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Live trip report - 16 days in May

Melbourne, Australia
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Live trip report - 16 days in May

Thank you to everyone who contributes on this form, it has been such a help to us when researching this trip, and is very much appreciated

Because I love reading others’ trip reports, I will offer my own to anyone interested. I will try to keep up every day or two while things are fresh in the mind.

We are a middle aged couple on our first trip to Japan. Our itinerary:

1: Arrive Tokyo (Shinjuku)

2: Tokyo (Shinjuku)

3: Tokyo (Shinjuku)

4: Tokyo (Shinjuku)

5: Omachi- onsenkyo

6: Kanazawa

7: Kanazawa

8: Kanazawa

9: Kyoto

10: Kyoto

11: Kyoto

12: Kyoto

13: Kyoto

14: Tokyo (Ueno)

15: Tokyo (Ueno)

16: depart

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1. Re: Live trip report - 16 days in May

Thursday- Day 1

Qantas flight from Australia was very good, plenty of food and good movie choices, so the 10 and a half hour flight went reasonably quickly.

Arriving at Narita airport was as expected, as I had watched a YouTube showing how to get through from arrivals to the trains. The excitement kicked in all over again - after all the planning and research we had arrived! It really is exciting going somewhere you’ve never been, not to mention a country where you don’t speak the language and is so different to your own.

Getting through immigration was a breeze, you have to scan both forefingers and have your pic taken. It was very efficient (it puts Melbourne to shame). It’s the first taste of seeing Japanese writing everywhere, and understanding that you are in a country where reading will not help you (although there is plenty of English at the airport).

We got some cash out at a 7Bank, using the Citibank card that we had signed up for specifically for this trip (thank you again TripAdvisor for these kinds of details). Very easy as you can choose the language from the beginning.

We just missed the Narita Express train, so we caught the Limousine Bus, which is around the same price but takes longer. It has wifi on the bus, which was very slow, but was certainly comfortable, and seatbelts must be worn. They have a good system for putting the bags under the bus; you get a numbered ticket when getting on, tell them where you are getting off, then produce when getting off. It’s a good way to make sure you are getting off at the right station, as they take the bag off and wait for you to collect it. Announcements on the bus are made in English. I can’t compare it to the train, but the hour and 20 minutes went quickly enough, there was plenty to watch out the window. At one point the bus drives along a raised section, I guess about 4 or 5 floors high, which feels strange, whizzing past apartment windows. It felt more like a train at that point.

I had researched the limo bus, and we wanted to get off at the Sunroute Hotel in Shinjuku, as it was just around the corner from our hotel. However, this particular bus didn’t go to the Sunroute, but took us to Shinjuku Station West. No problem I thought, I’ve studied the map so often that I had a good idea where to go.

And, apart from the fact that we went in the total opposite direction to where we should have, I did have the left and right turns pretty well right. But when we came to the street where I expected to see our hotel, it wasn’t there, nor did the area feel right. It was absolutely buzzing with lights, people and activity, and I knew our hotel was in a quieter area. It was pure Tokyo, and we’d just walked right into the thick of it. It was awesome.

There are ‘You are here’ type maps all over Shinjuku, which saved us, once we worked out that the top of the map is not necessarily North as it is in Aus. The map will be oriented to where you are, which is actually very useful once you get used to it. It will show North, but the direction of the arrow depends on which direction you happen to be actually facing.

So we turned ourselves around, retraced our steps to the bus stop, then took the left and right turns I thought we needed to and voila, we arrived at our hotel JR Blossom.

I had booked all our accommodation through Booking.com months before the trip. The prices always worked out to be cheaper than booking directly, and it meant that we could cancel right up until days before, in case of a change in itinerary or finding somewhere better. Upon checking in (it was about 10:30pm by this stage) the lovely man was very apologetically explaining that we couldn’t have the room we had booked, and that we were ‘graded up’. I said thank you, to which he looked a little confused, spoke with his colleague, who explained there was no charge, but we couldn’t have the room we had booked. All I heard was ‘graded up’ and ‘free’, so kept saying thank you, thank you.

