After many, many hours of travel–a teary goodbye to my love, a flight to Seattle, sleeping on a bench at the airport, reveling in the Alaska lounge for the morning, a particularly-teary flight to Seoul, running as fast as I could to my connecting gate, a flight to Narita Airport, and an hour bus ride to Tokyo– the wheels screech to a halt and a instrumental version of Andrea Bocelli’s Time to Say Goodbye comes over the loudspeaker. I hear Welcome to Tokyo amidst a blur of languages I could not understand. In my jetlagged haze, I grab my bags and hurry through the silent airport. I find a bathroom and have my first experience with the futuristic Japanese toilets that makes us Americans look like we’re a century behind. In minutes I am through customs and soon standing at the bus stop waiting for my bus to Toky. This is my first experience with Japanese efficiency. The temperate, humid air feels good on my skin. I can’t believe I’m here.
It was five years ago that I last traveled alone. Since then much has happened, the most important being us getting married. People don’t really know what to make of a married woman traveling alone. I’m not sure I know what to make of a married woman traveling alone, but nevertheless it was something I wanted to do. So a few months ago, in the height of the cold, dark Montana winter, when wanderlust came to call, I booked a ticket to Tokyo departing two months later.
Creating an itinerary was daunting; Japan is a lot bigger than I thought, and I would happily visit any prefecture. But, I had to choose. I tried my best to create an itinerary that would give me my city time but also allow for escapes to small islands and the countryside. I put together this itinerary:
Two-week Japan Itinerary for a First-Timer:
Day 1: Arrive in Tokyo
Day 2: Tokyo ( Fish Market and around, Yanaka, Nippori)
Day 3: Tokyo (Ueno, Asakusa, Shibuya)
Day 4: Day trip to Kanazawa from Tokyo
Day 5: Tokyo (Harajuku, Yanaka)
Day 6: Travel to/ Explore Kyoto (Southern Higashiyama)
Day 7: Kyoto (Central: Temple Complexes, Gion)
Day 8: Kyoto (Toji Temple Flea Market and Inari Shrine)
Day 9: Kyoto (Aragashiyama)
Day 10: Travel to Okayama/ Day trip to Kibi Plain Cycling Route
Day 11: Day trip to Naoshima Island
Day 12: Koyasan: Temples, Okunoin Cemetery
Day 13: Koyasan: Hiking, Temple Stay
Day 14: Koyasan/Travel to Tokyo
Day 15: Depart for USA
I ironed out the particulars as I went, usually sketching out what I would do the next day either at dinner the night before or else on the train to my next destination. I booked my accommodations in advance, and as I’ve been fortunate to experience on most trips, they proved to be among the best parts of the trip: a hostel, a ryokan, a minshuku, two guesthouses, and a shukubo (Buddhist temple). Phew.
I did more traveling on this trip than I have before. I usually stay put in one city and explore more deeply. But on this trip I wanted to venture farther. I chose to get the Japan Rail Pass, considering and calculating during the months before, and it really proved useful, mostly for the convenience and freedom it provided, not to mention saving a lot of money when it came down to it.
And from the moment I stepped off that plane, something was different. These years of traveling have given me more confidence, I suppose. That in combination with just how easy Japan makes it to get around made things go so smoothly. I felt calm and safe and free and maybe a little delirious. The language barrier proved not to be an issue and I arrived that night to a lively city, cleaner than I’d ever seen. I walked down the street, the wheels of my suitcase making that familiar sound that always excites me. Somehow, despite making the rookie move of not writing specific directions to the hostel, I arrived easily. I checked-in and was directed to my female dorm room. I tried to be as quiet as I could given the late-to-me hour of 11:30, foolish given the revelers arriving at 3:00 am. As I organized my things, the woman on the top bunk introduced herself, a traveler from Washington, my neighbor to the west. I smiled at her kindness, so appreciated after such a long trip, and remembered the same welcome extended by my top-bunk mate nine years ago at that first hostel in Rome.
Where to exchange currency at Narita Airport:
In the ground transportation hall right across from a little convenience store, there is a handy little machine that allows you to insert your currency in exchange for Japanese yen. I’m sure the rate isn’t the best but it’s far better than paying $10 to exchange $20 to get you into town.
When I booked my flight, I had no idea that Narita was so far from Tokyo. That, in combination with my late arrival, made for a bit of confusion in planning a) how to get to Tokyo from Narita after 10pm and b) where to stay that didn’t have a lock out time before 11pm.
Transport to Tokyo from Narita Airport at night:
The trains stop running relatively early. So if you’re trying to get to the Tokyo Station area, the bus is your best bet. The buses run regularly at night and are really comfortable, efficient, and cheap. I paid $10 and got dropped off right at Tokyo Station. Follow the signs to ground transportation and you’ll see a big window with a person who can tell you when the next bus is and where to catch it. Note: You need cash for the bus.
Recommendation for a hostel near Tokyo Station:
Wise Owl Hostels-Tokyo is a great hostel within walking distance of Tokyo Station that has a 24-hour reception. I stayed there at the beginning and end of my trip and it was perfect. For about $35, you get a cool little pod (all-female, if you prefer) and the facilities are shared but clean. There is even a kitchen on the top floor as well as a lounge with free computer access.
Tip: Ask for a lower bunk away from the door for a quieter stay; Though it is a dorm, after all.