Our Magical Holiday in Japan: An Introduction

I’ve fallen hard for Japan. Images of places we visited pop unbidden into my mind throughout the day. Her wonderful cuisine fills my dreams, day and night. I sort happily through my purchases, currently laid out on the living room floor. Even my body is still in sway to her clock.

Japan is a country I’ve wanted to visit for so many years. Now I have, I know I’ll go back again and again.

Over coming months, I’ll be sharing many experiences from our visit.

For now, I want to share our itinerary and the websites I found most helpful in my planning and research.

PicasaJapan2012 Food Mini
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  • Day 1   Arrive in Tokyo late afternoon – hotel in Shinjuku neighbourhood, local dinner and early night
  • Day 2   Tokyo – same hotel, explore Shinjuku area, visit Hanazono Shrine, check out department stores and local area
  • Day 3   Travel to Takayama arriving early afternoon – ryokan in the heart of town, watch heavily decorated festival floats carried through town by men in traditional costumes, dinner in ryokan
  • Day 4   Takayama – same ryokan, stroll, eat and shop in local morning food market, visit Hachiman shrine, enjoy food stalls set up for the festival, visit temples at edge of town
  • Day 5   Travel to Nara – ryokan steps away from Nandaimon Gate to Todaiji Temple, within park full of semi-tame deer, dinner in ryokan
  • Day 6   Travel to Kyoto – ryokan overlooking Shirakawa Stream in heart of traditional Gion district, explore local area including Nishiki food market and nearby shopping streets, visit Yasaka Shrine, dinner in ryokan
  • Day 7   Kyoto – same ryokan, explore traditional Gion and Higashiyama districts of Kyoto, visit several temples and shrines including Kennin-ji, Yasui Konpiragu, Yasaka Pagoda and Kiyomizudera, browse many traditional food, drink and craft stores, dinner in local area
  • Day 8   Kyoto – transfer to hotel in Kyoto station, original plan was to walk The Philosopher’s Path but illness meant we didn’t go out much on this day
  • Day 9   Kyoto – same hotel, visit Suntory Yamazaki Distillery and then Fushimi Inari Shrine (reduced day after previous illness, had also planned to visit Sanjusangendo Temple and sake breweries)
  • Day 10  Kyoto – same hotel, visit to Sagano/ Arashiyama, bamboo forest and Tenryuji Temple, then shopping and walking in area near hotel (original plan was to visit Miho Museum)
  • Day 11  Travel to Mount Koya – staying in Shingon Buddhist temple, visit to Okuno-in cemetery, dinner and breakfast in temple
  • Day 12 Travel to Osaka – Observe early morning prayers before travelling to Osaka, arrive early afternoon – hotel in Namba neighbourhood, visit Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum, local dinner
  • Day 13  Travel to Hiroshima and Miyajima – visit Hiroshima peace park then take ferry to Miyajima, arriving mid-afternoon, staying in ryokan in Miyajima, dinner in ryokan
  • Day 14  Travel back to Tokyo – arriving late afternoon, hotel in Asakusa area, local dinner
  • Day 15  Tokyo – same hotel, explore Harajuku and Shibuya, meet several online friends during day and evening
  • Day 16  Tokyo – same hotel, morning exploring and shopping in Asakusa and Kappabashi Dori, afternoon boat trip along Sumida River
  • Day 17  Tokyo – same hotel, late morning visit to Tsukiji for lunch, afternoon ascent of Skytree for views of Tokyo and exploring local area, dinner in Shinjuku with online friends
  • Day 18  Leave for the airport early in the morning

PicasaJapan2012 NonFood Mini
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Web Resources

The site that helped me the most was Japan-Guide, an incredible resource which not only lists and describes all the attractions across Japan, with maps and travel instructions for each but also provides advice on all aspects of a visit that you’ll need to know about such as clothing, how to use trains, buses and taxis and all the variations of tickets you might consider, renting cars and driving, mobile phone and internet access, shopping, travelling on a budget, changing money and using bank cards, immigration advice, what to bring with you, all sorts of information about accommodation, not just recommendations of actual places but etiquette guides for meals and public baths in traditional inns, how to find home stays and apartments, even tutorials on history, arts and crafts, entertainment and language. There’s also a great itineraries tool which allows you to plug in your arrival airport and duration of visit and gives a suggested itinerary. I used that as a loose starting point but amended heavily from there. And if all that wasn’t enough, you can ask any outstanding questions in the forums, where you’ll nearly always find someone knows just what you need.

Using Japanese Rail is an easy way to travel around the country, and foreign visitors can take advantage of the Japan Rail Pass, a great value deal which is only available to non- residents. A fixed price entitles you to travel on virtually all Japan Rail trains during the 1, 2 or 3 week validity of your pass. There are a handful of JR trains that are excluded, and you will also encounter some privately owned railways for which you’ll need to buy separate tickets. Likewise local city metro lines. You must buy your Japan Rail pass before arrival in Japan, and you will be sent a voucher that you’ll need to exchange for the actual pass when you arrive. Check out this post on working out whether a JR Pass is worth it, for your trip.

