Japan is one of the world’s most beautiful countries. From modern, bustling metropolises to smaller, zen-esque towns, Japan is where the future meets the past.
Exploring Japan for a week, I couldn’t get over how timeless everything felt. Until I travelled extensively in 2019, Japan was at the very top of my ‘favorite places in the world’ list.
Although I’ve only been to Tokyo and Kyoto, I can’t wait to head back to the ‘land of the rising sun’ one day and explore even more. It’s a place where history, tradition and modernity blend perfectly. From robot restaurants to ancient temples to bamboo forests to cat cafes, there’s something to interest everyone.
Where to Visit
On my weeklong jaunt in Japan, I visited Tokyo and Kyoto. Schedule wise, I flew into Tokyo Saturday evening, and then spent four days in Tokyo and two days in Kyoto before flying back to Hong Kong the following weekend.
Tokyo: Hustle and bustle, quirky shops, an abundance of cute toys and things, and delicious seafood and ramen at every turn. The city is massive, a sprawling metropolis. For as large as it is though, there’s an orderliness to it that I’ve never experienced elsewhere. Streets are clean, sidewalks kept immaculate and everyone is polite.
Kyoto: A place where everything seems picture perfect. Japan’s former capital may be much smaller and quieter than Kyoto, but many of the historical attractions have thankfully been preserved, making it an enchanting place to visit.
One week wasn’t nearly enough time in Japan, and I’m looking forward to returning one day and see more of the country. I’d love to visit Osaka, Nara, Takayama, Hakone, Kanazawa, Nikko, and Lake Kawaguchiko (for great views of Mount Fuji).
How to Get Around Japan
We flew into Tokyo from Hong Kong, landing at the Narita airport. The airport is far from the city, and a taxi could could easily cost over $125-150. There are a few public transit options, but we decided to take the airport express train, and then transferred to a subway to get to our hotel.
While in Tokyo, we took the subway to save money. Taxis may be quicker in some cases, but are expensive and will add up. Tokyo’s transport system is impressive- there’s overground and underground trains, as well as a bus network.
We bought rechargeable travel cards, which worked on every train. There are local guides and maps in English, but because there are so many train lines, it can be a bit confusing without the help of Google Maps to plan out stop to stop. We took the subway our entire trip and only got on the wrong train twice. If we didn’t have pocket wifi, figuring out the subway system would’ve been a lot harder.
From Tokyo to Kyoto return, we took the Shinkansen (bullet train) Nozomi. The fastest Shinkansen, costs ¥13,710 one-way (~$122), and can get you from Tokyo Station to Kyoto Station in about 2 hours and 20 minutes. It’s not cheap, but it’s quick.
You don’t need to worry about buying tickets in advance- trains run several times an hour and it’s easy to purchase tickets when you arrive at the station. If, like us, you’re short on time, I’d recommend taking the bullet train from Tokyo late afternoon the day prior, and leaving on the first train out the day after your visit, giving you two nights and one full day in Kyoto.
Once in Kyoto, you’ll find the subway only has two lines, one runs north-south and the other runs east-west. Unfortunately, it’s limited and you’ll find it’s easier to take buses even though they take a bit longer. We avoided taking taxis whenever possible in Japan because we found it expensive in both Tokyo and Kyoto- think $40-50 USD for a 20 minute ride.
Bonus: Below recos of places to visit in Kyoto were created with taking public transit in mind.
And, if you’re taking the train a bit more during your time in Japan, consider purchasing a 7-day JR Pass- if you’re visiting more than one region, the pass pretty much pays for itself.
