Japan Guide 101

As much as vacationing is fun, planning for one can be a bit exhausting especially if you’re going to a location for the first time and it has a lot to offer but you have limited time on your hands.

So I figured it might be a good idea to put together a thorough guide to Japan while the information is still fresh in my head. If I’m lucky, you might learn a thing or two here which you may not have stumbled upon just yet. Besides, sometimes the best resource for planning your trip is someone who’s been there recently and can give you their perspective of the place versus a guidebook’s which typically appeals to a much broader audience.

Planning your Japan itinerary:

  • TripAdvisor – the discussion forums especially are loaded with great tips & recommendations on travel planning.
  • Lonely Planet – I had the older version but 2015 editorial is coming out soon!
  • www.Japan-talk.com — my personal favorite! Their list of top things to do in each city were on point especially now that I’ve been there & done that.
  • www.Japan-guide.com
  • Boutique Japan – offers some decent lodging options but to find what you want you have to scroll through each post. I spent a few hours reading through this blog and found it very informative. There’s not a lot of content to browse through so you’ll get through it quickly.
  • Go Japan Go
  • Japan National Tourism Organization
  • Blogs such as Little Grey Box and Destination Japan offer great insight into Japan

Make sure to pack:

  • Umbrella – rain is frequent and unpredictable.
  • Cash – enough cash as many places do not accept American credit cards.
  • Hand sanitizer – grab a travel size from Bath & Body Works as the Japanese do not believe in soap (totally missing from most public bathrooms). Since restrooms are equipped with bidets, there really is no need to wash your hands with soap. But if you’re like me and find that soaps complete you! then yes, you’re going to need a hand sanitizer as a substitute.
  • Travel backpack – 2 reasons you’d rather carry a backpack then a purse: 1. there are limited trash cans in the city so you need a place to store your trash until you find a recycling bin, and 2. if you plan on shopping as you go then a backpack makes it much easier to carry your load as opposed to carrying multiple shopping bags especially when you know you won’t be heading back to your hotel frequently throughout the day.
  • Tissue or Wipes – Paper towels are also non-existent in public restrooms so carry with you ample tissue paper to wipe yourself as needed.
  • Portable charger – Amazon has several varieties; I purchased mine on either Groupon or LivingSocial, can’t remember which one, but it had several positive reviews and was discounted fairly well from it’s original price

Lodging:

TripAdvisor is a great place to research for lodging options but surprisingly, Airbnb and VRBO offered us great deals for the price. Remember, Japanese hotel rooms are very small, 2 double beds in a single room are hard to find unless you’re looking at 4- to 5-star hotels which come with a price tag. If you’re open to non-hotel options, try these two!

Transportation:

Prior to entering Japan: If you plan to travel a lot within Japan then buying the Japan Rail Pass may be your best bet. Since we didn’t travel much within Japan, we just bought Shinkansen (reserved) tickets at the train station a few hours prior to departure. Check this out to find out more on when it may make sense for you to invest in the Japan Rail Pass because you have to buy it prior to entering Japan!

Upon entering Japan: If you know in advance you’ll be hitting many spots within the city on a given day then investing in the one-day metro pass is a brilliant idea since metro is the best way to travel from one neighborhood to another especially within Tokyo. These metro passes range from $10-$16 per person per day and can be bought at the metro station. In Kyoto, we used mainly buses for transportation.

Dining:

Believe it or not, we Yelped a great deal to find where to eat. Just know that top-rated places get booked out fast so reservations are required and sometimes a couple of days in advance. If we knew we wanted to try a place, we just called & reserved it for a night. There were a few we came across on Yelp but we didn’t get a chance to attend. If you can, please do so!

  • Ryugin – 3-star Michelin restaurant in Roppongi Hills. Expensive though!
  • Aladdin – cheap but good halal Mediterranean buffet in Roppongi district
  • Kobe Beef Kaiseki 511 – said to be the BEST Kobe Beef in Tokyo!
  • Gonpachi Nishiazabu – this restaurant inspired the setting for the big fight scene in the movie Kill Bill between Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu and Crazy 88. Note: this restaurant was not used for the fighting scene; Quentin fell in love with this restaurant during his visit to Tokyo hence later using it as a setting for the scene. You will see the similarities once you walk in!

Language Barrier:

Language is a barrier in Japan but most people we came across understood common English words. With a little charades on our part, we would somehow find our answers eventually. Almost everyone working in 7-Elevens or similar marts knew limited but “workable” English. However, all products have Japanese handwriting on it. To help us translate Japanese words to English, we used Waygo, very effective, worked 100% of the time. I also used the Learn Japanese app to help me communicate verbally, it has handy phrases which you expect to use from time to time. Another good app is Triposo – good for exploring sightseeing, dining, nightlife and day trip options. Since I didn’t do much research on apps, here’s one resource where you can start. Plus, BuzzFeed just released this article on 29 Apps That Will Make Traveling So Much Easier – pretty good read!

