Japan is fascinating, culturally-rich country, and it has some of the best food I’ve ever eaten! Immediately upon arrival, I was struck by how clean, organized, and functional thing was. Even though I had a bit of a language barrier as I don’t speak Japanese — I rarely had trouble getting around, as everyone I encountered was happy to help give directions, explain how the metro worked, etc. (and nobody seemed to lose patience, even amidst a frenetic crowd). I flew into Haneda Airport in Tokyo and out of Osaka’s Kansai International Airport, and both airports were modern and user-friendly.
As the world’s most populous city (with 37 million inhabitants) Tokyo is an impressive, sprawling megalopolis with that offers something for everyone. As mentioned before, I was impressed with how well-managed, clean, and orderly everything was — especially considering the city’s size and population density! It’s not a cheap city, but it’s possible to have a great time on any budget.
In the Shibuya district, I enjoyed exploring the Shibuya 109 mall with its endless displays of unique food items and pastries. I also went to an upstairs restaurant that served a full range of Matcha green tea products — ice cream parfait, cakes, lattes, and of course a variety of tea! (Note this might’ve been somewhere else, but I recall it being connected to a mall).
Nearby is also the Shibuya Sky tower — which affords great views over the city with its open air observation deck. While in the area, don’t miss the statue to the famous loyal Akita dog Hachiko, as well as a Mo’ai head statue. Finally, the Shibuya Crossing is a famous intersection outside the Shibuya metro station where hundreds of pedestrians pour across from all sides each time the light changes. I enjoyed grabbing a coffee at the nearby Starbucks and watching the madness : )
Shibuya has thousands of restaurants, bars, karaoke joints, and nightclubs — it has a constant electric buzz that makes for an exciting night out. I wish I remembered the name of the spot where I went with some friends and had a bunch of random (delicious) traditional dishes. I also went to an interesting coffee shop with hundreds of unique mugs and the owner apparently gives you a mug that he thinks best fits you. I’ll have to keep better records next time!
Western Tokyo also has the Meiji Jingu Shinto Shrine with vast gardens, which is a popular place for marriages to take place in Tokyo. If you enter from the south side of the gardens, you’ll see a long wall of colorfully-decorated sake (rice wine) barrels, donated from local brewers. Nearby is the Harajuku district, which has become famous for people that dress up in wild / flashy costumes. Finally, to the south is the Meguro River Cherry Blossoms Promenade, which — along with the Cherry Garden in Shibuya — is a prime spot to view the spectacular cherry blossoms in the spring.
East of the city center is the Imperial Palace, which became the Emperor’s residence in 1869 after moving from Kyoto. While I didn’t tour that palace (I don’t think it’s open to the public), I did enjoy wandering around the nearby East Garden and the Kokyogaien National Garden – which provide some welcome greenery, along with traditional imperial architecture.
Further south is the Tsukiji Seafood Market (outer market), an industrial area that has developed into a touristy zone over the years. It features numerous seafood restaurants, fish shops, souvenir shops, and vendors selling fresh / delicious seafood on the street. My favorite item was torch-roasted fresh scallops on skewers– yum!
Since I visited there, I’ve learned that the Tsukiji inner market has closed and moved to a new location — the Toyosu Market. One of the most famous things to do at the old fish market was to wake up very early and watch the daily Tuna Auction. It looks like it’s still possible to do it at the new market– and you’ll have to make an advance reservation and get there in time for the action, which takes place from 5:45 – 6:15 a.m. each morning. (Read more about the process here.) One famous restaurant at the market is Sushizanmai, where people (tourists) will start lining up early (ie., 4:30 – 5:00 a.m.) and wait in line for hours for a coveted seat at the small sushi bar. While I’m normally not one to wait in line for an over-hyped restaurant, jet lag hit me one morning so I got up very early and went for it. The sushi was really outstanding… it melted in your mouth and the chef brushed some pieces with (I think) butter, which made it even better!
The nearby Tsukiji Hongwan-ji Buddhist temple is another prominent feature of the area. I also recommend catching a show at the Kabuki-za Theatre. Even if you don’t want to stay for the full (multi-hour) performance, it’s possible to get a partial ticket for a segment of the show. It’s all in Japanese but they provide a brochure explaining what’s happening in each segment. I was really impressed by the elaborate, colorful costumes and the instantaneous wardrobe changes.
North of the city center is the Sensō-ji temple and a nearby giant (five story) pagoda, which was filled with visitors (both those who came to pray and tourists alike), creating a lively, vibrant atmosphere. The nearby Nakamise shopping street is also a popular spot to stroll and pick up random odds and ends. Across the river is the Tokyo Skytree — a massive tower with an adjacent aquarium. (Note– this is not to be confused with the Tokyo Tower, which looks like the Eiffel Tower, in the south of the city.)
