What I did, and how I traveled through Japan knowing a limited amount of Japanese.

JAPAN TRAVEL GUIDE FOR NON-FLUENT SPEAKERS

I was fortunate to spend the first three-ish weeks of December 2022 in Japan visiting with my Ji-chan (grandfather), reconnecting with old friends, and adventuring through new cities. 

Here’s to a little photo journal of my semi-solo adventure with some tips on ways to travel around Japan when you are not fluent in Japanese. 

Day 0

My adventure begins with a departure from LAX to Haneda (Tokyo), the flight was long, food was solid (for airplane food), with a side of anxiety knowing that I had only 1 hour and 20 minutes to catch my connecting flight from Haneda to Itami Airport (Osaka). Spoiler alert, I did not make either connecting flight from Haneda to Itami so I had to try and beg my way to Osaka that night. The Japan Airlines staff tried to be helpful, however, I was really wishing that I paid attention in Japanese classes. I luckily got the last seat on the last flight of the night to Kansai Airport (Osaka, but the other Osaka airport). My advice to anyone traveling to Japan, who does not speak Japanese fluently, is either fly direct to your final destination or have your connecting flight in the U.S..

Day 1

Osaka → Fukuoka 

Navigated from my Ji-chan’s train station in Sakai (Osaka-ish area) → Osaka Station → Shin-Osaka → Hakata Station

Met up with Hiro (one of our Content Team Members currently doing the JET Program) and went to the mountain side of Fukuoka where we saw the Reclining Buddha at Nanzoin Temple in Sasaguri

Hiro then drove us over to Dazaifu where we saw the famous temple. 

Back to Hakata Station where they were hosting a Christmas Market and we tried hot wine. 

Day 2 

Fukuoka

TeamLab Forest Fukuoka is an immersive experience. The venue asks that you download an app so that you can interact with the experience. If the sculpture looks familiar, it's because the same artist has a sculpture on display at the Orange County Museum of Art

TeamLab Forest Fukuoka, and walked around PayPay Dome (Fukuoka’s baseball team’s stadium)

Stumbled upon the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum– very unique, and we learned about a large overlap between Japanese and Indian history. 

At Canal City, we had lunch at the ramen stadium. Of course, we had to have Hakata ramen, but it was so unique seeing all the different styles of ramen being represented in one food hall. If you plan to try multiple varieties of ramen, definitely come with an empty stomach.

At night went to Fukuoka Tower and saw views of the city

Day 3

Fukuoka → Osaka

Fukuoka Castle ruins, and took the Shinkansen back to Osaka

Got to have dinner and hangout with my Ji-chan. 

Day 4

Osaka 

Can we normalize having a slice of cake and a coffee at 4:30 p.m.?

Osaka Castle (Osaka-Jo). I did not realize that castle was quite a walk from the nearest train station, so make sure to wear comfortable walking shoes. 

Took local train to Shinsaibashi, had my first meal by myself while in Japan at a ramen restaurant.

Walked to Dontonbori, did some light window shopping

Had the best uji matcha cake and creme brulee latte from Starbucks at Namba Station. 

Day 5

Osaka

Practiced driving in Japan for the first time. 

This picture was going to stay in the archives, but I decided to share it. Driving in Japan is moderately terrifying.

TeamLab Botanical Garden at Nagai Park feels magical.

Took the train to Tennoji to do some sightseeing, came back to have dinner with my Ji-chan, and went to TeamLab Botanical Garden at Nagai Park

Day 6

Kobe

I had no real plan for the day, just to walk around to see what I could find. 

Took the train to Kobe and went to Nunobiki Falls (right behind Shin-Kobe)

Went the Kobe Nunobiki Herb Gardens & Ropeway and saw views of all of Kobe Bay and even parts of Osaka. When I got to the top I was not expecting to be transported to a place that exuded small European village during the holidays vibes. 

I then walked all the way to Merkien Park, then to Kobe Chinatown. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend walking from Shin-Kobe to Meriken Park, but if you have the time and capacity, it’s fun walking around a new city. 

I headed back to Shin-Osaka then back to Ji-chan’s. If you are ever in search of a 10/10 dessert in Kobe, for the next day, pick up a Vanille Fromage cake at Shin-Kobe. You won’t regret it. 

