Japan: Trip Overview and Itinerary

Three years ago, Jeremy and I went on one of our best adventures to date: we spent two weeks exploring Japan, just the two of us, a “one last hurrah before baby” sort of trip.  I had wanted to write about it on this blog, but then our son was born and time melted away as it does in the land of new parenthood, and suddenly now three years have passed.

I’ve decided to come back to this blog after two years of silence for a couple of reasons. One, my dear friend Kristen has been encouraging me to go back to writing, even if I’m writing about things that happened a long time ago, and two, this blog is a great way to keep me connected to the “old me” – the pre-parenthood, pre-thirty version of myself that taught high school and loved to travel. Don’t get me wrong, I love my new life too. I love my beautiful boy (about to turn TWO, ohmygosh!) and I love that I’m able to be home with him every day. But being a full-time parent is emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausting. You can start to feel so disconnected from the adult you were before you were that full-time parent, no matter how much you love caring for your little one. As I’ve struggled with this transition at times, I’ve realized how important it is to take the time for myself, to find outlets and hobbies and activities I can do that are simple but let me remember who I am as an individual and that give me a chance to think, plan, reflect, and, well, write like I used to love to do.

So here we go! Yes, I’m writing about trips that happened a long time ago. No, I don’t remember everything. But like my friend Kristen has said about her own travels, sometimes it’s nice to look back and have some space and time to figure out what exactly your takeaways were after your big experiences. What has stuck with me over the past few years? What would I still recommend and what would I change? What parts of that trip became a deeper part of me? Because that’s the thing about travel – everywhere you go gets buried under your skin a little bit. That’s the best part, along with the pictures and stories and new foods you’ve tried and misadventures you laugh about later.

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I’m breaking this trip into a few posts – this one will include some general tips and thoughts about traveling in Japan as a whole, along with our itinerary and how we planned it. I want this to mostly be a personal reflection, but I also want to include some travel tips for anyone who might find it useful!

So what should you know before you go to Japan? Let’s look at the big picture first.

Have a good guidebook! Even in the age of smart phones and apps, I still think it’s so helpful to have a printed, physical guidebook to carry on your trip. How many thousands of Pinterest pins and blog posts just like this one are there to guide you as you plan your travels? With all those different opinions, it can be hard to narrow down exactly what you want to do without becoming paralyzed by choice. We like to spend hours on those blogs while we are planning our trip at home, but once we are traveling, having a guidebook helps narrow our focus, guide us with real expert advice, and remind of us of things that piqued our interest as we planned. We used Lonely Planet’s Discover Japan – our edition was a bit older but this looks like the most updated version. I’m not totally sure they are making this particular book anymore, which is a bummer – I liked how it was a bit shorter and more compact but still provided plenty of material.  We used several of their recommendations and found it to be very helpful overall.

Pocket Wifi Rental: There are several companies in Japan that rent pocket wifi devices to tourists. This is a MUST – or, at least, it was in 2017. However, a quick Google search suggests that people are still renting plenty of these devices. We were able to rent ours for about $100 for two weeks of unlimited internet access – definitely cheaper and easier than setting up an international plan of some sort with our phone provider. The device was about the size of our phone and we carried it in our backpack during the day and charged it every night. We could then keep our phones connected to the internet at all times, allowing us to use apps, maps, you name it – we even briefly video-chatted with my parents from the Arishiyama bamboo forest! The convenience of being able to look up and follow directions through unfamiliar cities in a country where we could not speak the language is hard to overstate. We rarely had to ask for directions because we could always navigate for ourselves. The signal was great and I can’t remember any time that we lost our connection when we needed it. The rental company we used required us to pick up our device with our passports and a confirmation number from a counter in the airport – it was easy to find and easy to return to when our trip was over.

