What if I'm headed to Japan for the First Time?
Many friends of mine have asked me to help them plan their first trip to Japan, and in the process I've written a few tips here and there that I thought I would compile into one place. This guide isn't meant to be a comprehensive guide, but more of a place for a few tips and ideas that I always make sure to give people.
Buy or download a good, comprehensive guide that you like and are comfortable with. You'll need something that has maps and names, ideally that you can carry with you while you walk around. Japan has a pathetic wifi infrastructure and, unlike Seoul, for example, you can't expect to find wifi any and everywhere (although they are making great strides in this regard). A nice physical guide, even one downloaded to your handheld device of choice, is invaluable.
Spend some time researching the major sites in Japan online - browse YouTube and Flickr and other places to get a sense of places like Toyko, Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Okinawa - because you are going to have to make some hard choices about where you are going to go. This isn't going to be European Vacation - if you rush around Japan checking off boxes and moving from site to site without slowing down, stopping, enjoying the life, you might as well have just stayed home and watched YouTube clips and eaten sushi from 7-11.
You really should not plan to spend less than 3 days in a particular city, and the trip will be more meaningful every day that you can spend there, so budget your time as generously as possible and try to stay put in one place if you can.
PLAN your trip. Figure out where you want to go and plan ahead. Japan is a place where you can go anywhere from anywhere, IF you know the right train/bus/subway. But you need to know ahead of time where you are going to figure out how to make it work. If you are going to use lots of trains, and you want a RailPass, you have to buy it in the US; you cannot get it once you are there. If you go to a city and decide to spend the night, and you don't speak Japanese, making a reservation can be difficult if you haven't done it ahead of time. It's also going to be hard to just rely on people to give you directions; Japanese people tend to be very reluctant to speak English.
A great resource for this is Hyperdia. It's a trip-planner that tells you what train/bus/airplane combination will get you where you want to go when you want to get there. The website is free. The app is also free - but only for the 1st month! Don't install it until just before you leave, to maximize your free time. From there, you have to pay for it - although it's a great app and totally worth it.
So, What Should I Do While I'm in Japan?
Well, welcome to my Japan guide.
I’ll try to make it as useful as possible for your trip.
I’ll try to make a list of things that you might like to do, and limit it to things that I have either done myself or know from others are worth doing. There are plenty of touristy things that aren’t worth it, and plenty of things that Japanese people think foreigners should do that we really don’t care about. (example: Ginza).
You'll probably fly, unless you are a really good swimmer or it's 1910 and you have 6 weeks to travel by boat. When you buy your tickets, you'l notice that the asian airlines - ANA, JAL, Asiana and Korean Air, are all more expensive than the U.S. airlines. Before you just buy the cheapest ticket available on Orbitz, remember that Hardees is cheaper than Shake Shack. You don't go to Hardees when you visit NYC (probably). The last time I flew American Airlines to Japan, I wondered if swimming wasn't a better option after all.
You’ll be most likely arriving at one of two Tokyo airports, Narita or Haneda. Haneda is generally for domestic travelers (like National Airport) so it’s unlikely that you will arrive there. More likely, you will arrive at Narita. Like Dulles, Narita is an international airport set very far from the metropolis it serves. You’ll need to find a way to get from Narita to Tokyo. There are MANY ways to do this, but my favorite is the Narita Express.
Upon arrival, you’ll be expected to pass through immigration. If you’ve ever entered the United States through immigration and customs, imagine that for a moment. Then imagine that it was run by human beings who respected others. That’s what it’s like to arrive in Japan if you are accustomed to the arriving in the U.S. As far as procedures, JAL has a great guide: http://www.jal.co.jp/en/immigration/
Once you sail through customs, you'll almost certainly be headed to Tokyo, unless you have a connecting flight to somewhere else in Japan, like Kansai International. I won't go into those other aiports except to say that they are also wonderful; Kansai International has NEVER LOST A BAG. Ever. Because Japan, that's why.
