Japan had been on my list of must-visit countries for a very long time. I am so happy to have hit this item on my bucket list.
There are really two seasons to visit Japan – Spring, and Autumn. Summers are too hot and humid and winters are cold. If you visit in Spring, you should try to plan your trip around the cherry blossom season (aka Sakura). Sakura dates vary every year but usually range from late March to early April. Sakura is the busiest season for Japan in terms of tourism. You should try to book air tickets and hotels a few months in advance. In our case, I booked this trip in September 2016.
How to get there?
Bay area offers quite a few direct flight options into Narita and Haneda airports. ANA flies into Narita, and American/JAL flies into Haneda. I preferred to fly into Haneda since it is much closer to downtown Tokyo. The commute from Narita to Tokyo can take up to two hours. I was able to get our tickets for under $1000 per person on JAL. But again, I booked a lot in advance. I recommend Haneda airport to anyone considering a trip to Japan. I also recommend JAL for its on-time departures, arrivals, comfortable seats, in-flight entertainment and staff courtesy. I am not a fan of their meal options. But they offer a choice between Japanese and Western meals.
Where to stay?
We started off with Airbnb bookings but I had a panic attack on the weekend before our flight and I ended up getting slick deals at four-star hotels, at some of the best locations in the city. It worked out well for us. But I don’t recommend doing it. If you are traveling with a kid, book a hotel. If you are traveling solo, go with AirBnB.
We stayed in Shinjuku and Ginza, two very different neighborhoods, but very well connected to different parts of the city. Both hotels in Tokyo were under $200.
It was fairly easy to book hotels in Tokyo, but Kyoto was a different story. Hotels in Kyoto were sold out back in September, in anticipation of Sakura. I booked a relatively new boutique hotel at quite an exuberant price of little under $300. Book early if you want a good location and good hotel. For Kyoto, I recommend staying close to Kyoto Station, something I overlooked for our trip. The station is in close proximity to the heart of the city and offers all-day dining options and the best transportation options.
How long of a trip?
It really depends. If you want to cover Tokyo in depth, I’d say 5 days in Tokyo will be great. If you want to cover more ground, 3 days in Tokyo and 3 in Kyoto can be sufficient to cover the major attractions in these areas. We had 5 days in Tokyo and 4 days in Kyoto, including the travel days to Kyoto. It was a leisurely trip where we did not feel rushed, and we saw and did way more than we had originally expected. (Note: we travel with a 2 yr old).
Tokyo is a metropolis and Kyoto exists to serve its tourists. So food is not a problem in either of these cities. We did not want to eat Indian and hence I don’t have many recommendations for that category. But I will (try to) list all the restaurants we enjoyed. 7Eleven chain is BIG in Japan. And even though I have not sampled enough of them in the US, I was very impressed by them in Japan. There is also Family Mart and Lawson that serve similar needs as 7Eleven.
Packaged food in Japan is relatively cheap but fresh and reliable. The sandwiches at 7Eleven were my staple breakfast when we did not have better options. My daughter loved their pancakes filled with custard, and strawberry and cream sandwiches. They also have hot food options.
It is relatively difficult to use Yelp or Tabelog in Japan. Yelp is not used much by the locals, and Tabelog app does not work there if you have downloaded it from the US Appstore. I used TripAdvisor for the most part and they were quite spot on.
Vending machines are awesome and everywhere. They also spit out hot packaged coffee cans that are AWESOME! We tried to stay away from Starbucks, but Tully’s was hard to skip.
Beware of all the confectionery, baked goods that Japan has to offer. But I like their taste in sweets: mildly sweet, but boldly buttery 😉
There are a lot of styles of Japanese food, and if you are into food, you will love this cuisine for its diversity. There is Yakitori – meat on a stick, Kobe beef, Teppanyaki, Ramen, Udon, Soba, Okonomiyaki, Yakitori, Izakaya and on and on. Don’t come back without trying the conveyor belt sushi!
Eat as much sushi as you can on your trip. Most of our sushi meals in Tokyo were under $50 and we ate large quantities. A similar meal in the US will easily cost upwards of $80.
If you are traveling with kids a few call outs. My daughter has still not developed a taste for raw fish, so at most restaurants, we asked for a bowl of rice with cooked sunny side egg on top. I added some salt, pepper and soy sauce or ketchup on it, and my daughter loved it. Japanese omelets are very delicious and fluffy. So they are a good meal for kids. I kept packed sandwiches from 7Eleven with me all the time so she has snacks readily available. They do have string cheese in Japan, so don’t carry with you. 7Eleven sells Meiji 100% cream milk which tastes exactly like Clovers, so there you go. When traveling with kids it is easier if they are stuffed before you leave the room for the day. I always fed Milk and a banana to my daughter before we left the room. She ate a bit of whatever we ordered at restaurants, but egg and rice were her primary meals.
