Carly, the Sensei of Travel?
2015 NOTE: This post originally appeared in my blog in June 2011. I made a few updates in 2015 after a year of living in Mejiro, Tokyo. Ok, here it is:
It's down to the wire here; in less than a week, I will be leaving Japan. As a travel bug-bitten Japan enthusiast on a shoestring budget, I've learned a lot this year about how to make the most of my time and my money in Japan. So, if you're ever considering a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, you're in luck, because I've condensed my findings into two itineraries, which I'll post here. The first is a basic "week of Japan's highlights" which I drafted for my singing buddy Max earlier this year. It hits all of what I consider "must-sees" and "must-do's." The second is designed for people who have a little more time (and a little less money) to spend only in Kyoto.
Travel Recommendations for Japan: A Week of Japan's Highlights
First, try to buy a JR Pass (http://www.japanrailpass.net/eng/en003.html). This pass (available for 7 days, 14 days, and 21 days) is a HUGE money-saver if you plan on going anywhere beyond the Tokyo area--which you should! But it takes a little of preparatory work (only available outside of the country and then you “cash in” your voucher for it once you land. It’s a little complicated, but it’s worth the trouble (hundreds of dollars over).
Day 1: Land at Narita Airport; Take Narita express to Ikebukuro (there are some direct trains; some via Shinjuku) or take the “Airport Limousine” bus directly from Narita to your hotel (Hotel Metropolitan Tokyo, Ikebukuro). There is a bus information desk right by the baggage claim.
HOTEL: (A) Hotel Metropolitan Tokyo in Ikebukuro is a nice, Western-style hotel, and I can recommend Ikebukuro as a wonderfully central location for Tokyo tourism (http://www.jrhotelgroup.com/eng/hotel/eng111.htm); a bit more budget-friendly option would be (B) Tokyu Stay Ikebukuro in the same neighborhood (https://www.tokyustay.co.jp/e/hotel/IKE/); For the more adventurous, I might recommend the Asakusa Capsule Hotel (3000 yen pp) -- with the side note that my brother hated the capsule hotel. It can be miserable if (like him) you enjoy a cushy lifestyle and/or do not speak a word of Japanese… but come on, it’s a CAPSULE HOTEL!
Tourism: Stave off jet lag by walking around the Ikebukuro area (such as the shops of Sunshine City), and maybe even singing some Karaoke or visiting the 10-storey Junkudo bookstore. Another magical place to spend a Tokyo evening is the Asakusa area, where you can walk around SENSOJI TEMPLE and the shops nearby.
Day 2: Jet lag will wake you up early, so this is a great day to see the Tsukiji fish market as it bustles in the early morning (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsukiji_fish_market)
Explore the Akihabara electronics district (also a great place for vintage video arcade games—just wander around. My younger brothers loved “Super Potato” (http://otakumode.com/sp/visit_japan/akihabara/at003);
Yasukuni Jinja (shrine that causes lots of controversy when politicians visit it) and the war museum next-door
HOTEL: Same as Day #1
Day 3: Exploring Tokyo
Shopping in the Ginza area (famous shopping district, like 5th Avenue)--definitely go to Matsuya (it's as famous as the NYC Macy's)
Walking around the Imperial Palace grounds
Entertainment: consider a kabuki show at the Higashi Ginza Kabuki-za theatre
Evening Shinkansen (3 hour bullet train) to KYOTO – Don’t forget to buy “train snacks” before you board. Typical ones include crackers like “Pretz,” dried squid or beef jerky, a bento box of sushi/various local offerings, Asahi or Kirin beer, and Pocky for dessert). You will see all of these delish offerings for sale around the boarding platform.
HOTEL: Kyoto is a great place to try a ryokan (a traditional Japanese style inn where you sleep on the floor and wear yukata as you walk around). When my dad visited, we stayed at Nishiyama Ryokan, which was centrally located and sumptuous but quite expensive (http://www.ryokan-kyoto.com/). Another option would be just try to shoot for something close to a subway stop; Sanjo area is most convenient
Day 4: Exploring Kyoto
Rent a bike from a shop or a hostel and ride around, exploring various temples and shrines; A day bus pas is another convenient option.
