I have only been to Japan in the summer and Will has only been in the winter. In need of a vacation, but with limited time, we set our sights on Japan for a week long trip and hopefully in time to see some cherry blossoms.
It was a bit of a pivot – we had been planning on going to Morocco this spring. We started planning out the trip only to realize that it was not going to be a simple 1.5 week long trip; we needed more time, which we didn’t have in March. With that said, we looked for flights that wouldn’t cost of an arm and a leg, so Japan it was!
It’s been about eight years since my first visit to Japan. My mom LOVES visiting temples in Asia, so needless to say most of our time spent in Japan was in Kyoto. I remember being a little disappointed we didn’t get to spend that much time in Tokyo, I was also a little bit of a brat about having to see so many temples. Will has also seen his fair share of temples on family trips, so we had decided that this trip would include some – but they were by no means the main focus.
With one week on the ground in Japan, we had a hard time deciding what we wanted to do. Initially we thought it could be really cool to go to skiing in Hokkaido and visit Sapporo. I also heard the food up there is AMAZING. Unfortunately, that would cut into our ground time in Japan because you have to take a flight there from Tokyo. Next option was Nozawaonsen in the Nozawa area – it doesn’t require another flight after landing in Tokyo. It has hot springs and skiing, and it isn’t to far from the wait for it…SNOW MONKEYS. Maybe I’m the only one excited about them, but the idea of visiting snow monkeys with their red faces (because they’ve been staying warm in the natural hot springs) sounded like a lot of fun. Alas, we decided “we are flying out to Japan, do we really want to do something that we can do back home in California?”
The answer was decidedly, “No.” So where did we end up going? We spent a few days in Tokyo, a few days in Kyoto, and then stopped in Hakone on our way back to Tokyo. Looking back, I’m pretty happy with our itinerary and everything we did and saw. Here’s a closer look at our whirlwind trip — buckle up!
We decided to stay at an Airbnb in Tokyo; thought that it would feel more like being a local than staying in a hotel. Our Airbnb was in the Shibuya area which was a great location given its proximity to the train station and the other neighborhoods nearby. The only challenge we had was when we arrived. It was pouring rain at night and couldn’t get a cab, so we had to walk about 15 min in the rain with our luggage. Fortunately, we found an awesome ramen shop nearby, so we popped in for some spicy ramen to warm up after dropping off our bags.
Day 1 – Tsukiji Fish Market, Meji Shrine, Yoyogi Park
Given the time change, we thought it best to go to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market while we could still wake up early pretty easily. Tsukiji Market is the oldest and largest fish market in the world; it is divided into two parts, the inner market and the outer market. The inner market is where the auctions happen, the outer market is where you can wander up and down the streets trying various types of seafood and sushi among other things.
During my first visit to Japan, my mom made us get up at 3:30AM to get to the market at 4:30AM. It was a pretty cool scene back then – we saw tuna as far as the eye can see and the auctions were equally interesting. Back then we could take pictures, but you couldn’t use flash during the auctions, which is understandable because if the auctioneer misses a bid because a flash went off in his eyes, there are going to be some pretty unhappy bidders. We also got to try some of the freshest tuna EVER inside the inner market.
Unfortunately, times have changed a bit since then. My understanding is that, now, only a limited number of visitors are allowed inside the inner market during the auction times (~500?). People arrive around 2AM and sit for 3 hours for a chance to be one of the lucky visitors allowed in. Even then, I think your access around the market is a little more limited. Given Will and I were fortunate enough to see the market and all the action in the past (and it was too cold to wait for three hours), we decided to sleep in a little and go to the outer market at 8AM and walk around there until 10AM, which is when the inner market opens up to the general public. If you really want to see the auctions and the hustle and bustle of the inner market, try your luck for the early access. By 10AM, most of the stands are cleaning up the fish and packing away the last of the morning’s purchases.
After the fish market, you can go visit the Kabuki theater (you probably passed it on your way to the market), either go back to your hotel and take a quick nap (if you were one of the early risers) or continue your day exploring the city. For us, we decided walk around Ginza a bit since we were in the area. This area is full of high-end department stores and restaurants. Pop into G.Itoya (their Ginza shop is the main one), even if you aren’t super into stationary or paper, that store is really neat to get lost in for an hour or so. This is also a neat place for souvenirs, whether it be cute Japanese stickers like the ones I got for my 5 year old niece, or make a bento box of Japanese food shaped erasers for co-workers back home (if you like them enough).
