Travel: Japan Trip #4 2016 (3 week/23 days) itinerary and intro

Intro

This was my first holiday with T and we were both pleased to discover that we had similar and often complementary travel habits and priorities. T also discovered to his joy how much I enjoy trip planning because he hates thinking about it. So I get to plan all our holidays forever and ever, yay!!

It had been just over three years since the previous visit to Japan. The trip was my longest yet – three-ish weeks, meaning I could fit in first-timer must-see tourist places (my opinion) for T who hadn’t visited before, and I could easily expand the itinerary to include other sites that I want to visit for the first time. This trip was a monster to plan. We visited southern Kyushu and northern Hokkaido (briefly), and used the 21-day JR pass which is known as the most difficult JR pass to get your money’s worth out of. We exceeded the value significantly, which shows the distance and frequency we used it. Now I know we both adore Japan and T really gets why I want to keep returning to Japan for travel, there will be many more trips to Japan in the future. We are visiting again this coming April!

I chose January to February because it is the low season (and I love escaping Melbourne summers to enjoy winters) and timed it to visit the Sapporo winter festival.

The plan

    Visit the top “first-timer” places (if I designed a 1.5-week itinerary for someone’s first and last Japan trip) – Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Miyajima, Kawaguchi-ko – could not fit in Kawaguchi-ko and not great time to visit
    Sapporo Winter Festival
    Otaru Snow Light Path Festival (Otaru and Sapporo festivals usually overlap by a few days)
    Visit Himeji castle, often considered the most beautiful original castle in Japan – Was under renovation for many years when I wanted to visit in 2012
    Visit Kobe – Never been!
    Visit Kyushu including Yakushima (and Jomon Sugi) – Southern Japan would likely have a milder winter and Yakushima looked like a stunning island but we didn’t manage to visit Jomon Sugi because winter is actually not the right time to make the hike – oops!
    Visit Shirakawa-go and see the gassho-zukuri farmhouses – carried over from the 2012 trip where I couldn’t fit it in and because winter is still the best time to visit
    Visit Amanohashidate, one of the nihon sankei (three most scenic views of Japan) – carried over from the 2012 trip where I couldn’t fit this in but did visit Miyajima (one of the other nihon sankei

The worst part of planning Japan trips is everything that unfortunately cannot make it onto the itinerary! For resources, Japan-guide and Hyperdia were my indispensable best friends as per usual. To be the most time and distance efficient, I wanted to fly in and out of different cities, and ended up flying with JAL to Itami airport (Osaka) and departed from Narita airport (Tokyo) with stopovers in Singapore on both legs and an additional transit at Haneda airport (Tokyo) for the first leg to Japan. That made both legs pretty intense (considering Japan is not that far to Melbourne) and the first leg arriving in Japan especially crazy! I tend to find the combination of Tokyo and Osaka flights optimal since both cities have two major airpots and both cities typically end up on itineraries. I think I would look less favourably on spending 24 hours to get to our starting city (after our flight we had to take a shinkansen to our first destination!), especially as I hadn’t realised we would have to check-in again on the domestic leg (including hauling our luggage, which ended up missing our flight during the short transit – but more on that later). On the other hand, fewer airlines can string together Osaka and Tokyo routes, and I considered under $1000 for JAL pretty good at the time. The route also allowed me a few hours in Singapore – enough time to exit and leave immigration in order to meet my friend, who came to the airport.

Final itinerary

17 January – 10 February 2016

Click links to see the corresponding blog entry!

