We flew on Japan Airlines from Toronto to Tokyo. From Tokyo we flew to Osaka. From Osaka we took a bus to Kyoto. We spent 3 days there before traveling to Tokyo.
I suggest booking your flights as early as possible. The longer you wait to book a flight, the less options you will have. If you're traveling from the USA, it could be a long flight depending on where you fly out of. Most likely you will lose time when traveling to Japan, but you will gain back that time when you return home.
Because of the time difference between Japan and the USA (eastern standard time for me), I wanted to be in Japan at least a week before the marathon, so that I could get acclimated to the time change. If you're looking for my RACE REPORT for the Tokyo Marathon, please click here.
Kyoto, once the capital of Japan, is a city on the island of Honshu. It's famous for its numerous classical Buddhist temples, as well as gardens, imperial palaces, Shinto shrines and traditional wooden houses. It’s also known for formal traditions such as kaiseki dining, consisting of multiple courses of precise dishes, and geisha, female entertainers often found in the Gion district.
Before we toured Tokyo, we wanted to see the old before the new. Kyoto was the perfect place to start. Kyoto is "old Japan". If you want to truly experience Japan, you need to travel to Kyoto. Seeing Kyoto gave me a greater appreciation and respect for the culture. I'm glad we started with Kyoto.
Scroll to the very bottom to see a collection of my photos from this trip.
OUR STAY IN KYOTO
We stayed at the Westin Miyako Kyoto hotel. This was the perfect place for us to stay. Located just outside the heart of the city, this historic hotel provided a nice escape from the noise and chaos of downtown Kyoto, but was close enough to still feel like we could reach the major sights.
The Westin Miyako offers the option of staying in a traditional hotel room or a Japanese-style room, like a ryokan. We stayed in the Japanese-style room which was wonderful. It was the perfect way to start out. A traditional ryokan is like our American Bed and Breakfasts. There is a communal bathing area, and a meal is served by the inn staff. There are traditional tatami mat floors, and sliding doors. Typically guests sit on the floor or low chairs. Tea is often served. With the Westin Japanese-style room, you will have your own private bathing area. So it's a nice way to experience a ryokan-like room, without the higher prices, communal bathing area and set schedule of meal time. The Westin Miyako has a spa, several restaurants, a pool, fitness center, a trail and bird sanctuary. For those who are interested in running before or after the Tokyo Marathon, they offer a running route from the hotel and group runs as well! Click here to learn where to run in Kyoto.
THE WESTIN MIYAKO KYOTO
"The Westin Miyako Kyoto boasts a full century of rich heritage, seen in its beautiful landscaping and gardens. The Miyako Hotel opened in 1900 with the expansion of a small spa. It quickly became the largest hotel in Japan, and famous cultural figures like Albert Einstein, Ana Pavlova, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Charles Lindbergh were counted among its guests.
In 1933, landscape architect Jihei Ogawa—known for his work at the Heian Shrine—created the Aoi-den Garden. Following World War II, the hotel briefly served as lodging for Allied officers, and was visited by Dwight Eisenhower and Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller. In 1952, the hotel reopened for business and welcomed Eleanor Roosevelt, Indira Gandhi, Marlon Brando, and Elizabeth Taylor, among others." (Source: Starwood hotels)
The top things I recommend seeing in Kyoto are:
- Fushimi Inari-Taisha -The famous shrine with thousands of orange vermilion tori gates
- Gion District - the Geisha can be admired here.
- Arashiyama Bamboo Grove - Get lost in this breathtaking bamboo forest.
- Arashiyama Monkey Park - worth the climb up this mountain to see a stunning view of the city & the monkeys. Here, we are the one in cages and the monkeys are free. Take a break after climbing to the top and sip a cup of coffee from Togetsu Cafe after you make the trek down the mountain. Cafe located near the river, past the park.
- Nishiki Market
- Eat ramen at Ippudo
- Golden pavilion Kinkaku-ji
- Kyoto Imperial Palace
- Try a specialty flavor drink at Starbucks. Flavors like Cherry Blossom Latte were available when I was there. It was delicious!
There are many more sights that are recommended you see while in Kyoto. Depending on how much time you have, pick what fits into your schedule and what interests you.
Things you should do in Kyoto:
- Sip tea at Yojiya cafe after doing the Philosopher's Walk
- Experience an authentic Tea Ceremony @ En. Reservations recommended.
- Walk around Nishiki Market. Sample fish and pickled items!
- Purchase a Japanese high quality knife at Aritsugu Knives in the Nishiki Market, and get it engraved with your name!
- Take a rickshaw ride through the bamboo forest if you're too tired to walk or want to save your legs for the monkey park climb.
- Enjoy a delicious, unique sweet treat roll from Arinco. After seeing the bamboo forest, walk to Arinco on your way over to the monkey park. This will give you energy before climbing to to the park. Click on the link to see these gorgeous desserts.
