This spring, Greg and I decided to take a trip to Japan as our sort-of “late honeymoon.” It had been on my destination radar since I was a kid (because my dad’s band toured there) and I remember thinking there was nowhere more fascinating and far-away sounding than “Tokyo.” I filed it away as a place I someday wanted to see.
Greg had been to Tokyo before with his band (given their namesake and all), but had never been able to spend quality time traveling around and exploring. After hearing great recommendations from several friends who had visited there recently, and finding a direct flight deal to Narita from LAX, it seemed like the perfect choice and we booked it!
Overall, Japan was the tidiest, safest, politest, and most organized place I’ve ever been – and there was zero litter. I was especially taken with the natural beauty, particularly in the areas outside of Tokyo. The service was impeccable and there seemed to be a pride in the details. From the presentation of the food, to the decorative finish on the manhole covers – I guess it’s true when they say, “how you do one thing, is how you do everything.”
Speaking of details, I thought it might be helpful to get a sense of what needs to be done “before” your trip, and what can wait until you are “in country.”
(*Note: When we visited Japan, 100 yen was more or less equivalent to $1 USD – all costs listed below are approximate and in USD.)
To Do in Advance:
- Book your flight (Direct LAX to Tokyo = 9 hours)
- Book your accommodations (We booked everything through AirBnB for about $40/night, except one splurge on this traditional hot springs inn in Hakone which we highly recommend!)
- Japan Rail (JR) Pass (*Order online in advance of your trip)
- Pocket Wifi (*We added this to our JR Pass order and picked it up in the Tokyo airport when we landed)
And the rest we figured out as we went!
- If you plan to take the subway from the airport to your accommodations, print out the Google Maps directions; it will help you communicate with the airport staff so they can help direct you where you’re going.
- Buy a Pasmo or Suicia card when you land or on your first day in the city (it’s a reloadable tap card for the city transit system, different from the JR pass).
- 7-Eleven’s are the best place to find ATM’s that accept CDN/USD cards.
- Download Google Translate onto your phone (so you can use it offline as well) – almost everything, everywhere is in Japanese.
- Get a Pocket Wifi so you can use the internet/Google Maps wherever you are on your phone (It’s amazing – you can carry it in your purse and get internet whenever you need. You pay to rent the device and then you get unlimited use.)
- Look up the regional “must try” foods (there are many affordable Michelin-starred restaurants in Japan!)
Some Things That Surprised Me:
- Japanese toilets are DA BOMB. (Seriously North America – why don’t we have heated seats?) And pushing buttons is very exciting.
- McDonald’s “Teritama” breakfast sandwich is a good choice if your palette isn’t ready for fish first thing in the morning.
- Cat Café = less fun than it sounds, Rabbit Café = scary big rabbits, not bunnies.
- 7-Elevens are amazing in Japan! You can get a couple of rice triangles for a delicious and cheap lunch ($1.25 each). My favorite was the tuna with spicy mayo, Greg liked the spicy cod. Also get a chocolate-vanilla swirl ice-cream (in the freezer, already ‘coned’!)
- When it comes to purchasing unfamiliar snacks, assume it is fish-flavored.
- A hand towel is ‘big enough’ for bathing, even if you are initially doubtful.
- Public bathing is a great way to get over any body self-consciousness you may have!
- Salad can also be a breakfast food.
TOKYO –> HAKONE –> KYOTO –> TAKAYAMA –> TOKYO = 2 WEEKS
Taking the shinkansen train was comfortable and efficient (also, it travels ridiculously fast – I’ve never seen anything like it). You need to buy the JR pass before you get to Japan, but you can book your specific trip tickets once you get settled (it’s good to go to a JR station to do this, so you can reserve seats together). Also, it’s helpful to have your accommodation check-in/check-out times available for reference when booking your train tickets.
- Tokyo – 3 nights. With jet lag and the mass-stimulation of Tokyo, it took some time to adjust. We were happy to have 2 full days on the front end before traveling onwards.
*Direct train from Tokyo Station to Tokyo to Odawara Station (Hakone) = 40 minutes. Once we arrived, we took a 1 hour bus ride ($10 per person) to our hotel.
- Hakone – 2 nights. This was the perfect amount of time for us – relaxing, idyllic!
*1 hour bus back to station. Direct train from Odawara Station to Kyoto Station = 2 hours
- Kyoto – 2 nights. We felt like having 2 full days would have been a better amount of time (we only had 1.5 days, and it was rainy on one of them, so we felt a bit rushed.) Definitely stay longer if you want to visit nearby cities like Osaka.
*Train from Kyoto to Nagoya, transfer to the Hida Wide View Express bound for Takayama (travels through a mountain pass and is very scenic!) = 3.5 hours
- Takayama – 2 nights. We loved it here and it was such a special part of our trip! We could have easily spent a 3rd night here. It’s a beautiful, historic, sleepy, mountain town that sort of feels like Kamloops, British Columbia.
*Train from Takayama to Toyama, transfer to Hokuriku Shinkansen to Tokyo (a different scenic route to enjoy!) = 4 hours
- Tokyo – 3 nights
*We were meeting up with friends in Tokyo at this point which was a blast, but had that not been the case, I would have preferred more time in Kyoto and/or Takayama.
Greg and I have similar travel rhythms. We don’t overbook our days – we like 1 or 2 main activities, with the rest left for exploring and happy surprises, and we really prioritize good food. If that sounds like you, you might enjoy the below recommendations!
