I never had my sights set on exploring Japan until I spotted an unusually low $600 dollar non-stop round-trip ticket from Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo (NRT). I knew that my next long weekend would be Labor Day, so I booked the ticket months in advance and downloaded Duolingo to learn some Japanese. I let time get away from me and I didn’t start doing serious planning for my trip until about a week before. This ended up costing me some money, but hopefully you don’t make the same mistake if you are traveling to Japan by following my suggestions below. Everyone else, skip ahead!
Whether you are staying in Japan for 3 days or 3 weeks, you may want to look into purchasing a Japan Rail Pass if you are planning to travel to several areas of Japan. The catch with the pass is that you can only purchase it outside of Japan. The official website with all necessary information and pricing can be found at http://japanrailpass.net/en/about_jrp.html You will need to purchase an exchange order for your rail pass through a travel agency or the airline that you fly with if they offer it. Japan Airlines offers the exchange order only to customers that are flying with them. Upon arrival at the destination airport, you will need to head to the Japan Rail Pass office to hand in your exchange order. You will get the Rail Pass in return.
An ordinary 7-day rail pass for an adult cost 29,110 YEN ($240). If you take the express train round trip from Narita Airport to Tokyo, and then take an additional trip from Tokyo to Kyoto, the pass will have already paid for itself. I did not do any of these things, and so my travel was very limited and I ended up paying more than the price for the 7-day pass for my 4 days of travel.
On the recommendation of my brother, I decided to not book a hotel until I was on the ground. Japan is a remarkably safe country with reasonably priced accommodation, so my plan was to wander freely and then sleep in whatever city I found myself in for the night. Wandering isn’t exactly luggage friendly, so I stuffed a backpack with all the essentials that I’d need for four days of travel as well as a flat iron for my hair. I’d opted to leave my natural hair straightened for the trip.
This was a mistake. From the moment I landed in Narita until the time I flew back out, I experienced humidity unlike any humidity I had encountered before. My clothes felt sticky, my face looked greasy, and my hair would morph into a lifeless puff within 5 minutes of being of outside. Aside from that, I quickly fell in love with Japan and the people. My companions for this trip were my Lonely Planet Tokyo guide on my phone and a super cool and compact Skross international adapter for charging. I left my laptop at home to prevent myself from trying to work while on vacation, and this was probably the best choice that I made regarding the trip.
All prices below are in Japanese Yen. Exchange Rate: 1 USD to 111 JYP
Narita Express train to Tokyo – 3000
Train from Tokyo Station to Shinjuku – 200
Accommodation: Ladies 501 Capsule – 4600
Horrible sushi dinner at place I will not name – 4700
Toiletries – 2000
I landed in the night time on Saturday evening and knew that I’d need some time to adjust to the +12 hour time difference. I needed a nap immediately. Tokyo was the first place that I wanted to explore, so I took an express train from the airport in Narita to Tokyo proper, and then transferred to Shinjuku. After studying my Lonely Planet guide on the trip, I decided that I’d try one of Japan’s famous capsule hotels just so that I could have the experience. Capsule hotels offer little pods for guests to sleep in and not much else in the way of amenities, but if you just want to sleep, it works. The hotels are typically separated by sex, so I made the trek to the closest “Ladies only” hotel, paid 4600 to sleep there for a few hours (the price changed based on the hours that were needed), left my shoes at the door as required, and anxiously rushed to see my pod.
It was…quaint. The air smelled of stale cigarettes and there was a level of grime within the pod hotel that I wasn’t too happy with, but I was too tired to turn back around.
I expected some minimalism, but I was caught off guard by just how small my pod was. Somehow, my pod was still equipped with an outlet, a TV, and a privacy curtain for keeping fellow guests out of my sight. I hid my charger and phone under my pillow to tour the facilities. The toilets had all sorts of fancy buttons that I didn’t quite understand, but I eventually figured out that one button heated the seat, another button shot water from the toilet, and yet another played music. I had a good giggle before I decided that people were probably waiting to use the bathroom so I moved on to the bathing area. When I entered the showering area, I was confronted with the stuff of nightmares. The showers were communal, and I don’t mean freshman year dorms communal. Everyone showered out in the open and entered into the onsen (similar to a Jacuzzi, but even bigger) in the nude. I hurried back into my pod and considered my options. I could try to find another place to stay close to midnight, or I could get over my fear of being naked in front of people and seeing other people naked so that I could take the shower I so desperately needed after a full day of flying. After more self-talk than a person should need, I decided that I needed to get over it and stick this one out.