Transportation: First of all, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where you would travel to Japan without wanting to buy a Japan Rail Pass. Rather than spending money on a train ticket every time you buy, you use the Rail Pass for virtually unlimited travel within Japan for the duration of your stay – you will definitely save money if your itinerary travels from city to city. The pass comes in a standard and green edition (we used the standard) and you buy a pass that is good for 7, 14, or 21 days. When we purchased ours, the cost was about $400 per person for the 14 day pass. It felt like a lot of money to pay up front for our travel, but looking at the prices of train tickets, we certainly would have spent that much money even with what felt like only moderate train usage.

Once you arrive in Japan, using the pass is pretty easy. If you are traveling a long distance (often on a shinkansen, the high-speed train), you will want to be sure you reserve a ticket in advance. (I think there are usually a few non-reserved cars on these trains too, but we never tried to use them.) When traveling with a Rail Pass, you must purchase your reserved tickets from the ticket office personnel in the train station, not just from a kiosk or screen. To be extra prepared, we used the Navitime Japan Rail app (along with Google maps) to look up train tables in advance and figure out which exact ticket we wanted. Then we could just show the ticket agent that exact destination and time – that cut down on the risk of something being lost in translation while we selected tickets.  If we weren’t booking a reservation on a shinkansen or were traveling on a local train that didn’t require a reservation, we typically just showed our rail pass (and passport, I think?) at the gate and were able to enter the platform. Looking back, it all went really smoothly. We were rarely confused when using the trains, and they were always perfectly on time, comfortable, and clean. We especially enjoyed traveling to Takayama by train – riding through the Japanese Alps was beautiful. Traveling by train in Japan shouldn’t be something that intimidates you – everyone is friendly and helpful, and information is accessible and accurate.

Beyond train travel, we also used subways and busses within cities. In Kyoto, our hotel was close to a subway stop and we used it multiple times per day, as well as using a couple of bus routes too. I’m pretty sure we bought a multi-day pass for bus and subway use in Kyoto, which was an affordable and convenient way to avoid having to buy a ticket every time we went anywhere. In Tokyo, we used a lot of local trains – Tokyo is enormous and it felt like we were constantly hopping on a 30-minute train ride to get from place to place. I don’t think we bought an additional pass for our Tokyo travel – our Rail Pass allowed us to use those trains and that was easy and convenient.

Luggage and Packing: When went to Japan in July, it was hot! I don’t think there is a single photo of me on the trip with my hair down – I always had it up in a ponytail to try to stay cool. We packed shorts and short sleeves, and we packed light. We each brought a backpack and a carry-on suitcase, and that was it. When my son was a baby, I used to joke that I packed lighter for a two-week trip to Japan than I packed for an overnight at my parents’ house with my little guy… and it was true! Of course, the fact that we were traveling in the heat of the summer meant we had fewer clothing to bring, and we tried to keep it simple and did laundry once or twice at hotels to make the best use of our space. I am definitely glad that I wasn’t wielding a big heavy suitcase around Japan – space is tight, and having lighter luggage made everything easier.

When space is too tight for even a carry-on, Japan has an amazing amenity that is quite foreign to American travelers – you can hire companies to transport your luggage from place to place for you! It sounded crazy to us at first and I was definitely nervous the first time we tried it, but it was so convenient and easy. The first time we did it, we shipped our carry-ons from Kyoto to Nara so we didn’t have to deal with our suitcases on the train-to-train-to-funicular-to-bus–to-walk-across-town-and-back journey that was traveling to our temple hotel Mount Koya. Then we did it again from Takayama to Tokyo, since we were making a stop in Shirakawago that required a lot of bus riding when we would have been stuck with our luggage, as we were between hotel stays.  I remember arriving in Tokyo and asking about our suitcases only to be told that our luggage was in our room, and lo and behold, there were our bags, neatly lined up on the bed. It felt pretty posh, to be honest, but it’s super common in Japan. I think it cost about $20 per bag per trip. Not totally insignificant, but totally worth it for the convenience and freedom it provided.  We would just transfer our essential toiletries, a change of clothes, and our personal items to our backpacks to carry with us. I always carry a backpack when I’m traveling abroad anyway, so it worked out just fine.

