Seeing a couple of questions about Japan in the Beyond Europe forum the past few days reminded me that I intended to write a report on our November trip to Japan, but the holidays got in the way. Now I have time, and I want to write about the trip, both to relive the highlights and to encourage others to visit. It is a wonderful place to see and experience.
My husband and I are avid hikers, and we like to “travel to hike.” Our trips to Europe are usually a mix of independent travel and some guided hiking with one of two companies we like, MT Sobek or REI Adventures. For this trip we liked the MT Sobek trip timing and itinerary. The 10-day trip started in Kyoto and ended in Tokyo, with five days between for visiting mountain areas and walking the famed Nakasendo Trail that originally linked Kyoto and Tokyo. The start date was November 10, at the beginning of the autumn color season, and we added four days on the front end to fly over and spend some time on our own in Kyoto, where I had been with my son 20 years ago.
Flights from Seattle go directly to Tokyo’s Narita airport, landing in late afternoon. I decided we would spend the night in Tokyo and take the train to Kyoto the following day, rather than change planes and continue to Osaka, the closest airport to Kyoto. I booked a “splurge” hotel (The Strings) near the Shinagawa train station in Tokyo, which we could easily reach by the Narita Express train from the airport, and from which we could take the Shinkansen “bullet” train to Kyoto the following day.
A word about train travel in Japan, and logistics in general. I wrongly assumed we should purchase our tickets online in advance as we do for European train travel, but it turns out there is no price benefit, and it is quite difficult to do. So my plan was to buy them in the airport station when we bought our Narita Express tickets. Wrong again. The agent for the Narita Express sold only those tix, and advised we would be better off buying the Shinkansen tix at Shinagawa station. So we tried that, standing in two different lines only to be told they just sell same-day tickets at those windows. We were directed to another area “outside” but at this point, after the 9-hour flight from Seattle, the hour train ride in from the airport, and two unsuccessful queues, I gave up. Ever the inveterate “advance planner”, I totally surprised my husband by suggesting we just show up at the station the next morning and buy our tickets when we were ready to go, as all the Japanese seemed to be doing. This turned out really well—-we were free to choose our own schedule in the morning (taking a 2-hour walk around the university area) and then mosey over to the station to buy tickets when we were ready to go. No stress about getting to the station in time for our train.
You have probably heard that the Tokyo trains stations are huge and terribly crowded. Huge yes, but only crowded at commute hours. And very well-signed, with signs in both English and Japanese. It was much easier to navigate than I expected. And very well-organized, right down to lines on the platform indicating where one should queue for the car and particular seat numbers.
More logistics——most bank ATM’s in Japan will not accept North American debit cards, but you can count on finding a friendly ATM machine at a 7-11 convenience store, and these are all over. (They also sell tasty caramel custard in little plastic cups if you are craving something sweet.). You do not need much cash in the city, but in smaller areas there are shops and restaurants that are cash only, so be prepared. You can also pay for food and drinks in convenience stores and train stations with a prepaid SUICA card that you need for the subway and local trains. But you’ll need cash to buy that card from the machines. You can get a refund (in cash) for any amount left on the card, plus the 500 yen deposit, at a Tokyo train station before you leave.