Not an issue. Train stations have English signage and announcements, and mostly everyone except cab drivers and restaurant staff at authentic restaurants can understand key English phrases. All policemen and train conductors spoke and understood English.
Trains, Trains, Trains!!! So many of them and they are so awesome. Buy a PASMO/SUICA IC Card when you arrive at the airport. Load it with 10000 Yen and get going. These cards are also used at stores, restaurants, train stations, and vending machines. Tokyo is 100% accessible by trains. In fact, we took a train from Haneda to Ginza on an express train, just a few hours after arriving into Tokyo. It was a smooth ride without any hiccups.
If you don’t want to use an international data plan, a cheaper option is to buy a pocket wifi device that keeps you connected.You will need it to access apps like Google Translate, Google Maps, Hyperdia, and TripAdvisor. (Download the offline maps for the cities you are visiting). You can rent one from the airport itself.
There are also limousine buses that run to and from the airport that has pick up/drop off points across the city, and at various hotels as well. Look them up here.
Kyoto’s transportation system is a bit incoherent. There is a little bit of everything and hence getting around the city is a little challenging. Keep an open mind and get used to the crowds.The IC cards work in Kyoto as well.
Hyperdia is a good app to use when in Japan to find best commute options.
Tokyo – Major Attractions
Here’s what I love about Tokyo – it has something for everyone, just like any other metropolis. And here’s what I don’t like about Tokyo – it has a LOT OF PEOPLE, just like any other metropolis. It is very crowded for its size.
Be prepared to walk a lot. And to be a part of a large crowd, no matter where you go, especially if you go to see Sakura. Japanese people are as obsessed about this season as the tourists, and selfie sticks and posers are all around you, all the time.
I divided Tokyo into a few sections that made it easier to plan our days there.
Ginza/Tsukiji/Imperial Gardens (0.5 days)
Ginza is like the 5th Ave of Tokyo. High-end stores and lots of shopping. Nestled in this area is a fabulous store that must be visited – Itoya. It is like an Ikea of Tokyo, but so much better. They have a whole floor dedicated to just pens. Imagine that!
Tsukiji is the centuries-old fish market. You don’t have to go at 5 am to see the first auction with thousands of other tourists. Just go around 9 am and enjoy fresh sushi.
Imperial Gardens made a nice walk. I particularly enjoyed how this area was well preserved in the middle of a very urban neighborhood.
Roppongi/Minato (0.5 Days)
I wanted to go to Roppongi because Google has an office there. But it was a cool mid-town type neighborhood where there were great food and a certain Western vibe. It is the area where the expats hang out. Lots of amazing food, drinking and clubbing options in Roppongi.
The Snoopy Museum of Tokyo is also in Roppongi and only a short walk from the station. I particularly enjoyed it since it offered me insights into the evolution of the character and how it has kept up with the times. If you take your kid there, order the Snoopy pancake meal.
Asakusa/Sumida Park/Kappabashi/Tokyo Skytree (1 Day)
Lots to see here. Get there early and enjoy breakfast at Denny’s, right at the entrance of Senso-ji. Enjoy the temple, and then walk towards Kappabashi. It is the biggest kitchenware market in Tokyo. Walk to Soi Cafe and enjoy their delicious coffees with delectable pastries. When finished, walk over to the store behind the cafe and spend a fortune on pretty dainty Japanese pottery and earthenware.
View from Tokyo SkyTree
Sumida Park is right across the bridge from Asakusa and also famous for Sakura. We spotted our first Hanami parties there. People sat in groups under Sakura and enjoyed snacks and Sake. We ate sandwiches and drank apple juice.
Tokyo Skytree is the second tallest tower in the world, standing tall at 450m. The observatory deck offers panoramic views of Tokyo that allow you to see this dense metropolis from above. Great for architects and urban planners. There is a separate (and shorter) line for International tourists that is highly recommended.
Ueno Park/Akihabara (1 Day)
This is like Balboa Park of Tokyo. All major museums are housed in this complex. Ueno is very beautiful during Sakura. And hence it is also very crowded. My favorite Sakura shots are from Ueno.
Yoyogi Park/Meiji Shrine/Shinjuku(Golden Gai)/Shibuya(1 Day)
Take the train to Harajuku station to enjoy Meiji Shrine. Harajuku is the fashion street of Tokyo. Just observe all the women here, you will notice their unique dressing styles. Even more Sakura spotting can be enjoyed at Yoyogi Park.
I personally found the Meiji Shrine to be over-hyped. But the walk to the shrine compound is beautiful and lush green. Also, Harajuku is great for fashion, but not food. I ended up eating a mediocre katsu sandwich since I could not find a better place.
Shibuya crossing is a traffic circus that is a must see.
Wedding at Meiji Shrine
Kyoto in detail
There are a lot of temples and shrines in Kyoto. And they all are very beautiful. But to me, they are all the same. So for me, temples were not a big focus. I liked walking the streets and markets of Kyoto.
