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Japan tour suggestions?
Old 08-19-2016, 07:02 PM   #1
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Japan tour suggestions?

We would love to take a tour of Japan (never been there), and it looks like 2018 will be the time. Too much already scheduled for 2017/

For me, the historical stuff and Japanese food are the big draws.
For DW, factory tours and nature are fascinating.

We have no idea what the best way to proceed might be. Canned tours are something we both dislike. Our local travel agencies are pretty poor based on past experience.

Any ideas would be very welcome. Thanks in advance.
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Old 08-19-2016, 07:41 PM   #2
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I have been there on business. There is a reason the Japanese all go to Europe and America. There is not a lot to see. You can walk around the Imperial Palace but cannot get in to see it. If you know someone that lives there they can take you out of the city, it takes about 2 hours to get of get out of Tokyo, and see some mountings or Buddhist temples. Other than that there is not a lot to see. Sorry, I do not mean to offend anyone.
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Old 08-19-2016, 07:52 PM   #3
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I'm going to assume neither of you speak even a little japanese? outside of your hotel concierge and a few higher end restaurants in tokyo/kyoto, you'll find language to be the biggest gap so planning stuff while there (vs. here) is kind of a pain. My husband speaks just enough japanese to figure stuff out, but not converse. He was my trip coordinator and planned everything, i just went along going "oh wow" at everything.

Some tips - look into getting a JR pass before you go, usually good for a week and if you have even a couple of shinkansen trips (like back and forth tokyo kyoto, pop out to osaka) it pays for itself.

Kinda my best short version recommendation is to figure out a mapping of where you want to go, and how to get from A to B to C. Getting around intra-country is very easy, trains everywhere like clockwork reliable, clean, safe, hotels will also shuttle luggage back and forth for you.

Um expect to pay $300+ for a nice sushi dinner with toro. Expect to think it's totally worth it. 2018 is a good year - 2019 will be too crazy w/pre-olympics stuff.

We've gone twice and usually do 4 nights in tokyo, then 4 in kyoto (day trips to Nara, castles, fumshimi-inari, etc, then back to tokyo for a few more, and stay in a ryokan for a traditional night here and there. If you go to kyoto i cannot over recommend the new Ritz Carlton. If I could ever live in a hotel it would be that. Yes it is insanely expensive.

In Tokyo we stayed in Roppongi, generally a higher end (also high tourist) area. Very safe walking to dinner every night, and central to lots of easy trains.

I could go on forever, and will check back and see what others have to say.
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Old 08-19-2016, 07:54 PM   #4
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Breakfast was $30 in the Tokyo hotel, plan accordingly for everything else.
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Old 08-19-2016, 11:01 PM   #5
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We were there last fall. We had just 10 days, so we opted to spend almost all of that time in Kyoto. We could have stayed a month. The city's a great mix of traditional and modern culture, loaded with temples and shrines. It's much less of a high-rise city than Tokyo, but with some great shopping in open-air markets as well as excellent department stores.

We split our time between a hotel near the Gion district and a traditional guest house (Machiya) in the district itself. There are also more inclusive inns, or ryokans, that serve food as well as provide lodging.

The Gion district is Kyoto's old geisha district, and it retains a lot of old Japanese flavor.
We found a "family-style" sushi restaurant (Ganko -- it's a chain) where we ate quite often. Dinner for two seldom cost more than $50.

Getting to Kyoto from Narita had its moments. English isn't widely spoken, so buying train tickets, for instance, requires a little patience and perseverance. I recall standing in front of a ticket dispensing machine in a train station for 15 minutes until I finally figured it out.

With the yen at about 100 to the dollar, it's a great time to go. You probably will never see a better exchange rate
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Old 08-20-2016, 12:33 AM   #6
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Been to Japan a few times. Most recently last month for about 2 weeks. English is not much of a problem (compared to previous visits). All brochures, maps, street and transport signs in Tokyo are also in English. And the younger typically speak enough to help you out.
Definitely get the JR pass. It will pay for itself very easily. As others have recommended, Kyoto is the highlight (historical temples, Japanese gardens, geisha district, etc). Tokyo is more about the pop culture than about mind-blowing iconic sights although each suburb has something different to offer. Roppongi area is expat/American area where you will find hotels, restaurant chains that you will be familiar with. Or you can choose to stay near Shinjuku that is a decent transit hub or Tokyo station.
Currently, EVERY sight, landmark is going through extensive renovation for the Olympics.
There are some short trip outside of Tokyo you can do - Kamakura, Nikko, Fuji, Hakone. Similarly there are trips outside Kyoto like Nara you can do.
I typically start any travel planning by looking at the free PDF preview provided by lonely planet (Google lonely planet PDF Japan)
http://media.lonelyplanet.com/shop/p...3-contents.pdf

Be prepared for everything to be expensive and food portion much smaller than you are used to!
All else being equal choose to fly using Haneda airport in Tokyo instead of Narita. More conveniently located. If possible, fly into Tokyo and out of Osaka (near Kyoto) or vice versa. But if you have JR pass, it is only 3 hr Shinkansen ride.
Enjoy. It is quite a different culture (although not easily experienced if you focus on landmark sights).
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Old 08-20-2016, 06:42 AM   #7
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Spent many long months in Japan on business for over 20 years. Awesome.