- Shibuya Crossing (especially at night when it is all lit up)
- Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine – especially on a Sunday
- Yajima Sushi – $20-35/person for the fixed lunch menu – be prepared to eat fast! Best sushi we’ve ever eaten, hands down. Best to make a reservation.
- Karaoke Kan – $25/person, all-you-can-drink for 1 hour. Also, you can wear costumes which just adds to the whole experience.
- Purikura Photos – A must-do, available at “Taito Station” ($4)
- Robot Restaurant – Tickets are pricy but this is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Robots fighting dinosaurs, lasers, dancers, music, and complex plot lines – in other words, you won’t regret it.
- Park Wyatt Hotel – Head up to the 41st floor in the evening for a drink and incredible view of the city.
Other Tokyo Highlights:
- G Itoya (Ginza) – A 12-level stationary store; the literal stuff of my dreams. I wanted to come here three days in a row (although Greg felt two visits was enough…)
- The National Art Center (Roppongi) – We saw a Yayoi Kusama exhibit (a great rainy day activity)
- Ueno Park (Taito) – Gorgeous cherry blossoms if you are there in April
- Shopping (Shimo– Kitazawa) – Hipster-esque vintage shops, Jelly Jelly Board Game Café ($15/person entrance fee, includes a drink), and you might get interviewed for Japanese TV!
The Hakone portion of our trip was a definite highlight and very “honeymoon-y.” This place was everything we needed after Tokyo – quiet, peaceful and tucked away in the mountains. A ‘robe-and-slippers-all-day’ kind of place. Woke up early to the sunrise, sounds of birds, and fresh mountain air – it was like something out of a movie.
- You can use the public onsen (hot springs) as much as you would like, and/or book a private onsen for $20 (45 minutes).
- Multi-course traditional Japanese meals were provided. The whole thing felt very special and we were really grateful to be there.
*There is something called the Hakone Loop if you have more time to spend here.
- Gion District – Walk around and see temples and shrines, and lots of people dressed up in traditional clothing.
- Eat SO MUCH Ice-Cream – Wild soft-serve flavors, and it is available on every corner! And get some mochi and matcha to take home.
- Traditional Tea Ceremony (We went to Camellia Tea and it was lovely. We needed to reserve a day in advance.)
- Arashiyama – check out the Bamboo Grove and go to this Buddhist Temple – within it, there is a Michelin-starred restaurant that serves “shojin ryori” (lunch, $30 per person)
- Ramen Sen No Kaze – Put your name down about 1.5 hours before you want to eat. So delicious and worth the wait!
- Gion Kappa – Local restaurant, and one of the best nights of the trip! Everything on the menu was $3.50 – all drinks, all food. Order so much sake.
- Smart Coffee – The french toast and pancakes are delicious!
After taking the most scenic train ride ever through the mountains, we landed in this charming and adorable town. We never would have known about this place if it hadn’t been recommended to us, but it was such a highlight of our trip (thank you Michelle!). We both loved our time here and wished we could have stayed longer.
- Walk around the town and see historic houses and temples
- Use the public hot springs at The Green Hotel (Day pass = $10/person) and book a couple’s massage (60 minutes, $60/person)
- Bowl at the local bowling alley
- Jakuson – Japanese curry! One of the best meals of the trip.
- Eat some Hida beef and traditional hoba miso (available all over)
- Hanamizuki Cafe for rice flour pancakes with Hida yogurt
- And if you need a change from Japanese food, you can eat some Thai food at Thanyaporn (this place was run by our AirBnB hosts and was fantastic!)
*We didn’t have time but would have loved a day trip to see the old village, and a cooking class here (email to reserve in advance). And we wish we had done the sake tasting at Harada Sake Brewery ($2 to taste 13 kinds of sake – I didn’t think I liked sake until I tried it in Japan!)
- If you go in late March/early April, know that it was COLD. I know we are wimps because we live in Los Angeles, but we are born and raised Canadians, and seriously – we did not pack warm enough layers. I would recommend a warm coat (not a parka, but something warmer than a spring jacket), gloves, and a scarf.
- Also bring a hoodie/warm sweater, and some long sleeve tees for layering.
- It rained hard a few days so having an umbrella was helpful.
- Wear very comfortable walking sneakers (and that’s all you need in terms of footwear). Although there is a definite “chic put-togetherness” in Japan, you won’t feel inappropriate wearing sneakers. We walked a minimum of 10km every day (some days, double that), so being comfortable was crucial.
- We planned to do laundry halfway, but it was sort of a hassle. I think it would be better to bring enough socks/underwear and tees for the trip.
- I brought 2 pairs of jeans and it was plenty.
- I didn’t need any dresses or anything fancy, and you definitely don’t need a swimsuit for the hot springs (*birthday suits only!)
- If you plan to take the trains, less is definitely more. And for trips like this, packing cubes are amazing! I only recently discovered them, which is shocking, as it seems like the sort of thing I would have circled in the Sears Catalogue and asked Santa for when I was a kid.
- Converter (if you are bringing a laptop or other device with 3 prongs – Japan uses 2 prong outlets)
- Extra battery for phone
We had an absolutely incredible trip; we experienced and saw so much, yet I feel like we only saw a tiny fraction of Japan.
Japan is a place unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been – filled with neon and mountains, temples and technology, octopus-flavored Pringles and the best sushi you’ve ever tasted. I absolutely recommend it as a travel destination!
Thanks for reading,