Only have a few days in Japan, but want to explore as much of the country as you can? That was the dilemma we ran into, but we figured out how to fit in 5 cities in 4 days. Tiring, but totally doable! First thing's first: get the JR rail pass. Totally worth it and you can travel on the bullet trains! While you're at it, get yourself a Pocket Wifi too. This thing was a life saver when traveling around with limited wifi.
Here's the schedule we accomplished while we were in Japan for 4 days:
DAY 1 / TOKYO: We had to check out one of the world's busiest cities with all those people! I've been to Tokyo many times before, since I used to live in Japan, but this was Ryan's first time.
We booked our hotel at Park Hotel Tokyo in Shinbashi. Ryan's co-worker recommended this place since we wanted to visit the Tsukiji Market and this gorgeous hotel was within walking distance to the market. If you book early (few months in advance), you can get a really great deal. We booked a queen bed room with the Tokyo tower view for $160, which was amazing!! Not bad for this prime area.
Since we only had one day in Tokyo, we decided to check out Shibuya, which holds the famous Shibuya Crossing and the Hachiko statue. It's also famous for the shopping and nightlife. We decided to eat at a ramen shop right by the station and oh my goodness, this place had the best ramen, gyoza and katsudon!! I wish I could remember the name of it, but sadly, I did not write it down. We spent most of the day here shopping (if shopping is not your thing, I recommend checking out Harajuku, Asakusa or Akihabara). After all the shopping, we decided to go to Shinagawa to eat dinner at Kura sushi. I saw a documentary about this sushi place on the Travel Channel, so I really wanted to check it out. We got there around 7:30pm and it was probably the worst time to go. It was prime dinner time and the wait time was TWO HOURS! If you want to check this place out, make sure you go at non-prime hours.
DAY 2 / TSUKIJI MARKET and HAKONE: We woke up around 8am the next day and had a lovely breakfast at the Park Hotel with Japanese and Western buffet. The price was 2,000 per person. We walked to the Tsukiji Market around 9am. We were debating whether or not we should check out the tuna auctioning at 5am, but decided to save our energy for Hakone. If you're interested in viewing the tuna action, be prepared to line up by 3am. Tsukiji market was probably the worst visit of our trip. The workers absolutely hate the tourists that come and visit because everyone gets in their way. You're not allowed to take any pictures and the workers are always scowling at you. Such an uncomfortable experience. We were only there for about 30 minutes and left.
We went back to Park Hotel, checked out, and caught the 11am bullet train to Hakone. It was only an hour ride and we were in the beautiful mountains. Such a gorgeous and peaceful area. We stayed at the Yumoto Fujiya hotel right across from the Hakone-Yumoto station. This was another fabulous hotel with excellent service and large rooms. The hotel staff even guide you to your room after you check in! I've never had that kind of superb service.
Before arriving in Hakone, we bought the Hakone Free Pass in Odawara, which costs 4,000 yen. We took the Hakone loop starting with the Tozan railway and ending with ferry and bus ride. We wanted to ride the Hakone Ropeway, but it was shut down due to volcano activity nearby. That would have been an incredible view! We really wanted to see Mt Fuji, but were not able to see it. Apparently, seeing Mt Fuji is pretty difficult. We went in May, which was not an ideal time to view the mountain. The best time to view it is in the winter, so we'll definitely have to go back!
After we did the Hakone loop, we were famished. The hotel had many dinner options, but we decided to eat at a little restaurant nearby that served yakiniku (Ryan's favorite). We ended the night with a nice bath in the private onsen (hot spring). Fujiya hotel offers a private onsen for 1,000 yen which is totally worth it!
DAY 3 / KYOTO: We left Hakone at 10:30am and arrived in Kyoto via the bullet train at 1:30pm. We bought the 2-day bus and subway pass, but learned that it was not worth it for the places we wanted to travel to, so don't bother getting it. Kyoto has many temples, so we had to pick and choose carefully which ones we wanted to see. After some planning, we decided to check out Fushimi Inari Shrine first since it was only about a 20-minute train ride from our hotel. The hotel we stayed at was called Hotel Sunline in Gion and once again, this hotel was excellent! Very spacious, close to everything and excellent staff. We decided to do an early check-in, which cost an extra 2,000 yen, but we got the hotel at a good price to begin with, so we didn't mind. We unpacked, relaxed a bit and headed out to Fushimi Inari Shrine on the Keihan Main line (10-minute walk to the station). It was super easy to navigate these trains and if you don't know how to get somewhere, ask a train station attendant and they have little cheat sheets ready for foreigners on how to get to certain places.
