A brief visit to Japan

Old Jan 17th, 2020, 04:10 PM
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A brief visit to Japan

Not so much a trip report, just a few observations on our recent trip which someone may find helpful. It was 12 years since our last visit - will it have changed. Short answer is yes both in good and bad ways.

Getting there

We flew BA Business Class from London Heathrow to Haneda. We had breakfast in BA Lounge @ Terminal 5. Not especially impressed. Very busy and the food on offer was pretty poor.

The flight on a 777 was excellent. Great staff, great food (a marked improvement on the lounge). It was one of the older Club cabins but still very comfortable. Perhaps not as spacious as some of the competition. We recently flew with Emirates to South Africa and that cabin was much more modern and spacious but the service and food was not as good.

Arrival in Haneda at 07.30 was a painless exercise. Time to organise some stuff.
  1. Get • cash from the ATM - easy peasy
  2. Pick up "Klook" SIM cards. A bargain compared with other providers. 8 days unlimited 4G data for 8 days for £16. Very fast internet and amazing coverage - worked everywhere including the subway.
  3. Buy two "Welcome" Suica IC cards loaded with •5000 apiece. Mainly for subway fares but also can be used at convenience stores. A new type of card that does not require a deposit. Ideal for visits of less than 28 days.
  4. Our first attempt to exchange our JR Pass voucher and book some trains was met with vast queues at their kiosk. We adjourned to a coffee shop to wait it out, do the chores listed above and after an hour - no queue. We got our passes and booked the one train we were allowed and off we set for Shinjuku

Getting around

We used the subway exclusively whilst in both Tokyo and Kyoto. For both trains and subways I relied upon Google Maps on my phone which was excellent.easy to find where we needed to go. Train times, alternative routes and even to track progress of trains on the subway. It also helpfully told me the best car to get for the best exit at the stations and which exit to take from the station. The only issue I had was that the screen on my ancient iPhone 5s is too small for me to read without glasses which was a bit of a pain. Time for a new phone or laser eye surgery!

As always the trains were incredibly efficient and the stations incredibly manic. Soon learnt to avoid the rush hour at all costs! Years of commuting in London should have taught me that.

The Shinkansen between Tokyo and Kyoto was as good as I remembered.

Where we stayed

I had agonised long and hard over our choice of hotels but ended feeling quite smug! Very pleased with the places we stayed at.

Hotel Gracery - Shinjuku 3 nights

A relatively new hotel a five minute walk from Shinjuku station. Right in the heart of the action. A bewildering array of restaurants and nightlife right on te doorstep. An unusual feature of the hotel is a giant Godzilla climbing up the side of the building. Indeed the whole hotel has a Godzilla theme. We had a standard double room which was on the small side but very well designed with everything we needed. We chose the room only option which left us free to take breakfast out and about.

Seikoro Ryokan - Higashiyama, Kyoto 2 nights

A traditional Ryokan in a very quiet side street a short walk to the subway and walking distance to the main sights of Higashiyama and Gion. The people and service here were amazing, the food sublime. They kindly upgraded our traditional tatami mat room to a spacious suite with sitting area overlooking the internal garden. Breakfast and dinner, Kaiseki style, were served in our room by a wonderful young lady named Nobu.

Apart from sightseeing, we seemed to spend the majority of our time eating, sleeping (on very comfortable futons) or bathing in the Onsen. I became addicted to the latter, I must have had 6 visits in the two days we were there. Only on one occasion, did I have company. In fact judging by the number of shoes on the porch, the place must have been full, but we barely saw any other guests??

Cross Hotel, Downtown, Kyoto

Another brand new hotel, only opened a few months ago. Possibly the best designed hotel room I have ever stayed in! Extremely comfortable and so many nice touches i donít have time to list them. Opted for a deluxe double room which was very spacious and exceptional value. We have stayed in many 5* places that have been less impressive. Great location, close to the river and 5 mins from Sanjo subway, 15 mins to Gion.

Exceptional value all around. The "western" breakfast buffet ( with an optional Japanese set) was incredible. We had booked room only but they offered a half price deal on arrival. £10 pp there was an amazing array food including unlimited steak and lobster. I couldnít recommend this place highly enough.