After a quick snack in one of the department stores, we decided to head back towards Shibuya and visit Meji Shrine. The entrance to the shrine is a short walk (~10 min) from the Harajuku station or Yoyogi stations. The entry is marked by a massive shinto tori gate and the pathway to the shrine was nothing short of peaceful – you almost forget you are in a city as densely populated as Tokyo. Spend some time walking around the shrine, if you visit in the spring time like we did, you might also see a wedding procession passing through!
By the time we left Meji Shrine, we were in desperate need of a break for our legs, a snack and some caffeine (remember, this is still our first day in Japan) – thankfully, Tokyo is just as obsessed with coffee the Bay Area. Stop at Fluglen – yes this is the place I recommended in my Norway posts – or Little Nap Coffee Stand to take a load off your feet.
So, we made a mistake, I’m only sharing this so you don’t make a similar mistake. We read that you can go to an observation deck in Roppongi Hills to see a view of the city. This is accurate, however, there’s also a long line and its kind of expensive for what it is. Pro-tip, Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building has a 360 degree observation floor to see the city, there is no line, and it was free. It’s hard to take decent pictures unless you have some special equipment, but its worth checking out for the view.
After this full day, we threw in the towel and decided to go home and take a quick nap before dinner and drinks with Will’s cousin who lives in Tokyo. We went to a yakitori restaurant in Omotesando, where we dined on various chicken parts – some were a little too exotic for me – and drank a couple of bottles of sake before heading out to a bar for drinks. I have to say, I was never a big sake fan until this trip to Japan. Now, I find myself constantly perusing the sake menu whenever we go out for Japanese food.
Day 2 – Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku and Nakameguro
We got up a little more casually this second day, mainly because jet lag was kicking in but also, because we didn’t have to be anywhere at 8AM like the day before. We ventured out to Omotesando for some breakfast – I had my eye out for some Japanese pancakes, although Will claims we ate dessert for breakfast, although, I’m not sure why he’s complaining about that
Afterwards, we explored the Shinjuku, Shibuya and Harajuku areas for a bit. We just got lost for the afternoon walking up and down the streets popping in and out of sneaker shops and second-hand clothing stores.
One thing we learned, they love customized shoes and clothing in Japan. We went into a Converse store where you could get a pair of white converses and have a customized design on them. The Nike store we went in also did customized screen print t-shirts. They make for awesome souvenirs, but, sadly I didn’t have any room in my suitcase for another pair of shoes. Just means I have to visit again and get some then!
We strolled around Nakameguro for a bit to look at the cherry blossoms before heading to Will’s aunt’s house for shabu shabu and staying the night before heading to Kyoto the next day. We were a little early for cherry blossoms, his cousin said the flowers were at 40% bloom (one week too early!) but, they were stunning nonetheless.
And now, prepare to be inundated with more cherry blossom photos…
Things we wish we had time to do
There is so much to do in Tokyo, but we didn’t have enough time and/or didn’t make reservations in time considering this was all put together in about two weeks. Here are some things I’d recommend (and I love to do next time):
- MariCAR Tour – suit up in your favorite Mario Kart character and zip around the streets of Tokyo!
- Imperial Palace – you need a reservation and we couldn’t get either of the days we were in Tokyo.
- Samurai Museum – we heard from Will’s cousin this was pretty cool; unfortunately, it was undergoing some renovations and was closed when we visited.
- Food Tour – there are some really cool alleys for eating, you just need to know where to go. The night time tours are reasonably priced and will take you to the spots you probably wouldn’t have found on your own (especially if you don’t speak Japanese).
Kyoto was the original capital of Japan; it only moved to Tokyo in 1868. Given the amount of time (794 – 1868), many feel Kyoto is still the true capital. It is very different compared to Tokyo – things look a little older and it moves a little slower. The mix of old and new throughout the city is had to ignore; malls are erected just a short walk away from temples that are all over the city. If you find yourself in the right place and at the right time, you might even be able to catch a glimpse of a geisha walking the small streets in Pontocho.
