Japan aficionados: help me plan my trip!
May 22, 2013 3:03 PM   Subscribe

I would like to see Tokyo, Kyoto, Miyajima, Hiroshima and Naoshima in the space of 10 days. What should I see? Is this possible? and if not, all advice welcome! Details after the jump.

I'm planning a ten-day trip to Japan in June, part of which will be with family (one member of which is very familiar with Japan, so I am less concerned about those parts of the trip) and the rest on my own. I am flying into Kansei (Osaka), and from then will have a 7-day JR pass which will expire on the 20th, by which time I plan to be in Tokyo.

14-17 June: Kyoto with family
17-18 June: Solo - Miyajima
18-19 June: Solo - Hiroshima
19/20-24 June: Tokyo with family

My question is in two parts.

1) The question of the extra day

I potentially have one more night solo (19-20 June) before I head back up to Tokyo to spend the rest of the vacation with family. I'd love some advice regarding this extra day. I am extremely interested in seeing Naoshima/Teshima, but am having trouble deciding if that's logistically feasible. Options presently:

(A) Just spend another night in Hiroshima and take it easy
(B) Train up to Naoshima and Teshima, staying overnight on one of those islands
(C) See Naoshima, then stay overnight in a relatively nearby city (Okoyama? Kobe? Osaka?)
(D) Skip Naoshima entirely and spend the second night in a major city between Hiroshima and Tokyo, which would make getting back to Tokyo on the 20th easier

If (A), is two nights in Hiroshima too much? If not, I would love recommendations. Obviously, I am going to spend a good deal of time in the Peace Museum.

If (B) or (C), am I severely underestimating the amount of time it would take me to get from place to place? For example, if I left Hiroshima early on the 19th, by what time could I reasonably expect to actually be on Naoshima - and would there be enough time on the island before museums close or the ferry stops running? If (B), is it in fact worth staying the night? I have been told by many people that Naoshima is actually not quite even a day trip.

If (D), which city?

2) The question of what to see

I would love recommendations on anything I should see or do while in Japan, given where I'm going! My interests tend somewhat away from sightseeing as such (i.e. seeing for the sake of having seen), and more towards experiences unique to the place I'm visiting: seeing interesting exhibitions and museums (I am a historian), wandering around quirky & interesting places, people-watching, eating good food in interesting environments, watching interesting food or objects being made, visiting funky bookstores or shops, etc. I am not a huge shopper and not very much into souvenirs, but I'd happily buy edible things or crafted goods that are really unique to the place, if such things were available.

Any help would be enormously appreciated, and my apologies for the very long post. Thanks in advance!
posted by idlethink to Travel & Transportation around Japan (16 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm only familiar with the Kanto region, but I can say this: for travel time estimates, try hyperdia.com. It figures out your best combination of trains from end to end and gives you an arrival time. (Or, you can pick an arrival time, and it tells you when you have to leave.)
posted by ctmf at 3:33 PM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just came back from 10 days in Japan. 4 days in Tokyo, 4 in Osaka, with quick trips to Nara, Kyoto, Kobe and others.

Because we got around 99% of the time on the JR pass, there was a lot of line switching and transfers to make most day trips happen. So although Hiroshima might appear only 2 hours from Osaka, there was another ~hour of transfers to get from our hotel to the bullet train and that can be exhausting. And of course for a day trip you are doing all of this twice. Tokyo can be even worse, it depends on where you are staying. Occasionally the private subways lines can save you time for a small amount of money ($4 or less generally) by going more directly. I say this not to discourage you, but just so you build in the enough time.
posted by 2bucksplus at 3:38 PM on May 22, 2013

Best answer: Former Japanese resident and current annual visitor here.

A. I think Hiroshima is a day-trip. I do not know what I would do there for two nights. I just went to the bomb museum when I was there and then got on a train back home.

