The Great Escape: 9 Days in Japan
I just got back from the most epic trip to Japan and have to tell someone about it! Having last visited this amazing country almost 20 years ago, my experience was dated, but my memories were still so vivid. I realized that my life would only be complete if I visited Japan as an adult at least once. So I booked my trip and decided to bring along my mom and both of my grandmothers. I can definitively say that my grandmothers are cooler than your grandmothers. I've never seen two women over 80 who muscled their way through the subways of Tokyo like they did. Our journey started and ended in Tokyo where we traveled from and to LAX on a nonstop Singapore Airlines flight. The flight was surprisingly awesome considering it averaged 11 hours both ways. The unlimited free booze helped.
Flight attendant: "Would you like a drink?"
Me: "Can you make a Bloody Mary?"
Flight attendant: "Of course"
Me: "How much?"
Flight attendant: *confused* "umm, they're free"
Me: "I'll take 12 please"
And just like that we arrived at the Narita Airport.
Now, a few things before I just hand out my itinerary like some looney. I bought my tickets over 4 months in advance and opted to buy two separate round-trip tickets. One round-trip ticket from ATL to LAX and one from LAX to NRT. The combination of early purchase and buying these tickets separately saved me more than $300. Additionally, I planned the trip for March with the return date being right before peak tourist season began. Mid-March was such a perfect time to travel as it wasn't too cold. Lastly, after several visits to the drawing board, we settled on going the typical tourist route (Tokyo to Kyoto and back) but with some twists. Specifically, of all the things I wanted to do while we were there, watching sumo wrestling was at the top of my list, so we took a day trip to Osaka. We also bought JR Rail Passes, sumo tickets and made reservations for the Tsukiji Tour and Sushi Bar Yasuda in advance.
For general information on planning a trip to Japan, check out our other article here!
9 Day Itinerary
Day 1: Arrive in Japan!
We landed right at 1 pm Japan time. After deplaning, we exchanged our vouchers for the JR Rail Pass and booked our train ticket into Tokyo. We also picked up a portable Wi-Fi that we pre-ordered with our JR Rail Pass before getting on the train. I think it's worth mentioning that I was stopped in the airport for a live interview on one of those Japanese TV shows where they ask tourists why they came to Japan. Then they make fun of the bizarre looks on their faces when they're trying to answer translated questions while still recovering from Bloody Mary-induced hangovers. I'm still looking for the clip online (here's an example). Once again, I'll never be President with these kinds of skeletons in my online closet.
Anyways, the train takes between 1-1.5 hours to get to Tokyo Station and we transferred to the subway to get to our final stop.
After following picture-directions to our Airbnb that we printed out stateside, we dropped the luggage and breathed a big sigh of relief. We've made it to Japan! And in one piece! Yay! As it was almost dinner time by this point, we each showered and decided to walk around the neighborhood looking for an izakaya to eat at. Luckily for us, Japan has the highest concentration of restaurants anywhere in the world, and at every corner there were multiple places to choose from. So we grabbed some tonkatsu and sake at a neighborhood place and went to bed around 9 pm.
Right and Up Tip: In an effort to get to our Airbnb in Tokyo before it got dark, we pre-planned to make sure no time was wasted once we landed. One of the best decisions we made was to only bring carry-on luggage. We packed an empty duffel bag in our carry-on that we filled with gifts and souvenirs along the way, and checked it on the return flight.
Day 2: Ginza
We found the cutest coffee shop near our place in the morning. Lots of grunting and pointing helped to break the language barrier. After that we took a nice walking tour of Eastern Tokyo that totaled about 6 miles. We loved seeing how active the city was with lots of parents bringing their children to school on bikes. Shopkeepers took pride in their front stoops by decorating with potted plants that were clearly well cared for. If it had been open, we would've stopped for coffee at the Owl Café!
For lunch, we hopped on the subway and headed to Ginza, the shopping district. Here we found a bustling crowd of shoppers all trying to take advantage of some of the world's best shopping. But we were there for another reason: the depachikas! At the lower levels of many department stores is a labyrinth of food-loving Heaven! Anything you can imagine in Japanese cuisine can be found here. It was like Whole Foods and a food truck festival had a baby and I became the sole legal guardian, denying visitation rights to anyone I wished. We carefully placed our eyes back in our heads and enjoyed a nice lunch.
After walking around some more and finally making our way back to the Airbnb, we took a nap and awaited dinner. A trip to Tokyo would be incomplete without a visit to Piss Alley—a hidden alley in the middle of chaotic Tokyo where hundreds of locals gather for grub and alcohol at the end of a long day. You had to squeeze into seats at a crowded bar where the chef would cook his specialty, typically on the grill at the counter. There is no room for anti-socialites and germaphobes in this environment.
