You will never have too much time to spend in Japan. There are so many cities and towns you will have a hard time choosing where to go. If you are visiting only for a week or two, pick either the north or south part of the island to visit as you will not have enough time to do both. Four to five days in Tokyo is probably enough and many of the other small cities can be seen in a day or two.
When to Go
There is no best time to go to Japan because all the seasons are very different and offer unique experiences. If you want to see the cherry blossoms, head over during the months of March to May. If you want to go skiing, head over during the wintertime – December to February. And if you want to get some good weather but avoid the tourist peak seasons, visit during September and October.
From North America, you will fly into Narita International Airport in Tokyo as they have many direct flights from the big cities all over Canada and the US. If coming from somewhere else in Asia, you can fly into some of the other airports around the country like the Kansai International Airport in Osaka.
Getting Around the Country: JR Pass
If traveling all around the country, definitely purchase a Japan Rail (JR) Pass. It will let you see a lot of the country and will save you a lot of money. It is still fairly expensive compared to other Asian countries but buying individual train tickets or plane tickets will add up quickly. The JR pass can only be purchased outside of Japan so make sure you order it at least two weeks before you leave (some countries take a week to deliver and it will be sent by FedEx). You can get one for 7 days ($277US), 14 days ($442US) or 21 days ($565US). It can be used on the bullet train, and you can reserve seats in advance, in person at the JR ticket booth at any JR station, at no extra cost. Make sure to do this for the long rides to secure a seat. Each train does have underserved cars though (usually cars 1-3) but you run the gamble of not having a seat on the train. The day countdown starts on the date that you activate the pass so to get the most out of the pass, make sure to start early in the morning and plan your days well. Also, when booking trains to different cities, ask which trains are the fastest and which times they run because it is worth taking the faster train and adjusting your schedule as some stop at every small town on the way.
Cities to Visit
If you purchase the JR pass, you should take advantage of exploring as much of Japan as you can since it is very expensive to do so without it. If you get a one week pass, choose either the north or south to explore because both will be too rushed. If you head to the south, you should head to Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Kobe, Mt. Fuji, Hiroshima (and Himeji along the way). Kagoshima is also a nice city but is a long ride south. If you head north, go to Nikko and if you are adventurous, take the train to Hakodate on the northern Island of Hokkaido. Depending on where you stay in each city, you should look to arrive during the day, especially if the place you are staying at is not on a main road. It just makes it easier because the side streets in the cities aren’t really named and places are sometimes hard to find.
Before You Go
- Japan is expensive. It will be hard to visit on a small budget.
- Foreigners cannot use the ATM’s at Japanese banks. You must go to a 7-eleven to pull cash. They have the best exchange rates as well.
- Slurping isn’t rude in Japan while eating noodles, it is standard practice.
- Taxis are very expensive in Japan but they all take credit card.
What to Eat & Drink
Many restaurants or food stands in Japan make only one type of food and they make it very well. These places are the best to eat at because they specialize in what they make (i.e. only gyozas, only sushi, only tempura etc.). Here are some of the foods you must try in Japan.
- Okonomiyaki – this is a specialty in Osaka. Go to a place with a line as this will be a good place.
- Mentaiko Spaghetti
- Tofu – this is the best in Kyoto as the water is the best for tofu.
- Takoyaki – deep fried octopus balls, a specialty in Osaka.
- Agemanju – tempura ball with red bean.
- Monaka Ice Cream Sandwich – in Hiroshima
- Maple shaped sponge cake – in Hiroshima
- Oyster Curry Bread (Miyajima)
- Taiyaki – fish shaped cake with red bean or custard filling
Some of the drinks you must try in Japan are:
- Japanese Whiskey
- Chuhai (a Japanese cooler drink that you can find at any convenience stores)
Currency & Payment
The Japanese currency is Yen. $1US is about ¥113, and $1CAD is about ¥85. The use of credit cards is more common in Japan than other Asian countries but many of the smaller shops and restaurants still only take cash.