B-C. I do not know anything about these islands so I cannot tell you if it is worth the trip to them. It is a bit west of my stamping ground. Looking at a map, you are going to need to ride ferries to get to any of them. It appears that Naoshima and Teshima are less than an hour from the mainland. I think you could feasibly pick one, but I have no experience so I am just going off the ferry schedules. My general take on trips is to see fewer things between rather than drive-bys of more sites. But, it is your trip and you know your priorities better than me.

D. Kobe and Osaka are both great cities with good night life if you like that sort of thing. The harbor area of Kobe is beautiful at night. It is where I proposed to Mrs. Tanizaki. Osaka has Osaka Castle. Both cities have stations on the Shinkansen, which would allow easy travel to Tokyo.

My in-laws are in Kyoto and Osaka, so I am pretty familiar with those cities. Since my degree was in Japanese history, I hope I can lend advice that would appeal to your historical interests. Kyoto, obviously, is full of historical sites. I generally stick to the east side of town. Kiyomizudera is a must. There is also the Heian Shrine and Ginkakuji. Kinkakuji (the gold temple) is north-central and is also worth a visit as a famous site. You will not run out of things to do in Kyoto. If you wanted to take a trip to Nara, it is about an hour from Kyoto by trian. Todaiji is the big deal site in Nara.

I do not know Tokyo very well so I cannot give much advice about sites to see there, although there are many. However, some general suggestions:

1. Visit an onsen (hot spring) with your family. If you can find a resort to stay overnight, all the better, but there are also day onsen where one simply visits for the day. My family loves them.

2. Food recommendations - tako yaki, okonomiyaki, conveyor belt sushi (not the best, but fun), unagi (eel). Visit at least one izakaya.

I am sure other general ideas will occur to me as soon as I hit "post answer". But, you have an experienced family member so I am sure they will have great ideas as well. Please feel free to MeMail if you are inclined to discuss further.
posted by Tanizaki at 3:42 PM on May 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Everyone has their favourites in Kyoto - depending on your interests, you may appreciate an extra day there. My favourite is Fushimi-Inari shrine. I recommend continuing the walk past the lookout at the halfway point. Everybody stops there, the rest of the walk was practically deserted for stuff, just you, thousands of tori gates, and Japanese forest. Was like something out of Princess Mononoke.

I agree that Hiroshima is good for a day. Two nights is pretty cray cray, imho. We did a day at Hiroshima, and then caught the train and then ferry to Miyajima where we stayed overnight, which was magical. Once the day trippers clear out the island is practically deserted, and we had a lovely evening at a Ryokan there with a great kaiseki meal.

I didn't get to Kobe, but I will say that we both loved Osaka. It tends to get a buit of a bum rap from tourists for some reason, but we really enjoyed it. In addition to the castle (which is reconstructed, and has a great view, but is a bit so-so inside compared to, for example, Njio castle in Kyoto), the museum is just across the road and is really good and has lots of stuff in English, Kaiyukan the aquarium is amazing, and the dottonbori area is really fun and cool. There is so much to eat, and if you don't get okonomiyaki in Osaka at least once, you are missing out (contrast it with Hiroshima style okonomiyaki, quite different. Hiroshima even has a kind of dedicated okonomiyaki centre, it was great!). There is also a cermacis museum which is pretty good, and the all the Japanese-style shopping malls etc you could want. I liked Osaka, and felt it had a bit more character than the areas we were in Tokyo.

Pro tip for Japan: Very fancy restaurants that are ball-crushingly expensive at night often have very affordable (sub $100) lunches that are almost as spectacular as their dinners for a third or less of the price. We're talking three michelin-starred places, here. Good to know.

Have fun, Japan is really a great place for tourists; the transport is unbelievable, and people are incredibly friendly and helpful, and most know a smidgen of English from school. That being said, if you pick up a little bit of Japanese from Pimsleur or what have you, it will really serve you in good stead, and people will be very responsive.
posted by smoke at 5:25 PM on May 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think Hiroshima is more than a day trip. There's a wonderful art museum, and the replica castle is fantastic. There's also some excellent dining.

