Hello Fellow Fodorites!
Just got back from a two-week first-time trip to Japan and can’t wait to start a trip report on one of our favorite overall travel experiences. Before I do so, I must give thanks to kja, Kavey, Don Topez, mrwunrful and MinnBeef for the feedback on my questions before I left, as well as to the writers of the numerous trip reports I read as I was planning. Also I have to give credit to the indispensable www.japan-guide.com and www.hyperdia.com websites. If you are planning a trip and have not consulted these sites yet, please do so immediately! They will make your trip so much easier and richer as a result. I will try to include any other info that I think a first timer might appreciate, but if any of you veterans see any factual errors, please call them out so that I don’t confuse anyone.
Although we lived in Italy for a couple years in the mid-90’s, and traveled extensively throughout Europe and parts of northern Africa, this was our first trip to Asia. Because of this, we decided to start with a country that has a reputation for running smoothly and efficiently, and on this count Japan did not disappoint. We struggled with the decision whether or not to travel independently in Japan, but after reading many Fodors trip reports decided we could do it. All I can say is that if you have any desire to travel independently in Japan… then do it! We found it even easier than our experiences in Europe (where late trains and random strikes have thwarted many a planned itinerary), but from hotel bookings to train travel, there wasn’t a lost reservation or missed connection for the entire trip.
One thing I like to do before going foreign country where English is not the primary language, is to learn at least some of the native language. Although this is by no means necessary in Japan, for me it’s a great way to learn about the culture, as well as having experiences that I might not have otherwise had a snap if. So before this trip I purchased the first 30 lessons from Pimsleur’s speaking Japanese, although I only managed to get through the first 15 before leaving. This gave me the basics, such as “good morning, good afternoon, good evening, thank you, please” etc., as well as the ever useful, “I don't understand Japanese, do you understand English?”, which was a great way to break the ice when starting a new conversation or request. It was also helpful learning the numbers 1 through 10, as well as how to ask, “at what time…” and “where is…”, and understanding the responses. The course also gave me several phrases which I thought I would never use such as, “I am American” and the proper response to being told, “You speak Japanese so well”, which I knew I would never need. Don’t worry, you will be fine if you go knowing nothing other than hello, thank you and please. We found all subway and train stops to be written in English and most restaurants had English menus, or if not, at least pictures.
We started planning the trip last January, after having been fortunate enough to secure two frequent-flyer business-class award tickets through United, flying out non-stop from LAX to Tokyo Haneda on May 13 and returning to LAX from Osaka KIX via SFO on May 27. With a little fine tuning from Fodorites, we landed on the following itinerary:
Tokyo - 4 nights (with day trip to Nikko)
Hakone - 1 night
Takayama - 2 nights
Nara - 1 night
Koyasan – 1 night
Kyoto – 4 nights
It was difficult to drop Matsumoto from our original itinerary (I know it was a highlight for some of you), but we were very happy with how everything worked out in the end, and never felt like we had too much travel in a given day, especially with trains that run like clockwork.
May 13 and 14 – LAX to HND, and Tokyo
The only flight that was available using “saver” fare tickets had us departing at 1:20am, but I decided that this might be a good way to start getting into the Japan time zone. Given that we would probably not be able to get to sleep until about 3am Pacific Time, my hope was that we would sleep 8 hours, waking up about 4am Japan time, and that this would give us a head start into the time difference. While that might have been a good idea in theory, in reality we didn’t really get much sleep, and probably managed to make the transition worse in the end. But we arrived on time at 5am on May 14, not well rested, but running on adrenaline and anxious to get started.
We got through immigration in a fast 10 minutes and had our bags 10 minutes after that. We exchanged dollars for yen immediately outside of baggage claim, at the rate of 99.60 yen to the dollar, which made it incredibly easy when dealing with prices in yen. (As a result, I’ll probably go back and forth between yen and dollars as I mention prices).
The first thing I noticed once we got outside was the humidity. It’s not that it was oppressive, only that 68°F in Los Angeles feels a lot cooler than in Tokyo, because it’s so dry. This really wasn’t a factor until the last couple days of our trip when temperatures reached the mid-80’s. In any event, we grabbed a taxi and made the quick 20 minute ride in to Tokyo. I had printed out the address of the hotel in Japanese ahead of time, so I just handed it to the taxi driver and we had no problems getting to the hotel. We were very surprised by how little traffic there was on the street. By this point it was about 6:00 AM and we were expecting the start of rush hour traffic, but we got to the Capitol Hotel Tokyu without any delays.
