© 2019 by Veronique Lee. 

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Japan is a dream destination for many.  It's so advanced in so many ways and it never ceases to amaze.  It is so incredibly safe, wander down any alley or whatever peaks your interest.  I've been there four times and I can't wait for the time I return.  Here are some of my favorite spots and must dos.

My #1 suggestion is to eat EVERYTHING.  The food here is incredible!  From the traditional Soba to Sushi to Japanese Italian to basic Japanese Toast.  It is all amazing and I cannot recommend eating your heart out enough! 

TIPS BEFORE YOU TRAVEL

Get a JR Pass. If you're planning on traveling around the country during your stay, it's best to get a JR Pass.  It ends up being more economical, especially if you're taking the Shinkansen, which from Tokyo to Kyoto alone can cost about 14,000円 (~$140).  You can even take the JR from Narita to Tokyo Station using the JR Pass on the Narita Express which alone costs about 3000円 (~$30).  And its super easy! Unless you need a reserved seat, you just show your pass at any JR Rail (or sometimes Ferry or Bus) Station and they'll let you pass when its valid.

Rent a pocket wifi.  It's the most inexpensive way to get internet on the go.  If you're staying at AirBnbs, sometimes they provide one that you can use.  But I can't tell you how extremely helpful it has been with google maps, translations, etc.  You can order your pocket wifi online and pick it up when you arrive at the airport.

Google Maps Transport Directions is surprisingly pretty accurate!  However, the farther you get out of the cities and the more remote you go, the less efficient it becomes.  They've only recently incorporated buses in the majors cities and the times and fares are pretty on point!

 

Lastly, https://www.japan-guide.com/ is an excellent resource for suggestions and explanations, what to see, and how to get to places.


 

TOKYO

 

THE SITES

Shibuya Crossing
Probably the most recognizable site of Tokyo.  Located right outside of Shibuya Station right near the Hachiko Memorial Statue.  Go to the 2nd Floor of the Starbucks to get a good view of the crossing!

Tsukiji Market 
The largest fish market in the world.  If you can get up early enough (maybe on your first morning in Tokyo when the jetlag is still settling in), I'd recommend going to the Tuna Auction, however, I believe you have to start lining up at around 3AM and public transport doesn't run at that time of day.  Either way, even if you get up early to see the hustle and bustle of the market, its really awesome.  Grab some fresh sushi or sashimi while you're there!

Akihabara 
Tokyo's famous electronic city, filled with plenty of electronic stores, maid bars, and the many stores dedicated to manga and anime.  Best to go at night so you can see the area lit up.

Imperial Gardens East
Take a stroll around the Imperial Palace, then make your way to the Imperial Gardens East.  Beautifully laid out ponds and Irises.  I wouldn't bother with the Imperial Palace tour unless you want to be herded around like cattle.  Free Admission.

Senso-Ji
Tokyo's oldest temple with a 5 story pagoda located in the Asakusa District.  Built in the 600s, it's extremely colorful and very beautiful! 

 

Roppongi / Mori Tower / Maman
One of my favorite places to visit every time I come to Tokyo is the replica of Louise Bourgeois' Maman.  A 30 ft spider sculpture.  The original belongs to the the Tate Modern and 6 replicas are located all around the world.  Here is one of them.  While you're at Mori Tower, might as well check out the Mori Art Museum.  On a clear day, you should even be able to see Mount Fuji from the museum!

NEIGHBORHOODS


Aside from the usual tourist destinations, here are some more local neighborhoods that are nice to walk around, enjoy a meal or even coffee at a Kissaten (see below).

Naka-Meguro
Upscale neighborhood with a lot of boutique shops, galleries, and restaurants.  There's a main canal that you can walk along.  In the spring, many Japanese visit here for the Cherry Blossoms.  Also, take a stroll under the train on the north side.  There are tons of new restaurants and izakayas that have opened in recent years.

Shimo-kitazawa
I would say the "Williamsburg" or "Silverlake/Echo Park" of Tokyo.  I would probably live in this area if I ever moved to Tokyo. This neighborhood has a great bohemian feel.  Fun vintage shops, record stores, used book stores.  Be sure to explore both sides of the train station!

Kichijoji
Similar to Shimo-kitazawa.  The nice things about these neighborhoods is that they're not too mainstream yet.  They have more of a neighborhood feel and were probably what Harajuku was like before it became super popular.  

Jiyugaoka
Another charming neighborhood.  There are some small alleys around which are nice strolling about.  Even pop your head into one of the many eating establishments.  

Caretta Shiodome
The Caretta Shiodome is a shopping plaza with restaurants on the 46th Floor.  You can take the elevator up to the top floor to get some amazing views of Tsukiji Market and the Rainbow Bridge.  And it's free!

 

 

EATING


Centre the Bakery
Located in the heart of Ginza, this place is a treat!  It's a toast restaurant.  I know what you're thinking... a restaurants entirely dedicated to toast?  Well as I mentioned before, Japanese toast is something to try.  In fact, I ate it every chance I had because its so surprisingly simple and good!  Japanese toast has a way of being soft on the inside, yet perfectly toasted on the outside.  And Centre the Bakery is the creme de la creme of toasts! I'd highly recommend the toast and jam set, the cheese toast and if your pocketbook can afford it, the Beef Cutlet Sandwich (A-5 Wagyu Beef on Japanese Toast).  One of the most fun parts is, you get to even pick your own toaster from an array of toasters to toast with!  There's usually a line, so best avoided on the weekends!

Rotary Sushi Nemuro Hanaru (回転寿司 根室花まる)
Located on the 10th Floor of Tokyu Plaza Ginza, unlike most conveyor belt sushi restaurants, this one gets it's fish straight from Kanazawa (nevermind getting it from Tsukiji Market!).  The fish is incredibly fresh and reasonably priced.  Some of my favorites, aside from the usual Uni, Ikura, and Negitoro and which I had tried for the first time during my last visit were Engawa Aburi えんがわあぶり(seared fluke fin) and Kazanoko 数の子 (herring roe)

Spajiro (すぱじろう)
Japanese Italian Restaurant chain.  Japanese Italian sounds a bit bizarre, and I too was a bit skeptical, but what it is is Italian pasta with Japanese toppings.  For example, I had a dish with spicy cod roe, shiso leaf and seaweed.  An unexpected pleasant surprise!

Ginza Shimada
I haven't been yet, but am meaning to try.  It's a stand-up Izakaya.  Meaning, unlike most Izakayas, you don't need to make a reservation, however there may be a wait.  The idea is since it's a stand up restaurant, you get excellent quality cuisine, but don't have to bother with the whole sit down experience.  

MatsuGen Ebisu
I think it's an Izakaya, but we went to the soba restaurant, which was absolutely fantastic.  They have many other delicious options for appetizers.  I had something quite seasonal and tasty which is a Shikuwasa Cold Soba.  Shikuwasa is an Okinawan Lime, which is not as tangy as the limes we are used to.  In fact, you can eat the entire fruit, including the rind and the seeds. 

Tsukishima
Off the Kachidoki stop on the Oedo Line - This area is known for the dish Okonomi Yaki, which is similar to Tako Yaki (Octopus Balls), but more in a pancake form.  You order the batter, then cook the Okonomi Yaki on a grill at your table, almost like Korean BBQ style.  Not necessarily a must eat if you're heading to Osaka since Osaka is known for their Okinomiyaki.

 

Tokyo Station - Ramen Street
If you're into Ramen, there are rows of little Ramen shops in the basement of Tokyo Station.  You have to order from a vending machine outside of the restaurant that it likely in Japanese with no translations.  It'll spit out a ticket and you hand that to the chef inside the restaurant.  

 

Namjatown
Near the Ikebukuro Station - A bit cheesy, but if you like gyoza, this may be worth the stop.  They call it a Gyoza Theme Park.  It's in a mall and there's a ride, but they have some of the top Gyoza chefs come by.  Was actually a really fun experience. 

 

 

DRINKING ESTABLISHMENTS

Old Imperial Bar at the Imperial Hotel
It feels like something straight out of Mad Men.  The bar itself is beautifully laid out and so well lit.  Its the only part of the hotel that has an reminiscence of Frank Lloyd Wright's original work of the hotel.  

