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Japan
July 16, 2004 4:22 PM   Subscribe

Going to Japan with husband for a week in October. Don't speak Japanese, never been to Asia before, need ideas for itinerary. Help us avoid getting Lost in Translation? [more inside]

We're planning on staying in Tokyo for a few days, but want to stay overnight in at least one or two other cities. I was thinking of Kyoto, but then heard that it's kind of industrialized and not as pretty and old-fashioned as some of the smaller cities. And I do want to soak in Japanese culture and art, or at least as much as my small gaijin mind can absorb. So far, the only things on our "must" list are buying a kimono (for me) and traveling on the bullet train (for the hubby). Oh, and visiting any particularly great gardens, since I love plants and gardening. (No cherry blossoms, though, since it will be fall.) I've bought some books on Japan to help prepare and we'll be working out some of our arrangements via a travel agent, but we'd love some first-hand reports and ideas. And hotel and restaurant suggestions for Tokyo. Thanks!
posted by Asparagirl to Travel & Transportation around Japan (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Kyoto has great and classic gardens, including the Shugakuin and Katsura Imperial Villas. Not sure what you will see there in October. Some gardens like these have to be booked in advance; can't remember if it's these ones off hand, but it's worth checking to avoid disappointment from turning up and not being able to get in. If you do have to book in advance, then I think you can do it at the visitor centre at the Imperial Palace in the centre of town.

Parts of Kyoto are industrialized but as the old imperial capital it is very historical; and if you only have a couple of nights then there's more than enough to see, especially in the old parts of town. There's also plenty of big temple complexes, such as Nanzenji, if you collect temples. You can also go up the retro-kitsch-chic Kyoto tower to view the town. Check whatever guidebooks you have.

Also if you have time and like I M Pei and Buddhist art, the Miho is just fabulous, but will take a day and some figuring out trains and taxis to get there from Kyoto.
posted by carter at 4:41 PM on July 16, 2004


Ahh... jp.

First off love hotels. The machines and systems can be a bit confusing and the people running some of them can be a bit frosty, but if that's the case just go somewhere else. 'Honeymoon' will probably be understood, and may get you nice treatment. The prices are better that the real hotels and you get bigger rooms. I think that place was $140 a night, but it did have the pool and karaoke. (Was an odd place to see the saddam statue get pulled down)

I found Kyoto very templey, in fact I was a tiny bit templed out after it, but we did little else that day. I lived in japan for a year in 96, so maybe that was why it felt like overload.

I've got a load of pictures here from when I visited with my better half last April. The main thing I'm trying to remember is how much my shaky Japanese helped. Kyoto was definitely more english friendly. I loved the fish market in Tokyo.

I'm really not sure what to recommend for more rural. My girlfriend in 96 took me to a lot of cool places, but I couldn't find them myself now. There's a big internal tourist market which means there's loads of places, but I'm not sure how much english there is.

I've had an idea... I'll ask my better half what she liked and write more later....
posted by Flat Feet Pete at 4:52 PM on July 16, 2004


Being baseball fans, we'd love to take in a game. Does every big city have a stadium and a team? Do they play during October there too? And I know national Sumo events only happen for a few days during the year, but wow, that would be so cool to see live--any idea where I can find a schedule?
posted by Asparagirl at 4:57 PM on July 16, 2004


I have two hotel recommendations while in Tokyo. First, I really enjoyed staying at the Crowne Plaza Metropolitan in Ikebukuro. It's a western-style business hotel, so they'll have someone at the desk who can speak English, and you can get it dirt cheap (roughly $90 a night) on priceline.com. Ikebukuro is very convenient in terms of access to the rest of Tokyo, and there are plenty of places to eat and shop right by the hotel. Also, there's a Citibank right across the street, which can't be beat if you need to withdraw cash. Many Japanese ATMs won't take foreign ATM cards.

The second recommendation will probably be more fun, but it is a bit more expensive. Tokyu Stay is a chain of Japanese-style business hotels. They've got great rooms, typically with Japanese-style super-modern bathrooms (deep bathtub with high-temp setting and a bidet/seatwarmer toilet), plus a small clothes washer and dryer and a tiny kitchen. I stayed in the old Tokyu Stay in Shibuya, and it was really great... the various appliances were tons of fun to play with, and the room itself was quite comfy. The kitchen and washer/dryer are nice to have, especially for extended stays.

