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Japan 2019: Tokyo, Hakone National Park, Kyoto, Osaka, Nagasaki

I was in Japan from October 4 through October 17, 2019. I had a GREAT trip, and I want to post this to help anyone thinking of going to Japan.

This is my second time in Japan. My first was in September 1997; my sister was living there, and my father and I visited her. We saw Tokyo, one of the Fuji Lakes (not sure which one), Kyoto, and Hiroshima.

For this 2019 trip, the itinerary was:

October 3: Fly from JFK to Minneapolis (MSP) to Tokyo Haneda (HND), landing October 4.
October 4, 5, 6 and 7: Sleep in Tokyo (4 nights)
October 8 and 9: Sleep in Hakone National Park (2 nights)
October 10, 11, and 12: Sleep in Kyoto (3 nights)
October 13 and 14: Sleep in Osaka (2 nights)
October 15 and 16: Sleep in Nagasaki (2 nights)
October 17: Fly from Nagasaki to Tokyo Haneda to Minneapolis to JFK.

This report will be VERY long. Mindful of the thread about how everyone has different likes and dislikes in a trip report, I have broken it up into sections with headers. That way, it’s easier to skip the sections you don’t want. And I’ve started with more general topics, then gotten into my impressions of places I went, then ended with logistical details. If you want to know the nitty-gritty of how I picked my flights or what I found in each hotel room, it will be after the main trip report.

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I'll start with some big picture topics:

1) If you're thinking of going to Japan GO! I had a fabulous time, and am seriously thinking of going back sooner rather than later. And there’s no need to fear going on your own without a tour or guide.

2) If you're worried about expense, don't be. Saying "Japan is so expensive" is like saying "Pittsburgh is industrial" or "Prague is dirty." These things were all true at one time - and that time is long past. I found most things in Japan to be similar to US prices, with some notable exceptions in both directions. Many supermarket prices are lower than the US, while fresh fruit can be ridiculously expensive (like $18 for a small bunch of grapes, or $4 for a single apple). Other than fresh fruit, the only sticker shock was looking at the prices of some computers - and luckily, I wasn't in the market for one. If you don't want to get meals from supermarkets, restaurants come in a very wide range of prices, and you won't have any difficulty finding something to eat at any price point.

Note that at the time I went, 100 yen were about 93 US cents, and one US dollar was about 107 yen. So, for rough estimation purposes, 100 yen (JPY) is 1 dollar (USD).

One potential issue is that Japan is still very much a cash society. It's not that credit cards are never accepted; it’s that you can never assume that they will be accepted. For instance, Sukiya, a fast food chain, took them, while one somewhat pretentious and not cheap Italian restaurant did not - much to the dismay of the largely tourist clientele, who clearly had not done any research on the country (they were all there for the World Cup). So, you need cash on you at all times. A further issue is that, apparently, many Japanese ATMs do not accept foreign cards. The only other places I've read about this are very poor countries, and places that are sanctioned. For instance, apparently Iran has plenty of ATM's, but they only work with Persian cards, since Iran is cut off from the international banking systems. Japan isn't poor and isn't sanctioned, but they do like to be different.

The good news is that 7 Bank ATMs work with foreign cards, and there is one in every 7-Eleven (which are ubiquitous, even in small towns), and at airports. I also found an ATM in another convenience store (not sure if it was Lawson or Family Mart) which would have worked with my card. However, it merely said there would be a fee, but didn't say how much. So, I canceled the transaction and went to 7-Eleven. The fee from the 7 Bank ATMs was 220 yen for a 50,000 withdrawal (so it cost me about 2 USD to take out about 450 USD). I remember that for 10,000 yen, the fee was 110 yen. I had also read that Japan Post bank ATMs work with foreign cards, but didn’t try to use any.

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3) Japanese food is much more than raw fish. Raw fish is only served at sushi places; other restaurants will serve other dishes. There are also a lot of western food options. Really, you will only eat raw fish if you want to (I sure did, but don't worry if you don't).

That’s not to say that I didn’t have food issues. At one supermarket, I bought what I thought were pretzels and what I thought were cookies. I turned out the “cookies” were rice crackers, and the “pretzels” were cinnamon-sugar covered sticks (a bit like dried churros). So, my savory turned out to be sweet, and my sweet turned out to be savory!

4) The language barrier both is and is not a problem. On the one hand, Japanese is not related to other languages, and its writing system is extremely complex and not learnable with short study just before a trip (a contrast to the Cyrillic or Greek alphabets, which can be learned before a trip). Furthermore, borrowed words from English are usually so heavily transformed that they are unrecognizable. Would you know that masu-kom (meaning media) is from "mass communication," that wapro is "word processing," or kombini is "convenience store?"

On the other hand, English is the default second language, most signage is in English, and above all, people's genuine desire to communicate and be helpful goes a long way. I did have some issues with signage on restaurants, and even hotels, not being in English. This meant I couldn’t always be sure I was at the right place. But many restaurants had either English menus or plastic models of the food outside (so I could take the server outside and point).

And technology has given me some great tools. Google Maps meant that I could enter my start and end points and find my way quickly. For instance, in a subway station, did I want the train towards Ginza or towards Shinjuku? These would be labeled in English on the platforms, but I didn't always know which one I wanted. But Google Maps would say to take the train from platform 2 to Ginza. I did run into problems with it in Osaka (the "blue dot" was often pointed the wrong way, so I ended up walking east when I should have been walking south, for instance). And in Kyoto, it didn't always have all the bus schedules (important when there were several bus options, leaving from different stops, and I wanted to be on the bus leaving first). But having Google Maps meant I often didn't have to ask for directions, which would have required Japanese fluency on my part or English fluency on the locals' part.

The biggest area where Google Maps failed was floors. Often the place I wanted was in a basement, or on the fourth floor. Google Maps would take me to the building, and it was up to me to find the rest of the way. If there was no English signage in the building for what I was seeking (or worse, on the building itself), I often had quite a hunt.

Google Translate's camera function meant I could just point the phone at signs and have them translated. (This used to be a separate company and app called Word Lens, then Google bought it). It was far from perfect, but since I can't type in Japanese characters the way I can, say, French or Hungarian, this was a great benefit. For instance, I was able to decipher which potato chip flavor I was buying - most of the time.

All of this phone use meant that my most prized possessions on the trip were my phone, portable battery, and T-Mobile roaming. T-Mobile roamed on the Japanese 4G LTE networks (other networks are not compatible between the US and Japan), but at 2G speeds. This was adequate for mapping, even if I did sometimes have to wait for it to load.

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5) It's often said that you simply MUST get a Japan Rail Pass. It turns out that, just like in Europe, sometimes it's a good deal, and sometimes it's not. In particular, if you're flying in and out of the same airport and thus have to double back, it's much easier to make it pay off. I was flying open jaw (I'm not a "seasoned traveler" for nothing!), so it wouldn't have been a good deal for me. Here's a great summary of whether you really can benefit from a JR pass:

Furthermore, the "standard" advice that rail is the best way to get around isn't always true, either. For my trip from Osaka to Nagasaki, only part of it is high speed at this time, and the trip would have been about 180 USD. My flight was about 85 USD, and even with the transit between airport and city at each end, was a bit shorter to boot. Details below.

6) Japan really is still a more formal society. Living in or visiting North America or Europe, are you upset that your bus driver does not wear gloves? Or that your taxi does not have doilies covering the seats, and that your taxi door is not opened and closed for you by the driver via a remote mechanism? (That taxi drivers also wear gloves is a given.) When staff at a department store go through the Staff Only door, are you peeved when they don't bow to you first? Or when your train conductor, while walking through the train, does not bow as he enters and leaves each compartment? Come to Japan, where all of these things occur. Of course, locals take no notice, as these all really are routine.

