Accidentally Nailed It - 10 Days in Japan
When Jess and Nick started planning their honeymoon (long before their wedding), their destination was a no-brainer: Japan. As a former chef and lifelong lover of Japanese culture, Nick itched to visit Japan. Jess spent time in Chile living abroad and was ready for a new adventure. They knew they wanted to visit during the famed Cherry Blossom season, but with crazy temperature swings, it was hard to predict the timing of the blooms.
As their wedding approached, then passed, they decided to pick some dates, book the flights, and they'd figure the rest out later. As you'll find out, that attitude served them well throughout their trip. Without knowing it, Nick and Jess "accidentally nailed" everything they did.
Jess and Nick knew visiting 4 cities in Japan was no easy feat, so packing efficiently and conveniently was top priority. They borrowed backpacking gear from friend and used vacuum bags (a great alternative to packing cubes!) to pack and organize their clothes. They organized the bags on clothing type: pants (2 pair), outerwear (1 warm zip up and 1 rain coat), undergarments for everyday, and tops (about 5 each, knowing they would re-wear them). Nick and Jess packed good ole fashioned Febreze and Wrinkle Releaser to make anything they wanted to wear again fresh and good-looking.
Japanese hotel rooms are quite small and different from Western style rooms. Their vacuum bags allowed Nick and Jess to control the clothing explosion that can happen when unpacking in a new place. Packing with this type of intentionality allowed Nick and Jess to enjoy their time in each city without the stress of having to reorganize each time they moved to new accommodations. As they wore their clothes, they were able to reuse the bags for their laundry and not have to mix clean pieces with things that needed washing.
In just 10 days, Nick & Jess visited 4 cities. They decided in advance to fly into Tokyo and out of Osaka and visit Hakone and Kyoto in between. First, they booked their flights in and out of Japan. Knowing they wanted to spend about 5 days in Tokyo, the couple searched bullet train stops and routes to help plan the rest of their trip.
Pro Tip: Print stuff in advance and take advantage of the wifi when you have it. Just because you bought a data plan in advance, doesn’t mean you'll have service where you are trying to go.
Jess and Nick were very intentional with their plans. They wanted to see Mt. Fuji, but not actually climb it or spend their precious time on bus tours to ride to Mt. Fuji just to say "okay, we saw it." They found their bullet train stop at Hakone, a town facing the famed mountain. Because of the natural hot springs in the area and the climate, Mt. Fuji is usually only visible in its entirety from 7 - 8:30 in the morning.
While planning the trip, Jess found searching Orbitz worked for the hotel search. Using the map view, you can search hotels to find their location and proximity to attractions, restaurants, and metro stops. However, Jess discovered the third party sites don't necessarily offer every type of room the hotel has available. Jess recommends going directly to the hotel website to book your room. In Hakone, for example, Jess accidentally booked a room with 5 futons and then found out she could have chosen a Mt. Fuji facing room or not. Prior to the trip, Jess emailed the hotel to ask if the 5 futon room had the view, but it did not. The night they arrived, they noticed their room did not have the 5 futons and lo and behold, when Nick & Jess work up early the next morning, they had a stunning view of Mt. Fuji. Luckily, for the honeymooning couple, the hotel switched their booking from a 5 person with no view, to a 2 person room with a view.
7-11 (Yeah, that 7-11)
7-11s are amazing in Japan. Throughout the country, convenience stores have extremely good food and things are readily available. Typically, breakfasts in Japan are udon which is rice with shaved beef. While udon is delicious, Jess and Nick also wanted some days with a lighter breakfast. Enter 7-11. Packaged onigiri, which is formed rice in a circle or triangle with fish in the middle, is like a sandwich and is a quick and easy breakfast. With fresh snacks and a variety of options for breakfast, 7-11 is unlike what Americans know it to be.
Pro Tip: 7-11s are some of the only ATMs for international bankers can use. Most other ATMs require you to be a Japanese bank account holder.
Japan’s Food Scene
As expected, Japan's food scene is incredible. Nick's chef background led him to dabble in Asian and Japanese cuisines, but Jess's first experience with Japanese food was the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. In planning the trip, Nick & Jess realized eating at Jiro's restaurant would be challenge. They not only had to make a reservation years out, but also be Japanese speaking as no English is spoken at the restaurant. They may have had a shot of getting a reservation by going through a concierge at a five star hotel, but it wasn't guaranteed. With no disappointment, the saw the restaurant, called it out to each other, and that was it.
At the recommendation of yours truly, Nick & Jess used Viator for advanced tickets for tours. One of the best things they did was a walking food tour. Food tours are typically very popular and Nick and Jess highly recommend one for Tokyo. On the food tour, the guide took them places they NEVER would have visited on their own. At the start, they went down an abandoned alley. Jess, admittedly thought they were going to get murdered, but it's an actually an alley towards glorious food. The alley turned into dozens of little restaurants that are a pocket of historical treasures from before WWII bombings. They got great skewers and the guide helped with cultural differences. In Japan, there are two ways for a place to say they are open: a lantern outside with the light on or a bamboo stick across the front door with 4 panels of fabric. Knowing this, Jess and Nick discovered dozens of places you never would have guessed served food.
Following the historical restaurant alley, they took the metro to a man-made island to sample a specific type of food developed on this particular island. After arriving, you sit at a table and cook your own food. Here, the cuisine is chef's choice, so you get whatever the chef decides. For Jess & Nick's visit, they got vegetables, octopus, meat, and dipping sauces. The guide told them how to go about eating the food, but without her, it's an intimidating experience. Definitely worth going on a food tour.
Pro Tip: When traveling on the metro, go all the way to the first car. Same with general boarding on the bullet train. It's still busy, but it's usually the least packed.
Throughout the trip, they found tons of good ramen, the best being little ramen shops with maybe 10 seats. They didn't have any plans going into the trip, but as they knew the areas they would visit, they looked up ratings during the evenings to figure out what was walkable. Because Tokyo is so restaurant-rich, they never took the metro to specifically get food.
Pro Tip: Book a hotel near a metro stop! With 450 metro stops in Tokyo, getting around is easy, but make sure you don't have a cab ride or a long walk following your stop.
One of the most enjoyable meals Nick & Jess was tsukemen, which is dipping noodles. In this meal, you dip noodles into the provided sauce and when the noodles are gone, you add seaweed broth to the sauce and finish it like a soup. Sitting in a little 10 seat bar eating tsukemen is an amazing eat-like-a-local experience. On the flip side, Jess and Nick celebrated their honeymoon with a fine dining meal, which was a completely different experience, but still wonderful.
Final Words of Wisdom
Nick and Jess balanced saving and splurging as well as scheduling events and experiencing the culture. In addition to learning about how restaurants show they're open and how to eat tsukemen, they also learned the importance of having a hotel near a metro stop. Needless to say, Nick and Jess had an amazing time and experienced a true Three Star Traveler style vacation.
Oh yeah, they did the Robot Cabaret. You should too!