- NOTE: This is an accumulated set of information that I’ve sent to friends for decades now. It reads like an email to friends because that’s exactly what this was, an email repeatedly revised and resent over the years whenever a friend asked for it. After seven trips, I’m still most familiar with Tokyo. But the map has recently added Kyoto and Osaka since I can now say I’ve been back there in the past 5 years. I’m by no means an expert on Japan. I’m ok sitting within the boundaries of just being a frequent tourist. But I hope this list is helpful to other tourists visiting Japan for the first time.
HALLEY’S BIG MAP OF FUN
Firstly, here is the link to the big Map of Japan Fun seen above. It covers tourist sites, architecture, shopping, cafes, and a nerd section for toys, robots, anime, etc. There are food recommendations (moreso now after the latest trip), but you’re still better off reading up on more current offerings from blogs and travel sites. If I’m being honest, we more often than not just Googled food options for our vicinity, and we were never disappointed by the choices.
- Everyone always seems to ask, “can I get around Japan without Japanese?” The general answer is, yea shouldn’t be a problem. English signage can be found in most major cities, and definitely at train stations. Maybe less so in rural areas. Restaurants in major areas will likely have English menus, but alot of local spots won’t. It’s always good to learn some Japanese phrases, because not even trying is just bad form. But even if they can’t speak much English, people tend to be pretty helpful. In major tourist cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, I’ve definitely noticed an increase in English speakers compared to past trips. Also with the advent of Google Translate, it’s pretty easy to communicate with locals. Hell, I had entire conversations with people at bars through Translate. Thank you 21st century.
- One of the first things to get is a Pasmo/Suica/Icoca card (contact-less IC Card). It makes life easier and can be used for trains, subways, buses, taxis, and even 7-11’s and various restaurants (generally if they’re in or near stations) throughout the entire country.
- If you feel like traveling around Japan, get yourself a JR Pass before the trip. It’s only available OUTSIDE the country, as it’s meant for tourists. There are multiple passes, and it’s best to read up on them to see if a pass is good for your trip. Even two Shinkansen rides (say between Tokyo and Kyoto) within 7 days would make a pass worthwhile.
- If your phone doesn’t have an international option, get either a mobile wifi hotspot or a local SIM, as public wifi still sucks in Japan. I recommend Japan Wifi Rental for a portable hotspot or Mobal for a local sim card. Both are great because you can pick them up from the airport (and in the case of the hotspot rental, drop off too). The downside to the local SIM is that it may take a few hours to activate your account, while the downside to a pocket wifi is that it generally only lasted til 5pm (definitely get a battery pack)
- If you fly into Narita Airport, hopping onto the JR would be the cheapest option into the city. But the Limousine Bus Service may be worth it depending on your destination and how much luggage you have, and it has free wifi on the bus (helpful if you get a SIM and it’s still not activated).
- Besides the difference in voltage, Japan uses the same type of outlet plugs as North America.
Here are photo collections from past trips, along with their respective journal entries if available:
- Tour de Japan 2019 / Journal
- Tokyo Escape 2018
- Tokyo Excursion 2016
- Kyoto/Tokyo 2011 / Journal
- Tokyo Tour 2008 / Journal
- Tokyo 2006 / Journal
And the time-lapse I made from the 2011 trip | KyoTokyo
A few pointers for first-time visitors.
- Credit cards are slowly more acceptable in the cities, but cash still reigns. It’s best to exchange maybe $500 at the airport, and then withdraw money from ATM’s as needed, as the exchange rate will be more favorable.
- Not all public ATM’s will be international. The most reliable international ATM’s are in 7-11s and post offices.
- No tipping, of course.
- If you see a tray at the register in stores and restaurants, place your payment (money/cards) there rather than handing it to the cashier.
- Download the Japanese language pack for Google Translate. This will let you translate signs real-time via your camera. Your mileage may vary though, as it still derps out alot. If it becomes a hassle, just go back to translating via static pictures.
- Taxi doors are automatic. No need to open/close them.
- Don’t jaywalk. It’s frowned upon.
- Don’t walk and eat. Also frowned upon. Stand to the side and eat. Also definitely don’t eat on trains. You know what…just follow all the rules to a T.
