Japan has always been on my bucket list and last November Steve and I managed to get out there to explore it. It’s one of the most beautiful countries, whether you’re in the hustle and bustle of the cities or out in the rural countryside, it has so much to offer and I feel like we didn’t even scratch the surface. This guide is based off Steve and I’s trip and thought I’d share the place where we’d go back to if we visited again.
I’d recommend getting the Japan Rail pass for your trip! We used this site https://www.jrailpass.com/ and our passes took us from Tokyo-Kyoto-Osaka-Nara-Mount Fuji-Tokyo no problem. We took the 7 day pass but as our trip was 10 days in total, which meant we paid for the return train ticket from Haneda Airport (You can purchase this at the airport). You exchange the voucher that you’ll receive in the post prior to leaving at any Japan Rail counter, which are located within most stations. This is also a great place to ask for help planning your journey with the customer service assistant but also to pre-reserve seats before your train journeys. This saves you walking down the whole train looking for seats and being moved on by people who have reserved seats (which happened to us when we didn’t pre-reserve).
In terms of getting around we either used the Tokyo Metro or walked. In Kyoto buses are the thing to take (You enter through the centre doors and exit and pay out the front doors).
Taxis are available, but expensive and be prepared to use Google translate to say where you’re going. I downloaded the app JapanTaxi which is like Uber, but I found it only worked in more city based areas, which is something to note, it works much like the Uber app.
We chose to walk a lot of the time in Japan and normally your rail pass takes you on certain metro lines too.
Our trip was booked two weeks before at the height of the Autumn Leaves season, so we were limited on options in terms reasonably priced Airbnbs and hotels. I’d recommend starting with Airbnb stays, as the hosts are able to help with recommendations and restaurant bookings. They’re also reasonably priced if you book in advance.
We stayed at a hotel/hostel that had just opened, which had an amazing bakery attached, private rooms and they also give you a voucher for a free breakfast too! Definitely worth checking out the Mustard Hotel the smell of the bakery as you walked in was amazing.
We stayed in a Ryokan (Traditional Japanese Inn) near Mount Fuji. I wouldn’t recommend the one we stayed in but they’re a really great experience as they normally include a multi-course dinner and breakfast. Some inns also include a private or public Onsen* (Japanese Hot Springs). *Something to note, if you have tattoos, sometimes people with tattoos are not allowed to enter the public Onsen, so a private Onsen can be booked through a Ryokan if this is available.
Tokyo recommended areas to stay near- Harajuku, Shibuya, Shinjuku
Kyoto recommended areas to stay near- Gion
Areas & Places to Visit
Nakameguro/ Dailanyama– You can walk along the tree-lined Meguro river and stroll into the beautifully curated fashion stores, small eateries and coffee shops. (The Wagyu Mafia Cutlet Sandwich shop mentioned below in where to eat is in Nakameguro)
Harajuku is amazing – there’s great shopping and people watching. (The Gyoza restaurant recommendation is within this area- see where to eat)
Borderless Team Lab – We missed out on tickets for this, but I’ve heard from loads of people that this art museum in Tokyo is amazing! Search Borderless Team Lab on Instagram to see what it’s like!
Golden Gai – Is a place we didn’t get have time to visit but were recommended by a friend. It’s an area in Tokyo
The Park Hyatt– Travel up to the bar for a drink for amazing views of the city, it was made famous for appearing as the bar in Lost in Translation.
Where to Eat
Tokyo has so many great places to eat but these are the ones we really enjoyed on the trip.
Ichiran (Shibuya Branch) for Ramen – This restaurant is open 24 hour restaurant and a really popular ramen chain in Tokyo. They have 70 locations so it’s a good one to look for if you fancy a quick meal. Steve and I went here on the first night when we were super jet lagged! The premise is you order at the vending machine before you sit down. Then you find a seat and hand over you tickets through the window in the booth in front of your seat. You never see anyone serving just receive your food and drinks, it’s a great place if you’re jet lagged and can barely form sentences.
Wagyu Mafia The Cutlet Sandwich (Not an option for Vegan/Vegetarians) Is one of the best restaurants I’ve ever been to, we went to the sandwich store and not the main restaurant- It’s the best, but most expensive sandwich I’ve ever eaten! The sandwiches are around £130 and I think in total we might have spent around £180 for both sandwiches and chips (we went for the most expensive cut), yes it’s a lot of money however it was the most expensive meal we had in Japan. It’s obviously not for everyone but it was a really special experience for us. If you do go use the tabasco/chilli sauce!
