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Stepping Out of Our Comfort Zone - Japan 2019!

We (my husband, daughter and myself) have decided to attempt to visit Japan in 2019! We are looking for advice as to when the best time to visit would be (leaning toward late August-early September). We will be looking for advice on Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara and Miyajima, and are planning to visit the Tokyo DisneySea and Universal Studios theme parks while we are there. We usually drive everywhere, but I have been advised that to do all we want in 10 days-2 weeks, we will have to take a lot of trains. I've been reading everything I can get my hands on but am still in need of guidance! Any and all advice will be welcomed! Thanks!

Posted by
10206 posts

We are going next year ourselves, in November (autumn colors). August and September are the height of typhoon season, so you might consider going later if you can.

I was there 20 years ago with my son, just in Kyoto, Nara, and Ise. I loved Kyoto in particular, and am planning to spend three days there before meeting our group (we are doing an active guided tour with hiking each day). I have found the people in the Tripadvisor Japan forum to be extremely kind and helpful with details like train travel, hotel location, etc. You might look into the JR rail pass since you will be using trains quite a bit.

Posted by
3838 posts

I'd suggest you think twice about the timing of your trip. Summers in most of Japan can be miserably hot and unbelievably humid, really uncomfortable. Personally, I wouldn't go in August, try to push out your trip to begin in late September if you can. October is a perfect time to go.

Do NOT drive!!! First, they drive on the left - and if you don't have a lot of experience with "wrong side" driving, Japan is no place to start gaining experience. Can you read Japanese? If not, that's going to add to the challenge of driving (yes, some signage is in English, and some is based on pictograms, but a lot is in Japanese characters).

Japan has probably the best public transit system in the world (if there's one better, I'd like to hear about it). Trains go everywhere, easily and so efficiently it'll shock you. For a first time visitor, to the main tourist parts of Japan (which equates with your list) there is no reason to drive and a million reasons not to. Forget the car.

Get yourself over to Japan-Gude.com (https://www.japan-guide.com/). It's a wonderful resources with a helpful forum, with oceans of information. You should (and probably will) be spending a lot of time there as soon as you get a look at it.

Japan is wonderful, you will love it. Have fun.

Posted by
10206 posts

Hey David, I managed to score seats in First for the flight back. We decided to fly to SFO to spend a few days with family, and that JL plane is a 4-class 773. We will fly over on the new Seattle to Tokyo (NRT) run, in Business. It was all really easy to book on the Alaska Airlines website. After all I had read on FlyerTalk about “phantom availability” of JL awards, it was not a problem at all.

Posted by
3838 posts

Well done, Lola - I'm sure you're going to like it! Your flights are on JAL, I think, right?

Don't want to hijack the thread so will send you a PM...

Posted by
1591 posts

We are also going to Japan this year - June for 17 days. I'm taking a big group and so I'm only planning about a week of it. The other 10 days are a tour so I can relax and not be in charge of so many things. I've done a lot of research if you have specific questions. Pre-buy your Disney tickets so you don't get shut out.

I spent a ton of time choosing hotels - that took my longer than it seems to for Europe. I'm happy to share my choices if you're interested - just Tokyo and Kyoto.

Posted by
2560 posts

We visited Japan during the summer (no choice, school teacher), and saying that the weather is hot and humid doesn’t begin to convey how hellish it is. I’d wait until September, if possible. My daughter, who lived there for four years, says that the worst is usually over by the end of August.
If you go to Miyajima, you should really stop in Hiroshima first, to visit the Memorial Peace Park, a unique place in the world.

As I recall, the ferry ride out to Miyajima is very short, 5 or 10 minutes. While there, don’t omit a visit to the History and Folkore Museum.
I’m in total agreement with the opinion above concerning driving.

Posted by
2297 posts

We went at the beginning of the Cherry Blossom Season - and that is a wonderful time to visit Japan. It changes slightly each year, of course, but if you plan for end of March - beginning of April that should give you a good window. It is a very popular time to travel for the Japanese people so early reservations are a must.

My daughter just came back from a trip this past August and she experienced a Typhoon as well as hot and humid conditions ...

Posted by
149 posts

If you are spending a lot of time in or around Tokyo, I recommend visiting Hakone, which is close by and easy to access. Hakone is known for its hot springs, and while there you could stay in a ryokan with an attached and private onsen. I preferred that to visiting a public onsen in Tokyo, thought I'm sure that is also a great experience. There is a lot to do in Hakone, including hiking, taking a cruise on a pirate ship, and taking a ropeway up to a volcanic zone that has great views. I found it to be very relaxing after a busy itinerary in Tokyo.

Posted by
2308 posts

We visited Japan in 2015 and loved the country and its people. It is the cleanest country in the World (Switzerland a close 2nd). It is not as expensive as we thought.

Kyoto is amazing. We spent some days in Tokyo and then took a tour down to Kyoto and Nara on the bullet train for three days. Then we took a cruise that stopped in more Japanese ports, including Okinawa, then stopping in Taiwan, ending in Hong Kong. Great cruise.

Here is our detailed review:
http://www.cruisecritic.com/memberreviews/memberreview.cfm?EntryID=518503&et_cid=2531924&et_rid=17221689&et_referrer=Boards

I assume you are going to Disney and Universal for your Daughter. Why do this when you can go to the same in the USA? I would spend more time exploring Japan.

We found our tours on Viator. They subcontract out to local companies, so if you find the local company, you can book directly or just use Viator. The prices for tours are usually about the same as what the tour companies charge.

Posted by
1025 posts

Please write a trip report when you return. We are looking to go to Japan in 2020 when we retire. We were thinking April. Just curious, are you flying multi city or in and out of Tokyo?

Posted by
2308 posts

We did Japan in October and the weather was nice. From what I have read, you don't want to go in the Summer, its very hot. September would still be nice and probably so in April.

Posted by
10206 posts

I do not know who Noah Smith is, but it looks like a decent introduction, although brief.

You can get excellent information from the TripAdvisor Japan forum (answers to specific questions), as well as from this website:

https://www.japan-guide.com

Japan is welcoming visitors and English is the common (non-Japanese) language in the train station signs and other sites.

Posted by
12 posts

I spend 4 months (study abroad) in Japan in 2015 with the Nagoya area as my home base. Japanese public transit isn't hard, and while you could drive I would say don't, given they drive on the left and street signs in Japanese are pretty intimidating. There are trains to everywhere, and in my humble opinion a bullet train ride is an important experience! Make sure you get a special train bento box (lunch box) at the station for the trip :)
While on public transit pay attention to other people's body language -- us Americans are much louder and take up more space than we think we do, especially in a majority Japanese environment! Folks are used to it in the touristy areas, but it's good to pay attention.

I can speak Japanese, but in the touristy areas of Tokyo/Kyoto/etc you should be just fine with English-only, especially if you're prepared to gesture and smile a lot. A few simple words of Japanese wouldn't hurt to learn either -- for example, kore/sore/are (this/that/that over there), ikura desu ka (how much is it), or the all-important "toilet ga arimasuka" (is there a bathroom)

I'm sure you have tons of advice and such on where to go and what to do in your target cities, but here are a few things I loved that might not appear in the guidebooks:
- I spent a lot of time at fast food chains like Matsuya, where you can put coins into a machine, press the photo of the dish you want, and it prints a ticket that you hand to your waiter. The food is good, CHEAP, and places like this are everywhere. Marukame Udon is also great. There's only one branch in the States, in Honolulu, and it always has a wait!
- Buy or bring an umbrella. It will probably rain, and this is an umbrella culture, not a raincoat culture.
- Bring a wallet that will accommodate cash. Japan is mostly cash-based.
- At sit-down restaurants you usually have to pay at a counter. Table service exists but is not common.
- Eat whatever the regional specialty is in the area you're visiting. In Tokyo that might be tempura or soba, or in Kyoto Japanese pickles.
-- hundred-yen and three hundred-yen stores are everywhere, and a lot of fun.
-- Japanese malls are often huge and packed full of delightful restaurants and stores ranging from manga to high end clothing and paper. If you need a day off and/or a veeery local experience they are usually above the major train stations.

If I think of anything more I'll add it in a comment. Have fun!

Posted by
40 posts

I went in November 2017 and fell in love with the country. I wouldn't rent a car there, not because they drive on the left side, but because I can't read Japanese. My husband and I have rented cars in England and Ireland, so driving on the left side is not a big issue for us, but the language barrier.

Looks like your doing long distance travel there, so I suggest you to get JR passes, they're sold through 3rd parties agencies (We bought ours from an agency in California and had no problems). You have to order them before going, they arrive at your house, you take them with you and active them once you get there; we activated them ours as soon as we landed at Narita. This page helped a lot and explains everything

https://www.jrpass.com/farecalculator

Also, get a Suica or Pasmo card. I liked how you can use your Suica to pay not only for trains, but at combinis and vending machines.

