We are eagerly anticipating a trip to Japan coming up later this year to visit my brother and his family who have been living in Tokyo for the past year and a half (I miss my nieces and nephew!). My mom and dad have invited us to stay at an apartment they rented for the month of December in the same building where my brother’s family lives. It was an invitation that we couldn’t pass up. Although the most time we could manage for this trip was 9 days, we’re excited to have some major family time and explore Tokyo with everyone. It’s been fun researching and admittedly a little overwhelming figuring out what to do. Our research has included reviewing our previous trips to Japan to help us plan. Our last trip being a little over 5 years ago in Oct of 2011, when we took an 11-day trip. This trip was planned by my parents, who are originally from Japan, to introduce their granddaughter (my daughter who was 8 at the time) to Japan for the very first time. We weren’t sure when we would have another chance to be back so we fit in as much as we could while trying to be balanced about expenses and time. I really enjoyed the itinerary and wanted to share about this trip in case anyone was thinking of traveling to Japan (or if you are Japan travelers already, any suggestions of places to go in Tokyo would be greatly appreciated).
My mom planned our route, filled in our itinerary with a variety of sights and activities and made all of the hotel reservations after carefully reading reviews using travel.rakuten.com which is Japan’s largest on-line travel site, as well as talking to her family and friends in Japan for recommendations. We had a few specific requests, but we ended up leaving it up to my parents to plan the trip since we trusted them to know what we would like. Our few requests included: shopping for my daughter (she didn’t get that from me), seeing Mt. Fuji and spending a little time by the ocean for hubby and I. I showed my mom a picture from a magazine of a steaming hot Japanese bathtub that faced the sea with a bottle of sake next to it and told her that was what I wanted to do. No unusual requests at all.
She was able to balance costs by having us stay at reasonably priced hotels for nights we just needed a place to sleep. But also reserving a couple of nights at some nicer onsen, or hot springs resorts as well (all of the hotels that I mention in the post continue to have good ratings and reviews in 2016, however, we haven’t been back to make sure that they haven’t changed). Traveling off-season in October was another great way to keep the costs down although my daughter missed school. Her teacher allowed her to make up for her days by writing a report and she enjoyed sharing about her trip in a presentation she gave to the class when she got back. My parents fully embraced their roles as travel agents/guides and took us all over Japan by train showing us the Japan they know and love. It was truly an unforgettable experience for all of us, but especially for my daughter who hasn’t ever been outside of the US before.
Traveling in Japan by train
In Japan the most common form of travel is by train, so before we even left California we purchased our JR (Japan Railway) passes (available online now) and got our ‘exchange order,’ which upon arrival in Japan we had to get validated and then exchanged for our actual passes. JR passes are only valid for 7, 14 or 21 (consecutive) days and we were traveling for 10. We ended up buying the 7 day pass since we didn’t want to pay for extra days and used the pass on the first 7 days of the trip when we needed it the most, especially when we needed to travel by shinkansen (bullet train). The last 3 days of the trip, we just purchased tickets when we traveled by train. This turned out to be the most economic way to travel for us. I still find purchasing train tickets in Japan a bit of a challenge, so if I were traveling without my parents, I would consider buying the JR pass for the entire trip just to make things easier.
Day 1: Fly from SFO to Tokyo then to Utsunomiya by train
Our trip started with an 11 hour flight from San Francisco to Narita International Airport. At Narita we obtained our JR passes (there is an office where you can turn in your exchange order for a JR pass) and then traveled another 2 hours by train to Utsunomiya which is about 75 miles northwest of Tokyo. We added the train ride on top of the plane flight to get us closer to where we wanted to visit the following day to give us more time there. This long travel day was doable because we were able to sleep on the plane, but even with all the resting we were pretty exhausted. It was nice to get to our hotel and really rest, and it was even nicer still when my parents showed up at our hotel room door to drop off some fresh hot gyoza (Japanese potstickers) and ice cold beer. This was the best gyoza and beer I have ever had in…my…life!! Apparantly Utsunomiya is called “gyoza town” because of its many gyoza eateries, gyoza culture and even gyoza statue. I was impressed with the sheer variety of gyoza that was available and how delicious and fresh every bite of gyoza tasted.
The hotel that we stayed in, Richmond Hotel, was conveniently located about a minute away from the JR Utsunomiya train station. This was a nice, comfortable, no-frills hotel at a very reasonable price. Just make sure you don’t leave Utsunomiya without having some of their famous gyoza.
Day 2: Nikko, Toshogu shrine
Feeling refreshed after a good nights sleep we headed back to the JR station the following morning to travel another 45 minutes northwest to Nikko. We planned to visit the Toshogu shrine, Emperor Ieyasu’s burial site, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site (Emperor Ieyasu is the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate which ruled Japan from 1600-1868). My dad was able to negotiate with a taxi driver to be our guide for a specified time for a flat rate. That way you don’t have to always be thinking about the meter on the taxi and as a bonus the taxi driver turned out to be very knowledgeable about the places we visited.
The Toshogu Shrine consists of over 12 buildings very beautifully decorated, some very intricately carved.