Taxis in Tokyo are expensive so try to avoid taking them when you can but use black taxis to get the best price. The best way to get around the city is to purchase a 24/48/72 hour Tokyo Metro & Toei Subway passes, as these are very reasonable. They are bright colored and you can buy them at any BIC Camera stores (make sure you bring your passport though) because only foreigners can buy these. The 24 hour pass costs ¥800, the 48 hour pass costs ¥1200 and the 72 hour pass costs ¥1500.
If you are only taking the metro a few times, buy a PASMO or SUICA card to use the metro and subway lines. Both essentially work the same and you have the same amount of deposit (¥500), it just depends on where you purchase it. SUICA you purchase at JR Stations and PASMO you purchase at subway stations. You get your deposit when you turn in your card before you leave at one of the stations. You can also sometimes use these cards to pay for lockers at the train stations or to buy food at some convenience stores.
Cheapest way to get from Narita Airport to the city center is with the Access Narita bus. It will cost you ¥1000 (cash only if no advance reservation, and kids are half off) and takes just over an hour. It drops off at either the Tokyo Station or Ginza Station. You can reserve a spot and pay by credit card online if you go to http://accessnarita.jp. You can also find the schedule of buses and where exactly to catch the bus.
You can also take the JR Narita Express or JR Sobu Line to Tokyo Station or Shinjuku Station. The Narita Express to Tokyo Station takes 60 minutes and costs ¥3,020, and the Narita Express to Shinjuku Station takes 80 minutes and costs ¥3,190. The Sobu Line to Tokyo Station takes a bit longer, 90 minutes, but will only cost ¥1,320.
Where to Stay
Hotels in Tokyo are very expensive and a good hostel in Shinjuku or Shibuya can cost as much as $60US per person per night. If you are traveling with two or more, Airbnb may be your best choice for reasonable accommodation in the city. They also usually give free portable Wi-Fi which comes in handy when trying to search for things around the city or if you are killing time on a bus or subway. Some good hostels to check out as well are:
- Nui Bar and Hostel in Asakusa – about $26US per night for a mixed dorm
- Unplan Kagurasaka Hostel – about $28US per night for a 40-bed dorm
- Grids Hostel in Akihabara – about $34US per night for a 30-bed female dorm
- Retrometro Backpackers Hostel in Asakusa – about $26US for a mixed dorm
Where to Eat & Drink
- Kawaii Monster Café in Harajuku – located on the 4th floor, open for lunch and dinner, must go here. Entrance fee 500yen.
- Tempura Tsunahachi in Shinjuku – a tempura house open 11am to 10pm, fresh tempura made right in front of you.
- Sushiryori Inose in Gotanda – for the best sushi you will ever have, must make reservation, open for lunch and dinner, call +81 3-3443-1719 at around 1:30pm or around 4pm to get an answer.
- Nonbei Yokocho in Shibuya – pick one of the restaurants and you won’t be disappointed. You can try some of the best sake and whiskey at many of these places
- Animal Cafes – Tokyo has many animal cafes where you can eat and play with animals. Here are few that you should check out:
- Akiba Fukurou – this owl café is limited to small groups at a time so it is best to make a reservation. It is a short walk from the Akihabara station and costs ¥2,000 per person to enter. It is open noon to 6pm, and closed on Tuesdays.
- Sakuragaoka Goat Café – a meal here will cost around ¥500-1,300 and you don’t need to pay extra money to play with the goats. It is open 8:30am to 2am weekdays and 8:30am to 12am weekends. Located in Shibuya, about a 4 minute walk from the metro station.
- Alcatraz ER in Shibuya – if you want to know what it feels like to be in a jail cell at Alcatraz, then this is the place to come. It will feel like you walked into a horror movie. Drinks and food are served in ways you wouldn’t ever think of. Open from 5pm to midnight.
- Genki Sushi in Shibuya – this won’t be the highest quality of sushi but it is still delicious and reasonable. You order your food off a tablet menu and it delivers to you on an electronic tray.
- Depachicas – this is the name of the basement floor of department stores that sell food. Go to as many department stores and head to the basement food floor and sample everything they have to offer. Every department store is different and you can easily fill up on these for a meal! The best one is Tokyu in the Shibuya station.
