Japan might be my favorite place in Asia, possibly in the world. I spent a month there and have every intention of going back. If I have the time, I will just stop over any time I travel to Asia. I've always loved Japanese culture and for years wanted to travel there. For such a small country, there is a lot to see including bustling cities, trending fashion, ancient culture, serene parks, Buddhist temples, cascading mountains, and amazing countryside. Japan even has tropical islands. The people are the nicest, most considerate people I have met. The best part about Japan is that when you visit, you will be completely culture shocked. The writing is strange, not everyone speaks English (although the younger generation does), and in places like Tokyo,
it's tough to find your way. But, it's super safe and people will help you out. If you stick with it, you'll be amazed at how fun it is just to wander around. And of course the sushi and ramen noodles are second to none. There is a common misconception that Japan is expensive. I think it used to be, but I don't think it is the same now. Tokyo,
like any popular major city is a bit pricey, but certainly cheaper than major cities in Western Europe. If you're not traveling to Japan for this reason alone, do some research and you'll find it's not bad. You can stay in guesthouses in the heart of Tokyo
for less than $50/night and unless you eat sushi every meal, ramen noodles and other types of Japanese food are quite inexpensive.
Suggest Staying: 1-4 weeks
Transport: Plane, metro, train, bus, taxi
Highlights: City, technology, gardens, parks, shrines, temples, shopping, culture, anime, manga
Suggest Staying: 7-10 days
Tokyo is crazy and amazing. It’s kind of like New York City, but much more friendly and even more strange, at least to a westerner. The sheer diversity makes Tokyo a wonder in itself. You can see huge skyscrapers within a few minutes walk of ancient gardens and Buddhist temples. There are vending machines everywhere that sell all kinds of stuff. Shopping abound, you can find anything from upscale stores to outdoors stores to vintage second hand clothing. The food is great, definitely the best sushi in the world. It’s also very easy for solo travelers to go out to eat because there are many people that eat alone, but you can also easily strike up conversations. Many people in Japan seem to be very quiet and keep to themselves for the most part. I ended up having several conversations with people at various restaurants because they are genuinely interested in other people, especially English speaking foreigners. My favorite areas were Shinjuku, Harajuku, Roppongi, and Tsukiji.
Areas & Neighborhoods
- Shinjuku. Central area in Tokyo with everything including shops, restaurants, electronics, and famous (or infamous) nightlife. Staying here makes it really easy to get around with the accessibly of several different metro lines. One of the best areas in Tokyo.
- Tsukiji Fish Market. Famous for the 700+ pound tuna auctions, tons of fresh fish brought in and auctioned off to sushi and seafood restaurants all over Tokyo (and probably all over Japan). This place is awesome. You can see the actual fish market and then wander around to see the merchant market to buy food making products. Then sit down for the freshest sushi in Japan for breakfast and tea. It’s a fun experience. You’ll likely wait outside for a bit and someone may bring you hot tea while you wait.
- Roppongi. Cutting edge art and design area. Also good for restaurants and nightlife. Good place to look for samurai swords. Awesome area to check out.
- Shibuya Crossing. Area like Times Crossing in New York City with large buildings, lights, and shops. Located in Shibuya.
- Harajuku. One of my favorite areas in Tokyo, you can find all kinds of crazy stuff around here. Takeshita Dori is the center and Omote-sando is a pedestrian shopping street that resembles the Champs Elysees. Check out the back streets where you can find amazing vintage and other cool clothing for cheap. It is also very likely you will see people dressed up in strange outfits. Just a cool and funky little area. Kind of hipster I guess, but not as typical.
- Akihabara. Electronics mecca, tea, bizzaro Tokyo, gadets, crafts, sex dolls, maid cafes.
- Asakusa. Traditional heart of Tokyo, temples, sumo wrestling, Tokyo Sky Tree (city views).
Temples & Shrines
- Meiji-jingu. Shinto shrine. Located near Harajuka.
- Senso-ji. Grandaddy Buddhist temple.