I'd suggest Yokohama vs staying in Tokyo.

Yokohama is a short train ride from Tokyo. The Landmark Tower area is very touristy and lots to do and caters more to gaijins (non-Japanese). They also have a great Chinatown which is quite "educational"

Generally, Japan is about city living, and the countryside, though incredibly beautiful doesn't have a lot going on.

As noted, Kyoto shrines are incredible. Take the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo.

More nearby is Kamakura--about an hour train from Yokohama--which has some fantastic shrines and the famous Giant Buddha and is an interesting beach town.

As city life is a more vibrant 'to do', after dark I'd get out to some of the more narrow alleyways and stop into one of the 1,000 bars and restaurants (some no bigger than your bathroom!).

Almost everywhere is totally safe but as noted everything is quite expensive.
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Old 08-20-2016, 06:47 AM   #8
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Very good information. Thanks folks!
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Old 08-20-2016, 07:35 AM   #9
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We spent a few days in Hokkaido a couple of years ago. There is a reasonable amount of things to see and do - nature walks, whale watching, geothermal activity. If we go again, we would probably hire a car and do the driving ourselves (although GPS was Japanese only when we went). The people were nice and helpful and not speaking Japanese did not present any problems. In winter, it is popular for skiing.

Small point: a lot of places did not take credit cards, so bring a bit more cash than usual.
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Old 08-20-2016, 09:31 AM   #10
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We went to Japan last spring with DD's MIL who was born and raised there. I was overwhelmed by how different it is compared to the Western world. It hadn't been a place we were planning to go to but it was one of our best and most memorable trips. It was just amazing.

I am sure we would have gone with a tour had our family member not been a native, but because the country is so safe and the people were very kind and helpful, you can do it on your own and enjoy it. We try to be adventurous but some of the restaurants were difficult for us and the language was definitely a problem a few times when DH and I went off on our own, but muddling through with an appreciative attitude and staying flexible are key, as always. Maybe take a classic touristy city tour when you arrive to get your bearings and go from there. The concierges were most helpful--they wrote out our destinations so we could share it with the taxis, train people, etc.

We were there for two weeks and spent $10k on hotels and meals and transportation, including air from Chicago and a couple of bullet trains. I didn't think that was too bad for two people. The dollar remains strong. Arigato means thank you
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Old 08-20-2016, 09:46 AM   #11
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Originally Posted by traineeinvestor View Post
Small point: a lot of places did not take credit cards, so bring a bit more cash than usual.
That reminds me, 7-11 convenience stores have ATMs that accept foreign debit/credit cards. I hate to admit it, but we ate a lot of their "to-go" sushi snacks as well.
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Old 08-20-2016, 03:58 PM   #12
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Originally Posted by braumeister View Post
We would love to take a tour of Japan (never been there), and it looks like 2018 will be the time. Too much already scheduled for 2017/

For me, the historical stuff and Japanese food are the big draws.
For DW, factory tours and nature are fascinating.

We have no idea what the best way to proceed might be. Canned tours are something we both dislike. Our local travel agencies are pretty poor based on past experience.

Any ideas would be very welcome. Thanks in advance.
With a couple of years to prepare you might want to spend some time watching the Japanese national broadcaster (NHK) world service which now streams its Engligh language content over the Internet 24/7

NHK WORLD - English

There are a number of travel oriented shows along with programs on aspects of Japanese traditional and popular culture etc.
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Old 08-20-2016, 10:59 PM   #13
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Went there twice on business and loved it. Both times were at US military bases outside of Tokyo but I managed a weekend of sightseeing. Maybe because it was Tokyo but we managed very well using only English (although some of the menus were more Engrish). There were English tourist guides and maps available.

If you get a train pass be careful as there is more than one train company and in Tokyo more than one subway company. A friend got caught by a turnstile changing from one subway line to another because he didn't have the right kind of pass.

Menus nearly all have pictures and usually there's plastic models of food on display. You can buy almost anything imaginable in a vending machine. I found cans of hot coffee and tea very convenient. Saw bottles labeled "sweat" which we theorized was sports drink.

The sushi at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo was unbelievable and yes, it is a breakfast food. Didn't get up at 0 dark 30 to see the tuna auction though.