Day 7

Osaka

Drove around Osaka for the first time. Went to the hospital where my bachan was an Alzheimer's patient for many years, then around the Sakai area of Osaka.

Driving around Japan is quite stressful – specifically less developed areas of Japan where the roads are crazy narrow. Other challenges include not being able to read the street/highway signs, and having to mentally convert all of the navigation’s distances from (kilo)meters to miles/yards. 

Day 8

Osaka → Kyoto (sorta)

I drove with my Ji-chan to Nagomi which is a REALLY small town outside of Kyoto where my Ji-chan grew up during WWII. We had lunch at the michi no eki, a road side station, similar to a rest area but with a food court and local market.

I then drove us to Arashiyama, and we walked through the bamboo forest and across Togetsu-kyo. 

We then went to Nishiki Street and found local foods. Ended the day with Oden and a cute Kyoto Starbucks mug.

Day 9

Osaka 

Sunrise from Ji-chan's condo

Took it easy and hung out at my ji-chan'’s condo. Packed up to go check-in to an Airbnb near Tennoji Station where I would be staying with my mom and sister once they had arrived.  I was supposed to pick-up my sister and mom from Itami, but they also missed the connecting flight so they had to stay overnight in Tokyo and caught the 6 a.m. flight the next day. Aka my mom (translator) got delayed for yet another day.

Day 10

Osaka

Drove 40 mins to Itami airport to pick up mom and sister. Drove back to the Airbnb and headed right back out to Shinsaibashi/Dontonbori to run some errands and shop. 

My sister and I walked to the Namba Yaska Shrine. This Shrine was a bit strange because it is in the middle of a neighborhood. 

Dinner at Tennoji station at a nice yakiniku place

*not pictured* going to Osaka Station to activate mom and sister’s JR pass after dinner, and reserve seats for the next morning to go from Shin-Osaka to Shinagawa Station (Tokyo)

Day 11

Osaka → Tokyo → Yokohama

We woke up early and headed out in the rain to go to Shinagawa. From there we dropped off our items and took a short Shinkansen ride to Yokohama. 

Yokohama has been a place on my Japan bucket list since my mom spent a couple of years there after graduating college. Adventured around Yokohama Marine Tower where we saw incredible views of Yokohama Bay. 

Then walked to Yokohama’s Chinatown, Japan’s largest Chinatown. 

Went back to Tokyo area and met up with a friend from back home who is in Japan for the JET program. 

Day 12

TOKYO DISNEY

Spent 2 hours in line for the Beauty and the Beast ride. Which was sorta worth it… would I wait 2 hours again, no, but the different rooms that the line goes through makes you feel like you are in the movie. Next time, I would pay extra to get the fast pass for this ride. 

We love Disney, so hearing all the songs in Japanese was super fun. There are many rides in which Tokyo Disney and Disneyland differ. 

I missed the matcha popcorn though :/ but yes, we had the three-eyed alien filled mochi.  

Day 13

Tokyo → Osaka

Breakfast with our hula friend/teammate.

Took the train to Shibuya to meet up with a college friend and have lunch with him! Walked around a bit after (found some of the many unique KitKat flavors) and took a picture with the iconic Hachiko statue. 

Had our favorite Hambagu- steak, and then took the Shinkansen back to Osaka.

Day 14

Osaka

Drove to our cousin’s house ~40 minutes away to get dressed in kimono. Took her Seijin shiki (coming of age) pictures. 

Then had a long dinner with our cousins who speak nearly as much English as I do Japanese… which is not much haha. We had Google Translate out for the entirety of the dinner, but it was nice to be able to get to know them a bit better. 

Day 15

Osaka

Drove to a temple where we had a (belated) 7 year service for my late bachan. 

Did some more shopping, and then headed back to pack another overnight bag. 

Day 16

Osaka → Nagoya

Took the cute Hello Kitty super express from Tennoji to Shin-Osaka

Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka to Nagoya Station. 

Went to Nagoya Castle, but first made a stop for lunch – akamiso katsu! Nagoya’s most famous dish. 

Nagoya Castle was closed due to the instability caused by earthquakes :/ 

Walked around the park, and got to catch a bit of the end of fall foliage. 

Went back to Nagoya Station and did a little bit of shopping. 

