Blog: Japan Trip

RSS Feed
Japan Trip - Thursday, February 16, 2023
Our 11-day trip to Japan has come to an end, and what an eventful, fun, and tiring trip it has been! I'm currently writing this on our Zipair flight back to San Jose. The plane has power outlets, USB charging ports, and free WiFi. The flight to Japan was a grueling 11+ hours, while the flight back is only 9 hours (jet streams FTW). Thank God for that, because my body and mind are exhausted, and it's 6pm Japan time and 1am Pacific time. I've just barely gotten over my jet lag from flying to Japan; reacquiring jet lag now will be a doozy!

Priscilla has done an amazing job chronicling our day-to-day activities, so my post will just be a summary of the major things we did.

This was our first international trip since COVID. Priscilla couldn't wait for us to travel internationally again, and she was originally eying Portugal, but flights to there were pretty expensive. Then she found flights on Zipair, a budget airline, that were $470 per person roundtrip from San Jose to Tokyo. That's insanely cheap and was too good to pass up, and since she'd always wanted to go to Japan, we (she) decided to pull the trigger. I don't care for travel as much as she does and I'd rather be at home than running from place to unfamiliar place, but she did all the research and planning for this trip and all I had to do was just enjoy it with her - and she was accommodating of my preferences, so I really can't complain.

So last Monday, we took an Uber to San Jose and departed on Zipair, headed to Tokyo's Narita International Airport. Because it's a budget airline, they find ways to charge extra for every little thing (so it's amazing that the WiFi is free - maybe it's because they don't have entertainment screens on the seat backs). Each checked bag costs around $50, and if your bag weighs more than 15 pounds, you have to check it. So we made the effort to travel with just backpacks. It was actually not too difficult, and we did laundry halfway through the trip so that we didn't need to bring too many clothes.

We forgot to fill up our water bottles before the flight, and of course Zipair charges for water, so we ended up paying for three bottles of water. Lesson learned.

Since Japan is 17 hours ahead of Pacific Time, it was Tuesday when we landed. Going through the health checkpoint and customs was pretty quick since we had submitted information in advance through the government's Visit Japan website. Everyone else on our flight seemingly did the same. After customs, we had to exit out of the secure area and then there was only one lounge available to us and it only served drinks. Since we weren't able to get food there, we had to get lunch from a Lawson convenience store - the first of many during our trip. There are vending machines and convenience stores everywhere in Japan, and the big convenience stores seem to be Lawson, Family Mart, and 7 Eleven. We went to Lawson the most since they had this premium onigiri with grilled salmon that I really liked. It was a nice way to get something to eat without spending too much.

So then we took the Disney bus to our hotel at the Hilton Tokyo Bay. Tokyo's Disneyland and DisneySea are there, as are several really nice-looking hotels. Our room at the Hilton was pretty nice and spacious. DisneySea was the biggest thing we would do in Tokyo, so we stayed at the Hilton for three days because it was convenient to have a place to leave our baggage during the day.

For the three days that we were at the Hilton, we ate at their breakfast buffet since we got it for free from our Hilton membership. The buffet was amazing! There was so much food, including a salad bar and various hot foods. Our favorite item was the salmon sashimi with onions; I had to take out the onions due to my gut issues, but Priscilla was happy to eat them as long as there was salmon to go with it. We filled up our stomachs at the buffet so that we didn't need to eat much the rest of the day.

So on Wednesday, after a big breakfast, we took the JR train for the first time. Tokyo is huge and they have so many train lines, and it was intimidating trying to interpret route maps, use the ticket machines, and get to the right platform. It didn't help that signage is mostly in Japanese with small English text underneath. But we managed to make our way from Tokyo Bay to the Tokyo JR Station, and then to the famous Shibuya district. We explored Shibuya and walked through a few stores (most of which were several stories tall), and visited a store called Tokyu Hands that my coworker raved about. Hands is like a cross between Target and Daiso and they really have something for everybody, and we spent the most time in the games section playing with different puzzle games that were pretty challenging. I ultimately bought a metal puzzle to complement my collection. When we got back to Tokyo Bay, we explored the Ikspiari shopping mall and had dinner at an Italian restaurant called Saizeriya (going to Japan to eat Italian food, heh) and got produce at a grocery store. For some reason, our credit card didn't work at Saizeriya; not sure why, since it worked everywhere else that accepted cards.

