My wife and I went to Japan in September 2019 to celebrate our 10 year anniversary. We spent 10 days there and it was a trip of a lifetime. Japan can feel like an alternate universe if you are visiting from the US. While many Japanese speak English, they are hesitant to practice it since it will not be perfect. This kind of attitude embodies something I noticed in Japan…something I have almost certainly insensitively labeled ‘samurai culture’. Whatever Japanese people do, they do well. Like shockingly well. You think the best whiskey comes from Scotland. Try again. The best pizza comes from Italy? You haven’t been to Seirinkan in Tokyo. And you have heard of wagyu beef, right?
Shopping, normcore fashion, hipness, history, culture, landscapes. Off the charts. And the counterforces of uniformity, collectiveness, and an aging populace can all be seen as well — the pachinko parlors are the most depressing (and loud) casinos I’ve ever been in.
Some of the the fun oddities were the abundance and tiny size of what feels like a bar or restaurant per capita. I seriously can’t understand how economics works in Japan. How are there so many sushi spots that seat 4 people, or sake bars stacked 6 levels up in what look like office buildings. There are so many nooks and crannies, everywhere you go feels like at least as deep as the Big Apple. Amazing food in the train stations, baked goods I enjoyed as much as Parisian patisseries, and vending machines with Walmart-wide variety (though there is no Diet Coke anywhere — you can find a Coke Zero in McDonald’s if you’re desperate).
As Bill Murray said, “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.”
Here’s our personal guides to Japan:
- Japan is expensive but there is no need to tip.
- You’ll want to carry yen but it’s straightforward to get cash at ATMs and despite warnings from others we had no trouble using credit cards in most places.
- The Green Japan Rail passes were worth it. The cars were not crowded and comfortable. It’s best to get them in the mail in advance.
- We rented Ninja wi-fi hotspots and picked up/dropped off at the airport. The experience is simple and the hotspot worked well almost everywhere although a bit patchy on the shinkansen.
- You can use luggage forwarding services from hotel to hotel even in different cities. Bellhops will organize the transport of your luggage on the trains. Very handy if you want to explore on travel days and have your luggage be at your hotel when you arrive.
Friday night to Monday morning: Tokyo. We lucked out and overlapped with one of the great sumo tourneys held each year in Tokyo. Highly recommend sumo, Shibuya, the fish market, Harajuku, and just getting your 20k steps a day all over this expansive city.
Monday: Shinkansen train to Hiroshima where we caught a Carps baseball game then caught the ferry to spend the night on Miyajima Island
Tuesday: Toured the island and the ropeway before heading back to Hiroshima to visit the Peace Museum. Shinkansen to Kyoto at night. We used a guide named Naoko. Reach out if you want her info.
Wed: Shinkansen from Kyoto to Kobe to explore the city. On the way back to Kyoto in the evening made a pit stop in Osaka with a good friend. Hashigo is the Japanese word for basically bar-hopping. We bounced around Osaka, hitting bars and food stops before finding ourselves buying rounds of highballs for a wide array of partygoers. After an expensive cab ride at 2am we found ourselves back at our hotel in Kyoto
Thursday to Sunday: Exploring Kyoto. We used a great guide named Toby who has lived in Kyoto his whole life, speaks great English, and is very well educated. He was an amazing guide to take us through the shrines and explain the history. If you are going to Kyoto you will want to see my separate post here.
Our friends’ guides who helped us plan the trip:
Hi! This is the info I have from my Japan trip. I went in 2015 so some of it might be dated but I thought the best travel site for any info on Japan (esp the Kyoto and surrounding areas) was this:
It looks like since then the guy has done other cities as well (Tokyo).
This was also a good reference for trip planning: https://www.japan-guide.com/
And for traveling around this was great too:
But Google maps has really gotten better in the past 5 years (I’ve noticed it’s accuracy more when I use it for international travel trips). Might want to download hyperdia as a cross-check/back up though.
Here are some general comments though from memory:
- SKIP OSAKA. It’s super close to Kyoto too, but not worth a detour. Just do Kyoto, Kobe, and Miyajima.
- There is so much to see within and right outside Kyoto, like Nara and Fushimi Inari. Kyoto is charming and more authentic and quaint and quiet vs Tokyo.
