Japan – Two Weeks Exploring the Golden Route including Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe
Finally! After the pandemic disrupted our first trip to Asia, we had no idea how long it would be until we revived that plan. Well, here we are three years later and we booked a trip to Japan for a two week adventure exploring the Golden Route including stops at Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto, and Osaka. We booked for late May to avoid both the crowds of Golden week (end of April / early May) and cherry/sakura blossom season, but miss the rainy season that starts in June. Planning a trip to Japan can be daunting and I will say, it was certainly the the most time consuming trip from a researching and planning a trip to date. I put all that information into one blog post – What to Expect When Visiting Japan for the First Time.
Our flight from Newark to Tokyo Haneda airport was a 14 hour non-stop flight. The flight was quite easy and the time really did go by quickly. We left on a Saturday morning and with the flight + the 13 hour time difference, we landed in Tokyo Sunday afternoon. We were even lucky enough to spot Mt Fuji above the clouds on our way into Tokyo. It is quite a long day of travel but our goal was to stay awake as long as possible Sunday to start beating the jet lag.
We landed in Tokyo a bit nervous taking on navigating the transit. From what I read, it is a massive system and can be overwhelming but it is extremely efficient, reliable, and connected. Immigration and customs were definitely crowded which was a bit concerning for our trip since we were supposed to be visiting during shoulder season. We completed our arrival information in the app so we had our immigration and customs QR codes ready to go. I was hoping that would be an advantage in skipping some of the line but that was not the case. Once we cleared immigration and customs, we started our to-do list.
- Get a suica card
- Get yen
- Get pocket wifi
- Get to the Airbnb
All the local transit uses IC cards. There are several companies that issue this card and the benefit is that they can be used in all the major cities. The downside is they only take cash for loading and refilling. After much research, I decided we should purchase the Welcome Suica Card as it allowed us to use a credit card to load payment at the airport. I figured this would be a good advantage since we would not have yen upon arrival.
Only a few steps from exiting the customs area is a transit terminal area. The row of transit ticket kiosks was intimidating but we quickly found the red one for the “Welcome Suica” card. However, the use of the credit card to load payment was hit or miss. After asking a transit staff – who were all wonderful and so helpful – indicated that the credit card “sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t”. Ours were not successful as were many other visitors we observed – though some did work but not a high percentage. The forced us to the ATM directly next to us to take out some yen.
How much money should you put on your Suica card? Depends on the length of your trip and what you will be doing. Refilling is also very easy and the card can be used in a number of different ways – not just for transportation – including vending machines, convenience stores, and more. For our two week trip, we started each card with 5,000 yen as we would be using it a lot over the two week trip. We ended up refilling it quite a few times in smaller increments.
There are many options for cell service in Japan. We have Google Fi so we did not have issues with needing data. There are two major ways to obtain cell service – sim card or pocket wifi. Pocket wifi is very popular here as it provides a wifi hotspot for up to five devices and you purchase the amount of daily data you expect to use. With four people in our group, it made sense to share a pocket wifi so we purchased one from Ninja Wifi for our trip. That was easily to pick up at the Ninja Wifi kiosk in the same area.
Next was figuring out how to get to our Airbnb. From the airport, there are two train lines that can get you into Tokyo. We used Google Maps for the best route and we were beyond impressed with the level of detailed information available. It has all the information you need for navigating public transportation and you will use it a lot. From which platform your train is on, to which car you should board for the quickest transfer, to which exit to take coming of the train so you are closest to your final destination.
We took the Monorail as instructed by Google Maps and transferred at Hamamatsucho station to the green JR Yamanote Line to our final stop at Okachimachi station. We were happy to see that it was actually quite easy to navigate the public transit. Lines had english names and color coded, platforms were clear indicating directions of lines, and stops had english names and numbered. And the number of transit options really allowed you to get any where in Tokyo – train, subway, or bus.
It was hard to believe we were actually here across the globe in Japan! We easily made it to our Airbnb and got ready to explore Tokyo for the next week.
Read about our adventures in Tokyo here!
After a wonderful week in Tokyo, it was time to transition to our next destination on our two week Japan adventure. Our next stop is a popular stop on the Golden Route from Tokyo to Kyoto – Hakone. Hakone is known for hot springs, traditional ryokans, and beautiful nature including the chance to see My Fuji. We were very excited to change our city sightseeing pace for a relaxed weekend in the countryside.
