Going Our Way: A plan for first-timers in Japan
Who: Meghan Lyon and her husband, Vaughn Stewart, both 26, of Durham, N.C.
Where: Japan, including Tokyo, Kyoto and perhaps one more destination
Why: A first trip to Asia
When: Ten days in early March
Budget: $2,500, not including air ticket (covered with frequent-flier miles)
"We're interested in exploring neighborhoods, shopping for handmade crafts, trying new foods, and visiting museums. We want to see the Ghibli Museum. I'd also like to see Japan's natural side, and maybe do some hiking or hot-springing."
Japan is a fine choice for a first trip to Asia, especially for those, like Meghan Lyon and Vaughn Stewart of Durham, N.C., who'd rather travel independently. The country's transit system, though complicated, is fast and efficient; English-language guided day tours and audio tours are commonplace; and detailed, accurate travel information is readily available from the Japanese National Tourism Organization ( www.japantravelinfo.com ). Early March, when Lyon and Stewart want to travel, is cool, with daytime temperatures in the 50s, but Tokyo's blossoming plum and apricot trees will hint of spring.
It's a good thing that the couple has 10 days, as the 14- to 16-hour flight and the 14-hour time difference are likely to cause some serious jet lag. But having the flight's cost, typically at least $1,000 round trip, covered by frequent-flier miles may help ease the pain.
Transportation will take a chunk out of the budget. The Japan Rail Pass would allow flexibility, but it is pricey: A 14-day pass costs about $500 per person. Traveling between Tokyo and Kyoto, it's cheaper to buy separate tickets, but if you follow the itinerary below, the cost will still run at least $330 round-trip per person before adding intra-city transport charges.
Hotels in the city are expensive. Instead, consider staying at a ryokan, a Japanese guesthouse. These traditional inns were once associated with resort areas, but there are now inexpensivemodern versions in many larger cities. Rates vary tremendously and can get quite pricey, but a decent ryokan in Tokyo, such as Annex Katsutaro ( www.katsutaro.com ), can be had for about $130 a night. Annex Katsutaro is in the historic Yanaka neighborhood of northern Tokyo, within walking distance of the JR Nippori Station; from Narita airport, the express Skyliner train ( www.keisei.co.jp/keisei/tetudou/skyliner/us ) travels there in less than 40 minutes for about $14. For other ryokan choices, consult the Japanese Inn Group ( www.japaneseinngroup.com ), the Welcome Inn Reservation Center ( www.itcj.jp/eng ) or the Japan Ryokan Association ( www.ryokan.or.jp ).
Figure on spending four nights in Tokyo, which will allow three days of sightseeing. Tokyo Metro ( www.tokyometro.jp/en ) offers all-day unlimited-ride tickets starting at about $8.60.
Among the many not-to-be-missed sites and activities: