Updated 2018-08-03 (Originally posted 2016-06-28)
I made some updates to this article as I have since spent a year living in Tokyo since I originally wrote it. I've learned quite a bit about better places to go.
At least a few people have asked me about my recommendations for what to do/see/eat in Japan, so I’ve decided to post about it. I just got back from my third trip in two years though, so while I am by no means a Japanese master (and this list is by no means exhaustive) I’ve managed to find a lot of stuff about Japan that I love. It’s probably my favorite place to visit, of all the places I’ve been thus far.
Where to go
I’m going to assume here that you have ~2 weeks to spend in Japan. I’d recommend spending at least half of your time in Tokyo. While the rest of Japan is also great, Tokyo is special (in the same way that places like Paris, or NYC are special). It’s also the biggest city in the world, so there is no lack of things to do.
In descending order of how much I like them, here are all the places in Japan I would recommend visiting in a 2 week trip:
If you have more than 2 weeks, I would also recommend:
- Naoshima and Teshima (the art islands)
And if you have a ton of time also go to (like 4 weeks):
If you plan on spending at least a week outside of Tokyo I highly recommend getting a JR Rail Pass. It’s pretty cheap, and well worth it, as taking the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) is one of the most pleasurable travel experiences one can have. It’s both efficient, fast, cheap and fun.
Tokyo really is a spectacular city. It’s huge, but it’s really easy to find a nice quiet area to relax. It’s a world class city with the best food I’ve ever eaten, and some of the most beautiful parks. The public transportation is unreal, and more extensive than anywhere else I’ve ever been by a long shot. It’s also covered in beautiful modern architecture. It’s not as ancient looking as some european cities, but the aesthetic of the city as a whole is much more to my liking than American cities.
Where to stay
The JR Yamanote is the most famous train line in Tokyo, it forms a giant loop about 10 miles across, inside the loop is what I would consider “Central Tokyo”. I have found myself especially enjoying staying just west of the Yamanote loop, generally west from Shibuya station. Daikanyama, Naka-Meguro and Shimokitazawa are all my favorite places I’ve stayed in Tokyo, and the thing that is nice is there’s lot of stuff happening, but you can walk a few feet and you are in a quiet residential neighborhood. You can’t go wrong anywhere in Tokyo of course, but this is my favorite. In Shibuya, a little further away from the main train station would be really nice, and convenient too.
When I first moved to Tokyo I spent the year living just south of Yoyogi park in Shibuya. Anywhere near that park would be a great, and convienient and cool place to stay.
The subway is the most obvious way to get around Tokyo, and it really is amazing. There’s SO many trains and lines, stops are everywhere, you’re never more than a 5 minute walk from a station anywhere in central Tokyo. Of course, this extensiveness also comes with a cost: it’s confusing. Not only are different lines owned by different companies (and some by the government) but it can be nigh on impossible to plan a more complex trip. Google Maps is going to be your best friend here.
I much prefer to walk, when I can though. Tokyo has got to be one of the best walking cities in the world. There’s so much to see, and much of Central Tokyo is relatively compact, given how many people live there. You’ll really get a sense for the layout of the city as well.
In addition to google maps, check out an app called Crows Flight. It’s similar to google maps, but instead you just put in a destination and it points you in the right direction, as opposed to giving you specific directions. It’s great when you’ve got a destination in mind, but can take your time getting there. Really allows you to explore.
What To Eat
Ramen is my favorite Japanese food and probably my favorite food overall. If all you know of ramen is the cheap instant kind from college, you definitely need to try it again. It’s an incredible noodle soup, often times with the most delicious broth, amazing noodles, amazing pork, and a soft-boiled egg.
I can’t really do it justice, so just try it. There’s a few main different kinds of Ramen: Shio, Shoyu, Miso and Tonkotsu. Tonkotsu is my favorite, it’s the porkiest.
If you go to Rage, make sure to check out Inokashira Park nearby afterwards.
There's also Ramen Zundou-ya in Shinjuku (and other places I believe) which is a really increcibly good middle of the road place that is great to try Ramen if you've never had it before.
