Please sign in to post.

Trip report: Japan in Feb 2024

There aren't many "Beyond Europe" trip reports on here for obvious reasons, but since the Japan thread is going on strong at the moment, I thought I would post a report of the 2-week trip to Japan my partner and I (early 30s) just went on in late Feb.

In a nutshell: it was AMAZING. Even though I had been to Japan before (twice, actually), it exceeded my expectations, and my partner (for whom Japan, and even Asia as a whole, was a first) was equally blown away.

Route
Day 1 : fly Paris - Osaka, head to Kyoto
Nights 1-4 : Kyoto, with a side trip to Nara
Nights 5-7 : Kusatsu Onsen in the mountains north of Tokyo, where friends who live in Tokyo joined us for 2 nights
Nights 8-10 : Tokyo (at our friends)
Nights 11-12 : Ryokan stay in Hakone
Night 13: Tokyo at our friends again
Night 14: flight back to Paris at 1 AM

Report

Weather, travel conditions, logistics, etc.
February weather was a concern of mine, but it was no worse than at home. Slightly better, in fact. Spring-like (but often rainy) in Kyoto, wintry blue skies in Tokyo, snow (barely below freezing) in the mountains north of Tokyo. Crowds were not an issue at all, and the plum trees were in full bloom. This was overall a much better experience than my previous trip in mid-August 2013...

Costs were pleasantly low thanks to the incredible exchange rate. Great coffee for 500 yen / $3.50, lunches for 1500-2000 yen / max $15, very nice dinners for $30/head and the max we spent was $60/head at a fancy restaurant booked for my birthday. This is overall 30-40% less than what I would spend in Paris.

The whole trip was planned exactly 2 months before departure: later than I like, but not a problem at that time of the year. We booked train tickets in advance to get to Kusatsu Onsen due to a holiday weekend (sales open 1 month ahead in Japan), as well as our hotels, 2 restaurants in Kyoto, and Teamlab Borderless in Tokyo. I tried unsuccessfully for the Ghibli Museum tickets.
Local travel was a breeze with stored-value cards (ICOCA) that we got from vending machines at Osaka-Kansai airport. Cash only for purchase and top-up, though.

We stayed connected thanks to Airalo eSims. Very cheap ($9 each for the trip!), very reliable, absolutely necessary for Google Translate and Google Maps. Although, regarding Google Translate, we needed it less than I thought. Many places had English menus, and many people we interacted with in stores, restaurants etc. had some basic grasp of English. Still, the ability to take a picture of something and get it translated immediately is a godsend.

Posted by
7067 posts

KYOTO
This was my 3rd time in Kyoto, and it did not disappoint. We stayed at Rinn Gion Hanatouro, great value at 70000 yen / $500 for 4 nights right in the heart of Gion district, for a sizeable room with a balcony overlooking a small temple and a pretty cypress tub. We spent 3.5 days, with the following breakdown of activities. it went perfectly smoothly.

Day 1 (arrival at 2 PM):
Getting out of Kansai airport was a breeze. I had pre-booked discounted Haruka train tickets to get to Kyoto, but picking them up involved a 30-min line at the ticket machines, so I am not sure it was worth the $20 saving.

We refreshed at the hotel (early check-in) and ventured out for a quick lunch, then towards Kodai-ji, lovely and uncrowded with a cute bamboo forest and a teahouse where we had tea and a sweet, and Kiyomizu-dera, where we caught the golden hour. The street leading up to Kiyomizu-dera was very crowded.
On our way down, we still had some energy somehow, so we hopped on a taxi to the Nintendo Store in downtown Kyoto, and went to Kaiten Sushi Ginza Onodera: a fancy conveyor-belt sushi place, offshoot of an upscale Tokyo restaurant, which had some great value sushi and was definitely worth the 30-min wait.

