After sharing my visit to Tokyo's famous TRAVELER'S Factory stores, I thought I'd share my trip itinerary as well.
I spent two weeks traveling between Japan's Kanto and Kansai regions at the start of April. There is as much to say about Japan as there is to do there, because everyone's interests are different. Ten years ago I spent two semesters studying at Kansai Gaidai, an international language university in Osaka prefecture. For this vacation, I wanted to revisit my old stomping grounds as well as have new experiences with my boo, who was coming along for the ride.
Many people think of Tokyo and the surrounding Kanto region when Japan is mentioned, but 500 miles away in the Kansai region there exists a cluster of distinct and historically significant cities like Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and Kobe. Of course, you may notice that the name of our shop is Japanese in origin. "Omoi"「想い」means thoughtful and considerate, while "zakka"「雑貨」is a type of sundry good that appeals to your sense of joy. This connection originates from our founder Liz's own experiences studying abroad in the same Kansai region, and is a deliberate wink to the many English-named boutiques that left a memorable impression on her.
Some suggestions to keep in mind
- Early spring (as well as autumn) is a popular time to go because there's cherry blossoms everywhere, it's not too hot yet, and it avoids the Golden Week holiday period where everything is closed down.
- Bring your best socks because you will be removing your shoes often (some restaurants and most dressing rooms, for example).
- Bring shoes you can comfortably walk in all day and take on and off easily for the same reason.
- Bring a dedicated change purse because the smallest bill, 1000円, is equivalent to 10 USD, and you will have loads of 500円 ($5) and 100円 ($1) coins.
- Be mindful of how softly or loudly others around you are speaking because walls are thin, space is limited, and voices do carry. Even a normal talking volume at home can be heard clearly through walls or down streets in many areas.
- If you are visibly tattooed, many bathing establishments may be off limits to you.
- Learn how to say please, excuse me, and thank you. Japan's customer service and hospitality is legendary and you will feel like less of a total heathen if you can comfortably say those three words. YouTube is a great resource for this.
- Reserve yourself a pocket wifi device ahead of your trip if only to have easy access to GPS navigation tools on your phone.
- Try all the regional delicacies & popular cuisines you can because they'll vary from place to place.
DAY 1 - Flying all day! Philly to Detroit to Narita
- My flight left on the morning of the 3rd, but because Japan is 12-13 hours ahead, I arrived in the afternoon the next day.
- Flights to Japan usually have loads of TV & movies to watch, plus several snacks and meals, blanket and sleeping mask, etc.
- Pro tip is to stay up all night before you leave, set your watch to Japan time after you board, and sleep it off on the plane.
DAY 2 - Arrive at Narita Airport & stay in Shinjuku, Tokyo
- First thing, got cash yen out of the post office ATM.
- Picked up our reserved pocket wifi from the airport Softbank counter.
- Checked out TRAVELER'S Factory kiosk at the airport shopping mall.
- Bought some refreshments from the convenience store (a.k.a conbini) on the 4th floor of the terminal & sorted myself out in the fresh air of the observation deck before making my next transit step.
- 1000 yen airport bus to Tokyo Station is the chillest!
- Checked out TRAVELER'S Factory station store zomg
- Stopped to buy Osaka-bound shinkansen tickets for later in the trip, then rode to Shibuya Station.
- Stayed at Shinjuku Kuyakusho-mae Capsule Hotel (binary gender separated, brief and cool walk from Shinjuku Station). Inexpensive and novel.
- Dinner options at every turn, but decided to enjoy a meal at a nearby MUJI Cafe.
DAY 3 - Shinjuku base, spend day wandering Shibuya & Harajuku
- Ate breakfast at a Family Mart conbini with a lunch counter.
- Took the train to visit the TRAVELER'S Factory flagship store in Nakameguro.
- Hopped on the Tokyo Metro for a short ride to the super famous Shibuya and Harajuku neighborhoods, just to experience them firsthand. It's mostly shopping and there's a lot of global chains, but also many of Japan's best concentrated right there (Loft for example). If you have a favorite Japanese brand or store you've been wanting to visit, make the pilgrimmage!
- Had a midday sandwich and spicy ginger ale in a random cafe overlooking the main shopping street.
- Convenience store dinner before retiring to the capsule hotel.
DAY 4 - Take shinkansen to Osaka & stay in Nishinari-ku, Osaka
- Headed back to Tokyo Station to ride the bullet train. It travels over 500 miles in just around 2 hours, and if weather is good you see Mount Fuji.