Thursday was our DisneySea day. We thought that since it was a weekday, there wouldn't be too many people. Nope, there were a ton of schoolkids there; not sure why, since as far as I could tell, it wasn't a school holiday. We did several rides and saw a show, but we skipped the Soaring and Toy Story Mania rides because the lines were way too long and we did those rides at California Adventure last year. Probably the best ride was Journey to the Center of the Earth - (spoiler alert) it's a dark ride that starts off dramatic but slow, but the end is exhilarating as your car gets launched out of the "volcano" like a rocket! But perhaps more enjoyable than the rides was the spectacular theming throughout the park, particularly around the Mediterranean Harbor area at the center of the park. It got pretty cold in the evening, so we sought shelter at the Cape Cod Cook-Off eatery while we waited for the 7:40 nighttime show. There was a lot of seating in the cafeteria area and not too many people, so we were able to relax there for an hour while we enjoyed a tea and clam chowder. Restaurant food in Japan is generally pretty reasonably priced, and we were surprised that the food at DisneySea wasn't noticeably marked up. That place felt very welcoming to us cold, weary travelers.

Around 7:15, we headed out to try to get a spot to see the "Believe! Sea of Dreams" nighttime show, put on at the Mediterranean Harbor. Thousands of other guests were already there, so it was hard to get a good spot to stand, though we finally found a spot not too far from the harbor. It helped that we're tall-ish and could see over people, heh. The show was phenomenal! It was hard to grasp the story, especially since the narration was in Japanese with no translation, but it was more or less about the battle between good and evil, interweaving stories from Aladdin, Frozen, Coco, Moana, and more. There were huge boats wrapped with LED displays, speedboats with giant stars on them, light projections on the hotel behind us and on the mountain on the other side of the harbor, music, and fireworks. It was a bit of sensory overload but came together in a beautiful, uplifting way. I guess Disney does still have some of that magic left.

On Friday, we departed Tokyo and took the Shinkansen, the high-speed train, to Kyoto. We activated our 7-day JR passes on this day. This relatively affordable pass is only for foreign visitors (i.e. not available to Japanese citizens) as the government's way of promoting tourism. We got our money's worth from the pass, as that trip from Tokyo to Kyoto would've been around half the cost of the pass. We checked into our hotel at Ibis Styles, where we would stay for the next five days. Our room there was the smallest hotel room I've ever been in. Space was definitely lacking, but we were saving a lot of money by staying there, so we made it work.

We had dinner at Yoshinoya near the Kyoto JR Station. The format is different from the Yoshinoyas we're used to. Here, you seat yourself at the counter, and menus, chopsticks, and sauces are all in front of you. You order there, eat there, and then pay at the register when you're done. It's optimized for efficiency, and the typical customer seems to be lone Japanese travelers popping in for a quick meal. The menu was all in Japanese, so we had to use Google Lens on Priscilla's phone to translate one item at a time. It took forever to look through the menu and decide what we wanted. The employees not speaking much English didn't help, either. When it came time to pay, we had a hard time understanding when the worker was trying to tell us that they don't accept credit cards. We kept wondering why the machine wasn't registering our card and thought it was a repeat of the Saizeriya incident. Apparently, the only cards accepted here are debit cards.

On the topic of the Japanese language, we had learned a few key phrases but otherwise didn't understand any Japanese that was spoken. Most people we interacted with understood at least a little bit of English, probably more so in Tokyo than in Kyoto. The people at the hotels all spoke mostly fluent English. Same for the people at airport and train station kiosks. Restaurants were where we had the most trouble, particularly in Kyoto, but signs and menus typically had English translations, and pointing at things never fails.