What to See & Do
- Morning walk in Shinjuku Gyoen: Beautiful patch of greenery in the city. Coming back to Tokyo from Kyoto, we stayed in Shinjuku, and this park was right across from our hotel- lovely way to start the day with a little wander
- Morning walk to see the Imperial Palace: This wasn’t initially on my list of things to do, but we decided to check it out since we were staying in Ginza and were close to the park. If you’re nearby, it’s worth seeing- beautiful and serene
- Shibuya Crossing: We felt like it wasn’t right to leave Tokyo without visiting the world’s busiest crosswalk
- Pro-tip: Head to the second floor of the Starbucks that overlooks the crossing for a bird’s-eye view of the chaos
- Tokyo Hands for souvenir shopping: Nearby Shibuya Crossing, this seven floor Japanese department store has everything you could need- I picked up a sake serving set for my sister, some cute stationary/kitchen tools, and a few beauty products to try
- Half day at DisneySea: DisneySea is an ocean-themed park, unique to Japan. There may not be a castle in DisneySea, but it’s no less magical than Disneyland. We came here for a half day and loved every moment of our time in the park
- Robot Restaurant: Epitome of wild. Come here for the show, not dinner. The drinks are pretty standard, so we skipped them in favor of hitting up other bars later in the evening. I don’t even know how to describe this experience- it’s dancing, fighting robots and totally unlike anything you’ve seen before
- Golden Gai: Post robot show, we headed to one of the only parts of Tokyo that wasn’t blown up in the war. Golden Gai is filled with dozens of small bars- we chose one at random and joined the locals at the counter for sake
- Memory Lane/Omoide Yokocho: Memory Lane has roots dating back to the 1940s, when it used to be the location for street vendors and traders. Now, a few dozen tiny bars and restaurants occupy the narrow alleyways, just wide enough for two people to pass. We didn’t eat here because we had a reservation for a sushi restaurant later in the evening, but enjoyed wandering up and down the alley, peering into places
- Shinjuku: Comparable to Times Square in neon lights, this part of Tokyo is the downtown business area. Come at night to see everything lit up
- Exploring Harajuku: No question, the best place I’ve ever been for people watching. Everyone has such unique, fun style. Interestingly, Harajuku culture is more than seventy years old. It became popular in Japan after WWII when American soldiers and their families opened up Western-style shops. The Japanese youth were inspired by American trends, and used them to help transform Japanese style
- Takeshita Street is where all the main action happens. In addition to all of the fashion stores, you’ll notice creperies and sweet cream (soft serve) are popular eats
- Shopping at Kiddyland: If you need toys to bring back for kids, this is your place. I picked up a few cute trinkets for my Disney fanatic family, and enjoyed browsing the rest of the toys- so many cute things!
- Ice Monster: It was pretty hot while we were in Tokyo, which meant soft cream and iced treats were in constant rotation. We popped in here on the recommendation from a local we’d been chatting with at tea. The fixed menu of ~5 shaved ice options ranges from fruity to sweet/savory. I opted for the coffee one, mainly because it included salted caramel (fav), and a chocolate liqueur. Fairly sure these are portioned for two people, but you better believe we each ordered one
- Reissue: Great afternoon caffeine pick-me-up, double win for the cute 3D latte art
- Daiso: A ‘do not miss’ store in Japan. They sell everything. Really enjoyed browsing the beauty, fashion and snack areas
- Totti Candy Factory: Rainbow cotton candy! I haven’t had cotton candy since my teen years, so picking out the colors and flavors for mine was a fun experience
- Yoyogi Park: Only a few blocks from Harajuku, you’ll be surprised at how serene this park is. If you visit, walk through the giant Torii and down to the Meiji Shrine
- Sunset at Aman Tokyo: The lobby bar in this luxe hotel is stunning. We weren’t guests of the hotel, but came here to watch the sun set one evening. It was a perfect experience- loved seeing more of Tokyo from above (helps put into perspective just how large the city really is), and it’s a beautiful place to enjoy a few glasses of sake after a busy day
- Tsukiji Outer Market: Come early to experience the charms of the fish market. The outer markets, where you’ll find restaurants and shops, is open from 5-11 am. And, the inner market, where wholesale fish are for sale, opens to the public at 9 am. I’d recommend exploring the outer market for a bit, and eventually picking a place to have sushi at the inner market for an early lunch. While perusing the outer stalls, we grabbed Tamagoyaki (fried egg), and wandered for a bit before deciding on lunch at Daiwa Sushi. It was a good choice- without a doubt, the freshest sushi I’ve ever had
- Shiba Park: Post lunch, we headed to Shiba park for an afternoon stroll and to check out the Tokyo Tower. Thirteen meters taller than the Eiffel Tower, it’s the world’s tallest self-supporting steel tower. The tower was finished in 1958 as a symbol of Japan’s rebirth. We didn’t go up in the tower, but there are two observatory levels if you’re interested in a bird’s eye city view
Where to Eat & Drink
Yokohama Chinatown: All of my favorite foodies told me to come to Chinatown without a set agenda, but to plan on trying panda buns, shaved ice, sesame balls and soup dumplings. Nothing we had disappointed. Yokohama may be a bit of a trek from central Tokyo on the subway, but it’s so worth it.
Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum: Because we didn’t eat enough in Chinatown^, we decided to stop in the ramen museum on our way back to the city. Shin-Yokohama is less of a museum, and more of a theme restaurant. It’s a two story recreation of 1950’s Japan with eight ramen restaurants and a courtyard bar. Before coming here, I’d never ordered ramen out- mainly because nothing ever seems to be vegetarian, so I was excited to try the veg-friendly options. The ramen was delicious. Pro-tip: If you enjoy your ramen, slurp the noodles. In Japan, slurping is a sign you’re enjoying your meal.
Tokyo Station: Exhausted by the time we got back to the city (lots of train delays on the way back from Chinatown and ramen adventures), we decided to peruse the food stalls in the basement of Tokyo Station and grabbed some snacks to take back to our hotel. Def recommend checking out the sub-level shops and market at the station- there’s a great candy shop where you can find giant Pocky, as well as a specialized Kit-Kat store.
Eat at 7-11 & Try Vending Machine Beverages: Yes, seriously. 7-11 in Japan rules. A few times we picked up small sandwiches and sushi snacks to take back to our hotel room for chilled dining. Vending machine beverages are also a quintessential Japanese experience- some of them coming out piping out. If you decide to try Japan’s ‘fast food’, take note- it’s considered rude to eat in public. Whenever we picked up stuff ‘on the go’, we were either very discreet with eating it, or waited until we were back in our hotels.
Soft cream at Daily Chico: Soft cream is practically a delicacy in Tokyo. We ate it every chance we got, and knew we couldn’t leave without trying the eight flavor cone from Daily Chico. So, so good. The flavors were amazing- soda, green tea, melon, grape, coffee milk, strawberry, chocolate, vanilla. If you’re a fan of soft serve, this place needs to be on your list.
About Life Coffee Brewers: Third wave coffee culture is just beginning to catch on in Tokyo. After a week without nearly enough cold brew/flat whites, we came here (near Shibuya Corssing) on our last morning in Japan for excellent cold brew.
Tokyo Food Show: I’d heard the basements of some department stores had epic food halls, but still couldn’t believe how great the vendors were here. Great place to pick up a meal or snacks.
Din Tai Fung: A must for super good dim sum.
Sushi Bar Yasuda: The only dinner reservation we’d made in Tokyo. My friend had seen Anthony Bourdain’s profile on this eight-seat sushi restaurant and made a reservation for us weeks prior to our trip. The sushi was fantastic- the chef made us feel like we were at a personal dinner party. Every part of our experience was memorable, from choosing our own sake cups to each piece of sushi put in front of us.
Breakfast at West Aoyama Garden: I’d been told the pancakes at this tea house were the best ever, as in better than anything in the States. I’d agree- they’re fluffy, thick, and the size of a plate. Also, the level of care servers put into the meal experience is so inspiring. You’ll notice that level of precision just about everywhere in Japan.
Aoyama Flower Market Tea House: We visited Tokyo at the end of May, when it was above 85 Fahrenheit every day. After spending the previous day running around in the heat all day, I needed a slower pace on day two, so I spent a bit of time at this beautiful tea house inside of a greenhouse, relaxing in the air conditioning and reading. Highly recommend if you need a break from the hustle and bustle.
Nightcap at Bar Trench: Cocktails are just as good as some of the top ones you’ll find at world class cocktail bars in New York and London.
Nightcap at Bar High Five: Post-sunset at Aman, we headed here for one drink, but ended up staying for a few- really loved them. There’s no menu, you tell the bartenders what kind of spirits and flavors you like, and they create a custom cocktail based on your tastes. One thing to note, it’s a small place and usually fills up quickly most nights. We got lucky with two seats at the bar and spent the night chatting up the bartender, which turned out great since he was an American who previously lived in Kyoto and had a bunch of recos for us.
