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QUESTION: Hello Steve,

I wonder if you could advise me on my upcoming trip to Japan.  I have bought a return ticket to Tokyo arriving late night may1st and leaving late afternoon on 10th.  Could you, please help me with some ideas on which cities to visit, how many days to spend in each city, which areas of the cities would be the best to rent a hotel from, what are the major attractions and optimal modes of transportation.

Thank you very much in advance .

Sincerely,

Lev Rapoport

ANSWER: Hi Lev,

Honestly, this is a super tough question. There are sooo many factors that would go into a decision like this, including:

- How many people?
- What ages?
- Are there any physical issues? (For example traveling with people who can't walk very much)
- What sorts of things are the travelers interested in?
- What kind of budget restraints are there?

As a high level overview, though, my personal opinion is that Tokyo is cool, but I think you can cover most of the major sightseeing stuff in two to three days. If you have the budget to travel south to Kyoto (3 hour bullet train ride), that is the most obvious other "target." It is FULL of sightseeing opportunities. You could easily spend the rest of your time there, or you could continue to the west and visit places like Hiroshima (which honestly doesn't have much other than the Peace Park). Going north is an option too, but it would be hard to go to Japan and skip Kyoto.

But of course, it all really depends on what kinds of things you are personally interested in.

Train is far and away the best mode of travel in Japan. Look into a getting a rail pass from JR, they are usually well worth it.

You are welcome to write back, but you could also consider talking to a travel agency, or searching online. I'm sure there are a million sites with suggested itineraries, like this one:

http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2400_tokyo_8.html

Good luck!

Steve

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Steve,

Thank you very much for your prompt response.  I know my questions are not easy.  
Usually, I take my time and prepare for the trip by myself.  This time, the trip is happening pretty soon, I have no idea of Japan and looks like I am traveling during the busy season.  There are two of us, my wife and I.  We are in 50s but used to walk a lot and spent the entire day sightseeing valuing time more than money.  We are more into culture and history.  No shopping interest.  We are comfortable spending money on vacations like that.  Nothing extraordinary (private jet) but taxi, speed trains, etc. shall be utilized. I will work out the attractions and lodgings but wonder if you could help with general plan. You recommend 2-3 days in Tokyo.  Would you suggest a day trip or it is better to stay in the city?  What are the most convenient parts of the Tokyo to rent a hotel in?  Especially, if we are going to have day trips.
What are the best areas to stay in Kyoto?  How many days? What and how many day trips from Kyoto are to be considered?

Is it a good idea to go to Tokyo airport straight from Kyoto or it is safer to come back to Tokyo for a day? Are there things to see by the airport?

ANSWER: Hi Len,

Thanks for the additional information, that helps! So, when flying into Japan, you essentially have two main choices: fly into Tokyo, or fly into Osaka (near Kyoto). Either way works. In the case of Tokyo, the international airport, Narita, is near NOTHING AT ALL. In fact, you have to take a fairly long train ride from the airport just to get to the "main" part of Tokyo. I'm not sure about Osaka's airport, but Osaka as well is a big business city, not much in the way of sightseeing there (great food and entertainment though). So, really, in either case you're unlikely to want to stay near the airport.

I would think that you could have an awesome trip by flying into either and centering your trip around Tokyo (1/3 of the time) and Kyoto (2/3 of the time).

So one approach could be to fly into Tokyo. Stay somewhere in central Tokyo for three days. I would recommend the Shinjuku area for a hotel. I would probably spend two of the three days in Tokyo, and use one of those for a day trip to Nikko or Kamakura. Some ideas of things to do with your two days there include: Asakusa, the Tokyo Tower, Meiji Shrine, the Tokyo Imperial Palace, and an early morning trip to Tsukiji fish market. Harajuku is another very interesting spot if you can be there on a Sunday morning.

Take the bullet train from there to Kyoto and spend the rest of your time in that area. Potential day trips from Kyoto include: Nara, Kanazawa (amazing gardens), Himeji Castle, Enrukuji Temple, Hiroshima, Kobe, and Osaka. (There is a festival in Osaka called "Nozaka Mairi" in early May that would be really interesting.)

Kyoto itself is awash with historical and cultural stuff, the most famous being the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji), and Kiyomizu-dera (amazing temple with gorgeous views), Fushimi-Inari, Ryoan-ji (beautiful classical Zen gardens), the Philosopher's Walk, and Mount Hiei if you like mountains and hiking. Plus about a million other temples, shrines, castles, and so on!

