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rachill_az Nov 20th, 2015 03:50 PM

TRIP REPORT: Just returned from first visit to Japan!
Hello All!

I just returned home a few days ago from my first trip to Japan. I am very excited to share my stories and adventures with you all! This was my favorite trip to date and I rarely like to visit a place more than once (with there being so many places to see in the world) but I can’t stop thinking about going back!

I want to thank everyone who helped me plan the perfect first trip to Japan including, but not limited to, kja, mrwunrfl, russ_in_LA, someotherguy, Mara, Kathie, Kate1261, MinnBeef, Sue_xx_yy, Curiousgeo, and hawaiiantraveler.

My husband and I started planning this trip over a year ago, last October. After we got married we decided to spend the next few years traveling and exploring the world. Japan was first on our list! Before I travel I like to spend a lot of time researching everything about the place; from the customs, culture, weather, people, food, attractions, history, places of interest, and more. Japan has so much history and so many different places to explore that I was researching, reading, and asking questions for the entire year, right up to when we left. I’m glad we took the year to plan and come up with an amazing itinerary. Some of the hotels we stayed at even booked up more than 9 months in advance, so our early planning was definitely helpful!

Based on our research, we decided to visit in November for the fall the colors. We left Phoenix on Thursday, November 5th and returned on Tuesday, November 17th. Our final itinerary was:

Tokyo – 4 nights (with day trip to Kamakura)
Kawaguchiko – 1 night
Kyoto – 4 nights
Koyasan – 1 night

We ended up switching our day trip from Nikko to Kamakura only a few days before we left. I had been following Japan-Guide’s 2015 Autumn Color report and it looked like most of the fall colors had passed peak in Nikko (which was our main reason for wanting to visit). With some of Nikko’s Temple’s also under construction, we decided instead to go to Kamakura which was much closer to Tokyo. We ended up being very happy with our decision and Kamakura was one of my favorite places we visited on our trip! We also ended up not making it to Nara (which I am a little disappointed about) but we felt too rushed in Kyoto so we decided to spend the day in Kyoto instead. We were very happy with our entire trip and wouldn’t have changed anything besides adding more days to the itinerary!

November 5 and 6: PHX – Narita, and Tokyo:

We departed Phoenix at 7am and had a quick plane change at LAX before making our way to Tokyo. We flew with Delta and decided to upgrade for a small fee to the Delta Comfort seats for the 11.5 hour plane ride. This was the longest flight either of us had ever been on but it wasn’t too terrible. We made sure to download a bunch of TV shows to our tablets, got up to stretch every few hours, and got some sleep in. Before we knew it, we were making our decent into Narita Airport. We arrived on Friday, November 6th at 4pm. We were off the plane, through immigration, and had our bags within about an hour.

We decided to take the Narita Express train to the Tokyo Station and from there get a taxi to our hotel, Park Hotel Tokyo in Shiodome. It was easy enough getting our train tickets and finding our platform. After about an hour, we made it to the Tokyo Station. The first thing we noticed was the mass of people walking very quickly in a very organized manner throughout the station, everyone knowing exactly where they we were going. We stood there lost for a few minutes and realized very soon that the Tokyo Station was multiple stories tall (we are from Arizona and don’t have much experience at all with public transportation). We thought if we just went up we would make it to the top and could find our way out. Hauling our 2 giant roller suitcases and our carryon luggage, we struggled our way up multiple flights of escalators, only to realize that the top floor was not ground level, that it was a few floors above the ground. Back down the escalators, we finally found the ground level and made our way to the exit by following signs for “Taxi” (it took us about 20 minutes just to find the station exit!).

Based on advice from others, I printed out directions to our hotel in both English and Kanji as well a photo of our hotel (we did this for almost everything we had planned traveling to by taxi). It worked out great and our taxi driver knew exactly where to take us. We arrived at the Park Hotel Tokyo at around 6:30pm. I chose this hotel based off TripAdvisor reviews and its proximity to the Shiodome and Shimbashi Stations. I booked through and got a great early booking discount. The hotel was beautiful, sitting on the 25th floor of the Shiodome Tower and decorated with art from local artists. Our room was on the 30th floor and was small compared to American hotels, but spacious enough. As we walked in we were immediately stunned by a gorgeous view of the Tokyo Tower sparkling in the night. The view more than made up for the lack of space. We spent some time unpacking a few things and showering before grabbing a quick dinner in one of the hotel’s restaurants. We were exhausted from traveling (and the time difference) but we managed to stay up for a couple of hours and fell asleep around 9pm.

I was worried about jet lag, but we surprisingly got a great night’s rest and were excited to get out and start exploring the city for our first full day in Tokyo…

jacketwatch Nov 20th, 2015 04:29 PM

I will follow this. A yr. ago we visited Japan for the 1st time and we loved it too.