Where we went in Tokyo

Coming hard on the heels of two months in South Africa and a three week house sit in the U.K. looking after a very large and energetic dog, we felt in need of some relaxation. We limited our sightseeing somewhat to a few key sights, supplemented by a lot of wanderings especially in Tokyo where we felt "less is more". We shopped a fair amount both for food items to take home as we both cook a lot of Asian food when back in the UK. A lot of department store food halls were visited!

Bought an excellent (and expensive!) Damascus steel chefs knife to add to my collection - it really is a work of art. We were in Kappabashi street (aka Kitchen Utensil Street) after visiting Senso-ji and Asakusa. A very long street with just about everything a cook or restaurant owner could want. I was drawn to a shop with a life sized and very realistic, paper model of a Triumph Bonneville motorcycle in the window of a specialist knife shop. I used to own the real thing got chatting to the owner about the bike, which he made from scratch, all from papier-m‚chť and about his knives, again, he makes from scratch. After much deliberating on which type of knife, I selected a real beauty. He then informed me that it was only "80% sharp" - would I like it sharpened by his son, a specialist sharpener to 100%. Yes please!

We also spent a day in the Shibuya area visit the crossing, a few department stores, Meiji-Jingu shrine, Harajuku and an excellent lunch recommended by Aussie son.

My overall impressions of Tokyo remained as previously, a fantastic exciting and dynamic city and we loved our time there. Great food, great nightlife amazing neon nightscapes BUT - even though we were in what was supposed to be a quite period, so many tourists, mostly it seemed from mainland China, swarming around every shrine, temple or place of interest. They did not seem to know how to behave, had appalling manners, pushing and shoving everywhere and those selfie sticks! It made it quite unpleasant walking around at times. I really donít think I would want to be here in the Sakura season.

In terms of crowds, a marked difference form our last visit 12 years ago. Hey! Things change and not always for the better.

Where we went in Kyoto

The Chinese hordes in Tokyo weíre nothing compared to those in Kyoto. The Chinese tour groups around the main places of interest seemed multiplied by a factor of ten. Perhaps because we made the mistake of visiting Higashiyama and Gion over a weekend. to be fair, fodorites mrwunfl and adastra had warned about this so it wasnít really so much a surprise as a disappointment.

A lot of sights seemed to be semi closed for repair or restoration; notably Kiyomizu-dera and some of the places around Marayuma Park like Chion-in. The beautiful streams surrounding Chion had been dammed for restoration. Those places of interest that were open were as impressive as ever.

Perhaps the most impressive sight of all was the amazing Nijo Castle. The gardens were amazing, even in winter. Sadly one of the two main palaces of the castle is closed until 2021.

Nishiki Market is undoubtedly a tourist trap but worth a visit anyway. Absolutely jam packed with tourists but fun and lots of weird and wonderful foods to see and sample. We did several "pickle runs" through the market and will be taking some back home. There are also incredible small restaurants in the surrounding streets.

What we ate

Food is a big part of travel for us and we ate in all sorts of places. Clearly a highlight, was the Kaiseki cuisine in our Ryokan stay. We generally sought out the smaller places frequented by locals. The Izakaya (Japanese pubs) often had excellent cheap food and cold beer. A lot of fun in the early evening when surrounded by a young Japanese crowd hell bent on getting drunk after work. We became addicted to Ramen and really enjoyed the offerings at a chain, Ichiran. Probably the best ramen we had but the ambience was a marked contrast to the Izakaya as the set up was to eat at the counter where each space was separated by a screen. Some of our neighbour seemed to be taking the privacy as an opportunity to catch up on sleep!

We hit several yakitori places and unlike our first trip, weíre not refused entry to any on the grounds of being Gaijin. Some of the best were in Shinjukuís Memory Lane aka "Piss Alley". Two lanes under the rail tracks which are jam packed with tiney Yakitori joints and people trying to find a seat at one of the counters. A hour here and you will smell of smoke and meat for the next week! Fun though!