We were given a card key for the 15th floor (of 16 floors) and arrived in our corner room. It is most definitely not what I had booked. It is a-maz-ing. Twin beds (but much bigger than traditional single beds at home, more like small doubles), fantastic views over Shinjuku, a corner bath overlooking the city, just incredible. (Of course I later checked the website to find that this is their best room, there are only 2 of them, and it costs well over double what we paid.) So lucky.

Given that we have only been in tourist hot spots so far, and have been dealing with people that speak English quite well, I have struggled to understand what is being said to me. At the airport I had to ask for the sentence or instruction to be repeated before understanding. The hotelier asked if I wanted a ‘leseet’ several times before Dean had to tell me he meant a ‘receipt’. Hopefully I get better at this, or Dean will have to do all the communicating. I’ve also strangely felt a little nervous/shy using the few Japanese words I’ve learnt. But Dean has, and it seems as though it is appreciated.

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2. Re: Live trip report - 16 days in May

Friday - Day 2

We woke up early, 7:00, to the amazing views. I’d woken a few times in the night by sirens, I guess they were fire trucks or ambulances. They seem to sound for a long time, maybe it’s the volume, or the echoing from all the concrete.

We do like a decent cup of coffee in the morning, and my research had suggested that it can be hard to find coffee like what we have in Melbourne. So , we had bought our own ground beans, filters and filter cups (nifty items off eBay) so that we could at least begin our day with a good coffee. We had one, and enjoyed it while looking at Tokyo, then decided on a second. We had no more milk though, so popped down to the Lawson next to the building. I’d watched a Japanology youtube (a really great series) about convenience stores, so had some idea what to expect. What I didn’t expect though was that our first visit would be in rush hour. It was about 8:30am, and the store was very busy with workers picking up their breakfast or lunch, so we felt a bit in the way, as we clearly did not know what we we looking for. We ended up with an iced coffee (which did the trick of adding both milk and sugar to our second coffee), some sandwiches and some sort of sweet bun for breakfast. The cashier talked the whole time through the sale, no idea who he was talking to, but he was very kind to us given how obvious it was that we were clueless. Next time we go we will make sure it is not rush hour.

Although I have created a very detailed itinerary for our 16 days in Japan, it is not something we have to stick to, nor is it crazy busy. I’ve just found it’s better to have a plan rather than not. Although we had not planned to yet visit the Metropolitan Government Building for the amazing and free views of Tokyo, it looks as though today is to be the clearest day of the 3 we have in Tokyo, so we decided to do this first. As soon as we walked into the building, the lady at the information booth was raising her hand waving to us. I’m not used to standing out so obviously as a tourist, but it has been handy. We didn’t make it over to her however, because a helpful man (some sort of guard I think) pointed out that we needed to go to the next building for the observatory. We headed over, went through a thorough bag checking, and up to the 45th floor. Although it was quite hazy, the views were fantastic. Looking west I saw some white in the sky, and realised we could see Mt Fuji - so cool! The volunteer guide, who later spent 15 minutes with us pointing out some interesting landmarks, told us that we were lucky to see Mt Fuji, as more often than not it is not clear enough. There’s a cafe, gifts and info boards in the South observatory, so you could certainly spend a fair amount of time up there (we were there about 40 minutes).

Back on schedule, we headed off for Shinjuku Gyoen Gardens. We did wander through some Shinjuku streets en route, picking up some tasty chicken onigiri (rice triangles) from a Natural Lawson’s, along with a quite disgusting green smoothie, finding some seats in front of a big Pokémon shop window to eat, as eating while walking is considered bad manners in Japan. We have snacked a fair bit today, and finding somewhere to sit to eat has been difficult, so we have resorted to finding little hidden spots to eat furtively. Probably over kill!

Shinjuku Gyoen gardens was very nice, particularly the green house, and well worth the 200 yen entry fee. I oohed and ahhed over the little Japanese school children who were having some sort of school activity there, the little ones were so cute in their little uniforms. While we exclaimed over the beauty of the Japanese garden section, the Japanese groups were all clambouring around the French rose garden. Reminds me of when I went to San Francisco zoo years ago and I couldn’t get over the exoticness of the pink flamingoes, while the Americans were all exclaiming over the kangaroos and the koala ‘bears’.

