After A 10-hour, trans-pacific flight, up the California Coast and over Alaska’s magical, snowy Aleutian Islands, we landed at Tokyo’s Narita Airport. We were headed to Tokyo, Lake Kawaguchiko, Kanazawa, Mount Koyasan, & Kyoto. While I had a bunch of the details figured out in advance, I could not have understood ahead of time the wonder of this beautiful, friendly, historically-rich country. If you’re considering a visit, book it. If you’re wondering where to go and how to start planning, here are some tips for the journey.
When to go: September to May. If you want to see the cherry blossoms, you’ll want to plan a late March/early April visit. The blossoms bloom at different times in different regions, so consult local listings when drawing out your itinerary. Many travel sites and agents discourage summer travel because of crowds and the potential for extreme wet weather.
Transportation: Whenever possible, consider train travel. Trains are clean, run constantly and are mostly on time. They also give you extra opportunities to view Japan’s diverse landscapes.
What you need:
It turns out that there are a few must-haves for any traveler to Japan, and with proper planning, they’ll be waiting for you in the terminal.
1. A Japan Rail Pass: Cabs are expensive, and train travel is a breeze. You can buy a Japan Rail Pass to give you unlimited travel on the JR Line for 7, 14, or 21 days. For a set cost, this pass will cover most high-speed rail travel between cities, regional lines, as well as much of your local subway travel. You can purchase a voucher at JRPass.com, and pick up your official pass at one of many airports all over Japan.
Bonus tips - Skip the more expensive Green Car (First Class) upgrade. Japan’s trains are spotless, comfortable, run frequently, and most often have seat availability, even during peak times. If you’ll be city-hopping, bring a list of your upcoming train times, and purchase your tickets at the JR Pass office. You can change your train times later if needed, but planning ahead can help save you time and avoid long train ticket lines for the rest of your trip.
3. Pocket Wifi: This device keeps you connected without draining your data plan or incurring international charges. Whether you are in the busy streets of Tokyo or on the relatively remote Koyasan mountaintop, it helps to have Google Maps (astoundingly accurate, includes train times and stations) and Google Translate at your fingertips. Charge your Pocket Wifi overnight, and it will keep up to ten devices online during the day (bring the charger with you just in case for a late-afternoon/evening recharge). You can reserve a Pocket Wifi on the Japan Experience website and pick it up at the airport.
Whether bedraggled from flying on our first night in Tokyo or strolling bright-eyed through Kyoto’s Higashyama district, I had all of these items by my side tucked right into my August California Colonia.
How to pack:
Massive suitcases are not recommended. Pack as lightly as possible so you can zip through airports and train stations. Packing cubes kept me organized for two weeks as we made our way around central Japan.
Where to stay:
Hotels – In Japan, you’ll find local and international hotel chains. Japan’s “business hotels,” like those run by the Mitsui group offer well-located, well-priced options for tourists.
Ryokan – Japan is famous for these traditional inns, which are characterized by their singular hospitality, rooms with tatami mats, kaiseki meals, and often, onsen (warm baths).
Shukubo – These lodgings in Buddhist temples allow visitors to sample local vegetarian cuisine, and join monks for morning prayer. Mount Koyasan has a network of Shukubo. For more information, check out their website.
Japan has something for everyone – bustling cities, historic sites, and breathtaking natural landscapes. To map out our trip, we read travel guides, polled friends who who had been to Japan, and studied itineraries on luxury travel sites. Here are some of my favorite stops:
• Taking in Cherry Blossom Season ¬at Tokyo’s Ueno Park – Ueno Park is one of the prime destinations for cherry blossom seekers in late March and early April. And, while the flowers are a sight to see, there’s also something beautiful about the international crowd that flocks here, just to walk through the park and stare up at the trees.
• Canoeing in the Shadow of Mount Fuji – On a clear day, you’ll be paddling through the volcano’s reflection. It’s a unique view and in the silence, a perfect way to be in the moment and take it all in.
• Hiking through Koyasan’s Okunoin Cemetery at Dawn – The path through Okunoin Cemetery is lined with cedar trees and thousands of memorials. It will take you about 45 minutes to hike from the entrance to Toro-do Hall, where Kobo Daishi, one of Japan’s most famous religious figures, is thought to be resting in eternal meditation.
• Winding Through Prayer Gates at Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari-Taisha – It’s hard to imagine the time and care it took to build, paint, and place the thousands of torii (prayer gates) covering the hillside at Fushimi Inari-Taisha. On your way up and down the mountain, you’ll pass graveyards, shrines, and lookouts with sweeping views of Kyoto.
To plan your own adventure, Fodors and Lonely Planet are excellent starting points.