PART ONE: TRIP PLANNING AND GETTING THERE!
So, my husband and I escaped to Japan for 6 days and here is a little trip report. We are in our 30s and this is our third trip to Japan. We find the culture delicious (literally and figuratively) and inspiring! I am adding details that I think a travel planner would find useful. We are not big sightseers.
Before we left, we consulted Lonely Planet Japan, Lonely Planet Tokyo, Rough Guide Japan, Time Out Tokyo, and Japan By Rail (2008). All except JBR checked out from the library : ) This forum was extremely helpful too (thanks especially to hawaiian traveler). JBR is a great book - and it has been recently updated - ours was from a previous trip and was pretty much useless. Get the newest book.
We ended up taking JBR and Lonely Planet Tokyo with us. The LP was published in September 2012 and was super accurate!
So, first the tickets. We are from Boston and wanted to fly direct on JAL. It ended up that the best fare we could find was through JTB-USA and was $1370 per person - and that was BOS-NRT-ITM. We did not mind as we have always wanted to check out Osaka (Japan's kitchen). For whatever reason, it was cheaper to fly to Osaka than to fly straight to Tokyo on that same flight. We had the option of flying straight from Tokyo to Boston on the way back but opted to take the AA flight instead so we could squeeze more time in Tokyo. We bought the tickets in the last week of September for a Nov 15-22 trip - had we waited a week, we would have benefitted from the fuel charges going down Oct 1. But, it is not a good idea to check prices after you book. I normally don't use travel agents but JTB-USA had the best price plus they were super friendly to boot. I also figured if we ran into any problems (AA was striking at the time) we could call them to help us out.
NOV 15: We left Boston at 11:50 on the JAL Dreamliner. Brand new plane, comfy comfy seats, great service. We fly cattle class and have no special status anywhere. Because we booked through JTBUSA, we could not even check in early online and try and get two seats together in a row of our own. The food was okay - nothing special. For what it is worth, it was not very Japanese. ANA has much better food but cattle class is much more cramped.
NOV 16: Arrived in Narita on schedule. It is not busy season so we breezed through customs and immigration. We had three hours to kill waiting for our connection to Osaka but made the mistake of heading to the domestic terminal right away. There is nothing to do there. Nothing. Just one tiny Blue Sky convenience store. No food (except a curry stand), no currency exchange, nothing. At least we had an IPAD and free wifi. But only one between the two of us. Again, if we were to do this again, we would have stayed in the international terminal a bit longer.
Flight to Osaka was fast and efficient - we arrived at 8 PM and were heading to ground transport with bags by 8:20. No currency exchange - Itami is a domestic airport. Plus, ground transport does not take credit cards there. So, we had to get money out of an ATM. Normally, this is not a problem as we use our Charles Schwab card (no fees, no currency fees) but it had expired right before our trip and we had not noticed so we paid something like $15 in fees to take out 20000 Y. Ugh.
It was an easy 25 min 600Y ride from Itami airport to Namba station in Osaka. Despite our limited Japanese, we were able to find the bus and purchase tickets. By 9 PM, an hour after our plane landed, we were in Namba.
Before we left, we had debated between staying in the heart of Osaka the first night or by the airport. Toyoko Inn has a brand new joint that is a 5 minute walk from Itami for 6900Y per night. On the other hand, in the past my husband has wanted to go out the minute he gets in to town and it was Friday night after all.
We ended up deciding to stay in the heart of Osaka in the famous Dotonburi Area. A few weeks in advance, we booked a room in the Dotonburi hotel for about 7600Y. As the website says "as a practical matter there is no cancellation fee." So we booked two nights, Nov 16 and Nov 18, knowing we would be staying at an onsen Nov 17.
The Dotonburi hotel is between seven and ten minutes from Namba station. You just walk up one of the main streets and turn left at the Yoshinoya. Then walk past the spa and there you are. They don't speak much English but check in was easy breezy beautiful and when they accidentally gave us a smoking room instead of the non-smoking one we had booked, the error was rectified immediately.
This hotel is substance over style. The room was only a tad bit larger than the double bed. The two of us could not fit in the bathroom at the same time (and we are skinny!). The tub is the weirdest thing I have ever seen - it is super deep but four feet wide. So, you can bathe your infant in it but that is about it. Luckily, you can take a shower. Initially, I was disappointed....but, once you get out of your room, this hotel is awesome. Price and location is excellent. Everyone gets a free five minute phone call anywhere in the world (honor system). Free wifi. Three computers with internet for guest use. Unlimited free coffee, tea, and water in the lounge. Graceful staff. Umbrellas to borrow. You can use the spa next door for 1000Y (50% discount), I would not recommend this for romance but for a clean place to lay your head, it was fabulous. We did not try the buffet breakfast or explore the hotel but it seems like a lot of thought went in to exceeding guest expectations.
My husband conked out but I took a walk around the surrounding area - which was very lively. Lots of neon. Lots of people were still dining in the izakayas (pubs) and bars in the area. Completely safe at 10 PM. Everything smelled delicious but I was too tired from our long trip to deal with negotiating in Japanese so I went to the Lawson convenience store across from the hotel and grabbed some onigiris (rice ball snack) and joined my snoring husband in the room.
Part II: Kobe, Arima Onsen, and Osaka,
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PART ONE: TRIP PLANNING AND GETTING THERE!