I think Miyajima is a Hiroshima day trip.

You can *never* run out of things to do in Tokyo or Kyoto, so if you're dubious err on the side of being in those places.

In Tokyo, the Tokyo Edo Museum is a lot of fun.
posted by colin_l at 5:36 PM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

You can *never* run out of things to do in Tokyo or Kyoto, so if you're dubious err on the side of being in those places.

We planned to do an itinerary similar to yours, but when we got to Tokyo we were like whoaaa, fuck it, let's just stay here. We did one day trip but spent the other ten days in Tokyo and were not one bit sorry--it contains worlds. WORLDS.
posted by HotToddy at 5:57 PM on May 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

Thirding? Seconding? Don't miss Nara.

For me the best part of Japan is just wandering around the cities on foor for 8-10 hours a day. Go everywhere.
posted by rr at 6:59 PM on May 22, 2013

Hiroshima/Miyajima is good for 2 days and 1 night (I'd lean towards spending the night in Miyajima at a ryokan if possible). While I am sure you could spend more time there, you could better spend that time elsewhere (like Kyoto).

Are you interested in Naoshima and Teshima solely for the art? There are many very good galleries/museums in both Kansai and Tokyo so I'm not sure it would be necessary to make such a detour unless there was something in particular you wanted to see.

Also, June is rainy season so you should find outdoor tourist areas such as temples slightly less crowded then they would be otherwise.

I've enjoyed both sporting events I attended in Japan, a Hanshin Tigers game at Koshien stadium (baseball) and a day at a sumo tournament in Tokyo. Worth checking out if you can get tickets.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 8:18 PM on May 22, 2013

Miyajima is an easy half-day trip from Hiroshima. Train to the ferry, over, see the shrine, pet the deer, leave. There's an aquarium, but it's not worth it to see. There's not much more to Miyajima than that. But as the ferry says, "It's the third most beautiful island in Japan." (Truth in advertising.)

Just stay both nights in Hiroshima, no need to fool with lodging in Miyajima.

I know you're very interested in seeing the Peace Musuem and that's great, but remember, Japan was the aggressor on America, because it's something they leave out of the narrative. The official story is that America wanted to test the bombs and poor little Japan was in the way. Um, rewriting history much? It infuriated my parents (both of my Grandfathers were in the Navy, in the Pacific in WWII.)

My parents lived in Iwakuni and Atsugi for 5 years. The Kintai bridge was actually more interesting than Miyajima and it was a really fun day. There's a museum and ice cream and when I went, cherry blossoms.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:32 AM on May 23, 2013

I notice you're flying into Kansei, but not spending any time in Osaka proper. I'd say that this is a mistake, as Osaka was hands-down my favorite part of my last trip to Japan.

I'll offer support to the (minority) opinion that Hiroshima is a day trip at best. I toured around Japan last August on a JR, and actually left Hiroshima early. (I'm sure it has lots of things to see and do, but missing Nara or Osaka to spend another day there would be a shame.)
posted by ASoze at 7:10 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: thanks so much for the suggestions, everyone! looking at train schedules through Hyperdia, I think Naoshima/Teshima will have to be saved for an inevitable second trip. Instead, I think I'm going to stop in Osaka on the way back for a night -- or two, if Hiroshima is indeed a two day/one night affair, as many of you suggest. Recommendations on what area to stay in Osaka would be very welcome - it looks like I'll hang out in Minami for the most part, but I'd take any suggestions. and if any MeFites are around Osaka and would like to meet up, feel free to MeMail!
posted by idlethink at 7:37 AM on May 23, 2013

Best answer: My two trips to Japan I've stayed at various locations of the Hotel Villa Fontaine. Their Osaka hotel in Shinsaibashi is cheap and nicely situated next to the massive Shinsaibashi Shopping Street. It's only a few minutes walk from Ame-mura and Nanba districts.

