Saturday, July 16, 2016

Winter 2015 Japan trip: our travel tips and Tokyo recap

Last December, my parents, Andrew and I traveled around Japan for 5 days before heading to Shanghai to visit my grandparents.  We wished it could have been a longer trip, but had a great time regardless, and I am looking forward to returning.  Below is a list of our recommendations and a summary of our time in Tokyo, with forthcoming posts on Kyoto (my favorite) and Osaka.

Our tips for first-time visitors to Japan:

  • Depending on how much travel you intend to do, be aware of the Japan Rail Pass. It offers unlimited access to JR trains, including some of the less fancy bullet trains. JR (Japan Railway) is the country-wide train system, which also runs within major cities, and overlaps with city-specific train systems or private train lines (e.g. Tokyo Metro or Osaka’s Keihan line). If you are staying in primarily just a few cities, the rail pass may not be worth it, but otherwise it is a steal. We did not get the rail pass because we only rode the bullet train once.
  • Tipping is not customary and will probably be turned down.
  • All the hotels we stayed at would hand us our keys whenever we entered the hotel, and would ask for our keys whenever we stepped out.
  • Convenience stores are a great option for a quick, inexpensive, and tasty meal. Lawson's and 7-11 are two of the commonplace chains. You can pick up breakfast pastries and onigiri (rice balls with different flavorings/fillings) and hot/cold drinks, even yogurt and bananas sometimes, but bakeries on the street or in train stations have better pastries (see below).
  • Vending machines selling hot and cold beverages are everywhere.  There are also (rarer) vending machines selling ice cream, and they are a good bet.  We particularly recommend the matcha cone and the Krunky bar, which is essentially a Crunch bar with thicker chocolate coating.
  • Train stations of moderate size and above have great food options, ranging from stand-up noodle counters to sit-down restaurants. The Kyoto and Osaka main stations, as well as several Tokyo stations like Shibuya, are train station - shopping mall hybrids with multiple floors of restaurants and stores (perhaps you'd fancy a quick stop at Muji before hopping on your transfer?).  But even medium-size stations like Kyobashi in Osaka or Karasumaoike in Kyoto have cafes and - most importantly - bakeries.
  • Western-style bakeries in Japan are awesome. The pastries are typically fresh, delicious, and inexpensive. Eat them! You'll probably do enough walking to burn it off, anyway. And if you see a mochi donut, try it.
  • Malls in general are a reliable place to find a tasty meal.
  • Many restaurants accept credit cards (Visa) now, especially in the big cities.  But carrying sufficient cash is a good idea for transit, buying things, some restaurants, etc.  For international withdrawals, use the Japan Post (post office) ATMs, which are available in airports, big train stations, and sprinkled in neighborhoods.
  • Street crime is very low.  Of course common sense is always good, but we never felt unsafe at any hour.
  • Public restrooms at major tourist destinations in big cities tend to be well-maintained. Japanese toilet technology is, after all, excellent. Depending on where you are, there may be squat toilets, or squat toilets and Western toilets.  Regardless, it’s probably a good idea to keep a pack of tissues and some hand sanitizer with you (true for anywhere in Asia).
  • Subway or train tickets are printed on small slips of paper which you insert at your entry station gate and then hang onto until your exit gate - very economical but easy to lose, so be careful!
  • Don’t bring Sudafed— it is illegal in Japan and may cause delays at the airport.
  • Taxi drivers control passenger doors via a switch.  Don’t open/close them yourself.  They are also pretty reasonable cost-wise and we got the sense that the drivers could understand tourist destination names in English.
  • The only Japanese I know, other than names of dishes, is “Konnichiwa” and “Arigato [gozaimasu].”  Granted, Andrew did pretty much all of our communication, which was enormously helpful, but I still felt like it would have worked out even if it had been just me and my parents. As with most places, you can get quite far with a couple phrases and lots of smiling and nodding (and, in Japan, some shallow bows when that is happening around you).