- Take your shoes off when indoors. Some tourist places (temples especially) and restaurants may ask you to take off your shoes too.
- Vending machines everywhere! They’re awesome.
- This one’s weird. If you find yourself watching a movie while there, don’t leave til AFTER the credits. It’s custom.
Tokyo has a wide range of choices in regards to lodging. Definitely better than New York anyway. Between Airbnb, hotels, capsule hotels, and business hotels, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a place within your price range. The price will vary depending on the level of hotel of course, and proximity to transit. I personally regard location as the most important, as you don’t want to waste your vacation time travelling to and from.
- I personally don’t have much experience with Airbnb in Japan, but friends have said that they’re quite affordable and convenient.
- Hotels are pretty varied, so not much needed to say here.
- Business hotels are more no-frills and on the smaller size. Otherwise they are an affordable alternative to standard hotels.
- APA is a large hotel chain around Japan that you’d be surprised at in regards to affordability. I haven’t stayed at one, but they will pop up alot in your search, and are apparently pretty well regarded.
- I did stay at the Hotel Gracery in Shinjuku a few years ago, which I think would be categorized as a business hotel. The location was as good as it gets, the rooms were small but nice, and you can have breakfast with Godzilla.
- I’ve also stayed at the Villa Fontaine before (at their Shiodome location), but I found the location to be less than ideal.
- Capsules are a great option for budget travelers. And they’re not all cramped little nooks. The pro’s are that they’re probably one of the most affordable options in Japan. The con’s of course are a lack of space (they really are just capsules) and privacy, as you’ll probably be able to hear your capsule neighbors. Also you’re generally not supposed to share beds/spaces (though some do provide spaces for couples), so it may not be the best option for couples. Otherwise they’re pretty clean and surprisingly quiet (most people are pretty respectful) and a great option. This past trip was primarily all capsule-style hotels, and they are definitely a solid option.
- On my trip in 2018, I stayed at Book and Bed in Asakusa (they have a few locations), which I found to be absolutely amazing. It’s a hybrid of a hostel, a capsule hotel, and a library. We stayed in the Shinjuku location this trip, and I still think it’s a great option. The only downside in my opinion is that the futons can be uncomfortable for some people, though I found myself sleeping better this time than last year. It’s worth noting too, the public spaces of the Shinjuku location felt a bit cramped. The Asakusa location felt more laid back and considerably more spacious.
- Another choice is First Cabin, another hybrid concept. They’re technically capsules, but the size of a small hotel room. So you’ll have a hotel-like room, but with the (lack of) privacy like a capsule hotel along with shared amenities (showers, etc).
- While we were in Kyoto, we stayed at the The Millenials. It’s another capsule/hostel hybrid, but with full-sized beds that were insanely comfortable (similar to First Cabin). Their common spaces were really nice, the people there outgoing and friendly, and they have a location in Tokyo as well (it cost more than Book and Bed, so we decided against changing).
- There are plenty of other more standard capsule hotels, so definitely look around.
Japan has an extensive rail system, which makes getting around the country relatively easy. Their high-speed rail system, the Shinkansen, can also get you between the major cities in a matter of hours. Taking the Shinkansen can many times be faster and more convenient than taking a flight, given that major train stations are centrally located in cities while airports can be pretty far from city centers. You should also pick up a bento from the station to eat on the train. It’s a thing.
Within major cities, there are a number of ways to get around.
- Major cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka have subway lines. Some are more extensive than others. Kyoto for instance only has two lines, while Tokyo has two entire subway systems.
- Numerous train lines also criss-cross the cities as well. When combined with subways, they can get you almost anywhere you want to go. JR is the largest rail network, but there are also numerous other rail companies, such as Keio and Keisei.
- Buses are…there. I don’t think I’ve ever taken a bus in Osaka, and only once in Tokyo. You’ll be taking the bus alot in Kyoto though.
- Taxis are comparably expensive in Japan. I’d rely on the trains and subways if you can, but you will need taxi’s late night in cities, as the trains stop running at 1am.
And here’s a quick primer for Tokyo. This is really just an intro to Tokyo and can’t replace a proper guide, especially for a massive metropolis like Tokyo.
Tokyo is serviced by both a subway network, the JR lines (above ground trains), and various other train companies. I’d recommend using Google Maps to guide you around, as the extensive networks can be pretty overwhelming. You can use the same pass (Suica/Pasmo) to travel between them. The Yamanote JR line (Green line) runs a loop thru almost all the major neighborhoods and is one of the most popular JR lines, so it’s pretty convenient. The only neighborhoods listed below that aren’t along the Yamanote are Asakusa (you’ll need to transfer to the subway) and Odaiba (you take the Yurikamome monorail). Oh and I suppose there’s also the bus service. But if I’m being honest, I’ve ridden the bus exactly once (to the Starbucks Roastery funny enough).
- Shibuya | One of the main Tokyo districts, with shopping, restaurants, bars, everything. Skews young. Think giant digital billboards from Lost in Translation. It’s also seen alot of redevelopment recently, especially in the area around Shibuya Station. The Shibuya Scramble Square just opened with an amazing open roof observation deck, and I found the Shibuya Stream area really nice as well.
- Daikanyama | More low-key neighborhood adjacent to Shibuya, with boutiques, cafes, and the relaxed T-site. Alot of small boutiques and shopping nooks.
- Shinjuku | Similar to Shibuya, but skewed towards an older age group. Also home to the Golden Gai and a red light district. An absolutely crazy area, especially the station. Try to avoid it during rush hour…it’s the busiest station in the WORLD.
- Ginza/Marunouchi/Nihonbashi | Upscale shopping area. Luxury everything, but still fun to roam around the high end stores designed by famous architects. Home to Takashimaya, Mitsukoshi, and the granddaddy of Japanese department stores, Wako. Also close to the Tokyo Forums, Tokyo Station, and the Imperial Palace.
- Asakusa | Area with Senso-ji Temple and also alot of cool shops around the area. There’s also the nearby Asakusa Visitor’s Center by Kengo Kuma and the Tokyo Skytree across the river (I’ve never been though).
- Harajuku | Upscale shopping area with the main avenue, Omotesando, brimming with luxury brands and notable buildings such as Tadao Ando’s Omotesando Hills, the Herzog de Mueron Prada Store, and Sanaa’s newly renovated Dior Store. Skip Takeshita Dori, which used to be a mecca for youth fashion, but is just for tourists now. The entrance to Meiji Shrine is also next to the Harajuku Yamanote line.
- Ura-Hara | The small side-streets branching from Omotesando with boutique shops and cafes.
- Akihabara | Also known as nerd central. Anime, manga, toys, models, maid cafes, etc.
- Ikebukuro | Land of malls. So many. I kind of skip Ikebukuro now…doesn’t really appeal to me.
- Roppongi | I personally don’t like Roppongi much, especially at night (it’s the most un-Japanese neighborhood in Tokyo), but it does have the Roppongi Hills Complex/Mori Art Museum and Tokyo Midtown, both massive mixed-use complexes worth visiting. Roppongi is also where all the embassies are (hence why it’s so international)
- Odaiba | An island in Tokyo Bay with various entertainment centers, parkland, and a full-sized Gundam. It’s actually fun just riding there via the monorail over the Rainbow Bridge. Especially nice at night looking back towards Tokyo.
- Tsukiji | Well, not the neighborhood per se; more specifically the fish market. While the fish market might’ve moved to the new Toyosu Fish Market, the outer markets of Tsukiji are still there for food and shopping.
A special mention to the Ghibli Museum for Hayao Miyazaki fans. It’s located in suburban Tokyo to the west, though to be honest I’ve never been. I need to remedy that. Venturing out of Tokyo, it’s also worth a visit to nearby Yokohama for the great waterfront, the Osanbashi by Foreign Office Architects, and the cleanest Chinatown you’ll ever see. Kamakura is also worth a day-trip for its temples and waterfront, and Kawagoe for the old warehouse district. And further afield are the onsens of Hakone. With the extensive train network in Japan, it’s pretty easy traveling outside of Tokyo.
THE REST OF JAPAN
Each city and region of course deserves its own guide. My experience with the rest of Japan isn’t as extensive as Tokyo though, so I guess I’ll need to take more trips back and remedy that.
