be too much hiking for hubby. Any feedback on how much walking, how steep, etc?

    I only visited a very small section of the lower paths. I had planned my visit for just before sunset, and spent only an hour or hour-and-a-half admiring the views. As I recall, some of those paths were a bit on the steep side. It was my impression - which could be mistaken - that a slow visit to that lower, steeper stretch could be quite memorable, as it includes some of the areas with the most densely arranged and intricately carved torii.

    > Although Kyoto looks beautiful, I worry a bit about "temple fatigue,"

    I didn't feel it, and I spent 4 full days in Kyoto and 2 full days in Nara and a bunch of time in some other areas where I spent most of my time visiting temples and shrines and parks, etc.! But I do have a high tolerance for that kind of thing.

    BTW, have you considered a stop in Uji, between Kyoto and Nara? I though Byodo-in quite lovely. I don't remember thinking it difficult to travel between these locations.

    > we're open to adding one more place and shortening the Kyoto stay if recommended.

    I would have loved MORE time in Kyoto! If I had to shorten one of your 3 stays, it would be Kanazawa. Much as I loved Kanazawa, there's just so much more to do in/around Kyoto IMHO. (I'm sure KimJapan will have some ideas to share!)

    > if we add a stop, I'd probably want it to be in the general vicinity of our existing stops, vs someplace much further away.

    Have you considered spending a couple of nights at a temple in Koya San? Once you're there, it's generally fairly flat. It has some interesting temples that are different than anything else you will see and an extremely evocative cemetery (Okuno-in). I thought my stay overnight at Shojoshin-in a highlight of an otherwise entirely awesome journey.

    Enjoy!

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    I'll add to the excellent comments you've gotten, of course.

    City ryokan usually don't offer the same wow as onsen ryokan...there are exceptions. Hoshinoya Kyoto is an exception, although it's not exactly in the city it's very close. It's wow.

    Outside of Kanazawa, Beniya Mukayu and Kayotei are onsen ryokan, recommendable, both wow.

    In Kanazawa, a machiya called Kikunoya is lovely, set in one of the three geisha districts. http://www.machiya-kanazawa.jp The company I work for can usually get very good rates here, better than on their website.

    Fushimi Inari may be tough going for someone with knee trouble...up not so much but down. Same around Kiyomizudera...the down may be troublesome.

    There's lots to do in Kyoto besides temples - art experiences, food, shopping, cafes...Kanazawa has a wealth of art and culture experiences as well as fantastic food.

    In Kyoto, the Kyoto Garden Hotel is very cheap and non-smoking. My stay there during Golden Week last spring was ¥3,900/night single room and while not new, clean and comfortable in a pretty good location. I'd stay there again. The Hyatt Regency often has special rates that might put it into your range and it's really nice.

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    A couple of details -
    9/23 M is a holiday and Tsukiii is closed. As a rule, the Imperial Palace in Tokyo garden is closed on M and F (and special days).

    In Kyoto the Imperial Palace is closed on Sundays.

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    Thanks to everyone for your wonderful suggestions! I think we'll stay overnight at Nikko, cut one day from Kanazawa, and leave our Kyoto days as is. Thanks also for your thoughts re: places to stay, and re: ryokan, and all of your other recommendations. Obviously I still have a lot of planning to do, but I had to nail down the basic itinerary first, so thanks for all of your help! More questions to come, I'm sure!

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    We spent 2.5 weeks in Japan in October, our first trip. We don't speak or read any Japanese, but didn't find the trains / metro at all difficult as everything was well signposted in English and announcements on board made in both Japanese and English. It was something I'd worried about too, ahead of the trip, but it turned out to be one of the pleasures of the trip.

    For a splurge ryokan that gives a really comfortable, en-suite experience in a historic area, we loved Shiraume in Kyoto. It's in Gion, on the banks of a narrow stream or canal. It was originally an ochaya (where geiko/geisha entertained clients) but was converted to a ryokan just after the war. It's been in the same family ever since it first opened in the late Edo period, and the current owner is the 7th generation. We loved it! We loved our room, we loved the dinner we enjoyed there, we loved the owner, we loved the location.

    I also considered whether we'd get temple fatigue but in fact, we visited more temples than I'd originally intended because we found them so different. For us, it wasn't so much the architecture that drew us, though of course it was usually stunning, but the traditions and people watching was just as fascinating. In one temple in Kyoto, girls crawl on hands and knees through a hole in a large rock which is believed to break bad relationship bonds and forge good ones.

    Our Tokyo stay was broken into 2 segments, the second of which we stayed at Dormy Inn Asakusa. We liked the location, and having booked one of the larger Western/ Japanese rooms combined, we had lots of space in the room. A small but perfectly decent bathroom and large, very comfortable beds. Loved the foot spas too. Warning, the breakfast there was the worst food we encountered anywhere in our trip, indeed the only bad food, but I'd budgeted thinking it was room only, so we just didn't bother with it.

    For our original nights, we'd booked into a hotel actually within the Tsukiji Outer Market area, so we could get up really early and be right there in the market, when jet lag was still on our side. However, I discovered just a few days before we left home that the market was closed for a national holiday, so we quickly changed our booking. We ended up starting in the Century Southern Tower in Shinjuku and found this a handy place to start with in Japan, very visitor friendly. That first day we visited Hanazono Shrine, some department stores and so on.

    As has been said, Fushimi Inari is worth visiting, especially if you enjoy photography, even if you just see the lower areas. That's what we did (I have hip problems) and still loved it. The paths of torii gates are something! And the actual temple is an attractive one too.

    Arashiyama is worth a visit, the bamboo forest there is beautiful. It's a fairly small area too. And the temple next to it has the most beautiful and spiritually peaceful gardens. Even with the high visitor numbers, we found quiet corners to watch the dragonflies and birds and butterflies.

    We did a night at Koyasan and for us, it was worthwhile. Choose your temple carefully, some visitors are not as happy with their stays. We booked Shojosin-in's private hanare and were again, very pleased. It's much like a ryokan stay, in terms of accommodation, but the meal is of course a vegetarian one. We loved the meal and being able to observe the monks at prayer in the morning. And the famous cemetery was as beautiful as I'd hoped. Our temple didn't offer any meditation sessions or the like. It's a bit of a journey to get there, but not difficult, but note that the last part of the train trip is not covered by JR Pass. It's beautiful though. That last train trip includes the cost of the funicular at the end (they call it a cable car but it's a funicular).

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