Day 00: Flight from Melbourne to Itami/Osaka via Singapore and Haneda/Tokyo [enroute]
Day 01: Arrival in Osaka; travel to Kumamoto [Stay in Kumamoto] *JR Pass Day 1*
Day 02: Kumamoto – Kumamoto Castle, Suizenji Garden, travel to Kagoshima [Stay in Kagoshima]
Day 03: Kagoshima – Sengan-en, Sakurajima [Stay in Kagoshima]
Day 04: Travel to Yakushima, pick up rental car [Stay in Yakushima]
Day 05: Yakushima – Shiratani Unsuikyo [Stay in Yakushima]
Day 06: Yakushima – Kigen-sugi, Yakusugi Land, return rental car, travel to Kumamoto [Stay in Kumamoto]
Day 07: Pick up rental car and drive to Takachiho – Takachiho Gorge, drive to Beppu [Stay in Beppu]
Day 08: Beppu – Hells of Beppu, return rental car, travel to Fukuoka [Stay in Fukuoka]
Day 09: Fukuoka, visit Nagasaki [Stay in Fukuoka]
Day 10: Travel to Kyoto – Fushimi Inari Taisha, visit Osaka – Umeda Sky Building [Stay in Kyoto]
Day 11: Visit Hiroshima, visit Miyajima – Itsukushima-jinja [Stay in Kyoto]
Day 12: Kyoto – Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto Imperial Palace, dinner at Sojiki Nakahigashi [Stay in Kyoto]
Day 13: Visit Himeji – Himeji Castle, visit Kobe [Stay in Kyoto]
Day 14: Visit Amanohashidate, visit Osaka [Stay in Kyoto]
Day 15: Kyoto – Ginkaku-ji, Philosopher’s Path, Nanzen-ji, Kiyomizu-dera, Higashiyama, Gion [Stay in Kyoto]
Day 16: Travel to Nagoya – Nagoya Castle [Stay in Nagoya]
Day 17: Visit Takayama, visit Shirakawa-go [Stay in Nagoya]
Day 18: Travel to Tokyo – Asakusa, Tokyo Sky Tree, Sumida Aquarium [Stay in Tokyo]
Day 19: Travel to Sapporo [Stay in Sapporo]
Day 20: Sapporo Snow Festival, visit Otaru Snow Light Path Festival [Stay in Sapporo]
Day 21: Travel to Tokyo [Stay in Tokyo] *JR pass day 21 – last day*
Day 22: Tokyo – Tsukiji, Roppongi, Odaiba [Stay in Tokyo]
Day 23: Tokyo – Shibuya, Shinjuku [Stay in Tokyo]
Day 23+1: Flight from Haneda/Tokyo to Melbourne via Singapore [enroute]
Day 23+2: Arrive in Melbourne

Important costs (AU$ or ¥)

(Not well documented…)

    Flights: ~$990pp with JAL
    Hotels: ~$140/night for 2 (most expensive ¥35728 for one night at The Tokyo Station Hotel)
    Dinner at 2-Michelin star Sojiki Nakahigashi: ¥15000pp
    Kobe beef dinner (in Kobe): A5 120g-180g sirloin and flank/bottom sirloin (a bit of confusion on the cut) ~¥9000-11000
    JR pass: $676pp (21-day JR Pass)
    Return ferry to Yakushima from Kagoshima: ¥16100yen
    Car rental: ??

Note: T didn’t really buy anything and spent around $4500-5000 total for the whole trip (inclusive of flights) and I wouldn’t say we were frugal at all

Final thoughts

We packed one check-in suitcase (~17kg), one carry-on suitcase and one carry-on backpack (we packed a change of clothes in our carry-on plus anything we wouldn’t want to lose, such as cables and chargers). We packed a light duffel bag in case of shopping – which we ended up doing a lot of. The whole check-in suitcase ended up filled with souvenirs (mostly food and alcohol) so we additionally checked in the carry-on suitcase and duffel on the return flight (we haven’t needed to expand with the duffel bag for our later Europe or USA trips though). We avoided breakfast-included rates where possible because I find conbini so much more convenient and much cheaper, especially as T doesn’t tend to eat breakfast. I usually purchased vegetables or salad the night before to eat while getting ready the next morning (I find vegetables far too lacking when eating out). If still hungry, I’d grab something on the go while we were out for the day. As with previous trips, I mostly chose mid-range business hotels, which are small but clean and well-priced. Often it’s possible to find good ones near the main stations. I stayed at Hotel Sunroute Plaza (Shinjuku) for the second trip in a row because I really like it’s value and location. It’s reviewer ratings are lower than what I typically choose but having stayed there before, I knew what I was in for and it met all my needs as it did the previous time. One of my favourite things about travelling in Japan is that mid-range hotels usually have coin laundries. We only had difficulties with machines taken up by other customers once and had to leave and come back, but otherwise we were able to do our (planned) laundry every 4-6 days.

We only made one restaurant booking, which including ringing up months ahead to book the Michelin restaurant (among my shortlist, this was the first one to accept a reservation from a non-Japanese patron – usually they would ask your hotel to book for you). For everything else, we looked up restaurants on the fly or just walked into a restaurants that looked alright. Most restaurants that came highly recommended from the Internet, we planned ahead (like the day before) and made sure to arrive early to minimise the queuing. It was hit and miss – I wouldn’t trust English reviews anymore. Notable restaurants will be discussed in subsequent posts. Overall the food was amazing and cheap – T is the most adventurous eater I’ve been to Japan with, and I think we were really able to eat very well for pretty cheap. In particular we are both fans of izakaya (and drinking Japanese fruit liqueurs), which we ate at for most dinners. My impression is that on average, most of our dinners cost ¥3000-6000 for two (with alcohol), proper lunches around ¥2000-3000 for two, and on-the-go quick snack/lunches around ¥1000-1500. This isn’t representative of Japanese food but these are the kind of places we naturally gravitate towards based on our taste and preference for Japanese food (casual and homely)… and occasion need to just keep moving and not prioritise food. Street food and conbini food is pretty awesome!

