It has been a little over a month since E and I returned from Japan and every single day one of us says to the other – “TAKE ME BACK TO TOKYO.” This really was the trip of a lifetime. We explored, we ate, we drank, we wandered. We even got a bit lost. It was a true adventure. Below you will find some helpful tips, recommendations and links I found helpful while planning our trip. I planned for 6 months before we left and our itinerary was 16 pages long! What can I say? Maybe I should have been a travel agent…
Over the next couple weeks I will be writing about different parts of the trip. I hope you enjoy reading all about it!
Advice Before You Depart
Importance of the Itinerary – Planning is EVERYTHING
I am a meticulous planner. I planned our wedding, our two engagement parties, our honeymoon, and several other small adventures myself. My favorite thing to plan far and away is travel. I research extensively for months and slowly weave together a detailed itinerary filled with our personal travel information (flights, ticket numbers, confirmation numbers etc.), hotels, recommended places to see and eat, tour information and local transportation information. I like to know everything there is to do in a place before we arrive so we can plan our days accordingly so as to not miss anything we are dying to see. It is not possible to see everything unless one has unlimited vacation time, so I prioritize based on our likes and dislikes. We love food. My husband loves beer and whiskey. We love doing the touristy thing. Walking and wandering are our favorite things to do. When I sketch out each day I try to prioritize these things without scheduling too many things in one day. I very rarely schedule every hour of every day. I like flexibility in an itinerary. Especially in Japan, there is so much to see. In 9 days, there was no way to see everything, but because of the itinerary and careful planning we were able to do just about everything we wanted to do. I’d say that is a great success.
Is Japan Expensive? It Depends
If you book in advance, flights and hotels in Japan are not expensive. Additionally, going during low season helps. We were in Japan in January, during winter. It is cold and windy (but nowhere near as cold and windy as Boston, New York or New Jersey). As a result there aren’t as many tourists so prices aren’t as high. The US Dollar to Yen exchange rate was also in our favor while we were traveling. This made everything a lot less expensive. We had three or four fancy meals, but otherwise everything else we ate was budget friendly. We even had sushi on the cheap. My research helped us keep the costs of our meals low, without sacrificing quality or experience. You can definitely eat cheaply, you just have to know where to go.
If you are traveling beyond Tokyo, one of the best purchases you could make BEFORE YOU ARRIVE IN JAPAN, is the Japan Rail Pass. Only foreigners can buy them. You can use them on all JR Line Trains and the Shinkansen, or the bullet train. We used the Shinkansen to travel to Kyoto and Osaka. These tickets alone would have been several hundred dollars each. One can buy the 7 day, 14 day or 21 day JR Pass. There is the regular pass and the Green Car pass. We had the 7 day regular pass and it was great. We didn’t have any issues and found the JR system really user friendly.
***ACTIVATE JR PASS in Narita Airport at JR EAST Travel Service Center, reservation there for the Narita Express
Upon your arrival to Narita Airport, you can activate your JR Pass at the JR East Travel Service Center and use it for a reservation on the Narita Express. The representatives in the office all spoke English very well and they were able to book our Shinkansen tickets to Kyoto for us as well. The Narita Express is an express train into the city. It takes about an hour and a half to get to Shinjuku, which was our first destination. Additionally, if you don’t want to activate your JR Pass for the day you arrive, you can have it dated in advance. We actually had it dated for the following day since JR had a special running for trains into the city. We paid 1500 Yen per person for our tickets into the city. This is HALF of what it typically costs. Since we arrived late, we didn’t want to waste a day on our JR Pass and have the clock start ticking.
Global Advanced Communications – Pocket WIFI
**Pickup Pocket WIFI in Narita Airport Terminal 1 – 4th Floor Post Office, MAP
Free WIFI doesn’t really exist in Japan the way it does in the United States. Some cafes and restaurants have WIFI but it is not as common as you would think. A month before traveling I ordered a Pocket WIFI from Global Advanced Communications. It is a small WIFI device that can literally can fit into your pocket. It cost about $60 US Dollars for the entire trip and we had WIFI everywhere we went. We were able to use our iPhones, Google Maps, Email, Facetime, and Whatsapp all over Japan. It is the BEST $60 we spent. And let me tell you, we needed Google Maps…it is easy to get lost in Tokyo.
Where To Get Yen – Pre-Japan and IN Japan
Most Japan ATMs do NOT accept foreign bank cards. There are two places you can use a foreign bank card at an ATM, at 7-11 and at all post offices. If you need cash, these are the only two places you can go. We found 7-11’s everywhere so we didn’t run into much of a problem. Additionally, I ordered some Yen from Bank of America before we left. The exchange rate was good and it was delivered right to our door in New Jersey. I HIGHLY recommend having Yen before you leave for Japan. When you first arrive the last thing you will want to be searching for is a 7-11 ATM. Most restaurants and vendors do not accept credit cards so having cash is absolutely necessary.
