It’s been over a month since mom and I returned from Japan, and 14 blog posts later I’m still struggling with how to adequately summarize our weeks in this confusing, enchanting place. It would be impossible to wrap this trip up perfectly with a neat sparkly bow as I’d prefer, but I’m going to try! After lots of reflecting, a little head scratching, and a few good fits of giggles, here is my best attempt at reviewing our top Japan experiences:
Best Place We Stayed
The Courtyard Tokyo Ginza Hotel
It was one of the pricier places to rest our heads on this trip, but the value of having an English-speaking staff was priceless to us. Not only were the rooms comfortable and (by Tokyo standards) spacious, but the concierge was enormously helpful in pushing us in the right direction when our heads were otherwise spinning. Since Tokyo was our first stop on our Japan tour, I totally took all of this for granted. But after weeks of navigating Kansai with little-to-no English spoken at our hotels & ryokan, I found myself breathing an audible sigh of relief to return to the Courtyard on our last night before flying out of Tokyo.
In addition to the wonderful staff and amenities, the location is perfect for exploring the city via walking and public transit. The hotel is walking distance to several subway stations and major sights, including the Tsukiji Fish Market, Kabuki-za, and many of Tokyo’s most famous eating establishments.
Best Thing We Ate
I have lived in very touristy areas of both Boston and New York City, and so while the eating options are numerous in Tokyo, I suspected it would be difficult to know where to get the most for our money. While we were eager to sample various Japanese staples, we didn’t want to get sucked into the overpriced, low quality tourist traps that any big city shelters in abundance. We found ourselves in just such a trap on our first night in Tokyo, and as we stomached some of the toughest soba noodles in all of Japan (at least as far as we could tell) we vowed to ourselves ‘never again.’ After that we got into the habit of researching our dinner options thoroughly before hitting the streets in an effort to make the most of our time and stomach capacity.
Now this didn’t always work mind you – we even found some of the suggestions by our guidebook and concierge to be disappointing. But we got it right when we googled ‘best ramen in Tokyo’ and picked Kagari out of our search results. I will never think of noodles the same after tasting this deliciously creamy concoction. And waiting in line for a seat at the eight person bar was probably one of the most authentic experiences we were able to muster while in Japan. Did I mention it was one of the cheapest meals we enjoyed in Tokyo?
Best Place We Visited
Our day with the deer and visit with the Todai-ji was a highlight of the trip, and while we saw many, many great sights in Japan, this one stands out to me as most impressive. The ease of getting to and around Nara also bolsters this day in my mind as one of the best of the stay. I would caution anyone visiting Kansai not to miss it.
Best Decision We Made
Japan Rail Passes
Japan has done a wonderful job of accommodating foreigners on their train system. Doing our research before departure, we discovered you must order this pass from your home country, and cannot purchase it once in Japan. I am so glad we discovered this. Not only did it make our travels and numerous day trips economically efficient, it saved us a lot of time in planning out our itinerary. For the most part we were able to arrive at the station, flash our pass to get through any JR turnstile, check out the signage to figure out which train was going where, and hop aboard without a problem. In the few instances where we required (or preferred) assigned seating, all we needed to do was show our pass at the ticket office, point to where we would like to go, and voila – tickets were handed to us! The only downside we discovered to the JR pass is that it does not cover tickets on the fastest line of bullet trains, but we found the second fastest shinkansen took us anywhere we needed to go just as well.
There were many small victories on this journey through Japan, but to me, my highest moment is clear: discovering I loved onsens after all.
Snowed in in Hakone
We traveled to the resort town of Hakone just in time to experience the biggest snowfall in the region in 130 years. 11 inches of snow shut down the area for three days, while we waited helpless in our overpriced hotel. The staff was more or less uninterested in helping us to make our international flight, even though we watched them go to great lengths to assist many members of a western conference make theirs. It was supremely frustrating to wait day after day without any idea of when we would be able to get out and little ability to communicate effectively with the hotel about our needs. Not to mention the snow shut down all excursions in the area, leaving us with nothing to do but sit in the lobby (and soak in the onsen, of course). Eventually the sun came out, and with it the breathtaking view of Mt Fuji we had traveled to Hakone for. It almost made missing our flight home worth it… almost.
What I’d Do Differently
In my previous travels, I had always found that the longer I was able to stay in a place, the better experience I had. This is why I scheduled this trip to last nearly a month. In retrospect I realize now how ambitious this was. I hugely underestimated just how challenging a first-time visit to Asia could be, and by week two mom and I were starting to drag our feet. By the time we got on the plane home we were exhausted. Now that I have a better idea how to meet these challenges, I wouldn’t hesitate to book a trip of this length to Japan again. But for a first-time visit – I think we may have gotten just as much out of a 10-day trip as we did out of our several weeks.
I also realize now that it wasn’t necessary to schlep all the way to Kinosaki to get the onsen experience. Had I done better research I could have discovered just how prevalent they are, and used the time it took to get to Kinosaki and back again to see other sites. It was cool to view the Sea of Japan and taste snow crab at its peak, but the purpose of the excursion – to experience onsens – turned out to be more or less a bust.
On the Next Trip…
There are three places we didn’t make it to on this trip that were cut during planning at the last minute:
The Japanese Alps
We decided not to visit the Japanese Alps because… well, I live in Colorado, and questioned the reason in traveling to the other side of the planet to do what I can do at home. But the truth is, I love to ski! And I missed out on an opportunity to experience how a different culture shares my passion. I will definitely be hitting the slopes on my next Japanese adventure.
We didn’t visit Tokyo Disney for the same reason we didn’t visit the Japanese Alps – I grew up driving distance from Disney World and my parents still live close by. But after experiencing just how different and particular Japanese culture is, I became very curious as to how it would mesh with the very western phenomenon of Disney. So next time I visit Japan, I will definitely be using our Disney Vacation Club points to explore this idea further. It’s on the way to the airport, anyway!
I was most disappointed to drop a visit to the monastic complex at Koya-san, but we didn’t have time to go both here and Kinosaki. Next time I will not miss out on the opportunity to wander the forests here and learn more about Buddhism by staying a night or two in temple lodgings.
I would also love to explore further south. A beach bum at heart, I have been dreaming about a visit to some of the more remote islands of Japan ever since I read about them in a feature of an in-flight magazine.
Japan has definitely been the most challenging place I’ve visited so far. There are a lot of things I felt were lost in translation and plenty of potential experiences missed out on because of this. But the great challenges did lead to great joys. There were definitely things I would have liked to have done differently. But would I do it again?