Japan during Hanami season - what to see in Tokyo + some other questions
February 13, 2017 11:55 AM   Subscribe

Thanks to a whole lot of United miles (yay credit cards & business travel!), Mrs. Photo Guy and myself will be headed to Japan at the end of March for two weeks to visit her brother and his wife (expats living in Tokyo) and to do some sightseeing. We've done some planning but still had a few questions, so I thought I'd ask for some pointers.

I have visited Japan once before, about eight years ago as a penny-pinching backpacker. I did a pretty hectic 2.5-week trip at the time (Tokyo-Kyoto-Nara-Himeji-Hiroshima-Osaka-Tokyo) and had a blast, but am looking to go a bit slower and enjoy myself this time. The wife has been to Europe several times but has never traveled to Asia before.

Here's what I have so far:
March 30 = Fly into NRT, spend the weekend in Tokyo. Will be staying with my brother-in-law.
April 3 - 6 = Kyoto. I was worried about hanami season, so I booked a hotel room in Kyoto months ago (Hyatt Regency).
April 7 - 12 = Back in Tokyo.
April 13 = Fly home from NRT

Here's my questions:
- Any suggestions of things to do in Tokyo and/or good daytrips? Last time I only had a couple of days in Tokyo so I didn't get to do much besides walk around a lot. We are both city people but like museums, temples, parks, etc as well. The wife is also a big design/architecture fan, so any interesting buildings, etc would be a plus.

- I'm considering getting a 7-day JR pass, since I think the trip to/from Kyoto will cover the cost. Considering it's the height of hanami season, will getting seats be an issue? We are planning to travel during the week (Mon/Thurs) if that helps. I might consider splurging on Green Car if that makes a difference as well.

- Related question - how bad are the crowds in Kyoto during hanami? We'll be there during the week, but since hotels are so booked I'm not sure what to expect.

- Any suggestions for a good pocket WiFi service? I'd prefer something I can have delivered to my brother-in-law's apartment and shipped back via Japan Post - given how tired/jetlagged we'll be, I'd rather not have to deal with an airport pick-up on arrival.

- Last but not least, any quick tips for handling the jetlag after the long flight (DC-Tokyo)? We upgraded to ANA Business, which I'm hoping will help a bit. I travel a fair bit for work (although mostly to Europe/Middle East) so I'm sort of used to it, but it's still a long flight.
posted by photo guy to Travel & Transportation around Japan (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Jetlag - that ANA flight should get you into NRT around 4PM or so? I do East Coast to Tokyo once or twice a year, and it's not bad (although the return is a beast). I typically doze for a few hours on the flight, but mostly just stay up. Then I stay awake through a nice dinner, go to bed on the early side (8-9PM), and be prepared to wake up starving around 4AM. If you're staying with family, try to plan ahead so you can be self-sufficient for a few hours in the early morning before they get up. Then get morning sun and just push through, pretending that jet lag doesn't exist.

There are SO MANY good day trips! My top 3:
1. Kamakura (ride the Enoden, go see the Daibutsu, maybe hit up that shop that specializes in croquettes on the main road). This is it!
2. Edo-Tokyo Building Park. Perfect for an architecture enthusiast (if traditional is of interest). Maybe combine with soba-eating side trip to Jindaiji.
3. Maybe Osanbashi Yokohama International Passenger Terminal for modern architecture (add on lunch at Yokohama Chinatown)
posted by chocotaco at 12:25 PM on February 13, 2017

chocotaco - Thanks for the advice and links! You're correct, our flight gets in around 3:30pm.
posted by photo guy at 12:36 PM on February 13, 2017

Oh, I'm so jealous! I went to Tokyo and Kyoto in December and all I want now is a chance to go back.

Things to do in Tokyo:
  • My favorite museum, hands down, was the Edo Tokyo museum. We did it on our first day to provide some historical context to everything we saw. It's a really, really, really fun, well-designed museum in a crazy building and we spent a few hours longer there than planned.
  • We did the "big" religious sites on all the major organized tours, like Sensoji and Meijijingu, but my actual favorite shrines were Kanda Myojin, which we visited for my IT geek spouse, Imado Shrine in Asakusa, because I love maneki neko, and the many shrines in Ueno Park. I didn't actually visit any of the museums in Ueno, but I'm assuming you'll visit the park if you're there for the cherry blossoms. Toshogu is the only one with a fee, but it's for the gardens, so I am assuming that would be worth it in spring.
  • Reissue Cafe in Harajuku makes 3D lattes. Just...just do it. It's awesome.
  • If you want to get a nice view of the city, the observation deck at the government center is free, but the one at the World Trade Center Building is pretty cheap, not crowded, and has a spectacular view of Tokyo Tower (and Mount Fuji if the weather is nice).
  • The Skytree was a mall. As malls go, it was fine, but if I hadn't wanted to go to that mall, I probably wouldn't have bothered. The view of it from the Asakusa side of the river is neat, though.
  • The shopping in Tokyo Station, however, was also very fun for souvenir purposes. There's a store on the bottom floor (the same floor with "Character Street") that sold all the flavors of Kit-Kat you could ever want, in one spot. There was also a store on the floor with the entryways to the shinkansen lines that sells bento boxes from all over the country, which is fun before getting on a train to another city.
JR Pass: I can't advise on spring crowds, but we did travel over the New Year holidays and if you want, you can make free seat reservations when you pick up your pass. I don't think Green Car is worth it.

Re: jetlag and wifi: I felt like most of the wifi vendors were interchangeable. I paid about $70, picked it up at the airport post office (very easy to find, and we also picked up our JR pass at the same time), and dropped it back at the airport post office before getting on our flight home.

You'll probably actually be okay on the way there - we were tired, but fine, and had no problems picking up all our various things after getting off the plane. If you can handle getting through customs, you can handle the post office. I definitely recommend both the Keisei Skyliner and the Narita Express trains for access to the airport. Depending on where you're staying in Tokyo, one might be better than the other.

The only side trips we did outside Tokyo and Kyoto, because of time, were Tokyo Disneyland/DisneySea (AMAZING but probably not a must do unless you like amusement parks) and Himeji Castle. I really liked Himeji - it's an easy half-day trip by shinkansen from Kyoto - but definitely get there before they open, because it gets crowded as the day goes on and climbing all the stairs in the keep is no fun in crowds.

Have fun and EAT ALL THE THINGS.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 2:21 PM on February 13, 2017

I will second the recommendations for the Edo-Tokyo Open-Air Architecture Museum and the Edo-Tokyo Museum. If you visit the latter, you may be interested in checking out the new Hokusai Museum, which is about five minutes away. It just opened in November, so it's not in many guidebooks yet.

If you're interested in contemporary architecture, here's a guide to notable contemporary architecture in Tokyo, with DIY walking tours of Aoyama and Ginza. I would also very highly recommend the new Archi-Depot, a huge gallery of architectural models by many famous Japanese contemporary architects.
posted by Umami Dearest at 8:29 PM on February 13, 2017

The best permanent thing I did on my recent trip was a day trip to the Hakone open air museum (sculpture and a building of Picassos).
posted by brujita at 8:38 PM on February 13, 2017

Yes, Hakone Open Air Museum and all of Hakone are worth the trip. As above the Edo-Tokyo Open-Air Architecture Museum and the Edo-Tokyo Museum are both good. If you can, fit in the Edo-Tokyo Museum early as it will give you a good orientation to the history of the city. They have English-speaking docents there who are pretty good and worth making a reservation scroll down. Kawagoe is a good day trip for a photogenic older city look.

Check out Tokyo Art Beat and they have an app, too. And, it might be worth picking up Art Space Tokyo.
posted by Gotanda at 11:06 PM on February 13, 2017

CD Japan has pocket wifis and you can have them delivered to the airport or a domicile address.

I can't tell you much about the Shinkansen availabilities during that time, but I don't think you need to splurge on the Green Car unless you absolutely want to, the normal economy class is plenty nice. But try to take the Shinkansen from and to Shinagawa instead of Tokyo Station - they're doing construction there and it is even harder to navigate that giant building that usual.

I guess it may be too cold for Enoshima yet, but if you can go, it's a really pretty place. Like the two previous posters, we also really liked Hakone the last time we went, and it's only two hours by romance car from Tokyo, has onsen, a really weird pool (Yunessan) where you can bathe in wine or sake or coffee, and interesting museums.

No idea about Kyoto crowds, but for jetlag, try to just adjust to Japan time, meaning try to stay up until night or maybe at least 7 pm (you may still sleep until 7 the next morning if you're exhausted) or if you need to nap, don't nap for more than two hours.

My favourite place to be in Tokyo is Odaiba, which is an artificial island in the Tokyo Bay where you can walk around the beach, shop, eat and watch the skyline of Tokyo (especially from the Ferris Wheel.)

And you have to try taiyaki. I know you didn't ask for food recommendations, but I love Taiyaki, so I'm telling you to try some. They're awesome cheap street food and delicious. Normally, eating while walking around is discouraged in Japan, so you might want to eat it standing where you bought it, but I usually ignore that when it comes to Taiyaki.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 4:20 AM on February 14, 2017

Advice about crowds in Japan generally: if you are at all claustrophobic, yes, it can get to you. But people are generally moving along, not gathered in one place; it's like a river, and you have to kind of jump in and swim with the current. If you can do that, it's kind of nice, since people are almost always well-mannered and cheerful, and you feel that you're part of things in a way that you might not elsewhere. Hanami crowds are especially happy.

Contrarian advice for Kyoto during hanami season: if you want a break, try visiting temples that are famous not for their cherry trees, but for their autumn foliage. Arashiyama (which you must not miss) will be crowded, but Okochi-Sanso and its garden should be quieter. All temples charge admission of around US$5, and O-S is even more expensive (Y1000), but it's worth it for the garden and the respite.
posted by nohattip at 4:24 AM on February 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

There's also a Glico store in Tokyo station which has every kind of Pocky and their savory Pretz.

The dedicated KitKat Chocolatories are in the basements of the Seibu and Daimaru department stores.
posted by brujita at 10:17 PM on February 14, 2017

If you go to Enoshima - and you should, if only for the flocks of black kites wheeling overhead - you owe it to yourself to take the monorail there. Take the Yokosuka or Shonan-Shinjuku line from the major Tokyo station of your choice to Ofuna. Change to the monorail. Ride in the front. Enjoy.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 3:06 PM on February 15, 2017

Thanks all! For anyone else going - we ended up seeing quite a bit and had a blast. We made it to both the Edo-Tokyo Museum and the Edo-Tokyo Open-Air Museum and would definitely recommend both. The open-air museum is just far enough away that there's fewer tourists too. The Yayoi Kusama exhibit at the National Art Center Tokyo was worth checking out as well. We lucked out and arrived in Tokyo just in time for Hanami. All the best viewing spots (Ueno Park, Naka-Meguro, etc) were pretty packed but fortunately there were plenty of other spots to see blossoms. We were a bit early to see full blossoms in Kyoto but still had a great time. Crowds were definitely present everywhere but not too bad outside of the big tourist spots.

I also found a couple of very much out-of-the-way shops where I bought more than I planned and would definitely recommend to others who are looking for something unique - a paper shop near Sendagi metro that makes some beautiful prints, and a very small clothing shop in Minato-ku that makes all sorts of things from old kimono fabric.
posted by photo guy at 1:33 PM on April 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

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