While we have done quite a bit of traveling in the West, the boys and I had never had an opportunity to visit Asia. Last spring we were fortunate enough to visit Japan. This was a lifelong dream of mine and it turned out to be everything I had hoped it would be! We all agreed it was the best family vacation we’d ever been on and the trip of a lifetime!
I won’t pretend the idea of traveling to a place where we wouldn’t be able to understand the language at all or even recognize the letters wasn’t a little bit nerve-wracking. This would be a completely new experience! A true adventure! We knew everything might seem and feel different, but that was part of the excitement. In many ways it was what made this trip so magical!
Unlike many western countries you won’t find that a lot of people speak English. In fact just the opposite, however we didn’t find this to be a problem and with the exception of one funny incident in a restaurant where we paid a bit too much we got along just fine! We learned to say a few basic words before we left and did our best to use them whenever we could!
When To Go
After 15 years of talking about going to Japan we wanted to make sure we got it right! We had 10 days to explore and decided on two cities, Tokyo and Kyoto. After researching the best time of year to go we settled on spring so we could see the cherry trees in bloom. If we ever get a chance to go back I’d love to see the autumn leaves which are supposed to be breathtaking! Tokyo has well over 50 major neighborhoods and they’re all special. It was hard to settle on just one so we split our time between two neighborhoods 4 nights in Shinjuku and 3 nights in Ginza with an additional 3 nights in Kyoto. If you’re planning to go during cherry blossom season book everything as early as possible and for the best choice of hotels I recommend booking at least 6 months in advance!
We flew into Narita Airport which is, depending on the mode of transportation you choose, 60 – 90 minutes from Tokyo. After researching trains, buses and taxis we found taking the train to be the best and most convenient option for us! We took the JR Narita Express which is covered by the Japan Rail Pass. The taxi was by far the most expensive option as you’ll have traffic to contend with on your way into the city.
Do keep in mind that the lines to get through customs upon arrival can be quite long, so it was probably around three hours after we landed that we finally made it to our hotel. That was a long day!
If you’re planning to visit more than one city on your trip I strongly recommend you consider the Japan Rail Pass. The JR Pass must be purchased prior to arriving in the country as they are only available to non-residents of Japan visiting for tourism. The most economical way to get from city to city they can also be used in city on certain train lines and for transport from the airport and back. They are offered in 7, 14 and 21 day options.
Purchasing the JR Pass is easy. We purchased ours through a local travel agency who specializes in Asian travel. It can take a few weeks, so contact them as soon as you’ve decided on your travel dates.
When you arrive at the airport take your JR Pass vouchers to the JR Pass Office where they will be exchanged for the actual passes. We found the people were incredibly helpful, friendly and they spoke english. We were able to get all the information we needed to catch the JR Express into the city as well as information about taking the bullet train (Shinkansen) to Kyoto. Depending on your plans you’ll want to look into getting reserved seats on the Shinkansen as well as information about which station to catch the Shinkansen depending on which city you’re planning to visit. Keep in mind that the trains always leave on time. Plan on being on the platform a few minutes prior to whatever time you are expecting the train to arrive or you will miss it.
What would have been an 8 hour drive to Kyoto was only a 2 hour 20 minute bullet train ride! If you are hungry there are light refreshments on the trains. At first, due to the language barrier, we were a little shy about ordering from the refreshment cart, but hunger and curiosity got the better of us and we were able to point at what we wanted which worked out fine.
While we used the trains to get back and forth to the airport and to Kyoto, we found we didn’t use them much within the actual cities. We chose to take taxis from place to place. This isn’t the most economical way to travel, but it’s very convenient and a great way to see a lot of the city!
Hailing and using taxis in Japan is quite different from any other city I’ve been to. While hailing the cab is the same, there are some other major differences. For example, you don’t actually open the taxi door by yourself! It’s opened and closed remotely by the driver. It took us quite a while to get used to this and it’s considered poor manners to open and close the door yourself unless you exit or enter the vehicle from the right side.
If you don’t speak Japanese it is perfectly acceptable to give them your destination address on a piece of paper or we showed them where we wanted to go on the map. Tipping is not common in Japan and in most situations it can be considered offensive. However, If you decide to tip the driver it’s appropriate to just round up when paying the fare.
Green means stop and red means go! Yep, a red symbol lets you know the cab is available and a green one lets you know it’s occupied.
Japanese is an incredibly complex language, but we thought it might be nice if we could learn to speak a few words. We really enjoyed trying to speak as many words as possible and you could tell that people really appreciated our attempts even if they might have been a bit botched. Of course it’s always nice to be able to say hello and thank you and of course excuse me was extremely helpful many situations!
arigato = thank you
arigatougozaimasu = Formal Thank You
sumimasen = Excuse Me
ohayougozaimasu = Good Morning
konnichiwa = Good Afternoon
sayonara = Good bye
Stay tuned for more about our amazing trip to the Land of the Rising Sun…