Help me with Travel to Japan, please!
March 30, 2010 7:33 PM   Subscribe

Please help me understand travel to Japan

I have two questions about travel to Japan.

First, how do public holidays affect travelers? If one were to visit Japan on Respect for the Aged day, for instance, would attractions be closed? Would trains run?

Secondly, I was thinking about the following cities to visit: Tokyo, Kyoto, Hariyu Ji, Himeji, Hiroshima, Nagasake, and Nikko. I am a person who loves history and architecture. Are these good choices? Should I add or subtract from my list?

Thanks for your help!
posted by jefficator to Travel & Transportation around Japan (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
I have only been to Tokyo and Sendai in Japan but I can respond with two small bits pertaining to your question. Contrary to popular belief, the trains/subways in Tokyo *do* run past midnight on New Year's Eve. And gosh I wish I had known this that night. Also, a friend of mine is obsessed with Japanese history and architecture and lives in Japan teaching English (aka lives in Japan traveling around it visiting temples while teaching English to support this lifestyle). His favorite place (because of the rich history and all the temples and such) is Kyoto. If you message me I'll get you in touch with him. He LOVES talking with people about Japan, especially people who have questions pertaining to his specific interests. And he's been all those places you mentioned and more.
posted by kthxbi at 7:43 PM on March 30, 2010


Nagasaki is far from the rest of your places to visit. It is almost 4 hours from Hiroshima, if you take the fastest trains available. If you do decide to head that way, I would at least suggest a stop at Yoshinogari Historical Park, for the prehistoric Japanese life reconstructions.

I am not sure exactly where you mean by Hariyu Ji, but Google suggests you might want Horyu Temple in Nara, which is certainly a fine place for you to visit.

Trains often run on the holiday/Sunday schedule on holidays. This should not actually be much of a hassle for you, as the schedule differences tend to be pretty minimal in most major areas.

Depending on your feelings about what distance counts as a "day trip", Osaka can be a very good central location for visiting a number of places. If you get the Japan Rail Pass (which you probably should if you want to do this much travel), Nara and Kyoto are only about a half hour away, Himeji about 45 minutes, and Hiroshima is only about an hour and a half away.
posted by that girl at 8:16 PM on March 30, 2010


I would agree that Nagasaki might be a bit far out of your way, and I'm not sure where Hariyu Ju is, but I went everywhere else you list except Himeji, which I just couldn't squeeze in to my disappointment, in the two weeks I had in Japan and I loved all of them. Well, I also went to Osaka and I would skip Osaka. It has the world's most awesome aquarium, but other than that I wasn't impressed. I would have used the extra time to get in a day at Himeji. Kyoto was probably my favourite city, and I really enjoyed my day trips to Nikko and the night I spent in Nara. Message me and I'll send you a link to my Flickr albums of Japan.
posted by Dasein at 9:02 PM on March 30, 2010


I am assuming a couple of things. First, that you are traveling from the U.S. and, second, that you have at least two weeks in Japan. If both of these are true, you definitely need to get a Japan Rail Pass. You buy it in the U.S. and pick it up when you reach Japan. I wouldn't stay in Tokyo past the first night. There are more affordable places to stay that are more central to your travels. I have stayed in Hiroshima, Kyoto, Osaka and several cities not on your itinerary.

Peace Park in Hiroshima is a must-see if you are a history buff. Look around you and see how new the city is in close proximity to the hypocenter and how really old it is just a few miles away.

Any of the many temples in Kyoto will give you a glimpse of a serene way of life unattainable in the U.S. I like Osaka, but it has personal value to me that others might not share.

For a different piece of history, go to Kobe and walk around observing the aftermath of the earthquake that destroyed much of the city just a few years ago and see how well the city has recovered. Go to the City Hall and seek out an English-speaker and ask for some information about the quake and the rebuilding effort.

