Check out my Amazon page for gear that I personally use and products similar to those I pack on my travels (many of which are listed below).
As a photographer, my priorities for travelling always have been photography first. This time around, unlike my Peru – Machu Picchu trek, my walzflex 120mm film camera made an appearance once again.
For 14 days of travel through Japan, I decided against a rolling hard case luggage. I have since replaced my Kata Camera bag with a new bag from PRVKE as my personal camera bag and my trusty Yellow North Face Basecamp Duffel as my main luggage, My philosophy when travelling is purchase only as much as you can carry back.
Japan Packing List
Wearing onto Plane
1 pair of tights (Underarmour are my choice of preference)
Off to Kyoto via JR Rail today but first breakfast (included in our fee). We went to our breakfast – Japanese style breakfast which was served buffet style. Very tasty and of course local ingredients for the most part. It was also day 2 of the festival however we were heading out to Kyoto that morning – luckily for us, it looked like it was a little cloudy and might rain the second day. Karen & Chi had left earlier than us (since we couldn’t get seats in the earlier train) so Glenn, John, Manwai, Mike and myself took a train leaving an hour and half later. It stopped in Nagoya before transferring to Kyoto where John and Glenn went towards Yokohama and eventually back up to Tokyo while we went to Kyoto.
We stayed at an Airbnb near Kiyomizu Station and since it was an absolutely gorgeous day of 20C+, we decided to walk 30 minutes from Kyoto station to our place. The Airbnb host had given me photo step by step instructions on how to get into the building however in his original photo, the circles 1 mailbox but we didn’t find the key in there but luckily I noticed that the mailbox beside it was also his and the keys were in there. This airbnb looked bigger in the Airbnb photos but realistically, it was a studio apartment and was a tight fit but we managed.
We put down our things and walked over to through the Higashiyama Ward to realized we hadn’t eaten yet (it was 2PM) so we stopped off for some cold soba noodles at Kisanjina 胡麻豆腐と和カフェ きさんじな before making our way to Hokan-ji Pagoda. I had read that Hokan-ji Pagoda was a rarity in that we could actually climb it but that it closed at a certain time so we rushed through the Higashiyama Ward area really quickly to get there but alas, my information was wrong and there was no indication we could actually access it as everything was blocked off from entering.
We continued walking alongside Kōdai-ji temple and stopped for some matcha ice cream from Gion Tsujiri. I got the matcha green tea drink with matcha ice cream (520y) to top off. We continued north and ventured through one smaller temple before making it to Maruyama Park which then connects to Yasaka Shrine. The view of the city looking out from the mains gates of the Yasaka Shrine is one of my favourites from my last trip and unfortunately it was too crowded and cloudy to serve it justice to my 2012 shots that captured that old Kyoto feel.
According to the KitKat Chocolatory website, the Kyoto Daimaru location exists so we made it there in good time and almost got lost in this food heaven of the Daimaru to find out it doesn’t exist (we asked a lady and she crossed her arms signalling an X). We then walked back to the main area by Yasaka Shrine to have dinner with Karen & Chi as Cassie was getting in later that evening. Along the way back, from the Gion – old Kyoto district street, a pile of people with lanterns paraded through the streets as they were I guess doing a procession to Yasaka Shrine.
Karen had chosen this on restaurant called Izuju(Japan, 〒605-0073 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Higashiyama Ward, 祇園町北側２９２) which was known for their traditional Kyoto style sushi. This consisted of no soy sauce, no wasabi and all the ingredients were cooked – it felt similar to eating korean rolls. Fun fact – Karen doesn’t eat raw fish so this the only time she could fully enjoy sushi. We ordered as a group for sharing and it all came out on this massive plate. Deluxe hako sushi (omelette, shrimp, sea bream, tori gai & roasted fish), awafu roll, saba sushi & sasamaki. We tried to venture through Yasaka Shrine and Maruyama Park as Karen & Chi hadn’t checked it out yet but then the rain started to pour and we were not quite ready for the rain. We hid under a shelter watching people who were sitting in the park eating (little stalls had these well lit areas with small tables and seating areas to eat) try to finish their food quickly and find shelter with their beers in hand while the staff quickly covered and took the furniture to covered areas. There was a giant group of men who were drinking who had a giant tarp that they quickly turned into a shelter for themselves and continued their festivities. We on the other hand, took a cab back ho and called it a night with one more episode of terrace House (only 4 episodes were released in our timeframe in Japan but 4 more than what was released back home).