Before we get started on Kyoto, let’s not forget to pay attention to the Shinjuku train station where we got on the bullet train to Kyoto. Come hungry, there is food abound, and it is TASTY. We probably went a little overboard but, we had a hard time choosing from all the delicious options.
Day 1 – Silver Pavilion, Philosopher’s Path & Kiyomizu-dera Temple
When we left Tokyo we checked the weather only to find out it would be raining almost the entire time we would be in Kyoto. This was tough because so much of our plans revolved around walking around Kyoto. The first day wasn’t supposed to start raining until later in the afternoon, so we packed our rain jackets and umbrellas and set off for the Silver Pavilion and Philosopher’s Path, hoping to get in a leisurely walk before the rain.
I have been to the Silver Pavilion before, but it was still neat nonetheless to walk around it. The street leading to the entrance is lined with shops selling all sorts of drinks and treats with matcha in it. If you like matcha, Kyoto is the place to go, trust me. The pavilion is also the start of the Philosopher’s Path. It is a stone pathway that follows a canal that is lined with cherry trees. Unfortunately, we were too early for the cherry blossoms in Kyoto, so we didn’t see them during our walk. There are a fair number of shops and cafes along the walk, as well as, smaller temples and shrines.
The walk is about 2km, once we reached the end, we just got a cab that took us back to the central Kyoto that was lined with shops and matcha/dessert cafes. It had started raining pretty heavily by then, so we took cover in a dessert shop and had a little snack hoping to wait out the weather. We hopped in a cab and went to Kiyomizu-dera Temple for the last bit of our sightseeing for the day before checking into our hotel and resting before dinner.
Kiyomizu-dera temple is quite impressive as it is built without the use of a single nail. It was spring break for a lot of the college students, so the temple was flooded with visitors in brightly colored kimonos. Unfortunately, part of the temple was under construction, but it was still nice to walk around. It was a little early for cherry blossoms in Kyoto, but we were able to catch a photo or two around the temple before it started to rain again. Leaving the temple, we felt a little like salmon swimming upstream as there were so many people still visiting despite the rain. In retrospect, since the temple is open 24 hours, we probably could have chosen another time to visit, but it was a good way to spend our time while waiting to check-in to our ryokan for the night.
What are Ryokans?
Ryokans are “guest houses” in Japan, kind of like a bed and breakfast. Generally they are smaller and owned by a family. You can find them all over Japan, but apparently Kyoto has a pretty large number of them compared to other cities. We read about this one ryokan that was almost 200 years old and has been run by the same family for over seven generations. They also have a special kaiseki dinner – a traditional multi-course Japanese meal that was raved about, so we decided to splurge a little and stay here one night.
The ryokan was incredibly charming from the helpful staff, the charming courtyard to our traditional Japanese room (futons on a tatami mat and a small table for us to sit and drink tea). I loved that our room didn’t have a tv in it, it made the experience more enjoyable. Tall people beware – the door frames were a little short for anyone over 6 feet.
The dinner that night was nothing short of amazing. It was easily one of my favorite parts of our trip. It was an eight course meal prepared by the current owner, who is the 7th generation son. He goes to the market every morning and dinner is based on what he saw that morning. A lot of our vegetables were also picked from the nearby mountain, which was also pretty interesting. If you don’t know me, one fact about me is that I’m not the most adventurous eater. However, when we went to Japan, we made a deal that I had to try everything at least once. I must say that everything in this meal as so fresh and delicious, there was really only one thing I wasn’t a huge fan of – the palate cleanser (I think it was maybe dish 6?). It was a soy gelatin, with a clam and some sort of fish paste – I took one bite and said “OK PALATE IS CLEANSED.” Below are some of the dishes we tried.
Day 2 – Arashiyama, Yamazaki & Nishiki Market
Kyoto has so many temples and shrines, you can very easily get “templed out”. Will and I both felt we had seen our fair share of temples between this trip and the last time we each visited with our respective families. With that said, we only planned on going to a few in Kyoto. Our second day we reserved for going to Arashiyama which is in northern Kyoto. It is known for its famous bamboo forest among other things. Go early in the morning, otherwise it will be pretty crowded by the time you get there.
