Japan was more amazing than we imagined. From the people and culture to the food and nature, Japan is only the second place we’ve been where we could actually see ourselves living.
Japan didn’t make it into our 1 year trip around the world because it’s known to be expensive (and it really is). If you’re looking for a budget trip, I promise you Japan is NOT it! It is, however, an incredible experience.
In this guide I am going to focus on Tokyo and Kyoto, the two main tourist destinations in Japan. We also made it to the Izu Peninsula, which I would highly recommend if you want to get those amazing Mt. Fuji views with the water in front of it…truly amazing.
- You do not need to rent a car. Get a JR Rail Pass if you plan on taking the high-speed train twice or more. It pays for itself. You can use it on most subways and high-speed trains all over Japan and it is only available to you if you buy it before you get there. There are many rules about JR Rail Passes, so make sure you read the instructions. Trust me, it’s very much worth it, even if you are only planning on doing day trips from Tokyo.
- Although I always like to pack light and leave room in my bag, I recommend taking that a step further in Japan. Pack basics that you can dress up and down. You don’t need heels, try to dress modestly and neatly, and bring layers. We each had a small-medium backpack and planned to do laundry once in the middle of the trip at a laundromat. Try not to wear sleeveless t-shirts, flip flops, sweats, or short shorts.
- Don’t over-plan. Let yourself get lost…we found some of the most beautiful and delicious things that way.
- Almost nothing is open before 9am, so plan on having some leisurely mornings.
- Get your nails done with (clear) vitamins instead of nail polish and they’ll last much longer and feel great. I don’t like to get gel manicures, so this is my alternative.
- Many places are in basements or down alleys. I recommend doing a combination of planned and unplanned restaurants. There is so much good food in Japan, and it’s nice to stumble upon a delicious surprise. If you want to go somewhere specific, make sure you have great directions or a SIM card/hotspot so you can find it easily. If you’ve seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi, you know that many good restaurants are actually in the subway station.
- Plan what time of year you want to go. The landscape in Japan can be completely different from one season to another. We were there during cherry blossom season, and plan to go back when all the maple trees turn.
Notes on Etiquette
Onsen: You MUST try a public bath or onsen while you are in Japan. We tried many, one of the best we tried was in the Izu Peninsula which is full of natural, outdoor hot springs. I highly recommend reserving a private outdoor hot spring if you can find one.
Onsen Etiquette: Wash before entering the onsen. Put the towel on your head. No bathing suits…naked. No photographs or any digital devices, no eating or drinking. Cover up tattoos…the fancier onsens have cover up stickers. Do not talk or play music.
- Chopsticks should not be stuck into a bowl of rice and do not spear your food.
- Do not use your chopsticks to move a bowl towards you
- At the end of your meal neatly fold your napkin.
- If you are eating soup you should slurp it
- Do not walk and eat – if you are getting fast food you will need to eat it before you continue your trek
- Do not tip
- If the server does not speak English it is OK to take them outside and point to what you want to have from the plastic models.
- Convenience stores have decent food for a quick, cheap snack or meal.
Phrases that People Appreciate:
- Kudasai – Please
- Arigato – Thank you
- Konichiwa – Hello
- Oishi – Delicious
- Ichi – One
- Ni – Two
- San – Three
- Your phone should always be on vibrate or silent, especially on public transit.
- Don’t be loud or yell, it’s considered rude.
- Do not sit in the priority seating on the subway unless you really need it – you will see those seats empty even during rush hour.
- Take your shoes off before entering a room with a tatami mat or even a clothing store dressing room.
- If you are sick, buy and wear a face mask.
- Carry a small plastic bag in your purse or backpack for trash. There are not many public trash cans or restrooms. You can find restrooms in subway stations, convenience stores, and department stores.
- Don’t smoke while walking around. It is even illegal in downtown Kyoto
Places We Stayed that I Would Recommend
I’m a fan of staying in Japanese-style places, so please keep that in mind.
- Hoshinoya Tokyo ($$$$) is a very well known Japanese hotel chain. If you have the means, it’s worth going for their rooftop onsen that opens up to a clear view of the sky.
