Huge multicity Japan tour suggestions
August 23, 2008 6:44 AM   Subscribe

Massive Japan tour: Suggestions for short blocks of time in: Takamatsu, Kobe, Tokushima, Matsuyama, Fukuoka, Gifu, Kofu, Kyoto, Sapporo, Hakodate, Toyohashi, Tokyo, Narita

I'm touring with an opera troupe for 5 weeks in September/October, and am trying to get as many suggestions as I can for the trip. This will be my first time in Japan, and free time is fairly limited, as follows:

Takamatsu: 1 full day, 2 evenings(after 7pm), 2 mornings+early afternoons (~Until 3pm)
Kobe: 2 late evenings (after 9pm), an early morning (until noon)
Tokushima: 1 full day
Matsuyama: 1 full afternoon+evening (after 3pm), 1 morning+early afternoon
Fukuoka: 1 full afternoon+evening, 1 morning, couple hours at night
Gifu: 1 full afternoon+evening, 1 morning+early afternoon
Kofu: 1 long evening(5pm+), 1 morning+early afternoon
Kioto: 1 late evening
Sapporo: 1 morning+early afternoon
Hakodate: 1 full afternoon+evening
Toyohashi: 1 full afternoon+evening, 1 morning (until 1pm)
Tokyo (Nagata-cho district): 1 full day, 2 mornings+early afternoons
Narita: 1 full afternoon+evening

Any city specific suggestions are greatly appreciated, as are Japan-wide suggestions for food/restaurants, shopping, entertainment, experiences etc.

My shopping list currently consists of:
-An unlocked cellphone of some sort
-A digital camera
-As much Miracle Fruit(in freeze-dried pill form) as I can fit in my luggage (anyone know where I should look for this? Picture of a (I think) typical box here
Additions and suggestions on additions or locations to buy these things are muchly appreciated.
posted by sirion to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

Narita: there is a main tourist drag with more cute little shops than you could shake a stick at. I don't know the name, but you can't miss it. Also, make sure to go to the temples and walk around the temple grounds. Beautiful beautiful place, and maybe the leaves will be turning by then. The pond is gorgeous, the koi and turtles are HUGE. Night life is strange because of the throngs of flight crew, who have their own bars and roam the streets at odd hours of the day. The city revolves around their schedules.
Kobe: Is, like, my favorite city in all of Japan. For your late evening, hang out in Sannomiya and go to some bars. For your daytime part, well, I guess you have to go to Kitano because that's what people do there, and see the 100-year-old mixed European style houses and enjoy the view of the city. On your way back down the hill, stop at the Meister Garden, where 40+ sweets stores give out samples in hopes you'll buy a box. For dinner, have some Kansai favorites - either kushikatsu or okonomiyaki (since you won't be in Osaka, Kobe is good enough).
Tokushima: Is not a huge tourist destination. This may be a good outdoors day - go to the Awaji Island between Shikoku and Honshu to a) do some walking and onsens b) see the Naruto whirlpool. Check the tide schedules before going.
Gifu: Another not-big tourist place. Veerrrrry local. You might want to visit the Site of Reversible Destiny (site, NYT article mirror). It's old, so a bit run-down, but still a weird and unique experience. Town is very local, all the little old ladies run shops and will talk your ears off (whether or not you understand them). I've been meaning to get to, uh, Inuyama? or Takayama? But have not yet. Depending on where you are, you may want to go in to Nagoya. It's a great shopping (market and small store type) city, and the food is num-num-nummy. Also, lots of art museums.
Tokyo: Is easy and relatively fast to get around, so don't restrict yourself to Nagata-cho, by any means. You'll probably be templed out, so you may be able to skip Asakusa (though a quick drop-in is nice, and it's a short walk to the cooking tools and plastic food district). Akihabara is the place everyone stops for video game stuff and electronics (so, your cell phone and camera? The typical store recommendation is Yodabashi Camera, but someone else will have stronger opinions/more experience than I do.)

