It has always been a dream of mine to go to Japan. Growing up, my brother and I were OBSESSED with all things anime and Japanese culture. We used to read tons and tons of manga and would collect all different sorts of figurines. I was a nerd, and I am not afraid to admit it! Everything from the art, food, culture, and technology made me so excited to finally visit. Granted, I have never been to Asia either! My parents are both from the Philippines and even then, this was my first time on the continent. While all my other travel guides cover cities, this one will be covering Tokyo and Kyoto, thus the Japan title.
My brother, my cousin, and I had discussed visiting Japan in the summer early last year. They knew I had plans to travel to Europe over the summer and I voiced my opinion about going to Tokyo after that sometime. My brother lives in Seoul, Korea, which I haven't mentioned, so my cousin and I planned to meet him in Tokyo. Before I left for Europe, I was able to get my mom involved (mainly because neither me or her have visited my brother in Korea and it was time we did) and we booked our flights and hotel back in July to go in October. The plan was to fly to Korea, stay for a few days, then fly to Tokyo with my brother, which is exactly what we did. Unfortunately, I am not going to do a post on Korea because we were really there for only 72 hours and don't have enough to suffice a guide. I definitely want to visit again and see more, so hopefully a travel guide for Korea will come in the near future!
With that being said, we flew into Tokyo from Seoul and began our time! We were welcomed by rain, which wasn't the best, but it was still summer back home and I just spent a lot of time in the sun in Europe so it was refreshing to be somewhere a little more brisk. Plus, we knew the weather wouldn't be the best so it's not like we had super high expectations. Unlike my trip to Europe, we had a lot planned ahead of time so our days were pretty mapped out. We were going to do a few days in Tokyo, then a few in Kyoto, then go back to Tokyo until we flew out. I luckily had a ton of friends who had been before so we had plenty to look through. Side note: We used Google docs to organize our itinerary so we all had access to editing it and it was very helpful. But that's enough backstory, so keep reading to find out everything we saw, ate, and did while in Japan!
As mentioned, I have always wanted to go to Tokyo. There was just something about the city that I was so intrigued by and I wanted to see everything I felt like I saw in all the books and shows I watched. The weird thing is, and I kept saying this on the trip, is that Tokyo felt so nostalgic to me even though I had never been. I think it's because I was so enveloped into the culture as a kid and different things looked so familiar, even if I had only seen it in cartoon form. Just the way the streets were, or the alleys, the shopping, the people.. everything! It was the craziest thing, but also what made me love it the most. It was like entering this dream world that I though only existed on the screen or paper and finally seeing it with my own eyes was unforgettable.
WHERE TO STAY
There are so many great areas to stay while in Tokyo. I thought of Tokyo as a bigger New York. Mainly because of all the tall buildings, the fast-paced environment, and all the different "boroughs." Just like any big city, there are multiple different parts that all have various things to offer. It really all comes down to preference and also how near or far you want to be from everything. We stayed at the Hyatt Regency in Shinjuku, which was highly recommended by a friend who had just went a few months prior. Shinjuku was fairly close to everything. The biggest thing is that there is a JR station was nearby and we could get almost anywhere. It's not necessarily central, but there is good shopping, food, and you can get around easily. The hotel itself was great, it had everything we needed and the rooms were pretty big considering. For the four of us, we had two rooms and were lucky to have them conjoining so we got to open up a little more. I would definitely recommend staying here. One thing I will also say is that we experienced amazing hospitality at the hotel, and in Tokyo in general. I loved just how generous and kind everyone was. It definitely made the experience that much better.
In regards to the JR station I mentioned, I HIGHLY recommend getting a JR Pass. The JR is the Japan Rail which is basically their subway system. It's a little confusing at first on how to use it and where you can go with it, but it's worth it. It will also be worth your while to get it if you plan to go to Kyoto because, if I'm not mistaken, it's cheaper or almost the same price as a one way to Kyoto but you can use it unlimited for as many days as you are in Tokyo. I purchased my JR pass from here as well as the Wi-Fi hotspot for the trip. There are some other JR websites that look a little sketchy but the one I used was not at all.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
There is SO much to do in Tokyo that it's almost impossible to do it all in a week. There are tons of temples, parks, museums, shopping districts, restaurants, cafes, and way way more that makes it a little overwhelming to try and plan. My advice is to pick at least 5-10 things depending on how long you're staying and make it a priority to go to those things. That way, you won't be discouraged if you can't do it all because at least you got to see the things you really wanted to see. Trust me, Tokyo is so big and when it comes to actually finding time to go it becomes a lot. I think sometimes we forget to incorporate travel time, meals, and also if you are with other people and if they are tired or not. So below will be a list of the things that we did and that we handpicked from everything that we made a priority to see.