- Kobe is an easy day trip. Definitely go for authentic Kobe beef. You can do a lunch there and head back to Kyoto, or stay and check out this beautiful park at the top. All around Japan there are these great parks you need to take cable cars up to. and this is one of them in Kobe (but not a must do): https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g14127419-d1656566-Reviews-Kobe_Nunobiki_Herb_Gardens-Chuo_Kobe_Hyogo_Prefecture_Kinki.html
- Loved Miyajima. Huge oysters there but don’t make a mistake of waiting to eat there at end of day! Everything closed early evening and we missed out! We ended up getting oysters in Hiroshima before taking the train back to Kyoto. I was very sad. We saw huge ones everywhere for sale at the various food stalls in town. So first thing you should do is eat lunch there, then see the famous shrine at the beach, then go up via cable car to the top of the mountain for a hike. The island is small, you can see it in a day as long as you start early. Not much to see in Hiroshima unless you really want to see the memorial stuff. we just passed thru on the way to Miyajima and back.
- Love Hakune! we stayed at a nice hotel there. The area is more prone to quakes tho, FYI. So you’ll prob feel tremors here and there while staying there but nothing to be alarmed about
- There is an outlet near Hakune. Do not go, total waste of time. We only went because we needed to pass thru to catch a bus, so unless you need to do the same, don’t make an effort
- Mt Fuji is hard to see, it’s mostly cloudy at the top so don’t be disappointed if you dont see it. We did see it eventually but most of the time from what I hear it’s not easy to see entirely naked without clouds. Lake Kawaguchiko is nice if you have time to go around there (you can see Mt Fuji from there) but not a must do
- The Japan Rail pass works w the airport bullet trains so def get it!
Japan Travel Recommendations
- we used DK Eyewitness Travel guide for Japan and found it useful. It’s higher level, but covers all you the items you can do probably anyway.
- Japanese observe the more traditional meal times, meaning lunch is served from like 11:30AM to 3PM, sometimes more limited and dinner usually starts at 5:30 to like 6 PM. In between it is sometimes difficult to find a good place to eat. However, Japan also offers a lot of tea/coffee houses, which serve their traditional sweets. So all day breakfast or lunch, no no.
- Don’t eat at restaurants, where you see only white people ;-).
Language: It is sometimes difficult to communicate, but they will always make a great effort to get you what you need. A lot of people have voice translation apps on their phone. We ate at restaurants, where nobody really understood English and still found our way around, other customers will help you too.
Train – https://www.jrpass.comOrder your train voucher online and exchange it for the actual pass once in Japan. The pass doesn’t allow you to travel on the fastest train though (fastest means less stops). It’s very convenient and saves you money. Recommend the green pass. It’s a little more comfortable and less crowded during rush hour. It is recommended to make seat reservation head of time if you need to travel during rush hours. Otherwise, just go to the train station to get your seat reservation. Everything is well organized and people stand in line before boarding. Be at the tracks a little ahead of time, the train doesn’t stop for long and sometimes trains come one after one. We once jumped into the wrong train, since it was there already, but 1 min ahead of our scheduled train. It was the fastest train that is not part of the pass. We didn’t have to pay anything, and just got off at the next train station to change to our train.Btw/ the train schedule on google is not reliable, better to use JR’s website or ask concierge.
Luggage ForwardingWhen you travel between cities/hotels, you can take advantage of luggage forwarding, if you want to do day tours on your own and don’t want to log along all your luggage. You just need to plan ahead a bit, since they require you to give them the luggage at least one day before your preferred luggage arrival time. The hotel concierge can help you with this. When they say your luggage will arrive by certain date/time, it will be there, most likely ahead of time. Costs vary depending on the destination but are usually about $15-$30 per luggage. We found this very convenient and used a few time.
Pocket WifiSome people recommend to get a pocket Wifi, so that you get unlimited data in Japan and use the pocket Wifi to connect your phones. We have T-Mobile and an international data plan and never had issues. In the trains they also provide free Wifi. Within the city and to find general direction it is good to have a data plan to make use of Google’s direction. Howard, for example, use a pocket Wifi and was very surprised about the speed and also the convenience to receive and to send it back to the company.
