My Trip to Japan

I was excited to plan a recent weeklong trip to Tokyo and Kyoto around Memorial Day 2017. I know everyone prefers to go to Japan around cherry blossom season but the prices were astronomical and the timing never seems to work out for me to go around that time of the year….

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25 May 2017

 

Planning

Getting to Tokyo

 

ANA Lounge

I landed at LAX early in the morning on a short flight from Vegas (LAS). My experience at LAX has always been pretty good. Most seem to complain about it vigorously so maybe my expectations are just lower in general. Sure it sucks to have to exit the terminal and board a bus to move between terminals. It’s hard to really explain how far behind most U.S. international hubs are versus their first world Asian counterparts. Of course American innovation is pretty far behind in a lot of areas when it comes to transportation.

When I got to the Tom Bradley international terminal, I was pleased to get to use the Star Alliance First Class lounge. Previously I was able to use the OneWorld First Class lounge and I have to say that Star Alliance wasn’t quite at the same level although similar enough to be fine. The level of service and food and decor was on par with what I’d expect in the US for an international lounge. It was a nice quiet place to wait until it was time to board. I have to admit I was SUPER excited waiting to board this flight. I’d heard for a long time about the legendary ANA customer service and on board experience and adding that excitement to the chance to see a country like Japan really put me on Cloud 9!

 

Discovering the City

My first night in Tokyo, I found that time had leapt forward. By the time I got to my hotel,  it was already around 6 or 7pm and I realized that with the major time difference it was probably going to be easier if I went to bed early and got an early start the next day. I checked into the Shinjuku Granbell Hotel. Click here for a longer review of my great experience at this hotel. Right off the bat, I’ll tell you one of the most confusing parts of planning a trip to Tokyo is simply deciding where to stay. There are SO many options. I am really pleased with myself (if I do say so myself) that I picked Shinjuku. I doubt I could’ve picked a more perfect location for me. Everyone is different and has different tastes. I prefer a high paced atmosphere on my first visit to a large city. I want to be in the middle of things and have as much walkable as possible. For me that’s what’s important and this location knocked it out of the park. I really enjoyed Shinjuku. I can’t speak to every ward in Tokyo as it’s a massive city. I spent most of my time in Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Ginza. Any one of these wards of course could fill a whole trip to Tokyo! That’s how large a city it really is.

Just to help you wrap your head around how busy a place Tokyo is, consider this: Shinjuku is home to Shinjuku station. Shinjuku Station is the busiest railway in the WORLD. When you visit it, you will not doubt that distinction! Want to know something else crazy? The THIRD busiest railway station in the world is also in Tokyo not far from Shinjuku station. That would be Ikebukuro station (another one that I visited and it’s a monstrous experience!). In fact all of the top five are in Japan (including Shibuya also in Tokyo). I spent quite a bit of time just in the subway/train stations observing the organized chaos and trying different foods on hand (of course). Pictured below are various train stations I visited (though certainly not all of them).

 


My first day in Tokyo I woke up naturally without an alarm at 4am! I guess I was excited to get started. I decided to go to Tsukiji fish market without a plan. I had my first experience with the subways and it was pouring rain outside. It was just a torrential downpour but that did not detour me! If I could deal with 3 days in Vancouver, I could deal with rain anywhere!

I’m not ashamed to admit that I walked around in circles for a while trying to understand what Google maps was telling me. Part of my challenge in Japan are the street signs. In Tokyo, some streets have signs and some don’t. Some have English translations and some do not. As you may imagine, it’s not always easy to know where you should go if you aren’t sure where you are in the first place! So a lot of following the little arrow on Google Maps. That was just to find one of the many entrances to Shinjuku station. Luckily it was just minutes from my hotel. (Actually not luckily, I planned that part when I picked the hotel!)

Anyway navigating the subways is a particular challenge. I don’t like to dwell on the negative so let’s just say plan for extra time when you use Tokyo’s subways (if you are traveling without the aide of someone more experienced with that city). Even with apps such as Hyperedia that supposedly tell you how to navigate the subways, I still struggled. Sometimes the instructions were not very clear. It might tell you which line but not necessarily where to find it within the subway station itself. Like I said, I could talk for some time on the frustrations of the Tokyo subway system (and Kyoto too for that matter). Suffice it to say I got lost more than a few times in Tokyo … but that’s part of the fun!

Once I reached Tsukiji fish market I walked around but it was not very clear where one could or couldn’t walk. So I used one of my most important travel laws (When in Rome…). In this case, “when in Tokyo…”. I just followed what everyone else was doing and I figured it out. It’s a massive place with forklifts and crating and all manner of chaos going on. In heavy rain, it’s even more so. Still I found a nice little spot to enjoy sushi (yes for breakfast). I would probably suggest you get a tour guide to get the most out of that market.

From there, I spent most of the day walking around Tokyo. I like to wander a new city to get the hang of it. In this case, I overdid it and ended up walking all the way from the market back to Shinjuku. Something like a 16 or 17 mile walk. My feet were killing me by the end but I made it. At several points, I wanted to try for the subway or a taxi but (as I mentioned before) neither were so easy to figure out so eventually I just decided to walk it. I got to see a lot of Ginza and Yotsuya along with a lot more of Shinjuku. Shinjuku is as large as a city on it’s own.

I enjoyed walking through several parks along the way.

The beautiful greenery you see as the featured image on this page is actually from Shinjuku gyoen, which is a major park/garden right in the middle of Shinjuku. Similar to a central park you see in many major cities. There are limitless trails, people watching, bird watching, picnic areas, and japanese gardens and tea houses there. It’s a delightful surprise so close to the craziness of Shinjuku.

Tokyo at Night

I also got a chance to wander the streets of Shinjuku at night. I have to say that it really is a sight to see. If you manage to stroll through their version of a red light district, you will know you are there. It’s not for the faint of heart but it’s good fun if you don’t mind the seedy nature of it. Not far from there is also Tokyo’s only real gay district: Shinjuku Ni-chōme. This area is a really cool neighborhood filled with gay bars, clubs, and other similar establishments and shops. Behind every alleyway, there are hidden bars and clubs for every taste imaginable. I walked through the area and stopped at a little pop-up type bar and enjoyed immensely my conversation with the kid at the bar. He spoke no English and I no Japanese but we managed to chat using the handy Google Translate app (download it!!). And I drank some type of Japanese whiskey to my heart’s content. Japan is such a welcoming country that even as a solo traveler, it’s hard to feel alone. Despite the massive language barrier, I felt perfectly at home in Tokyo.

One other note I want to make about Tokyo at night is the safety. I walked considerable distances and I never felt even remotely at risk. Tokyo is a very clean, very safe city (in my experience). I often tell friends that I didn’t see a homeless person in my entire stay there! I clocked in around 30 miles of walking around the city.

My second to last day in Tokyo, I decided to try to find an onsen. I was determined to experience a Japanese onset on this trip. An onsen is like a spa except it uses hot spring water (sometimes natural and sometimes an approximation) and it has strict rules of etiquette that the Japanese will enforce. The most controversial of course (to Americans, at least) is that you must be nude when you enter the bath. So yes it’s an uncomfortable thought for Americans! For me, that sort of discomfort made me want to go for it all the more. After all, “when in Tokyo…!” I got totally lost on my way to the onsen and ended up in a small town outside of Tokyo. I wish I could tell you where I was but I can’t. I can tell you it was a quaint family type town with people out with their kids and enjoying the day. It was awesome actually. Still, I didn’t know where I was and so I eventually made my way back to Ikebukuro station by nightfall.

I wandered into a small Japanese restaurant on my way back to the hotel. I was startled at first by the request to remove my shoes and sit on the floor. I knew to expect that in Japan but it hadn’t come up yet. Let me tell you that sitting on the floor to eat is something that requires practice! It was a teppanyaki style meal which was delicious. As is custom in Japan, tipping is not required or really even requested. That’s tough to get used to but you just pay and leave. No tipping!

My last day in Tokyo I enjoyed the Hanazono Shrine Festival. It was an outdoor festival with endless food stalls, music and grilling meat. It is overlooked by the Hanazono shrine, where worshipers can still go to for prayer. I love festivals, particularly in new countries. It really gives you a new dimension to engage with the local population. If you are in Tokyo during the festival, do yourself a favor and go for it. I also booked a food tour (Tokyo by Night: Japanese Food Tour) my last night in Tokyo. The tour itself was fine. I think the food underwhelmed me to be honest. I think I was expecting earth shattering flavors (like I had last year in Shanghai) but much of the Japanese food I encountered on the tour was food I’d already been exposed to in the United States. It didn’t move new ground for me. Where it did expose me to new things was on dishes like eggs with chocolate inside or the Kimchi pancakes. Neither of which I’d want to eat again! The true highlight honestly is the people. If you are a solo traveler like me, take tours!

You get to meet interesting people from all over the world. In my case, I met a crazy (but fun) lady from South Africa who told me some crazy stories about that country. I met two fun guys from the US and many others. I always end up with a friend or two more than before I started when I take a food tour. In this case, our guide even went out with us for drinks after! About 5 of us decided to keep the fun going and we had a blast bar hopping in Tokyo. That’s the kind of experience a solo traveler craves.

Anyway, the next day … with my JR Green Pass in hand (and my reservation previously setup for my seat) I was ready to hop on the bullet train (shinkansen) to Kyoto!