I'm so glad we chose to visit Fushimi Inari Shrine because those hundreds of red gates for miles and miles is the coolest thing to see. Not a typical Japanese temple, so we loved it. You can go up the mountain and down to do the full course of the temples and gates but we stopped halfway up the mountain and came back down because it was way too hot (90 degrees F)!
As we were heading back to the train station, we saw a Cat Cafe. I heard about these from a friend and had no idea it was real. It's such a funny (and so Japanese) concept, so we had to check it out. Cat cafes are basically a little place where you can enjoy hanging out with cats while you munch on some snacks. Each cat has a profile and you get to learn about them. The cat cafe we went to was a smaller one, so the cost wasn't too bad at 500 yen for 20 minutes. We only stayed for 10 minutes because all we wanted to do was check it out for novelty's sake. Shout-out to Bob, for being the coolest cat in the cafe.
Later that day, we went to a green tea ceremony at a place called En. I definitely recommend this experience to everyone! Watching the women make green tea properly and traditionally was the most peaceful thing I have ever experienced in my life. We made a reservation online and it was 2,000 yen per person. One tip: if you go during the summer, make sure you dress light, because it is HOT in that room with no air conditioning. We went end of May and it was already 90 degrees F.
DAY 4 / KYOTO: The next day, we decided to venture out an hour to Nara because I've always seen pictures of the friendly deer roaming around everywhere in the city. I'm glad we made the trip there because it was my favorite city to visit in Japan! As soon as you exit the Nara train station, you see all the beautiful deer everywhere just walking around town and waiting to be fed. There's little stands in every street corner that sell deer crackers for 150 yen. When you start feeding the deer, about 5-6 come up to you at once and start nudging you with their antlers for more. So cute!!!
After spending some time with the deer, we walked about 10 minutes to the Todaiji temple. This was probably the biggest temple I've seen in Japan. The best part about this location was all the Japanese school kids on their field trips coming up to us asking questions (part of their studies to learn English). The kids especially loved Ryan with his blonde hair and blue eyes. This is a "true American" in their eyes (although Ryan is Canadian). One group of middle school kids were so happy to take a picture with him that they started hugging him and screaming "I love you!". Hilarious!
After Todaiji temple, we took the train back to Kyoto station and hopped on a bus to the Kinkakuji (Golden Pavillion) temple. The bus ride was pretty long (about 45 min) and got pretty crowded. We were way overdue for lunch by the time we got to the Kinkakuji stop, so we found a cute little ramen shop called Ramen Kazu not too far away. Excellent ramen and gyoza!
Kinkakuji was very crowded, so it was hard to enjoy the scenery with people pushing you around and trying to take pictures. The temple and gardens were beautiful, but you only get to see it from afar and it's a very small place. I recommend going to another temple if you have to make a choice between this temple and another. Fun fact: this was Steve Jobs' favorite place in Japan.
Later that night, we decided to check out more of the Gion area where our hotel was. I originally wanted to stay in Gion because I really wanted to see a geisha. I read online somewhere that if you hang out around the old Gion street around sunset, you would most likely see some geishas and they were right! We saw about 5 geishas around 6:30pm. I wanted get pictures of all of them, but it was really hard to do with tourists crowding around them like they were celebrities. I did manage to capture one good shot of the geisha.
For dinner, we decided to eat some katsu at Katsukura. OH MY GOODNESS, this katsu was the BEST!! I wish I would have ordered more because it was the juiciest katsu ever!
Overall, I think we made great choices on our short trip. Next time we visit, we'll probably check out a little more of Tokyo and also visit Gunkanjima (Battleship Island). If you have any questions, please comment below and I will try my best to help you with your next Japan trip. Happy Travels!