Museums & Galleries
- Ghibli Museum. Real life Alice In Wonderland. Hosts many exhibitions from the creators of animated films including Spirited Away and The Iron Giant. Located in Mitaka, easily accessible by public transportation. Just check their website for directions.
- Mori Art Museum. Really cool full room exhibit by Murakami Takashi: The 500 Arhats (at the time of writing anyway). Located in the Roppongi Hills.
- Tokyo Midtown. Cutting edge art and design. Hinokicho-koen, Midtown Garden, 12_21 Design Sight. Shops, awesome super market and food court.
- National Art Center. Architecture and exhibitions.
Parks & Gardens
- Ueno-koen. Old area with a park, temples, and a zoo. I recommend the zoo, it has many interesting animals you may not have seen before. Plus giant pandas and a polar bear.
- Hama Rikyu Gardens. Ancient hunting ground.
- Imperial Palace East Garden. Ruins of the Edo Castle.
- Kitanomaru-koen. Imperial palace, cherry blossoms, park, museums.
- Yoyogi-koen. Really nice park. Located in Harajuku.
More To See
- Shinjuku Robot. One of the craziest things you’ll see in Japan, dancers, robots, and bright lights. I didn’t go because at $80 + food, it’s kind of pricey. Friends that went said it was great.
- Tokyo Disneyland. Yep, Tokyo has everything. I didn’t go because I ran out of time.
- Tokyo Hands. Massive department store with pretty much everything you can think of and at reasonable prices. These exist all over Japan.
- Yodobashi Akiba. Massive electronics store with all kinds of stuff. If you need anything electronics related, or to find something you didn’t even know you needed, stop in. Good prices too. Located in Akihabara.
- Mandarake. Huge anime, manga, and action figures store. You can find everything in here, new and used. I saw old Transformers, for example, and other memorabilia in addition to the shelves of comics and movies.
Food & Drink
- Tsukijitamazushi. Best sushi in Tokyo. There is one in Tsukiji, but a little know secret is that there is a branch located in Shinjuku that is way less crowded and also more of a restaurant. Sushi is just as good. I went here twice. The staff is awesome too. It’s very tricky to find, located on the 13th floor of the Takashimaya times square mall by the train station. Depending on when you go, there might be a wait, but well worth it.
- Numazuko. If you’re up for some really good sushi served on a conveyor belt (made famous in Japan), check this place out next to the Rock Inn guitar store. Located in Shinjuku.
- Ichiran. Popular ramen place. Wait in line to order at a vending machine, then when seated you sit in a stall and wait for you food that comes from the other side of the wall. Cool place, good ramen, and if you’re still hungry you can just keep adding more noodles. Pretty inexpensive. Located in Shinjuku (and elsewhere).
- Ippudo. Amazing ramen. Down an alley past the Don Quixote next to a Chinese restaurant. You can get an English menu also. Located in Roppongi.
- Nabezo. Shabu-shabu and sukayaki. Pay by the hour and eat as much as you want. Cook thinly sliced beef and pork plus vegetables on a small grill at your table. Super fun and really tasty. Tricky to find, a popular locals place, it’s located in the Beam building with the guitar store and Mandrake anime store. Take the elevator. Located in Shibuya.
- Toriyoshi. Really good izakaya and yakitori (skewers) located in Ueno park’s basement food court.
- Shinjuku and Roppongi. Best nightlife areas in Tokyo. Below are just a couple places I visited, but there are tons.
- Golden Gai. Small area with several bars. Locals, expats, and travelers. Located in Shinjuku.
- Champion. Located in Golden Gai, Shinjuku.
- Bar Speak Easy. International bar. Located in Shinjuku.
- Tsukiji Fish Market. If you want to see the tuna auctions (700+ pound monsters), it starts at 5am. They let in a limited number of tourists. Some people wait in line starting at 3am. Best time to go is immediately after arriving in Tokyo the day of or day after because you can use your jetlag to your advantage where getting up this early won’t be a struggle (at least coming from the U.S.). Unfortunately at the end of the year around Christmas, when I was there, it’s closed to tourists because there is too much going on. Search online for the schedule and hours. Starting in 2016, the fish market is actually moving to an large indoor facility, so better go now if you want to see the old place.