- This cute Airbnb in Kyoto ($$) was a fantastic Japanese-style house in the cutest neighborhood in Kyoto with canals. It is not a touristy area, and we loved that. Plus, the person who runs it, Takumi, is absolutely amazing.
- Hoshinoya Kyoto ($$$$) had insane views of the river by Arashiyama, though we are happy we didn’t stay there our whole time in Kyoto…it is a bit off the beaten path and I recommend staying somewhere closer to all the action.
- The Edo Sakura Guesthouse in Tokyo ($-$$) that is perfect if you’re looking for a Western/Japanese experience. Best customer service and the food is great.
Places We Didn't Stay (but hear great things)
- In Arashiyama: Togetsutei, Arashiyama Benkei, Ryotei Rangetsu, Hanaikada.
- In Kyoto: Sumiya Ryokan, Hiiragiya Ryokan, Tawaraya Ryokan, Ikumatsu, Seikoro, Gion Hatanaka, Kinoe, Kikusui, Lakuyohso, Momijiya Honkan Takao Sansou
Top Touristy Japan Shopping and Food
Top Things Tourists Buy
The most popular items are hands down stationary/paper, sake sets, teapots, kitchenware/knives, fans, chopsticks, toys, and fabrics. The stationary and paper available in Japan is out of this world. Purchase a set of letters you can later use as thank you cards for friends!
In Japan, gifts are often wrapped in fabric wrapping cloth instead of paper. The art of Japanese Fabric Wrapping is called Furoshiki. If you find a shop with fabric you love, grab some and play around with Furoshiki.
Top Foods To Try:
My must-try foods are ice cream (matcha and black sesame seed), soba, ramen, udon, curry, sushi/sashimi, onigiri, tempura, pizza, taiyaki, yakitori, kaiseki (in Kyoto), fish cakes, mochi/daifuku, dango, nato, nabe, coffee jelly, sake, shochu, tea (matcha, sencha, hojicha, ocha, genmaicha). My matcha ice cream recipe here. And a hojicha gelato that is my new favorite.
Kaiseki multi-course seasonal meals are traditional in Kyoto. Not only do they use seasonal ingredients, but the food is styled and presented with the theme of the season, as well. It is a must, and such a unique experience.
If you love drinking tea as much as I do, you have to enjoy a tea ceremony. You can order various deserts and tea, and enjoy them in a usually lovely and serene setting. It's meditative, relaxing, and nourishes the soul.
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Tokyo (Mostly Organized by Subway Area)
Tsukiji Fish Market:
There is a long wait at Sushi Dai and Daiwa Sushi since they are the most popular, but it is known that all the sushi shops in the area are excellent so don’t get hung up on the most popular. Avoid Saturdays. They only let 120 people in a day and it’s first come, first served. Try to go your first day because you will be jet lagged and you need to get there early if you want to see the tuna auction. FYI, we got there at 4:15am and were too late for the auction. Try and get there as early as possible.
- Shibuya Crossing - You won’t miss it and it’s a pretty crazy thing to see.
- Tokyu Food Show - A food hall that will blow you away.
- Tofu Cuisine Sorano - A tofu restaurant, try the avocado tofu!
- Nonbei Yokocho AKA Memory Lane AKA Piss Alley - Pick a yakitori bar and try and get a seat!
- Kiddy Land - A toy store, it will be crazy packed, but at least take a look because you’ll probably walk right by it.
- Croquant Chou Zaku Zaku - Crazy delicious fried pastry filled with custard.
- Kaoryia Soba - Perfect, simple, house-made soba. (Try my duck soba recipe here.)
- Chicago INC - Vintage clothes, and it’s Japan, so they are almost ALL SMALL SIZES!
- Rojiura - Curry soup.
- Kio55 - Amazing cookware and utensils with a Scandinavian influence.
- Loft - WAY better than the knick-knacks at Tokyo Hands, ignore the guide books on Tokyo Hands and come here instead.
- Muji - Like the IKEA homeware section but more cute, upstairs it feels more like the GAP.