Kabuki TheatreIf you are interested in seeing a traditional Japanese Kabuki theatre, check with your concierge for tickets. The good theatre companies are easily booked out.
Ryokan (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ryokan_(inn))We recommend that you try out the traditional Japanese Inn. I probably wouldn’t stay in a Ryokan the whole trip, but two nights its worth it. We stayed at two different one, for one we gave a recommendation below, which was in Arima Onsen, its close to Kobe.
Hotel Hotel Chinzanso TokyoIt’s a little away from the hustle and bustle, but still close to subway and easy to get around. The hotel (former Four Season) has its own huge garden (one could probably say little park) and pagoda. Has a couple good restaurants.
Wiki: “For over six centuries, the land surrounding Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo has been home to wild camellias. It was featured in a wood block print by the ukiyoe artist Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858). The current name of the garden “Chinzanso” was given by Yamagata Aritomo (1838-1922), an influential member of a group of elderly statesmen known as the Genrō in the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taishō (1912–26) eras. In 1918, reflecting the will of Yamagata, the property was assigned to Baron Fujita Heitaro. Though the garden was destroyed during World War II, reconstruction began in 1948 under the direction of Ogawa Eiichi, the founder of the company now known as Fujita Kankō, whose vision of “building a green oasis in Tokyo” included the transportation of more than 10,000 trees.On November 11, 1952, a grand opening ceremony for the new Chinzanso garden and reception center took place. On January 1, 2013, after 20 years of operation as a Four Seasons, the hotel was integrated with Chinzanso reception center and renamed “Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo.”
We were there for cherry blossom so we visited Ueno park. Senso-ji temple and Ginza are staples. Meiji Shrine is the most important Shinto shrine in Tokyo.
Imperial PalaceNaturally one of the must-sees in Tokyo. Get the audio guide on your phone, they have an app, which can also be used at different sites
Kabuki theatre – https://www.kabukiweb.net/theatres/kabukiza/information/index.htmlIf you are interested in this type of art, highly recommend. We watched a small section. We just finished our city tour and decided to see if they have some availability, so we got a cheap standing tickets. We think that’s enough to get an idea.
Tokyo Cruise Asakusa PierNice tour on the Sumida river and gives somewhat a good overview. At the finish point, we visited the Hama-rikyu gardens.
Tsukiji Fish Market
Formerly the largest fish market in the world. However, the tuna auction has moved to a new location and can only be observed from the second floor through glasses. We didn’t go. If that is the interest, it could still worth a trip.
We didn’t visit that many restaurants in Tokyo, however, it has a lot of Micheline star rated places, so that makes it easier, the difficult part is to get reservations, since it’s a competitive sport to get a dinner place at good restaurants. Throughout Japan you have also simpler places, even at train stations, which are really good for our standards. Most ramen places have a vending machine, which has the name or picture of each dish. you order and pay there, walk in, give people the ticket, sit down and they deliver the food to you. We are huge noodle/ramen fans. Tried many different ramen places/brands at different cities with a little research online. We were not disappointed. What surprised us is that Japanese eat ramen with rice! That was interesting to us but we can totally understand considering the importance of rice in Japanese diet.
Zoroku Sushi Hiroo, 4 – 2 – 48 Minamiazabu, Minato-ku Tokyo, 03-6721-7255 (+81-3-6721-7255) , Chef Name : Okajima.
SF’s Hashiri Sushi’s restaurant manager, Ken Matsuura, made a reservation for us at this sushi place. Chef Okajima is the brother of the sushi Chef Tokunori at Hashiri. Its only a sushi bar, reservation required. Its in a nicer residential neighborhood. Easy to access via subway. Sushi was excellent, lots of fishes we never or rarely see here. He uses mainly seasonal fishes. We had to ask him to stop “feeding” us, we couldn’t eat anymore. His female assistant sushi chef speaks(very rare to see a woman in this male dominated industry) English, so that helped. But there is really no need to talk much, since there is not really a menu, you just sit down and decide what sake to drink. We recommend not to go just with one bottle, but with different craft recommended by them, this way you can taste different ones throughout the evening. They have a good selection.
