Traveler: Danielle Gervalis
When: October 2016
Cities Visited: Tokyo – Kyoto – Osaka
Overall Experience: Japan was tamer than my expectations of robots handing out beers on street corners, but nonetheless it was incredible. The country really has something for everyone. There are peaceful temples and shrines as well as in your face lights and high tempo city energy. Both are delightful.
When walking through the packed alleyways in Tokyo, it’s easy to forget you are in the largest urban area in the world. The streets are an intricate maze designed to draw you further into the sprawling metropolis and I wholeheartedly encourage this exploration. How else will you find the best deal on sake and ramen?
However, you probably didn’t travel all this way just to eat. Clearly, the most impressive thing about Japan is their revolutionary toilets. It will be a bathroom experience like no other. Once you get back home, you will immediately google how you can get one installed in your own home. I recommend the inexpensive toilet seat made by “Tushy” if you are looking to bring a bit of the Japanese style into your own bathroom.
Logistics: I booked my journey to Japan via tripmasters.com for just about $1900 which included the flight, hotels, in country train (JR line) and some breakfast meals.
Tokyo: Asia Center of Japan – Akasaka: A seemingly modern business person style hotel, the rooms are tiny but clean and it has all the essentials, including adorable kimonos, free bottles of water, and a sprawling breakfast buffet. The location is also convenient to the subway and several dining areas.
Kyoto: Ana Crowne Plaza Kyoto – Nijo-no-mae: Excellent location directly across from the Nijojo Mae Castle and two subway lines. Rooms are larger than normal in Japan, there is a decent spa but the breakfast restaurant is overpriced. You are better off grabbing a coffee and snack from one of the multiple restaurants within walking distance.
Osaka: Hearton Hotel – Minami Senba: While the hotel itself is outdated and has the faint smell of cigarettes, the location can not be beat. You are one block away from the main shopping district, including high-end stores and close to public transportation.
Getting around Japan is astonishingly easy. Each station and line is identified, not only by name but also color, letter and number. If you have any questions in the station, there are ample english-speaking employees to assist you. Save yourself a few dollars and purchase a day or week pass depending on how long you stay in each city.
You will need to purchase your JR line tickets BEFORE you get into Japan. It’s easy and hands down the best way to get around the country. The bullet train is impressive and you will love how quickly and efficiently you get to your next destination. One day Amtrak, one day.
I did not take a cab my entire time in country but I was told they are very expensive. The subways and trains are more than efficient at getting you to whatever corner of the city you wish to go. That being said I walked more than 15 miles per day….
Food: Exquisite. When you go to Japan, you are going to experience a wide range of culinary delights. I’m not exaggerating when I say, you are about to eat the freshest sashimi you will ever try. If you aren’t into raw fish, don’t worry, there are plenty of mouthwatering options available including ramen, Kobe beef, hot pots, and sweets, such as green tea ice cream.
Tokyo Must Haves: You would be remiss if you did not check out the Tsukjii Fish fishmarket. Of course it’s crowded, but it’s worth it. Bring cash to try a variety of snacks including mochi which is a rice cake ice cream treat.
Also consider visiting this local evening haunt, “So Tired” near the Tokyo Train Station. While the primary reason I wanted to go was because of the name, it’s worth a visit. They have tasty drinks and snacks and it’s located on the middle level of a high rise building, the entire floor contains different themed bars and restaurants. Most have outdoor balcony access so you can overlook Tokyo Train Station, Sky Tree and more.
Kyoto Must Haves: Walking around Kyoto you will get the feeling that every restaurant and bar is like Cheers, friendly neighborhood establishments where everyone knows your name. Do not be intimidated by the lack of English menus or intimate spaces. The best meal I had in Japan was a result of just walking into a place that looked like someone’s living room.
The chef or waiter did not speak English and the hand written menu was no match for Google Translate. However, you will be pleasantly surprised by how far you can get with limited Japanese, nodding and hand gestures. I still dream of the sashimi I ate there.
Osaka Must Haves: Osaka is a snackers Mecca. The street food in this city is phenomenal and it’s a fun place to leisurely walk around and imbibe, especially in the Dontonbori area.
They are known for a delicacy called Takoyaki which are fried octopus with a creamy filling.They are delicious but more spongy than crunchy. If you’re feeling thirsty, stop by the quirky Arcadian for a cocktail or a local brew. The staff is welcoming and they have a tasty appetizer menu that will satisfy most palettes.
