Thursday, 13 April 2017

Itinerary for a first visit to Japan - extra Japan post number five

As mentioned in my initial post in this series, I did a lot of research before our trip to plan out the itinerary. This was our first and possibly only visit to Japan and it is a long way to go from the UK (flights c 11.5 hours) so I wanted to do as much as possible.  My starting point was reviewing the locations visited by a number of commercial tours and also specialist quilting tours, then reading through three guidebooks: Lonely Planet, the Japan by Rail guide, and the DK Eyewitness Guide to Japan. After that I did a lot of online research as there are tons of sites out there about Japan, and blogs and YouTube videos on everything from fabric shopping in Tokyo to the etiquette for using a Japanese onsen (communal hot baths).

One of the challenges as a first-timer is figuring out where things are within a city to try to put together a logical progression for visits. Guides tend to name the top sights and perhaps group them by neighbourhoods, but don't give you much clue on how to get from one to another, or how long you will need to visit them. Not to mention crucial factors such as many museums being closed on a Monday or what time the fabric shop closes.

My eventual itinerary was based on our middle aged preference to spend a bit more money on comfort, my wish to visit craft related stores, our mutual interest in heritage and period buildings, my liking for Japanese gardens, and my attempt to see a bit more of Japan than just Tokyo and Kyoto.

We took three weeks off work in total, and had the weekends before and after the trip to prepare/recover, so we were away for 18 days in total.  After framing out my initial itinerary, I decided to use InsideJapan to make hotel bookings, book the JapanRail passes and IC cards for local transport, airport transfers by bus, and to book the bus travel from Kanazawa and our Geisha Dance tickets. I probably could have done most of this myself online but it would have taken a long time and I don't speak Japanese, and I might not have got as good rates on accommodation. The agent suggested a few tweaks to my itinerary order. I booked my own flights online with British Airways, flying direct in and out of Narita airport (for Tokyo). I also booked online a guide for our first full day in Tokyo because I expected to be jet lagged and needing help to get the hang of transport options etc. I booked a pocket Wifi online through PuPuRu which was delivered to our first hotel and worked brilliantly throughout our holiday so that I could always get online with my tablet to look things up, skype, email and find out where we were on GoogleMaps if we got lost. Since we would be arriving back in the UK in the wee hours by Japan time, I booked a Heathrow hotel for the first night back so that we could get some sleep before driving home.  We left the car at Heathrow while we were gone because the cost was similar to what it would have been for us to travel by train and it meant we didn't have to fight our way across London in either direction.

We travelled in late October/early November. The first day in Tokyo it was 23 degrees C and felt quite hot.  Hakone was cooler and in Kyoto we were wearing light fleeces in the morning and evening. By the end in Takayama, it was quite cold, down to single digits, and it actually snowed lightly on the day we headed back to Tokyo. So we had to pack a range of layers, and took sunhats as well as woolly hats.

Day 1/2 (Monday/Tuesday) - fly from Heathrow to Narita, arriving the next morning. Transfer to hotel in Shinjuku (we stayed at the Sunroute Plaza which we liked), check in c 2pm.  Headed out to explore Shinjuku - there is a Tokyu Hands store on the other side of Shinjuku station, a Kinokuniya  bookstore in the same building, the Okadaya fabric store within walking distance, a small Yuzawaya fabric department in the Takashimaya department store,  Lots of options for dinner if you are still awake.

Day 3 (Wednesday) - Tokyo. We used this day to take a six hour guided tour around the Shinjuku area, with a sushi lunch in Shibuya, then on to the Meji-jingu Shrine in Harajuku followed by a stroll down trendy Takeshita-dori. We also went up the free Tokyo Metropolitan Government building both on the tour in the morning (when we were fortunate to see Mount Fuji in the distance) and in the late evening to see Tokyo lit up from the 45th floor.  After the tour we headed over to the brilliant Edo-Tokyo museum which took about 35 minutes by subway but we still go there in time to have about 80 minutes which was enough time to see most things. We found another good bookstore in the walkway from Shinjuku west exit to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building.