We took our time exploring the streets on the way back to the hotel; a guitar shop for Dean, a knick knack shop for me, a French bakery for lunch and coffee. Dean scored 4 CD from Tower Records that he cannot get in Aus, so he was a happy camper. We also found the information centre, as we had booked the free Night walking tour, and this was the starting point.

We needed a nap, so back to the hotel - this is where staying in the city is beneficial, because you can easily do things like pop in for a nap, before heading out again.

Rested, we headed out again for something to eat before the tour. We started with a baked cheese tart from the station that gets such good reviews (totally worth them!) then headed to Isetan basement where there are heaps of shops selling all sorts of fancy food. Not many selling eat now type food (there is no seating area), lots of fancy cakes and delicacies. We ended up with some cold fried chicken, because we had accepted a sample then felt we should buy, were such push overs. Another corner found, food swallowed, then to the walking tour.

While waiting, a young guy came over to us asking if we were also for the tour, turns out he also is from Melbourne. Small world. The tour was really great, I definitely recommend it. We wondered through Omoide Yokocho ‘Memory Lane’ (or ‘Piss Alley’ due to what it used be known as) which was a really cool little lane full of tiny narrow restaurants, each squeezing in probably about 8 or 10 people eating yakitori that is cooked in front of them. We will go back to revisit at a slower pace. We also walked through the red light districts, I guess every city has them, and they definitely felt seedier. We saw the Love Hotels, rented by the hour or by the night, which are sort of cool because they are gaudy and fascinating, but also not cool for some of the reasons they get used.

We walked through Golden Gai, another cool alley, this one full of tiny narrow bars. Unlike Memory Lane, this alley felt more closed off; many doors were closed to allow locals to have their space, while others catered to tourists. We saw Godzilla roar on the hour outside Hotel Gracery, seriously, who comes up with this stuff! There is so much to see in this area, I am glad we have several days here. After tipping the guide (‘free’ is kind of free, you ‘pay’ what you feel) we meandered the streets again.

Being a Friday night there were so many people out and about. While the streets were busy, we didn’t feel frustrated by the crowds as can happen, we just went with the flow and enjoyed it. We weren’t quite ready to call it a night, so tracked down (after a few trial and errors) a cafe we had seen earlier in the day selling chocolate orange cappuccinos, and sat upstairs drinking our expensive drinks.

Our feet had finally had enough (my Fitbit tells me we walked 17km or 25,000 steps today) so back to the hotel for a soak in a perfumed bath watching the lights of Tokyo.

Tomorrow brings a day with a booked personal guide (free!) and another afternoon to wander the area.

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3. Re: Live trip report - 16 days in May

Love your report. Sometimes it is the little things that people forget first time visitors won't know. You appear to be very organised and I look forward to more instalments.

Thanks for taking the time to do a HRN report.

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4. Re: Live trip report - 16 days in May

Great report. Loving seeing your views as an aussie couple!

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5. Re: Live trip report - 16 days in May

Enjoying reading your trip report. I hope you keep up with it. I especially like the extra info that most people don’t think to include. For example, no where in my research yet did I come across the “you are here” signs in Shinjuku or info about how they orient the maps. Like your experience, where I am from (US) you normally just assume North is oriented to the top. So it is nice you mentioned it.

It’s great that you received an upgraded room. I love it when that unexpectedly happens. I hope it doesn’t ruin you for your later accommodations. ;)

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6. Re: Live trip report - 16 days in May

Thanks for the replies, they do give the encouragement to continue :-)

Saturday - day 3

Yesterday I said we woke ‘early’ at 7:00, which I find funny now, as today we woke at 5:15 to find ourselves in full daylight. It gets light much earlier here than at home, and we’d left the curtains open last night to admire the lights. I managed to drift off again, but Dean was awake, so he picked up his favourite sandwiches from Lawson’s for breakfast (yes, they’re his favourite even though he’s only tried two types).

