Back in high school, I got kind of into anime. My friends and I were the ones hanging out in anime IRC channels, and trekking across the state to conferences to meet with others of our kind. Although my love for anime isn’t what it once was, and I get winded playing 9 foot songs on Dance Dance Revolution, that started a fascination with Japan that has stuck with me. It lead to me taking Japanese language classes in college, getting really into Kurosawa and Miyazaki movies and wanting to someday travel there.
A Last Gift
I’d talked about traveling to japan with my mom during this time. Some of the places we’d go and the sites we’d see. When she passed away 2 months after I graduated college, I put a lot on hold. Rather than traveling or developing websites in my spare time, I was cleaning out and fixing up the house I grew up in. This meant driving from Orlando to St. Petersburg (90 minutes) on weekends for almost a year. It was without a doubt the most stressful time of my life so far.
On the weekend before my birthday, when the house was almost ready to sell, I was spending my weekend clearing out my moms room. In her closet, within a suitcase, I spotted a bank envelope. Written on it were the words “Adam to Japan fund”. I scratched my head and opened the envelope. Inside was $1,000 in cash, with a ledger on the side denoting deposits to it over the last year of her life. The thought behind this hit me hard, and I still tear up remembering it.
That was my moms last birthday gift to me.
Fast forward almost 8 years later. Marilyn and I have been together since before finding that special envelope, and had also put off this trip in favor of various other amazing trips. Towards the end of last year we decided this was the year and finally made it a reality.
The tl;dr of the trip is that it was amazing. We spent 4 nights in a hotel across from Nijo Castle in Kyoto, experienced mineral baths and amazing meals for 2 nights at a ryokan in Hakone and finished our trip by exploring Tokyo for 7 full days.
During our time in Kyoto, we took a food and sake tour with a local, who grew up in the midwest. We explored ancient shrines like Fushimi Inari and Kiyomizu-dera temple. Fed the sacred deer in Nara and explored the amazing temples of Japans first capital. We saw a Maiko (Geisha) performance in Gion, the historic home of the culture. We explored the ancient castles used by the Shogun. At only an hour away, making the side trip to Osaka resulted in some amazing okonomiyaki and culture shock.
In Hakone, we shed our shoes and enjoyed pampering and 12 course kiseki meals at a hundred year old ryokan. We took a ropeway tour of the mountainside and ate eggs boiled in Owakudani, a natural hot spring, before taking a ship across Lake Ashinoko.
With so much to do in Tokyo, there was no shortage of nightlife, food, shopping or culture to fill a week. We loved the feel of Hakajuku, littered with crepe stands, cafes, boutiques and second hand stores. Were were wowed by the sheer amount of people and lights in Shibuya. Walked through the blooming sakuras in Ueno park. Watched gamers and otaku wander the 6 floor arcades and model stores in Akihabara. Fullfilled a lifelong dream and visited the Ghibli museum. Woke up early and had sushi at the Tsukiji Fish Market. Had drinks at the Park Hyatt — famous for its role in Lost in Translation. Finished the trip with a very odd show — The Robot Dinner Show.
What to Expect
We did a lot of research before our trip, and it paid off. Going to Japan without some preparation will mean missing out on a lot of opportunities to make your trip better. Here are a few of the things we encountered that either came as a shock to us, or that seriously help out if you know about them ahead of time.
Bathrooms don’t usually have soap or towels. Most locals carry a small cloth to dry their hands.
Public trash cans don’t exist in Japan. If you have trash, you’ll probably need to carry it around until you get back to your hotel room.
There are many, many vending machines in Japan providing cold and hot drinks, instant ramen, beer, cigarettes and more. Next to each you’ll see a recycling bin. This is because it’s common for someone to buy and consume a drink right there. We didn’t see people drinking on the go. Either you bring it home or you drink it there. (If you’re a tourist it’s OK to do this though, no one’s going to be mad.)
People follow the law. Beer and cigarette vending machines don’t require an ID to purchase, but yet there isn’t an epidemic of kids buying them. The same machines in the US would either be policed or constantly empty. Same goes for simple things like waiting for the crosswalk to signal before crossing at 2am in a rural area.
Get a Japan Rail Pass to travel between cities using the Shinkansen (bullet train). You can also use it on the Yamonote line in Tokyo. You’ll need to reserve and have this delivered outside of Japan though. They give you a voucher, which you show at a JR office to get a full pass. There are JR passes in major airports, allowing you to grab it when you arrive. Make sure the station will be open when your flight gets in.
When it comes to trains, getting around between cities is easy using the JR Pass. You can show up at a station and make a seat reservation for the next available train. Since they leave every 30 minutes, you won’t be waiting long. You can also walk onto an “unreserved seat” car without a reservation.
For travel within cities, you’ll probably be using multiple companies subway lines. In Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo this applies. If you use the Google Maps, it’ll route you through this, but you’ll need to learn how to use the ticketing systems at each. All have an English option for the subway, but don’t have one for buying bus passes. We stuck entirely to subway and taxis for our visit.
Assume no one will speak English. It was always a nice surprise when people could help us, but don’t assume. It’s worth learning a few phrases like ‘sumimasen’ (excuse me) and ‘Eigo ga wakarimasu ka?’ (Do you understand English?) will help immensely.
The level of service everywhere was amazing. Restaurants, taxis, trains, hotels and anyone we talked to in the streets were very nice and no one was rude. Even with the communications barrier, people gave you their time with a smile.
Lots of articles on Japan mention you’ll be taking off your shoes often. Don’t listen to them. We took our shoes off a total of 3 times in 2 weeks (not including at the ryokan). Wear comfy shoes though. You’ll probably be walking a lot more than usual.
Get a mobile cellular device with wifi. We rented a pocket wifi from Pocket Wifi for about $80 which served as wifi for both of us and provided unlimited bandwidth. They delivered it to the post office at Narita Airport (outside Tokyo) and we picked it up right after we arrived. There were also some vendors in the airport selling these. Make sure the post office is open when you arrive though.
You won’t find any fancy breakfast places outside of ryokans. If you want breakfast, try a 7-11, a Dennys or a 24-hour noodle shop.
Some things you’ll want to reserve before you leave. These include a Japan Rail Pass, a pocket wifi, Ghibli museum tickets and imperial palace tours.
You’ll be going up more than you expect. Although most consumer shops and restaurants are at street level, on multiple occasions we had to take an elevator just to get to the entrance of a business. This was true for stores, restaurants and bars. These shops can be easily missed without exploring.
It rains a lot in Japan. Tokyo gets more rain than Orlando, Portland or Seattle (almost as much as Portland plus Seattle). You can buy umbrellas for $5 every few blocks in the city, and you’ll see piles of cheap, broken umbrellas in the touristy areas after a storm. These aren’t torrential downpours, but they are enough to drench you.
Almost every meal we had was between $30 and $70 total. Ramen meals came out on the $30 side for 2 people, while more fancy Japanese style meals with sake or beer were more like $70. Our entire food spend for 2 weeks was less than the cost of a night at Jiro.
Malls aren’t like malls here. They’re more like our department stores, with small, distinct stores very close to each other that all open/close at once.
What follows is a breakdown of the trip, day by day, with more pictures than I’ve ever included in a post. If you’re curious about Japan, or want to see some amazing sites, read on!