As mentioned above, we purchased the 21-day JR pass ($676 at the time but this moves with the exchange rate) which we picked up locally from HIS Japan because they had the cheapest AUD price at the time. We exchanged and used it upon arrival in Japan and I made almost all my reservations on the first day as well, for ease. With this, we literally zipped all over Japan and made some trips that seemed pretty silly if not using the JR pass (such as shinkansen travel between Kyoto and Osaka just for dinner).

For the first time, I also rented a pocket wifi. My previous travelling style had been without phone/internet and relying on maps and diagrams stored on my phone (or, I admit, hard copies printed and folded in my bag!). As my planning got more complicated, this method got more complicated for travelling through Japan. Now with T as my travel companion, he made it clear that Internet was non-negotiable. It is much easier to rent pocket (portable) wifi devices in Japan than to try and get a phone sim (it is now easier to get a data-only sim, but still harder and more expensive to get a sim with calls/text). We did some research on wifi coverage (since we would be visiting some pretty remote places) and daily limits in deciding on the company to go with (neither of us can remember the company or find the emails from that time unfortunately…). We chose to have ours delivered to our first hotel (also possible to pick up from major airports) and then return it via reply-paid post on our final day. This worked seamlessly and I believe many travellers who rent pocket wifi devices would agree that the process is very convenient for most companies. Our coverage was great even in Yakushima (except for maybe for some spots deep into our hikes) but actually it was surprisingly bad on long shinkansen rides. I am using a data sim for my upcoming trip so I will see how I get on with that compared to a pocket wifi.

I also discovered and bought my first goshuin-chou – a bit late from Kinkakuji though, so I missed out on several good opportunities earlier on! Argh! I almost filled my first book from the trip. We spent many days with no plans and just wandering the streets and obsessively going to teeny tiny shrines and temples annotated on Google maps and finding a priest or caretaker to give me a goshuin. I definitely surprised many poor priests/caretakers in some fairly obscure suburban shrines and temples. I am super proud of my first book and hope to collect many more books and fill them!

Unlike previous trips to Japan where I only used cash (pre-exchanged in Melbourne), we got the 28 Degrees credit card and used it for about half our expenses. I pre-exchanges only some cash, in anticipation for being able to use a credit card at most restaurants. This trip is where I noticed that more merchants were accepting cards than previously.

I also planned places where we would need to drive because public transport in Japan does have it’s limits! So for the first time, I had to rent cars and we both had a go driving (we rented twice). It’s actually really easy driving in Japan (especially in small towns). We got our Internal Drivers’ Permits just before leaving (received on the spot).

Camera: My beloved Canon G15 – unfortunately I dropped it a few times early on and then the focus didn’t work properly… this was my last trip with this camera although I tried to use it with difficulty for several more months. 🙁 I adored my G15 and should have taken better care of it.

Travel: Japan Trip 2012 (Day 16 & 17 – Tokyo Sky Tree, Tokyo)

Travel: Japan Trip 2012 (Day 16 & 17 – Tokyo Sky Tree, Tokyo)

See: Japan Trip 2012 itinerary and summary

Day 16: December 11

This was our last official day in Japan. Our first stop would be Tokyo Sky Tree, which was completed in earlier in the year (2012), becoming the new tallest building in Tokyo (and Japan) and the new hot spot to visit. I knew it would be busy.


Tokyo Sky Tree is not as central as Tokyo Tower (which I didn’t visit the observatory level of this trip, but did go to the top for the previous trip. I’ll touch on a comparison later), but is built with a large shopping, dining and entertainment complex called Tokyo Solamachi. There’s also an aquarium. We were lucky that it was such a beautiful day. It’s really cool to walk up towards the tower and look up! To me it always feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere, as surrounding buildings are fairly short and residential compared to the dense skyscraper suburbs.

Because Japan loves new attractions, the waiting queue was monstrous! I think if we had gone a few months earlier it would have been impossible to visit. We lined for close to an hour before getting tickets. There are actually reservations tickets (from two months in advance) and fast-pass tickets for foreigners, so during very busy times, purchasing tickets on the day may not be available if everyone’s purchased ahead.