- Totally forgot to do this but if you have time before your train, look for the JR station stamp!
- Bought a train station bento box (ekiben) for the ride that featured delicious clams from Tokyo Bay.
- Arrived at Shin-Osaka station and hopped on the Midousuji line down to Nishinari-ku in deep Osaka.
- Stayed at Yoccola Island for what was, in my opinion, a great old-school Osaka stay. A thin-walled apartment building with 5-mat tatami rooms.
- We got in after dark and decided to spend the night in relaxing on our futons after a conbini run for snacks and beer.
DAY 5 - Nishinari base, spend day wandering deep Osaka
- Started with breakfast at an old school coffee shop nearby, where an old married couple served strong hand-brewed drip coffee and played rare American oldies on the stereo.
- Walked around the neighborhood for the day, from the nearby Tennouji Zoo & park space, to the shopping malls by Tennouji Station, back to the shopping arcades surrounding Tsuutenkaku tower.
- Ate dinner at a regular-degular okonomiyaki bar in the shopping arcade a block away from our room.
- If we were not heavily tattooed, I would have spent the day at nearby onsen theme park, Spa World!!
DAY 6 - Nishinari base, get lunch with old friend, wander Shinsaibashi & Minami Horie shopping
- Took the train uptown to meet up with an old friend. So nice!
- After parting ways, me and boo walked up Midousuji boulevard towards Shinsaibashi's Ame-Mura and Minami Horie shopping neighborhoods.
- Spent a looong time in an independent shop I was glad to see still around, Standard Bookstore.
- Got takoyaki from a Doutonbori street vendor and ate it by the river at sunset.
DAY 7 - Nishinari base, travel to Kyoto & spend day visiting Kiyomizu Dera
- Woke up early and rode the Keihan line to Kyoto.
- Ate a quick breakfast from a station bakery.
- Spent the whoolllle day strolling the path up towards the famous mountainside temple and back down.
- Ate dinner at a cafeteria located inside a Buddhist center that specialized in yuba, a creamy and delicious tofu skin, which is famous in both Kyoto and Nikko.
DAY 8 - Kyoto base, spend day chilling on Yodo River, night at jazz cafe
- Said our farewell to Osaka and went back to Kyoto to check into our streamlined capsule hotel, 9 Hours.
- It was nice and sunny out this day (all before had been unseasonably chilly and overcast wahh!), so we decided to stroll the Yodo river for the afternoon.
- Wandered back into the city and some great shopping arcades where we ate a sweet potato taiyaki, bought some Kyoto-only tea from Lupicia, and ate lunch at an underground spot called Cafe Independants.
- Took a nap in the hotel (allergies were popping) and decided to head out in search of a jazz cafe for an evening drink. It's sort of a specialty in Japan where either live music or jazz records are played on superior sound system. The joints are small and seem to fill up fast. We were lucky to fit in for a drink at a place recommended by Google Maps.
DAY 9 - Take shinkansen back to Tokyo & stay in Asakusa, Tokyo
- Got up early and headed to Kyoto station to buy our Tokyo-bound shinkansen tickets. We also sat down at a place for breakfast, then picked up another ekiben for the train trip. My boo likes to drink beer, so we also splurged on some REALLY GOOD craft beers (using sake yeast).
- Arrived at Tokyo Station and rode the train to Asakusa Station towards the part of town considered the "old city," sort of the opposite side of Tokyo than Shibuya and all that.
- Checked in to our inexpensive guest house/capsule hotel lodging, Hotel 3000 Asakusa Honten, which is nestled in a shopping arcade amidst the famous sightseeing areas.
- Spent the rest of the day out in great sunny weather wandering the nearby sights, including Nakamise-dori and Sensoji.
- Ate dinner at an inexpensive tempura rice bowl chain, Ten-don Tenya.
DAY 10 - Asakusa base, spend day wandering shitamachi & Shimokitazawa
- Decided to do some souvenir shopping and spent the morning in and around Asakusa's sights and shopping arcades.
- We ate ice cream, freshly made dorayaki, freshly made onigiri from a corner store before hopping the train to the Shimokitazawa neighborhood in search of stationery store I once visited.
- Ate monjayaki at an old school spot in Shimokitazawa.
- Found the stationery store, a very basic all-purpose kind for students and office workers, and bought some pens and refills that I know are hard to get in the US.
DAY 11 - Take Tobu line from Asakusa to Nikko & stay in ryokan!