Larry. :).

jdc26 Nov 20th, 2015 04:54 PM

Along for the ride as I'm heading there in about 6 months.


hawaiiantraveler Nov 20th, 2015 04:56 PM

Our first trip to Japan about ten years ago was a short three night stop over on our way home from Bangkok. We were mesmerized and like you couldn't wait to return. We are currently in Vietnam and will stop back in Japan for two weeks and our 15th return trip lol. Anxiously awaiting the rest of your report.


Mara Nov 20th, 2015 06:09 PM

So glad you enjoyed your trip! And thanks for reporting back. :)

kja Nov 20th, 2015 07:00 PM

I'm very glad to learn that you found my input helpful, rachill_az -- thanks so much for saying so! Sounds like you now know why so many of us fell in love with Japan. :-)

dondonandjj Nov 20th, 2015 07:11 PM

I also will follow your trip report rachill-az
We are going to Japan for a wedding in August (bit hot tho)
We will have 24 days in Japan
My interests are food and people Of course the history is also important
Did you have a JR pass or did you buy pt to pt
I'd like to be able to organise this prior to leaving Australia if I decide to buy any passes
Looking forward to your next instalments

Kathie Nov 20th, 2015 07:11 PM

Looking forward tor reading more about your trip!

MinnBeef Nov 20th, 2015 08:23 PM

Looking forward to reading about your experiences as well. Welcome to the "Japan Experts" club!

kalihiwai2 Nov 20th, 2015 10:01 PM

Thanks for posting trip report

thursdaysd Nov 20th, 2015 10:50 PM

Signing on. I enjoyed Japan much more than I expected, and need to go back.

boobaby Nov 21st, 2015 12:00 AM

Thank you for this! Looking forward to reading more as we are planning a similar trip this coming May.

Kavey Nov 21st, 2015 01:01 AM

Oh fantastic, and yay you're hooked too!
On the plane home from our first trip in 2012 I was desperate to go back and we went back 13 months later for trip two.
Trip three is in the planning for March-April 2016 and I can't wait.
So glad you loved it and can't wait to read more!

russ_in_LA Nov 21st, 2015 08:07 AM

So happy that I was able to help with your planning, and that you had an enjoyable trip. Yes, count me in as another who could not stop thinking about his first trip and went back again a year later to discover more in the areas I had missed the first time.

Looking forward to the rest of your report!

rachill_az Nov 21st, 2015 04:03 PM

Thanks everyone! It's exciting that so many of you are planning trips back! We'll definitely be returning too. And soon I hope!

rachill_az Nov 21st, 2015 04:05 PM

November 7 – Tokyo

A few months before we left, I contacted The Backstreet Guides in Tokyo. I found them through TripAdvisor and liked their local, personalized service with small groups. New to big cities and public transportation, we thought it would be nice to have a local show us around on our first day, to get our bearings. I arranged a private full day tour for our first day in Tokyo. Our guide, Rie, met us in our hotel lobby at 9am and was very excited to see us – we knew we would have fun with her! Our first stop was the Tsukiji fish market, which was only about a 15 minute walk from our hotel. We knew we were getting close when we were overwhelmed with a very potent fishy smell.

Rie told us that we would be visiting the inner market first, followed by a tour of the outer market with a sushi breakfast at one of her favorite restaurants. We made our way into the busy inner market, which was for commercial selling. There was a lot of activity in this area of the market and it was hard not to feel like we were in the way most of the time, but everyone made us feel welcomed. It was fun watching the different vendors butchering fish and showing off their catches of the day. The high energy of the bustling market was amazing. We wondered around in awe of the many variety of sea life for sale, much of which we had never seen before.

Rie then lead us to the outer market, where items were sold in much smaller quantities for the general public. As we walked around, we sampled many different things including roasted peanuts, dried fruits, small pieces of cooked seafood, and other unfamiliar items. Before we knew it, we had arrived at a sushi restaurant that Rie told us was one of the oldest in the area. We were lead up several small flights of stairs to the 3rd floor of the restaurant where there were 3 open stools at the sushi bar. We took a seat and watched as the sushi masters gracefully and delicately pieced together every piece of sushi – it was a true art form. We tried a 15 piece sushi sampler which came with a hot bowl of miso soup and hot green tea. Everything was delicious, fresh, and beautiful.