Other Tips: Make sure to – 

  • carry your passport with you at all times as many shopping stores offer tax-free option but only if you have your passport on you
  • ask for WiFi access (for tourists) at the airport. We found out too late that airports do offer you some options but not sure which type though
  • pick up the Tokyo Handy Guide (a yellow guidebook) at the airport full of handy tips and itineraries
  • O.D. on snacks at the local marts. Nothing you’ll see outside of Japan!
  • hydrate well throughout the trip!

Places we didn’t get to see:

Honestly, there’s nothing on my itinerary I would advise you to skip. I enjoyed each and every spot I went to. There were a few places we had on our watch but didn’t have time to visit. I encourage you to include these on your itinerary if you can:

Tokyo

  • Sensoji Temple in Asakusa district
  • Tokyo Skytree Town (including Tokyo Solamachi) in Ryogoku
  • Tsukiji Fish Market in Ginza
  • Kabukiza Theatre & Show in Ginza – friends saw it and loved it!
  • Meiji Jingu Shrine in Shinjuku
  • Kappabashi district known for its kitchen supplies
  • Jimbocho for rare books collections
  • Ikebukuro Butler Cafes

Kyoto

  • Miyako Odori are cherry blossom dances performed nightly in April by Gion’s Geisha in historic Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theatre since 1869
  • Nijo Castle
  • Fushimiri Inari Shrine

On Places to See, visit my posts on Kyoto here and here, on Tokyo by clicking here and here, and on Hakone/Fuji by clicking here. Click away!

Most Unusual Kit Kats in the World:

Japan has the reputation for having the most unusual and diverse collection of Kit Kat flavors in the world. And since my two sisters are Kit Kat crazy, I set out to explore where I could find the strangest flavors. I began my quest on Google and then followed its directions. Unfortunately, Google wasn’t much help but we got lucky in a few places. Hope you can learn from our experience:

  • Pharmacies & Convenience Stores – carry only a few flavors mostly Green Tea
  • Laox – Akihabara’s duty-free shop had a decent collection precisely 4 flavors to choose from
  • Airports – honestly, instead of running around the city, we should have just focused at the airport because the stores there carried a pretty good variety similar to what we saw in Laox & elsewhere. So when you arrive at Haneda or Narita, check out the stores before you exit & then keep an eye out for additional flavors as you navigate through the city.

Where we didn’t get a chance to shop for flavors but Google suggested we should:

Here’s a picture of my final stash of Kit Kats:

kit kat collection

Flavors: wasabi, rum raisin, pudding, chili, green tea, strawberry cheesecake, red beans, cherry blossom, soy sauce (interesting right??!)

Well there you go! Your extensive guide on Japan from the perspective of a first-time visitor who had but 10 days to explore a vast, beautiful and culturally-rich country. Hope you find this guide useful! I seriously hope you do! I’ve been typing away for an hour, no kidding!!!

BON VOYAGE!!!

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Japan Diaries – Kyoto, Day 2

Surely after 24k steps from the day before we had to take it down a notch. The bones be feelin’ it by now!

Started our day at Kyoto Station since the plan was to head out to Arashiyama to visit the scenic Bamboo Grove. Upon our arrival at the station, we realized why this particular structure has won numerous international awards. This station is gigantic! It has a shopping mall, a hotel, a theater, a department store plus plethora of dining and shopping spots.

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This is just one corner of the station

Very soon we found ourselves standing in front of an Udon/Soba cafe with hungry eyes. So this is how it works:

Step 1 - You check out what you want to order

Step 1 – You check out what you want to order

Step 2 - Then you place the order and pay for it using this machine

Step 2 – You place the order and pay for it using this machine

Step 3 - Walk inside, hand over your ticket to the lady behind the counter and find a place to sit

Step 3 – You walk inside, hand over your ticket to the lady behind the counter and find a place to sit

Followed by:

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This!

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This!

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This!

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And This!

Finishing up the meal with a Japanese-style slurrrrrrp

Finishing up the meal with a Japanese-style slurrrrrrp

Quite possibly one of the best dining experiences we had in Japan!

Arashiyama welcomed us with some heavy rain unfortunately…

But it did not keep me from falling in love with the Bamboo Grove. I had no reservations about getting wet while photographing this absolutely breathtaking path!

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Arashiyama is a charming little town of adorable cafes and shops with the picturesque Arashiyama mountains in the backdrop. If it wasn’t raining, we would have surely spent an hour or two uncovering it.

Made our way back to Kyoto, stopped for some refreshments at a deli cafe at Kyoto Station…

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Never a shortage of food in this city I tell ya!

…and now on our way to Tokyo!!!

Kyoto was truly a magical city! It’s the cultural Mecca of Japan with its 400 shrines, 1,600 Buddhist temples, tea houses, geisha districts, sakura-lined parks and serene landscape. A must-see city in Japan if you wish to get a taste of the authentic Japanese culture and experience the charming countryside. I would recommend 2 days in Kyoto, good enough!

