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  • Janis Nunez

Japan: Tokyo and Kyoto

Updated: Sep 16, 2023

We waited for this trip for a long time. This was the first place my boys wanted to travel to when we started traveling internationally as a family. And let me tell you, it did not disappoint. What an amazing country. Wish we could have stayed longer. We visited in June of 2023.


BEFORE YOU GO


ADAPTER: If you are traveling from the US, you don't need any adapters. If you are traveling from a country where you will need one, we usually each have our own. You might need it at the airport if you need to charge while you are waiting for your flight home, so keep it in your carry-on bag.


Know the wattage of your electronics before you go, so that you know if you need a converter, adapter or both. I have a universal wattage flat iron. It saves me the hassle of worrying if I need an adapter AND converter. Most hotels and Airbnb rentals provide a hair dryer, so just make sure whatever you bring has Worldwide Voltage, or you will also need a converter.


PHONE: Contact your cell phone provider to see what is included. T-Mobile gives unlimited data and texting, but charges $0.25 per minute per call. I have read other companies require you to get a SIM card, so contact your provider for details. You can also download WhatsApp to your phone and call using Wi-Fi to call others who also have the app installed.


If you have T-Mobile, they also offer In-Flight Connection that gives customers free connectivity with streaming on American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Delta Air Lines. This includes data, streaming, and text messaging. All you do is connect to the Wi-Fi and add your phone number to the T-Mobile prompt and you are all set.


CONTACT YOUR BANK AND CREDIT CARD COMPANIES: It's important to let the bank know when you will be out of town so that you won't have any problems withdrawing your money when you get to your destination. You also may need to notify your credit card company of the travel dates. We like to withdraw local currency when we arrive at our destination from a bank ATM in one lump sum. This avoids extra fees for multiple transactions. You can get away with using a credit card most everywhere, but having some local currency is always a good idea. Some credit cards charge fees for use, so ask about fees for both your ATM and credit cards. Depending on where you visit in Japan, you may need more cash as they don't accept credit cards in some restaurants, shops and sights.


WHERE TO STAY: Depending on what you will be doing on your trip, it's best to stay in the area you will be doing the most activities. Central locations are pricier, so if you are trying to stay on a budget don't be afraid to stay on the outskirts near a train station. Neighborhoods and tourist sites are spread pretty far apart in Tokyo, so be sure wherever you are staying, it's close to a train station. You will definitely utilize the metro in Japan.


Comfort Hotel Tokyo Higashi Kanda: This trip we used points for our 3 days in Tokyo and tried a new hotel through Choice Privileges. Very budget friendly with a short walk to metro stations. This hotel offered free breakfast and although the rooms were on the smaller side (1 queen bed in each room), the service and staff were excellent. There are complimentary pajamas, hairbrushes, and razors in the lobby that you can help yourself to. Water and coffee are also available in the lobby.


Complimentary breakfast is always a plus. Their breakfast is substantial, and it will be your first look at a Japanese breakfast. You will find an assortment of foods: rice, chicken, scrambled eggs, sausages, cabbage salad, potato salad, broccoli, soups, waffles, buns, croissants, cold cereal, yogurt and fruit, and more. Child plates and silverware also available. Chopsticks and silverware are available. Hotel Link



Crowne Plaza - ANA Kyoto: This hotel is fantastic. It has very spacious rooms. We had requested a king size bed, but upon check-in one wasn't available, and we got two beds. Wow, so comfortable and spacious. Our bathroom had a separate shower and tub. The toilet is in another area which is nice. Electronic window blinds and perfect lighting and mirrors. It also had several closets. We were very pleased with the room. Nice couch and table area to relax at after a long day. Use the teapot or Nescafe and the glass mugs at your convenience. No complimentary breakfast here, but all of the other necessities met. There is also a pool and sauna. The hotel is massive and just across from Nijo Castle. Easy access to trains and bus stations. There is also a free shuttle to and from Kyoto Station which is a plus. Hotel Link



WHEN YOU ARRIVE


CURRENCY: You can find an international ATM at any of the convenience stores to get the local currency. Check fees and try to take out the lump sum of what you need, so that you don't get hit with multiple fees from the country, your bank, and exchange rates. The currency in Japan is called yen. Some places will accept credit card, but many still do accept only cash. We had to take out more money in this country than we have had to in any other. Tokyo we could use our cards most places. Kyoto was mostly cash based.


Download the currency converter app on your phone to help you convert to your local currency to keep spending in check.


TRANSPORTATION: Tokyo is definitely a place you are going to want to use the metro rather than trying to navigate its busy streets by car. It is relatively easy to use once you get the hang of it. I would recommend looking at maps online of the different transportation options, as it can get tricky.


There are several options to get from point A to point B. The easiest way to find your route is to use google maps. It will give you all of the transit options and you can pick which is best for you. It also states what train platform to leave from and what exit to take when you arrive at your destination. It gives the cost of the trip at the end of the directions so that you can make the right choice. I like to keep track of all of the stops by following along on my phone to make sure I'm headed in the right direction.