So the next day was our trip to Arashiyama, a rural district just 15 minutes away by train. We walked 11 miles there, starting with the Bamboo Forest which, since it was morning, wasn't too packed with tourists yet. We continued on through Arashiyama Park and then, because I'm crazy, hiked to Mt. Ogura on a semi-beaten dirt path that soon turned into a not-beaten, ambiguous path. At some points, we were hiking on the edge of a steep hill, where a misstep could mean a long tumble down. We sometimes had to hold onto tree branches and roots to keep from falling. But we eventually encountered a section where someone had marked trees with red tape to assist hikers in finding the trail, and we ultimately made it to the top of the mountain. The Mt. Ogura summit was pretty underwhelming and was basically just a clearing in the forest with some signs.

There wasn't a good way down the mountain and we certainly didn't want to return the way we came, so we walked down a road where fortunately there weren't too many cars, until we got to the north side of Arashiyama. There, we visited the Adashino Nenbutsu-ji Temple and took some pictures in their own mini "bamboo forest", free of the crowds that characterize the touristy part of Arashiyama. We continued north and found a traditional ryotei establishment named Ayuchaya Hiranoya, where we enjoyed cherry blossom tea and a couple light bites while sitting on tatami mats. We then walked through the touristy part of Arashiyama again, walked across the Togetsu-kyo Bridge, walked along the river, and then toured the Kimono Forest on our way back to the train station. Arashiyama was quite nice and I really enjoyed the scenery, particularly the places not swarming with people. When we got back to the Kyoto JR Station, we ate at Yoshinoya again. Unlike last time, we pulled up the English menu on our phones (we found out we just needed to scan a QR code on the front of the menu), and we had the right amount of cash ready when paying. Showing real progress after learning from our mistakes!

On Sunday, we took another JR train to Nara. This was a little further away (50 minutes) but well worth the trip. We explored Nara Park and did the thing that probably most people come here to do - fed the deer. Vendors in the park sell stacks of rice crackers for 200 yen, and we bought one and walked around the park. Most visitors congregate near the western entrance of the park, so the deer there are overly fed, but as we went further into the park, the deer got hungrier! The deer furthest into the park would swarm us once they saw that we had food. They were pushy but always gentle. We saw signs warning about deer kicking and butting people, but maybe that only happens if you don't give them what they want! After walking through the park, we hiked up to the Mt. Wakakusa summit and enjoyed the wide, sweeping views of the city from there. In all, we walked 10 miles that day.

The next day, we had lunch at Sushi no Musashi, a conveyor belt sushi restaurant inside the JR station. This was our first time at this kind of restaurant, and Priscilla in particular really enjoyed the experience, as it's something she always wanted to do. We then took a JR train to Inari (around 10 minutes) and walked to the Mt. Inari summit at the Fushimi Inari. It had rained earlier in the day and we went in the afternoon, so there weren't as many people. This is a popular place for photos, and we were able to get some photos without people in the background. We enjoyed walking through all the torii, though it was sad seeing some of them having wood rot at the base or even completely cut down. We walked up to the summit, though it was so unremarkable that we didn't know at that time that it was the summit. I think there were just one or two businesses up there including an ice cream place. We did 7 miles of walking here.

On Tuesday, we were surprised that it was lightly snowing, despite the weather report not mentioning it. We took the subway from Kyoto to Shijo; this was not a JR line, so our pass couldn't be used for this. From Shijo, we walked to Mipig Cafe, where we had a 30-minute reservation to hang out with their mini pigs. We had to put all our stuff in a locker and then go upstairs, where we sat on the floor, put a blanket over our laps, and then in no time we were swarmed by half a dozen mini pigs! They really seem to like people, perhaps if just for the body warmth. I thought it was a little boring just sitting there having pigs on my lap, and I didn't really like getting pig hair on my clothes, but Priscilla really enjoyed the experience. Unfortunately, contrary to the name of this place, their (free) vending machine dispensing drinks was broken, so we weren't able to get any of the drinks that are customarily included.

We then walked over to the nearby Nishiki Market to get small bites at various vendors, and then walked over to Maruyama Park. It was pretty cold and the snow started coming down more heavily here, so we had to seek shelter under an umbrella until the snow let up. It was pretty cool, though. Prior to Kyoto, we've never really seen actual snow falling in person.