In case you’re interested, this was our cozy VRBO lodging in Kyoto. Fairly-priced, spacious, neat and clean with all the necessary toiletries, appliances and equipment. 10-minute walk to the nearest metro. If I were to do this all over again, I would spend a little extra and stay close to Gion district. It’s the central part of town with easy access to restaurants and shopping spots. Our apartment was situated on the residential/quieter side of town with fewer entertainment options. Some may prefer the silence of the night. I, on the other hand, prefer to be where all the excitement is especially when I only have 2 days to explore a city.

Japan Diaries – Kyoto, Day 1

After a 15-hour flight from Houston to Beijing, 4-hour layover in Beijing, 3-hour flight from Beijing to Tokyo, 3-hour Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo Haneda Airport to Kyoto Station, 3 metro stops ( including two train changes) and a 10-minute walk all along dragging our suitcases, we finally made it to our Kyoto “VRBO” apartment!!! So of course we did what anyone would do once we arrived at our destination. We crashed!

Shinkansen (Bullet Train) Station

Shinkansen (Bullet Train) Station

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Here comes the Bullet!

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Amazingly clean, comfortable and smooth (on the tracks)…you can’t even tell when the train is moving…

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This train is punctual and departs in a matter of minutes. You better be ready to hop on otherwise you’ll pull an Amazing Race moment!

The next day started early around 7 a.m. We weren’t kidding! After our morning chai (can’t take the desi out of me), browsed through travel guides, setup a full itinerary for the day, made a quick stop at a local mart to pick up snacks for the long walk and off we went!

Stop 1 – Sanjusangendo Hall

Known for its 1001 life-sized statues of the Goddess of Mercy. Also happens to be the longest wooden structure in the world. No one is allowed to take pictures inside the temple so all pictures were taken from outside the temple

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On our way to Kiyomizu-dera Temple, streets lined up with souvenir shops…

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Stop 2 – Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Most visited Kyoto attraction. Almost made one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Not a single nail was used in its construction.

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People used to jump off this 42-feet high temple. Those who survived the fall were supposedly granted their wish. The jumping is strictly prohibited now since 34 have died in that jump.

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tying the "knot" prayer

Tying the “knot” prayer

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You can dress up as a “Geisha” for $50

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Me…shamelessly interrupting a locals’ dinner. But they seem to be happy!!!

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The water from this fountain is said to be lucky & grants wishes

The water from this fountain is said to be lucky & grants wishes

Stop 3 – Maruyama-Koen Park

One of the best spots to enjoy hanami (blossom-viewing) during late March/early April. Also a good place to indulge in the local culture.

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Got sucked into a local festival aka tourist trap but ended up experiencing a local tea tradition followed by an entertaining taiko drum performance. Not bad!

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being brave...gulping down real Matcha!

Being brave…gulping down real Matcha!

Stop 4 – Path of Philosophy

A 2-kilometer sakura (cherry blossom) lined walk by the canal full of lovely restaurants, cafes and shops. Supposed to be the best walk in Kyoto during hanami (blossom-viewing) season.

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Stop 5 – Kinkaku-ji Golden Temple

Entirely covered in pure gold leaf. It’s one of the most photogenic temples in the world.

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Stop 6 – Conveyor-belt sushi dining in the heart of Kyoto

7 plates of sushi = $8 per person!!! No kidding!!! Expect basic sushi. Nothing too fancy unless you put a special order to the chef.

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Stop 7 – ending the night in Pontocho/Gion districts

Entering Pontocho, one of Kyoto’s five Geisha districts. It’s a narrow 600-meter alleyway serving up entertainment since 712. And if you’re lucky, you can spot a real Geisha strolling the streets. Plan on having dinner here for sure if you’re in the area. This is the place to be at night!

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Can you tell how narrow the streets are?!

Can you tell how narrow these streets are?! It’s remarkable!!!

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Ending the night in Gion, Kyoto’s central part of town & the most famous and entertaining Geisha districts. It’s where it all happens!

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Can you tell we walked 24k steps this day???!!!!

Japan…in a nutshell

  • Suit city 
  • Soapless 
  • Heated toilet seats
  • Green tea and red beans
  • Cherry blossom
  • Shrines & temples
  • Plastic food display
  • Arcades
  • Portable wifi 
  • Neon lights
  • Crosswalks
  • Shimokitazawa
  • Street fashion
  • Luxury bidet
  • Vending machines 
  • Food porn
  • Metro stations
  • Robot cafe

What the world can learn from Japan is discipline, patience and hospitality!!!

The most intriguing culture I have been exposed to in a city which sticks out like no other!

Here’s Japan in a nutshell…

Lack of (a) time, (b) proper sleep and (c) proper wifi (but mostly sleep and time, I won’t lie) has kept me from updating my blog daily however more to come next week…stay tuned!!! 

  

  
   

 

   
  

  

     

   

    

  

 
    

   

Daryl Nixon was at Robot cafe in Japan. How awesome is that!!!

Coming up soon: my day to day journey into the wonderful world of Japan!!!