- Ghibli Museum. It’s a bit tricky to get tickets to this place and they sell out quick. You can get tickets at most Lawson convenience stores. Just look for an ATM looking machine that sells tickets for all kinds of events. It’s all in Japanese so you can guess, bring a Japanese speaking friend, or try asking one of the clerks.
- Vintage/Second Hand Clothing. Harajuku, in particular Takeshita Dori are awesome for finding second hand and/or vintage style clothing that is super cool, unique, and affordable.
- Capsule Hotel. If you want a fun experience for a night, try a capsule hotel. I stayed at Green Plaza Shinjuku Capsule which was great. These are typically for businessmen who commute to the city but need to stay late and/or get up early for work. Capsule hotels are fitted with a restaurant, sauna, masseuses, reading room, smoking room, tv room, onsen (hot tub), locker room, and of course your capsule. I’m a slender 5’9″ and felt quite comfortable. They can get a bit hot if you leave the light on. You are given a locker where you can keep all your stuff securely plus they hold your luggage in the back until you check out. The “door” to the capsule is just a thin pull down bamboo cover. Bring ear plugs. When it comes to bathing, there are individual shower stations and also a large bath, all in public in which you must be fully naked. So if you’re shy, you will quickly get over any reservations you might have. In the bathrooms, you’ll find mostly squat toilets, but there are a few western style toilets if you look for them. If you stay multiple nights, you actually have to check out and check back in each night. Kind of a pain.
- Shinjuku Red Light District. Be mindful of your surroundings. I heard that some places are run by Yakuza and can be a bit dodgy. I’ve heard stories of tourists getting drugged, or girls will come over to you (not at your request) and you will be forced to pay for their time before you can leave. Roppongi can have a few shady areas too where girls will come up to asking if you want a “massage” and try to take you back with them. Generally Japan nightlife is pretty safe, but like any big city, there are always people to watch out for. So use common sense and go out with friends when you can.
Highlights: Shrines, temples, mountains, ryokan, markets
Suggest Staying: 3-5 days
Stay Around: Gion District
Kyoto has the perfect mix of ancient Japanese culture mixed in with modern culture. There are temples (tons of them), shrines (tons as well), nature, kimonos, weaponry, tea sets, tableware and traditional Japanese houses. Many of the temples are situated at the base or top of small mountains or hills, offering great views, nature, and sometimes short hiking trails. A beautiful city in itself, you can really get a feel for what old Japan used to be like, and if you need it, modern comforts are not far away. Kyoto is also a central home base for other places in the area to visit like Osaka, Nara, and Kobe to name a few, which are all an hour or less away.
See & Do
- Kiyomizu-Dera. Really cool temple/shrines including a large scale lady Buddha. Also nice views of Kyoto. Located in Higashiyama district. Kyomizu-zaka or Chawan-zaka streets. Kiyomizu-michi or Gojo-zaka bus stations. Must see.
- Fushimi Inari-Taisha (Rengeo-in). Amazing shrines bright orange that takes you through multiple paths up into the mountain. If you’ve seen pictures of Kyoto, chances are you’ve seen pictures of this place. Go early, it’s probably the most crowded site in Kyoto. Must see.
- Ginkakuji. Massive grounds with temples, halls, zen gardens, and pavilions.
- Nanzen-ji and Konchi-in. Large grounds and temples with some water running through.
- Nishiki Market. Famous Kyoto foods in the heart of the city. Located around Shinjo and Teramachi streets.
- Arashiyama. Scenic district with lots of cool nature and restaurants.
- Bamboo Groves. Must see. Located in Arashiyama.
- Toei Kyoto Studio Park. One of the coolest, most random finds, even for Japan. This old Japanese film studio has been converted into an amusement park of sorts. Half old movie lots and half activities. You can watch behind the scenes as a showdown between ninja and samurai is constructed before your eyes and then run at full frame. Learn how to throw shuriken stars. Sneak around like a ninja through secret rooms. And more…
- Gion District. Main area.
