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July 17, 2011 10:04 AM   Subscribe

What should I expect once I arrive in Tokyo? And what shouldn't I miss while I'm in the Kyoto area next weekend?

I'll be arriving in Tokyo on Japan Airlines (by way of Chicago) at 14:15, and have a connection also via Japan Airlines to Nagoya/Chuba at 15:50.

Generally speaking, how navigable is Tokyo/Narita for a first-time visitor who doesn't speak a word of Japanese? Judging from my itinerary, it looks like I won't have to change terminals. What is customs like? How long should I expect it to take? Will I have to reclaim my checked baggage at customs, and will I have to go through security a second time afterwards?

Is there anything else you think I need to know? I've read the other Japan threads but didn't see much about the process of actually arriving, clearing customs, and changing planes.

Thanks / Arigatou.
posted by gerryblog to Travel & Transportation around Tokyo, Japan (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Narita is one of the best laid-out and signed airports in the world. Every sign that I remember seeing was both in Japanese and English. Getting around the airport will not be a problem at all.

I've found that Japanese customs and border control is very thorough but also very professional, especially when compared to some other countries I've visited. Your lack of Japanese won't be a problem there, either. The inspector will almost certainly speak some English, and a highly fluent interpreter will be available if needed. Lines can sometimes be long, but they do move quickly - it didn't take more than 20 minutes for me either time I've been there.

Enjoy your trip to Japan!
posted by deadmessenger at 10:17 AM on July 17, 2011

Best answer: When you are in Kyoto check out the temple of 1000 Buddhas. It is on the east side of the city. There is a walking trail that everyone does on that side. It takes a few hours and has lots of cool shrines and temples. Not to be missed.
There are more on the west side of the city too but my favourite of the area was the monkey mountain. You climb a twisty path up a hill with a great view of the city. A colony of monkies lives up there which you can feed ( while you are locked in a cage). Not exactly high end culture stuff you if you like monkies you will love it.
posted by drugstorefrog at 10:49 AM on July 17, 2011

Best answer: Agreed re: Narita being very friendly to the English speaking. I arrived there completely drugged up on painkillers and still out of my mind with pain and was through customs/passport control without worry or incident. Even though the line was long it moved steadily.
posted by FlamingBore at 11:02 AM on July 17, 2011

Best answer: It's been some months since I've done this so things might have changed, but here's the process as it was every time I've gone into NRT. A couple more caveats are that it's been a very long time since I made a connection through NRT, and I've never flown in on JAL. So, given that, here's the process.
1) You will deplane. You will notice people who have done this before walking briskly. Follow their example.
2) After walking a mile or two (yay, the thoughtful Japanese have been concerned that you just sat on your arse for way too long, so now you get some exercise!) you will reach a sign that says something like "are you feeling unwell? Please step in here and see a doctor". If you're not feeling well you get to get checked out to see if you're introducing a horrible disease into their densely populated country.
3) You will be arrive at a queing line that may snake back and forth. This is where your brisk walk has allowed you to beat the rush. Enter the que appropriate for your situation (visitor, native, airline staff, etc). Shuffle forward, look at all the other disheveled travelers, make idle conversation... Stop when you reach the red line. There will be uniformed people in booths in front of you, and possibly another uniformed person in front of the booth directing people to cross the red line and proceed to a booth. If no traffic director is there proceed to the next available booth.
4) You will give the person in the booth your passport and the form you filled out on the plane just before landing (do not skip this step on the plane, or you will have to fill out the form before you enter the queue, thus putting you at the back. Also do not lose this form). The person in the queue will smile, ask you why you're there, and then staple the form to your passport and put a chop on it.
5) You will now go to the baggage carousel and get your luggage. Then you get to go through customs, declare anything you need to, and then proceed out the door. If they think you're up to something they may search your bags here.
The Japanese people will be exceedingly polite to you throughout this. There will be boorish foreigners who will push, try to cut in line, etc. Ignore them.
There will be signs all over directing you in the various paths you need to take, but by and large follow the rush. Pretty much everything deadmessenger said is true, except that I have stood in the border control line for > 1 hr. But that was only once.
posted by Runes at 11:11 AM on July 17, 2011

Best answer: Nthing "Narita is pretty easy to navigate (it's big, but manageably so) and the customs process is pretty straightforward." It's a little daunting after the long flight, but take your time, read the signs, and you should have no trouble getting through.

As for what to do in Kyoto -- what do you like to do? It has loads of temples and shrines. Sanjusangendo (which is I think what drugstorefrog mentions above) is my favorite temple there, but there are loads of them, often clustered together for relatively short walks. There are also numerous museums, loads of interesting restaurants, and so on. If you are in Kyoto on the 21st, the flea market at Toji (southwest of Kyoto station) is fun. There is another flea market at the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine in northwesterly Kyoto that was also OK, although I liked it less.

One thing to keep in mind -- while Kyoto is full of "knots" of attractions, the city is kind of spread out, and it can take a bit of time to get from one side to the other, especially if you are navigating the bus system. If you are only there for a few days, you'll want to do some planning to maximize your fun stuff and minimize your trip.

It will probably be hot and sticky -- plan for sunblock, bring a hat, etc.

Enjoy the trip. Kyoto is pretty fun! (of course, it's full of sites mentioned in the Tale of Genji, so I would say that...).
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:44 AM on July 17, 2011

Best answer: Yes, you'll do fine in Narita. Honestly, Tokyo station is always the hardest part of my Chicago/Tokyo/Kobe travels, and you're skipping that nonsense.

