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Now that we’re back, I have several blog posts on deck related to specific points of our trip. I’m going to start, as I often do, with the practicalities. I don’t do this beforehand because 1) I never know if things are going to turn out as I think they will and 2) I am not keen on letting people know my whereabouts on a day-by-day basis.

So let’s start:

Why Japan?

I think I wrote about this before, but I’ll just repeat myself. It’s summer, both my still-at-home kids will be in brick and mortar schools over the next school year, and one of them is a rising senior – the era of family vacations with these two is coming to an end. So I wanted to do a big trip, and where have never been? Lots and lots of places, but a big place we’ve never been is Asia. Japan seemed to be an accessible, affordable, tourist-friendly spot to begin. So Japan it was!

I’m not going to be even more boring and repeat the saga of the changes in this itinerary that happened because of a) my changing views and b) the AirBnB/Japanese government issue. But here’s my final verdict on the itinerary, in case you’re thinking about heading img_1917over that way yourself for the first time.

You can skip Tokyo. It’s fine.

Look. I don’t regret our time in Tokyo. At all. But if you are going to Japan because you want to experience Japanese history and culture for the first time, and especially if you are doing so with younger people, Kyoto and Osaka are perfect. Granted, there is a great deal in Tokyo – it’s obviously one of the great cities of the world. But it’s also a challenge in many ways, it’s huge, it’s not intuitive for tourists, it’s very modern since so much was destroyed during World War II, and Kyoto, especially, offers a glimpse of traditional Japanese culture in a way that’s easier to experience than it is in Tokyo.  Now, there might be other reasons for you to go to Tokyo – you want to see a specific site, visit specific museums or historic sites or experience a particular aspect of modern Tokyo: style, youth culture, food. That might be what you’re after. But if you want a manageable, not overwhelming, more focused experience of Japanese life – you can skip Tokyo and not feel badly about it.

For comparison, think about what you would tell, say, someone from Japan or from Europe – or anywhere outside the US – who was going to visit the United States for the first time. If they had two weeks, where would you tell them to go? It’s an interesting question that I’ve thought about a lot, especially as I travel around the United States and see groups of Japanese, Chinese or German tourists (the most common nationalities you’ll see – unless you’re in Las Vegas, then you should add Brits to the list). Would you tell them to go to New York City and make that their focus? I don’t think I would. The US is so vast and diverse, I think it’s impossible to get even close to experiencing it in two weeks, but I think I would tell someone (who had no financial limitations!) to probably visit Washington D.C. before New York City, maybe Chicago, and then focus on the West.

Anyway – so those are my thoughts on my vast experience (ten! Days!) in Japan. There’s so much more than just the cities, and an unending variety of landscapes and experiences, but that said – to repeat myself – don’t feel badly about skipping Tokyo.

First: flights:

We flew from Birmingham. Birmingham – Dallas – Narita, and then back the same way. I had spent untold hours trying to figure out other ways. I could have done the whole thing a bit cheaper if I’d done separate flights, doing the main flight to Tokyo from LA. You can fly (depending on time of year) LAX-NRT economy class for well under a thousand. Maybe even around $700. But I didn’t want to fly straight economy – I wanted premium economy, which gives just a little more space in the seat, and a little more pitch in the recline. And when I started doing the math, to try to string together flights from BHM to LAX and then LAX to NRT would have not been much more than just plugging in BHM to NRT and letting fate handle the rest. (And now, Atlanta fares were no better – worse, in fact, for some reason).

Of course, fate had her cruel way with us when we missed our Tokyo flight, but that’s all in the past now…right?

(By the way – I don’t know if I mentioned this – but AA did respond to my complaints on that and deposited 15,000 miles in my account for the trouble we went through. I thought about thanking them and then saying that since the boys also went through the same hassle, maybe they could get 15,000 miles each, too? But I didn’t.)

amy-welbornI should add that after I checked in, I got the offer to upgrade to business – and…I took it. Yup. I mean – it wasn’t free. When I say, “got the offer” – you might think I’m saying that. But I’m not. They offer to sell you a business class seat is what it is  (unless, of course you are at some high-mileage awards level…which I’m not)  But it the cost of it, even with a business upgrade one way, was not bad, it was a 14-hour flight, and I was so worried about being rested for the Beginning! Of! The! Japan! Trip! that I said…what the hell, it’s only money, I might die next week, so why not and did it. First every business class experience and yah…nice.  You know those people you file by as you’re boarding into economy, the people lounging with their drinks and snacks and towels? Yeah, that was us, for once. Little cubicles, fully reclining seats, better food…worth it. Especially after the hassle of having the trip delayed by 24 hours. Absolutely worth it. Decadent, but worth it.