Some of the best are: Kinkakuji (Silver Pavilion--sooo gorgeous), Ryoan-ji, Heian Shrine, Ninna-ji, Fushimi Inari Shrine -- oh, also, at Heian shrine, sometimes you can experience the tea ceremony in the tea house in the inner garden. I'm not sure how often this happens, but it's a super traditional Japanese experience.
Most shrines and temples are either free to enter or charge fees of around 400 or 500 yen per person. The main attraction is the scenery, so bring your camera and just explore and enjoy the peacefulness
Philosopher's Walk and the Ginkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)
Nijo Castle (enter and walk around, see old architecture)
Old Imperial Palace grounds
Gion (old geisha area)-- walk around, consider a performance
Sanjo for night life – buy some Chu-hai or beer from a convenience store, and sip it down by the river as you listen to the youngsters play guitar.
Day 5: Kyoto Environs
Arashiyama is the mountain district just outside of Kyoto. It's a gorgeous place for a day spent leisurely hiking and enjoying nature, if you have the time. I'm crazy about the Sagano Romantic Train through the mountains here (http://www.topsightseeing.com/japan/kyoto/attractions/romantictrainride.htm)
*Any free time to kill in Kyoto (if it's a pretty day): picnic by the Kamo River, especially at Sanjo or Demachi Yanagi stations
*Or do some of the unfinished stuff from Day 4
Day 6: A Brief Glance at Kansai (region including Kyoto and the western part of Honshu)
Use your JR pass to visit Kobe, Osaka, and/or Nara. These cities are all close together and all have lots to offer to a tourist.
in KOBE: eat beef, walk by the seaside park
in OSAKA: consider Spa World (a bath park) http://www.spaworld.co.jp/english/service.html, also consider the bunraku (traditional puppet) show--sounds lame but is quite a sight to see and is famous in Osaka
in NARA: (7th century capital)--see the old temple and the giant Buddha at Todai-ji, feed the deer
Possible hotel: Nakata Bed and Breakfast (Nara) 奈良県奈良市寺町1-1 --- 0742-24-0860 (7600 yen per room per night) -- sleep on futon in a tatami mat room
Day 7: Use the last day of your JR Pass to take the Shinkansen back to Narita airport.
If you have time, consider stopping first at Shin-Yokohama, and then taking the JR local line to Ishikawa-cho and see the biggest Chinatown in Japan. This is where I used to live. If you keep walking north toward the sea, you can see some beautiful parks by the Yokohama port, which became a main port after Commodore Perry told Japan that they had to open up to trade back in 1853.
IF you are only going to be in the Tokyo area and are unable to travel farther afield, great day trips from Tokyo include: Yokohama, Nikko, and Kamakura. The latter 2 offer beautiful historic scenery and temples/shrines, and the former has a great Chinatown (mentioned above in Day 7) as well as a huge ferris wheel, an easy-to-access baseball stadium (go, Baystars!), and gorgeous parks by the ocean port.
2015 UPDATE: Other great places to see in Tokyo include: Ueno Park (lots of great museums, beautiful park, and I love the Shitamachi museum); Ryogoku near the sumo stadium (completely worth the ticket price if you are around for a tourney; http://www.sumo.or.jp/en/); and walking around the old campuses like Waseda and Tokyo at Hongo campus. Tokyo also has some lovely gardens -- my favorites are Kyu Shiba Rikyu Garden, Kyu-Iwasaki-tei Garden, and Rikugi-en... well, basically every garden seen here in the 2014 Fall Leaves Stamp Rally (http://www.metro.tokyo.jp/INET/EVENT/2014/09/21o9i500.htm). My new favorite day trip from Tokyo is Karuizawa, a resort area in Nagano prefecture but just an hour from Ueno station by Shinkansen. Just go directly to the information center when you get to the station and do the red-line walk in the English brochure they give out free at the info booth.
