tips for travelling to Japan

I love Japan. I first visited as a high school exchange student to Tokyo. I studied Japanese language in university as part of my International Studies degree. After my undergrad I lived in Hokkaido for 3 years teaching English on the JET program (or as I used to joke, snowboarding semi-professionally on the Ministry of Education team. One year I got about 100 days of boarding in!)

Through YVR deals I found some cheap tickets (~$625 from Vancouver to Tokyo, taxes in, on a reputable airline, ANA). This was my partner’s first time to Japan and my first time to Naoshima and Miyajima. It was a pretty busy trip, in two weeks we went to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Naoshima, Hiroshima, Miyajima and back to Tokyo.

Before you go

Japan is a cash society and changing money can be a pain. We brought the equivalent of $1700 for two weeks and then took out another $1000 at the ATM at 7-Eleven in Osaka. I’ve had trouble taking money out in Japan before, so was relieved that it went smoothly this time. This was my first vacation that was not done on a shoestring, so it’s possible to travel for much cheaper than we did.

Seeing Mt. Fuji from the Shinkansen feels auspicious. ?

A video posted by Tara Robertson (@tara.robertson) on

JR rail pass is a great deal if you’re planning on travelling between a few cities. It’s only available for purchase outside Japan. We splurged and got the Green Car, which enabled us to ride in First Class. This is the first trip I’ve done where I wasn’t backpacking, crashing on couches and trying to make things as cheap as possible. If you can afford it, the extra $90 for the First Class pass was worth it.  

Haneda Airport is way closer, faster and cheaper to arrive at. I assumed that we were flying into Narita, which was the main international airport when I lived here 15 years ago. If you have a choice pick Haneda. Even if its $100 more, fly into Haneda.  

Pack light, as your future self who is schlepping stuff up 2 flights of stairs in a train station during rush hour will thank you. We brought two small carry on wheelie suitcases and a bag full of things for friends in Tokyo (bagels, coffee, chocolate, melatonin, Halloween candy, fancy crackers, and maple syrup). Getting around crowded stations with lots of stairs with a big bag is cumbersome and annoying. Also being that guy on the bus with the hulking suitcase is a pain for everyone. When we stayed in Osaka and Miyajima we put our suitcases in a locker and just brought a change of clothes and toiletries in a day pack. I felt well organized and a bit smug when we did this. Japan was hotter than I anticipated (Hiroshima was 30 degrees in mid October!) and we brought some clothes that were not necessary–like a hoodie, extra pair of jeans, an extra long sleeved shirt. We did laundry 3 times in 2 weeks.   

I don’t do a lot of walking in my everyday life and we walked a lot in Japan. I was thankful that I brought running shoes and Birkenstock knockoffs to wear. 

Our friend lent us his portable wifi router so we just paid the 4000 yen for the data plan for the month. He also lent us an extra battery pack, which was super useful. You can rent both of these at the airport for about 12000. This was my first trip to Japan in the smart phone era and it was extremely to have the internet in my purse so we could use Google maps, check reviews on Yelp, play Ingress while waiting for a train, and posting photos of what we were eating on Instagram.

Tokyo

 

Accommodation

We were super lucky to stay with friends in Shimokitazawa, which is extremely central. I couldn’t believe that we were 10 minutes away from Shibuya. At night all we could hear was crickets and during the day we could faintly hear tiny birds and the 5 o’clock chime at the local school. It was really quiet. For me having a home base that was so easy to come back to was really wonderful. Also, my friends are hilarious, lovely, generous and great hosts.

Activities

The first day in Tokyo we were jetlagged wander around Shimokitasawa. We arrived mid-October and it was 25C and a little too humid for me.

  a dandy way to package cleaning cloths for glasses   A photo posted by Tara Robertson (@tara.robertson) on

Went to Zoff and bought glasses for Carolyn, which came to 10000 yen (about $110 CDN). The price included the frames, lenses and the eye exam. If they have your lenses in stock your new glasses are ready in 45 minutes. Unfortunately they needed a week to make them, so we paid 500 yen ($5) to have them mailed to our friends’ place to pick up on the way home.