- Check out Golden Gai in Shinjuku or Nonbei Yokocho in Shibuya, a narrow alleyway that consists of a few streets of small bars.
- If you are looking for the club scene, head over to Roppongi.
What to Do
- Visit the Tokyo Solamachi and the Tokyo Skytree. The Skytree is open from 8am to 10pm and costs ¥2,060 to go to the Tembo deck. The Solamachi is open from 10am to 9pm and have many cool shops and restaurants. If you don’t want to spend $20US going to the top of the Skytree a good alternative view is to go to the office building next door, take the elevator to the 6th floor where you will find Solamachi Dining and then switch elevators to the one that goes to the 30th Here you will have a nice view of the city and of the Skytree at no cost!
- Go to the Tsukiji Fish Market. Pull an all-nighter and see the early morning Tuna auction. This market was supposed to move outside the city in November (because the new Olympic village was supposed to be built where it currently is) but the move was postponed due to contamination of the new facility. It has been said that the new facility will have a viewing platform to see the auction but this won’t be the same experience as the current market because you will be behind a glass window. Here, you get up close to the fish and are right next to the bidders while watching the auction. There are more than 1500 stalls covering the 58 acres of the Tsukiji Fish Market and busiest time is weekdays from 5:30am-8am. It is usually closed on Sundays and holidays. If you want to see the tuna auction, this is what I suggest you do:
- Check the schedule to make sure there is an auction that day. The dates for the rest of this year (2016) where there will not be an auction are: December 4, 7, 11, 18, 23 & 31.
- Take the last metro at around midnight to the Tsukiji metro stop (this will save you a ton of money because taxis are very expensive here).
- Find the Fish Information Center at the Kachidoki Gate right off Harumi Street so you know where you have to go line up.
- Walk back down Harumi Street a block or two and grab a drink and snack at one of the restaurants that are open late. There’s a noddle place a block away, and a bit further there’s Jonathan’s Coffee and Restaurant which is 24 hour. There is also a 24 hour Denny’s that gives free coffee refills but it is another few blocks away (right outside exit 3 from the metro station) and a 24 hour sushi restaurant across the street from the metro station exit 1.
- At 1:30am, head back to the Fish Information Center and line up. They only let the first 120 people in, split between two auctions (one at 5:25am and the other at 5:55am). Your hotel might tell you it is OK getting there later, at around 4am but I got there at 3am one night and it was already full). The registration for the auction opens at 2:15am so you will only have to stand outside for about an hour but make sure you dress warmly if you are there in the fall or winter.
- At 2:15am you will be given a vest and let into a room where you will wait until they bring you into the auction room at about 5:15am. You aren’t allowed to leave the room, except to go to the bathroom or get some fresh air right outside where they also have vending machines so make sure to bring everything you need.
- At 4:00am, one of the 700 tuna bidders will come speak to the group about the auction and how it works. You will have a chance to ask him questions as well! Some fun facts on the tuna action are:
- The frozen tuna in the auction were caught about a year ago
- 220lbs is the average weight for a tuna from Japan
- The second best tuna comes from Boston
- The most expensive tuna sold at the auction was $1.5 million US for a 440lbs tuna
- Most tuna bidders work 4am to 4pm
- At 5:15am they will bring you into the tuna auction room and you will stay there for about 20 minutes. Yes, it is only 20 minutes and goes by quick, but it is a really cool experience.
- At 5:55am they will shuffle you back out of the auction room to exit the market area (this area doesn’t open to the public until 10am).
- After the auction, rush over to the Uogasi Yokochou area where you can get an amazing sushi breakfast. Most restaurants open up really early and there likely will already be a long lineup, sometimes a few hour wait, at some of the more famous ones at 6am. A great one that I tried was called Yamazaki. We had to wait 30-40 minutes at 6am but it was worth it and the wait was quite a bit shorter than any of the other ones around. All these sushi restaurants are cash only so make sure you bring enough. A decent sushi meal will cost around ¥3,000-4,000.
- After your sushi breakfast, walk around the outer streets of the fish market. Here you will also find lots of awesome food stands if you are still hungry or want to save space. Walk around until the actual market opens up at 10am, and then take the metro back home for a nap!