UBER: While they do not have uber officially, you can still utilize the uber app to call a taxi. The benefit of using the app is that you know exactly how much you will be paying, and it works just like uber, only in taxi form. We used it to get from the airport to our first hotel and any time we found it quicker and cheaper to use than the metro while exploring the city.


JR RAIL PASS: If you are planning to travel long distances to visit other areas in the country, this may be something to consider. With the rail pass all of your travel on any JR train is covered. We got a 7-day pass, so it covered all of the trains for 7 days. Purchasing the rail pass from the official site also allows you to book your seats for the high-speed bullet train (Shinkansen) online. This comes in handy so that you can all get seats together and you don't have to make a special trip to a station to get the seats reserved. You can also just get them at the ticket counter, or at self-service ticket machines.


Here's how it works: Purchase your JR Pass from the official website JAPAN RAIL PASS. You will receive a confirmation email with a reservation number for each passenger. Bring this information with you to the JR Ticket counter upon arrival to the airport. If you are going through Haneda Airport, the counter is near the monorail entrance, so you can follow those signs if you can't find the JR signs.


Once you get the pass keep it safe. If lost, they will not reimburse you. The ticket is used upon entering the train station and when leaving the station.


TRAINS AND BUSES: If you see an option to use a JR train rather than another line, you may choose to use that train if you have a JR Pass as it would be already paid for with your pass. All other modes you can use an IC card. These include Pasmo and Suica. They are used interchangeably, so just get whichever you find more easily.


We used the SUICA. Both cards require you to add yen. If using a physical card, you will need cash to top up. If you have an iPhone, you can add the transit card to your apple wallet for free and top up with a credit card as needed (Visa card not accepted for this). We found this very easy and convenient since we always had our phones with us for navigation and taking photos. The Pasmo card can also be added to the apple wallet. This option is not available on Samsung phones. The Suica and Pasmo cards can also be used for purchases at convenience stores and some restaurants. Do some research online so you completely understand how it works before you go.


For trains you tap in and out of the stations. If using the JR Pass you insert your ticket when you go into and out of the station. For buses you tap at the end of the ride by the driver or pay with exact change as you leave. On the bus, when you hear your stop announced as the next stop, you tap the red square on the nearest pole to let the driver know you need to get off at the next stop.


CONVENIENCE STORES: This is a great way to grab cheap snacks to hold you over or even a full meal. Traveling with boys, someone is always hungry. The three main stores are 7-11, FamilyMart, and Lawsons. You are not allowed to walk with food and drink in Japan, so use the counters available at the stores if you want to eat right away. This is also where you want to take out cash with your ATM card. Convenience stores have international ATMs.

Onigiris are rice balls, and they are a common quick meal for the Japanese. The rice ball is wrapped in seaweed, and within it is usually some form of protein filling such as tuna, salmon or tamago.


My son purchased these several times on our trip.


We also purchased croquettes, fried chicken, ice cream, candy, sandwiches (the strawberry cream is to die for!), yogurt, drinks, they have it all. Other popular items include bento boxes, instant noodles, mochi, fried chicken, grilled meat skewers, pork buns, all kinds of salads, fruit, milk bread, chips, pastries, candy, coffee and drinks, along with all kinds of essentials and more food options. Convenience stores are fantastic in Japan!


SIGHTSEEING


Tokyo Day 1: After such a long flight, we planned to explore somewhat close to the hotel. My boys are into anime, arcades and retro games, so I knew they would love the Akihabara neighborhood. We dropped off our luggage and started by retro game shopping. Book Off, the Gigo building, Super Potato and Retro Game Camp were where my youngest son picked up tons of used games to bring home at great prices. (If your child purchases games, make sure that they are able to be played at home. Many systems are region locked.) My oldest son wanted to go to the arcade. In Japan the arcades are just amazing. He had a specific game he wanted to find and play while visiting that you can only play in Japan. We found it at Gigo and he was happy.



We asked a local for a recommendation for a good noodle place in the area and he directed us to a small place around the corner. It was filled with locals, so we knew it would be good. Many restaurants have you order from a kiosk, then take your ticket to the counter for the waiter to pick it up and then serve your food. Luckily for us there was a menu outside with photos and then the kiosk buttons were in Japanese and English. We got to watch the guy make the soba noodles while we waited. So great! An excellent end to our arrival day. I think the name is Sagaya, but I can't be sure.



Tokyo Day 2: Although the Sumo tournament season was over, they were going to be in town practicing at the Arashi-beya Sumo Stable. It was only about a 15-minute walk from our hotel. We got up early, had breakfast at the hotel and walked over to the practice. The scheduled time for the practice was 6:30am-9:30am. It was awesome!



We took the metro over to Tokyo Skytree. At the base of the Skytree building is Tokyo Solamachi which is an entertainment complex with shops and restaurants. Our first stop was my youngest son's must do in Japan...The Kirby Cafe. He has wanted to go to this cafe since he was little. Now 18, he was just as excited.