If you haven’t joined and booked with Airbnb yet, follow the link and get credits for your first booking. www.airbnb.ca/c/ruu
Our hotel stay also included a Kaiseki (traditional Japanese breakfast filled with seasonal ingredients). It was wonderfully presented with a great view overlooking the city as you enter the room. They have the main portion of breakfast presented to you at your seat with hida beef on a personal hamachi clay grill that is cooking on a leaf. There is also a buffet style area where you can pick and choose other items such as grilled mackerel/salmon, salad, pork and potato croquette, cereal, croissants, porridge etc. There are also unlimited fountain drinks as well as coffee and tea. You should try the milk if possible – very fresh and different from Canadian milk.
After breakfast we used the relaxation room and worked the chairs – massaging chairs. Went back to the room and packed before taking the free shuttle to Takayama Station as we were heading to our next hotel but also trying to meet up with Karen & Chi who were arriving around 930AM. As we got to the station and alighted off the bus, perfect timing as we spotted them on the other side of the street. We walked over to Hida International Hotel(2-60 Hanaoka-cho, Takayama, Gifu Prefecture 506-0009, Japan) together however it was a 3PM check-in so we left our things for storage and wandered about.
Our main reason for visiting Takayama was because of the Takayama festival. It is the largest festival to celebrate the change of season to spring also known as the Sanno Matsuri. Its a 2 day festival hosted by the Hie Jinja Shrine. People from all over Japan and tourists alike congregate to celebrate this special festival. They have giant shelters that are spread across the city where they floats are held when they aren’t being used but once they are out, they are beautifully showcased with the sun glistening on them. There are beautiful carvings, dolls and elaborate textiles that cover each float. These floats also are suppose to showcase the craftsmanship of the carpenters of the Hida area. Inside each float, you will find children manning each float as a few of them also feature little dolls that move or the children play musical instruments. There are actually 25 festival floats scattered around Takayama however they are designated to different seasons. For spring, there are 12 floats, 11 for autumn and 2 for others.
Old town got turned into a pedestrian only zone with people walking everywhere and on maps, the bridges are colour coded so you can figure out where you are easier. The main area where the first performance with the floats was being held got incredibly crowded as we were trying to get through the crowd following others, we got stuck as both directions stopped moving. It got incredibly hot. After the morning ceremony, we decided it was time for food. Karen had a lunch place picked out in her little book however with such a large group (we had 7) it was near impossible to seat all of us. We went to Jakson(5-5 Tenmanmachi Takayama Gifu 岐阜県 高山市 天満町 5-5) for curry but we did a take away order. I ordered the Curry katsu (fried pork) – 1200y. We ended up walking in search of Takayama’s version of takoyaki (octopus balls) but instead of octopus filling, it was said to be hida beef as we waited our 20 minutes for our lunch to cook – we did not find these hidayaki…? and slowly made our return to Jakson for our takeaway order. We ate in a nearby area with stairs and a small cafe table. The curry was quite nice but flavourful. Once again, Karen had many bucket list foods in her book and once we finished our curries, she was on a mission to find the Hida beef steam buns from the specific stall that got grave reviews and she eventually did find it. Apparently it was really worth it but I was way too full to even try it.
We eventually crossed one of the bridges and found ourselves on the street where all the floats were equally spaced out and slowly being prepped where people could take photos of each individual float before all the mayhem ensued at night. Again, we walked through old town and just continued walking about. We got separated and in the end made it back to the hotel for 5PM to officially check in. Our hotel stay included a hida steak dinner however the timeframe for dinner got pushed to a smaller timeframe so we made sure dinner was priority before heading back out as the price of our hotel stay for 1 night (a little more expensive than we liked) also factored in this steak dinner. What we didn’t know is that it became this 4-5 course meal that was elegantly presented. The hida steak was absolutely a delicious addition to this leg of the trip. The steak could be cut so easily with just a fork. We finished out meal satisfied and ventured back out to see the night parade of the floats which at this point had already started their procession (multiple locations on the map where we could watch the floats go by) with the lanterns all lit up and children playing instruments in all of them. The adults controlled the floats from the outside. The most difficult part was turn the floats. Think of Howl’s Moving castle and how tall but narrow it was (before it full transformed) that’s what the floats looked like.