Finally, we walked over to Kiyomizu-dera and decided to pay the 400 yen per person for entry. That place was pretty nice, though the large crowds really detracted from the experience. Apparently, it being a weekday, cold, and snowing is not enough to dissuade many people from going! Halfway through the campus is a soup restaurant, seemingly the only place where you're able to sit. That marketing strategy certainly paid off because it got us to eat there. We shared a bowl of soba and fried tofu soup while sitting on tatami mats, a break from the 10 miles we would walk this day.

Tokyo again:
On Wednesday, it was time to say goodbye to Kyoto and hello to Tokyo for one more day. We took the Shinkansen back to Tokyo, this time going to the Shinagawa station where we then took the local JR line to the Hamamatsucho station. We checked into our hotel at the Intercontinental Tokyo Bay, which we got for free thanks to our IHG card. We checked in early but they still had a room for us, and they upgraded us to a deluxe room with a terrific view of the bay and the Rainbow Bridge! My coworker had recommended walking across the bridge, so we did just that. We had to walk 1.5 miles just to get to the bridge. The view from up there was amazing, but it was pretty chilly and windy, and we saw only a few other people crazy enough to be walking the 1-mile length of the bridge with us. Once on the south side, we checked out Daiba Park (not many people there) and then Odaiba Kaihin Park, the latter where there's a small beach and a Statue of Liberty. The views of the bay from there are stunning! We ate at the Yoshinoya there, go figure. There's so much to do on Odaiba, which is actually a man-made island. But we didn't feel like we had the time, so we headed back to the bridge, only to find that the pedestrian route was now closed! Online, various sources say that the bridge closes to pedestrians at 6pm during the winter, but the guard pointed us to a sign that said that the bridge closes at 5:30. We got there at 5:34. That was frustrating, as I don't see a valid reason why the bridge should be closed at all. There are fences preventing pedestrians from falling over, and there appears to be lighting along the pedestrian paths. We had to pay to take the Yurikamome train back to our hotel. I wasn't very happy about this but Priscilla was, since her feet were hurting due to us having walked 44 miles over 5 days. Okay, I guess that's a lot.

Finally, today was our travel day back home. After a brief walk around the IHG courtyard (mainly because I woke up feeling dizzy and needed some fresh air), we packed up and took the train to the Tokyo JR Station, and then the Narita Express from there to the airport. It was only when we were in the security line, taking our electronics out of our bags, that we realized, to our horror, that we didn't have our iPhone. Priscilla's mom gave her old iPhone 10 to Priscilla, and since it has a much better camera than our phones do, we had been using it to take pictures during our trip. The Find My app showed that the iPhone was back at the hotel, and we used a payphone to call the hotel (we had to learn that we didn't need to dial the 81 country code, but we did need to dial the trunk prefix of 0 first), and they confirmed that housekeeping found the phone. The Narita Express trip was about 50 minutes each way, and we didn't have the time to go back to the hotel, so hopefully the hotel will be able to ship the phone to our home address.

Thankfully, going through security was pretty smooth, as they just use metal detectors and then they watch you turn around in a circle with your hands above your head (that was kind of fun, haha). Customs was equally as smooth - the agent just asked if we bought any duty-free items, and then we scanned our passports. But then the "fun" started again when we tried to go to two airport lounges, only to find that the first one was no longer operating (the Google Maps entry was out of date), and the second didn't accept Priority Pass. We were directed to another lounge near our gate which fortunately did take Priority Pass. It was nice to sit there and enjoy some rice curry and soba noodle soup, a reprieve from the earlier chaos.