Any of the character cafes (Pokemon, Moomin, Peanuts, Shaun the Sheep, etc.) are by reservation only. The reservation for the Kirby Cafe becomes available one month before the reservation date, on the 10th of the month at 6pm Japan time. It sells out in 15 minutes. We were not able to get a reservation, but I did find out that we could order from the to-go menu and sit out front in the outdoor seating area. We got there right when it opened and put our order in. They give you a time slot to return to pick up your order and allow you to shop in the Kirby restaurant shop.



While we waited, we checked out the Pokemon Center, Kirby Store, and other fun stores. There are tons of other shops in the mall, so whatever you are into, you will find it here.



When our time slot came up for the Kirby takeout, we headed back over. The boys ordered one of each style burger and fries. The jello-drink was purchased over at the Kirby Store. The cafe takeout menu is very limited, so they ordered things that included keepsakes. One happy kid right there.



After eating, we went to the Donguri Kyowakoku Store (Studio Ghibli). My son wanted to go to the Studio Ghibli Museum, but those tickets are even harder to get so he settled for the stores. If there is something character related that you are set on doing, you need to start trying to get tickets MONTHS in advance.


Studio Ghibli is a Japanese animation studio. The most popular movies include My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, Spirited Away, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Castle in the Sky. They really are adorable cartoons. There is a large Totoro and Cat Bus here.



We took the metro over to the Taito Sightseeing Building. It's free to go to the 8th floor observation deck. There is a cafe at the top if you need a pit stop and there is a tourist information center on the first floor. You can get a great view of Skytree from here as well as Nakamise-dori Street. The street is filled with shops and leads up to the Senso-ji Temple.



Across the street from the Taito building is the Kaminarimon Gate (photos below). You walk through the gate and down Nakamise-dori Street (top right photo) to the temple. There are tons of shops to purchase seveners and lots of other items.



Omikuji can be found at a number of shrines. You give your offering of 100 yen, shake the box, choose a stick, find the drawer with the matching Japanese word, and take out the slip of paper with your fortune. If you get a good fortune, you take it with you. If it's a bad fortune, you leave it behind by tying it to a line or to a tree. They both got good fortunes!



There is a huge incense burner in front of the temple. People take their hands and direct the incense smoke over their body. This gesture cleanses the body and symbolizes healing. The Senjo-ji Temple is an ancient Buddhist Temple.



Around the corner from the temple are the gardens.



From here we headed over to Kura Sushi for conveyor belt sushi. You use the electronic menu to order your selections and it comes directly to your table on the top conveyor belt. My oldest doesn't like sushi, so he ordered ramen. You also make your own matcha tea with the powder and hot water at the table. Really fun and you get points for putting your small plates in the slot at the table as you finish to get a chance to play a gave for a prize.



Here comes my sushi.


Don Quijote stores are found all over Tokyo. You can find everything here. Each floor has something different on it, so check them all out. We got a selection of different flavored KitKat here, as well as a number of souvenirs and snacks to take home to friends and family.



Here are a few murals we passed along our walks.



Last stop of the day was out to Tokyo Tower. Great views of the city, but definitely crowded.



Tokyo Day 3: The Meiji Jingu Shrine and Forest is a beautiful park in the middle of Tokyo. There is a huge wall of Saki barrels on the main road. The large Torii-gate represents the boundary between secular area and sacred area. Before you go into the temple you are supposed to purify yourself with water. You can make an offering of your gratitude and wishes in an envelope or on a wooden ema to hang in front of the Sanctuary.



A short walk down the path is the beautiful Meiji Jingu Gardens. The path leads you down to a beautiful pond with water lilies.



Then to the Iris gardens. The Irises look beautiful in June!



Next, we took the metro to the Shibuya neighborhood. When you come out of Shibuya station you are very close to the famous Hachiko Statue. Right next to this area is the Shibuya Crossing (the world's busiest intersection). We were there fairly early in the day so it wasn't as crowded as it can get. Then we started walking toward center Gia Street which is a pedestrian street with shops and restaurants. Later in the day the crossing was very busy.



Japan has gachapon everywhere! Vending machine capsule toys of all kinds. My son had to get all the Kirby capsule toys. Most of these machines are fairly cheap, but some places have more valuable items inside and cost a bit more. I think they were about 300-500 yen.



For lunch we headed to Ichiran Ramen. It's very popular in Japan. The company started as a food stall and then they try to give you that same atmosphere at a restaurant level. Each person gets their own stall, and your server communicates to you by raising and lowering the bamboo curtain.


You order at the front of the restaurant at the kiosk and take your ticket to your assigned booth. Fill out the customization form (it is in Japanese and English) and give it along with your ticket, to your server by setting it on the table in front of you. They take it and the curtain is lowered. You never see the server's face.


The side wall has wooden tokens that you can use if you have questions, leave your seat but aren't finished, or just don't know what to do that you can place on the table for your server. You also have the option to order more noodles, drinks, etc. by filling out a form and hitting the call button. If you add on the soft-boiled egg, you do peel it yourself and add it to the ramen. The ramen is excellent. We loved the experience! (The bottom photo of us shows that we figured out how to close up some of the dividers to have a larger stall.)



Our next stop was the PARCO Building to go to the Nintendo Store.



There are lots of fun things around the building to check out.