Day 4 (Thursday) - Tokyo - an early start to be at the Tsukiji outer market for around 7:30am, to stroll around the stalls of fresh seafood and many other items. Easily reached from Shinjuku on the Oedo line to Tsukiji Shijo station. Then we hopped back on the subway to head up to Ueno park which contains several interesting shrines and some museums as well as cafes and restaurants.  We visited the Tokyo National Museum which was labelled a 'must-see' by guidebooks but honestly we didn't find it very engaging. We enjoyed much more the smaller Shitamachi Museum where we recommend the free English volunteer guide who will point out many things we wouldn't have noticed otherwise about the recreated shops and houses. Afterwards we visited the huge covered Ameyoko market under the train tracks before getting back on the subway to Nippori station where we grabbed some lunch. Then it was on to Nippori Fabric Town for a few hours of shopping, before heading into the scenic neighbourhood of Yanaka on the other side of Nippori station.  We headed back to Shinjuku to walk around some of the neon craziness east of the station, then chose a restaurant for supper.

Day 5 (Friday) - Tokyo - Back on the Oedo line to the Shiodome stop to be at Hama Rikyu Garden for its 9am opening time. After exploring the pleasant gardens and having a traditional tea and sweet in the central tea pavilion, we got the 10:30 water bus from Hinode Pier (booking opens at 10:15) to Asakusa. In Asakusa we shopped our way up the Nakamise-dori Arcade which is an odd mixture of tourist tat and high class galleries to visit the Senso-ji Temple.  After lunch in a nearby arcade, we visited the Amuse Museum of traditional clothing, which also has a roof terrace with a great view back at Senso-ji. Two stops on the subway to Asakusa-Bashi took us to the doll shop area where we visited the prestigious Kyugetsu doll shop, and the great Sakura Horikiri craft shop as well as some other doll and bead shops.

Day 6 (Saturday) - Odawara/Hakone - we sent our luggage on to our Kyoto hotel, and caught the shinkansen to Odawara, where we left our overnight bags in a locker and walked to see the impressive castle.  Then it was a crowded train ride up to Hakone Miyanoshita to the faded but still impressive glories of the Fujiya Hotel.   After walking around town, we enjoyed the Fujiya gardens and went for a swim in the pool and tried their onsen.

Day 7 (Sunday) - the Hakone Loop - you can look this up, basically it is an enjoyable day looping around the volcano on a variety of transport. In Hakone-machi, we enjoyed the historic Hakone checkpoint, and walked through the Detached Palace Garden and on into MotoHakone, before getting the bus back into Hakone Yumoto for supper.  After supper we tried out another Japanese onsen.

Day 8 (Monday) - Kyoto - travelling via Odawara.  We left our overnight bags in a locker in the station and went up the Kyoto Tower for great views over Kyoto to get our bearings, then walked over to the impressive Toji temple with its pagoda.  Collecting our bags, we visited the pretty Shoseien Garden on the way to our hotel. In the evening we took another private tour through the back streets of Gion but I didn't feel this short tour was value for money after how good the Tokyo tour had been.

Day 9 (Tuesday) - Kyoto - we got an early bus to Kiyomizu temple to beat the crowds, then walked down through the cobbled streets of Zannen-zaka and Ninenzaka to visit the Kodai-ji temple and its beautiful garden. After lunch we visited more temples including Chion-in, Shoren-in (another lovely garden) then into Maruyama park. I had planned the trip to coincide with the Gion Odori Geisha dances and we had tickets to the afternoon performance at the Gion Kaikan Theatre which we really enjoyed. It included a traditional tea ceremony conducted by a geisha and maiko (apprentice) beforehad.  We spent the evening wandering the covered shopping arcades of Teramachi-dori and surrounding areas.

Day 10 (Wednesday) - Kyoto - travelled by subway to Nijo Castle (more nice gardens) then back to visit the Nishiki food market.  We visited the Nishijin Textile Centre (very touristy) to see the kimono show, then went to a pre-booked lunch and tour of the historic Tondaya Merchant's house where we got to wear kimono ourselves.  Afterwards we got the bus to the Ginkakuji temple (the silver pavilion) then strolled along the Philosopher's Walk (which must be so much more stunning when the cherry blossom is out in the spring). Finished off with dinner on Pontocho alley.

