This was a big one.
(So big in fact it had to be split up into three parts!)
I have a long personal history with Japan, starting with participating in a 2-week foreign exchange program when I was in Jr. High school to Asahikawa, Japan, located in Hokkaido (the big, northernmost island). But even before then I was already dabbling in learning the language, and have been studying off and on to this day!
So finally, after 14 years, it was time to go back! This time as a fully functioning adult!
Since this would be my first time exploring Honshu, the main island of Japan, I wanted to hit lots of the stereotypical 'touristy' things. Even though I know many of those might not be the coolest or most unique things to do... I feel like you just have to see some of them while you're there. I mean, there must be a reason those things are so popular, right?
I spent over 6 months planning this trip. I'll tell you all about the things that went well, the things that didn't go so well, and some things I learned about traveling in Japan.
So let's jump right in!
Breakdown . . .
Here's the itinerary I created for myself :
Fly into Tokyo (Narita airport), head straight to Nagano
Nagano - 3 nights
Tokyo - 4 nights
Nikko - day trip from Tokyo
Hakone - 1 night
Nagoya - 3 nights
Takayama - 1 night
Kanazawa - 2 nights
Kyoto - 6 nights (including one day trip to Nara)
Koyasan - 1 night
Hiroshima - 3 nights
Osaka - day trip, fly home
Click Here to view an overview spreadsheet of how I timed out each destination.
Day 1 : Japan Arrival to Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort
Our first destination was Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort in Nagano. Even though we were starting our journey in late March, their website claimed early spring is still a great time for snowboarding. And that sounded super fun! The village was also known for having many 外湯 Soto-yu (public bathhouses / onsens) and I definitely wanted to check those out. I figured it would be a nice, leisurely way to begin the trip.
After 11 hours on the flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Narita International Airport (NRT), we arrived on time at 3pm excited and ready to go!!! But luck was not in our favor that night, as something very strange was going on in the airport and we got stuck in a ginormous line for customs for 3 HOURS.
I freaked out a little bit since we were trying to catch the train to head straight to Nagano (which was another 3 hour train ride away from Tokyo). We got through the airport, grabbed some cash from an ATM, bought tickets to the next train heading to Tokyo and rushed on. We arrived an Ueno station and we missed the last bullet train that would take us to the station we wanted to go, but managed to get on the very last train that would take us Iiyama station. After all the delays, we arrived to the station sometime after 11pm, and had to take a taxi to our lodge. I stewed in my anger about arriving so much later than anticipated and having to take a $60 taxi instead of $6 bus ride... but in the end I was just happy we made it at all!
Day 2 - 3 : A Ski Resort During the Off Season
We stayed in a cute little lodge owned by a bunch of incredibly friendly Australians, and although I originally wanted to spend the first day snowboarding, they had some unexpectedly warm weather, which meant the snow was a tad melted and sticky. Not worth the expense of renting all the equipment. Instead, we just spent the day walking around and exploring the village.
Nozawa Onsen is a tiny, tiny village, and although it gets very popular during the winter season, it was pretty dead, which was nice in some regards and a little disappointing in others.
But the lack of visitors made it the perfect opportunity to try out a Japanese onsen! Or in the case of this village, a 'Soto-yu'! The village has about 13 scattered throughout, and I tried about 3 of them. They are all free, but encourage donations for maintenance.
"Soto-yu" means open air bath, so although the building is covered, it's not heated. Which actually made it REALLY DIFFICULT to get in. You have to get naked and the air is bitter cold, so you try to stick your feet in the water but the water is SCALDING! This one in particular had a "warm" pool and a "hot" pool... but don't be fooled. The warm one will still be painful when first getting in. There's a whole method on how to properly get into the water; I just watched some youtube videos beforehand and gave it a shot!
The fact that it was off season made it really convenient for a first time onsen-er because I was the only one there!! So no one had to witness my embarrassing struggle trying to get in the water. (Not to mention getting over the fear of being naked!)
After I finally figured out how to properly bath, it was such a joy. I went multiple times a day while we were there. My skin felt AMAZING afterwords and I had this warm, fuzzy feeling even hours after leaving the bath. Never felt anything like it before! I'm glad I experienced it early in the trip because I fell in love and jumped at the chance to visit onsens whenever they popped up throughout our trip. I Highly recommend it! Even if you have to go alone. And naked.
Hot Tip! - If you are traveling with a significant other, you won't be able to try the onsens together since the pools are separated by gender. However, there is a place called Sparena (as in 'spa arena') which does have an onsen pool that requires swim suits, meaning you and your sweetie can learn the awkward method of dipping into an onsen together! It was perfect for me and my boyfriend. Just note this water isn't NEARLY as hot as the regular onsens; it's more like a hot tub you might find in the states. Still, it's a perfect introduction to onsens for foreigners.
But if you can handle the hot temperatures, I highly encourage everyone to try a traditional onsen. There's something pretty wonderful and liberating about bathing in them naked! I fell in love with onsens and jumped at the chance to spend time in them whenever they were convenient throughout the trip.
