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panda2ac Apr 19th, 2010 08:42 PM

Japan Trip report - Tokyo, Kanazawa, Takayama & Kyoto
 
We just returned from a wonderful 12 day trip to Japan. We had a great time and really enjoyed the trip mostly because of all the pre-planning and tips and information that we obtained from this and other forums prior to our trip. So I thought I'd pay it forward and share our itinerary, information and tips for future Japan travelers. I may have to split this into several posts otherwise this will get rather lengthy.

Just some general comments before going into the specifics of the itinerary. I was originally worried about doing this trip on our own since we do not speak Japanese and the Japanese people are not as well versed in English as some of the European countries. My husband can read Chinese though, which helped in reading street signs. But if you do your homework and figure out where you want to go, which sights you want to see and figure out through research how to get from point to point then you won't have any problems. My suggestion would be to print out the locations including the sights and hotels where you will be visiting and staying, and if you get lost, pointing to those locations and asking "doko" (which is where) they can usually point you in the right direction. So we actually did rather well except for getting a little lost in the big train stations, more to come on that later.

As mentioned in a lot of the posts, if you're traveling to outside of Tokyo, especially to Kyoto, you should definitely get a JR rail pass, it is not only cost effective but also very convenient. Although we were in Japan for 11 days, we only bought the 7-day pass and didn't activate it until after we left Tokyo, which worked out great.

Okay, here's the day to day specifics:
Day 1&2 - travel from TX to Narita airport. Arrived around 1:30PM. The airport is quite far from the city center, so you'll have to either take a bus or take the Narita Express train. If you're not going to activate your JR rail pass right away, I would strongly recommend getting the NEX & Suica card package. http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/suica-nex/index.html It includes airport transportation using Narita Express plus a 2000 Yen suica card which you can use on all subway rails in Tokyo. The Suica card has a 500 yen deposit, which means you actually only get to use 1500 out of the 2000 but then you'll get the 500 back when you return the card at the end. The 1500 lasted us for most of our needs except for the last day we had to purchase an additional 350 yen, but we basically got it back after we got the deposit back. You get the package at the JR east travel office located I believe on the 2nd floor of the airport.

Let me explain a little about the subway system in Japan which was rather confusing to me while doing my research until I got there. Japan's transportation system is actually great and very efficient but it's confusing because it is operated by several different private companies. In Tokyo alone, you have the JR system plus two other private companies. The good thing is that if you get the Suica card, you can use it for all of the systems without having to buy separate tickets.

So from the airport we took the Narita Express to Shinagawa station. We had booked 4 nights at the Prince Hotel Shinagawa which is right across the street from the Shinagawa station. The location was great because it was convenient to the JR rail system and the subway. The room we got was a twin room on the North tower which was very very small. I would equate it to a cabin on a cruise ship, even the bathroom was similar to what you have on a cruise ship. But, the location was good and the price was not too bad for a hotel in Japan, we didn't spend much time in the room anyway. One thing that struck us as we exited the train station was the sea of people, mostly of young professionals getting off from work. When the light changes, it was like a wave of people going on both directions, if you're not used to crowds of people, it can be quite an experience. My suggestion is to stay to your left (our right in US is left in Japan) and try to go with the flow. After checking in, we took the JR Yamamote line to Harajuku station to visit the Meiji Jingu Shrine. For those that like shopping, the shrine is in the popular Shibuya area which is famous for shopping and restaurants.

Day 3- Sun 4/4, Tokyo
We had originally planned to get up early and visit the Tsukiji Fish Market for some morning sushi, but unfortunately it is closed on Sundays. We went to the JR office at Shinagawa station in the morning to exchange the JR Rail passes ( I forgot to mention yesterday that the ordinary passes are fine, there's no need to pay the extra money for the green pass, save that money for a nice dinner in Japan). You first have to go to the informaiton center to exchange the JR rail pass (need to show your passports), there's a form that you need to complete where you can specify when you want to activate the passes. We then went to the JR ticket office to make reservations for our trains to Kanazawa, Osaka and return trip back to the Narita airport. If you will be traveling out of Tokyo, I would suggest that you do your research using Hyperdia (http://www.hyperdia.com) to determine what are the train times to your destinations. I had all my train times and train numbers written on a spreadsheet which made it very easy for the ticketer to get us our tickets. With JR rail pass, reserved tickets are free. All of the Shinkansen trains have reserved and non-reserved cars. The non-reserved cars are first come first serve which provide flexibility if you don't have a set time you want to travel.