If you're interested in an old-fashioned experience, you should ignore me and stay at a Ryokan, though. This one looks lovely, and affordable, too.
posted by vorfeed at 5:43 PM on July 16, 2004 [1 favorite]


I did a very similar trip about two years ago. Japan can be very confusing -- if I remember, they name streets and number buildings differently than we do in the West. This being said, their public transportation system is top-notch and very easy to navigate. From my experience, getting from point A to point B was easy, it was finding the place once i got out of the subway stop where things got thorny.

Check out the Kabuki theatre when you're in Tokyo. You can buy tickets for individual acts as well as for the whole show -- so you don't have to stick around for more than 40 minutes or so. A very interesting cultural experience.

Do take the bullet train to Kyoto. And when in Kyoto, why not spend a day visiting Nara -- it's only about an hour away by train and worth the visit -- *huge*, old temples. Deer roaming free. In Nara, the local univiersity has offers students studying English as guides at a nominal fee (if not free). The visitor's office outside the train station should have more information on the service (memory getting fuzzy).

Try to spend a night at a traditional Ryokan if you can. Much better experience than a typical business hotel. And treat yourself to a kaiseki meal. My fiance and I stayed at a Ryokan in Kyoto, Kinmata. A little pricey, but an amazing experience and one of the best meals I've had in my life.
posted by herc at 5:57 PM on July 16, 2004


Japan can be very confusing -- if I remember, they name streets and number buildings differently than we do in the West.

Yep. To be exact: a city might be divided into a number of different neighborhoods, each known as machi or cho ("town"). Within each neighborhood, the blocks are numbered, and within the blocks, the streets are numbered. So if I lived in the 2nd building of the 3rd block of the neighborhood in Shiratori, in Nagasaki, my address would be Nagasaki city, Shiratori machi 3-2. (Unlike American addresses, Japanese addresses go from general area to specific location).

Tokyo's a bit more complicated. It's divided into districts called "ku," which are themselves divided into neighborhoods called "cho," and the cho are divided into numbered "chome." So if a hotel is located at 6-1, Nishi-Ikebukuro 1-Chome
Toshima-Ku, it's located in the sixth block of the first section of Nishi-Ikebukuro, which is a neighborhood in the district of Toshima.

I had to ask for directions a lot, obviously.

If you have any claustrophobia, crowd phobia, or anything similar, avoid Tokyo as much as possible. It made me want to hide in a corner, so I don't have anything useful to say about that. Kyoto is a lot quieter and more peaceful. It's a great location for traditional crafts, so you'd definitely be able to pick up a nice kimono there. The gardens at Heian shrine, in Kyoto, are lovely. I also recommend the free-roaming deer in Nara and the temples there.
posted by Jeanne at 6:23 PM on July 16, 2004


Shinjuku-Gyoen in Tokyo is a great place for a picnic. It is very beautiful.

There are 60,000 restaurants in Tokyo. Plan some dining out!
Tokyo is also great for bars, clubs, nightlife etc.

Tokyo to Hiroshima is basically one huge megalopolis which is built up and industrialized. The view from the Shinkansen is very ugly, so prepare yourself.

Here is a guide to Kyoto.

If you want beauty and nature you have to go to the mountains. Some more off the beaten track places. Takayama is nice.

You should definately stay at a Ryokan while you're here. I went to this one in Hakone this year, it is a great old hotel with fantastic rooms on the river.

Street festivals
are fun and unique, especially in traditional neighborhoods.

The other must do in Japan is onsen (hot springs).

A good Japan travel itinerary, with lots of photos.

