Traveling across Japan
This blog post is about our experience traveling across Japan. The trip to Japan is consecutive to our trip to Thailand, Hong Kong & Macao so if you want to know more about where we travelled before, check out this blog article. Our trip consisted of three big parts: Kyoto & Area, Japan Countryside & Ryokan and Tokyo. In the end of the article are some useful tips for traveling in Japan.
Arrival in Osaka
After two days in Macao, our travel to Japan finally started. We took the ferry from Macao to the airport in Hong Kong. It is quite convenient as the ferry terminal is connected to the airport. You can already check in your luggage at the ferry station in Macao. The airline takes care of taking it from there to the plane. We flew from Hong Kong to Osaka as our first stop in Japan was Kyoto!
Japan Rail Pass
To travel through Japan we purchased the Japan Rail pass beforehand in Germany. This rail pass can be purchased for the time of 7, 14 or 21 days and will be send to you at home already. The rail pass is especially for tourists so they can use the trains and especially the Shinkanzen at a lower rate. Usually taking the Shinkansen is quite pricey in Japan. With the rail pass you can also use a number of other trains, but not the underground in Tokyo for example. For this you need to purchase another ticket where you can upload money on. It is important that you buy the Japan Rail Pass before at home online. As far as I know you cannot purchase the discounted Japan Rail Pass for tourists anymore once in Japan.
With the Japan Rail Pass you can also reserve seats on the Shinkansen for free. Some Shinkansen trains/connections require a seat reservation. The reservation is made at the train station at the JR office. You just show your Rail Passes and tell the agent which train you want to take and when. He will hand you two reservation tickets for that train.
Shinkansen in Japan
Taking the Shinkansen and the entire organization around it was truly impressive. The Shinkansen itself is already an adventure as it goes very fast, but it can be compared to the ICE for example. However, the way the departures, arrivals, ticketing, reservation is organized takes traveling via train to a whole new level.
I read somewhere that all Shinkansen together in Japan in one entire year only have a delay of 1 minute (excluding delays due to earthquakes or earthquake warnings). The Shinkansen take different rails than the other public transportation trains. But still that is almost no delays. At the end of each route, a cleaning crew waits at the platform for the Shinkansen. One cleaning agent stands at each door. As soon as the passengers exited, the crew has 7 minutes to clean the entire train before new passengers enter again.
When reserving a seat at the Shinkansen you get a vehicle number and a set number. When you enter the platform you will already see that the platform ground is marked with an exact map of where which vehicle will stop. You need to queue up behind the number leading to your vehicle.
Also on the train, the different rows can be turned depending how you want to sit or which direction the train is going. Also it is common to eat on the Shinkansen in Japan. There are many stores at the station that sell you packed meals or whole platters that you can take with you. They provide you with chop sticks as well as wet wipes. See my other post about food in Japan.
Kyoto & Area
Hostel in Kyoto
From Osaka we took the train to Kyoto where we booked a hostel for the next days and I can fully recommend this place (Sakura Terrace The Atelier Kyoto)! It was a nice, friendly and clean place located close to the train station. The location is very convenient for day trips as well as sight seeing in Kyoto. We had our own private room with a wash basin. The hostel offered breakfast and coffee & tea was available at all times. They also have a nice seating area downstairs where you can connect with other travelers or read on of the many books they have.
Shared Bathrooms at the hostel
The hostel has shared bathrooms for girls and for boys and also washing machines and driers. I was impressed by the shared bathrooms and did not expect this from a hostel! The bathroom was super clean and warm with its own Onsen bath. There were several showers with separated doors and lockers where you could put your belongings while in the shower. Also they offered an assortment of shampoo, conditioner and other hair treatments from different brands where you could just pick your kind and take it with you in the shower. They also had hair driers, cotton balls, cotton swaps, hair brushes, hair ties etc.! The idea in Japan is that you should be able to travel as light as possible! In our room we had a bag where we could put our sanitary items, towels and fresh clothes when going to the shower.Additionally, they had this gown which you could put over your pajamas when going to the bathroom as well as shoes for the bathroom. Outside shoes were not allowed in the bathrooms and there was a storage rack at the entrance for you to change shoes.
