15 days in Japan next month -- best suggestions?
March 7, 2016 11:38 AM   Subscribe

I'll be in Japan (arrive Tokyo) for 2 weeks in early-mid April. I'm really into: hot springs, local food and drink (esp fermented), hiking & mountaineering, live music, herbal medicine & botany, artisanal crafts.

I'm a single guy, late 30s, from coastal northern California if it matters. I generally like to do nerdy & offbeat things when I travel, rather than what's in a typical tourist guide. Take a class on how to make tofu? Get a massage and relax in hot springs all day? Go to karaoke with new friends? Count me in.

I'd also appreciate any logistical and cultural advice. I'll be in-country for 15 solid days, so I'm planning to get a rail pass... I'd like to get around a bit, but I generally prefer getting to know a place for a few days rather than always being on the move.

I usually stay with locals through Couchsurfing or Airbnb so if you can recommend any particular good hosts, please PM me.

posted by buckaroo_benzai to Travel & Transportation around Tokyo, Japan (10 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
There's a traditional unagi restaurant in kyoto that overlooks the mayor's garden which is severely beautiful. From kyoto, nara is a quick train ride away and not to be missed.
posted by sexyrobot at 12:12 PM on March 7, 2016

Maybe you should base yourself in Kyoto. It's a smaller city surrounded on three sides by mountains. There's a subway, and Kyoto is on the shinkansen line.

You could base yourself in Kitayama and get a feel for the neighbourhood. You'll also be close to some of the sites in the northeast part of town.

You can take the subway in to Kyoto Station and hop on the bullet train to go to Osaka or Hiroshima or Kyushu.

Or you could take a day trip from Kyoto up to the Japan Sea Coast or something.

Kyoto has a lot of traditional arts and crafts as well.

I have lived about two hours north of Kyoto for about twenty years, and I would usually go to that city for fun on the weekend.

However, I prefer Nara. Nice place to walk around, smaller city.

Nara is tough to get to, though.
posted by My Dad at 12:25 PM on March 7, 2016

I enjoyed a side trip to Lake Kawaguchi when I was visiting Tokyo (it's about 2 hours east by rail).

Stayed at the Konanso Onsen/Ryokan, which is just across the street from the lake (stayed in one of the 'Rin' suites with a lake view. Totally worth the premium price, in my opinion, if you're there to see the sunset). There's a nice bike rental shop around the corner, and plenty of relatively low-traffic areas to cycle and sightsee.

I'd also recommend making reservations to drop in on the Ide Sake Brewery, which is a *very* small operation in a pretty interesting Edo-period property. The brewery's ownership is now in the hands of their 21st generation descendant. He and his wife are very kind, and speak wonderful English (though they'll insist otherwise). The sake is also top-notch.

Mt. Fuji and Fuji-Q theme park are fairly close by, as well.
posted by BrandonW at 12:51 PM on March 7, 2016

My husband and I booked this traditional guest house in Arashiyama, a suburb of Kyoto, for a week last year. It was fantastic--it's in a quiet residential neighborhood and is a 5-minute walk from a train station that will take you directly in to Kyoto Station.

posted by telophase at 1:01 PM on March 7, 2016

The castles are all beautiful, worth walking around the grounds. Himeji and Kyoto were especially lovely. But going inside costs money, and after you've seen inside one or two, that's plenty - mostly the same kinds of things in each one.

Check into cultural festivals happening around Japan while you're there, very neat, and some are quite unique, worth a special trip. The festival street food is awesome. You may be lucky enough to be there when the sakura are blossoming, will be lots of festival-ing happening - mostly lounging around in parks en-masse, drinking and eating.

Try okonomiyaki in one of the itty bitty shops. My favorite ramen restaurant was called Ippudo - great tonkatsu ramen. Go to a Big Boy restaurant and try one of their dessert parfaits. The bento boxes and onigiri (rice balls) in convenience stores are surprisingly good for a quick meal. The onigiri are quite portable too.

While I lived there as a student researcher, my lab went on a trip to a Ninja Village and did an afternoon of Ninja School. I still have the little scroll saying I'm now a certified Ninja. It was in the middle of nowhere, but you should do a search to see if there's something nearby.

Visit a Japanese videogame arcade. Some seriously cool games to try out.

If you are staying with locals, bring small gifts from California to thank them for their hospitality. Be prepared to carry more cash on hand than you normally would - a lot of places don't take credit cards, and ATMs may only be open during certain hours. The 100-yen stores are worth checking out, particularly if you are in need of anything like toiletries.
posted by lizbunny at 1:18 PM on March 7, 2016

Hakone has hot springs and artisanal crafts--i believe the Hakone Craft Centre offers courses in glass blowing etc, and there's also randomly an outdoor Salvador Dali museum. It also has a big volcanic crater for the mountaineering/hiking side of things (Owakudani). I'd suggest not going off trail though on account of volcanic geysers and poison gas etc. I'm not totally certain Owakudani is open yet after some volcanic activity last year. I'd almost say skip Hakone if Owakudani is closed, but it's worth a visit if its open.

