A November 2001 trip
to Japan by Sergey
Quote: I just went on a 1-week trip to Japan. I stayed in one place, but went around to a several different cities, and so this journal will include a bunch of information.
Read the free-form location entries first if you like, or go directly to the items that interest you.
The location of the hotel is great. It is across the street from the Yokohama train station, and is even connected to the train station through an underground shopping mall. It is a 3-4 minute walk at most, and if it rains, you won''t need your umbrella. The Yokohama train station has most of the trains the tourist (and business traveler) will need, including the Narita Express, except for the Shinkansen (bullet train). The Shinkansen trains stop at the Shin-Yokohama train station, which is about 10-15 minutes away by either train or subway.
I stayed in a "Tower" room on the 26th floor. The tower lounge is here, and every morning it served a free continental buffet-style breakfast. This consisted of various croissants, toast, ham or salami (they seemed to alternate), some fresh fruit, juices, tea and coffee. You can also check in and check out at the lounge, avoiding any waiting at the lobby. The lounge has great views of Yokohama Bay. There are several western and Japanese style restaurants.
The room was your standard "2 double beds" room. There was a TV (with RCA-type video inputs), a tea/coffee maker and a minibar. The bathroom had a separate bath and shower. One odd thing I noticed was the lack of an iron and ironing board. The hotel will bring you a set free of charge if you ask, but you can only use it for a few hours at most, so plan to do all of your ironing at once. It is also a portable board that has to be set up on a table. I''ve included a picture of it, just for fun.
The concierge will be able to provide you with maps, travel directions and suggestions in excellent English. I owe the success of the trip to her.
The hotel has a small exercise room, with several bikes, some free weights and several "relaxation machines." Don''t ask me what they do, since I didn''t have time to try them. There''s also an indoor pool.
How to get there: From Narita Airport take the Narita Express to Yokohama train station. From Tokyo take the Tokaido Line to Yokohama train station. Follow the signs for West Exit. Either go outside and to your left, crossing the street using the pedestrian bridge, or go downstairs into the Diamond shopping mall, walk straight to the end (there''s a lotto shop there) and then turn left.
Hotel web page is at http://www.yokohamabay-sheraton.co.jp
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on December 2, 2001
Yokohama Bay Sheraton Hotel
1-3-23 Kitasaiwai, Nishi-Ku
Yokohama, Japan 220-0004
+81 (45) 411-1111
Nanzenji Temple was originally a villa for Emperor Kameyama from 1264 until 1291, when he became a monk and donated it as a temple. The current buildings date from 1570-1600, because the temple was destroyed by fire 3 times.
This temple has several sections that are open to the public. The first thing to keep in mind is that you will have to take your shoes off to go inside. I don't know if slippers are provided during warmer seasons, but at the end of November there was a big container filled with with same-sized slippers. If your shoe size is US 8 or more, you might consider bypassing the slippers or bringing your own. You can leave your shoes on the provided racks for free, or put them in lockers for a fee (the temple disclaims any responsibility for lost shoes).
Inside the temple you can see a few traditional rooms, a "dry japanese garden" and a number of rooms with ancient screen paintings. There is also a beautiful tea room with huge windows overlooking a small waterfall in a forest-like setting. Admission is extra, but you can look at it from the entrance free of charge.
To get here, I exited the Keage station on the subway Tozai line (follow signs for Nanzenji Temple while underground to get to the right exit), and walked for about 5-10 minutes. There are a few signs, but they're in japanese, and quite frankly I don't know if they said anything about the temple or not. :) I just followed the people, going through a small underpass and down an alley. This got me to the parking lot, from where I just followed the crowds.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on December 13, 2001
The only way to visit the Palace is as a part of a guided tour. If you're not taking a tour of the city that includes this, you can still go. The Imperial Household Agency operates 2 free guided tours (in both english and japanese) every day at 10 AM and 2 PM. But wait, you can't just show up. You must apply in advance at the office of the Imperial Household Agency. Applications have to be made in person, and you must present your passport. You can apply up to 20 minutes before the tour starts, but they won't gurantee that there will be space available. The Imperial Household Agency office is located near the visitor entrance in the Imperial Palace Garden. It is only a few minutes from the Imadegawa subway stop, and a very pleasant 15-or-so minute stroll through the Garden (which is actually a park) from the Maratumachi stop.
