Japan travel tips

So you just bought a really cheap Jetstar flight to Japan? …and you have never been there before?

Oh, you’re going to have so much fun!

This is an article I have been meaning to write for a long time. I think it is one of my most requested emails from friends. The back story is that I have been travelling to Japan pretty regularly since I was 12 years old.

The first time was in 1993 when I was in grade 7 at school. I studied Soroban which is a traditional type of maths learning using the abacus. For some reason the teachers liked me and sent me on a 2 week junket to Tokyo. Anyway, to the point…

THE QUICK BUDGET:

  • Jetstar plane flights should really only cost $250-300 each way and are on sale every 3–4 months. Be patient and at the ready!
  • If you want to treat yourself to ‘Business’ on the overnight home leg, it is about $550 on sale. Worth every cent as it includes food & luggage. Jetstar will sometime send out an ‘upgrade’ offer a month before your flight if you have already booked an economy ticket.
  • Rail pass will set you back $300–320 for seven consecutive days depending on the exchange rate. Try: jrpass.com or jrpasses.com
  • The accommodation at Andon Ryokan in Tokyo is awesome: $89/night for two ppl on the upper floors andon.co.jp, sometimes cheaper on the ground floor.
  • Allow the usual $80-100 a day for food and local travel + shopping money. I think it is on par with Brisbane cost wise. The idea that Japan is super expensive is a myth. Maybe in the boom of the late 80s & 90s but not anymore compared to Australia!

Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto
Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto

TRANSPORT:

TOKYO:

Getting around Tokyo is super easy. All signage and the interfaces on screen based ticket machines are in English. Rather than buying individual journey tickets each trip (around 160 yen) get yourself a Plasmo card at the first Metro station you come to. They work on the Metro, JR lines in Tokyo and many food vending machines.

THE REST OF JAPAN:

A JR rail pass may be your best option if you are exploring outside Tokyo. It saves you booking a ticket for each journey and if you intend on going any further than a return trip to Kyoto, it will work out cheaper and give you an excuse to go somewhere else you weren’t planning to go to.

It is worth reserving seats if you are doing a number of journeys, particularly during peak time (morning, arvo, weekends). You can do this at the english speaking JR offices where you swap your prepaid voucher for the official rail pass when you get to Japan. I usually go to the office at Ueno Station.

Note: You have to purchase the pass before you get to Japan as it is only for international visitors!

TOKYO RECOMMENDATIONS:

Tokyo is amazing. Have I said that too many times yet? I actually left this section until last as I wasn’t quite sure where to start!

If you’ve never been then I highly recommend contacting the Tokyo Free Guide service. It’s free because you are helping them practice their english skills. They just ask that you pay for their train tickets and it’s probably nice to shout lunch!

ACCOMMODATION:

Andon Ryokan is my first choice for any visit and I have sent many friends there who have loved it also. I first stayed there because it was so much cheaper than a ‘western’ hotel and well, looked fantastic. Since then a number of hostels have popped up (mostly in Asakusa) which could be a touch cheaper if budget is an issue…. but seriously, you will love the experience at Andon. Their breakfast is fantastic and they have a decent bottom-less coffee machine (decent for Japan!).

Kimi Ryokan also looks good as a backup – some sort of F1 pun? K’s House which I will mention for Kyoto, now also has a hostel in Tokyo.

Andon Ryokan, Tokyo
Andon Ryokan, Tokyo

FOOD:

If you don’t eat near big western hotels or in a fancy financial district then food should be cheaper than back in Australia! A couple of favourites below:

  • Tonki near Meguro Metro Station has been operating be the same owners since the 1960. Seriously the best meal I have ever had in Tokyo. We’re not talking a fine dining meal here, just simple fare int he form of Tonkatsu.
  • Omotesando Koffee, in the back streets of Omotesando – The best coffee in Tokyo in my opinion. Enjoy the volley little courtyard out front.
  • Monocle Cafe, Ginza.
  • Mos Burger –Well this used to be a novelty, but you can now get this in Australia :(
  • If you are flying Jetstar you will probably arrive in the evening. Ask the reception at Andon for a local food recommendation. The is a great place, open late, above the McDonalds opposite Minowa Metro station.

Tonki tonkatsu resturant, Meguro, Toyko
Tonki tonkatsu resturant, Meguro, Toyko

PLACES TO VISIT & SHOP:

Below is a list of key districts I’d recommend visiting:

  • Ginza – Shopping capital of Tokyo. On weekends the streets are closed off  to vehicles. Check out eh 14 story Uni Qlo store!
  • Yurakucho – Close to the International Forum, located here is the biggest Loft and Muji in Japan. If you have lived in the UK then you will know Muji. Super simple, unbranded, well designed products. Imagine a Muji the size of a small IKEA. It even has a restaurant  and you can buy a prefab Muji house here..
  • Omotesando – Quickly overtaking Ginza as the place to position your flagship store. There is a list of archi building that are worth seeing in this area in the architecture section that follows.
  • Meiji Shrine – A great place to escape commerce after your walk down Omotesando Dori (Street).
  • Harajuku – When your done recovering at Meiji, take a stroll though winding streets of Jarajuku to see some extreme teenage fashion!
  • Shibuya – This is where all the cool kids hang and shop. Make sure you visit Tokyu Hands, Parco and Loft.
  • Asakusa – Originally a village outside Tokyo, Asakusa became an entertainment mecca not unlike Blackpool in the UK or Atlantic City near NYC were locals when to relax, bet on horses, take a ride in roller coaster all while making the pilgrimage to one of Tokyo’s most famous temples, Sensoji. Infront of the temple the Nakamise shopping street lined with stalls full of Japanese tourist ticky tacky. Actually worth checking out to do your gift shopping for friends back home. The street you want to find however is called Kappabashi Street which is lined with stores selling amazing dishes, pots, pans, cooking utensils, stoves, tables, chairs, signs, lanterns aimed at restaurant owners, but perfect for visitors!
  • Ueno Park – I went to Ueno Park for the first time on my last visit to Tokyo. Amazing space, especially doing Sakura (cherry blossom) time.
  • Nanyodo Architectural Bookshop is also worth the trip to if you are an architect / student. Amazing array of new and old books and really well prices – Yasukuni Dori, Jinbocho, Kanda, Tokyo
  • Superfuture also has a pretty awesome PDF guide to Tokyo.