Hashiri Ebisu/Daikanyama, 2F Digital Gate Building, 3 – 5 – 7 Ebisuminami, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, 03-5724-3770 (+81-3-5724-3770), Chef Name : Kokubo & NoharaHashiri has also a Tokyo restaurant, the original, but we had to cancel our reservation there, bec/ our plans changed. Should be pretty good.
Here are a couple more recommendation from Ken Matsuura
Kuroiwa – Kaiseki Ebisu (Tokyo)
Ju Ju – Yakiniku – Nishiazabu (Tokyo)
Imafuku – Sukiyaki Hiroo (Tokyo)Kokoro Mai – Rice Kaiseki – Hiroo (Tokyo)Nihonshu Stand Moto in Shinjuku Great spot for rare and exciting sake and tsumami.Tsunahachi – Tempura restaurant – Shinjuku (Tokyo)Suzu Sushi restaurant – Tameike sannou (Tokyo)Sushi Ono – Sushi – Ebisu (Tokyo)Toritama Shirokane – YakitoriMoe Roppongi – YakitoriChugoku Hanten – Roppongi Great Chinese restaurant for shanghai crab Doteno Iseya – Tempura donburi – Yoshiwara (Tokyo)Isen – Tonkatsu – Akihabara (Tokyo)
A day tour or overnight stay at Fuji Mt is recommended. In town you can stay at a traditional Ryokan, but reservations are really advised. We changed our plans last minute to catch cherry blossom at other parts of the country, so we canceled our reservation there. We had plans for Shuhoukaku Kogetsu (https://www.kogetu.com), since one can sit in the hot tub, look over the lake and see the mountain at the other side. Mid-week reservations are more available.
A charming mountain town west of Tokyo. Well preserved Edo period streets and houses, escaped the WWII bombing. Famous for its matsuri festival and Hida wagyu beef. (Hida-gyu is raised for 14 months, almost twice as long as wagyu beef). The wagyu beef is more reasonably priced compared with other major cities and absolutely delicious. Try it with mountain vegetable dishes and local sakes. Also highly recommend the freshly hand cut soba noodles with raw mountain yam puree. It is not common and we certainly have not found it anywhere here.
KanazawaThe birth place of samurai culture. Have a well preserved geisha district, since it escaped WWII bombing. Nagamachi Samurai Quareter retains its earthenwalled streets. Nomura house is one of the most beautiful and best preserved samurai houses. Higashi Pleasure District is full of atmosphere with old-fashioned street lamps and wooden windows.
Kenroku-en garden, another one of the “famous three” gardens.
It is also famous for gold leaves production. It supplies more than 98% of Japan’s needs.
Hakuichi Higashiyama – gold leaf store/ice cream in the Higashi Pleasure District
The ice cream here is covered with a large sheet of gold leaf. Super decadent. Gold leaf souvenirs sold here are very beautiful, you can also buy eatable gold leaf items, like coffee or tea with tine gold leaves.
Also recommend a sweet shop in that area. Some of the shops are hundreds of years old. Great traditional macha tea with a sweet.
The area is also famous for pottery making. Truly beautiful.
Many things to see and do. Can easily spend a week here.
Kinkaku-ji – the famous golden pavilion
Famous for its rock garden. A composition of white gravels and 15 stones is considered to be the ultimate expression of zen Buddhism. Only 14 of the 15 stones can be seen from any angle.
Higashiyama and Kiyomizu-dera Temple https://www.kiyomizudera.or.jp/en/A charming and unspoiled district with stone paved roads and lanes. Kiyomizu is a UNESCO World Heritage site and famous for its wood only construction, the entire temple is built on wooden legs on a hill. Traditionally they don’t use nails or screws, but I guess now they do.
Known for its ornate interiors and so called nightingale floors.
The longest wooden structure in the world. Its name derives from the 33 spaces between the building’s pillars.Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine Senbontorii – https://matcha-jp.com/en/284Impressive shrine with thousands of red torri gates. Its worth to walk all the way up the hill, the first part is full of tourist and further up it gets quieter and still pretty impressive. The round walk is about 1.5 to 2hr
Bamboo walk – very beautiful.
Gion DistrictFormer entertainment district and now has tons of restaurants.