Hyperdia, allows you to search for routes and train timetables and work out your trips in advance. If buying a Japan Rail Pass, you can take a printed list with you and ask for all the seat reservations to be booked and ticketed for you at the same time as collecting your pass, on arrival. Having seat reservations doesn’t preclude you from taking different trains (though it’s courteous to pop into a JR office and cancel reservations you won’t be using) and you can either ask for new reservations or travel in the unreserved seating carriages on each train. Not only can you check train times, but when you’re making journeys which involve a change of trains, Hyperdia lists the platform your first train arrives into and the platform the next train departs from. In our experience, these were always accurate and meant we needed much less time to make the changes than we would have done in the UK.

When it came to booking accommodation, I used Agoda for great prices on hotels. I liked the clarity about exactly what type of room I was booking, what amenities it offered and the cancellation terms. I used Agoda.com (which charges in US$) as that was the site I came across first, but later found out there’s also an Agoda.co.uk (which presumably charges your card in GBP).

For traditional inns (and one of my hotels) I used Japanese Guest Houses. They were very helpful answering my detailed questions about various properties, and also very courteous about making changes to two bookings when I needed to adjust my itinerary after making the initial reservations. The website doesn’t have the clearest information about available room types or prices, but all that information can be checked by email before booking.

I also booked three places directly via email and telephone and was very happy with the personal relationship this allowed me to establish with the hosts before arrival. These were traditional inns that I’d chosen by reading reviews on several different travel websites and forums.

When it came to researching food, both learning more about the various regional specialities and gleaning recommendations for specific restaurants, I turned to Chowhound, which has an active Japan board. A high proportion of threads there refer to the higher end (and very expensive) restaurants, but there are a number of regular members who live in Japan and are happy to advise on more moderately priced options. I also found Japan-Guide useful when making lists of the kinds of foods and specialities I wanted to look out for. And Bento.com was a helpful source of short reviews and addresses for restaurants.

I also read many food and drink blogs, both written by Japanese residents and by international travellers sharing their holiday experiences. These were particularly helpful for individual restaurant recommendations, feedback on the reality of visiting some of the visitor attractions and other practical advice, including tips on how to budget Japan travel.

And of course, I turned to Google, which helped me find a treasure trove of individual articles in national newspapers and magazines. I have long been a fan of the travel supplements of the British national papers, and the ones which aren’t protected by firewalls have a wealth of articles with some great sightseeing and eating tips. The Guardian published a lot about Tokyo earlier this year, which I particularly enjoyed reading.

I hope these resources will prove useful to anyone planning their own trip to Japan. Check out this post for more Japan travel tips and this post for 40 fun facts about Japan.

Please come back to read my individual restaurants and sightseeing posts, coming soon. Find them easily using the Japan tag.


Please leave a comment - I love hearing from you!
31 Comments to "Our Magical Holiday in Japan: An Introduction"

  1. Dominic

    oh I have been waiting for this round-up of your Japan trip for ages… i’m going to sit down with a glass of wine this weekend and read in full… can’t wait.. so jealous… must must go to Japan!

  2. Suelle

    We’ve taken a guided tour of Japan, as we didn’t feel brave enough to travel independently – it was a wonderful holiday. One downside of the tour was that the local guide only pointed out ‘foreign’ restaurants for those who didn’t want to tackle local food, which was a pity! Still, we muddled through, and ate Japanese food most of the time. The one time we couldn’t get any reasonably priced Japanese food was at a hotel in the middle of no-where and their attempt at international cuisine was terrible!

    I’ll be looking forward to reading about your travels.


    Hi Sue, yes I can understand the temptation of a guided tour. I had lots and lots of friends who had been before, encouraging me, and yet I was still nervous about several aspects of the trip. But I had strong ideas about what we wanted to do, and how we like to travel, plus the time to invest, so planning it myself made sense.
    But it did mean if anything had gone wrong, it would all have been on me!
    I hope you get to visit again, and can go your own way next time!

  3. Jennifer Howze

    I’ve just returned from Japan too. Ours was a whirlwind tour (1 week) and I still wonder how many posts I’ll have to write to get it all in. Looking forward to your posts!

  4. kaveyeats

    Aah, that’s good. Time for you to go again with the girls? Can imagine how much they’d love it!

  5. Mara

    I found this blog link on the Asia board at fodors – looking forward to reading your blog – glad you loved Japan – my eighth trip will be next spring – I’m sure you will go back as well. 🙂

  6. Linda Keel

    Kavey, I can’t wait to read the rest of your experiences. Just reading about your research sources was enlightening. And I love your pictures. Seems like you had a better time in Japan then I did. 🙂

  7. Jo

    Lovely pictures! (except the ones of the naked dolls creeps me out a little). I’ll definitely be stopping back when I start piecing my travels together for next year. Thanks for sharing!