Food: On the Narita main street, you need to stop at the store that sells all the fruit-infused honey and honey vinegar and honey alcohol. It's a modern-looking mostly white and light yellow store. The brand name is "Sugi Bee Farm." There are free samples, but you will take at least one of them home with you. Also, visit the basement of any department store. They are all food, desserts, and gift food, and expensive fruit. Go go go!
Shopping: You MUST visit Tokyu Hands. It is hands-down the AWESOMEST shopping place in all of Tokyo, where you can buy anything to make anything, and all kinds of weird stuff you didn't know you needed or even that it existed. I recommend the one in Ikebukuro, where you can also visit the top floor Nekobukuro, which is one of the "pay to play with our cats" places. Super-fun, and "only in Japan."
Miracle Fruit: Can't speak to dried ones, but you can get fresh miracle fruit in Nissin International Foods, Azabu-Juban, Tokyo. I, um, may have brought and also mailed several of these to the US with no consequences. So, at least try one for yourself there, though the price is higher than those cited in the NYT.
posted by whatzit at 7:13 AM on August 23, 2008

Kobe II: Oh yeah, in the nighttime especially, hang out along the pedestrian walkways and the random mounds at the intersections (you'll understand when you see them) near Sannomiya and the department stores. Lots of people come to play music there and can be pretty good (there's a frequent jazz group, for example...).
posted by whatzit at 7:20 AM on August 23, 2008

Response by poster: Wow, thanks, whatzit! :) Something I forgot to mention: Any particular cooking tools and ingredients that are fantastic and difficult to obtain elsewhere? I spent a year kicking myself that I didn't buy a handful of dried guindilla chilis the last time I went to spain.
posted by sirion at 8:31 AM on August 23, 2008

I just spent two months doing a summer program in Hakodate, so I'm relatively familar with it - if anything, please go take the railway/bus up to Hakodate Mountain! It's got a spectacular view (especially at night) and it's cheap. Also, Hakodate's historical district, Motomachi, (it's near the mountain) has tons of parks, museums, temples, and shrines. Definitely check it out.
posted by themaskedwonder at 8:53 AM on August 23, 2008

Hey! You're going to be in Japan the same time as me!

Fukuoka: I've been to this city and I always manage to shop my way through. Canal City would be a good spot if you're looking for cooking implements and other neat stuff that you can only buy in Japan. It's attached to one of the two Hyatts in the city. Also, if you're looking for a fun meal and a drink try the futuristic Android Bar.

Gifu: I went to Gifu often when I lived in neighboring Aichi prefecture. The great thing about Gifu is that it is home to a number of traditional crafts. You can go visit the traditional umbrella makers, lantern makers, or shop for traditional Mino-style pottery. You can also check out traditional cormorant fishing.

Kyoto: This is tough. You've only got a little time and there is so much to see. I recommend checking out one or more of the following: Sanjūsangendō, Kyomizu Temple, Ryōan-ji, Ginkakuji. This is also an excellent place if you're looking for unique kitchen elements. There are quite a few museums with traditional crafts that offer one-stop shopping where you can buy everything you need to have your own tea ceremony. You'll find bamboo spoons, bamboo whisks and traditional raku bowls. There is also excellent matcha (powdered green tea) all over the city. You can find decent stuff in Kyoto station, or if you're really serious, the best stuff can be found on the road leading to the Phoenix Temple.

Sapporo: There is a good chance that the fall color will have started in Hokkaido. Try and get out of the city and have a relaxing time enjoying the pretty leaves.

Hakodate: This place has amazing crab and fish. Go to the fish market and have a nice snow crab dinner for not much money. Afterwards you can take a cable car to the top of Mount Hakodate or visit the Ainu museum.
posted by Alison at 9:46 AM on August 23, 2008

If you've got an early morning in Kobe, you might want to try some hiking on/around Mount Rokko. I spent a quiet morning the day after Christmas tramping around there alone. I was on the train by noon, I'm pretty sure. It was nice, and I'm very much not a hiking kind of guy.
posted by Uppity Pigeon #2 at 10:24 AM on August 23, 2008

If you're willing to take a 1-hour each way train ride from Fukuoka (with possible transferring involved), you can go to Yoshinogari Historical Park, at the Yoshinogari Historical Park train station. It's more a reconstruction than actual excavation of ruins, but it shows the older Yayoi history of Japan, the beginnings of real settlements and civilization. It's in the middle of rural Kyushu, and the (relatively short) walk from the train station is through active rice fields.