Seriously, there is NO shortage of stuff to do in and around Kyoto. If you can manage it, I would also HIGHLY recommend staying a night or two in a traditional Japanese hotel or "ryokan." Really cool experience.

From there you could train it back to Tokyo for the trip home, which is about a 3 hour bullet train ride. Or, you might want to see if you could work it out to arrive in Tokyo and depart from Osaka. That would save you the extra 3 hour train ride, as Osaka is about an hour from Kyoto.

Keep writing back, I'd be happy to keep narrowing this down for you!!

Steve

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Great.  I am working on it.  You help is extremely valuable.  Thank you.  Couple more questions:  1.  We are flying in Tokyo (NRT) at 8pm on May first.  I understand we should take a train to Tokyo proper and then a taxi.  Are there signs in English?  If not what is the way out?  
2.  People are saying that they are buying train tickets while still in the USA.  Is it true?  Is it necessary?
3. In my experience with Spain and Italy, people are buying tickets to attractions in advance on Internet.  Is it necessary to do such stuff in Japan.
4. So far it looks like we are flying in Tokyo at night on May 1st, staying there for 3days/4nights and going to Kyoto for 5.5 days/ 6nights.  On the last day we take a train back to Tokyo, find our way to airport and fly home at 5:30 pm. Does it seem reasonable to you?

Thank you.

Lev

Answer
Answers:

>>1.  We are flying in Tokyo (NRT) at 8pm on May first.  I understand we should take a train to Tokyo >>proper and then a taxi. Are there signs in English?  If not what is the way out?  

Major places like airports and train stations will often have English signs, but you can't expect the same everywhere in Japan. The good news is, most Japanese will bend over backwards to help you out. You may end up with a lot of slow talking and pantomime, but it usually works out. :) (Japanese people are required to study Japanese, but honestly, very few people speak it well. I think people like hotel and airline staff are likely to be able to speak SOME English.) Also, at the airport, most everyone will be going from the luggage/immigration towards the trains, so it won't be too hard to figure out.

>>2.  People are saying that they are buying train tickets while still in the USA.  Is it true?  Is it >>necessary?

Yes, you definitely want to purchase seats on the train from Narita to Tokyo in advance, or else you might take a 14 hour flight and then up standing on the train ride to Tokyo, which is no fun. You also should book seats on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto and back. (And any other bullet trains you take.) Local travel, you won't need reservations. Again, you absolutely have to look into the "JR rail pass." http://www.japanrailpass.net/en/

>>3. In my experience with Spain and Italy, people are buying tickets to attractions in advance on >>Internet.  Is it necessary to do such stuff in Japan.

It has been a while since I traveled in Japan, but I don't recall that being the case, especially for things like "I want to go to this temple." (There may be lines, of course, depending on the timing.) As you narrow down attractions you are interested in, we might be able to identify things that need tickets in advance, but I can't think of anything unless you are going to a special show/concert/sports event or something like that.

>>4. So far it looks like we are flying in Tokyo at night on May 1st, staying there for 3days/4nights >>and going to Kyoto for 5.5 days/ 6nights.  On the last day we take a train back to Tokyo, find our way to airport and fly home at 5:30 pm. Does it seem reasonable to you?

This sounds reasonable to me. Trains in Japan are REALLY on time, so if you make a train reservation (which you will need for every "bullet train," then you can pretty much assume they will depart and arrive pretty close to on schedule.

Just be sure not to cut things too fine on the airport side; like most international airports, it can take some time to get from the train to your gate and so on. Especially if you're not sure where you're going.

~Steve

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Steve Battisti

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I`m always willing to give help, or at least my opinions on things related to Japan. I think I'm especially strong at helping out non-native Japanese speakers with the language. Also, helping others understand the culture, such as U.S. businessmen who have to do business with Japanese. I'm not doing translations right now, unless it's just a phrase or a word. More of a language and general Japanese culture guy than a travel/history expert.

PLEASE NOTE: I cannot answer questions about the following:

  • Pottery or art object - I strongly recommend you take these to an antique specialist
  • Finding people - I can't answer these. I just have no way of knowing if the person you're looking for WANTS to be found, and I'm just not willing to risk it. I recommend you contact a private investigator if you desperately need to find someone.

Sorry for the inconvenience!

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10+ years of studying Japan and Japanese language. I lived there for 5 years, one as a student, four as a businessman. Most importantly, I lived there because I wanted to live there, not because someone sent me there!

Education/Credentials
BA in Japanese

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