Not sure where you are planning on going but some people are recommending Kyoto. It's a very good choice to spend some time there. Nice place with beautiful sights, reasonably close to Osaka which is a fun city. Nara IMO is a must see, I agree with the poster above. You can certainly check out Kyoto, Nara, Osaka and a few other nearby places and still have plenty of time left to go further across Honshu, to Tokyo and Yokohama and all that.

When I lived there, I was based closer to Tokyo and one place I loved visiting was Kamakura. So many temples, lovely beaches, surf, etc. Apparently there's a festival there between April 13-20. Also nearby is Enoshima which is also a fun place to spend an afternoon. As for nerdy -- I guess DenDen Town in Osaka and Akihabara in Tokyo are kinda nerdy Meccas, but I'm not totally clear what you mean by that (nerdy can mean a lot of things)
posted by Hoopo at 3:56 PM on March 7, 2016

A small logistical note: with a fifteen-day trip you may be able to get away with a seven-day rail pass if you plan your itinerary right; we saved about USD 100 each doing this instead of buying cash tickets. Use Hyperdia to find prices.

1: arrive, travel to accommodation in big city 1, get transit card for big city 1
2: big city 1
3: big city 1
4: day trip from big city 1 - cheap cash ticket on local train? bus?
5: activate and use pass, travel somewhere new but smallish
6: pass day 2 - use locally/regionally
7: pass day 3 - travel somewhere new but smallish
8: pass day 4 - use locally/regionally
9: pass day 5 - travel somewhere new but smallish
10: pass day 6 - use locally/regionally
11: pass day 7 - get to big city 2 - we did Kyoto to Hiroshima on our last pass day, a longish journey with a change and lunch in Osaka
12: big city 2
13: big city 2
14: big city 2/day trip from big city 2
15: final day in big city 2, travel to airport, depart Japan

Using a plan like this we were able to visit Tokyo, Kamakura, Takayama, Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima and Miyajima in 16 days and it wasn't tiring at all because the JR pass was so brilliant. We also made free reservations for all our trains (we were travelling at a peak time of year) before the pass validity started, which was a lifesaver. Best of all, one of our trains was delayed an hour or so (I have never heard anyone be so apologetic as our poor conductor!) and it was amazing to just be able to get the next train that came even though we missed our reservation, since the pass lets you take virtually any JR train save the absolute fastest version of the Shinkansen.

Also, ANA and JAL respectively have relatively inexpensive tickets (~USD 80-90 per flight sector regardless of distance: a Sapporo-Okinawa nonstop costs the same as a Tokyo-Osaka nonstop, but Tokyo-Osaka-Fukuoka would be two sectors and twice the price) for domestic travel to save you doubling back and using pass days. We did Hiroshima to Narita and saved a seven-hour slog back across the country on the train and got to enjoy a flight over Mount Fuji!
posted by mdonley at 6:32 PM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I really liked Koyasan. You should go. It's about two hours from Kyoto by train. There's a hostel there that's pretty nice, but the thing to do is stay overnight in one of the temples. The graveyard is amazing just after sunrise.

Koyasan is small, so one night is enough. If you do not stay at a temple, make sure you know when the restaurants shut down so you can get dinner. I almost didn't.

You should also make a point to go to the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. This is your last chance: it's going to be relocated in 2016. Make sure to go as early in the morning as possible: the main market is pretty much done by 10AM, IRRC. Afterwards, you can get some of the freshest sushi in the world there in the retail market nearby.

I am not a morning person, but I'm glad I made the effort for these two things.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 10:37 PM on March 7, 2016

WAK Japan has some interesting cultural experiences if you're in Kyoto.

Japanese guest houses has a list of onsens and reviews in English.

Be very, very careful with air bnb in Japan -- you need a license to have an air bnb and a lot of people don't have one, so some of the local councils started a crackdown. There was a big thing about this on Reddit's /r/JapanTravel with cancellations at the last minute.

I had shiatsu (acupressure) the last time I was in Tokyo -- I understand that they're trained for three years to learn shiatsu (and shiatsu related things), so that might be an interesting option. PM me if you want details.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 6:29 AM on March 8, 2016

If you're going to Kyoto, visit this restaurant. Not too expensive, and it's one of the top 10 meals of my life.

Buy a JR Railpass in the US (you can't buy them in Japan), it's for foreigners only and allows you to ride the Shinkansen and a lot of local lines for free. Reserve your seat on the Shinkansen, though, a lot of lines will be booked up otherwise.
posted by wcfields at 12:21 PM on March 8, 2016

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