Travel writer: Melissa Foo
Last December, we visited Japan for the first time after our last big holiday in December 2016. Japan was our top pick because the flight tickets were reasonably priced compared to other destinations, seeing that December is a peak period for travels. Since it was our first time there, my husband and I opted to spend a total of 12 days across 3 different cities – Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.
Speak to anyone who has spent more than a week in Japan and they will recommend this route to make the most out of your journey there.
Our Airbnb flat was in Shinjuku, just a 5-minute walk from Nakai Station. We had 4 full days in Tokyo to explore the city by foot/train:
• Shinjuku, Kabuchiko – best known for being one of the busiest parts of Tokyo. Kabuchiko is also the red light district of Tokyo and this is where you will find the famous Robot Restaurant.
At RM260+ per person, we felt that it was overpriced for a 90 minute extravaganza of giant robots mock fighting bikini-clad women. This is easily one of the most popular attractions of Tokyo and we would’ve definitely given it go if we had a bottomless pit of cash.
• Shibuya, Omotesando, Harajuku, Ginza – made popular by mainstream pop culture, a visit to Harajuku will be an eye opening experience to absorb the colourful and quirky cosplay/fashion scene. For drinks, head over to Nonbei Yokocho (“Drunkard’s Alley”) where you will find popular yakitori shops and rows of tiny bars, conveniently located by Shibuya Station.
Omoide Yokocho (“Piss Alley”) and Golden Gai are two other popular spots for nightlife and consists of another collection of bars and eateries in Shinjuku. Take a stroll in Omotesando, showcasing a number of high fashion and vintage boutiques.
• Odaiba – Odaiba is another shopping and entertainment district, located on a man-made island in Tokyo Bay.
• Asakusa – Asakusa’s main attraction is Sensoji, a popular Buddhist temple amongst the locals and tourists alike. Get some good bargains on a good quality chef’s knife, if you are looking to buy for yourself or a relative/friend.
We chose to take a leisurely journey to Kyoto from Tokyo via the Hikari train, which is usually the cheapest but longer duration at 2 hours and 40 minutes. If you’re lucky, you may be able to catch a glimpse of the Fuji Mountain on a clear day. Our main Kyoto highlights include:
• Day trip to Arashiyama – Take a nice quiet stroll to the Arashiyama Monkey Park, bamboo grove, and Tenryu-ji Temple. To get to Arashiyama, we took a ‘Randen’ tram from the Shijo Omiya Station, as our Airbnb was located nearby.
This tram has been in operation for over 100 years and is the only tram in Kyoto. Bear in mind that most temples and places of attraction in Japan will charge an entrance fee of approximate RM20-30 per person.
• Nijo Castle, Nanzen-ji, Philosopher’s Path and Fushimi Inari Shrine – Since we were short on time and we only had 4 days in Kyoto, we had to select from a wide range of temples and places of heritage to choose from. We had no regrets and would recommend any of these places to anyone visiting Kyoto. We loved the fact that places like Nanzen-ji and Fushimi Inari were connected to a number of walking trails and wished we had more time to explore the trails on our own.
If you are keen on trying out Kaiseki cuisine, a multi-course meal that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, and doesn’t involve booking 3 months in advance, try out the Kaiseki lunch sets at any of the temple restaurants.
• Nishiki Market – You can find plenty of local delicacies and souvenirs at this lively market. We also stumbled upon an old sushi shop, Iyomata which we later discovered has been in the Nishiki Market for 300 years. I have to say the traditional and edo-style sushi here is distinctively different in taste and quality compared to other sushi restaurants that we’ve tried.
• Beancurd and Tofu – Aside from traditional cuisine, Kyoto is also famous for its tofu or beancurd inspired food and there are a number of restaurants specialising in tofu-only dishes, much to the delight of vegetarian lovers
• Nightlife – we were surprised to find a good offering of themed bars and pubs in Kyoto. Our top three picks are the Macho Bar (ladies, you’re welcome and I will let the photos do all the talking), Shooting Bar and the vintage themed American Graffities.