- Yasaka Shrine. Popular on New Years. Located in Gion district.
- Kinkaku-ji (Rokuon-ji). Zen Buddhist temple.
- Philosopher’s Walk. Includes Ginkakuji, Nyakuoji Shrine, Honen-in and a few more smaller artifacts along the river walk. There are a couple signs to help you navigate, but you can just go and walk, it’s maybe a couple miles max if you see everything. Keep a lookout for temples off the path you can visit.
- Yae and Jseph Hardy Neesima Graveyard. Cool hike through the woods with small waterfalls and shrines. Takes about 20-30 minutes. Located off the Philospher’s Walk. Doesn’t seem many people know about it, I only saw one or two other people.
- Rengeji Temple. Five large stone images of five different Buddhas displayed in its garden. Off the beaten path place that’s easy to miss, but nice to view.
- Heian Shrine. Located in northern Higashiyama.
- Tofuku-ji. Zen Buddhist temple. Located in northern Higashiyama.
- Edo Town. Samurai sword fighting lessons.
- Ninjo Castle. Neat castle grounds
- Ryoan-ji. Zen Buddhist temple with rock garden.
- Ninna-ji. Buddhist temple with nice gardens and 5-story pagoda. Free.
- Kiyomizu-dera. Buddhist temple on Mount Otowa. Nice views and pagodas.
Food & Drink
- Ramen Sen No Kaze. Ramen noodles.
- Ippodo. Team room. Super cool experience where they explain to you about different kinds of Japanese tea, show you how to make it, and then of course you get to drink it.
Nightlife (Gion District)
- Ace Cafe. Retro 50s/60s with a great view, lounge atmosphere, and good cocktails. Nice place to start off the night.
- Zaza Pub. Fun and friendly place full of travelers and expats. Great place to meet people.
- 200 Yen Bar Moon Walk. A bit bizarre, but man what fun. There are a bunch of action figures glued to the ceiling upside down. It’s a small place located upstairs in the main nightlife area along Kiyamachi St. The “boss,” Micki, is super friendly and absolutely hilarious. If I remember correctly, the 200 yen in the name has something to do with cheap drink specials.
- Authentic Japanese Merchandise. Kyoto is the best place to find old, authentic style Japanese merchandise like swords, tea sets, kimonos, etc.
- Ryokan. Stay at least one night in a “ryokan,” a traditional Japanese house with rooms made of rice paper and tatami mats. You sleep on a futon, have tea, wear traditional Japanese robes, and have use of an “onsen,” traditional Japanese hot tub. I stayed at for 2 nights at Tazuru which was awesome and then moved into an AirBnB because it was cheaper.
Highlights: City, gardens, parks, temples, shrines, shopping
Suggest Staying: 3 days
I had a great experience in Osaka. It’s like Tokyo, but smaller and less frantic. Also really easy to meet people and still lots of cool stuff from shopping to shrines and temples. If I wanted to go somewhere for crazy fun and sightseeing I would go to Tokyo, but if I wanted to have a more relaxed paced personal experience or stay/live for a longer period of time, I would probably pick Osaka.
See & Do
- Tsutenkaku. Shinsekai district of Naniwa-ku. Modeled after New York City and Paris.
- Dontonbori. Principal tourist destination and theatre district.
- Shinsaibashi (Shinsaibashi-suji). Main shopping area. Within the main area of Chuo-ku.
- Namba Parks. Lots of interesting shops and entertainment, definitely check it out. Namba-naka Nichome, Naniwa-ku. Namba Station or Nankai Railway.
- Den Den Town / Nipponbashi. Consumer electronic stores, negotiable prices, several tax & duty free stores, anime.
- Osaka Castle & Park. Very cool castle and grounds with nice views of the city along with interesting historical information.
- Shitenno-ji. Buddhist temple. Especially popular on New Years where you can see people waiting in line to pray.
