Growing up with Japanese culture (Any Doraemon, Sailor Moon, Hayao Miyazaki, Naruto, Bleach, or Utada Hikaru fans out there?) had put Japan at the top of my list of countries to visit. When an opportunity came up to spend a few days in Japan, I jumped at it. The schedule we landed on was 1 day in Kyoto, and 3 days in Tokyo. I included both the actual itinerary as well as my fantasy picks for the next trip in this post, so you can pick and choose for your own trip. For fellow aesthetes, photos are included to help you make your decisions.
Things to Note
- Cash: bring lots of yen with you. Many of the smaller spots in Japan only take cash (especially shrines).
- Language: For such a developed country, many Japanese don’t know much English. When you’re bumbling around asking them for something, it helps to know some general phrases like `sumimasen` (excuse me) and `arigatou` (thank you).
Kyoto, 1 day
Kyoto was the previous capital of Japan, and as a result much of Japan's history is captured there in its shrines and temples. Every step there was beautiful, and in retrospect I wish we had spent at least another day there.
- Nishiki Market
- Fushimi Inari
- Ginkaku-ji Temple
- Kaiseki cuisine
- Arashiyama Monkey Park
This iconic shrine was awe-inducing and a wonder to walk around. If you’ve watched Memoirs of a Geisha, this is the place where many iconic scenes were filmed. Fushimi Inari is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the Torii gates that serve as pathways through the giant space make it feel otherworldly. Torii gates symbolize the gateway between the physical world and the spiritual world. Here it was funny to see all the carvings of companies that had sponsored Torii gates around Fushimi Inari.
We hiked up some paths to get a better view of the space, since Fushimi Inari sits at the base of Inari mountain and there are many paths up to smaller shrines (a short hike is also all you need to escape from the throngs of tourists down at the bottom). Along the way, there was a stand selling fox prayer cards. Since it was the beginning of the year, we bought one and hung it up for good luck.
By the afternoon, we were realizing the absurdness of trying to fit an ambitious itinerary for Kyoto all into one day. The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove was on my “must-see” list though, so we made our way over to the west end of Kyoto from Fushimi Inari. This spot was much more serene - we meandered our way through the small streets, stopping at various shops along the way (I got my second matcha green tea soft serve, no shame).
Entering the bamboo grove was a humbling experience. The wind whistled through the trees, and when you look upwards to the sky, you can see the two sides of the grove touching. Most people walked through it in silence, marveling at the gentle sway of the grove.
We had to try some Japanese street food. We went to Nishiki Market in the morning and there were also a ton of food stands for me to try on the road leading up to Fushimi Inari. At one point I was simultaneously holding a green tea ice cream cone, chicken skewers, and a red bean pastry (spoiler alert: everything was delicious but I probably shouldn’t have combined them like that).
Tokyo, 3 Days
- Switch Coffee
- Shibuya Crossing
- Takeshita Street in Harajuku
- Cat & Owl cafe
- Meiji Jingu
- Robot Restaurant
- Golden Gai in Shinjuku
- Turret Coffee near Tsukiji
- Tsukiji Market
- Samurai Museum
- Shimizuyu Onsen
- About Life Coffee in Shibuya
- Shibuya 109
- Mandarake in Shibuya
- Zoetrope in Golden Gai
- More ramen!
On our first night in, we decided to try out a restaurant in the Tokyo Westin. The top floor had a teppanyaki restaurant called Yebisu, and as die-hard fans of Benihana, we decided we had to try it as soon as we saw the description. On the menu was a “kobe wagyu beef,” and it was the most decadent (since when do we use the word decadent to describe meat?? NOW) steak I’ve ever eaten in my life. The fat absorbs all the flavor, and the meat literally melts in your mouth. Needless to say we ate that a couple more times throughout our stay in Tokyo.
Day 1 of Tokyo adventuring was a resounding success. My idea of a great day is wandering around until I fall over from exhaustion, so of course I woke up at 8am full of energy and ready to explore the city. A tradition I take during every trip is to go to a local coffeeshop. It gives me a sense of the culture and is a welcome departure from the regular touristy spots that are inevitably mingled into my itinerary. In Tokyo I found Switch Coffee, an unassuming spot in Meguro-ku. The owner roasts the beans in the back, and lets customers taste different beans before they buy them.
