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Travel Guide for Japan

This travel guide for Japan is a collection of our experiences and research, vegetarian food we ate, what worked for us, tips and recommendations for accommodation and transport while traveling across the country over 2 weeks in May, 2017.

If you are still considering Japan as a destination, here are 10 reasons why we think you must add Japan to your travel plans!

We spent a total of 13 nights in Japan, and visited 4 different cities. There was bustling Tokyo, traditional Hakone, temple/shrine rich Kyoto (with its amazing alternatives) and the peaceful Hiroshima. We got to see 6 temples, 5 shrines, 2 gardens, 1 castle, a gigantic railway station and so much more, through our travels in Japan. Although our wallets got much lighter in those two weeks, culturally speaking, we were millionaires by the time we left Japan.

Staying at a Ryokan was a highlight of our travels

Initial Impressions

We arrived at Narita Airport around noon. The scenery during the drive was not very impressive. A well organized highway system is something one expects of any developed city and that’s exactly what we were seeing. The architecture was also nothing outstanding, and surprisingly similar to other big cities I have visited around the world. The only indication of being in a foreign country was not being able to understand the lettering on some of the signs. However, this lack of excitement did not last too long. No sooner did we drive in to Tokyo that I realized that the next two weeks were going to be special … and not nearly enough to explore what turned out to be a fascinating country!

Scrambling away at the Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo!

Travel Guide: Japan

Our Itinerary

We set out on our last-minute whirlwind tour of Japan on May 3, 2017 from Kolkata, India. Japan turned out to be one of the highlights of our travels. We would have loved to stay longer and will definitely go back to the country in the future. Here is what our two week itinerary in the country looked like:

On May 16, 2017 we headed to Seattle, USA.

Our travels took us to Lake Ashi, where we got to see Mt Fuji

Tours

Here are our thoughts on and experiences with each of the tours we did in Japan. Sunrise Tours was our tour operator. Click on the links for a more detailed itinerary of each tour.

Tokyo:

  • Panoramic Tokyo Tour – The first half of the Panoramic Tokyo Tour was a great introduction to Tokyo, and Japan. The guide was energetic and would pepper us with facts and tidbits about Japan (25% of the population lives in and around Tokyo that makes up for only 0.6% of Japan’s land area; Japan’s imperial dynasty dates back 2600 years, and is the oldest dynasty in the world; the most popular dish in Japan is curry! Who knew!). Not sure if it was our jet lag catching up, or not having vegetarian options during lunch, but the second half was as boring as the first half was interesting. The sights (a cruise along Sumida River and Odaiba) weren’t as exciting, and the guide was also sharing less information. If you are considering this tour, opt for a half-day tour.
Sensoji temple – a lovely area to explore as long as you avoid the Golden Week
  • Fuji, Shibazakura, Tulip Flower Festival,  Strawberry Picking and Sake tasting – This was by far the best tour that we took in Japan. And not just because of the sights we visited and the experiences we had, but also because we had a great guide. She was very informative and entertaining. You can read more about our experiences on our “Mount Fuji and Shibazakura festival tour” post.
A sight to behold!
It was really cold and grey, so we didn’t get to see Mt Fuji but it was still worth a day trip!

Kyoto:

  • Kyoto 1 Day Tour – This tour covered some of the key cultural landmarks in Kyoto. Like most of the tours, it felt a little rushed, and I would have liked to spend a little bit more time at each of the sights. We also didn’t get to visit the Imperial Palace and had to settle for the Kitano-tenmangu Shrine instead, which was ranked last in our list of temples and shrines to visit in Kyoto.
  • Japanese Traditional Performing Arts Show in Gion – Although not a tour, we saw the art show in Gion. It was pleasantly engaging. You can read more about in our “Kyoto: Alternatives to temples and shrines” post.

  • Sagano Bamboo Grove & Arashiyama Walking Tour – Although the tour itself was pretty fast-paced, the sights we visited were spectacular, that included the Tenryuji temple, and the wonderful Arashiyama bamboo grove. We also broke away from the tour group to spend some more time in Arashiyama. This is a great option for a walking tour, since it not only takes you through the bamboo grove, but also through quaint Japanese neighborhoods.
  • Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine & Sake Tasting Tour –  We weren’t thrilled with this tour, and didn’t feel it was structured properly. It was an unnecessary long walk to get to the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum, where we didn’t feel we had enough time to go through the artifacts, since we had to rush to the Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine. Although the sake was amazing, the tasting experience wasn’t great. It is still an institution, and worth a visit if you are into sake. We ended up visiting the shrine by ourselves, and had a fantastic time exploring the thousands of torii gates behind the shrine. We highly recommend visiting the Fushimi-Inari shrine.