I had selected this hotel from Trip Advisor reviews, based on its access to four different subway lines, as well as comfort, while we adjusted to the new time zone. After consulting several discount websites, I ended up booking directly with the hotel, and was able to get a rate that was 30% off of the normal rate by booking more than 90 days in advance. (I kept checking various sites as we got closer, but the prices only went up after that). We were very happy that the room was ready, and were able to check in right away. Our room on the 25th floor was modern and comfortable, with views facing the northwest, towards Shinjuku. Looking down, we could see the Hie Shrine, right next door to the hotel. After a quick shower, this is where we decided to start our exploration, but not before a quick bite to eat.
When we went to look for breakfast, we realized the one downside of our hotel. A buffet breakfast in the hotel was going to run upwards of $50.00 per person. When we decided to explore the area around the hotel, we discovered that there was really nothing within a 10 minute walk. It was only when we went down to the level leading to the subway that we discovered a small cafe where we could get tea, coffee, and toast or a muffin. Coming from California, where there's no smoking in restaurants, we were especially happy to learn that there was a separate smoking room completely sealed off from the rest of the café, which was blissfully smoke free. Having finished our meal, it was time to explore!
Upon entering the Hie Shrine, we were pleased to find that we had it almost all to ourselves. Since we were in an area that was largely dominated by government and office buildings, the occasional sharply dressed businessman or woman would walk through the shrine. Every so often, one would stop to pull a rope attached a large bell at the front, clap twice, throw a donation in the box, say a quick little prayer, clap once, and be on his or her way; the entire process taking under a minute. This calm and serene scene was most certainly not repeated in our next stop, Asakusa.
One of the subway lines beneath our hotel was the Ginza line, which conveniently connected the Shibuya station at one end to Asakusa at the other. This was our first Tokyo subway experience, so it took few minutes to get oriented. There were machines in the corridor leading to the turnstiles which dispensed subway tickets as well as rechargeable plastic cards. I was looking for the “Suica” brand rechargeable card, which I had read about in my guidebook, but this machine seemed to dispense the “Passmo” brand. So I took a chance and put 2,000 yen on a Passmo card. I later found out that Suica and Passmo have more or less merged and the cards that can usually be used interchangeably. But what was also great about this card, besides not having to buy tickets for each ride, was that you can also use it for purchases at places like 7/11 and other shops. This is much more convenient than having to deal with cash all the time. My major faux pas came when it was time to go through the turnstile, when I inserted the Passmo card into the slot where a subway ticket should go, instead of passing it over the sensor on time and keeping the card in my hand. Fortunately there was a very helpful subway worker nearby, who was happy to open the machine and retrieve it for me.
Crisis averted, we entered the station and were surprised that, although we were riding in the middle of rush hour and the cars were full, it wasn’t the crush of people that we were expecting. It was tight, but not uncomfortably so, and people were overall very quiet and respectful. We rode to the end of the line, in order to see the famous Senso-ji complex in Asakusa, which includes a five-story pagoda, and the Asakusa shrine, among other buildings. Upon departing the subway train car, I was happy to see maps on the walls with numbered exits, showing which ones were closest to various sites. These maps became indispensable, especially in the larger stations, where taking the wrong exit could put you blocks away from your destination.
Our first observation of the area leading to the shrine, besides that of the giant multicolored gate with the enormous red lantern hanging from it, was the sheer number of people, mostly students, dressed in what appeared to be little blue and white sailor uniforms, broken up only by their colorful sneakers and Barbie backpacks. Despite the crowd, it didn't feel overwhelming. For the most part, people did not run in to us, we didn’t run into them, and everything flowed in a much calmer manner than a crowd of the same size might in the U.S.
The main pedestrian street leading to the Asakusa shrine is lined with all manner of food and souvenir vendors. We spent a good hour watching Japanese pastries being made in shop windows, or little plastic “lucky cats” dancing on their battery powered pedestals. We sampled numerous confections, such as baked dough filled with red bean paste, or little fritters flavored with green tea.
The buildings in the shrine complex are all painted vermillion red, with accents of gold and green. This turned out to be a recurring theme for shrines all along our trip. Another regular feature was the fountain at the beginning of the shrine, although this one much larger than the one at Hie Shrine. We followed the example of the others, and picked up one of the many small ladles laying on the edge of the fountain, filled it up with water, and washed each hand with it. We took a sip of water from our hands and rinsed out our mouths, just like the other visitors, and let the remaining water from the ladle run down the length of the handle before setting it back on the edge of the fountain.