Overall, our time in Nozawa onsen was definitely not what I thought it would be. I figured it would be a lot more lively and we would spend the day snowboarding down the mountain. I didn't realize just how small the village would be and that it was purely a resort destination, meaning there weren't really 'locals'. But for what it was, I had a great time here!
Onward to Tokyo!
Day 4 - 7 : Playing in Tokyo
I have to say, looking back, I think Tokyo was definitely on the top of my list for favorite places we went to. So much variety! So much energy! So many beautiful cherry blossoms! (We were so incredibly lucky to be there when they were in full bloom.)
We got an airbnb in the southern area of Tokyo near Roppongi. I found that area to be a little bit on the sketchy side, but it was really close to Tokyo Midtown which I LOVED and wound up going to multiple times.
Here's how I organized each day :
Day 1 - Arrive in the afternoon from Nagano, explore Shinjuku
Day 1 - Eastern Tokyo
Day 2 - Day trip to Nikko
Day 3 - Western Tokyo
Day 4 - Anything we missed, then off to Hakone.
We arrived from Nagano in time for late lunch, and explored Shibuya and Shinjuku a bit. This was the night we were supposed to go to the Pokemon Cafe for our 8pm reservations, but I followed google map's directions to what was probably an old location for the Pokemon Cafe. So we missed out on that. :( Whoops.
First day of exploring Tokyo started with the eastern side of the city, which I included Akihabara and Ueno Park.
Akihabara was fun. I loved seeing the 5 storied arcade buildings, most of which were pretty lively with players. I was SO ECSTATIC to get to play a working DDR machine! There were also a ton of interesting rhythm / music games we tried out. The Taiko Drum game is super fun too :D
Ueno Park was a zoo!!
But what can you expect for a park that's filled to the brim with beautiful cherry blossoms trees raining petals like snow? Ueno Park ended up being a place I would probably skip next time. Even though it had tons of beautiful cherry blossoms, it also had a ton of people, non-shaded walking, and I felt that there were just as good blossoms elsewhere throughout the city (like around Tokyo Midtown!)
Second day in Tokyo was a day trip to Nikko. I'll go into details about that in the next section.
Third day was the western section of Tokyo; Meiji Shrine, Yoyogi Park, Harajuku, and one of the highlights of the whole trip, Mori Tower.
A friend I met online (thanks Kyoko!) was gracious enough to walk us through Meiji Shrine and explain to us how to properly enter the shrine (by purifying at the fountain) and how to pray. (You can learn about that here.) Since the preferred offering coin is the 50 yen coin (the gold one with the hole in the middle) we continually hoarded our 50 yen coins so we'd have offerings for other shrines we would visit. (Which turned out to be a lot!!)
Many shrines will have a stand where you can purchase charms and amulets for many different purposes like finding love, getting good grades, or safety while traveling. After the frustration of our arrival into Japan, (and considering LA's terrible traffic), I bought a travel charm. Best $8 I ever spent! Our travels went so, so smoothly after that point! ;)
My friend also took us to some observation decks that were free (and not widely known) but I can't quite remember where they were...
In the evening we went to visit Mori Tower. We originally planned on going the previous day but when we arrived we found that the sky deck was already closed, so at the last possible second, (standing in front of the counter ready to pay) we aborted and decided to come back when the sky deck would be open. I'm so glad we did!
I was able to buy tickets online, which were cheaper than at the desk, and not only allowed us to skip the line when we showed up, but also got us tickets to an art gallery, which turned out to be all interactive exhibits, and was so incredibly fun! (One of the highlights of the whole trip for me.)
I definitely want to visit Tokyo again. On the next visit, i'd like to spend more time in the northern / western side. I felt like I didn't get enough play time in Shinjuku.
But after all that walking around, I was going to really appreciate our next stop... a night at a ryokan in Hakone!
Day 5 : Nikko day Trip From Tokyo
Nikko ended up being one of the more frustrating destinations due to my improper planning. I was stingy and bought a cheaper train pass that ended up not having many trains, and so it took us much longer than expected to get there. (We also had trouble reading the map and missed a train or two...)
By the time we arrived, we only had an hour to visit the grounds before they closed. >.< (If only I had bought the travel charm before the Nikko trip!)
I was most interested in checking out the iconic Shinkyo Bridge. I was surprised at how close it is to a fairly busy street, so it didn't feel as magical as I had hoped. o_o
Nikko is home to Toshogu Shrine, a World Heritage Site and burial site of a significant historical figure of Japanese history.
I wish we would have had another couple of hours to take our time, but we still were blown away by the detail in these shrines. I liked the variety of animal carvings; elephants, peacocks, monkeys, dragons, and more!
If I were to do this again, I would definitely wake up much earlier and pay the extra to take the faster train route. However, in the end I think I would have preferred to have spent one more day in Tokyo instead of going to Nikko. There's just too much to see and do in Tokyo and too little time!
And that concludes Part 1!
Sophie is a video game developer who has a variety of passions including yoga, traveling, and photography.