We’ve decided that once international travel is permitted, and a semblance of normal life resumes - probably not this year but next - we really want to explore Japan. I’ve been obsessed with Japanese culture for as long as I can remember and she loves the far east having lived in China and travelled around southeast Asia. However, the only two people I know who have been out to Japan are two friends of mine who suffered horrific racism while out there, and whenever I ask them about Japan they’re obviously very reluctant to talk about it, having had their travel experiences tainted by it.
So for anyone who’s been there, based upon the fact we’re planning on going for two weeks, from your experience, what would be the best form of itinerary for those two weeks so that we could see as much as we possibly can? We’d like to go to Hokkaido, but we’re not sure we’d have enough time for that plus mainland Japan. True? False? Transport-wise, train would be the best way to get around, right? We’re thinking of going in October/November time. Is that a good time to go? How much time does Tokyo need? Do many people speak English out there?
Any other tips regarding travelling to and around Japan are welcome!
Spring and autumn are the best times to go, with beautiful weather- avoid summer, really humid and lots of places have monsoons.
100% get a train pass- you’ll save money, and also buying tickets individually is confusing, expensive and easy to buy the wrong one. You can use it on a lot of the intercity shinkansen trains, just not the 1st class nonstop ones.
In Tokyo I recommend staying in Asakusa (pronounced Asaxa). Nice area, not too far out, and very nice park with a buddhist temple by the river, and lots of reasonably priced hotels.
Whether people speak English varies a lot, but people will have a good go. For some reason they decided I must be from Brazil with some kind of japanese ancestor (a common demographic there) and talked at me in Japanese a lot, whereas my friend I travelled with who has blue eyes got way more people practicing their english with her, and in one small town a woman came up to her in the supermarket and asked if she was the new english teacher at her kid’s school.
My all-time favourite place is the Seto Inland Sea, and the islands like Naoshima and Okunoshima. I’ve got loads of photos here- I went to Japan for free in return for doing a travelogue with tourist photos (it was framed as a prize draw, but they wanted content, content goddamit).
Can also highly recommend the deer temple at Nara.
Two weeks is just about enough time to see the major cities on the largest island, Honshu, but I don’t think you’d be able to get to Hokkaido in that time (especially if you’re going by train as it’s very slow once you cross the water until they extend the new Shinkansen line inland).
There are a bunch of good threads on travelling to and around Japan. I’ll link to them here just in case they slip through the cracks:
Also- Ghibli Museum- get tickets via a travel agency way before you go. They don’t do them on the door because it’s always fully booked, and the ticketing website is a pain and only takes Japanese cards (see below).
There’s a ticketmaster type company that has kiosks in one of the main supermarket chains where you can get tickets for all kinds of things like museums, gigs, sports events etc. Which is great if you’re in Japan, but their website is crap (like many Japanese websites).
I went to Japan for just under three weeks in 2018. I flew into Tokyo and spent 5 days there then went to Kawaguchiko to see Mt. Fuji for two days, then on to Osaka, then Kyoto and then back to Tokyo for another few days.
We bought JR rail passes which are pricey but a good way to travel around. If I went again I’d probably hire a car and drive.
Hire biked and ride around Nara park and feed the deer. There is also a cool temple there.
Fushimi Inari shrine is cool (though we didn’t realise it is a hike). Arashiyama monkey park is awesome.
Golden Gai bars in tokyo are a lot of fun. In Tokyo we stayed near Shinjuku the first time and by the sky tree the second time. Both were good locations but I preferred Shinjuku as it has more going on.
If you’re into Ghibli films the museum is great and the town it is in is nice to explore. You need to book tickets 3 months in advance.
The only thing we didn’t do that I wanted to was to watch a sumo match/tournament as it wasn’t on when we went.
I don’t know if Hokkaido is do-able as well as Tokyo/mainland Japan. It depends what is top of your list of things to do. If you just wanted to do Tokyo for a week and Hokkaido for a week that would work, but I would advise against doing two days in Tokyo, two days in Osaka, two days in Kyoto, then travel to Hokkaido etc. as you wont have long enough to explore anywhere properly.