// 5 Must-Do’s in Kyoto //
What to See & Do
Admire the Golden Temple: Even if you’ve never heard of Kyoto, chances are you’ve heard of Kinkaku-ji, the golden temple. It’s so beautiful, it feels surreal. The outer walls of the temple are completely covered in gold, and the temple itself is surrounded by traditional Japanese gardens and ponds.
You can’t go inside the temple, but you can walk around the outer gardens. The temple becomes quite busy during the day, I’d recommend going early or right before it closes. We went ~45 minutes before closing time and although there were a few dozen people mingling about, it didn’t feel too crowded.
While you’re here, treat yourself to soft-serve (or soft cream, as it’s called in Japan). When we visited, I enjoyed the green tea & vanilla swirl with gold flakes from the shop outside the temple.
Stroll through the Bamboo Grove: Before I’d even started planning my trip to Japan, the bamboo grove had been on my list of places to venture to at some point in life. A perfectly tailored bamboo forest, standing amid the stalks of bamboo is like being in another world. On a day with light wind, you can hear the stalks push against each other, crackling.
The bamboo grove is outside of the main attractions in Kyoto, but easy to get to and worth the trip. And, there’s more to Arashiyama than just the grove- there are a few small temples, and monkey park nearby.
If you’re going to visit and want time alone in the grove, you need to go early- like super early. We arrived at 7:20 and had a half hour in the grove before other people started showing up. Come mid-day, the grove becomes extremely crowded with visitors.
To get to the grove, take the JR Sagano line to the Saga Arashiyama station. Then, walk ~10 minutes to get to the entrance of the grove. Location wise, it’s past the Tenryu-ji Temple, and to the left. You’ll reach a path with a few bamboo trees before you get to the grove- keep going. The first part of the path is pretty sparse, and you may think, this is a waste of time. Promise the trees get much denser as you keep going into the grove.
If you visit early like we did, you should be back in city center around 9-10 am, which is the perfect time to grab coffee and breakfast. If you’re ravenous, Mister Donut, a Boston-bred chain with locations all over Japan, sells excellent cake donuts in Kyoto Station.
Walk Through the Torii at Fushimi Inari Taisha: Situated on the side of the Inari Mountain, there are thousands of crimson torii gates leading to the temple. At the top, the shrine is dedicated to the Shinto god of rice.
Each torii was donated by a business. Walking through the gates felt kind of magical.
If you visit and there are a bunch of people in the lower region, just keep walking for a bit- it gets less crowded as you go further up the mountain. One other thing to know: Fushimi Inari Taisha is open 24 hours a day, so it’s a good place to visit early morning or early evening before/after other main attractions are open/closed for the day.
Explore the Gion District: The Gion district is a must visit if you want to see the atmosphere of ancient Japan. With preserved backstreets full of boutiques, it’s an area you don’t want to miss. In particular, Sannen-zaka and Ninnen-zaka are two of Kyoto’s most beautiful streets.
Famed for its geishas, Gion is an area packed with bars, restaurants and teahouses. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a geisha in a back alley on her way to work right before the teahouses open for the evening.
If you’re staying near the Gion district, go for a morning walk in Maruyama Park, and grab a latte at % Arabica- great iced lattes.
Stay at a Ryokan: While in Kyoto, you should definitely sleep at least one night in a traditional Ryokan. Ryokan aren’t hotels, but instead, elaborate guesthouses.
In Japan, people often travel long distances solely for the purpose of relaxing in a hot spring bath and enjoying a traditional multi-course dinner. Ryokan rooms typically have woven-straw flooring and futon beds. Food is usually served inside the room, and many ryokans are famous for the food they offer. Gion Hatanaka is a bit pricey, but gorgeous. Worth it if you’re able to split the cost with fellow travelers.
On My Next Visit
I’ve heard the entire Kansai region of Japan offers beautiful day trips. On a future trip, I’d like to spend a full week in/near Kyoto, exploring nearby towns in addition to seeing more of Kyoto.
