|Subject: RE: Japan|
You've already had lots of recommendations - here are a few more and also another disagreement with the fact that Tokyo can be skipped. Sorry - but I totally disagree. It is one of the most fascinating cities in the world and is not at all like any other big city.
You should have no problem with the language - everyone is very friendly and goes out of their way to help... even if sign language is the only way to do so. A few pleasantries would be helpful, though, and you can 'bone up' on these by checking out http://www.travlang.com - it's a great site and even includes sound bites.
With 8 days - and the wonderful train system of JR Rail, you'll have no problem adding at least one other stop onto Hakone, Kyoto, and Tokyo. Himeji (one of the few remaining original castles - check out the http://www.geocities.com/castlejapan/ website for great castle info) is a good day trip, or a day and a half exploring Miyajima and Hiroshima together would be my suggestions. And - Nara would be a good choice to add as a day trip to add to your time in Kyoto. But.. then again ... there's so much to see in Tokyo and environs ... you could spend the whole time there. I personally wouldn't suggest Hakone (it's very touristy) and I think you'll be too late for the fall colours. Kamakura would be my best recommendation for a day trip from Tokyo - and Nikko is another day/2 day trip that is really worthwhile.
Here are some other suggestions (sorry if they are a bit disjointed - they are cut and pasted from some of my posts on Japan over the last few years):
My favourite place to stay in Tokyo is Ryokan Shigetsu in Asakusa (an historic and very special part of Tokyo). Ryokan Asakusa Shigetsu 1-31-11, Asakusa,Taito-ku 111 Tokyo Tel: (813) 3843-2345 Fax: (813)3843-2348
There is an incredible subway system in Tokyo that, at first glance, looks daunting but it is very well signed and, with a little careful scrutiny is quite easy for foreigners to negotiate. And - if you stand at a map in the station and scratch your head long enough you are sure to have someone offer assistance!
Check out the Getting Around page for Japan on my website (http://www.accomasia.com/japan/getaround.htm)... it's got links to the subway maps - you'll see Asakusa in the upper right quadrant of the Tokyo map. If you are going there from Narita - you can get an express train from Narita to Ueno Station ... then backtrack on the subway (Ginza line) to Asakusa.
Taxis are INCREDIBLY expensive in Tokyo and you'll get places faster by subway anyway ... even if you get lost ...it's more fun!!!
Here's my 'quick and dirty' list to some of my fave. places in TOKYO:
Tsukiji Fish Market (Tsukiji Sta. on the Hibiya Line) - since, with time-zone changes, you'll probably be up early your first morning ... go to Tsukiji (unless its Sunday) - the earlier the better at this incredible fish market ... (8:00am is too late - 5:00 is good!) - it is the busiest market I've ever been in (my daughter who was an early teen then was scared as we walked through because of the flurry of activity all around her, the splashing of fishy water, etc.) - there's a nice shrine here as well
Imperial Palace East Garden Ginza Area (- just for walking around, people walking and window shopping
Kabuki-za Theatre (in Ginza) - it's fascinating to see this but, unless you have a Japanese guide - a whole performance (many hrs) might be too much - you can get a cheap ticket to a part performance on a restricted ticket (up in the nose-bleeds on the 4th floor )
Akihabara (JR Line) - this is the place where you'll see the famed discount electronics and computer stores - you'll see products here that won't be in the U.S. for months
Kapabashi-dori (Tawaramachi on the Ginza Line) - a long street (with a giant Chef on top of a building at one end) lined with shops selling kitchen and restaurant wares - there are great buys on small table-top hot-pots, ceramics, utensils, chops sticks, door curtains, and...just what you always wanted - the plastic food that you point to in the windows of restaurants when the menu is unintelligable to you!
Asakusa (you can actually walk between here and Kapabashi but .. it's a long hike) - Senso-ji Temple or Asakusa-Kannon - much of the area around Asakusa echoes of the original Shitimachi ... old Tokyo. I suggest that you just wander around the streets in the vicinity a bit to get a feel for it (and look for the sweet potato vendors on the street ... the sound of the tune that they play is wonderful).
Shinjuku (a number of lines run into this hub on the subway and JR lines) - this area is to new Tokyo what Asakusa is to old Tokyo...you have to experience it (especially at night)
Harajuku (Hanzomon Line) - this is a MUST if you are in Tokyo on a Sunday - especially around Yoyogi-koen Park ... on the way to the Meiji Shrine from the subway station. Here you see the teens of Tokyo letting their hair down after being strictly controlled all week. You'll see kids in incredibly weird costumes, make-up, etc. dancing, miming and doing bizzare things ... and an incredible street full of bands playing side by side (as if they were totally alone with their audience). - before you actually go down the hill from the station - take a look down the main street the runs perpendicular to it and look at the incredible crush of people (unless it's changed a huge amount since I lived there in 1995) that shopping area is always swarming with people - the Meiji Shrine is a reconstruction (as much of Japan is because of the devastation during the war) ...it's an interesting complex and the most beautiful iris garden I've ever seen - but it won't quite be the season for you :(
Shibuya - here's the Time Square-like image that you see sometime in news releases. You have to see Hachiko - the dog who waited loyally for his master for 10 years before realizing he wasn't coming home ... there's also a huge number of department stores at (or around) this intersection, Bunkamura (great art gallery in here ... as well as a number of excellent concert halls and theatres - check what's on). Go up the main road to the left of the Hachiko statue going up the hill - and check out the small streets off of it ---- many of the buildings look a little tacky ... sort of mini-disneyland-like sculptures and fronts on them with hearts and flashing lights, etc. They will also have prices on them that seem incredibly cheap (but not if you realize that the prices are not for an entire evening. This is Love Hotel Hill!
Roppongi and Akasaka (note this is different than Asakusa) - these two areas have the high priced hotels and restaurants and nightclubs for foreigners (gaijin)
Throughout Tokyo there are some beautiful shrines and temples - often tucked in between big buildings on either side. I used to go to meetings in a new part of the city and make sure I had extra time on one side or the other so that I could just wander around the vicinity and I inevitably ran across a new shrine. Each one has its own charm - and I marvelled at the way each of them was built in such a way that it had the ability to whisk you away from the hustle and bustle around you and find a modecum of peace.
KAMAKURA - day trip (Yokosuka line from Tokyo) One place I can't promote highly enough is Kamakura. It is definitely my favourite day trip from Tokyo - we went there often and I found more to love each time. For history, local charm, and beautiful temples and shrines - it takes the cake, in my estimation. There are actually two distinct parts to Kamakura and a train (the Enoden line) runs in between. You can also continue on that line to Enoshima which is an Island off the coast south of Kamakura - we've often gone there for a walk and early dinner.
I have some recommendations for places to stay in Hakone and Kyoto - shall find them and send them off. When we were last in Hiroshima/Miyajima we stayed at the youth hostel right at the dock before going over to Miyajima. It was clean and relatively comfortable and very reasonable (shall look for the details on this too). Check out some of the other information and links on my website, too - the travelogues are especially helpful and don't hesitate to ask other, specific questions.
Japan is my favourite country in the world. I lived there for 6 months and we go back as often as possible (almost once/yr).
Oh, another thought - someone mentioned Memoirs of a Geisha - great book... I also recommend Lost Japan (Alex Kerr, 1996).
Happy planning! Judy in Hong Kong