With the wisdom of hindsight, here are my thoughts on planning a trip to Japan. I've given links just for your information - they aren't necessarily recommendations - I have no links to any of these companies.
pavilion detail Shinjuku Gyoen garden
Putting together an itinerary is such a personal choice. What you and I see together isn't as important to me as how we see it. A passive experience of an iconic sight can be less exciting than an truly enjoyable visit to something less famous.
I wanted an agent to do the train bookings particularly. Inside Japan gets good reviews online, although disappointingly the employee I dealt with made mistakes in bookings and the itinerary. However the meet and greet at Tokyo airport was excellent - they sublet that to another company; the train reservations and metro cards, once we arrived in Japan, were perfect. They will do restaurant reservations, and sent very good comprehensive booklets in hard copy and an e-version. They seem to be part of Inside Asia Tours.
Nanzen-ji Temple, Kyoto
Pre-planning included reading many different online and printed lists of must-dos, I asked friends who love Japan who were kind enough to give me their must-see lists, I searched Instagram for photos of Japan and followed people travelling there. I read and re-read design guides to Tokyo - Luxe Guides, The Broad Place, and others I found online. And of course I was guided by our interests and the time we had available. With the help of Inside Japan, the itinerary was born. https://luxecityguides.com/ https://shop.thebroadplace.com.au/products/the-broad-place-exploration-manual-tokyo
Tokyo and Kyoto are must-see. The train ride up the mountain to Takayama is interesting and it was a quaint little town to start the tour. We visited the pleasant little town of Yamashiro Onsen because of Beniya Mukayu, and our few hours in Kanazawa were worthwhile. I regret not having seen Naoshima Island with its Benesse art installation and special hotel, but we just couldn't fit it in. And I'd love to see Himeji Castle (because it's all white!) and visit more craftsmen's ateliers. There's enough on my still-to-do list to fill a couple of weeks.
click anywhere on the map above
When I'm planning a trip, I use google maps to put pins in all the places we might want to see. Just click on the map above to see it again. You can zoom in and out to see Kyoto, Takayama etc. That makes it easier for me to come up with daily plans, based on the proximity of the pins.
The main advice I'd give you is that if you want to visit in cherry blossom time, book early. It's truly spectacular. We were just lucky that this year it was a week late. The cherry 'front' moves from the south to the north so consult https://www.jnto.go.jp/sakura/eng/index.php. for what's happening in your particular year just ahead of time. Golden Week in late April to early May is a no-no because it's when the Japanese people themselves travel. Autumn colour with those Japanese maples would be brilliant!
Sansho pepper plant (Zanthoxylum piperitum): it originated in eastern China and Taiwan and grows into a small tree. The small red berries, the aromatic leaves and the seeds are all used in cooking.
Qantas is the best if you are travelling from Brisbane because it's a direct flight to Tokyo (9-ish hours). The Australian eastern states time difference is only one hour. Google tells me that Qantas, JAL, Jetstar and ANA all fly direct from Australia.
G.Itoya had teeny do-it-yourself paper models like this bridge - my finger bottom left shows scale
Inside Japan said that the hotels* booked by them were the best we could get at such late notice. For me wifi inclusion is a must. Download and upload connection speeds everywhere were very good.
Tokyo Station 1914
*Tokyo Station Hotel: Part of the Small Leading Hotels of the World group. Brilliant historic hotel in a great position for proximity to the CBD and train transfers. The best buffet breakfast we have ever seen in our lives. Our room was tiny which didn't matter for a quick overnight, but if you were to stay here for longer, ask for a larger room. Ours overlooked the train station public space under the dome - others overlook the street. It was great to be close enough to the Imperial Palace to do a circumnavigation before breakfast. http://www.thetokyostationhotel.jp/
*Green Hotel Takayama: The rooms were clean and large with hot tub on the balcony and I enjoyed the communal bath at ground level. The top floor breakfast room had great views but I wouldn't eat in the ground floor breakfast room. Stay in a ryokan instead.
boxes of flowers are popular in Japan, supposedly because Japanese men don't like carrying flowers
*Brighton Hotel Kyoto: This was a big slick generic hotel, with large room, excellent breakfast and well-trained staff. It was a little too far from the action up near the Imperial Palace. Try to stay somewhere near Ginza. The Ritz Carlton sounds amazing if you want to hock the kids' inheritance.
