Valuable Insights From my 17th Trip To Japan (Includes 28 Day Itinerary)

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Mats Franzen, resident of Stockholm, Sweden, has been a frequent traveller to Japan and a long-time subscriber to The Real Japan. He recently visited Japan for the 17th time, and posted some thoughts and photos from his trip in The Real Japan Private Facebook Group*. 

I enjoyed reading his reflections and photos so much that I asked Mats to turn them into a blog post so I could share them with you. 

Here then are Mats' valuable reflections on his 17th trip to Japan. I hope it inspires you.

* Access to my Private Facebook Group is open only to subscribers. Head over to the Subscribe page to join us.

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17th Trip to Japan itinerary The Real Japan Mats Franzen

Valuable Insights from my 17th Trip to Japan
by Mats Franzen

About two weeks ago my wife and I came home from our second four-week trip to Japan this year (the other was in December/January). 

This was our 17th trip to Japan and this time we made it to Tokyo, Okinawa, Kyoto and Hakone (plus some day trips). It took us seventeen trips to make it to Hakone and Okinawa! 

Here's some of my personal reflections on our most recent trip. 

trip to Japan Zuihoin zen garden Daitokuji Temple Kyoto The Real Japan

The Zuihoin zen garden at Daitokuji Temple, Kyoto

Our itinerary

Our trip lasted 28 days. We arrived on 21st May and left on 17th June and visited the main island of Honshu an the southern island of Okinawa. We flew with Finnair from Stockholm via Helsinki to Haneda - and reversed the route on way home.

To get to Okinawa, from Tokyo Haneda to Naha we flew with ANA and returned to Honshu from Naha to Osaka Kansai International Airport with ANA. We took the shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo.

Days

Location

1 - 7

Tokyo

8

Hakone and Odawara

9 - 13

Tokyo

13 - 14

Naha, Okinawa

15 - 16

Seragaki (Okinawa West Coast by the ocean)

trip to Japan sunset Kamogawa River Kyoto The Real Japan

Sunset over the Kamogawa River, Kyoto

Days

Location

17 - 20

Kyoto

21

Nara (day trip from Kyoto)

22 - 23

Kyoto

24 - 28

Tokyo

Our accommodation

In Tokyo and Kyoto we stayed at Mimaru (apartment hotel chain) - the Mimaru Tokyo Kinshicho in Tokyo, and the Mimaru Kyoto Nishinotoin Takatuji in Kyoto.

On Okinawa we stayed at two different Hyatt hotels - Hyatt Regency Seragaki and Hyatt Regency Naha.

In Hakone we stayed at the Hotel Indigo Gora.


Tokyo is the ultimate urban metropolitan dream

I like doing day trips and maybe two to three nights to some midsize/smaller cities, but our main focus will always be Tokyo and Kyoto

For me it’s not between Tokyo or Shikoku/Japanese Alps/Kobe - it’s between Tokyo and New York/Paris/London and a few other places. I’m a big city/world city person and Tokyo is the ultimate urban metropolitan dream. The countryside, no matter which country it's in, is not me. I just get bored after a day or two 😂.

Having said that, we've definitely been around in Japan over the years.

SEE ALSO: How Much Does It Cost to Spend a Day in Tokyo?

trip to Japan A rainy evening in Shibuya The Real Japan

A rainy evening in Shibuya, Tokyo

The weather was basically pitch perfect this time around (with a great deal of luck we just avoided a typhoon hitting Okinawa).

I’m a summer person so for me late May/early June is much much better than winter. I want to be able to wear a t-shirt and shorts. But yes, late July and most of August in Japan is a bit too hot and humid even for me.

trip to Japan Nihonsbashi Tokyo The Real Japan

Urban feeling close to Nihonsbashi, Tokyo

A side note about what makes a city small/medium/larger than life. Size is hard to define. We went to Kurashiki on a day trip a few years ago. It’s a really nice place. No Japanese person would probably consider it a large city but at 477,000 inhabitants it would be the third largest city here in Sweden. So here it would be a major city 😂.


Meeting new friends in Japan

We again met up with a friend and her husband whom I met through The Real Japan private community on Facebook [accessible exclusively to subscribers of The Real Japan]. On two trips in a row we have been in Tokyo at the same time. What are the odds? So much fun!


Kyoto and the crowds

The overcrowding stories are just too exaggerated from my point of view.

There are definitely a few major attractions and some streets that get really crowded but most of the areas of the city and most attractions are not. We even walked the Philosopher’s Path one afternoon and it was almost empty. 

Mats Franzen Take-no-michi Bamboo Path Kyoto featured The Real Japan

Take-no-michi Bamboo Path in Muko, Kyoto

We visited some amazing gardens and temples (as usual) and again with hardly any people at all. We even found an alternative to the Arashiyama bamboo forest (one of the top three most crowded spots) that was almost as good - but four times the size!

trip to Japan Take-no-michi Bamboo Path Kyoto The Real Japan

Take-no-michi Bamboo Path in Muko, Kyoto

It's called Take-no-michi or 'Bamboo Path', and its in Muko. We took train to Higashi-muko station in western Kyoto (basically south of Arashiyama). And then walked to the west through some streets to get there.

We met just one person in a 25 minute walk.

But yes, Kiyomizudera and Fushimi Inari Taisha and surrounding areas are sometimes unbearable. I would suggest skipping Kiyomuzudera altogether as I consider it overrated, but that’s just me.

trip to Japan Gion Kyoto The Real Japan

Gion in Kyoto. Anyone who watched the Netflix series Makanai - they walked on this street a number of times

The photos here are how it actually looked like for us most of the time. This is probably a somewhat slow period - we visited during June after Golden Week  - but before the hordes of summer tourists from abroad arrive. (We arrived in Tokyo on the 21st May and departed on 17th June.)