We purchased tickets for the first and second observatory. These tickets are some of the most expensive admission tickets I’ve purchased in Japan. I would recommend not going beyond the first observatory if it’s not an exceptionally clear day, as you will probably not see much more. They have signs on the first observatory level every day that will let you know which iconic attractions are visible on the day (importantly, Mt Fuji).

As you can see, Mt Fuji was visible on this day (this was taken from the first observatory level)!



On the first observatory level, you can get your photo taken in a specially decorated area. It’s a bit cliche, but the staff will also take one on your own camera as a free service. It’s pretty difficult to get a good photo with a person and the background yourself. The staff have a decent spot set up, and they will use flash. If you don’t give them your camera on the wrong setting (whoops my fat thumb), you’ll probably get a really decent photo for free. We liked the photo they took on their professional camera, so we purchased it as a memento. On the second observatory level, there’s a glass floor to stand on and look down. One other reason why I don’t think visiting the second observatory level appreciably better is that it is ridiculously hot. This was a warm winter day, and being that high up and surrounded by nothing but glass in a confined space with hundreds of people… it was really hot and stifling. I can’t imagine how bad it would be during autumn, spring or summer!

Having been up both Tokyo Sky Tree and Tokyo Tower, I think they are both unique experiences. Tokyo Sky Tree is less central and a lot taller, so you see more of the greater city of Tokyo, but less of the iconic details that you can see from the more central Tokyo Tower. If you’re not interested in ascending either, Tokyo Tower will always be the most iconic structure, and I think it’s absolutely worth wandering around in the nearby region to get those shots of the red tower against the city. Personally, Roppongi Hills Mori Tower (see day 13 post) is actually my favourite building for city views of Tokyo, because the rooftop offers views undisturbed by a glass window, and you’re really in the heart of central Tokyo with great views of Tokyo Tower itself.

Following that, we had a quick lunch at a simple restaurant in Tokyo Solamachi.


The rest of the day was for us to just wander around Tokyo some more. We walked around Omotesando and Shibuya. It really was such a nice day.



By dinner time, we were in central Shibuya and found an okonomiyaki restaurant in Center-gai. Despite it being such a busy location, it was actually really great.



Every table had it’s own grill plate, and the okonomiyaki was divine!!! There’s nothing like it here.

After dinner, we walked around a bit more, enjoying the (crazy) hustle and bustle and city lights.



We returned to our hotel for our last sleep in Japan.

Day 17: December 12

We had a morning flight from Narita to Hong Kong. We took the JR Narita Express (NEX) from Shinjuku station (purchased the tickets the previous day, just to be on the safe side so there would be less to worry about), which was really convenient and so comfortable. It is, however, quite expensive and still takes 90 minutes.

At the airport, we had a farewell meal of ramen!


And that concludes the two-week trip in Japan! I was pleased with how it turned out and what we were able to fit in. It was my first time really travelling through multiple cities and using the JR pass. I was so glad to check a lot of things off my Japan bucket list. It was well worth doing it all myself after many, many hours of research. Though I realise I’m at a distinct advantage as it’s my third trip and can speak Japanese. Soon I will get started on posting about my 3-week Japan 2016 trip!

But maybe Hong Kong first…

Travel: Japan Trip 2012 (Day 15 – Tokyo Disney Sea)

Travel: Japan Trip 2012 (Day 15 – Tokyo Disney Sea)

See: Japan Trip 2012 itinerary and summary

Day 15: December 10

The only other Disney theme park I’ve been to is Tokyo Disneyland back in 2006 during my first trip to Japan. This time I wanted to visit Tokyo Disney Sea, which is unique to Japan. I had heard amazing things about it. From Shinjuku, we took two trains to Tokyo Disney Resort (which is where both Disneyland and Disney Sea are located) near JR Maihama Station. From there, the Disney Resort Line, which circles the resort, will stop at both parks.

Even the special Disney Resort Line monorail is aptly in the Disney spirit.



We visited on a Tuesday in winter, so it would have been a fairly low crowd day. It wasn’t terrible but there were still lots of people. I definitely would not want to visit during holidays or weekends. It was a cold day, but also super sunny.

We were there all day, from just after opening to after the big show at night, Fantasmic. We didn’t go on any rides, as we weren’t interested in that kind of thing. The whole place was incredibly beautiful with unbelievable attention to detail. It was also so clean! It was honestly so much fun, just to wander around and experience everything. My mum really enjoyed the day too, so I definitely think it’s a great place for people of all ages. There’s just a lot of walking, standing and people.






I was really tempted by a lot of adorable souvenirs, like these hilarious hats. How cool are there? I talked myself out of one, but I did buy some really flashy Disney sunglasses which I wore all day, haha. In my defence it was really sunny so kind of useful (for one day). The great thing is almost everyone in Japan is a little dressed up in Disney attire or accessories when they’re at Disneyland or Disney Sea. There’s not much you can wear that will make you stand out.