Gonpachi Nishi-Azabu Is a fun restaurant.It’s actually the Izayaka that inspired the famous Kill Bill scene. You have to book in advance but you can ring and book no problem. This restaurant is popular with tourists, it’s still a great restaurant but I got a feeling it might not be a local favourite.
Harajuku Gyoza Lou– A great place to grab some gyoza and have a beer whilst exploring the area. You might have to queue, but it moves super quick. They only take cash so make sure you’ve got some on you before you grab a table or you’ll do what Steve and I did and leave one of you for ransom while the other runs across the street for the cash. This place is really reasonably priced, 6 gyoza is around ¥260 (Around £3.00).
Isana Sushi Bar– My brother Jake and his girlfriend Kelly ate here on their trip to Tokyo and really enjoyed it! Unlike other sushi counters it has more of relaxed feel to the dining. It’s a set menu chosen by the chef too.
Areas/ Places to Visit
Bamboo Grove is definitely worth a visit – though I would say get there early as it becomes crazy busy in the afternoon. You catch the train out to Arashiyama and walk to the bamboo forest from here. There are stunning views across the river. I’d recommend walking the Katsura river to the Arashiyama Myoken-do Temple.
Ponto-cho is a really interesting place to explore – similar to Omoide and Golden Gai. It has hundreds of tiny bars crammed into an alleyway, with max. 10 people per bar. This is where you might spot a Geisha too. (Note that Geisha’s do not like having their photos taken).
Nara Park– You catch the train out to Nara Park and walk from the station. It’s a park filled with deer who’re very used to humans. I’d recommend walking into the wooded area which is less hectic than the open sections of the park. You can buy deer crackers from the many vendors and before you give the cracker to the deer you bow and amazingly the deer will bow back!
Fushimi Inari Shrine is gorgeous, this is where you’ll find the iconic orange gates/pillars. You can catch the train out from Kyoto and walk up the hill from the station. There’s a great bakery to stop at on the hill to grab a snack for the journey! The Shrine is super popular and they’ll be a dense concentration of people funnelled in between the lower pillars, I would suggest to keep walking up through the shrines as it’ll start to become less compact and you’ll find spots between groups walking up through the shrine.
Where to Eat
Teppanyaki Hanamichi and Teppanyaki Manyru are great. Double check before you go if you’ll need to book in advance. Also your clothes will end up smelling like Teppanyaki, so something to bear in mind if you were thinking of wearing them the next day!
Nichi Market- Has loads of different food vendors and is a great place to explore a traditional market as well as sampling some local delicacies!
Areas/ Places to Visit
Osaka is a big business city, it feels a lot like Tokyo in terms of all the lights and shopping etc.
Dotonbori Glico Sign is pretty cool, it’s in a super touristy part but I think it’s a famous sign that was actually installed in 1935.
Karaoke – Osaka is a great place to find an awesome Karaoke bar
Osaka Castle– A structure rebuilt in 1931 and surrounding by a leafy park, it holds a selection of weaponry and as well as a unique view from the observation deck over Osaka.
Shop Tenjinbashi-suji- It’s one of the longest shopping arcades in the world. I’d recommend the clothes shop United Arrows, but there’s so many interesting places to explore along here.
Where to eat
Pablo– One of the things Osaka is famous for is cheesecake, if you fancy something sweet head along to Pablo to try out their famous flavours.
Try Okonomiyaki a traditional ‘pancake’ with shredded cabbage and different toppings. It originated from Osaka.
Critters Burgers– At this point we were craving another type of food so we found critters burgers, which uses prime cuts of Japanese beef to create traditional American Style Burgers.
Osaka wasn’t really Steve and I’s vibe and in hindsight would have stayed in Kyoto for a bit longer as it had that feeling of more traditional Japan. However it was a great city to explore.
I’d recommend catching the train from Tokyo to Mount Fuji. We stayed near Lake Kawaguchiko which is famous for it’s beautiful views and Autumn Leaves festival. It was out of season when we visited so unfortunately we didn’t get to go up Mount Fuji. The area is a hot spring resort so a nice place to find a traditional Japanese Inn and enjoy the springs with the mountain in the background.
This is everything we managed to fit in within 10 days, I would have loved to have visited the art island, Naoshima and stayed somewhere more rural also, but we had a great time in a country that has so much to offer!