In April 2019, Isaiah and I took the trip of a LIFETIME to Japan. I’ve so many people ask me for recommendations, so I’m going to touch on some of our favorite things that we did and saw – and of course, share some film photos I took along the way. By no means am I a travel blogger or an expert, but we had a ton of fun and we learned so much! This is going to be a long post – there’s so much to share!
Before we begin, a few notes just about traveling in Japan overall:
- In Tokyo, you will travel everywhere by train (or taxi when necessary). The trains are clean, quiet, always on time, and stations are located everywhere. You’ll be constantly walking to/from stations and wherever you are going, so just be prepared for a lot of walking each day. Train and by foot is how most people get around.
- This trip was my first time ever being overseas. I’ve traveled out of the country to Mexico before, but living in Texas, Mexico doesn’t feel very foreign. Japan was extremely foreign to me, but it was still very easy to travel in as an English speaker. Train signs will often be in English, or at least have English letters so you can type it into google maps and find your way around. Most restaurant workers will be able to ask if you’d like an English menu. Some restaurants will just use a vending machine with photos of the food options, so you can just select what you’d like and give your receipt to the cook with zero effort to overcome a language barrier. We never expected people to speak English, but it was always a relief when they did, even if just a little bit.
- Speaking of Google maps, if you ever go to Japan, it will be your lifesaver. It will give you walking directions to get to the nearest train station, or once you exit the station to your destination. It will tell you which train line to get on, which platform to go to, and how many stops to ride as well. It’s very detailed. This made it SO easy to get around Tokyo.
- In Kyoto, you’ll use a mixture of trains, buses, and walking. We found Google maps to be more difficult to use in Kyoto as the location of the bus stop on the map wasn’t always accurate, and overall we found the bus system less intuitive to use. We got around ok, but sometimes we couldn’t find our bus, would miss it, and then we’d be stuck waiting around for anywhere from 5-25 minutes for the next one. There’s not really a better option, but just be aware!
- When you arrive in Japan, you need to get either a PASMO or a SUICA card. They are both reloadable cards that you’ll swipe whenever you enter and exit a train station. I couldn’t really tell you the difference between the two. We used PASMO because it was the first place we found to buy a train card. We loaded each of our cards with 10,000 YEN (~$100 USD) initially and it was almost the perfect amount for 10 days of traveling around. I think I ended the trip with 800 YEN left on mine?
- We used the bullet train (the shinkansen) to get from Tokyo to Kyoto and back. It’s the fastest and the cheapest option. Just to provide a frame of reference, it would take 9 hours to drive a car between the two cities. On the bullet train, the trip took 2 hours and 40 minutes. You’ll need to purchase a JR Rail Pass to use the shinkansen, and the price is determined by the length of time you need the pass for.
- Japan is still a very cash based society, so you’ll need Japanese yen. Skip the money exchange counters and just get Japanese yen from a normal ATM – it’s a better deal, considering you’re getting the exact exchange rate plus maybe a $2 fee. Most convenience stores in Japan have a ATM, so you only need to get a little cash at a time.
- Japan is a little different than America when recommending places to go to. America’s society is very focused on brands and creating unique customer experiences, so if I was recommending places for you to visit in Dallas, I’d name specific restaurants and locations. In Japan, it’s less specific. It’s more about trying different types of places or foods, rather than specific locations. There’s a few exceptions to this, but that’s the overall gist.
Ok – moving on to where we went and what we did.
We started off our trip staying in the Shibuya ward of Tokyo. There was a lot to do and see near our hotel! Our first full day in Tokyo, it rained. And it was cold. So obviously, we did a little sight seeing, but not as much as we would have liked. We took a quick trip to the Uniqlo in Shibuya for a rain jacket for me. Then we decided to try some different coffee places that were on Isaiah’s must-do list. Coffee is perfect for rainy days, right? We went to a place called Coffee Supreme, where I got a delightful mocha and a donut. The cafe itself was pretty tiny, as are most places in Tokyo. Tokyo has more of a grab-and-go culture when it comes to coffee, so cafe spaces aren’t the focus of the shop. We also went to Bear Pond Espresso, which is semi-famous after being featured in A Film About Coffee.
After Bear Pond, we explored a convenience store and got a pork bun – which is basically a delicious dumpling stuffed with pork. I think they were $1? Ridiculously cheap and so good. Convenience stores in Japan are amazing and have a wide range of fresh food to choose from – and it’s good food.
After grabbing a snack, we headed to the historic Asakusa (pronounce uh-SAH-kuh-SAH). There’s a beautiful temple there called Senso-Ji which we walked around. It was pretty crowded despite the weather.