That night we went to Shinjuku 2-chome, the gay ghetto, and met our hosts at Dragon Men, a bar with a 1000 yen ($12) all-you-can-drink deal from 7-9pm.

sipping a Crappucino watching people cross the street in Shibuya A video posted by Tara Robertson (@tara.robertson) on

The next day we went shopping in Shibuya at The Loft, which is my favourite department store. The biggest UNIQLO in the world is in Ginza and also carries plus sizes (up to 3X for women and 4X for men). I’m a size 22 and the 3X merino wool cardigan fit snugly, perfect for over dresses, and the price was right ~2000 yen ($22). On the weekend in Ginza many streets are closed to cars and it was nice to meander down the middle of the road. After being in busy Shibuya it was nice to have some space. The next day we went to a Shunga Exhibition at the Eisei Bunko Museum. Shunga is Japanese traditional erotic art, or porn dating back to the Edo era. It was really amazing to see scrolls that were so old (up to 400 years old) but the exhibition was so crowded and hot that it was hard for me to enjoy it. 

Food

There’s so much everyday Japanese food that I missed and I got to eat onigiri from the convenience store, katsu curry, karaage, gyudon, and various types of ice cream. One of our favourite meals was with our friends at Shirubee izakaya in Shimokitazawa. It looks like it’s a chain that also has locations in Kichijoji, Shibuya and Machida. We had the set course menu (3200 yen each) and the all-you-can-drink deal (700 yen for women, 900 yen for men) and left stuffed. The food was good but the company was excellent.  I remembered that coffee is Japan was expensive and bad so I brought my Aeropress and ground coffee. This trip I found that good coffee was easy to come by and not too expensive. Next time I’ll leave the Aeropress at home. 

Kyoto

 

Accommodation

A colleague recommended a company that rents traditional small neighbourhood houses in Kyoto. The reviews online were excellent and I was really, really excited but sadly this place didn’t meet my expectations. We stayed at Jizo-An, which was a bit expensive at 15000 yen a night ($165). The website claimed that photos claimed that the place was even more beautiful than the photos could show, and while it was quaint the downstairs was also dark, cold and uncomfortable. We were too big to fit in the awesome looking cast iron bathtub. It was in a great location, had wifi, a lovely upstairs bedroom and a washing machine. The staff person I interacted with was friendly and offered to promptly come and fix the kitchen table that had a somewhat broken leg. It wasn’t bad, but I wouldn’t recommend it. 

Activities

I’d been to Kyoto twice before. The first time was in high school with my host family during Golden Week. We did all the sights and it was amazing and really busy. The second time I visited after a meeting in Kobe and stayed with a queer JET who lived in a traditional house. I mostly hung out with her and her friends and tried to soak up as much of her neighbourhood as possible.  My friend Sarah lived in Kyoto for a couple of years while doing a graduate degree. She stated her biases:

I don’t like crowds. I don’t like urban areas. I don’t like shopping. I like nature. I like beauty. I like food. I like traditional architecture. I like mountains. I like temples.

I agree with Sarah that you don’t need to see Ginkakuji (The Golden Temple) or Kinkakuji (The Silver Temple). They are the most famous places but even 20 years ago they were really crowded. I really like Ryoanji, the Zen rock garden temple, but didn’t visit this time.  Her top recommendation was to go to Kurama Onsen which was really great. The 30 minute train trip was lovely. The last few stops you are going through the forest and it is magical. The walk through the town up to the onsen was gorgeous. Most of the people at the rotemburo (outdoor bath) were foreigners which surprised me. We relaxed in the massage chairs afterwards. Sarah recommended getting off the train partway and hiking the rest of the way. 

