I got back from Japan two weeks ago, unpacked and did laundry, and now I’m finally in the headspace to put together some impressions after my first trip to an Asian country. There are lots of blog posts in the pipeline, but first impressions is a good place to start.
I consider myself pretty well traveled, but I was definitely put in my place by the language barrier, jet lag, and rusty travel skills after not traveling overseas since 2018. When we got back, I admit I was still reeling from the somewhat stressful experience. I may have bummed some of my friends out by leading with those topics instead of the fun and beautiful experiences I had in Japan. Oops! I promise I really did have a good trip.
For a refresher, here is our itinerary.
- 15 days + 2 travel days:
- Fly from San Diego directly to Tokyo.
2 days in Tokyo + one day trip (Nikko)4 days in Tokyo
- 2 days in Kyoto (blog post) + one day trip (Nara) (blog post)
- 2 days in Osaka (blog post) + one day trip (Himeji) (blog post)
- 1 day in Beppu
- 1 and a half days in Fukuoka
- 1 and a half more days in Tokyo
- Fly from Tokyo directly to San Diego.
I had put together an epic 10 page Google Doc with a day-by-day itinerary so that I wouldn’t miss anything that was considered a “must do.” Now that I’m back, I’ll note that we tweaked several of the things that we did. I was trying to pack in way too much. We scratched a day trip to Nikko due to rain, but looking back I think it would have been a nice thing to add in. The day trips were some of my favorite days because the smaller cities were charming, historic, and somewhat less crowded.
My highlights include mostly very typical “Japan” things. We took a cherry blossom bike tour through Tokyo, had an omakase sushi lunch, and experienced the wonderful culture of hot spring baths. It was really enjoyable to compare and contrast some of Japan’s most notable cities.
Many people cite Kyoto as one of their favorite cities in the world. For me, Kyoto was a love-hate. I could tell it was highly curated and beautiful. However, we were there during Japanese spring break and cherry blossom season and it was absolutely mobbed with people. Kyoto has grappled with overtourism in the past, which is now illustrated for me in a more tangible way. I would have liked one more day in Kyoto to visit more sites and appreciate it more. I would have taken that from my two days in Osaka. I’ll explain more when I do a more in-depth itinerary breakdown.
General impressions of Japan
A few cultural things stood out right away- some surprised me and some didn’t. As a whole, Japan is incredibly clean. Especially coming from a major US city experiencing growing pains in the downtown area, I really appreciated the spic and span sidewalks and public transit.
I had always heard about Japan’s legendary nightlife—many neighborhoods appeared to come to life only after work hours. I did not anticipate the flip side of this, which means that lots of cafes and museums didn’t open until 10 or 11 AM. Early birds are rewarded with less-crowded shrines and gardens, but having breakfast at a cafe was almost impossible, in my experience. When you go, make sure to buy breakfast food at a convenience store or sign up for your hotel’s breakfast option.
One major takeaway that I had not experienced in any of my prior countries was the need to think in three dimensions. Tokyo is so dense, that shops and restaurants are not only on the ground level. Google maps may lead to a place, and then it’s necessary to figure out if the destination is one one of the several levels upstairs, or sometimes underground in a basement or passageway. This didn’t just apply to Tokyo but all of the big cities we visited. I’ll go so far to think this will probably apply to other dense Asian cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, etc.
Soon to come on The Voyageer
As usual, I’ll have a post on each city we visited and most of the hotels we stayed at,. Additionally I’ll have in-depth looks on attending a baseball game in Japan, the benefits of using Google maps to get from place to place, and a guide on Japanese hot spring etiquette.
So many people have reached out to me and let me know they are planning a trip to Japan. I want to get these posts out as soon as I can to be a resource to all. But for now, in the meantime, I want to emphasize how important the JR Pass and Pocket Wifi were for my trip. We really saved a lot of time and money by using the JR Pass and if it weren’t for the Pocket Wifi we would have been literally lost. Even if your trip is months away, it is not too early to buy your JR Pass and make your Wifi reservation by clicking the banner below.
I would love to hear from you. If you have visited, please share your impressions on Japan in the comments! If you have anything specific you would like to know more about in a future post, please let me know!
Photos by Doug and Staci Jackson for The Voyageer.