Our first sightseeing stop for the day was Hama Rikyu (about a 12 min. walk from the fish market) or a 10-15 minute walk from JR Shimbashi Station on the Yamamote line or Hamamatsucho station. http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/r...u_sibaura.html. The garden was very beautiful, worth going to. After which, you can board a ferry from the garden's pier bound for Asakusa, with departures every hour (or more often) between 10:35am and 4:15pm; the fare is ¥720 ($6/£3) one-way to the Sensoji Temple. http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3001.html.
If you get to go on a weekend and the weather is good, you will see the local people having quite elaborate picnics on the sidewalks by the pier. Elaborate picnics including portable stoves where they are cooking right there.

We had intended to also visit the Edo Tokyo museum and the Tokyo imperial palace east gardens but unfortunately ran out of time because we had a late start in the morning due to trying to get the rail passes exchanged and to some scouting for the next day's trip to Nikko.

Day 4 - Mon 4/5, Nikko day trip from Tokyo
Since we didn't want to activate our JR rail pass yet, we purchased the All Nikko pass from Tobu Railways at Asakusa Station which covers the round trip train ride to Nikko and all local transportation in the Nikko area including the bus to Lake Chuzenji to see the Kegon Waterfalls. http://www.tobu.co.jp/foreign/pass/w_heritage_pass.html. The waterfalls was nice, but I'm not sure it was worth the trip to the Lake area since it's about 50 minutes from Nikko and that's basically all there is. If you decide not to go to the waterfalls, I would suggest just getting the World Heritage pass which still includes the rail transportation, but it also includes the admission to the Nikko Tosho-gu Shrin, which is definitely worth visiting. You will spend most of your time in that area. If you do decide to visit Nikko on your own via the Tobu railways, I would suggest that you do some scouting and purchase the pass the day before. There's about 5 different Asakusa Stations depending on the subway system you are using and they are NOT all connected. The passes do not include the Kinu trains, you would need to pay an additional 1000 yen/person/trip. We felt that their Rapid trains were comfortable enough. Although if you travel on the weekends, it may get crowded.

Day 5 - Tue 4/6, day trip to Hakone from Tokyo
Again, we didn't want to use our JR pass yet, so we purchased the Hakone Free Pass from Odakyu railways at the Shinjuku station. http://www.odakyu.jp/english/freepass/hakone_01.html
This was a great deal because it included the round trip transportation plus all of the transportation needed in Hakone. The only thing is that like the pass from Tobu railways, this pass did not include their Limited Express trains, it only included their local trains which is basically a commuter train. For this one, unlike with the Tobu railways, I would suggest that you fork out the additional $800 yen for the upgrade. The local commuter train was very packed for most of the way and stopped at every stop. We took the regular commuter train on the way up there because we didn't know any better but paid the extra on our way back, big difference!

Day 6 - W 4/7, travel to Kanazawa
We activated our JR rail pass and took the Shinkansen Hikari trains from Shinagawa station to Kanazawa. We had already obtained our reserved seats on the day that we exchanged our JR rail passes. The train ride was very comfortable and they have western style toilets on the Hikari trains which are very clean. But sometimes you may have to switch to a Limited Express train which is their Rapid trains, which only have Japanese style toilets. Also be aware that Japanese trains are 99.9% on time and only stop for a short while at each station, so make sure that you are there prior to the scheduled time since they will not wait for you. We stayed at the Nakayasu Ryokan, which is a family operated japanese ryokan. We actually got a room larger than we had booked and was very nice. They serve dinner in your room and it is definitely a treat. The lady had to make 3 different trips to bring all of the food. The price also included breakfast which is served downstairs in their breakfast room. You can have the choice of Japanese or Western style breakfast.

