Let me start by saying that this is not a definitive guide to Japan, or of the cities I visited there. It is not a guide to secret, off-the-beaten-path, locals only spots, or anything you probably can’t find in another blog post or pinterest page. Obviously this is true of pretty much every travel post I write, but for some reason people seem *really* obsessed with finding the “hidden” Japan in so many travel articles I read, the restaurants that would never deign to have an English menu or the shops whose doors have never been darkened by tourists, so I’m just going to make it clear that this is not that. This is just the places Steve and I went that we really enjoyed, because I have a bunch of friends planning trips to Japan who asked me for recommendations. So here they are. I’ve split the posts up because they’re super long, so today’s post focuses on Tokyo. Check back for my recommendations for Hakone, Osaka, Nara, Kobe, and Kyoto! I’ve bolded my best recommendations for easy reading. And I’m already daydreaming about another trip someday, so please do tell me your favourite things that I missed!
We spent our first few days in Tokyo after arriving on an overnight flight from Melbourne on Thursday morning. Despite only getting a few hours of frequently-interrupted sleep, we kept going all day Thursday exploring some of the most famous sites of the city. The biggest surprise for me was how laid back it was. I was expecting relentless hustle and bustle, jam-packed with people racing everywhere, but people actually took their time, relaxed, and the vibe was fairly chill. We usually got seats on the public transit, and even the famous Shibuya crossing wasn’t complete madness.
Where we stayed:
The first two nights, we stayed at Senju Tamuraya, a small hostel with Japanese-style futon beds (at first we were wary of the hard, beanbag-like pillows, but they were so good for my neck and shoulders I’m trying to source one for myself). It was nothing fancy, but the location was great (about 10 minutes walk to the train and then half an hour to Shinjuku) and the place was clean and quiet. The second two nights we headed into the heart of the city for two nights at Hikari House. At this hostel in Koreatown, we stayed in dorms because we weren’t sure when we booked if Steve would be coming back to Tokyo after the Ireland-Japan rugby match in Shizuoka or staying there for the night. I slept fine because most of the beds in my dorm were empty, but Steve’s was full of drunk Welsh lads the night of the Wales-Australia match, so he wasn’t too happy.
Bonus: When we returned to Tokyo the night before we flew home, we stayed at Narita Airport at Nine Hours, a capsule hotel. You can find this chain all around Japan but we chose this location as our capsule hotel experience because we had an early-ish flight so it was convenient. I was surprised how comfortable and spacious the sleeping pods are! You can adjust the light in your personal pod and there’s even an option for ambient music to drown out any potential snorers. There were also plenty of showers and secure lockers for your luggage and belongings. Everything you need is provided: toothbrush, toiletries, slippers, towels, even a bathrobe. While I probably wouldn’t make capsules my primary accommodation choice, I’d definitely stay in one again, especially if it added to the convenience of my itinerary as it did here.
What we did:
What didn’t we do? Tokyo is so big and full of sights that we were constantly on the go. On our first day, we explored Shinjuku and Shibuya, ducking down laneways and marveling at the height of the skyscrapers and the amount of lights and billboards everywhere. It was an early night due to the lack of sleep and jetlag (even though it’s only an hour time difference from Melbourne), but we started to get a sense of the city.
On day two, we spent the morning at Senso-ji in Asakusa. I recommend visiting this famous temple twice: once early, before the crowds, and once in the evening to see it illuminated for the night. Then we went to the west side of the city to go to the Ghibli Museum. If you want to visit this fun and whimsical exhibition of Studio Ghibli’s work, you have to book tickets in advance. In the evening, it was back to Shibuya for dinner and watching a bit of rugby at an Irish pub (of course). We also took a trip to the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building to watch the sunset. It’s not the highest building in the city, but it’s free to go up, and the views are incredible, so we didn’t feel any need to pay to go up the Tokyo Tower.
Day three saw Steve heading off on the bullet train down to Shizuoka while I stayed in Tokyo for some more exploring. After lunch (see below), I walked through Yoyogi Park to see the Meiji Shrine, then spent a while wandering around Harajuku. When I got bored of looking in shops, I took the train into the suburbs to visit Gotokuji Temple, famous for being the origin of the paw-raised lucky cat. It was a very cat-filled day as afterwards I visited a cat cafe where I was delighted to find not only an array of fluffy babies, but also the rugby match on tv. I followed this up with more sports at Footnik in Ebisu, joining expats and locals alike to watch Liverpool take on Sheffield United (and win, of course).
