Japan is one of the absolute best countries in the world to visit. Things in Japan are so well thought out, well intentioned, and executed so precisely, and everyone seems to constantly be in the frame of mind of taking one another into consideration. The Japanese people are so concerned for the welfare of travelers, we had locals who walked with us and waited until our bus came, taxi drivers that insisted we stay with them until we found our mis-labeled AirBnb, and friends we met on a language learning app that invited us into their home to stay with their family.
A trip including Tokyo and Kyoto were #25 on my Bucket List (which is in no particular order), and I crossed it off in April, 2018. Of course, if you’re going to Japan, there is so much more to see than these two cities, but that is where my planning journey began, and in the end the 17 day trip included the overwhelming metropolis of Tokyo, the peaceful Fuji Five Lakes and Mount Fuji, the picturesque village of Takayama, the city of temples Kyoto, the ancient capital Nara, the 1,000 year old pilgrimage hike of Kumano Kodo, the mountain temples of Mount Koya, the modern city of Hiroshima, and finally the beautiful island of Miyajima. This itinerary was inspired by combining National Geographic Expedition’s “Iconic Japan” (12 days, $5889) and “Japan: Hiking and Cultural Adventure” (11 days, $7995)–this is a GREAT travel hack that gets you to all the best places without the places or activities you don’t care for!
Most international trips to Japan will start with a flight to Tokyo, so let’s start there. Living in Honolulu, Hawaiian Airlines was a great choice for us. #1 airline hack: sign up for Hawaiian’s (free) rewards/miles program, book early, and get seats in Row 11 (A/B or H/J) in their Extra Comfort class! These seats have bulk heads ahead and behind, so it’s like having your own little cabin to stretch out in, you get a fun little amenities kit (think Hawaiian themed socks, a toothbrush/paste, spare headphones, chapstick, etc), your own TV screens with movies and TV shows, and the alcohol is on the house so you can get yourself a little something and drift off over the Pacific. The flights will cost a couple hundred dollars more per couple for the trip, but it’s nowhere near the expense of First or Business class (which you can peek into from these seats), and well worth the money for the long flight from the US.
From Haneda, your now very confused and jet lagged eyes are about to get the first glimpses of Tokyo, most likely including Tokyo Tower, and depending where you are headed to, you may pass through the busy districts of Shinjuku and Shibuya, both of which are deal for exploring the city as a tourist. The way to get around in Tokyo is with a Pasmo card which you load with cash (Yen) or from a credit card and use to pay each fare on most train and bus lines in Tokyo (the subways are AMAZINGLY clean, efficient, and timely). If you look at all confused, someone will likely approach you to ensure you get on the right train or bus.
Top three experiences in Tokyo are probably getting lost following your mouth around Tsukiji Fish Market, sneaking pictures of girls dressed as geisha posing in front of Senso-ji or Meiji Jingu Shrine, and getting dazzled by the lights and colors wandering Shinjuku before and after the 100% tourist trap spectacle that is the Robot Restaurant. We spent three days in Tokyo, and while that isn’t nearly enough time, it was sufficient for a first taste and to pack in the major highlights.
Other places not to be missed include the Tokyo SkyTree for incredible views over the entire city, Shibuya crossing to experience that ants scurrying wildly across the world’s busiest crosswalk feeling, soaking up 3,000 years of Japanese art and history at the incredible Tokyo National Museum, and enjoying the cherry blossoms from a swan shaped paddle boat on the water in Ueno Park. As for accommodations, we paid $37 per night for very Japanese (read: TINY, MINIATURE, MINUSCULE, and absolutely, perfectly functional) AirBnb in Shinjuku, close to the train lines, restaurants, and shops.
The best side or day trips from Japan include Nikko and Fuji-Hakone National Parks. We had planned to do both, and slept through our Nikko train (don’t let this happen to you… or do, we had a great additional day in Tokyo!), but spending two days in Fuji-Five Lakes (Kawaguchiko) which has the best and most reliable views of Mount Fuji (Climbing Fuji-San is Bucket List item #59! Next time!). This is when you want to have your Japan Rail Pass activate. The JR Pass comes in 7, 14, and 21 day intervals, and is offered only to foreign citizens and can be purchased ONLY while in your home country, then you set it up to activate on a certain date when you get to Japan. It is absolutely the cheapest way to get around the country if you intend to visit more than one city. PLUS you get to ride the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) which is an awesome experience and worth visiting Japan for on its own! The Pass will cover all but the most out of the way local trains and busses for the rest of your trip, but it does not cover much transit in Tokyo as those lines are owned by a different company, so use your reloadable Pasmo there. I digress.