    They creeped me out too and there were trays of different sized ones too!
    Hope you find the resource guide useful when you start planning!

  8. S lloyd

    Hi Kavey,
    Thanks for your amazing article on Japan. Planning to visit this beautiful country next year and enjoy its fabulous food.
    Couple of questions, please
    (1)I have heard that it tough to get around Tokyo, take trains, public transports, finding addresses.
    Any tricks to ease up the pain for a non Japanese speaker/reader?
    (2)What have been your favourite 5 affordable eateries in Tokyo?
    (3)In order of preference, if you went visiting them, from your most favourite to the least, how would you rate Tobu Sakana (in Shimokitazawa), Uoshin (in Shibuya Honten), Koyu (in Nezu), Nakamenoteppan, Isedou, the himonoya chain, Kaba (in Hamamatsucho), Maru,Kikuta (near Kamaru station) and Kushiwakamau (Naka Meguro). Last question: what are your favourite 3 Isakayas in Tokyo, those you would not mind reaching from any pat of Tokyo? Thanks


    Hi S
    1) We didn’t find it tough to get around Tokyo, we used the underground system. Be aware that the underground is made up of a great many lines. There are two companies that own the metro lines, plus there are also railway lines. Easiest way to pay for your trips on the underground is buy a SUICA card on arrival at the airport (you can buy it in the JRPass office) and load it with 1000 or 2000 Yen. In fact, if you take the Narita Express in to Tokyo from the airport, there’s a special discounted price for a N’ex ticket and SUICA combination. If you do get a JR Pass, you can use that on the JR lines within Tokyo as well as to travel between cities. If you don’t buy a SUICA, you have to work out cost of your trips at the ticket machines, using the maps and tables shown above. A little effort but not that hard. Journeys maybe 230 or 260 Yen, depending on distance etc.

    As for finding addresses, this is tricky based on addresses, really hard. We took a tablet with us, rented a mobile internet device from Rentafone Japan, and relied on Google Maps to help us find addresses. Mostly we’d check in advance, but sometimes we accessed it on the hoof, when we got a little lost. That worked very well indeed.

    We don’t speak any Japanese either, except hello, thank you etc. In hotels / ryokans this wasn’t an issue really. In restaurants it varied, but where there was no English, there were often photos of dishes and we just picked by pictures. Worked fine.

    2) I’ll be sharing reviews on places we ate over coming weeks, keep an eye out here for those.

    3) Didn’t visit any of those, I’m afraid.

  9. Laura@howtocookgoodfood

    Japan is a country I dream of going to and I loved all your tweets while you were over there letting us know just how good it can be! I can imagine it being really hard readjusting to life over here after such an amazing experience and I am obsessed by Japanese food so am dying to hear more about it 🙂


    Thanks Laura, it was fun sharing what we were doing via twitter. It really was such a lovely holiday!

  10. S lloyd

    Thanks Kavey
    A last question: can you share about good value lodging there in Tokyo (hotel, bed and breakfast, ryokan, etc). As long as it is clean, reliable/safe and not too pricey.
    Many thanks
    PS: You can send me an email if you feel that some infos might be way too sensitive to be public


    We only stayed in two places in Tokyo.

    One was not at the lower end, but we got a reasonable rate via Agoda by booking just a few days before. That was Hotel Century Southern Tower. Usually quite expensive though.

    The other was Dormy Inn Asakusa. Dormy Inn is a budget chain, but rooms are clean and well maintained and staff very helpful. Location is decent, just a minute from Asakusa station, and is right on the Sumida River. Again we booked via Agoda, but this time a few months in advance, and got a price we were happy with. We went for one of the larger rooms, described as Western plus Japanese, so it was more spacious than most. The standard rooms are small, but still fine. Breakfast is really crappy here, would mentally discount it even it comes with price of room. Was the only poor food we encountered in Japan. But the hotel itself is good. There’s even a free hot foot spa upstairs that you can soak tired feet in. And a laundrette too, use of the washing machines is free, small coin charge for the dryers.

  11. Emma

    It’s funny, I’ve never met anyone who went to Japan, and regretted it. We went in January and found it amazing. It has it’s minuses of course, but we found them few and far between. What was your favourite city?


    It’s really hard but I’d say Kyoto, just because it had so much to offer. Within the city, both modern areas and the traditional Gion and Higashiyama districts, wonderful varied temples and shrines, superb eating, a great food market, the bamboo forest and river at Sagano/ Arashiyama, and places like Nara nearby too.

  12. Nic

    Really enjoying reading your Japan posts, you certainly packed a lot into your trip. Desperately wanting to go now…


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