Where to go
- Most folks I know who travel to Japan go for at least a week. I think Japan is most interesting at the extremes, so I recommend spending most of your time in a big city and a few days in a totally rural environment.
- Start in Tokyo. It’s so big that I would actually recommend staying in two different places within Tokyo if you are there for more than a week, just to experience more of it. Shibuya is a really great place to stay, especially if it’s your first time, it’s probably the neighborhood closest to what you’re thinking when you’re picturing Tokyo. Rapponigi Chuo, and Shinjuku are also popular places to stay. Most important is just being close to a metro station (the Yamanote line in particular if you can).
- Naoshima is the most amazing art experience I’ve ever had. It’s a small island in southern Japan that has a bunch of museums and insallations. Tadao Ando designed many of the spaces on the island, Yayoi Kusama’s Yellow Pumpkin is there, and James Turrell and Walter de Maria both created multiple pieces specifically for Naoshima. It can mostly be seen in a day or two, so despite being 6 hours from Tokyo by train it’s worthy of a 2 day trip (you can stay on the island).
- On the western coast, I loved Kanazawa, Shirakawa-go, and Takayama. It was a beautiful place to experience fall; Kanazawa is home to one of Japan’s most famous gardens and Shirakawa-go and Takayama are both in the mountains so the colors were just incredible. Shirakawa-go is a traditional village filled with old farmhouses that you can stay in, highly recommended.
- Kyoto is good if you’re really into old stuff (temples, museums, etc). I found it kind of boring and spread out in comparison to Tokyo.
- Next on my list: Osaka and Hokkaido.
- Here’s my map of my favorite places in Tokyo.
- Definitely eat: sushi (duh), ramen (try something weirder than regular old Tonkatsu), udon (with tempura), soba, onigiri (seaweed-wrapped riceballs with a filling), tonkatsu-don (go to Butagumi), karaage (fried chicken), beef, curry, pizza (see this), spaghetti (see this), pastries/baked goods (try melon-pan).
- Convenience stores are much higher quality than in the US, their prepared foods are pretty good, especially oinigiri.
- Go drinking in Golden Gai. It’s really fun although pretty touristy. I love The Albatross.
- Harajuku is probably the best place in world to shop. If you’re really wanting to shop you should probably budget 2 days for Harajuku alone. Ginza is the other main neighborhood people recommend for shopping but I think there’s much less uniquely Japan stuff there then in Harajuku, save for Dover Street Market which I do recommend. Daikanyama is also great, and is near an awesome bookstore Tsutaya Books.
- Go to the electronics stores and arcades in Akhibara. It’s wild to see the diversity in electronics; so many products that exist in Japan only. The arcade culture is really out of this world, particularly in the evening.
- Yukari’s cooking class in Shibuya is a really good Airbnb Experience™ if you like to cook. Yukari used to lived in SF so there’s a lot to talk about.
- Have a Lost in Translation experience at the Park Hyatt. You can go to brunch at Girandole but I recommend going to the New York Bar at night. It is not cheap ($100 for cover + a round of drinks for two) but the view is incredible (plus you can smoke in there).
- Take a day trip somewhere outside the city. Hannah and I had a really nice time staying at a ryoken + onsen (Japanese traditional inn) in Hakone (1.5hrs away). A lot of people have fun going to Kamakura (where the big buddha is).
- I haven’t gotten to it yet but I’ve heard Womb, Oath, and Azumaya are good places to listen to electronic music.
- Watch this 20m documentary from the 80’s on KFC entering the Japanese market, it’s a good lens on ways Japan is different from the West.
- Nobody eats or drinks while walking around or waiting for a train, always at a place dedicated for eating.
- There are almost no trash cans anywhere, everyone just carries their trash around with them and throws it away at home. Convenience stores sometimes have trash cans that you can use.
- Don’t tip anyone anywhere, they will find it very rude.
- Outside of a service context I haven’t found people to be particularly friendly. I think this is a combination of an insular culture and low English proficiency.
- This won’t affect you directly but if you’re curious about Japanese working culture I really enjoyed this blog post.
- Google Maps is essential for navigating (it’s much much better than Apple Maps in Japan). The subway and walking directions/estimations are particularly useful and accurate.
- Japan still primarily runs on cash. Convenience stores usually have ATMs, I particularly recommend 7-11 because of the satisfying way it dispenses your cash (it feels like opening a loot box in a game).
- Tabelog is the Yelp equivalent in Japan, similar in most ways except the rating scale: 3.5 is good, 3.75 is great, and almost nothing is above a 4 (including Michelin-starred restaurants). The ratings are much more accurate than Google Maps/Trip Advisor, especially for Japanese street food (which you should be eating a lot of!). It’s in Japanese only, so my general flow is to look for places on Google Maps first and then cross-checked them in Tabelog.
- If you’re traveling to multiple places within Japan, it’s probably a good idea to get a JR rail pass, which allow for unlimited use of Japan Rail train lines for 7/14 days. You should buy them in advance of your trip (e.g. here), it’s cheaper than buying it once you’re there. If you’re mostly staying within Tokyo, it probably doesn’t make $$$ sense. Here’s a useful calculator if you’re on the fence.
- Within Tokyo, there are two train systems layered on top of each other: JR and Tokyo Metro. You’ll probably end up using both to get around. You can get a reusable Tokyo Metro ticket (Pasmo) at any train station; you’ll probably use 500¥ of credit per day you’re in Tokyo (unless you’re only using JR lines).
- Having mobile data in a necessity for getting around, I strongly recommend getting unlimited data. Getting a Japanese SIM is usually cheaper than buying international data and you can get one from the airport I’ve found hotel wifi quality to be pretty spotty and so often end up using data. I’ve heard Docomo is best network but I bet they are all pretty similar.
- Hauling luggage around Tokyo is a huge pain, especially through the metro. Cabs are usually pretty expensive but worth it in this case; I take usually take the train to a major station and then just cab it from there. You can also store your luggage at both airports and most major train stations which is really useful.