Since we are in the mountainside, when the sun is up, the sun is strong and we all got a little tanned and red that day but once that sun goes down or into the shade, it gets cold. The main old town strip got turned into a night market festival with stalls selling food galore. We watched for a bit standing on a bench but in the end, didn’t stay to the last float.
We went back to our hotel and went to the onsen. This one has 2 tier onsen on the 9th floor. Rooftop jacuzzi with 2 individual tubs to soak (this is the spot of the onsen personally) with a view of the city. The main floor has an outdoor pool with 1 inside and tons of shower stalls. It also featured a misting sauna. There apparently was one downstairs in the basement plus a swimming pool but we never made it down.
Woke up and took the train back to Kanazawa station to reserve our bullet train tickets for the next 2 days.
Morning reservations for the express trains were completely full so we had to take the local train which was an hour longer ride with 1 more transfer point than the express. We ended up roaming the mall beside the station for a bit before our train was departing. The ride was pretty smooth but broken up into 1 hour, 1 hour 1.5 hours. We purchased ekibens – I got this square one with 9 little samplers for 1000y but decided not to eat it right off the spot but regretted it because only our first train was a bullet train and had a tray to eat on but the other 2 local trains were just seats like a normal train but we were rebels and ate on it. The train went through the mountain side.
The Takayama station is absolutely stunning. Takayama is known for their furniture (high quality of timber), hida beef and sake as well as their well known mascot Sarubobo – Monkey Baby. The mothers and grandmothers would make these dolls for their child out of scrap materials and made them faceless. They are amulets bringing protection and happiness and in the future luck in marriage, fertility and childbirth.
The weather was significantly warmer than our pervious day in Kanazawa so we decided a 30 minute walk to our Hotel would be no problem. We didn’t realize our hotel – Takayama Kankou aka Hagi (Japan, 〒506-0852 Gifu Prefecture, Takayama, 八幡町２８０) is actually on the side of a mountain/hillside. The windy angular roads led to the perfect lookout point over the city. We took the route google maps had provided which was actually the longer way up that hugged the corner of the mountain. We got checked in and we had booked a 5 person room. Our entrance has a sliding wooden gate then you open the door and find yourself stepping on these tiles with pebbles between then leading you into the room. Its a tatami covered floor room with a little seating area and sliding doors everywhere to configure the room to what is necessary for the time.
The best part of this room – the view. Mind you, there are trees in the way for a clean view, the city behind it with its sun setting is absolutely stunning. The hotel provides a turn down service around 6PM where they come in and transform one of the rooms into a sleeping area with the futons and also provide you with yukatas to wear indoors, to the onsen, to dinner or wherever else you would like to go. BUT remember, the slippers and your shoes are not to touch the tatami mats.
We were waiting for Glenn & John to arrived but in the meantime we had to figure out dinner plans. There is an option for room service however they were sold out by the time we called and because we had reserved the room so long ago and thought nothing of it that we didn’t know we needed to make reservations for the dining hall and had to fend for ourselves. The man at front desk recommended this one cafe just down the street from us but it was closed so we had to venture down the hill to the main part of town to find food. Apparently stores and restaurants for the main part close incredibly early leaving those hungry needing to look for the flashing lights outside the stores to beckon them in their direction. It got extremely cold as temperatures dropped once the sun went down. Cold enough to see our breathes.
We made it back to Takayama station as there were a few stores open there. We have also been told that we need to try pasta at least once while we are here so that settled things. We arrived at Salute (サルーテ) for Italian and it was a nice change of pace from ramen. We ordered a hida cow pizza, a margarita and tomato crab pasta. Manwai kept eyeing the giant half wheel of cheese that was sitting under its own heat lamp ready to be scraped off onto the next order or broccoli, fries or pasta.