Now, onto the Kyoto advice:

- Go get a matcha parfait at 京はやしや (Kyo-hayashiya), located here, and watch from the window as people walk around near the Kamogawa river. Don't forget to actually sit and hang out at the Kamogawa river too -- it's a pretty key, typically Kyoto thing to do.

- Visit a bamboo grove. It's summer so Kyoto should be hot and sticky, and when you walk into the bamboo grove it will be instantly 65 degrees, shaded, and extremely calming. There's a famous Japanese fairy tale, Kaguya-hime, about a girl who came out of a bamboo stalk and she was magical and actually came from the moon. Once you step into a bamboo grove, that story will suddenly become completely plausible. Seriously, it's magic.

- Eat some yatsuhashi, the quintessential food-gift from Kyoto (people who visit Kyoto from say, Tokyo, bring it back for their Tokyo-ite friends). It's amazing, and available at almost any store (food section of department stores is a good place to start).

- As far as temples, I really liked Kodaiji

And to complete your Kyoto tourism checklist (the standard stuff)
- See Gion (at night is especially good)
- Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion)....yep, it's stunning.
- Kiyomizu-dera (a temple on a huge hill) -- the walk up the hill with little shops on the sides is really nice too.
- Uji is famous, but I've never succeeded in actually making it there.

MeFi mail me if you need more convincing photo/blog evidence for any of these.
posted by mokudekiru at 3:07 PM on July 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Shōren-in is my favorite Kyoto temple. Often overlooked. Check it out, you won't regret it.
posted by Chef Flamboyardee at 3:47 PM on July 17, 2011

Best answer: Nthing that attractions in Kyoto are "grouped" together, so judicious timing means you can do several in a morning or afternoon, and then grab lunch in whatever neighbourhood you happen to be in.

The bus system in Kyoto is great, be sure to get a map from Kyoto station, it's really clear.

My favourite place - by far - was Fushimi Inari, the fox shrine famous for its red tori gates.

If you want a relatively cheap gourment Kyoto dining experience, Roan Kikunoi was awarded two michelin stars this year (it's sister restaurant received 3), it's in Kiyamachi, next to Gion and very close to the river, and specialises in tradition Kyoto cuisine. Very delicious and whilst dinner is quite expensive, lunches (booking required) can from about $50 US - which is a steal in my opinion.

Let the record reflect: I was in Kyoto in the heart of winter - snow and everything, so your experience may be quite different to mine!
posted by smoke at 4:38 PM on July 17, 2011

Best answer: Oh, also, for a great wrap-up of things to do in Japan in general, it's really hard to go past Japan Guide. They aren't the be all and end all, but it's a great place for a lot of really clear info - the site was invaluable for our trip in February.
posted by smoke at 4:43 PM on July 17, 2011

Best answer: smoke beat me to it, but Fushimi-inari is absolutely beautiful.

As smoke also mentioned, there are definite groupings of temples. On the east side of town, you have Philosopher's Path (testugaku no michi) which is a small gravel path alongside a little stream that takes you by Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavilion), Eikan-do, and further down, Nanzenji, all of which are pretty amazing. On the west side, you've got Kinkakuji (Gold), Ryoanji (stone gardens), and Daitokuji, which is my favorite. There are something like 30 seperate temples in Daitokuji, and while many of them aren't open to the public, a good chunk of them are, and many of those have gorgeous stone gardens. To me, the gardens there are more interesting than Ryoanji, and you don't have the crush of tourists that you'd have at Ryoanji.

The Heian Shrine is somewhat close to the palace. Kiyomizu is a little bit out on it's own, but well worth the visit. And, as I usually do for threads about Kyoto, I recommend A-Ok Bar in Ponotocho. It's an izakaya, very welcoming to foreigners (English menus) with good food and a great atmosphere.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:20 PM on July 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: In Kyoto, as well as the temples people have mentioned (I particularly like the Fushimi Inari Shrine, Sanjusangendo, the Philosopher's Path and Ginkakuji), I'd like to suggest Nijo Castle, which has a nightingale floor.

Take a moment to look around Kyoto Station when you arrive, too; it's pretty impressive.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 6:03 PM on July 17, 2011

Best answer: The places my family liked when they came to visit were Kiyomizu-dera, Nijo-jo, Ginkakuji, Kinkakuji, and Fushimi Inari. My family loved the gardens around Nijo-jo and Ginkakuji especially.

Places I like include Arashiyama (this is where the monkey mountain and bamboo forest are), Sanjusangendo (this is the only temple I know of that sells an omamori for headaches, by the way), and historical places like the Teradaya (though if you're not into Japanese history it's probably not as exciting for you).

I'm guessing you've already seen these, but Kyoto Travel and the Kyoto Prefecture tourism sites have pretty good rundowns of things to do and see in Kyoto, including opportunities for tourists to try traditional crafts.

It's going to be quite hot and humid in Kyoto, so make sure you're carrying around something to drink (I suggest stopping by a convenience store and picking up a couple of the frozen lemon waters or something similar to keep in your backpack/bag so you have something cool for most of the day). Try the pickle samples at the souvenir stores. Eat some yatsuhashi (there are two types - baked and "raw" - the baked type is crunchy and cinnamony, the "raw" kind is chewy and soft and filled with different flavors of soybean paste such as green tea, apple, strawberry.... there's always a seasonal flavor too, but I can't remember what it is right now.)

I haven't tried it myself, but one of my friends swears that the best way to get around Kyoto is by bicycle. There will be places you can rent bikes for a day around the city. If you'd rather not, though, buy a bus pass - unlimited use of the bus system for a day for only 600 yen!
posted by emmling at 6:43 PM on July 17, 2011

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