I took my family on our annual summer Mancation in July. I surprised my kids with the destination, I lead up to the reveal with clues (here, here, here) and finally revealed it to them a few days before departure. We went to Japan!
Would it be too much to say this was a life-changing vacation? We had an incredible time filled with the sights, sounds, flavors, and excitement of Tokyo and the quiet serenity and jaw-dropping vistas of Hakone. I had hoped that we would enjoy our travels but I didn't expect to love it the way that I did. I had such envy of the expats I met at the LDS Church ward we went to. I really wanted to move right into the area and start living a Tokyo-life alongside them.
I could take up pages and pages talking about our time in Japan. I won't, but I could. I have a few highlights that I want to share. I spent some time organizing our activities, communication, transportation, and lodging so that I was guaranteed to have little difficulty managing our travel while in Japan. My husband only goes on the Mancation for a couple of days due to work and I need to make sure we can continue having an awesome time with our him.
Here is an executive summary of our trip + tips for success:
Apps: In the digital age getting around while traveling has never been easier. I planned, navigated, and heavily relied upon technology to make our trip a success. Here are the apps I used for our vacation.
- Transportation: ANA Airlines, Tokyo Metro Subway, Hyperdia, Uber
- Lodging: Airbnb, Hyatt, Starwood SPG Hotels,
- Food: Sushi Dictionary , Guranavi
- Communication: Google Translate, Snapchat, WhatsApp (so easy to get in touch with everyone in Japan using WhatsApp), Japan Wi-Fi,
- Money: XE Currency Converter
- Getting Around: Trip Advisor, LuxeCity Tokyo, LDS.org, Tabimori (FREE and does everything)
Scott's Cheap Flights: I followed SCF for a couple of months waiting for the right price and the right destination to appear while I was thinking about summer vacation destinations. When I saw flights to Tokyo from LAX in the $400s I booked immediately.
ANA (All Nipon Airlines): This is a five star airline with sparkling jets, impeccable customer service, and a sterling safety record. We were also super lucky to get seats all together with only 14 days advance purchase and a bargain price. My husband flew on miles on his favorite, Delta for various reasons. I feel like his first class seat experience was only slightly higher in quality than our coach one on ANA.
TokyoAirporter: This transportation service will pick up or drop off at Haneda or Narita Airports. We had both experiences and the same driver each time. We even adjusted our departure pick-up time by a couple of hours at the last minute and they accommodated us with much courtesy. The new van they drove us in was very cool and had every amenity.
Japan Wireless: I rented a MiFi! This could have been the single coolest thing that I did to prepare for my trip. I rented it through Tokyo Wireless. It was $65 for the entire trip and it included unlimited data usage, high speed internet, wide range of access, could have up to 10 devices, Wifi is abundant in Japan but not free and not unfettered to access. This Mifi was smart, compact, had a backup battery, and kept our devices secure because we weren't accessing guest networks all over the country. I let me kids have Snapchat in Japan so the could share what they were doing in real time. When I wanted their undivided attention I would turn it off. I had all the power in my hand.
The cool thing about Japan Wireless is that they mail your MiFi to the arrival airport post office. John picked it up the package by showing his passport and had it all set for when we landed a few hours later. We were instantly connected. We used NO DATA in Japan.
Airbnb: We started our trip in a perfect apartment in Tokyo, near Toshima. I had heard Tokyo apartments were so tiny. I thought this one was very spacious and accommodated our family perfectly. I loved having a kitchen, washer, and private entrance. It was modernly furnished but with traditional touches. I loved the neighborhood! We were close to FamilyMart, McDonalds, the train. It was on a quiet street with small Izakayas (Japanese pubs), drug store, stationary shop, and other conveniences. I did not hear one police or ambulance siren the entire time we stayed in Toshima. I would have booked the apartment for the entire time we were in Japan but it wasn't available. It is a popular spot for good reason.