I cringe showered for about 30 seconds before I realized that I probably looked ridiculous, so I relaxed and forgot all about the other women in there with me. I then lowered myself into the onsen and discarded my discomfort as an older woman slid in next to me. As the warm water soothed my aching limbs, I decided that I could probably do the communal shower experience again if needed. By the way, if you were considering ignoring the “no tattoo” rules for some accommodations and onsen in Japan, the nudity required in the onsen is a nice way for you to get busted. I suggest looking for tattoo friendly accommodations.
At some point in the night, I realized that Shinjuku (the area where the capsule hotel was located) was in the red-light district. Suddenly, the sketch atmosphere in the hotel made sense, and I decided it was time to move on. Tokyo itself didn’t seem to be my speed, and after a truly awful sushi dinner in the tourist area, I decided to skip town and make my way to Kyoto. I downloaded the Lonely Planet Kyoto guide and took a long peaceful rest for the night.
Roundtrip Train ticket Tokyo to Kyoto 27500
Crab Bento Box 1400
Green Tea Parfait 1600
Dinner at Sutadonya 1200
Accommodation – Kyoto Hot Spring Hatoya Zuihokaku Hotel 11000
Accommodation – 9 Hours Capsule 2600
Accommodation – Nagomi Ryokan Yu 7700
I woke up early to make my way back to Tokyo Station for my trip to Kyoto. This trip took place on one of Japan’s famed bullet trains, among the fastest trains in the world, leading to a total travel time of about two hours. I found another capsule hotel for the night while on the ride and made the booking online. A young woman came through the cars offering food and drinks, so I grabbed a crab bento box as breakfast. The bento box turned out to be somewhat of a normal part of the day for many business people while I was in Japan. During rush hours, mobs of people would quickly grab and pay for Bento boxes on their way to their trains in an automated fashion. I wanted to see what the fuss was about for myself, and it was pretty good for packaged sushi! It was light years better than the food-poisoning-served-with-a-smile that I encountered in Shinjuku.
With my belly full and accommodations booked, I sat back and focused on the scenery outside of my window. Everything looked so green and lush! The architecture on the homes was magnificent and I kept thinking about how lovely it would be to actually live in Japan.
One thing that was prominent throughout my time in Japan was the attention paid to presentation, especially when it came to food. As I stepped off my train and into Kyoto Station, my eyes fell on a poster for the most delicious looking ice cream I had ever seen. I don’t even like ice cream, but the photo was so alluring that I hunted down the shop selling it and asked for “that thing that’s on the poster.” It turned out to be matcha (green tea) and vanilla ice cream, with matcha jelly, matcha mochi, and matcha macaroons. Absolutely yummy!
Upon leaving Kyoto Station to make my way to the capsule hotel, I noticed a stately entrance to a hotel called Kyoto Hot Spring Hatoya Zuihokaku. From my short time riding into Kyoto, I knew that I wanted to stay there for duration of my trip, so I booked the Hot Spring hotel for my final night and set off to find the 9 Hours capsule hotel. As I made my way off the main street, the roads became narrow and were paved with pretty stones. Tiny, unusually quiet cars drove carefully down the roadways and the sounds of bells from bikes politely signaled when I was in someone’s way. Kyoto was undoubtedly charming. I ended up making another booking at a lovely guesthouse that I stumbled upon called Nagomi Ryokan Yu. I’d have my own room and share a shower with other guests, but that was far more privacy than the offerings at 9 Hours hotel.
