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Lindsay

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Wednesday
Jan252017

From Tokyo to Naoshima, a first timer's guide to Japan

It wasn't until Jean mentioned visiting that Japan was on my travel radar.  However, within days of her bringing up a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, we found ourselves booking flights.  Initially, we scored a great deal/sale on Air China for round trip tickets (via Beijing) to Tokyo for $800/person.  All seemed well with the world until four months later (in June) when we received an email from the airline informing us that our outbound flights had changed.  Instead of landing in Beijing at 4:40PM with an hour to spare before our flight to Tokyo, we would now land in Beijing at 6:40PM, almost an hour after our flight to Tokyo would have departed.  Due to their error, we were able to get a full refund on our fully NON-refundable tickets.  Phew!  Ultimately, Jean and I found a similarly priced *non-stop* fare on American Airlines (via JAL).  *Bottom line: Time is money and, in most cases, you get what you pay for.  If at all possible, non-stop flights are your best option.*

Having enticed two more girlfriends to join, the four of us met in Tokyo and commenced our Japanese adventure.  

Our itinerary (November 2016):

11/18-11/21: Tokyo

11/21-11/22: Hakone

11/22-11/25: Kyoto

11/25-11/26: Naoshima

11/26-11/28: Tokyo

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If you're planning a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, have a look at some of my helpful tips and FYI's, in addition to my favorite experiences and restaurants, below.  Or, if you've already been, I'd love to hear what you think about my compilation!    

Japan is a gorgeous, clean, and incredibly efficient (The mass transit system, alone!) country with so much history, mystique, culture, and geographical diversity; I cannot believe that it wasn't on my radar prior to my visit!  I loved and cherished my experience so much, in fact, that I returned home with a new and invigorated outlook on life and travel.  

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Helpful travel tips & FYI's:

  • Depending on the carrier, Premium Economy seating is only a few hundred dollars more than Economy.  What you'll get is more legroom/space - a better cabin - and closer proximity to Upper Class.
  • Flying in or out of Tokyo?  Do yourself a favor: If at all possible, book a flight that departs/arrives via Haneda Airport.  It's much, much, much closer to the heart of the city.
  • DO NOT TAKE A TAXI TO/FROM THE TOKYO AIRPORTS!  Fares can be upwards of $350 if you're flying in/out of Narita.  Upon arrival, look for the Airport Limo kiosk and purchase a ticket for drop-off at/very near your hotel - it's about $30/person.
  • Upon arrival, pull local currency out of an ATM before you leave the airport (located in the baggage claim area).
  • About six weeks (a month is probably fine, too) prior to your departure, make sure to purchase the following:
    • Pocket WIFI: This was a LIFE SAVER to have when we were outside of our hotel room (which was literally 16 hours/day) or in smaller towns.
    • Japan Rail Pass: The transportation gateway/lifeline that will connect you from town to town via rail.  Save money by purchasing your ticket prior to your trip!
  • To navigate your way around the subway/bus/rail systems, make sure to download the HYPERDIA app to your smartphone.
  • Language barrier FYI: I would say that, for the most part, people don't speak English.  Like, at all.  
  • Always have some form of local currency on you; in our experience, the best and most reliable ATM's that will accept international debit cards were found at the airports or 7-Eleven/Circle K convenience stores.
  • Do not insert your chopsticks upright in to a bowl of rice (as a place holder between bites); it is considered bad luck and very rude.Photo credit: Just Hungry

My favorite sites & experiences:

  • Tokyo
    • The magestic gardens at tranquil, non-tourist trap/destination, Happo-En
    • Lunch at tempura shrine, Tenmasa 
    • Lunch at Jiro's son's restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro 
    • Playing with hedgehogs at Harry Hedghog Cafe 
    • Tsukiji Market: While my travel mates attended the 3AM tuna auction, I stayed in bed and met them for a sushi breakfast around 7AM.  Bottom line: The auction lasts for 15-minutes and, at that time in the morning, are you really going to remember seeing it, anyways?  Methinks not.   
    • The basement food hall at Mitsukoshi Department Store 
    • Spying spectacular Mt. Fuji just beyond my window on the bullet train
  • Hakone
    • Yama No Chaya Ryokan and everything that staying at this traditional Japanese "bed and breakfast" encompassed, from bathing in a private tub filled with naturally-sourced hot mineral water on our balcony, to the multi-course kaiseki dinner and traditional Japanese breakfast served in our room
    • Lunch in the clouds (literally at the top of a mountain) at Itoh Dining by Nobu, where we first experienced Kobe beef
  • Kyoto
    • Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavillion)
    • Walking through thousands of vermilion-hued torii gates at the Fushimi Inari Shrine 
    • Catching a glimpse of a *real* geisha being escorted to an evening appointment 
    • Arashiyama Moneky Park 
    • Fancy cocktails at the stunning Ritz Carlton, where I was introduced to Japanese whiskey
    • Spectacular Kyoto Station (if you're a transporation geek like me, it's a must see)
    • Riding the bullet train from Kyoto to Uno Port and back to Tokyo (ditto on the 'transporation geek' reference, above)

My favorite food experiences:

  • The sushi-counter experience was an education in and of itself; I actually preferred observing the symphonic precision at which pieces of fish were sliced and delicately molded over luke-warm rice to actually eating the sushi (I know I'm going to get railed for this one, but it's true!  I didn't find the sushi in Japan to be all that different from an authentic omakase joint in LA or NYC.  FYI, I hope you know that by "sushi," I'm not talking about the 'dynamite spider roll with eel sauce and avocado,' for god's sake).
  • Kobe beef can be found outside of its namesake city.  And it's fcuking delicious and worth every penny.   
  • KatsudonJapanese curry, and curry pan have forever changed my life.  For the better.   
  • Eating a private 14+ course kaiseki dinner together at our ryokan in Hakone 

My favorite restaurants in Japan:

Hotel experiences worth writing home about:

Observations:

  • There are French-style patisseries everywhere.  
  • There are barely any trash cans.  Anywhere.
  • Sushi at the Tsukiji Market was wildly overrated and I felt like a fool for having stood in line for something so mediocre.

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Until we eat again

The Lunch Belle

*Huge shoutout to Adela, Patrick, and Liz for all of your amazing recommendations.  And to Jean, thank you for all of your incredible planning and logistical expertise!  You organized an unbelievable journey for us!*

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