Nikko, Asaya Hotel, Kinugawa Onsen
After spending the day in Nikko we headed to a spa resort called Asaya Hotel, Kinugawa Onsen. My daughter loves buffets, so my mom found this hotel which serves both dinner and breakfast buffet style. The wide selection of delicious food was amazing and the view of the river as well as the mountainside with all the different colored fall foliage was stunning. Traveling in October we were able to see the Fall colors (“koyo” in Japanese), which is another bonus when traveling at this time of year. After relaxing in our room, we soaked in the onsen in a private onsen room (private onsen rooms can be reserved for an extra fee when you check-in), changed into our yukatas (casual kimonos that are provided in the room), then met up with my parents to head down to dinner at our assigned dining time.
During the time we were at the dinner buffet, the futons were set up in our room and the furniture moved aside to transform the “living room” into a “bedroom.” This hotel allowed you to choose between Western style (bed) and Japanese style (futon) rooms. Whenever we had the choice, we always chose Japanese style because we not only loved sleeping on a futon, but also because it allowed for the three of us to sleep in one room easily.
Day 3: Nishiizu, Nishiizu Koyoi Onsen
The next part of the trip had to do with the magazine picture I showed my mom. We traveled down from Nikko to Numazu to catch the ferry for the Shimizu-Toi line to take us to our final destination, Nishiizu. Nishiizu is a small town that is known for its many hot spring resorts and commercial fishing (great seafood!).
My mom had planned for us to take the ferry (a 45 minute ride) so that we could see Mt. Fuji while on the water. If the weather had cooperated, this would have been an impressive way to get our first glimpse of Mt. Fuji. Instead, the imminent bad weather caused the ferry ride to be canceled and we had to take a 2 hour taxi to Nishiizu Koyoi Onsen (a hot spring inn). This inn is located on the side of a mountain with amazing ocean views. They have onsens and specialize in in-room dining featuring kaiseki cuisine made with local seafood. They expect guests to take a soak in the onsen before dinner, then change into yukatas and arrive for a dinner in a private room. I skipped going to the inn’s onsen to get my soak in the steaming hot bathtub with an ocean view right in my room (just like in the magazine although the sake came later at dinner). There are many options when making a reservation. I would highly recommend including breakfast and dinner in your reservation because this is a big part of the ryokan (Japaneses style inn) experience. Whether you want to add an open air bath tub to your room will depend on your preferences since there is a public onsen on site as well.
Futons were set up again while were were at dinner.
At this hotel the following day we used a door to door parcel delivery service (TA-Q-BIN, Kuronekoyamato) to send some items to our final hotel. We sent items that we didn’t need such as laundry, souvenirs and outerwear that we no longer needed to make it easier to travel. This is a great service if you’re traveling by train and want to lighten your luggage. The staff at the front desk can take care of contacting the service and making sure your belongings get to your hotel as long as you have the information for the destination. The parcels are usually waiting for you in your room when you arrive.
Day 4: Takayama
We finished the ryokan experience with an elaborate breakfast and a final quick soak in the tub to enjoy the ocean view one last time. We enjoyed and took advantage of every minute of this experience. The weather cleared and we got our first look at Mt. Fuji on the way to the ferry.
We returned to Numazu by ferry where we were treated to even more spetacular views of Mt. Fuji while on the water.
Saying good bye to Fuji-san we headed west by train to Takayama to spend the next two nights there. The hotel we stayed in was another very affordable, but comfortable hotel which was within walking distance to the Takayama station. I would recommend this hotel, Takayama Ouan, if you are ok with taking your shoes off in the lobby and storing it in a locker before you go upstairs to your room. This was a bit strange even for my parents, but the location and price made it worthwhile.
We walked to the local Circle K to pick up some snacks and drinks and allowed my daughter to buy whatever Japanese snacks she wanted as long as it fit in her backpack. She had a blast picking out all of these unusual snacks she had never seen before without having to ask permission each time. She filled her backpack to an inch of bursting, but she fit it ALL in and carefully carried her pack everywhere she went. It was fun tasting the different snacks she shared with us along the way.
Day 5: Shirakawa-go
In the morning we grabbed a taxi and headed to Shirakawa-go, a small historic village known for their thatched hut houses with steeply slanted roofs known as Gassho Zukuri. This is another UNESCO world heritage site, and many houses were open for visitors and were set up with displays like mini museums. Some houses were over 250 years old! My daughter enjoyed learning about what life was like, and about the old, but still very clever ways of doing things. At the time, the information signs were only in Japanese so it was nice to have my parents around to translate. There are information centers which have pamphlets about Shirakawa-go that are written in many different languages if you are interested.
After lunch of this regions famous Hida beef (Hida gyu), the kind of beef with the beautiful marbling that makes it melt in your mouth, we walked to old town Takayama (Sanno-machi historic district) and strolled around the area looking at the buildings that have been preserved since the Edo period. There are many stores that have been in business for centuries. It is a great place to souvenir shop.
Day 6 took us to Kyoto and I will finish posting about the rest of the trip in part 2.
So far, my daughter’s introduction to Japan was just the right amount of traveling for an 8-year old. I can imagine that some of the travel legs could be a bit long for little kids, but traveling on the train was very enjoyable and an experience in itself. My daughter looked out the window and listened to audio books on longer stretches. Us, adults, “rested our eyes” ;). On shinkansens (bullet trains) there are bathrooms onboard, and vendors will come sell food and drinks on the train making it a very easy way to travel.
This post is continued in An Introduction to Japan in 11 days, part 2