Shibuya Crossing: This is like the Times Square equivalent of Tokyo, but crazier, mainly because of all the big screens and billboards. It's where there are hundreds of people are waiting to cross the street then all at once the light turns red and everyone from every direction starts walking through the intersection. I recommend walking in it and being a part of the crowd, but then also going up to a cafe or something that is higher up and watching it happen. It is so crazy to see but a MUST.
Sensō-ji: This is Tokyo's oldest temple and one of the most significant. A little farther out from the main part of the city but worth the trek. It is very historical and you feel like you are transported back to when the temple was more than a tourist attraction. There are tons of vendors that line the path to the temple that sell all kinds of goods. Yummy snacks, masks (I got a fox one), kimono and yukatas, and other little trinkets. I loved coming here and would recommend!
Tokyo Tower: You know that red and white tower emoji you probably never use but kind of want to use for the Eiffel Tower? Well, this is it. It's one of Tokyo's most famous landmarks. It's also stunning in person. We went up and the view of the city from up there was insane.
Studio Ghibli Museum: Being the total anime nerd that I am, I DIED at the Ghibli museum. Studio Ghibli created the following movies: My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away, etc. If you know any of them, you have to go. Everything is Ghibli themed and is inspired by all of their movies. It's mainly a ton of installations and exhibits about the drawing process, the movies themselves, food, and more. They also do a screening of a short Ghibli film that was so fun. Ours was about this puppy that got lost. So. Cute.
Yoyogi Park: This and the one below kind of go hand in hand as they are technically in the same park area. Yoyogi Park was a great place to relax and enjoy the nature. We happened to come when a typhoon hit Tokyo, and the day after the typhoon it was the clearest day it had been since we were there. It was really nice to be outside so going to Yoyogi Park then walking around after was perfect.
Meiji Shrine: Another temple (there are so many) we went to and just walked around. Either go to Yoyogi Park before or after.
Tokyo Imperial Palace: I personally didn't go, but my brother and cousin did. It's kind of a waste to go unless you have tickets from what I hear. We didn't have tickets thus why I skipped it. My brother and cousin just went to see it. You don't get to see much without one.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden: A beautiful garden/park area. There is this crazy greenhouse in the middle of it with the most beautiful greenery. They also have lily pads that are legit 2-3 feet in diameter! It was insane. There is also a tea house you can walk by.
Odaiba: This is a manmade island in Tokyo that has shopping, food, and other things. We went because my brother wanted to see the life-size Gundam Wing figure! It was pretty cool to see! They also have a fake Statue of Liberty and you can see the Rainbow Bridge from here which made it feel like we were in Brooklyn looking across the river to Manhattan. Would definitely recommend coming at night because then you get to see all the lights!
Inokashira Park: We came here after going to the Ghibli museum. It was rainy when we went so it was all kind of dull and grey but it would be beautiful in the spring and summer. You get this great view of the pond and the trees frame it so perfectly.
Harajuku & Aoyama Shopping: Amazing shopping area. Two different areas but close to each other. Harajuku is a lot more wild and filled with unique boutiques and stores, primarily cosplay or just outfits that are really out there. It's definitely worth going to and seeing! Shoutout to Gwen Stefani. But if you want some serious shopping, then walk down Aoyama. This is where you can find Gucci, Prada, Comme des Garçons, Off-White, Prada, Saint Laurent, etc. So definitely more my speed.
Purikura: If you have ever seen those crazy, FaceTune type photos with drawings all over them and airbrushing like a Vogue cover, then you know what at Purikura is. Basically there are places in Tokyo that are filled with tons of different photo booths. There are dozens and it's very overwhelming to know which one to go to. Just pick one that isn't crowded, take your photos and start drawing! I did it with my mom and absolutely love the photos!
Kiddy Land: This is like the Toys R Us of Tokyo. It has all different types of anime and even American cartoons and they sell toys, shirts, figurines, and other goodies. They have stuff like Pokemon, Sailor Moon, Kingdom Hearts, Star Wars, Digimon, Totoro, and then some.
HARRY the Hedgehog Cafe: So animal cafes are huge in Japan and can be found all over. For example, there was an owl cafe in Kyoto when we went. I wanted to visit the hedgehog cafe because I think they are so cute. I kinda hate cats so didn't want to go to a cat one. Here you get to play and hold hedgehogs and it was just a fun experience with my family.