Recommend to try it. It does not take long but a great experience. Kyoto is where the tea ceremony was developed.
Kamishichiken Kabuki https://traditionalkyoto.com/traditional-areas/kamishichiken/Kamishichiken, pronounced locally as Kamihichiken, is a district of northwest Kyoto, Japan. It is the oldest hanamachi in Kyoto, and is located just east of the Kitano Tenman-gū Shrine. The name Kamishichiken literally means “Seven Upper Houses.” It is the most authentic way to experience it. There are restaurants that provide geisha performance with dinner. But those are more commercial and designed for tourists.
The best place to try and shop for food items. We tried and found many interesting and delicious snacks and food items. We bought a variety of dehydrated vegetable and fruit crisps, including cherry tomato (our favorite, perfect texture-crisp but not too dry, with great flavor of tomato still!), shitake mushrooms, bitter melon, red chili pepper, lemon, pineapple, etc. We also tried a fermented black soy bean tea that is supposed to be good for detox and digestion. Never heard about it before. Like it a lot and even brought some home. The quality and variety here are much better than those in Osaka we feel.
RestaurantsKobe Beef Steak Mouriya Gion – https://www.mouriya.co.jp/gionWe didn’t had much luck with getting into any really good restaurants, this one was ok, but one can do probably better. Reservations ahead required. Our hotel had real trouble to make reservations for us.Blowfish restaurant Guenpin – https://www.tettiri.com/multilingual/en/The restaurant is right at the entrance of the Gion district. Very reasonable priced, but reservation required.
Kara-Kusa Curry (curry dishes)We went there for lunch, since it was close to our hotel. They only offer a couple different curry dishes. Was really good!
Nara – close to Oaska 1.5 hr by train
Nara is also known as the city of peace. We did a day tour to Nara and visited the Nara Park, which had free roaming/wild deer’s, which are “messengers of gods”. The park also more than 3000 lantern at the Kasuga Shrine, very unique and picturesque. Most famous temple is probably the Todai-ji Temple – world heritage site.
Arima – A cute Spa/Onsen Town near Kobe 20min inland by train.
Tocen Goshoboh (Ryokan) – http://goshoboh.com/A night or two is enough to relax in this old spa town. The Inn is one of the oldest in Japan. Excellent food and spa option.
The Osaka castle deserves a visit. Also Dotonburi. It is full of shops and eateries.
Heimeji castle Considered to be the most beautiful castle in Japan by many. We definitely agree.
OkayamaOkayama Castle & Korakuen Garden – https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e5701.htmlFine example of Japanese Garden with some rare birds. One of “famous three” gardens of Japan.
Has a charming Bikan historial area.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial – http://hpmmuseum.jp/?lang=engVery good, pretty moving actually bec. of all the personal stories.
Visit Itsukushima Shrine and the Floating Torii. A UNESCO World Heritage site. Recommend to be there to see both high tide and low tide. You can climb the mountain in between.
Restaurant Oyster Ship Kanawa – https://www.kanawa.co.jp/All about oysters, very good.
Hi – below is a pretty comprehensive list. Some of the best restaurant and food experiences are not very kid friendly but you can always try and of course, if you want you can do a date night. In bold are my top recs below.
These restaurants will all allow kids. Highly recommend Tofuya Ukai and Tanya
- Yoriniku – pricey yakiniku (korean BBQ) place (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g1066451-d4664135-Reviews-Yoroniku-Minato_Tokyo_Tokyo_Prefecture_Kanto.html)
- Maishin or Kotaro for Izakaya
- Tanya Matabe in Roppongi – beef tongue place, can’t even describe it its such a unique experience and something I did growing up..if you do this I can direct the concierge to order for you in advance
- Kushiyaki Joumon in Roppongi – https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1307/A130701/13050949/
- Sushi Masuda – this was the best sushi place we went to and in Minami-Aoyama which is great area…good for lunch or dinner
- Tofuya Ukai near the Tokyo Tower – you can do TT and then have lunch and ask for the Matsu course (plenty)
- Bird Court for yakitori http://birdcourt.jp/
- L’efferevesence was an amazing French restaurant – we did lunch there, its in Omotsando which is a super hip and fun area to shop and hang out
- Savoy is pizza as good as Italy (people say best in the world for real) – in Azabu Jyuban
- Il Brio in Roppongi Hills – Italian and really amazing and unique
- Tsuta – https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/dec/01/tiny-tokyo-noodle-shop-becomes-first-to-get-michelin-star
These places may not be as kid friendly – but you can try. MUST DO Sushi Kanesaka AND Tempura Ginya. If you don’t do Sushi Kanesaka, do Sushi Masuda above.