Inside the Palace is a collection of historical buildings, courtyards and traditional gardens. You do not actually go inside any building on the tour, but go around the grounds and look in from outside. There are some really great looking spots on the tour, including beatufilly painted screens, absolutely gorgeous gardens and close-up views of the evolution of building styles. The tour takes about an hour.
Before the tour starts you wait in a special waiting room, which shows a tape with a description of the history of the Palace. There's also a souvenier shop here, so you can stock up on official merchandise.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on December 13, 2001
There are a large number of tours offered, and I chose one of two different afternoon Tokyo tours. This consisted of a drive through Ginza, a brief stop in front of the Tokyo Imperial Palace for picture taking, a guided tour of the Asakusa Kannon Temple (see separate entry), followed by some free time for shopping, a boat cruise on the Sumida river and a guided overview of Tokyo from the 40th floor observation deck of the World Trade Center Building (located at Hamamatsucho terminal).
During the bus ride the guide provided a number of useful and interesting facts about japanese life and about surrounding scenery. The temple tour included an explanation of the history of the temple and some of the major concepts behind the architecture of various buildings/constructs. The temple visit was followed by about 45 minutes to 1 hour of free time, which can be used for shopping, walking, resting, etc.
By the time we got to the boat, it was getting dark, and so the boat cruise was basically a night-time cruise. The view from the observation deck at the end was also of night-time Tokyo. I think in both cases it would still be light out at a different point during the year.
You can book your tour either in person at the terminal, or the conceirge at your hotel can make the arrangements for you.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on December 11, 2001
Nara is about a 30-45 minute drive from Kyoto, and during the trip the guide explained a great deal about the history of Nara and Kyotol, and pointed out interesting things along the way. The tour includes two points of interest in Nara, the Todaiji Temple and the Kasuga Shrine. At the temple the guide gave us close to 45 minutes of free time after finishing her explanation of the history of the temple. The trip back was mostly quiet, for those people who wanted to relax and catch a little bit of sleep.
For non-english speaking tourists the company offered recorded commentary in a number of languages.
From my understanding, getting to and around Nara isn't as easy as some of the larger cities, and so I recommend either this tour or a full-day tour of Nara.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on December 11, 2001
I had pretty good views of night-time Tokyo, since it was after dark. The city glows as pretty much any large metropolis does after sunset.
There are a few souvenier stands at the top as well as lavatories.
Even if you don't spend a lot of time here, I would suggest a visit, just to look around and a get a feel for the place. There are a number of activities here that I didn't partake of, including going to the Inner Garden and the treasure museum.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on December 3, 2001
The East Garden is the site of the former Edo Castle, which was started by the first Tokugawa Shogun. There are a few structures remaining of the castle. The beautifully landscaped garden offers a nice retreat from the bustle of Tokyo. Admission was free on the day I got there, but I don't know if that is the case every day or not.
One section of the garden showcases a large number of plants from around Japan. Each prefecture (Japanese version of a state or county) is represented by its official tree.
I saw people relaxing on the grass and having lunch.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on December 3, 2001
On weekends the major streets are blocked off for pedestrian use, and the whole area takes on a carnival-like atmosphere, with street performs and crowds.
The best way to get here is by Tokyo subway. Take the Ginza line to the Ginza stop. There're also 2 JR train stations, Shimbashi and Yurakucho, but these are at the periphery of the shopping district, whereas the Ginza subway stop is right in the middle of everything.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on December 2, 2001
Some useful and interesting facts about the tower:
You can walk here in under 5 minutes from the Sakuragicho JR train station, just one stop from the Yokohama train station.
There's the usual host of amenities at the observation deck, including food, toilets and a souvenier shop.
There is an underground shopping mall at the tower, with shops and restaurants. It is also connected to another shopping mall, Queen's Square. This one has more shops and restaurants. :) The food court at Queen's Square has some western food, including a Subway shop. There is a Hard Rock Cafe on the outside, near the spot where the two malls meet. There is an amusement park outside as well, with a large ferris wheel and some other attractions.
