Research, recommendations and meeting up with a small tour ensured a successful and amazing introduction to Japan. After reading numerous blogs and reviews of tour companies, I arranged my trip to cover the classic sights of Japan including the modern city of Tokyo, the peaceful mountains and lakes with hot springs in the Hakone region and the historical areas in Kyoto.
My tour began at the Narita airport which is a 2 hour drive from downtown Tokyo. Fortunately I received a IC Transport Card and directions in the mail before leaving so I knew which train to look for. It is a bit overwhelming to be so independent and self reliant. There was no one with a sign and my name to greet me. I had to figure this out, alone. So after getting my luggage, I found the information center.
I was greeted kindly by English speaking guides who wrote the names of the 2 stops that I needed to get off at to arrive at the station near my hotel. They clearly directed me to the correct track and the trains are well marked.
This first adventure empowered me as the trains were clean and easy to follow. The signs are in Japanese and English and they announce clearly which station is coming up next.
I met my son in the hotel and we enjoyed an authentic sushi dinner at a nearby restaurant. I was impressed with how quiet the streets were at 10:00 p.m. in the Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo. Most people use public transportation and many were riding bicycles on the sidewalks, so cars aren’t really as important. For a busy city with a population of 13 million, the streets are impressively quiet with no horns honking. That must be a New York City thing?
The next morning we met our group for breakfast which was included at the hotel and then a walking tour to the city’s oldest temple called Senso-ji. Next we walked through a lively market filled with unfamiliar food and souvenirs. We boarded a boat and took a cruise down the Sumida River to the Hamarikyu Gardens where we enjoyed green tea in the Shogun’s old house on a peaceful pond at the park.
After tea we used our IC cards to board the train and visit the trendy Harajuku area where the largest intersection in Tokyo is located at the Shibuya Station. This is the famous intersection where everyone, many walking with umbrellas to keep the sun off their very white skin, has one minute to walk in all the directions. When the minute is over, everyone is where they should be – on the sidewalk. Definitely a must see.
We also visited the giant gate at the Meiji Shrine in this area and then found our way back to the hotel by train, on our own. In the evening we all went out for a traditional meal where you remove your shoes and found ourselves immersed in a summer festival. The crowds of Japanese were all dressed up in kimonos and heading to see the firework show so we did too. Great day in Tokyo.
This small coastal town is located about one hour by train from Tokyo. It has some pretty hiking trails around the town that lead to a number of ancient temples and shrines including the famous giant bronze Buddha. One member of our tour group went for a run down to the water which entertains surfers I am told. We had fun exploring the area near our hotel and found a super small bar/restaurant where my son was able to use his knowledge of Japanese to speak with the cook, bartender and one other patron. He even ate a giant whelk, a sea snail, that was offered to him. Quite the Anthony Bourdain experience.
I loved this place as it was cooler that our other spots so far and so pretty. On the way to the area we took a train that actually had to zig zag back and forth up the mountain. We stopped along the way to visit the open air sculpture park at Chokuku n Mori. Larger than life sculptures are displayed in a tranquil mountain setting including works by Picasso, Rodin and Moore.
We switched to a bus that brought us to our Japanese style ryokan inn. The inn has several hot springs that you can use. However if you have a tattoo you must wear a bandage over it or avoid that water all together.
Highlights of private guided tour: My Day in Hakone included eating the black eggs after riding the gondola to the top of the volcanic mountain, the boat ride across Lake Ashi, and a walk through cypress trees on the Tokaido Trail and visit to the Shinto Hakone Shrine. I had a wonderful time enjoying the company of a young female tour guide as she shared her knowledge and stories of the history in this part of the country.
We took the bullet train to Kyoto and enjoyed a smooth, quiet and fast ride into the Kyoto Station which is enormous. It is one of the country’s largest buildings and is home to restaurants, shops, a department store, a movie theater and several government facilities under the 15 story roof. I was impressed to see a light show on the outside stairs when I exited one evening after shopping in the the Isetan department store.