Nonbei Yokocho
Right next to the Shibuya Station, there are a couple alleys with these shoebox sized bars.  Each bar is probably around the size of your office at Steiner, some with an upstairs area.  These bars can only fit 8-10 people.  They have a very intimate feeling and if you can find one with an English speaking bartender, it could make for good conversation.  

 

Golden Gai
A bigger Nonbei Yokocho located near Shinjuku Station.  Alleyways filled with these tiny bars makes for a fun night out with locals. This areas is what also inspired the TV Show "Midnight Diner."

 

 

DAY TRIPS

Nikko
A short train ride from Tokyo is the UNESCO World Heritage National Park of Nikko.  Enjoy some beautiful temples and shrines surrounded by the lush forests.  Also home to the three wise monkeys (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil). 

 

Kamakura / Yokohama
Kamakura is home to the Great Buddha.  It stands alone outdoors, is entirely made of copper, and is only exceeded in size by the Great Buddha in Nara.  There are also a number of other very nice temples in the area, one of which is Hase-dera, but be sure not to get too templed-out before you hit Kyoto!

If you're heading to Kamakura, you might as well stop by Yokohama which is on your way back to Tokyo.  Yokohama is home to the largest Chinatown in Asia.

Hakone or Kawaguchiko (for Mt. Fuji)
I've only been to Kawaguchiko, but friends have been to Hakone which is supposed to be easy to get to from Tokyo and also a good day trip around Mount Fuji.

Kawaguchiko is a charming little town right near Lake Kawaguchi, one of the Fuji Five Lakes.  You can take a direct bus from Shinjuku Bus Terminal.  This bus also stops at Fuji-Q, an amusement park with nice views of Mount Fuji.  Walking around Lake Kawaguchi is very doable, but I'd recommend renting a bike.  

You must try Hoto, a regional specialty!  Hoto is a thick Udon noodle in soup.  I've accidentally stumbled across this delicious Hoto Restaurant called Momiji-Tei (もみじ亭) located on the opposite side of the lake from Kawaguchiko.  But you won't have trouble finding good Hoto in Kawaguchiko if you don't want to make the trek.  There is also a bus that loops around the lake.  There are signs everywhere and its very easy to navigate.

There is also the charming Kawaguchi Music Forest closer to Momiji-Tei.  I didn't have the chance to go, but took a peak in and it looked adorable.

TOKYO

 

THE SITES

Shibuya Crossing
Probably the most recognizable site of Tokyo.  Located right outside of Shibuya Station right near the Hachiko Memorial Statue.  Go to the 2nd Floor of the Starbucks to get a good view of the crossing!

Tsukiji Market 
The largest fish market in the world.  If you can get up early enough (maybe on your first morning in Tokyo when the jetlag is still settling in), I'd recommend going to the Tuna Auction, however, I believe you have to start lining up at around 3AM and public transport doesn't run at that time of day.  Either way, even if you get up early to see the hustle and bustle of the market, its really awesome.  Grab some fresh sushi or sashimi while you're there!

Akihabara 
Tokyo's famous electronic city, filled with plenty of electronic stores, maid bars, and the many stores dedicated to manga and anime.  Best to go at night so you can see the area lit up.

Imperial Gardens East
Take a stroll around the Imperial Palace, then make your way to the Imperial Gardens East.  Beautifully laid out ponds and Irises.  I wouldn't bother with the Imperial Palace tour unless you want to be herded around like cattle.  Free Admission.

Senso-Ji
Tokyo's oldest temple with a 5 story pagoda located in the Asakusa District.  Built in the 600s, it's extremely colorful and very beautiful! 

 

Roppongi / Mori Tower / Maman
One of my favorite places to visit every time I come to Tokyo is the replica of Louise Bourgeois' Maman.  A 30 ft spider sculpture.  The original belongs to the the Tate Modern and 6 replicas are located all around the world.  Here is one of them.  While you're at Mori Tower, might as well check out the Mori Art Museum.  On a clear day, you should even be able to see Mount Fuji from the museum!

NEIGHBORHOODS


Aside from the usual tourist destinations, here are some more local neighborhoods that are nice to walk around, enjoy a meal or even coffee at a Kissaten (see below).