Back up the hillside we went to await Glenn and John. We tried to wait it out but they missed one of their connecting trains and we had to wait longer. We went to front desk to see if we could leave our key with them but the 2 men there didn’t speak english but with the help of our phones and translator, we were able to communicate. The onsen was nice but after visiting Oedo Onsen in Tokyo, this was just ok. The rooftop onsen is only available for the women in the afternoon to night while the morning is reserved for the males. We went to the rooftop one but it is just 1 giant tub. I think if we had gone earlier when we could’ve seen the scenery outside, it would’ve made it more worthwhile. We ended up transferring down to the main onsen but because it was so late at night, Manwai and myself had it all to ourselves. One giant tub inside with a nice rocky open air one outside.
This was my second time travelling to Japan. My previous visit was short but sweet staying in Osaka with a day trip to Nara & Kyoto for less than a week. Japan is definitely one of those countries that can and need to be explore multiple times. I travelled to Japan with Mike, Manwai, Cassie, Glenn, John, Karen & Chi with guest appearances along the way. The flight deals were too good to miss out on especially during Hanami (cherry blossom festival). We found our deal on www.nextdeparture.ca for $730CAD roundtrip to Tokyo (1 stopover in Chicago each way). Originally, it was just myself plus Mike & Manwai that booked together. As the next few weeks past and a few meals Mike & Manwai had with friends, our group became 8. During the trip, I mainly travelled with Mike & Manwai. Total of 14 days.
We booked many of our accommodations with Airbnb. If you haven’t joined and booked with Airbnb yet, follow the link and get credits for your first booking. www.airbnb.ca/c/ruu
Included in this Itinerary, I have included some helpful information to know in advance before you go.
–www.hyperdia.com – This is awesome for figuring out your bus and JR routes but you need to know what stations you are leaving from and arriving to.
-Google Maps works well too. If Google Maps does not load/poor connection, enter the directions into the internet browser.
-100y = $1USD roughly.
-The Japanese use cash over credit for majority of their day to day living and it isn’t unusual to break a 10,000y bill on something small.
-The 2000y bill is actually quite rare in Japan as its been phased out and was started in Okinawa for unknown reasons. When exchanging money outside of Japan, you may receive 2000y bills which a few Japanese collect HOWEVER, not all the machines take 2000y bills.
-For many Japanese, they may or may not accept it at their work establishments but some will keep as a keepsake similar to Canada’s old $2 bill that is now replaced with the toonie.
-You can pay for some meals in coins alone as the largest valued coin is 500y which is roughly $5USD.
-For 14 days, I took out just over $100CAD a day. $1502.45CAD – 123000Yen
Book in Advanced
–Studio Ghibli Museum tickets can only be purchased 1 month in advanced and sells out quickly. The 10th at 10AM Japan time of every month. Much cheaper to purchase from site than through a tour group (service charges are killer). The actual ticket is only 1000y
-JR Pass must be purchased outside out Japan. Maximum 90 days before your trip. JTB Canada is where I purchased mine. For 14 days of travel, my JR Pass was $539CAD
–Sumo Wrestling Tournaments are held 6 times a year. If you have the chance to go see it, tickets will go on sale a month in advanced so be aware they are highly sought after and sell out fast. Another option if you are going during non tournament months is to go visit a Sumo Wrestling Beya (practice) at multiple locations and watch their early morning practice.
-I highly recommend bringing a portable battery pack to keep your phone charge especially if you are using your phone for directions.
-JR Pass holders need to go through the manned gate to get through at each station.
-You need to make reservations on certain trains but if you don’t, there are a few carts where it is first come first serve or you can sit but if the person with the reserved seats shows up, you give them the seats. The reserved seats also swivel to have 2 facing one another if preferred.
-With the JR Pass, if you miss you train, you can easily get the next one without any penalty fees.
-If you plan on reserving seats for trains for peak times, go earlier to reserve them.
-If taking the bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka/Kyoto etc – request mountainside view to see Mt Fuji!
