A few weeks ago, my friend Cricket and I took a two-week trip to Japan, covering Tokyo, Kyoto, and Sapporo. At the bottom of this post (under the dashed line) is a detailed account of what we did, for those of you interested in traveling to Japan and want tips. Immediately below are a few observations I hope will be interesting to all. You can see all my photos in my Facebook photo albums (13 albums named "Japan, Day X...") or just the highlights on my Instagram.
- Steamed sesame milk in coffee (at Ueshima coffee, a chain we found in Kyoto and Sapporo) quickly became our favorite morning beverage. They also served thick-cut toast with butter, which we enjoyed.
- You hear tales of train employees physically squishing you into the train at rush hour, but our experience was that passengers squish themselves into the train and the employees help when they need to. I saw a train employee come by and hand a woman her bag which was hanging outside the door. The point is, in Japan, people don't stand in the doorway.
- The legs on the men who pull the rickshaws are finest looking legs I've ever seen.
- Some Japanese establishments play "Auld Lang Syne" at closing time. Cricket and I noticed this peculiarity as we were leaving Nijo Castle in Kyoto. It turns out to be a Japanese song set to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne," and the reason for this is colonialism/imperialism blah blah blah.
- You hear that Japanese people generally go out of their way to help lost tourists, and this was definitely true in our experience. On three occasions, kind strangers came up to us because we looked lost, and on two of those occasions we were indeed lost. On the third occasion, we'd just stopped to say hello to a dog, but an old women walking with a cane crossed the street to see if she could help us.
- Speaking of dogs, nearly every dog in Japan in a shiba inu.
- In the mornings, monks walk around the Teramachi Dori area of Kyoto chanting. One morning I listened closely, and it was four monks each holding a different pitch, resulting in a sort of seventh chord (I'd like to go back and determine what type, but in my memory it is something in the neighborhood of half-diminished). Whenever a monk would stop to take a breath, he'd immediately rearticulate the same pitch he'd been chanting, adding interest to the sound.
- Most restaurants and cafes in Japan have stuff baskets under the seat/table for you to stash your bag/coat etc while you eat.
- Like the Denver airport, subway and regional trains come with their own arrival and departure music, and it's all charming. Even the cash machines sang a little song for each action it completes (a different sound for returning your card, printing your receipt, and dispensing your cash).
- Cricket and I attempted to learn a little Japanese before our trip, if nothing else to show we were trying. We were able to get by with English most places we went, but we managed most of the pleasantries in Japanese. I came to notice that store employees would giggle at me when I'd wish them a good night, saying "oyasuminasai." Cricket and I couldn't figure out why they were so amused, googling and double-checking phrase books, all of which confirmed that "oyasuminasai" means "good night." Finally, we asked our American-born tour guide in Kyoto what gives. He told us that "oyasuminasai" is closer to a "sweet dreams" sentiment than a "good-bye." It's what you say to someone who's about to go to bed. After I learned that, I made sure to keep wishing people "oyasuminasai" because I enjoyed the reaction I got.
Thanks for reading!
For those of you interested in details, here is our itinerary:
TOKYO: 5 nights, 4.5 days
- LODGING: Kimi Ryokan, Ikebukuro, Toshima ward. Kimi Ryokan is a "budget ryokan." Small room just large enough for a futon mattress laid on the floor (times the amount of people you're sharing a room with). Communal bathrooms, lounge area for eating any anything else you might want to do seated at a table. Free private relaxation tub available for reservation. Great value: it amounted to around $30 per night per person.
- MONDAY: Arrival at Narita Airport and JR train to Ikebukuro (FYI: we bought 2-week unlimited JR passes for around $400 each. I didn't crunch the numbers to see if it ended up being worth it, but it did make travel easier since all we had to do was show the pass to get into the station). Dinner at Ichiran Ramen and then collapsed into bed.
- TUESDAY: Shinjuku Gyoen (national garden and park), Yoyogi Park with Meiji Shrine and garden, lunch and shopping around Harajuku/Jingumae, including a visit to "HARRY" Hedgehog Cafe. Dinner at Yayoiken in Ikebukuro (Teishuko cuisine)
- WEDNESDAY: Bus from the Shinjuku Highway Bus Terminal straight to Mt. Fuji 5th Station. Saw a shrine and walked some trails. Dinner at Shin Udon in Shinjuku, and shopping at Tokyu Hands.
- THURSDAY: Tsutaya Books in Ginza, Walked around the Imperial Palace and through the Imperial Gardens, National Museum of Modern Art (Momat) where there was an exhibit on the history of the Japanese house. Afternoon and evening in Setagaya ward with Cricket's friend Hiroki as our guide: Sangen-jaya, Gotokuji shrine (featuring Maneki-neko, the iconic Japanese good-luck cat), and dinner and shopping in Shimo-kitazawa (dinner at a great okonomiyaki place called Hiroki, no relation to our Hiroki).
- FRIDAY: Maruzen bookstore in Marunouchi OAZO, Ikeda Manabu exhibit at Takashiyama in Nihonbashi, rode the Yurikamome aboveground train with beautiful views of the city to Odaiba, where we ate at a ramen food court, walked along the water, and went to the Museum of Emerging Science (Maraikan). Met my friend Shohei in Ebisu for dinner (with shopping in Atre before)
KYOTO: 4 nights, 3.5 days
- LODGING: Seibido Inn, near City Hall, Nakagyo ward. Similar to Kimi Ryokan, but our room was at least 4 times bigger and we had our own bathroom. The lounge was also much larger, and in general we had much more room to breath and spread out. Cost came to around $50 per night per person, and the extra money was worth it. The location was great. We walked to most places, and we were very close to trains and buses.