Also top tip that I didn’t realise until too late- the oyster type cards from different cities work all over Japan. So if you get a Tokyo card you can also use the credit on lots of other place’s transport systems.
My itinerary was something like:
Fly into Osaka and stay overnight
4 or 5 days in Tokyo (can’t remember)
5 days in Kyoto (hotel was free as part of the prize)
weekend on Naoshima to see the art museum
2 nights in Onomichi (old fashioned seaside town, used as a map in one of those Yakuza games to my surprise) to catch the ferry to Okunoshima to see the rabbits
3 days in Hiroshima
2 days in Nara
Overnight stay in Osaka en route to the airport
I went to a sumo tournament, it was pretty nuts as the fights only last a few seconds sometimes so there were dozens, if not hundreds of bouts that happened whilst we were there. Because of that there’s also not enough room for any sort of backstage area for most of the wrestlers, so quite often when I went to grab a drink I’d suddenly notice the room getting darker, look behind me, and realise that four wrestlers the size of fridge-freezers were stood beside me.
Seconded on the Ghibli museum! We spent 10 days in Tokyo and found plenty to do, but in hindsight I wish we’d have travelled a bit more.
Only things I can think of to recommend that others haven’t is the bar at the top of the Hyatt Hotel which has amazing views (and is where the bar scenes in Lost In Translation were filmed), going to a hot spa, and visiting the Drum Museum. Last one might be bit niche but if you’ve ever fancied whacking one of those great big drums, those lads don’t give a fuck, you can just play around with anything you find.
Phones can be a real pain in the arse. You need a japanese residential address to buy a normal sim card. There are tourist ones available at the airport, but to get the good deals you often need to order one in advance and arrange to collect one at the airport. My friend got a mobile hotspot thing for wifi, but it was quite annoying, and was a pain to collect and return to the post office at the airport because of the queues.
There’s lots of free wifi around though.
7-11/Famima/Lawson buffet food is actually really nice. Also the lunch deal is king, lots of places do a 500-700Y lunch deal (so abut £5-7). Basically if you mostly eat Japanese food, you can eat well for cheap, imported food is expensive. Fruit is expensive too.
Get a Monzo card. Lots of cash machines are funny about foreign cards, but will accept the Monzo ones.
If you’re going in 2022, I’d definitely try and get to the Inland Sea, and try to time it with one of the Setuichi triennale sessions, if it’s going ahead:
There are a collection of old island villages where artists work on installations in abandoned houses, which are opened up for a few months every three years. That whole area is worth a visit, too as you’ve got the art museums like Benesse House on Naoshima, which are open all year round.
We did that in spring 2019 as part of a two week trip. We didn’t see everything we wanted to, obviously, but I think it’s long enough to get a flavour of the country.
I’d recommend flying into and out of Tokyo, getting a Japan Rail pass, and having an itinerary something like:
Tokyo (four nights total), including
Day trip to the Hakone ‘circuit’
Trip to the Ghibli musuem (you must book this in advance)
Osaka (two nights total)
Kyoto (three nights total, including a day trip to Nara, which is halfway between Kyoto and Osaka)
Hiroshima (two nights, including a day trip to Miyajima)
Trip to the inland sea area. Allow for two full days. You can get a ferry from Takamatsu and island hop. If you want to push the boat out, then an overnight stay at Benesse House is something really special.
Trip to and overnight stay in Koya
That keeps everything pretty local, and minimises the long train journeys. You’ll never see it all and will want to go back as soon as you leave.
You can get companies that will arrange an itinerary, hotel bookings, train bookings etc for you, and if you’re worried about the language barrier (and Japan’s slightly backward attitude to internet booking), then they can be useful, but aren’t necessary.
I do wonder how hospitable Japan will feel after the pandemic. I can see it nudging more people into outright hostility to foreigners. My friend who was living there last year was saying it was getting more of an edge.
It was posed as a “prize draw” at a Japanese food fair, but the entry form asked if you had a travel blog, and then they kept talking about “nice photos” after I won, so I took the hint, and they were pleased to have plenty of stuff to put in the news section of the site.