Travel Log - Japan Road Trip
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Japan Road Trip

(February 20, 2008)
Let's be clear before I start, I LOVE Japan for many reasons and I know some people that have as many reasons not to like it. It is a country of extreme contrasts. So far my Japanese business and leisure experience has been really good but I understand why some people are not that positive about it. I went there twice, the first time for a 2-week business trip and the second time for a week during my honeymoon and I learned a lot during both trips.

Highlights

  • Everything is extremely clean and well organized
  • The notion of service is pushed to the extreme (no tips!)
  • Food is an amazing experience (unless you are a vegetarian ouch!)
  • Getting around by yourself is quite easy (even by car)
  • Finding a hotel room anywhere on the fly can be very challenging (language barrier)
  • Business etiquette must be understood and respected to obtain results
  • Their English is nowhere near anywhere (Nan Des Ka?)

What's Out There
There is a lot to see and do in Japan but it all depend how adventurous you are to get off the beaten path. Some group travels may offer that experience though many concentrate on the "classics". Here is a little road trip experience from our honeymoon, and when I say road trip I mean it: we rented a car in Japan (fun)!

Let's start with Tokyo
We arrived in Tokyo from Hong Kong and we spent the afternoon and most of the next day in town. We could not rent a car from the airport because we only had an appointment with the French Consulate the next day to translate our driving licenses.
The city of Tokyo is amazing, it is crowded but it is extremely clean. We stayed at the Marriott Courtyard in Ginza (the equivalent of Fifth Ave or Madison shopping area in New York) because of its convenient location. Since shopping is amazing in the area ... I had no choice but it was interresting to feel welcome everywhere (even too much sometimes). We also did some people watching and spent a fair amount of times in restaurants. The food in Japan is excellent and very different than the typical sushi place we can find in Europe or North America.
The next day after our visit at the consulate we spent a fair amount of time trying to rent a car! Don't look for the usual Avis or Hertz, they are not in Japan. After many attemps we managed to find a car at the Nippon Rent A Car in Tokyo Station basement. The car was not available before 5PM so we continued our shopping and people watching spree.

Mont Fuji
We left Tokyo around 5PM to reach the Five Lakes region and Mont-Fuji for the night. I usually drive a lot in big cities like New York or Paris and I drive on the left side of the road regularly in the Cayman Islands so I got used to the driving fairly quickly. Reaching Mount Fuji is a fairly quick drive through the Chuo expressway but we arrived after dark. With no hotel and no idea where to go we had a little stress moment but I must say it was hillarious (we like adventures). We took a wrong turn and ended up going around one of the lake (Kawaguchiko) in the wrong direction. We were supposed to be in a place with many hotels so we started to see hotels everywhere ... and we disturbed quite a few people trying to enjoy their evening.
We finally located the right place and secured a nice hotel room. It was a Japanese room with a private onsen and when the day broke-up we had an amazing view of Mount Fuji ... we got lucky on that one! It was 6AM when we realized that Mount Fuji was there and we could not sleep anymore so we dipped into the onsen watching the scenery and the sun rise! Mount Fuji is amazing standing by itself with nothing else around to match its size.

The Shimoda Penninsula
Less than 2 hours south of Mt Fuji starts a huge penninsula with the historical city of Shimoda at the South-Est tip (110 miles from Tokyo). Shimoda is know because it was the first point of entry in Japan used by the Portuguese but there is nothing really interresting there. The drive down on the East coast was not very interresting either. What is beautiful is the drive up the coast on the West side. The scenery is amazing and very natural with a few villages but no major cities. As the panoramic pictures shows below, the coast is very rough with many cliffs offering spectacular scenic views along the way.
Because we could not drive fast and stoped many time to enjoy the scenery we almost ended up sleeping in the car. Late in the night, we finally identified a place to sleep somewhere between Ugusu and Yagisawa. Once again a very nice hotel with a Japanese room overseeing the bay (picture below).