The best way into Tokyo from Narita is the Narita Express (N'Ex). To use the N’Ex (Narita Express) go to either of the JR (Japan Railways) counters at Narita Airport and show your passport. They will sell you a discount package including your trip to Toyko and a reduced-price Suica card [Note: This package may be discontinued in 2015]. The N’Ex will take you to any of the major stops in Toyko, including Shibuya and Shinjuku (where I think you will probably stay). However you obtain them, I cannot overemphasize how useful a couple of Suica cards for you and your companion(s) will be. I’ll cover that more in “getting around.” Suffice to say you’ll love your Suica cards because they are easy to use metro cards for using the busses and subways, and buying things at the convenience store and from vending machines.
Here are some alternatives (courtesy of Dannychoo.com)
<<After arriving at Narita airport, go downstairs to where the train platforms are and look for this counter where you can pick up tickets for the Skyliner. You can also pick up tickets for the local train that stops at every station too. I think the ticket is about 1,000 yen cheaper but takes longer.
You can also get into Tokyo by using the Limousine Bus. Costs 3,000 yen to get into Shibuya. Here is a list of places where the bus will stop in central Tokyo. Typically takes between 75 and 125 mins to get to Shibuya. I only recommend this route if you really cant be bothered to carry luggage around the trains. The bus is costly and often gets stuck in traffic. We decided to take the bus once and will never do it again ever! The bus was stuck in traffic for about 3 hours and then we got off to take a taxi to get back home - the bus follows a particular route so it wont take shortcuts to avoid traffic.
Speaking of Taxi, if you pickup a standard taxi outside the airport, be prepared to pay 20,000 yen (At least $200) to get into central Tokyo. Will take 60 - 90 mins.
Alternatively you can get a chartered taxi service through Tokyo MK - price list lives here. This service will cost 17,000 yen to get into Shibuya. Tokyo MK also have a pickup service which they charge an extra 3,000 yen for. If you have parents that you want picked up then you may want to give this service a whirl.
The fastest route between Tokyo and Narita airport however is the helicopter service provided by Mori Building City Air Services. The ride will cost 37,500 yen per person and take a mere 30 mins. Timetable is available here. The helicopter departs right from the center of Tokyo in Akasaka.>> Thanks Danny!
Here’s a (dated) guide to the Narita Express:
Tips for walking around:
a. Carry a handkerchief. Bathrooms are squeaky clean (you’ll be totally shocked) but often do not have hand towels. That’s because most people carry their own.
b. Everyone lines up on the opposite side on stairs/escalators, etc., except people from Osaka.
c. People will claim not to speak English, but most people under 25 remember English quite well. They will be very embarrassed to use it, unless you force them to.
d. BE CAREFUL TO TAKE YOUR SHOES OFF WHEN NECESSARY. There are many places you will need to take your shoes off, and some of them will surprise you. The best thing to do is to keep your eyes out. Many restaurants require you to take off your shoes when you step into the eating area. Many offices require you to take off your shoes when you enter certain areas. Many museums/temples require you to take off your shoes in certain areas as well.
e. Along the same lines, wear shoes that are easy to take on and off.
f. ALSO – sometimes there will be slippers in the area where you take your shoes on and off. These slippers are often not for you to walk around in inside the facility/restaurant/museum/temple. Instead, they may be slippers for you to wear to the bathroom if you need to step out and go to the bathroom. DO NOT wear the bathroom slippers except when walking to the bathroom and be careful to TAKE THEM OFF when you return.
g. If you are taken out to dinner, DON’T TRY TO PAY unless it is clear that you have to. You will offend your host. When he pulls out his credit card, don’t say “I’ll pay” or “let’s split it” If he is older/superior/the host, you are his guest and he is expected to pay. You are insulting him/her if you offer to pay.
h. Don’t pack an umbrella – they sell them everywhere and they are super cheap.
i. Bring your favorite deodorant/personal hygiene product. They are difficult to buy in Japan.
j. Most of all, experiment, wander, roam, explore, and HAVE FUN! Japan is an amazing land and you never know what you will find at the end of a little alleyway or down a quiet street. Zoning doesn’t really apply when your city is over 1000 years old.
If you have AT&T, first, my apologies, and second, you should ask them to set you up with international service. Their old $5/month deal is over, and now you can pre-buy data. It (usually) works great. You can text and call at will. You SHOULD NOT use internet and should turn off all your internet access (they have a website to show you how). I should correct myself – you can use the internet if you want to pay a thousand dollars a second. Do yourself a favor and shut it off. Instead, see below for internet access.