We basically followed the JNTO guide for Kanazawa. http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/rtg/pdf/pg-403.pdf
We really enjoyed Kanazawa, The Kanazawa castle park and the Kenrokuen Gardens are a must. It was especially beautiful since it was during cherry blossom season.

Day 7 - Th 4/8, travel to Takayama
We had heard that the bus ride from Kanazawa to Takayama was nice and have a chance to stop at Shirakawago. So we took that advice and traveled by bus to Takayama with a 3 hours stop at Shirakawago. The bus ride was nice and Shirakawago was not bad, but, if I was tight on time and had skip somewhere, I would probably skip this stop at Shirakawago and Takayama as well. Although we had a good time, we were not that impressed. Because we stopped about 3 hours at Shirakawago, we didn't get into Takayama until about 6:10PM. We chose to stay at Honjinhiranoya Bekkan, which is another Ryokan. This is more of a modern Ryokan vs the family run one in Kanazawa. So their scope was bigger and they offered to pick us up at the bus station and even gave us a ride back to the train station the next day. The service was great, food was great and they also had their own hot spring.

Day 8 - Th 4/9, travel to Osaka
Since we didn't get into Takayama till late yesterday we did most of the sightseeing in Takayama in the morning. Like I mentioned above, we were not as impressed with Takayama. We visited the Shiroyama park, which is more of a regular hiking park with trails, not a lot to see. We then followed the Higashiyama walking course which went thru a lot of shrines and temples. The town itself was kind of deserted and a lot of stores were closed, don't know if it was because of the season.

In the afternoon we took the JR train to Osaka. We had originally wanted to stay in Kyoto, but by the time I was trying to book the hotels, they were all full, so we decided on staying in Osaka and take day trips to Kyoto using the JR pass. It worked out okay but if you find yourself in the same situation, I would suggest trying to find a hotel close to the ShinOsaka station instead of the Osaka station. I didn't know better when I booked the hotel. The shinkansen only leaves from the ShinOsaka station, so we had to take a local metro to from Osaka to ShinOsaka. The hotel that I found though next to the Osaka station was actually pretty nice though, much larger than the Prince hotel in Tokyo. We got a pretty good deal thru Expedia for 4 nights at Osaka, Hotel Monterey.

Day 9 - Sat 4/10 - day trip to Himeji from Osaka
We took the local JR trains to Himeji. http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3500.html
It was absolutely beautiful, especially during the cherry blossom season. The lines were long but definitely worth the trip. On our way back, we stopped at Maiko, which is a seaside town that looked like a resort that we spotted on our way up. The view of the ocean was great and we found a great seafood restaurant on the top floor of a department store right next to the train station. It was pricey but, the seafood was definitely fresh and delicious.

Day 10&11 - day trips to Kyoto from Osaka
We bought the 2-day Kyoto Sightseeing Card (2000Yen) which included all of the city bus and subway transportation. You can buy the cards at the Tourist information center found on the second floor of the Kyoto Train station. The passes include the Raku buses which hit all of the major Kyoto tourist sights. We followed several of the Kyoto walks from JNTO. http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/rtg/pdf/pg-503.pdf

The walk Along the Old canal was absolutely beautiful with the cherry blossoms. We went to the Kiyomizu Temple, Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), Byodoin (Phoenix Temple), the Gion area, Ryonji Temple and the Fushimi Inari Shrine.

Day 12 - T 4/13, travel back to Narita Airport for flight home
We took the morning Shinkansen Hikari from ShinOsaka to Narita Airport for my flight back. My flight was not until 5:30PM, so we had plenty of time. I had about 3 hours to kill at the airport, so for those that have late flights, you can make it to the airport from most major cities with no problem. I would suggest for you to research the train times and go ahead and reserve seats for those trains.

In summary, it was a great trip. Japan is absolutely beautiful, clean and friendly. We're planning another trip in the future to the Northern part of Japan. For future travelers, hope you have a great trip as well.

Sorry that this is such a long report, but hopefully helpful to someone. :)

thursdaysd Apr 19th, 2010 09:00 PM

Thanks very much for all the details. I'm in the middle of planning a fall trip to Japan, so this is very helpful. I'm interested to read that you were disappointed in Takayama - I thought that the architecture and scenery would be worth seeing. Did you visit the folklore village?

