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Japan during cherry blossom season 2023

I was very lucky to have the opportunity to visit Japan, one of my favorite countries for travel.
I am not good at writing travelogues, and therefore I will write in bullet points about certain significant aspects of my trip.

Travel planning and season
First and foremost, if you are considering traveling to Japan, go to japan-guide.com. This is the ultimate website to use. It's super helpful and even includes sample itineraries.

Japan offers four distinct seasons. The best are Spring and Fall, respectively, for cherry blossoms and foliage. This is also the time when crowds and lines exist. But don't be intimidated, because domestic tourists are polite and disciplined. People always line up neatly, even to take photos at vista points. Winter is also ok for skiing and the famous snow festivals in Hokkaido. In fact, some of the world's best ski resorts are in Japan. Summer is to be avoided, because it's very hot and humid, unless you are visiting the Okinawa islands in the south for their world-class beaches with turquoise water and white sand. Do note, however, that typhoons hit those islands from time to time in the summer and early fall months. Make sure your air tickets and hotels offer refunds.

Transportation
There is not much for me to add: Japan's public transit is excellent and second to none. Their trains are more punctual than their Swiss counterparts. However, note several things:

  1. In major cities, there are often the subway, commuter trains, and long-distance trains. Not all trains are operated by the same company and your JR Rail Pass only covers trains operated by JR (which used to be owned by the government) and perhaps local transit. Some rail lines are operated by private companies, and these lines are not covered by the rail pass.

  2. In Tokyo, some subway/train stations are massive. Be sure to use Google Maps to figure out the best exit to use to minimize walking to your ultimate destination.

  3. Beside the well-known JR Rail Pass, there are air passes offered by Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airlines. These are discounted airlines for non-Japanese visitors. One big benefit of these air tickets is that you are allowed two pieces of check-in bags--if you don't purchase this special ticket, then you will have to pay for check-in bags separately.

https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2364.html

  1. There are some parts of Japan that are best toured with a rental car. I hired one to traverse Northern Kyushu and stayed at remote onsen ryokans for stunning scenery and unforgettable meals.

Safety
Japan is perfectly safe. I never had to worry about pickpockets or thefts. In a crowded cafe, I left my cell phone on the table and went to the restroom for 5 min. It was still there when I returned.
Absolutely no need to bring anti-theft purses.

Language
Though most locals have limited English capability, signs are usually bilingual. The most challenging part, is to make restaurant reservations. As in Europe, eating at highly-rated restaurants requires advance reservations. I took two years of Japanese and therefore could make bookings over the phone. However, many places offer online booking too (check Google Maps).

Cash and credit cards
Japan trails the US in the adoption of credit cards and phone payments. Cash is still preferred, particularly with small vendors, though VISA and Mastercards are often accepted too. I did not bring my AMEX or Discover with me.

Not all ATMs accept foreign bank cards, but those in 7-11s do. This was where I pulled out cash. A small fee was charged, but the convenience of finding 7-11s everywhere more than made up for this charge.

Restrooms
Most restrooms are very clean. In fact, some are cleaner than hospitals in the US. Many convenience stores offer restrooms to customers. I did use the WC at one 7-11 without buying anything but wasn't given any dirty looks. At stations and in public parks, the WCs are free.

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1588 posts

To continue:

Shopping
Japan is a shopper's paradise. I particularly enjoy buying cookware and utensils in the Kappabashi district in Tokyo. I brought back plenty of Made in Japan home goods and saw a lot of foreign tourists buying cooking knives and bakeware. I recall one store that sells more than 200 types of cookie cutters and another that offers every gear imaginable for coffee brewing.

Their department stores put ours to shame. The display and customer service are top-notch. Clothing and shoe sizing could be an issue, as Japanese folks are slimmer and shorter than the average yankee. I wear size 12 and bought my clothes either in XL or at the oversize department.

Other shopping items not to be missed: specialty coffee beans, local teas, sweets (both Japanese and French ones), dried seaweed (if you cook Japanese at home), well-designed bags of all sorts, umbrellas, home decor items, ...etc. Do check out Tokyu Hands (a high end hardware store), Muji, major department stores, or any locally-owned independent stores.

Coffee, tea, and sweets
The standard of pastries and sweets in Japan has surpassed that in France. Prices are also unbelievably reasonable compared to the US. This country is also home to many international barista champions and world's top cafes. The only catch is that fancy cafes and patisseries often have lines out the door.

