As many of you know, David and I just got married…
We both knew that a relaxing honeymoon spent on a serene island with white sand and crystal clear water was just too, well, relaxing. We wanted to take advantage of this brief time away from the grind to explore unknown territory and live a completely different life. And that’s exactly what we did in Japan.
However, like all major traveling, there were some bumps in the road (language barrier, unknown cultural etiquette, foreign transportation, and did I say language barrier?). But if you can be flexible and know when to take a deep breath in order to figure things out, choosing an offbeat honeymoon destination will give you an unforgettable and inspiring experience. In this post, I’ll recap some of our favorite experiences and sprinkle them with some basic travel tips to help simplify your future trip to Japan.
Getting to Tokyo + Travel Necessities
Our main flight from Chicago to Tokyo was about 12.5 hours. That’s a long ass flight. Luckily, we had an empty seat in our row so we got the whole row to ourselves — heeeeeey!
We used the third seat to make ourselves at home; it stored our entertainment, pillows and blankets. Then when it was time, we took turns sprawling out to catch some Z’s. It seems like such a minute detail but this empty seat made our flight so much fun.
Side note: On our walk down the aisle to our seats we couldn’t help but notice the sweet set up of first- and business class seating. It looked ridiculously comfortable and we both agreed to shell out the extra dollars next time around for these seats. Especially because on our flight home from Tokyo, we weren’t as lucky and were stuck in the middle of a full, four seat row – wanh, wanh. We think a third seat is fun now but I’m positive that we’d be having all the fun in the first class.
Food on international flights is so fun. We had a choice between Western Style or Japanese Style Dinner. I chose Japanese, Dave chose Western. Although I hesitantly glanced over at David’s meatballs, tater tots and veggies a few time, I was ready to prime my palate for what was to come in these next two weeks. And I’m glad I did. Sticky rice with mackerel, pickled bamboo and onions, tamagoyaki (japanese omelet), veggies, and noodles. Peculiar (for an American) but delicious.
If you plan on using an ipad, Gameboy, Kindle, phone or other electronic device throughout your trip, I highly recommend purchasing a Portable Battery. Dave is my electronic guru so we can thank him for this tip. You’ll most likely be able to charge your devices on the airplane using a USB cord, but this battery will become indispensable when exploring the city and/or countryside. You’ll find that you quickly drain your battery when relying on Google Maps to get you around, using your camera phone to endlessly snap photos, and of course sharing those photos on social media 🙂 If you’re a Kindle lover like Dave, you’ll also want this to keep the Kindle charged for long train rides.
Travel Tip Recap:
- *For the fiscally responsible only* Rack up some points on a credit card for “free” airline tickets. Many credit cards offer 30,000-50,000 bonus travel reward points for signing up, plus an additional 10,000-30,000 points for spending a certain amount of money in the first 3 months. If you plan your trip several months out, you can use the card to purchase things you would normally purchase (groceries, gas, pay bills, etc.) and use those points to get your tickets.
- Choose first- or business-class seating if you can afford it. It’s a long flight and if your sanity depends on comfort, you won’t regret it.
- Eye Mask and Ear Plugs. Because when all you want to do is sleep, these will be your best friends.
- Prevent Jet Lag. Have you heard of phase shifting to avoid jet lag? It’s a way to train your circadian rhythm before your flight in order to better adapt to your new time zone, thus preventing jet lag and wasting several days of your trip. We considered phase advancing a little too late and weren’t able to prevent our jet lag (but we’ve been doing well with phase delaying since having returned). We flew out of the US at 5pm and arrived to Japan at 8pm (or 6am US time). Our bodies were on track to remain awake when Japan wanted us to go to bed, which resulted in very little sleep and being a zombie for several days after. It took us about 3 days to completely adjust. If you want to phase advance (when you’re traveling east) or phase delay (traveling west), read how to do it here. It will be worth it; especially if you’re time is limited.
- Buy a Portable Battery. As I mentioned, it’s indispensable and you’ll be happy to have it when needed. Getting lost in a foreign country sucks (especially when you don’t know the language).
- Purchase or obtain a Pocket Wifi. Because Google Maps isn’t helpful without Wifi, you’ll need a pocket wifi. There are many stores, cafes and train stations in Tokyo with Wifi but there are also many places without it and at some point, you’ll be in an area without it when you need it. We were happy to find that all of our Airbnb apartments provided a Pocket Wifi. It was so helpful!
Staying in Tokyo
We stayed at Emblem hostel and highly recommend it; especially if you’re a sucker for design. Very cool architecture with modern amenities. Breakfast is included (toast, jam, cereal and seriously amazing coffee) and it’s very affordable; like $35/person affordable. You won’t find a hotel this nice for anywhere near that price. Granted we had to share a room with 2 other people the last night but we rarely saw them as everyone does their own thing. And if privacy is a requirement, you can always book a private room for just $10 more/person (there weren’t any available during our stay or we would have done this). If you’re thinking, “you shared a dormitory style room on your honeymoon??” Not to worry, we made up for that with private AirBnB rentals in Kyoto 🙂
The only negative to this hostel is that it’s a bit far away from Tokyo’s city center; about a 15-25 minute subway ride. But on the positive side, they offered a tour to a local market where we got to sample tasty street food and watch an awesome drum show.
