Wednesday: Travel and Adventure: The Story

So, those of you who have been following my blog so far (or are looking for advice on travel and randomly came across it) know that I have been promising details. This post is more a culmination of knowledge acquired, but hopefully it will fulfill both purposes. I’ll include pertinent links to places where I got a deal as well. Any prices in USD mentioned are based on 80jpy/dollar exchange rate, which is what it was on the first day of our trip when we changed our money.

We visited Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Koyasan, Nara, Iga Ueno, and Yudanaka before returning back to Kyoto.

We traveled using Japan Rail Passes, flew into Tokyo using Delta, and generally avoided taxis, but still had to catch one twice. There were some places we went because of the hype about them where tourism was concerned, that I can hopefully dissuade you from ever wasting time/effort.

Getting There and Back Again:

I recommend using jtbusa.com to price out your plane tickets, even if you don’t buy from them. I found them to be about $200/person cheaper than other ticket websites, and they also have vacation packages that I wish I’d known about before I booked all my own hotels. What we also found out is that traveling close to summer vacation (July 20-August 20ish?), Christmas vacation and any time near the Sakura festival (early to mid May) are all very expensive, so flights and hotels around those times will have higher fees. Keep an eye on prices. I can confirm that it really is cheaper to price out tickets to Japan for flight on Tue, and flying on Wed seems to be the cheapest day. It’s also cheaper to fly into Haneda than Narita, and easier to get into Tokyo from there, but the flights might be bad hours.
I recommend against Delta if you can help it. We flew Delta and their service was terrible on three of the four flights–only the one from Detroit to Tokyo was decent.

Getting Around:

Visitors to Japan have the option of using the Japan Rail Pass. Now, if you travel like I do, it’s completely worth it. You’ll save lots of money because you’ll be train hopping constantly and visiting multiple cities in a single day (like we did). However, if you’re a more leisurely traveler, it probably won’t save you any money. Right now it’s about $351 for a 7-day pass. We paid $555 each for our 14-day passes. Unless you train hop a lot in a single day, it’s definitely not worth it in Tokyo. You’ll be spending roughly $50/day/person for the pass, whereas it’s usually about $2 ea each way to get almost anywhere in Tokyo. It does make up for itself if you are using the shinkansen (bullet trains) a lot, but you can’t use it on the fastest Nozomi train. Also, the public transit system can be a little intimidating. But everything is color coded, which makes it really easy to figure out where you want to go. In major cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, the big transit lists all stops in English too. Local buses might or might not, depending on the bus. Try to stick to major transit. Most taxi drivers don’t speak much English, and they are very expensive. However, they have set rates, so you won’t get swindled–beyond the fees starting at almost $10.

Getting Money:

OK, this is important. If you’re going to Japan from the US, the best way to get the best exchange rate is to withdraw cash in large lump sums at 7-11. They are all over the place in Tokyo, and don’t tack on a bunch of hidden fees. Try to find out if your bank has international ATM fees before you go. Mine has no extra fees and refunds the ATM fees of other banks (Schwab), so I basically got to withdraw my money for free. Plus, they gave me an exchange rate of 79.5jpy/$ when the max published rate was 80jpy/$. At the time I would’ve gotten 76 from the exchange bank. It’s convenient, too, because 7-11s are literally everywhere. Very few establishments in Japan take credit cards, and even fewer take international cards. Make sure you keep enough cash on you for transportation emergencies.

Hotels:

We stayed in a homestay in Tokyo, and loved it. It was an amazing experience. Finding a homestay that could support 3 adults and one baby was tricky, but we used HomestayWeb.com to post our needs, and they found us. It’s a great service! I also found websites like Agoda to be very useful, but beware of hidden fees. In Koyasan we stayed at a Buddhist temple, and the best way to arrange that is through the official website of Koyasan. In Japan basically all hotels charge by the person, and only major western-style hotels will charge per room. It’s a good idea to look into hotels that offer breakfast, but don’t pay through the nose for a hotel with a continental breakfast (although it will probably be Japanese style). Check out choicehotels.com for hotels in Kyoto/Tokyo if you are looking for Western style. The Comfort Inn in Tokyo was very comfortable and we saved 6000jpy off their advertised price per night by booking through Choice Hotels. We stayed at Guesthouse Narakomachi in Nara, and Hotel Avanshell in Kyoto. Both were very nice, especially for the price (Avanshell was only $60/night for two beds, but it’s not within walking distance of sightseeing items, you must use the bus). If you go to the onsen villages, definitely make sure you are staying directly in Shibu. If you’re in any of the surrounding villages you won’t be able to go to the bath walk.