If you have the time or inclination to explore even beyond Tokyo and Kansai, great bets would be: Hokkaido (the northern island), Okinawa (by plane), Hiroshima (atomic museum and park), Nagasaki (only port city open to trade with “the West” for two hundred years until the mid-1800s), Kanazawa (old castle city on the Sea of Japan), or Takamatsu on Shikoku (udon capital, also has a gorgeous park called Ritsu-rin). Other options among my favorites would be: climbing Mt. Fuji (for the extremely fit and courageous), walking some of the temples of the 88 Temple Shikoku route, and the magical land of Tokyo Disney ("Land" is better than "Sea").
Must-eat/drink items: MAIN: okonomiyaki (cabbage pancake); udon (noodles); soba (buckwheat noodles); sushi (Kappa Sushi in Kyoto between Sanjo and Gion Shijo stations, on the west side of the river, is cheap and good); takoyaki (fried octopus in round balls, usu. sold as street food); curry rice (CoCo Curry is always good); onigiri (rice balls, buy at any convenience store; I like salmon or tuna-mayo); pickles ("tsukemono")
TREATS: green tea ice cream, shaved ice with beans on top (kakigori), crepe (popular street food); something delish from any Japanese bakery; mochi ball (white ball with red bean paste inside, available by any convenience store check-out counter)
DRINKS: chu-hai (soda-like beer everyone loves and drinks as they sit by the river); sake (duh. try "Nihon-shu" or "Maru"); umeshu (plum sake); green tea
Good Japanese experiences: seeing shrines and temples, entertainment: kabuki/bunraku/geisha dance in Gion, Kyoto; staying in a capsule hotel; staying in a traditional Japanese hotel (ryokan); bathing in an onsen (but you have to get nekky with random people); seeing a baseball game; buy drinks from vending machine; buy treats at a convenience store (Family Mart is best); make puricula (photo stickers in arcade photo booth); go out drinking when the salarymen are out; stop in for an hour or so of karaoke!
NOW, KYOTO-SPECIFIC RECOMMENDATIONS:
KILLING TIME IN KYOTO FOR FREE (OR, AT LEAST, FOR VERY LITTLE MONEY)
This post provides a suggested itinerary for people who have a lot of free time in Kyoto (students, researchers, backpackers...) and want to see the city on the cheap.
SUNDAY: MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA. Start out at Kawaramachi station. Cross the river and spend the morning walking through the streets of Gion, the old Geisha district. Slowly make your way northward through the streets, stopping to enjoy treats (a warm tofu manju for 200 yen is a warming breakfast). Admire the kabuki theatres you pass along the way. Stroll through Maruyama Park. Continue north, walking up Higashi-Oji Road, until you reach the Biwa canal. Walk along the canal, headed eastward, and then, when you hit Shirakawa Road, turn left to walk north. Turn left when you reach Marutamachi Road, and stop into the Miyako Messe (www.miyakomesse.jp) to see the FREE “Maiko, Kyoto Traditional Dance” and short lecture on customs, held every Sunday from 2-3:30 p.m. The shop in the basement is great to get an idea of crafts available for purchase in Kyoto, but the prices are so high that it’s better to use it more for inspiration than for actual purchases. Spend the late afternoon exploring Heian Shrine, just north of the Miyako Messe. Admission is free, unless you want to go into the garden for 400 yen (which is worth it if you’re there in a pretty season).
MONDAY: EMPEROR / SHOGUN FOR A DAY. Begin at Imadegawa station. Walk into the Imperial Palace complex just east of the station, and spend a good amount of time traversing the complex’s various gardens as you head southward through it. Exit from the southwestern corner (by Marutamachi station) and walk west on Marutamachi Road until you reach Horikawa Road, where you’ll take a left to head south to Nijo castle. Nijo castle does have an entry fee of around 600 yen, but I think it’s worth it, because you get to see the interior lifestyle of the rich and shogun-ish from the Edo period.
TUESDAY: KAMO KAMO KAMO. Be a true Kyotoite and spend this leisurely day along the Kamo River. Make sure the weather’s nice. Begin on the northern side of Shimogamo Shrine, where it’s free to walk along and admire the shrine buildings and wooded surroundings of this World Heritage Site. Work your way south until you arrive at the “V” where the two sides of the river join to form the Kamo river. Grab lunch at Falafel Garden (on the right, just 2 blocks down the little road immediately south of Demachi-yanagi station) where you can get lunch for as little as 350 yen. Take it to go, and picnic by the river for the rest of the afternoon, listening to conversations and musicians around you as you enjoy some Chu-hi purchased from the Family Mart or 7-11 nearby.
