If you follow me on Instagram, you will know that I have recently returned from… Japan.
My family and I love Japan. We were lucky enough to visit it once before, in 2015 – you can read all about our first Japan trip here – and had wanted to go back ever since! So this year, we decided to take the plunge.
As I said for my 2015 trip, Italian children of my generation have grown up with bread and Nutella and Japanese anime. The same way American kids watch Sesame Street or Australian children follow Play School, Italian kids are immersed in the Japanese anime culture. This always makes my experience in Japan rather surreal: things that would seem unusual to other foreigners, felt completely normal to me. Besides, I was surrounded by icons from my childhood from Monchhichi to Doraemon to Hello Kitty!
Before going into more details about our second journey, let me give you some practical information that will help you plan your own trip.
TYPES OF ACCOMMODATION
In Japan there is plenty of choice for accommodation. You can choose to stay in hostels, business hotels, upmarket hotels, Japanese Inns and even capsule hotels!
If you travel as a couple, you will be spoilt for choices. But, if like us, you are a family with young kids, then your best option is to book Japanese style rooms. Western style rooms are usually very small and it’s almost impossible to find a room with 4 beds! So, we stayed in ryokans (Japanese style hotels) and slept on futons on tatami mats. It is actually very comfortable! The rooms are often used as a “day room” during the day and then, at night, the futons are prepared for you to sleep on. This means that even smaller rooms have enough space to do everything you need.
All the places we stayed in had a private bathroom with a Japanese style toilet… the one with many functions, including a washlet and heated seats!
There are many sites where you can easily book your hotels in Japan, like Booking.com or HotelsCombined. I usually prefer to book directly with the hotels via email, but this time I found better deals on Japan I Can.
To decide on the hotels to book, I often read reviews on Tripadvisor and besides reading what other travellers have to say, I look at the pictures they took, as those don’t lie and I can get a better idea about the place. Always ensure that your booking can be cancelled any time before your stay, just in case…
All the hotels we stayed in had free wi-fi. So, keep that in mind when you decide whether or not you need Internet 24/7. I wanted to share my experiences on the spot, so we decided to get a data SIM for my mobile. We also found it quite helpful to check train time tables and google maps, when needed.
For the Internet you have a couple of options:
Data SIM. This was our choice. We got a SIM (data only, which means you cannot make phone calls or send text messages from your mobile) from Yodabashi Camera Shop in Ueno (Tokyo). It was 3GB and it lasted 1 month (they also had 1GB and 5GB per month plans). It cost about 4,500 yen and we always had a very good connection. We were also able to use my mobile as a hotspot for our other devices, so we were quite happy with this solution. Besides, we didn’t have to book this SIM and we didn’t even have to return it.
Pocket Wi-fi. There are many companies that rent pocket Wi-fi’s (one of them being Global Advanced Communications) with different plans and prices, many of which also provide free delivery and a return envelope so you can ask your hotel to send it off on your behalf. They may require a booking.
JAPAN RAIL PASS
Also, if you are planning to travel around Japan, I highly recommend you use the JR rail pass. It’s valid for 7, 14 or 21 days and it’s really convenient. You basically purchase a voucher before travelling to Japan and then exchange the voucher for the real pass when you arrive. We got ours from JTB here in Sydney, but there are many agencies that sell them.
You can decide on which date you want it to begin and then you can travel on the JR lines as many times as you want during that period. This includes the Shinkansen trains! You may choose to reserve a seat at the JR counters or sit in the non-reserved cars. Not only, travelling by train in Japan is an experience on its own. When you reserve a seat, you get your seat number and car number printed on the ticket. The platform has got all the car numbers clearly marked on the ground, so you can go and queue in the right place. When the Shinkansen arrives, everyone is ready to board and it literally takes less than 5 minutes for the people to get down and board and for the train to move!! Also, if you suffer from motion sickness, be aware that the Shinkansen feel like a plane… I know it! 😉
There are many natural hot springs (onsen) across Japan and they are highly popular. Every region of the country has its share of hot springs and resort towns, which come with them.
There are many types of hot springs, distinguished by the minerals dissolved in the water. Different minerals provide different health benefits, and all hot springs are supposed to have a relaxing effect on your body and mind. Hot spring baths come in many varieties, indoors and outdoors, gender separated and mixed. Many hot spring baths belong to a ryokan, while others are public bath houses.