Day 2: We took the train (Hankyu) to Arashiyama, then a taxi to the far north end of that area at Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, a quirky temple with hundreds of carved figures. We then walked south towards Tenryu-ji, hitting various temples along the way (Jojakko-ji was a highlight), having lunch, and crossing the crowded bamboo forest. We then decided to go to the Monkey park across the river. Steep climb, but cute monkeys at the top. They roam free, you can feed them.
Took the train (Randen) back to Nishiki market, walked across grabbing a few bites, then we shopped for 1-2 hours before dinner (reserved) at Onikai, a delicious izakaya.

Day 3: After a delicious (but expensive) strawberry pancake breakfast at Kacto, we headed for the famed Fushimi Inari shrine. We arrived at about 9.30 AM; the bottom was crowded but not overly so, and crowds thinned as we walked up. We had not planned to do so, but the walk up felt so mystical in the misty, cloudy weather that we went all the way to the top. Highly recommended. The way down was rainy, but it's all paved and stairs, so not too bad.

We grabbed a few snacks (including takoyaki) at the stalls at the bottom, then made our way to Nara at about 12/12.30.
After more food, we ventured into the park, feeding the deer along the way to the Kasuga shrine. Impressive shrine, especially the dark room with lanterns.

The next stop was Todai temple with the giant Buddha, but a navigational error first led us to the February hall, and being nearly alone in that impressive part of the temple complex with a view all over Nara was quite the feeling.
The main hall with the Buddhas was crowded with school groups, but still impressive.
We headed back to Kyoto at about 17.30 and had dinner at an omakase sushi restaurant called Sushi Taka; very good but it did cost about $60-70/head and I am sure there are better options in town.

Day 4: The weather was very rainy that day, and we were getting tired. The monthly flea market at Toji temple was on, so we headed there 1st thing in the morning. It was huge, with lots of artisan wares and vintage stuff, and we did pick up a few gifts for ourselves and our friends back home. After a quick lunch back towards our hotel, we headed towards Nijo castle, but sheltered in a lovely café on the way due to the pouring rain. It cleared up, and we were able to tour the beautiful grounds of this former residence, with a stunning plum tree grove.

Rain resumed, and we had seen ads for an intriguing textile art exhibit at the Kyoto museum of modern art, so we went there afterwards (short hop on the metro), and it was quite interesting.
Dinner was at TAN (booked in advance for my birthday) which had a delightful array of small plates. All were great.

Posted by
7067 posts

KUSATSU ONSEN
This is where we went slightly off the beaten path, and it was really great. The town was buzzing with Japanese tourists thanks to a holiday weekend, which created a fun atmosphere (and lines at restaurants, but we never starved). The town is quite the sight, with a massive sulfur-smelling hot spring (too hot for bathing) right in the central square, and a river of hot water flowing through a forest to the west. 3 nights is longer than needed, but it made for a nice break after intensive sightseeing days in Kyoto.

Travel from Kyoto was long due to a delayed train (yup, even in Japan), but the place is quite easy to reach to/from Tokyo: direct express train from Ueno (2:50) followed by 30-45 min bus ride timed with the trains.

We stayed at a lovely inn, Hanaingen, with 4 indoor baths that we could privatize at will, a good breakfast, very decent rooms, and staff with enough English for basic hotel situations.
Then, we explored the baths scattered all around town: a large outdoor facility (Sainokawara), magical with the snow all around and falling on us too, a large indoor+outdoor place (Otaki-no-yu) with a very interesting variety of bathing options, and a simpler indoor bath (Goza-no-yu) with beautiful architecture. There were other smaller baths we did not try.
When we were not soaking, there were plenty of nice little stores to explore.

Posted by
68 posts

Hi Balso,

Very descriptive and informative TR of your lovely trip to Japan. Waiting patiently for the next installment...

Kampai,
Moomin

Posted by
3993 posts

Thanks for the interesting trip report, looking forward to the next parts! I'd say Japan is in the top three countries I visited. I'm dying to get back and hoping to in Autumn of this year.

I know it was a relatively short trip but did you ever spend more time in Osaka? It's my favorite Japanese city.

