I embarked on my Japan tour in February 2016 for a whirlwind excursion to Japan.
This first little taste of Asia has left me hungry for more, and has illustrated for my own eyes all of my previous’ clients recommendations that I venture across the pacific. I wish I could have stayed longer!!
I flew premium economy on Singapore Airlines from Los Angeles to Narita. I have always heard such wonderful things about Singapore Air from my clients, but I was a little disappointed with my own experience. Maybe it’s because I’m 5’2” and the Premium Economy seats are built for taller people. I could not get comfortable enough to fully fall asleep even with the help of a sleeping aide. In Premium Economy, the consoles rest between the seats so the arm rests do not lift up and the seats are far from the window. If you prefer leaning against the window to rest, I will warn you that is not going to happen on this type of aircraft. While I was not satisfied with my seating arrangement (again, I attribute this to my own stature) the service from the flight attendants was outstanding. They were very accommodating, kind and definitely the best part of the flight. The food did not leave me impressed. Not that airplane food is delicious, but having come off an Air France flight in November with pretty good catering, I had raised the bar for Singapore. They did not measure up. They did have a dim sum meal that had a few good pieces in it, but overall, I’d give them a 3 out of 10 for food. Entertainment is a solid 10 out of 10, with a great variety of movies to watch. Since I couldn’t sleep, I caught up on my Oscar nominated films.
Arriving into Narita, we had pre-arranged transfers. We were directed to the correct bus queue and sure enough, our bus pulled up and we were on our way to the hotel. It’s very organized and orderly in Japan. No pushing or shoving, just line up on the yellow line for easy boarding.
We stayed at the Hilton Tokyo which is near the Shinjuku train station. A typical high rise building with fitness center, pool, multiple restaurants, lounge, etc. Breakfast was included, which was great, seeing as the hotel buffet can be very pricey. They had a full assortment of both American and Asian breakfast.
After breakfast we took a half-day city tour. Our tour took us to Tokyo Tower with a great view of the city and Mt Fuji. Next we went to the Meiji Shrine. We were lucky enough to see a wedding going on (see below). We continued on to the Imperial Palace and ended up at Ginza, a large shopping area known for high end stores . Sadly, we didn’t have much time here, as we had to make our way over to the Park Hyatt for a tour and lunch. We were able to navigate the subway all the way to the Shinjuku station, which is within walking distance from the hotel. We had a delicious lunch at the Park Hyatt, as well as a chance to look at their rooms, which were very beautiful. The suites we saw were exquisite, I would definitely recommend this hotel for clients wanting a more upscale experience. We also stopped at the Keio Plaza Hotel and looked at their rooms before sitting down for afternoon tea in one of their restaurants.
Since it was February, the climate was a little cool and played small hindrances on our sightseeing experiences. This is why many clients enjoy going in March or April to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom or May for nicer weather. On day three, we ventured to Mt Fuji and Hakone via motorcoach. There was snow on the ground (and it was raining!) so we were only allowed to go to the 1st station. We took a ride on the ropeway which is like a cable car or gondola and a short boat ride on Lake Ashi and had a fabulous lunch. After our full day tour we were taken to the train station for our Shinkansen (Bullet train) back to Tokyo. Our guide was wonderful and it was amazing to stand on the platform and have one of those trains whiz past you at 150-200mph. It was funny, after I got off the train, I was a bit dizzy. Our guide rode the train back to Tokyo with us and helped us transfer at Tokyo station to Shinjuku station and even helped us find where the Hilton shuttle picked us up. We got back to the hotel, had a brief snack in the Executive Lounge and then collapsed from our full day of sightseeing. For these group trips, a lot is always packed into one day with a strict schedule to adhere to, but to maximize your time spent on vacation, I suggest that clients do an overnight in Hakone on their way to Kyoto
The following day we were up early for breakfast and to check out of the Hilton, before jumping on a bullet train to Kyoto. As we were waiting to board our train, all the passengers got off, a crew went onboard each car and cleaned it, including vacuuming, changing the headrest covers and dusting. The speed and thoroughness was very impressive.