On a related note, I had read that two of the things were really considered rude in Japan are talking on cell phones on transit, and eating while walking down a street or sidewalk. Before I got there, I was not sure if these were for real (as we all know, lots of things said about lots of places aren’t true - refer to “Japan is expensive” above). But there were actually signs in some places admonishing against these things. If you do want to eat on the street (from one of the street food stalls, say), you are supposed to stand still rather than walk. This also makes it easier at the end, as there are often no trash cans - you hand your refuse back to the stall you bought the food from.

7) Electricity in Japan is 100 volts, 60 cycles. They use US plugs, but they don’t use polarized plugs or three prong plugs (even on computers, hair dryers, electric kettles, etc.). So, your two prong, non-polarized plugs will work everywhere. These are on phone chargers. Some outlets could take polarized plugs, and some outlets could take three prongs, but some could only take 2 non-polarized prongs. So, if you’re bringing a device with a polarized plug or a three prong plug, you might want to pack an adapter plug with two non-polarized prongs.

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8) Like in the US but unlike in Europe, the first floor is on the ground and the second floor is one floor above the ground. They often abbreviate: “3F” on a sign means third floor.

9) I was worried about smoking because Japan still has high rates of cigarette use. But there is an active campaign to stop public smoking for the upcoming Olympics, and I was rarely bothered by smoke, even in restaurants.

10) Japanese public bathrooms are free and clean. However, there is not always a way to dry your hands (sometimes there’s a dryer, sometimes there are paper towels, but often there’s nothing). Apparently, Japanese people usually carry handkerchiefs for this.

11) Trash cans can be very hard to find. As I said above, if you’ve eaten at a food stand, you hand your trash back to them. Next to vending machines is a trash can, but it’s for cans or bottles only. If you have other trash, be prepared to carry it a while - possibly all the way back to your hotel. And since bathrooms often didn’t have paper towel dispensers, they often didn’t have trash cans.

12) It is true that there are vending machines literally all over the place in Japan, even down small alleys or in rural areas. There are lots of blog posts and YouTube videos about Japan’s weird and wacky vending machines, selling everything from used underwear to bread in a can. However, I only saw vending machines selling cold drinks. However, if you like cold coffee, you’ll be in heaven - the variety of coffees sold from these vending machines is astounding.

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Overall I loved 4 of my 5 destinations. I got some pushback from others about moving around so much, but with 2-4 nights in each place I had a good and varied experience. Of course I wish I had more time in some places and less in others, but I only know that in hindsight. So, I'm glad I did it the way I did.

Which was the destination I didn't like? Read on - it will probably surprise you (it sure surprised me).

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For this New Yorker, on his second Tokyo visit, Tokyo was a non-intimidating way to ease into Japan. I'm sure many would not have the same experience - it is huge, it's not laid out on a grid, and you need to use lots of transit to get around. However, it developed from lots of small towns that got merged, and if you approach each area as a separate small town (Shinjuku, Ueno, etc), it's relatively easy to break into chunks. Just walking around was great, particularly the way that you could turn a corner and go from a major thoroughfare to a totally deserted residential street.

My biggest Tokyo problem was that I was too jet-lagged to dare to go into museums until my third full day, and that was a Monday when many museums (which I had wanted to see) were closed. My second biggest problem was, even after several days, and even though my trip before Japan was to the UK, the fact that they drive on the left in Japan meant that cars were often coming at me from directions I didn’t expect.

I enjoyed walking around Omotesando, a fancy area where all the designer boutiques have their own, purpose built buildings, each trying to outdo the others. And the Meiji-jingu shrine was lovely, and when I went in the morning was not crowded.

I went to the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Museum outside the center (about 20 minutes from where I was staying in Shinjuku, on a commuter train followed by a bus). Japan's only natural resource is trees, so until modern times, buildings were made of wood and paper. Due to the frequent earthquakes and fires, many structures have had to be be rebuilt multiple times. There was a huge earthquake in Tokyo in 1923, and then of course World War II bombing did a lot of damage. So, few older buildings remain; many of those that do are collected here, and it was interesting to see and walk through them.

I also loved the view from the Tokyo City Hall. This is free, unlike the other viewpoints (some of them, like the Tokyo SkyTree, are quite pricey). Since it was free I thought it might have a long wait, but mine was only 15-20 minutes. And I enjoyed the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art. It intermixes Western artists and the Japanese artists they influenced, sometimes fooling me. For instance, I looked at one painting and thought “somebody stole from Rouault,” only to see that it actually was by Rouault! Other times, I thought I was looking at a European artist, but it was a Japanese one.

Walking around the Tsukiji outer market was fun, although it was both very crowded and quite touristed. The fish market itself has left Tsukiji (pronounced tskee-jee - one of several syllables where the “u” is silent), and I didn’t get to the new one. But the outer market, where they sell all kinds of foods as well as cooking implements, is intact.

The Senso-ji Temple was itself very crowded, and the few blocks leading up to it were a large market selling stuff geared to tourists. Of course, this being Japan, even the “tourist tat” was of a higher grade than the stuff sold in, say, Times Square or Piccadilly Circus, and the tourists were better behaved, but the vibe was otherwise similar, so I didn’t linger. I went to a Don Quijote store nearby, but didn’t find it quite as interesting as billed (lots of stuff, but most of it cheap in both senses of the word).

Department stores are still doing very well in Japan, with multiple branches in various neighborhoods. They usually have food halls in the basement and a floor or two of restaurants on the top. I ate at Okonomiyaki Chibo (a chain) in the Seibu store in Ikebukuro, and not only was it very tasty, it was cheaper than the Okonomiyaki Chibo in Honolulu!

I also got a lot of meals from supermarkets; these are even cheaper than convenience stores. My best achievement in this arena was the 8 pieces of sushi for 555 yen (a bit over 5 USD). I wouldn’t dare try 5 dollar sushi in the US, but in Japan it was really good!

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The one thing I wish I had done differently in Tokyo is subway tickets. It's complicated. There are two different subway companies in Tokyo (Toei Subway and Tokyo Metro), and there are also local rail lines run by Japan Rail or JR (similar to the S-bahn in German cities). Each of the three takes a different ticket; a ticket that allows changing among systems for a single ride costs more. You can buy day tickets, but to get one good for all three systems is very expensive. So, I used a Pasmo card, which works on everything (more about this below). This meant I was paying separately for every ride - and in such a transit-dependent place as Tokyo, this adds up.

However, for tourists, there's a multi-day pass you can get good for both of the subway systems, and for a 3 day version it's quite cheap per day. Even buying JR lines separately, I would have saved a lot of money with a 3 day pass. The catch is you can't buy it at all stations, but only at certain places (you need to show your passport). Here's the link:

Japan has many different kinds of stored value cards that work on most transit in the country. They're collectively called IC cards, but each region has a different one, so, for instance, Pasmo and Suica are sold in Tokyo while Icoca is sold in Osaka. However, all of them work all over the country (so, I used my Pasmo in Kyoto and Osaka with no difficulty). Similar to an Oyster card in London or a SmartTrip in DC, you just tap the sensor on entry and again on exit, and the appropriate fare is deducted. The cards are also good in convenience stores - handy to avoid having to deal with small change. The cards can only be loaded with cash, but once loaded, you can buy lots of things by just tapping. Just show your IC card when they ring you up at 7-Eleven, Lawson, or Family Mart, and they'll tell you when to tap the sensor to pay. They weren’t accepted in grocery stores, but were accepted in a few restaurants.

Sunrise and sunset in Japan were both earlier than in New York. It was dark by 6 PM, but started to get light before 6 AM. Most of my hotels had blackout shades, but I often forgot to use them.

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Before I went, this seemed to have a similar appeal to Luzern, Switzerland. The classic day trip from Tokyo involves a train from Tokyo Shinjuku station to Yumoto-Hakone station, where you board a mountain rail for Gora (it makes several switchbacks to climb the grade, since it's not a rack railway, and the trip is narrated in English as well as Japanese). You then take a funicular up to Sounzan, where you board a cable car over the volcanic mountain to Togendai, on Lake Ashi. You take a boat down Lake Ashi, then a bus back to Yumoto-Hakone before boarding a train back to Tokyo.

My Hakone visit involved two great examples of Japanese use of English. I took the Romancecar and bought a Hakone Freepass to cover my sightseeing. The Romancecar isn't romantic, but it does have reserved seats and 2-aisle-2 seating and makes only express stops and goes all the way to Hakone, while the regular train has subway style long bench seating, often requires changing at Odawara Station, and makes all stops, so it takes at least 30 minutes longer. The Romancecar costs about 10 USD more than the regular train. And the Freepass isn't free, but it does allow free passage on almost all transit within the park (including all the buses, boats, trains, funicular and cable car listed in the above paragraph, except the Romancecar supplement). It also gets discounts of 100-200 yen on almost everything not fully covered.

I wanted to break up this trip, to allow time to see more of the nature and get away from those on a day-trip schedule, so I booked two nights in Yumoto-Hakone. I chose this because it would be easier to get to my next destination from there, and as the largest town in the park, it would have more restaurant options at night. The location was good, but the actual hotel wasn't. I'll review it in detail below, but I'll just say here that my room was much too small, so I would recommend staying somewhere - anywhere - else. I was reminded of Daffy Duck's complaint: "That dressing room is so small, I have to go outside just to change my mind!" I live in a 470 square foot studio apartment in New York, but this place actually gave ME claustrophobia.

As for the park, it was a mixed bag. The mountain rail was not as nice as I'd hoped, and the funicular offered almost no view at all. Most of the cable car over the mountain was closed (it was active and belching sulfur), and the small section I could take was just OK. I liked the boat ride on the lake, although the large tour groups marred the experience somewhat. But I then took a (very infrequent but covered by the Freepass) bus to a different funicular at Hakone-en, which was not covered. This was spectacular, and I loved the views from the top in all directions (as well as Lake Ashi, I could see Sagami Bay, and very faintly through the clouds, Mt. Fuji).

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Another big attraction of the park is the many onsen (Japanese hot spring baths). I didn't partake of any of these.

But the real highlight of the park was its third attraction - museums. There are all kinds, even one devoted to The Little Prince (which I didn't see). The Lalique Museum was stunning, but unfortunately no photos are allowed, so I have no "souvenirs." The Pola Museum had all kinds of fine arts, and the special exhibit juxtaposed older pieces from the family's collection (Pola is a cosmetics company) with more modern pieces, to varying degrees of success. It was still highly worthwhile, and it even had some Lalique I could photograph. And the Venetian Glass Museum was a real wow, with all kinds of beautiful things, as well as a spectacular gift shop.

So, in the end, I'm glad I went to Hakone, and even my bad hotel experience couldn't ruin things. Do note that the roads through the park are VERY twisty, so if you have issues with motion sickness, you probably won't enjoy a visit there. Also note that you can take a direct bus from Tokyo’s Shinjuku station to some of the museums I enjoyed (travel time is about 2 hours), so it’s possible to just do a day trip for museums even if you don’t want to see the rest of Hakone National Park or don’t want to stay overnight. Next time, I’ll go to the Hakone Open Air Museum, which I missed this time.

Two food notes. In Gora, I stopped for lunch at a small place. They had a few plastic food models outside, but since it’s a tourist town, I assumed there’d be an English menu, and maybe the server would speak enough English for the essentials. It turned out neither was true. Luckily for me, I liked the looks of one of the plastic models, so I was able to take the server outside and point. It was tasty too.

In Yumoto-Hakone, my hotel was connected to an Italian restaurant. It got very good online reviews, but I found it a bit pretentious, relatively high priced, and only OK. The next night, I just got dinner from 7-Eleven (there were other restaurants in town, but I didn’t feel up to checking them out).

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Some tidbits I picked up on the Japanese use of English:

1) The terms for mountain transit are used differently from US English. A "ropeway" is what we would call a cable car or gondola (it hangs from wires high above the ground); a "cable car" is what we call a funicular (it runs on tracks on the ground, at an incline; one car goes up while the other goes down, and they pass each other in the middle).
2) “l.o.” means last orders, as in a restaurant sign “Dinner 17-22 l.o. 21:30.”
3) “Rent” often means borrow with no fee, as in my Kyoto hotel's umbrella rack with sections marked “For Rent” (meaning guests can borrow these umbrellas for free) and “Not For Rent” (meaning these are not to be taken by guests).
4) “SNS” is social networking service (Twitter, Facebook).

I next took the famous shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. The most surprising things were the huge amount of legroom, and the huge bathroom (big enough for a wheelchair user with room to spare, and it even had a separate "toilet" for ostomy users - something I've never seen before, anywhere).

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To cut to the chase, Kyoto was, by far, the lowlight of the trip. But how can this be? Everyone is always saying that Kyoto is the absolute highlight of any trip to Japan, that if you have limited time you should focus largely or even exclusively on Kyoto, that you need a lifetime to explore its many treasures, etc. etc. Well, for me, 2 days was QUITE sufficient.

Why? Well, Kyoto reminded me of various other places I've been, but not in good ways.

First, I was in Kyoto when it was 80-85 degrees F by day, and 100% humidity. This made schlepping around very unpleasant. I thought by going in October I would avoid the heat and humidity. I don't know if I was misinformed or if climate change is to blame, but it was certainly not fall weather anywhere in Japan while I was there, and Kyoto was the worst.

Like Rio de Janeiro, Kyoto has a very limited palate of attractions. In Rio, the two things to do are 1) avoid getting mugged, and 2) go to the beach. Sure, there's Sugarloaf, the Christ the Redeemer statue, the Santa Teresa tram and the Hippie Fair. But after that, when you ask what there is to do in Rio, crime avoidance and beaches just get mentioned over and over.

In Kyoto, it's temples. And more temples. And still more temples. For variety, there's the occasional garden, or museum, or castle. But then there's another temple. Ironically, I found more variety in Hakone National Park than in Kyoto. Hakone has natural scenery, museums, and hot spring baths (onsen). So, it's three against one. Jokes aside, I was able to salvage my time in Hakone, because even though I had no interest in onsen and I didn't find the scenery as special as it was billed, I still loved the museums. Heaven help you in Kyoto if you don't want to see temples.

There's a lot of talk these days of overtourism, and the focus is usually on cities in Europe (particularly those with huge cruise ship crowds), like Venice, Barcelona, Dubrovnik, and Prague. Well, Kyoto has just as much of a problem with overtourism as these places do. To me, it's an even worse problem in Kyoto. That's because the whole point of Buddhist temples is quiet contemplation and subtle beauty. These things are simply impossible to appreciate with several thousand "selfie-takers of all nations" swarming around you. Even a major non-temple sight, the bamboo grove in the west of the city, was mobbed.

If you think getting up early and "beating the crowds" is the answer, think again. At least at the Silver Temple, when I got there before opening, it was filled with lots and lots of school groups. I basically saw it by dodging between groups. I’m sure some temples are empty if you go early enough, but not all are.

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In addition, while central Kyoto is relatively flat, the temples are all built on hillsides. To see them you walk up inclines - sometimes steep - and then steps - also sometimes steep. And more inclines. And more steps. Even at the uncrowded temples, it was tiring. But trudging uphill through the throngs, in 85 degree heat and high humidity, was just nasty.

Specifically, I was reminded of the horrid experience of seeing the Sistine Chapel (I know many here can relate!). To make a long story short, it was such a tense and unpleasant experience (even in 1994) that I can't tell you if the chapel itself is transcendent or foul. I just wanted to get the hell out of there. Some of the temples in Kyoto gave me the exact same reaction.

So, I had "temple fatigue" of two different kinds. Literally the experience of visiting them was tiring, and I also got "templed out" pretty quickly. Even the quieter and flatter ones, often, just didn't make such a strong impression on me.

Finally, everyone finds the Gion area (where the geisha train) to be atmospheric, particularly at night, so I selected a hotel there. I didn’t find the ambience at night to be atmospheric so much as a bit barren and a bit creepy (not dangerous, just empty). I preferred the nighttime ambience of the downtown area, across the river from Gion. Similarly, the Philosopher’s Path, said to be a 10 out of 10 amazement, was pretty enough - and that’s it, nothing special.

When I was in Japan 22 years ago, I wasn't bowled over by Kyoto. But I was only here a short time on that trip. I kept reading, both in guidebooks and personal trip reports, about the value of spending as much time in Kyoto as possible, even as I had doubts (what I was reading just didn't grab me). I should have listened to my instincts.

I fully realize that my experience is a "minority report." I truly wish I could have liked Kyoto as much as everyone else does.

I did finally have one great temple experience, at Eikan-do. This one was not crowded, and you take off your shoes and walk around on raised platforms that connect the various buildings in the temple complex. Walking around, I felt the beauty and calmness that so many do at the temples. If all of them, or even half of them, had been like this, I would certainly have understood the appeal of temple visits. In fact, after this one I was reluctant to go to any others, since I wanted to quit while I was ahead, after so many non-special experiences at other places.

However, even this experience wasn't perfect. All through the visit I heard a woman squawking loudly over a speaker, sounding as if she was trying to corral a tour group or a bunch of kids. However, the voice never moved. It turns out that Eikan-do temple is right next to Eikan-do Elementary School (sign in English is how I know for sure) and it was recess; a teacher was giving various instructions to the students, singing to them, etc.

Another surprise was the Golden Temple (Kinkaku-ji). This is the Empire State Building or Eiffel Tower of Kyoto; large tour groups are nothing new here, and many find it unpleasant (and have for a long time). Going toward the end of the day, I was surprised to find the crowds here no worse than lots of other places (although, make no mistake, it's mobbed too). In addition, it was mercifully flat. And since it's covered in gold leaf, appreciating it doesn't require subtlety. It was so astoundingly beautiful that even the crowds couldn't ruin it. And as a bonus, I ran into a couple from New York, who also weren’t bowled over by Kyoto, so we could commiserate.

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End of negativity. And it's interesting the my Kyoto hotel was very nice, and was by far the largest room I had on the trip (detailed review below). So I know this wasn't a case of a bad hotel ruining a place (which I've experienced elsewhere). In fact, the hotel was definitely the highlight of my time in the city. That, and the large supermarket I ran across. It says a lot about my interests that I found supermarkets more interesting than temples, but I really did. And not just in Kyoto - I never passed up an opportunity to look at the supermarkets, and found all kinds of fascinating details, as well as great bargains (as I said above, except for fresh fruit, many supermarket prices were downright cheap).

A further food note. Do you feel that the world suffers from a shortage of places selling matcha green tea flavor soft ice cream? You won't after you visit Kyoto. I don't know if locals eat this or just tourists, but it's for sale EVERYWHERE in Kyoto. I like it, but it was a bit strange to see so much of it.

My third day in Kyoto, a Saturday, coincided with the typhoon. I was lucky in not getting the worst of it; we only had light rain and almost no wind, and if I hadn't known, I'd never even have suspected a typhoon had hit Japan. Further north, trains and flights were canceled, and some people even died and more were injured. It did mean that many indoor places in Kyoto were closed in advance for that day, so no one would have to travel in the storm. The catch was, I had done much of my outdoor sightseeing already, and had saved these indoor sights (castle, museum) for that day. One major outdoor sight I hadn't gotten to (Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine - the one with all the tori gates) was described to me as a place that would be very unpleasant in the rain (by both my hotel staff and the New Yorkers at the Golden Temple). So, I decided to go to Nara, which is about an hour from Kyoto and was the capital of Japan even before Kyoto was. I saw the famous tame deer and giant Buddha, and at least I had a change of venue. (Interestingly, I had the same issue in Rio, where I spent a rainy Sunday in Petropolis, just so I could get out of Rio).

Transit note: the Kyoto bus day pass is a good deal at 600 JPY (each bus ride is about 220 JPY, and there are no free transfers). There is a combo day ticket for the subway and bus, but the subway in Kyoto is of little use for most visitors.

From Kyoto to Osaka there are multiple trains, some run by JR (the "national company" even though it's been split up) and some by other companies (called "private lines"). I took a private line, since it left from a station closer to my Kyoto hotel, and I wasn’t using a rail pass that would have covered the JR line. It was under 500 yen for the trip.

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I was fascinated, before I went, by how this city is described as the id of Japan. It's supposed to be the dirtiest and most dangerous city in the country; given that this is Japan, it's still quite clean and safe. It's famous for its food, and I indeed had some great food at great prices. Its rebellious nature is supposed to be epitomized by the fact that in other Japanese cities you stand on the left on escalators, while in Osaka you stand on the right (boy, they really know how to rebel, don't they?). I did notice more variety in the people, both ethnically and in their clothes and hairstyles, compared to other places I went - even Tokyo.

I was there over some holiday (not sure which one), so parts of Osaka Castle were open that are normally closed. It was interesting to see, from above, the slots just over the castle entrance, where they would rain down various things on entering enemies. They're nearly invisible from below, and I would never have known to look for them if that upstairs section hadn't been open. I went to the Aquarium at its morning opening, which was smart, since it was extremely crowded later due to the holiday. I also went to the CupNoodles Museum outside the city, which was again very crowded. It was interesting to learn the history of instant ramen, and how relatively recent an invention it is.

Osaka has a Museum of Housing and Living, appropriately located in a municipal housing information center. It has one floor recreating a town during the Edo period and another showing other periods (mostly more modern ones). This was not quite what I had hoped, but was still interesting to see.

As for the food, I liked the takoyaki (octopus balls, fried right in front of you) and the okonomiyaki (sort of a filled pancake). The kushikatsu (various items breaded and fried on skewers) was a little disappointing (still good - next time I’ll be choosier in which varieties I order). But my favorite was the melonpan. This is from Portuguese, so it's melon bread. If you like sweet breads, you'll love this. I had it plain, but you can also get it filled with ice cream (usually vanilla or matcha green tea flavor).

Osaka is one of those places where just walking around is fun. The city itself is the "sight" more than formal specific sights are. I wish I had more time here and less in Kyoto, but again, these are the kinds of things you only know in hindsight.

My Osaka hotel room was small and a bit dingey, but to make up for it, the hotel had all kinds of special features, from a luggage scale by the elevator to portable Wi-Fi units for loan (so I could have high speed internet all over town, not just in the hotel). It was also right near Dotonbori (one of the main eating areas), but was a few blocks away from the noise. Detailed review below.

For my local Osaka transit, I was able to take advantage of two great deals. There is a day pass for Osaka subways, and it’s cheaper on weekends (600 yen) than weekdays (800 yen). These passes are sold at ticket machines, if you know to look for them (they are a few menus in). I used this on a Sunday. Then on Monday, I used a pass that gives admission to the aquarium plus transit, for only a bit more than aquarium admission alone. This pass is not sold at machines, but can be bought at information booths at major stations (and can be bought in advance).

I flew from Osaka to Nagasaki. Details are below, but the short version is that it’s surprisingly different from flying elsewhere these days.

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This city was the biggest positive surprise. My sister had insisted I include it on this trip, and I’m so glad she did.

