Traveling, is definitely one of my passions so when the opportunity arose to take a trip to the land of the rising sun we decided to grab it. It will be a quick trip ( we arrived there on a Tuesday at 6 am and then head back next Monday noon) so we need to make it count.
On to the travel plan, after talking to a couple of people we settled on two hotel destinations only, Kyoto and Tokyo and because the plane was arriving at 6 am, we decided to zombie out of the plane and directly onto the Shinkansen and onto Kyoto. The last couple of days would be in Tokyo.
I decided to follow the recommendations and purchased the Japan Rail Pass (splurged on the green car one) and got ready to travel on the Aeromexico Dreamliner for Tokyo. A few days before the trip (actually up to the flight) it was a bit shaky between Typhoon Tremi and a union strike looming threat at AM for the first minute of October 1st. Turned out both threats were false alarms and we got on the Dreamliner at 2AM.
We arrived in Tokyo after a 14 hour flight (all night) better than expected, cleared immigration and customs (in about five minutes) and found our bags already waiting for us (a very friendly Japanese purser with white gloves was in charge of unloading priority bags), got some cash at a 7/11 ATM and got our rail pass exchanged.
IMPORTANT TIP: If you arrive before the main office of japan rail opens, there is a small office where you can exchange your voucher for the rail pass at the entrance of the rail station inside the airport. Head there quickly as long lines form here. This is one of the few processes that I found to be VERY inefficient.
They ask for lot of data to issue the voucher and then you have to capture that data again in another form for them to give you the pass…. so it takes about 3-4 minutes per person.
That same desk can issue seat reservations for the Shinkansen (especially if your ticket is green)
We took the Narita Express and transferred there to the Hikari Shinkansen at Shinagawa (much simpler than doing it at the Tokyo station) and off we go. The experience of traveling in the bullet train in Japan is twofold, its a great experience (very confortable, spacious, quiet, …) and also ming boggling how common it has become in Japan, there are bullet trains everywhere leaving at all hours. In Europe trains like the TGV or the AVE are special, here it’s completely common..
A little over two hours later (the rail pass does not include the express Shinkansen so you have to take the pseudo express train to Kyoto) we were in Kyoto and a five minute taxi ride got us to our hotel The Royal Park Hotel Shijo. (a very nice brand new four star hotel).
For a first timer in Japan, I must make time to comment on a very interesting instrument found in Japan “The Electronic Toilet”. For us westerners (or at the very least, this one) it was an interesting experience. It has an important amount of buttons (the one in Tokyo would open up and close automatically and the seat was auto heated…) Am I crazy that for my shopping list I wanted to add one of this contraptions?
The first day we had light stroll through Shijō Kawaramachi which is a covered shopping district as well as the Shin Kyogoku Shopping Arcade. (very nice area) and eventually got to Gion in the evening.
On Wednesday, we took a Kyoto bike tour with our guide Thierry. The tour was a lot of fun, we visited a ton of sites, including Nishi Honganji Temple, The Golden Pagoda, and the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. If you like to bike, this tour is really nice, you get to see a lot of Kyoto and enjoy the sites. Most of the tour is flat (there are a couple of uphill treks but not too steep) and Japanese are very courteous drivers.
After the bike trip we had an evening walking tour of GION (we got this one through the Getyourguide app) which was fun and interesting. In retrospect, I think we were nuts to take a walking tour the same day we took a 22km biking tour but hey we survived (and had a 15 min siesta on the taxi ride between the bike shop and the tour start location)
A few people recommended a day trip to Nara, the first capital of Japan, we decided to make Thursday our excursion to Nara so we took the morning train and off we went. There was a walking tour leaving the train station (heads up, there are two train stations in Nara) at 10 AM. It was a rainy day so we were the only ones to show up for the walking tour (yeeeei, private tour).
Our Nara walking tour took us to the main sites in Nara: The Todaiji Temple, The Kasuga Grand Shrine and The Kofukuji Temple. Nara is absolutely gorgeous, and for some reason, the weather (rainy and a bit cold) made it feel even more special.
Wow, very intensive two days. Kyoto and Nara were spectacular, full of flavor, history, mystery and charm.
We decided to visit a couple of additional sites in Kyoto on Friday before taking Hikari Shinkansen back to Tokyo in the afternoon. I’ll tell you about it as well as our Tokyo experience in my next post.