- SATURDAY: Shinkansen to Kyoto station and a taxi to Seibido. Once we were settled, we took our first of many walks through Teramachi Dori shopping arcade and Nishiki Market. We found lunch at a fast-food udon place called Hanamaru, and visited Nijo Castle and the garden/spark surrounding Kyoto Imperial Palace. We also took our first of many riverwalks along Kamogawa. Dinner was a collection of findings at a supermarket and 7-Eleven consumed in the lounge at Seibido Inn
- SUNDAY: Bus to Arashiyama for bamboo grove, shrines, a lunch of shojin ryori (Buddhist temple cuisine), and the Arashiyama Monkey Park. After a quick stop back at the inn, we set our for shopping and dinner in the Teramachi/Nishiki area, a jut southeast for a gin bar, and then a walk along the river back to Seibido.
- MONDAY: JR to Nara for the Great Buddha statue in Todai-ji, with stops along the way to feed deer and stare at a pagoda in Kofuku-ji, plus lunch at a curry place and snacking at Cafe de Crie (chain). On the way back to Tokyo, we dipped our toe into Fushimi Inari Shrine, and then made it another 7-Eleven dinner night (honestly, tourism is exhausting).
- TUESDAY: A stop at the post office to mail some gifts home, and then Nishiki Market tour (through Arigato Japan) culminating in a Kaiseki lunch at Omenohana. After lunch, we went back to Nishiki Market to make our delicious purchases, and then ventured across Kamo River to the Gion neighborhood of Kyoto where we walked the scenic Shinbashi-dori, walked through Yasaka Shrine, gazed at a statue of Kannon (Buddhist figure), stalked and eventually caught up with Yasaka Pagoda, and then had dinner at a ramen place we came upon. Craving something western, we had a drink at a drink at Pig & Whistle, and then crossed the river back to familiar territory and had a beer at a local place on our way to the inn.
NOBORIBETSU: 1 night, 1/2 day
- LODGING: Noboribetsu Grand Hotel. We decided to treat ourselves to something familiar. This was a western-style restort hotel, although they did offer eastern-style rooms and there were public baths. There was a huge dining room, two restaurants, and a bar. Price was around $200 for the night (total).
- WEDNESDAY: Shinkansen from Kyoto to Noboribetsu (transfers at Tokyo and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto). After check-in, dinner at one of the hotel restaurants, followed by a drink at the hotel bar.
- THURSDAY: Breakfast in the dining hall and a visit to the public baths, then we toured Noboribetsu Onsen: Jigokudani ("Hell Valley hot springs"), a nature trail, Oyunuma lake, and Oyunuma Brook Natural Foot Bath. Lunch and shopping on the one street in Noboribetsu that has restaurants and shops. JR train to Sapporo.
SAPPORO: 4 nights (1 in Chitose), 3 days
- LODGING: An Airbnb near Susukino Station, Chuo ward. Finding the place was a bit of a challenge, but once we got there everything else was a breeze. Cricket paid for this so I'm not sure of the price.
- THURSDAY: With some help from a kind stranger, we took the "Shiden" Sapporo Streetcar to where we thought our Airbnb was located. We didn't have a kind stranger to help us find the Airbnb itself, but after some texting with the owner, we were inside and happy. We had a beer at a place with no English menu, and then dinner somewhere else ("Organic+"). After a stop at 7-Eleven for dessert, we settled in for the night and watched "Terminal" on Netflix (due to a sudden Stanley Tucci inspiration).
- FRIDAY: After coffee and thick toast at Doutor (coffee chain), we walked through the crab market down to Toyohira River. We walked along the river to Naebo station where we took the Hakodate JR line to Nopporo Park. There we visited the Historical Village of Hokkaido and walked some trails in Nopporo Natural Forest. We got back on the Hakodate line in the direction we came, going through Sapporo to the other side for an evening in Otaru. We walked the canal, had dinner at the Beer Hall, and dessert at Mister Donut before training back to the Airbnb.
- SATURDAY: Streetcar to Mt. Moiwa ropeway where we chit-chatted with a friendly stranger who seemed to want to practice her English. Lunch and shopping at Sapporo Stellar Place, then walked to Sapporo Beer Museum and tasting room, where we got to try the much acclaimed Hokkaido cheese. From there we walked and then sat for a spell in the "Sapporo Factory" which is really just a shopping mall. We had dinner at Fugetsu (DIY okonomiyaki place) at "Paseo" in the Sapporo train station.
- SUNDAY: Checked out of the Airbnb and brought our luggage to the lockers at Sapporo Station, and then spent the rest of the morning and some of the afternoon at Maruyama Zoo. We had a quick dinner at Sapporo Station before training to Chitose for our last night in Japan. After checking in to the Chitose Airport Hotel, we took advantage of the free onsen deal at their partner hotel "Area 1," and then walked down to our last Japanese river (Chitose River) and around town, ending with one last trip to Mister Donut.
- MONDAY: 7:30am flight out of New Chitose Airport. TIP: Chitose Airport doesn't open until 6:30am.
Notes on weather/time of year:
- Internet wisdom was that the best times of year to visit Japan are late spring and early fall. We chose the latter (last week of September–first week of October). Temperatures in Tokyo and Kyoto were in the 80s, but more comfortable at night (still short-sleeves weather, though).
- Mt. Fuji was cooler, in the 60s, and we only went up to the 5th Station (FYI: everything above the 5th Station is closed by early September).
- We were expecting Sapporo to be colder. Temperatures ranged from the 50s to the 70s while we were there. We did get to see the beginnings of fall color while in Sapporo.
- It rained three times while we were there (once in each place), but none of them were really fun-ruining rain. We made minor changes to our plans, but didn't have to resort to hiding inside very much.