I found the various shrines and temples fascinating and we even ran across a Shinto wedding at Senso-Ji temple in Tokyo. I didn't make it to Kyoto though, which I hear has the better temples. The Giant Buddha at Kamakura was worth it. Not everything is super expensive. Cost about a dime to go inside the statue.
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Old 08-20-2016, 11:03 PM   #14
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Oh, and I randomly ran into an old coworker in the elevator at the Hyatt in Shinjuku. What are the odds?
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Old 08-21-2016, 03:12 AM   #15
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I been to Japan 5 times for vacation, 3 times with the missus. We feel we've only scratched the surface. This is partly due to the fact that we only have basic Japanese language skills. But as others have mentioned, there is enough English signage to get around. And I suspect the signage will be enhanced more so in preparation for the Olympics. There are going to be times where language is going to be a problem (eg. Pre-ordering and paying for food at a machine) but we've always had friendly help from locals. And the language struggles are part of the fun IMO. We found reading through a guidebook also really helped up prep for the trip as it explained pragmatic stuff like how to use the public bus.

We've done a lot of the museums and stuff during our initial trips. Glad I did it, don't have to do it again. Our recent and future trips focus on food and culture. Bonus if we line up with a festival/matsuri.

I agree, the Imperial Palace tour in Tokyo is pretty disappointing. In Kyoto, the gardens are a bit nicer.

If you like Japanese food, it's a foodies paradise; even "value" places. The basement food floors of the nicer department stores are amazing with so many different food types in one place. Food arcades like Nishiki Market are also interesting.

Japan is doable DIY but it does require a chunk of planning, particularly your first trip. Depending on how long you go for, the typical places to visit are Tokyo and Kyoto IMO; ideally with an open jaw flight. From there, you can easily add day trips outside city core, particularly if you have a train pass. The main JR pass is typically only worth it if you plan to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto/Osaka and return. You can also buy regional passes at a discount overesea.

Japan does not have to be expensive. But it obviously depends on your lodging and meal choices.

I highly recommend getting a data sim.
Google maps is surprising decent but will struggle finding places that don't necessarily have an English name. One way around this is to research ahead of time and pin locations of interest on the map associated with your google account.

Some cities have a free volunteer tour guide program like as follows:
TOKYO FREE GUIDE - Volunteer Tour Guide Service in Tokyo

We've found the following sites helpful for research:
japan-guide.com - Japan Travel and Living Guide
Wikitravel - The Free Travel Guide

Japan Guide is kind of nice as it give sites ratings as well as a summary.

The Hyperdia app is great for train schedules and routing
HyperDia | Timetable and Route Search in Japan.
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Old 08-21-2016, 01:39 PM   #16
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That reminds me, 7-11 convenience stores have ATMs that accept foreign debit/credit cards. I hate to admit it, but we ate a lot of their "to-go" sushi snacks as well.
Convenience stores in Japan have some pretty tasty food. After watching an Anthony Bourdain travel show episode, we decided to try out some more convenience store food. At 7Eleven, I was somewhat addicted to their egg salad sandwiches for a snack. I don't know how they keep the bread so fresh tasting while sits in the refrigerated section. And at Lawsons, the chicken nuggets are really tasty too but only when fresh.
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Old 08-24-2016, 06:29 AM   #17
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I forgot to mention there are apps available to help navigate the Tokyo subway. Verry useful. For internet I rented a wifi hotspot that fit in my pocket, which was much cheaper than my phone plan, with the added benefit that several of my friends could connect as well.
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Old 08-25-2016, 12:52 PM   #18
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My wife and I spent three weeks in Japan in 2009, with a small-ship cruise around the southern part visiting various islands and ports (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki), plus three days each in Kyoto and Tokyo. We absolutely loved it - everyone we met was friendly and helpful, despite language issues, the food was varied and great and there is so much to see and do! I thought I would get tired of temples and shrines, but there isn't a single one I would leave out (especially not the Temple of the Flying Squirrel!)

Restaurants can be a problem as many have no English on the menus or with the staff, and the pictures and plastic models of food are often not helpful, but some of our best experiences were with a complete language barrier. Do learn some basic phrases and pay close attention to customs and greetings.
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Old 08-25-2016, 01:05 PM   #19
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Restaurants can be a problem as many have no English on the menus or with the staff, and the pictures and plastic models of food are often not helpful, but some of our best experiences were with a complete language barrier.
That brought back a great memory.

Some decades ago, I was in Taiwan for a week, staying in downtown Taipei. Every evening, I would just start walking in a random direction until I saw no more English anywhere. I spoke not a word of Chinese, and I just wanted to have a bit of an adventure.

I would walk into some fairly nice looking restaurant where nobody spoke English, and simply indicate that I was hungry. They would bring me a meal (which was always wonderful) and I thoroughly enjoyed it every night.

I was also impressed by the fact that they never charged me quite as much as I thought would be reasonable, so I don't believe anyone ever took advantage of my ignorance.

As I always say, people everywhere are inclined to treat you at least as well as you treat them. I still have warm feelings for Taiwan, and would like to go back someday.
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Old 08-25-2016, 01:48 PM   #20
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If you like Studio Ghibli at all, try to go. Only thing is .. you need to plan, book early, and it is strangely complex to get in:
The official site of Ghibli Museum, Mitaka in Japan - TICKETS

Fish market in Tokyo is nice too.

Same thing with sumo matches, if so inclined to attend: plan ahead.
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