People, understandably, conflate Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and since I saw Hiroshima on my last trip, many wondered why I was going to Nagasaki this time. It turns out they are very different.

Hiroshima did not have an important history prior to the 20th century. It is flat, and the bomb hit its target (a T-shaped bridge in the center), causing great physical damage (almost every structure in the city was destroyed). Tourism in Hiroshima is almost exclusively atomic bomb related.

Nagasaki, by contrast, would be a historically important city even if it hadn’t been bombed. Starting in the 1400’s, it was a center for trade with China, Portugal, Korea, and the Netherlands. Then in the 1600’s there was growing fear and resentment of the influence of Christianity; some people were crucified and foreigners were banned, and Japan was “closed to the West” for 220 years. It turns out, however, that there were several loopholes. In Nagasaki, the Chinese basically stayed and were relatively unimpeded. And the Dutch, since they were part of the Dutch East India Company and were viewed as merchants rather than proselytizers, were allowed to stay, in very small numbers, on an artificial island in Nagasaki called Dejima. So, Nagasaki was the only place during this closed period where Europeans interacted with Japanese, in study, trade, etc. Then, when the country was reopened, Nagasaki had a natural head start in foreign trade. That’s why Madame Butterfly was set there - it was one of the places where Japanese people and foreigners had the greatest interaction.

Furthermore, Nagasaki is very hilly, and the bomb missed its target. Instead of hitting the shipyards, it hit further north, ironically in a heavily Christian neighborhood, destroying (what had been) the largest Christian church in Asia. The hills blunted some of the physical damage (of course, the radiation still killed many people), and many old houses in the southern parts of town remain.

So, in Nagasaki, I spent only a few hours on “atomic bomb tourism” and the rest of the time on other aspects of its fascinating history. Dejima has been largely reconstructed, and you can go inside the various buildings and read all about how it functioned. I spent several hours there, reading everything, and was totally fascinated. I then went to Glover Park, where many old Western style houses have been moved; it’s built on a hill, and you take an elevator up and walk down. Glover’s house is itself under reconstruction, but I was able to go into the other houses, some quite palatial.

The Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture had more of the story of Nagasaki’s interactions with other cultures. It was not as well laid out as Dejima, but had information about other things besides the Dutch. It also had some beautiful mother of pearl work on boxes, cabinets, etc.

I went to the Nagasaki Prefectural Museum to see a special exhibit of photos of Audrey Hepburn (most of which I had never seen before). This is more Japanese than you might think, as she is said to still be Japan’s favorite star. I learned about this exhibit from a poster in Nagasaki, which brings up a common issue. Posters for museum exhibits often don’t have the museum listed in English (this one didn’t); you have to look at the URL on the poster to learn which museum it is! This is also a place to mention that many Japanese websites are NOT optimized for phones, which is strange since Japanese people are just as into their smartphones as everyone else in the world. The Nagasaki Prefectural Museum website was optimized for phones - but it had no English version, which most other museums did.

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I did spend a morning at the atomic bomb sights, which consist of various memorials as well as the museum. I remember Hiroshima's museum being more detailed, but this one was quite gruesome nonetheless. There was even actual footage - in color - of Fat Man (the bomb) being loaded into Bockscar (the B29 that dropped it).

I also had some interesting food. Nagasaki’s food reflects its melting pot heritage. The best was the toruku rice. This means “Turkish rice,” apparently so named because “Turkish” connotes exotic. It’s tonkatsu (breaded and fried pork) with curry sauce, rice, spaghetti with tomato and mushroom sauce, and cole slaw - all piled in separate mounds on one plate. It was actually good, and I'd get it again, if I can ever get it outside of Nagasaki. But, unlike some other regional Japanese specialities, this one doesn’t seem to be available elsewhere. I was less impressed with sara udon, which turned out to be a pretty conventional Chinese noodle dish, but more expensive (it was about 1500 or 1600 yen - an almost exact equivalent in New York’s Chinatown might be 8 or 10 USD).

Getting around Nagasaki is easy thanks to their trams. These do not accept any IC cards, but a day pass is sold at hotels and around town for 500 yen.

I did one sight that was not on the tram. There’s a ropeway (remember, in Japan that means cable car) up to the top of one of the hills. The view was impressive, although it was annoying to be constantly reminded that Nagasaki has "One of three best nighttime views in the world, along with Hong Kong and Monaco." Apparently this was the pronouncement of some body that judges such things, and this phrase was in all printed materials, on the loudspeaker in the cable car on the way up, etc. Lots of places have great nighttime views, and I'm not sure this is in the top three worldwide; the incessant repetition of the claim just got annoying.

Side note: It reminds me of the way Montreal is repeatedly called "Paris without the jet lag." Montreal is actually quite different from Paris and wonderful in its own way; it doesn't need bogus comparisons to prop it up. Calling Toronto "London without the jet lag" just sounds silly; comparing Montreal and Paris is equally silly, but somehow it persists. I know they're both French speaking, but the idea that makes them "the same" to Americans still annoys me. Similarly, Nagasaki has a great nighttime view from above; whether it's better or worse than the one in New York or Los Angeles, for instance, is beside the point.

The hotels run a free bus shuttle to the ropeway, but I didn’t want to be tied to their arrival and departure times. With the help of Google Maps, I was able to figure out the bus I needed to take from the train station area to the ropeway lower station; this bus does accept IC cards. Weirdly, you take bus 3 or 4 to get there, but bus 20 or 40 to get back. It didn’t make sense, but it did work.

Overall, Nagasaki was totally fascinating, and I highly recommend it.

I started my trip home to New York with a bus to the airport from Nagasaki’s bus station. The station is, by Japanese standards, a bit grungy. The airport bus (but not the other ones) has English signage at the gate. And I learned one last little tidbit - there’s a town in Japan called Obama, and there’s a bus to it from Nagasaki. I took a picture to prove it.

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Overall, it was a fantastic trip. In line with Rick Steves's idea that every trip would be better if you could do it twice - once as rehearsal, and then as the real thing - here are the main things I'd do differently if I had it to plan again:

1) I'd try to avoid typhoon season, or at least be aware that there is such a thing. It turns out Japan's is from May to October. While I didn’t have any problems myself, it was scary to realize I could have been in big trouble, and wasn’t even aware of the potential for this before I went.

2) I'd try to avoid visiting a country when they're hosting the World Cup. As an American and a non-sports follower, I had no idea it was in Japan this year, and that it was right during my trip. It was interesting to see the various countries and their ebb and flow. Israelis for instance, were very evident in the middle of the trip, but not later; Germans were evident later, but not earlier. At least the groups were mostly well behaved (there was one Irish group that was a little scary - "potential soccer hooligans" was definitely the vibe). But I do think they contributed to the crowds in some places (especially Hakone and Kyoto). They were very much in evidence in Osaka (I was staying in a very tourist central area), but as a large city, Osaka can absorb them they way New York or London can.

3) I'd look more closely at the weather. October is supposed to be fall; I don't know if I was misinformed or if climate change is to blame, but 80-85 degrees and 100% humidity, which I had for much of the trip, is not my idea of autumn. It was a bit cooler in Nagasaki, but my coat and liner got one and only one use on the whole trip - it was FREEZING at the top of the Nagasaki ropeway, and thank God I had warm stuff with me!

4) I'd cut out or cut short my Kyoto time. This is one of those things you can only know in hindsight. Everyone else really does love it, and maybe if I came in the winter, I'd like it more too. The pictures of the temples with snow look lovely, and it should keep the crowds down. But there's no way I'd return any other time.

5) I’d allow even more time for jet lag recovery upon my return. I flew back on a Thursday and went back to work on a Monday. I was waking up and going to sleep at crazy hours for many days; it took almost two weeks to really be back on a normal cycle, and it took almost a week before I looked normal at work. I’ve read it takes 1 day to recover from every hour of time difference. Well, at this time of year, Japan is 13 hours ahead of New York, so at least for me, the aphorism was true. I also had jet lag on going to Japan, but not nearly as bad; by day 5 or so I was fine.

