26 May 2014

Ten Days in Japan

Apologies in advance for the somewhat epic post, but I didn't want to split this up.

I started planning my trip to Japan almost a year ago and booked my flights during BA's Christmas sale, but I only really got down to fleshing out the details a couple of months before I left. I booked only a ten-day trip because I was worried it was going to be very expensive, but it was a lot more affordable than I expected, especially outside Tokyo. If you are thinking of making a similar trip, I would recommend you add at least two days to your itinerary — one in Tokyo and one in Kyoto or Hiroshima — not because I feel like I missed out on any experiences, but because I didn't have much in the way of down time.

I booked my hotels through Booking.com and apart from the one I stayed in on my last night in Tokyo, chosen for its proximity to the central station, I was impressed by the the thoughtful details and personal touches even at this cheaper end of the hotel spectrum.

As usual, the Lonely Planet was my guidebook of choice — not least because their Japan guide was updated in 2013. As soon as I mentioned on Facebook that I was heading to the Land of the Rising Sun, numerous friends offered tips and recommendations, which were a great help when planning my trip. I was also inspired by Alexandra from The Frugality's Tokyo and Kyoto city guides; thanks, Alexandra!

My overnight flight landed at Narita airport at 8.30 am and I was at my hotel by 10 am. If you have a choice of airport, Haneda is much closer to the city centre, but Narita is still only an hour by bus or train from the city. I stayed four nights at the Grand Arc Hanzomon, which I picked mainly because it was was central and with a good running route — the 5k circuit around the outside of the Imperial Palace. The neighbourhood is pretty quiet but the Hanzomon subway station is only two minutes' walk away and will take you to Shibuya, Ginza and most of the other central neighbourhoods in about 15 minutes. I got a good deal on Booking.com and my double room was ¥9,800 (about £57) per night. My room was on the ninth floor with a great view over the Imperial Palace and the city skyline. The wifi was fast and reliable, and there was a wealth of amenities in my room. Overall, it had the feel of a much nicer hotel than the "budget business hotel" I was expecting. The first photo is the view from my room and the second is of the Imperial Palace gardens (the hotel is the curved building on the left).

My last night before flying home was at the Pearl Hotel Yaesu, which was a budget business hotel. My single room was minuscule and not particularly attractive, although comfortable, quiet and with good wifi. Its main selling point was its proximity to Tokyo station, as I knew I would be arriving from Hiroshima in the evening and leaving early in the morning for the airport. It cost ¥9,000 (£52), only slightly less than the Grand Arc, which tells you how important location is in this city.

In Tokyo, the world is your oyster — often quite literally. The highlights for me were:
  • Visiting the Tsukiji fish market and eating the world's freshest sushi (go now because the market will be moved to make room for the Olympic park). I didn't go to the 5 am auction, but if you're jet-lagged and have no problem waking up early enough to queue by 4 am, you'll have a blast. I ate my sushi set at Daiwa Sushi (¥3,500) and highly recommend it. Obviously, the food in the city is, in general, excellent and varied; you can't really go wrong.
  • Shopping, especially in Omotesando and Shibuya. Check out my shopping guide for more information. Don't miss the madness of the Shibuya Crossing, either: Starbucks has the best aerial view of the perfectly choreographed chaos.
  • The Tokyo Sky Tree. I'm a sucker for high-altitude viewpoints and the Sky Tree is about as high as you can get in Tokyo. It's pretty expensive, especially if you go all the way to the 450-metre top deck, but the view is spectacular. Try to go on a clear day to maximise the chances of seeing Mount Fuji, and try to go at sunset, so that you get to watch the city light up. At busy times (i.e. weekends, clear days, sunset), you will be given a ticket that will tell you what time you are allowed to start queuing so try to arrive early.
  • Shrines and temples. Sure, there are plenty of opportunities for this in Kyoto, but Tokyo's huge, scenic Meiji Jingu is an oasis of calm just minutes away from Harajuku, and Sensō-ji, Tokyo's oldest temple, adds a bit of culture and history to your visit to the nearby Sky Tree.
  • A day trip to Hakone. Cable-cars, isolated tea houses, pirate ships, eggs boiled in volcanic waters and, if you're lucky, great views of Mount Fuji. Plus, if you buy the Hakone Free Pass, you don't need to worry about buying separate tickets for all of these things. What's not to love? My friends also recommended Nikkō as another day-trip option from Tokyo.

Kyoto is a surprisingly sprawling city and the central station is actually not that central from a tourist's point of view. I stayed at the Kyoto Hana Hotel in Gion (the geisha district), which cost me ¥8,480 (£49). I chose the hotel because it was close to a lot of the historical and cultural sights, but also near the river for morning running, and the main shopping district just over the river. The hotel is one minute from the Sanjō Keihan subway station, which will get you to the central station in ten minutes. There are only two subway lines in Kyoto, as well as various other train networks and a good bus network. As usual, I walked as much as possible, supplemented with a few train or bus journeys.

Hana means 'flower' and my twin room at the hotel had some pretty flower paintings on the walls. On check in, I was asked to smell several fragrances and pick my favourite, so that I could have personalised toiletries and bath salts, which was a nice touch. The staff were friendly and helpful, my room was a decent size and the wifi was good, so overall, I was very pleased.

