|Subject: Re: Japan|
You didn't mention how many days you were planning on each stop, but in my opinion there is more to see in Kyoto than in Tokyo. Tokyo is a more modern city and Kyoto has a much older, traditional feel. In Kyoto, I'd recommend going to all the temples and shrines in my photo essay (which I'm glad you enjoyed), such as the Gold Pavilion, Silver Pavilion, Kiyomizu-dera temple (incredible shopping on the street leading up to it...if you see something you like, get it there because you may not see it any where else,) Heian shrine, and the famous Zen garden (Ryoan-ji, I think it's called.) There are so many more too. Most of the sites have literature in English, which is helpful to understand what you're looking at. The gardens and grounds are all so lovely. You may hit the height of fall color, which would be beautiful.
Also, if you've read Memoirs of a Geisha you'll recognize some of the places in the book such as the tea house which is still there and in operation in the Gion district. If you're there at night (Gion), you'll probably see geisha too.
We did a day trip from Kyoto to Hiroshima &Miyajima. It was a little rushed but worth it! If you've never been to Hiroshima, it is not to be missed. It's a very moving experience.
In Tokyo, there are also temples to see. I'd also recommend the Tokyo-Edo museum, which shows the history of Tokyo (formerly Edo) through the ages. They have all these buildings and things in minature...it's very cool to see how things changed and developed. Japan is a very old country!
We stayed at a place called the Asia Center of Japan, (http://jcha.yadojozu.ne.jp/jcha/plsql/sisetu_1_e?HotelCD=jp1310300004 ) which is in the Asakasa area. It's popular with business people on seminars. Not fancy but clean and there was a cafeteria downstairs for breakfast. You'll find that every hotel room has an electric hot water pot, tea pot, cups and green tea bags. Some will have Yukata (cotton kimonos used as robes.) Everything is close to train stations and I think almost everywhere is safe, so it depends what you are looking for I guess. The Ginza is a fun area to to shopping, the Shinjuku area is the park (where you have to go if you are there on a Sunday afternoon,) Roppongi area is hip and popular with Americans.
In Kyoto we stayed at the Kyoto Dai-ni Tower hotel, (http://web.kyoto-inet.or.jp/org/hellokcb/hotel/p36.htm) which is right by the main train station. It looks like it was 12000 yen a night for a double from what I can read of my receipt! Very convenient for the station, and you can take the train all over town too I believe. (we used taxis a lot, because my mother has polio and it's hard for her to walk up and down the stairs to the train platforms. It's not quite Handicapped accessable over there.)
We did get a train pass. It was good for 7 days I think, and cost 28300 Yen. I think it was a good deal, because we used it on the bullet trains and right there it's worth the price. You would probably use the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, and Kyoto to Hiroshima (if you go.) The bullet train is a great experience! The rail pass also gives you the flexibility to add things to your trip if you decide you want to see something else. For instance, when we were on our way from Kyoto to Tokyo we decided we wanted to go via Osaka, to see that city for a few hours. The rail pass let us do that, for no extra charge. If you can plan your train schedule, it's a good idea to go to the Japan Rail office (at the bigger stations) and get all your tickets. That way, when you go for your train, all you have to do is flash the pass to get through the turnstile area, find your train, and get on board. But the best is probably to weigh the cost of the pass with the cost of the individual tickets. (Info on the railway and the pass at http://www.jreast.co.jp/jehome.htm.)
As far as speaking Japanese, it helps to know a little. I was lucky to be traveling with my parents who are fluent. A lot of people speak English, especially the young adults so if you need help just find someone who looks like a business person, or a teen/twenties aged person. Everyone is very helpful and will go out of their way to try to assist you. You'll probably meet a lot of schoolage children who will want to practice their English on you, as well! Kids wanted their photos taken with my husband...I guess to prove that they had seen a real, live Caucasian! If you're blonde, you'll be a celebrity.
Don't worry at restaurants. Every restaurant has plastic food in the window, and what you get will look just like that. You can try to remember the name or number if it has one, or don't be embarrassed to have the waitress go with you to the window so you can point it out to her. I think they are used to that!
People seem to do a lot of business in cash, as opposed to credit cards but I supposed that depends on where you go. Carrying cash doesn't seem to be a problem, as it is very safe in Japan with very little instances of pickpocketing.
One great source I found was the thorn tree section on Lonely Planet's web site. When I had questions about train schedules, how to get places, etc. I just posted it there and got back very detailed answers. I did that for our day trip to Hiroshima, and people wrote back with exact train schedules and perfect directions, and lots of great advice too!
Have a wonderful time, and feel free to ask me more questions. If I can help, I'd love to! I can't believe it's almost been a year since I was there.
Natalie Los Angeles