Arabian Coast was one of my favourite themed ports. It was so well made and there were so many hilarious Genie details everywhere!









The main “finale” of the night (the time changes throughout the seasons, but around 6/6:30pm in winter I think) is held at the Mediterranean Harbor. To get a good viewing spot, it’s best to get there early.




Most people leave after the show, so the exits and transportation will be really crowded.


After we left, we headed back to Shinjuku, and went into an izakaya for dinner. The drinks and food were great, but we hadn’t anticipated all the smoking, which was a total downer. I often still forget to check the smoking status of restaurants in Japan.







Travel: Japan Trip 2012 (Day 14 – Yokohama, Tokyo)

Travel: Japan Trip 2012 (Day 14 – Yokohama, Tokyo)

See: Japan Trip 2012 itinerary and summary

Day 14: December 9

On this day we visited Yokohama (Minato Mirai area), mostly taking it easy before a long day at Tokyo Disney Sea the next day, so this should be a short post. Enroute to Yokohama from Shinjuku, we briefly went to Shibuya (because that was the recommended travel route). So of course we went to pay Hachiko a visit, and made the obligatory walk across the famous Shibuya crossing.



Yokohama is where I spent half of my Japan exchange trip in high school, so it’s a special place to me. Minato Mirai is the harbour area of Yokohama and has lots of shopping complexes, an observatory, amusement park and museums (including the Cup Ramen museum). I’ve visited the Sky Garden Observatory and been on the large ferris wheel previously and think they are both excellent! On this day though, we just walked around the harbour and the shops. For lunch, we had doria and ramen.






We returned back to Tokyo for dinner. Again we got lost in Shinjuku station and got so hungry trying to find our station exit that we chose to have dinner first in a restaurant we came across that specialised in hambaagu (Japanese hamburger steak).

With more energy, we resumed our journey of finding the right exit and thus the way to our hotel. We ended up walking passed a small event for Japan’s bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics, before retreating to our hotel ahead of our big day at Tokyo Disney Sea!

Travel: Japan Trip 2012 (Day 13 – Tokyo, Roppongi, Odaiba)

Travel: Japan Trip 2012 (Day 13 – Tokyo, Roppongi, Odaiba)

See: Japan Trip 2012 itinerary and summary

Day 13: December 8

Tokyo was the home stretch of our trip! For our first morning, we travelled from Shinjuku station to Iidabashi station. From there we walked to Koishikawa Korakuen, which is apparently known as one of the oldest and best Japanese gardens in Tokyo. It is located right next to Tokyo Dome. In true Japanese fashion, it is an incredibly serene and beautiful Japanese garden, but if you look up all you can see are big city buildings. I was once again in autumn foliage heaven!

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We then travelled to Roppongi Hills. We visited Mori Tower, which features what might be my favourite observation deck in Tokyo. Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Sky Tree might be the obvious and more popular tourit destinations, I personally enjoy Mori Toiwer more because if you visit the open-air sky deck on the roof, there is no glass obstructing your view, plus you can get beautiful views of Tokyo city with the iconic Tokyo Tower! I highly recommend paying the extra to visit the sky deck if the weather is good. My mum was actually too scared so I went up to the roof alone.

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It was getting late so we went to a Chinese restaurant for lunch (of all the things to eat in Japan, haha!).

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Then we wandered around Roppongi Hills some more. Apart from the shops and restaurants, there’s also the TV Asahi HQ building and Mori Garden. I always find Roppongi Hills quite confusing to navigate, for some reason.

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After that, we travelled from Roppongi station to Shimbashi station via two Metro lines, and then took the Yurikamome to Daiba station. I love taking the Yurikamome to Odaiba because of the views you get travelling alongside Rainbow Bridge. Odaiba is a man-made island in Tokyo Bay, and while I am less interested in the shopping and dining attractions, it offers wonderful views of Tokyo Bay and Rainbow Bridge, plus there’s the iconic replica Statue of Liberty. I’ve visited Odaiba every single time I’ve been to Japan, and I mainly go for the views, typically arriving in the late afternoon and leaving when dark so as to enjoy day time and night time views.

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There are a lot of malls for shopping, dining and leisure. There’s also the iconic Fuji TV HQ building.

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For dinner, we chose a simple and very busy Omurice restaurant in one of the malls.

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Following dinner, it was now dark outside. We went back outside to enjoy views of Rainbow Bridge lit up. There were so many people it was difficult to get a good spot to take photos!

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