Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Japan Itinerary

We traveled the middle part of Japan as shown in the zoomed out map below. The adjacent map shows all the places we visited on this trip (listed in detail below).

Day 1:
  • Arrived in Tokyo (A)
  • Checked out Asakusa Temple, Imperial Palace (which doesn't have much to check out), Akihabara neighborhood (electronic/gadget town) and ended the day at the ritzy Roppongi Hills

Day 2:
  • Explored Tokyo Tower and surrounding areas, Ginza, Shinjuku, Harajuku and Shibuya neighborhoods of Tokyo. Dined in Shibuya at the hole-in-the-wall mentioned in the previous post
Day 3:
  • Took the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto (B) and stayed at the night at the Ryokan mentioned in the previous post
Day 4:
  • Explored the Gion district, known for its Geisha sightings, but unfortunately didn't catch a glimpse of any
  • Also visited the Kiyomizudera Temple, Sanjūsangendō (Hall of the 1001 Buddhas and other statues of Hindu/Buddhist mythology), Nanzenji Temple, and Sagano Arashiyama Bamboo Grove (not as impressive as the guide books made it seem; easily passable)

Day 5:
  • Day trip from Kyoto to Nara (C), a beautiful and serene place
  • Followed the tourist map on a circuit. We went there during their lantern festival where hundreds of lanterns were lit at night and lots of press had congregated to cover the festival
  • Visited the famous Todaiji Temple with the Great Buddha Hall, the Kofukuji Temple and the Kasuga Shrine among others
Day 6:
  • Half day trip from Kyoto to Himeji (D) via the Shinkansen, where you can take a guided tour of the Himeji Castle that looks like a white crane perched atop a cliff
  • Then on we went to Hiroshima (E) - A beautiful city if you didn't know about its somber history. From the Shinkansen JR train station, we took a local tram to the ferry port, and then hopped on the ferry to check out Miyajima, the site of the famous floating red Torii of Itsukushima Shrine
  • We then went to the Atomic Bomb Memorial and the museum before we boarded the Shinkansen back
  • Stopped over in Osaka (F) on the way back to Kyoto (B) for dinner. We also checked out the famous Umeda Sky Building, which resembles the Petronas towers in Kualalampur
Day 7:
  • Back to Tokyo (A) on board the Shinkansen
  • Checked out the Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest fish market where most of the fresh fish shipped to America are from
  • Visited the Sony building and went back to Roppongi Hills
  • Watched a Japanese play at a nearby Kabuki theater
Day 8:
  • Day-trip to Mt. Fuji-Hakone National Park (G) via the Shinkansen

Day 9:
  • Day-trip to Nikko (H), which is a gorgeous member of the UNESCO World Heritage List, is home of intricate and ornate mausoleums of the Tokugawa Shoguns. It is surrounded by a cedar tree forest, which gives you a feeling of being in a meditative retreat at some fabled hilltops. We didn't check out the waterfalls there as we figured the snow would not have melted yet to have enough water, but as Nishant and others enjoyed some authentic ramen, my friend and I thoroughly immersed ourselves in the authentic shojin riyori at the amazing Gyoshin-Tei restaurant
Day 10:
  • Day-trip to Kamakura, another gorgeous city by the ocean side! Wish we had more time to explore more of this amazing city!

Monday, June 21, 2010


Travel dates: Feb-March '08

Mt. Fujiyama

We went to Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Himeji, Hiroshima, Osaka, Nikko, and Kamakura, all in one week (9-10 days counting both weekends). Our bases were Tokyo and Kyoto, and we took Japan Rail to go to all the other places. Kamakura and Nikko are each an hour away from Tokyo and you need a whole day at both places. Mt. Fuji is on your way from Tokyo to Kyoto. Nara was a day trip from Kyoto, and we finished Himeji and Hiroshima in a day (half a day at each). We had dinner in Osaka and came back to Kyoto, but I wish we had half a day and a night to spend in Osaka as it's supposed to be the party town.

If we had more time: We would have spent at least another day in Kyoto, stayed a night in Kamakura and explored it more the next day, and spent at least a day and night in Osaka. I would also love to check out the Japanese Macaques chilling in the hot springs in Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park as well as the historic villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama (UNESCO World Heritage Site).

Prices: Everything was expensive in Japan, even after the currency conversion (it wasn't any cheaper than the Bay Area in California). The multi-course typical Buddhist meals (called shōjin ryōri) were especially pricey, coming out to $50 to $70 for 10 or 15 (small) course meals!

Transportation: We bought the Japan Rail (JR) Pass for 7 days (around $230) which gives unlimited rides on any JR line in Japan for those days. You will need to buy the voucher for this pass in the US before you get to Japan (Locals: you can buy it from the JR office in San Jose, California). Then you'll need to redeem this voucher for the actual pass when you arrive in Japan, at any JR office at any train/metro station. Usually all long distance trains between cities are JR lines (except for the Nozomi train - the fastest bullet train - it's not included in the JR pass). The pass paid for itself with just the round trip from Tokyo to Kyoto. All other rides were kind of a bonus for us. For transportation within Tokyo itself, you can always hop on the metro - very convenient. Some are owned by JR and so your pass will work on them. Others aren't so you will have to buy tickets (which aren't that pricey). The maps at the metro were bilingual, so we had no trouble figuring out how to get to places on our own. The subways also had heaters below the seats which warmed up your legs very comfortably during your journey :-) I think this is why all the Japanese girls are able to wear such short skirts even when it's snowing outside!

