Traveling across Japan
I read some posts on Reddit where people were sharing their travel itineraries and destinations for Japan, so I decided to share pieces of my trips in 2017.
General Travel Tips
- Read the JapanTravel subreddit. Even if you are traveling to Japan in months or years, there are super-interesting posts on JapanTravel which can help you plan out your trip and learn from other travelers.
- WikiTravel has an article about every city, reads casually and without self-promotion.
- Keep your subway / train ticket handy to exit the station
- Some “pink cars” on the train are women-only. On longer distance trains there are “green cars” which are first class.
Many stations are big and have a lot going on inside. You should ask for help. There is an office at each train station’s turnstiles and the attendant is (unlike the NYC subway) generally open to looking at your map or guidebook, and helping you out. This video does not surprise me at all:
There is no Kyoto airport. If you want to start your trip in Kyoto, the easiest method is to arrive by express bus from the Osaka airport. Of course you have the option to take a bullet train from Tokyo.
Keep your eyes open for small, unexpected sights.
Nice views, shopping, central location.
A favorite sightseeing temple, great views, famous for autumn season.
A thousand unique statues in one temple, very different feel if temples and shrines are getting too repetitive.
Because I was traveling by foot and had limited time, I didn’t make it to several temples on my latest trip, including famous highlights of Kyoto such as Kinkaku-ji (the golden temple) and Ryōan-ji (the zen garden temple). If you want to see everything, it might make sense to see Kyoto with a tour group.
Recently-built mall and viewing platform, much higher than Tokyo Tower. When I went the weather was not good enough to see Mount Fuji.
Amazing candy makers, based in the SkyTree mall. This was amazing to see. I’ve read that you can take classes in their Asakusa-area shop.
This is home to the early-morning tuna auction and other fresh seafood shops for a long time. As you might expect, this is also a good place to find the best sushi and sashimi. This market is (super controversially) being moved to make way for the Olympics and other new developments, so I don’t know what you will see there when you make your trip.
The bookstore district — I totally nerded out here, looked at many books in many bookstores, bought a map of the Imperial Palace.
A guy who runs a sketching tour of Tokyo has a post on what you can see here: https://medium.com/@luismendo/a-little-quick-guide-to-jinboch%C5%8D-6eaf019caeed
The home of kappas, swamp goblin creatures in Japanese mythology. There is a shrine and many posters with this theme. I’d read about them in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them so this was cool to see IRL on some level.
Nearby there is a street with many fake food makers (for restaurant displays) and even fake food making classes.
There’s a nice temple here and lots of shopping… usually my eyes gloss over in shopping/retail areas, but there was a bunch of unique things here, and I found the perfect souvenirs.
Mori Art Museum
This was an attraction which I never heard of before my visit, but really enjoyed touring. You can see the museum’s current exhibits plus a view of the city.
Atago Shrine Stone Steps
This was another minor attraction which I found only through browsing Google Maps. There are steep steps up to the shrine and its koi gardens which represent challenges in life, or you make a wish at the top, or something like that.
This is a significant historical / architectural visit, but as I’ve seen others complain, there is not much you can do here beyond taking pictures and peering across the moat.
This is sort of like a Central Park for Tokyo. It’s a huge area next to Ueno train station, there are major museums and a zoo (with pandas). I had a complete lunch of panda-shaped foods here.
Beautiful temple in a wooded area which feels miles away from the rest of the city. This is also an opportunity to check out the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, and the Hachiko statue outside of Shibuya station.
Tonkatsu curry rice is one of my favorite Japanese foods back in the USA, so I got a quick lunch at these places a few times. Some curry counters now have a vending machine where you enter the type of curry sauce, meat, etc. which you want, insert coins (remember that the smallest bill is 1000 Yen), and get a paper ticket. The interface might be Japanese-only, and restaurant staff might be reluctant to help you with this self-service machine.
Yakitori (chicken kebab) with other specialties. This particular restaurant had a Japanese-language tablet where I made all of my orders. I’m allergic to shellfish, so I was wary of ordering one fried food and getting another. It was sometimes tricky to know the difference between the choices just from photos.
Kamakura Day Trip
I took a train from Tokyo to Kamakura, but decided to exit at Kita-Kamakura (the stop before) to visit temples along the way into town. There are some hiking trails which you can take up to other views and shrines.
Zeniarai Benzaiten Shrine
If you follow the right ritual here, washing your money in the cave stream, you can expect money in your future.
Kōtoku-in (Daibutsu / giant Buddha)
Nagano and Jigokudani Monkey Park
You can travel by bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano — it takes about 1 hour 40 minutes. Nagano has its own local train / subway which you can board in a different, underground section of the main station.
To get to the Monkey Park, the most cost-effective option is a bus which leaves from Nagano Station and has a special, obvious stop a 1–2 mile walk outside of the park. It is many times more expensive to take a taxi. I met some people who made a day-trip, Tokyo-Nagano-Jigokudani and back.
One issue which I and other visitors had was planning the return — the bus back to Nagano runs only a few times per day. We took a different bus to Yudanaka, boarded the local train, and transferred to a second train. All this took a long time to return into the city.
The snow monkeys are real, and cute, but don’t expect them to be either wild or cooperative. A park ranger type person whistled and tossed feed… monkeys came from all directions, racing right past people, babies in tow. Even with this, it took two hours before the first monkeys felt comfortable enough to take a dip in the spring. Was it the weather? Territory? Fights with other monkeys? We didn’t know.
You can see recent and archived snapshots at http://www.yudanaka-shibuonsen.com/snow-monkey-livecam and I consulted it just before going to Nagano to convince myself I had good chances of seeing the monkeys.
Local Attractions in Nagano
Zenkō-ji and many smaller temples
I ordered sashimi dinner and appetizers. The table had a built-in heater to keep me warm. The restaurant staff were asking each other if they could speak English for me, so I was lucky to speak Japanese here.
In February I went to the Japan Calligraphy Museum and Taito City Calligraphy Museum in Tokyo, and both were shuttered (despite visiting during regular business hours). I was unable to find out why.
I wanted to stay at the Book and Bed hostel (multiple locations in Tokyo, one location in Kyoto) and made an Airbnb booking. Later I changed my flight date and had to reschedule my book hostel stay. Next time!