After this, I started googling things to do in Tokyo on a rainy day, as the majority of our plans involved outdoor sightseeing. I found out the Shizu-Kokoro – Chado School in Asakusa that does tea ceremony workshops. Attending a tea ceremony is a popular (and amazing) thing to do when visiting Japan, but I liked that this was a workshop – so it would be educational but also interactive. Attending this workshop was probably one of the highlights of the whole trip and I highly recommend going here if you can make it. The workshop was very intimate. We attended with two other women – a lady from India who was also traveling, and a local woman. The local woman said she had done many tea ceremonies as a child and wanted to remember how to do them. We sat on tatami mat floors and the instructor explained (in English) the different parts of the ceremony to us. It was incredible to learn about how everything, down to the utensils chosen by the host to use, has meaning. Even while we were learning about this intricate, revered tradition, the attitude of the instructor and the overall atmosphere was very approachable. We were able to ask questions, she encouraged us to relax, and we got to make tea for each other and serve it. It was ok if we didn’t get it exactly right.
After the workshop, we went back to the hotel to relax. We were still fighting jet lag and we had done a ton of walking that day already, so we napped. We woke up, we were hungry, and decided to order pizza from the restaurant downstairs. Big mistake – Japanese pizza is not very good. 🙂 The toppings were strange – lots of fish options. I was basic and got a margherita pizza, but it still didn’t taste the way I expected. We had so much good food in Japan, but I do not recommend the pizza.
The next day was sunny and warmer. We went to Chidorigafuchi Park, which was listed as one of the best spots to view cherry blossoms. Sakura was pretty much over by the time we made it to Japan – the best time to see it would have been a few weeks earlier, but I was surprised at how thick the blossoms still were in this park. It was beautiful! We were close to the Imperial Palace, so we walked there, enjoyed the beautiful grounds, got to learn about the Emperor and his wife, and read some of their poetry. I got a Peach Coke from a vending machine – it was amazing. I’m heartbroken we don’t have them in America.
Later, we took the train to a part of Tokyo called Roppongi Hills and ate some ramen at a place in the station. It was delicious, but not very filling and I was still hungry so we found a sushi place called Kinka Sushi and it was AMAZING. This was probably my personal favorite sushi in all of Japan. This is actually difficult for me to admit, but I wasn’t a huge fan of Japanese sushi. Understandably, they are purists when it comes to sushi. So at most places, sushi is just the fish served on the rice. Nigiri is much more popular. I’m personally a fan of the tricked out sushi rolls with the sauces and everything, so I just eventually came to the conclusion that I prefer Americanized sushi. It is what it is! Then we went to Mori Tower and enjoyed the Observation deck. Their sky deck was closed because it was so windy, but the views were incredible.
Friday morning we woke up and got our stuff together to check out because we were headed to Kyoto! Japanese breakfast consists mostly of fish, eggs, rice, bread, cereal, and some sort of vegetable stew. Not at all what we were accustomed to eating for breakfast. And to be honest, America does breakfast way better. (Side note: It was extremely freeing to let myself not like everything. I just didn’t put that pressure on myself, and I felt like it helped me enjoy the good things we ate even more). So we found an American restaurant called Blu Jam Cafe and – our server spoke fluent English!!! And was from Austin!!! Experiencing a language barrier for the first time in Japan was strange. It exhausted me more than I thought it would. Each interaction you have with someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you takes so much more energy – body language, pointing to photos, slowly trying to pronounce words, etc. So meeting another Texan in Japan was such a relief because it was a tiny break from having to work so hard to communicate. Then we headed to Kyoto on the shinkansen. We checked into our hotel in Kyoto, and left quickly to start exploring. We went to an old temple called Nijo which was hosting a event that night where they lit up the cherry blossoms on the grounds after dark. It was absolutely *magical*. One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. For dinner, we went to a yakitori place that was so good. “Yaki” essentially means “cooked” in Japanese. “Tori” means chicken, so it was a restaurant that had all these different ways of cooking chicken, and it was served to us kabob style. Anything “yaki” in Japan is pretty delicious – takoyaki, yakitori, yakisoba, etc.