We took the Shinkansen in the morning and arrived in Kyoto right around noon. It is a 2hr ride from Tokyo station. You can also take the Shinkansen (Hikari bound) from Shinagawa and Yokohama stations. Shinkansen tickets can be purchased from Tokyo Station and you have a choice of a reserved ticket or unreserved. Reserved guarantees you a seat and unreserved means that you will have to find a seat for yourself in the few unreserved coaches on the train you are riding. We did unreserved on the way in and reserved on the way back. It really did not matter. If a train is too crowded, just take the next one. This is Japan. There are trains every 15 minutes.
You can see Fuji-san on your way to, and back from Kyoto. But it is a rare sight in winter and spring. We got lucky and the majestic volcano was shining brightly under the sun on our way back to Kyoto.
Kiyomizu Dera Temple/Chion In/Maruyama Park/Yasaka Shrine (1 Day)
This temple is a bit of a hike through the crowds but offers beautiful views of Kyoto. You can walk from Kiyomizu Dera to Chion In and see Maruyama Park on the way. When returning from Chion-In, walk through the park and see the Yasaka shrine.
Most of the temples are surrounded by rows of street food vendors. Street food is good in Japan. Definitely worth a try. It won’t trouble your tummies. It did not trouble ours for sure.
Arashiyama (0.5 Day)
We covered Arashiyama on the day we arrived in Kyoto. It is a cute little area which has some temples and garden that lead to the Bamboo forest/grove. The walk is beautiful, and something you cannot erase from your memory. On your walk back to the town you can walk a little further and cross the Katsura river and enjoy the scenery.
Gion-Shijo Dori/Pontocho Alley (0.25 Day)
We did not spot any Geishas during our trip, but if you want to, you must visit Gion in the evening or late at night. Right at the side entrance of Yasaka Shrine, a short walk from Maruyama Park is my favorite cafe in this big world – Gion Cafe. Go there and get lost in its simplicity.
Pontocho Alley is a street full of Japanese restaurants. Most of them open only in the evening, so you should time it around dinner. It is a beautiful street lined with traditional Japanese buildings and tea houses. Nishiki Market is only a short walk from here.
Nishiki Market/Nijo Castle/Kyoto Manga Museum (0.5 Day)
From Pontocho Alley, make your way towards Gion-Shijo Dori and walk to Nishiki Market. It is a lively marketplace selling all sorts of Japanese delicacies, fermented vegetables, boiled octopus on a stick, and kitchenware. It is also home to Aritsugu, a famous knife shop.
From Nishiki to Kyoto Manga Museum is a 30min walk, but it takes you through the heart of Kyoto. I love street walking and I really enjoyed people-watching on this route. Kyoto Manga Museum is a one-of-its-kind with a minimal entry fee and a large reading area for kids and adults. I was shocked to see so many people from different age groups reading Manga together under one roof. It is quite a national obsession. I still don’t get the charm.
Nijo Castle is another 15min walk from the museum and is quite majestic. We did not go inside because the line to enter it was very long. But if you want to cover all Sakura laden areas in Kyoto, Nijo is high up on the list. There is a nice family owned Sushi place right around the corner from the castle. Kikyo Sushi is run by a lovely family that has been in the trade for a long time. The son speaks English and is a fun guy to chat with. He made a special egg and rice dish for my daughter, she loved it 🙂
Fushimi Inari (0.5 Day)
Fushimi Inari is a bit out of the way, and we could not find a direct train/bus/tram that could get us there, so we chickened out and took a cab. Fushimi Inari is known for its thousands and thousands of vermillion colored Torii gates. The hike up Mt Inari is quite doable but without a toddler. We went almost half way up there and then returned since it was not possible to do it without a baby carrier. There are plenty of resting stops along the way, so take your time and do it at your own pace. On your way back, stop by at Vermillion Cafe overlooking the lake and enjoy a nice cup of coffee.
In short, Japan is a dream. I can move there in a heartbeat. I love it for its clean streets, efficient railways, warm yet disciplined people, kid-friendly attractions, delicious street food, Shinkansen, and varied cuisine. But Japan is crowded. I am Indian, and crowds are OK with me, but I am not sure how comfortable Westerners are with that many people.
This was definitely not our last trip to Japan. We plan to go back, hike Fuji-san, and complete our trek to Mt Inari. We also want to learn a little bit of Japanese before we go back. I am still dreaming about the soft and fresh fish I ate there every day. Can’t wait to pile up plates of Sushi again.As a side note, since the taste of fresh Japanese sushi was fresh in our minds, we ate sushi the weekend we arrived back in the US. We had one reaction – WTF!
Go visit Japan. It is all that a country should be, in terms of infrastructure, and planning. And that makes it very tourist friendly.