4 Ways I Traveled - Planned to a T (Part 3)
Japan followed closely behind Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan for the top spots on my travel list. I think most of my curiosity for these destinations, in particular, stemmed from all my TV and drama watching days. Every place felt familiar in a sense yet couldn't be more distant. I only knew the places through the way shows and photos portrayed them and I wanted to be there for myself one day.
Nowadays, the bigger pull to those destinations is mostly thanks to the bajillion and one Instagram posts and YouTube videos of all the delicious looking and unique food each place has to offer. It seemed like almost everyone and their friends or parents went to some part of Japan in the later half of 2015 and all of 2016. I was glad to see all the Japan posts because it helped me plan what I wanted to do in Tokyo pre-trip and I was able to reminisce and visit again through others post-trip.
Saying I would like to visit and actually visiting were two different beasts. Despite passing through my mom's "NO, there's still radiation" hurdle and finding my Aunt as a willing travel partner a full 3 months before the trip was scheduled to take place, I did not prepare for it until a week before our flight. This was really the first time I was traveling where all the responsibilities were given to me. My Aunt told me I had free reign of where we would go, what we would do, where we would eat, etc.
I think maybe a part of me was going to just "go with the flow" it. But then I remembered that unlike the other places I traveled to before Japan, I had the least knowledge of Japan. I did not understand Japanese outside of greetings (ohayo & konnichiwa), thank you (arigatou gozaimasu), and let's eat (ikidakimasu). I had no idea how I would communicate or read signs once I was there. I was also very intimidated by their train system because someone once told me it was one of the most complex in the world, I think. The thought of getting lost and not being able to speak and be understood got me a little panicked.
Like I said before, the good thing about tours is there no headache of planning. But to know that we could do things at a slower pace, see things I wanted to see and eat what I and where I wanted to eat was the most captivating. In order to prove myself capable of free-travel, I spent a good few sleepless nights researching.
It began with listing out major attractions and places of interest. Sensoji, Shibuya, Skytree, Tokyo Tower, Imperial Palace, and Mount Fuji to name a few. Then I started grouping things into general areas. Asakusa and Ueno were within a general walking distance, as were Tsukiji and Ginza and then Shinjuku and Shibuya. This helped with getting myself more familiar towards the layout of Tokyo. As I searched for popular restaurants and eateries, it was so much easier to plan out when I could visit.
Day 1 - Tsukiji, Ginza, Chiyoda
Day 2 - Roppongi, Shinjuku, Shibuya
Day 3 - Asakusa, Ueno
Day 4 - Hakone
Day 5 - Hakone, Odawara
Day 6 - Sumida, Ryogoku, Akihabara
Day 7 - Nikko
Day 8 -Tsukishima, Tsukiji, Akihabara, Asakusa
Day 9 - Travel day
Each of the 8 full days ended up being centered around a few adjacent neighborhoods. The common factor was that everything was walkable. If not then whatever took the least amount of public transportation. Doing so helped us avoid having too many train troubles, saved some money (changing to different train lines could cost extra), and allowed us to exercise and thereby eat more food.
9 days seems like a lot of time to be in Japan. Many people might choose to use the opportunity to go up and down the country to Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and Tokyo in one go. I had thought about it at one point but decided against it for multiple reasons.
1. Last minute decisions meant I didn't know about the JR Pass for foreigners traveling in Japan until it was too late. It is a transportation pass which allows holders to take any trains, buses, and ferries that are run by the JR company for "free". It is included in the base price. But the JR Pass requires pre-ordering at least a week or more ahead of time so that it can be prepared and shipped to you OR you purchase it from an authorized seller. Both of which I couldn't do since I was in Korea at the time and the trip was literally days away.
2. Japan was the first stop for my Aunt and with possible jet lag, I wasn't sure how well she would be able to handle a 2-3 hour train ride from Tokyo to Osaka right after landing.
3. The itinerary for an Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and Tokyo trip would have been really tight and quick. Even though I had no idea when I would ever be able to visit Japan again, I did not particularly want to breeze through any one place. If I stuck with just Tokyo and nearby cities, at least there would be a natural excuse for future Japan visits.
My Aunt and I are not very religious people. Heck, my Aunt is not even the superstitious type. Nonetheless, it is almost impossible to visit Japan and not see temples and shrines. The architecture and history behind every one are extraordinary. Some were wonderful places to people watch and others were great to soak in the quietness and greenery which surrounded the buildings.
Since I made the decision to focus on and around Tokyo, I could not miss the opportunity to see Mount Fuji. I consulted with some friends who had been before and scoured the internet for recommendations. Most resources pointed me to joining 1-Day guided tours of Hakone. Once I found out that Hakone was also an onsen (hot spring) area, it was a no-brainer to try and find our own way around so we could stay overnight. I chose to book at the Hakone Pax Yoshino Hotel for the price and location to Hakone Yumoto Station. It was also one of the few moderately priced onsen hotels that had in-room wood bath soaks and set meals available at the time.
It was much easier to travel around Hakone than originally anticipated. There is an Odakyu train line that runs from Shinjuku to Hakone. Once there, they already have a pre-planned route around the city that allows visitors to see Mount Fuji and Lake Ashi. The loop includes train rides, cable cars, ropeway cars, and even boat rides. This seems like it would be a headache because of all the potential tickets and places where problems could pop up, but there are day-passes available which allow unlimited rides on all the modes of transports in Hakone under the Odakyu company. We were thankfully lucky enough to see Mount Fuji the day we visited because it is said that the mountain is usually clouded with fog and mist too thick to see through.
No matter how much one can plan to do, there are always certain things that cannot be predetermined. Sometimes the most interesting things are completely unexpected. Ueno Park and Meiji Shrine are huge tourist attractions. It is easy to forget that they're still both places that Japanese people do still go to as well. We saw many families and elderly there just strolling and chit chatting. We heard upbeat music playing and found a group of people dressed in yukatas dancing to the beat in a large circle. We walked past a gate at the shrine and found people being ushered to the sides to clear space for a traditional wedding procession. These were all things that we just chanced upon and not experiences that money could have bought us, natural interactions between the locals.
Of the days that I painstakingly planned out, a majority of it didn't go 100% as expected. We didn't always go to every single place on the list. There were days when we changed the itinerary out of the blue. It was also hard to predict the weather a week ahead while I was in the planning stages so there were rainy day options in case the mother nature caught us by surprise. Certain days' plans were more flexible than others. Other occasions, it was pure indecisiveness which led to somewhat spontaneous decisions.
Like how there were a few places I had to visit, there were a few very specific things I had to eat. The first was ramen at Chuka Soba Inoue at Tsukiji Outer markets. Another was chankonabe at Chanko Tomoegata. I also wanted to have set course meal at an onsen hotel. Yet another was sukiyaki. The last was monjayaki. Unlike the ramen and chankonabe spots, where I had precise places I wanted to try, the other three were just foods that I wanted to eat with no particular place in mind.
I chose to eat those foods wherever convenient rather than planning sights around specific food places. I was able to get a taste of the course meal at our hotel in Hakone. My Aunt spotted a sukiyaki/shabu shabu places during one of our visits to Asakusa. I guess the exception might have been the monjayaki since we did make a trip to Tsukishima just to visit the monjayaki street. Once we were there, any restaurant would have satisfied my curiosity.
Believe me when I say I travel to eat. Besides having the listed things that I absolutely had to try, we also ate a ton along the way that I didn't particularly plan to have. These were usually small bites and street foods. Japanese roasted sweet potato was something I didn't have on my radar at all. But once my Aunt suggested we get, I immediately regretted not buying more of. The flesh was so powdery soft! Unlike the mushy stringy version we have in NYC. I knew Nakamise and Shin-Nakamise in Asakusa had tons of food stalls. We saw croissant and regular taiyaki, katsus, and anything else you can imagine for street food in Japan. But I was most excited at the unexpected finds whilst there. My favorites were the hashiyaki (okonomiyaki on chopsticks) and agemanju (tempera style fried steamed red bean buns). Of the remaining food areas I had on my list, my top picks for small serving seafood were Tsukiji Outer markets and Ameyayokocho Market in Ueno. I especially loved eating grilled scallops and any kind of crab meat. At the time I was still not a very big raw fish eater. But it is definitely a must try for anyone who is.
Japan might look small on a map. Yet there is so much to see. My list was unrealistically long for the trip length we had. But the point was to have options. Especially since it isn't just me but both my Aunt and I. There were things I wanted to see that she did not, Tokyo Tower and Skytree. There were things I wanted to eat but she didn't, anything fried or raw or too alcoholic. We definitely did not get to hit every spot I had in mind. Somehow we managed to keep our sanity without getting lost in a foreign place. That's already a pretty big feat in itself, considering neither of us traveled to somewhere 100% unfamiliar without local help before.