Inside the castle are large grounds with sculpted gardens. The main building is called Ninomaru Palace. In here you can walk through various sections of the palace and see how the Shogun lived and worked. There are a number of figures in traditional dress on display in many rooms, to give you a better idea of what things were like. Photography is not allowed inside.
Inside the territory of the castle is another palace, Honmaru, surrounded by an additional moat and walls. I didn't see any way to enter this building.
The grounds are open 8:45 AM to 4:00 PM (gates closet at 5) every day, except December 26 through January 4.
To get here, take the subway to the Nijomae stop, which will let out across the street. The other option is to take the JR Sagano line one stop from Kyoto to Nijo. The Castle is a 5-10 minute walk from here.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on December 15, 2001
The museum also has a collection of items damaged by the bomb. You can see watches that stopped at 8:15 AM, glass bottles and vases, melted and twisted into odd shapes by the incredible heat, damaged bridge supports, etc.
The experience is far from pleasant, but is a must for any visitor to Japan. Only by acknowledging the horror, only by seeing the devastation, can we truly understand the danger of nuclear weapons. No abstract notions about their power can compare to the effect of seeing the immense scope of the damage.
The museum is open from 9 AM to 6 PM May through Novemeber, and until 5 PM December through April. Doors close 30 minutes before the museum. It is closed December 29 through January 2. Admission is 50 yen for adults, 30 for children. Audio guides in multiple languages are available for a fee of 150 yen. Telephone number: (082) 241-4004
To get here, take the number 2 or 6 street car from Hiroshima Station, and get off at the A-bomb Dome stop (Genbaku Dome-mae).
You will most likely go through the Peace Park on your way to the Peace Memorial Museum. If you take the streetcar (No. 2 or 6) from Hiroshima train station, get off at the A-bomb Dome stop (Genbaku Domu-mae).
There are several shops at the stop, offering some food, drink and souveniers. There's also a path that goes up to a point that offers exceptional views of Mt. Fuji and the surrounding area. A local tradition is to boil eggs in the naturally hot water. These are for sale, and you can safely eat them.
Best way to travel around Tokyo is by subway or train. A JR rail pass doesn't cover the Tokyo subway, so be prepared to pay cash. The subway ticket vending machines do not speak English. However, fare adjustment machines do. What that means is that your best bet, if you're not sure how much to pay, is to buy the cheapest ticket (160 yen, I believe) and then insert it into a fare adjustment machine before you exit. You buy a ticket by putting money in the machine until a button with the fare you want lights up. When it does, push it, and a paper ticket will come out. Be sure to take the ticket out of the gate as you enter, because you will need it to exit. Overall I found the subways not as English-friendly as JR, but far more extensive around the city.
Some of the major attractions in the city I have individual entries for. These include:
There are other things to see in Tokyo, I'm sure, but I can't say much about them, since I was never there!
Overall, my impression of Tokyo was that a day and a half to two days was enough to get a feeling for this city. I would recommend allocating more time for Kyoto.
I had to take a few other train lines, and I think JR is the most tourist-friendly (not to mention most effective, and the only one with high-speed trains connecting major cities). Every station has signs in English for the station name, the direction (by showing the previous and next station) and exits. Inside trains there are often electronic signs with the name of the station showing in both Japanese and English, and sometimes audio announcements are made in English.
Train service is very extensive and dead-on punctual. Trains run from as frequently as every 5 minutes up to about 30 minutes apart. There is a variety of train types, including local, express, limited express and shinkansen (superexpress as they call it in Japan, or bullet train). Local and express trains are very similar to the type of trains in the subways. There are no reserved seats, and most people end up standing. Some trains also have Green cars (first class), which offer comfortable and spacious seats.
Some trains require reservations before boarding because all the seats are assigned. In this case you should go to a ticket window before boarding the train. You can make reservations up to a month or so in advance, but you have to do them in person at a JR ticket office in Japan.
