Visiting Japan in 2017 remains to this day our favourite trip we have done together. We had both long wanted to visit, even before we had met one another, being interested in the language, culture and food, as well as the geography.
Spring time was always a priority for us, firstly for the famous cherry-blossoms, and secondly it was a trip that would encompass Mrs. FW’s birthday, and where I planned a very special moment between us.
As there is a lot we’d like to share for this trip, it will be split into two posts.
Itinerary wise, we spent a lot of time researching and organising our trip as we always do, and decided on a route that would see a lot but not everything. As much as we wanted do, we did not go north beyond Tokyo, nor farther west than Kyoto (with the exception of one side-trip), as we knew we would come back one day to see more.
Here is a map of our itinerary, travelling clockwise beginning at Tokyo in the east. I will break down the costs at the end of the second part next time.
A Shinkansen high speed rail pass is what most tourists do when visiting Japan, but we opted for local transport where possible which was both more frugal and more colourful, albeit slower of course. More about this later, so let’s get started.
Our 3½ week/ 25 day trip was very much in a figure of 8, starting at the top in Tokyo. We were so excited to be arriving! We bought a prepaid card to take us from Haneda Airport on the subway to Shinjuku Station. It took us a while to find the exit we needed as Shinjuku is massive. The good news is that we were within walking distance to our first hotel, but the bad news is that it was raining, and Mrs FW was not feeling well. The hotel was pretty tiny and the least favourite accommodation for the whole trip which didn’t help.
We spent the first day or our time trying to find a doctor which was a mini adventure in itself, going here and there and ended up back where we started where there was a clinic in the very same building a few levels up. Fortunately the sickness passed soon afterwards, and we were also booked into a capsule hotel.
Japan’s Capsule Hotels were a feature we had been looking forward to. They originated in Osaka but of the two we stayed in, the Tokyo one was hands down better. A good capsule hotel has lots of facilities: lights, power points, USB chargers, alarm clock, TV, radio and wifi.
Very cosy and comfortable, and by the very nature of them, sound proof. We both had a good nights sleep every time we slept in one. There are usually good facilities in the hotel itself, such as reading room, TV room, laundry, kitchen with vending machines to get noodles etc, and of course large clean wash rooms with (open) baths.
Feeling better, and having had a good nights sleep in the capsule, we were in a better state to get out and see more, starting with Shinjuku Gyon National Garden where we saw our first local cherry blossoms, and picked up some clothes at Shibuya, near the famous crossing.
The Studio Ghibli Museum exceeded expectations, if you are a fan of the Miyazaki animated movies then I highly recommend visiting, but bear in mind you need to reserve tickets in advance. It’s full of intricately set up displays, rooms and features, all within an architecturally interesting building designed by Miyazaki himself.
There were a couple of additional side trips that we had planned that involved getting on an early commuter train, but when we got to the station and saw how busy the trains were with neatly ordered lines of commuters backing up the stairs and into the station proper, we decided against it. We preferred not to take up valuable carriage space when everyone else was trying to get to work.
Food wise we had been so looking forward to coming here. We very much liked finding little tucked away places, sometimes the access being via a tiny lift door straight into the place itself. An aspect of some takeaways in Japan we hadn’t come across before was that you order food from vending machines- choose your item and a ticket is dispensed which you collect a few minutes later. Many places still allowed smoking inside so we just had to put up with that, and I was also expecting to see sushi everywhere but perhaps we were in the wrong place.
Fuji Five Lakes
We used a ‘Fuji-Hakone 3 Days Pass’ to get to our next destination at Fuji Five Lakes. Being out in the relative open after being in dense Tokyo was refreshing. It was a quite a walk to our accommodation which was more of a hostel feel but with individual rooms and tatami mats to sleep on. We did end up hiring some bicycles to get about on one day which was fun, and the first time I’d been on a bike in 20 years so a bit wobbly to start.
We had a much more frugal diet here, and ended up buying and eating our dinner for two nights in a nearby supermarket. We bought a twin pack of chopsticks (which we still use to to this day) and heated up the food in the microwave they had in the seating area.
The highlights for this area were the cable-car ride to see the classic view of Mt Fuji, and the Kawaguchiko Music Forest. The latter is a very curious but interesting mini musical village with European themed buildings, displays and performances. The gardens are very well cared for and it all looked very quaint.
Hakone for us was a mixed bag. It didn’t start well as we ended up lugging our suitcases up a lot of steep steps in drizzle, at dusk, due to an apparent lack of buses. The accommodation however was the first one we really liked- a tiny entrance on the street but which was somewhat of a tardis from what we saw at night from the street. It went back and back, up and down, left and right, and seemed really quite extensive on the inside. I later learned that properties were taxed on the amount of street frontage they had, so it was a more cost effective way to have a larger property.
Our day in Hakone was a very cold one. We had planned and booked for the Hakone Round Course – taking different transports to circle the region- but the weather deteriorated and on the third segment on a bus, the snow got that bad that the bus was getting stuck in it. As we were at risk of not catching the next leg last boat of the day, it was recommended we head back. A few tourists waiting in the snow on the opposite side of the road for the bus back again sealed our decision. Mrs FW had never experience snow up to this point, and it was much better to be safely on the way home in snow than getting stuck in the middle of nowhere.
To make up for our near frozen fingers and toes, our stay came with the use of a nearby onsen. This was our first experience of the famous Japanese hot springs and a very welcome one after the cold. Of course, neither of us had ever been naked in this way but that all added to the experience.