In any large city, go to a department store and go to the basement food court. It is like nothing you have seen in the U.S. No hot dogs on a stick here.
posted by Old Geezer at 9:54 PM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


i was in tokyo last year in september, for the week that happened to coincide with respect for the aged day. almost the entire week was a holiday for the japanese people, and we had no problems taking the subway, going to stores, and the ghibli museum (in mitaka) was even open that tuesday when it usually isn't.

a friend of our who lives there says we probably had it a lot easier that week since a lot of people from tokyo had gone home to see their families. granted, we didn't make it out of tokyo that week, but things seemed to be open and we didn't have any issues.
posted by koroshiya at 11:08 PM on March 30, 2010


You must go to Nara if you want to see ancient architecture. Nara park is a massive preserved area of ancient temples. Horyuji is near Nara and is very old, and one of the buildings is believed to be the oldest wooden building in the world. (When you typed Hariyu ji in the OP, I think you meant Horyuji.)

Osaka is actually very fun to wander around in. Ancient sites include the Osaka Temmangu, Shin-Tennoji (the oldest Buddhist temple in Japan) and the castle. Actually, the castle is a modern reconstruction, but it looks nice and the castle park is very cool. Across the street from the castle park, next to the NHK building, is the Osaka Museum of History. The Nanba/Dotonbori/Shinsaibashi area is a lot of fun at night - the whole place lights up, and there are tons of things to do.

I also heavily recommend the JR pass. It can be used on most local transportation, and also on the bullet trains.

For your planned destinations, I would recommend that you use Osaka as your home base to explore Kyoto, Nara, Himeji, and Hiroshima. Then, stay in Tokyo and use that as your base to explore Nikko and the area around Tokyo. Why Osaka and Tokyo? They are the major train hubs in their regions. Downtown Osaka to Kyoto on a bullet train takes less than 20 minutes if I remember correctly, and with a JR pass you won't have to pay a cent.

Now, as for Nagasaki, you should probably look into the JTB travel agency. www.jtbusa.com. They have interesting deals, like a domestic round trip flight to Nagasaki and a hotel room at a discount you could not find on your own. Taking the train to Nagasaki would waste a long time. JTB is also where you buy the JR pass, and you need to buy it before you go to Japan. Once you are there, they won't sell you one (otherwise the Japanese themselves would use it, and JR would go out of business.)

Trains:

To answer your concern: trains run on holidays. They run every day of the year. Many Japanese people do not have cars, and would be screwed without the trains. In fact, the trains will be even busier on holidays because people will be using them for holiday travel.

There are three levels of bullet train service. The JR pass will allow you to access two of them for free. They are the Kodama and Hikari trains. Kodama trains are the slowest and stop at every station. Avoid them, unless you are going to a station that the other bullet trains won't stop at. Hikari is an express train. They stop only at major cities. Hikari trains do go to Hiroshima and Himeji.

The Nozomi super express service only stops a few times between Tokyo and Osaka. It is very fast. But a JR pass is not valid to use the Nozomi trains.

There are two types of cars on a bullet train: reserved and non-reserved. If you have a JR pass, just walk onto a non-reserved car and sit in any empty seat you find. To get a reserved seat in a reserved car, you have to talk to the ticket agent. Their English is not that great, but they can usually figure out what you are asking them. If you are on a popular route on a busy holiday, reserving a seat might be wise. With a JR pass, you can reserve a seat for free.
posted by twblalock at 12:32 AM on March 31, 2010


So I feel like I'm hearing the following: Add Osaka and Nara, possibly remove Nagasaki. Is there a compelling reason to keep Nagasaki?

Two weeks from the US is a correct assumption.
posted by jefficator at 6:35 AM on March 31, 2010


I'd agree with twblalock's advice, except to say that Kyoto has enough depth to it that you'd probably want to stay there and use it as your base for exploring it, rather than day-tripping in from Osaka (although that is possible). Also bear in mind that Kyoto doesn't have nearly as extensive a public-transit system as Tokyo or Osaka, so you'll probably wind up using cabs more (at least, I did).

Nikko is beautiful, but it's a day trip. Maybe a weekend. If you're in the Tokyo area and itching to see more of the surrounding countryside, go up to Hakone, which is a series of mountain towns.

