One of the most coveted perks at Travelzoo is the Travelzoo Experience, in which Deal Experts and other employees take advantage of the same travel, entertainment and local deals we publish to our subscribers and report back on their experience.
I’ve wanted to go to Tokyo for years but it was always so expensive to fly there. Roundtrip airfare is often $1100 or more so when I saw a Top 20 deal from Singapore Airlines Vacations offering airfare and a 4-star vacation for $1399, I knew this had to be my next Travelzoo Experience. As an added bonus, flights were on one of the world’s best international airlines -- on an A380 no less.
How could I not pass on this chance to go?
In order to incorporate as much as I could in the five days I was in Japan, I booked a one-night stay on my own to Kyoto. I also planned a day trip to Hakone, known for its hot springs and the closest view you can get to Mt. Fuji.
Before leaving for Japan, go to the JTB (Japan Tourist Board) or to the airport at LAX and buy a seven-day Japan Rail train pass for $350. The ticket can only be purchased before you get to Japan, but you can use this pass as much as you want for all trains and local subways -- sadly, the bullet train is not valid with this pass.
Lost in Translation
I had anticipated that a lot of people would understand English, but that was not the case. It was extremely hard asking for directions. Looking for restaurant recommendations in guide books was also difficult. It reminded me of an "Amazing Race" challenge -- the restaurant names in the guide books would be in English, but when looking for it, the restaurant signs were all in Japanese!
My recommendation: go where the locals go to eat. I had the best ramen meal and the best Hawaiian food when I used this tactic. I saw that a bunch of locals were waiting for this ramen restaurant to open up so I decided to do the same.
Things to Know
A few interesting differences I noticed during my visit.
- You never see anyone wear sunglasses -- even on a sunny day. Japanese people want to be able to see your eyes.
- It’s frowned upon to eat in public. I never saw anyone commuting with a cup of coffee or eating breakfast quickly while commuting to work. I found it extremely hard to find trash cans in Tokyo. Ironic because the city is so clean -- so where are they putting their garbage?
- The trains were orderly. People knew where to line up to get on the trains. Once on the train, it was quiet. No one talks! Some people were masks to cover their nose and mouth, which was hard to get used to.
- Most places take cash only, so make sure to always have cash. There were few places that accepted credit cards, but fewer than I expected.
- When entering shrines, you need to wash your hands and mouth in a very specific way. I learned how to do it on my tour that came with the package. Also make sure to go into the shrine on the right side.
- Don’t be intimidated by vending machines: For example, most ramen places require you to purchase/order at a vending machine. Some may have pictures. Others are only in Japanese. I was scared the first day and walked away. By the last day, we conquered it.
- The toilets are fancy. Some have seat warmers and play music and other sounds for privacy.
- There is no tipping or tax in Japan, so the price on the item is exactly what you pay.
Must-See & Do
- A trip to Mt. Fuji is a must. It’s an easy day trip from Tokyo, so you don’t need to find lodging for the night. The mountain is one of the biggest I’ve ever seen. It’s so cold there, so climbers can only scale it during July and August. The best way to do Mt. Fuji is to go to Hakone (with your Japan Rail pass) and then spend $50 for a two-day unlimited train/bus pass for the Hakone area. It is like being in Disney World. You can go all around the area seeing different views of Mt. Fuji by gondola or by cruise. You can also stop off at the Air Museum and the hot springs or to see the cherry blossoms. The train in the Hakone area is extremely slow as is the bus system. If you are on a time constraint, I would avoid the boat cruise. It was nice being on the lake, but you hardly got any views of Mt. Fuji.
- My favorite meal during the whole trip was the oldest soba restaurant in Kyoto -- more than 540 years old -- called Owariya. This is a must for any tourist.
- When in Kyoto, rent bikes to see all the temples.
- Make sure to go to Tsujiki Fish market in the morning where the buyers arrive to find the day’s freshest fish. It is the world’s largest wholesale fish market.
- When in Japanese department stores and go to the basement to visit the food courts. Some of the desserts are very intricate (and yummy).
- If you go in March or April, look for the many cherry blossoms blooming. It’s a beautiful treat for the eyes (and nose).
- Eat a Kit Kat (or two). Japan carries flavors that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. The most popular is green tea. You may also find such flavors as annin tofu, wasabi, cherry blossom, syrup, cinnamon sugar, blueberry cheesecake and melon. We also found Green Tea Oreo cookies on the last day and Subway (sandwich) potato chips.
Japan has everything to offer to a tourist. There’s amazing food for the foodie, latest styles for the hip and trendy in fashion, plus history with shrines and temples. When I go back, I hope to go all around Japan, instead of just staying near Tokyo. Just like the Kit Kats, I’m sure there’s a lot more surprises to discover.