Japan exceeded our expectations. In almost every single way. It is the hot spot to go right now and I now understand why. From the cleanliness, to the public transportation, to the culture, to the food…oh my gosh the food!! It was all exceptional. If you have been toying with the idea of booking a trip, consider this your sign from above telling you it’s time to just do it.
Keegan and I talked to a lot of people who had been before going and we were so surprised to find that no one expressed anything negative about their experience. Now being home, I would say we feel the same way. The ONLY thing that was hard was the heat and humidity. This is something to really consider before booking a trip. It is suggested that you go during Spring (cherry blossom season) or Fall because they weather is much nicer. Keegan and I would go through multiple outfits a day because we were sweating so much. Like DRIPPING sweat. So, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Regardless, we still had the best time. It’s good to know these things in advance though before jetting off.
A few things to know before going to Japan
When I travel somewhere new, I do a TON of research. Like hours and hours on the computer trying to maximise my traveling experience. I always wish there was a single website that would give me everything I need to know. I know it’s not very realistic, especially because everyone prioritises different things and wants to do different things when they travel, however it makes the planning process a bit harder. That being said, I am going to share 14 things I wish I had known/been able to find online before traveling over to Japan.
- Fly with Japan Airlines – hands down the best airline I’ve flown with. We flew into Narita Airport.
- Cash is required – A lot of places actually did take card, but a lot of places didn’t. We didn’t take any cash but instead used the ATMs at the 7/11 stores. Just double check your card’s foreign transaction policies before traveling.
- Travel with minimal luggage – there were many times where there was not an elevator or escalator available in the subway/train stations which even with my carry on sized bag caused a lot of extra swear words to come out of my mouth. I can’t imagine if I brought my big suitcase.
- Accessibility – this was my biggest complaint about Japan. If you have a disability that makes it hard for you to get around, forget it.
- Same electrical outlets as ours (minus the third prong)
- Learn some etiquette but don’t stress – I was nervous about not respecting the shrines and temples properly at first, so we made sure to do our homework first. I did not want to come across as that “annoying American,” ya know? At the end of the day, it is always best to be respectful rather than ignorant, however it is really not a big deal if you don’t know any of the traditional etiquette practices.
- Make reservations about a month out (if not sooner) – especially if you want to do any Michelin star restaurants.
- Buy a JR Rail Pass – this is something we did not do, but we considered it. Next time we will for sure. This is if you are interested in going outside of Tokyo and want to explore other parts of Japan. We went to Hakone and Kyoto and those two trains ended up being the same price as the JR pass (we took the Romance Car to Hakone and the Shinkansen from Hakone to Kyoto to Tokyo). This means if you are going anywhere in addition to Hakone and Kyoto, the JR pass is a must.
- Download the Suica (english) app – this is instead of a metrocard. All you have to do is load funds and tap your card when using the local subways and trains (seperate from JR Rail Pass, Romance Car, and Shinkansen). We used it to go everywhere in Tokyo and some places in Kyoto.
- Taxi’s over ubers – They don’t really have uber like we do, but some of their taxi cars double as uber drivers. NOTE: the uber fare is only an estimate when you call it, so the two ubers we took ended up being a lot more expensive than we thought it would be.
- If you plan to buy Hibiki, your best bet is getting lucky at the airport (duty free). We ended up finding a bottle of 17 year at a local store in Shinjuku but they only took cash and after the fees of taking cash out and their markup, it was just as expensive as the 21 year we found at the airport. Do note that finding it at the airport does take some luck. Basically it is VERY hard to get.
- If traveling in the summer, pack humidity friendly clothes – Keegan and I literally went through multiple outfits a day because we would sweat through anything in 2.7 seconds.
- Tokyo is very easy to get around through subways and trains. Kyoto is a bit more challenging and you will most likely have to utilize the buses (cash only!).
- Shinjuku is one of the best and easiest areas to stay when in Tokyo – which is actually what we did
Hotels we stayed at
- Keio Plaza Hotel (Shinjuku) – Great location, right next to Shinjuku Station which was super convenient for getting around. Would I stay here again? I probably would explore a different hotel, however this hotel is a safe bet if you have no idea where you should stay and are just looking for the most convenient place for getting around to see all parts of Tokyo.
- Onsen Ryokan Yuen Shinjuku – Would suggest this hotel for only a single night (2 nights max) or if you are traveling solo. The rooms are very small, but the whole hotel is very clean and chic. They also have a rooftop onsen. It is not in the most convenient area, but the price is right! You know when you are booking the end of your trip and you have exhausted most of your funds and just want somewhere that looks nice for a good price? This is that. Only ideal if you are coming back to Tokyo from elsewhere and flying out the next day or so.
- YAMA-NO-CHAYA – MOST MEMORABLE EXPERIENCE EVER. I have ZERO negative things to say about this place. This accommodation is a Ryokan which is a type of traditional Japanese inn that typically features tatami-matted rooms and hot spring baths (0nsens). You wear a yukata and no shoes throughout the entire place. They also serve you a traditional Kiseki dinner in your room (multi-course meal). 10/10 would stay here again.
- TIP: Book a room with a private onsen (A MUST! BEST THING EVER). We booked special room C.
- TIP: When booking your room make sure to include the upgraded sliced raw fish plan as well as the Ashigara beef sirloin steak for our dinner.
- TIP: Right when you get there book the outside onsen for a private session.
- The Thousand – We loved this hotel from the moment we walked in. The interior design of this place alone had me obsessed. Every little detail was so specific. They were on brand down to the toothbrushes they provided. It is only 2 minutes away from the station so it was very convenient. Also, the spa was a plus. 10/10 would stay here again!
Our 10 day itinerary
We were really gone for 12 days, but 2 of those days were travel days, so they don’t count!
NOTE: I share some prices for transportation we used. Please know that these are estimates, not exact amounts.
DAY 0: ARRIVAL IN JAPAN – We landed in Japan at around 4pm so I’m not really counting this day.
- HOW TO GET TO TOKYO FROM NARITA – Take the JR Narita Express. It is about 90 minutes, about 3200 yen, and goes straight to Shinjuku station which is the area where we were staying. You will probably feel confused at the airport, but that is okay. Everyone is very friendly and willing to help.
- Checked into Keio Plaza – about a 7 minute walk from Shinjuku Station. Very convenient location for getting anywhere you want to go in Tokyo.
DAY 1: TOKYO
- Meiji Jingu Shrine – Before going we made sure how to properly bow and respect the cultural site
- TIP: bring cash if you want to go through the garden.
- Harajuku – colorful, fun, young street and area!
- Omotesando-dori AKA the Champs-Elysees of Tokyo – Boutique lined street, great for shopping and eating.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
- LUNCH: Kawaii Monster Cafe – A total trip, but so cute and fun. Think rainforest cafe vibes but 10x cuter.
- Cat street – Our favorite place to walk around. HIGHLY recommend. Not as touristy and a bunch of good stores and restaurants tucked away.
- DINNER: Taku – Booked ourselves in the private dining room of this Michelin starred restaurant. The place only seats about 15 people in total. You take your shoes off. Best omakase we’ve ever had.
DAY 2: TOKYO
- Imperial Palace – We visited the East gardens however most was closed for 2020 Olympics construction to our dismay.
- Tokyu Food Show – A MUST. It is located in Shibuya station and has any food you can think of. I was so overwhelmed – there were way too many options! Going back again for sure.
- TIP: check out the jewelry store right across the way from it, they have some super cute earrings!
- Shibuya Crossing – Busiest crosswalk in the world and literally right outside of Shibuya Station.
- Matsumoto Kiyoshi – A local drug store (they have them all over). SKINCARE GALORE!!! I went crazy.
- TIP: bring your passport to get your purchase over 50 yen tax free.
- LUNCH: Harajuku Gyozaro – Located in Harajuku and we waited about 30 mins but v worth it.
- TIP: Get both the steamed and pan fried as well as the chicken soup.
- DINNER: Tsunahachi – A fab tempura spot only 15 minutes via walking from our hotel.
- TIP: Get the fatty tuna sashimi and uni roll. TRUST ME.
- Walk around Shinjuku – It is such a cool area with so much to see!
- Golden Gai: A MUST. A bunch of locally owned TINY bars. You can feel partially like a local here. We walked here after dinner (a little bit of a walk).
DAY 3: TOKYO
- Akihabara – This is the electronics district. Keegan enjoyed this, I probably would have skipped it if it was just me LOL.
- Tokyo Station – We made a stop here on our way from Akihabara to Ginza just to see it!
- Ginza – This area is known for its shopping and sushi.
- LUNCH: Nishimura – A tonkatsu (aka Katsu) spot. I found it after a lot of research and it was one of those locals only joints…so you know it’s good! We waited for about 20 minutes and the restaurant is tiny but it was the best Katsu we’ve ever had!
- Sanrio World – AKA everything hello kitty!! My 6 year old self would have died and went to heaven.
- teamLab Borderless – This is the place with the cool exhibits and mirror pics you always see. It is best to book this in advance! Kim K and Kanye were there the same day as us too.
DAY 4: TOKYO to HAKONE
- BREAKFAST: Bills Omotesando – Found this place after lots of digging online for a good breakfast spot (we went here on my birthday). We LOVED this place! It is in harajuku and the atmosphere was perfect.
- TIP: get the ricotta pancakes. TRUST ME.
- Train to Hakone – We took the Romance Car from Shinjuku Station to Hakone which was a 80 minute ride. As mentioned above, check into the JR Pass if that is the best ticket option for you.
- LUNCH: 808 Monsmare – the highest rated restaurant in the little Hakone town. Highly recommend. Italian style pizza which provided a nice break from Japanese food. A 2 minute walk from the station.
- Check into Yama-No-Chaya – Hands down the best thing I have ever done. I will forever have this day and place in my memory.
- TIP: Take a taxi from the station. TRUST ME. There is a free shuttle however they drop you off at the end of a big hill which you have to lug all your luggage up.
DAY 5: HAKONE to KYOTO
- Train to Kyoto – We ended up taking the Shinkansen train (AKA bullet train) from Odawara to Kyoto which was about a 2 hour ride and about 13,080 yen (it might vary, but it will be around $120 USD). There is a slightly faster route however it requires a transfer and if you have all your luggage with you it wouldn’t be very convenient, plus it is a bit more expensive.
- TIP: Take a taxi to the Odawara Station.
- Check into The Thousand Kyoto – A quick 3 minute walk from the Kyoto Station.
- Arashiyama Bamboo Grove – We had a friend pick us up and drove there since it was a bit out of the way.
- TIP: Make sure to spend some time walking around Arashiyama!
- LUNCH/DINNER: Yoshimura – Soba noodle spot right in Arashiyama
DAY 6: KYOTO
- Nishiki Market – Marketplace in downtown Kyoto. There are lots of Japanese goods and foods!
- TIP: some of the places here only take cash, so be prepared. They have a great knife shop, however they will make you pay 213,060 yen (2,000 USD) in cash for a knife.
- Kinkaku-ji – The golden temple. It is not very convenient to get here. We took a bus that took us about 45 mins-1 hr to get there.
- Spa at the hotel – Even though we only did two things this day, it was a lot of travel time on a bus, so we decided to spend the rest of the evening utilizing the hotel onsen and spa.
DAY 7: KYOTO
- Fushimi Inari Taisha – A shrine worth visiting, I’m sure you’ve seen photos!
- Ninenzaka – Cute little area known for their teahouses and architecture. Great for walking around.
- Tea Ceremony Nagomi – A traditional tea ceremony experience in Ninenzaka where we learned all about tea ceremony in Japan, how to make matcha, and some facts about Japan itself. Highly recommend!
- DINNER: Chao Chao Gyoza – Highly rated Gyoza spot in Kyoto. SO GOOD.
- TIP: get there right when they open.
- Pontocho Alley and Kamogawa River – A cute ally of lots and lots of restaurants! We walked here after Chao Chao. After, we found ourselves near the river where everyone was sitting watching the sunset. LOVED this!
- TIP: Look into Kawadoko riverside dining. Basically what it is is dining on decks above the river! We saw lots of them after walking through Pontocho Alley and sitting by the river. We actually really wanted to do this however we didn’t make any reservations in advance.
DAY 8: KYOTO to TOKYO
- Train to Tokyo – We took the Shinkansen again back to Shinjuku Station (Tokyo). It took about 2.5 hours and the same price from Hakone to Kyoto, around 13,080 yen or about $120USD.
- Check into Onsen Ryokan Yuen Shinjuku
- TIP: take a taxi from the station to the hotel.
- Shinjuku Gyoen – A huge garden/park within walking distance. We didn’t end up going it because it cost about $10-$15 and we weren’t in the mood, but if you go in the spring time it has a ton of cherry blossoms.
- LUNCH/DRINKS:Bowls Cafe – A little cafe across the street from Shinjuku Gyoen. We were wanting a glass of wine so we sat down here. Admittedly, I had 3 glasses of wine and went back to the hotel where I then proceeded to drink 3 plum wines from the 7/11 across the street.
- DINNER: Uber Eats – LOL yes, they have Uber Eats!
- Fireworks – We were able to see them from the top of our hotel! Apparently they have a lot of fireworks during the summer season.
DAY 9: TOKYO
- Rest day – Note the 6 glasses of cheap wine I consumed the evening before.
- NOTE: this would have been a fine day to go home for us (minus flying with a hangover). I think we were both exhausted, ready for a hamburger (I don’t even like hamburgers but I was craving something ultra American), needing clean clothes, and were both a little agitated which I feel like is normal at the end of any adventurous trip. We could have done a lot this day, but everyday we had before this was go, go, go, so we were okay with resting.
DAY 10: TOKYO to NARITA AIRPORT
- LUNCH: Ichiran – I wish we had gone here multiple times – it was SO GOOD. You place your order through a vending machine and take a seat and wait for them to bring your food. You eat in your own little stall. Super fun experience. Ichiran is a chain so there are a few of them all over Tokyo.
- HOW TO GET TO NARITA FROM SHINJUKU – We took the Marunouchi line (you can use the Suica app for this) from Shinjuku Station to Tokyo Station and then transferred to the Narita Express train which took us to the airport. This whole trip took about 1.5 hours and cost around 1500 yen or $15 USD.
- TIP: take a taxi from the hotel to Shinjuku Station