[For more ideas on where to walk in Kyoto and avoid the crowds see 3 Hidden Kyoto Walks To Get You Off The Beaten Path.]


Okinawa: a somewhat different atmosphere

We spent four days on Okinawa - just the main island. Two days in Naha, and two days by the ocean. First trip there. We had a really good time. The atmosphere is indeed somewhat different compared to the rest of Japan - more relaxed, more Southeast Asian maybe. 

trip to Japan Naha street Okinawa The Real Japan

The atmosphere on the streets of Naha, Okinawa feels more relaxed than other parts of Japan

The beaches on the main island weren’t that spectacular though - most Thai beaches will win in a beach contest. For me that’s OK – I like waking up in the morning by the sound of the ocean but I’m not that much of a swimmer or lying on the beach-person anyway. 

SEE ALSO: Discover Okinawan Food: Japan’s Life-Giving Diet

trip to Japan Okinawa beach The Real Japan

One of the beaches in Okinawa - I like waking up in the morning by the sound of the ocean

On speaking (a little) Japanese

I’ve studied Japanese for about two years using a teacher who lives in Sapporo (via the italki platform). I still suck completely. My listening skills are especially crappy. But I can manage most everyday situations like ordering at a restaurant/cafe, discussing clothes with a sales clerk in a store, buying tickets etc.

I still think that you get by 99% of the time without any knowledge of Japanese at all but you will probably experience a few major lost-in-translation moments now and then even if you know some Japanese. And if you don't, maybe you’re playing it a bit too safe.

trip to Japan Naha cafe The Real Japan

Drinking iced coffee with ice-cream in cafe in Naha

But this time I really thought that we experienced some amazingly fun and interesting conversations/social encounters with people that wouldn’t have happened without me speaking some Japanese. Barriers broke. That was truly a great kick! I have a number of Japanese friends in Japan (English speaking) but this felt different.

SEE ALSO: Japan Without Japanese: How To Travel In Japan When You Don’t Speak Japanese

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The mask wearing situation

Just from my observations, not scientific data. The majority of people in Tokyo do not wear masks even in crowded rush hour trains (maybe 25% were when using the subway?) and outside (like when we visited the Hakone Open Air Museum) most people don’t use them.

trip to Japan Hakone Open Air Museum The Real Japan

Symphonic Sculpture, Hakone Open Air Museum

trip to Japan sculpture Hakone Open Air Museum The Real Japan

“Miss Black Power” 1968, Niki de Saint Phalle, Hakone Open Air Museum

People who interact with customers in some way mostly still use it though. In Kyoto it felt like more people used it. My guess would be that almost 50% used it when on public transportation.


Japan's cash-based society

The cash-only places are definitely decreasing. Finally. [ For more on bringing and using cash in Japan read this post: 5 Travel Essentials You Need BEFORE Coming To Japan ].


What I wish was different

If I could change two things in Japan (from my tourist point of view) it would probably be more flexible service and fewer sleazy entertainment districts in the cities. I think that latter is quite depressing at times.

Most often service in Japan is on a very high level compared to any country in the world. That’s one of the major selling points about Japan. But sometimes it can also be maddeningly inflexible as well. 

trip to Japan Hyatt Seragaki hotel Okinawa The Real Japan

Our balcony and ocean view from the Hyatt Regency hotel, Seragaki in Okinawa

You can arrive at a hotel or restaurant 15 minutes before the reserved time for example and you wonder if you can enter/check-in early. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if the whole place is empty because “their rules state” that reservation is from exactly 5pm. And at other times they seem to be more inclined to apologize than to try to fix whatever problem needs to be fixed. 

It happens a few times on every trip. I always thought of it as part of a “rule based culture” or that staff don’t feel empowered to make flexible decisions. 

SEE ALSO: Top 7 Etiquette Tips For Travel in Japan



Some final thoughts on Japan as a destination (after 17 visits!)

Japan is still truly an amazing travel destination in so many ways. That’s why we keep going back. The people, the traditional and contemporary art, the bustling city scenes, the trains, the beauty of the gardens, the sense of adventure etc…

trip to Japan Okinawa sunset The Real Japan

Sunset in Okinawa as seen from our hotel balcony Hyatt Regency Seragaki

I gained 3 kilos in 28 days. And not because I overate Japanese food but because I ate chips and chocolate every single day in the hotel room! 

Now it's time to plan my next trip. And some dieting as well.


Photo Gallery

All photos by Mats Franzen

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About the Author

Mats Franzen lives in Stockholm, Sweden, with his wife. Loves Japan, New York, movies, art, design, fashion and architecture. Check out Mats' YouTube channel.  

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  • I enjoyed reading your piece and you raised some interesting points, particularly on the crowds. Kyoto, I must admit I am one of those who is put off by the crowds, so it was refreshing to visit during the pandemic when it was a lot quieter (and not just Kyoto). Interestingly in 2019 Kyoto Saw quite a big drop off in tourists as a whole as many locals stayed away; the drop off in local visitors was more than the increase in foreign visitors (and 2019 was a record year for them). Currently foreign tourist levels are only at 75%~80% of 2019 levels. Another thing is that even in Tokyo foreign tourists only go to a limited number of places, you can go to places popular with locals and see hardly any foreign tourists…so there is a lot of potential places that people can go to that are less crowded (and still interesting), but I would also add that the people are part of the atmosphere of many of these places.

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