In August 2019 we took the trip of our dreams, and one year later I’ve finally got the time to write about it.
Going to Japan had always been on our bucket list. Everybody I’ve talked with that has been to Japan has been enchanted by the country, and we too fell under its spell. The magic that Japan works on you is not necessarily due to its architecture or its modernity – in many ways it is still not a truly modern country. I do believe its beauty is more tied to its traditions, the disarming education of the Japanese, their organisation and attention to details.
Japan conquers you because it’s different, in a way it represents the world we all would like to live in. It combines its natural beauty with the respect that people have for it and for the others, without mentioning their amazing food.
I will summarise below all the main information you need to know before travelling to Japan. I’ll write all the details about each city we visited in separate articles: Tokyo, Kanazawa, Kyoto and the day trips, Hakone.
ORGANISING THE TRIP AND BOOKING THE HOTELS
We had a busy schedule as we wanted to see as much as possible, and despite the summer temperatures we were able to visit almost everything we’d put on our list before leaving.
We visited six cities in fifteen days, following the itinerary below and staying in these nice hotels:
- Tokyo (2.5 days) – We didn’t like the first hotel, so I’m not adding it here
- Kanazawa (2 days) – The Square Hotel
- Kyoto (4 days) – Hotel Resol Trinity Kyoto
- Osaka (1 day from Kyoto)
- Kobe (1 day from Kyoto)
- Hakone (1.5 days) – Hakone Retreat Fore
- Tokyo again (3 days) – Mitsui Garden Hotel Nihonbashi Premier
Hiroshima, which we wanted to do on a day trip from Kyoto, was also part of our initial plan, but we decided against it at the last minute because of the heat and for the six hours required for the return trip by train.
SAVE MONEY WITH THE JAPAN RAIL PASS
We traveled around Japan using the JR Rail Pass. It enabled us to take a few local trains and the super-fast ‘Shinkansen‘ that connects the most of the cities we visited. It is much cheaper to buy this pass rather than single tickets, especially if you buy it online before going to Japan (we bought it here).
The pass validity starts from when it is first activated in Japan, including that day. To active it you’ll need to go to the authorised points in one of the main train stations, and fill out the form.
This pass is not valid for the metro.
HASSLE-FREE LUGGAGE DELIVERY
Thanks to this fantastic service between hotels, we were able to move from one city to another every two/four days quite smoothly, and this is a great thing when you are on a tight schedule and have two big suitcases with you.
Hassle-free luggage delivery enabled us to send our luggage to the next hotel/city from the reception desk of our hotel. This way we could spend our last day in the city with nothing but our backpacks and find our suitcases waiting for us in the new hotel the day after. Brilliant!
The cost for this service is around 110 AED (27 Euros) per suitcase. If you opt for it, I advise you to take a backpack so you can keep all your essentials with you for the 24 hours during which you won’t have access to your luggage. Also, before departure, double check whether your hotel can offer you this service to avoid an unpleasant surprise.
BE ALWAYS CONNECTED
The best way to be always connected in Japan is to rent a pocket wifi router. All you need to do is fill out an online application form (we have done it here), and the portable router will be delivered to your hotel before you get there. Once you get the pocket wifi router, switch it on, connect it to your device and you are ready to start exploring.
Before leaving Japan, you either return the router in the prepaid envelope provided (just pop it into a postbox), or drop it off at the airport—different providers have different requests.
I recommend buying a travel insurance before your trip. We already have our insurance which covers us internationally, ideally you can check through some specialised travel agencies to find the best one for you.
JAPAN IN SHORT
– TEMPLES –
In Japan there are Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. You can distinguish them from their architecture: Temples have a large incense burner and many Buddhist statues. Shrines have shrine gates called Torii at the entrance, which are usually red-colored.
There is a small number of Buddhist temples, mainly located around popular pilgrimage destinations such as Mount Koya or Kyoto, that provide travellers with overnight lodgings (宿坊, shukubō). Here you have the chance to experience the simple lifestyle of Buddhist monks, including meals, morning prayers and meditation. You can find a list of temple lodgings in Mount Koya (Koyasan) here.
– PUBLIC BATHS –
There are two main types of public baths in Japan, Onsens and Sentos, where people go with the aim of relaxation.
Sentos are indoor public baths with heated water. Onsens are natural hot spring waters near the volcanic areas of Japan. Hakone is the most famous Onsen region and it is were I took my first unforgettable midnight outdoor bath.
There are quite a few rules of etiquette to follow before taking a bath, you will find all of them listed in the facility where you go. The one which intimidated me the most is that people are not allowed to wear any piece of clothing in the bath; but I assure you that it is a liberating experience, and that no one will look at you.
