(Note: this was drafted, but never published after our 2015 trip to Japan. Most of the info should still be good, I’ve tried to lightly edit any major changes that I’m aware of since then).
Living in Hawaii, Japan is no further of a flight than heading back to the east coast. With that in mind, the family headed out over fall break to explore. This post is not a travel blog, but more the mechanics & logistics that worked for us. The internet helped us plan immensely, thus this is me paying it forward
Japan Airlines (JAL) – Flight 784/785
We found JAL to be the best option when we booked. We actually looked forward to flying on a non-US carrier to experience a different type of service. We were impressed to say the least. The flight attendants were impeccably dressed, and their attention and concern to every guest was amazing. What put the flights over the top for me was the fact that the children were a discounted fare (75% the adult fare), but they received special kids meals & a token toy each way. Did it really cost them anything? Probably not. Did it leave a favorable impression? Absolutely!
Narita Express (N’REX) – Travel to/from Airport
There are a few different companies that over comfortable rail options. This is the one we choose. It cost us 10,000 yen (4,000 per adult & 2,000 for children 6 to 11).
Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) – Traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto, Hiroshima & Mayjima
Based on recommendations, we got a 7 day rail pass for the three of us. Henry was under 6 at the time, so he was free. I didn’t do a full cost analysis, but my rough order of magnitude figures suggested that we came out ahead with this pass with our trip to Kyoto & Hiroshima/Mayjima. If you aren’t traveling much more than Tokyo & Kyoto/Osaka, this may not be the best deal for you. Additionally, this pass did allow free riding of the JR metro, but the catch there is there are two other subway lines in Tokyo. Thus, the most efficient subway to where we wanted to go may have been a different subway line. So often we had to get off the train, to buy different tickets. I believe the PASIMO would have prevented this, but I just didn’t do enough research into that ahead of time.
Overall, rail was extremely efficient and timely. However, it can be very confusing as there are at least three different rail/metro/subway companies, so your google route may have you switching (unbeknownst to you) to different companies. Just something to be aware of as it takes a bit more planning. In Tokyo, most of the major lines are laid out in a good pattern which is easy to pick up. Plus inside the cars, they broadcast the stops in Japanese & English.
For moving around the cities Google maps worked really really well. I had not updated to iOS 9, so I can’t vouch for the transit mode on the new Apple Maps. I do suggest though taking a screen shot of your proposed Google “trackline” when you have it plot a course (with train transfers) for you. This way you have a static shot, else the app will update mid-transit and you can get confused (if you are counting the stations till you get off).
We stayed at a mix of Airbnb & the Disney Hilton. All had their pluses and minuses. Overall though, I think we’d do each one again.
Tokyo – Near Shibuya
Tokyo – Hilton Tokyo Bay on Tokyo Disneyland Grounds Highly recommend staying here (although you miss out on the 15 minute early entry to the park). Made it very convenient to go back to the hotel and let the boys rest mid day.
Kyoto – Near Toji Temple This was the most authentic place we stayed. The house was right in a quiet neighborhood, so we got the true experience of what every day life is like in Kyoto. A mix up with the keys to the property ended up with us having very memorable experiences and having some of the best ramen of the trip!
Tokyo – Near the Tokyo Sky Tree This apartment was in a really neat section of Tokyo called Asakusa. We were only there for the night, before catching a flight home, but wish we could have stayed longer.
Other things to book
Rent a wifi hotspot ($50 for the trip) that you can pick up at the Japan Post office in the Narita International Airport Arrivals Terminal. Worked very well for us, we used this vendor: Rental Wifi. Having wifi is truly a game changer for international travel. Between the subtle map on your phone, google translate, and all the other itinerary details on your phone I felt much more confident when we went out exploring.
Here is a sample of what we did. I planned most of our trip out of the Lonely Planet Guide Book for Japan. I even made sure to detour in Kyoto to find where the cover shot was taken. We all agreed after the fact that it was worth the detour (even if someone did have an accident that day).
Tokyo – Meji Temple, Japan National Museum, Imperial Palace
Note – the museums were free for the kids, and very low cost for adults. Meiji Temple is a must see, and a great way to let your body adjust to the time zones. There isn’t a whole lot to it, but there is plenty of space and a fair amount of walking which helps get the body over the plane ride to Japan.
Day 2 –
Tokyo – Tsukiki Fish Market, Tokyo Tower, transfer to Tokyo Disneyland Resort. I believe the fish market has since moved, but the crowded area of small shops around it is absolutely still worth the trip. The amount of colorful fish and other goods being sold is a site to see.
Day 3 –
Tokyo – Tokyo Disneyland. We really enjoyed it. The popcorn buckets were a neat local “thing”.
Day 4 –
Transit to Kyoto
Day 5 –
Kyoto – Hirgashama
Day 6 –
Mayijama & Hiroshima
Mayijama is often written up as one of the best places to visit in Japan. Seeing the giant Tori gate from the water is absolutely exquisite.
Great island to poke around and wander. Henry was feisty at this point of the trip so we didn’t stay long. But we did stay long enough to get head butted by deer while eating “deer poop” ice cream!
Day 7 –
Kyoto – Aryshima
Travel back to Tokyo
Day 8 –
Asakusa temple & National Science museum
Things I’d do different:
Get yen as soon as you land. We ran into a few times where cash was required that we didn’t have yen on hand. This was further exasperated by the fact that not all ATM’s took overseas bank cards. Finally, some that did, required the card to have the embedded chip on them. By the time you read this, the embedded chip thing should be a thing of the past, but…
Also, no cash available for non-Japan issued cards in Disneyland. That’s right, you have to leave the park if you run out of cash to get churros or popcorn buckets.
Spend more time in the country/outside Tokyo. Seriously, we did 8 days and I could easily go back and do another 8 weeks of roaming the small towns and countryside. So much history, culture and nature to explore. Kyoto alone could suck up two weeks of time exploring all the temples. At some point I’m sure it becomes like cathedrals in Europe, but for the 8 days we were there each one continued to be a genuine religious structure, still in use, and with a fascinating history. I came across the Nakasendo Trail after our trip and have resolved to get back out there at some point to travel it.