- Tennoji Park. Athletic facilities and park.
- Otagi Nenbutsu-ji. Buddhist temple with 1,200 small stone figures. Quite hilarious and fun small temple to visit.
- Amerikamura. Retail and entertainment modeled after the U.S.
- Super Potato. Second-hand retro video games.
- Mandarake. Used anime and manga.
Food & Drink
- Kobe Beef Ramen 915. The best ramen noodles I had in Japan. Went there twice and it’s never crowded for some reason. Ramen noodles topped with thin slices of kobe beef. So good. It’s a bit hard to find. Go to Shinsaibashi around Dontonburi. Just across the main crossing bridge from Namba turn right towards H&M. Go downstairs.
- Blarney Stone. Irish pub.
- Nayuta. Chill, small, shisha.
- American Bar. Fun country style bar with good beer and small stage for live music. The guys that worked there were so nice, they let me play my first public performance on guitar here with a friend. Located near the crossing from Namba to Shinsaibashi, turn right at H&M towards Kobe Beef Rame. It’s next to the burlesque place.
- Cinquecento. International friendly if you want to meet other travelers or expats.
- Getting There. Take the high speed train from Tokyo or Kyoto if that’s where you’re coming from. The trains are awesome.
- Food. Osaka has some food unique to the area that isn’t found in the rest of the country. One popular delicacy from Osaka is Takoyaki (octopus balls).
- Wander. There are lots of hidden markets, shops, temples and shrines, so definitely wander through the streets and you might find something unexpected.
- Visiting Otagi Nenbutsu-ji. You can get there easily by bus, but coming back requires some waiting. If you have a car or motorbike, drive yourself, otherwise I think a taxi is easiest. They can wait for you, as it only takes maybe 30-45 minutes to visit. Cheapest still is bus. Google Maps can help determine which line.
Buena Marine Park
Highlights: Hiking, waterfalls, beach, swimming, snorkeling, diving, longevity
Suggest Staying: 3-4 days
I initially wanted to visit Okinawa simply because of Karate Kid Part II, but after reading about it more and actually visiting, it’s pretty awesome. There are many islands in the area, each a little bit different. Okinawa is probably the most famous. There are some really nice waterfall hikes up in the north, beaches all around, a really cool aquarium. Okinawa also has the most people in the world that live to be around 100 years old. The island is studied in hopes of discovering the secrets of their longevity.
See & Do
- Kokusai Dori. Most popular street in Naha with shops, restaurants, and bars.
- Churaumi Ocean Park. Aquarium on the coast. Also has nice gardens and outdoor tanks with dolphins, manatees, and sea turtles.
- American Village. Near the military base, a small village that maintains the vintage vibe form the 1960’s and 1970’s.
- Hiji Falls. Beautiful waterfall with a really nice hike, up in the north.
- Buena Marine Park. Underwater observatory where you walk down steps and have small windows in a 360-degree view of the water, coral, and fish around you. It’s also possible to do a glass-bottom boat tour.
- Blue Cave. Snorkeling and diving.
- Ogimi Ri. Village famous for having people that live to be over 100 years old.
- Airport. Slow in the morning to open the gate and security. No food really inside gate. Restaurant not open until 9am.
- Aquarium Discount. Discounted after 4pm. Closes at 6pm which is sufficient time if you don’t plan on dawdling. I went through by myself in a little over 90 minutes.
- Aquarium Whale Sharks. Go at feeding time(s). It’s a real sight to see.
- Ninja Beer. Try it. I sampled it at Dojo Bar, a neat little expat bar.
- Soapland. If you happen to be wandering around the area in Naha that has a cluster of Soapland establishments and are confused as to why people are standing around outside, some calling to you to come in, they are erotic massage parlors.
Highlights: Nature, park, deer, temples, shrines, giant Buddha
Suggest Staying: 1 day
Nara is very easy to do in a day if you just want to see the highlights. I went from Osaka, which is closer, but Kyoto not too much farther. It takes about 45-60 minutes by train. Beautiful place to visit if you have time.