Trains are often crowded. My advice is to spend the extra money and buy a Green rail pass. This gives you the flexibility of traveling in ordinary cars, but also gives you the right to be in first class cars. If available, first class seating is more comfortable, with a 2x2 configuration (the Narita Express ordinary seats, for example, have seats so that there are 2 seats facing 2 seats on either side of the aisle, and your knees may end up in someone else's knees). On most local trains you don't even need a reservation for a first class seat. First class seats on limited express and shinkansen trains do require reservations, though. Ticket and reservation windows are clearly marked with signs in both Japanese and English. Be prepared to write down the date and time of your train (using the 24 hour format), because not everyone will speak enough English to understand you.
Shinkansen and some limited express trains offer food service, but try to avoid it, since it is expensive and not very diverse. Bring your food and drink with you and eat it on board instead.
All platforms have spots marked where the doors will open and people line up at these spots. The doors do indeed open where indicated. There are also car numbers marked on the columns supporting the roof of the stations, the train cars themselves and sometimes on the platform pavement. Reserved seat tickets will have a car number on them. Green cars are usually towards the middle of the train.
Don't expect the train or station staff to speak much English. Most will know enough to tell you the track number if you tell them what line or station you're going to, but that's about it. Get a good train map (Tokyo area map is available as a PDF file from the JR web site I have listed at the top) and stick to reading it.
November brings fantastic leaf colors to much of Japan, and I think to Kyoto in particular. The colors as I walked around the old temples were just mindboggling.
The best way to get around Kyoto is on your own two feet. You get to experience so much more of the city that way. If you need to get somewhere fast, though, you should take the subway. The subway system is very tourist-friendly. All signs and announcements are in both Japanese and English. Ticket vending machines, which operate on the same principle as in Tokyo, also offer some limited help in English. There is a bus network as well, but I can't really say much about it.
Kyoto offers so many attractions, that you should allocate 2 days at the very minimum. It is also close to the ancient city of Nara (see separate entry), and it is possible to take a full- or a half-day bus tour. Here are some of the sights in Kyoto that I strongly recommend (because I went there!):
Kyoto is about 2 to 2.5 hours from Tokyo by bullet train.
The major attraction of Hiroshima is the Peace Memorial Park. This includes the A-Bomb Dome, the park and the museum. See a separate entry for more information on these.
Hiroshima has a system of street cars that operates rather frequently. One terminal is at the main train station, so this is a great way to connect with JR/bullet trains. Get on the street car, and pay the conductor when exiting. There are maps of the street car lines inside the cars, with english station names on them. The major tourist stops are also announced in english.
Hiroshima is about 4 to 4.5 hours from Tokyo by bullet train.
You could take a bus tour here, or you could do as I did, and go on your own. If you choose to do that, take the train to Odawara. You can get here either by Shinkansen or by the Tokaido line. From Odaware you will need to switch from JR to the Hakone-Tozan transportation system, which includes trains, rope cars, cable cars, boats and buses. It really is as fun as it sounds, so keep reading.
My advice is to buy the Hakone Free Pass at the Hakone Tozan Information Center at Odawara station.. It costs 4130 yen for adults and 2070 yen for children and is valid for 3 days, so you can come back and spend more time here. If you go on a weekday, you can save some money by buying the Weekday Pass for 3410 yen for adults and 1700 yen for children. The weekday pass can only be purchased monday-thursday, and is not available March 20-April 10, April 29-May 5, July 20-August 31 and December 30-January 3.
The first leg of the trip is by train to the Hakone-Yumoto station. Here you will change to another train, which will take you up into the mountains to Gora. At Gora you will change to a ropeway, which is like a street car, but pulled by rope up a very steep hill. It makes a few stops along the way, and gets you to Sounzan stop, which is the end of the line. It takes about 1 hour to get here from Hakone-Yumoto. At Sounzan you will take a cable car. About 6-8 people fit inside each cabin. The cable car makes several stops before reaching its destination, which is Todendai Station. Here you can change to a boat that cruises Lake Ashi. The boat takes you across the lake to Moto-Hakone area. Depending on the time of day you can either retrace your steps or take a bus directly to Odawara station.
There is plenty to see in the area, and you should get out at every stop and look around. I have included entries on some of the major attractions that I visited. These are: