Japan had been high on the wish-list for a while. It has pretty much everything I look for in a destination – beautiful nature, a vibrant and unique culture, delicious cuisine and the most modern architecture of them all. It is not the cheapest place to visit, especially because of the cost of hotels, but the cheap flights from India make up for some of that. It is also a uniquely hard place to research, the names of places are hard to remember and the train system seems intimidatingly complex. In addition, it is really very crowded, almost all year – the one thing that works against it.
It’s tricky to pick the right time for the trip. Cherry Blossom (April-May) is most popular but besides the lovely sceneries, you also see huge crowds and high prices. Summer is hot and humid with a lot of rain, though it’s not really hot by Indian standards. I chose late autumn to get to see the fall colors and also have relatively nice temperature to walk around. I had expected to be around 10-15 degrees C when I got there in late November. Blame climate change, it was a lot of about 2 degrees on most days I was there, though cold is better than hot. The online trackers for fall colors were more accurate. While it was a little pre-peak for Tokyo, we were able to see fall colors in full glory in Kyoto.
The visa was quite easy and the online documentation was simple and accurate. The visa fee was dropped significantly in 2018, but this trip is from 2017. I got a 1-year multi-entry visa without much fuss.
Trains are the most comfortable way to travel in Japan, though figuring them out online can be intimidating. There are multiple train companies and each have their on passes and other nuances. I bought a JR pass which can help save some bucks on the fairly expensive bullet trains. The pass comes in multiples of 7 days, so my ending up with an 8 day long trip was a bit of a bummer. There are apps that apparently help navigate the rail system, will find out how well they work. Google maps actually turned out to be quite helpful, the only caveat being that it did not tell if a pass could be bought.
The flights were quite easy. There is a direct flight from Delhi and it was quite reasonably priced. One thing to note is that Narita airport is far outside of Tokyo and a 1-hour train ride to center of the city. That train ride is however covered by the JR pass, as is the Shinkansen ride from Tokyo to Kyoto or even Osaka. A lot of other rides are covered too, it’s just that some are better booked in advance and the JR pass activates only when you land. So the first thing I did at the airport was to activate the pass and book the major trips. Since it was a 7 day pass and I was on an 8 day trip, I had to pay for the return trip to airport. The most amazing part of the booking were the connections – you did not have to worry about any train being late. They are almost never late!
I quickly realized that I could have spent 3 weeks in Japan, but I had only 8 days. I chose to stick to Tokyo and Kyoto and leave the rest for a later trip. There was enough to see in both cities and 4 days each were barely going to be enough. There were Shrines, Temples, Markets and even busy intersections that are worth a visit. If I had to do this again, I would have kept an extra day for Kyoto. The shrines and temples there are much larger and need a lot more time to see. From both cities there are several day trips that can be made, but I only had time to do one, from Tokyo to the lovely town of Hakone, with a wonderful view of mount Fuji.
As always I picked hotels in the heart of the city. In Tokyo that meant I was in a tiny hotel room in the Shinjuku area. The hotel was actually quite nice, except for the room size. The breakfast was amazing and it was surrounded by restaurants and shops. I could by a bottle of grocery store sake just across the entrance. In Kyoto I picked a place in Shimogyo right off the main commercial street. This was a smaller hotel but with a much larger room and a nice Sento. They has an unusual set breakfast but it was actually quite tasty.