SHORT SIDE TRIPS FROM TOKYO (1-2HRS AWAY):

KAMAKURA:

A lovely little beach side area just south of Yokohama which happens to be just south of Tokyo. While you are there keep an eye out of the surfers in black wetsuits sitting on the boards in flat still water… just hoping for that wave. The other lovely place to visit in Kamakura is the Big Budda and its very large thing/flipflop.

NIKKO:

Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. A hill side area with an amazing shrine / temple complex. Look out for the three monkeys! Plenty of Onsen’s to visit here. An onsen if you haven’t heard of them before is a hot spring fed bathhouse. Almost all are segregated male or female. You basically get your gear off, wash yourself in the little shower area and enjoy the heated pools inside and outside (sometimes surrounded by snowy hills). It is a great way to get to know the friends you are travelling with!

HAKONE:

This is the national park area that surrounds Fuji San (Mt Fuji). Plenty of opportunities for walking, boating in the lake or eating black boiled eggs on the side of the mountains. The eggs become black after being cooked in sulphur waters from the volcano.

Pot Plants of Japan
Pot Plants of Japan

LONGER SIDE TRIPS FROM TOKYO (4-5HRS+ AWAY):

KYOTO:

3-4 hrs travel from Tokyo. I’ve been to Kyoto four times now and have never needed to go to the same thing twice! Other highlights there include Arashiyama, the Fushimi Inari Shrine, Nishiki Food Market, the Ryoanji Temple, and the Kiyomizudera Temple. Bikes are also a pretty awesome way to get around!

Two options for accommodation in Kyoto. The first is a fairly western hostel called K’s House, the second is a series of amazing traditional houses or ‘Machiya‘. There are a few smaller Machiya available, otherwise a large house with a big group of friends is an amazing experience.

Kyoto Machiya
Kyoto Machiya

TAKAYAMA:

An amazing smaller town up in the hills known for wood working. The train journey there is fantastic. It is 4-5hrs travel from Tokyo and you can stay in this temple!

HIROSHIMA:

A really interesting place for historic reasons, but while you are these, visiting the island of Miyajima is a must, as is eating proper Okonomiyaki.

NAOSHIMA & ISLANDS:

A bit involved to get there, but totally worth it for the art sites and Setouchi Triennale. If you leave it until later in your trip, you will be all over working out train timetables and connections! Worth thinking about flying out of Osaka if you end up at this end of the country. Here is a bit of a list of places to stay or eat:

Naoshima Ferry Terminal, by SANAA
Naoshima Ferry Terminal, by SANAA

Benesse Art Site, Naoshima

Benesse Art Site, Naoshima
Benesse Art Site, Naoshima

KAGOSHIMA VOLCANO:

A good way to get all the value out of your rail pass! It’s at the very southern tip of the mainland and a good day trip from Hiroshima and possibly Kyoto if you can make the train work for you. The volcano is active and you’ll often see ash in the gutters in the street. The volcano forms an island in the bay which you can visit and take a soak in the hot foot baths. Not far from Kagoshima is the subtropical island of Yakushima. I’ve not been there, but it is on my list.

IPHONE APPS:

A couple of apps I always have with me. Some I have mentioned earlier, but here they all are in one place. With a quick Google I am sure you can find their Android equivalents.

TRANSLATION:

MAPS:

JR TRAVEL PLANNING:

TOKYO TRAVEL PLANNING:

ARCHITECTURE:

If you are an architect, student or just a partner of one, then I have a few suggestions for you:

THE USUAL SUSPECTS:

The Galinsky website is a pretty good resource of place to visit around Japan, particularly in Tokyo. Archdaily always has features to help you compile a list.

Residential houses are generally very hard to organise a visit to, so unless you have a connection, with a connection, with a connection, good luck! We were lucky enough to go to the Suzuki House in Tokyo last visit!

A SPECIAL PILGRIMAGE:

Here are a couple places to visit that can be tough to find or involve train + bus + walking… so basically need a day / half day reserved to get to them.

  • Museum of Wood Culture by Tadao Ando. A big thank you to Louisa Gee and Hellen Norrie for helping me navigate to the place on my trip in 2011. This one involves quite a journey of exact timetable coordination. If you are keen to give it a go, email me for instructions!
  • Tama Art University Library, by Toyo Ito is truly amazing. This one is a bit easier to get to. Just one train and a half hour walk. I guess you could cab, but you see so much more by foot. This place is amazing. You can’t take photos upstairs and you kind of need to convince them to let you up (and they will if you say your an architect/student). I have never seen such precise concrete work in all my life. The point at which the arched columns touch the ground is literally 80-100 wide.
  • The Church of Light by Tadao Ando in Osaka – Note it is only open a couple of days a week and you need to book.
  • Sendai Mediatheque by Toyo Ito – I’ve not made it here, but on my list!

Suzuki House, Tokyo
Suzuki House, Tokyo

Snaps

Let me know if you find anything else awesome that I should visit next trip!

UPDATES:

As I find interesting links / visitor directories / new places to visit that are great, I’ll add them here over time:

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