7 things you need to know to plan your Japan trip

Last year I travelled to Japan and I still wonder what made me pick such a difficult country for my first international trip. Difficult not because of food (I love Japanese food), difficult because the communication there isn’t easy. I got some help from friends as I was planning the trip but most of the stuff I learned while I was there. In the past few months a few friends and acquaintances reached out to me asking questions about my Japan trip. So here’s a list of QnA that I have created based on those questions. It’s purely based on my experience and research. I was in Japan for 10 days and travelled to Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. There were a lot of things I wish I knew before hand, but then you always learn from your mistakes. I hope these questions help you in planning your trip.

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Kyoto in 20 Pictures

I spent 3 nights and 4 days in Kyoto and checked quite a few things off my list, but still feel I could’ve spend more days roaming and cycling around this beautiful city. Here’s my Kyoto journey in 20 pictures.

House of Geisha in Gion. Kyoto's Geisha District

House of Geisha in Gion. Kyoto’s Geisha District

There was haunting silence when we entered Gion, Kyoto‘s Geisha district in the evening. The streets were dark with tourists stealthily moving around with their cameras on the ready. We were in Hanami-koji street, the most popular area of Gion, lined with traditional wooden machiya merchant houses. According to http://www.japan-guide.com/, due to the fact that property taxes were formerly based upon street frontage, the houses were built with narrow facades only five to six meters wide, but extend up to twenty meters in from the street. Continue reading

Going Beyond Sushi – Eating My Way Through Japan

“Are you going to Japan? You’ll only get sushi there and it’s really bad”, that was (thankfully) the only cringe worthy “tip” I received just a few days prior to my Japan trip. Thanks to my exposure to Japanese cuisine and Matt Goulding’s Rice, Noodle, Fish – Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture guiding me, I was all set to eat all the sushi and ramen that Japan had to offer. But, what I hadn’t anticipated was that I wouldn’t be repeating a single meal.

Sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo

Sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo

I don’t remember exactly when my interest in Japanese cuisine started shaping up; it could be that first taste of sushi with a hit of wasabi eaten at a Mumbai restaurant. Yes, it wasn’t half as good as what I finally ate in Tokyo, but it was still a revelation that something so simple can be so satisfying for the soul. The interest bloomed into a full-fledged love for the culture and food when I read A Strange Weather In Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. The tiny bars where Tsukiko and Sensei would meet were mapped in my brain and I would envisage myself sitting in one, emptying glass after glass of sake with pickles. Continue reading

48 Hours in Tokyo

Tokyo is huge, confusing, daunting, but the best way to enjoy this crazy city is to find your way through all the madness. I made a list of shrines to visit, temples to see, parks to rest in and restaurants to eat at, but as soon as I reached Tokyo it consumed me. So I swiftly kept aside my checklist and went with the flow doing things that came my way. I didn’t look down on the glittering city from Tokyo Skytree’s observation deck, I didn’t go to any museum or go watch Sumo wrestling, but the experiences that I had were still unique.

Walk, walk, walk…
There’s no better way to explore a city than walking; it familiarizes you to every turn of the road, every nook, and every store at the corner of the street. I walked around Tokyo looking at the lovely and neat houses in the suburbs, marvelling at the glitzy stores and being amazed by the sense of discipline. I got lost and connected with people who, despite the language barrier, helped me out to find the way and in some cases, walked all the way with me to make sure I won’t get lost again.

Shibuya, Tokyo

Shibuya, Tokyo

Have fun with the subway
The subway trains – pretty much like Mumbai’s local trains – are Tokyo’s lifeline. There are 13 lines and it’s a daunting task to understand the web of stations at first, but you soon get comfortable navigating through the map and start enjoying it after a while. Tokyo’s subway stations are where you see people’s love for wi-fi connection – yes, they’re all glued to their phones – and sense of discipline. It’s just so much fun hopping from one train to another and realizing that you’re already a pro at using their ticket vending machine.

Dodge and cross at Shibuya Crossing
Shibuya Pedestrian Scramble is the world’s busiest crossing with sixteen intersections. It’s fascinating to see all the pedestrian lights go green and people pouring in from all the directions. The crossing is at the Hachiko exit of Shibuya station, which also has the statue of the famous dog Hachiko (remember the Richard Gere starrer tear jerker Hachi: A Dog’s Tale?).

