WARNING: long post ahead…
When I told my co-workers I was going to Japan for a week, many of them told me the people are so friendly and helpful, the food is amazing, you’re not going to want to come back. And, they were so right! After what was a relatively short trip, Japan made a huge impression on me and seriously had me contemplating on how I could live there! In retrospect, I really should have bought one of those I heart (Japan, Tokyo or Kyoto) t-shirts. Because I truly did heart my entire experience.
things to know
Speaking English in Japan
You will find that most people don’t speak a lot or any English. But, that doesn’t mean they won’t try to help you. Most will understand simple phrases like where’s ‘Shibuya’ station or if you show them a location, they will go out of their way to assist you as much as they can. But, to show your appreciation, I suggest learning a few key phrases:
‘Arigato gozaimasu’: thank you
‘Sumimasen’: excuse me
‘Sayonara’ – good bye
No trash cans
In Tokyo and Kyoto, the cities were immaculate and we found ourselves thinking – how is this possible when they are no trash cans anywhere? Well, it seems local customs deem it rude to eat on the go and therefore they don’t encourage it by not having trash bins readily available. Well, there you go.
Shoes on, Shoes off
While wearing sneakers was the most sensible thing for all of the walking we did, wearing sandals would have been so much easier as it’s custom to take off your shoes when entering homes, tea houses, many religious sites and historical castles. It’s important to note, you should have socks handy – going barefoot can be found insulting.
If you’re not used to navigating subways, the train system in Tokyo might thoroughly confuse you. There’s the Metro system, the JR lines, and several privately own rail lines and there’s not one app that combines them all. I used the Tokyo Subway app, which provided schedules for the Metro lines, but it also showed the other lines so once you got used to the overall system you could look at the map and see what other lines you could transfer to.
Tip: At the airport, purchase a Suica pass and personalize it (personalization is free). This will allow you to get on any of the train lines without worrying if you have the correct ticket, etc. And it’s super easy to recharge when you’re out of money. It even worked when we went to Kyoto.
Don’t do it. Really, it’s not required or expected. If you try to do it, it may insult and confuse your waiter. Just sit back and enjoy the friendly service.
Good luck trying to find a building. To help me plan for this trip, I used a combination of Evernote, Odigo (a travel site/app tailored for Japan) and Google Maps (essential to find anything in Japan, there are very few street signs and it’s very difficult to actually find places, but it makes for some fun exploring.).
where we stayed / how we got there
Booked a place on AirBnb and stayed in Shibuya (our place was super close the station and overall really central). Caught a ridiculously early flight on Monday (1:45 am, yes you read that correctly!) from Shanghai to Tokyo (Haneda Airport) and the last flight on Friday (10:30 pm). You don’t really have to fly in that early, but if you’re like me and only have Monday to Friday to see as much of Tokyo and Kyoto as you can it’s a good plan.
what we did / where we ate
Day 1 – Tokyo (Shibuya, Roppongi, Shinjuku)
- Got situated and then headed to the Roppongi neighborhood to eat at Bubby’s. For my New Yorkers, it’s the same Bubby’s that’s by the HighLine and in Tribeca and just as awesome. I know this is an American place, but interestingly enough Japanese love pancakes so embrace that and eat all the pancakes you want and still feel like you’re participating in the local culture.
- To stave off the “itis”. Headed to Harajuku to do a little shopping, walking and people watching. There are a ton of cute boutiques, eateries and cafes in this area. I’d suggest skipping Kawaii Monster Cafe(it’s the epitome of a tourist trap). While here, you can also stop by Yoyogi Park to check out the Meiji Shrine or to just chill out.
- If you’re staying in Shibuya, you can then take a nice stroll down Cat Alley back to your neighborhood and be sure to take in the Shibuya Crossing.
- After a quick rest and nap, we traveled to Ginza to check out the Dover Street Market boutique and while there found ourselves hungry. After a quick google search and taking a couple of wrong turns, we were soon participating in the local custom of queueing to get two of the eight coveted seats at
- Finished the night in Golden Gai, a lively area set in the back alleys of Shinkjuku, at a bar that sat only 6 people, listening to hip hop and sipping on some Japanese whiskey. Today was a good day…
Day 2 – Tokyo (Shibuya, Roppongi, Chiyoda)
- We headed back to Roppongi Hills to fuel up at Eggcellent.
- Took a bike tour. I booked the “Tokyo Bay Ride” full day tour through Tokyo Great Cycling Tour. Unfortunately, due to the typhoon we were only able to do half of the tour, but it was still fun and I think a great way to see the city and learn a bit of history while you’re doing it.