The most famous Japanese dish: raw fish on rice.
For the best sushi of your life, head to Tsukiji fish market bright and early (go at 5 or 6am). It’s a good idea to go one of your first days there, as you’ll probably be all fucked up from jet lag and waking up early anyways. My favorite sushi place there is Daiwa Sushi. For about $40 you’ll eat the best sushi you’ve ever had in your life. Afterwards, wander around the fish market and check everything out.
The rumor with the fishmarket is that you have to show up at like 4am to eat sushi, but that's not true. I've found you can arrive at 8 or 9am and wait the same amount of time to eat sushi.
Next door to Daiwa is a place called Sushi Dai which in my opinion is slightly better than Daiwa; however the wait for Daiwa is about 30 minutes, and the wait for Dai is 2.5 hours. I'll let you decide if it's worth it (they are both unreal good).
I also recommend going to a “Kaiten” sushi place (conveyor belt) (also called “Sushi go-around”). Basically the sushi travels around the restaurant on a conveyor belt, and when you see something you want to eat, you take it, and you eat it. When you are finished, the waiter will come and count your plates and give you the bill. Not only is this sushi still better than almost everything you get in the US, but it’s super cheap, and you can eat till you are exactly full.
Essentially deep fried pork chops. Delicious. Often comes with a big mound of cabbage and miso soup. The Japanese know how to do Pork right. My favorite place is called Tonkatsu Maisen in Omotesando. It will probably cost you between $20 and $30 per person, depending on the quality of pork you get, but it’s well worth it.
Another place I discovered while living there was called Butagumi, which is probably better than Maisen (though slightly more expensive) and a better experience since it's in a cool old house. Check it out.
The japanese equivalent of a gastropub. Bar with food basically. Go in an order a beer (bee-ru) and various foods like:
Grilled chicken on a stick (Yakitori), Fried Chicken, Edamame, other grilled meats and veggies. Tofu. Noodle and Rice dishes. Everything is so good.
Get some beers, some highballs, or other Japanese drinks.
A great place that I love is Jomon. Hard to get in if you don't make reservations (which will be difficult to do unless you speak japanese). If it's just one or two of you, head here and try to get a seat (it's well worth it). It's hard to find, should be just an unmarked green (if I remember correctly) door with stairs heading upwards.
Real fat noodles. Oftentimes when you go to an Udon place, you choose the soup base, then, cafeteria style, go through and put various Tempura (e.g. fried) vegetables and shrimps into your soup. It’s real good and cheap. I would often go to a chain called Hanamaru, which is quite good and incredibly cheap.
If you want to go upmarket slightly, check out Shin Udon. It's damn good, but damn touristy and damn busy all the time. Be prepared to wait at least half an hour.
Fancy Japanese steaks. Super fatty and delicious small portions of meat (thnk Kobe-style beef). Basically the Japanese equivalent of Korean BBQ but with much higher quality beef. Try some "Horumon" if you are feeling adventerous. Can get pretty expensive pretty quickly but is well worth it.
Han No Daidokoro is a great one to try
Fried pork dumplings. Also super good. You can often get them at Ramen restaurants, but you can find them all over the place. There's another damn good restaurant in Harajuku that only serves Gyoza. Super good and super cheap (albiet a bit touristy).
Literally means “Beef bowl”. A crappier version can be found in the US at Yoshinoya Beef Bowl. Basically scrappy beef on rice. Really good and really cheap. Essentially Japanese McDonalds.
Western Style Food
Hamburg-steak, Korroke (croquettes), spaghetti, Curry. These are basically the Japanese version of western style meals (and Indian Curry). Actually really good, even if they aren’t especially authentic. Definitely worth checking out.
My probably overall favorite place to eat while living in Tokyo was Joutou Curry Get the katsu curry with Cheese. Sounds weird I know but it's unreal good. I would get that multiple times a week.