At the top of my list-
- Attend a tea ceremony
- Spend more time in Arashiyama, making time to see the monkey mountain park
- Head to Osaka for a day trip
- Visit Nijo-jo Castle
- See Byodo-in Temple
- Check out Kinkaku-ji’s brother, Ginkaku-ji (the silver temple). Originally, this temple was meant to be covered in silver, but the silver was never added
Where to Eat & Drink
There are many places to eat and drink in Kyoto, some more touristy than others. These were my favorite of the ones we visited, places I’d go back to on a return trip to Kyoto.
- Hello Dolly: Beautiful, old timey whiskey jazz bar
- L’Esca Moteur: Superb cocktails, the smoked Old Fashioned is delicious
- Bar Rocking Chair: Good cocktails off the beaten path. There isn’t a drink menu- instead, you tell the bartenders what kind of flavors you like
- % Arabica: The best coffee in Kyoto, and one of the top five lattes I’ve ever had. We ended up coming here three times during our stay- that’s how much we loved the drinks
- Nishiki Market: A dream for foodies housed in an alleyway with a beautiful glass roof. You’ll find plenty of traditional food here to try- pickled vegetables, Asian spices, tempura, seafood, sushi and plenty of soft serve
- Also, don’t miss the cute animal donuts at Floresta (just outside the market)
- Eat Soft Serve: There’s no specific location you should come for this, just make sure you have a cone of soft serve while in Kyoto, it’s particularly required. I really liked the soft serve stand in Maruyama Park, and the one outside of Kinkaku-ji, where you can get a green tea & vanilla swirl with gold flakes
- Mister Donut: A Boston-bred chain with locations all over Japan. The cake donuts at the Kyoto Station location were so good, we came back twice
- Okinawa: Great for vegetarians
- Awomb: Good sushi, beautiful presentation
Extra Japan Travel Tips
Language: Japanese. Some spoke conversational English, but we relied heavily on Google Translate to read menus/signs.
Safety: We never felt unsafe walking around any of the areas you’d expect to find tourists- even late at night.
Currency: Japanese Yen. The only cash-dispensing ATMs for foreign cards were in 7-Elevens. We had no problem taking cash out throughout our trip, and the ATMs let you check your balance at the same time (win!).
Budget: In comparison to neighboring Asian countries, there’s no denying Japan can be expensive.
Where to Stay: Our time in Tokyo was split into two halves- two days in Ginza (Tokyo), then two days in Kyoto, and finally another two days in Shinjuku (Tokyo). Both Ginza and Shinjuku are central areas, near plenty of shops, restaurants, convenience stores, and public transit. I enjoyed Ginza a bit more, but would stay in either area or Shibuya on a return trip to Tokyo.
When to Visit: I visited late spring, and had great weather, but would love to return in cherry blossom season, or early autumn to see the leaves as they change.
Tipping: Tipping is not common practice in Japan. Japanese culture is one that is firmly rooted in dignity, respect and hard work. As such, good service is considered the standard and tips are viewed as unnecessary.
WiFi Access: We rented a TEP device for our trip in 2017- both of us had locked phones at the time of visit, and the international service plan would’ve cost more (with less data access) than using a TEP device. Some restaurants/shops had wifi connections, but not all of them, and the language barrier can pose a problem when asking for login details.
SIM Card Options: We didn’t look into our options (because of our locked phones), but I’ve heard good things about the IIJMIO travel sim. Other options may require you to go through a registration process. Friends have also recommended getting pocket wifi upon arrival (essentially, what we had with TEP, but we were sent it before our trip), as that’s usually more cost effective than the tourism sims available.
Public restrooms: Every place we went had a public restroom- most were Western style. Once we had to use squat toilets in a train station, so it’s best to carry hand sanitizer and a few tissues if you’re not used to using squat toilets.
Packing Necessities: What you bring in total will depend on what you do over the course of your trip, and when you visit seasonally. However, do note, Japanese culture is conservative- there’s no dress code, but you’ll likely feel out of place in shorts or outfits with modest skin coverage. During my trip, I stuck to skirts or pants that hit my knee.
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