Kyoto is known for being home to multiple temples, so I opened my map and set about finding all of them. Little did I know, these temples (over 1,000 of them) were still active places of worship. After accidentally interrupting one too many services, I decided to give up on the temples that were embedded within the city. I rented a bike, zipped around town for a while, and then took a much-needed mid-day nap at 9 Hours Capsule hotel. These capsules had doors that could close, not curtains, but they were hot and muggy. The futuristic capsule just didn’t cut it, so I knew that I’d made a good call by booking the ryokan. I dropped my things off in the guesthouse and headed back to the shopping area to look for food.
After eating entirely too much at Grand Menu restaurant, I began the walk back to my ryokan in the nighttime when I saw the.most.amazing.thing.ever.
THEY HAD WINE IN VENDING MACHINES! Right on the street!
I couldn’t believe my eyes. I quickly fed the machine all my coins just to see if this was for real. Wine? From a machine? And you can drink it outside!? Japan is so far ahead of us in the game.
Sushi off street by Ryokan 1200
Fish Stick 1200
Souvenir bowl and chopsticks 3800
Souvenir tea cups 1500
Souvenir notebooks 1500
Zara 18000 (fuzzy sweater, black cardigan, yellow and black sweaters, blue top)
Dinner at Donguri 3500
The next morning, I had what was described as a traditional breakfast at the guesthouse. Rice seemed to be prominent in the morning, and at this point I decided that Japanese people must be distant cousins to Nigerians. Breakfast was centered around a small piece of fish, and there were all sorts of sides meant to be eaten with the rice. I couldn’t identify one of the sides, but it tasted good so I kept at it…until I noticed it had eyes. Anchovies 😦
I took a walk around the little streets and immediately noticed that the smell of cooked fish was all over. It seemed as though every home had cooked the same breakfast that I had just enjoyed myself. I basked in the smell of morning breakfast being cooked as I headed over to a park full of numerous temples that were open to visitors. Early on in my walk, I ran into a woman and her husband rolling up sushi and selling it out of a shop attached to their house. Although my Japanese was nonexistent, I was able to communicate that I wanted one of their rolls and packed the delicious treat in my bag for the long walk to Kiyomizu-dera.
The first scene I encountered when I reached the park were loads of school children. Children fill my heart with so much joy that I shed a few tears as they sang songs with each other before getting myself together. I watched as they interacted with deities, performed rituals, and laughed with each other before I tried to map out how I would visit the most temples in the park. At the summit of the park’s mountain, gift shops and opportunities for prayer were offered. In one corner, there was a bucket of water with little stacks of paper people off to the side. There were instructions to write a prayer for someone on the paper, and then to dissolve it in the water. I wrote a prayer for myself, placed it in the water, and I truly felt like everything would be okay as I watched it dissolve. Something about being in Kyoto had roused something in my spirit, and I felt incredibly at peace.
As I descended the mountain in the park, I noticed my exhaustion and headed back to my ryokan to collect my things. After a quick nap, I made my final move to the Hot Spring hotel for my last night in Kyoto. The Hot Springs stayed true to its name as it was equipped with two floors of onsen, separated by sex, and each floor had cold and hot water onsen along with communal showering areas for cleaning off.
I walked one last time to the main shopping area in Kyoto and spent too much money in Zara buying items that I had never seen back in New York. Souvenir shopping and all of that temple walking inspired my appetite so I ended my trip with dinner at Donguri complete with black sesame ice cream for dessert. This ice cream was even better than the green tea parfait! I’ve been looking for this flavor ever since I got back to the United States. Good food is always the perfect way to end a trip.
Bento boxes 3200
Train from Tokyo to airport 3500
After just about every trip, I feel sad when I’m leaving. As I struggled with my now broken backpack (that bag was NOT meant for travel) and several bags of clothes and souvenirs to board the train back to the airport, I didn’t feel sadness as much as I felt like I was leaving home. I literally felt as though I had found my people. Kyoto is a germophobe’s dream, everyone was pleasant, respectful, and considerate, and the city was scenic to say the least. Although I felt large in comparison to just about everyone there, and the prolonged stares and giggles from high school girls made me more than a little self-conscious, I felt like Kyoto was where I was meant to be. Next time, I am staying for at least a month, booking a ryokan in advance, and getting a rail pass to travel all over the country!