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Going Our Way: A plan for first-timers in Japan

By Carol Sottili
Friday, December 10, 2010; 11:50 AM

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.

Tokyo

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:

-- The Ginza, an upscale shopping hub, which also offers galleries, theaters and restaurants. For inexpensive yakitori, try Torigin restaurant near the Sony building.

-- Asakusa, a historic area of Tokyo and home to the city's oldest Buddhist temple, the Senso-ji (also called the Asakusa Kannon Temple). The area also offers open-air shopping.

-- Suntory Museum of Art, with a collection of more than 3,000 Japanese articles, including paintings, ceramics, lacquerware, glass and textiles.

-- The Imperial Palace, home of the royal family. The buildings are not open to visitors, but the gardens are public. Guided tours of the inner grounds are offered, but must be booked in advance via sankan.kunaicho.go.jp .

-- Meiji Shrine, dedicated to the first emperor of modern Japan, and the adjacent Yoyogi Park.

-- Ueno Park, home to a zoo and many museums, including the Tokyo National Museum and the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.

-- Ghibli Museum, a must-see for any anime fan. The museum, which is outside Tokyo in Mitaka (accessible via the JR Chuo subway line), is owned by famous anime creator Hayao Miyazaki. Tickets, which cost about $12, must be purchased in advance online at www.ghibli-museum.jp/en.

Another option is to take a few organized tours. Tokyo SGG Club ( www2.ocn.ne.jp/sgg/guide.html ), a volunteer organization, offers free walking tours of Senso-ji and Ueno Park. Viator ( www.viator.com ) offers several dozen English-speaking tours, including a full-day Tokyo tour for about $117 per person and a tour of the Ghibli Museum for about $72.

Tip: Save money on food by eating at the myriad yakitori stalls, soba noodle shops and izakayas (beer bars that serve food - look for the red lanterns).

For more sightseeing options and details, contact Tokyo Tourism Info ( www.tourism.metro.tokyo.jp ).

Hakone National Park

Split the hectic city visits with a night in a rural guesthouse that offers hot spring baths. Fuji-Hakone Guest House ( hakone.syuriken.jp/hakone ), in the resort town of Sengokuhara, is a convenient bus ride from the Odawara train station; rates are about $170 a night.

The park ( www.hakone.or.jp ) offers hiking, views of Mount Fuji, botanical gardens, cruises on Lake Ashi and the Hakone Museum of Art. The Hakone Freepass ( www.odakyu.jp/english/freepass/hakone_01.html ), which costs about $46, allows access to seven types of transport in the region.

Kyoto

From Odawara, take the bullet train (Shinkansen Hikari) to Kyoto. Again, the best bet is to stay in a ryokan. Ryokan Shimizu ( www.kyoto-shimizu.net), located less than a 10-minute walk from Kyoto Station, has private baths and rates of about $120 a night. An all-day transport pass good for trains and buses costs about $14.

Kyoto, famous for its temples and shrines, was the capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years. Thirteen temples, three shrines and Nijo Castle are all registered as world heritage sites. Places to see include:

-- The Gion District, best walked in the evening when kimono-clad geishas and maikos, or geisha trainees, stroll the area.

-- The Golden Pavilion, also known as Kinkakuji, a three-tiered Zen temple whose two top floors are covered in gold leaf.

-- Kyoto Handicraft Center, a collection of shops that sell everything from lacquerware to swords.

-- Nishiki Food Market, a street lined with more than 100 shops selling sushi, sweets, pickles, seafood, etc.

-- Sanjusangen-do, also known as Rengeo-in, a temple famous for its 1,001 statues of Senju Kannon-zo, the goddess of mercy.

For more sightseeing options and details, contact Kyoto tourism ( www.pref.kyoto.jp/visitkyoto/en).

After three nights, take a bullet train - Shinkansen Nozomi is fastest but is not included in the Japan Rail Pass - back to Tokyo Station and then the Narita Express train ( www.jreast.co.jp/e/nex ) to Narita Airport.

Total Cost: Budget at least $800 for transportation within Japan. Lodging will run about $1,170, leaving about $650 for food and sightseeing. If spending less than $100 a day seems too confining, stay only three nights in Tokyo or plan on eating a lot of ramen.

Interested in having us help plan your trip? Go to washingtonpost.com/goingourway.

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