Here are some observations and tips from my recent week-long trip to Tokyo and Kyoto with a friend. This was from April 25th to May 2nd, and it was my third trip and his first.
I’m not going to post an itinerary – we did all the usual things and I don’t think you’d be surprised by any of the places we visited, though I do have a few notes about Kyoto later on.
Arrival and Departure
- Arriving at Haneda at 11am, it took 30 minutes from exiting the plane to clearing immigration and customs and getting our bags. This is a lot faster than the horror stories I’d heard!
- We pre-activated our Ubigi eSim before our flight; my friend’s worked as soon as our plane landed but I had to restart my iPhone to get it working properly.
- ATMs are plentiful in the airport, there’s no need to bring any cash (we didn’t)
- There was a short 5 minute queue to buy a Welcome Suica on the way to the monorail.
- Departing Haneda on Tuesday May 2nd, we entered the security line at 6:35am and I exited at 6:47am; my friend who started at same time but went through different security line exited at 6:52am. In other words, it took us about 15 minutes – again, way way faster than I’d feared.
- We didn’t get a JR Pass and instead used the SmartEx website to buy tickets to and from Kyoto. The website is fairly good but the instructions are extremely bad. I’ve used the JR Pass before and I appreciated the simplicity of “normal” tickets, plus being able to go on the quieter and faster Nozomi bullet trains.
- When you buy a ticket through SmartEx, you download a QR code per ticket from the website (for some bizarre security reason, this requires email verification). You can print this QR code out and/or add it to your mobile wallet. The QR code is all you need to pass through the bullet train ticket gate, but only some gates have QR code scanners. It can be hard to spot which ones these are, but they will have an upwards-facing scanner and the words QR on them. If you’re confused, you can just show someone your code at the booth and they’ll direct you to the correct gate.
- If you add your QR code to your mobile wallet AND you have a Suica card on your iPhone with Express Transit enabled, you might have a problem (like I did) when exiting via a bullet train gate, in which the gate tries and fails to read your Suica instead of the QR code. On one occasion it kept failing and a guard eventually waved me through; on another I just tried another gate and it worked. I liked the simplicity of having everything on my phone but printing out the QR code is probably easier.
- The overhead luggage shelf on our bullet train (a typical N700 class) was able to fit all standard airline cabin luggage sizes.
- In Tokyo I saw 95% of people masking on the subway, and maybe 75% outdoors; the numbers were lower in Kyoto, perhaps because there were more tourists. No-one seemed bothered at all at people who weren’t masking (we masked most of the time, particularly indoors).
- Almost all the toilets I encountered had hand dryers. Maybe I got lucky, but I didn’t see any need to carry around my own towel.
- I usually carry a water bottle around with my on holiday but it’s pretty much pointless since there are few places to refill it and there are so many vending machines. In fact, I didn’t carry any bag at all – if we got drinks or a snack, we’d just consume it there and throw away the rubbish in the same place or carry it to another vending machine’s bin. If you can pull off bag-free travel, it makes the constant walking much more comfortable!
- The last time I visited Kyoto several years ago, I was pretty stressed out at the crowds at Fushimi Inari (the one with all the gates) and Kiyomizu-dera. They were both smaller this time! We arrived at Fushimi Inari around 10am and while the entrance was busy as usual, it only took 15 minutes of walking for the crowds to thin out where it was possible to take photos with barely anyone in them. In other words, you absolutely do not need to get up at 7am to have a good time here.
- We both bought 10GB Ubigi eSims for our seven day trip. My friend used only 800MB by making sure he uploaded photos solely by wifi. In contrast, I used 9GB; I used my phone exactly as I would back in the UK (lots of social media, Discord, Slack, browsing, photo syncing, but little YouTube or TikTok), and this notably included a large 700mb movie download. I was able to tether my MacBook just fine and achieved a peak speed of 2MB/s (i.e. 16mbit) while hanging out on a busy bullet train platform. I should also note that you get solid signal even underground.
- We had dinner reservations for three out of seven nights, which was just about right; for everything else, we just searched Google Maps for general cuisines and walked past a few until we found one that seemed right (not too busy or dead, etc.). The longest we waited was 40 minutes at a high-end sushi conveyor belt place near Ueno Park in Tokyo, Kanazawa Maimonzushi; everywhere else was just a few minutes wait, max. I don’t think it’s worth overplanning or stressing out about whether you’re going to the “best” place – the general quality and value level in Japan is really high.
- Everything is far cheaper across the board, too: easily 30-40% cheaper than London prices, and better quality. The portions are smaller, which is why you should do as locals do and buy yourself a fancy snack in the afternoon.
- I believe Japan still doesn’t have a major design museum but Tokyo’s 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT always has excellent temporary exhibitions, and better yet, it’s inside the beautiful Hinokicho Park, with the fancy Tokyo Midtown mall right next door, if you like that kind of thing.
- If you’re looking for quieter park and shrines in Kyoto, Maruyama Park leads into some lovely trails to the west and north, and you can loop back through the Chion-In Temple complex.
It’s hard to resist the temptation to overplan a trip to Japan, especially if it’s your first trip. But there’s so much to see and do, and the cities are so easy to get around, that it’s worth taking your time to wander about.
It’s astonishing how much easier it is to be a tourist in Japan now, even compared to just five or ten years ago, with mobile internet and translation apps and more information being available in English. We had a blast!
Thanks to Alex for his photos of me!