One of the best things about traveling to another country is that you get to hear and maybe try to speak a different language. It’s fun and even though you may butcher it a little (or a lot) and maybe say the wrong things, the locals usually appreciate a good effort. Reading a language that is completely different than yours though is a whole other story. In this case, I say “Thank God for the internet.” Not that it helped us read any of the Japanese characters on streets and shops, but that we were able to use our GPS and not get lost since we couldn’t read anything! (If anyone knows what that graffiti says, let me know!)
The first thing you need to know as an English speaker tackling this insane and beautiful country is RENT A POCKET WIFI. We rented ours from HERE and they mailed it to our hotel. You can also pick it up at the airport once you arrive and viola, you have instant wifi – which means instant GPS!
If you’re planning to get around by train, the best method is to buy a Japan Rail Pass (aka JR). You have to get this BEFORE you enter Japan. Yep, once you’re there, you can’t get it. And if you’re getting the rail pass, then download this app called HyperDia. It gives you train routes and timetables.
One last thing if you’re traveling by train – pack everything into a carry-on bag. You’ll be lugging that thing around up and down stairs sometimes, and the smaller the luggage, the easier it is to store on a train. Sorry kids, not all trains in Japan are Thomas the Train…but I’m sure glad we got the chance to ride this one!
Now that you’re prepared, let’s start exploring!
First stop, TOKYO – the most populous metropolitan area in the world! Bright lights, big city, food & shopping everywhere you look and very big on its own unique culture.
If you’re a travelmonger, you probably love trying all sorts of food. Well guess what? The Japanese aren’t just good at making Japanese food, they also excel at French, Italian, Spanish… They take food seriously here and Michelin has taken notice a while back, awarding Japan with more Michelin stars than France at one point. As of 2015, Japan has 12 three-star restaurants. Wow! (Not that any of these were from a 3 star restaurant, but they still tasted good. Clockwise from top left: yakitori, burnt miso ramen, green tea oreos, and red clam sushi -that was still moving when it was served – talk about fresh!)
Our first destination in Tokyo the morning after we arrived was Tsukiji Market. It’s more known for the famous fish auction, but there’s restaurants and shops there as well. People come here early to line up for some of the freshest sushi you can find on this planet. For breakfast. And by early, I mean 4am. Our lazy butts got there at 8. There was no way we would stay in line for 3 hours to wait for Sushi Dai to seat us in its small little 12 seat restaurant. (Or so we thought…)
Here’s what it’s like to try and cross from the shops & restaurants over to the actual fish market area. Remember that video arcade game Frogger?
What’s great about this market is that even though it’s a real place of business for people in the industry, they actually let tourists walk around and peer at all the different forms of sea life caught offshore ready to be bought, cooked, and served in a multitude of ways.
Besides Tsukiji Market, the other must-do item on our Tokyo list was Robot Restaurant. We had seen it featured in Bourdain’s No Reservations and had to see it for ourselves. It was every bit as bizarre and nonsensical as he said it was. You have to see it to believe it though. Katy Perry’s halftime show has nothing on this production!
Our last must-see in Tokyo? Cat cafe. Apparently there’s at least 39 of them in Tokyo. It’s becoming popular world-wide and I hear San Diego has one now. But when I’m home, I live in my own cat cafe with my two kitties. =)
Being in Tokyo for a few days, you feel the need for space. For greenery. Or at least we did. So we took a few side trips that were quick bullet train rides. (More details and Tokyo fun coming in a separate blog post.)
If I had done more research, I would’ve spent at least one night in Nikko instead of making it just a day trip. There’s a great deal to see there and one day just isn’t enough. But I was happy we ended up seeing the Kanmangafuchi Abyss and Toshogu Shrine. My favorite was the abyss since there was barely anyone there, unlike every else we went in Japan. November is when the Japanese maples show off their brilliant fall colors and attract a TON of visitors, from within the country and neighboring countries. Most places you go, you’ll be with everyone else and their mothers and brothers – and aunts, cousins, and grandmas too! But for some reason, there were only a handful of people at Kanmangafuchi Abyss. And it was heavenly.
(More photos of this beautiful town coming in a separate blog post.)
Ever since he saw an episode of snow monkeys bathing in hot springs on some nature channel, Drew’s had that on his bucket list. So a face-to-face encounter with snow monkeys was a must!
Fuji Five Lakes / Fuji Kawaguchiko
A great way to see Mt Fuji (if you’re not planning on climbing it) is to head to one of the Fuji Five Lakes and stay the night. We chose to stay near Lake Kawaguchiko because it was easily accessible by train (about a 3 hour train ride). This is one place you definitely want to spend the night. We stayed at our first ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) here and it was one of the highlights of our trip!
It’s hit or miss, seeing Mt Fuji, and our morning started off with it enshrouded by clouds. But with lots of luck and some sunshine, Mt Fuji came out to greet everyone that day. Bonus: Japanese maples in full color mode!
(More on Nagano & Fuji Kawaguchiko coming in a separate blog post.)
You can’t visit Japan without spending a few days in Kyoto, the former imperial capital. We loved this bike-friendly city with lots of old world charm. There’s much to see here and great little side trips too.
Kyoto is known for its abundance of temples and shrines. There’s practically one on every block like Starbucks here in the States, but a lot more meaningful of course.
We stayed in the Gion district while here and rented bikes for a few days. Gion’s fun to explore at night as you try to get a glimpse of the elusive geisha.
You won’t find them walking around town with each other, but you may be lucky enough to spot one getting in or out of a taxi or restaurant/tea house.
A must-see when you’re in Kyoto is a day trip to Fushimi Inari Taisha, the shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, god of rice, sake, and fertility. I’m sure every photographer who comes to Japan has this on their must-see list. It was definitely on mine (and this other photographer)!
It’s impressive in photos, but even more so walking underneath thousands of these tori gates. Inari is considered the patron of merchants and businesses. Each tori is donated by a business and the writing on the gate is of the business name.
(Much more on Kyoto and its side trips in a later post!)
Also known as “the nation’s kitchen”, Osaka is most famous for its okonomiyaki, a cross between an omlet and a pancake, with different meats, seafood, and vegetables thrown in. To be honest, we weren’t that impressed. I think it’s a late night drunk food and we weren’t drunk enough.
Our last stop before heading back to Tokyo was Miyajima (The shrine island), a small island south of Hiroshima. This is where the famous floating tori gate resides, though I discovered that it’s not always “floating”, only at high tide. At low tide, you can walk right up to it, which is what just about everybody did. Thus, no pic of this gate from me at low tide. It was a mad house! But when the tide gets higher…you get this.
More pics, tips, and highlights from each town coming in separate posts so stay tuned!