Posted by
9859 posts

Balso, thank you for this informative and interesting trip report ! You make this sound really appealing (and doable). I've bookmarked it, and you haven’t even finished writing it yet!

Thanks again. It sounds like an absolutely wonderful, special trip.

May I ask, did you fly AirFrance or Nippon Airlines (or something totally different), and do you have any thoughts on that ?

And also, did you do research online and/or with any guidebooks ?

And p.s. happy late birthday. What a lovely way to celebrate !

Posted by
7067 posts

Kim, I flew Air France, they're the only airline to fly direct to Osaka from Paris. It was perfectly fine despite the use of the older airplanes in the fleet.

For research, I used a mix of guidebooks (I was gifted a French "Evasion" guidebook which was really good), Japan Guide (a great online resource), Google Maps and Tabelog (Japanese OpenTable). My previous experience on Kyoto and Tokyo helped.

Carlos, I did not care for Osaka at all in my Aug 2013 visit so I decided not to go this time. Only used the airport!

Posted by
7067 posts

TOKYO
In Tokyo, we were staying with friends near Shibuya, a great area!
Our Tokyo days were more loosely planned and the city lends itself to serendipitous exploration, so I will not do a day-by-day report.

We enjoyed:

  • Exploring Kappabashi (the kitchenware street) was a lot of fun and we did buy some cool utensils and knives. We popped into nearby Asakusa afterwards, and saw Senso-ji (impressive but not in the same league as Kyoto / Nara temples).
  • Akihabara, not only for the video game stores, but also for the Aki-oka craft market under the tracks, a nice surprise!
  • The concept / designer stores around Cat Street in Shibuya/ Omotesando
  • Nezu Museum, a beautiful haven in the city with an excellent cafe
  • the bookstore at Daikanyama T-site. I would not have thought a bookstore in a foreign country whose language I do not read could be so interesting.
  • Teamlab Borderless. I was skeptical at the concept which felt a bit too "made for Instagram", but seeing the exhibit in person had a real 'wow' effect
  • Itoya stationery in Ginza

We liked less:

  • Harajuku / Takesh.ta street. It was fun when I visited 10 years ago but fashion moves on, and the area felt like a tourist trap
  • Ginza overall; the stores are so large that they become overwhelming
  • Rush hour on the metro. Not much worse than Paris, and not a surprise, but still.
Posted by
9859 posts

Thanks for the answers. I will check out the Evasion guide, thanks.

This sounds really intriguing !!

the bookstore at Daikanyama T-site. I would not have thought a bookstore in a foreign country whose language I do not read could be so interesting.

Posted by
7067 posts

Last but not least...
HAKONE
In terms of route, Hakone would have made more sense between Kyoto and Tokyo, but we decided to take a break in our Tokyo stay instead. It's only 2 hours away.

Getting there was a bit of an adventure as our reserved express "Romancecar" was cancelled and we had to take commuter trains all the way instead. But we were greeted with lovely Fuji views so all was not lost, and the trip was not much slower in the end.

We stayed at a fancy hot spring Ryokan at the edge of a bamboo forest, Yama no Chaya ("Mountain teahouse"). At 100,000 yen/ night, this was a splurge, by far the most money I ever spend on a room anywhere. But it was truly a luxury experience, with personalized treatment from the second we crossed the river and walked towards the inn entrance, delicious multicourse kaiseki meals (included) and breakfasts, a private onsen on the terrace and many baths scattered throughout the property... The kind of place that ruins any other hotel stay.

Hakone itself is a beautiful region near Mount Fuji. The traditional excursion is a "round course" with a lake cruise, ropeway, funicular and scenic railway ride, but we did not do the whole thing. We focused on the ropeway to the fumaroles at Owakudani, where we had some good Mt Fuji views. We also visited the stunning Open Air Museum, a world class sculpture garden with some breathtaking pieces.

Two nights was a good amount of time.