After lunch, Rie lead us through the Ginza area where we made a quick stop at the Kabukicho Theater for some history and photos. As we were walking, this is when I noticed that Tokyo was surprisingly very clean and I never saw any trash littered on the ground. It was really refreshing to be in such a clean big city.
We moved on to Asakusa and took a stroll down Nakamise Dori shopping street towards Sensoji Buddhist Temple. The first thing we noticed as we entered the temple grounds was an area where people were shaking metal cylinders and pulling out sticks. We asked Rie about this and she informed us that it was a luck determining game. You shake the cylinder and let one stick slide out. Each stick has a number on it which you match to the same numbered drawer. You open the drawer and pull out a piece of paper which tells you if you have excellent luck, good luck, okay luck, bad luck, or extremely bad luck. Rie explained to us that excellent luck and extremely bad luck were rare and she encouraged us to participate in the activity. I was up first and Rie helped me match the Japanese number on my stick to the correct drawer. I will never forget the horror and shock on her face when she saw the paper that described my fortune – “extremely bad luck!” she cried out! She assured me that it was just a game but I could tell she felt bad. She explained that anyone with bad luck must fold their paper into a small strip and tie to designated post in the temple courtyard, which signifies leaving your bad luck behind. My husband was up next, and of course, he got excellent luck - so maybe we balance each other out!

Next, Rie showed us how to purify and cleanse ourselves before entering the temple, by wafting incense smoke on our face and bodies and washing our hands and mouth with water. The temple was somehow peaceful even on such a busy day, and I remember being amazed by the beautiful artwork on the temple ceiling.

Rie then took us to her favorite Japanese garden, Rikugien, which she used to frequent everyday as a small child. I was amazed out how tranquil and quiet the garden was. I could tell that so much thought and care was put in to the upkeep and even noticed people working to make sure every tree and bush was precisely maintained. We took a slow walk around the center lake, stopping for some macha green tea and sweets about halfway through. We sat down at the lakeside enjoying our tea for a while and taking in the views. The trees were beginning to change colors and there were a few that already looked like they were at their peak with bright red leaves.

Our last stop for the day was at Akihabara, known as the electric city. This is what my husband had been looking forward to all day, being the computer nerd that he is. Rie took us to some Anime and Manga stores, electronic stores, and video game stores. My husband was in heaven and didn’t know which direction to look – it was definitely a sensory overload for him! Our guide pointed out some maid cafes, which we had heard about but didn’t have the time to stop in any. Rie took us to a Purikura photo booth machine, which I think is some kind of “beautifying” photo machine that makes you look like an anime character. We had a lot of fun doing a quick photo-shoot and decorating our head-shots with all sorts of computer generated designs. The booth printed out two sets of paper strips with our photos – a fun souvenir from the day!

By this time it was 5pm and tour had come to an end. We asked Rie if she could point us in the direction of a ramen restaurant. We were hungry and wanted to try some ramen for dinner. She told us to follow her and within about a minute we were at a restaurant. We said our goodbyes and made our way inside. It seemed like we should seat ourselves so we sat down at an empty table. A few moments later a gentleman walked over kindly shaking his head and directing us to the front of the store where there was a wall of buttons. I had read about this type of ordering system, so I wasn’t completely lost. I knew we had to select what we wanted to order using the buttons and bring the ticket to the chef. All of the menus were in Kanji and a lot of the pictures seemed to be the same. We started pressing the buttons but nothing was happening. We stood there confused for a few minutes until some young men walked in and I gestured for them to go ahead of us. I thought we could watch what they did and repeat it. We quickly realized that we needed to insert our money first, and then make our selections. When it was our turn, we put in our money and pressed a few buttons. We really had no idea what we were ordering. We took a seat and within about 10 minutes we were presented with a deliciously smelling, steaming hot bowl of ramen with a side order of 6 dumplings. After our first bite, we both agreed that this was the best bowl of ramen we had ever had...and it would be the best bowl for our entire trip (we ended up trying another two ramen places for lunches).

Our first full day in Tokyo was amazing and we can’t thank Rie, from Backstreet Guides, enough. She showed us so much more than we could have seen by ourselves and pointed out things that we would have never noticed. The history and cultural insights that she shared with us were invaluable. It was like having a friend show us around the city for the day.

Kathie Nov 21st, 2015 04:55 PM

What a great first day you had!

thursdaysd Nov 21st, 2015 05:57 PM

Wow, you really got off to a fabulous start!

MinnBeef Nov 21st, 2015 06:26 PM

Excellent reporting-I enjoyed reading about your first day and it took make back to some of my own similar experiences-including trying to figure out that same button ordering machine thingy at a stand-up noodle bar in Tokyo, and the slightly greasy but oh so delicious dumplings washed down with a cold Sapporo in Kyoto. Looking forward to reading your next installment!

dondonandjj Nov 21st, 2015 06:32 PM

We also will require a guide for the first day
Really enjoying your trip report

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