- Eat aged Kobe beef at Pound Kyoto Ekimae. Go at lunch for cheaper prices!****
We spent about 3 days in Kyoto before traveling to Tokyo. I could have spent 2-3 more days in Kyoto, but we were limited with our vacation time and there were so many more things to see and do in Tokyo.
We took the "bullet" train (Shinkansen) from Kyoto to Tokyo, which I highly recommend doing. This train runs up to 320 km/h. There is food service and wifi on the train. My husband really enjoyed this. We had a little bit of a wait at the Kyoto Station. I recommend having a cup of coffee or a light meal at Cafe KOTO. This is quite possibly the coolest cafe ever. I have never seen coffee brewed this way before. It's like something out of a futuristic movie. You will have to witness it for yourself! Scroll to the bottom to see a picture of this coffee being brewed. You can always tour Tokyo before heading elsewhere in Japan while on vacation, but I preferred starting our trip in "old Japan" before heading to the modern part of Japan - Tokyo.
OUR STAY IN TOKYO
We stayed at the Hotel Sunroute Plaza in Shinjuku. This location was great for walking directly to the start of the Toyko Marathon. There was a metro/train station close to our hotel. This location is in the heart of the city. Shinjuku is the business district. Some might prefer to stay elsewhere. We didn't mind staying in a busy place. I didn't find it to be overwhelming. There was a fitness center and spa as well. I enjoyed 3 massages from one of my very favorite massage therapists, Tomoko. We did a lot of walking while touring Tokyo. Having a massage in the evening after a busy day was the perfect thing. Plus it helped me prepare for my marathon. The hotel does have a shuttle to and from the airport.
Another place to consider staying (we did not stay here, but I hear good things and my favorite massage therapist Tomoko is there. She was transferred from the Hotel Sunroute to Hilton. Ask for her if you visit the spa!) is the Hilton Tokyo Odaiba.
Tokyo has an amazing subway/train system. It's very inexpensive, organized and always on time. I recommend navigating the subway system to get around. Taxi rides can be expensive. So if you're utilizing the train system, maybe consider staying near a station.
THINGS TO SEE IN TOKYO
- Tsukiji Fish Market and Tuna Auction. If you're going to the tuna auction you should definitely try to be there around 3-3:15 a.m. to ensure you get a ticket to attend the auction. The auction starts at 5 a.m., but people start lining up a couple hours before it starts. After the auction, roam around the fish market and eat sushi for breakfast! You will eat some of the most fresh fish in the world here. I have never tasted higher quality fish. If you don't wake up early for the tuna auction, you should at least visit the market to eat.
- Shibuya crossing - This is quite the sight. The best way I heard someone describing this sight is "It's like the earth is spitting people out from every direction". Go to the Starbucks in Shibuya crossing and watch while sipping a Cherry Blossom Latte or whatever the seasonal drink is. For instance, now they are serving Snow Pecan Nut Lattes!
- Tokyo Station - this massive transit location practically has a department store in it. Most people go here to transition from one train to another, but it's more than that. There are so many wonderful places to eat or shop at. For instance, Ramen Street has some of the best ramen in the world. Check out the Kit Kat shop - Chocolatory. Or the candy store Papabubble. Find my absolute favorite candy - Hi Chews.
- Ginza - for shopping. This is like NYC's Fifth Avenue. If you have extra time, consider going here for a fun day of shopping.
- I do not recommend touring the Imperial Palace. You can see the exterior of the castle, which is more than enough. Going inside for an "official tour" is not worth your time. The tour is long and I did not feel that we benefited from seeing it any closer than from the street. If you do want to see it, make sure to sign up before you fly to Japan. You should book at least one month ahead of time.
- There are the major landmarks or sights to see like Sensoji Temple, which is wonderful. I recommend if you have the time to see all of these. You will see many sights while running the marathon. In fact, you will run right next to Sensoji so if you can't get to it before or after, don't worry. You will see it while running the marathon!
THINGS TO DO IN TOKYO
There are so many things to see and do in Tokyo. You're better off buying a travel book for recommendations, tips, travel insight etc. I am simply discussing what we did while there for a week before the marathon. I will highlight some of the things we did that stood out for me (besides the major landmarks).
Japan is known for their capsule hotels. I really wanted to stay in one while we were there. Before we stayed at the Hotel Sunroute we spent one night in a capsule hotel. We chose the First Cabin chain. This is not a classic capsule hotel, as the size of the rooms is slightly larger than a normal capsule room and it is more upscale, but it was perfect for us. I highly recommend this experience. We stayed at the First Cabin near the Tsukiji Fish Market. This made waking up at 3 a.m to go to the tuna auction slightly easier. What a fun experience. If you're staying in Tokyo on a budget, you might even want to consider staying here for more days to save money.
Order Ramen from a vending machine or eat sushi off a conveyor belt! Our favorite sushi experience (besides going to Ramen Street) was Nagi. It was in a small alley way in Shinjuki (Golden Gai area). Very hard to find, but it is worth the hunt.
Check out Genki Sushi for a fun sushi experience. The sushi is not the best tasting, but the experience is worth it.