- Visit Asakusa and the Sensoji Temple. If you head over to this area, plan to eat lunch here as there are many small restaurants and food stalls that serve Tokyo-style foods on Nakamise-dori. You will also find many souvenir shops here.
- Explore Shibuya and see the famous Shibuya crossing (which is what you see in all the movies). Go to the second floor of Starbucks and watch from above.
- Walk around Harajuku’s Omotesando Street and Takeshita Dori Street.
- Go to the Robot Restaurant show in Shinjuku and walk around the area (Kabukicho). Do not eat at the Robot Restaurant (food is not good), but buy a ticket to only the show as it is something you will never see anywhere else. If you buy your tickets through the Veltra website, you will save 25%. Make sure to reserve a few days in advance to guarantee a seat. Eat at Tempura Tsunahachi, a tempura house 10 minutes away before heading to the show.
- If you love Mario Kart, head over to Kitashinagawa, dress up like your favorite Mario Kart character and go kart around the city. You need an international driver’s license to do this though. Make sure to reserve your spot in advance on the Maricar website. This costs around $50US per person.
- Go see a sumo wrestling match at Ryogoku Kokugikan. The tournaments run only the months of January, March, May, July, September and November, so check the schedule to see if you coincide with any of them. Tickets go on sale 4-5 weeks before the first day of each tournament online. You can also get day of tickets at the Ryogoku Kokugikan Box Office from 8am to 5pm for ¥2100 but there are only 300 seats and they usually sell out within an hour or two. Credit cards are accepted and they have some English speakers at the box office.
- If you aren’t here during a tournament date, go check out a sumo practice for free at Arashio-Beya (about a 10 minute walk from Ningyocho station, 2-47-2, Hama0cho Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku). They usually have morning practice (7:30am to 10am) almost every day here, but if they have just finished a tournament or are headed to another city for a tournament, they will likely not be there. Make sure you have a local call the day before you head over between 4pm and 8pm: 03-3666-7646. There is a large window along the roadside where you can watch the practice from but you are not allowed to enter the building. Note that you aren’t allowed to talk, eat, drink or chew gum.
- If you can’t make it to an onsen outside of Tokyo, check out Oodeo Onsen which is open 11am to 9am every day. This is a very touristy onsen, and you will find that it may feel like a place for a family outing as many Japanese families will take their kids there to hang out for the day. If you have a really late or early flight though, this is the perfect place to kill time without paying for a hotel because they have showers and rest rooms with bed-like chairs that you can sleep in. It costs around $24US to enter which is way cheaper than most of the hostels in the city and they also have a free shuttle bus that goes to the Tokyo Station.
- Visit the Meiji Jingu Shrine.
- Go to the observation deck, which is 202m high, in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku early in the morning to get a glimpse of Mt. Fuji. There is no cost to go.
- Go to Akihabara for electronics.
- Head to Ginza for some high end shopping.
- Go to the MORI Art Museum in Roppongi.
- If you like art and are in Tokyo next spring, check out Yayoi Kusama’s My Eternal Soul art show at the National Art Center Tokyo from February 22 to May 22, 2017.
MOUNT FUJI & LAKE KAWAGACHIKO
At 3776m, Mount Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan. The hiking trails are only open from July to September so make sure to plan your trip during that time if you want to hike to the summit. It takes about 4-10 hours to hike and there are huts are along the way to rest if you need it. There is also a 4km path around crater with shrines only open during the months of July and August.
Mount Fuji is an easy day trip from Tokyo if you aren’t planning to hike it. You can take a train or bus to Lake Kawagachiko (one of the five lakes surrounding Mt. Fuji). If going by bus, you can either leave from Tokyo station or Shinjuku. You can book the Fujikyu Bus here. It costs ¥1750 one way or ¥3280 return and will take around 2 hours and 45 minutes from Tokyo station and 2 hours from Shinjuku.