Affordable Accommodations: There’s no getting around it; traveling to Japan is expensive. We spent what felt like a small fortune on this bucket-list adventure. (I don’t regret a penny of it, for what it’s worth!) Getting there isn’t cheap, and it’s not a country where the exchange rate is super low and benefits American travelers. However, we were able to save some money by finding really affordable accommodations – this was a surprise to us for sure. We discussed using Airbnb, but I ultimately decided that it might be nice to have access to a hotel staff as needed when traveling in a foreign country. You just never know, right? As we started to look for hotels, I was shocked to find prices ranging from $50-$100 a night for what looked like a nice place. And, on the other side of the trip, I can tell you they were nice places! Granted, we weren’t looking for anything high-end – we didn’t want to budget for luxury. Instead, we looked for safe, clean, and comfortable accommodations, and we found plenty. The most expensive place we stayed on the whole trip was the traditional ryokan we stayed at in Takayama, and honestly, it was the only place we stayed that felt a little run-down and dingy. Our hotels in Kyoto and Tokyo were both about $100-$125 a night, and they were in nice, quiet areas with clean rooms and helpful staff. I’ll talk a little more about each hotel later, but overall we were totally happy with our accommodations even when keeping costs manageable – it wasn’t like staying in a Super 8 or anything like that. Expect the rooms to be tiny and the bathrooms to be pre-fab units inserted into the tiny rooms, but you aren’t in Japan to hang out in your hotel room anyway! We had plenty of space for the two of us and loved having accommodations that were close to the sights and train stations in each city.

Creature Comforts: I’ve been to Europe a handful of times, and while there are few things I enjoy more than wandering around a European city, it’s not always the most comfortable experience as far as basic needs go. Need to use the bathroom? Be prepared to pay, and even then it still may not be very clean. Thirsty? Better stop in a restaurant or cafe. Japan is totally different! While going to Japan might sound really exotic, I would recommend it as a great destination for beginner international travelers. The friendly people, high-tech transportation and beautiful sightseeing make it a wonderful and fresh adventure, but the cosmopolitan comforts help to ease any traveler’s anxiety. There are public restrooms everywhere, and they are free and super clean, with fancy toilets that will even play music or nature sounds to protect your privacy. There are also vending machines everywhere, particularly beverage machines. We never worried about carrying water bottles with us because we knew as soon as we were thirsty, we could glance around and buy a cold bottle of water for a dollar or two as soon as we needed it. Sometimes I’d buy a canned iced coffee, and we grew to love Picari Sweat, a Japanese version of Gatorade that always sounded good when we were wandering around in the July heat. You won’t find yourself stumbling around a city feeling thirsty and tired and needing to go to the bathroom – there’s always somewhere close that you can rest and refresh.

The people: And finally, let’s talk about the people of Japan. In short, they were lovely. While I’ve never really encountered anyone who was terribly rude in my travels abroad, I’ve certainly had moments of feeling like a fumbling, clueless inconvenience in someone’s day – and I consider myself to be a prepared traveler who prides herself in not being a stereotypical stupid American. However, in Japan, we were always made to feel nothing but warmly welcomed. Hotel staff were always so friendly as we checked in, and restaurant servers went out of their way to help us navigate menus and foods that were unfamiliar.

When we traveled to Koyasan, we had the option of buying a train ticket that left at something like 10:10am or 10:30am, and we chose the 10:30 just in case we were pressed for time navigating our way from the previous train to the platform. We arrived in plenty of time to have caught the earlier train and went to wait in the indoor waiting room, since our reserved tickets meant we still had to take the 10:30. (We were the only non-Japanese on the platform.) When the first train pulled into the station, a station employee came running over to us, waving and pointing at the 10:10 train. “Koyasan? Koyasan?” he asked us, pointing at the train again. “Oh, no,” we tried to say,” “the 10:30, 10:30 train!” Eventually, I showed him on my ticket that we were waiting for the next train to Koyasan, that we weren’t in fact sitting there missing our own train. He immediately beamed at us, bowed, and carried on with his day. It was the kindest thing – he went out of his way to check on us because he could tell that we were tourists who weren’t familiar with the area. I’ll never forget his warm smile.