Also, I was thinking of over-nighting in Hakone - how long a day trip was it?

lcuy Apr 20th, 2010 01:14 AM

Great report. thanks for posting!

I loved Takayama. We did go to the foklore villae, and the float museum is wonderful. If you are bicycle riders, you can rent bikes for the day.

Last October, my DH and I went to Hakone for the first time. We arrived at Narita at 6:30 AM and took the shinkansen directly to Odawara. We did the whole circuit, stopping to eat Black eggs and spent quite a bit of time at the open air museum, then got back to our hotel in Hakone-Yumoto at bout 4:30. We could easily have made it back to Tokyo, especially if we hadn't spent the extra hour getting from Narita to Tokyo. WE were really happy to spend the night there. Our Inn was right on the river, and the food was incredible. It was also quite reasonable by japanese standards; 14,700 Yen pp with dinner and breakfast during the week.
http://www.suimeisou.com/english/index.htm



thursdaysd Apr 20th, 2010 05:47 AM

Thanks lcuy! I'll be posting my own thread on Japan soon, but meanwhile I'm busy collecting info. I'm thinking of Hakone for an overnight on the way south (or west) from Tokyo and Takayama on the way back (I have to fly both in and out of Tokyo). What did you do with your luggage? It seems a number of places don't want you to check until mid-afternoon - will they hold luggage anyway?

hawaiiantraveler Apr 20th, 2010 08:13 AM

panda2,Thanks for taking the time to do this wonderful report. Sounds like you had a great time. I love using the Suica card throughout Japan. You can now use them from Hokkaido through Kyushu. Looks like you are one of the lucky last ones to see Himeji-jo for a few years as they do the renovation. How special to see it wrapped in cherry blossoms. Did you happen to notice the elaborate sewer covers on the streets of Himeji? They are a work of art! Thanks again!

thursdayd, The ryokan or hotel you will be staying in Hakone will keep your luggage for you if you arrive early. There is also a takuhaibin(luggage transport)service available from anyplace to anywhere in Japan.There is a takuhaibin kiosk(or window I forget)just outside the Odawara stations door that leads to the taxi stands. It is not a big station so no problem finding anything there,lol. You can ship your bag from there to your hotel and they will take it there for you in a couple of hours. I've never used that particular service but I remember looking and seeing that it cost about $15 to send one big bag to your hotel....cheaper for smaller bags. It would save you the hike to your hotel to drop your bag and you would be able to start your sightseeing right then and there. Hakone has a lot to see and is great for an overnight.

I like staying in the Gora area for the lack of people and the beautiful mountain scenery. From your onscreen persona I would recommend you look in the Gora and Miyanoshita areas of Hakone for your ryokan(hotel) stay.Those areas are defiantly more remote and picturesque than the Hakone/Hakone Yumoto areas which are still within the city.

I think this is the link lcuy listed above which is a great place to stay if staying in Hakone

http://www.suimeisou.com/english/

Aloha!

ladytravels Apr 20th, 2010 09:52 AM

panda2ac
Thank you for this wonderful report which brought back so many memories of our time in Japan. I remember my DH getting us lost on our first day on the Tokyo subway. It can be daunting and takes a little getting used to. Nice to know we weren't the only ones that had problems. Are you planning a return visit?

lcuy Apr 20th, 2010 10:11 AM

thanks for correcting the link, HT!

The hotel will definitely hold your bags, or it is very easy to find the luggage service at the station. The Suimeisou was a one minute walk from the station, so we just walked over, gave them our name and our bags, and then left. We did the actual check-in when we came back that afternoon.