Day 3: Tsukiji Fish Market Tour
If you are traveling to Japan for the first time then I highly recommend scheduling a guided tour of Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest fish market in the world! We opted to go with the Tsukiji Sushi Insider Workshop, which completely exceeded expectations. After a tour of the outer market, we were given the "insider" tour of the inner market where the actually bidding takes place. Since the fish mongers and government were in the middle of a tense battle about relocating the market to a different part of Tokyo, outsiders weren't exactly welcomed, but it was still fascinating. As long as you remain with your tour group and don't get in the way of any business, the tour was enjoyable. You have to remain on your toes so you don't get run over by fish carts zooming by...they literally don't care about running you over. Quite the adrenaline rush!
At the end of the insider tour, the guides take you to a fish monger who chooses and kills a few fish right in front of you. You then take that fish with you to make sushi with within the hour. A quick walk to the outer market and you're at the Workshop where the chef greets you and gives you a hands-on lesson to sushi-making. Bottom line: it's much harder than it looks. But it was one of the highlights of the trip! They gave us as much fish as we wanted and we left with full tummies and big smiles. I couldn't recommend this more!
For dinner, we met up with a few friends in Tokyo near Ebisu Station. If we didn't meet up with friends, we would've found a fabulous ramen shop outside of Tokyo Station.
Day 4: Travel to Kyoto
It is worth mentioning that at the end of every day, we would visit our favorite local convenience store and buy quirky Japanese snacks and breakfast foods that we would munch on for breakfast. After divvying up some yogurt, instant miso and prunes, we packed our belongings and set out for Kyoto!
We reserved seats on the Shinkansen (bullet train) and loaded up on some wine and beer from the cart that came by once during the 2.5 hour trip. The weather wasn't clear enough to catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji, but seeing the Japanese countryside was a treat.
Upon arriving, we made our way to our Kyoto Airbnb near Gojo Station. This ended up being a great central location to all the places we wanted to visit. We arrived in the early afternoon, so we had time to shower and change before scouting the neighborhood. One of the most obvious differences between here and Tokyo was how much quieter it was. We arrived on a Sunday, so most people were relaxing at home, but from the balcony of our room you could hear a bicyclist coming from a mile away. It was so serene.
We ended up finding an adorable local tempura restaurant about a block from our place. If it weren't for our desire to explore every opportunity in Kyoto, we would've eaten every meal here! After much sake and kanpai'ing, it was time for bed.
Day 5: Dotonbori and Sumo!
And so begins my most favorite day in all of my existence. After eating our Japanese convenience store snacks, we stumbled out of our Airbnb and decided to do some quick shopping before sightseeing. First, we made our way to one of the oldest paper stores in the country: Morita Wagami. Of all the places we went to buy souvenirs, this was the coolest! There were so many reasonably-priced and beautiful gift options to choose from. My grandmothers bought some origami paper, and I bought a few hand-painted paper folding pictures. We also visited a kimono shop that was right outside our Airbnb and one of the oldest chopstick stores in Japan, Ichihara Heibei Shoten. Then it was off to the races!!
After a 35-minute train ride to Osaka, it was time for lunch. No better place to eat in the world than Dotonbori! If Japan is the food capital of the world, and Dotonbori is the food capital of Japan, then...yeah, all signs point to yes. We spent about two hours snacking along the main drag. Tako-yaki (fried octopus balls) followed by okonomiyaki (savory Japanese pancake) followed by fugu (blowfish!), all washed down with sake. We made a quick stop at a convenience store for some beer and pizza-flavored potato chips to shove in our purses, then made our way to the sumo gymnasium.
I've never actually watched sumo before. I suppose most people haven't, but we've all heard of it or seen clips on TV. I can say without any reservations, that it was one of the most mesmerizing and exciting sporting events I've ever attended! We went into it totally blind, without any knowledge of the sport or rules. We were quick to make friends with the locals sitting next to us who pointed to the agenda and told us who to root for. The rules became very clear after the first match, and by that point we were addicted.
We left before the final match ended to avoid the crippling crowd and made our way back to Kyoto with full hearts.
Day 6: Kyoto Sightseeing
With this being our first full day in Kyoto, we wanted to see some sights! The most famous of which is Fushimi Inari Shrine. If you've ever seen pictures of Japanese shrines, it's likely that you've seen Fushimi Inari. The bright orange and red gates are world-renowned. After getting off at Inari Station, the shrine is literally right there! It got packed quickly though, so we were happy that we arrived when we did, which was around 10:30 a.m., if memory serves me.
You could spend hours walking up the mountain to the shrine, but we opted to stay close and take a few iconic pictures and do some souvenir shopping. After getting our fill of trinkets, we snacked our way back to the train. Like I've always said, soy sauce grilled corn, yakitori (grilled meat on a stick), and cold Japanese beer never hurt nobody.