We had requested and been granted a free personal guide to spend four hours with us today through Tokyo Free Guide. Volunteers sign up to show tourists around the city, giving them the opportunity to practice their English skills. While free, the tourist pays any expenses for the guide, including travel, meal, entry fees etc. We learned that this is a very popular service and that there are not enough volunteers to meet requests, so it is best to make a request earlier rather than later.

Seiko was our guide and we had had several email communications prior to our arrival to plan how we would like to spend the 4 hours with her. She met us at our hotel, took us to the train station and guided us through putting money on our Suica cards and getting onto our first train in Japan. Even though could just had to follow her, it was overwhelming. But then, as we were told last night, Shinjuku Station is the busiest in the world, so of course it is overwhelming! I have read from others that us tourists figure it out pretty quickly, enough to get around, so I really just wanted someone to guide us through the first time.

Although everyone lined up in fairly neat lines waiting for the train to arrive, once it did arrive it was a bit of a free for all getting on, as everyone just moved forward and the lines dissipated, but at least those getting off the train were given room to do so before the next lot got on. There’s more standing room than seats, which makes sense I guess, and lots of hand straps, so I think it is safe to assume that travellers stand more than they sit. The announcements (repeated in English) and screens show and tell the upcoming stations and which side of the train to get off, so that helped us feel prepared and somewhat confident.

Seiko’s idea was to take us through the area of YaNeSan, an area that has retained the older style ways. It certainly has a slower pace than Shinjuku (but then, where doesn’t?), and it was good to take our time wandering the shops and street buildings and being able to ask Seiko about it all.

We visited Nezu Shrine (our first shrine!) which we thought beautiful. The gardens are extensive and lush, with a pond with fish and turtles, a Torii tunnel path to walk through, and it was not busy at all. We saw a family with a baby having photographs, which Seiko explained was a kind of dedication to wish for baby’s good health. Seiko also explained and guided us through the rituals of purification (rinsing hands and mouth in a particular order) and then praying (involving a coin offering, bowing, clapping and gratitude). Visitors are welcome to participate in this ritual.

Then it was off to lunch, which was a Soba restaurant she’d not been to before, and which I have no idea how she found. It was quite small, with only 3 large share tables and floor cushions to sit on. I had to giggle at poor Dean, as he finds very difficult to sit on the floor, let alone while eating noodles with chopsticks! He is still sore now, hours later. He gave up on the chopsticks pretty quickly and switched to a fork, but enjoyed his soba nonetheless. Seiko then took us by train to Shibuya, where we said goodbye with much appreciation of her graciousness and generosity.

I have been amazed at some of the eateries in Japan. We are becoming accustomed to finding restaurants in all sorts of places - above shops, in train stations, shopping centres, hidden alleyways, back yards. And people line up for them at all times of the day, which is obviously a sign of how good the food is. I guess I’m just a little surprised that people are seemingly willingly prepared to give up so much of their time in order to eat the food that they want. Of course, most them are on their phones while waiting, so maybe not such a hardship. We are not that type of people, and will choose the quicker option over the quality one, hence why I would not consider us fit to give food advice. (Also, we don’t eat seafood, which takes out a large number of food options).

We needed the bathroom and a coffee, so we crossed the famous Shibuya scramble crossing and entered the first building we came to, and stumbled upon signs pointing to a free observation area on the rooftop. It was the newly renovated Magnet building, about 8 stories high, and gives a unique view of the people crossing below. I kept giggling at all the people holding their cameras up in the air, filming themselves crossing. Or stopping completely to take a pic, thus causing a few rear ends.

Toilets in Japan: I think all people planning a trip to japan have heard about the toilets. I had watched a YouTube to get an idea of which buttons did what, so I wasn’t particularly concerned about having to work them out. I still haven’t really had to work much out myself, because all the toilets I have used have been fairly automated. Today a flushing sound started playing on its own, then it knew when to flush itself. Smart toilets in Japan.

We found a great coffee shop in the basement, again full of young people, many of whom looked like they were studying, but I don’t know how with all the noise and distraction.

Yesterday I kept wanting to thank every Japanese person for allowing me to be here in their country; today I am feeling much more comfortable about being here and sharing their space with them (but still thankful).