If you go by train, you can use your JR pass to go to from Tokyo station to Mishima station and then take a bus to Lake Kawaguchiko. Follow the signs to the south exit from Mishima station and there you will see coin lockers to store your stuff if you need and the bust ticket booths to purchase tickets to the lake. It cost ¥500 for a large locker and ¥600 for an extra-large locker (but they only have 3). You can only pay with ¥100 coins so make sure you have some if you are planning to use the lockers. They have seven bus round trips from Mishima to Lake Kawaguchiko which costs ¥4110 and takes about an hour and a half one way. If you are planning to hike, you can also purchase a bus ticket to get you to the Subaru Line 5th station for ¥5550 round trip.
What to Do at Lake Kawaguchiko
- Take the sightseeing boat cruise and a ride up the Mt. Kachi Kachi ropeway. It costs only ¥1300 to do both. The boat cruise is about 20 minutes and the top of Mt. Kachi Kachi has a great view of Mt. Fuji (if not covered by the clouds). If you are limited on time you can do just the boat cruise for ¥900 or just the ropeway for ¥800. From the top of Mt. Kachi Kachi, you can hike to Mt. Mitsutoge but make sure that you allocate 3 hours one way to do this.
- Rent bikes and bike around the city. It costs ¥500 for one hour or ¥1500 for the day. There are two places one minute walk from the bus station where you can rent them.
- For the best view of Mt. Fuji from the lake, go to the north side. You will need to take another 30 minute bus ride to get there. Nagasaki Park and Oishi Park can give you the perfect postcard picture of Mt. Fuji. You can take the take the Kawaguchiko sightseeing bus around the lake for ¥1200 (unlimited rides for 2 days). You can also choose to purchase the pass for all the sightseeing bus lanes that include the Kawaguchiko bus as well as the buses that tour around Lake Shojiko, Lake Saiko and a stop at Lake Motosuko for only ¥300 more. If you plan to go on the sightseeing bus, the boat cruise and the ropeway, there is a discounted ticket that you can purchase at the cruise port.
- Go to the Fancy Shop to buy souvenirs. They have a variety of different Japanese flavored kit-kats as well if you want to try them!
Osaka is a great city to eat and drink! Spend a few days here and take a day trip to Hiroshima & Himeji and another to Kobe & Arima Onsen as they are fairly close.
Taxis are expensive. The metro is the best way to get around the city and is very convenient. But it does stop running at around midnight. You can get a one-day Enjoy Eco Card which allows unlimited use of Osaka’s Subways, New Tram, and buses for one day for ¥800 or ¥600 on weekends and holidays. The best way to get into the city is to take the train from Tokyo.
Where to Stay
If you are planning to take day trips outside the city, stay close to the Osaka JR station or near a metro stop that can take you there as it will save you a lot of time and money. Place on Airbnb are very reasonable here and most will come with a portable Wi-Fi device.
Where to Eat & Drink
- Go to a local restaurant in Shinsekai to eat Kushiage – deep fried foods on a stick which is what the Shinsekai area is known for (near the Doubutuenmae station).
- Negiyaki Yamamoto for Okoyonomaki – Okoyonomaki is famous in Osaka and it is a must to go to a restaurant that specializes in making only this. This restaurant is delicious and has many different options. You may need to line up but its worth it!
- Eat Takoyaki from a Takoyaki stand – you will see many of these stands all over the place. It is a deep fried potato ball filled with octopus and is delicious!
- Go for drinks and dinner in Shinsaibashi.
What to Do
- Visit the Osaka Castle and dress up like a Samurai. The castle is beautiful and right outside there is a place where you can dress up like a Samurai for free and take a picture with the castle in the background. Entrance to the castle is ¥600 (free for children under 15) and it is open 9am to 5pm.
- Go explore Shinsaibashi to shop, eat and drink.
- Go to Orange Street to shop.
- Go to Tsutenkaku to eat kushiage.
- Eat Okoyonomaki and Takoyaki.
HIROSHIMA & HIMEJI
Himeji and Hiroshima are a good day trip from Osaka or perfect palaces to stop on your way to Kagoshima. You don’t need more than one day between the two cities.
Himeji is only a 30 minute train ride from Osaka on the JR line, and Himeji to Hiroshima is a 2 hour train ride. You can use your JR pass to get to both of these cities.