Naka-Meguro
Upscale neighborhood with a lot of boutique shops, galleries, and restaurants.  There's a main canal that you can walk along.  In the spring, many Japanese visit here for the Cherry Blossoms.  Also, take a stroll under the train on the north side.  There are tons of new restaurants and izakayas that have opened in recent years.

Shimo-kitazawa
I would say the "Williamsburg" or "Silverlake/Echo Park" of Tokyo.  I would probably live in this area if I ever moved to Tokyo. This neighborhood has a great bohemian feel.  Fun vintage shops, record stores, used book stores.  Be sure to explore both sides of the train station!

Kichijoji
Similar to Shimo-kitazawa.  The nice things about these neighborhoods is that they're not too mainstream yet.  They have more of a neighborhood feel and were probably what Harajuku was like before it became super popular.  

Jiyugaoka
Another charming neighborhood.  There are some small alleys around which are nice strolling about.  Even pop your head into one of the many eating establishments.  

Caretta Shiodome
The Caretta Shiodome is a shopping plaza with restaurants on the 46th Floor.  You can take the elevator up to the top floor to get some amazing views of Tsukiji Market and the Rainbow Bridge.  And it's free!

 

 

EATING


Centre the Bakery
Located in the heart of Ginza, this place is a treat!  It's a toast restaurant.  I know what you're thinking... a restaurants entirely dedicated to toast?  Well as I mentioned before, Japanese toast is something to try.  In fact, I ate it every chance I had because its so surprisingly simple and good!  Japanese toast has a way of being soft on the inside, yet perfectly toasted on the outside.  And Centre the Bakery is the creme de la creme of toasts! I'd highly recommend the toast and jam set, the cheese toast and if your pocketbook can afford it, the Beef Cutlet Sandwich (A-5 Wagyu Beef on Japanese Toast).  One of the most fun parts is, you get to even pick your own toaster from an array of toasters to toast with!  There's usually a line, so best avoided on the weekends!

Rotary Sushi Nemuro Hanaru (回転寿司 根室花まる)
Located on the 10th Floor of Tokyu Plaza Ginza, unlike most conveyor belt sushi restaurants, this one gets it's fish straight from Kanazawa (nevermind getting it from Tsukiji Market!).  The fish is incredibly fresh and reasonably priced.  Some of my favorites, aside from the usual Uni, Ikura, and Negitoro and which I had tried for the first time during my last visit were Engawa Aburi えんがわあぶり(seared fluke fin) and Kazanoko 数の子 (herring roe)

Spajiro (すぱじろう)
Japanese Italian Restaurant chain.  Japanese Italian sounds a bit bizarre, and I too was a bit skeptical, but what it is is Italian pasta with Japanese toppings.  For example, I had a dish with spicy cod roe, shiso leaf and seaweed.  An unexpected pleasant surprise!

Ginza Shimada
I haven't been yet, but am meaning to try.  It's a stand-up Izakaya.  Meaning, unlike most Izakayas, you don't need to make a reservation, however there may be a wait.  The idea is since it's a stand up restaurant, you get excellent quality cuisine, but don't have to bother with the whole sit down experience.  

MatsuGen Ebisu
I think it's an Izakaya, but we went to the soba restaurant, which was absolutely fantastic.  They have many other delicious options for appetizers.  I had something quite seasonal and tasty which is a Shikuwasa Cold Soba.  Shikuwasa is an Okinawan Lime, which is not as tangy as the limes we are used to.  In fact, you can eat the entire fruit, including the rind and the seeds. 

Tsukishima
Off the Kachidoki stop on the Oedo Line - This area is known for the dish Okonomi Yaki, which is similar to Tako Yaki (Octopus Balls), but more in a pancake form.  You order the batter, then cook the Okonomi Yaki on a grill at your table, almost like Korean BBQ style.  Not necessarily a must eat if you're heading to Osaka since Osaka is known for their Okinomiyaki.

 

Tokyo Station - Ramen Street
If you're into Ramen, there are rows of little Ramen shops in the basement of Tokyo Station.  You have to order from a vending machine outside of the restaurant that it likely in Japanese with no translations.  It'll spit out a ticket and you hand that to the chef inside the restaurant.  