Travelling from Kyoto to Osaka is easy, cheap and hassle-free. There are frequent train departures from the Kyoto station and Osaka is only 30 minutes away. Alternatively, the high speed Shinkansen service will get you to Osaka within 12 minutes, at a more premium price. We decided to skip the temples and heritage sites in Osaka to focus on our final food hunt in Japan. Our top 3 things to try in Osaka would be:
• Horumonyaki – if you are a fan of beef (which I evidently am) and all its parts, look no further because the variety of meat (and innards/offal) marinated in special Yakiniku sauce and barbequed to perfection made us question why we didn’t discover this earlier!
• Okonomiyaki – one of Osaka’s trademark dishes, don’t miss a chance to try this ‘well-balanced’ and heavy duty pancake. When I say heavy duty, I really mean it because we underestimated the portion by ordering one each and we had trouble getting up from our seats after the meal.
• Abeno Harukas – the top of this building on the 60th floor boasts a 360° view of the city in a glass enclosed observation deck and is Japan’s highest building at 300m. Visitors can also opt to go to the helipad at an additional cost – we paid about RM100 per person to go up to the helideck level.
If you’re planning your trip to Japan, here are 6 useful tips to take note of as part of the pre-planning step prior to travelling:
- Portable WiFi – due to language barrier, having a portable WiFi router helped us to navigate through the 3 major cities and shortest train routes, and not to mention the search for the ultimate ramen, yakitori, kaiseki, and never-ending list of good eats. We paid about RM30 per day for our package from Travel Recommends. Remember to bring a power bank as you will definitely need a recharge for your phone/portable WiFi halfway through the day.
- Train pass – with the Japan Rail Pass, we had two options: The 7-day pass and 14-day pass, priced at RM1120++ and RM1800++ respectively. Since we were not going to fully utilise the 14-day pass, we opted for a one-way Shinkansen pass from Tokyo to Kyoto instead – priced at about RM400. With our first and last destinations being Tokyo and Osaka, this worked out perfectly for us. No prior booking is required but it is recommended to buy your tickets a day or two earlier if you have a specific travel plan in mind. Tickets can be purchased at offices located in major railway stations. Head over to https://www.jrtours.co.jp/kodama/en/ for further information.
- Maps – trust the Japanese to think ahead! It’s best to get a hold of a city map in any of the train stations. They will come in very handy as all maps are so well equipped and updated that you might find yourself relying less on Google for recommendations for places of interest, eateries, malls etc.
- Accommodation – when it came to accommodation, we stuck with Airbnb all the way except for our last stop in Osaka as we only spent 2 nights there. Hotels in Japan are quite expensive, ranging from RM500 and above per night for a decent 3 star hotel. In a place like Japan, Airbnb is such a godsend as it allows you to travel on a budget and also experience the local way of living (think Muji ad). All of our accommodations were between RM300-350 a night and we spent a total of RM3500+ for 11 nights for 2 pax.
- Packing – if you are travelling during winter (which we did), you will most likely be bringing a medium/large bag for warm clothing. Bear in mind that taking a cab in Japan will be 5 times the price of taking the train/bus, so it pays to do your research on the distance between your accommodation to the nearest train station/bus stop.
- Train routes/zones – download a map of the main train lines and try to remember the key stops. This will ensure that you have a good point of reference for journey planning. Taking the train in Japan can be quite daunting at first because of the multiple lines but you will soon get the hang of it. Plus, the Japanese are ever ready to assist when asked.
Melissa Foo is a glorified Quality Assurance Manager with a not-so-enviable 9-5 job, who still dreams of being an urbanite once in a while. She kills her time experimenting in the kitchen, inconsistently practicing yoga, and discovering obscure movies. Occasionally, she and her husband travel for leisure to make up for lost time in the future (when life gets more serious and you wish you had travelled more).
P/S: She is also a walking Shazam.
Find her on Instagram @mellymellyfoo