Help me decide on a Japan Sabbatical Plan--Breadth or Depth?
November 17, 2019 9:59 PM   Subscribe

tl;dr: do I spend six weeks in Tokyo or a couple weeks in a few different cities? I am lucky to have a six week sabbatical. I am planning to spend all that time in Japan around March or April as a first time visitor. I am deciding between spending all or most of the time in Tokyo with maybe a few weekend trips or spreading it out between cities.

I tend to do TOO much on vacation, and run myself ragged and I'd like to learn to take my time and come back stimulated, but rejuvenated.

I am a regular solo traveler and I mostly prefer urban/offbeat (atlas obscura) travel. I assume friends might join me for parts of this too, so loneliness is not a huge concern.

On one hand, staying in Tokyo seems like I'll be missing out on a lot, but on the other, I will get the "feel" of the city and not have to compress a lot of sights into a short time. Some might also argue one of the busiest cities is inherently not chill, so would this be a mistake? I can obviously choose to leave Tokyo if I really crave nature (something that's never happened to me), but I'm trying to decide to get a place to stay in Tokyo for the whole time, or book a couple weeks and play it by ear. Moving to different neighborhoods might be nice too but it's considerably pricier than a long term airbnb. All tips are welcome!

--modern & contemporary art, grafitti (naoshima)
--food (highbrow and lowbrow) (7-11 as well as fancy stuff)
--pop culture
--abandoned/dark tourism (battleship island, fukushima, rabbit island)
--cherry blossoms, since it's the season

--I don't drive
--I am not particularly interested in temples or palaces/ancient things (this sounds dismissive--I mean they're good just not a highlight or something to go out of the way for to me)
--Other than the ocean/sea life, I'm not into nature--outdoorsy hiking, mountains, animal life, etc
--Living out of a suitcase and having to move every few days

--Seoul/North Korea
posted by jennybento to Travel & Transportation around Japan (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I thought Tokyo was very cool but if it were me I'd definitely want to try out a couple different places. Kyoto does have a lot of temples and history, but it's also a way different feel and style. If you were to go to Tokyo for a week, then spend a week in say Kyoto and another in like Osaka or a small town, then return to Tokyo for the remainder, maybe a different neighborhood, I feel that would be the best balance.

I just feel like it would be good to get a feel for another part of the country for contrast, since that could help put Tokyo in context. Whatever you decide though, it's going to be amazing!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 10:53 PM on November 17, 2019 [5 favorites]

You could spend five years in Tokyo and not see everything there is to see. It's enormous and diverse because it's made up of nearly two dozen wards which could all be cities in their own right. And each one of those has a bunch of districts with different things they're proud of or celebrate or are known for. I think because of your list of interests and what you don't care for that Tokyo for six weeks would be a good decision. It's also really easy to do a couple overnight or day trips by rail because you'll have a home base to head out from and go back to near a transportation hub, making the short distance traveling less stressful.

I think you can definitely find chill in Tokyo, but you do have to go looking for it. It depends on what you find chill - for me that is definitely Jimbocho with all the bookstores, where I could wander endlessly. But really whatever speaks to you, you can find it. There's a lot of contemplative architecture, any kind of spiritual practice you can think of, many huge gardens open to the public, walking and bike paths, lots of bodies of water, quiet little cafes and things like craft exhibitions and classes, in addition to an amazing art scene.

One thing to keep in mind is that the Summer Olympics will be shortly after your stay, and it's throwing the city into a bit of extra chaos. A lot of locals are planning on getting the hell out of Dodge, evidently. But also there's a big push for more multilingual signs, clarification for tourists and a lot of shenanigans about where to put this influx of visitors. This could all affect where you end up staying, for sure.

The first time I went to Japan I split my time between Tokyo and Kyoto. I like Kyoto more, but I also love temples and nature and animals. I think that you can't really go wrong - if you do decide to jump between cities there's going to be a soft place to land wherever you go if you look for it. But if you stay in Tokyo you'll be able to really get to know an area and might find that deeply rewarding.
posted by Mizu at 11:00 PM on November 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Yeah, what is making me feel better IS that it will be awesome no matter what, but as an American, we never get six weeks in a row so there's a weird pressure to do it RIGHT! :D

Wandering and observing other people and museums are chill to me for sure.
posted by jennybento at 11:32 PM on November 17, 2019

You sound like you'd do great in Osaka - it's also a big city, but with a different vibe, maybe Berlin to Tokyo's London. I loved wandering through Osaka back streets, the shops, restaurants and train stations (big train station areas like Umeda and Namba are good there). Fantastic people watching. I like it much better than Tokyo, friendlier people. And it's great for daytrips to all Kansai - even if you don't like temples, Arashiyama is a cherry blossom must.