We stayed several days in the hostel in Kyoto and did day trips from there. The hostel is located very conveniently next to the Kyoto train station so all cities and other places can be quickly reached. On our first day in Kyoto we went to Arashiyama as well as to the Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine.
Arashiyama is a district in the west of Kyoto. The area is full of temples, shrines and known for its beautiful bamboo grove. The Main Street is very touristic and packed with stores and restaurants attracting visitors. Just try to quickly make your way up to the Kameyama-koen Park, the Tenryu-ji Temple or the Arashiyama Bamboo grove. You can take the JR Train (JR Sagano/San-in Line) from Kyoto Station and exited at Saga-Arashiyama Stations.
After our stop at the Arashiyama Bamboo grove we went to the Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine. It is famous for its thousands tore gates which lead into the forrest of the Mount Inari. The walk up the mountain trail takes about 2-3 hours, but you can turn back at any point. After about 1 hour you reach a platform (Yotsutsuji) intersection from where you have a beautiful view over Kyoto. The trail splits here into a circular route to the summit. You can take the JR Nara Line from Kyoto station and get off at JR Inari Station. Admission to visit the shrine is free.
When we returned that evening we had dinner at a Sushi place at the train station next to our hostel (Sushi no Musashi). It is quite common in Japan that restaurants are located in the building of the train station.
Day trip to Hiroshima
We visited Hiroshima as a day trip from Kyoto. Originally we had planned to stay here for one night, but due to the days we missed because of the delayed flight we decided to go here for just one day. From Kyoto we took the Shinkansen in the early morning and returned at night. The train ride from Kyoto to Hiroshima takes about two hours and if you leave on time in the morning in Kyoto you still have a full day of sight seeing in Hiroshima. We bought breakfast at one of the supermarkets at the train station in Kyoto and ate on the train.
When we arrived in Hiroshima we first visited Hiroshima castle. If you just have one day I would maybe skip this and spend more time on the other things. Towards the end we had to rush a bit, because we were strolling around too much in the morning. But still the view from the castle was worth it. There is a small entrance fee to be paid when entering the castle. The area around it can be visited for free.
From the castle we went to Hiroshima downtown to grab a snack and buy a sweater as the day was unexpectedly cold.
Peace Memorial Park, A-Bomb dome and Peace Memorial Museum
After that we made our way to the Peace Memorial Park, the A-Bomb dome and the Peace Memorial Museum. It was impressive to be at this area and to see all the history in front of you. The personal items displayed at the museum are very upsetting and make you realize that peace is not granted.
Hiroshima also offers a sight seeing bus which drives a loop through Hiroshima. The bus can be used for free with the JR Rail Pass. As the day was really rainy, we got on it to see some more things and relax a bit.
Miyajima is a small island outside of Hiroshima. It is famous for its giant Torii gate. Originally we had planned to spend a night at Miyajima. If you have two days for Hiroshima, I would spend the second day on this island. The island has many Ryokans where you can stay at if you plan to spend a bit more time here. The Torii gate on the water is impressive and ranked as one of Japan’s best views. There is a ferry which takes you to the island and you already get to see the Torii gate from the ferry.
Higashiyama & Kurama & Himeji
Other areas to visit when you are in Kyoto
- Higashiyama: Kinkaku-ji (Golden temple)
One evening we took the Shinkanzen to Nagoya just for dinner. Since the train is included in the Japan Railpass, we thought why not have a short stop there for dinner and stroll through the streets. Also taking the Shinkansen is still very adventurous the first days! Nagoya is normally not a very touristic place as it is mainly a hub for industry. Many Japanese travel to the city to work here during the day and then travel back home in the evening. The train station is big and well connected to other Japanese cities. We accidentally got on a very new Shinkansen which is faster and takes less stops. Unfortunately, this Shinkansen is excluded from the Japan Rail Pass, but we only found out a few days later when trying to take it again and reserve seats on it.