Posted by
7011 posts

balso, this is wonderful! Thank you so much! Like Kim, I have bookmarked it for further research, plus I want to go back and look through it in more detail.

Posted by
4628 posts

Ditto on the wonderful trip report. I have to go soon, to take advantage of the favorable exchange rate, although on my last visit (1983) there were about 265 yen to the $ (but I was a poor student). Maybe pair Japan with Cambodia, for a nice 4 week mix.

Posted by
14247 posts

What a wonderful time you had! HB from me as well! I loved reading about all your outdoor activities and while I am not a luxe traveler your special hotel sounds awesome!

Thank you so much for taking the time to write it up and post!

Posted by
7067 posts

while I am not a luxe traveler your special hotel sounds awesome!

Neither am I, usually! It really was a special treat, and it (sort of) evened out with free accommodation in Tokyo.
Similar high-end ryokan experiences can be had for a bit less in other parts of the country further from Tokyo.

Posted by
3355 posts

Balso, thank you so much for this! We can hardly wait for our first trip to Japan (and South Korea, China), in fall of 2025!

Posted by
356 posts

Bookmarking!! I have intentions (not started planning) for a trip to Japan in 2025 (or 26).

Thank you!

Posted by
4329 posts

I loved reading this. I lived in Japan for 8 years in the late 70’s/early 80’s (further north) and have no idea how to be a tourist there. I plan to be back for several weeks next spring to both be a tourist and visit friends - and your report is helping me organize my brain.

Posted by
2488 posts

balso, thank you so so much for this great report! Bookmarked! Happy belated birthday.

We just got back from London and my husband, who is not a big-city person, has asked if we could please spread out the big cities a bit more, which makes Tokyo off the table for next year (but maybe 2026). But your report is filled with lots of non-Tokyo stuff, so now my mind is whirling again. What don't you like about Osaka? I know it's subjective, but I could probably cut it out of my itiniary if I'm trying to limit 'big cities.'

Posted by
3993 posts

What don't you like about Osaka? I know it's subjective, but I could probably cut it out of my itiniary if I'm trying to limit 'big cities.'

I know balso will probably give a good answer to why it's not their favorite, but for me at least I like Osaka because of the people, I found them a lot warmer and welcoming than in Tokyo or even Kyoto. In fact the people from Osaka are known for this more laid back personality throughout Japan.

I also found the city of Osaka itself to be a more manageable, livable, and less overwhelming version of Tokyo. Tokyo's actually my least favorite city of Japan. It also helped that I had a good friend from Osaka who showed me the city beyond the touristy areas. Also Himeji Castle makes for a great day trip from Osaka!

Posted by
2488 posts

Thanks, Carlos. Takoyaki helps make Osaka tempting too.

Posted by
3993 posts

Yes takoyaki is excellent in Osaka! That's where it originated from. Also conveyor belt sushi came from Osaka too, and is a not to miss experience, there is a good one at Osaka Station.

Posted by
7067 posts

I only ever visited Osaka as a day trip from Kyoto in the sweltering summer, so those weren't the best conditions
But basically, I found the city to have unattractive architecture, Dotonbori felt tacky, Osaka castle felt too obviously reconstructed, and some other areas we explored with my friends back then felt quite run-down, especially compared to Tokyo where everything seems comparably pristine, or at least well-tended.
I am sure that if I dig deeper, spend the night, etc., I will find more, but with these first impressions, there are many other regions of Japan that I want to explore (especially Kyushu) before I give Osaka a second chance.

I've had good takoyaki elsewhere in Kansai...and there's a very decent takoyaki joint down my street in Paris too!

In general I don't love spending my holidays in big cities (as I already live in one), but I absolutely love Tokyo, in comparison.

Posted by
782 posts

Thank you, Balso, for this report. I’ve only been to Tokyo, and would love to visit Hakone and Kyoto. Two nights in Hakone sounds ideal.

Posted by
2488 posts

I'm also thinking a couple of nights in Hakone sounds ideal.