When in Hiroshima, you can take the streetcar to get to the city center where all the historic sites are. It costs ¥160 per ride. When visiting Hiroshima for the day, it is best to go visit Miyajima first and then the sites within the city so you aren’t rushed if a train is delayed or if you miss a ferry. You can take the JR train straight to the Miyajima-guchi station. To get to the Peace Park and Museum from Miyajima, take the JR train to the Nishi-Hirojima station and take the streetcar (red line) to the Genbaku stop.
What to Do: Himeji
- Stop by Himeji to see the famous white Himeji Castle which is one of the 12 original castles still standing in Japan. You only really need two hours to see it. It is a 20 minute walk from the train station down the main road and it will cost you ¥1000 to enter. It was the first UNESCO World Heritage site in Japan. Watch your head while going up the steps. There are also a lot of steep steps in the castle which may be hard for some people to go up.
What to Do: Hiroshima
- Visit Miyajima, a town on an island, home to the Itsukushima Shinto Shrine. The JR pass get you there for free by train and boat. It is 25 minutes by train from the Hiroshima JR Station and a 10 minute ferry ride. You can walk to the ferry from the Miyajima-guchi train stop in 5 minutes. The ferry leaves every 15 minutes and will cost you ¥180 if you don’t have a JR pass. It costs ¥300 to enter the shrine. You will also see the Otorii gate in the water. This is one of the biggest wooden torii gates in Japan with a height of 16m. Itsukushima Shinto Shrine is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. You will likely spend 2-3 hours here as there are lots of little shops and restaurants. Oysters are also a specialty here so be sure to try one!
- If you have some extra time in Miyajima, hike Mount Misen. There are 3 different hiking trails and it takes about 2 hours to hike to the summit.
- Visit the Peace Park and Museum. Here you will see the Atomic Bomb Dome, the Children’s Peace Monument, and the Flame of Peace. At 8:15am on August 6, 1945, the world’s first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima killing hundreds of thousands of people. You can easily spend an hour in the museum reading about the history of the city and the bomb. It cost ¥200 to enter, ¥100 for high school & junior high students and everyone younger is free. The east building is currently under renovation until 2017.
- Go on the Hiroshima Sightseeing Loop Bus (if you have time). This is free for JR pass holders and it will take you all around the city. If you don’t have a JR pass, a one-day ticket is ¥400 and one ride is ¥200.
There are very few JR lines in Kyoto so if you are traveling on the JR pass you will likely have to purchase a local transportation pass. When you arrive, head over to the information booth at the train station. Here you can buy transportation passes and they can help you get to where you are staying.
Buses are the best way to get to all the sites. An all-day bus pass is ¥500 and worth getting as one local ride is ¥230. In Kyoto, buses have better routes than the subway but can take longer to get around because of traffic. Also make sure to check bus schedules as some lines stop service quite early. An all-day subway pass is ¥1000 and an all-day bus and subway pass is ¥1200. If you are planning to see all the sites in one day, it would be worth getting the bus and subway pass. You can also get two day sightseeing passes that work on both buses and subways and also gives you discounts to tourist attractions and shops.
Where to Stay
Stay in a Ryokan (a Japanese style bed and breakfast) in Kyoto if you have the budget. These cost from $100US to $500US per night depending on the quality and amenities of the house. You can search for Ryokans online here.
If you are planning to use Kyoto as a base for some day trips, it is worth looking into staying near Shin Kyoto Station or a metro station that connects to the Shin Kyoto Station directly as it can save you a lot of time and it can get complicated at times planning around the bus schedule.
What to Do
- Visit the Kinkakuji Temple (golden pavilion). It costs ¥400 to enter and takes about 45minutes to an hour to see. Go later in the evening or early in the morning to avoid peak tourist times. It is open 9am to 5pm with the last admission at 4:30pm. No subways take you here, only buses.
- Walk through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. It is free to enter and open 24 hours. It is an amazing walk. It is a 10 min walk from the Saga Arashiyama Station (which is on the JR Sagano line) and a 15 minute walk from Arashiyama Station on the Henku Railway. The bus stops 5 minutes away.