Day 11 (Thursday) - Kyoto - got the train out to Arashiyama and visited the famous bamboo grove, then into lovely Okochi Sanso garden which was one of our favourites. We saw some lovely autumn colour here. There are more temples to visit including the Tenryu-ji temple with its stroll garden.  We took the tram and a longish walk to see the spectacular Kinkaku-ji temple (Golden Pavilion) which presented perfectly with a shaft of sunlight illuminating the jaw-dropping scene.

Day 12 (Friday) - Nara - Day trip to Nara, stopping on the way to visit the striking but hilly Fushimi-Inari-Tasha shrine.  We walked quite a way up the mountain but not all the way to the top.  In Nara the day-pass for the buses is a good buy as sites are quite spread out.  We enjoyed the Nara-machi old town and visited some of the historic homes there, before heading over to the lovely Yoshikien garden, and the larger Isuien garden where we benefited from a free volunteer guide in English. After admiring the tame deer, we headed into Todai-ji temple to see the immense Daibutsu statue, before getting the bus to the Kasuga Taisha shrine which features hundreds of stone lanterns.  After tea in an owl cafe where we both got to hold a bird on our arm, we headed back to Kyoto.

Day 13 (Saturday) - Kanazawa.  We travelled by shinkansen 2.5 hours to Kanazawa, another historic town. We visited Omi-cho food market, then after lunch got the bus to the Nagamachi former samurai quarter where we visited the Nomura house and a few others which are open.  We enjoyed the higashi district of former geisha tea houses, and visited the former Ochaya or tea house of Shima.  The Gold Leaf museum isn't very big but worth a visit if you are in the neighbourhood.

Day 14 ( Sunday) - Kanazawa - we started the day with a leisurely stroll in the Kenrokuen landscape garden, which is so big it feels more like a public park. The pretty villa of Seison-kaku is a nice visit within the garden.  We crossed over the large bridge to visit the impressive reconstruction of the  Kanazawa castle walls.  I had made a reservation at the tourist information office to visit the Ninja-dera (ninja temple) which was quite good fun. Afterwards we wandered around some of the shopping streets before heading back to the hotel to ship our main suitcases back to Tokyo.

Day 15 (Monday) - Shirakawa-go/Takayama - we travelled by pre-booked highway bus up into the mountains to the remote world heritage village of Shirakawa-go to see the famous gassho thatched houses.  There is a lot to see here, we started up at the look out point then walked down into the village and over to the open air museum.  Then by bus to Takayama where we stayed at a traditional ryokan - which I have to say we didn't really enjoy but at least we tried it. Takayama has many wonderful historic streets for strolling around and interesting shops to visit.

Day 16 (Tuesday) - Takayama- visited the Kusakabe heritage house and walked through the two open air markets, then walked out of town to the brilliant hida Takayama Museum of Art to see the Art Nouveau and Art Deco glass and furniture, which we both really enjoyed.   Then we walked onwards to visit the Hida Folk Village which is a large open air museum of historic Japanese structures, set in pretty forested grounds.  Bus back to town for a late lunch then enjoyed a relaxing stroll through the Higashiyama temple district, which we had to ourselves. We visited the town museum, which had a lot of interesting exhibits.

Day 17 (Wednesday) - Tokyo - train to Nagoya then shinkansen to Tokyo (with nice views of Mount Fuji on the way), arriving mid-afternoon.  We left our small bags in lockers in Tokyo station and walked over to the pretty Imperial Palace East Gardens although we didn't have much time before they closed.  A last delicious dinner in Tokyo. Our bags were waiting in our hotel along with a few other bags of souvenirs I had been shipping back as we travelled, so had fun going through everything and consolidating our baggage for the trip home.

Day 18 (Thursday) - Airport bus back to Narita, and headed for home.

1 comment:

swooze said...

Wow lots to see. You should be a travel agent to help people get the most out of their trips!

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