Refreshed, we wandered Shibuya for several hours, looking at the buildings, and wandering the alleys. I love that we have time to just explore. Dean found another Tower Records, so another CD was bought, and we bought our first purchase from a vending machine. We wanted to hang around til dark (doesn’t a city change after dark?)

We decided on an Italian restaurant for tea, which played with our minds a bit. We were sitting in Japan, reading out Italian words to a waitress who could not speak much English (or Italian).

We are doing all sorts of things wrong, etiquette wise, but I truly feel that the people we have been interacting with accept that our ways are different, and that we do not know or understand their ways. They have been so accommodating. Now that I type this, I remember reading this from other people, but I have only now understood it through experiencing it.

We enjoyed Shibuya come alive at night for a while, it’s definitely a whole different feeling from the daytime Shibuya.

There is a live viewing of Shibuya Crossing that I had seen online, so we wanted to have a little fun with it. I messaged my daughters back home (18 & 20 years old) to get them to go online to view it, telling them to look in a specific spot for us (we had noticed a relatively quiet section of the road from the rooftop). Once they were ready, and once the we could cross, we went to the designated spot and stood there waving to the webcam. They thought it hilarious, they were seeing us live on the internet, on the other side of the globe, waving to them. They wanted us to do it again, which we did, but this time we went for a pretty decent kiss, which they were not so impressed with.

We did manage the train back to Shinjuku on our own, it was perfectly doable, although arriving at Shinjuku made us realise how massive the place is. Shops and restaurants all over the place. Lots of people lined up at flower and gift shops because it’s Mother’s Day here tomorrow, as it is in Aus.

Other little things we noticed today:

⁃ although Dean is not a particularly tall person, he is noticing that he has been looking at a lot of top-of-heads, and had to duck a few times.

⁃ 7-11 includes English writing on their sandwiches but Lawson’s do not.

⁃ Sugar sachets here seem to contain more sugar than shops

We had another warm day today, tomorrow there may be some late rain. We plan to visit Meiji Shrine, Yoyogi Park and the Thai festival there this weekend, Harajuku, Nezu Museum and whatever else we can fit in or come across. I am loving Tokyo!

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7. Re: Live trip report - 16 days in May

Liking your posting so far and love that like us your fairly relaxed with your itinerary. Looking forward to seeing your view of Kanazawa as we are considering visiting in December on our 6th visit to Japan.

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8. Re: Live trip report - 16 days in May

Another fabulous report with lots of interesting details.

Can you explain the difference between your walking tours? I have heard of the ones you book in advance and pay for the transport, meal etc for guide and I assume this was your second walk. The night walk where you tipped the guide, do they have 'expected' tips? We have seen this type of tour before and sometimes the expectations are suggested rather strongly and become quite uncomfortable. From what I have read about Japan I wouldn't have thought this would be the case so I am interested in what does happen.

Thanks for the time you are taking to record your trip, it is greatly appreciated.

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9. Re: Live trip report - 16 days in May

Your trip report is a really good read, and when you get back home, you'll have a good record of what you did. Nezu Shrine is a wonderful place, and definitely worth visiting!

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10. Re: Live trip report - 16 days in May

Hi happyjack816,

I know what you mean, some walking tours can be a little agressive in what they want from you. This particular guide didn’t even ask for money, he ended the tour, took a photo (which gets shared to the Facebook page), told us he hoped we enjoyed the tour, and that was it. Some people may not have even known that money could be given, especially given that tipping is not done in Japan, and could even be even offensive. Once one person gave him some money, he thanked them profusely, which started others giving some as well.

We already knew what we were going to give, so we had the cash ready in our pocket.

With our free guide, she produced an English outline at the start of the day, which makes it very clear that the guide should not bear any cost for any of the activities or travel or food, so it is agreed to from the beginning. I guess the difference is that the guide is coming with us where we want to go, as opposed to the free walking tour where we are going with the guide. We asked our guide to create an itinerary, but we could have planned it ourselves, either way, we had an idea of how much we would be spending. It was actually nice to ‘shout’ her lunch, and everything else we did was free.

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