I once wrote a guest blog post for VelvetEscape.com about how Americans tend to see the world in 7-10 day spurts because of the limited vacation time we get from work — usually just 10-15 work days off for the entire year. (Of course, I'm talking about those who are lucky enough to still have jobs in this recession, but that's a whole different post altogether.) In August, seasoned travelers Will Harris and his father went to Japan for only nine days — including travel days. Will says there's no reason to let limited time keep you from visiting this fascinating country. Here he explains how they managed to pack it all in.
The Itinerary: We spent a day and a half in Tokyo, waking up early to go to the Tukiji Fishery Market, the largest fish market in the world. After an amazing breakfast of sushi we did a whirlwind tour of the city, which included Hama Rikyu (one of the city's oldest gardens), a ferry cruise up the Sumida River to Asakusa where we visited Sensoji Temple and shopped for souvenirs along Nakamise Dori. Then, we watched one scene in a Kabuki Theater (English earphones are available). We then walked around Ginza, including a stop at a Japanese department store where we got lot of free samples on the food floor.
The next day was spent in Hakone, visiting the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park where we traveled through some of Japan's most scenic countryside via a circuitous route that included a two-car streetcar, a cable car, ropeway and a boat.
Next we traveled through Kyoto to Himeji to visit Himeji Castle (pictured left). We then spent several days in Kyoto. The first day we visited Sanjusangendo Hall with its 1,001 wooden statues, Kiyomizu Temple and Heian Shrine. The next day we went to Kyoto Imperial Palace, Nijo Castle (home of the famous nightingale floors that squeak to warn of intruders), Katsura Imperial Villa and the Golden Pavilion (pictured above). In the evening, we walked around Gion (historic geisha quarters) and saw an evening performance at Gion Corner. We woke up early the next morning and did a day trip to Nara (the capital before Kyoto) where we saw Deer Park, Todaiji Temple and Kasuga Grand Shrine with 3,000 lanterns. We flew home to NYC the next day.
Favorite Hotel: Our room at Hotel Granvia in Kyoto was very nice with a great view of the city. The hotel is right over the train station so it's convenient if you're using Kyoto as a jumping off point to visit other places as we were (e.g., Himeji, Nara).
Most Memorable Meals: On our first day, we had lunch at a small noodle shop where you buy a ticket from the vending machine outside, then bring the ticket inside and eat at a crowded counter. On the last night, we had what would be our favorite meal: yakitori (skewers of meat), local beer and sake from a cask at a small bar in the Pontocho area of Kyoto. We just asked a local where they would eat and that led us to a place where we were the only Americans. The bartender was happy to help us try a lot of interesting roasted meats including heart, giblets, skin, etc. The best dish was an unusual roasted chicken with plum sauce.
Use a Free Guide: We used volunteer guides in each city, which were free — you just pay their transportation, buy them lunch and it's nice if you bring them a small gift from your home country. They tend to be either retired men, housewives or people studying English. Overall, they were great and, in addition to helping us get around and telling us about the sites, gave us a glimpse into everyday Japanese life. There is a list of volunteer tour guide clubs in each city on the official Japan tourism site. Not only is a using a volunteer guide a great experience, you're saving a lot of money as a private tour guide in Japan can run as much as $1,400 a day.
But Explore on Your Own Too: We were surprised by the number of people who did not speak English, but we never had a tough time getting around on our own. It was when we went off the beaten path that we had some of the best experiences (e.g., the yakitori restaurant, the impromptu trip to Himeji).
One Last Tip: You need to make advance reservations to see the Kyoto Imperial Palace and Katsura Villa, but it's well worth it.