Our hotel was very close to the Kyoto train station and we were able to get right into our room. This was a fast-paced, efficient day between the train and the hotel! We ended up taking the shuttle from the train station to the Westin hotel, which was north of us. We then headed to the Gion area, which is where you are likely to see Geishas. They were hurrying between tea houses so I didn’t have a chance to snap a photo, but they were stunning. As we were wandered around the shopping area, sampling tea and sweets, we stumbled on Gion Corner which is an art foundation and they have a show. Here, I was able to participate in a traditional tea ceremony as well as listen to Japanese Harp music and Gagaku, which is court music. While the tea ceremony was going on they had a flower arrangement demonstration. Kyogen, which is an ancient comic play, as well as Geishas doing the traditional Kyomai dance finished off the show. In spring, summer and fall, they add a puppet show.
After the show is over, you can pose with the Geishas for pictures. It was a fun surprise that we stumbled on and I would highly recommend my clients to check out. After the Gion Corner we made our way back to where the shuttle had let us off and decided to take a bus back to the train station. The bus stop we were at had lights that signaled when your bus was arriving. The locals were very helpful and led us to our correct bus. When you take a bus in Japan,you enter in the back and you exit out the front, paying as you exit. The signs are in English with the fare, so it’s pretty easy to navigate if you do not know japanese. We also found a group of students who were eager to help/translate for us. By the time we got back to our hotel, we were ready for bed.
On day five, crossing the halfway mark of our trip, we began the day with a half-day city tour of Kyoto. The 3 stops were at Nijo Castle, Kinkakuji Temple built in 1397, also known as the Golden Pavilion and the Imperial Palace. We stopped at the Kyoto Handicraft Center which is comprised of 2 buildings where you can see craftspeople working on their trade. You can also do some enamel painting. After we did a walk through, we hopped back onto the Westin shuttle and walked from the Gion stop over to the Nishiki food market. It’s rows of shops and stands selling all sorts of food. We went all the way through the market and ended up at Ippudo Nishikikouj, a fabulous little ramen shop (might I add, across from a Starbucks). The dumplings were so good and so was the ramen. Afterwards, we wandered a bit while we shopped and eventually got on a bus headed for the train station. Across from the train station is Kyoto Tower, so we went up for a drink. The tower has a good view of the entire city. Note, after 6pm, they charge $6 or so (It’s in very fine print on the menu.) to sit in the lounge, so be prepared.
Next we took a local train down to Nara. We had an excellent guide meet us at the train and show us around. She took us to see the calling of the deer and I will try and post the video. It’s an amazing site. Deer roam free in Nara and you see them everywhere, near the shops, near the temples, etc… In a park, there is a guy who blows a horn and the deer come out of the medieval forest. These are different then the ones roaming the streets. We saw the main temples, did a Sake tasting and then it was time to get back on the train to Kyoto. I highly recommend spending at least 1 night in Nara, preferably more. There is sightseeing around Nara go to a Tea farm, the swinging bridge, Sake breweries, etc… Nara is well known for their Sake. While in Nara, stay at a Ryokan. A Ryokan is a traditional Japanese Inn/Guesthouse that gives you an authentic experience. They usually include food and you can find them all over Japan.
Our last morning in Kyoto we took a short train to Fushimi Inari Shrine. The Shrine is right across the street from the train station. It is at the base of a mountain and you can follow the paths up to the top. It’s about a 4 km walk and takes about 2 hours round trip. You go through hundreds of Torii gates (red wooden arches) and each one was donated. You have great views from the top, but it is such an amazing experience. When we came back down, instead of going straight to the train station, we went down a little street to the right. It had stands of people selling food. It was amazing. Crab Sticks, all kinds of meat skewers, bean cakes, rice crackers in various flavors, etc…. Our favorite was outside a market, a guy was grilling steak on a habachi and to speed up the cooking he was using a blow torch on the top. It was very good, but I was too full to eat it. We hustled back to Kyoto (5 minutes on the train) and checked out of our hotel and back to Tokyo for 1 final night.
We were able to go to the Tsukiji Fish Market and Outer Market. It’s right near a subway stop. We didn’t go at 5am to see the live Tuna auction, but it was fun to walk through the stalls and see everything from fresh fruit, veggies, fish to t-shirts, knives, handmade paper, pottery and more. They are moving the market to another location in November. On our way back to the hotel to get ready to go home, we came across a farmers market and were able to sample some goods there.
Japan is a beautiful, amazing country and I can’t wait to go back and explore more of it. Do yourself a favor and go check out Japan, you will love it.