The Japanese expression of gratitude we heard everywhere, almost always accompanied by a bow, delivered with a lilt, is so different from the distant almost insincere “thank you” we mutter in most parts of the world. And that is Japan for you: a modern, developed society, that is so genuine, still steeped in ancient culture, that it stands apart from every other developed country we have been to.
Before you go
Packing: there was much debate in the family about how to pack for our 8 days in Japan. We did China with backpacks and that worked really well. We wanted to do the same in Japan as we foresaw a lot of train and subway travel. But the kids argued that Japan has excellent infrastructure featuring long walks in train terminals and airports and very crowded subways, where a small rolling pullman would make more sense. As it turns out we found Japan was both — backpacks work best outside the big cities and the rolling bags worked better in the giant train terminals. So you cannot go wrong either way.
What to pack depends a lot on the weather and the activities you have planned. Most places our casual clothes from back home worked just fine. And we ate in some fairly high-end establishments in smart-casual clothing so we could pack light.
Language: English language proficiency even in Tokyo was surprisingly low, especially compared to parts of China like Shanghai. So brush up on a few Japanese phrases if you would like to — we did not and yet managed to do just fine. Most information desks and hotel desks have an English speaker.
Money: Look up what a dollar is worth in Yen. When we went it was 110Y per USD, so we pretty much treated each yen like 1 US cent to do our travel planning. Japan is notorious for being cash-based almost everywhere except the most touristic endeavors so plan on withdrawing cash at ATMs (at the airport, post offices, or at ubiquitous 7–11 stores). They do have ATMs everywhere but these generally do not work with international cards. So carry $100 to cover any unforeseen outages at airport ATMs but otherwise head straight to one when you land. We found ATMs would not give us more than 30000Y in most cases but some would allow me to withdraw 40000Y. We had to call our US banks at least once to clear fraud alerts but once we did, hitting the ATMs every day was a must-do
Pasmo Cards: Now another handy thing to do at the airport is to get yourself what is called an IC card (also called Pasmo cards). These are a chip-enabled prepaid card that most public transport and some merchants also accept for small purchases. When you arrive at Narita or Haneda, head to the information center and pick up one of these cards. We got a Pasmo card which requires you to put down a 500Y deposit, but you get your deposit back when you surrender your card. We loaded our Pasmo cards with 5000Y and used them for a few days at a time. You can do get your deposit refund at the airport on the way out of Japan. But these cards are a life-saver: they worked on almost all subway systems and city buses in several cities. Most subway rides are around 200Y depending on the distance traveled. Note: each person needs their own card — you cannot use the same card at the subway turnstile more than once per trip.
Phones: we didn't bother with getting a local phone SIM card as we did in many other countries we have been to, but an international roaming plan could be handy. We were pleasantly surprised to find a hotel issued phone with local data and voice in every one of our hotel rooms during our stay in Japan, so you can manage without a roaming phone.
Power: Japan operates at 100V, and 50 or 60Hz depending on which part of the country. Most US style plugs work just fine all over Japan. If your laptop charger has a third prong (grounding pin) you may want to carry an adaptor to make it work on 2 pins. You do not need a voltage converter in most cases for US travelers. Everyone else may need one!
Flights: We flew to Tokyo from New York City and if like us, you are taking an ultra-long-haul flight (ours was 14 hours) to arrive in Japan it may help to optimize your arrival logistics. Tokyo is served by two airports: Narita (the more common international airport) and Haneda (more recently revived to handle domestic and some international flights). Narita is 2+ hours from most parts of central Tokyo even if you take the faster Narita Express. Haneda is also an hour out and is accessible by subway. See more on this below to get oriented.
Hotels: Although most tourists prefer Shinjuku, Shibuya, or Ginza, you generally cannot go wrong no matter where you stay in the city. Optimize for cost, distance from the subway lines, and perhaps proximity to major train stations like Shinjuku. The airports are so far away that the distances from them should not be a factor to consider at all. You do not want to do a Ryokan in Tokyo (more on this below) although they do claim to exist — take the trip to Hakone or find one in Kyoto where the culture is more preserved than Tokyo and the hot water springs are likely to be the real deal.