Our journey to Hakone was straightforward thanks to a city pass type program – Hakone Freepass. This ticket includes transportation from Toyko to Hakone as well as all the transportation modalities in Hakone (there are five!) plus access to sightseeing locations. We took the train from where we were staying in Ueno to Shinkuku station to board the Odakyu Line. This train ride was an hour long and once we arrived in Odawara, we took the Hakone Tozan Line to Hakone-Yumoto where we could begin our exploration. We were lucky enough to get our first glances of Mt Fuji so we were very hopeful for more views during our time here.
Read about our adventures in Hakone here!
After our day exploring Hakone, it was time for another experience we were so looking forward to on this trip – our stay at a traditional Japanese Inn known as a ryokan. This is a truly unique experience that was a must-do for our trip to Japan.
Due to bad weather expected in Kyoto all week, we had some tough decisions to make. We could leave Hakone early and get to Kyoto to do some sightseeing as the weather was great today but that would mean missing many of the sights in Hakone. We ultimately decided to cut our time in Hakone short and begin our trip to Kyoto. We walked from our ryokan to the Hakone-Yumoto train station to take the Hakone Tozan line back to Odawara. Everything from the time we left Shinjuku station until our arrival at Odawara was covered on the Hakone Freepass.
Our next adventure was riding on the famous Shinkansen bullet trains. These high speed rail ways reach 320 km/hr or 200 miles/hr so it makes traveling between major cities fast and easy. Additionally, shinkansen trains are known for being extremely punctual, efficient, and safe. So safe, that after carrying over 10 billion passengers for over 50 years, there have been no injuries or fatalities due to derailments or collisions. The ride is also very comfortable with lots of room, seats that are always facing forward (my favorite), bathrooms, wifi, and more.
We were fortunate enough to get seats on the right hand side from Odawara to Kyoto where we had a chance of seeing Mt Fuji unobstructed. Since it was early in the morning, we were hoping our odds were higher and we were actually able to get a few decent views along this way. The ride was so scenic through the countryside and our two hour journey aboard the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen Hikari went by very fast.
After arriving in Kyoto station, we hopped on the Karasuma subway line to our accommodations at Shijō station. This short subway ride took us directly to our accommodations where we dropped our bags and immediately set out for exploration.
Read about our adventures in Kyoto here!
And after 14 days exploring Japan, our time on this trip has come to an end. Our journey back to the airport was definitely not smooth sailing and may have taken a few years off our life from the stress… oh, and definitely where I think I contracted COVID. TLDR: We made the flight.
The typhoon that came through on Friday drastically impacted the trains on Saturday. The flooding had caused an interruption of the Shinkansen trains for almost a full day and the back log was insane. These trains move thousands of people every few hours so to have this delay was a significant problem. We could not even get onto the website to access our tickets due to the traffic on the website as people were trying to book and re-book tickets. When we arrived at the Kyoto train station to get our train to Tokyo, we noticed the problem immediately. The next train departing from Kyoto was not scheduled for another three hours due to the delay. We panicked since our flight was in the afternoon so this entire ordeal was going to be tight – but we had no control over the situation. Once we logged into the website to access our QR code ticket, we immediately took screenshots to avoid needing the loading page again and went onto the platform. We got a place in line – at three separate places, and continued to maneuver until we get in the front on one of the train lines where we boxed out the best we could. The platform was completely mobbed as we got closer to the restarting of the trains. Trains luckily continued to be added as time went on but for the most part, we stood and waited those three hours. When the first train came to the station, the people inside were overflowing and no one left – this was the doomsday scenario that would certainly make us miss our flight. We kept doing the math to figure out how we would make the flight if we were not able to make the next train. Luckily, we made friends with a Japanese business man who helped interpreter the messages overhead – which were all in Japanese – and also helped push us onto the train when the next one arrived and a few people got off making room for a handful of us to get one. We stood jam packed on the Shinkansen train for the over two hour ride to Tokyo. We were just happy to be on that train going in the right direction but it was certainly not comfortable. In speaking with others, these trains are NEVER late let alone delayed or canceled as they are now. It would be our luck to experience the best and worst of the Shinkansen experience before leaving Japan. Once at the Tokyo train station, we weaved in and out of the crowd to find the train to the airport. Luckily, the airport was not crowded and we flew through security and passport control and made it in time for our flight. We even had time to get food at the airport – we had nothing to eat all day as the plan was to get bento boxes on the relaxing Shinkansen train ride from Kyoto to Tokyo.
This two week trip exploring Japan was an incredible itinerary and a great route for first time visitors. I am looking forward to return trips where we get to explore areas outside the Golden Route and continue to learn more about Japan!