-Make sure to purchase ekibens before your ride (bullet train specific meals that differ per region and have have seasonal regional speciality foods – all cold)
-Eating is not permitted on trains besides Shinkansen
-JR Pass does not cover all train lines – only JR lines (minus Nozomi/Mizuho/Hayabusa (Shinkansen)) and a Suica or a Pasmo card (similar to Octopus card of Hong Kong or Toronto’s Presto) are indeed very useful and refillable
–Pasmo & Suica cards can also be used to pay for other things such as drink machines and whatnot.
-Pasmo can be used in Tokyo, Osaka & Kyoto (from my experience)
-There are women’s only carts depending on time of day
-Trains end around midnight-1AM. There are taxi queues.
-The Japanese are large in numbers but when walking, they don’t necessarily have a sense of urgency and the pace to my standard is slow
-The Japanese do stay in shape by the amount of stairs they need to climb each day while commuting. The train stations are floors upon floors with limited elevators and some floors have escalators while many are just stairs upon stairs.
-You stand on the left side and pass on the right on the escalators. (Although in Osaka, they did opposite)
-Walking is the same – Walk on the left side
Weather (From what I experience this April trip)
-It is normal for Japanese people to stay covered up even it is hot outside as they care about their skin getting dark (similar to Hong Kong) They are more conservative in terms of covering cleavage but will wear short shorts. I wore a tank top because it was hot but got looks.
-April – light jacket/trench coats (Japanese fashion trend) and umbrellas are key.
-Tokyo is humid. April – average temp – high of 20, low of 6 – chances of showers high but muggy.
-Kanazawa – chilly and windy but otherwise warm during the day, can see breathe in the evening
-Takayama – Hot during the day – really hot as in we got slightly burnt but once the sun goes down, cold and chilly.
-Kyoto – Hot! (average 21-26C during the day) but cools down at night.
-Osaka – Just right! Not too hot, not too cold; bearable to walk around in a t-shirt majority of the day.
-Carry your passport around for many places you go shopping you can get tax free!
-Outlets are the Western 2 prong style instead of the american 3 prong
-There are a lot of people but they tend to move slower than the average if compared to Toronto foot traffic.
-You don’t tip in Japan – the only time you tip are in fancy high end restaurants or when you see fit.
-There are designated areas for people to smoke but the smoke still billows the streets and still litters the streets
-Smoking is not allowed while you are walking
-Smoking is allowed in certain food establishments
-There are rarely any garbage cans on the streets of Japan – 1 reason – you mainly goto establishments to eat or eat at home. 2 – in the past, terrorist attacks with packages left in garbage bins now detour garbage bins
-non combustibles and combustible garbage separation
-some wear masks but others don’t and when they sneeze or cough, they just let it out so be aware of that. Coming for Canada, where its customary to sneer into your elbow or cover your mouth, this might put you off a bit like it did me.
-Sailor moon make up by Beaute Creer – You can pick this up at Its Demo stores.
-In some cities like Takayama at night, they have flashing red lights outside of an establishment to signal that they are still open as other stores or restaurants close early.
Now onto my actual Itinerary. My itinerary got very extensive and ambitious with things and places I wanted to see and goto. Everyone else built their own itineraries but we made sure at certain aspects, we would all meet up in a different city for certain events such as the Takayama festival in Takayama and Temple running in Kyoto. In the span of 2 weeks, my goal was to make it through all these cities (Tokyo, Yokohama, Enoshima, Kawasaki, Kanazawa, Takayama, Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya) but of course not all goes to according to plans and we cut out some areas to explore other areas more. This was the itinerary that actually happened. There will always be another time to visit Japan once again to get more accomplished and more land covered.
Some places and things I originally had on my itinerary for the surrounding area but wasn’t able to accomplish were the following:
-Baseball – much different than Western Baseball – Hanshin Tigers VS anybody – the atmosphere is completely something to take in
-Enoshima – fujisawa – cute city – view of Mt Fuji in painting
-Ramen museum (yokohama)
-Cup Noodle Museum (yokohama)
-Kawasaki Warehouse – arcade games
-Tokyu Plaza – escalator & rooftop
-Akihabara Gachapon Kaikan – Tōkyō, Chiyoda, Sotokanda 3-15-5 Gee Store Akiba – 11AM-7PM
-Nagoya Dome – Purchase tickets – ticket booth near gate 1 – 10AM-5th inning