Aoyama: A fancy shopping area
- Aoyama Flower Market Tea House - BEAUTIFUL for dessert and tea, but it’s in all the guidebooks so there will be a line.
- Nezu Museum - The garden and architecture is spectacular.
- Kitsune - Cute spot for Matcha.
- UGUiSU the little shop - Linen, stationery, and tableware, all hand made.
- Gogyo - Ramen, and they have an English menu.
- Shiroikuro - Dessert spot.
- Udon Kurosawa - Kyoto-style udon place with handmade ceramics My bone broth udon recipe here.
Ginza: Another expensive shopping district
- Ginza Itoya - Stationery store that is insanely amazing.
- Akomeeya - They have a million different rice related items…seriously. At the front, there is a bar where you can get a rice cocktail and upstairs they have kitchenware and utensils.
- Higashiya - Luxury tea house.
- Sushi Aoki - Spot that’s in all the guide books, lunch is in the $40 range and dinner in the $60.
Tokyo: Tokyo station itself is beautiful
- Nihonbashi Yukari - Bento for under $40 by Japanese Iron Chef Kimio Nonaga.
- Imperial Palace Gardens - A free excursion! All the gardens in Japan are impeccable. They take great care and pride in the care of their gardens. Take a picnic, and enjoy your time here.
- Ginza Kagari Otemachi - Amazing soba, I had the duck soba and recommend it!
- Ichiran Ramen - it’s the classic vending machine ramen joint with dividers and your own water dispenser, and they sell their spice mix.
- Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden - These are Tokyo’s largest garden grounds. You do have to pay to get in, but it’s a great midday break and perfect for a picnic.
- Tempura Tsunahachi - Really good deal for a ramen lunch, ~$12.
- Afuri Ramen - Amazing, and one of our favorite ramen joints. Make sure you check out the dessert stands on the same floor and pick up some mochi.
- INSANE vintage shopping at Look Street, Kitakore, Central Road, and many, many more. Make sure to weave in and out of the alleys and check out the second and third floors.
- Floresta Nature Donuts - Cutest little animal donuts like pandas, frogs, and kittens.
- FOG Linen Work - You’ll find this in all the guides for high-end linen, closed on weekends.
- Bio Ojiyan Cafe - For their rice porridge.
- Haight & Ashbury - For amazing vintage gear.
- Jet Set Records - An amazing record store.
The cutest area to walk around, by a canal with many nice shops. Walk along the canal from Meguro to Nakameguro, too. Let yourself get lost here!
- Kushiwakamaru Yakitori - Highly recommended yakitori spot
- Mahakala’s Happy Pudding (yum!)
- Ka-Ku-Ra - Macrobiotic curries…CRAZY!
- Akira - Grill your own meat at this Yakitori grill
- Happo-En - Beautiful garden with tea ceremony and light meal.
- Sushi Sho - 11:30 for chirashi bowls
- Sushi Tokami - Fancy sushi restaurant.
- Senso-Ji Temple - Make sure to check out the restaurant supply district nearby.
- Kagetsudo Bakery - Amazing sweet buns filled with any flavor ice cream you can imagine.
- Amami Sushi - We stayed near here, so we gave it a try and it was so amazing we went back for more!
- Tempura - A neighborhood tempura joint run by a husband and wife…delicious, but expensive.
- Izakaya - Delicious neighborhood izakaya, near one of the places we stayed.
Kyoto (Organized by Day-Outing Areas)
You do not need to rent a car in Kyoto. Rent bikes or take the bus. The bus offers a full-day pass that you can pay for when you get off the bus instead of paying for your one-way and it is worth it if you plan on taking the bus 3 times or more.
Be sure to make a reservation for at least one kaiseki style Japanese dinner. It is a multi-course, seasonally inspired dinner that is very special. This fine-dining meal is just as much art as it is food.
- Get there before 7 if you want to have the place to yourself and make sure to wander around. Soak in the beauty of the mountain and the river. Visit:
- Arabica Kyoto Arashiyama for fancy coffee.
- Arashiyama Yoshimura for soba.
- Shoraian for kaiseki style food in the forest.
- Kitcho Arashiyama Honten if you’re looking for three Michelin stars.
