In February 2014, our featured travelers Amanda and Shahin traveled to Japan on a trip that we organized. They had such a great trip that we wanted to share it, and they graciously agreed!
In addition to reliving their Japan trip, and giving you the chance to experience the best of Tokyo, Kyoto and Hakone vicariously, we’ll also take you behind the scenes and show you how we plan a Japan trip from start to finish.
“Our trip was amazing… Japan is the greatest place on earth!” — Shahin & Amanda
About Our Featured Travelers
The key to putting together the perfect trip is to first understand each traveler’s “travel style,” needs and desires.
So before we get to the really fun part — the highlights of their trip — let’s start with a little background about our featured travelers, to see what each of them wanted to experience and get out of their Japan trip.
(To skip ahead to their trip highlights now click here.)
Amanda is in her mid-20s and is especially passionate about food, history and nature. While she’s traveled a fair amount, she had never been to Japan before this trip.
Her main priority was making sure they visited the countryside and experienced traditional Japan.
Shahin is in his early 30s and also loves good food. He owns a fish importing business and appears to knows everything there is to know about fish! He’s traveled extensively though he too had never been to Japan.
A self-described “hyper kind of guy,” his main priority was getting the “feel” of Tokyo and Kyoto in the brief amount of time they had (8 days).
Since both are food lovers, Japanese food would be a major theme throughout their trip!
Planning Their Perfect Trip
The next step was to transform their interests into an itinerary.
Since they had exactly 8 days to spend in Japan, a big part of our mission was to figure out the best way to include all of their interests, while keeping travel time to a minimum.
To do this we suggested flying into Tokyo, experiencing the countryside in Hakone (near Mt. Fuji), and ending the trip in Kyoto.
Tokyo-Hakone-Kyoto is a classic route (known as the Golden Route), and we made it unique by including highly personalized experiences geared to their interests, including:
- A private foodie tour of Tsukiji Fish Market
- A fun & stylish Tokyo boutique hotel
- A traditional ryokan with open-air hot springs on their own private balcony
- A sake tasting session in Kyoto
- And much more (skip to all their trip highlights below)
To maximize their time in Japan, we had them fly into Tokyo but depart from Osaka (near Kyoto). While this isn’t necessarily the best option in every traveler’s case, it ended up working perfectly for them.
And now for their trip!
Our Featured Travelers’ Japan Trip
We begin with a quick summary of their Japan itinerary, followed by more details and highlights:
Amanda & Shahin’s Japan Trip:
￼￼￼￼￼￼Day 1: Arrival in Tokyo | Ramen dinner
Day 2: Full day in Tokyo | Evening food & drink tour
Day 3: Tsukiji Fish Market | Bullet train to Hakone & ryokan stay
Day 4: Morning in Hakone | Bullet train to Kyoto
Day 5: Kyoto’s Higashiyama District & Kiyomizu-dera Temple
Day 6: Ramen | Sake tasting in Kyoto
Day 7: Kyoto’s Bamboo Forest (Arashiyama)
Day 8: Morning free | Departure from Osaka
Days 1-3: Tokyo
Our featured travelers landed in Tokyo from California, and – unsurprisingly – arrived a bit tired!
With flights from the US often arriving in the late afternoon, the first evening is usually a “wash.” But Amanda and Shahin managed to overcome tiredness and venture out for some ramen in the neighborhood – the perfect way to begin their trip.
In Tokyo, we arranged for them to stay at the fun and stylish CLASKA Hotel, a small and artsy boutique hotel. In addition to some great rooms and a roof deck, CLASKA also has art spaces and a great cafe-bar with a DJ booth (not to mention a hip dog salon). We were thrilled to get them one of our favorite rooms, which features a King bed and charming Japanese touches including tatami floors.
The next morning – after a delicious Japanese-style breakfast at CLASKA – they went to nearby Shibuya. Shibuya is one of Tokyo’s most famous neighborhoods, and especially known for its much-photographed “scramble” crossing, as well as for its colorful teen fashions.
In Shibuya, they also went to one of our favorite places, the food hall (depachika) of the Tokyo Food Show in the basement of Shibuya station. Visiting a depachika food hall is an absolute must for food lovers, and Tokyu Food Show’s is a great one.
In the evening we arranged for them to go on a private food and drink tour. Their local expert guide met them at the hotel and took them out to some of Tokyo’s excellent tiny hidden bars and izakayas. These can be hard to find (especially if it’s your first full day in Tokyo!) but they’re one of the best ways to immerse yourself in Tokyo’s daily life.
The next morning they woke up early (despite a late night of eating and drinking) to go on a private culinary tour of Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Fish Market.
To cater to Shahin’s in-depth knowledge about fish, we had one of Tokyo’s top culinary guides show them around the market. And to cap off the experience, they went to a nearby sushi shop for a memorable sushi breakfast!
Sadly, this marked the end of their time in Tokyo, and it was time to leave Tokyo for the countryside and a taste of traditional Japan. (While they could have spent more time in Tokyo, they had decided to spend more time in Kyoto, which is an amazing city in its own right).