Food:

This is going to sound weird, but if you’re looking for food on a budget, you want to check gas stations. 7-11 isn’t like it is in the US. It’s magic. You can find all kinds of amazing snack boxes, onigiri (rice balls), yakitori (seasoned meat on sticks), and buns and breads filled with everything imaginable, including beef curry–all for reasonable prices (usually around 110-130jpy pp). An individual can eat their fill for under 500jpy (roughly $6.25) or pick up food to keep along for snacks. This was a major lifesaver with the baby. I also recommend trying a conveyor belt sushi restaurant–our favorite was right around the corner from the Minami-senju JR station. Even though it’s cheap by Japanese standards (100jpy or about $1.25 per 2-piece plate), the rice and such are still better quality than a lot of mid-range restaurants in the US, and you can order fresh from the screens at the one we visited. Another really good choice is the standup restaurant Uogashi Nihon-ichi (use Google Translator to find locations). The easiest location to get to is in Ikebukuro, right down the street from the station if you walk directly toward the crowded store areas. We spent 2000jpy to eat our fill (three adults) of very tasty sushi. You have to stand up, but that’s traditional.
I also recommend having tempura at least once, and curry. Japanese curry is nothing like Indian curry.

Jamie and I like to share food, which was a foreign concept in Japan. They gave us lots of funny looks when we would order a large order and split it. We did it anyway… it made more sense than two small plates. Aubri became addicted to the convenience of their food buns. She comes running for food any time she hears plastic crinkling now.

Things you Must Do:

I don’t want to go into too much detail (or this post will get too long), but here are some of my recommendations to definitely do:
Visit an Onsen or twelve. If you’re visiting in summer, I wouldn’t travel to Yudanaka/Shibu et all, it’s just too hot to soak for long. But the waters are definitely worth checking out, and Ryokan food is incredible (if incrediby expensive).
Climb Fuji. I climbed Fuji with Aubri on my back. It took 9 hours up (with some breaks) and 6 hours down. Without the baby it probably would have been 6 and 3 or 4. The climb is hard, but the view is worth it, and the experience is incredible.
Visit Meiji Shrine. It’s free to get into, easily accessible from Harajuku station in Tokyo, and huge and beautiful.
Stay at a Buddhist Temple: Make sure you attend the morning chants. It’s a beautiful experience.
Pet the Deer in Nara. It’s easy to get to Nara from Kyoto, only 40 minutes by train, and the deer are awesomely sneaky. The shrines and such nearby are beautiful as well.
Wander the Back Streets of Oldtown Kyoto: Kyoto is full of shrines and temples. If you get lucky, you’ll run into some Maiko like we did, and they might even let you take a picture.
People Watch in Harajuku or Shinjuku: I can’t recommend this enough, but make sure you find a safe vantage point.
Eat Weird Flavors of Icecream: Our favorites were Sakura Blossom and, of course, Matcha. Black Sesame was decent and White Peach was yummy.

Things You Should Skip:
Sony Tower:
Unless you are really into big screen TVs and point-and-shoot cameras and have never been inside a major electronics store.
The Ninja Museum: It took three hours to get there, five hours to get from there to Tokyo, and we spent one hour and 1650jpy (rail and ticket) each there. The choreographed show was only 20 minutes long, and everything in the museum can be found on the internet. It might be worth the trip if you go everywhere in Ninja Park, but that would get expensive too, at 500jpy per building entry…
Tsukiji Fish Market: This experience is way overhyped. Unless you understand Japanese well enough to really enjoy the auction, it’s basically just a cold and smelly warehouse that you get walked through. Dodging the trucks is fun, if you like a thrill. But the fish here is way overpriced and caters to tourists. You are better off eating at Uogashi, and saving the expensive taxi to get to Tsukiji early enough to catch the auction. They only let about 120 people in each, at 5 and 5:30, so you have to stand in line for a while.

Next week we’ll talk about specific regions more thoroughly, particularly the Fuji trip–there aren’t enough Gaijin (foreigner) guides out there.

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