Japan is a place I, like many people, have always wanted to visit. From its temples to futuristic skyscrapers and snowcapped Mt Fuji to lush bamboo forests, it’s like nowhere else I’ve been to. The people are super polite, the food is amazing, and the transport system is hyper-efficient. With so much on offer, where do you start?
I read travel guides, enlisted the help of friends who had spent time in Japan, and perused numerous blogs to come up with an itinerary for our Japan trip to Kyoto, Tokyo, and the Hakone area of the Izu Penninsula. Now that we’ve returned, I offer up our trip highlights and some handy travel tips.
- Meiji Shrine with its mammoth entrance gates and colorful sake barrels in a sprawling park-like setting
- Senso-ji Shrine – huge red lanterns, neighboring pagoda, Kaminarimon thunder god gate
- Toyokawa Inari shrine – hundreds of fox statues
- Tosho-gu shrine – 200 lanterns line the entry to the shrine, neighboring pagoda
- Imperial Palace tour – a fascinating contrast of the old surrounded by the new
- Nightlife – Enjoy the night lights around Shinjuku or Shibuya crossing, from one of the many towers, or better yet enjoy a drink and the view from Park Hyatt’s New York bar. The same bar pictured in Lost in Translation, the 2003 movie starring Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray.
- Kinkaku-ji – Temple of the Golden Pavilion with its top two stories covered in gold leaf
- Kiyomizu-dera – historic UNESCO mountainside temple with sweeping views
- Yasaka pagoda – picturesque 5-story temple surrounded by narrow lanes of cute shops and pretty girls in kimonos
- Fushimi-Inari Taisha – a circuit of thousands of red gates which you can walk in 1-2 hours
Escape the big cities for the countryside
Stay in a family-run Ryokan – A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that typically features tatami-matted rooms, shared baths, futon beds and may include wearing a yukata (an informal kimono). Many feature elaborate multi-course breakfasts and dinners, called kaiseki. We stayed in a ryokan in the Hakone area.
Soak in an onsen – Many ryokan are situated around a hot spring or onsen. As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsens. Before soaking in the baths (naked), you take a shower seated on a little stool and bathe. It’s a bit unnerving as a Westerner but no one pays you any attention. Men and women are segregated.
A Sampling of Japanese Cuisine:
Japan Travel Tips:
- Rent a portable Wi-Fi device – at least 3 days before you depart, go online and rent a portable WI-FI device. It will be waiting for you at the airport upon arrival. It’s super easy, dependable and inexpensive.
- Buy a Japan Rail pass – in advance of your trip, go online and buy a JR rail pass especially if you plan to ride a bullet train 2 or more times.
- Use the google maps app – google maps facilitated all our travel within the country. We used it to figure out buses, subway, and rail and to find our hotels, sights, and restaurants.
- Use the Tripadvisor app – we used the “nearby” function to find highly ranked restaurants in our price range.
- Use the Google Translate app – many people do not speak any or very limited English. You can speak into the app to translate and translate written Japanese into English with the camera input option.
- Enjoy the multi-function toilets – almost all toilet seats we encountered were warm. Many have additional features. Some are so complex, they require an advanced degree. I’m missing the warm, cozy toilet seats now that I’m stateside.
- Buy a Pasmo or Suica card – upon arrival buy a stored-value card. It makes paying for the bus, subway, and non-JR rail train a breeze.
- Know where to get cash – limited ATMs accept foreign cards. Seven-Eleven stores and Post Offices typically service internationally issued cards.
- Bring hand soap or sanitizer – many public restrooms don’t have soap.
- Carry a small plastic bag with you – to collect your personal trash. We saw very few public trash cans.
- Do not tip – most Japanese service providers will return the tip to you anyway.
- Pick your accommodation strategically – especially true in the larger cities. Choose a hotel near a major train or subway line.
- Feel safe – Japan is a safe country for a traveler. We did not need to be as vigilant about being pickpocketed, for example, as we are in most other countries.