Consider going to an onsen in Tokyo or Kyoto. This is the natural hot springs, which are pretty popular in Japan. I recommend watching YouTube videos on proper procedures and etiquette for the onsens. I learned the hard way, even after having watched a "how to" video. My husband even had a great time.
PLACE TO EAT
- Ramen Street in Tokyo Station. Any ramen place is good
- Mos Burger - While we were unable to get here, everyone raves about these burgers. I am so upset that we missed this place.
- Nagi - for ramen, in the Golden Gai.
- Tsukiji Fish Market - go here for the best sushi and fresh fish. You can't go wrong eating anywhere.
- If you plan ahead of time, try to get reservations at Sukiyabashi Jiro. I hear this is the best place to eat sushi in the world. This restaurant was made famous in the documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi". I also recommend watching this documentary before you travel to Japan. You have to call about one month ahead of time, at a certain time and day to get reservations.
- Drink coffee or tea from a vending machine! I fell in love with hot coffee in a can! Only in Japan will you find this. My husband and I loved trying new flavors or brands.
- Go to the Expo at least 2 days before the marathon if you can to avoid the crowds. Consider going in the morning so you have plenty of time to browse the vendors and soak in the experience.
- Try not to do a lot of walking the day before your marathon. Maybe go to an onsen or people watch in the Starbucks at Shibuya crossing. Find an activity that doesn't involve walking. It will be tempting to sight-see, but resist.
- Eat a bland meal the day before the marathon. Don't experiment with raw fish or spicy food. In fact, I would try to avoid any raw fish meals 2-3 days before your race. You can find white rice anywhere, so I recommend sticking with that if you want carbohydrates.
- Know what is offered on the course for fuel and make sure you are okay with it. They offered Pocari sweat and this was something that did not agree with me. It contains MSG and my fingers were swollen later. If you are super sensitive you might want to avoid drinking this.
- Get to the start early. Security is really tight. This is a good thing. It keeps us and the spectators safe. But finding your starting corral and going through security takes time.
- Runner Tracking might not work. Have a game plan. My husband was unable to track me. So he missed seeing me at various spots along the course. We should have made a plan ahead of time for where he would be stationed. The finish area can also be confusing. So make a plan ahead of time just in case you can't communicate with your family member who is waiting for you.
- Enjoy yourself! Take pictures along the way. This is one of the most entertaining marathons I've ever run. I took my time. I interacted with the crowds, took pictures, and soaked in the experience. I don't regret my slower finish time.
- I have a detailed race report. Click here for more details pertaining to the race itself and all the logistics.
MY FAVORITE THINGS
I personally fell in love with everything Japanese. Their food, clothes, candy, coffee, technology products, souveniers are amazing. I wanted to bring back a few specific items when I went. These are a few of my favorite things:
- Japanese cast iron tea kettle
- Matcha tea
- A tea whisk
- A knife (see my description above)
- Candy - I mentioned earlier that I love Hi-Chews and I brought back tons of this.
- Honey from Sugi Bee Garden: Kyohou & Honey (Kyoto, Nishiki Market
- Kit Kats - in every flavor you can imagine
- LUSH bath products in the Shibuya store. LUSH is one of my favorite stores in America. They have a store in Tokyo with new products we don't carry here.
- Paper products - Japan is very creative, especially with their paper products, like stationary, pens, paper etc. It is all so adorable. They have so many stores where you can spend hours admiring their creativity.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT JAPAN
It's hard to just mention one thing that I love about Japan. Japan has so much more than just breathtaking views, technology, gadgets, trinkets, amazing food, organization, fast trains and history. I think that I fell in love with the Japanese culture and people above all else. The Japanese are beautiful inside and out. They are extremely kind and respectful. I have never experienced anything like it. In our American society, it's rare to have a stranger say hello as you pass him or her on the street. In Japan, their greeting is a bow, to show respect. The Japanese are very respectful to all things living or not. Their streets, parks, temples, homes, offices, and train stations are kept extremely clean and pristine. They respect others and the world they live in. And on top of all that, they were so excited and eager to help whenever they were needed. I have traveled all over the world and I have never experienced anything like this before. I would live in Japan, not only because I love Hi-Chews, Kit Kats and ramen, but because the people are so wonderful. If you are going to Tokyo for the marathon, you are in for a treat. In fact, consider yourself extremely blessed. I guarantee this will be the experience of a lifetime. Have a great time, enjoy the marathon but most of all, bring back a piece of the Japanese culture with you. Let their respect and love for fellow man change you.
BOOKS I RECOMMEND
We probably had more books that we needed. This post is really just to tell you what sights and activities really impressed me. I did not describe every single thing we did. And I probably left a lot of stuff out. But I suggest you look at these books for more detailed information on sights, restaurants, hotels, travel tips and more:
I hope you have an amazing time in Japan! Please feel free to ask questions or comment with suggestions on something I may have left out! Thank you for reading!
Images below: from our trip to Kyoto and Tokyo Trip.