Part of the Relais & Châteaux group. I booked this hotel near Kanazawa, and although my first impression wasn't what I expected, I simply adored it. Loved the decor, the garden, the history, the amazing staff and the elegant Nakamichi family who own it. Minimalist decor in neutral tones, very authentic Japanese, a Zen space. A very comprehensive set menu breakfast in either western style or Japanese, plus a kaiseki dinner is included in the tariff each night. Really enjoyed the welcome tea ceremony with our host, the tour of the garden with our hostess, and the cooking class we booked with the chef. I'd go there again in a heartbeat. http://mukayu.com/english/ or https://www.relaischateaux.com/gb/japan/beniya-ishikawa-ken-kaga-shi
Park Hyatt Hotel Tokyo:
Most of our destinations were near Omotesando and Aoyama and we wanted a nearby 5 star hotel. I looked at the Cerulean which was closer to the action but it looked more business-oriented. Park Hyatt isn't in the best position, but it was the best and closest I could find. It was an easy walk to the train station.The room was very large with dressing room, bathroom with separate loo, the views amazing, there was a good desk for me to work at, the decor was a teeny bit tired in a pale celadon green but certainly not objectionably so, a nespresso machine for that first morning cup, the staff were superb.
There is a weird situation with the front desk on the 42nd floor. There are doormen downstairs on the ground floor, you take a lift to the 42nd floor, and exit it into the Peak Bar with its amazing views without being aware that you are in a hotel. Then you turn your back and walk away from the view down a corridor, past a dining room, then a turn left and go past the library, and then turn right again before you arrive at the 'front desk'. There were three different desks here at different angles in a confusing room with many mirrors which took away from the sense of arrival. However that's a minor complaint. It certainly felt like home. Breakfast was faultless - you can choose buffets of western or Japanese, room service, or à la carte to the value of your inclusion. The New York Grill is upstairs, but we went up one morning to look at it and decided we preferred the soaring void above the Peak Bar.
They kindly allowed us a late checkout for our departure at 4pm.
It may sound ridiculous but what I loved at the Park Hyatt was the toilet lid (made by Toto) which raised itself when you walked into the loo - we started saying 'Hi Toto'! There are warm seats everywhere in Japan - I'm still missing them!
VISA: none needed for Australians
VACCINATIONS: nothing Japan-specific.
I rarely take currency with me, and I'm not keen on travel cards. I have a Bank West credit card which I use for travelling and load it with cash before I leave. I use it as a debit card, but press credit on ATM's. As I understand it, with Bank West there is no overseas transaction fee to use it this way, compared with 3% on other cards. And I take the exchange rate on the day. But do your own homework on this. I take another couple of cards just in case I lose this one.
In Japan, you can only be sure of getting cash from 7-Eleven ATMS and Post Offices - there is a 7-Eleven downstairs in Terminal 2 at Tokyo airport and an ATM in the far corner of every 7-Eleven shop. They seem to have a monopoly! There's also a convenience store chain called Family Mart and the ATM's at those worked for us too but can't vouch for all of them.
the Japanese have always used squares of fabric tied at the top for carrying
I downloaded an app called Japanese, which translates and pronounces the word as well. I just chose it at random and there are probably others just as good. You may have to ask a couple of people but you can generally find someone who speaks English wherever you are. Railway station staff generally speak some English - best to just say your destination clearly (in your best Japanese accent) and they'll usually be able to point the way and say the platform number.
There's rarely paper towels in public Japanese loos - we saw Japanese women using handkerchiefs and small towels from their handbags. Generally, there was loo paper.
I had a Telstra International Pass which gives you 2.2GB of data. It meant we could use the get-me-there City-Mapper app in Tokyo and search for rated restaurants close to where we found ourselves at meal times, plus google anything at any time. 2.2GB is plenty of data provided you use wifi at the hotels. https://www.telstra.com.au/content/dam/tcom/personal/help/pdf/cis-personal/mobile/telstra-international-travel-pass.pdf
Inside Japan did all the rail bookings and issued us with reserved seat bullet train (Shingansen) tickets, Narita express train tickets from the airport in, and travel cards for the metros and suburban trains everywhere - just a pass over the turnstile and we were through. They loaded again easily when we ran out of money on them.
To work out your longer train trips, use www.hyperdia.com/en/
There's something called a Japan Rail Pass but apparently our trip didn't justify purchasing one. Perhaps yours would.
at cherry blossom time the whole country goes sakura-crazy - this is a sakura lamington
If you're a Japanese food groupie you'll be in heaven there, especially with the endless small portions of kaiseki or haute cuisine degustation. I loved the beautiful presentation of even the simplest meal.
I did try to be adventurous! I tried and liked thinly sliced raw fish but must admit I passed on anything chunky. I really enjoyed the food at Beniya Mukayu. Loved the visual appeal of bento boxes with their artistic presentation. Generally we found it difficult to find sushi except in railway stations. Street food was excellent, and we loved Ukai Tei at Omotesando and Narisawa.
We ADORED our icecream sandwich!
When I think of Japanese food I think of healthy ingredients, freshness and the absence of heavy seasoning.
plant growth on an old shingle roof in Takayama
It's nice to have a balance of guides and exploring by ourselves. A docent can add so much to an experience while exploring has the added bonus of making our own discoveries.