I usually just did shopping in Fukuoka, and Tenjin (天神) and Canal City are the two big shopping areas I can remember.

It might be interesting for you to go to a baseball game somewhere, too, although you can do that in quite a few places.
posted by that girl at 10:45 AM on August 23, 2008

Lucky you! Have fun.

It is a good idea to plan ahead, as asking at each place "What are your most interesting places?" will rapidly lead to indigestion from too many temples and museums. 2 or 3 of each may be enough, but try and pick the ones with most interest for you, maybe using Trip Advisor and the Thorn Tree. For museums, the Edo Museum in Tokyo is absolutely world-class, but if you have given the cities in tour order, you presumably will want to visit another good one (with good English labels) earlier in your tour. I would not plan to waste too much Tokyo time on shopping -- do that in other places, but Akihabara is a destination in its own right, though sadly the puzzle man's sales cart seems to have been modernised into non-existence. Tokyu Hands is as amazing as @whatzit said, for craft/DIY/anything related.

It is a pity that you have so little time in Kyoto, and it is "late evening". I don't know if your theatre contacts can tell you how to get an affordable glimpse of a geisha. It would have been good to see the UNESCO World Heritage Site temples there. Assuming you are not travelling on overnight, it may well be worth getting up very early to see what you can of such a historic city.

For gift shopping, Gifu is a traditional paper-making centre and should offer an excellent range of paper gifts including lanterns and kites -- cheap and easy to pack. Don't forget to buy enough gift bags to solve your present-wrapping problems for some time. You will need to buy enough yukatas (informal cotton kimono-like clothes) to give your family one each, or you will find they "borrow" the one you bought for yourself to use as a bathrobe at home -- look in your cities off the tourist trail.
posted by Idcoytco at 10:53 AM on August 23, 2008

When in Gifu, you might want to take the Meitetsu train line over to Tagata Jinja near Inuyama in Aichi - you seem to have enough time to do that, and why pass up a chance to visit a shrine devoted to penises and has one of the most memorable festivals (in March, though) in Japan? You can get penis-shaped keychains if you like.

You can also check out Inuyama Castle, too.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:11 AM on August 23, 2008

cooking tools and ingredients: The thing is a lot are available outside Japan, but will usually come at a price. The things you can't get outside Japan are fresh things, so... not much to do about that.
My recommendations in this line would be:
-If you fall in love with some dish that requires a sauce (tonkatsu, okonomiyaki...), buy some sauce to bring home with you.
-Buy dashi, because it is fundamental, cheap, and small to carry.

-Wander the cooking section in the 100円 shops. Not all unique stuff, but cheap, and cute. Good selection of chopsticks (have you seen kid's training chopsticks?? They are soooo awesome) which make great souvenir gifts and tea sets, all cheap. Some special items like the spatulas used for okonomiyaki and monjayaki. They are not *necessary* accessories, but they're part of the kit and good to have.

Food II: Make sure to try natto. You probably won't like it, but try it anyway.
posted by whatzit at 4:30 PM on August 23, 2008

If you're looking for cooking instruments, you really should check out Kappabashidori. It's between Asakusa and Ueno (you can walk between the two areas). It's a north to south street, lined on both sides with shops that sell anything a restaurant might need. If you like cooking, you should really pick up some Japanese chef's knives. They're fantastic for pretty much any use. At this point, I don't even have the western style knives I grew up with.

I don't remember the name of the shop, but, heading north, the store will be on the left side of the street. It's at least a couple, maybe three blocks down from the entrance to the street (with the giant chef's head). It's the last shop on it's block, and it's not, like most of the other shops, an open storefront. The entrance is a saloon style door, and inside, there are racks of knives. Aside from being able to pick up some nice knives for about 4,000-6,000 yen (apiece), the shop will also chisel your name (or whatever you'd like) into the blade, for free. I would recommend a chef's knife and the Japanese style vegetable knife, which is the long, straight blade with a right angle instead of a tip. I picked one up there, and I've been using it since then. Fantastic knife.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:05 PM on August 23, 2008

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