However, having the ability to text is invaluable and as a couple, we couldn’t have functioned without it. If you are only going to use your phones interstitially, you will probably be fine with your phone from the US, paying international charges per text and call. Keep in mind, however, that about 1/2 the time, AT&T fails to give your phone access to the network in Japan and your phone won't work at all for up to 72 hours or more. It's best to call ahead and make sure they know you are going to Japan.
If you are going to send many texts in-country or make lots of calls while you are in Japan, it's best to get your own Japanese phone. There are a plethora of options available to you. At Narita, there are many counters with companies offering to rent you a phone. JAL and ANA also offer these services. I've used rentafoneJapan on several occasions, and they are fantastic. They'll even send you your phone while you are still in the US, so you can get used to it ahead of time. You can also rent a mobile wifi router from them, which brings me to...
Oddly, it is difficult to find internet access in Japan. Don’t expect wifi everywhere. Tokyo, and most of Japan, actually has really bad wifi access in my opinion. It’s sort of odd. They mostly use their phones to get internet access and send email. There are internet cafes, but you won’t be able to navigate them easily. Forget using a Japanese keyboard. Your hotel should have internet access, though, and that should work fine. Don’t be surprised, however, when you open Google and it’s all in Japanese – Google sets your language by your IP address, not your computer. You can still type in English just fine.
Tokyo and Kyoto are trying to upgrade their Wifi infrastructure in advance of the 2020 Olympics. There are more and more free wifi services available to tourists throughout Tokyo and Kyoto, although you'll need a foreign passport to use many of them. Google "free wifi Tokyo", etc., and you should be able to find an up-to-date list. The services are changing all the time. In fact, even the tiny island of Shikoku is attempting to build a free-wifi infrastructure for tourists that will surround the island!
There are many services available, such as rentafonejapan, that will rent you a wifi router in Japan that you can carry around with you. They are available by mail prior to leaving for Japan or for rental and/or delivery at the airport. These wifi hotspots are fantastic – with a powerful wifi hotspot, you can run all your internet enabled devices (almost) anywhere you can get cellphone access.
Our plugs work there fine – as long as they are two-prong. No three-prong, so bring an adaptor for that.
I Made it into Japan - Now What?!
I’ve broken this down into Tokyo and Kyoto. Those are the two major tourist destinations and, between the two of them, you will get a real flavor for Japan.
Here is my Tokyo Guide:
Introduction to Toyko
If you want a flavor for Tokyo and its neighborhoods, I think the two best places to start are these HD “cruise” videos (10 min each). They give a great “feel” for how it is to walk on the streets of Toyko, and for some different neighborhoods.
Tokyo isn’t so much a city as it is a collection of 22 different cities, all mashed up together. You can move from one to the other and feel like you have gone to a completely different place. Shibuya and Harajuku are young, hip, and modern, Shinjuku makes Times Square look like Mayberry, but you can go to Shinjuku Gyoen park (which is like central park) and feel like you are 30 miles from any city.
Japanese people are incredibly welcoming, very giving to guests, and (unlike virtually everyone else in the world) LOVE Americans. They admire the US and think Americans are hard working, innovative, free-spirited people. The fat, pushy, boorish American tourist doesn’t go to Japan, and you are spared the reputation they leave behind in other places. Instead, you will be treated to a unique and friendly people who will be happy to have you as a guest.
I highly recommend the “Time Out” guide to Tokyo, and they run a great website with events and area guides:
Japan has several hotel options. First, you could just reserve a room at any of the Western Hotel chains in Tokyo. You could also just eat at McDonalds the whole time, watch your "Friends" DVDs on your laptop in bed, and never leave the hotel bar. You are in Japan, for goodness sake. Try something different.
Japan has several major hotel chains of its own, including ANA and JAL (yes, the airlines). These tend to be Western-style hotels, and can offer professional concierge services that are quite convenient. In addition, the next level of hotel are for business travelers, or "Biz Hotels." These hotels, like Dormy Inn or MyStays, are a little smaller and geared towards business travelers. Still, some hotel chains, like Citadines, still have terrific concierges and comfortable surroundings. Plus, Dormy Inn and MyStays often have their own onsen (hot bath) and free breakfast or late-night snacks, like udon and ramen.