Takayama: The only guide available online wanted to charge heavily to travel from Kyoto for the day, so we followed an itinerary I prepared at home, which was fine. It's a small town and easily negotiated.
Kana from Chris Rowthorn was a treasure
Kyoto: Inside Japan arranged the private Meiko experience at Maruume tea house, which was just wonderful but the guide was ordinary. I think Maruume hosts group visits as well. For general touring I liked the sound of Chris Rowthorn's tours (editor for Lonely Planet Japan) especially for avoiding the really crowded places. Kana was brilliant. We chose to do the Philosopher's Walk by ourselves though as it's easy to find. You could easily take much longer to walk it as there are shops, teashops and shrines along the way. http://www.chrisrowthorn.com/
Yamashiro Onsen : There's a pleasant walk from the hotel, starting with an elevator down to the village with a few ceramic shops, then through two shrines, up a mossy hill to an observation tower and back to the hotel another way. The hotel organised our cooking class, and the boat ride - we enjoyed both.
Shinjuku Gyoen garden
Kanazawa: We only had 4 hours here. Originally I considered a Chris Rowthorn guide, but then realised we only had time to walk really fast around both the Museum of Contemporary Art and Kenrokuen garden. There's a circular bus route which is nearly as fast as a taxi. http://www.kanazawa-tourism.com/eng/guide/guide1_1.php
Context Travel tours are outstanding for their passionate highly-qualified docents, hence the Tokyo architectural tour which we loved. They organise tours all round the world, small groups or private. www.contexttravel.com
We almost refused the red blanket!
* Couldn't recommend the Ebisuya rickshaw ride more highly - we booked for two hours. They also operate in other cities. ebisuya.com/en/
* Our calligraphy lesson with Atsushi was an extremely happy discovery on google. I subsequently saw it on Trip Advisor as well. We didn't want a 'touristy' experience, and Atsushi turned out to be more authentic than we could possibly have hoped. And he'd like to book more travellers' lessons, so go for your life. http://calligraphytokyo.wixsite.com/calligraphyart
*We could have done a one-day Elizabeth Andoh bento box cookery class, but it was being held on the day of the farmers' markets and a whole day cooking would be a little too long for me. Check her website for what will be on during your trip. It would be brilliant for the would-be chefs among you - thank you for the recommendation Lucinda. http://www.tasteofculture.com/
You remember my 7kg limit? That included an obligatory 2.5kg of electrical equipment: computer, camera, power board and chargers. I didn't wear half the contents of the suitcase because it was quite hot and I'd packed warm clothes. But of course you couldn't rely on that happening. I would take just as few clothes next time, and in the same sort of very light suitcase (yes it's now on the shopping list) but I'd book it through and then take the computer as a carryon. That would give me a little room for shopping which I wouldn't have had this time if Ange hadn't brought my big suitcase with her.
* 2 pairs of pants is plenty - the medium-weight pants I took dried easily overnight in the hotel air-conditioning.
* 3 t-shirts were fine
* 1 lighter jacket - I was so grateful I added in a grey Majestic cotton jacket which I wore all the time rather than the puffer jacket which was too hot for the weather
* cashmere pullover - didn't wear it at all
* 2 scarves - great value. I used both: the heavier cashmere one as a wrap at night and a warm scarf, the lighter silk and cashmere as a scarf.
* water-proof Cole Haan boots: that's what they looked like at the end of the tour. I had wondered about their light colour for travelling, especially since we walked on some muddy dirt paths. Brilliant. Very light and super comfortable. I gave them a quick (wet toothbrush, nooooo not mine!) clean each night to remove marks. I'll put in a light pair of flats next time since I'll have slightly more space.
* 1 puffer jacket - ok for warmth, but I didn't need it for rain. One of those $5 clear plastic disposable raincoat from Coles was enough (it folded up to nothing in my handbag) and I had a light folding umbrella. Next time I'll probably take a proper jacket instead of the puffer jacket, and use a disposable raincoat over the top.
* camera: I used my super zoom camera once. I love the iphone 7 plus - it is simply brilliant with the portrait lens. I don't think I'll take a camera again, except of course to Africa for the animals.
If you'd like to ask me any questions about planning, please email me or ask in the comments below.
part of an antique coat in the window of Morita Antiques Tokyo
Japan is a wonderful destination. It's very clean and safe and the people are very well-mannered and helpful.
But much deeper than that, I gained a real sense of the Japanese appreciation of refinement and understatement, a recognition of the beauty of the simple and unadorned without glitz and glamour. I've never visited another country which impressed me so much in this way.
in the Beniya Mukayu yukata
Until next we meet buddies, I wait you,