Japan…what a fascinating culture and country. We spent nine amazing days exploring in November 2016, during the gorgeous Fall colors. One overlying observation…I was surprised how many of the venues (hotels, restaurants, etc) were cash only. So be prepared! I will break this blog into three separate entries to cover the cities we visited. Below are a few of my highlights:
Type of Trip: Self planned…9 day itinerary including Tokyo, Hakone, and Kyoto
Hotel: Citadines Shinjuku – booked through Hotels.com
Transport: American Airlines non-stop LAX-HND, then JR Railpass
Pre-trip Advice: Download the following Apps on your phone: maps.me (maps downloaded to your phone to use without cell data plan), currency xe (current exchange rates), HYPERDIA (train routes and planning), and Travel Japan (free wifi in many areas). Use ATMs in Tokyo to pull out money (you get the best exchange rates and there are 7-11 ATMs everywhere).
- We took a 12 hour non-stop flight from LAX to Haneda Airport (recommended – much closer to the City compared to Narita Airport), and landed in the evening. We took a taxi to our hotel in Shinjuku, which cost us around $50 USD. The Tokyo Monorail picks up in the Haneda Airport and takes you just about anywhere in Tokyo and is very easy to use…we were just exhausted and wanted to get to the hotel. We crashed early to get ourselves ready for the next few days. Our hotel was similar to a small, efficient apartment with a little kitchen. The location was excellent too, for exploring the various neighborhoods on foot! I debated between Shibuya and Shinjuku and found that I preferred Shinjuku – seemed a more 30yr+ crowd and less chaotic.
- DAY 1: Due to jetlag – wake up at the crack of dawn and attempt the Tsukiji Market. You will need to get there SUPER early (some say 3am, depending on the time of year) in order to get a vest to witness the world famous tuna auction (free). They only give out 120 vests each day…it will be over in the early morning, when you can eat some of the freshest sushi ever for breakfast. 🙂 AUCTION DETAILS. We then spent Saturday walking around the city. It was a rainy day, which actually turned out to be a blessing as the streets were empty and we were fortunate to experience some of the sites with few to no tourists (rarity in Japan).
- Shinjuku neighborhood – largest train station, entertainment center (bright night lights)
- Stumbled upon the AWESOME ramen chain: Ichiran You order at a vending machine (cash) and take the ticket into a little bar area. You leave the ticket on a dish and they bring you your order. Each seat at the bar is closed off to the others, so you can eat semi-privately, if desired. We saw many solo Japanese business people come in for lunch. Theoretically, you could go there and never have to speak to anyone the whole time…wait staff included!
- Gyoen Park (Shinjuku) – there is a small entrance fee to this magnificent park and gardens. Again, we had bad weather so it was empty…which made it a little more magical.
- Shibuya Crossing & Takakini Street (Shibuya) – crazy amount of people.
Largest intersection crossing in the world and a must see! Takakini Street was slammed with people but made for epic people and fashion watching (shops line the street).
- Dinner at one of the best sushi restaurants I have ever tried.
The quality is on par with those of the elite restaurants written up in our Foodie magazines and documentaries… It was definitely still expensive (cash only, around $100USD/person), but totally worth it for the experience. You must make a reservation if more than two people. The owner is the only sushi chef there, and the restaurant only accommodates 10 people at a bar. He is super friendly and welcoming, along with his wife who called herself the “mega boss”. It was awesome. HIGHLY recommended. SUSHIRYORI INOSE
- DAY 2: This was another day to continue our walking adventure…and happened to be a Sunday. We were pleased to find out how accessible Tokyo is by train too! There are English translations on the ticket machines, as well as on the trains. Google Maps and maps.me helped us navigate a lot!
- JR Railpass Activation – we purchased the 7 day railpass, so we needed to be conscious of when we activated it. We chose Sunday so that it would be able to cover our trips to Hakone, Kyoto, and back to Tokyo (Haneda airport). You must purchase the rail pass well before your departure date (order from the US). There are many sites selling them, I found these guys to be the most affordable and the order process was easy: RAILPASS . Bring the vouchers they send to Japan with your passport to any one of the local EXCHANGE OFFICES to activate it. You can activate it to start on a future date (if you want to go to the exchange office a few days prior to your first use day). Using it is easy – the information centers have English-speaking staff. I would highly recommend pre-reserving seats on the trains (it’s free)…if you know your travel dates and destinations in advance. For instance, when we activated our passes, we also reserved tickets for the bullet trains to 1) Tokyo – Hakone, 2) Hakone – Kyoto, and 3) Kyoto – Tokyo. The clerk gave us a print out of all the train options for each day for the routes we wanted. It was nice to have this out of the way and know that we had seats. It also gave us a more concrete schedule to plan around.
- Meiji Shrine – there must have been a wedding or ceremony as most of the women were in formal kimonos, along with their daughters. It was beautiful to watch and experience this traditional dress.
- Yoyogi Park – Shibuya. HUGE open park…similar to Central Park in NYC but felt more active. Families everyone, playing frisbee and picnicking. There was also an Elvis-impersonation sock hop dance situation happening near one of the entrances. They sell grapefruit beers at the beverage tubs as well. Really entertaining.
- Robot Show – a must do, and an equally indescribable experience. We did it as a dinner and show option. I found discounted tickets through Veltra.com (around $60USD/each). Book early to ensure availability. ROBOT SHOW
- DAY 3: Last day in Tokyo. Get up early to explore more before checking out of hotel at noon to head to the next city.
- Tsukiji Market – sushi for breakfast and $20 strawberries! Yes, $20 is ridiculous for strawberries…but they were the best we have ever tasted. Not kidding.
- Train to Tokyo Station – Shinjuku stop to Tokyo station for 200 YEN…from there we caught the JR bullet train (Shinkansen Line) to head to Hakone (off the Odawara stop).
- Arrive in Hakone (known for its traditional onsen (mineral hot springs/baths)…see my next post for details on Hakone.