Moving towards the more authentic are Japan's Ryokan. These are traditional lodgings, the kind that Japanese people will often select when they vacation. Eschewing modern conveniences (but not completely), they typically offer a traditional breakfast and dinner as part of their cost. The meals are normally taken in a large room, where you have your own appointed table, dine at an appointed time, and eat a pre-selected meal that features local cuisine and specialities of the house. Ryokan also traditionally feature a communal (but not gender-mixed) hot bath, or onsen. The onsen is usually a major feature of a Ryokan and a big attraction for a Japanese tourist. If you can, I STRONGLY recommend that you stay at a traditional Ryokan, at least for part of your visit. You will never forget the experience, which is uniquely Japanese.
On the more budget-end are Minshoku, which are basically just bed-and-breakfasts that lack an onsen or an elaborate dinner. Often a small breakfast or meal is available, but the experience is more of a lodging-focused one. A Westerner-friendly such place is the Sakura House, which is geared to foreigners, but plenty are available for Japanese tourists as well.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Airbnb, VRBO, and similar services. This option is for the most adventurous - while some hosts love to play tour-guide, others are entirely absent, leaving you to fend for yourself. In Japan, something as simple as taking out the garbage, or using hot water, can be a real challenge. Still, if you want to live like a true Japanese person, accept no substitute.
Japan is a cash-based economy that is at the brink of a cash-less society. They skipped the credit card and now most people carry money in electronic form in their cellphones (I’m not making that up). Most places do not take credit cards, except big chain stores and department stores. Also, many ATMs do not take credit cards either. Restaurants almost never take credit cards. In addition, your ATM card is likely not to work at most ATMs. You should carry cash.
If you are worried about carrying too much cash, you should remember that this is a society that is generally very safe. Obviously you should be smart and not be careless or flash your money around. But if you’ve lived in New York, LA, or D.C. and you are still alive, you know how to handle yourself in a City. From there, should you lose your wallet, just visit the nearest Koban (Police box) and the friendly policeman will probably have it in the lost-and-found. The money will still be there. No shit. Look it up on the internet. It happens all the time. During the tsunami clean-up workers turned in millions of dollars in cash to various lost-and-found agencies. Much of it is still unclaimed.
I suggest carrying dollars into the country and exchanging them at Narita airport. I exchanged money in the United States and it was not as good of a deal. When you come back to the US if you have yen left over I will buy them from you.
Tokyo is truly a city made for people without cars. There are literally millions of residents who live without cars and I’ve met many people who don’t even have a driver’s license. In fact, it can cost thousands of dollars to obtain a driver’s license in Japan and the entire nation is built to serve its pedestrian population with safe, convenient, and inexpensive public transit options.
There are three main forms of public transit: Busses, subways, and trains. The trains generally connect urban centers to the suburbs, but Toyko also has a train system that circles the entire city like an enormous beltway and stops at major wards. The subways and busses operate like those in the United States, except that they are clean, comfortable, run on time, and are utterly convenient.
To start with, I STRONGLY recommend that you download a Tokyo subway guide to your iPhone or Android phone. The best ones are interactive and will tell you how long a trip will take and how to get from one place to another. They are your lifeline and will save you from getting lost or confused. The Tokyo subway system, like the New York system, has many different lines that connect many different areas and these lines come from various eras.
There are two ways to use the subways and busses and trains. You can go and check out the elaborate chart in each station that calculates what your fare will be to get from one place to another and waste countless minutes/hours figuring it all out with your portable abacus and then going back and putting more money on the ticket because you miscalculated….OR you can buy a farecard and put a bunch of money on it and use it until the card is low, and then fill it up again. That is the ONLY way you should do it.
The fare card is awesome. You don’t even have to stick it in the machine. Keep it in your wallet, and then swipe your wallet across the turnstile – it reads through your wallet, or your jacket, or your backpack, or whatever. You can even use it at some vending machines and convenience stores. It’s awesome. It’s convenient. It’s Japan. Rock on.