After that, we took a taxi to a shrine that is just past the preserved street, we were really glad to have made that detour. Unlike the bamboo forest, there were no crowds, in fact, we might have been the only ones. The neat thing about this shrine were all the figurines, about 10,000, all with different facial expressions. After spending an hour or so walking around there, we opted to walk by to town, so that we could take some time to explore the “Preserved Street”. This street is mainly some shops and cafes, but the buildings retained the traditional style, hence the name.
We had planned to rent some bicycles ride to other sites around the town, including the monkey forest. Unfortunately, it started to rain just after finishing our walk through the forest, so opted to go to Yamazaki instead after a coffee break at %Arabica to warm us up (although, one might say the whisky would have accomplished that as well).
For whisky drinkers, Yamazaki may sound familiar as Suntory Yamazaki is a well-known Japanese distillery in the Osaka prefecture. It is maybe 15 min by train from Kyoto (or less). If you want a tour of the distillery, make sure you make reservations well in advance as there were no available tickets for walk-ins. We opted for visiting the museum and having ourselves a little tasting. The tasting first of all was awesome, we got to try different varieties and ages and they were all about $3/tasting (except for Yamazaki 25, that was ~$20/tasting and limit to one per order). We thought it would be cool to get a bottle that we can’t get back in the States to drink on special occasions. Unfortunately, they only sell a limited number of bottles per day and by 1:30PM (when we were there), they already sold out.
Once we got back to Kyoto, it was still raining pretty heavily, so we found shelter at the Nishiki Market. It was pretty crowded, probably because others had the same idea, which made it difficult to really enjoy moving through the market. However, there were some pretty interesting things that we saw which ranged from pickled veggies to mini octopus with quail eggs stuffed in the head to a variety of matcha teas and sweets. There were also plenty of small shops that sold some souvenirs that we brought home, as well as, Japanese knife shops.
For our last night in Kyoto, we went to dinner in Pontocho and walked around the area afterwards, since it FINALLY stopped raining. If you are lucky you might spot a geisha or a meiko (geisha in-training). Just don’t follow them or try to bug them to take a picture, they are just going on with they day or night. Police will also chastise you if they see you bothering them.
Day 3 – Fushimi Inari
Before heading to Hakone, we visited Fushimi Inari shrine. I had been there in the past, but Will hadn’t, and its a pretty neat place to visit so we thought, “if we wake up early, we can beat the crowds.” Wrong. Oh. So. Wrong. It was pouring down rain AND we got there around 8:30AM, and it was still so crowded. I blame social media – when I visited the first time, the crowds were a fraction of what they are today. In any case, about this special shrine…
This shrine is famous because it has over 10,000 tori gates that line a path all the way up to the top a hillside that overlooks Kyoto. The tori’s are donated by those who’s luck or fortune came true and come in all sizes. Around the shrine, you’ll see a bunch of fox statues, most holding wheat or grain in their mouths to symbolize plentiful crops for farmers – which was initially what people came to pray for. Most just go through the main tunnel and then walk a little bit further on before calling it a day and heading back to the main area. However, we decided to do the entire loop, which was pretty relaxing as the crowd quickly dwindled. Soon enough, we found ourselves the only ones walking along the path. Safe to say we also go our “steps” in at this shrine.
By now, it was time to head back to the train station and head to Hakone – an “adventure” we definitely did not see coming.
Known for being a hot spring town just outside of Tokyo and the views of Mt. Fiji (if you are lucky!), we thought this was the perfect place to stop for a relaxing day in the hot springs as our trip was winding down. When Will and I vacation, the first few days are usually VERY busy and then we the second half of the trip it is a big more relaxing. I’m not sure why, but that’s just how we operate, which is why Hakone was the perfect stopover.
First off, let me say we were unlucky in getting to Hakone and once we were there. I would totally recommend people to visit this town, we experienced a freak weather pattern (thank you Mother Nature), so we didn’t get to fully experience all the town has to offer. It rained the majority of the trip – we had one or two sunny days in Tokyo and I think one sunny day in Kyoto. The rest was pretty wet. Hakone took it to a whole new level though. We boarded the train in Kyoto, it was about 65 degrees and partly butty. Then we arrive in Odawara and we find out that the trains going to and from Hakone are delayed because it snowed 12 over the course of the day and the tracks needed to be cleared. Uhhh excuse me?!