Food Tours Tokyo: Tokyo is known for its great food. I was very worried that we wouldn't be able to find it and really sample all the best eats. I envisioned a long learning curve to navigate the trains, neighborhoods, and other travel logistics getting in a way of the food finds. I wanted to have a food tour on our first full day in Japan so that my family could acclimate quickly to the cuisine and get excited about our vacation. I set up a Halestorm-friendly itinerary with Food Tours Tokyo. I asked for no tea nor tea ceremony,no coffee, no tobacco, and no maid cafes (google this phenomenon). I explained that we wanted great food, but not fine dining. FTT set me up with Iko Tamura as our guide. Iko is fantastic! The best ever! We are friends now and I can honestly say anyone would be after just one day. She took us to all the best spots and really understood my family. She was cute and sweet with my younger set, and social and funny with the older ones.
The food tour included: Tsukij Market (Do NOT miss this), Fruit and Vegetable Market, the "Ferrari" of sushi restaurants, bonito sampling, omelette making, department store food sections (BLOW MY MIND), crepes, ramen, vending machines, sodas and snacks.
What was perfect about the tour is that while you take the day in Tokyo to try all these favorites, you are seeing the best sites and neighborhoods; shrines, Shibuya Crossing, Ginza. This was a cultural tour as well as food because we learned so much about the etiquette, transportation, and Japanese customs.
TA-Q-BIN: This is the leading luggage-shipping provider in Japan. This is the slickest, most convenient, and coolest deal. We were leaving Tokyo for Hakone and then returning a few days later. We didn't want to travel on the train with suitcases only to lug them back to our next stop. Luggage shipping is A THING. This is a big deal in Japan. People do not wrestle their suitcase they ship them. So I did it too. You can schedule TA-Q-BIN to pick up your luggage at your hotel or apartment or drop it at a TA-Q-BIN site. We rolled our suitcases a few blocks down to the 7-11, filled out the forms with the help of Google Translate, and paid the RIDICULOUSLY low fee ($50 for 5 pieces) to have our luggage shipped to the hotel across town where we would stay upon our return from Hakone.
RomanceCar and Hakone Free Pass: We said good-bye to the main man, John Hale at this point, sending him back to the U.S. alone, and got started on the next part of the adventure To get to Hakone and the Mt. Fuji / Lake Ashi area we took the RomanceCar; a limited express train with reserved seating to Odawara Station. When we bought our tickets we included the Hakone Free Pass. The Hakone Free Pass was discounted this way and provided the best way to tour the Hakone / Lake Ashi area by providing unlimited access to 8 different modes of transportation in the area like the Hakone Ropeway, Lake Ashi Cruise, and Hakone Tazon Line. It also allows for free entry into some exhibits in the area. This was so easy!
Hyatt Regency Hakone: The Hyatt Regency Hakone and Spa is an onsen (hot springs) resort located in Gora, near Mt. Fuji. The area is know for its views of the volcano, as well as museums, sightseeing spots, and onsens. Our experience had special cultural influences, like tatami floors, yukatas and slippers in the room that could be worn around the resort, and of course the onsen. The onsen was hot, serene, and a mineral miracle. The Hyatt doesn't charge an entrance fee for their onsen, which is a rare thing. They also provide a free shuttle to-and-from the Odawara train station for the 45 minute mountain drive ($100+ by taxi).
It is also a short walk to the Hakone Tazone Line to get started on your sightseeing adventures in the area. If I could give 10 stars to the customer service I would. They treated us like the royal family when we were there. They have a hosted happy hour nightly with unlimited soft drinks, juices, and other beverages. We spent the time in the lounge by the fire place watching the rain and mist outside and playing board games. I would also have to rate their food as 10 star perfection. There wasn't a single blemish on any item. The detail in which they prepare food at the Hyatt is astonishing in its refinement.