- Sushi Kanesaka in Ginza or Sushi Taku in Nishi Azabu – amazing
- Tempura Ginya in Shiroganedai – amazing. Go and do the omakase.
- Sushi Ko – In ginza where masa trained
- Sukiyabashi – Jiro’s place
- Rakutei for Tempura – michelen star http://callmeafoodlover.com/2013/03/19/michelin-starred-tempura-at-raku-tei/
Lunch (from above listSushi Masuda and Tofu Ukai we have done for lunch as well). Recommend Zauo as pretty fun/unique, Okonomiyaki and a ramen experience anywhere. Also great are ANY bakery in Tokyo – they are all over and best breads of all kinds.
- Zauo is this place you fish for fish and then they prep the fish for you to eat – fun for lunch maybe? http://www.zauo.com/en/
- http://www.sakuratei.co.jp/wp3/ in Omotesando for okonomiyaki
- http://www.gonpachi.jp/nishiazabu/?lang=en Gonpachi Kill Bill
- Ichiran ramen – http://www.ichiran.co.jp/english/
- Tsuta ramen (only Micheline Star ramen place in the world)
- Imakatsu (chix katsu): https://www.tripadvisor.es/Restaurant_Review-g1066451-d3752656-Reviews-Imakatsu-Minato_Tokyo_Tokyo_Prefecture_Kanto.html
- Butagumi – tonkatsu in Roppongi
- Kushiyaki Joumon in Roppongi – https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1307/A130701/13050949/
- Sarashina Soba in azabu jyuban – https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1307/A130702/13001226/
- Mitsuta in Tsukiji
Bars: Highly recommend a Magic Bar, The Whisky Library Bar (and surrounding are) and also the bar in the Ritz Roppongi or Park Hyatt (further out) for views)
Magic Bar Ginza Jyuniji – https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1301/A130103/13028147/[tabelog.com] we actually take the older kids there, they love it
Bar High Five in Ginza – cool innovative cocktails
The Whisky Library Bar
Jus de Peche in Roppongi for elegant drinks in a relaxed setting. (Eoyang)
to do: MUST DO Harajuku w Meiji shrine
Super fun to do Oedo Onsen with the kids
Daikanyama is great for boutique shopping, cafes, restaurants
Harajuku – a must for kids – great people watching and there is a squishy store called Mushi which kids our age were totally into. You can do that and Meiji shrine as they are next to each other and then walk around Omotesando for shopping
Cup Noodle Museum/Yokohama
Thomas Land for Tai
http://tokyo-joypolis.com/ indoor amusement park for K
Tokyo Edo Museum
Kyoto: In Kyoto, I really liked Wakuden**, although it’s also fun to just go eat at one of the amazing izakaya on Nijo-doori. Check out the Hakuhodo honten (make up brushes, not the ad agency!).
Omen noodles for lunch
Nanzen-Ji – this is the one that does the tea ceremony tea (abridged and just mostly serving you the tea)
Ryoan-Ji – famous zen garden
Ginkaku-ji – beautiful views and temple
IF you have time Kinkaku-ji (golden temple)
Nijo-Jo – samurai castle
And a side trip to Nara just to see Todai-Ji and the big buddha – spectacular
Shopping street (leading up to Kiyomizu dera and also the other famous one)
Maps and more…
These Google maps were very helpful when we were in Japan. They divide attractions by category (“ramen”, “bars”, etc). They correspond to many of the recommendations in the above guides.
The places we went on our anniversary trip (Map)
TF’s amazing guide to Tokyo (Map)
The map we compiled based on everyone’s recs when we planned the trip (Map)
A 37-page guide to Japan incl maps, attractions, and specific instructions (pdf)
Our own experience in Kyoto (Link)