We planned to visit Kyoto and surrounding area and Tokyo, but we also wanted to see the country side of Japan. As we didn’t get the Ryokan experience in Miyajima, we found one Ryokan in the middle of Japan in Chikuma. I think there are several Ryokans in the countryside or in the Japanese alps where you can spend 1-2 nights and explore the area.
We chose to stay at the Kamesei Ryokan in Chikuma between our stays in Kyoto and Tokyo. You have to take several trains to get there. When we first arrived we felt a bit lost. The last regional trains we were taking had almost no tourists on them anymore and only Japanese locals.
Japanese Ryokan Experience
The Ryokan is run by an American and his Japanese wife. He lives in Japan for over 20 years and got married. He picked us up from the train station and took us to the Ryokan.
When you enter the Ryokan you have to take off your shoes and put on the designated house slippers. Just leave your shoes in front of the Ryokan. You may receive some tea or a small snack as a welcome gesture.
The host will then guide you to your traditional room. The floors in the rooms are covered with Tatami mats and you will be provided with a Futon bed for night time.
In the room you will also find a Yukata, which is a light cotton Kimono you can wear in the Ryokan. You are supposed to wear the Yukata during your entire stay e.g. for dinner, to go the Onsen or to relax.
Dinner will be served at the time you agreed on before. Depending on the Ryokan, the meal is either prepared at your room or at a common area. At this Ryokan we had to come to a room downstairs where our meal was served. The meal itself are many different small dishes. While you eat dinner, the host will prepare your Futon beds in your room for the night.
Breakfast is served in the same way as dinner. Also it is common to eat Miso soup, fish, rice or vegetables for breakfast.
Onsen – Hot springs
Onsen is the traditional hot bath or thermal bath. The baths are divided for men and women. Sometimes they share one and have dedicated times when women can enter and when men can enter. So make sure you enter the right bath or at the right time. At the Ryokan in Chikuma they have one for men and one for women. They also have a private Onsen you can reserve so you can bath together with your partner. This was a unique experience for us and it was great we could share it! Also the private Onsen is outside compared to the regular ones. Many other Ryokans also have outdoor baths.
Before you get into the water you have to thoroughly shower yourself.
Activities in between baths
One evening we didn’t eat at the Ryokan, as the traditional dinner is also quite pricey. Instead we went to a local restaurant that we found on a map handed out at our Ryokan. At first we weren’t sure if we were right as the restaurant was a bit hidden. We entered and ordered some food which was very delicious!! We were the only guest and the hosts took special care of us.
I was a bit sceptic as I haven’t had a great experience in Hong Kong. I was afraid that I would get the same experience and feeling walking through this big city. But, even though it is a big metropole I didn’t feel rushed or stressed close to how I felt in Hong Kong. I think the main difference is that streets are full yes, but no-one pushes you. Everyone walks respectfully without interfering with others or bumping into you. The only place where people do touch you is on the underground, but simply because there is no space and you do need to move close together so that people fit in.
We stayed at a simple hotel in the middle of Tokyo (Hotel Mystays Asakusa Bashi). Hotels in Tokyo are quite expensive, but even the cheaper ones are very clean and the employees are friendly. I think the main difference is space. If you pay more you may get a bigger room or breakfast etc.
Sight Seeing in Tokyo
There are many things to see in Tokyo and you can also take great day trips from here. Below I listed a few things that we did in Tokyo and the area. As Tokyo is very big you need to take the underground to get to places.