After our return to Central Kyoto, we took a nice walk to Nishiki Market for some more shopping. Here we made one of the best purchases of the trip: a carbon-steel Japanese knife. We bought ours at Aritsugo, which is one of the oldest knife-makers in Japan. They even engraved our last names on the knife free of charge.
Exhausted and broke, we made our way back to our Airbnb to clean up. A short walk around our neighborhood scored us a lovely local restaurant for dinner that specialized in okonomiyaki and Wagyu beef.
Day 7: Gion and Nijo Castle
For our last day in Kyoto, we decided to play it by ear. There are so many sights to choose from, but many required more travel and walking than others. We knew we wanted to visit Gion, the geisha district, so we decided to head there first. It was the coldest and rainiest day yet, and we realized very quickly that we didn't want to travel too far from home. We barely made it off the subway before requiring something hot and sweet. Luckily for us, there were several Matcha (green tea) shops along the way. We stopped at one to warm our bellies before continuing on.
Gion itself was beautiful, but I wish we had visited at night since daytime was filled with so many tourists. It is a nighttime district, where Geishas are actually working, so that would've been cool to see. But going during the daytime allowed us to appreciate the traditional architecture.
After some brief shopping, we got on the subway for a quick stop at Nijo Castle. The castle was a shogun residence and the gates and architecture were beautiful. We did a quick self-guided walking tour and decided it was time for one of the most anticipated meals of the trip: RAMEN!!
Near Gojo Station was a tiny ramen restaurant, Taiho, that seated about 10 total guests. Hands-down the best ramen I've ever had. I slurped that entire bowl like it was my job and washed it down with beer like my life depended on it, which it did. Since this was a very late lunch, there was no room for dinner. We decided to drink sake on the balcony and try our best not to be those loud, obnoxious Americans. Fail.
Day 8: Return to Tokyo. Eat at Sushi Bar Yasuda.
And so it's back to Tokyo we go! This time, the sky was clear enough for us to get a glimpse of Mt. Fuji. In the warmer months, a hike on Mt. Fuji would make for a great day trip from Tokyo. After arriving to Tokyo Station, we bought a few bento boxes for lunch, which we snacked on before making our way to the final Airbnb.
About two months prior to the trip, I made reservations at Sushi Bar Yasuda—a restaurant run by one of the best sushi chefs in the world. Chef Yasuda used to own one of the top 10 restaurants in New York City, but decided he wanted to head back home to Japan to continue his legacy. He is a one-man show with no apprentices. When he dies, his craft dies with him. Not only does he speak great English, but he makes phenomenal sushi. I'm not sure I can ever eat sushi again without thinking about how much better it is at Sushi Bar Yasuda.
I highly recommend splurging on this once in a lifetime meal. The whole experience lasted just over an hour, and after all the traveling and stuffing our faces with sushi, we decided to head back to our room for the night.
Day 9: Visit cherry blossom park and return to airport
Our flight back home didn't leave until 6:45 pm, but considering it takes 1.5 hours to get to the airport and we needed to get there 2.5 hours early, that meant we had time for one last adventure. After packing up and closing out the Airbnb, we took our luggage with us to visit the cherry blossoms at Uneo Park en route to Tokyo Station. It was one day away from blooming season and all the arrangements were set for the big event. Though it would've been great to see all the trees in full bloom (the picture above is what we missed!), we could detect a hint of pink throughout the park and the money we saved by traveling before the bloom made it worth it.
With that, we made our way to the Narita Airport and awaited our long, Bloody-Mary-infused flight back to LAX. All in all, it was the perfect trip for first-timers.
It is probably worth mentioning that my budget for this trip was $3,500. This might sound like a lot, but this included everything: roundtrip flights from ATL to LAX and LAX to NRT, lodging in LAX and Japan, food, transportation, and all the shopping. If you'd like to plan a similar trip and are looking for ways to cut down the cost, I'd recommend the following: plan a trip for January (tickets were about $300 cheaper). Don't worry about getting close seats for the sumo tournament (should save about $30). I probably spent about $500 in souvenirs and about $200 in booze. These things are important to me. What can I say? By far the best decisions we made that saved us money were to make lodging arrangements through Airbnb and utilize the subway. Many tourists use taxis, which are the most expensive mode of transportation.
At the end of the day, the experience of traveling in a foreign country that doesn't speak much English is a huge confidence booster. Plus, Japan remains one of the only places that I would feel comfortable traveling to alone as a woman. I hope this itinerary was helpful!
about the author
Riley is an active duty US Army Captain and the Founder of Right and Up. She’s currently stationed in Washington, DC, with previous assignments at Fort Huachuca, Fort Bliss, Fort Riley and Fort Benning. You can typically find her eating embarrassingly large amounts of food in local restaurants, or exploring her military town with her husband, Sean and her dog, Gus. Connect with her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter!