25 May 2017
Decision to go
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 (I am a March Madness avid fan and I hate to travel in March!). So after planning two prior trips to Japan and canceling them for various reasons I decided to try not planning the trip and going on 3 weeks lead time! That seemed to do the trick.
Quickly planning my solo trips
With very little time to plan, I kicked into gear my standard rules for solo travel planning (in no order).
- Rule #1: Pick modernized hotels at reasonable prices with top notch Tripadvisor Reviews. Nothing sucks the energy out of a solo trip more than being stuck in a hotel that isnt clean or close to anything of consequence. I pound the pavement in serious fashion when I travel so I need a clean comfortable place to lay my head at night. I’ve gotten out of the habit of needing “luxury” (although it never hurts). Just modern amenities and cleanliness.
- Rule #2: Always know how I will get from the airport to the hotel and how far a distance that really is. Even better, have a pre-booked option ready to go.
- Rule #3: Learn the exchange rates in advance and have plenty of cash on hand for the trip.
- Rule #4: Have my “go bag” well stocked. One of these days, I’ll blog about my go bag. It’s a life saver. You’d be AMAZED how often I go to foreign countries and have a hellish time trying to translate medicines or simply can’t find something I really prefer to have. Now I make sure to have my favorite moisturizers, antihistamine, Excedrin, and so much more in my go bag. More importantly, I always want to make sure my go bag is restocked after every trip so I can simply grab and “go”!
Redeeming miles for FIRST CLASS!!
Where to go in Japan?
There are a lot of decisions to make on a trip to Japan. One of the first is to decide where to go once I got to the country. You could spend months in Japan and not see the country. It is geographically small but rich with visual feasts and cultural wonder! I knew I had to go to Tokyo (it just seems like an automatic) plus I love big metropolises so I knew I’d take a liking to the city. I also knew I wanted to go to Kyoto. On the other hand, I also wanted to go to Hiroshima, Mt Fuji, Sapporo, Osaka, and so many other places. But in the end I decided not to overload my trip and dilute the quality so I went for Tokyo and Kyoto only for this trip. (I’m already mulling a return trip to go to Sapporo in the winter for an icy cold trip!). For your first visit to Japan, I think this is a good option. It gave me a real clear picture of the country in a short period of time (a week).
Japan Rail Pass
I also had to decide if I wanted to buy the infamous JR Pass. There are many opinions online about it but in the end I decided that if I was going to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto and then back to Tokyo to fly out of Narita the pass would be well worth it.
The JR GREEN pass I found to be very useful. I needed to inbound and outbound from Narita and the JR green pass not only got me a round trip ticket to and from Kyoto but also covered my cost on several inner cities trip and a lengthy trip from Kyoto to Nara.
I also bought the west Kansai pass before leaving the US, thinking I would really need it. Not only was exchanging it a real pain (since there are multiple JR ticket offices both in and out of Kyoto station but only ONE at Kyoto station will exchange this pass) but it was useless. I was in Kyoto for three days and never saw any use for it that my regular JR pass didn’t cover. So my suggestion is to get the JR pass if you are traveling multi city but skip the regional ones unless you know in advance how you’ll use them. I tend to travel more on a whim. I like to be flexible and go as more on instinct instead of a rigid plan when I travel. So for me I want maximum flexibility, which the main JR pass allows for.
Internet and Connectivity in Japan
Finally, I had to decide prior to leaving on whether to pre-purchase the “myfi” device that is offered in Japan. It was around $84 and I got it from Global Advanced Communication. I was concerned about not having wi-fi in the country based off my reading prior to going and it turns out this was a mistake. I really did not need it. In my case, Verizon has an international plan (which I previously had) that offers service in 100 countries for $10/day. Yes it comes out to the same price on an 8-day trip but when I use my unlimited Verizon international roaming plan, I can also receive phone calls and make them using my regular phone (not needing Skype or some other app). If you are in Japan longer than a week and/or do not have an international phone plan (you SHOULD if you are going to travel) then this may be worthwhile for you. I will say that connectivity in Japan was never an issue. It’s a highly modern country with lots of free wi-fi (even in public spaces). So this is one expense you could take the chance to skip if you are otherwise covered.
Getting to Tokyo
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!
Once I got to the gate, I was pleased to see a special line just for First Class travelers. For those of you Americans who are not familiar with international travel, “First Class” is very different from what we consider first class here in the United States. The closest approximation of what we consider to be “first class” on US domestic flights would be “Premium Economy” on those international carriers that offer it. Both business class and first class are significantly higher level in service, food, comfort, and amenities than anything we have in the US on legacy carriers. Especially so when you’re flying on one of the top 5 airlines in the entire world (and ANA goes into that group).
There are only 8 first class passengers on the Boeing 777 ANA flies and I was pleased to be one of those passengers! There is truly no way to adequately describe the feeling of pampering and service that ANA provides it’s first class passengers. From the personalized attention, the use of my name, and the free flowing top shelf alcohol there is much to love! As soon as I got on the plane I was shown to my seat and offered a pre-flight beverage and the opportunity to change into the ANA provided pajamas! This sequence varies by flight attendant (I had a slightly different experience on the return flight). On the first flight I waited to change until after take off. On the return flight, I changed as soon as I got on the plane and was much more comfortable. Also on the return flight first class was mostly empty so the flight attendant setup the seat across from me for a bed (which I have to say is a nice touch). So I could easily move back and forth from bed to sitting. The return flight was the first time I’ve ever been able to actually sleep for more than an hour on an airplane!
The restrooms are stocked with high end amenity kits, soaps, lotions, moisturizers, and towels. Also those amazing Japanese style toilets (more on that in my Japan trip blog). There are many great things about being in first class on ANA, one of the best is the dedicated flight attendants to just first class and the fact that there are 2 bathrooms dedicated to the cabin as well (for 8 seats).
As you can see above, the 5 course meal is top shelf as well. I didn’t get a great pic of the steak entree but it was not overwhelmingly good. While the presentation and quality of the food will blow away most anything you’d get on an airline, I have to say that my jaunt last year on Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong had slightly better food (and caviar). Still I could hardly complain about an amazing meal and the amazing service!
One other area I think Cathay is slightly superior is their entertainment options. I thought they had a more extensive amount of things to watch. I don’t think I used ANA’s entertainment system at all on either flight. (which is a good reminder why its important to have a stocked iPad with you anytime you go overseas. You never know when you need to pull up an episode of the Real O’Neal’s to pass the time).
Of course Cathay did NOT have wifi on my first class flight last year. Which was not great but ANA’s wifi (on both flights) was atrociously slow. So slow that it basically could’ve been no wifi as far as I’m concerned. That was the biggest frustration/negative point. Still I’d fly them again in a heartbeat!
I always find arrival for the first time in a new country to be particularly taxing. Getting the hang of a new culture and usually a massive international airport is a real challenge. In the case of Tokyo Narita, I have to say it was the most pleasant and efficient major airport I’ve ever visited. I got off the plane and got through customs in less than 15 minutes and then my bag came out almost immediately (oh I wish more airports could figure out how to do that!).
Upon leaving the customs area, I found my pre-booked limo bus stop pretty easily. Before walking outside, though, I found a handy automated machine that took US dollars and converted and exchange to Yen! So much easier than most countries where you have to go to a counter and deal with actually humans. So right off the bat I knew Japan was an efficient country, just by how well the airport is run. (A side note on the limo bus. I could only get the JR Rail pass for 7 days and my trip was for 8 days. I didn’t want to pay for 14 days! Thus I took the limo bus to the hotel and used the JR Rail Pass to catch the Narita express on the way back. I would definitely recommend the Narita Express over the limo bus. Although the limo bus was clean, luxurious and comfortable.)
I had a short wait at the bus stop for the Limo bus and then boarded it for an hour long trip to the city. Yes, it takes an hour to get from Narita to Tokyo! So plan accordingly. Even on the Narita Express, it takes just as long. It’s just a good distance away but no big deal if you’re prepared for it. Many airports are far from the cities they serve. Washington Dulles (IAD), Shanghai’s Pudong (PVR) and Chicago O’hare (ORD) come to mind as some of the more extreme examples.
The limo bus let me out at the Shinjuku Highway Bus Terminal. From there it’s actually not a long distance from my hotel but with 3 bags I decided it best to take a taxi. This was the first of many tries using taxis in Japan. I’ll say a few things about the taxis in that country. First, they are universally clean and neatly kept. A far cry from taxis you see in most other countries. In some cases, the taxi drivers literally wear white gloves. Now, the downsides are large. First, the language barrier is extreme. In some cases even showing them the address in Japanese isn’t enough. Attempting to show them on maps doesn’t work. I can’t tell you how many times I found it a challenge to talk to a taxi driver in Japan. The upside about many other countries is that you can use Uber or Lyft. In my opinion, ride-share services are amazingly helpful at removing language barriers. In Japan, I did not see much of a presence for either service which means navigating the labyrinth and massive subway system (more on that later), walking, busing, or braving the taxi services. Also, taxis in Tokyo are very expensive in my opinion. Subways are certainly more reasonable if you can figure them out!
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.
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
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!
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!)
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.
After a memorable trip in Japan (and sore sore feet), I woke up early on travel day to get to Kyoto station. From Kyoto station, I had to take the Shinkansen to Tokyo station terminal. From Tokyo station terminal, the Narita Express Shinkansen to Narita International Airport. From Narita (NRT), a non stop 10 hour flight to San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Then a layover at SFO before another flight to Las Vegas.
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!