Hiroshima:

You can walk up to the torii gate during low tide!
  • Hiroshima & Miyajima 1-day Tour – Although this was a part of our tour package, we decided to do this one ourselves. By this point, the pace and amount of walking required on the tours was getting a little unbearable for my mother in law. We also weren’t getting enough information from the guides. It was pretty amazing exploring Hiroshima and Miyajima on our own. Hiroshima is definitely a must-see destination.

Takeaways from the tours

After doing so many tours, a huge takeaway for us was that a guide makes or breaks a tour. No matter how spectacular a place, if a guide is not entertaining and not sharing information, it’s not going to be a fun tour. Obviously, it’s hard to choose a particular guide. We generally found that the tour guides spoke sufficient English and were rarely hard to understand.

Tours in Japan require a lot of walking. We also did not enjoy the fast pace. They clearly do not cater to slow-travelers, like ourselves.This is quite understandable, since the typical traveler usually comes for a short time and wants to pack in as much as possible.

In general, we highly recommend doing at least one guided tour in a country on arrival since we usually gather a lot of golden nuggets and tidbits about the culture, people and lifestyle. Again, the experience can be guide dependent, however, we there is always something new to learn.

Accommodation

Our lovely Picasso inspired hotel floor in Akasaka

Tokyo:

Centurion Hotel Grand Akasaka

The Centurion Hotel Grand Akasaka is a boutique hotel in the Akasaka neighborhood. Out of the 5 hotels we stayed in (in Japan) this had a lot of character, and was second to our Ryokan experience. Located just a 5 minute walk from the Akasaka-Mitsuke station, it is convenient for exploring the other neighborhoods in Tokyo. The rooms were on the smaller side, but it may have felt that way, because they had to put in an extra twin bed. Having said that, it was comfortable, well furnished and didn’t feel lacking in anyway. I am still surprised that they managed to fit a huge TV and a humidifier in the room.

This was also where we got our first look at the Japanese toilet, a highlight when visiting the country. (More on that in our 10 reasons to visit Japan post.) A huge plus about this hotel was they were using organic products. The mattress and pillows were very comfortable, and given that it was very quiet, we were able to get some much needed rest here.

Sotetsu Fresa-Inn Ginza

This was the other hotel we stayed in Tokyo. The hotel itself is great, however, we didn’t care too much for the location. Ginza has a LOT of shopping, and if that’s your thing, then this is the place to be. A point to note: nothing in Ginza is open before 11 AM, so best of luck trying to find something in the area, if you are a morning person. The hotel is located about 10 mins walk from the Shimbashi station, so we were able to easily get to other destinations. We were sorely missing Akasaka during our stay here.

Hakone:

The living room in our Ryokan in Hakone

Ryokan Senkei

Definitely one of the highlights of our entire trip was our stay at a Ryokan. Check out our Hakone Photo Blog to get a better sense of what this hotel has to offer. Because of some miscommunication the hotel hadn’t anticipated preparing a vegetarian meal. However, they were able to prepare a fairly grand meal after we checked in. Kudos to them!

Kyoto:

Hotel Keihan Kyoto Grande

Hotel Keihan was a pretty standard hotel, in terms of the ambience and rooms. It has an amazing location, situated just a 5 minute walk from Kyoto station. This allowed us quick access to many shops, and restaurants, and also helped save time on traveling within the city and to other cities.

It was because of our experience here, that we recommend staying close to a train station as one of our “Ultimate Travel Tips for Japan“.

Hiroshima:

View from our hotel room in Hiroshima

Mitsui Garden Hotel Hiroshima

Our hotel in Hiroshima, was similar to the one we stayed in Kyoto. The rooms were comfortable and provided good city views. The staff was particularly helpful in helping us get oriented and giving us tips on where to go. It was also well located and is about a 10 minute walk from the Peace Memorial Museum and Hon Dori. It’s also just a 5 minute walk from this amazing vegan cafe.

Visa for Indian Passport Holders

A visa is required for Indian passport holders. A good resource and starting point would be to check out the visa information page on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Japan’s website.

Welcome to Japan

Applying in Kolkata, India

We had applied for our visa at the consulate in Kolkata, India, where a prior appointment is not required. Visa submissions are accepted between 9 AM and 12:30 PM. The process was fairly seamless, and it takes about 3 business days (in total) to process the visa. If you apply Tuesday morning, you can collect the visa Thursday afternoon (between 2 PM and 4:30 PM).

A word about Bangalore consulate

It is worth mentioning that we had tried applying for the visa when we were in Bangalore, and found their website lacking when it came to providing step by step guidance on the process and the documents required. When we tried mentioning this to the staff at the Bangalore consulate, they responded by saying, “It’s not easy to update the website!” Umm, okay then! What we ascertained was that visa offices are typically used to dealing with travel agencies and not individuals, so the people involved are generally familiar with the requirements and the processes.

List of all the documents

Here is a list of all the documents that we took with us:

  • Cover Letter
  • Completed application
  • Flight tickets
  • Hotel Bookings
  • Cash for the visa fees – has to be exact since they don’t provide change
  • Bank statement for the last 6 months
  • Tax returns
  • Letter from your employer verifying employment
  • Day to Day itinerary *

* Day to day itinerary for the visa office

Not sure how it’s around the world, but when we applied for our visa in India we were asked to submit a day to day itinerary of our travels. And this meant listing out exactly what we were doing every day. Interestingly, it didn’t have to reflect our exact plan, it just had to be a tentative plan. It will be very helpful to have this ready prior to getting to the visa office, otherwise, like us, you are going to be filling it outside the office.

One thing to note is that the consulate will issue you the visa for the exact number of days you put on the itinerary. So even though as Indian citizens, we could technically visit Japan for a month, our visa was only valid for 15 days, which is what our itinerary said. We wanted to stay longer and expected to get a one month visa but had to cut short our plans to 15 days. Hence, if you are also unsure about your plans, just make sure to add in extra days so you wouldn’t be disappointed like us. You can then plan your exact itinerary after getting the visa.

Transportation

Japan has a host of options when it comes to getting from point A to point B. There are bullet trains, planes, taxis, buses, metros and even ferries. It is also very pedestrian friendly if you prefer walking. There is something to suit all types of travelers. We break it down a little more below.

Hand pulled rickshaws in Arashiyama

Traveling between cities:

  • Trains

    If you have been living under a rock, you may not know that Japan has these things called Shinkansens. Traveling close to 300 kmph, these bullet trains, as they are colloquially called, definitely live up to their name. They are FAST! And, super cool! I could not get enough of it, and probably would have liked to spend an evening or two at the train station just watching them whizz by. They are also extremely punctual with an average delay not exceeding a minute, including delays due to uncontrollable causes, such as natural disasters. WOW! So make sure to get to the train station on time. We took the Shinkansen for all our inter-city travel. The JR pass does not come cheap and costed us more than USD 450 for unlimited travel for two weeks per person – you can check the prices on the JR pass prices page. However, if you are going to be going through multiple cities in Japan then this is the way to travel. Make sure to check out the Transportation section of our ultimate tips for traveling in Japan for more information about the JR pass.

    THE bullet train!

  • Flying

    Flying is also an option if you are going to be visiting cities that are close to airports, and aren’t going to be city-hopping too much. A quick search shows that it costs $105 USD for a round trip ticket between Tokyo and Osaka (closest airport to Kyoto) in October. Buying a combination of flight and train tickets may be good option (while skipping the JR pass), if you are able to score good flight deals. The drawback is that you will need to do some research, spend time finalizing your itinerary and doing a cost comparison to see what works best for your scenario.

  • Renting a car

    We didn’t look in to this option, since we had already procured the JR pass. However, driving in Japan seemed easy. All the road signs were in both English and Japanese. The roads and traffic conditions came up accurately on Google Maps (which is what we use in the US for our navigation needs, so this could potentially work in Japan as well). I did notice that in certain parts of the cities, the roads were pretty tight. There were also a lot of pedestrians in some parts that we were driving through. Pedestrians always have the right of way in Japan. If you have driven a car in New York city, you will find driving in Japan a lot easier. If you have experience renting a car in Japan, please comment below to share your thoughts.

Traveling within cities:

As mentioned earlier, there are a number of ways to get around within the city, especially one as well connected as Tokyo. Here are our thoughts and experiences with the different modes of transport.

  • Taxis

    For the two-week vacationer, this is probably the most convenient way of getting around. Taxis are easily available in the larger cities we visited (Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima). Hailing one is similar to other cities, where you stick your hand out. Another alternative is Uber, however, it is only available in Tokyo. A 1.5 km Uber ride (travel time about 5 mins) in Tokyo cost us USD 7.50. A taxi ride in Hiroshima, going from our hotel to the train station, set us back about USD 9 for a 3 km ride taking a little over 10 minutes. Compared to public transportation, this maybe a cheaper and more convenient way to travel for groups of 2 or more travelers. All the taxis we used, were metered, so there is no haggling or “agreeing on a price before hand”.

The taxis in Japan have automatic doors! Wish I’d taken an action shot.
  • Local Metro

    Tokyo is extremely well connected through the metro system, and we made use of that significantly. Although not as vast in Kyoto and Hiroshima, we found it well connected. In Kyoto staying close to the Kyoto station (on the JR line), made getting around the city very easy. Depending on the distance of travel, the metro fare in Tokyo ranges from about 1.50 USD to 3 USD per ride. There are also discounted passes available. You can read about it more on the Tokyo Metro website and the Japan Guide. Trains during peak hours can get super packed (Check out this and this) .

    Although we didn’t experience getting pushed into a train, we did get packed in to a train car like sardines during rush hour. Also note, in case you are planning on staying out late, trains in Tokyo do not run between 1 AM and 4 AM. As for Hiroshima and Kyoto, we found taxis to be most convenient. Again, since there were three of us, and we wanted to minimize walking for my mother in law, it made a lot more sense for us.

    Kyoto Station

  • Buses

    Another great option for traveling within the city, buses typically involve a lot less walking and connect more off-the-beaten path destinations. We didn’t take too many buses in Japan, but found it useful in Kyoto, when we were going from Arashiyama to the Toei Kyoto Studio Park (highly recommend this off-beat location in Kyoto). We weren’t required to have exact change and were able to pay directly on the bus (carrying smaller denominations makes it easier).

  • Walking

    Walking is a wonderful way to explore any destination. We have found that it helps us slow down and explore smaller neighborhoods, that would have other by zoomed by in a flash when taking a different mode of transportation. Japan is very pedestrian friendly, and pedestrians enjoy the right of way. There is a considerable amount of walking in Japan. Train stations are huge, and just getting in and out of one, can require a lot of walking. Make sure to pack comfortable shoes.

Hakone Transportation

Hakone is a small town in comparison to the other cities we visited in Japan. Listed below are a few points specifically relating to transportation in Hakone.

Taking the local train from Odawara to Hakone
  • The Shinakensen does not go straight to Hakone, and one has to get off at Odawara. From there one has to take a local train to Hakone.
  • Consider getting the “Hakone Tozan pass”. They have a few different options; we bought the 1 day pass from the bus stop opposite the Hakone station. This included our round trip bus ride to Lake Ashi and the train ride back to the Odawara station.
  • If you are not living close to the Hakone train station, a shuttle bus will take you to your ryokan/hotel. The shuttle bus is right across the street from the station and costs 100 Yen (approx USD 1) irrespective of the destination.
  • Hakone is a very quaint town to walk around in. It’s not very large and has a beautiful walk alongside the river that flows through it.

Yoga

Since we had already learned our own specific routines in India we weren’t seeking out yoga studios. We did happen to eat at a cafe that was part of one in Hiroshima, and that’s the only one we can suggest.

Vegetarian Food

Vegetarian food, and especially vegetarian Japanese food, is not easy to come by when traveling in Japan. If you are a fellow vegetarian, considering Japan, make sure to read our post on “How to Survive as a Vegetarian Traveler“. We also suggest that you stick to the major cities when planning your trip, since it gets a lot harder to communicate and find vegetarian food in smaller cities. Finally, check our list of the restaurants we visited in Japan, since we were able to find some vegetarian food in each of the places. The vegetarian Japanese food we were able to find, was absolutely DELICIOUS!

The one and only time we got to eat a vegetarian Bento box meal in Japan

Sim Card for Phone and Internet

We highly recommend getting a mobile hotspot in Japan. We had ours delivered to the hotel by the travel agent, however, I know that one can also order it in advance and pick it up from the airport. It was very convenient to return, since they provide a pre-packaged envelope. With the mobile hotspot, we had no need to get a SIM card for the phone. We found it very useful when traveling as a threesome, since we were able to connect on the go. The battery life of the device was really good. We charged it once at the end of the day. Furthermore, since it had a USB connector we used our power bank to charge it.

For our next visit, we would consider Wifi Rental Store, since they seem to have cheaper rates.

Pocket Wi-Fi Rental Unit

Currency

The Japanese Yen (JPY) is the currency of Japan, and 1 USD is approximately 100 Yen (as of Sep 2017).

You should carry cash since most establishments do not accept credit cards. It helps to use a good ATM card. For our US readers, we recommend getting the Charles Schwab card, since it gives us a great exchange rate, and refunds the ATM fees on a monthly basis. Since cash is king in Japan, ATMs are ubiquitous. A couple of times, when I did fall short, I was able to find an ATM within a few blocks. If you are looking for an ATM, it is easy to find one in convenient stores.

The Cash Queen

General Tips

Traveling through Japan was a treat, and an amazing experience. We learned quite a bit through the planning and exploring stages. I am sure that you will find our Ultimate Travel tips for Japan useful through your travels.

Oh Japan, how I miss thee!

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2 comments

  1. GREAT article with tons of excellent tips. I used to be a fairly frequent traveler to Japan in a prior job, and your tips are spot on. I’m not a vegetarian but have friends who are, and they’d all heartily concur with your assessment of the vegetarian options in Japan (not good…).

    The last line of your article really resonated with me – “Oh Japan, how I miss thee!” My sentiments exactly.

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