For the record, I didn’t upgrade on the way back. Got the offer, but didn’t even consider it. The flight is several hours shorter  – 11 hours, which is a lot less daunting-sounding than 14 – and the timing of it makes it less “necessary” to sleep. The flight over to Japan (from Dallas) began mid-afternoon on Thursday and landed at 4:30 on Friday. This flight back left at 11am on Monday and we’ll be back in Birmingham (hopefully) by 1 pm on Monday.  (Update: we were. Early, in fact.) Amazing! A two-hour flight! Well of course not, but the point is, that it’s not as important to sleep. Yes, everyone will be tired, but if they can just stick it out until eight or so, then collapse and sleep for twelve hours, they should be back on track for the next day.

Now – accommodations:

In Tokyo, we stayed at the Richmond Premiere Hotel near the Oshiage station and Tokyo amy-welbornSkytree, which turned out to be, in my opinion, a great place. There are many vibrant Tokyo neighborhoods and areas, and the Skytree area is a bit far from the more well-known (like Shibayu, Ginza and Shinjuku), but I loved it. The hotel is literally right next to the Tokyo Skytree, which has a substantial mall featuring a lot of Japanese goods anda great variety of restaurants. The hotel is also right next to a grocery store and steps from the train/subway station, something that was such a relief at the end of a long day. (View from right outside the hotel.) 

Japanese hotel rooms will tend to be smaller than American hotels – well, globally, that’s the case – American hotel rooms are roomier than what you’ll find in most places, but this one was fine. I requested a third bed, which was all ready when we arrived. We amy-welborndidn’t have a lot of room to walk around, and oddly enough, there was no dresser – there was a cabinet with a fridge, but no place for clothes – but that’s fine. I didn’t go to Japan to hang out in a hotel room, anyway. Everything was immaculate, and yes, it included the famed Japanese type of toilet. Which are a little complicated, but not as impenetrable as we might think: basically, they include bidet features and warm seat. Some feature sound effects to cover up your own…. sounds, as well, but this one didn’t.

One more note on our two experiences of Japanese hotels (and one AirBnB): they do provide more amenities than American hotels. In American hotels, you’ll find the trio of shampoo, conditioner and lotion, as well as soap bars and coffee packets. The Japanese hotels we stayed at also provided toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, q-tips, brushes/combs and slippers (explicitly labeled with an invitation to take with you if you like.)

We were in this hotel from 6/22 to 6/26. I did it through Booking.com, which probably has its disadvantages, but here, made it easy to reschedule, which I had to do twice. No problems or additional charges either time.

In Kyoto, we stayed at this AirBnB house. I will post some of my own photos here, but to get a better (albeit typical wide-angle look that makes it look bigger) – view, go to the website. It was a bit outside the main part of the city, but that was fine.   It was a great little house – very traditional with tatatmi mats, sleeping on the floor and everything. My older son ended up sleeping downstairs because it was cooler – which is easy when your beds are futon mattresses that you can fling about at will. You can see from the photos that the bath/toilet areas were separate. The toilet wasn’t quite as fancy as those we had in hotels, but still had those bidet features. The shower room was an actual shower room  – with a good deep, Japanese style tub, and then a hand-held shower that you could either use in the tub or in the room (see the drain in the floor.)

 

Note: I have some video up about the apartment at Instagram. Go to amy_welborn on the app, or go here to see. 

It was a great location, just two minutes from the train station, and in a real neighborhood.

(A note on lofts and upper bunks and such. Our experience in traveling has invariably been that when we stay in a place that has a loft area or some sort of bunk situation, everyone always thinks it’s initially amazing and so cool – until it’s time to sleep there, and we once again rediscover physics: heat rises. )

The last night, we stayed at the Crowne Plaza airport hotel – which was fine. It was a high-quality space, very clean, with all those amenities and the usual meticulous, painfully polite level of Japanese service – I called to request an extra towel  – there were only two provided – and the fellow on the other end must have said, “So sorry” about ten times. Really. It’s fine.

Transportation:

I probably spent more on transportation but I needed to, but as I always say: everything has a cost, currency is what we use to pay costs, and there are all different sorts of currency: there’s money, there’s time, there’s work, there’s hassle. What currency you use might change at every given moment. For me on this trip, I chose to use the currency that cost the least hassle: the Pasmo card.

Japanese public transportation is pervasive, timely and clean. Buses, trains and subways run on time and are easy to use. I found that in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, almost all signage was in English as well as Japanese. You can certainly purchase individual tickets for train and bus travel, but hardly anyone does. What they do instead is use a card – the Suica or the Pasmo – on which you load money and then just scan at entry and exit gates. I am sorry, but I have no idea how much any of my individual trips cost because all I did was load a thousand yen on the Pasmo when needed, and scan away. (you can also use these cards to pay for purchases and an increasing number of stores and vending machines.)