You will, of course, get lost. You will want to ask for directions at one point. Don’t be afraid to do so – Japanese people are incredibly generous and feel strongly about the need to be welcoming and friendly towards foreigners. Unlike some cultures (*cough* U.S. *cough*) they are thankful for foreign tourists and value them. However, they are also generally terrified of having to speak English, even though all of them studied English as children through High School. Generally, English proficiency/willingness to speak English falls in a descending order as follows: Young women (18-30), women (30-60), young men (18-30), older men (60-dead), and then everyone else.
TIP: If you happen to take a taxi cab, DO NOT try to open the door, either from outside or inside.
It is operated by a lever in the car and you will upset the driver if you open it by hand.
Japan is my favorite place to eat. If you are wondering how long you can endure eating Japanese food every day, then Japan is still a great place to go. You can certainly eat rice at every meal and eat sushi and noodles until you turn into a kimono-wearing starch-faced ghost, but there are as many types of Japanese food as there are neighborhoods in Tokyo.
General Food Advice
As a general matter, you can eat like a king at convenience stores, and the food is really good and not expensive. You can get pretty much anything that you would buy at the Japanese restaurant you’d find in a U.S. shopping mall, including gyoza, hand-rolls, various teas and sake, etc. In fact, it might even be better! The only sticker shock you might have is for the price of fruit, which is a bit more expensive.
Also, you should go to the authentic Japanese places. In Tokyo and Kyoto, many will have English menus. AVOID THE FOREIGN TOURIST FRIENDLY PLACES – they are way too expensive and are built for tourists to take their money. The food in Japan is freakin’ awesome and way cheaper than you think it would be. Most Tokyo residents eat out a lot because it’s the same cost to eat out as it is to cook in.
Types of Restaurants
“Kaiten-Zushi” This is a restaurant where they serve sushi on a conveyer belt. You seat yourself at a bar where there is a conveyer belt traveling around the restaurant. If you want an item, take it. Stack the plates next to you. Tea is available from the dispenser at your seat. Wasabi, ginger, and soy sauce too. At the end the waitress looks at your stack and gives you your bill based on plate colors and the number of plates. It is the restaurant Mr. Rogers would have made if he had been born in Osaka.
“Ramen-Ya”. A must-visit, a ramen shop serves big steaming bowls of ramen and generally nothing else. Only trick is that you can’t order there, at least not from a person. Instead, you buy your order from a vending machine that, in turn, sells you a little ticket for the food you want to eat. Then you take your ticket to your table, where your waitress takes it from you and comes back with your food.
“Udon-Ya” Same as a Ramen-ya, except with Udon noodles rather than Ramen.
“Fam-Ra” Family Restaurants took off in Japan a few years ago and now restaurants like Bikkuri Donki and Denny’s run operations that look very western on the outside but in fact sell a variety of Korean and Japanese dishes. The quality is OK but the experience is hilarious if you like irony.
"Curry-Ya" You probably wouldn't have guessed that these restaurants serve Curry. Who knew? Not the kind of curry you might expect, though, if you are accustomed to Thai or Indian Curry. This style of curry came to Japan in the early 20th century and grew to popularity in Korea and Japan as an inexpensive meal. Many Curry restaurants offer a choice of toppings, including fried pork, chicken, vegetables, potato cakes, and other delicious choices
“Yakatabune” Literally floating restaurants, both Tokyo and Kyoto have a series of these available and they are both a great way to see the cities and also a chance to eat great food.
“Yatai” These street vendors will often carry an entire kitchen in their cart and sell ramen or Tako-yaki(friend octopus) or any of a number of delicious foods to however many seats can fit around their cart. (You’ll find them in Korea too.) Don’t be intimidated; they are often delicious. However, don’t expect their English to be very good. Nowadays many yatai come in the form of kitchen-cars, little minivans that are retro-fitted with tiny kitchens.
Tripadvisor has started to collect great information on restaurants in Japan, so you can use that and find fantastic places. Still, I'd encourage you to start using Tabelog, and try the English version of that site. It's the Japanese version of Yelp. Once you figure out how to navigate it, it's a great way to find cool places. Japanese people love to take pictures of their food, so any entry will have many photos of the food at a restaurant, which can help you figure out where you want to go. One warning, though: the Japanese do not believe in giving "4"s and "5"s to places unless they approach eternal perfection. Consequently, a rating of "3.5" means the places is one of the best places in town. A "3" means the food is good and everyone likes it.