If you are flying through Narita and find yourself with a few extra hours to kill on your last day, stop in the city of Narita and visit the temple Naritasan.

Tokyo has a lot of interesting architecture, but it's not all in one spot. It's a big, and very confusing city to find your way around. So while it would be worth it to pick out some spots you know you want to see, I also encourage you to wander around and be open to serendipity rather than schedule the whole thing.
posted by adamrice at 9:24 AM on March 31, 2010


I think people didn't talk about the holidays much? A three-day weekend is No Big Deal and life goes on as normal. "Golden Week" - with a string of holidays in the spring - is a bad travel week. The trains are booked, and big^big cities like Tokyo and Osaka are emptier as people head to the hinterlands to see family. "Silver Week" in September has the same issue. Christmas is a hoot (it is ALL about shopping and couples) and New Years Eve is AWESOME because 1) everyone goes to the temple at midnight to make wishes for the new year. You can go in a small town, and its busy but everyone knows each other, or in a big city (I went in Kobe), where it's like being at a street fair or a concert.

In general, and especially in Tokyo, you should walk everywhere possible. Many subway stops are surprisingly close together. I highly recommend this bilingual atlas of Tokyo which has good labels for streets, buildings, landmarks, and big stations.

If the scheduling of your flights is such that it makes sense, I recommend some time (half day?) in Narita itself. The temple there is beautiful, and they have a collection of old paintings and etchings on wood that are rather rare - most had been burnt or otherwise deteriorated.
posted by whatzit at 2:18 PM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you're in Tokyo, Kamakura is a short trip away and would be worth the visit.
posted by Runes at 4:34 PM on March 31, 2010


So silver week--ie three days between September 18 and October 3--would be a bad time to visit?
posted by jefficator at 7:24 PM on March 31, 2010


It's not too awful of a time to visit. I went around that time last year, and we were able to get trains reasonably easily most of the time. Also this year isn't quite as well arranged as last year, so probably fewer people will be taking off. Just make sure to arrange hotels a little ahead of time, and maybe look into getting tickets a little bit early (i.e. not right when you want to get on a train).

However, it can still be pretty icky sticky that time of year. I would suggest a little bit later into October/November, and then you can get the beautiful fall colors, as well.
posted by that girl at 10:20 PM on March 31, 2010


My train of thought derailed: New Years, part 2) the big stores especially and also small ones do fukubukuro (lucky bag) sales, where you can watch all the women beat each other up to get at stapled bags of mystery goods of various values.

But if you are going in October, you're not in season. And like that girl said, the holidays are not arranged conveniently in September 2010, so travel will be less of a crush than it was in 2009.
posted by whatzit at 4:54 AM on April 1, 2010


Yeah, as that girl said, the weather sucks in July/August. On the plus side, Mt Fuji is open for climbing in August. It is only open for a few months of the year. It is worth doing if you have the time. Just plan to be really tired the day after.
posted by twblalock at 5:14 AM on April 1, 2010


Well I was planning to go September 18 through October 3.

According to my calendar, there is a holiday on the 20th and on the 22nd. My guide book says that this means the 21st will also be a holiday. A five-day weekend seems like a terrible time to travel.

Should I bump my trip to September 25th through October 9?
posted by jefficator at 8:22 AM on April 1, 2010


Is your guidebook printed for 2010? Those dates match the 2008 holidays. The timeanddate.com calendar for Japan is showing holidays on the 20th and 23rd, with the 19th being a Sunday. Some people will take off the 21st and 22nd, but it won't be everyone.

(On the other hand, if you can skip all of this, get a good fare, and have the same amount of time in Japan, without traveling over a holiday, why not?)
posted by whatzit at 11:39 AM on April 1, 2010


One note about visiting Himeji: For the next three years the main keep of Himeji Castle will be undergoing renovations and will be covered in scaffolding, so you won't be able to see or enter it. For a similar experience I recommend visiting Inuyama Castle just outside Nagoya.
posted by armage at 4:33 PM on April 10, 2010


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