A little street food for lunch at the Daishi Nishi Temple Festival. Thanks for the wonderful tour @emblemhostelnishiarai 👍Pickled vegetables are placed with every meal and I love it so much. I’d love to see the gut bacteria of this population. Is this why the Japanese are all so skinny?? #pickled #noodles #japanesestreetfood #nishiarai
Like other cities in Japan, Tokyo is full of temples and shrines. These majestic structures are so different from what I see in everyday life and it was so powerful to stand before them. This is Sensoji temple and it’s 5 story pagoda, one of Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temples.
After much walking one day, we decided to take a load off our feet and relax in a nearby park. The park was huge and was a relaxing escape from the bustling city. It surrounded the Imperial Palace which is off limits unless you book a tour but there is plenty to see for free in the surrounding areas.
Eating in Tokyo
Ramen was one of our first meals in Japan and it was unforgettable. In the US we think of ramen as food for college students but I can assure you that college ramen doesn’t even come close to comparing to authentic Japanese ramen.
A photo posted by Ashley Galloway Thomas MS, RD (@thefreshbeet) on
With Japanese ramen, it’s all in the broth. And like BBQ in the US, broths differ by region. I like them all but Tonkatsu is my favorite which is made by boiling pork and chicken bones for 12 hours and incorporating scallions, garlic, ginger and mushrooms. The broth is a milky golden color with a slightly thickened consistency. Bone broths are highly nutritious, and I’m excited to experiment with this at home. I’m already planning to have a ramen party once I perfect the art of cooking it.
I kid you not, we loved this stuff so much we practically lived off it for our 3 days in Tokyo. Not only was it delicious but it was quick to eat so we could be on our way. It’s essentially Japanese fast food, but nutritious. Ramen houses are typically very small, seating only 6-10 people at the bar. We quickly got the cue that you were supposed to eat fast and leave so someone else could have your seat. We saw lots of businessmen and service workers come in, slurp down their ramen and be on their way. I was somewhat disappointed about feeling rushed to eat, as I like to take my time and enjoy the food. But when I learned that loudly slurping your noodles was the polite thing to do, I happily devoured each bowl.
We had Sushi once in Tokyo. It was very good but it really wasn’t any different than sushi prepared by a Japanese chef in the US. Perhaps there are top notch sushi restaurants that serve exsquisit tasting sushi, but I was content with our sushi experience.
One night we walked into a restaurant to find that our chef (and only person working at that hour) could not speak a lick of english nor did he have an english menu. Awkward. We considered leaving simply because there was really no way to communicate, but didn’t want to insult him nor take away any of his business. Most restaurants have pictures of each menu item so it’s easy to point and show what you want. There was only one picture on this menu and we weren’t quite sure what it was, but we were eating it. It ended up being quite good: miso soup, rice, salad and grilled pork and chicken skewers (what I now know to be yakitori). Although this language barrier issue was a common theme throughout our trip, many people spoke some english and a few were excellent. I used to feel ashamed of not knowing another’s language when in their country, but as Americans, all of our neighbors are english speakers and there is no utility to being multilingual like Europeans where frequent travel to different countries is far more pervasive.
Tips for Staying and Eating in Tokyo:
- Visit temples and shrines. There are so many it’s difficult to see them all in just a couple days. Do a little research and see which ones speak to you most. Most of them are free.
- See Shinjiku and Harajuku at night. The neon lights and the insane fashion of Tokyo come alive here at night.
- Visit the Tsukiji fish market. It’s the largest tuna market in the world.
- Relax at a park to escape from the city. There are tons of people in Tokyo. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. Take a break and enjoy a coffee or beer at a nearby park.
- Consider staying at a hostel or AirBnB. It will be significantly cheaper than a city central hotel. Hostels also offer fun tours of the local area and can give you local insider tips of what’s worth seeing and what’s not. Many hostels offer free breakfast, wifi, and many of the same amenities as a hotel. You’re also bound to meet some interesting people.
- Bow when greeting someone. Bow when saying hello and entering a restaurant or store. Bow when saying thank you.
- Eat Ramen. You won’t regret it.
- Eat shrimp and veggie tempura. You won’t regret this either.
- Enjoy fresh sushi straight from Tsukiji market.
For me, Tokyo was all about the temples, shrines and ramen. It’s a face paced city full of life.
Kyoto on the other hand is surrounded by mountains and was much more serene and natural. Stay tuned for my inspiring experiences in Kyoto and of course, more travel tips.