While in this area, I enjoyed eating at the Tanuki restaurant, a local spot with almost a pub-like feeling, but serving a range of traditional fare (I wasn’t always sure what I was eating– but it always tasted good!)
A note on food: The food scene in Tokyo is so elaborate –and I think it holds a record for the highest number (or concentration) of Michelin star restaurants — so wherever you go, you won’t be disappointed! You definitely won’t have a problem finding world-class sushi anywhere. While I really enjoyed the offerings at the Tsukiji market, I think the award for the best sushi I’ve ever had goes to Daiwa Sushi — the portions are generous, fresh, diverse, and succulent. (It goes great with sake!)
Japanese steak is also world famous! I had Kobe beef at a restaurant in Shibuya, which was predictably delicious : ) Most (if not all) restaurants will serve it raw and have heating elements at your table to allow you to cook the steak exactly to your preference. I also really enjoyed visiting Gyukatsu Motomura Tokyoyaedu in eastern Tokyo, which served a Steak covered in wasabi — I crave their steak to this day!
Finally, Matcha green tea is ubiquitous and tasty — don’t forget to stop and have a tea every now and then!
Kyoto is known as the cultural capital of Japan and is a must-see city! Kyoto was the seat of Japan’s imperial court from the year 794 until 1869, when the court moved to Tokyo. The city hosts many temples, shrines, and gardens– and it boasts a modern, vibrant downtown area. It’s best to budget several days even to just hit the highlights.
After getting settled into the city, my first stop was Kinkaku-ji, a golden-covered Buddhist temple surrounded by beautiful gardens and ponds. Once you enter the temple grounds, it is a complete contrast to the busy streets outside.
I highly recommend visiting the tea house on the site, which offers hand-whisked Matcha green tea in a bowl, along with a small tea cake, in a traditional setting. I truly enjoyed sitting and watching it drizzle over the garden while sipping the delicious tea — it was a serene experience. There are plenty of other traditional tea houses in town as well, such as Ichimonjiya Tea House, further east.
Kyoto also has public baths (Sentos), which are popular in Japan. Traditional ones, such as Funaoka Onsen, are especially famous, but remember to bring your own soap / sandals. Towels can often be rented on site. (Note — it is forbidden to wear swimwear!) A beginner’s guide for Sentos can be found here.
You’ll want to visit the Kyoto Imperial Palace, which offers several guided tours daily. It has been preserved and open to the public after the seat of imperial power shifted to Tokyo following the Meiji Restoration in 1869. It is a sprawling complex with several ornately-painted screens, accompanied by lush gardens. This is another key highlight of the city!
Also noteworthy is the Nijo Castle and nearby Ninomaru palace, massive complex of concentric rings of traditional fortifications dating back to the 1600s. It has impressive gardens and was the home to the Shogun Leyasu dynasty. As you would expect from any good castle, it is surrounded by a double moat!
Don’t miss the Toji temple, a Buddhist temple with a massive, five-story wooden pagoda. For a more modern experience, the Kyoto Tower is a prominent feature of the city skyline, rising 431 feet, with an observation deck at about 330 feet.
One of my favorite experiences of Kyoto was visiting the Nishiki Market at night, when lines of brightly-colored pagoda lanterns lined the streets and street food restaurants gave off delicious scents. There’s a buzz of activity to the market and it’s easy to spend a couple hours wandering around, visiting the shops and grazing on the multitude of snack shops and street vendors. There are also a couple good spots to try famous Japanese whisky (with sushi, naturally : )
I didn’t make it to Kiyomizu-dera Temple but it’s supposed to offer great views from its balcony. When I return, I also hope to get to the Arashiyama area, west of the city, famous for its vast bamboo forests and large monkeys.
My last stop was in Hiroshima, which I found to be lively and vibrant despite its history. Walking towards the center, the ruins of the Atomic Bomb Dome Site stands out in the middle of an area that was leveled by the WWII atomic blast. The area now hosts a Peace Memorial Park, complete with an eternal flame, and several exhibits promoting peace, such as chains of colorful paper cranes. Adjacent is the Peace Memorial Museum, which I recommend visiting.
Moving on, the Hiroshima Castle is a scenic and noteworthy spot in the city center (just east of the Memorial Park), and both the Shukkeien Garden and Hijiyama Park provide a nice respite in the midst of town.
Something for Next Time: I’d love to explore Osaka, as well as Hokkaido Island in the north. Finally, I’d like to get to the Jigokudani Monkey Park, where the Macaques (snow monkeys) hang out and take steam baths.