- Kinkaku-Ji (gold) Temple - Make sure to start here because it gets very busy. Get the sesame (or matcha) ice cream outside the temple. My matcha ice cream recipe here.
- Ryoan-Ji Temple and Rock Garden - A gorgous tranquil place to visit, I could have sat and looked at this rock garden for hours. Take a rest here, and just enjoy.
- Daitoku-Ji Temple - Known for its beautiful gardens.
- Kyoto Botanical Gardens - Japan has cherry blossoms and maple trees that bloom at different times of the year, so it's not just a Spring activity.
- Neiro Shokudo - Amazing traditional Japanese food. Doesn’t appear to be a fancy place, but delicious.
- Misoka-An - Soba & udon, and their inari is delicious.
- Demachi Futaba - Best mochi we had in all of Japan, my recommendation is the mame-mochi.
- Hosen -Most wonderful tea house ever, you must go there!
- Man Getsu - For a sweet treat, get the Ajarimochi.
- Sugai - Incredible tofu. The staff don’t speak any English, so come prepared to eat what they give you (you’ll have to ask for 2 tofu or something like that) or to ask for what you want in Japanese.
- Demachiza - A movie theatre, very cool.
- Eisei-yu - An awesome public bath house.
This will be a heavy walking day!
- Ginkakuji Temple - Start at this temple and work your way down the Philosopher's Path which is ~2km long and check out the different temples all the way to Nanzenji.
Some amazing temples to visit:
- Yasaka Shrine & Pagoda
- Kodai -Ji Temple
- Kiyomizu-dera Temple
- Nanzen-Ji Temple
- Honen-In Temple - If you're all templed out, this may be a good one to skip. However, it's usually quite empty, so that alone is enjoyable.
- Omen - for great soba (in all the guidebooks).
There is a geisha sighting usually around 5:45pm. I got some great ceramics at one of the small shops and checked out the Yayoi Kusama collection at the Contemporary Art Museum.
- Kikuume - Has very nice handmade ceramics by Japanese ceramicists. Got some tea cups here.
- Yakitori Tarokichi - In all the guide books, but we didn’t go here
- Uzuraya - Best yakitori we had the whole trip, make a reservation if you want to try it!
- Fushimi Inari Shrine - Try to get there early. Very early. It gets packed, and although the famous orange archways are great to see, it isn't as fun when you're surrounded by thousands of people. The farther you go into the archways, the less people there are.
- Kawai Kanjiro’s House - Beautiful Japanese home of potter Kanjiro Kawai.
- Sake Museum (Gekkeikan Okura), Ginjo Shubo Aburacho, OR do a sake tasting at Tsukiinokatsura Sake Brewery.
Kyoto Imperial Palace:
- Nishiki Food market - For gifts and Japanese bites.
- Aritsugu - The nicest knife and cookware shop, really amazing, and it’s in the Nishiki market.
- Cafe Marble - One of the best cafes in Kyoto.
- Café Bibliotic Hello! and The Bakery - This is in all the guide books, but so worth it for some chicken curry and baked goods.
- Naito Shoten - Hemp-palm products you will fall in love with.
- Ippodo Tea - Where I buy my hojicha & sencha and it’s much cheaper if you buy it while you are in Japan.
- Nijo Castle- Historic castle with incredible grounds and gardens.
- Kinimata - Great restaurant, reservation usually required.
Tons of shopping, take the time to walk around and enjoy. Great for afternoons if you’re killing time before dinner in or around Gion.
- Lisn - Incense to die for.
- Miho Museum - It’s out of the way, but it’s an amazing museum showcasing ancient art and antiques.
- Kyoto Manga Museum - We didn’t go here, but we hear it’s pretty cool. A must-see if you’re into comic books and graphic novels.
- Kyoto Station - Lunch here is a great option. There are many places to choose from and tons of shopping in the basement levels.
A Little bit of Japan in the USA
It’s not every day we can enjoy a trip to Japan, so in case you wanted to know, my favorite Japanese restaurant for soba and udon is Otafuku in Gardena, CA and my favorite place for sushi is Saburos in Portland, OR.