– RESTAURANTS –
According to my online researches, it seems that Japan has the highest density of restaurants/cafeterias in the world, followed by the US. I haven’t been to the US yet, so I can’t compare the two. I can confirm that in Japan you’re in for a nice surprise as every alley and building is packed with places to eat.
Many good restaurants in Japan are very small, with just 10-15 seats, and they specialise in only one type of dish (for example, soba, gyoza, sushi, udon). In these restaurants you should only stay for the time needed to finish your dish. You should then leave the table for the next guests, who are most probably queuing outside.
Whenever possible, remember to reserve a table at least one month ahead. Most restaurants serve dinner from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., so if you can’t book a table, be sure not to go too late as you’ll need to queue before they let you enter.
– HIGH-END RESTAURANTS –
As a tourist, booking a top-rated or Michelin-starred restaurant is almost a mission impossible. Many of them do not take online reservations – you need to call them – and others accept bookings only through regular guests. In addition, all of them have a very long booking list.
Hence, if you’d like to eat in restaurants like Den, Jiro or Sushi Saito (just to mention a few), you’ll need to plan ahead and hope that the concierge of your hotel will be able to help you. Another option is to find a Japanese patron who is a regular visitor to the restaurant you’d like to visit, and ask them to book a table for you.
Recently, I discovered Tableall, which promises to book high-end restaurants for you. I didn’t have the chance to use it, so if you make a reservation through this website please let me know.
– FOOD HALLS, A FOODIE’S DREAM COME TRUE –
I’ve never seen a place like this in my life, and when I think about it I still get hungry.
Food Halls are like malls but only for food. They are huge open spaces with all the best delicacies you could ever dream of, and more. From small restaurants to bakeries and stands, you will find everything you’ve ever wanted to taste in your entire life. I could have spent two days in one of the halls and still wouldn’t have been able to taste everything.
RESTAURANTS & BARS I AM STILL DREAMING ABOUT
I have listed below the places I loved the most. I’ll give you more details about them in the articles about Tokyo and Kyoto.
- KAGARI (Soba Ramen in Tokyo)
- LUPIN (Historical Bar in Tokyo)
- GYOZA CHAO CHAO (Kyoto)
- YAMAFUKU (shabu-shabu in Kyoto)
- ISETAN SHINJUKY (Food Hall in Tokyo)
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10 MUST-DO THINGS IN JAPAN BASED ON MY EXPERIENCE
- Take a midnight bath in an outdoor Onsen
- Have drinks in a traditional Japanese Bar
- Take a break in Hakone
- Get lost in a food hall
- Check out the fashion buildings in Ginza (Tokyo) at night
- Buy a professional knife with your Japanese name engraved on it
- Eat Kobe beef in Kobe
- Try the fatty tuna (Chūtoro – 中とろ) in a good sushi restaurant
- Buy an original Kimono
- Meditate in a temple
GOOD TO KNOW
- Queueing: You will wait in line almost everywhere, including for tube trains
- Eating outside: Do not eat while walking or standing on the street
- Sweets: The Japanese love pastry. The country is full of excellent bakeries and pastry shops
- Summer time: Be sure to bring a few small towels with you when walking outside – it’s hot
- Discovering: Tokyo has many ‘cities’ within it, from the underground railway to the buildings and alleys. To discover them, be curious and walk a lot
- Never thirsty: Everywhere there are vending machines where you can buy drinks, snacks and more
- Traditional pyjamas: All hotels leave traditional pyjamas and sleepers in the rooms
- Ryokans: I haven’t forgotten to mention the Ryokans (traditional Japanese inns). After extensive research, we knowingly opted for a unique experience in the Hakone mountains instead. The luxury Ryokans we could afford were all already fully booked and the others didn’t have a very appealing atmosphere to be honest.
- A few useful phrases:
Konnichi-wa (good day), Konban-wa (good evening), Sumimasen (Excuse me), Kudasai (Please), Arigato gozaimasu (Thank you), O-kanjo kudasai (bill, please)
BOOKS & SERIES
Here are two books I liked about Japan:
– The Passenger: Japan by AA.VV. – Short stories about Japan.
– Il Giappone in Cucina by Graziana Canova Tura – I’m not sure if this book exists in English (I couldn’t find it), but I wanted to add it here as I found it very interesting. The author lived in Japan for six years with her mother and gives us an overview of the aesthetics of the table in Japan, along with traditional recipes to cook with more common western ingredients.
With regards to the series, I love watching Midnight diner – Tokyo Stories on Netflix because it brings me back to the magical Japanese atmosphere. I also recommend you to watch the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi because it perfectly summarises the pursuit of perfection that characterises the Japanese people.
I hope you’ll find this article helpful and that you’ll share it with your friends. Please feel free to leave a comment below if you have any question. I will be very happy to help.
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