With Keri went back out to Yama-chan for the best teba chicken wings (I still think about them from time to time)

Day 17

Nagoya → Matsusaka/Ise

Took a local train from Nagoya to Matsusaka… which I then had to drive a rental car from Matsusaka to Ise Jingu (a temple where you are not allowed to take photos inside as there is a spirit that dwells there). 

Drove from Ise Jingu to Yokoyama Lookout. This lookout point overlooks the entire Ise island. 

Stopped for a brief lunch and then walked across the bridge to Mikimoto Pearl Island. 

In all honesty, I did not expect much from the Pearl Island, but we happened to catch the last ‘ama’ demonstration of the day. We then learned about the history, harvesting, and sorting of pearls from the museum. 

Drove from Ise back to Matsusaka, got on the train and deliriously went back to Osaka.

Day 18 

Osaka

Had a 10/10 curry udon with mochi and cheese at Osaka Station. We did most of our holiday shopping in Japan (we shopped nearly all day this day). Went back to Tennoji Station to have an ice cream parfait appetizer. 

I took my mom and sister to Nagai Park to experience TeamLab Botanical Garden. Seriously this place makes you feel like you’ve been transported to some fairytale land. 

Ended our night with Ichiran ramen! 

We spent the rest of the night trying to figure out how we were going to pack all of our things back into the suitcases… ended up having to borrow a couple of duffle bags from Ji-chan, and leaving a couple of overcoats, but the important things (SNACKS) made it home!

Day 19

Osaka → Tokyo → LA

It’s finally departure day :( 

Ji-chan picked us up from the Airbnb where we had to carry our bags down 4 flights of stairs (ahaha L on my part for not knowing that it was only stairs and we were on the top floor) I drove us back to Itami airport where we had our final lunch with ji-chan before heading home.

We (my mom and sister because I was sleeping already) were able to see Mt. Fuji on our flight from Osaka to Tokyo.  

Consistencies Throughout My Trip:

My need for Google Maps and Google Translate, cash (yen), Japan Railway Pass and/or IC train card, portable charger, 2 cups of coffee/day, ice cream (at least 1/day), and a prayer for every time I got out of the train station hoping I got out at the correct exit. 

I had to get comfortable with being alone– which for the first time in (maybe forever) I had to embrace and appreciate. Japan was a good place to be traveling (semi-)solo as there are many people who do things by themselves everyday. I learned a lot about myself, something that may not have happened had I allowed myself to be comfortable throughout the entirety of my trip. Not being able to always communicate with everyone, or being able to read all the signs and menus, truly challenged me to take some chances and ask for help when needed. 

Semi-Pro Tips:
  • Make sure to have data/some kind of internet service while in Japan
  • Download Google Maps, it helps navigate the train stations and seems to be more up to date than other map apps. 
  • But, if you use a Japan Railway Pass, use the JapanTravel app. This app navigates using the trains included in the pass. 
  • If you are going to Japan by yourself and you have a long train ride at night, set a quiet alarm. You really are not supposed to have your phone make noise on the trains, but it definitely beats missing your stop. While on the Shinkansen (bullet train) you must be ready to get off before arriving at the stop. If you do not get out of your seat before your stop you will not be able to get off in time, or potentially cause others to not get on the train. 
  • Speaking of train etiquette – ALWAYS let everyone off the train before getting on. 
  • Do not hesitate to ask the people who work at the train stations for help. Even if you do not speak Japanese. A good phrase to know is “Sumimasen, Eigo shaberimasuka?”
  • Translation: Excuse me, do you speak English? 

*Think about it like this.. if you have any reservations about asking due to embarrassment, this thought should vanish the moment you realize that you will most likely never ever see this person again. 

  • When ordering at a restaurant, and you do not know how to pronounce the items on the menu, you can point to the item and say “kore”. The restaurant staff will understand well enough. 
  • If they do not have an English menu or English menu option on the tablet, you can take a photo of the menu on Google Translate and the app can translate the menu.
  • If you are going to try clothes on at a store, make sure you take off your shoes before entering. The store attendant will most likely hand you a cover for your face if you appear to wear makeup. 
  • If you need to find a bathroom, there is almost always one at the train stations and in the shopping malls.

Other Good Terms to Know: 

Right: Me-gi

Left: Hidari

Straight ahead: Masugu

Thank you: Arigato

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