Our hotel was the Ibis Styles Kyoto Station located directly across from the west exit of the station. The hotel, like all the ones we stayed in, had vending and ice machines, laundry machines and each bathroom was equipped with individually wrapped toothbrushes and toothpaste, razors and shaving cream, hairbrushes, soap, shampoo and conditioner. And those toilets! After a few days I did try pushing a few buttons. The heat option is nice and I could get used to a bidet. Some toilets have music options but I wouldn’t recommend the center spray button – just take my word for it.
If you are interested in the geisha district I would recommend taking a tour. We had a lovely Japanese woman guide us around the district and give us lots of information about the history and life of the geisha. In Kyoto you call them Geiko and the young girls in training who start at age 15 are called Maiko. We were very fortunate to be in the right areas and see a few of them on their way to work. The best time is around 5-7 and they are all dressed up and ready to entertain. We were told repeatedly that there is no monkey business involved and that they are considered well respected entertainers.
We had the opportunity to visit a few temples and shrines. I especially loved the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shinto shrine located on the side of the mountain. It was so pretty to walk through the red Torii gates that were donated by various businesses.
We took the Kyoto Sky Tower near Kyoto station up to view the sunset. The restaurants in the Kyoto station were good and we especially enjoyed the Musashi restaurant with sushi on a conveyer belt. You choose which plates you want to eat and at the end of the meal they add up the cost of your plates. Also you never tip in Japan. Makes dining out easy especially when paying with yen.
I had a fun solo adventure you can read about to the Kinkaku-ji Golden Temple. My son was tired and the group wanted to do their own thing. That didn’t keep me in the hotel room. I figured out the bus schedule and went to see the most beautiful temple – Just getting there alone and seeing the peaceful setting brought tears to my eyes.
We took a side trip to Arashiyama to see the Bamboo Forest and the Iwatayama Monkey Park. To get to the monkey park from the train station, you do need to cross over the river and then walk about 20 minutes to the top of a mountain. It was indeed hot but worth it to see the cute monkeys who just walk around with you and jump in a pond. You can even feed them from inside a small building. You are in the cage. Just be careful not to bring any food up with you and don’t stare at them or they could get mad.
Returning to Tokyo my son went to the movies and I joined a Shinjuku bar hopping tour. This was a fun chance to meet other English speaking travelers, share our adventures and find some secret Izakayas, bars with food. The food was great in all the places that our Japanese tour guide took us to. The fellow travelers included a young woman from New Zealand staying in a capsule hotel, a father and son who had climbed Mount Fuji the night before, a couple from Minnesota and a young man from England who was staying in an AIRBNB for one month. Apparently he was lucky since Japan has just made a new law that doesn’t allow AIRBNB’s for less than 6 months to help the hotel industry.
You can’t leave Tokyo without visiting the famous Robot Restaurant. I bought my tickets on line and saved some money but somehow didn’t order the meal. They served food and drinks during the three breaks in the show. Dancers with lots of energy accompanied the robots that were bigger than life. Pyrotechnics, loud music and battles kept us watching for the next crazy stunt. I highly recommend seeing this but look for discounts because they are available.
My last night in Tokyo I splurged on a luxury hotel experience. After spending 10 days rooming with my son, hiking and sightseeing and sweating I needed a treat before my long flight back to New York. I booked a spacious room at the 5 star Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo. The hotel has a beautiful garden with waterfalls and a 3 story pagoda. Inside the hotel has several restaurants and a spa. The spa’s pool and jacuzzi were relaxing and just what I needed after 10 days of traveling all over the country in the 100 degree heat. Outside the pool area was also a natural rock hot spring tub with jets in the private garden. This quiet, soothing experience was much appreciated before embarking on my 11 hour flight to Canada, another 3 hour delay and eventually arriving in the nightmare airport of LaGuardia 2 days later.
Visiting Japan is one of the highlights of my travel adventures and I am glad that I booked a tour with Inside Japan. They provided the transportation and hotels which made that part of the trip easy. When I was ready I was able to try new places and activities based on what I wanted to do and that was encouraged. I also enjoyed the small tours that gave me a chance to meet other people including the Japanese tour guides. So much more is to been seen, food to be eaten and adventures to have in Japan. I may just have to go back someday – the Olympics are in 2020, maybe then?