Here’s one of my absolute favourite ways to spend a day in Kyoto. Head to Demachiyanagi eki and transfer to the Eizan line. Get off at the town of Kibune. And hike from there to Kurama. It’s super easy. Only takes about 2 hours. But its just gorgeous and you feel a world away from Kyoto even though it’s barely 30 minutes out of the city. Here are directions: http://www.japanvisitor.com/kyoto/kurama-kibune When you arrive in Kurama….go to my favourite rotenburo in Kyoto….Kurama onsen. It’s outdoors with a view of the mountains. Very small but, oh my god, I must have gone here 50 times and never got tired of it. Buy a beer out of the vending machine after your bath. Then just take the train back to Kyoto for dinner!

 

  rented bikes and biked out to Fushimi Inari Temple and arrived as the sun was setting   A photo posted by Tara Robertson (@tara.robertson) on

Sarah’s recommended going here:

Fushimi-inari. I love this place. Try to go either first thing in the morning or just as it’s getting dark to avoid the crowds. Budget about three hours so that you can walk the whole loop of tori gates. The deeper and further you go, the more amazing it gets. Most people don’t even make it halfway so if you keep going, you will feel like you have the whole place to yourself among the stone foxes and the orange gates. You can bike there easily from Kyoto station. Stop at one of the many sake shops for a taste along the way. Fushimi is a very old sake-producing area. Often they will give you free samples. http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3915.html

We also rented bikes and went to Fushimi Inari shrine. We only made it half way through the gates as it was getting dark and the rental bikes we had didn’t have lights. On the way there we meandered past Tofukuji temple and some other temples. On the way back we took a more direct route and biked back along a path beside the river. We both really love biking so this was super fun.

Food

This was the first time for me to travel in Japan with a smart phone. The reviews for Karako Ramen were really good and have two of my favourite foods: ramen and chicken karaage. For 850 yen you can get a bowl of tonkotsu ramen and 3 giant pieces of karaage. The ramen was okay but the karaage was really good, even if it was a bit greasy. There’s also some free side dishes that you can help yourself to (like pickles and squid guts) but they looked like they had been sitting out on the counter all day so we didn’t try them. They speak a bit of English here and are listed in a few travel guides.

Bikkuri Donkey (literally: Surprised Donkey) is an awesome Hokkaido family restaurant chain that serves hamburg. Hamburg is a hamburger patty served with rice. My absolute favourite is the one with cheese and curry sauce. It sounds a bit disgusting but is delicious and great comfort food. I decor is wacky and “American style” and looks a bit like if Disneyland had a wild west hamburg shop. The menu is a big heavy wooden window shutter that staff plonk on the table and open so you can read it. It’s delightfully weird. We went a second time in Hiroshima to have a dessert parfait. It’s cheap, cheerful and good comfort food.

Holy crap was Yokochou izakaya ever good. The food was amazing looking and tasting. We tried to go one night, but it was closed and I’m so glad we went back to eat here. It’s a neighbourhood place nearby where we were staying that specializes in fish and seafood. The menu is all in Japanese and the daily specials are up on the wall. While my listening/speaking skills were coming back to me I was quite tired and a bit embarrassed about my Japanese writing that looks like chicken scratch and not up for having to write down our order. They agreed to do a set course for 4500 yen each ($50) and they spoiled us. It was the best sashimi I’ve ever eaten. 

Osaka

We only spent about 24 hours in Osaka and spent most of that time eating, shopping or sleeping. My ex and his boyfriend live there in a queer activist share house and we got to hang out with them, which was great. In my opinion Tokyo is a bit uptight and formal. Osaka is loud, a bit messy and wonderful. In general Osaka people are direct, funny and give zero fucks. 

Accommodation

I had never stayed at a love hotel and I thought it would be more interesting and cheaper than a conventional hotel. Thankfully our friends came with us and let us know what to expect. They also brought us to love hotels that they thought would let two women rent a room. Unfortunately the first one was homophobic and turned us away. Even though the room was clearly lit up and available to book, she said it required a reservation, which was not true.  At Hotel Trevi we didn’t have any problems. For 9000 yen ($98) we got a fairly large room with a giant bathroom that had a window between the bedroom and the bathroom. The giant soaker tub with jets was the best thing after all the walking we had been doing. The stale cigarette smoke smell was the worst thing. I didn’t read the in room menu until the next morning. Sadly I had missed submitting our free breakfast requests (a choice of waffles, Japanese breakfast or a fried egg sandwich) by the 10:30pm deadline. When we checked out they gave us chilled fruit/yoghurt juice boxes because we missed out on breakfast. That was sweet. 

Activities

We packed quite a bit of shopping, eating and visiting friends into 24 hours. 

  Went to a 350+ year old knife shop and picked up knives for me and a friend.   A photo posted by Tara Robertson (@tara.robertson) on


My friends took us to Kunishige Cutlery Shop in Tenjinbashisuji, the longest shopping arcade in Japan. Kunishige has been selling knives and other sharp things (scissors, pruning shears, chisels, and those sharp things that you stick flowers into) for over 350 years. The two good kitchen knives (one big and one small) are from there. They are not particularly fancy but I’ve had them for about 15 years and they are still good knives. I wanted slightly fancier versions of the knives I had and my neighbour also gave me money to buy her a really nice knife. The staff were super knowledgable and answered my questions (in Japanese). The knives I selected were sharpened and carefully and precisely wrapped.

Our friends from Tokyo said The Loft department store in Umeda is the best one. I think that might have been regional pride speaking, but for me The Loft is the best department store in Japan. There’s a really great selection of interesting stuff: stationary, bags, watches, makeup, kitchen stuff and stuff for your living room, bathroom or bedroom. I got a lot of souvenirs for people there, including these awesome face masks.

Food

Butaman! ?

A video posted by Tara Robertson (@tara.robertson) on

We ate so much good food in Osaka. After buying knives we picked up some takoyaki for a snack in the shopping arcade at Umaiya. Our friends took us to their 2nd favourite okonomiyaki place (the owner of their favourite-favourite place is in the hospital right now). It was delicious, cheap and cheerful. Before hopping on the skinkansen to Hiroshima we picked up some steamed pork buns (called nikuman in the rest of Japan but called butaman in Osaka) at 511 Hourai.  

Naoshima

I was so excited to go to this awesome contemporary art island. I had never been here before and it was wonderful. I read this New York Times article about Naoshima after I had been. We were only there for 2 nights and about 2.5 days. I’d recommend staying at least 3 nights. 

Accommodation

We spent two nights at Shioya Ryokan. I read great reviews about this place, both about the hospitality and the delicious home cooked food. Yukiko is an amazing host who has been doing this for 55 years. I felt really at home. It was 6900 yen per night, per person, which included dinner and breakfast with a lot of local fish and other ingredients. The kicker is that you need to phone and make a reservation in Japanese. I had to call a few times to get the time difference right and catch Yukiko while she was in. I was surprised that she only needed my name and the dates we were coming, no credit card information was required to hold the reservation. Yukiko was saying that people come from all over the world and have creative ways of contacting her. She’s talked to Japanese people living in other countries that were asked to call by their non-Japanese speaking friends. 

Activities

 

Arrived in Naoshima as the sun was going down. One of Yayoi Kusama’s works. A photo posted by Tara Robertson (@tara.robertson) on

We rented bikes with electric assists and biked around the hilly island to the Art House Project in Honmachi and then to the Benesse House Museum. This was so much fun. I would highly recommend going to all of the Art House Project houses. My favourite was James Turrell’s Backside of the Moon. I won’t describe the work because you need to experience it. My favourite piece at the museum was Kan Yasuda’s The Secret of the Sky.

The next time I go to Naoshima I will save up to spend one night at the Benesse House Hotel. When the museum closes hotel guests are still permitted to wander through the museum all night. I would go back to The Secret of the Sky and lie on the smooth giant marble pieces and watch the stars.

I was knackered and my feet hurt so we didn’t go to the Chichu Museum which was built mostly underground as to not disturb the natural scenery and views. It sounds like a unique place that explores the relationship between art, architecture and the natural environment:

Five paintings from the Water Lilies series produced by the great Impressionist painter Claude Monet in his later years can be enjoyed under natural light in the museum. The size of the room, its design and the materials used all were carefully selected to unite the Monet paintings with the surrounding space.

I <3 ゆ

A photo posted by Tara Robertson (@tara.robertson) on

One of the other highlights for me was the public bathhouse I <3 ゆ, which is also a contemporary art piece. The name “I love yu” is a play on the Japanese word for hot water and the English word “you”. I love bathing as an activity and this was one of the most weird and wonderful places I’ve been to. In the bathing room there is a mural of the Ama, the freediving women. There is also a monitor in the bench inside the change room with archival footage of Ama and bathing public bathhouses. In the bottom of the soaking pool had a colourful mural on the bottom. There is a giant elephant statue on top of the wall separating the men’s side from the women’s side (note: the two sides swap mid month and we were a day late to see the other side). I broke the no-photo rules and took a photo of the toilet room, which is also amazing.  As you are leaving you can also buy a soda labelled “labune” (which means “it’s love, isn’t it?”) which is a play on “lamune” the traditional Japanese soda that tastes like sweet tarts. 

Food

Most of the food we ate came from was provided at the ryokan we were staying at. We went to get ice cream and beer after visiting the bath house at night and got ice coffee and snacks during the day while out and about on bikes. 

Hiroshima

 

Accommodation

Booked a last minute hotel room at Hiroshima Washington Hotel on some website for 9000 yen. It was a “mystery” room and thankfully we ended up with a non-smoking double room. It was not very spacious, but it was clean and had everything we needed, including a super cute bathroom and shower/bathroom. It was about a 15 minute walk to the Atomic Bomb Dome Memorial. The staff were friendly and helpful and they took care of our suitcases when we went to Miyajima for the day even though we weren’t coming back to stay at this hotel again. 

Activities

 

We were pretty tired when we got to Hiroshima and decided to take it easy. We went for a walk to the Peace Park and to the A Bomb Dome Memorial at night. On this trip we didn’t go to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum but I would highly recommend it. Out of respect for the people who died here and out of respect for your own emotions, I’d advise to take it easy and allow time for reflection. It’s a really powerful place to visit.

Food

As we were in Hiroshima it was essential that we eat Hiroshima style okonomiyaki. We ate at a mediocre place in Okonomi-mura and at a really good place called Nagataya in the shopping arcade very close to the A Bomb Dome Memorial.

Miyajima

Accommodation

Iwaso Ryokan in Miyajima

A photo posted by Tara Robertson (@tara.robertson) on

I wanted my girlfriend to experience a fancy ryokan and a kaiseki meal. Iwaso Ryokan had very good reviews and we had an amazing time there. It wasn’t cheap, 50000 yen for both of us ($550), but part of the cost was the amazing dinner and breakfast. From the moment I called to get picked up at the ferry terminal we were treated to their amazing hospitality. The mini bus drove us up a very narrow windy road through the trees and over to where the ryokan is located. The driver was friendly and pointed out the deer and different kinds of trees. There were many staff at the ryokan who can speak English well, but in whatever language they are speaking their are welcoming and friendly. Our room was in the corner of the floor, so we got a view of the trees and a view to the water. It felt like we were in a treehouse. We went in the onsen both days (as the men’s and women’s sides switch each day) and almost had the place to ourselves. It was really relaxing and felt very luxurious. 

Activities

 

I wasn’t patient enough to wait for buddy to move A photo posted by Tara Robertson (@tara.robertson) on

We spent most of the time enjoying the ryokan but it was a short walk down to see the floating gate, which is dubbed as one of the top three scenic spots in Japan. I’m not sure what the other two are, but it was stunning.

Food

One of the reasons we picked Iwaso was the food reviews. The kaiseki dinner we had looked and tasted amazing. It was also felt really luxurious have the meal served in our room. The woman who served the meal was wearing a kimono and was super knowledgable about the food and patient with all of my questions. The breakfast was also really delicious. I’d highly recommend Iwaso.

One thought on “tips for travelling to Japan”

  1. Awesome report Tara! You’ve definitely stoked my fires for a return trip to Japan at some point soon. Glad to hear my recommendations worked out for you. xoxo Sarah

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