ITOH DINING by Nobu: In collaboration with chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, ITOH Dining by Nobu is the most upscale and refined teppanyaki restaurant in the world. They use only Japanese Kobe and Wagyu Beef, Tsujuki seafood, and Fuji produce. I took the men here for a deliriously fine meal. Brittain and I were treated to a chef's tasting menu which included; hors d'oeuvres, seasonal soup, Hakone field green salad, grilled seafood sweet miso, Wagyu Beef, bread (not just any bread, magic bread) and dessert. For the picker, younger eaters I order plain steaks and rice- their dream.
I don't know how I could ever explain the minute details of this meal, the flavors that I have never experienced before but now cannot forget, the serene elegance of a mountain retreat nested in a forest. My men were so incredible that night for a hours long romance of food. We closed the restaurant down. The skilled and mannerly staff called us a taxi in advance so that we could get back to the hotel at this last hour. I thought the service the best I had ever had, ANYWHERE, and thought about it while we waited for the taxi. Then, here is where the kind and mannerly staff went the extra mile, and I mean literal miles. The taxi company phoned to say they would be an hour. One of the kitchen cooks was summoned to drive us home in one of their personal vehicles. He took me and my four sons the few miles to our hotel with such careful attention to traffic laws. He was incredibly polite and in the most honorable way refused to accept any payment from me.
What to wear: You might have some ideas about Japanese style. I wanted to make sure that I had the correct one's before I set my foot in Japan. Here is a quick primer on what to wear in Japan. Be modest, polished, and clean. No cleavage, mini skirts, short shorts. Men look stylish and tucked-in.
A few of my wardrobe pieces below and more here
Genki Sushi: A conveyor belt sushi restaurant in the Shibuya area of Tokyo. It was fast, cheap, and mostly in English. The staff is incredibly kind. The food was delicious and included new favorite like cheeseburger sushi, seasoned fries, Japanese-style fried chicken along with more traditional and creative offerings. At Genki everyone orders for themselves on an iPad. The food is then delivered on a conveyor belt of sorts but really it is shot out to you Jetson-style. Hilarious! Awesome!
DisneySea: On the outskirts of Tokyo, on Tokyo Bay are the Disney Resorts; Disneyland and DisneySea. They are celebrating 15 years of Disney in Japan. DisneySea I had heard was great for teenagers because that is where Tokyo teens like to hang out. This theme park is inspired by the sea and water themes throughout Disney movies and provides peerless amusement park experience. It is half the price of Disney in the U.S and 100 times cleaner. No one spits their gum or throw trash in Japan. DisneySea was sparkling clean. When I washed my hands during the day no dirt came off of them. Pay special attention to the little bear story (specially designed train, purses, gear), the flavored popcorn and popcorn buckets, the potato churros (Thomas' dream), and the best rides in the Disney franchise.
Other must do: LDS Church Sunday Services and temple session if you can. Emperors Palace, Tokyo Skytree, Tokyo Banana (banana pudding cakes), as many gardens and shrines as you can, Fatty Tuna (toro) in mass quantities, lots of ramen.
Shopping: You can get everything you have ever dreamed of in Japan. I couldn't possibly detail all the amazing things that are available in the retail environs of Tokyo. You can find exquisite designer shops in the train stations, and cool niche beauty products at FamilyMart. The department stores have everything made in the world merchandised in the most compelling way possible. Lanvin golf gear? North Face everything? Read more about department stores here. Don't skip BiC Camera and Uniqlo.
Beauty Buys: * My Favorite Japanese Beauty Products
I have had many people ask me about my trip and the "how + what" that I felt I should put a few details down about it. Please check out my Instagram feed from July 2016 too, I added mored details about our stops and a few #thingsHenrySays and #thingsthemensay so I could capture the moments.
I loved every second of Japan. I wish I had been there for months. There are still so many things that I want to see and do. Airfare remains well-priced this fall, the YEN isn't as strong against the dollar as it has been in the past, Airbnb makes lodging affordable. It would seem all signs point to Japan being the perfect vacation to take again.