My highlights were:
  • Temple- and shrine-hopping. I really loved visiting Fushimi Inari — the one with the thousands of vermillion torii — but I would definitely recommend going at the start or end of the day to beat the crowds. Chion-in, a huge shrine complex, was also lovely, and although it was very crowded, I thought the Kinkaku-ji ('golden pavilion') was stunning.
  • Hop on a bus or the JR and head for Arashiyama. As well as the famous bamboo grove, you can visit the monkey park and have lunch overlooking the mountains. A lovely respite from the busy city centre.
  • Geisha dance. No, I didn't understand what was happening, but I was glad I went to a geisha dance because it was beautiful and so unlike the cultural activities I would normally choose in London. Different theatres put on performances at different times of year; there isn't always one being held, but if you can get tickets, do.
  • Aoi Matsuri. There won't necessarily be a festival taking place during your visit to Kyoto, but if there is, do try to go. I really enjoyed watching the huge, colourful procession for the 'hollyhock' festival, and it made me feel a million miles away from the metropolis of Tokyo — let alone London.
  • Café culture and shopping. Kyoto has a vibrant café society — check out this post for some of my picks — and there are a lot of great shops, particularly if you are looking for more traditional goods. The area around Shijō and Karasuma is a good place to start.

Hiroshima and Miyajima
I only had 24 hours in Hiroshima and Miyajima. I really liked Hiroshima's laid-back vibe and would have liked to spend more than a few hours there, but after a week of cities, I was craving a bit of island life. Miyajima is a small island a 25-minute train ride and a 15-minute ferry trip from Hiroshima. You can go as a day trip from Hiroshima but I wanted to spend the night on the island, to experience it without the day-trippers.

I stayed at Ryoso Kawaguchi, a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) set a few minutes from the famous 'floating' torii, the main shopping street and two very good coffee shops: Miyajima Coffee and Sarasvati. My room, which had tatami matting and a futon bed, was ¥7,500 (£44), and was comfortable and beautiful, although my noisy Spanish neighbours made me grateful that I had only decided to spend one night in traditional lodgings. I also ate dinner at the ryokan (¥4,860), which I would definitely recommend (you have to pre-book). The waitress kept bringing course after course of delicious and beautifully presented food. Afterwards, I went to look at the torii by night, and then returned for a soak in one of the ryokan's two stone hot tubs. Bliss.

Hiroshima and Miyajima highlights:
  • The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is informative, interesting and sobering (the admission was all of ¥50 -– 30p!). They have audio guides and also run some tours in English. The Peace Memorial Park is lovely too. You can hop on a tram to the park from the station.

  • Sampling the local cuisine at Okonomi Mura. Hiroshima's okonomiyaki are pancakes cooked on a griddle and filled with a combination of cabbage, egg, fish and meat. Okonomi Mura houses dozens of stalls selling different varieties, so pick your favourite, grab a seat at the griddle and pick up your scraper!
  • Miyajima ropeway. You can hike up Miyajima's Mount Misen but if you're short on time and/or energy, the ropeway will take you most of the way to the top. It's a 20-minute walk to the summit, but you will be rewarded with great views of Hiroshima and the bay. Just don't miss the last ropeway back or it will be a long walk down.
  • Itsukushima shrine with its large vermillion torii gate that appears to float at high tide has to be one of the most photographed sights in Japan. If you stay the night on the island, you can get photos at high and low tide, at sunset and by night, when the torii is all lit up. Yes, it's a cliché, but it would be a shame to come all this way and miss out on that one final torii!

General tips
  • Get a Japan Rail pass. It costs £168 for seven days' access to all of Japan's trains apart from the fastest of bullet trains (Nozomi), so if you're travelling around, it will save you money, and it will also save you the faff of queuing up to buy tickets at train stations (although you can also make free seat reservations). You have to buy a JR pass 'exchange order' before you arrive; I got mine from the Japan Travel Centre in London.
  • If you're planning on using the subway in Tokyo, get a SUICA pass (a bit like an Oyster card, for UK folks), which you can top up and swipe your way through subway gates, without having to work out your fare each time. My pass also worked on the Kyoto subway.
  • Seven-Eleven stores are ubiquitous in Japan and they serve a number of purposes. 1) They have good snacks (such as raspberry KitKats – my favourite!) and cheap sushi snack packs (go for the triangle packages of sushi rice with a filling; there are instructions on the bottom for how best to open the wrapping!). 2) Their ATMs accept foreign cards. As I had read that a lot of places (apart from hotels and big shops/restaurants) didn't take cards, I took a lot of cash with me and didn't need an ATM, but it can be tricky finding one for foreign cards outside Tokyo. 3) They often have public loos.
  • Do try to learn some basic spoken Japanese. I am a language geek and I learned a fair amount before I went, but although a lot of people speak some English, a little Japanese goes a long way. At the minimum, try to memorise these phrases, especially the bolded ones: 
    • sumimasen [soo-mee-mah-sehn] 'excuse me', 'sorry', or even 'thank you' in some contexts
    • konnichiwa [kon-neech-i-wa] 'hello' 
    • ohayou gozaimasu [oh-hai-yo goh-zai-mas] 'good morning'
    • konbanwa [kon-bahn-wa] 'good evening'
    • arigatou gozaimasu [ah-ree-gah-toh goh-zai-mas] 'thank you (very much)'
    • xx o kudasai [oh kooh-dah-sai] 'xx please' or 'can I have xx please'
  • Wifi hotspots are few and far between. Although most hotels offer wifi, restaurants, shops and tourist spots rarely do (Loft's Shibuya store is a good exception). As such, I planned each day in detail at my hotel, working on the assumption that I might not get the chance to look things up online later on. Try to get a good map app that works offline. The trouble is that although it's easy to get to the approximate area of your destination, the lack of street names and signage can make it hard to find the exact address without Google, so research as much as you can.

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