Laundry
It's quite amazing that self-service laundry is offered by a great number of mid-range and budget hotels. At some chains, such as Tokyu Stay, the rooms are equipped with an in-room washer/dryer. At high end hotels, laundry service is offered. Laundromats exist, but they are rare.

General price levels
After their economic bubble burst two decades ago, Japan's general cost of living has decreased. Ditto for hotel prices (unless you choose the ultra high end hotels, of which there is no lack). I find Tokyo to be more affordable than San Francisco, NYC, and Zurich. Smaller cities offer even greater value. Don't be afraid of staying at 3-star hotels, which may be small in size but are perfectly clean and safe.

The Japanese People
Its people are the country's strongest asset. Japanese are not only polite, but are organized and extremely patient. They may look stoic (kinda like Swiss), but are super approachable and friendly if you ask them for help. To my mind, they are the most civilized nation in the world.

I highly recommend Japan for your next trip.

Posted by
1534 posts

Thank you for your report.
272 days until my flight to Tokyo for my first trip to Japan. Japan-guide.com is one tab over from my RS forum tab.

Do you care to share your impressions of the cities you visited?

I would also be interested to hear your approach to learning the language. I generally try to learn a bit of language prior to a trip. I am comfortable saying the courtesy phrases and it helps me to read signs and menus. I started learning courtesy phrases in Japanese, thinking that reading wasn't going to happen. But, I have surprised myself by already learning Hiragana and 1/2 of Katakana. We'll see if Kanji will interest me or not. I am using Duolingo and Japanese Pod 101 to learn the alphabets. I am also using several different YouTube channels to learn phrases and vocabulary. I also like Yuta (that Japanese guy). But grammar and sentence structure seems pretty daunting, not following the same type of rules of English or European languages.

Could Japanese people understand you pretty well? My dream is to go to a small family owned "shop" a few streets away from the tourist path, read the menu off of the paper strips hanging on the walls, get what I expected, enjoy the food, communicate in Japanese, leave happy and leave a happy shop owner/worker.

Posted by
3359 posts

Thank you so much! Japan is at the TOP of our travel list! In fact, I already have my itinerary planned!
Any special places you stayed or would recommend? What was your itinerary?

Posted by
1588 posts

Glad to be of help.

Language:
I used Google Translate on my phone to communicate when my Japanese failed. It proved to be pretty useful! Most Japanese people understood me because I was somewhat conversant.
For ordering at restaurants, I highly recommend you make a list of dishes that you typically like and have them translated to Japanese. Many hidden gems do not offer English menus. For example, at a neighborhood yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) shop in Kyoto, I ordered from my list and had no issues.

Itinerary:
I started in Kyoto (7 nights, including 2 days to recover from the flight), then took the bullet train to Fukuoka (2 nights--way too short--I love Fukuoka), rented a car at Hita (about 1 hour by bus from Fukuoka), and drove to three different onsen (hotspring) ryokans in Northern central Kyushu. I almost could write an entire trip report on my heavenly onsen ryokan stays. I ended my Kyushu stay with a visit to the Sanrio (Hello Kitty) Harmonyland theme park before flying to Tokyo. I then stayed in Tokyo for 10 days, which was still too short.

In Tokyo, I stayed near Shibuya station, at Tokyu Stay Shibuya Shin-minamiguchi Hotel. Very convenient for my spouse, whose Tokyo office was just five minutes on foot away. He worked at that office for two days.

Shibuya Crossing is a must-see in Tokyo, but go there at night when the neon signs are on. Also, Shibuya Sky is an excellent observatory on a skyscraper. It's indoor/outdoor and therefore you should visit on a day when the weather is clear (online reservation found in Google Maps). Go for the sunset and stay till it gets dark. I couldn't get a reservation for sunset but two hours before it closed. It was awesome to be able to see the Tokyo skyline and the stars.

I love all the places I visited. However, bear in mind that Tokyo is a huge city. Much more spread out than NYC or London. Therefore, do allow plenty of time to traverse this wonderful metropolis.
Kyoto and Fukuoka are far more manageable on foot, though sometimes buses and taxis were necessary.

Posted by
1588 posts

Luggage Delivery Service
One of the best parts of traveling in Japan is their reliable and reasonably priced luggage delivery service. Usually, it takes about 1 day to most metropolitan areas and 2 days for delivery to airports. Your hotel can arrange it for you and the cost even includes free storage for up to 7 days.

Posted by
783 posts

I’ve only been to Tokyo and Nikko, and would love to see Kyoto and other sights. Thanks for the great report.

Posted by
4000 posts

So excited to read your report. Japan has been on my list and it is getting closer to the top - April 2025 is the projected time Frame. We will be there for 3 weeks and want to spend at least 10 days in tokyo if not more. I’m bookmarking your report for when I start my serious planning in January.

Posted by
1588 posts

Please feel free to ask me any questions. I am going to Japan again this November to watch foliage and again (!) in February to attend the Sapporo Snow Festival.

Posted by
3903 posts

I'm looking at a trip with 16 nights in Japan in May. Thanks for posting this. I also am bookmarking. Would you be willing to share more about your experience of "three different onsen (hotspring) ryokans in Northern central Kyushu"?

Posted by
1588 posts

The three onsen ryokans that I stayed at--none of them can be reached by public transit. I rented a car from Toyota in Hita City and it was the smoothest car rental experience ever.

Note that Toyota does not charge one-way return fees if the return location is in the same prefecture as the check-out location. The process was transparent--I had walk-throughs with a staff member during check-out and check-in. No tricks or games played. They are used to foreign tourists.

Kikuchi Valley Hot Springs Iwakura
Location: right next to an emerald river. This amazing green color comes from the special mineral contents of the water. This special green really resembles the gem stone's color. The staff speaks some English and they seem to be familiar with foreign tourists. I booked the Kura room (standalone building), which offers western beds and a sitting area with tatami mats. The best part was the in-room outdoor shower and onsen bath. I could almost touch the river. Our meals were served in a private room. Impeccable service even before check-in: I received an email a few days prior to arrival about what I am allergic to and what I dislike for the two wonderful meals. Non-smoking.
https://iwakura0026.com
This was my first heavenly experience, and the cost was more than reasonable.

Fuji-no-ya Onsen Ryokan near Kurokawa onsen (but not within walking distance)
This is a brand-new, couples-only ryokan with only 5 rooms. I was the only group that night and was treated like God. The staff does not speak English but we communicated without any issues with Google Translate. Words cannot describe my room and the ambiance--the interior design is "Wa Modern"--Japanese modern--or Japandi (Japnese-Scandinavian). I particularly like the veranda with the outdoor cedar onsen tub, along a roaring stream. Another special mention is the private-use infinity onsen (not in the room, but can be reserved) next to a small rapids and the forest. The night illuminations made it magical and ultra romantic. Meals were served in the dining area (not private), but the tables were far apart from each other. Non-smoking.
https://fuji-noya.com/

Ryokan Sumire in Yufuin Onsen Town
I like this ryokan, but will not recommend it to those who cannot read and write Japanese. It's run by a small family and they only entertain non-smokers. In fact, for them to confirm my booking, I had to pass a quiz in Japanese to test if I ever smoked. The service was attentive and I had my private villa with an attached onsen. However, I think it's a bit too challenging to book this ryokan without language skills.

Yufuin onsen town is very famous for its charming downtown street--it's kindaakin to a Swiss ski town but with Japanese flair. I will visit again but stay at a different ryokan.

Ask me any questions! Glad to help!

Posted by
3903 posts

Hey. I never thanked your for the very comprehensive response. My bad! I read it shortly after you wrote and looked at it again today for reference... realizing I did not respond. Thanks again for your answer to my question!

Posted by
840 posts

Thanks for that overview. I am off of Japan first time next week for 21 days.
I am much impressed by the Japan Guide.
I am highly impressed but the courtesy noted in the section on public spaces.
The things you might usually think are part and parcel in general of being considerate seem to be a big part of Japan life. These are things that I am certain tourists to Europe are mostly oblivious to.
Standing in walkways with luggage (or not) blocking traffic flow. Not wearing your back pack onto trains so you don’t turn and knock people. These things I see all the time in traveling Europe. And in airports.
Seems so simple to be aware of such things when we travel. I am. But it also seems to be a completely unobserved by a majority of tourists. I am thinking specifically about the use of roller bags with people walking two or three abreast through airports or streets spread across the entire width, them and their rollers. Or clustered with all those bags smack in the middle of the walkway.
So. I will enjoy Japan simply on those requisite acts of courtesy.
All else will be enhanced.

Posted by
3903 posts

I hope you will permit another question about the onsen part of your trip... how long did you stay in each ryokan?

Posted by
1588 posts

@Dave: happy to help.

I stayed at each ryokan for 1 night. I checked in at the earliest time and then did not leave the ryokan. The ryokan itself was the destination. I was also traversing inner, north Kyushu by car. Since I had only five nights, I couldn't stay for more than 1 night at each lodging option.