From Tsukiji they hopped in a taxi for the short ride to Tokyo station, where they would catch the shinkansen (bullet train) to their next destination: Hakone National Park.
Note: To make their journey as fun and easy as possible, we had them forward their suitcases directly from their Tokyo hotel to their Kyoto hotel, bypassing Hakone. For short ryokan stays you don’t need much aside from a small overnight bag, and traveling with large luggage in Japan can be a hassle. Thankfully, Japan has an amazing luggage forwarding system, which is safe, affordable and reliable.
Days 3-4: Hakone Ryokan & Hot Springs
For their first bullet train ride, we suggested they purchase seasonal bentos and sake at Tokyo station.
Japanese people take their bentos seriously, and you can find gourmet, local & seasonal bentos at Tokyo station’s GranSta shopping area (the best place to get some quality sake for the ride is at Tokyo station’s Hasegawa Saketen).
Their first shinkansen ride – from Tokyo to Odawara (the gateway to Hakone National Park) – was relatively short: about 40 minutes. In fact, the trip was so fast that they accidentally missed their stop! Fortunately, they got off at the next station and station staff helped them reach the correct stop.
Hakone is famous for many reasons, including its beautiful landscapes and wealth of onsen (hot springs). But it is most famous for its proximity to the iconic Mount Fuji. It’s not always clear out, but when it is the views of Mt. Fuji from Hakone are spectacular!
Most travelers visit Hakone as a day trip from Tokyo, but the best way to experience it is by spending a night or two in one of its traditional ryokan (Japanese-style inn).
Hakone is blessed with several luxurious ryokans, and we arranged for Amanda and Shahin to stay at the beautiful and traditional Yamanochaya Ryokan.
Staying at a ryokan is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in traditional Japanese culture and hospitality. The highlights include blissful soaking in onsen, and an incredible multi-course kaiseki dinner featuring course after course of local and seasonal specialties.
As an added bonus, their traditional Japanese-style tatami-floored room came with a private rotenburo (open-air hot spring bath) on a private balcony!
After a day and night of utter relaxation, the time came to pull themselves away from Hakone to continue to their next destination, Kyoto.
Days 4-8: Kyoto
The trip from Hakone to Kyoto takes about 2 hours by bullet train, the perfect amount of time to enjoy a bento, or nap as the landscape speeds by.
Most travelers arriving at Kyoto station for the first time are surprised to see that, at least on the surface, it looks like an ordinary city. At first glance there’s no sign of the Kyoto most people imagine, and only after exploring Kyoto further does this first impression begin to fade away.
In Kyoto we arranged for Amanda and Shahin to stay at the simple but amazingly-located Royal Park Hotel THE Kyoto. While Kyoto has better luxury and boutique hotels, this hotel offers modern rooms in an ideal location next to one of Kyoto’s primary intersections (Sanjo-Kawaramachi).
Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over a thousand years, and while most of the city today is modern in appearance, several neighborhoods feel as if they haven’t changed for hundreds of years. One of the best area in which to immerse yourself in old Kyoto is the Higashiyama district.
Higashiyama (“Eastern Mountain”) is located on the slope of Kyoto’s picturesque eastern mountains, and Amanda and Shahin fell in love with this charming neighborhood. On weekends and holidays the area is flooded with visitors, but despite the tourists and souvenir shops this is one of Kyoto’s must-visit areas. A walk up the fairly steep streets of Higashiyama also lead you to one of Kyoto’s most iconic temples, Kiyomizu-dera.
Aside from temples and history, Kyoto is also a culinary destination. The best place to immerse yourself in Kyoto’s cuisine is at the centrally-located Nishiki Market. Nishiki is a long and narrow alley crowded with colorful food stalls selling everything from seafood to dry goods. This is a great place to sample one of Kyoto’s most famous specialties, tsukemono (pickles).
Just a few steps from Nishiki is a famous ramen shop called Ippudo, and Amanda and Shahin became slightly obsessed with Ippudo’s ramen, stopping here for lunch multiple times during their brief time in Kyoto. It’s a great place for a quick but delicious lunch before or after visiting Nishiki.
Another memorable experience from their time in Kyoto was sake tasting at Sake Bar Yoramu. Yoramu runs one of Japan’s most unique sake bars, and here they had the chance to learn sake basics while tasting bold and unconventional sakes. (While this is a great bar for people with a fairly serious interest in sake, if you’re looking for a more fun or relaxed experience an izakaya may be a better option).
But of all their experiences in Kyoto, one place ended up standing out as Amanda and Shahin’s favorite: the bamboo forest in Arashiyama.
Arashiyama is a quaint, quiet area on Kyoto’s western outskirts. Despite being located within the city, it often feels worlds apart (especially on weekdays, when there are less tourists).
As their trip came to a close, Amanda and Shahin celebrated their last night in Japan at a lively izakaya near their hotel.
On their final morning, they made the easy journey from Kyoto to nearby Osaka for their international departure. Sadly, their first trip to Japan had come to an end.
But they experienced so much in 8 days, and we’re thrilled to report that they fell in love with Japan – and left wanting to visit again (read their review at our testimonials page)!
A huge thanks to our featured travelers for sharing their trip highlights and photos with us!