What must I see in Japan?
April 5, 2013 9:18 PM   Subscribe

I'm probably going to Japan at the end of July for roughly one week. What MUST I see or do in that one week?

I'm primarily interested in sightseeing - temples, historical type things, some hiking in the mountains, stuff like that. Maybe a bit of nightlife thrown in. I'm not sure if I should pick one city and explore it better or try to go around to different cities during my one week.

I know basically nothing about Japan. What's a decent one-week itinerary that involves sightseeing and maybe some nightlife? Any other tips for travel in the country? I'm also somewhat low-budget, so any specific recommendations for lodging are welcome as well.
posted by Gorilla456 to Travel & Transportation around Japan (13 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a former resident and return to Japan annually. I recommend one city and seeing it well. Either Tokyo or Kyoto could easily be a week. If it were me, I would pick Kyoto. There are lots of temples. Also, you are in the Kobe-Kyoto-Osaka triangle and could also visit those cities for day trips. There is nice nightlife to be found in any of those cities, but I would recommend Osaka if I had to pick one. But, I have had great nights in Kobe and Kyoto as well.

Any Kyoto guide book would serve you well. I would recommend Kiyomizudera, Kinkakuji, Heian Shrine, and so on. This wiki travel guide can get you started. The Gion Festival also takes place throughout July, so you would have the opportunity to take part in those festivities.

Japan in late July is going to be hot and muggy as can be. Be sure to pack accordingly. Also, while credit cards are becoming more commonplace, it is still largely a cash society. Don't think twice about carrying a large wad of cash.
posted by Tanizaki at 9:43 PM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

Any other tips for travel in the country?

Stay in a ryokan, a traditional inn, either an old one or a modern one, if it's in the budget.

Any other tips for travel in the country?

The stationary - pens and such, is great, and makes good souvenirs.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:48 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I really depends where you're going. But when I was in Japan for a few weeks, Kyoto was absolutely my favorite place. A good mix of traditional and new Japan. If you can't focus on any one part, that's a good place to start. The ryokan we stayed at was relatively close to the city, but far enough away to get a good isolation for the hectic energy that is modern Japanese city life. And after a few days living simply you can go all out in mainstream urban Japan. I'm sure there are guides to specific places for foreign travelers, but that's where I'd direct my time.
posted by fishmasta at 10:26 PM on April 5, 2013

Any other tips for travel in the country?

The boxed lunches at convenience stores are really good, and will make a tasty inexpensive lunch, which helps the budget a bit. Make sure to eat sitting at a bench or such. Walking while eating is uncouth.

Which brings us to the local do's/don'ts and context - grind through that portion of the guidebook early just to internalize it and so that you're not trying to cram this stuff on the flight:

"OTC Pseudoephedrine and other nasal decongestants are banned in Japan and may get confiscated as a drug precursor by customs at the airport
Street numbers - buildings in a block are numbered, rather than increasing along the road.
etc. etc."

posted by sebastienbailard at 11:26 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well I, for one, being of the Cheap Trick generation would make my way down to Budokan for Lord knows why.
posted by mazola at 11:51 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Would you be interested in climbing Mt. Fuji? It might be a fun idea to climb Mt. Fuji. A unique experience as mountain-climbing goes, climbing a mountain with a crowd of other people. I certainly found it memorable, though that may have just been the altitude sickness.

Seriously though. I've been to Japan a few times, and Tokyo is probably my favorite city in the world, but goddamn if my strongest memories aren't of hauling myself up that mountain.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:58 PM on April 5, 2013

Like Tanizaki, I recommend locating yourself somewhere in the Kansai/Kinki region. Osaka and Kyoto, especially. There is tonnes and tonnes to do in this area, the rail is fast and efficient, and you can go from modern, delightful Osaka to old school Kyoto in about 40 minutes, you could zip across to Hiroshima for a day, the options are endless. Japan is a great place for travellers, so great.