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Those who are not into details may feel free to skip these parts.

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Flights were on Delta, except for the Nagasaki to Haneda segment which was on All Nippon Airways (ANA). The ticket was bought direct from Delta; all flights were on one ticket.

Flight choices were complex, because I wanted to get a better-than-coach seat at an affordable price, and because I wanted to fly back from Nagasaki instead of Tokyo and Nagasaki airport has fewer flight options. From JFK or Newark there are nonstop flights to Tokyo on All Nippon Airways (ANA) or Japan Airlines (JAL), but Delta's Premium Select (their version of Premium Economy) was far cheaper than the Premium Economy on ANA or JAL. Delta has the old Northwest Airlines routes to Asia from Detroit and Minneapolis, which only add a bit of time compared to nonstop from New York. This is because of the curvature of the earth; the shortest route from New York to Tokyo is over Alaska, so flights changing on the US west coast add significantly more time. To see what I mean, look at this map on Great Circle Mapper, showing the difference between nonstop NYC to Tokyo, NYC to Minneapolis to Tokyo, and NYC to LA to Tokyo:,+nyc-msp-tyo,+nyc-lax-tyo

Delta wanted to give me layovers as short as 47 minutes in Detroit or Minneapolis, but with only one flight a day to Tokyo from these cities, there was no way I would allow such a tight connection. I had over two hours in MSP, and that was fine. It turns out that all gates in MSP are accessible without having to go through security (I’m used to JFK and Newark, where you often have to go through security to change gates). The walk from my arrival gate to my departure gate was only 10 minutes (some gates are 20 minutes away), so I had plenty of time to get some food and relax.

On arrival in Tokyo, it took about an hour to get through the immigration lines. It was not otherwise difficult.

Haneda airport is much closer to central Tokyo than Narita airport is. It turns out, unless you’re taking a taxi or are counting every penny, it doesn’t much matter. From Haneda, I had to take a local train to another local train to get to Shinjuku station near my hotel. Total cost was 500 yen. I wasn’t keeping track of time, but Google Maps says this trip takes about 50 minutes. From Narita, I would have just taken the Narita Express (called the NEX) right from the airport to Shinjuku station; total cost would have been 3250 yen, but the travel time is only 75 minutes. It’s also much more pleasant; the local trains I took from Haneda are subway cars or similar, so I had to stand, while the NEX is quite plush with nice reserved seats.

If you are taking a taxi from the airport, however, do make sure you fly to Haneda. A taxi from Haneda to central parts of Tokyo is about 70 USD; a taxi from Narita airport is 200 USD (or more). There are lots of ways to get in from both airports, and lots of YouTube videos with all the details.

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On the way back, while Delta sold me the ticket with the ANA flight, they are not code share partners with them. So, I could not do online check in for this flight, and I could not get my boarding passes for the Delta flights until I got to the Delta counter in Tokyo Haneda. I'm not even sure what would have happened if I had missed the connection in HND - the whole process really felt like separate tickets. Since I was in Premium Select, I got to use the Sky Priority lines at JFK and HND.

At Haneda, you have to take a bus between the international and domestic terminals (they’re on opposite sides of a roadway). You need your ticket to use this bus, and the bus runs every 10-20 minutes, and takes 15-20 minutes between terminals.

My sister recently flew Premium Economy to Asia on another airline (China Southern), and the way she put it was, "it's not really good, it's just less bad than regular economy." That's probably a good way to put it. You don't get a lie flat bed, but you do get a slightly wider seat with a footrest/legrest, dedicated overhead space, a larger TV monitor, "noise canceling headphones," and a flight attendant just for your section. Furthermore, the armrest goes all the way down through the seat, so there's a hard separation between you and the seat next to you; your space is truly your own, which feels nice on such a long flight. I put noise canceling in quotes, because I didn't detect any active noise-canceling at all. The headphones are over the ear style, so they definitely blocked out noise; in fact, when I was playing my own music, I put my earbuds inside them, which worked well. But Bose has nothing to worry about from these. I only paid about $400 more than regular Economy, and about $300 more than Comfort Plus (which is a regular economy seat with more legroom and somewhat earlier boarding, but nothing else over regular economy). I do feel it was worth the extra money, but I still couldn't sleep (some day I'll have the money, or the miles, to get a lie-flat bed on a plane, and then maybe I'll sleep).

While there is also supposed to be a fancier menu on Premium Select, on the way over I had the Western Menu and it was "airplane food"; disappointing even by coach standards. (Turkish Air and SAS definitely had better food in coach than this). On the way back, I had the Japanese Menu and it was better, but still nothing special.

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As I said above, I had assumed I’d take the train from Osaka to Nagasaki. It turns out this requires changing trains, and the train is only high speed part of the way, and it would have cost about 180 USD. So, it was both cheaper and faster to fly. I read somewhere that the Shinkansen is supposed to be extended to Nagasaki in the next few years.

I flew to Nagasaki from Osaka Itami airport. Similar to Milan and Washington DC, Osaka has three de facto airports. Osaka Itami is the old one, now for domestic flights only, close to the city center. Osaka Kansai is the new one, farther away from the center, with international and some domestic flights. And Kobe airport was originally for the city of Kobe, but it’s about as far from Osaka as Kansai is, so it’s also a viable option. The budget airlines have divvied up the three airports, so it’s worth checking all three for domestic destinations. However, don’t forget to include the cost and time of travel; Itami is not only closer, but cheaper to get to than the others. For my flight to Nagasaki, JAL had the best price (8500 yen - about 80 USD), and left from Itami to boot.

Domestic tickets on JAL work the way tickets used to in the US, but have not for many years. Remember when a reservation on a flight was separate from a ticket? You made a reservation, and then had a certain amount of time to buy the ticket. Now, of course, you have to buy right away; some airlines do let you hold an itinerary without booking, but they charge for this. For this JAL flight, I made the reservation, then had to pay for it in a separate transaction. I only got an email confirmation of the reservation, not the payment. A more sour note is that the JAL phone app for domestic flights is only in Japanese, so I had to - gasp - actually print my boarding pass! Luckily, I could do this weeks ahead of the departure, while still at home. (I used the Delta app for my boarding passes for my international flights, with no problems).

The stop for the bus to the airport was about a 10 minute walk from my hotel, and the bus took only about 25 minutes to the airport. The airport has a North and South terminal, and my airport bus made a big deal about making sure my bags were in the right section. It turns out this grandeur about the two terminals is a bit misplaced - they’re connected by passageway that takes only a few minutes to traverse.

At least at Itami, the security and boarding procedures are quite different from how they are now in the US or Europe. They really put the old foot down:

You must be scanned in at the security checkpoint 15 minutes before departure.
You must be at the gate itself 10 minutes before departure.

Don’t try these times anywhere else, unless you want to miss your plane. Furthermore, the plane departed at 9:15, and the posted start of boarding was 9 AM (and indeed, that’s when they started). Sure, it was a 94 seat commuter jet, but still, it’s been a long time since I’ve boarded a plane where they didn’t start the boarding process much earlier than that - no matter how small the plane.

For JAL domestic flights, carry on rules are strict, so I had to check my “carry on bag.” The carry on size limit for this particular flight was 35 x 45x 20 cm; my carry on is about 55 x 40 x 24. But when I got on the plane, I saw the reason for the tight restrictions - the overhead compartments were tiny, and my bag really would not have fit.

Nagasaki airport is small too (only 7 gates), and it’s about 45 minutes by bus from the city center. The bus station is across from the train station; you cannot cross at street level, but must use the overhead walkways. There are elevators to these, but they’re hidden - instructions are in my Nagasaki hotel review.