I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention Ninja Akasaka. It is located in the Akasaka Tokyu Hotel Plaza on the first floor. If you are facing the hotel from the street, you have to go to the extreme left. Finding the restaurant is not easy. It is not MEANT to be easy. But it is a tiny door on a long wooden wall that is quite tall. http://www.ninjaakasaka.com/
It is awesome. The hotel staff concierge can make reservations for you, which I recommend.
It is located very close to the Akasaka subway stop; as I recall, just across the street, but I can’t remember for sure.
If you aren't taking long, exhausting walks every day, you'll probably want to get some exercise while you are in Tokyo. Here are a few tips.
If you are a runner, you should know that many parks do not welcome runners, and in fact forbid running on their main paths. Instead, runners have designated areas where they can and cannot run. However, Tokyo has many terrific sports facilities left over from the 1964 Olympics that they still operate as public gymnasiums and running tracks. The main facilities cost as little as $6/day and allow guests. They have swimming, indoor gyms, fitness classes, and up-to-date facilities.
Places to Visit
In this section I’m just going to devote a page to different neighborhoods and cool places to visit there.
Tsukiji Fish Market
I should start by saying I’ve never been there, and they are building a new one right now, so I’m not sure what the deal is right now, but plenty of people feel like this is a “must-see” for Tokyo. I’ll just say that you should plug it into youtube and make the choice for yourself.
Many people claim that if you want to go, you should go as early as possible to see the fish being delivered and purchased at auction. It’s open to public from 5 am to quarter past 6 am
I highly recommend that you visit Shibuya and plan to spend some time there. Three reasons: people watching, shopping, and fun. Shibuya is where many young people gather on the weekends and after work/school, so it is full of places to eat, interesting little shops, and people dressed in outlandish attire.
Shibuya is grounded at its subway/train/bus station, which is a major hub for all sorts of commuters. In addition, it has a delicious underground food court immediately adjacent to the subway station in the basement of the enormous department store built above the train station. Just outside the station there is a small park with a statue of a dog named “Hachiko.” The story of this dog is so Japanese it’s ridiculous. Just google it and you will find out why the statue is there. It’s a popular meeting place and it was the meeting place that A and I picked in case for when we inevitably got separated and lost.
The Hachiko park is at the exit to Shibuya station, opening into one of the largest pedestrian crossings in the world. Literally hundreds of thousands of people cross in front of Shibuya station every day. If you walk towards the Tsutaya book store and the Starbucks on the 2nd floor, and then walk just to the left, you will walk straight into Shibuya.
Here are some places I recommend in Shibuya:
Toyku Hands: This place is like a multi-story Target crossed with Brookstone. Everything is practical, but also totally Japanese – cute, functional, clever, etc. I lost a couple of hours here every time I went it. It’s also a great place for souvenirs
Don Quixote: Also known as “Donki” (the Japanese abbreviate everything) this place is like an enormous Spencer gifts. Also a great place for souvenirs, I always have a great time browsing the aisles and marveling at all the crazy stuff inside. You might have to ask some people for help in finding it.
First- go here on Sunday. Reserve a Sunday to go here.
Just north of Shibuya is Harajuku. Sometimes called the “fashion capital of the world” it is an odd concatenation of ultra-high end clothing shops and trendy little boutiques catering towards teenagers. That’s because Harajuku is a hang-out for trendy little teenagers and the very wealthy. As you walk out of Harajuku station on a Saturday or Sunday, you will face throngs of girls out on the town showing off their latest purchases and fashionable outfits. It’s a great place to people watch.
Don’t miss Yoyogi Park, which is just behind Harajuku Station, however. On a Sunday, while all the costume players (cosplay) and fashionistas are gathered in Harajuku, Yoyogi Park is full of Elvis-impersonators, poodle-skirt dancers, and musical acts letting off steam for the weekend.
In the North area of Harajuku is the Meiji –jingu shrine, a popular destination for tourists and, on holidays, Tokyo residents as well. The shrine is located between Shinjuku and Harajuku and is next to an amazing series of gardens, Shinjuku gyoen. I strongly recommend a visit to both.