The food halls and supermarkets in basements of the big department stores were great for stocking up for dinner in our room when we didnít fancy going our. Hit these places around 7.00pm and there is lots of sashimi and sushi at half price or less. The Japanese themselves took full advantage and who are we to disagree. A couple of times we gorged ourselves on fatty tuna belly, fugu ( blowfish) , salmon and cod roe and Unagi - all exceptional quality and a fraction of the price of a sushi restaurant.

We are now in the lounge at Haneda where the food, the peace and quiet are a marked contrast to Heathrow T5. We spent our last night in a hotel near Shinagawa Station. Convenient both for our Shinkansen back from Kyoto and for the 20 min ride on the Keikyu lim to Haneda. So much more convenient than Narita which was our other option.

​​​​​​Notable changes

It seemed like there were a lot more people speaking English than on our last visit. Not just in hotels, which one would expect but in shops and stations too.

The "cash is king" maxim seems largely to be a thing of the past. Most places with the exception of a few ramen shops took cards. We used tap and go for virtually everything.

The tourist demographic was the biggest change. The Chinese are now visiting Japan in enormous numbers.

In all, an excellent trip which we thoroughly enjoyed and we were so glad we decided not to pack too much in in terms of sights to see and take a more "relaxed" approach. I say relaxed. According to my phone we still ended up walking 12mile plus per day.

Where to next???

crellston is offline  
Old Jan 17th, 2020, 07:09 PM
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Thank you so much for your observations about Japan. We were last there in 2013 and have designs on going back in the next 18 months. The crowds donít sound appealing though; the only places I remember large crowds were Senso-ji and Kiyomizu-dera. Were there during a major Chinese holiday week?
tripplanner001 is offline  
Old Jan 17th, 2020, 09:17 PM
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I adored Nijo-jo! It's one of my favorite man-made spaces in the world.

Thanks for posting, crellston -- it sounds like you and your wife enjoyed it, and that is a priceless thing, isn't it?
kja is offline  
Old Jan 17th, 2020, 09:39 PM
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It's not just Chinese New Year's or some holiday period. They are flooding into Japan. The majority of foreign tourists are from China.

There has been a bigger than fourfold increase of foreign tourists over the last 7 years. Kyoto and Nara Park are Ground Zero. Most are fine of course. But a few make the Japanese unhappy. Koreans seem to have decreased with the long trade row between Japan and Korea.
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Old Jan 18th, 2020, 03:57 AM
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Thanks, crellston! My husband is already talking about a trip to Japan and I know this will be very helpful when we start to plan. I always enjoy your observations and comments. I’m glad you enjoyed your trip!
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Old Jan 18th, 2020, 02:29 PM
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thx so much. We are going to Japan in May and this info is very helpful. Cross Hotel is one of the hotels we are considering in Kyoto.
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Old Jan 18th, 2020, 02:36 PM
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crellston Also, from your planning thread you were considering day trip to Nara from Kyoto. Did you end up doing it? We have 5 nights in Kyoto and are thinking we may not have time for Nara, even though many folks really encourage it.
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Old Jan 18th, 2020, 03:38 PM
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crellston: Thank you for posting this informative report. I appreciate the practical information - my husband & I are planning our first trip to Japan. It's useful to know that most places in Tokyo & Kyoto accept credit cards and more English is spoken in hotels, shops & stations. My Japanese language skills are limited to greetings + simple requests and that's not to say that I would necessarily understand the responses!
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Old Jan 18th, 2020, 05:37 PM
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Back in the U.K. How I hate jet lag!! At least it has provided opportunity in these early hours. Made the mistake of going to bed at 8 pm and awoke @ midnight! Still, it provides the opportunity to catch up with a few emails and respond here (whether either will be intelligible is an entirely different matter.

2010 - I know exactly what you mean re limited language skills, whilst I speak reasonable Spanish and OK Thai, the lever of my Japanese sounds much the same as yours. I make a point of learning a few basic phrases and responses of the language of wherever we visit and can now order beer etc, say " I don’t want that thank you" in at least a dozen languages. Always seems to be appreciated. However, like you say, understanding the responses is an entirely different matter! It is always appreciated though.