Tokyo Must Sees: You could spend a year in Tokyo and still not get to every worthwhile destination. You get completely swept up in the excitement of crossing the street for the Shibuya Scramble, you will walk endlessly through the well manicured palace gardens to take pictures next to a moat! Tokyo fulfills expectations. If I had to pick a favorite, I would say the Senso-ji Temple. I arrived at the crack of dawn before all of the long column of tourist stalls were open and was able to explore relatively uninterrupted. It was curious to be an observer of the locals going about their everyday routines, it made you want to be one of the regular worshippers.
I enjoyed taking part of the entrance rituals and hope you’ll make it apart of your trip as well. It’s easy to learn the basics and japan-guide.com does a great job simplifying what to do when you visit a temple and shrine.
If you have time to take a trip outside of the city, then try to see Mount Fuji. I took part in an organized all day trip to the mountain. It took longer than normal to get there due to the Saturday traffic but once we arrived it really was breathtaking, even though the mountain cap was not its picturesque snow white. Stop in the post office on the 5th station, where you fill find a statue dedicated to the oldest man to reach the peak at 105 years old. Makes you feel really good about taking the bus…..
Kyoto Must Sees: Kyoto was the Imperial Capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years, this history shines through on every corner. There are pockets of shrines and temples everywhere you turn. These unexpected sites will pique your curiosity enough to derail any schedule you planned. Narrowing down places to visit in Kyoto is nearly impossible, even though it’s much smaller than Tokyo the amount of history and beauty packed into this city is enormous. That being said, when I think back on my time there these are the things that stick out: the Arashiyama Bamboo gardens and monkey park, Ryoan-ji Temple, and the Fushimi Inari Shinto Shrine.
Make sure you wear comfortable walking shoes when you tour the Arashiyama Bamboo gardens and monkey park. The bamboo gardens themselves are in a word, serene. You walk through this paved bamboo forest and wonder how it can exist in the middle of a city. It’s about a 30-40 minute walk depending on how many Instagram worthy photos you snap. Once you are out of the forest, you can easily walk to the monkey park. If you aren’t into animals, feel free to skip this entirely but if you are enamored with adorable, friendly little Japanese Macaques then prepare to have your mind blown.
It’s about $10 to enter the park and then you are in for a tough 40 minute steep hike uphill. You will need to bring water with you. I promise it’s worth it when you get to the top and get to see the monkey’s running free. You aren’t allowed to pet them but for $1 you can feed them bananas, it’s thrilling.
After your strenuous hiking, you might be in need of a Zen garden and you will find Japan’s most famous rock garden at the Ryoan-ji. There is some mystery surrounding who built the original garden and when but it was rebuilt in 1799 by garden writer and specialist Akisato Rito and this is how the garden looks today. Take a break and view the garden’s 15 mysterious stones which are laid out so that all of the stones can never be viewed at one time. Relax and let your mind wander.
Now that you are feeling Zen and have pondered life’s mysteries, it’s time for more hiking at the Fushimi Inari Shinto Shrine. The shrine consists of a network of trails through the forest of the sacred Mount Inari and contains literally thousands of torii gates. The shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of Rice and is decorated with fox statues throughout as they are thought to be Inari’s messengers. A popular tourist destination, you will find the crowds thin out the further you are willing to walk up the mountain. The sun shining through the torii will transfix you the entire way.
Osaka Must Sees: You really only need a day and night in Osaka to visit the Castle and experience Dontonbori. The latter is the highlight, as it’s a complete sensory overload with 3D signage, bright lights and a romantic river walk. Countless places to eat, drink and sing karaoke, you will have foggy but fond memories of this city.
If you are spending more time in the Osaka area, consider taking the JR Line further south to Kobe. I went there primarily to eat Kobe beef but found out there is a scenic trail complete with waterfall directly behind the Shin-Kobe train station, called the Nunobiki Falls. It is uphill but shaded and worth the trek – additionally there is a bar a the top!
Good to Know:
- Get a pocket wifi! I reserved one a week before we left from Japan Wireless. You just pick up and return at the airport. The pocket WiFi was a lifesaver when getting around with both walking and train directions. Plus, it comes with an extra charger.
- Japanese and American plugs are compatible. You do NOT need an adapter.
- Most places take credit cards, however you should have Japanese yen to purchase snacks and drinks from street vendors as well as for the vending machines which make excellent gifts to bring home.
- People still smoke in bars and restaurants.
- Japan is impeccably clean. You will not see litter anywhere. Oddly enough, you won’t see garbage cans either, which means you will carry your trash with you all day.