Our itinerary:
December 23: arrive in Tokyo (early evening)
December 24: full day in Tokyo
December 25: Tokyo to Kyoto by midday
December 26: full day in Kyoto
December 27: Kyoto to Osaka by late morning
December 28: depart for Shanghai

Wednesday, December 23 - arrival in Tokyo (Narita International Airport), train to Asakusa

Our hotel was the Ryokan Kamogawa Asakusa (5 min).  Asakusa is an older neighborhood in Tokyo, without many skyscrapers. It does have a well-known temple and touristy shopping area, and is relatively convenient transit-wise.

This is a Japanese-style hotel with futons and also private bathrooms. Each room is really a mini suite with a small sitting area, a bathroom, and a bedroom.

Entrance to our ryokan

Additionally, there is a communal bathroom on each floor (available to the three or so rooms on that floor), and a soaking spa on the first floor which is first-come-first-serve. We thought this was a fun place to stay, and as a bonus, it offered a delicious Japanese-style breakfast ($14/person additional and very much worth it). The innkeeper's name is Tony. He is very nice, speaks English, and in fact used to work for Levi's in California.

Not shown: a lovely piece of grilled salmon

Thursday, December 24: Full day in Tokyo

Tsukiji Fish Market - a must for food enthusiasts, of course, but also generally fascinating. We weren't able to see the tuna auction since it is closed to the public in December and January, but we still enjoyed walking through the outer market stalls and the commercial market. Watch your step and be careful not to get run over by the motorized carts whizzing through the narrow aisles!

Mitsukoshi (luxury department store) - our particular interests were the Shiseido counter (hello, favorable exchange rate!) and the basement "Food Hall," which has tons of takeout food options of all types displayed extremely attractively. This is a great place to buy a bento box for lunch.

Itoya (stationery store), a.k.a. seven floors of stationery perfection, a.k.a. my idea of heaven. There is one floor devoted to paper and another floor devoted to “crafts," which includes a stunning array of handmade papers. The displays are so beautiful as to be intimidating.
All the shades you could desire

Meiji Shrine - a Shinto shrine built in 1915-26 and set in an evergreen forest. I admired its spare, quiet beauty, apparent even with the considerable crowds.
Barrels of sake donated to the shrine
Inner courtyard

Harajuku - known for weird urban Japanese culture, but we didn't see much in the way of crazy costumes or cat cafes. There is, however, solid coffee to be found here, even at the chain establishments like Steamer Coffee Co. (One thing to note is that portion sizes in Japan are much more modest - i.e. reasonable - than in the U.S. A typical coffee was served in a 6-8 oz porcelain cup.)

Shibuya - big, busy shopping neighborhood.
  • In particular, we wandered through Tokyu Hands, which is a 10+ story hardware store, but “hardware” encompasses everything from home goods (kitchenware), stationery, travel supplies, to actual hardware (nuts and bolts). Also, rabbits.  This store was very fun to browse and felt more accessible and relaxed than, say, Itoya or Mitsukoshi.
  • Tokyo’s busiest intersection, with the 6-way pedestrian crossing right in front of the Shibuya station.  It was worth seeing just because it’s kind of insane, yet still vaguely orderly.

For dinner in Asakusa, we asked innkeeper Tony to recommend a sushi place nearby.  He walked us <5 min to a conveyor belt sushi restaurant with a name we didn’t register, where he knows the chef.  We were the only tourists there and the sushi was awesome, not to mention surprisingly inexpensive.  This was my mom's first time trying toro (fatty tuna), and it's safe to say she found it a transformative experience. Lesson learned: ask your innkeeper for food recommendations.

For a nightcap, Andrew and I went to the rooftop bar at the Andaz Tokyo, which features innovative, “award-winning” cocktails and a lovely view of the city.  We didn’t make a reservation so were seated at the bar instead of at a table next to the windows, but it was still nice, and also very fun for people-watching.
Fancy-pants cocktails

Tokyo things we didn’t get to but considered:
  • Mori Art Museum. It is at the top of Tokyo’s tallest building and has an exhibition of Takashi Murakami (including the world’s largest painting).
  • Omakase-style cocktails at Gen Yamamoto.