There was also a large cauldron filled with incense burning in the middle of the square. Crowds of people would come up to the pot and waive the smoke all over their bodies before proceeding to the shrine. This really felt like no place we had visited before and we really enjoyed taking in all the sights, sounds and smells.
In addition to admiring the architecture and the rituals, we also enjoyed watching the younger schoolchildren gathered around the various buildings making sketches for class. Many of them had world maps and asked where we were from, but got shy when we tried to reply in English. It occurred to me that they might not have understood what I said, so was actually able to break out a phrase I didn’t expect to use in Japanese, “Watashi wa Americajin des”, “I’m an American". (Forgive my spelling, if there is a correct way to spell Japanese in English. Pimsleur is all audio based, so I did not see any of this in writing). Apparently they were doing some sort of school project and this enabled them to place a sticker on the location of the United States on their maps. A few other children were eager to try out their English on us, so we got lots of “hello”, and a few “I love you”, which may not have been the most useful of phrases in that context, but certainly amusing!
By the time we finished in Asakusa it was about 11:30 AM, so we decided to go to the Edo-Tokyo museum, since it was only a couple subway stops away, requiring a change from the Asakusa line to the Oedo line at Kuramae. This was just a bit confusing, because we actually had to leave one station, walk a couple hundred meters above ground, and descend to another station, in order to pick up the second line.
Since it was about noon when we got there, we decided to have lunch at the restaurant on the top floor of the museum. We were shown counter seats which faced a window looking out toward the river to the east. Although the menu was not in English the pictures were very easy to understand. Our only concern was that Sam is allergic to shrimp and crab. Fortunately, I had emailed some Japanese friends before leaving in order to get the phrase, “I am allergic to shrimp and crab", in Kanji, which I saved as a photo on my phone. We showed this to the waitress before ordering and she steered us in the right direction. We use this process for every meal and it worked like a charm.
I thought that the prices were very reasonable for a museum restaurant, about $10.00 for rice bowl with meat or fish on top, and a bowl of miso soup, or about $17.00 for multi-course Bento box, also with rice and soup. Sam ordered cold sake and when a small desert arrived, the woman seated next to us wearing a traditional kimono, gestured that we should pour a little of the sake over the desert before eating. She seemed a very pleased and I gave her a very sincere thank you, “Arigato gozaimas”!
The visit to the museum was phenomenal. They have a group of English speaking free guides immediately to the right as you enter the museum. Their last guide had just left with a couple of other visitors and they eagerly asked us to join the group.
The guide was fantastic and very informative, as she explained the history and background of the various models, maps and exhibits. She seemed genuinely excited whenever anyone ask the question, especially when it led to some interesting bit of information that she might not have otherwise shared. Being on the tour, also give us access to the insides of some of the exhibits that we otherwise might not have seen. For example, there is an actual size replica of a traditional kabuki theater inside of which were various instruments used during the production of the show. It was fun to be able to test these out for ourselves. All together we spent about 3 hours in the museum and it was well worth it. If you're at all interested in the history of the Tokyo/Edo area over the past 400 years, or really enjoy incredibly detailed architectural models, I would highly recommend the trip to this museum.
By this point it was about 4:00 PM and we were exhausted. We went back to the hotel to relax for a couple hours before dinner. Since there did not seem to be a lot of activity around our hotel in the evening we decided to take the subway to Shinjuku to have a look around and find a place for dinner. We chose an exit from the subway at random and found ourselves in a crowded area filled with bright lights and massive signs. There were several “barkers” on the streets, saying something to us as we walked by. It sounded like English so Sam said, “What are they saying?" And I said that it sounded like, "sex”. It appeared that we had stumbled upon Kabuiki-cho, the red-light district. Since we suspected that this area was probably not known for their cuisine, we turned back toward the station where we found a small noodle restaurant, which seemed to have about eight tables, all occupied. The proprietor gestured for us to follow her and led us to a small elevator which we took to the fourth floor. We arrived to a darkened room, with about 8 tables but no customers. She turned on the lights and seated us. At first it seemed a little creepy being there all alone, but within 5 minutes every other table was occupied with diners. We ordered massive bowls of Udon noodles in broth, mine with shrimp tempura on top, for about $10.00 each. Satisfied, we headed back to the hotel to pass out after a fantastic first day.
First impressions: despite all of the amazing sights that we had seen today, we were most impressed with the Japanese people. From the hotel staff, to the store clerks, people on the train, and people we've encountered on the street, everyone has been unfailingly kind and polite. They even seemed happy at my feeble attempts to speak Japanese. More of the trip to come when I have a chance.
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Hello Fellow Fodorites!