Honeymooning in Japan: Worth the Wait!
By Suzannah Nevas
When my boyfriend and I got engaged on Christmas Eve, 2019, we had no idea a global pandemic was on the horizon. By April 2020, it became clear that COVID-19 was going to be around for the foreseeable future, and while we didn’t want to wait to be married, we were willing to wait for our dream honeymoon.
We’d had our hearts set on Japan. We held fast for over two years, but as soon as the Japanese government announced they were lifting restrictions after October 11, we booked our tickets for the following week!
My husband and I were fortunate enough to be among the first wave of international tourists flooding to Japan in mid-October. With only two weeks to plan, our honeymoon itinerary almost fell into place as we compared our bucket lists of places, foods, and cultural experiences we were interested in.
We arrived at Narita airport on Sunday, October 16th. Though our flight was nearly full, disembarking and going through customs was easy and efficient, thanks to great signage and many helpers stationed every 15 feet or so to help you through the process. We made it smoothly out of customs, exchanged some currency, rented a pocket WiFi device and we were on our way!
Our goal for the trip was to enjoy a balanced array of all that Japan has to offer: urban and rural, commercial and cultural, extravagant and affordable, familiar and new, planned and spontaneous. Our time was spent in 1-3 day stints in Tokyo, the Fuji 5 Lakes District, the Izu Peninsula, Kyoto, the Tajima area, Osaka, Wakayama Prefecture, and Gifu.
Urban & Rural
Highlights from our time in the big cities include visiting the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, the Manga Museum in Kyoto and Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka. Many delightful hours were also spent exploring the plethora of underground shops and food malls around major train stations!
Rural gems include the gorgeous cliffscape along the Jogasaki Coast, and the stunning natural beauty along the Kumano Kodo Trail in Wakayama Prefecture. One night we stayed in the town of Kawayu, where the scalding hot spring water bubbles up on the shores of the cold mountain river and you can dig your own hole in the bank and mix the two waters together to create an outdoor bath. (Note that it takes constant vigilance and movement to keep from burning or freezing yourself!)
Commercial & Cultural
As far as the Japanese government is concerned, I think we were the ideal tourists, spending money left and right, buying so many goods and souvenirs along the way that we ended up buying not one but TWO additional suitcases to bring everything back with us! A lot of this spending though was also cultural. During our stay in the onsen town of Kinosaki, we enjoyed meeting the local bamboo, straw art and leather artisans there and a sizable part of our return luggage was traditional Japanese art. In Kyoto we arrived in time for the massive monthly flea market at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine.
It’s hard to go anywhere in Kyoto without tripping over a World Heritage Site. Kinkakuji was as beautiful as every picture, and visiting on a weekday morning meant it was far less crowded than the absolutely PACKED Arashiyama we visited on a Saturday. In general, the less crowded a place, the more we enjoyed it. The serene mountain top landscape of the Takeda Castle ruins at sunrise proved more enjoyable than the bustling, grandiose architecture of the reconstructed Himeji Castle.
We got to learn about, experience and enjoy Japanese culture through several interactive experiences including a tea ceremony, a Buddhist vegetarian meal in a temple, and making a New Year’s wreath out of rice stalks at a festival stall.
Extravagant & Affordable
Although we did splurge on some fancy kaiseki meals, and a stunning traditional ryokan, Japan can be enjoyed with a much lower budget: the youth hostel we stayed at in Ito was 80% as beautiful but only 10% of the cost of the fancy ryokan! And a cheap meal we got at a combini was among our favorites from the trip.
Familiar & New
Because I lived in Japan for three years, I had many places I wanted to take my husband, many foods I wanted him to taste, and many people I wanted him to meet. At the same time, it was important to us that we created some new memories together in places neither of us had ever been. I think striking this balance of familiar and new is a good idea for people visiting Japan for the first time too.
There are many famous Japanese sites you may already be familiar with and visiting them in-person will most definitely live up to their iconic pictures, (we felt this way about Nachi Falls and the Hongu Oyunohara Torii Gate).
