Japan: 'We're Stymied as to the Best Way to Take It All In'
Two friends want to hike Mt. Fuji, explore the excitement of Tokyo, and mellow out in Kyoto--all in a single week
Sue Sholin and Kate Oliver have been close friends for nearly 20 years, including a decade working as lawyers in the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney's Office in Tacoma, Wash. They're also adventurous travelers who went to Africa with a group of other women to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro in 1997. Another iconic peak, Mt. Fuji, figures into their latest travels. "Japan has been a dream destination of mine my whole life," says Kate, whose father attended high school there when his father was stationed in the country after World War II. "When I was growing up," Kate recalls, "our house had a special section set aside for Dad's souvenirs from his time in Japan, including his samurai sword."
Sue and Kate want to hike Fuji at the beginning of climbing season (July) and experience as much of Japan as possible, from the sublime to the tacky, the traditional to the futuristic. With only a week's vacation, their basic plan is to fly to Tokyo and spend a few days in the city, climb Mt. Fuji, and head over to Kyoto before returning to Tokyo to fly home. "We're stymied as to the best way to take it all in," says Sue.
Since Japan is one of the most expensive countries on earth, Sue and Kate are also looking to save money wherever possible. Before contacting us, they checked directly with airlines, and the cheapest flight from Seattle was $1,060. We advise them to contact airfare consolidator and Japan specialist IACE Travel, which has round-trip Northwest Airlines tickets available for $931.
"Are we out of our minds for attempting this without some rudimentary Japanese?" asks Sue. Not at all. While it's true that many Japanese don't speak English, their willingness to help is unrivaled--as is their politeness. If Sue and Kate are desperate, they might have the best luck asking young professional women for assistance. Talking slowly and writing things down is useful, too (especially the hotel address, so they can get help finding their way home!). In Tokyo and Kyoto, much of the signage is in English, as it is at almost all train stations. There will be times when they feel like they're wandering in another world--but isn't that why they want to go to Japan in the first place?
Riding a shinkansen, or bullet train, is on Sue's wish list. They'll have the chance to zip along on one of the 186-mph trains (and others) while using their one-week Japan Rail Passes (see Surprise! below). The important thing to remember about Japan Rail Passes, which are a terrific deal, is that they must be purchased prior to arrival in Japan.
"The double-decker bus tour around London was a great way to get oriented and find interesting locations," says Sue. "Is there a Tokyo equivalent?" While there are standard bus tours, the JR Yamanote Line (or Loop Line) does a circle around the entire city for a quick, inexpensive overview ($1.25). And it's free to holders of a Japan Rail Pass.
One could spend a month exploring Tokyo and not cover the same ground twice. With only a couple days, Sue and Kate ask us to list the real must-see attractions. The wild 5 a.m. tuna auction at Tsukiji fish market is justifiably famous, but even if Sue and Kate oversleep, they'll find plenty of exotic seafood in the colorful market until around noon. Many Westerners know Tokyo only from movies, and Sue and Kate could tour cool spots they've seen on film: the shopping and entertainment districts of Shinjuku and Shibuya, which featured prominently in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation; the cityscapes of East Shinjuku (Yasukuni-dori Street in particular) that inspired Blade Runner; and perhaps Gonpachi, in the Roppongi neighborhood, the basis for the House of Blue Leaves restaurant in Kill Bill Vol. 1 (it's also where Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi entertained President George W. Bush a few years back). After dinner, they should check out Roppongi Hills, a hip complex with top-notch contemporary exhibits--and phenomenal views--at the Mori Art Museum, on the 52nd and 53rd floors. For a nightcap, the surrounding neighborhood is home to hundreds of bars, many of which are easy for non--Japanese speakers to navigate.
Tokyo is so stimulating that it's not really necessary to focus too much on the attractions--just walking and gawking is enough. The department stores in Ginza are worth poking around (patrons who arrive right when a store opens at 10 a.m. are greeted in a memorable fashion), as is the ritzy shopping strip of Omotesando. Even if the women aren't interested in Christian Dior, they'll find the people-watching unforgettable. The streets just off and behind Omotesando feel a world away and are fun to stroll. A cooler, more down-to-earth neighborhood is Daikanyama.