We chose this hotel because we had to leave for Narita right after breakfast the next morning to catch our int'l flight. We wanted somewhere with very uncomplicated transportation. Oddly enough, the way the hotel sits on the river, with nothing on the other side, I felt like we were way out in the country.

thursdaysd Apr 20th, 2010 10:18 AM

Don't want to hijack panda2ac's thread, but I think your read is accurate, HT! With good left luggage facilities I may decide to save the ryokan/onsen experience for somewhere else and see if I can do Tokyo to Hakone to Kyoto in one day. More when I put up my own thread.

panda2ac Apr 20th, 2010 12:22 PM

Thanks HT, I saw the beautiful pictures you posted. It looks like you got to enjoy the beauty of the cherry blossoms as we did, they definitely added to the beauty of Japan. Hopefully some time in the future we'll get to go back to Japan to visit the Hokkaido area and maybe catch up on some of the places that we missed in Tokyo on our first visit. Have you been to the northern part of Japan? Any suggestions for our future trip?

lcuy Apr 20th, 2010 01:42 PM

Click on HT's screen name to pull up all his past reports. He has terrific info for just about all areas of Japan!

hawaiiantraveler Apr 20th, 2010 02:44 PM

Gee thanks lcuy :B

As she says, yes I have been north and depending on what time of year you are planning on have quite a few ideas on where to go and what to do. A lot would depend on you and your interests. We were just up north on Hokkaido last fall for the koyo or fall colors, it was fantastic. You can read about it in my fall colors trip report. Let me know if you have any specific questions and will be glad to answer what I can.

Aloha!

citiboy50 Apr 21st, 2010 11:22 AM

Wow. What a great report.I am getting excited as we are leaving for three weeks May 28th. This will really help in planning the trip. I appreciate all of the detail.I expect to file an on-going trip report every few days during the period we are away. Sounds like you found beautiful walks.

panda2ac Apr 21st, 2010 12:11 PM

Have a wonderful trip! Let me know if you have any specific questions.

akm_tn Apr 22nd, 2010 07:51 PM

Thanks for the report. I leave May 29th for almost the reverse of your trip. We arrive in tokyo, stay at the prince and then down to kyoto for a week's conference. We are then headed to Takayama ( I want to see the Art Nouveau museum and the folklore village), Kanazawa, and then to tokyo for a day or two before heading home. Every little tidbit is helping with the final plans!

Mara Apr 23rd, 2010 02:11 AM

I was just in Takayama for two nights - basically one full day of sightseeing. I really liked Takayama - I thought it was very easy to get around - sort of grid-like. I did a number of the small museums (restored houses) in the old area and also some of the Higashiyama Temple area as well as the Takayama Jinya. I didn't plan on going to the Float Exhibition Hall or the Hida Folk Village - only so much time.....

thursdaysd Apr 23rd, 2010 05:39 AM

"Art Nouveau museum" - I haven't heard about that - and I"m a big Art Nouveau fan. Is it in Takayama?

akm_tn Apr 23rd, 2010 07:23 AM

I got the info from Shandy's recent report and since spotted it in my Michelin guide...

Quoting from Shandy's report:
The following morning we went to the Takayama Museum of Art. We considered this to be the hidden gem in Takayama. There is very little advertising given to it and I didn't see it mentioned in any of the guidebooks I had, perhaps because there is nothing Japanese about it.

It is a purpose built museum which specialises in Art Nouveau and has works by Lalique, Gallé, Tiffany and other famous glass makers. The Lalique glass fountain which used to stand in the Champs Elysee Arcade is magnificent and still in working order. There is also a Viennese Secession Room and a number of works by Macintosh of Scotland.

Despite being the festival weekend, I think I saw a total of four other people during our entire time there. To be able to wander around the rooms all by ourselves was a luxury in itself. We had lunch at the restaurant there, sitting outside in the sun whilst overlooking the valley. My Hida Steak sandwich was wonderful.

On the way out I noticed a plaque from Michelin listing the Museum as a 3 star attraction and we certainly agreed but, as mentioned, we were staggered that Takayama doesn’t promote it more.

thursdaysd Apr 23rd, 2010 07:39 AM

Thanks so much! That's definitely moved Takayama up my list of places to see. Art Nouveau glass - yumm!

citiboy50 Apr 29th, 2010 04:54 PM

Is it worth seeing the wasabi farm in the japanese alps?

Orcas May 1st, 2010 05:49 PM

This is great. We're going in mid-July and will hit the big festival in Kyoto. I'll have questions after I've researched further. We are thinking of going to Takayama as well. Thanks.


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