Shibuya Scramble Crossing. Image Credit: japanphototrip.com

Shibuya Scramble Crossing. Image Credit: japanphototrip.com

Retail therapy in Shimokitazawa
Japan is really expensive, but also houses some of the best fashion brands with Tokyo being the hub of it. You’ll probably have to survive on 200 Yen meal of rice and soup if you shop in Shibuya, Shinjuku or Ginza. So, shop smart and head to Shimokitazawa – a small suburb on the western side of Tokyo famous for its second hand and vintage shops, small eateries and live performance venues. I picked up a cute dress for 1200 Yen and a palazzo fro 1600 Yen. Right from shoes and bags to cosmetics, there’s plenty of things to keep you interested. Shop to your heart’s content here and then hop into an Izakaya for a few drinks and Japanese tapas.

Shimokitazawa, Tokyo

Shimokitazawa, Tokyo

Dine in solitude at a Ramen house
At Shimokitazawa, I hopped into Ichiran – the famous ramen house specializing in just one kind of ramen (pork-bone-broth tonkotsu). Ichiran is as famous for its serving system as its dish. You buy a meal ticket from the machine at the entrance, go at your seating booth (these are single seating booths with wooden panels giving privacy), fill out a form like menu customizing the richness of your broth, strength of dashi and amount of the special red sauce, and pass on the coupon and form from the gap between the counter and the curtain; all you can see of your server are the hands passing you that delicious bowl of comfort. The curtain is pulled down and you’re left alone to dive deep into that perfect bowl of ramen.

Ichiran in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo

Ichiran in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo

Sushi at Tsukiji
I had horrible luck with Tsukiji – Asia’s largest fish market. The day I made the trip there was a national holiday and the entire market was shut but for one sushi house; thankfully I had my fill there, some of the freshest sushi I’ve ever eaten. There’s a tuna auction too at 5am, go for it if you’re keen; if not then got at around 9-10am for a sushi breakfast.

Sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo

Sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo

Geek out in Akihabara
With its bright lights, manga covered buildings and strange sounds, Akihabara feels like a sudden attack on your senses. Once settled you can’t stop but be amused. Walk around marvelling at the Manga display screens, geek out at Yadobashi Camera – THE store for all things electronics, shop for Manga and comic book collectibles at Mandarake, watch the robot dance at the Gundam café and dine at a maid café – it’s a role-play themed café where waitresses are traditionally dressed as maids and indulge their customers in friendly conversations (few of these cafes have entry charges too).

Maid Cafe in Akihabara, Tokyo

Maid Cafe in Akihabara, Tokyo

Grab a drink (or five) at Golden Gai
Once you’ve been here you might want to spend your every evening in Tokyo at the tiny bars in Golden Gai. The street near Shinjuku station is full of such bars serving just drinks with a seating capacity of 6-8. Spend hours here clinking your sake and shochu glasses with strangers’ with the cheery kanpai (cheers in Japanese), make friends and experience how the locals spend their time after work. Hungry? Head to an Izakaya – a Japanese gastro pub serving mainly tapas. Line your stomach with pork yakisoba, gyoza, grilled prawns and sautéed mushrooms and get back to your bar for next round of drinks. Some of the bars have an entry fee of up to 800 yen so watch for that if money’s tight.

Aces Bar in Golden Gai, Shinjuku

Ace’s Bar in Golden Gai, Shinjuku

Izakaya, Tokyo

Izakaya, Tokyo

Tips:
• Almost all the major suburbs in Tokyo are connected through city’s various subway lines. The tickets aren’t too expensive but if you plan to take multiple subways through the day then get a day pass that’ll cost you just 600 Yen.
• The subway stations and trains have free Wi-Fi and Tokyo has Wi-Fi spots at almost all the major shopping centres. Connect to the Wi-Fi, open your browser which will take you to a page, accept the terms and conditions and stay connected.
• Tipping is considered rude in Japan.
• Your regular charging plug might not work in the Japanese sockets so make sure you buy a universal adapter before you leave for Japan. Alternatively, you can buy it from the electronic stores in Japan where you’ll get an adapter as per your county’s specifications.
• If you plan to travel intercity in Japan, get a JRR Pass. The pass gives you access to almost all JR bullet trains, barring a few. Getting a pass will be a lot cheaper than buying tickets on the spot. JRR pass has to be bought before you leave your country. You can find the details here.

Strange Weather in Japan – A series of Instagram posts

The idea of writing about Japan has consumed me as much as Tokyo consumed me after that first train ride from Narita airport. While I was trying to put my experiences into words I realized that some of the best stories were part of my Instagram posts. I wrote about those experiences while they were still fresh, so it just felt like a good idea to put them together in a post.