 

Namjatown
Near the Ikebukuro Station - A bit cheesy, but if you like gyoza, this may be worth the stop.  They call it a Gyoza Theme Park.  It's in a mall and there's a ride, but they have some of the top Gyoza chefs come by.  Was actually a really fun experience. 

 

 

DRINKING ESTABLISHMENTS

Old Imperial Bar at the Imperial Hotel
It feels like something straight out of Mad Men.  The bar itself is beautifully laid out and so well lit.  Its the only part of the hotel that has an reminiscence of Frank Lloyd Wright's original work of the hotel.  

Nonbei Yokocho
Right next to the Shibuya Station, there are a couple alleys with these shoebox sized bars.  Each bar is probably around the size of your office at Steiner, some with an upstairs area.  These bars can only fit 8-10 people.  They have a very intimate feeling and if you can find one with an English speaking bartender, it could make for good conversation.  

 

Golden Gai
A bigger Nonbei Yokocho located near Shinjuku Station.  Alleyways filled with these tiny bars makes for a fun night out with locals. This areas is what also inspired the TV Show "Midnight Diner."

 

 

DAY TRIPS

Nikko
A short train ride from Tokyo is the UNESCO World Heritage National Park of Nikko.  Enjoy some beautiful temples and shrines surrounded by the lush forests.  Also home to the three wise monkeys (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil). 

 

Kamakura / Yokohama
Kamakura is home to the Great Buddha.  It stands alone outdoors, is entirely made of copper, and is only exceeded in size by the Great Buddha in Nara.  There are also a number of other very nice temples in the area, one of which is Hase-dera, but be sure not to get too templed-out before you hit Kyoto!

If you're heading to Kamakura, you might as well stop by Yokohama which is on your way back to Tokyo.  Yokohama is home to the largest Chinatown in Asia.

Hakone or Kawaguchiko (for Mt. Fuji)
I've only been to Kawaguchiko, but friends have been to Hakone which is supposed to be easy to get to from Tokyo and also a good day trip around Mount Fuji.

Kawaguchiko is a charming little town right near Lake Kawaguchi, one of the Fuji Five Lakes.  You can take a direct bus from Shinjuku Bus Terminal.  This bus also stops at Fuji-Q, an amusement park with nice views of Mount Fuji.  Walking around Lake Kawaguchi is very doable, but I'd recommend renting a bike.  

You must try Hoto, a regional specialty!  Hoto is a thick Udon noodle in soup.  I've accidentally stumbled across this delicious Hoto Restaurant called Momiji-Tei (もみじ亭) located on the opposite side of the lake from Kawaguchiko.  But you won't have trouble finding good Hoto in Kawaguchiko if you don't want to make the trek.  There is also a bus that loops around the lake.  There are signs everywhere and its very easy to navigate.

There is also the charming Kawaguchi Music Forest closer to Momiji-Tei.  I didn't have the chance to go, but took a peak in and it looked adorable.


 

KYOTO


Kyoto is one of my favorite places in Japan.  There is so much to see and not to see here.  You can easily spend a week visiting temples and shrines, all of which are very different from one another, or you can explore the many areas of the city.  My personal favorites are the kissatens in Kyoto.

THE SITES


The list of temples and go on and on, so I'm just listing some highlights.

Fushimi-Inari
You've seen it a million times.  Tens of thousands of torii gates lined up in a row.  It's amazing and breathtaking.  But can be crowded, so go early in the morning!

 

Hankyu Arashiyama
Towards the West end of Kyoto.  Yet another beautiful temple and gardens, but the most impressive part is the famous bamboo forest behind it!

Kinkakuji
My favorite of them all!  The Golden Temple. Absolutely stunning and covered in gold leaf.  

Kiyomizudera
A temple at the top of a hill, known for it's wooden terrace and great views of the city.  Unfortunately, the temple is currently under construction until 2020.  You are still able to visit, but won't be able to get the great view of the temple with the city in the background.

Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji
Several beautiful Jodo Buddhist temples with a garden.  In the fall, they do an evening light show for the fall foliage.  

Philosophers Path
Take a stroll along the river.  There are various small temples you can visit along the way.  The end of the path leads you to Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Temple which is famous for its Zen Garden.