Steve got back late Saturday night, and on Sunday we finished up our time in Tokyo with a few more adventures. We started at the Tsukiji fish market. While we weren’t interested in arriving at 6am for the famous tuna auction, it was still a bustling spot to watch vendors cooking and serving fresh fish from open stalls. After that we walked up through the main street of Ginza, which was cleared of cars and turned into a pedestrian promenade (I’m not sure if this is a regular thing or not, but I enjoyed it). We also went to Kappibashi kitchen street and Akihabara Electrical Town, then returned to Akasuka once more to see Senso-ji at night. Then it was back to the hostel for a good night’s sleep before we headed off in the morning on an early train to Hakone.
What we ate:
Honestly, the main reason I went to Japan was to eat, and could you really blame me? We got off to a good start with T’s Tantan, a vegan ramen shop in Tokyo station. I had the white sesame ramen and it was delicious. A food highlight on the second day was Shirohige Cream Puff Factory, out by the Ghibli museum. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend going out of your way for a visit, if you’re going to the museum these adorable Totoro-shaped cream puffs are the perfect accompanying snack. We also took the first of many trips to 7-Eleven for breakfast. I had no idea that 7-Eleven started in Japan! The food there was surprisingly so fresh and so good. I’m a little bit addicted to onigiri (rice balls stuffed with fish, meat, or other items) now.
Steve and I love kaiten-zushi (conveyer belt sushi), where you take what you want from the belt and your bill is added up at the end based on the plates you chose, so we went several times over the course of our trip but I think my favourite spot was Numazuko. It was the first of many times we had to queue for a meal (Japanese people love queuing for meals!) but it was definitely worth the wait. The other meal I queued for in Tokyo was Nakajima. This Michelin-starred restaurant’s dinner menu costs upwards of $150, but their lunch menu starts at just 800 yen (about 10 bucks). After arriving at 11:10am for the 11:30 opening, I was seated shortly before noon and placed my order for sardines (everything on the lunch menu is a sardine-based dish) deep fried and simmered in a broth of onions and eggs, served with rice, miso soup, and pickled vegetables. It was delicious and a great way to try a high-end restaurant at an absurdly low cost.
What we bought:
We did most of our souvenir shopping in Tokyo. There are several massive department stores… although department store doesn’t quite describe just how much stuff these shops offer. In Don Quijote I picked up a few Japanese skincare items, including a sunscreen that I am now obsessed with and wishing I’d bought more of (the Shiseido Anessa Perfect UV Sunscreen Milk) and a SPF lip balm, also from Shiseido. On Kappibashi, the famous “Kitchen Street” where chefs from around Tokyo and the world buy their supplies, I made my splurge purchase of the trip for a chef’s knife that I plan to guard fiercely to keep it sharp and bright. Finally, I went to the Itoya annex for some lovely Japanese stationery. Steve mostly bought rugby gear at the Official Fan Superstore. In the airport before we left Japan, I also picked up as many different types of Kitkat as I could find (although I admittedly avoided grape and banana and unfortunately couldn’t find sweet potato).
We flew with Japan Airlines and I would highly recommend them! Probably the best food I’ve ever had on an airplane, and they have a lot of options for special meals if you have dietary restrictions. Also lots of snacks throughout the flight and a good selection of movie options (I watched four on the way home).
We purchased a 7-day JR Pass for our 11-day trip to Japan and didn’t activate it until the day we left Tokyo. This meant we used it for Tokyo-Odawara(going to Hakone)-Odawara-Osaka-Nara-Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto-Tokyo-Narita(Airport), as well as on some JR local lines around Osaka and Kyoto. For us, doing it this way and just paying for our trains in Tokyo made the most sense, but you have to decide what’s right for your itinerary. Hyperdia will help you with timetables and costs (and it’s usually easiest to show this directly to the JR office staff if you need help or to make seat reservations), and Japan Guide has a useful calculator for helping to decide whether a JR pass is worth it vs individual tickets.
Although we didn’t use our JR Passes in Tokyo, we did pick up SUICA cards, a rechargable card you can use to pay for trains, subways, and buses. The handy thing about it is that even though different regions have their own cards (ICOCA, Pasmo, etc.) they’re all interchangable so you can keep using the same one wherever you go.
I found that the biggest etiquette thing to remember is that in Japan it’s considered quite rude to eat while walking. Even if you buy food at a street counter, you’re meant to just stand next to the counter while you eat it. For someone who frequently eats on the go, this was a big change for me. Luckily, many places including the 7-Elevens and other convenience stores, have seating areas to eat what you’ve purchased there.
Come back tomorrow for more recommendations, and don’t forget to please share your own!