From Fuji-Five Lakes, we travelled to the beautiful town of Takayama, then to the Hida Folk Village where you can see and go inside traditional Japanese houses from historical times. I really loved both of these experiences, but it did take up a fairly large chunk of time to travel to and between both as they are well away from Tokyo and Kyoto, so if you don’t have the extra days in your itinerary, these might not make the cut. Maybe save them for your next trip to do along with Nagano and the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park (more on this in my next Japan review!)
On day 8 of the trip we arrived in Kyoto. I knew this was one of my absolute Bucket List cities to explore and experience, so we budgeted 4 days there, including a day trip to Nara. There is probably not enough time in a lifetime to see all of the temples, shrines, and culture that the ancient capitals of Japan have to offer, but if you had to pick just three, it would have to be the iconic Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Temple), Fushimi Inari Shrine, and the Kiyomizudera Temple. Both temples charge a reasonable entry fee, and Fushimi Inari is free. The temples can both be visited in about an hour or two, but we sorely under-budgeted time for Fushimi Inari, not realizing there are several different routes and a beautiful hike to the top of the mountain to overlook Kyoto; plan a half or a whole day if you can.
Because we were visiting in the spring, and happened to be in Kyoto at exactly the right time, we were able to see the most famous Geisha performance from the most elite dancing artists in Japan, the Miyako Odori, an annual dance performed by the Geisha and Maiko from the Gion Quarter of Kyoto each spring. It was an unforgettable experience in dance, music, art, and Japanese culture. Other top experiences in Kyoto were the lovely and peaceful Arashiyama Park and Bamboo Forest, the fascinating Higashiyama Historic District, and walking under the falling cherry blossoms along the Philosopher’s Path.
The “Must Do” side trip from Kyoto is Nara Park, aka Nara Deer Park! You’ve probably seen videos of these deer who have been trained through use of “deer crackers” to bow repeatedly when you bow to them. The deer are totally accustomed to people, and in fact, if you had small children, you would want to keep them close as some deer can be a little pushy about getting to those crackers and double checking the insides of your hands and pockets for more (seriously!). I wish someone would have told me that to get the deer to back off, you just raise your hands and show them both empty palms, and they’ll wander off to the next likely prospect. It’s a really fun and unique experience, but if it doesn’t leave you at least three days for Kyoto, you could consider skipping it.
After Kyoto, we had six more days on our trip, and we chose to spend three of them hiking the 1,000 year old pilgrimage route of Kumano Kodo. We started at Hongu Taisha-mae and stayed the first night at Yunomine to try the only UNESCO World Heritage onsen (Japanese hot spring bath) in the world. It’s believed to have many medicinal properties, and we were lucky to get the very last time slot of the night, so we stayed a little over the 30 minutes our tickets covered. We hiked and stayed in small onsen inns for the next two days, ending at Nachi Falls, the tallest waterfall in Japan, which is surrounded by the Kumano Nachi Taisha shrine and spiritual grounds.
Exhausted and sore, we took the (very) local bus system slowly out of Eastern Kii and back north to Mount Koya, Japan’s holiest mountain and the center of Shingon Buddhism. One of the best things to do in Mount Koya (after the vintage cable car up the mountainside) is to stay in a Buddhist temple. We chose Eco-In Temple which offers an after dark tour of the Okunoin Cemetery, the largest in Japan and also over 1,000 years old.
On our final day before returning to Tokyo, we stopped in Hiroshima to visit the Peace Memorial Park and Museum and then on to Miyajima island. We had planned to stop at Hiroshima Castle while in Hiroshima, but we wanted to have enough time to enjoy our last stay in Miyajima. When I travel, I hate to think about the trip ending, so I always make sure to go big on the last hotel or experience so I have something to look forward to, and the Premier Suite at the Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto was the perfect ending to an absolutely amazing trip.
Finally, it was time to go back to Tokyo and jump back in our Row 11 Hawaiian Extra Comfort mini-cabin seats, get those free drinks, and sleep off the epic exhaustion to be woken up on final descent to Honolulu.
I spent months researching and planning a trip that would include all the best elements of both the very best tour group treks, and customizing it to fit exactly what I most wanted to experience in my time in Japan without having to pay for destinations or activities that didn’t speak to me. I have since planned two more international journeys taking inspiration from the big tour group’s headliners, but adding in places off the beaten track where I can really feel connected to the place and culture I’m exploring. It was planning my trip to Japan that really brought to light for me how much I love researching and planning every detail of a trip, reading all of the travel books, combing through endless TripAdvisor reviews, and compiling lists and details of all the best destinations and activities to consider and I enjoyed every moment of it. I hope you enjoyed this overview of my very first trip to Japan, and that you’ll come back to read about more adventures from my Bucket List!
#25 down… how many more to go?