Similar to Fuji Five Lakes, we ended up eating supermarket food, although it was worse than that, as there wasn’t a proper supermarket. This was only because all the restaurants were closed or closing, far earlier than we had anticipated. The 7-Eleven store was quite busy with tourists that night but it was better than nothing, but we were already over it as the next day we were on our way to Osaka, our mouths watering at the thought of all the readily available food options that awaited.
We were staying in the Dotonbori, a busy region at the city centre in another capsule hotel but not as good as the Tokyo one. The first thing we did was to get out and eat some delicious local food. We started in a local cafe with no English menu which was fun, so we went with the pictures. Either way it was yummy, though we’re not sure what it was. Outside and for dessert we had a local snack called Takoyaki.
Kuromon Market is a half kilometre indoor shopping corridor, from fresh meat, fish and produce to homewares and some small clothing stores. We sat down for some chicken katsu and bought some white strawberries from a market stall which we’d never come across before.
At this point it’s worth noting if you are looking for economical tasty food, there is Japanese food chain called Yoshinoya which we went to a few times spanning a few different places. They have an extensive menu and the food was filling and tasty. Definitely recommended if you are on a frugal path!
At night we walked along the river where all the neon lit buildings are, finding an atmospheric spot for dinner nearby.
We made a side trip from Osaka to Himeji, which had always been a must visit for us due to the old and large but well preserved castle there. It was pretty busy with a long queue to get in but it was always moving and it never felt crowded once inside. There are stalls around in the gardens to pick up snacks.
We really enjoyed Osaka, and I would say I preferred it more than Kyoto (what was the next stop). It was much less touristy, there was far far less English signage (including food menus), it just seemed more fun, and more a local’s city and if ever I were to go back to Japan to spend more time (to study Japanese for example) then Osaka would be a good option.
Our return trip from Himeji went straight through to Osaka and took us to our next big stop: Kyoto.
After Tokyo, Kyoto carried the most expectations. It was certainly the more beautiful of the cities we had visited to that point, and offered a lot to do and see in a relatively smaller area.
One of the highlights of Kyoto is the Higashiyama historic district, and one of the things that visitors like to do is spend the time there donning traditional Japanese Kimono dress. While this was a definite must do for Mrs FW, I was hesitant as I knew I would look like a complete western potato. Saying that, when faced with these kinds of scenarios, I’ve often considered the motto ‘It’s better to regret something you have done, than something you haven’t done’, so ended up with a ‘Yes, I’ll do it too’. There were other guys wearing kimono, but just far less.
The bus took us to the start which was by Kiyomizu Temple, followed by a descent through the Higashiyama narrow lanes and wooden buildings of the traditional district, many serving as little shops and cafes to tourists. I bought a compact umbrella here (nice designs) which while not cheap, was excellent quality and which is still the umbrella I use today. There are various shrines and hidden alleyways along the way down, so ideally you will have the time to explore a bit.
The Philosopher’s Path is a pleasant walk along the banks of the canal. With its cobblestone sides and paths and flanked by cherry blossom trees it was a very relaxing (and photogenic) place to walk. There were various artisans along the way and a few cafes to stop at. We had wanted to buy an original picture from one particular artist but unfortunately he was only selling postcard sized prints. Still, it was better than nothing and Mrs FW still uses it as a bookmark to this day which makes for a nice reminder of our time there.
Fushimi Inari Shrine is known for it’s hundreds, if not thousands, of red torii gates. There are many trails which lead up into the hills behind, though most visitors spend their time following the principle torii gate trail which forms a loop back to the start.
The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, on the outskirts of Kyoto, along with a stroll in the tranquil gardens of Hōgon-in Temple was a very relaxing way to spend the afternoon. We stopped for a matcha green tea in the open sided thatched roof tea house which was utterly relaxing. There were very few visitors here so it was quite a refreshing change.
Far removed from the bustling streets of Osaka and Kyoto, although only 50km/ 30 mils away, Nara is a city, but in my memory, it felt more of a traditional and quiet town which felt very retro, with music coming from streetlamp speakers and numerous second hand & retro clothing stores with a few little mini markets (where we picked up more white strawberries). This may be far from how others see it, but from where we were which was right to the east on the edge of the park, it was just that and we liked it very much.
We were two nights in Nara, the first being the most economical for the whole trip at only AUD $58, but that was made up for by the second night which was the most expensive at $563 for the night… So while this may not be frugal in the slightest, there was a reason for splashing out on this particular occasion. And that occasion was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. What was it?
It is because Nara holds a special place in our memory, for it is where I proposed to Mrs FW. Okay, she wasn’t a Mrs at the time, and itself was quite a planned event, as I had hired a photographer too (an old wish from Mrs FW). It was in the beautiful Nara Park- lots of cherry blossoms, old temples and lots of deer too. She said Yes 🥰.
After some more post-proposal photography we returned to our only luxurious part of the trip in the traditional Japanese Ryokan, said to be Nara’s first Edo period boutique inn. A very traditional experience in every way, including excellent food and service. Our dinner was brought into our room, made up of about 20 plates each, I have to say that I had not the faintest idea of what most of it was but it was delicious and we savoured every bite of it. Well almost, as out of all of it, there was only one dish that the both of us were not keen on, and not being sure what it was called either we will surely encounter it again one day 🙂
After a successful and relaxing stay in this part of Japan, it was time to move on to the third and final stage. We had a long trip ahead of us to get to from Nara to Takayama in Gifu prefecture.
Please come back next time to read about the rest of our trip in Japan and to see a costs breakdown, similar to what we did for our Mini World Trip here.