Our plan was to fly into Haneda Airport (about 25 min outside of Tokyo) at 8:30PM, jump right on the Bullet train to Kyoto, stay for two nights and head back to Tokyo for 3 nights. We booked our hotels a month or so in advance and excitedly awaited our trip. A few days before we left home Jackie realized that the JRP “ticket” we got in the mail was more of a voucher then a pass which needed to be exchanged for a real pass in Japan in order to be used. We also realized that all the JR ticket stations close at 7:30PM! That meant we wouldn’t be able to take the bullet train as planned; a difference between a 3-hour ride and an 8 to 12 hour one. This meant our hotels plans were seriously jacked. Yikes!
Tip #1: The JRP is well worth the price if you plan to take the bullet train somewhere. It works on local JR stations as well so all together we came out ahead with costs. To use the pass you must show it to the person working the gate when you enter and leave to get through, but in practice they just glance at it as you walk by and your good to go. When getting a JR pass though make sure you give yourself time well before 7:30PM to exchange the ticket for the pass. There is even an electronic station where you show a teleoperator the pass over a camera and they print a ticket for you remotely. Pretty neat.
Tip #1.1: Fly into Haneda
Tip #1.2: There are two JR stops in “Tokyo.” Shinagawa and Tokyo.
Hotels.com deserves a shout out – we called them up and they took care of our Kyoto stay and helped us grab a nice cheap place in Tokyo next to the train station to head over to Kyoto in the morning. First major problem solved 🙂
Tip #2: Definitely book through a service like Hotels.com to make local reservations. Avoid international calling rates and get a translator for the hotel if there is a problem for free!
The bullet train ride was sweet. Tokyo to Kyoto in under 2 hours – about 140 mph. That’s like going from DC to NYC in roughly the same amount of time. We woke up in Tokyo at 6AM and made the earliest train. The train was so efficiently fast that we really didn’t lose any time due to our landing mix up, PLUS we saved $60 by staying in a cheaper hotel for the night. Win/win. The train system was great. It ran multiple times an hour and there were no major lines, waits, gates etc to board. It was efficient, cozy and quiet. (it really validates how great the Hyperloop could be to the west coast.) We got to see the countryside and grab some views of Mount Fuji on the way.
Lost in Translation
I enjoy learning the local phrases when I travel, and, Much to Jackie’s dismay, I attempt to use them often. Doing in Japan didn’t seem to go over as smoothly for me as it had in other countries in the past. It may have been due to the complex nature of the language/accent or my interpretation of what I read was just plain offensive to hear by locals. Based on the reaction of those I spoke I have convinced myself that there were a few lines (very few lines) I “mastered” by the end of the trip.
Sure, we could hardly understand what anyone was saying back to us. There was a general lack of English speakers in Japan compared to other big cities we’ve visited, but the mannerisms and gestures translated well enough and we always felt taken care of. Not only by staff, but business owners, waiters, and the average passer-bys.
Tip #3 – The Google Translate App comes in handy. On the last day, I used the translation card feature in the app to supplement my attempts to verbalize myself in the local tongue. With Google Translate, after you translate text, you can flip the phone to landscape mode and it will print the translated text clearly, in large print. After I used my awesome “Excuse me, hi” line I smiled and showed the iPhone card. Things went a lot more smoothly from then on out.
Tip #3.1: Sumimasen with a subtle bow is your most valuable asset. It means “excuse me” but more importantly it’s a really easy way to say “hey, I apologize that I am a stupid tourist, but at least I’m trying to use your language, AND I know it is disturbing you – so I’m sorry for that too.”
Enjoying The Town
Our friends suggestions were dead on. Kyoto was a must see. It’s a good place to get that small town, traditional Japanese feel. We loved it! The quaint, open-air, covered walkways were strewn with restaurants, coffee shops, and apartments. Many of the stores opened directly onto the walkway making it easy to not only “window shop” but literally grab bites of food from the stands as we walked by. We had hamachi sashimi on a stick, fried pork skewers, rice balls, tea ice cream, octopus, eel, quail egg, and more. There were other larger main roadways through Kyoto that felt more modern and “big city”, and although they were only a block or two from the quieter neighborhoods there was a distinct separation from one scene to the next. It was slow paced, peaceful, and felt more like a town than a city.
Staying in a Ryokan
We stayed in a Ryokan to round out the authentic Japanese journey; the complimentary kimonos while we lounged in the room added to the experience. The sleeping arrangements, although considered genuine old-time Japanese, were uncomfortable and stiff. The room itself was uncomfortable, lacking in furniture other than a very low table, and some floor chairs (where you would have been served dinner and then breakfast in your room, but we opted out of that option.) The hotel workers came into the room while we were out for dinner to set up our “beds” which were two rolled out futons, just the mattress part, small hard pillows, and down comforters. It was warm and comfortable by all other measures, but uncomfortable to sleep and lounge nonetheless. The experience at the Ryokin was interesting and the staff was super helpful and nice, but the sleeping on floors and a super small room for the price just wasn’t our thing. We wouldn’t do it again, but at the same time we are very glad we did it.
A Wonderful Time
Kyoto was a perfect way to get a peaceful traditional Japanese feel before Tokyo which would surely overwhelm our senses. There we saw many Geishas and temples, and all types of people riding bikes 24-hours a day. Jackie noticed a considerable amount of little old ladies doing so too! It reminded us of North West US e.g. Portland, SF or Seattle. A nice big small city. My favorite part of our entire trip was strolling through outdoor food markets and nibbling on odd new foods as we made our way through the open aired strips.
We did all of Kyoto in about 2 days and one night. Since our visit was in the winter it helped trimmed down the list of things to do as the parks were no longer colorful and we only visited a few nearby shrines. We loved Kyoto but excited to see Tokyo Next!