The only confusion we encountered was in Kyoto, when we ended up on the wrong train one night because we didn’t pay close enough attention to the arrival time. There were several lines – local, express, limited express and so on – that made stops at the station near our apartment. It’s not one of those deals where you can just assume, “This train is stopping at this station around this time, going in this direction, therefore it will make all the stops between here and there.”  We ended up – I don’t know where or how – and had to racewalk to the next station at about ten at night, hoping and praying we’d catch the right one this time – we did! We learned from that – pay attention to the time. If Google Maps says that the train you need is coming at 9:47 – take the 9:47, and believe us, it will indeed come at 9:47. Don’t take the 9:45 or even the 9:46.5! They will not stop and you will end up wandering around Kyoto late at night!

Which brings up the issue of…safety.

There is no issue. I always felt 150% safe in Japan, and would have felt so even if I was by myself. I will write more about this later, but Japan – in my limited, super-short experience – offers a landscape and urban environment that is secure, clean and safe.

img_20180701_0919301We used taxis three times: in Kyoto, from and back to our apartment from the train station, and then in Tokyo that rainy Sunday morning when we were going to Mass. Not surprisingly, the cab drivers were very polite and wore gloves, the seats were covered in white doilies, and the back doors opened and shut automatically. I think Uber operates in Japan, but the taxis seemed trustworthy, so I didn’t even look into it.

Shinkansen:

Yes, we took the famed Japanese bullet train round trip from Tokyo to Kyoto. It’s not the cheapest way to get around – even flying would be cheaper – but you know, you go to Japan, of course you want to take the bullet train if you can. Well, it was fine – it was fast, super clean and…a train. It got us from there to there. I purchased the round trip ticket at a discount from here.  The process of getting the tickets was a little complicated – we had to find the tour office in the Tokyo Station (which was a bit of a challenge), but once we did, the very nice fellow printed out the tickets with exhaustive directions on how to proceed from that amy-welbornpoint, which included getting a one-day transportation pass for Kyoto, as well.

These trains run very frequently – many times an hour. You can reserve seats, but the package I got was for unreserved seats, which are in the first three cars. I was a little concerned that there might not be seats – since they were unreserved – but there was no problem. Plenty of room. It took about 2.5 hours to get from one city to the next. Oh – the other advantage of purchasing the Shinkansen voucher through JapanIcan.com was that it’s good for the fastest train that makes the fewest stops – the Nozomi – which the JR Rail Pass is not.

(I suppose I should mention that we did not get Japan Rail Passes – there are a lot of options and big discussions all over the place as to whether or not it’s worth it, and in doing the math, I decided it wasn’t for us. If we’d been doing a lot of rail travel out and about between cities, it would have been – but we weren’t, so it wasn’t.)

Money:

I got a few thousand yen from our bank before we left. I usually don’t bother to get foreign currency anymore before a trip, what with ATMS being so pervasive, but I had read some questionable things about the availability of ATMS in Japan – that you can’t assume that an ATM will take your American debit card. Well, I found that there was no problem. The common advice is to head to ATMS that are in 7-11 stores (yes) – that they are always, 100% going to take your card and give you money back. I found that to be true, and also found those 7-11 stores everywhere. And where there wasn’t a 7-11, there was a Family Mart – one of the other big convenience store chains  – and they took my debit cards too.

(FYI – 100 yen is about a dollar. So to convert prices, just drop two decimal places, and there you go.)

Airport:

We flew in and out of Narita Airport, which is the big Tokyo airport (the other, original airport is Haneda, which is smaller).  It’s busy, but very easy to get around, super clean and efficient. Immigration and customs both coming and going took five minutes, tops. Security as we left was fantastic – when you can leave your shoes on, it’s all good, in my book.

Oh, internet:

My cel phone is T-mobile, which has excellent international coverage. You will find some free wi-fi in the usual suspects (Starbucks, train stations), but it’s not everywhere. We rented a mobile wi-fi device from Japan Wireless. I went through all kinds of convoluted rigamarole and rented it before we went and picked it up at the post office at the airport, but as we walked through the airport, I immediately saw that this hadn’t been necessary – there are booth after booth of companies offering the devices for rent at very reasonable prices. It was a great little machine: All three of us could be using it at night and it was super fast, faster than the wireless at the AirBnB.  The cost was about $6/day, I think.

 

I think that’s about it for the practicalities. Still to come, posts on:

  • Food
  • Interesting signs
  • Shopping
  • Style and Apparel
  • Spirituality

But let me get home and do massive loads of laundry, drink Diet Coke and sit on my own bed in my own room with the door closed, first, okay? Thnx.

(Update: done. Finished the post at 5 am Tuesday morning, after rising a couple of hours ago….)

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