Japan: a land of contrasts

By far the phrase I used most often was “Arigata gozaimasu”: I appreciate it.

Chureito Pagoda and Mount Fuji from Arakurayama Sengen Park, about an hour and 45 minutes from Tokyo.
  • Chureito Pagoda and Mount Fuji from Arakurayama Sengen Park, about an hour and 45 minutes from Tokyo.

I stare out at Mount Fuji: bright, clear, stately, basking in the morning sunshine. Cherry blossoms frame my view alongside the stunning Chureito Pagoda in the foreground.

My timing was implausibly fortuitous. The previous day had been rainy and cloudy with zero visibility of the legendary peak. I feared my dream of a clear view of Fujisan slipping away. Enduring the 400-step walk up to Arakurayama Sengen Park, I was gratefully rewarded with this epic, bucket-list worthy view. The Instagram photos were no match for being here, in this spot, at this moment.

I'd arrived in Japan a few days earlier (via a nonstop flight from San Diego to Tokyo on the excellent Japan Airlines) with excitement but also a mild sense of dread. Not only was there a forecast for rain at Mount Fuji on the day of my visit, the cherry blossom bloom had occurred earlier than usual. I worried that my April visit, normally prime sakura, full bloom time, had been mistimed and too late to view the fabled blossoms.

Cherry blossoms, Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Tokyo.

Cherry blossoms, Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Tokyo.

In Japan, the sakura symbolizes the transience of life. Full bloom lasts only about a week, so the window for the most spectacular blossoms is brief. I was late to catch the full show — but fortunate that there's a late blooming species, so I was able to encounter spots of cherry blossom bloom. I'm routinely surprised that things always seem to work out on my travels, even if they don’t work out as perfectly as planned.

Japan on a budget

Contrary to what many people think, it’s possible to see Japan on a budget. My journey (as well as those of most visitors to Japan) included visits to Tokyo and Kyoto, the past and present capitals of the county. I also managed to sneak in my day trip to Mount Fuji. With planning and preparation, it is affordable to do this itinerary on a budget.

One of the best investments I made in preparation for the trip was to buy a JR pass, which covers transportation around the country on the Shinkansen bullet trains. It can be also used for getting around Tokyo on JR-affiliated trains. Train travel can be expensive in Japan, and if you plan to take at least one visit outside of Tokyo, for instance to Kyoto, buying a JR pass can be a good investment. It must be bought outside of Japan, however. I picked mine up in the lobby of the Best Western Plus Bayside Inn in downtown San Diego. You can buy a 7-day, 14-day or 2-day pass. I also recommend you buy a Suica or Pasmo card upon arriving at the airport for convenient travel on the Tokyo subway. Another budget suggestion is to buy a one-day or multi-day pass for bus and subway travel while visiting Kyoto.

There are many budget options in Tokyo for accommodation through Airbnb. If you book early, study the cancellation terms for your booking, in case you’d like the option of staying flexible. It’s recommended to book early for the choicest options in Tokyo.

Also, you can maximize your time and money by avoiding eating out at pricey restaurants for lunch and, instead, buying inexpensive preprepared meals called bento. These are plentiful at convenience stores, including Family Mart, Lawson’s and (yes) 711. The meals can actually be tasty and nutritious, and I was amazed at the selections available. Japan has developed a well-deserved reputation as something of a foodie paradise — it’s wise to expand your gastronomic horizons and try some new things. I developed a taste for the Japanese snack dorayaki, a pancake filled with red bean paste. If you do eat out (and you should at least a few times), keep in mind there is no tipping in Japan, even if the service is outstanding. Also, don’t expect to pay for everything with a credit or debit card, as many restaurants and businesses don’t accept them. Japan is a cash-based country.

If you would like a guide in Japan, but can’t afford a private guide, you might consider a goodwill guide. There are several organizations that offer this. Just Google "Japan goodwill guide." It’s not entirely free. You will pay for the guide’s lunch, transportation, and admission fees to museums and temples. You can set the itinerary and determine if you would like to utilize the guide for just one day or several days. You can also arrange a tutorial in Japanese etiquette and the Japanese tea ceremony.

Tokyo

My three days in Tokyo were a whirlwind exploration of the most populous city in the world. I explored the popular spots: Senso-ji, the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo in the Asakusa region, the Meiji Shrine, Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens (the best place in the city to experience sakura), the National Museum, which had a sakura art exhibit on display, and the Imperial Palace Gardens. I also visited the observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (instead of the pricey, crowded Sky Tower) for a free panoramic view of the city. Finally, the Shibuya Scramble offered the odd thrill of watching hordes of people cross the busiest intersection in the world. If this appeals to you, go to the second-floor Starbucks for the best view of this spectacle. For a crazy, mind-blowing show, go to Robot Restaurant. But keep in mind, it’s a bit pricey and the spectacle is more popular with visitors than locals.

Leave some time to walk a variety of the city’s neighborhoods to get a sense of the city. Some of my most memorable times in Tokyo were simply exploring a few of the more bustling areas such as Shinjuku, Asakusa, Akihabara (the electronics district), and Harajuku by foot without a specific agenda. This is the best and most visceral way to absorb the pulse of this astonishingly vibrant city and its inhabitants.

Flower fields in Kashiwa, Japan.

Flower fields in Kashiwa, Japan.

It’s good to occasionally get off the beaten path. Not all my visits were to standard tourist destinations. My guide and friend, Tsune, brought me to his home town, Kashiwa, on the outskirts of Tokyo, to view gorgeous flower fields that cost nothing to visit, unlike the flower fields here in Carlsbad. I can’t imagine a more astonishing field of tulips outside of Holland.

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Author's note: The caption on the first photo has an error. Arakurayama Sengen Park is not accessible by bullet train from Tokyo. You can get there via a combination of trains, one of them a private, non-JR (non-bullet) line that does not accept the JR pass. This will take about 1 hour 45 min. with a transfer in Otsuki. From the Shimo-Yoshida station, signs will direct you to the park. You can also take a bus to nearby Kawaguchiko from the Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal. The bus terminal is on the fourth floor of the south building of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. The bus will bring you directly to Kawaguchiko.

It is, however, possible to take a bullet train nonstop from Tokyo to Kyoto in a bit less than 3 hours.

Fixed - thanks for calling this out, Derek!

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