Headed to Kyoto

With my JR Green Pass in hand, I boarded the Shinkansen at Tokyo Station. I have to admit that it was a bit confusing and I somehow ended up in the wrong seat. Making matters more interesting was not only was I in the wrong seat ( a fact I realized about an hour into the ride), I was in the wrong class! After being corrected by the friendly train staff, I took the long walk 5 train cars back to the green class car. Amusingly, the correct seat I was supposed to be in was the first class car! The upside (I suppose) is I got to see both the regular and green car. I can certainly now vouch for the benefit of upgrading. The green car is significantly quieter and calmer and with the added foot rests and bigger seats, I found it to be a more luxurious experience. My only complaint is that they don’t have a better selection of food (and take credit cards!) on the train. Still, it’s a relaxing ride and a great way to see the countryside.

I arrived at Kyoto station in the late afternoon and found yet another massive Japanese train station to navigate. Getting from Kyoto station to my hotel was not clear to me. In retrospect (with the benefit of hindsight) I now know I could’ve easily taken a subway two stops to within a block of my hotel but in that moment, I was knee deep in a conversation by text and I was pretty distracted. I’d suggest taking the time on the train to research the subway system in advance. Don’t make my mistake! Anyway the station was about 10 minutes drive by taxi to the Hotel. The location of my Hotel was very close to the main attractions and while you may prefer more luxurious accommodations, I would highly recommend that location if it’s your first trip to Kyoto. For more details on my hotel, click on my prior post on it with full review.

 

Exploring

My first night in Kyoto was a joy of exploring the areas around Nakagyo Ward and the Kamo river. I found Kyoto, right off the bat, to be markedly different from Tokyo. It’s certainly smaller and more intimate. I also think it’s running at a much slower pace than Tokyo. The little back alley restaurants and shops and beautiful beautiful architecture and scenery make it a must visit in Japan. On my second day, I got to explore the famous Shijo street and I can’t express how much shopping there is on the street. It’s limitless. And so close to so many other attractions to boot. If the miles of shopping on Shijo street isnt enough for you, you’ll find the Nishiki market intersects it. It’s a more traditional market with lots of crazy foods and stalls that seemingly goes on forever as well. In other words, a LOT of shopping! I enjoyed trying Japanese style breaded Kobe steak, matcha green tea cake sundaes and other delectables throughout that area.

Kyoto is a very walkable city (which I LOVE). It’s one of those places where I could just pick a direction and go and I always discovered interesting things to see and eat.

I also got the chance to walk up to Tofukuji Temple and explore the shrine and gardens. There are some pics of that at the below!

 

Resolved to Experience

With my last full day in Japan upon me, I realized I had not had as full a trip as I would’ve liked. I was in JAPAN for crying out loud. I then had the realization that even after walking more than 55 miles on foot thus far in that trip, I still wanted to see more and I would make the most of my last day.  So I woke up without an alarm at 3am and decided to walk to Kyomizu-dera. The temple is part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage site. About 30 minutes from my hotel walking, I found it quite serene to walk the back streets of Kyoto at sunrise. It’s such a clean and serene place. Hard to describe it but it certainly has an energy all its own.

I was up so early in fact that I reached Kyomizu before the shrine was even open. Thankfully (and oddly) they opened at 6am so I waited around and got in some great pictures. I explored the shrine in depth. Stopping to observe those in prayer and to (attempt) to do a prayer myself. I don’t know if I did it right or not but it felt good. Then I explored the grounds and rubbed the Buddha’s head at the Kyoto Jishu Shrine and I have to say that there is some power/magic there too. You can feel it there. Maybe because it was so early in the morning and I had the place to myself (more or less). When you rub the buddha’s head, any prayer/wish you dream of will come true. It may be more complicated than that, but that’s how I read it!

 

Anyway, after exploring the shrine, I found myself feeling quite accomplished! Something about having walked a few miles, hiked up a shrine, said a prayer, made a wish upon a Buddha and finding that it’s still not yet 8am was invigorating! As I made my way away from the shrine, I noticed a group of Japanese elementary school kids (all dressed in identical uniforms) were walking to the shrine as I was leaving. Apparently it was field trip day in Japan as I noticed lots of school children out and about. As I stood to the side to let the large group pass, they just smiled at me so wide and said enthusiastic hellos to me, waiving the entire time! I don’t know if it was that they were excited to practice their (very good) English or if they are just naturally enthusiastic but it warmed my heart. Really those kinds of experiences have been common in Japan. People are so warm and friendly. Kids, older people everyone. More than once an old Japanese lady bailed me out with a translation and inexplicably knew English better than a much younger person I might be talking to.