This is where things go dicey – it all worked out in the end (mostly) so I won’t go into the details, but it was nothing short of an “adventure”. We had the option to just go back to Tokyo, but the hot springs were calling. We finally arrived in Hakone, much later than we had planned and luckily the hotel was able to find us another room despite cancelling our initial room. Because of the inclement weather, nobody would pick us up at the train station and there was no other way to get to our hotel, so the hotel cancelled our reservation. By this time, we just wanted to change into some comfy clothes and have a hot meal.
We ran into a little snafu with dinner, but the hotel was able to accommodate us in their restaurant after some “sweet talking.” By “sweet talking” I mean, we let a very angry European woman finagle a table and we just said “oh add us to the list as well” because there is no such thing as sweet talking in a rule abiding society like Japan. We hadn’t planned on another kaseki meal, but that’s pretty much all the restaurant does for dinner – there are worst things that could happen.
It sounds like our stay in Hakone was unpleasant, I assure you it was quite relaxing after dealing with the aforementioned obstacles; but other that it was smooth sailing, mostly. We had a private hot spring bath on our balcony (the piping pumped hot water from the spring to the tub, SO COOL — err hot?), so we enjoyed that after dinner. It was pretty magical sitting out there enjoying the hot water with the view of snow covered trees; all the snow melted by the next morning, but it was still pretty nonetheless.
The next morning, we had breakfast and enjoyed the hotel’s gender separated public baths. This was a really interesting experience, and I highly recommend it if you get the chance to experience a Japanese onsen. This particular hotel, had a handful of baths inside and two large infinity pools that overlooked the town outside. The other onsen (they switch every day so each gender can enjoy both scenes), had more of a forest/waterfall view. No pictures were allowed as others are bathing – well, because others are bathing.
Unfortunately, the freak snow storm was still impacting public transportation in Hakone that next day, so we didn’t have access to see the sights. The concierge told us “you can take a taxi, but let us know 2 hours in advance so we can get you one since demand is high”. We took that as a sign we should just head back to Tokyo. Besides, it gave us time to revisit places we Tokyo that we wanted to spend more time, so it all worked out.
Other tips/good to know before you go
Get a JR Pass before you visit Japan; make sure you order it at least a week before your trip to make sure you get it in time. Also, don’t activate the rail pass at the airport, wait until you get into Tokyo. First reason, we realized that our rail pass expired one day before our last day in the city, so we had to buy a ticket for the Narita express instead of using our JR pass. You don’t want to be in a rush to get to the train only to realize like you need to get a ticket AND none of the machines accept a foreign (non-Japanese) credit card. Its not fun. Secondly, the line to activate your JR pass at the airport is a massive time suck. The line was so long; the line at the ticket office in the city was much shorter.
Subways are super clean, but also, super crowded
Watch out for that rush hour commute! Everyone will be packed in like a can of sardines.
Have cash or an acceptable ATM card
Japan is a pretty cash-based society, nobody wants to deal with paying those pesky credit card fees. Credit cards are acceptable at the airport, hotel, malls and fancy restaurants, but that’s about it. Everywhere else is generally cash only, so make sure you have some.
Read up on onsen etiquette before bathing. The TL;DR: take a shower before getting in; no tattoos (at most onsens); no photography (besides use this as a chance to relax and disconnect); and no towels in the baths.
Don’t be THAT tourist
People in Japan are extremely polite and quiet in public places. You’ll notice the trains are super clean and super quiet. Don’t be that tourist who is talking super loudly to their friends on the train or on their phone.
There are no trash cans around
This seems like a silly tip, but we found ourselves carrying our empty coffee cups or bottles of water with us for almost the entire day because we just never saw public trash cans. How they manage to keep the city so clean without them is pretty impressive. I don’t even want to imagine what SF might look like if you took away all of the trash cans here. Gross, I just did. In any case, be prepared to be holding your waste unless you toss it before leaving a cafe or restaurant.