In my experience a week in a big city is enough to leisurely tour it. I'd add a few days in other places - Hiroshima is definitely worth seeing, and I've never made it out of Honshu but it's the next thing on my to do list.

One thing, if you're not rushing all over calculate if a JR pass is worth it. You can get cheaper regional passes for just one region, either on JR or on anything but JR. And flying can be cheaper than shinkansen.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 12:43 AM on November 18, 2019 [4 favorites]

With six weeks there, you should probably at least do a brief jaunt (half a week-ish) down to the Kansai region for a little variety.

And it's great for daytrips to all Kansai - even if you don't like temples, Arashiyama is a cherry blossom must.

I'd add Todai-ji, Kiyomizu-dera, and Fushimi Inari-taisha as other shrines in Kansai (Nara and Kyoto, respectively) that are worth a visit even if you don't like temples. The latter two have really nice scenery, while Todai-ji is just a really impressive structure, especially when you know the full story of its history.
posted by tobascodagama at 5:30 AM on November 18, 2019 [4 favorites]

Oh, wow, six weeks! I'm envious. The longest I've had in Japan at a shot was two weeks.

I would definitely spend some time outside Tokyo. Tokyo is great, but it's like visiting the US and only staying in New York City.

I wasn't the world's biggest fan of Kyoto after a few visits, so I'm going to suggest some different ideas for trips to other areas. First, the Izu Peninsula is a great area, and there's lots of neat stuff there. I had a lot of fun in Ito, where I got to walk around the rim of an extinct volcano and watch capybaras take hot baths. It's very, very pretty and if you like seafood you'll have a ball. It's also very accessible by shinkansen as far as Atami, then rail down the coast and bus inland. You can drive places, but if you are mindful of timetables, you don't have to.

Second, Gunma or Gifu prefectures. Both because they are riddled with onsen towns and I feel that a peaceful onsen on a cold evening is one of life's greatest delights, and because they have lots of other things to do and see. Gifu in particular was my favorite part of my last trip to Japan. You get mountains and gorgeous river valleys, excellent beef, and more traditional rural handicrafts than you can shake a stick at. Takayama is a normal tourist base for that area, and it's easily reached by a beautiful train journey.

Basically, you can totally get out of the big cities by transit. There are some places made easier with a car, but I've never driven in Japan and I've never felt inconvenienced.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 6:33 AM on November 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

Also, lest it look like I didn't read your question, I feel the need to point out that I'm not outdoorsy - the pretty scenery was mostly enjoyed from a bath/a large train window, and said volcano rim was reached by a very touristy ski lift.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 7:13 AM on November 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

If I were you (and I wish I was) I would definitely stay in Tokyo the whole time and take occasional trips. It's not often you have such a big chunk of time to spend somewhere and really get to know the place.

I lived in Machida, a suburb of Tokyo, for two years and I know I didn't even scratch the surface.

Time Out is a fantastic resource for weird and cool things to do--look for the "50 things to do in X neighborhood" lists.
posted by exceptinsects at 10:56 AM on November 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: These have been great answers and a bit of a rollercoaster back and forth--stay, go, stay go! :D Speaking of, I love rollercoasters. :D

Also the individual suggestions have been great. I am a little bit more convinced that spending MOST of the time in Tokyo (i.e. getting a place there for the whole time) and doing little jaunts is the way to go. I've also got a head start on some jaunts. After I posted this I also considered flight travel for some of the farther places.

@exceptinsects yeah I have no illusions that six weeks is enough time--youve emboldened me. :D

@bowtiesarecool I especially liked the "nature things that are cool for non-nature lovers" clarification. I have been looking for cherry blossom locales that are "worth it" even for us. :D

It's funny, almost everyone I talk to RAVES about Kyoto and I do wonder if it's the picturesque buildings/history but the craft stuff (thanks @phatkitten) and food has won me over a bit.

Thanks all for your thoughtful answers. I am so thankful to have this really unique opportunity which is why I want to take advantage of it!
posted by jennybento at 2:25 PM on November 18, 2019

While you could spend 6 weeks just in Tokyo, it would be a shame to go all the way to Japan and not see anything else. Each region has its own unique culture, foods, and sights.

Osaka and Kyoto are on the first-timer's list for a reason, but they're also going to be overrun with tourists especially during cherry blossom season and maybe not so chill. As an outside suggestion, how about splitting your time between Tokyo and Kyushu?