The following day, we woke up in Kyoto and went to a place called Smart Coffee for breakfast. I had coffee and hot cakes, which are like pancakes, but much thicker. It was fantastic – the best breakfast we had second to Blu Jam. Our first stop was to head to the golden temple, Kinkaku-Ji. It was so pretty! And crowded. Pro tip: Go early in the morning for any major tourist attractions you want to see in Japan, because you’ll beat the huge bus tour groups). Then we went to Nishiki market and spent our afternoon there eating and shopping. We also found boba tea and crepes. We went to a tea specialty shop and sampled a bunch of teas and bought some. We went back to the hotel to rest after that. I took a bath and drank some of the chai that we bought.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest was beautiful. But GO EARLY. Earlier than you think you need to go. Once you pass through the forest, take a right and pay to walk around the Okochi Sanso Garden. It was crazy because the bamboo forest was so crowded, but then this stunning garden was almost deserted. I think we saw maybe two other people as we walked around. It was so peaceful and beautiful and had some gorgeous overlooks. There’s also a cafe at the end of the path where you can sit and drink matcha. This little garden is a hidden gem for sure!
We also went to Fushimi-Inari, the famous orange arches. This area was so much bigger than I realized. These orange arches go up the mountain for miles and you can hike all the way up if you wish, but we didn’t go all the way up. Again, go early. It gets super crowded quickly. I feel like this is such an iconic landmark, it was definitely worth the trip.
We went to Walden Woods after this. Really cool coffee shop.
Our last day in Kyoto, we decided to stay at a ryokan. A ryokan is traditional Japanese bed and breakfast, and they are highly recommended. We chose to stay at fairly western-style hotels for the majority of our trip because I figured we would already be experiencing some culture shock just traveling around, and I wanted to make sure we were comfortable. But we did the ryokan for one night for the experience! The one we stayed at was pretty pricey and although we had a good experience, I’m not sure I would pay that much to stay at one again. But it was cool to spend the night on a traditional cot on a tatami mat floor, have a private onsen in our room, and have a traditional Japanese dinner.
We went back to Tokyo for 2 more days at the end of our trip because I was putting together a bridal editorial photoshoot (which I hope to share soon!). Most of the time on the tail end was focused on that, but we went to the Robot Restaurant this time around – and let me tell you, it exceeded expectations. You have to reserve days ahead of when you want to go, and it is expensive. And the food is average. But really, you’re going for the show, not the food, so maybe eat something before you go. This is DEFINITELY a tourist thing to do – almost everyone attending the show with us looked like a tourist. But we were fine with that. It was a whole experience. It’s silly, it’s weird, it’s exaggerated, and we loved it. Ok, I think that covers most of where we went and what we did! Real quick, where we stayed:
Tokyo Part 1: The Shibuya Granbell Hotel. The service here was wonderful and the location was great. However, the room was MUCH smaller than I expected, didn’t really look like what I thought it would based on the website, and the bed wasn’t the most comfortable. I’m not sure I would stay here again, it was just “ok” – but again, the service was wonderful. Something you can do in Japan (why is this not a thing everywhere) is pay $20 to have your luggage transferred to your next accommodation. Isaiah and I had a huge suitcase we were sharing, so we got it transferred to Kyoto and we didn’t have to worry about lugging it through the station or when we walked to our hotel in Kyoto. It was AMAZING.
Kyoto: Solaria Nishitetsu Hotel Kyoto. We looooved this hotel. The room was nice (although it had two twin beds that we had to push together for…you know….marital reasons. 🙂 I guess its common for Japanese couples to not sleep in the same bed?), beds were comfy, service was fantastic, location was good. It also had an onsen which is a public bath. Yep – you get nakey in front of everyone! There are separate male and female facilities, but other than that, it’s allllllll out there. Definitely a vulnerable and “yolo” experience but the water was wonderful. Felt like a spa!
Tokyo Part 2: The Keio Plaza Hotel in the Shinjuku ward. This hotel was the nicest we stayed at for the whole trip. It’s a huuuuge hotel, like a whole skyscraper. We had a gorgeous western-style room on the 35th floor, and there were floor to ceiling windows along one whole side where you could look out and see Tokyo. They also served American breakfast here which was great. The service was phenomenal. This hotel was $$$$ but we were able to stay there for two nights totally on points we had racked up from everything else we had booked (flights, hotels, etc).
And that’s, basically our trip!! We feel so lucky to have had this once in a lifetime experience. If you ever get the chance to go to Japan, GO. Go forth – eat all the ramen, soba noodles, sushi, takoyaki and mochi you can!
DO-try’s in Japan: bidets, ramen, soba noodles, takyoyaki, mochi, matcha, luggage transfers, reasonably priced ryokans, 100 yen stores, random Japanese candy in convenience stores, pork buns, convenience store sushi, vending machines.
Skip: animal cafes, expensive ryokans, Japanese breakfast, Hoshino Coffee (not friendly to English speakers), Shibimata neighborhood, pizza.