What to do
Go to the big crossing in Shibuya. Walk around and shop. Visit Yoyogi Park. Check out the Meiji Shrine near there. Walk to Harajuku and check out the crazy fashions. Walk around the back alleys and cool stores of Omotesando. Wander around Daikanyama, and visit the T-Site bookstore, it's maybe the coolest bookstore in the world.
Visit Shinjuku at night and see all the crazy lights. Check out the view from the top of Tokyo Metropolitan Building. Eat some fancy food in Ebisu. Visit the top of the Ebisu Garden Place and get the best view of the city.
See the Tokyo Swallows (or one of the other 5 baseball teams) play a game.
Walk to Shimokitazawa from Shibuya and check out all the beautiful houses and the relaxing atmosphere. Stop by Village Vanguard in Shimokitazawa.
Go eat Ramen at Rage (see above) then walk to Inokashira Park, quite possibly the most beautiful park I’ve ever seen. Stop by 7-11 on the way there and have a picnic.
Full day iternerary: Wake up, take the train to Tsukiji Fish market and get some Sushi (see above). Walk through Ginza and check out the imperial palace. Walk up to Akihabara and check out the electronics/anime/manga stores and stop and play some arcade games at one of the many arcades. Walk up to Ueno and check out the park and markets surrounding the station. Walk up to Kappabashi street and check out all the kitchen supply restaurants. Finish the day in Asakusa, checking out Sensjo-ji and eating some Matcha ice cream.
Kyoto is typically the next stop on people’s itinerary after Tokyo. While I personally don’t like it nearly as much as I like Tokyo, some of the cultural sites are pretty amazing. In fact think the reason I like it less, is while the cultural sites and shrines and whatnot are much better than in Tokyo, the city itself I don’t like nearly as much.
Where to stay
Part of the reason I probably don’t like Kyoto as much as Tokyo is I haven’t found the best place to stay. That being said, while I have never stayed there, I always find myself heading back to the Philosophers Path. If you can stay near there, it will probably be quiet and beautiful, though maybe a bit out of the way. Either way it’s not super important where you stay, as the main sites are relatively close together, and you can always take the train, or even better, stay at a place with bicycles and ride around town.
I've since visited Kyoto a few more times and another really nice area to stay is near Gion. Lot's of good restaurants and bars nearby, plus some nice canals and rivers to see.
What to do
The two best temples, in my opinion are Fushimi Inari (I guess more of a shrine then a temple) and Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion). Walk all over Fushimi Inari and up the mountain to see thousands of orange Tori gates. Seriously it’s crazy. Kinkaku is just a beautiful building with an even more beautiful garden. It’s also worth checking out Ryoan-ji, which is the best example of a classic Japanese Zen Garden I’ve ever seen, but that’s basically all there is there. I’d also recommend hiking up Mount Daimonji-Yama from Ginkaku-Ji (the Silver Pavilion). There’s an amazing view of the city at the top and a really beautiful forest. The bamboo forest at Arashiyama is cool but kinda far away from everything else and super full of tourists. There's literally hundreds of different temples to see, so if you're in a temple viewing mood you can't go wrong.
Osaka is best known for it’s food. It’s definitely worth spending a day or two there and stuffing yourself silly.
If you are going to Osaka from Kyoto (or vice versa) it might be worth spending a day in Nara on the way there. Kyoto is the old capital of Japan, Nara is the super old capital of Japan. Lots of deer to see, and crazy old temples, including what I believe is the largest freestanding wooden structure in the world. It's very pretty here and about an hour from both Kyoto and Osaka.
What to eat
The main tourist part of Osaka is near the “Namba” station (and Dotonbori) along and nearby the canals. The two types of food you should check out there are Takoyaki (Octopus balls, just get some on the street as a snack) and Okonomiyaki (which is hard to describe, but kind of like a seafood pancake). My favorite okonomiyaki place is called Mizuno. Additionally, probably the best ramen I’ve ever had can be found in Osaka, at a place called Men-Life and if I remember correctly, it was actually around the corner from the location this sites map says. It’s highly worth making sure you find it because goddamn is it incredible.