- Walk around the Arashiyama area. Walk across the bridge and explore the park. There are also some cute little shops and food stands along the main road.
- Explore Gion, Kyoto’s most famous Geisha district. There are lots of shops and good restaurants in the area. Walk down Shijo Street and Hanami-koji (an expensive street to dine serving Japanese Haute cuisine). And wander the Shirakawa area (which runs along the canal parallel to Shijo Street). You can get there by bus or subway (but the subway is about a 10 minute walk away).
- Go see the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine. You can take the JR line here (2 stops away) from Shin Kyoto Station and it only takes 5 minutes. There is lots of good street food there so make sure you go hungry! The tofu stand is amazing and Kyoto is known for having the best Tofu because the water is the best there.
Famous for its deer and gardens, Nara is a very pretty city to visit. Take a day trip here from Kyoto. It is only a 45 minute train ride and you can use your JR pass to go here. It is a small town so one day is enough here. It is so small that you can actually walk around the whole town to all the sites. You will also see deer wandering everywhere, even in the middle of the streets. Make sure to pick up the train schedule that goes to Nara from Kyoto at the Kyoto station and the trains schedule that goes from to Kyoto from Nara at the Nara station when you arrive. Signage is Nara is very prominent and there are a lot of tourist information booths around the city.
What to Do
Most of the main sites are located in Nara Park. Here is a good way to tour the city:
- Walk east down Sanjodori Street as you exit the station. After about 15 minutes you will see the Kohfukuji Temple on your left.
- Walk through the area and head down the street (still walking east). You will come up to the Nara National Museum. There is usually a long line to enter and it costs ¥1100. Unless you are really interested in what is showing there, you can skip this.
- Head north (turn left) at the museum and walk about 10 minutes until you see signs for Isuien Garden and Yoshikien Garden and then follow the signs. Visit the Yoshikien Garden. It is free for international tourists and is a beautiful little garden to visit. It is open 9am to 5pm with the last admission at 4:30pm. It is closed February 15 to February 28.
- Right next door to Yoshikien Garden is the famous Isuien Garden. It is a bit larger than Yoshikien but costs ¥900 to enter (it includes entrance into a museum there as well). If you are on a budget, just stick to the Yoshikien Garden.
- After, walk northeast to the famous Todaiji Temple, which is home to the largest Buddha statue in Japan. It costs ¥500 to enter and is definitely worth seeing.
- Then walk southeast along the paths in Nara Park until you get to the Katsuya Taisha Shrine and the Wakamiya Jinja Shrine. It is free to enter these. At the Wakamiya Jinja Shrine you can purchase emas (wooden hearts) and write down your wishes and hang them so God can read them. The Wakamiya Shrine’s God is said to specialize in “romantic matchmaking” and attracts people (mostly women) for that purpose.
- Walk back to the JR station from here down Sanjodori Street. On this street you will find many souvenir shops (a few small cute ones that cross it as well), restaurants, an owl café (where you can pay ¥1300 to pay and pet owls, falcons and parrots for an hour) and a delicious mocha red bean dessert place.
KOBE & ARIMA ONSEN
Arima Onsen is a famous hot spring/Japanese bath town just outside of Kobe. Take a day trip here from Osaka or Kyoto and spend the day at the spa or stay at a Ryokan for one night. It is quite an experience but also very relaxing. When you arrive in Kobe, ask for the welcome coupon book at the information tourist desk which has discounts for things to do in Kobe in Arima Onsen. Be aware though, if you have any tattoos, they won’t let you in the onsen because in Japan, tattoos associated only with gangs. Sometimes spas will let you cover them up with skin colored waterproof tape, but make sure to check on this before going.
You can get to the Shin Kobe station from Osaka or Kyoto with your JR pass. It takes 20 minutes from Osaka and 50 minutes from Kyoto. If you don’t have the JR pass, you can take the 30-minute Shinkansen train for ¥2810, or there are also direct buses from Osaka to Kobe that take about an hour and cost around $13US. Although one of the buses that does this route is called JR, the JR pass isn’t valid on it.