The majority of hotels and ryokan have an onsen in the building, you just need to ask. Taking a bath, naked, with other people can be intimidating, but I found that after the first time I started to feel at ease.
I highly recommend this experience. I will write a guide on Onsen etiquette, just to make things a little bit easier.
WHEN TO VISIT
One of the most common Japan travel questions is, “When is the best time of year to visit Japan?”
The easy answer is of course that you should take advantage of any chance to visit, since each of Japan’s seasons is great in its own way! That said, there are pro’s and con’s for every season.
In winter, you will find amazing skiing and snowboarding, seafood, and onsen (hot springs). While onsen can certainly also be enjoyed at other times of the year, nothing compares to sitting in a mountain onsen, surrounded by a white landscape with snow falling on you as you soak. It’s one of the quintessential Japanese experiences, and not to be missed, trust me – been there, done that!
However, it is cold (snow cold) and try and avoid the Christmas/New Year period and the Chinese New Year period. Japan is a popular travel destination and it can get very busy (and more expensive) during these times.
In spring, if you are lucky (and don’t mind the crowds), you may experience hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) in all its glory. Spring is Japan’s most famous season, and is symbolised by the iconic sakura (cherry blossoms), which typically bloom sometime between the second half of March, and the first half of April (sakura bloom schedules vary significantly depending on location).
This also means more tourists, lower accommodation availability, higher accommodation prices and the need to plan much further in advance. Been there, done that!
There is one week in spring that I definitely recommend avoiding, unless you have no choice: Golden Week. Along with the New Year’s holiday (and the Obon holiday in August), Golden Week is one of Japan’s peak travel weeks. It usually begins at the very end of April, and runs through the first week of May (each year’s calendar varies slightly). During this time of the year, Japanese people travel heavily, making it an extremely busy and expensive time to travel around Japan.
In summer, there are colourful festivals throughout the country, hiking in the Alps, and lovely coastal areas where you can enjoy the sea.
While there are great festivals throughout the year, summertime features many of Japan’s best ones — including Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri, Osaka’s Tenjin Matsuri, Aomori’s Nebuta Matsuri, and the Awa Odori festival in Tokushima, on the island of Shikoku. In addition to matsuri, summer is also renowned for its extraordinary fireworks extravaganzas.
But it can get VERY hot and humid.
In autumn, Japan is famous for its brilliant autumn foliage (koyo) and pleasant temperatures with clear skies!
As with hanami/cherry blossom season travel, koyo travel means contending with more tourists, lower accommodation availability, higher accommodation prices, and a need to plan further in advance. The peak time for koyo is November and it tends to be fairly crowded, so if you still want to catch a glimpse of it, but with less people around, early December is a good time.
Japan’s Rainy Season and Typhoon Season
Japan’s rainy season goes from early to mid June until mid July, depending on the location. Despite being the rainy season, you shouldn’t necessarily expect rain every day. In addition, the rains – while often persistent – are not usually terribly intense (unlike in many Asian countries).
Typhoons generally occur between May and October, with the peak taking place in late summer.
I have been to Japan both in spring for sakura viewing and in winter and I loved both the experiences. In general, I thought that spring was a much busier time. Winter was less crowded almost everywhere – with the exception of Kyoto which was PACKED with Asian tourists. I also thought that it rained much more often in spring. We also had to book accommodation up to 1 year in advance when we went in spring.
On the other hand, winter was cold. But we got to enjoy some snow (which is a great thing for Australian kids!) and the onsen, and amazing blue skies!
If I have the chance to go back for the 3rd time, I would love to visit in autumn and see koyo! Especially in Miyajima, as it must be breathtaking!
JAPANESE NATIONAL HOLIDAYS IN 2017
December 31 to January 3: New Year
January 1: New Year (Shogatsu)
January 9: Coming of Age Day (Seijin no hi)
February 11: National Foundation Day (Kenkoku kinenbi)
March 20: Spring Equinox Day (Shunbun no hi)
April 29 to May 7: Golden Week
April 29: Showa Day (Showa no hi)
May 3: Constitution Memorial Day (Kenpo kinenbi)
May 4: Greenery Day (Midori no hi)
May 5: Children’s Day (Kodomo no hi)
July 17: Ocean Day (Umi no hi)
August 13-17: Obon
August 11: Mountain Day (Yama no hi)
Sep 18: Respect for the Aged Day (Keiro no hi)
September 22: Autumn Equinox Day (Shubun no hi)
October 9: Health and Sports Day (Taiiku no hi)
November 3: Culture Day (Bunka no hi)
November 23: Labor Thanksgiving Day (Kinro kansha no hi)
December 23: Emperor’s Birthday (Tenno no tanjobi)
December 31 to January 3: New Year
HOW TO PLAN YOUR ITINERAY
A trip to Japan is very easy to organise on your own because there is a ton of information about it available on the web.
Here are the sites that I highly recommend you read when planning:
- TripAdvisor – to find hotel and restaurant ratings. There is also a great Japan forum with friendly people who give very good advice.
- Lonely Planet Thorntree – a good Japan forum.
- Japan Guide – a Japan specific website with info on places and attractions around Japan. They also have a forum with plenty of info.
- Travel blogs to read other people’s experiences (google them and you will be amazed by how many there are!).
- Find images of places/cities/attractions to see what they really look like and if you’d like to see them.
- Hyperdia – the site to check train/subway/shinkansen schedules around Japan. This is useful both while planning the trip and when you are in Japan!
- Google Maps – useful for planning, but above all while in Japan. We used the navigator part quite a bit to get from one place to the other on foot. So much easier than having to deal with a map (often not in scale), especially where there are no street names!
I also have a Lonely Planet Japan (Travel Guide) that I find very useful.
And I saved the best for last… something I hadn’t found for my previous trip: Japan Travel, Friendly Discussion Group on Facebook. It is an AMAZING group with wonderful people who are always very helpful and very knowledgeable! I highly recommend you join the group!
As I said at the beginning, this was our second visit to Japan, so our itinerary was a bit different from a classic first time itinerary.
So, on the 22nd of January, we flew Qantas from Sydney to Tokyo. I love that this is a night flight. It departs at 9:30PM and you get to Haneda at 5AM (but we arrived before 4:30AM!)! My kids were so exhausted by the time we took off, that they slept well and I managed to get some sleep too. This helped a lot to start our journey straight away the next day!
Once landed, we took the direct train (Keikyu line) straight to Asakusa, the area of Tokyo where our hotel was. Everything was closed in Haneda, as it was so early in the morning, but if you arrive during the day, you may want to get a local SIM with Internet data, get a SUICA card (the rechargeable JR/Subway cards that are very useful in Tokyo, but also in other cities), exchange your Japan Rail Pass vouchers to get the passes and book a few train journeys for the days ahead. We did all of that later on that day in Ueno.
When we finally arrived in Asakusa, we went straight to our ryokan: Ryokan Kamogawa (the same hotel where we had stayed in 2015!), where we left our luggage and then we went out to Sensoji Temple, one of my favourite places in the whole world! It was very early in the morning and there were very few people around. It felt amazing to be back and the sun was shining – even though it was very cold for us (about 5C!) coming from the hot Australian summer.
When the shops opened, we went to Ueno to sort out the Jr Passes and the SIM card. We also visited Ameyoko market… always so colourful!
We mainly spent the day wandering around the streets of Asakusa and remembering places we had already visited and things we had already done in 2015.
For both lunch and dinner we went to what became our “go-to” sushi joint: Sushi Nova. I will write a separate post to review it, but it’s basically a very fun Conveyor Belt Sushi Restaurant with shops in different parts of the city. The best part for families like ours is that they don’t only serve sushi, so our fussy non-sushi eater kids could eat too.
The following day (24th of January), we went on a day-trip to Kamakura. We visited both the Hasedera Temple and the Daibutsu – the huge statue of Buddha. It was a beautiful day and I really enjoyed this excursion.
On the way back, we stopped at Harajuku to have some crepes! Takeshita-dori is full of young people doing shopping. Hang in there, as I will be publishing more detailed “guides” on each single place later on.
We walked until Shibuya to see the crossing!
And the Hachiko Statue… again. 🙂
On the 25th of January, we went on another day trip, this time to Nikko. The day was fine, but there was snow everywhere!! Unfortunately many of the famous temples are being restored, but we still got to see the Shinkiyo Bridge (so lovely all covered in snow!).
And Toshogu Shrine.
When we got back to our ryokan in Tokyo, we repacked and got our luggage ready to be shipped to Kurashiki. In fact, there is a fantastic service in Japan that can be very useful when you travel to different destinations: it’s called takuhaibin and it’s a delivery service. You basically ask your hotel to organise this and your luggage gets shipped to whichever address you want (just have the address written in Japanese to make things easier). It is quite cheap (around 15$-20$ per suitcase) and so convenient! When you get to your destination, you find your bags waiting for you!