WEDNESDAY: PHILOSOPHICAL KYOTO. There isn’t a ton to see at Kyoto University, but it’s nice to be able to claim that you’ve seen the campus, and it’s always electrifying to be near a stellar university. Bookstores abound near the campus--as do cheap eateries. Begin at Demachiyanagi station and walk east on Imadegawa Road until you hit campus on your right. By the way, there are countless used bike stores along this road, so if you’re in the market for some cheap wheels, this is your best bet. After breezing through campus, continue on Imadegawa. You will eventually pass over Shirakawa Road, where you should begin to see signs for Ginkaku-ji (Silver Temple). The entry fee is 500 yen (worth it), but if you’d prefer to save that money, there is plenty to see along the “Philosopher’s Path” that rambles perpendicularly to the entry road to the Temple. This is especially lively in cherry blossom season, although Ginkakuji in autumn splendor was one of the most breathtaking sights of my year here.
THURSDAY: KYOTO THE NATURAL. Begin at Kitayama Station, where, just to the west, you will enter the Kyoto Botanical Garden. It’s only 200 yen (observatory extra, but not necessary), and the grounds are peaceful and charming. After the morning here, make your way east along Kitayama Road, stopping in to sample a treat from one of the many bakeries along the way. Inobun, a four-story store just to the east corner of Kitoyama station (across from McDonald’s; www.inobun.com) is a fun place to get a feel for Japanese gifts. I bought most of the presents for my family here; it’s not touristy--just so Japanese. It’s a great place for stationery, precious accessories for babies, bento boxes, tea-related gifts, book covers, and jewelry. Keep going east on Kitayama until you reach Takaragaike Road (2 stoplights east of Inobun). Take a left up this road, and follow it to Takaragaike, where you will spend the afternoon paddling in a “lucky boat” (or watching others do it of 1000 yen sounds too steep), walking alongside the water, and taking pictures of the fun animals here.
FRIDAY: KYOTO THE MODERN. Begin at Kyoto Station. Spend the morning at the station itself, going up all of the steps, stopping in the shops, and taking in the architectural impressiveness of the Station itself. Caffe Veloce next to the main post office in front of the station is the cheapest coffee shop in Kyoto. After coffee, take the subway to Karasuma Oike station for the International Manga Museum-- a big hit with my whole family (http://www.kyotomm.jp/english/). Then, take the subway to Shijo, and spend the late afternoon enjoying the shopping district here, especially the thrift store “Chicago” (with a full 2nd floor of discount kimono and yukata), the cheap eatery Yak and Yeti (www.yakandyeti.co.jp), and the arcades where you can make puricula (tiny photo booth pictures--very Japanese).
SATURDAY: it’s the end of your week, so why not spend a little money? Choose from one of the three options below which, although they cost a little money, are all Kyoto musts:
(EXPENSIVE OPTION 1): ARASHIYAMA. Take the JR to Saga-Arashiyama Station. Exit and walk a few steps to Trokko Saga Station, where you are able to catch the Romantic Train Sagano Line, round-trip, through the beautiful mountains. This is a must for fall! When you get back to Saga, have a bowl of curry rice for a few yen at one of the shops among the main drag, and spend the day exploring the bamboo forest, Tenryuji Temple, and all of the fun shops and treat stores in the area.
(EXPENSIVE OPTION 2): FUSHIMI INARI AND UJI. The JR Nara line takes you down to Fushimi Inari, the shrine with all of the red torii gates lined up. Wear your hiking shoes! It’s totally free once you get here, but save a couple hundred yen for soft serve at the top of the mountain! After Fushimi Inari, make your way to the KEIHAN Fushimi Inari station, and then take the Keihan line to Uji, a city south of Kyoto. In Uji, spend your afternoon at the Tale of Genji Museum and at the architectural gem that is Byodo-in, the Phoenix Hall. This provides a nice little respite from Kyoto.