Buy a package to the Taiko no Yu Spa, inclusive of an all-day rail/subway pass for ¥2540 which is a great deal considering the train fare itself is ¥740 and the ticket into the spa is ¥2600. You can buy this at the Shin Kobe subway station ticket office. On your way down, you can ask the person at the information booth to provide you with the flyer for this promotion so you can show the person at the subway ticket office (as they likely won’t speak much English).
From the Shin Kobe station, take the metro to Tanigami. It is one stop away and will take only 8 minutes. Gett off at Tanigami and take a train bound for Arimaguchi, Arima Onsen which will take around 15 minutes. They are frequent. Arimaguchi is the 5th stop. Get off here if your train doesn’t go all the way to Arima Onsen and switch to one that does. It may sound complicated but it is all very easy and the stations are very small. The total trip from Kobe to Arima Onsen takes about 23 minutes.
What to Do
Go to an onsen (Japanese hot spring/bathhouse) for the day. Go to Taiko no Yu Spa and spend the day there. This spa is a bit more expensive than some of the others that you can find for $5 or $6US but it is worth it because it is very nice and clean and offers a lot of different amenities such as a steam room, stone sauna rooms, outdoor hot springs and restaurants. They also offer a free shuttle bus from the station to the spa (but if you miss this or don’t want to take this it is only a 10-12 minute walk).
Goshobo is also a highly rated bathhouse. Kin no Yu and Gin no Yu are two public bathouses which are much cheaper and are also open allow day admissions. It is best to go on a weekday before 4pm as this is when it is the least busy. You can easily spend a whole day here but if you aren’t doing any of the additional treatments, 4 hours is a good amount of time.
Inside the Taiko no Yu Onsen
If this is your first time at a Japanese bathhouse, you likely won’t know what to expect or what to do when they arrive at the onsen. Here are some tips and rules to help you:
- Take off your shoes when you first enter and lock them in a locker. Then head over to check-in.
- At check-in, you will present your prepaid ticket or pay for one, and they will provide you with a wristband and key (which is how you will pay for the amenities that cost extra), a bag that includes your robe, a large towel and a small towel.
- After you get your key, robe and towels, head to the changing room next door and change into your robe. Do not wear anything underneath your robe. Lock up all your clothes and then head downstairs to the baths. Make sure to bring your bag and towels with you.
- When you get to the changing room downstairs for the baths, pick another locker and this is where you will leave your robe and large towel before heading to the baths with only your small towel.
- Be sure to rise your body with hot water before getting into any of the baths.
- When in the baths, do not put your small towel in bath water. If it gets wet by accident, do not rign it in the bath. Step outside the bath to do this. A good place to keep your towel while in the bath is wrapping it around your head.
- Explore all the indoor and outdoor bath. There are all different types, including carbonated baths.
- After you are given a free 30 minutes session in a stone sauna room. They will provide you with a new robe and set of towels. Lock up your other ones in your locker and change into the new robe before entering the sauna. Make sure you keep an eye out for the time while you are in there because they will charge you for staying in longer than 30 minutes.
- I highly recommend trying to Doctor Fish (where you place your feet in a small bath full of fish who eat the dead skin off your feet). It actually is really nice and it makes your feet very smooth! It costs $15US for 2 people to do it for 10 minutes each.
- Go relax and take a nap in the relaxation room. It is very nice and they have chairs that pull out into beds that are very comfy. You can also watch a movie in the lounge if you want.
- You can also go eat at the restaurant in the spa. There is nothing special about the food but the seating area is very nice.
- They also offer massages for an additional cost but it is about $1 per minute.
Where to Eat
If only in town for the day, head to Kobe for dinner. They have many restaurants that specialize in Kobe beef on Ikuta Road right next to the Sannomiya subway station. You can use the transportation pass you got with your spa entrance to get here, otherwise it will cost you $2-3 one way.
Eat gyozas, a specialty of Kobe, at Chao Chao gyozas on the second floor right across the stret when you walk out of east exit 6 at the Sannomiya station. It is quick and delicious and not expensive. Menu prices include tax.