See & Do
- Kofuku-ji. Buddhist temple halls and pagodas.
- Todai-ji Temple. Houses Japan’s largest Buddha statue. Magnificent.
- Kasuga-taisha. Shinto shrine.
- Wakamiya Shrine. Beautiful walk into the forest up the base of the mountain to shrines, temples, cemeteries, and statues.
- Toshodai-ji. Buddhist temple known for it’s 8th-century Golden Hall.
- Nara Park. See deer, take a walk, or just relax. Hosts temples, shrines, and a museum.
- Deer. Nara is famous for its deer and they are everywhere. They are either chilling or bowing (yes they actually bow) for cookies offered by tourists. Don’t worry, they are quite calm.
- Mount Wakakusa. You can hike the trail up the mountain which is nice and quiet. Not too many people on the trail and nice forest scenery.
- Walking Paths. The Nara Tourist Information Center has a city map with recommended paths to walk around the area.
Enjoy some famous Kobe beef in Kobe, Japan. I just went for lunch and had hibachi style kobe beef steak. Fantastic. You can also walk around the town a bit. It's not big. There may be more to see in the nearby countryside. Easy to get there from Osaka by train. Takes about 45-60 minutes.
- Flights: $62 (redeemed credit card points)
- Lodging: $1,359 (guesthouse, capsule hotel, AirBnB, apartment)
- Transportation: $325 (taxi, metro, train)
- Activities: $82 (temples, aquarium, etc.)
- Food: $1,200 (estimated $40/day)
- Transportation. Shinkansen are the high speed trains and are wonderful to get around the country. This is different than the maglev bullet train. You can get a Japanese Rail Pass if you plan to use the train a lot. These are for tourists only and therefore need to be purchased in your home country. Leave yourself enough time to have them delivered.
- Sleeping. You will likely be sleeping on a thin futon mattress on the floor which is common in Japan. Some places have beds, but it's not common, at least not in guesthouses, apartments, and ryokans. Fancier hotels may have more western style accommodations.
- Best Time To Go. The weather is very similar to the Northeast U.S., probably most similar to Washington, DC. Mild in spring and fall, hot in summer, and mildly cold in the winter. Cherry blossoms bloom towards the end of March, which is the most popular, and nicest, time to visit Japan. I went in December/January. Didn't find it too cold and certainly not many tourists.
- Internet. Portable wi-fi devices are very popular in Japan. You can get your own, or if you rent an apartment through AirBnB or something, many hosts will be using them and let you use theirs. The device operates on a cellular network and acts as a wi-fi hotspot to which you can connect a mobile device or laptop for internet access. Pretty outstanding.
- Learning Japanese. I started learning Japanese about two months before visiting using Memrise, which is free or you can sign up for an annual membership for some added perks. Brilliantly done website and app, I had a blast learning Japanese since DuoLingo doesn't support the language (yet). Japanese is comprised of 3 alphabets, Hiragana (base learned in school), Katakana (includes more foreign words converted to Japanese characters), and Kanji (tons of characters). I found it easiest to learn Hiragana first, then Katakana. Kanji is super cool, but will take longer to learn. I got by fine without learning it, but I still want to and it definitely won't hurt if you do learn it. Check out the app Kana, which is free and a great reference for Hiragana and Katakana characters.
- Onsen. Typically you shower and enter an onsen fully naked, so don't be shy. Men and women are separated.
- Ramen Noodles. Toppings - chashu (sliced roast pork), moyashi (bean sprouts), negi (leeks). Soups - tonkotsu (pork bone), shio (salt, mild), shoyu (soy sauce, savory), miso (hearty)
- Other Food. Yakitori - grilled chicken skewers. Sukiyaki - thin slices of beef. Shabu-shabu - thin slices of beef/pork. Tonkatsu - pork cutlets. Okonomiyaki - savory pancake. Fugu - poisonous globefish.
- Food Establishments. Izakaya - drink houses that serve food. Kaitenzushi - conveyor belt sushi.