About three months before we left, I discovered that there is a Volunteer Tour Guide network in Japan. I had been contacting paid guides and found that the pricing was quite high – more then we wanted to pay for a day of sightseeing – so I decided to contact the Volunteer Guides for each of the cities we were visiting. I was able to secure a guide for Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. We paid for their transportation for the day, any entry fees, and for lunch. It was so affordable! Also, these guides really knew the ins and outs of their respective cities. They took us to local places to eat and really gave us their perspective. A big THANK YOU goes to our guides Toshihiko, Atsuko, and Futami. We would have been lost without you!
Up Up and Away
United Airlines – 14 Hour DIRECT Flight to Tokyo-Narita: Fly direct if you can. United had inexpensive, direct flights leaving from Newark so we lucked out. While it was a long flight, if we had to stop, get off the plane, re-board and then fly again, the experience would have been much more painful. We flew coach. There were TV’s in front of every seat which were loaded with hundreds of movies and TV shows. I watched 4 movies and listened to the rest of Serial on my iPhone. The time FLEW by.
We arrived in Shinjuku around 6PM on Friday evening. The Narita Express dropped us in the Shinjuku JR Station. Let me tell you, that station is insane. So many people. It is a MAZE. It took us a little while to find our way out of the station. Once outside we needed to figure out how to find the Best Western Astina Shinjuku in Kabuchiko aka the Red Light District. I had included a map with directions in our itinerary, but at night unfortunately, it was not very helpful. We stopped at McDonalds and Birkenstock for directions and unfortunately they were not very helpful. Then we remembered that we had a Pocket WIFI. THANK GOD FOR IT. We were able to pull up Google Maps and figure out our way to the hotel. Mister Donut, ironically, was our landmark (of course).
While walking to the hotel we couldn’t believe how many people were out and about. We couldn’t wait to drop everything off at the hotel and get something to eat!
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building – FREE CITY/MOUNT FUJI VIEWS
YOU MUST GO HERE. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building has a FREE observation deck on the 45th floor. From there you can see all of Tokyo and on a clear day, all the way to Mount Fuji. When we were there the sky was blue and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The view was really special. See for yourself below. This is a photo from my iPhone.
Harajuku – Where All The Cool Kids Hang Out
You would think that our first stop in Harajuku would have been Takeshita Dori but it was not. First, we paid a visit to Meiji-Jingu Shrine. It is stunning and it was packed with locals looking for New Year’s blessings and fortune.
Then we were off to Takeshita Dori! I wanted to catch a glimpse of a Harajuku Girl! This is where all of the young people come to shop, eat and hang out. There wasn’t much room to walk. Just a long stream of people. The thing to eat on Takeshita Dori is french crepes. There are several different places to get your crepe fix. We stopped at Angels Heart and Santa Monica Crepes. Both were delicious! We also did a little shopping at the Daiso. It is essentially the Japanese version of the 99 Cent Store. There are several small trend shops that line Takeshita Dori and of course we walked in and out of each and every one, buying little trinkets along the way.
We had heard from several friends about Robot Restaurant before flying to Japan, but they all said that they didn’t want to tell us too much and take away from the experience. We’re honestly not sure that we would’ve believed anything they said until we saw it for ourselves.
We ordered discounted tickets on Japanican before arriving in Japan, which was an easy call since we knew we had to check this out.
Robot Restaurant was definitely more robot than restaurant, in the best possible way. Food is served, but it’s worth getting something elsewhere beforehand, as the food served at RR is far from gourmet or particularly filling. But, let’s be honest, the robots and the bright lights were the major attraction here, and the food was just a supplement to the experience.
The pictures best explain the madness of the show, as random and bizarre are the two adjectives that probably best describe the stream of scantily clad women, laser light shows to which most New York City clubs would nod in approval, and super elaborate robots and robot costumes. The actual show was like a Japanese drunken dream, as some of the acts were more musical than anything, while others were more scripted and told (a mostly unintelligible) story.
The format was great though, as they took a few intermissions to let everyone process what they just saw, and to get some extra beer from a waitress’ backpack or fresh popped popcorn.
No written description seems to do this place justice, however; it really has to be seen to be believed. If definitely feels, at times, geared towards tourists, but I’d highly recommend going to Robot Restaurant if it’s your first time in Tokyo.
MORE ON TOKYO NEXT TIME…