Trains: Everyone swears by the JR Rail Pass. We did the math and decided for our itinerary it did not make sense, so we bought long-distance rail tickets on the day of travel at the counter. If you do get a JR Rail Pass, you have to get to the JR counters at large stations like Shinjuku in Tokyo or the lone station in a smaller town to get your JR pass activated. I saw several people doing this at Shinjuku and I would budget an hour to do this at least as the lines can be long.
Medications: This needs careful consideration given onerous laws in Japan for simple OTC meds, so this merits its own blog post someday, but I suggest you look this up here.
Arriving in Japan
We flew into Haneda and decided to take an Uber directly to our hotel in Shinjuku (8800Y). Taking the subway for four of us would have cost us half as much anyway and after a long flight that was super convenient. We were in our hotel room in about 40 minutes. If you arrive in Narita, my suggestion would be to take the Narita Express to Shinjuku and then switch to a taxi to your hotel for that first arrival. If you are fresh and are traveling light, figuring out the subway now may not be a bad idea.
You will likely arrive in Tokyo but we found Kyoto was similar for public transportation efficiency (just a lot less expansive network). The subway is the best way to get around within a city. Your IC/Pasmo card is your ticket to almost every one of the various lines which were often run by different rail companies. The JR Line (for Japan Rail) runs a circular route around Tokyo (similar to Circle Line in London) and has its own tickets so you may have to scan your IC card again when connecting to or from the JR Line. One thing we discovered by accident was that if you are traveling on Japan Rail long distance (between cities) the same ticket allows you to travel on the JR owned subway lines in each city. Between cities, we rode the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto and back and there are three levels of service(as in how often they stop; top speeds are comparable). Within smaller cities like Kyoto, buses and taxis made more sense sometimes based on where we were going and the fact that there were four of us.
Tokyo Subway information here.
There are enough guide books that will help you pick what you want to see. We are an “experiences and food” oriented foursome so I will recount what we did pretty much in order of awesome-ness.
Stayed in a Ryokan (Hakone): We chose to stay in a very traditional Japanese inn called a ryokan in rustic and scenic Hakone. We took the Romance Express from Shinjuku (Tokyo) to Hakone (about 1.5 hours) and then literally walked along the meandering river to our ryokan and through a time warp into another world. In addition to ritual soaking in hot spring baths, walking around in formal and informal kimonos barefoot on tatami mats, sleeping on traditional futons, and absolutely amazing service by a matronly caretaker, they served us some unforgettable Kaiseki.
This is a traditional Japanese gourmet dining experience with multiple courses. And breakfast next morning was also a similar out of world experience.
Woke up to Sushi at the Totsuya Fish Market (Tokyo): If you are surprised we have this at #2 that is because you have not experienced Sushi Dai in the new location of Tokyo’s wholesale fish market. We discovered — much like in our search for ceviche in Peru — when fish arrives on a boat in the morning, it is best consumed before noon. Usually they stop serving high end sushi (or ceviche in Lima) after noon. So we woke up relatively early despite jet-lag and queued up at 930am. They stopped the line behind us and sent everyone else home. We waited over 2 hours to get seated but when the Omikase (chefs tasting of sushi) began, it was a 13 step stairway to heaven I will never forget. It is hard to describe how good sushi can be so I will not try. In case waking up between 4am and 8am is not your thing, an alternative strategy is to show up at 1230pm and just hover until they let you in. About 10 people scored a spot this way. It is usually leftovers at this point but still worth it.