However, it’s also great to visit places you’ve never heard of, and have no expectations for. When searching for a petting zoo featuring capybara onsen, we were delightfully surprised to find (and ascend) the volcanic dome, Mt Omuro, across the street! The surprises continued when we reached the crest and discovered that nearly everyone there had brought a cute dog. Also, there was a Japanese archery field in the center of the crater, and Mt Fuji was visible on the horizon!
Planned & Spontaneous
In general, we planned our lodging and a few activities in each location, but otherwise left our schedule open enough to allow us to follow our in-the-moment interests. We also intentionally left two nights at the end of the itinerary blank in case we wanted to revisit somewhere we felt needed more time. As those days drew near, we decided we wanted to go somewhere entirely new, so we looked at a map and picked a spot along the general route of the bullet train back to Tokyo. We chose the city of Gifu, a little north of the major hub Nagoya. It wasn’t until after we booked our hotel that we found out that the famous Nobunaga Festival would be taking place that weekend! Although we missed the celebrity appearance by Takuya Kimura (and his hordes of fans), we really enjoyed the Pudding Award booths, where we tried two of the nation’s top 20 puddings of 2022. If you haven’t had Japanese pudding, you should immediately stop reading this and go try some- it will change your pudding standards forever.
When anyone asks me how our Japanese honeymoon was, I struggle to find adequate adjectives. “Fantastic”, “Magical”, “Wonderful” all seem to fall short. While it is easy to put Japan’s natural beauty into pictures, it is hard to put Japan’s unparalleled hospitality into words. You wouldn’t know that the tourism industry has been paused for the last two and a half years- it didn’t seem like any restaurant, hotel or shop worker was out of practice. We felt welcomed and cared for everywhere we went.
Signs of the pandemic were apparent only in the cleanliness/safety measures being taken everywhere. Hands-free alcohol dispensers were located at every doorway in every building. Plexiglass partitions separated indoor diners, and even outside, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone not wearing a mask. Even at the tightly packed Kurama Fire Festival, all spectators wore masks the whole time and it still felt safe.
1. Get a JR Pass
If you intend to do some significant moving around in Japan, I highly recommend you invest in the JR Pass. This special, all-you-can-ride pass for non-residents allows you to use nearly all JR trains in the country, including bullet trains. I also recommend booking your trip for an even 7 day interval so you can maximize your use of the JR Pass which comes in 7, 14, or 21 day options. Please note that there are a few JR trains which are not included, and not all trains in Japan are JR trains. Which brings me to...
2. Get a SUICA or PASMO Card
These tap-to-use cards act like debit cards- you can add a balance to them at most train stations and they are accepted as payment for non-JR trains and many buses as well. You can even use them to purchase things at shops near the train station, or to rent a coin locket to store your luggage for the day.
3. Pack Light
With the yen as weak as it currently is, you will want to save as much space as possible in your suitcase for bringing things back. Layers are key, and keep in mind that Japanese hotels and ryokans provide sleepwear and basic toiletries. If you don’t pack light, take advantage of the very affordable suitcase delivery services available. We used Yamato Transport to ship our luggage ahead of us so that we didn’t need to store it while hiking.
4. Get Specialized Tickets through a Travel Agency
If you plan to visit any special destinations that require reserving tickets ahead of time, I highly recommend booking them through a travel agent. Despite enlisting the help of several Japanese friends, getting tickets to the Ghibli Museum and Universal Studios Japan proved to be the most challenging part of the entire trip!
5. Look up Festivals and Events in any Area you Plan to Visit
There’s nothing quite like a Japanese Matsuri, so if you get the chance to go to one, please take it! Even the smallest of towns usually has an annual event that it is known for. Once you have a sense of what’s happening when and where, you can plan the order of your trip accordingly.
6. Don’t Be Afraid to Wander!
Some of the best hidden gems can be found when you get lost, so don’t schedule yourself too fully; leave time to wander around and find something that didn’t make it onto the cover of a guidebook.