ETA: I agree with Sophia, bullet train is a nice experience, and as she says, don't forget the bento box! Also called ekiben.

Posted by
257 posts

We spent three weeks in Japan in 2008 when my son was teaching there. It was easy to get around on the trains. We had a rail pass that also let us use the local subways.

You may want to rethink how many places you want to visit with only ten days to two weeks. Fewer places with more time to explore each place may be a more enriching experience.

One of our highlights was going to a baseball game. We saw the Yakult Swallows play in Tokyo. You pick the section to sit by whether you are rooting for the home team or the visitor. The food options at the ballpark are extensive. The fans have a chant for each player and they do not leave their seats while their team is at bat. As soon as their team is out, the fans go to get food.

I also recommend a day in Hiroshima if going to Miwajima. There is a museum at the peace park that was very good. We spent all day at Miwajima.

The regional specialty foods were wonderful to try. Enjoy your trip.

Posted by
2560 posts

One more small piece of advice occurred to me regarding the language barrier. Sometimes it helps to write stuff, if a person doesn’t understand your English. All Japanese study English in school. But as anyone who has studied a foreign language can affirm, there is a big gap between reading and aural comprehension.

Posted by
16 posts

First of all congratulations on your Japan trip! It's a wonderful and eye-opening country for many Westerners (including me) and you will certainly be out of your comfort zone. There are major cultural differences and it is very hard to find a fluent English speaker there, although most younger people can read it. That being said, it's also one of the cleanest, most convenient and comfortable places to travel through. Their toilets are next-level. I've only been once in November 2016, but have accumulated quite a bit of information through a few years of Japanese language classes and my own research over the year. I am actually hoping to go back myself next year-- you'll hear many people say they want to go back. 2 weeks is a perfect introduction.

Here is just some general stuff on Japan travel. Feel free to let me know if you need more specific advice on any of those cities (where to stay, eat, what to see). Also happy to help share information with anyone else on this forum who is going there.

1) Your itinerary is nearly perfect for a 2 week stay. It will require using train travel, which may sound complicated in the beginning but is actually very easy to use! GET THE RAIL PASS. You cannot buy this in Japan so get it now through an agency. You will save a ton of money. I believe they have a 2 week pass. You'll be able to use all the high speed rails/Shinkansen (except for two specific lines which you don't need anyway), and all the regular railways. To use local subways in the big cities you'll need a Suica or Pasmo card. It is a refillable card that can also be used to purchase food and beverages items in the many vending machines throughout the country. You can buy this card when you're there

2) Consider the following allotment of days in each: Tokyo 4-5 nights with your pick of side trips to Nikko, Kamakura, Hakone; Kyoto 3-4 days. Kyoto is absolutely beautiful (especially in fall/mid-Nov) but things are a bit spread out and the subway system is not as extensive as the one in Tokyo. Osaka 2-3 days, which I would actually recommend that you scrap entirely for a first time if not for the Universal Studios trip. There a major aquarium in Osaka that sounds like a good idea for you. Nara (1 night or a side trip) is easily doable as a side-trip from either Kyoto or Osaka but consider spending the night. Hiroshima 1-2 nights with one of the two days in Miyajima which is easily accessible from there. Use the other day to explore Hiroshima. If you are flying out of Tokyo to go home, I would put either Osaka or Kyoto in between the trip from Hiroshima/Miyajima to Tokyo. This would break up the train time.

3) Consider getting a wireless router e-mail to your hotel. You can rent "pocket wifi" very easily in Japan, where free WiFi is not as readily available. You'll want to look up directions, hours, phrases etc. on the fly and unless you have unlimited data you'll greatly benefit from this. Many companies offer this. You can get it shipped to your hotel and simply drop it off in a mailbox before heading home.

and lastly,

4) Do NOT wing it. See point 1 and get the rail pass. If there is a restaurant you want to go to you should assume that it requires a reservation, possibly a month in advance depending on the place. Since the person over the phone likely won't speak English, you'll need to ask your hotel to make a reservation for you. You'll find some things to be incredibly rigid in Japan, the reservation thing being a key example. Just like Rick advises, plan your itinerary! I know someone who didn't plan a thing, went to Kyoto and came back and said to me "I didn't like it. I thought it would just be a quaint town but all I saw was modern buildings!" I assumed this person hadn't a clue as to where to go or what to see.