On the 26th of January we went, by bus, to Kawaguchiko. Lake Kawaguchiko is the most easily accessible of the Fuji Five Lakes from Tokyo. There is a hot spring resort town with various tourist attractions and AMAZING views of Mount Fuji. I will be writing a detailed guide on Kawaguchiko, but let me just tell you… we LOVED it! It was one of the highlights of our 3 week-holiday! We stayed at Shuhokaku Kogetsu and had some fantastic food too.
Being winter (and very cold… there was quite a lot of snow on the ground!), we did not do much, but we just soaked in the breathtaking views for 2 days and 2 nights!
On the 28th of January we left for Nagashima (via Nagoya). The main reason why we added this place to our itinerary was to visit the winter illumination of Nabana-no-Sato flower park. I had seen photos of this place and its amazing illumination a few months ago and since then I knew I wanted to add it to our itinerary. I will add all the details (including accommodation options – we stayed at Family Lodge Hatagoya) in a future post, but look at this night tunnel!
On the 29th of January we left early for Miyajima (via Nagoya and Hiroshima). Once in Hiroshima, we took a local train to Miyajimaguchi (30 minutes) and then a ferry that took us to the island of Miyajima in 10 minutes. We arrived around lunch time… and the people from Auberge Watanabe, the Japanese Inn where we were staying, came to pick us up at the peer. Now let me tell you that this was our second time both in Miyajima and at Auberge Watanabe – that’s how much we love this place! I will write more about Miyajima and our experience at Auberge Watanabe (where we also had an amazing kaiseki dinner) in a specific post, but let me just tell you that we had another fantastic experience and we were treated like family! <3
Unfortunately, like 2 years ago, it rained all the time, but the place was still magic.
The Itsukushima shrine and the floating Tori were breathtaking! This is a place I would love to come back to for the 3rd time, possibly in autumn!
Unfortunately, the next morning we had to leave early, as we had planned to go visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum before leaving for our next destination. Hiroshima is a very modern and beautiful city, and despite being sadly famous for being the victim of the atomic bomb is very vibrant.
We had already been there in 2015, but our youngest daughter, who was only 5 years old at that time, could not remember it well and we simply felt the need to take the kids back to make sure they never forget what happened there in 1945.
The Museum was very touching and in my opinion it is a MUST on any Japan trip. If you want to learn more about Hiroshima and the Peace Memorial Park and Museum, please read this post.
The only extra thing we witnessed were the pictures and message (including a paper crane) that Barack Obama left during his visit (which happened after OUR last visit).
We then took a Shinkansen to Fukuyama and a local train to Kurashiki. Kurashiki has a nicely preserved canal area that dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1867), when the city served as an important rice distribution centre.
It is quite nice and not very crowded – a guide will follow (we stayed at Ivy Square)!
On the 31st of January, we stopped in Himeji on our way to Kinosaki Onsen, to visit the famous castle. Finally we got to see it! We had to skip this sight in 2015 due to the rain and the fact that it was under restoration. This time instead, the sky was blue and the white castle was an impressive sight!
After the visit, we took a direct train to Kinosaki Onsen. This pleasant town, built along a willow-lined river, is one of the top onsen destinations of the Kansai Region. If you like onsen, this is the place to be, especially in winter! We got to visit 4 out of 7 of the public onsens and we really enjoyed it.
You also get to experience ryokan life (we stayed at Kokoro no Yado Mikuniya) and kaiseki dinners – I will write everything about it in a specific post.
On the 1st of February we made our way, with a direct train from Kinosaki Onsen, to our beloved Kyoto. I know there are people who visit Kyoto for a couple of days or even as a day trip from Osaka, but let me tell you this much: we have been there for 6 nights in 2015 and for 7 nights this time and we still couldn’t get enough of it! If we are lucky enough to go back to Japan, we will stay for another week!
I am absolutely in love with this city. I am going to write a separate guide on Kyoto, as I have a lot to write about it! In the meantime, you can check out my older post on it. This time around we visited more “off-the beaten-path” places and we still loved it.
We rented the same little machiya (Japanese town house) in the heart of Higashiyama that we had rented in 2015. Having a house is not like having a room in a hotel… you get to live like a local and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
We got to see Geishas and we got to experience the Setsubun festival, which marks the beginning of spring and it was an amazing experience.