Slurped Ramen in Shinjuku (Tokyo): Shinjuku’s bustle was very familiar to us having frequented other busy Asian cities, but this place has a texture of its own. There are good Ramen places everywhere — Yelp works surprisingly well to find one. But when we showed up at Ichiran there was a long line around the block but it moved fairly quickly. Once you arrive you realize why. You punch in your order into a less than intuitive vending machine to configure your Ramen, add toppings and beer, and then wait to be led into what resemble a horses stall in a stable. You essentially sit in a row at a bar with dividers between your neighbors and wait until the drapes in front if you are raised and your order is placed in front of you. So there you are: all alone in the universe with a bowl of ramen in front of you (and perhaps a half pint of nameless lager to help if you find it too spicy). But then you realize why: because Ramen so good is meant to be consumed in solitude. Nothing comes between you and luscious broth, perfectly marinated pork, spices that have a hint of curry, and the intentionally unobtrusive beer.
Browsed Nishiki Market (Kyoto): An ancient market for perishables of all kinds (seafood, spices, fruit) offers an incredible smorgasbord of traditional Japanese delicacies: soft shell crab on a stick, to fish balls, and Japanese omelets. For purveyors of street food, this is a do-not-miss and also a cannot-fully-describe experience.
Prayed like the locals at shrines and temples: at Meiji Shrine in Harajuku, we first experienced the reverence of the Japanese towards their monarchs. The washing of hands before you pray, ringing of bells to draw attention to the person praying, and clapping are a consistent set of ritual there and at every other temple we visited.
Geisha in Gion (Kyoto): They are supposed to be elusive in the modern age but we saw at least three in the few hours we spent there. Walking around the alleys in Gion is nothing like walking around in seedy sections of other cities — so do not bring any preconceived notions with you. Kyoto is a beautiful ancient city and everything from the cherry blossoms lining the river and canals to the narrow restaurant lined alleys like Pontocho Alley are all mesmerizing. Do not miss stopping at the tea house here for noodles in sugar syrup with tea.
Perambulated the Kinkakuji, the Golden Temple (Kyoto): If you have ever seen picture postcards of Tokyo, you were probably looking at a picture of the gold-leaf covered Zen temple in northern Kyoto. Getting there by bus from Gion was a bother but when we got there it was an impressively serene setting.
Watched the sun set over Kyoto: We took the short hike up from Gion to Kiyomizu-dera Temple for a great view over the city. Then as the sun was setting, we walked down Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka — streets that take you back in time but painted surreal in the fading light. And just as we emerged back into contemporary Kyoto at the bottom of the hill, we discovered the best Donburi and Udon Noodle place in the city.
Plonked down $$$$ for Wagyu in Ginza (Tokyo): For those of us who enjoy a good steak, a Wagyu dinner is a must. We decided to do this at a Teppanyaki restaurant in Ginza and this being the upscale part of Tokyo, this was a truly outstanding fine dining experience. Again too good to miss and too hard to describe — but a good Wagyu steak dinner will set you back a bit.
Stumbled into fabulous meals: like fluffy pancakes in Ginza (Tokyo), and both Tempura and Hiroshima Style Okonomiyaki (sprouts and noodles covered with savory pancakes and/or eggs) in Tagadanobaba
Marveled at how clean everything was: everything in Japan is packed in plastic and packed again and sometimes a third time. Ubiquitous vending machines dispense pretty much anything you want at any time of the day or night. The Japanese love “highballs” (whiskey and soda, premixed) or “sours” (shochu with soda and fruit flavors), and beer, and coffee, all in cans if you want them. But astonishingly Japan was devoid of trash cans to get rid of your packaging after consumption. We had to carry candy wrappers for an hour at times before we found a place to dispose them off. Even more surprisingly, as a society they produce very small amounts of trash and I was amazed by how clean their trash trucks looked.
- Give yourself enough time to get a decent meal at train stations. There are many food options but not all of them are good. The bento boxes sold as take-away at train stations leave a lot to be desired. When there is so much good food to be had around Japan, give yourself some extra time to get a good sit down meal. But bring a beer with you to enjoy as your train speeds along at 300 kmph.
- Give yourself more time in the country if you can: we had 8 days and we could have seen more of Tokyo and Kyoto surely, and there is so much more to Japan