Based on your interests, I'd recommend stopping into a Don Quixote (giant crazy department store, there's one in just about every district in Tokyo and major Japanese city). You might also enjoy Namco Namja Town, an indoor amusement park with separate 'cities' for gyoza and ice cream.

For food, don't miss Japanese curry (Co Co Ichi is a big chain with outlets everywhere) and yakitori (for atmosphere, go to Piss Alley near Shinjuku station - it's not as gross as it sounds).

A good place to get unique food-based souvenirs is Kappabashi-dori, the kitchen street - you can get anything from kitchen utensils to fake plastic food. It's close to the big temple in Asakusa where you'll probably be sightseeing anyway.

And finally, for "quirky and interesting places", you can't beat Shimokitazawa, which is kind of like the Williamsburg of Tokyo full of cafes, vintage stores, record shops, etc.
posted by Gortuk at 8:51 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you want somewhere in Dottonbori - very active nightlife, restaurants, shopping etc, very central location, but pricier, I can recommend Kaneyoshi Ryokan. It is not like a fancy pantsy ryokan, but is just one of the cheaper but still decent accommodations in the area. Apparently the meals are pretty good, but we never got it as Dottonbori is like a vast panoply of eating options.

The other place we stayed in - didn't have the character of Kaneyoshi - was Hotel Kinki. Whilst it was more of a "western" style hotel, it was great. It's more in the CBD area, so better for your Daimaru/massive dept store experience, and located in a huge mall/maze/warren of restaurants. Like, no joke, over a hundred in a very small area. It's closer to Osaka's main train stations, so easier to get to and from if you're on JR lines, though the neighbourhood itself isn't as cool.

The staff were really, really fantastic here, even by Japanese standards they went out of the way to help us, and they spoke incredibly good English if that's an issue, too.
posted by smoke at 3:04 PM on May 23, 2013

Best answer: If you come to Tokyo there are MeFites here! flapjax at midnite hasn't posted his June schedule yet but he'll probably have a show, and they're always fun.

In Kyoto you have to visit Kiyomizudera. Besides that, getting in is complicated but you'll be there at the right time to visit Saihouji, a temple with a ton of moss. You have to apply at least a week in advance by postcard, but it should be worth it (I'm planning a trip specifically for it in June myself).

If you want to see funky things in Tokyo, try people-watching outside Shibuya station for about an hour, and make sure to go to Nakano Broadway, a kind of mall with a bit of everything surrounded by tiny restaurants of every kind.

Also, I know you're only in Tokyo a few days, but buy a rail card. It's 500 yen down (which you can get back any time) and it means you just breeze through ticket stations. The alternative is every time you get on the train you have to figure out where you're going, find the stop on a map, figure out the ticket cost, buy that exact value of ticket, and then hold on to it for the entire ride. Even with no language issues it's a pile of tedium and just not worth it.
posted by 23 at 9:35 PM on May 23, 2013

Response by poster: wonderfully helpful! 23 - Saihouji looks wonderful: I'm going to try and go. And I'd certainly be up for a Tokyo meetup - feel free to MeMail if it's happening. I am so excited for my trip: thanks, everyone!
posted by idlethink at 8:43 AM on May 24, 2013

Naoshima is wonderful, one of my favourite places in the world; but you're right, from Hiroshima it's just not practical. I set out from Okayama both times I went, and even that was a stretch for a day trip.

In Osaka, check out the trick art in the corridors under the main station!

I have a lot of recommendations for Tokyo, all of which went into four monster answers to this previous question (apologies if you've already seen it), starting here. But it looks as if I forgot to mention that on Nakamise-dori, the touristy avenue that leads to the Senso-ji temple in Asakusa, you can watch this fantastic machine making tiny batter cakes. It looks like something from a Studio Ghibli film.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 4:03 AM on May 25, 2013

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