We also got to meet up with some friends! Last time we visited we had done a wonderful cooking class (Haru Cooking Class – which I HIGHLY recommend) and this time we went to visit Taro and his family. My kids LOVED playing with his little girls Haruko and Kyoko and we had a great evening chatting and catching up with Taro and his lovely wife Yoshiko. <3 Do check out my review of Haru Cooking Class, it is an AMAZING experience!
For lunch we would eat street food (beef steamed buns, chicken karaage, yakitori etc.) and for dinner we would visit the depachikas (food “boutiques” inside the big department stores) and buy anything from gyoza to tempura, korokke, tonkatsu, sushi and sashimi and take it back home to enjoy it in the warmth of our kitchen!
While staying in Kyoto, we had planned to take a day trip to Osaka, but the weather wasn’t ideal and we liked Kyoto so much that we decided to skip it.
We did go back to Fushimi Inari to visit the shrine though… This time we made it all the way to the top and even though there’s nothing really amazing at the top, the path to get there, the toris and the surrounding forest are absolutely worth the effort.
Fushimi Inari remains my personal favourite site! If you have seen the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha” you will know what shrine I am talking about… for the rest of you, you basically have to pass through hundreds of orange toris to get to the top of the hill where the temple is. The toris are just breathtaking… look at that orange, it’s like fire!
Leaving Kyoto was very hard… I did leave a piece of my heart back there and I have promised myself that I will do my best to go back one day.
On the 8th of February, we left for Matsumoto. The town is most famous for Matsumotojo, one of Japan’s most beautiful original castles.
There’s not much more to see than that, but the castle itself makes for a pretty sight, especially at night! We stayed at the lovely Matsumoto Hotel Kagetsu.
The day after, we left for Yudanaka. We actually stayed at Kanbayashi Onsen (we stayed at Kanbayashi Hotel Senjukaku), which is the closest town to Jigokudani Monkey Park. Yep, you read that right… we went to see the famous snow monkeys that bathe in a natural hot spring! So cute!
I will write a detailed post about this as it was an amazing experience! The area was covered in so much snow and even the path to get to the park was breathtakingly beautiful!
After that, we returned to Tokyo, where we spent our 2 last nights in Asakusa, always at Ryokan Kamogawa.
During these last couple of days we did some well-deserved shopping. I got a few plates in the Kappabashi area, where you can find everything for your kitchen!
While the girls went crazy in Character Street at Tokyo station!
We also did a cruise on the Sumida River, till Odaiba, where we spent a few hours enjoying the amazing view over the Rainbow Bridge!
To go to Haneda we decided to catch the Limousine Bus from the Asakusa View Hotel (make sure to take your luggage early as it needs to be tagged appropriately). We had way too much stuff to carry around and as our flight was at night, we didn’t really feel like navigating the trains in peak hour with all the luggage! The bus ride was good, even though a little slower than the train, as it stops to let people on at different locations.
Needless to say, we loved Japan after our first trip and now we love it even more. Every single place we saw was amazing. The people are very kind and friendly and the food is to die for. This is a trip I highly recommend!
OUR 2017 ITINERARY
So… this was our itinerary:
23/01/2017 Tokyo (arrived in the morning)
24/01/2017 Tokyo – Kamakura – Tokyo
25/01/2017 Tokyo – Nikko – Tokyo
26/01/2017 Tokyo – Kawaguchiko
28/01/2017 Kawaguchiko – Nagashima
29/01/2017 Nagashima – Miyajima
30/01/2017 Miyajima – Hiroshima – Kurashiki
31/01/2017 Kurashiki – Himeji – Kinosaki Onsen
1/02/2017 Kinosaki Onsen – Kyoto
8/02/2017 Kyoto – Matsumoto
9/02/2017 Matsumoto – Kanbayashi Onsen
10/02/2017 Kanbayashi Onsen – Tokyo
12/02/2017 Tokyo – Sydney (night flight)
If you have any questions, leave a comment and I will be happy to help out!
RESOURCES ON MSM
TRAVEL IN JAPAN:
Nara & Fushimi Inari guide – Japan
Haru Cooking Class Kyoto – Japan Guide
*In the spirit of full disclosure, this post contains some affiliate links, which means that I may get a commission if you decide to purchase anything from my partners’ sites.