- Ventured to Tokyo Station to buy our train tickets to Kyoto and to search for the infamously difficult to find special edition KitKats. The convenience store is called Shokoku Gotochi and its acoss from the Tokyo Ramen Street which is inside of Tokyo Station.
- Ate some beef. I actually don’t eat red meat, but my boyfriend really wanted to try Japanese Wagyu or Kobe beef as it’s claimed to be the best in the world. At the recommendation of our tour guide, we found ourselves at Imahan, a restuarant established in 1895 that specializes in sukiyaki and shabu shabu. It was an authentic experience, replete with waitresses dressed in kimonos and the bill to match. Note: This is NOT a place to visit if you’re traveling on budget.
Day 3 – Kyoto
- Got out of town. Caught the 6:00 am Nozomi train to Kyoto. Arrived around 8:00 am, stopped by the Information Center and then hit the streets. Note: At the info center, we purchased a full-day bus pass to get around to all of the sites on our list, but truth be told after the first two locations, we didn’t set foot on another bus. From then on out we used a combination of the train (using our Suica pass) and our two feet. Renting a bike would have also been a great option.
- Took Bus 101 from Kyoto Station to Kinkaku-ji Temple, a.k.a the Golden Pavilion. (travel time ~30 minutes, entrance fee – $4 USD)
- Hopped back on Bus 101 heading south to go to Nijo Castle (travel time ~15 minutes, entrance fee – $6 USD)
- Walked from Nijo Castle to Honke Owariya (Honten), the oldest noodle shop in Kyoto to grab some lunch.
- Took a short stroll to Ippodo Tea, one of the best places to go tea shopping if you can’t speak Japanese.
- Sat along the banks of the river in Gion.
- Googled the wrong Camellia and ended up walking to a closed night club. Refocused and found our way to Camellia Tea Ceremony, where I had reserved two spots for us to participate in a traditional tea ceremony. (Cost – $20 USD / pp)
- Meandered through the beautiful streets of Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka to sample local goodies, drink coffee at Inoda Coffee, do a little souvenir shopping and to stop by the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the historic monuments of Ancient Kyoto. (entrance fee – free)
- Walked about 15 minutes to Kiyomizu-Gojo station to catch the Keihan Line to Fushimi Inari to see the thousands of tori gates at the Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine. The sun was setting so we didn’t climb too far up the mountain. (entrance fee – free)
- Finished the night with some red wine and a bite to eat at Katsukura at Kyoto Station before boarding the 9:30pm train back to Tokyo. Today was a really great day…
Day 4 – Tokyo (Shibuya, Shimokitazawa)
- Took it easy on day 4. Grabbed some pancakes and an acai bowl at Honolulu Coffee (yes, the same one I’ve talked about in my Hawaii posts).
- Headed west to Shimokitazawa, an off-the-beaten track neighborhood, that desperately reminded me of Brooklyn. It’s just a stop or two away from Shinjuku and Shibuya stations. Wandered the streets, found wonderful vintage shops, novelty toy stores, and a beaded jewelry store, Toodaloo, Kangarro, where I was able to get a bracelet made. Ate a pancake pie and supermarket sushi that was absolutely delicious and cheap!
- Bought some Kitkats, wine and snacks at Don Quijote, Donki for short, a discount chain store that sells just about everything.
- Partook in some okonomiyaki, which translates to what you like/want (okonomi) grilled (yaki). Some compare it to an omelette, pancake or pizza. It’s actually a lot more popular in Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima, but I didn’t have a chance to make it to Monja street to taste the Tokyo version, called monjayaki, so I resolved to test out okonomiyaki at a place that specialized in it. After some Googling, one place kept popping up – Suzume no Oyado. If you venture to this place, don’t be alarmed by the “by-the-hour” hotels and dodgy-looking alleys you pass. Just think of it as part of the experience.
- Drank and danced the night away at Harlem Nightclub.
- Ordered some food via a vending machine, ate a little and fell asleep.
Day 5 – Tokyo (Shibuya, Nakameguro)
- Did a final loop through Shibuya for last minute shopping.
- Cooled off with some kakigori (shaved ice with syrup) at Ice Monster. If you visit here, be prepared to queue if you want a seat or to stand in the downstairs area to eat your goodness. There’s no takeaway here.
- Gobbled down a turkey burger at Sun 2 Diner in the movie set of a neighborhood ~ Nakameguro. I can’t get turkey in China so I made sure I didn’t miss this chance.
- Hopped on the train and headed to the airport, where to my surprise I found all the special edition kitkats my wallet could stand…my personal favorite ~ wa-ichigo (it’s made with Tochiotome strawberries, yum!)