EDITED TO ADD: I forgot the most unexpected difference. Since I arrived with a boarding pass, my photo ID was never checked - not once, at security, boarding, or elsewhere!

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I found hotels from guidebooks and various website reviews. In the end, I'd definitely stay at 4 of the 5 hotels again; 80% success is not bad.

Note that all the hotels, unless otherwise noted, had free Wi-Fi, hairdryers, electric kettle for hot water, various toiletry amenities (toothbrush, toothpaste, hairbrush, razor - all individually packaged), liquid hand soap, liquid body soap, shampoo, conditioner, refrigerators (not a minibar, but an empty fridge you could fill with your own stuff), pajamas or robe, and flashlight (apparently a Japanese requirement for fire safety - a great idea, and I wish flashlights were in every hotel room everywhere). They did not have closets, but merely a rack with some hangars. Several of them had a humidifier, which was the last thing I needed at that time of year, but given that it was in multiple hotels, it must be an issue in the winter. They also had Japanese toilet seats with washlets. This is a nozzle that can spray water, either in a narrow stream at your bottom (for everyone) or a wider spray (for women). The rooms had diagrams with English instructions for the washlets, thank goodness, so I didn't end up washing parts I didn't want to wash! Some of the toilet seats were heated as well. By the way, these high tech toilet seats are often found even in public bathrooms.

Almost all hotels had both smoking and non-smoking rooms, so be sure to select carefully!

I’ve read that Japanese married couples prefer twin beds to double or queen beds. I didn’t believe it until I started looking at hotels. If you want a large room with twin beds, or a smaller room with a double bed, that’s not hard to find; if you want a large room with a double bed, you may be in for a bit of a hunt. Beware that many of my rooms were billed as “single or double,” but were simply not suitable for two. They were fine for me, but I don’t mind smaller rooms (usually - see exception below).

As you'll see, I booked three of the five hotels with Agoda, which is based in Singapore, and is now under the same corporate umbrella as Kayak, Priceline, and Booking dot com. They had the best prices for some of my hotels (better even than the hotel's own website) and it worked out in the end, but not without some issues. First, after my bookings were accepted, I got an email saying my card needed verification, and I had to scan and send my passport and the front of my card to them. I called them, and confirmed this was not phishing but was a real message. So I sent the requested scans, and they still couldn't verify my card (no idea why there was a problem, and I didn't like the idea of sending copies of these things to them). For each hotel, a few days before each stay (when the free cancellation period had passed and they were about to charge my credit card), I got a message saying they were unable to confirm my payment; I re-entered the same card I had used the first time, and it went through with no problems! Weird all around. Another issue is that I had slow data from roaming with T-Mobile, and I could not pull up my reservations on either their app or their website with this slow data. So, if you use Agoda and won't have reliable fast data all the time, be sure to have your hotel information available on something besides Agoda itself.

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In Tokyo I stayed at the Tokyu Stay Shinjuku (not a typo; Tokyu Stay is a chain):

Agoda had the cheapest rate ($551.66 for 4 nights), and it was cheaper than direct through the hotel (about $600 for 4 nights), which I had initially booked but then canceled.

The hotel is in Shinjuku, about a 10 minute walk from Shinjuku Station and a 2 minute walk from the Shinjuku Sanchome subway station (served by three lines). It's on a "back street" and would have been hard to find without Google Maps. I was in room 614, which was a "comfort single." These are not only slightly larger than a "casual single," but also have a single drum washer/dryer right in the room (you even get one detergent free; more are available for purchase for a small fee). The washing and drying cycle took 3 hours and 15 minutes (not a typo), but the clothes came out very soft (not abused like from some machines). The room was well laid out, except for a lack of drawer space (I ended up putting my socks and underwear on top of the washing machine). The window didn't open. There's a trouser press in the room, and a hook on the bathroom door to hang towels. One problem was that the toilet seat actually got too hot, and there were no instructions on how to change this temperature (or just shut the heater off, as it really wasn't needed). A too-hot toilet seat only sounds funny - it really was unpleasant. Some later hotels did have English instructions for the toilet seat heater, but this one didn’t.

The hotel offers breakfast for an extra fee; I didn't try this. Overall I liked the hotel, the location, and the room, and I'd certainly stay here again.

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In Hakone I stayed at the Yumoto Station Hotel Mirahakone:

I booked through Agoda, because the hotel did not even have its own website when I planned the trip (their website went up just before I actually took the trip). The rate was $241.40 for 2 nights, single or double, which is high for what you get, but all the hotels in Hakone National Park were expensive for my dates.

The hotel is well located, and the services provided and not provided (no elevator, no check in until 4 PM) are spelled out when you book. My complaint is how tiny the room is. There's a futon, a bathroom, and a tiny amount of floor space connecting these with the door. That's it. There's some hangars in the room, but no drawers, and there are no hooks in the bathroom. The sink is comically tiny, and if you're not careful with the faucet, water splashes out from the sink onto the hair dryer (hmmm). If you have large suitcases, you have to store them outside the room; I had only carry-on luggage and just kept it near the door. The toilet was making noise all night (it seemed to be some kind of automatic disinfectant function; it wasn't water running). You can turn the toilet off, but then it won't flush. The room was too small for a fridge, but just outside it was a kitchen area with tea and coffee making facilities. Around the corner is an Italian restaurant, and you can get a discount on breakfast there, but it's expensive to start with, so I just bought breakfast at the 7-Eleven about two blocks away. The window didn't open. All rooms are nonsmoking (a novelty in Japan).

In New York, I live in a 470 square foot apartment. And when I travel, I'm used to small single rooms. I stayed in a Hub by Premier Inn in London and it was fine, and many of my Japanese hotel rooms were similar to that - small, but fine for one person (not for two, no matter how they were billed). But this room in Hakone was simply too tight, even for me! And the thought of two people trying to share the room was scary - they'd be climbing over each other to get from the bed to the bathroom, or having to leave the room while the other person got dressed. While I stayed at small single rooms in most of my other hotels, they all had larger rooms available, but for this place, there's only one size room - minuscule. They really have some nerve calling it a double room, or indeed renting it out to anybody.

So, despite the convenient location and pleasant staff, there's NO WAY I'd stay here again - particularly for what they were charging (you'll note that it was only a bit less than what I paid in Tokyo, and more than in all other places except Kyoto).

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In Kyoto I stayed at the Kyoto INN Gion the Second: (you'll see there's also a Kyoto INN Gion a few blocks away).

I booked it through Hotels dot com and paid $409.09 for 3 nights (different rates each night, with Saturday being the most expensive). In addition, there was a room tax of 200 yen per night, payable on arrival at the hotel (similar to some Italian cities, Kyoto has a separate room tax which is based on the room price).

This hotel is near the Gion area of Kyoto, near several major temples. It's about a 20 minute bus ride from the main Kyoto Station (on several routes), and you can walk to the downtown or some of the other train stations in about 10 minutes. The room was larger than my other ones (it actually had two beds, and two people could have stayed in it very comfortably) and it was bright and cheery. In addition to the standard amenities I listed above, this room had an extension cord (another thing I wish were in all hotel rooms). There was also an actual closet, rather than just a rod with some hangars like my other hotels. There was a hook on the bathroom door to hang towels. I was on the ground floor, and my window didn't open, and was frosted (so no one could see in); there was a sliding screen over the window, which made it prettier.

I'd definitely stay here again.

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In Osaka I stayed at the Nanba Dotonbori Hotel:

I booked direct through their website, and paid 191,000 yen for 2 nights (about 176 USD). By booking direct online, you get free breakfast buffet (a 1500 yen value) and free late checkout (I forget if it's an added one or two hours, since I had to leave early anyway).