WHERE TO EAT
This is where it gets crazy. You guys.... the food was absolutely insane. Everything we ate was something I wish I could eat over and over again. Japanese food is my favorite type of food because it includes so much. Like sushi, teriyaki, ramen, udon, tempura, and teppanyaki. Like aren't you hungry just thinking about that? So below are a list of places I went to and underneath I'll add places that were highly recommended but we didn't have the chance to make it.
Sushi Bar Yasuda: Ok so, this was my favorite meal of the entire trip. It's a small restaurant with 8 seats at the bar, and then maybe 4 table seats in the back. It's fully booked every night and you need to make your reservations in advance. We ordered omakase which is when the chef will give you whatever they want, granted you tell them your likes and dislikes. My sushi likes include yellowtail, salmon, and tuna (especially fatty). We initially were going to do the smaller piece menu item but because it was one of our first omakase's of the trip, we just let him feed us. You can tell him to stop whenever you want but the fish was so so so so good we didn't want it to end. We probably had around 20 pieces of sushi and per person it was under $180 each. That sounds crazy expensive, and it is, but compared to other sushi restaurants where you sit at a bar and get all the best fish (for example Jiro's restaurant is like $300 each), it was pretty cheap. The chef, Naomichi Yasuda, was actually on Chef's Table, which we found out during our meal, and then I watched when I was back home and cried a little because I missed his food so much. So basically you MUST go here if you are looking for a sushi bar experience and want the best sushi you will ever eat.
Sushi Sora: This was our next omakase and prior to our trip we had heard many great things about it. We made reservations in advance and knew it would be one of our expensive dinners throughout the whole trip. The amazing thing about Sushi Sora is that it's on top of the Mandarin Oriental so it's very bougie, A., and B., you see all of Tokyo while you eat. We went to Yasuda the night before so our expectations were really high, and although the food was amazing, compared to Sushi Bar Yasuda, it just wasn't the same. Don't get me wrong, the food was delicious, the service was impeccable, and the presentation was gorgeous, but it was more expensive and overall not as good as the night before. Regardless, it is worth checking out but of the two, I would for sure go to Yasuda.
Sushi-Zanmai Higashi Shinjuku: Another amazing sushi place, this time much much more affordable. This is a great lunch spot and all the fish is insane. I ate things I usually hate in California, and it tasted way different and obviously better. I believe there are multiple locations but we just happened to go to the one in Shinjuku, which I was told to go to. It was seriously really good and I highly recommend going!
Aoyama Flower Market: It was so so pretty here. As mentioned above, Aoyama is where all the good shopping is. What Melrose is to LA is what Aoyama is to Tokyo. This is a flower market that not only sells fresh and beautiful flowers, but also serves the most delicious tea and desserts.
Ippudo Ramen: Another place with different locations. We went to the one in Shinjuku since it was conveniently located right by our hotel. There are so many delicious ramen places but I was told to go here and it did not disappoint!
Shabuzen Roppongi: If you like Shabu Shabu or hot pot, come here.
BLACOWS: Another amazing recommendation. They serve wagyu beef burgers that were so delicious. When all you're eating is sushi and rice sometimes you just need a good burger and fries and this definitely satisfied that craving.
Aman Hotel: Came here for a drink aka sake and it was great. Amazing ambiance and the lounge area was STUNNING.
Torikatsu: This hidden chicken katsu restaurant in Shibuya. It's literally inside a building that looks like it has a ton of offices in it. Super super small but the food was delicious. It's pretty simple too. They give you miso soup, rice, and chicken katsu. Everyone gets the same thing and its bomb. If you like katsu you MUST go.
High Tea at Park Hyatt: You're in Japan so you need to get tea, and a lot of it! Me and my mom took a day off from sight-seeing and went to get high tea at the Park Hyatt hotel in Shinjuku.
Yanmo: Another place in Aoyama that serves grilled fish. It's so cute in there and definitely a traditional Japanese restaurant that has some contemporary elements. If you are shopping in Aoyama I recommend coming here for a bite!
Didn't go but recommended:
Tsuta Ramen: Michelin star ramen. Enough said. Be sure to google how to get in to their restaurant because it involves waiting in line before they open, getting a ticket for a later time that day, then coming back. You can find out all about it online and they also have a Twitter to let you know what time they will be open that day!
New York Grill: If you are a fan of Lost in Translation this is that bar. Also at the Park Hyatt hotel.