From there, we went into the heart of Tokyo. As soon as we emerged from the Shibuya subway, we got lost in the throngs of people walking through the busiest intersection in the world - Shibuya Crossing. It’s a bit of a letdown to actually walk it (spoiler alert: it feels just like crossing the street), but I had the chance to later read at the Starbucks across from it and get lost in the rhythmic flow of foot traffic.
Harajuku was my favorite neighborhood in Tokyo. We wandered down Takeshita street and bought delicious crepes to eat along the way. I also found an owl / cat cafe, so of course we had to step in and pet all the animals. I was deeply wounded when the cats didn’t really want to hang out with me. In recent years, the amount of avant-garde fashion you could run into in Harajuku has lessoned due to the rise of affordable basics retailers like Uniqlo and Muji, but we were still able to get some inspiration from the people we saw walking around.
An idyllic glen in the midst of Shibuya, we went here for a respite from the crowds. Upon walking through the entrance of the park, you’re greeted with giant trees that shade you on your walk up to the temple. We passed through many giant torii gates, and at each one I imagined myself entering a different time destination.
The liveliest nightlife spot in Tokyo. We made our way over to Golden Gai, a tiny 6-street neighborhood that houses over 200 bars. Each bar only holds 3-4 people, and the architecture is left over from the 1920s. We found a spot that had a couple of Australians, and shared some whiskey. Some of the bars charge a cover, so be prepared for that as you’re walking around checking them out. I also wanted to experience something uniquely Japanese, so we went to the Robot show. It was ridiculous.
I was on a mission to eat as much raw fish as possible on this trip, so on day 2 I made my pilgrimage over to the Tsukiji Fish Market. The maze of stands next to the market itself sell everything you need to stuff yourself with fish. I had the most amazing scallops and salmon sashimi, and left with some dried squid for the way home.
If you’re near Tsukiji Market and want some good coffee, I found a spot called Turrett Coffee (don’t fall for the Starbucks on the same block!) that served a mean latte. In Shibuya, I found a spot that still sticks with me to this day called About Life Coffee. In Japan real estate is at a premium, and this coffeeshop was literally a window in the corner of a building where you ordered your coffee, and you could sit on the benches outside to sip on it. Now in Denver I keep seeing small storefronts and thinking that it’d be great to run a coffeeshop out of a storefront and put some benches outside.
One of my goals in Japan was to try one of their famed hot springs. Onsen are a common staple of Japanese culture, playing core roles in many Japanese movies and tv shows. I found one called Shimizuyu, which had an outdoor black bath and a new gold bath. It’s pretty different from a traditional American shower, so I enjoyed the experience of living in another culture. You have to be prepared because it’s a public bath, so don’t make any awkward eye contact. If you go to Shimizuyu, be aware that the attendants only speak Japanese. Here's a step-by-step process to a successful first time in the onsen:
- Enter and put your shoes in a locker
- Go into the foyer and purchase a ticket at the vending machine. You can buy a towel (I did) as well as shampoo/body wash along with the entrance fee.
- Bring your receipt to the attendant and he/she will grab you everything you need.
- Enter the locker rooms, undress and put your items into a locker, then enter the shower.
- I had some trouble figuring out how to use a Japanese shower, but the gist is that you grab a bucket and a stool, sit in front of one of the showers and wash yourself. If you want to get an overall rinse, fill the bucket and pour the water over yourself.
Japan was an eye-opening trip in many ways. An advanced society, Japan has many of the same day-to-day activities as America, but they manifest in completely different ways. Food can be ordered through vending machines, 7-Eleven sells great fish ball soup, and breakfast food has a completely different meaning in Japan. A week of immersion was the best way to experience all it had to offer. I can't wait until my next trip back.
This is the start of my venture into sharing more tips from all the travels I take, so let me know if you have any questions or topics you’d like me to cover. I’m also coming up with an easier way to share itineraries with you, so tell me if there’s a format you want them in (I do most of my planning in Google Spreadsheets and download Google Maps areas for when I’m in the location).