This was just one of many examples of the kindness of the Japanese. Our experience as tourists in Japan was nothing but great, and we owe a lot of that to the people we encountered along the way. The world is a big place, and America and Japan are very, very different countries with a long, complex, and violent history. But if you are planning to visit Japan, please know that they will welcome you with warm smiles, reminding you just how wonderful the wide world can be.

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ItineraryOkay, I think I made it through all my general tips! Now I’m going to share with you a brief version of our itinerary. I will expand on each location later, but I wanted you to see our overall plan before I got into too much detail. When we planned this trip, we read several blog entries about various sights and cities and chose this route for our own interests as well as its general accessibility for first-time visitors. We felt like it offered a fantastic range – Kyoto to Tokyo is a popular path for a first trip to Japan, and I loved all my time in both cities (though Kyoto was definitely my favorite of the two). Kyoto really represents “old, historic Japan,” with traditional temples and beautiful cultural spaces, and Tokyo is modern, fast, fresh, and bustling unlike anything I’d ever seen, even in New York City. In between, we wanted to highlight some natural sights (Shirakawago, Takayama, and Koya really provided that) as well as some smaller cities (Kanazawa and Nara). Of all the places we visited, I don’t really think there was anywhere that I would have skipped if I were doing it again. My favorite places were Kyoto, Nara, and Kanazawa, and I probably enjoyed Shirakawago and Takayama the least (more on that later). But even if they were lower on my list, I still loved being in the Japanese Alps. This itinerary offered us a taste of a wide range of Japanese sights and experiences without spending an inordinate amount of time traveling from place to place. So here we go:

Day 1: Travel: Fly from LAX to Tokyo; land around 4pm, train to Kyoto and check into hotel in the evening

Day 2: Kyoto: Kinkaku-Ji temple, Ryouan-Ji temple and garden, Ninna-Ji temple, Nishiki Market, Shijo Street

Day 3: Kyoto: Fushimi Inari Taisha temple hike, Himeji Castle, Gion district

Day 4: Kyoto: Arashiyama bamboo forest, Chion-In temple and district, Marayuma Park, Kyoto Train Station

Day 5: Kyoto to Koyasan: Travel to Koyasan; explore town, temples and cemetery 

Day 6: Koyasan to Nara: Buddhist morning ceremony; travel to Nara; Nara Park, Todai-Ji temple, Nara National Museum 

Day 7: Nara to Takayama: travel to Takayama; Old Town and historic buildings

Day 8: Takayama to Shirakawago to Kanazawa: morning market in Takayama, hike and tour Shirakawago village; travel to Kanazawa

Day 9: Kanazawa to Tokyo: Kenroku-en Garden, Kanazawa Fish Market, Higashichaya District; travel to Tokyo; evening in Ginza

Day 10: Tokyo: Tsukiji Fish Market, Harimakyu Gardens, Shopping in Shinjuku, Guided Tour of Entertainment Districts

Day 11: Tokyo; day trip to Hakone: Travel to and explore Hakone, Hakone Yuryo Onsen, back to Ginza for dinner and evening

Day 12: Tokyo; day trip to Onjuku: beach day! Return to Ginza, explore Shibuya

Day 13: Tokyo: explore the city sights, Olympic stadium, Meiji Shrine, guided walk through Yanaka, Ueno Park, Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo Tower

Day 14: Travel Home! morning in Tokyo, travel from Haneda to LAX to MCI

I hope this overview has given you a taste of our experiences and helped you think about and even plan your own adventure in Japan. I hope to get to my break down of the cities we visited before too long – writing about past travel in 2020 has been a welcome trip down a memory lane that feels so long ago and far away for so many reasons.  I appreciate it if you made it this far and would love to hear your feedback, so feel free to drop me a comment below!

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