If you do end up in that area, Kyoto is guidebooked to death so you will need no advice there (my favourite shrine is Fushimi-Inari, fyi), but if you go to Osaka and have a passing interest in aquariums, Kaiyukan, the Osaka aquarium is frigging terrific. Go on a weekday.
posted by smoke at 1:34 AM on April 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

I agree on Kyoto. Tons to see, nice atmosphere. Rent a bike there, it's cheap and easy. When I was in Japan, we went from Kyoto to Naoshima on a day-trip, I'd love to stay there overnight, specially in summer. Also, generally I prefer to take a ride out into the countryside for a day or two, rather than make it to another city, but that's just me.
I really miss Japanese convenience stores, and they are everywhere; generally you'll find it surprisingly easy to live - in terms of both lodging and food.
Tokyo is amazing, but it is also huge. Public transportation is excellent, but the distances are so large, it still takes a lot of time to get around to the main sites and activities. If you only have a week, and really want to see Tokyo, spend the week there.
posted by mumimor at 3:13 AM on April 6, 2013

One week is not much time for Japan, there is so much to do and so many places to go. I nth everyone saying Kyoto for historical stuff and any of Kyoto, Osaka, or Kobe for night life (they are each a bit different). If you want to do a day-trip outside the big cities, I recommend the onsen town Arima Onsen (between Kobe and Kyoto, if my memory-map is accurate).
- Konbini (7-11, familymart, am/pm, etc) are the best way to eat cheap in Japan, and usually eat well. I was never a fan of their beno boxes but you also have onigiri, soba, even take-away okonomiyaki.
- Seconding the "carrying lots of cash is ok" statement, and adding that your foreign card won't always work in ATMs, and that can be a frustrating exercise. It's gotten better, though...
- Kobe, my favorite city in Japan, has a damn beautiful hostel high up in the hills overlooking the city.

When I did a one-week Kansai vacation, I used Kobe as a home-base, did 2 days in Kyoto, 1 day at Himeji, 1 at Osaka, 1 at Arima Onsen, and 2 in Kobe. The local trains are relatively inexpensive, and having a good-priced base in Kobe was well worth it.
posted by whatzit at 6:47 AM on April 6, 2013

I agree with everyone saying you should go with Kyoto—there's more temples and cool sights to see, more history, more hikes. I think Lonely Planet's Hiking in Japan has some good Kyoto-area hikes, since that's your thing.

Any guidebook can tell you about the major temples, so I'll tell you about something a little more unusual, for if/when you get a little burned out on temples (plus, it's kind of a hike!). My recommendation for a fun walk is to check out the Arashiyama area (an interesting place to see since as Wikitravel says, it's less of a foreign tourist destination and more of a Japanese one) and visit the Iwatayama monkey park. It's one my my favorite memories of Kyoto: you climb up a forested mountain trail, spotting more and more monkeys sitting in the trees as you continue higher, and at the top there's a little park where you can meet a bunch of monkeys and feed them and watch them play. Both the monkeys and the park staff will be happy to see you!
posted by honey wheat at 8:36 AM on April 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

A week in Kansai would give you a really good trip. You could spend the majority (four days) in Kyoto and cover the four main areas of the city. The Lonely Planet hiking guide honey wheat mentioned is great for little hikes around Kyoto.

In addition to Kyoto, two days in Nara, and some time (not too much, it's kind of meh to me) in Osaka. The Tsutenkaku area was kind of cool.

If you did Tokyo, a day trip to Nikko is almost required, as is Kamakura mentioned above. Tokyo just doesn't have the temples and traditional culture you're going to get in Kyoto. It's not a bad city, but city pretty much sums it up. It's a giant metropolis, and while it is in Japan, it's still big city.

I can't link to it just now, but in past replies to this sort of question, I have written out weeklong itineraries for people looking at Tokyo or Kyoto. Maybe those would help.

Have a great time.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:51 AM on April 6, 2013

Any other tips for travel in the country? I'm also somewhat low-budget, so any specific recommendations for lodging are welcome as well.

Most places accept foreign credit cards, but enough don't that you do need to make sure that you have cash. In particular, the automated ticket machines for the train system are in English, but do not accept Foreign credit cards. The human ticketing offices do accept foreign credit cards, but their English is more touch and go. Conclusions: Make sure you always have cash.

But cash brings its own problem: foreign cash cards to not work well in Japan. If you think you can just find a bank and use their ATM, you are wrong. In the event that you need extra cash, learn to recognize the Post Office and Seven Eleven symbols. They have foreign compatible ATMs. Seven only allows withdrawal of large bills, so the Post Office is probably your best choice.
posted by yeolcoatl at 10:29 AM on April 6, 2013

One thing about the cash that yeolcoatl reminded me of: in Japan, there really isn't a thing about large bills. In the States, trying to spend a $100 bill is a pain in the butt, but there's literally no problem with going into a convenience store and buying a pack of gum with a 10,000 yen note. It is definitely a cash based society, and one of the perks is that you can actually use all the denominations of money here.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:56 PM on April 6, 2013

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