Alison - we did do a day trip to Nara. As I mentioned in my planning post, I was a bit ambivalent about going there, but others here "persuaded" me to give it a second chance. We decided to use one of our six days in Kyoto to give it a second chance. It is easy by JR from Kyoto Station and may have been even easier using one of the other train companies from a station close to where we were staying, but we wanted to utilise our JR Pass. We did enjoy it, but it was VERY crowded with tour groups and it was supposed to be low season. With something like 18 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto, you could easily spend ten days there alone. Todai-ji was very special and there is a logical walk through the main sights in and around Nara park from either station which is a longish walk but pretty straightforward. Prioritisation when planning for Japan is key. Something great will always have to be skipped.

We were very impressed with Cross Hotel, it is well worth considering. The downtown area is definitely the location we would base ourselves in if we returned. If money is no object then the Hyatt in Gion looked amazing. Do consider a night in a Ryokan. It may seem massively expensive and, I suppose it is. But when you factor in the cost of what the Kaiseki meal would cost, it seems more reasonable.

KJA - Nijo is very special. On our previous visit to Kyoto we stayed at the Ana Crowne Plaza with amazing views of the castle from our bedroom AND it was during the blossom season.The gardens were almost as impressive as the buildings then. Just a shame that one of the palaces was closed. It looked like it was almost being rebuilt. The roof had been completely removed - a huge undertaking. Temple renovations seemed to be a common theme on this trip. For anyone planning, it would be worth checking what is going on where.

Tripplanner - Senso-ji and Kiyomizu-dera along with Nara were the busiest places we visited. Maybe visiting some of the busier places at opening times would have seen smaller crowds but we mad a decision to avoid early morning rush hours on the subway (did my time on that working in London!). No idea if we were there during a Chinese holiday or not. We did hit "Coming of Age day" on Mon 13 Jan in Kyoto and that weekend we did see a huge number of Japanese visiting shrines dressed in traditional costume. For a second we thought there was Geisha convention being held in the city.

Adastra - those projections are quite shocking. We are frequent visitors to the wonderful country of New Zealand which has been suffering a lot from the effects of over tourism, mostly though a similarly massive increase in mainland Chinese’s visitors. The pursuit of the tourist dollar is all very well but governments should really take more care in what the wish for. We will only ever go there in winter when the country sees few tourists and is blissfully quiet and selfie sticks are rarely seen. In recent years we have found ourselves heading west to South America, Central America and Mexico, in part because they seem unaffected by mass tourism - yet!

Progol - Glad you found my comments of help. I am sure you will love Japan when you go. We are considering a stopover there when next we visit family in Sydney. Flying via Tokyo seems to add nothing in terms of cost and it is nice to break the trip somewhere. But there is always South Korea or Taiwan which see far fewer tourists - but Japan is very special...

crellston is offline  
Old Jan 19th, 2020, 08:13 AM
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Thank you again for taking the time to write this excellent TR.

Its well organized, concise and an easy read.

I hope someday to get to So. Korea. Really want to see the sights and the DMZ and now you have me thinking to add a return to Japan which we loved the first and only time.

All the best.

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Old Jan 19th, 2020, 10:03 PM
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We loved South Korea! Why not do both? One of the 0ptions under consideration for our 2021 Australia family visit is to use either JAL or Korean and on the way out or back, visit both South Korea and Japan and get between the two via the ferry from Busan to Fukoka or vv.
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Old Jan 20th, 2020, 04:11 AM
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As always enjoy reading your comments. Thanks for taking the time to write them. I have no basis for comparison, but other than a couple sites in Kyoto we didnít find the crowds overwhelming on our trip this past fall. Maybe our timing as to when we visited some sites. Loved Japan and plan to get back soon.
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Old Jan 20th, 2020, 05:51 AM
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Originally Posted by crellston View Post
We loved South Korea! Why not do both? One of the 0ptions under consideration for our 2021 Australia family visit is to use either JAL or Korean and on the way out or back, visit both South Korea and Japan and get between the two via the ferry from Busan to Fukoka or vv.
Hmmm. Do you know how long the ferry ride is?
I did see how much you liked So. Korea.
Its admirable how they have built their country after the war.
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Old Jan 20th, 2020, 10:37 AM
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>>Hotel Gracery - Shinjuku 3 nights
A relatively new hotel a five minute walk from Shinjuku station. Right in the heart of the action. A bewildering array of restaurants and nightlife right on te doorstep. An unusual feature of the hotel is a giant Godzilla climbing up the side of the building.<<

Kabukicho! That part of Shinjuku has changed for the better in the last 12 or so years and I think the Hotel Gracery, opened in 2015, had a part in that.

