I was never a big fan of Japan. To me, Japan means strict traditions and conservative people. I always thought of Japan as a typical Asian country which is why it is not that appealing to someone who grew up in Asia like me. My boyfriend, Tri, however has always been dreaming about visiting and living in Japan. Last year, we were debating whether to spend our vacation in Mexico or Japan. Out of the odds, there was this amazing flight deal to Tokyo so we booked our flights right away. Being an obsessive vacation planner, I dived into looking up on what to do in Japan so we could hit as many places as possible. To my surprise, the more I read about Japanese culture and history, the more I got attracted to this country.
We did quite a lot of research and preparation to make sure our trip went smoothly. It turned out very well, so I decided to share some tips that I learned from our trip. I hope you will find them useful as you plan your adventure to the Land of the Rising Sun.
In this post, I will focus on accommodation which is one of the most stressful tasks when it comes to travelling, especially to a new destination. Check here for a list of things to do in Japan and some attractions in Tokyo.
First thing you need to know about Japan is that there are many unique places to spend the night. Besides typical hotels, there are Airbnb, ryokan, temples, capsule hotels and Onsen (public hot spring). We tried some of those options and they all turned out great.
Airbnb has become very popular in Japan due to the blooming tourism industry. It provides cheap accommodation where locals offer their own places for tourists to stay. It is a great option because you can find Airbnb everywhere, especially in convenient locations such as train stations, downtown area and local attractions.
It was our first time using Airbnb. The reservation and check-in process were extremely smooth and simple. Out of 9 nights, we used AirBnb for our first 3 nights in Shinjuku, Tokyo and another 2 nights in Gion, Kyoto.
Above is the Shinjuku studio we stayed at, 120 CAD per night (entire suite for 2 guests) and only 5 mins walk from the station. The place is tiny and clean, just like any other apartments in Tokyo. However, it has everything we need, from toiletries, kitchen utensils to air conditioner, and washing machine. There is, however, no dryer so we had to hang our clothes in the balcony.
Let me get this straight. You will be missing out a lot if you skip onsen while in Japan. It is such a great way to relax your body after all the walking. Now some people got nervous by the idea of communal bath. However if you can overcome the awkwardness and
ignore enjoy the nakedness, you will open up yourself to an entirely new relaxing heaven.
Traditionally, onsen only offers bathing facilities, but modern onsen provides overnight stay and meals (dinner/breakfast) which tend to be more expensive and far away from the city. By a struck of luck, we found this amazing Oedo Onsen right in Tokyo. We stayed 2 nights there.
Odeo Onsen is located in Odaiba prefecture, near Tsukiji market. It costs around 2,000 yen to enjoy the bath and additional 2,000 yen to stay overnight. You will be given bath towels and yukata robe (Yep, that is me in the picture). Toothbrush and toothpaste are also provided, so you literally don’t need to bring anything, not even swimsuits 🙂
This onsen is not a traditional onsen per se. It’s more for local youth to come and hang out because it offers other entertainment services. The whole facility is actually a theme park, with a nicely decorated lantern in the middle and plenty of restaurants open until late. After enjoying foot bath and open-air bath, we chilled out here with some delicious yakisoba before heading to sleep in the tatami rooms (gender separated). Most food services are closed by 11 pm and the bath facility is closed from midnight to 5 am. We managed to wake up early for a morning bath before heading out. There are also spa treatments; unfortunately we did not have time to try it, but will definitely do it next time. There are also big storage lockers for rent (less than 500 yen) for those who wish to stay several nights. Pretty convenient, isn’t it?
Another unique way to stay the night is at a Japanese temple. The nice thing about staying in a temple is you can experience the calm and peace in their temple setting, with meditation hall and beautiful garden. The price ranges from 6,000 yen to well over 20,000 yen. Not many temples offer guest staying service but we found this Shunkoin temple in Kyoto. We stayed 2 nights there.
Shunkoin is one of the temples in the Myoshinji temple complex, North West of Kyoto. For 6,000 yen/person/night, we had the entire suite to ourselves, two connecting twin rooms with private bathrooms. They offer meditation class in the morning which also includes tea ceremony and a temple tour.
Another thing I love about Shunkoin is they have free bikes for guests to use during the day. My boyfriend and I did an early morning ride to Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion temple). It was only 15 minutes away so we made it back on time for the meditation session.
Ryokan is the traditional Japanese inn featuring tatami mat flooring, communal baths and meals. It is one of the most popular ways to experience Japanese living. Because of the full services, ryokan tends to be expensive and get booked up very early. The average price for ryokan is around 20,000 yen/person/night.
We didn’t do ryokan but we stayed at this Japanese-style house via AirBnB for 2 nights in Kyoto. The place was modelled based on traditional town house so it feels very authentic and movie-like. The good side is that it is right in the heart of Gion district. We rented kimonos nearby and had quite a lot of pictures taken inside this place. Also, did I mention there is a washing machine here? I was able to survive without bringing too much clothes during our 10-day trip. I bet you can’t find it at a real ryokan 🙂
Where to stay in Tokyo
Below is a great snapshot of Tokyo attractions we got from the JR sales agent. Stay tuned for our blog posts on these places.
The black-white circle is the Yamanote JR line. I like to think of Tokyo as two areas – the West side is famous for city life: entertainment, business, shopping and night life, while the East side is more historic/cultural: temples, fish market, manga and games.
We stayed in Shinjuku since we wanted to experience the heart of entertainment life in Tokyo. Harajuku and Shibuya are also good areas to stay in. There are a lot of shopping malls and department stores around these stations. So it really depends on what you want to experience more out of Tokyo. As long as it is within walking distance to the train station, you can get to anywhere in Tokyo.
It is worth mentioning Shinagawa station is where you can catch the bullet train (Shinkansen) to Kyoto/Osaka or Hokkaido. The station is about 20 minutes away from Shinjuku.
Where to stay in Kyoto
This map is not as pretty as the Tokyo one, but I will do my best to explain what you need to know before deciding where to stay in Kyoto.
We stayed in Gion area, near Gion-shio station. It is considered the entertainment district of Kyoto because it offers both modern and traditional entertainments, from shopping, restaurants to Kabuki dance. It also offers stunning night view of the Kamo river. There are Kimono rentals that you can rent for the day and walk around town like a true Japanese tourist. Also you will have the best chance to catch a sight of geisha here when they move from one tea house to another.
There are also several famous attractions in walking distance from Gion such as Kyomizu-dera temple, Yasaka shrine, Minamiza Kabuki theatre, Geisha corners.
Kyoto Station is also a good place to stay because it’s where you can catch the Shinkansen to Tokyo or other cities such as Osaka, Nara, Himeji, and Hiroshima. One drawback is that it’s not close to most local attractions, however, there is direct bus that you can take. Make sure to check out the 500 yen day pass for local bus.
While others may think Northwest Kyoto (near Kinkakuji Temple) is not a good choice of staying since it is far from everything else, I actually love this area the most. You will be away from those tourist chaos. You will find yourself emerging in a real Japanese living, walking among quiet little alleys and occasionally spotting students in uniform on their way to school.
That should be it for accommodation! Stay tune for more of my tips on food, transit, attractions and packing 🙂
Below are some useful sites about Japanese travel and cultures.