- Tsukiji Fish market
- At the Fish market we tried Sashimi which was very tasty and fresh! (read the related post about food in Japan)
- Nikko as a day trip from Tokyo
- Ueno Park
- Yoyogi Park
- Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
- This is a very high building in the middle of Tokyo which you can enter for free. You may have to wait a bit as many people take the elevators up the building to enjoy the view. We went here in the evening and you have a great view over Tokyo
- Hamarikyu Park
- Go to one of the many game stores
- Senso-ji (shrine)
We have been traveling for several weeks now and my boyfriend was in need of a haircut. So we went to a place close to the fish market. When you enter you have to click on a vending machine kind of thing what you want to get done e.g. hair cut. You will then be asked to put in the money and you receive a number. You then have to wait until your number is being called out and you proceed to one of the chairs where a hair dresser awaits you. Of course this lady did not understand what he wanted, so he just showed her a picture of him with shorter hair. She started to cut the hair. Once done she took this big blow drier looking this which was actually a vacuum cleaner. She used it on the head to suck off all the loose hair 😀
Clothes shopping in Japan
At one of the malls we went to Uniqlo and I wanted to try on some blouse. When I got to the changing room, the lady pointed at my shoes. In front of the changing room you have to take off your shoes and enter with socks only. Also she pointed to a poster on the wall and proceeded to give me this transparent mask. I had to put on the mask over my head and face before putting on the piece of clothing. I guess they want to reduce the risk of make-up touching the clothes 😀
Traveling across Japan – Useful tips
Below some more things we experienced while traveling in Japan that might be of use.
When traveling in Kyoto or in Tokyo we often took the local trains or the underground. The JR line can also be used with the Japan Rail Pass. For the underground you need to purchase a separate ticket. We purchased a ticket where you can upload money on. When entering the station you would place it in front of the readers and also when leaving. Based on the distance you travelled, the amount is deducted from your card.
For the underground or train we always used Google Maps to find out which line we need to take and where to enter and exit.
Taking the Taxi
We didn’t take any taxis during our stay in Japan until the last day. As we were fully packed with several suitcases we decided to take a taxi to the airport. We were picked up by a friendly old man who tried to store all our suitcases in his taxi. Taxi drivers in Japan have a hand gear next to their seat with which they can open your door in the back. Make sure that you don’t open the door yourself but wait until he opens it for you.
Japanese SIM card & Google Translator
During our time in Japan we had a Japanese Sim Card which was very very helpful! We used the Internet often to Google our way around, which train to take or to translate items from the menu. Most menus are in Japanese only or only have headings in English so it was nice to get a bit of an understanding what we were ordering. We used Google Translator which was working well and you can actually also scan the text by just holding the camera on the text you want to have translated. Of course it is also fun just to order something and see what you get.
I guess everyone who started reading about Japan has read about the futuristic toilets with plenty of buttons which can do all kind of things. I was actually too scared to try out all the buttons. Some toilets were rather simple and others trickier. What was most tricky was finding the flush button when it didn’t have a translation beside it. So my suggestion is try to remember the sign for the flush button just to avoid any other functionality going off when you actually are just trying to flush.
In some bathrooms for example at the Ryokan they have dedicated bathroom shoes. These will be placed outside the bathroom. When going to the bathroom you will take yours off and switch into the bathroom shoes before entering.
Changing board & children seats
In public bathrooms there are two items I was really impressed by: changing board & seats for babies. In one of the bathrooms I was in at a supermarket, there was a fold up board at the bottom of the wall. You could take it down and it would be at the same level as the bathroom floor. I was wondering what this was for until someone explained to me that this board is for changing clothes. For example if you have to change your pants you don’t want to touch the bathroom floor with your socks. So you will take off your shoes and stand on this board to change your pants.
The other really clever thing is this seat (see picture) hanging on the wall in the women’s bathrooms (maybe also men?). Basically this is a seat for your toddler while you are using the toilet. Once I saw this I was actually wondering how moms in other countries do it? Do they leave their child outside the bathroom when they have to go? This kind of detail really impressed me, which is why I had to dedicate one section to it.