Best time to visit/weather: We were there for two weeks (one week for work and one week for vacation). We went in the last week of Feb and first week of March. It was quite cold (I wore a sweater + a thick pea-coat along with gloves, scarf and a beanie). It barely snowed or rained, which was good. We missed the cherry blossoms though, unfortunately, which bloomed 2 weeks after we left. Late March to mid-April is probably the best time to catch cherry blossoms, which is also the busiest tourist season for the local people as well, so you're forewarned that there will be crowds at that time! I've also heard that Fall (October/November) is a nice time to visit as well since the fall colors will be on full display.

Cuisine: If you are non-vegetarian or pescetarian, you will have no trouble finding food in Japan. However, if you're a vegetarian like me, you'll have to try a little bit harder, but it's definitely not impossible to get GOOD vegetarian food there. I had looked up restaurants that served shōjin ryōri in Kamakura and Nikko so I had a great time (it came with the complete experience of eating while sitting on the floor on tatami mats, etc.). The restaurant was called Gyoshin-Tei in Nikko. In Kyoto, check out Shigetsu, a restaurant within the Tenryuji Temple (Saga Tenryuji Susukinobanbacho 68) that also serves shojin ryori. Visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of Koyasan and you can experience more shojin ryori in their temples.

In general (both in Tokyo and Kyoto), I had to probably ask about 4-5 restaurants before the 6th one would make something custom-vegetarian for me. Minor inconvenience, if you ask me. And they were all extremely apologetic when they realized they couldn't satisfy a customer. We had dinner at an amazing, tiny hole in the wall (but slightly upscale) restaurant in Shibuya district of Tokyo where they served fresh orange flavored tofu that even my husband loved (he LOATHES tofu). An omelet made the Japanese way with some of their spices, tofu, ginger, wasabi and other condiments, along with a pint of Kirin 14000 on tap made for a delicious, satisfying meal in the market area in Kyoto.

Breakfast at the Ryokan

Soba in soy vinaigrette
Fried Tofu Omelet

Savory Vegetarian Crepe

We also had several yakitori dishes, which are street finger food. I mostly had skewered soy beans and semi-sweet mochis. To this day, my husband dreams of the ramen he had in Japan and drools. When it comes to dessert, I don't think anybody can beat the Japanese. Their cakes seem to be cut with laser beams as their corners and sides are that precise! They are soft and not too sweet and absolutely delectable! The Daimaru store in Tokyo's main metro station has tons of sweet delicacies where I felt like a kid in a candy store...literally :-). I also realized that their version of mochi ice cream is just ice cream, with mochi balls (essentially rice flour balls), and red beans! Quite different from mochi ice cream you find here in the US! We love red bean and we love ice cream, so we enjoyed it thoroughly. I was also introduced to dishes with yuba (tofu skin) and soba with plum sauce while in Japan, which I was amazed at how tasty they made any dish!

If you get a chance, participate in a tea ceremony - it's very serene and calming. Another calming activity is hanging out in the onsen, which is Japanese for a hot tub. Onsens are all over and typically fed by streams that are piping hot, heated naturally from the underground geothermal activity. Some onsens are in an open setting while others are inside buildings. Some are co-ed while others are strictly for male or females. But one thing they do have in common is you're not allowed to wear bathing suits when you get into them. You do have to strip down, shower with soap before getting into the onsen. Hence we went in the wee hours of the morning when nobody else was there in our respective onsens ;-) The water is really really hot, and I certainly couldn't stay in there for longer than 5-10 mins. The experience was definitely awesome though, especially since I got to look out the window into the snow on the trees while I was relaxing in a hot onsen!

Stay: We stayed at some chain hotels, but I did want to stay at a Ryokan and try out the traditional Japanese hospitality. It was a great experience! We slept on futons on the floor, spread on a tatami mat, enjoyed a welcome tea ceremony, and relaxed in the onsen that was on premise. I highly recommend it, though it's not any cheaper than a hotel room for a night. We stayed at Ryokan Yachiyo in Kyoto. Many times the ryokans arrange for traditional kaiseki dinners if you'd like as well. We paid $120 for one night (for 3 people total) including a traditional Japanese breakfast.

Language/People: Though we don't know a lick of Japanese, we were able to get by with no problems. We took the metro, the shinkansen (bullet trains), local trains, ferries and local buses without any problems mostly because the locals are so incredibly nice and helpful. Even if they don't know the answer to their question, they will go out of their way to find out and take you to your destination. We have had this happen to us many times on this trip!

Visa Requirements: US citizens don't need a visa if your stay is less than 90 days. Visa requirements for non-US citizens can be found here.