Fukuoka is a really chill city without a ton of western tourists. It's got one of the best food scenes in Japan (including the yatai food stalls), and is very central for exploring the west of Japan. If you fly from Tokyo to Fukuoka (there are special flight discounts for tourists), you can use Kyushu passes to explore Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Kagoshima, or Beppu/Oita (onsens), or the Sanyo-San'in Northern Kyushu pass to get as far as Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Osaka.

That might sound like a lot of time on the train, but to me the train is part of the vacation - you can grab unique eki-ben train food at each station, and having a couple drinks on the way is fine too.
posted by Gortuk at 4:23 PM on November 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

It's funny, almost everyone I talk to RAVES about Kyoto and I do wonder if it's the picturesque buildings/history but the craft stuff (thanks @phatkitten) and food has won me over a bit.

So my factor in saying that I like Kyoto more than Tokyo but also suggesting that you stick in Tokyo for most of your stay is that my brother lived in Tokyo for thirteen years. Kyoto absolutely has fantastic crafts and food (the best american style apple pie I've ever eaten in my entire life was in Kyoto) but it's the general attitude of the people I like more. That said because I had a go-to in-depth guide for Tokyo I found it more enjoyable to spend longer stays there and have access to a different viewpoint than that of someone visiting for just a week or whatever. As a definite foreigner I always feel more welcomed in Kyoto individually but more comfortable in Tokyo in general - there's more acceptance of bumbling loud white women there, frankly. (Not that there aren't plenty of diverse folks in Kyoto, of course! It's just a different feel.) It's like in Tokyo I'm just a face in the crowd but in Kyoto I'm directly interesting, and that can be super validating and also super stressful! For a long stay, I would opt for comfort over welcome, which is a very razor thin nuance but it matters.

All that said with your updates I think you should absolutely go to Osaka! It sounds like you would really jive with the people there. Six weeks is plenty of time to split the difference and do a nice long stay in two places with a couple stops in between. I just generally see "sabbatical" and think "stay in one place for a long time". It's a different way of thinking about travel, I guess.
posted by Mizu at 5:46 PM on November 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

Sorry for being a bit late, but six weeks is a lot of time to be here, and you could easily see a giant chunk of the country by setting yourself up for a week or two in different areas with a central base and doing a series of day trips from that base. Just off the top of my head

Tokyo: yes, see stuff in Tokyo. I live near there, so I’m a bit jaded about it. There’s still plenty of good stuff there, a lot of which you can do in clumps of neighborhoods, like Asakusa/Ueno/Akihabara, Shibuya/Harajuku/Meiji Shrine, and so on.

Day trips/overnight trips from Tokyo: Kamakura, Yokohama, Nikko, Izu Disneyland (I mean, you’re in the area)

Kansai: stay in Osaka, because it’s got a great nightlife, and most of the sites in the city you can see in a day or so, and it’s got trains that go everywhere. There’s the castle, the tower (Tsutenkaku) and some other stuff, but it’s mostly shopping, eating and drinking.

Trips from Osaka:

Kyoto, obviously. You could see the highlights in a couple days, or break the city into sections and do one a day for three or four days (northwest, Ryoanji, Kinkakuji, Daitokuji, Nijo Castle, Northeast Ginkakuji, Eikando, Nanzenji, Heian Shrine, southeast Fushimi Inari, Kiyomizu, stuff in that area, and maybe a day for the shotengai covered shopping streets, Sanjusangendo, Kitanotenmangu)

Nara: even more temples, Todaiji, Byodoin, adorable deer

Kobe: never been, hear it’s nice

Hyogo: big castle

You could also do short trips, like western Japan, Hiroshima, Fukuoka could be a good couple of days. Head up to Sapporo, or to Sendai and check out Matsushima.

Honestly, six weeks is a lot to spend just in Tokyo. You should be able to find places that will store bags for you while you head out for a day or two. One word of warning, it seems like regulations on large bags on the Shinkansen are changing, where there will be a charge for suitcases, and only allow a certain number per car. While the Shinkansen can be nice, lcc flights are nearly always cheaper and faster.

One last thing, something that’s been a topic recently: please avoid staying at the APA hotel chain while you’re here. They have hotels in nearly every decent sized city here, are cheap, and usually convenient, and their president is a rabid nationalist, historic revisionist, bigot. Their rooms are all stocked with copies of her book (which has boosted “sales” allowing her to claim she’s a bestselling author) which is chock full of racist/nationalist bullshit. There are better places to stay.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:30 AM on November 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

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