There was a recent poster (wish I had time now to find it) who was warned not to stay in Kabukicho because it is known as the largest red-light district in Japan. The poster was traveling with 2 boys, IIRC, aged ~12,14.

Were you aware of the infamy of the area around the Gracery? Did you spend any time there? restaurant? robot show?

I really like a sushi restaurant that is to the left of the spot where this recording of Godzilla was made:
(I think that is Korean being spoken near the end)
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Old Jan 20th, 2020, 12:06 PM
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I wasn’t aware of the nature or the area before we went but it probably wouldn’t have made a difference anyway. It seemed a lot like parts of London’s Soho, which is a great part of the city in which to stay. We did spend a fair amount of time in and around the area and walked past the Robot Restaurant several times on the way to and from various restaurants and bars. We weren’t tempted inside though, a little too tacky but I guess it could be fun. didn’t find it particularly offensive or "in your face" unlike say the red light areas of Bangkok, like Soi Cowboy Etc. which I do find offensive with the wall to wall middle aged western expats preying on young Thai girls and boys.

i couldn’t get the YouTube link to work. We didn’t try sushi in the area instead began our (probably lifelong) addiction at the Ichiran outlet there. Found a nice Yakitori place too, can’t recall its name but it was jammed with young Japanese, many of which wanted to practise English on us and offer advice on us which sticks to order next - who knew there were so many variations - chicken hearts and gizzards were delicious!

Also found a nice little Izakaya close by with great food and beer. Memory Lane/Piss Alley was a lot of fun but a bit of a tourist trap and absolutely rammed, mostly with western tourists.

We liked the area and would probably stay there again. Great transport links from the station and Yamamote Line.
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Old Jan 20th, 2020, 12:26 PM
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Well, the one silver lining with the Chinese (and Korean) tourists that are overwhelming so many destinations is that A) they tend to stay together in large tourist hotels, and B) they go everywhere together on buses. If you stick to small hotels and restaurant, and avoid some of the "famous" sites, you can avoid some of the crowds.
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Old Jan 21st, 2020, 11:06 PM
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Originally Posted by lcuy View Post
Well, the one silver lining with the Chinese (and Korean) tourists that are overwhelming so many destinations is that A) they tend to stay together in large tourist hotels, and B) they go everywhere together on buses. If you stick to small hotels and restaurant, and avoid some of the "famous" sites, you can avoid some of the crowds.
Good point lcuy. I would also add starting out early whilst the tour groups are still busy with their buffet breakfasts. not so much in Tokyo where that would involve hitting the subway in rush hour!

Jacketwatch - I think there are a few ferry options ranging from 3 hours to 10 hours (overnight). It is just one of those options that tempts me (and helps reduce my carbon footprint!). Having done loads of train trips around the world, I am now exploring various boat options. Have used boats in Indochina a lot and Thursdaysd inspired with her trip on Navimag down the cost of Chile also Tripplannerís Anatartica /Falklands trip ( although the latter will likely require a lottery win!). So many places, so little time!
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Old Jan 22nd, 2020, 05:54 AM
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Crellston thank you.
Yes the world is huge, so much to see for those so inclined.
We leave tomorrow for DEL, for a few days then onto to Dubai, and a cruise though unfortunately Royal cancelled our stop in Bahrain and added a 2nd day in Abu Dhabi. Well we get to see more of it then though it would have been nice to see Bahrain too. Also stops in Qatar.

All the best.

jacketwatch is online now  
Old Jan 22nd, 2020, 07:41 AM
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Buen Viaje JW. Have a terrific time.
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Old Jan 22nd, 2020, 08:24 AM
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Originally Posted by crellston View Post
Buen Viaje JW. Have a terrific time.
Thank you sir!!
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