Ueno is not particularly notable other than for the enormous park at the north end, within walking distance of the subway. There you can find the Tokyo National Museum as well as a number of other, smaller museums and attractions. We really liked this museum, so if you have a desire to see a museum, this is one: http://www.tnm.jp/?lang=en
I would not say, however, that going here is mandatory. My general view is that you can go to a museum anywhere. The Sackler and Freer often have some very interesting items on loan from Japan. Getting back and forth from Ueno is time-consuming, so you can skip this unless you get bored.
Truthfully, the only real reason we went to Ueno was that it had an unusually high concentration of running shoe stores and we tried to get shoes that fit A's feet. That, however, is a story for another day.
This is an area (everyone calls it Shimokita) that we truly loved. It’s an area that is closed-off to cars, and full of Bohemian shops, small cafes and restaurants, and many young people. It’s definitely worth a visit, especially as a contrast to Roppongi, Shinjuku, and Shibuya, which are all glitz and tall buildings.
A loved this neighborhood more than almost any other because it had great shopping. In fact, as completely exhausted as we were when we got there, she suddenly sprang up and headed out for 2 ½ hours of shopping when we got there; I remained immobile. Shimotka is especially convenient and fun because the streets are closed-off to cars and everything is close together and convenient.
If you are digging Shimotka and want more of the same, keep going on the same subway line to Kichijoji. I’ve never made it all the way but I’ve heard it is equally fun and relaxing.
Shimotka is off the beaten path in Tokyo but not too far – probably 20 min by train from Shibuya station.
I already recommended that you stay in Shinjuku, so you’ll head here anyway. Traditionally Shinjuku is a place for foreigners and Tokyo residents who want to escape their regular lives. Sometimes known for its more debaucherous locales, such as “piss-alley” and kabuki-cho (red light district), it is now, much like Times Square, a center of major department stores and glitzy attractions.
None of this is to say that Shinjuku completely lacks its old character. It is worth a visit to Golden Gai, a long alley containing innumerable bars, each with only a few seats and its own unique character. http://www.unmissabletokyo.com/golden-gai
If you are feeling adventurous, you can visit “The lockup” in Kabuki-cho: Basically women in plastic miniskirts lock you up while lunatics run around. Oh, and they serve dinner and drinks.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do I need to learn Japanese to visit Japan?
You do not need to learn Japanese to visit the major cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto. Tokyo is VERY English friendly. There are plenty of signs in English all over, especially in the subway system. You can get around by subway without any Japanese, more easily than by Taxi in my opinion. The museums also have lots of English – I’ve been to some tiny, remote museums in little villages and found an English guide to the place.
It is not a bad idea to pick up a few “survival” phrases, not only for convenience, but also for the pleasure of speaking Japanese. The Japanese people have a true appreciation for anyone who takes the time to learn their language, even if only a few words. You will probably even get a few compliments (Note: the amount of compliments you receive is generally inversely proportional to your true ability).
There are plenty of good podcasts on iTunes that are free, and also Youtube has some good introductory words. Please, thank you, yes, no, hello, goodbye, “where is”, are all useful. Fortunately, most Japanese people know many English nouns. As long as you know “Where is” you can follow it up with an English noun and you are good to go. Also, if you learn “do you have” – same rule applies.
Of course, the Google Translate App is terrific in this regard. You can now take a picture of a sign or a word and get an instant translation. In an emergency, you can even get it to translate an English word (like "Sucking Chest Wound" or "Fugu Poisoning") into Japanese.
Should I buy a travel guide?
Buy one, especially if it’s the “Time Out Tokyo” guide. I know the author and he did a great job. His advice is spot-on and his guide to Roppongi was especially good. He lists some genuinely fun places to go, including a club where various Beatles-tribute bands play about 2 blocks from your hotel. It was a fun place, and the food was quite good too, actually. Don’t buy an app – buy a real guide. Make sure it has easy to read maps in it. ADDRESSES ARE USELESS in Japan.
Should we visit Mount Fuji?
First of all, I’ve never been so I can’t say. But recognize that it will be a major trip. There is no train access and you’ll need to take a bus, probably from Shinjuku. Most hikers will start from about 6,000 or 7,000 feet to attempt to reach the 12,377 high volcano (which, by the way, is still active).