After eating, we had about 10 minutes to pick up some gifts from the duty-free shops before our boarding time. My coworker had asked me to pick up Tokyo Bananas for him, but the two closest shops were completely out of those. We saw lots of Tokyo Bananas on our way through the airport, including at those two shops, so I didn't expect them to all disappear. But apparently, popular items can disappear when a lot of people are passing through close to the departure time. So we ran down the terminal to the next shop, and I think they had some Tokyo Bananas there, but the line was insanely long and we had two minutes before boarding. We didn't want to chance it and try to find another shop even further away, so we just ran back to one of the shops closest to our gate and picked up the Tokyo Bananas Pie version (seems like it's not as popular, so we'll see if my coworker wants it) and five boxes of various flavors of Kit Kats. This cost 5,100 yen, which was the exact amount of cash that we had left (we started with 24,000 yen and I used up all of our odd coins yesterday). It was great that we got rid of all our cash, as we would otherwise have to pay a fee to convert back to dollars. We then dashed over to our gate... only to find that the flight was delayed. Shortly after, the boarding time was pushed out by 50 minutes. Sigh. Had we known this, we probably could've gone back to the hotel and we definitely could've found another shop in the terminal, but we couldn't have possibly known. Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans. At least we remembered to fill up our water bottles before boarding this time.

Final thoughts:
So today did not go as planned, but I'm glad that we're on the way home now. I kind of did just write a summary of each day, but there was so much that happened each day! I feel like we did more on this trip than we've done on previous trips, and a lot of that involved just finding the right train to get from one place to another (thank you Priscilla). This trip has been fun but also a bit frenetic, and I haven't really felt rested. Maybe that's why I woke up feeling dizzy this morning.

Tokyo and Kyoto are huge cities, and there are crowds just about everywhere. You have to constantly maneuver around people when walking through the train station, and the crowds don't seem to let up at any time during the day. The trains are typically full and, except for the Shinkansen where we reserved seats, there was usually no sitting room on the trains we got on. On one train, a bunch of people got on and we were completely packed in like sardines. It was hard to find grocery stores selling fresh produce until we really looked for it, and even then, the produce options there were a little limited and pricier than back at home. And everything is packaged in plastic, even single pieces of produce. There are probably some advantages to that, but it felt wasteful. And the convenience stores were definitely convenient, and we ate some onigiri from there just about every day, but I wouldn't want to eat like that for an extended period of time. By our fourth day in Kyoto, I was getting city fatigue and a bit of travel fatigue in general.

There are a lot of great things about Japan, of course. The trains were nearly always on time. The roads are clean and in good condition. We didn't see much litter anywhere. People seem to prioritize society over individuality. It does help that they're a pretty homogeneous society. People tend to not want to stand out. Pretty much everyone wears a face mask, even when outside. Most people were wearing dark clothes, certainly not bright clothing drawing attention. And most of the cars I saw on the road were white, followed by black. I didn't see a significant percentage of cars of another color. People are very polite and frequently bow as a gesture of mutual respect. We soon found ourselves doing the same. It's crowded, but people somehow maneuver around each other in an orderly fashion. We never got bumped into in all our time walking through crowded spaces. Crime is rare. We felt safe walking around dark places at night and counting money in public. Even in the bustling cities, I saw lots of bikes just parked there without being locked up. Sure, there seem to be cameras everywhere in public and in every private business as well, and those probably deter bad behavior, but I have to imagine that people behaved this way before the era of mass surveillance as well (the Big Brother thing is an entirely separate discussion). They have a culture of respect that seems to be taught from a young age. Even the kids at the breakfast buffet were well behaved. Whenever we did hear a child making a lot of noise, it turned out to be a non-Japanese child.

On that note though, the Japanese as a whole do seem to be more reserved. They seem to not make small talk with strangers or even verbally acknowledge them (like in an elevator). At DisneySea, there was barely any applause at the end of the show, though that might've also been because after what seemed like the finale, the show kept on going and it wasn't clear that the end was actually the end. But I think the point still stands.

No society is perfect, and there are things that I think the Japanese don't do as well, but those things are few and far between. On the whole, I really admire what I saw in Japanese society, and I wish that Americans would take some cues from them. Can you imagine if our cities were like this? Maybe some of the small ones are, but the big ones?

Whew. I wrote a lot more than I thought I would. Our trip is over and I can't wait to get back home, drink lots of water, go to Costco to get groceries, and get back to a regular life, jet lag notwithstanding. We should be getting back around 8am Thursday, so the whole day will essentially reset. I'll need a vacation from vacation, but this trip has been meaningful and I'm glad that we did it. Ask me in 1.5 years if I'm down for an international trip again.