The next day we started to hate those road laces but when passing over a hill we discovered a ferry docking in a small port near the city of Toi. According to the map it would allow us to head West directly to Shimizu saving us 100km of small roads and laces. Once we understood how to purchase tickets, we loaded the car on the ferry and enjoyed a peaceful cruise. Half-way we started to see Mount Fuji on the horizon with the snowy cap clearly visible above the haze while mount Darumayama was fading behind us.
Once docked in Shimizu, we jumped on the Tomei expressway on our way to Kyoto. We stopped at a rest/fuel stop located above Hamanako lake to eat. The scenery was splendid and the amenities are far better than Europe or US rest stops. They have restaurants and shops ... you almost forget that you are on an expressway. And as usual, everything is sparkling clean.

Kyoto
It was Japan's capital and the emperor residence between 794 and 1868. It is now the country's seventh largest city with a population of 1.4 million. Kyoto offers the most temples, shrines and other historically priceless structures but also a very modern architecture such as the main train station. We stayed in a hotel adjacent to that station, a giant structure with an impressive steel and glass roof including pedestrian suspended bridges offering an amazing view on the city. The place is very popular with many shops, restaurants and services but also public exhibitions and shows.
From the train station it is easy to dive into the old city through its narrow streets and to discover a very traditional Japan. The houses are certainly very old but maintained with attention to details. Everything is very quiet when you are off major streets, a very strange feeling considering such a big city. There are many restaurants but you can see that it will be difficult as a non-local to get food there. A few of those restaurants though are making every effort to serve you and sometimes they have 1 menu partially translated in english they circulate around tables if other non-japanese need help.
We tried to visit the historical imperial palace but unfortunately you need an appointment and it cannot be on a Saturday ... bad luck, it was a Saturday. We walked in the gardens around but the walls are huge and we could not see anything inside. Then we visited Nishi Honganji, the head temple of the Honganji faction of Jodo-Shin Buddhism. The temple is in a beautiful garden surrounded by huge protective walls that give a castle look to the place. As the day went by we continued to roam around the city before heading towards Osaka for some evening entertainment.

Osaka
If there is a place that can put Time Square to shame, that's it! You take Time Square and expand it from 59th to 30th Street and from 10th to 2nd Avenue and you have the entertainment district of Osaka. Many young people drive from Kyoto or other surrounding cities to Osaka for the evening on week ends (or night considering how popular Love hotels are over there). We only stayed overnight to party and discover night life outside of Tokyo.
The most difficult part is to select a restaurant or bar in Osaka. The choice is incredible and overwhelming. We finally found a Japanese "Grill" on the 12th floor of one of the all-restaurants building and had quite a good dinner. The place was crowded and we thought service would be slow but we were wrong. They have a call button for service so in anticipation of delays I clicked the button in advance and started to think about what to have after (I am French after all) not even a minute later our waitress was back embarrassing but pleasant.
After dinner we had a long walk across the entertainment district, an amazing sightseeing. Then we decided to experience the famous Japanese love hotels so we know what it is all about and it was a much easier choice for the night considering our location. The rooms in those hotels usually runs by the hour, but in some of them, after 11PM you can keep the room until noon the next day for a reasonable amount of money. A perfect way for us to rest for the night.
Once tired of the neon lights and loud noise we started to hunt our love hotel.
Finding a room in one of those hotels is a funny experience. You enter the lobby of the hotel and there is, most of the time, a giant panel where all rooms are described with the price. If the room is illuminated it is available otherwise it is dark. To select the room you press the corresponding button and an attendant shows up at the counter to take your credit card and give you room access.
There are many themes but it seems to be very kitch in most cases. Our r
oom was extremely clean with some kinky decorations and a giant wirlpool. I must say that we had a blast but TV is not for the kids there ... we could not find a single channel with a normal program or dressed people!

The Japanese Alps
Following our Saturday Night Fever, we jumped on the expressway again to head towards the Japanese Alps and get some fresh air! After a quick breakfast at another rest stop South of the huge Biwako lake we continued and reached Takayama early in the afternoon.
Takayama is a beautiful small town on the West slopes of the montains and it is very popular with a lot of Japanese tourists. We enjoyed some regional specialties for lunch and decided to drive East accross the montains trying to find a nice hotel to rest.
After a nice afternoon scenic drive along the Kohachi river, coming down from the Hirayu pass we arrived in Hirayu village deep into a valley. The place is well known for hot springs and finding a hotel there was very easy. We could not find a room with a private onsen but the price included 45 minutes free to enjoy one of the hotel private open air onsen. After another very interresting dinner we took a late onsen dip outside by 45F or so but the water is so hot, you cannot feel the cold.