(EXPENSIVE OPTION 3): THE NORTHWESTERN MOUNTAIN TEMPLES. Rent a bike or put your hiking shoes on, because this stretch of temples is a long one (but totally worth the effort). Bus 59 also connects these three temples. Begin at Takaoguchi station, and as you progress north-easterly along Kinukake Road, stop into: Ninna-ji (World Heritage Site, beautiful grounds), Ryoan-ji (World Heritage Site, famous for its zen rock garden), and Kinkaku-ji (Golden Temple, World Heritage Site).
OTHER TIPS FOR SAVING MONEY:
GETTING AROUND: Transportation in Kyoto is expensive, so if you think you’ll ride the subway more than two times in a single day, buy a 600-yen “DAY FREE PASS” from the worker at the subway operator window at the ticket gates of any subway station. Bus passes are also available from the driver as you exit the bus (500 yen for one day). Bike rentals are also a good idea. I saw a sign the other day for 500 yen rental for a whole day at the bike rental shop at Demachiyanagi station.
GETTING IN FOR FREE: The Kimono Passport Program (www.kimono-passport.jp) is an unreal deal, but the information is all in Japanese, so foreigners don’t really have the chance to take full advantage of it. Let me help you. This program offers discounts and, during the autumn months, free entry to many tourist sites like temples and museums. All you need to do is to pick up a kimono passport booklet from a distribution office (an easy one to find is the Information desk at the Keihan Sanjo station--just ask for “KIMONO PASSU-POH-TO ONEGAISHIMASU” from the worker inside the office). Then, get yourself a kimono (as mentioned above, the second floor of Harajuku Chicago has many cheap options, www.chicago.co.jp). Then, just wear your kimono as you go sightseeing, and flash the passport at the entry desk of the temples and museums you visit. Deals and discounts differ from year to year, but you’re guaranteed to save money, plus you get to keep the kimono.
EATING ON THE CHEAP: My favorite spots for yummy but cheap food are Coco Curry, Kappa Sushi, Yak and Yeti, Caffe Veloce, nigiri and bento from Family Mart, baked potatoes from Lawson 100, plus any street food available. Also, try Ohana (small coffee shop with good breakfast and lunch sets; take Exit 1, the east exit, from Matsugasaki station. Take a right at the first light, and Ohana is on your left--a green building, at number 9-2).
LIVING ON THE CHEAP: Go to the International Community Center near the corner of Shirakawa and Nijo as soon as you arrive to check the bulletin board for cheap items for sale, cheap lessons, and (free) language exchange opportunities. Other options to outfit yourself are RECYCLE SHOPS. My favorites... I don’t know their names or addresses, but I know the general areas: (1) From Imadegawa station, get to Imadegawa Road and walk west along it. After about 5 blocks, you’ll see a Family Mart on your left. Soon after that, on the left, is a yellow awning. This is the recycle shop; it’s great for cheap kimono, accessories, and “nice,” traditional household items. (2) Where Kita-Oji dead ends into Shirakawa Road, there is a recycle shop on the southeast corner of the “T” formed by the roads. It has a bunch of clothes and really cheap necessities. I just got a thermos there for 200 yen. (3) From Kita-Oji, take a left onto Shirakawa Road and walk for several blocks until you see a bunch of washing machines out on the sidewalk. This is a great recycle store for appliances like refrigerators and washers. (4) In the covered marketplace area just north of Shugakuin station, there is a small recycle shop with gift items and some clothes. (5) Green e Books (www.greenebooks.net) is at the northeastern corner of Marutamachi and Horikawa Roads. It has shelves and shelves of second-hand novels, non-fiction, magazines, and guide books--all in English! Don’t expect much if you bring your own books here to sell at end of your stay, though. I was just offered 50 yen (about 60 cents) TOTAL for my copies of _Gone with the Wind_, _Catch 22_, a Japan guide book, a book of David Sedaris essays, and hardbook copy of Ha Jin’s _War Trash_.
Happy travels ~~ !