Introduction to Kyoto
If you want a flavor for Kyoto and its neighborhoods, I think the two best places to start are these HD “cruise” videos (10 min each). They give a great “feel” for how it is to walk on the streets of Toyko, and for some different neighborhoods.
Kyoto is the ancient capital of Japan, and is a window into the world of feudal Japan. Kyoto is unique in having many ancient structures that date back hundreds of years. During World War II the allied bombing campaign leveled many historic places throughout Japan. Fukuoka was completely destroyed. The fire-bombing of Tokyo obliterated large portions of the city and killed more people than the atomic bomb. However, the allies spared Kyoto almost entirely out of respect for its history (although that motive is now disputed).
The people of the Kansai area (Osaka and Kyoto) also have a unique outlook and local dialect that makes spending time there fun. You will probably notice a real difference in the manners and outlook of people in Tokyo and Kyoto.
Also, I highly recommend the “Time Out” guide to Kyoto, and they run a great website with events and area guides:
One way or another, you will probably arrive at Kyoto Station. On the 9th floor is a very remote but very useful tourist information center. Finding it, however, can be a challenge. You will have to go into the Department store at Kyoto station and then head up to the 9th floor from there; normally this requires an elevator change. Once you get there you have to wander a bit before you find it. However, it is full of useful information about Kyoto.
Higashiyama is the western portion of Kyoto that lies between the Kamogawa river and the western mountains. It is the home to some of the most beautiful temples in all of Japan.
You won’t be able to escape Kyoto properly unless you visit Kyomizudera, and getting there is half the fun. Kyomizudera is at the top of two streets that run roughly parallel to one another: Sannen zaka and Ninnen Zaka. Both are a long and somewhat arduous walk up the western mountain that overlooks Kyoto. The streets are lined with tourist vendors and restaurants and you will be in good company, accompanied by schoolchildren and vacationing families.
When you get to the top, you will first go to the left to the ticket booth and buy your admission ticket. You’ll be tempted to enter the temple right away – but here’s a little secret. Just to the left of the main entrance you’ll see another, smaller temple. There might be a short line of people queued up at the top of the stairs for the “tenai meguri.” Most tourists are completely unaware of this place, however. Admission is a mere 100 yen. I won’t spoil the surprise, but I strongly recommend a visit. It is a completely unique and utterly Japanese experience, if not a little…strange.
Chishaku-In is a temple of the Chizan School of Shingon Buddhism. Built in 1585, the original garden has been attributed to the tea master Sen no Rikyu. It is often not visited by Japanese tourists who are more attracted to Kyomizudera, Ginkakuji, etc. However, it is quite stunning.
Teramachi Shopping Arcade / Nishiki Market
Located in central Kyoto, just north of Kyoto Station by a few stops, this is a huge, outdoor covered shopping arcade. Nishiki Market is just to the west and can be accessed from Teramachi arcade. Nishiki market is a traditional market visited by Kyoto shoppers for hundreds of years. Teramachi is far more modern and has an up-to-date mix of everything you desire.
Gion is known for its traditional performances and as the modern home of the Geiko (Geisha) and Maiko (Geisha in training) community. Today you can watch modern Geiko and Maiko perform, either at Gion Corner or other similar venues. It is definitely worth it.
If you are feeling particularly ambitious, you can even visit one of many stores that will dress you in traditional Japanese clothes for the day and let you visit your destinations of the day in full costume. You won’t be alone – many Japanese visitors take advantage of these services!
This large complex of temples is in Western Kyoto and is probably worth a cab ride. However, it is home to a number of historic temples that are worth a visit. In addition, at Taizoin, the monks offer calligraphy, zazen meditation, and tea ceremony lessons and demonstrations to English-speaking guests for about 7500 yen per person per day. Tazoin also has a lovely garden.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
While not technically in Kyoto, it is not far from town. This shrine can’t really be described or photographed without missing the enormity of it. Worth the diversion for a visit.
How to get there
5 minutes on JR lines from Kyoto station to Inari station that is in front of the main Torii gateway of the shrine, or 13 minutes on Kyoto City Bus from Kyoto station bus stop to Fushimi-Inari-Taisha bus stop and 7 minutes on foot, or 8 minutes on Keihan railway line from Gion-Shijo station to Fushimi-Inari station then 5 minutes on foot.