- From Asakusa there is a direct local train that goes into the mountains of a place called Nikko. The train costs about 30 bucks one-way and takes 2 hours. It's very cool to watch the landscape change from metropolitan center to sparse farm fields and mountains.
- Breathed in the mountain air like 100 times and then started our 30-minute walk up the main street towards out hotel. Our hotel offered a shuttle and you can take a bus as well, but it was beautiful out and we wanted the walk after the long ride.
- Stopped along the way to drink the mountain spring water that is free to enjoy at specially designed rest areas.
- Took lunch at a restaurant at the end of the main street that served Nikko-style yuba dishes (I got ramen). Afterwards we headed straight into the mountain roads for our hotel another 10 minutes away.
- We stayed at Nikko Tokanso Hotel, a ryokan inn tucked right in the middle of Nikko's famous shrines. Each room was a spacious 10-mat room with a veranda, private bathroom, mini fridge and TV. We were provided amazing breakfast, outrageous kaiseki-style dinner, onsen bath facilities (tattoo ok!), and even had our futon beds made up and put out between meals.
DAY 12 - Spend day sightseeing around Nikko & chill in ryokan
- Nikko is famous for many natural sights, including the mausoleum shrine of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (pictured). It also has several hiking trails, and is just really beautiful everywhere you go. After breakfast, we spent the day in the mountains.
- Dinner was boommmmmb! Sorry there's no pics but it was like 10 small courses with desert. What's also fun about ryokan meals is that you eat at set times with the rest of the guests. It creates a nice atmosphere.
- Took a long hot bath and chiiillled out with the boo.
DAY 13 - Take Tobu line back to Asakusa in morning, spend day at Ueno Park
- Had our final breakfast at the inn and bid farewell to Nikko.
- Checked into a Western style place, Hotel Hokke Club Asakusa. It was an 8 minute walk from the same station the Tobu Nikko line departs from, and is next to a BANDAI building that had lifesized statues of all their famous characters, including Pac-Man, Son Goku, Ultraman, An-Pan Man, and Doraemon!
- Took a leisurely 30-minute stroll from the hotel over to Ueno Park, a pretty big place with multiple museums on its outskirts.
- Had a big lunch at another MUJI cafe in Ueno
- Found 2 of the 5 JR Ueno station stamps and took the train back to our hotel.
- Ate a conbini dinner and fell asleep early from all our traveling that day.
DAY 14 - Relaxing morning in Asakusa chilling along Sumida River. Take train to Haneda airport for trip home!
- Our last day! Our hotel stay included breakfast, which was a super good and borderline extravagant buffet, almost comparable to our kaiseki breakfast in Nikko.
- Our return flight was around 4 PM from Haneda Airport. Haneda was about 30 minutes from our hotel by train, so after we checked out at 10 AM, we put our stuff in a station coin locker and found a place to hang out (under a trestle of blooming wisteria!) along the nearby Sumida River.
- Then we took one last look around, went back to the station and headed to the airport...
- And 15 hours later arrived in Philadelphia at 6:30 PM on the same day. Time travel is wild.
One thing to note
My travel partner and I did not get JR Rail Passes for this trip because we planned to spend a number of days at a time based in one area, often taking walking day-trips. Our travel costs were almost as expensive as purchasing the 2-week JR Rail Pass, but we were able to take whichever transit option was cheapest, fastest, or most convenient, without being restricted to JR-only lines. (For example, the most low-hassle way to get from Narita Airport to Tokyo Station is by a 1000円 bus, whereas taking the JR airport line costs around 2400円 and requires transferring halfway.) The reason JR is so prominent and has such wide coverage is that it used to be the national railway line owned by the Japanese government. However, since the late 80s it is a privately owned railway system. Most regions have more than one public transit provider, and most big cities have at least five or six. JR is but one of them.
A place can change a lot in ten years time. Returning to Osaka and Kyoto after a ten year absence, for some reason I was surprised that certain businesses had closed up and gone away, and what's more, that global chain stores had taken their place. The influence of social media, smart phones, and GPS everywhere was not present during my study abroad days, and this time around it felt a little too easy to search up information about my surroundings (like finding a jazz cafe in Kyoto) and walk there on the fly. Still, traveling and playing tour guide for my boo was satisfying, and I enjoyed getting to show them the things I appreciate about Japanese culture, food, and infrastructure. I also enjoyed not taking a million photographs and savoring my time in the present. The food was too tasty. The sights were too exciting. The toilet seats were heated. And the trains were always on time.