I decided to take the long walk to the nearest subway station and found my way to Kyoto station (the main terminal in Kyoto). With my now invaluable JR Green pass in hand, I realized I could go any number of places at no additional cost! By then it was after 10am, so my options were a bit limited. My first choice was to go to Hiroshima and see peace park. But I realized it would be a two hour journey each way and that might be a bit much to attempt. I think if the train was leaving quickly I might’ve gone that route but it was an hour wait just to get the 2 hour train ride (with a stop and change trains in the middle). Thus I made the last minute decision to go to Nara instead. The cool thing about JR is that you can change your mind and they don’t require you to return the previous ticket. It probably sucks for sommeone who wanted to go to Hiroshima if I took the last ticket but I had to act fast to catch a train to Nara so I just flashed my JR pass and got on a much shorter train there. It was about a 45 minute train ride to Nara.

Nara and the Deer

When I arrived at Nara, I fully admit I hadn’t given much thought to the place prior. I knew very little about it. I was literally making things up as I went! (Not recommended for everyone). All I knew is that they had deer in some capacity so I paid $5 US for a bus route on one of the many tourist buses and hopped one to the Nara Deer Park. Once I got there, I found myself amazed, delighted, and in love with the deer at that park! I couldn’t get enough of them. I was fascinated on so many levels. You see, the deer in Nara are protected and can’t be harmed as they’re considered sacred. They congregate close to the shrine but their perimeter has stretched so far you might see a deer well into the city. They have no fencing, or barriers to restrain them. They can quite literally go anywhere and often they seem to do just that.

So seeing hundreds, if not thousands of deers mingling with people in open spaces was quite a sight to see. The deer are more than just wild animals (though they are wild). They have evolved over many generations to learn how to bow to people who approach with food. Yes, they quite literally will bow their heads in respect. Then you can feed them with the handy local deer food sold on every corner. Feeding the deer is great fun. Once they see you have food, they’ll follow you, try to steal it from you, nudge you, whatever. Even if you don’t have food, they’re known to grab things out of your back pocket or come up behind you without warning and nudge. It’s not uncommon to see people scream by the sudden intrusion of the deer. It may sound a bit crazy but it’s all in good fun. Deer are gentle creatures by nature. They can certainly get startled and knock you over so no one should go to Nara unless they’re prepared to be surrounded by wild animals but there were thousands of people in the park that day and I didn’t see anyone doing anything other than having fun.

The deer of Nara park will sneak up into your heart if you let them. I am determined to return again one day to see those deer!

For more on the history of Nara, visit https://www.tsunagujapan.com/50-things-to-do-in-nara

More time in my Day, Visiting an Onsen (finally!)

After going back to feed the deer one more time and grabbing a tasty ramen lunch, I made my way back to Nara station. By that point, it was 3pm and I have to say I was dog-ass tired! Wiped out actually by then, I found myself falling asleep in the long ride back to Kyoto. My goal was to somehow muster the energy to find an elusive onsen in Kyoto! I really would’ve PREFERRED a countryside hot spring onsen with real natural spring water and a true traditional experience but the more I investigated it, the more I realized that would be the type of thing I’d have to build into my next trip to Japan (and I will). Instead I found a city onsen in Kyoto at the Hotel Monterey. When I got to Kyoto station, I was still wiped but I refused to leave Japan without visiting some type of onsen. So after twenty minutes of trying to decipher how to use the subway to get to the onsen, I found that it was just a short 10 minute ride to the Hotel Monterey.  Going to an onsen intrigued me because it scares so many other people, to be honest. The idea of being completely nude around strangers is anathema to a lot of Americans so, naturally, I was determined to do it. While it was not quite what I was expecting, I think it was a great approximation for something I could find in Kyoto. Something, ironically, that was walking distance to my hotel as well! For more on my experience at the Hotel Monterey, check out that blog post in more detail here.

I finally made it back to my hotel around 8pm. So after multiple cities, and a 17 hour day I was finally wiped out and ready for bed. To top it all off, Kyoto gave me a nice lighting and thunder rain storm to finish the night off. (I love storms, so this is a plus for me).

I can honestly say this was the single greatest day of my travels (in any country). I discovered so many things, felt so many emotions, and proved to myself (once again) that we all get the same amount of time in a day, but how we choose to use it is all that really counts. Traveling (for me) is about using that time to find experiences and moments that will make me better, bring me joy and ferret out that inner happiness that’s always inside me.

Now for the most interesting fact of all? I left Kyoto station at 10am in the morning. I arrived home in Las Vegas at 2pm! So all that traveling, flights, connections,etc and I arrive just 4 hours later at my destination. Needless to say, the jet leg after this trip was astonishing! Still, I can’t wait for my next trip to the land of the rising sun!

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