This is in Dotonbori near Namba, a very busy and lively area of Osaka, and handy for restaurants and street foods. However, the hotel is on a relatively quiet block; the window opened, and I could (mostly) sleep with the window open. This hotel had all kinds of extra amenities in addition to the ones I listed above as standard in Japan. The fridge had some drinks (water, coffee, wine coolers, and juices), all free. The large lobby not only had free computers for guest use, but also a microwave, and specifically stated that you could bring outside food. From the front desk, you can borrow phone chargers, a laptop to take to your room, a bicycle, or even a pocket Wi-Fi (I took advantage of this). There are laundry rooms on the 5th and 7th floors - 200 yen for a wash and 100 yen for 30 minutes of drying, with free detergent. When you check in they give you an eye masque (I didn't try this). There is a luggage scale next to the elevator, and free massage chairs in the lobby, and...Really, this hotel was loaded!

The only negatives were that the room was a bit small (but workable), and it was very brown and so looked dingy. Some brighter paint and wallpaper would do wonders. Otherwise, it was great, particularly for the price, and I'd stay here again anytime! Note, however, this is one hotel with big twin rooms but not big double rooms. Look carefully at the pictures on the hotel website, to avoid disappointment.

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In Nagasaki I stayed at the JR Kyushu Hotel Nagasaki:

I booked this via Agoda and paid $144.08 for 2 nights.

The hotel is located on the second floor of the train station complex, attached to a mall (grocery store on the ground floor, restaurants on the 4th and 5th floors). It's also across from a casual restaurant called Royal Host, which serves the hotel’s breakfast as well as Japanese and Western lunch and dinner (they even have a club sandwich). At the hotel you can buy a breakfast coupon for 890 yen; without the coupon this would cost 980 yen. Breakfast includes self-serve tea, coffee, and sodas, and while the coupon doesn’t entitle you to all the breakfast choices, you can still choose from several Western and Japanese breakfast options.

The room was well laid out, and about the size of my Tokyo one (so, larger than Osaka, much larger than Hakone, and smaller than Kyoto). I was on the 10th floor and had a great view. The window opened, but when closed was soundproof (I heard no train noises at all). Trouser press was available to borrow (near the elevator), and there were washers and dryers on the 6th floor (200 yen for a wash, 100 yen for 30 minutes of drying, and I forget how much detergent cost). No towel hook in the bathroom, but otherwise I have no complaints. The location is also great, as it's at a major tram stop and bus stop. I'd certainly stay here again.

Note if you stay here, the hotel sign atop the building just says "JR" and then has Japanese characters, but not the English word "hotel"; at first I wasn't sure I was in the right place. The bus station used by the airport bus is across a major street from the train station and the hotel. There are elevated walkways to connect the two sides of the street (you cannot cross at ground level). On arrival I didn't find the elevators to the platform, but they do exist. When you get out of the bus station, turn left and walk along the street until you find the elevator; do not take the first set of steps you see (that was my mistake). You can then take this elevated walkway all the way to the hotel. However, access from the hotel to the trams is only via stairs - no elevator or escalator, and no way to get to the trams by street level.

Posted by
11280 posts

Whew! Writing all this down was a lot of work, but it was also a great way to re-experience a great trip.

Posted by
10937 posts

I haven't read the entire posting yet but I arrived in Japan the day you left.

Regarding the coffee in vending machines, some of it comes out hot. Yes, hot canned coffee. The choices with the red background in the machine was hot coffee. It wasn't bad. Yes, one machine that has both cold and hot drinks. Only in Japan.

I too am planning my return trip.

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836 posts

Thanks for the detailed write-up. I will be in Japan in March. Looking forward to it.

Posted by
11280 posts

Frank II: I forgot to mention about the hot coffee in the vending machines. But that's because I saw it on my prior trip, but didn't see it on this trip. I don't drink coffee so I wasn't always looking, but the times I did look, the machines only had cold coffee. So, while cold coffee is available everywhere, hot coffee from machines is much rarer (it's probably easier to go to a convenience store for that).

Posted by
2068 posts

Wow, thanks Harold for a very thorough and detailed Tr.
We would love to get to Japan someday. It’s at the top of my Asian destination list. However, we hate hot and humid weather. I wonder what time of year you would have to go to avoid it? Like you, I would have thought October to be fine.

Posted by
2501 posts

Really fantastic trip report, Japan is in my top 3 of favourite countries to visit. I went in late March, 2 years ago, when the cherry trees were just starting to blossom, and the weather was fantastic, not noticeably humid at all and not too cold/hot, I went with a t-shirt most of the time, with just a light jacket for occasional rain.

I visited Tokyo (3 nights), Kyoto (4 nights) - day trip to Nara, and Osaka (3 nights) - day trip to Himeji Castle. By far my favourite was Kyoto (wish I had more time), followed by Osaka, followed by Tokyo in last place. Kyoto reminded me a lot of our medieval capital, Toledo, back in Spain :)

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225 posts

Harold, thank you so much for your wonderful trip report. I went to Tokyo for a very short trip back in mid-September, 2002 (and the weather was perfect other than a bit of drizzle one day) and have been wanting to return ever since then. My husband and I planned a trip for a few years back that would have included Hakone National Park. We ended up not being able to make the trip.
I especially was interested in the info you gave about Hakone. Thanks again!

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671 posts

@Harold: Thank you very much for sharing this amazingly detailed and helpful report. I lived in Chiba for 11 weeks in 1994 and traveled around the country. Sorry to hear that you did not like Kyoto. Did you ever make it to Kamakura (about 45 min from Tokyo)? It is also a former (ancient) Capital, with lots of temples and tranquil blue hydrangea-lined paths. Also has a giant bronze Buddha. It was one of my favorite places. I was in Japan during a brutally hot and very humid summer, and one of the great pleasures of life - and one of my fondest memories of that summer - was, after returning from a sweaty day in Tokyo, drinking ice cold Sapporo beer from tiny glasses (it keeps colder) and watching a Yomiyuri Giants game or that summer's Sumo tournament on tv with my host family.

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7447 posts

We went to Japan in April and have enjoyed reading your detailed and helpful report. We stayed at two different hotels in Kyoto and had totally different experiences in each location.
Thanks for taking time to write this report of one of my favorite countries!
The weather was perfect when we went. I wore a jean jacket most days. Not humid which I would also have trouble dealing with.

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511 posts

Well done! I've been to Japan three times: a week between Christmas and New Years (2014) spent in Tokyo, two weeks in late April/early May (2015) in Tokyo and Kanazawa, and three weeks in November (2017) in Kyoto, Himeji, and Hiroshima. My son lived there for a year and introduced us to melon bread, so delightful!

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681 posts

Thanks for the detailed report. We will be going at the end of November and found your report very informative.

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809 posts

Thanks for this wonderful and detailed report! My daughter and I visited in January 2011 when my niece was working in Kyoto, so we spent about a week there plus several days each in Tokyo and Hiroshima. I can recommend January if you want to avoid crowds and heat- it even snowed during our Kyoto time. What amazed me was how beautiful the gardens were even in the middle of winter.

It’s a country I’d love to get back to, and you’ve given me some great ideas of other spots to visit. Thanks for taking the time to write so many details!

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3279 posts

Thanks for your very interesting report. It evoked memories of our 1987 visit. It sounds as if much has changed, but not everything. On formality: department stores had white-gloved elevator operators. After really full service at a gas station - - windows washed, oil checked, air pressure in tires measured, everyone lined up and bowed as we drove off. Plastic: Atms existed, but were open only during business hours. Cc’s were pretty much useless except in the big department stores. Vending machines: They even sold bottles of whiskey. People would send their kids down to the machine on the corner to get some. I asked if that created the possibility for under-age drinking, people just answered that that would be law breaking, so no problem.