Kyoto Station
Kyoto Station is one of my favorite train stations in the world.  You can literally spend hours exploring it.  When you enter, take the escalators on the right to the top floor.  You can get some amazing views of Southern Kyoto from the top.  On the 11th Floor, is their Ramen Ally.  Each ramen shop serves their own ramen specialty.  And from the same floor, you can enter the sky walk.  But the reflections, the views, the scale of this train station is absolutely incredible.  

Manga Museum
If the weather is bad, the Manga Museum isn't a bad place to lounge around for an afternoon.  I went here on a very hot day and read my first Manga, Bakuman.  The museum is more like a Manga Library, with a large selection of Manga in many languages.

Nishiki Market
Fun covered food market.  Definitely worth a stroll to grab some small bites along the way or just to browse.

EATING

Tendon Makino Kyoto Teramach
Definitely the best Tendon I've had in Japan!  Located on right on Teramachi Dori.  Tendon is tempura over rice with the sauce drizzled on top rather than dipping into a dashi.  If you're lucky to get seated on the first level, you can watch the master make the tempura fresh right in front of you.  

 

Tempura Endo Yasaka
A proper tempura meal will cost a pretty penny, but its definitely worth the experience.  Every bite of tempura is perfectly battered, not greasy and is made with the freshest ingredients.   Be sure to make a reservation ahead of time.

 

Omen
Located closer to the Philosopher's Path, this delicious Udon Restaurant is made fresh and served with fresh pickled Kyoto vegetables.

 

Shoraian
Kyoto is very famous for their tofu.  Shoraian is located right near Arashiyama.  It's set in an old style Japanese house and is located right on the river.  The setting is absolutely beautiful.  The meal is as traditional as it can get.  It's such a wonderful experience!  Reservations required.

Tousuiro
Another great option for a delicious Tofu meal, located right on the Kamo River.  

Awamochissho-Sawaya
Come here for one thing and one thing only.  Especially since it's the only thing they have on the menu.  Mochi.  Grab the delicious mochi and tea set.  So chewy and delicious.  

DRINKING ESTABLISHMENTS

Kyoto Star Bar
If you want a classy night out, Kyoto Star Bar is located right in the middle of Pontocho (the very touristy bar street), however it's tucked in an alley away from the craziness of Pontocho.  Kouji-san takes so much care in preparing incredible cocktails, whether its a classic or something made with fresh seasonal fruit.  If you stop by, say hi to Kouji and Yojiro for me!

 

Sake Bar Asakura
This Sake Bar has over 100 different sakes available to try.  The owner speaks excellent English and is extremely helpful in helping you choose what kind of sake you would like to try.  

KISSATENS


Coffee Club
This traditional little coffee shop is run by an 80 year old man and his wife who makes breakfast behind the scenes.  As with most kissatens, the old man makes a delicious cup of coffee in a way where you think he's going to break something, but manages to do everything perfectly.  I mean, he's been doing it forever!

Wife & Husband
Probably my favorite Kissaten which doubles as an adorable little antique shop.  Located right off the Kitaoji subway stop, this little coffee shop has excellent cheese and honey toast and coffee.  If you want to do something romantic, you can even order a picnic to go and sit by the river nearby.  

Otafuku Coffee
Located right in downtown Kyoto right off of Shijo Dori, this kissaten serves a great house blend "made with pride" and of course makes an excellent Japanese Toast.  It's a bit of a hidden gem and is usually frequented by locals.  

 

Togenkyo
Another great kissaten located in the Kimigyo Ward if you want to explore a less touristy neighborhood.  

 

ONSEN

Funaoka Onsen
Located close to Togenkyo, here's a nice little onsen if you're comfortable getting naked with the locals.  

 

DAY TRIPS


Nara
Famous for the hundreds of wild deer that roam around Nara Park.  The deer are said to be messengers from the Gods in the Shinto faith/  The most famous temple in Nara Park is Todai-Ji, home of the  Great Buddha, the largest Buddha in Japan.  The park has plenty to explore and is extremely peaceful once you get away from the crowds. 

Yamazaki Distillery
Be sure to make a reservation ahead of time!  I have yet to go, but would love to chance to visit this world renowned whiskey distillery. 

OSAKA, KANAZAWA, and OKINAWA
coming soon
 

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