Before going to Japan, I asked around to many of my friends who have gone to see what they loved the most about their time, and every person that has been to Kyoto said it is a must. They said that Tokyo is amazing and is like any big city, but Kyoto is where you experience traditional Japanese culture. I always thought Kyoto was just another big city, which part of it is, but there is also a part that is more secluded, surrounded by greenery, and has the countryside feel. It is definitely a trip and would be exhausting to do in one day so we decided to go for a few days. I was blown away with how beautiful Kyoto was and everything about it. It definitely felt more historical and more laid back than Tokyo. It was very refreshing, and where we stayed (which I will discuss below) made it that much more worth it.
WHERE TO STAY
So when looking up places to stay, we knew in our head that we would stay in a ryokan. A ryokan is traditional Japanese inn and usually has a bath house. What you get varies on the ryokan and the kind of room you select but for the most part here is what to expect: You will be sleeping on mats on the floor, you will either have a private bath and bathroom in your room or have one shared, and your meals will be all included. Sounds interesting, doesn't it? We like our privacy so we needed a room with our own bath and toilet, but the ryokan we stayed in had it's own bath house. Basically there is a room for men and a room for women and in each is a hot bath, a cold bath, a sauna, and shower stations. I had been to one here in Los Angeles so I knew what to expect, but if you haven't experienced something like this before then it may come as a shock. Either way, I definitely recommend taking advantage of the amenities if your ryokan has it available! Some even have hot springs outdoors!
We stayed at Togetsu-tei, which I HIGHLY recommend to anyone wanting this experience in Kyoto. First off, they picked us up from the train station and when we arrived, we were immediately asked to take off our shoes. We were given slippers that we were to wear around the grounds and they stored our shoes for us. We were directed to our room which upon arrival just had a low table and four chairs on the ground. Where were our beds? I'll get to that. So we get situated, then we had someone come in, her name was Rino, who first brought us matcha green tea. Then after we literally had 9 courses of food. She would come in, take away what we just ate or drink, go away, then come back with an entire new course. She would do this for the duration of the 9 courses which included things like rice, fish, sashimi, soup, tofu, teriyaki, etc. Once dinner was done, we would call down and she would come back and take the table and chairs away, then would roll out our beds, which were mats but actually very comfortable. Once we woke up, we would go to a different area for breakfast and get another 5 course meal served to us. It was the perfect way to start off our days. We stayed for two nights and it was perfect. You can book the ryokan here. Check out some photos below, click the next button to see more.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
Because our time in Kyoto was limited (we arrived late one night and just went straight to the hotel, then had one full day, then left after breakfast the next day), we didn't have a lot of time to do much. There are so many things you can do in Kyoto and I definitely want to go back to experience more. But here are the things we did that we felt were essential:
Fushimi Inari: You've seen photos of this from all the travel bloggers you follow. It is the head shrine of the god Inari and it starts at the bottom of the mountain. Then there are literally thousands of tori gates that line the path to the top. It is so insane to walk through and experience in person. A photo doesn't do it justice because they seriously go on and on.
Nara: On our full day in Kyoto, we made another trip to Nara, which if you know anything about Nara, this is where the deer are. And not just any deer, deer that are friendly AF. And also so cute. The second you get off the train and into a taxi you start seeing deer crossing signs and deer all over. Once you get to Nara Park proper, you then see hundreds. You can buy treats and feed them, but BEWARE, once you feed one, you will be surrounded. I was dying of laughter because I was getting [gently] rammed by deer to feed them and all of them were chasing me!! It was so cute but also kinda scary. These deer are not afraid of people whatsoever. A must go if you are in Kyoto
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest: Another good stop! A bamboo forest that you can wander through and just see how much there is.
Iwatayama Monkey Park: This was right by our ryokan but we didn't have time to go. But as the name says, it is a monkey park.
Kyoto Imperial Palace: You need tickets to come here, which we didn't have so we didn't go but heard great things about!
WHERE TO EAT
I will be honest and say that I don't have any recommendations about where to eat in Kyoto because our ryokan provided every meal. We ate lunch out when we were in Nara but it was nothing to write home about. I would definitely try and stay in a ryokan because that is part of the whole experience and why I want to go back. There are tons of great restaurants and little food spots, we just didn't have time to explore.
So this wraps up my travel guide for Tokyo + Kyoto! It was one of my favorite trips I have ever taken, and as of late I have taken quite a few. I seriously cannot wait to go back, this time during the spring when the cherry blossoms are blooming. It is seriously a whole other world and I mean that in the best way possible. It is just an experience in itself and if you have the opportunity to go, GO! Comment below if you have ever been and what you would recommend! I love a guide that keeps on guiding :) Till next time! xx