I think you might be in luck with Sumo. It's held three times a year in Ryogoku, Tokyo, including September.
posted by dydecker at 6:57 PM on July 16, 2004


Also, don't go by 'Lost in Translation'; check out the Simpson's episode where they go to Japan and wind up on the family quizz show; they have a much better attitude than Bill Murray!
posted by carter at 6:58 PM on July 16, 2004


A colleague of mine runs the Tama Ryokan in Takadanobaba, Tokyo, which is Y4000/night/person (I feel obliged to put in a good word for him). Simple, relatively cheap, accessible neighborhood. I love Tokyo, and could explore it endlessly. There are a lot of easy and worthwhile day trips or overnighters you can take from Tokyo, up to Nikko or Hakone, or down to Izu, for example. If you go to Hakone and spend the night, check out Taiyo Sanso, which is the only inexpensive place in town (gov't run) and looks really nice (sadly, closed for repairs when I was up there recently).

For the amount of time you have, I'd be inclined to choose either the Tokyo area or the Kyoto area: Kyoto is really worth its own trip. It's wonderful in a way almost completely unlike Tokyo.

Guidebook: "Gateway to Japan" is excellent and kind of scholarly. The Lonely Planet book is also good and more nuts'n'bolts.
posted by adamrice at 9:09 PM on July 16, 2004


Second the Lonely Planet recommendation. Wanted to kiss that book by the time the trip ended.
posted by herc at 9:30 PM on July 16, 2004


[biased opinion]
A lot of people come to Kyoto expecting a quaint fake museum village, which is an unfortunate thing but results from the way travel agencies market it. It's the 7th largest city in Japan (1.5 million residents), with a number of hi-tech companies (Kyocera, Nintendo and several universities, and all of the downtown clutter that modern Japanese cities have. But it also was the capital of Japan for 1,000 years, and reamains cultural heart of Japan. It wasn't bombed in WWII, so there are numerous buildings that are several centuries old within walking distance of almost anywhere. Stay somewhere along the eastern edge of town, where the highest concentration of noteworthy temples are anyway, and you won't feel the urban clutter of downtown. Today was the biggest festival of the year in Kyoto, Gion Matsuri, which is more than 1,000 years old. If you want to see or stay in authentic small villages, there are notable ones just outside town in Ohara, Kurama. October is a good time to come, the temperature is good and there is an amazing fire festival at Kurama and one of the big 3 festivals downtown on the same day (Oct. 22), the Jidai Matsuri. Also, you can see the real geisha/maiko here. send me an email when you're coming, I'll give you some more specific recommendations, but it's also good to just wander backstreets and get lost, you'll have unforgettable fun.
[/biased opinion]
posted by planetkyoto at 2:33 AM on July 17, 2004


Make sure to get a JR Railpass before you travel.
posted by the cuban at 3:35 AM on July 17, 2004


Just a few days in Tokyo? You could probably spend much more time exploring just there. Huge city with lots of different kinds of things/areas to see. To me it's another galaxy. I've been 7-8 times and still have tons and tons yet to see. Some of the places you might like (from your affinity to plants and gardening) are Meiji shrine, Rikugien Garden, and maybe a walk down Omotesando-dori (near Meiji shrine and Harajuku station).

For an outside day trip from Tokyo, Kamakura is great - gardens, beach, Enoshima island, Daibutsu. So is Nikko, a beautiful historical area without that many foreign tourists.

For restaurants in Tokyo, you might try Tsukinokura in the Shinjuku Center Bldg (53rd floor). Great Western-influenced Japanese cuisine. Get a window table if possible for a fantastic view of the city.

I was in Kyoto in April for 3 days and was suprised (compared to my memory of earlier visits) how touristy it was. Gorgeous temples and gardens, but with 10e6s of tourists. That was my impression, although planetkyoto no doubt has a more accurate take on the city than I do.

One thing in Kyoto that I loved was a half-day trip we took up the Hozugawa river on the "Torokko" train and back down in the river on a small open boat. The river flows through a beautiful green gorge outside of the city. You can get on the train from Torokko Arashiyama Station. At the end of the trip, the boat pulls up alongside another little boat where you can buy a hot Japanese snacks. Really nice.

About the language issue - there's not much at all signage in English anywhere, and few people (that you'll run into on the street or in stores or restaurants) really speak much of it, or would like to, despite the fact that English is taught at least throughout middle school.
posted by shoos at 5:36 AM on July 17, 2004


And pick up Pimsleur Japanese I. Best language course there is, 30 minutes a day for a month and you've got a servicable baseline language ability.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:11 AM on July 17, 2004


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