After our last rural stop and a few detour to enjoy some the montain we headed-back to Tokyo and completed our stay with a more hurban touch.

For Business Trips
If you do business while in Japan you have to be extremely sensitive to their Business Etiquette if you do not want to fail. In Japan appearance and behavior are key to successful business transactions. Read more ...

Communication
Japanese do not speak english a lot and communication may be difficult. To prepare for you trip there you can look at our page to learn a few Japanese expressions and you can also check our page dedicated to a few important written Japanese words.

How To Go
Japan is easy to access as most major airlines go there:

  • Non-Stop from New York it is 14+ hours
  • Add a stop between Tokyo and New York and it can become a 20 hours commute
  • Business class is more survivable and welcome on such a long flight, coach may be tough
  • Airlines flown: Delta & Northwest

Visa
As a French citizen I did not need a visa and I do not think that US or other European citizen do either (check with your foreign affairs). Indians need a visa to visit Japan.

How To Travel Around
Major cities have subways. Tokyo subway is very easy to use and extremely clean. It is not as crowded as we were told. To travel between cities there are a lot of trains including the very fast bullet train (between major cities). Train tickets are expensive but tourists can buy a pass before visiting Japan (not available over there). There may be internal flights but airports are often far and it may take longuer than using a bullet train.

Renting A Car
You need, if you do not have a Japanese driving license, a translation of your driving license in Japanese. We translated our French driving licenses at the French consulate in Tokyo (by appointment and they charged 2,000 Yens. It can also be done by mail).
Then you have to find a way to rent a car which is quite a challenge if you do not talk Japanese (I don't). Unlike the US, they may not have your selected type of car immediately available but they will get it within 4 hours.
We used Nippon Rent A Car at Tokyo Train Station and besides the language barriers it was a fun and pleasant experience. As you can see on the picture the car was nice ... I am not sure what it was though (besides a Honda) because everything was in Japanese. Even worst, the car, GPS and Toll system all spoke Japanese ... all the time ... who knows what they were trying to tell us. Very smooth car to drive though.

Driving in Japan
Extremely easy and nice. In a few words:

  • They drive on the left so be careful (though it feels natural because the driver is on the right).
  • The commands are inverted so you will put the blinker when it rains and the wippers to turn (it takes a couple days to stop doing that).
  • All roads are in perfect conditions.
  • All signs are both in Japanese and translated.
  • Parking is easy.
  • Traffic is usually fluid even in large metropolitan areas (much better than Paris or London)
  • Speed limits are low on the freeway (80 or 110km/h) but they usually drive faster (130km/h if not more). We did not find any speed trap though I think they had a few speed cameras.
  • Japanese are very respectful of rules (besides speed). For example they will not pass you on the left, they will wait behind that you change lane. They will eventually blink their lights if you do not react.
  • Tolls are expensive from the US point of view but not that expensice compared to France.
  • Buy a road map or atlas in english otherwise it may be difficult to navidate. We bought ours in a Tokyo library: Japan Road Atlas from Shobunsha including City and Sightseeing maps. It is slightly smaller than letter format and 1/2 inch thick.

Our car had a GPS but only in Japanese. Playing with it we discovered that we could point and click to define our destination. By comparison with our english map we managed to use the GPS. We could not understand a word but it displays arrows and details intersections so it was really useful. It also reported traffic and helped us to avoid a few slow downs.

Hotels
We only booked our hotel in Tokyo for the first night in Japan and then for the two nights before we left. We stayed at the Marriott Courtyard Tobu Hotel in Ginza (but even though it is a Marriott they do not really speak english). Very comfortable rooms at a reasonable price if you compare to a city like New York.
Everywhere else we looked for rooms on the fly ... we almost ended-up sleeping in the car one night though ... quite an adventure. But every time we found a nice hotel to spend the night. Diner and breakfast was often included and it was really good if you do not mind Japanese food for breakfast.
We tried to sleep in Japanese style rooms every night for the experience. They are easy to find in rural hotels. In large cities it is more difficult and they usually are more expensive than the regular rooms. We also tried a room with a private onsen and it is a great experience
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From the author: I KNOW ... it is wrapped the wrong way! But at least it is extremely comfortable.


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