- Osaka | Better street food, people are more down-to-earth than Tokyo, and overall more casual.
- Kyoto | I don’t think I’ve had this much fun in Kyoto in a long time. Beautiful temples, amazing food, and a considerably more laid-back atmosphere. There was no shortage of food and drinks up and down Pontocho, Kawaramachi, and Gion.
- Nara | We really just went for Todai-ji Temple and nothing else. Temple was worth it, skipped everything else.
- Himeji | Same with Himeji. The castle is amazing, but skipped the rest of the town. Sorry!
- Kamakura | I came here on my own in 2018 and thought the town was alot of fun. Alot of small little streets to explore, temples, watersides, etc. A really nice day-trip from Tokyo.
A brief introduction to the myriad of cuisine around Japan.
- Ramen | Everyone knows ramen! There are dozens of ramen styles. My personal favorite is tsukemen-style, a dipping style ramen where the broth is separated, but generally thicker and richer. You have to try tsukemen, as the ones you find in NYC aren’t even remotely close to those in Japan. Stand-outs for me are Fuunji and Rokurinsha. But ramen is always evolving, so it’s better to refer to experts like Brian MacDuckston.
- Sushi | Again, everyone knows sushi! You’ll see alot of conveyor belt sushi joints, which are inexpensive and fun.
But even higher end omakase (chef’s table) will be considerably cheaper than their counterparts here in NYC. Oh man…scratch that. We looked, and they’re often times as expensive as NYC. Reservations are required, but the more famous ones are amenable to foreigners such as Kyubey.
- Udon | Thick flour noodles. I remember there being udon shops everywhere in Kyoto. A convenient and cheap lunch option. I personally like Curry Udon.
- Soba | Thin buckwheat noodles. Another common noodle variety. These are traditionally served cold with a dipping sauce.
- Wafu Pasta | Or Japanese-style pasta. The most popular of these is “Mentaiko Pasta“, or cod roe pasta with seaweed. Has a slight spicy heat to it, and leans a bit salty. Bonus info: mentaiko has a flavor profile similar to kimchi, as they share ingredients and is originally from Korea.
- Yakisoba | Stir-fried noodles. A common dish found in izakayas (Japanese gastro-pubs).
- Yakitori | Meat on skewers! Another common menu item in izakayas.
- Kushikatsu | Similar to yakitori, but breaded and dipped in a tare sauce. Osaka cuisine.
- Okonomiyaki | Translates to “what you like“, but commonly referred to as a savory Japanese “pancake”. A bit misleading, but close enough. Another Osaka specialty, which is thick and batter-y. But there’s also a Hiroshima-style which is layered separately and uses yakisoba. I personally prefer Hiroshima-style, or the similar modan-yaki (modern-yaki) which also uses yakisoba but isn’t layered.
- Tonkatsu | Breaded cutlets, the most common of which is pork. Served with rice and tangy tonkotsu sauce.
- Japanese Curry | One of my favorite comfort foods. Japanese curry is thick and mild compared to other types of curry. Served over rice with pickled vegetables. Also commonly served with tonkatsu on top.
- Donburi | Rice bowls. There are a variety of donburi’s, such as gyudon (beef bowl), katsudon (breaded cutlet with egg), unadon (grilled freshwater eel), and oyakodon (chicken and egg). My personal favorites are definitely unadon, which can be quite expensive, and oyakodon.
- Tempura | Deep-fried battered food. Tempura’s actually Portuguese! Proper tempura’s always light and airy.
- Kaiseki | High-end haute cuisine. Common in Kyoto and also served at onsens, derived originally from cuisine they served in temples.
- International | Like any global city, Japan also has plenty of international cuisine. You’ll find numerous Korean and Chinese, a surprising number of doner stands, plenty of European fare, and of course a myriad of their Japanese hybrids. I’ve yet to try any of their pizza though, especially after watching Ugly Delicious (my friend mentioned that many of them are more Neopolitan than New York). I’ll need to remedy that on my next trip. Semi-related: I seem to be popping up alot in the search results for Taiwanese breakfast spot Tokyo Dòujiāng Life (bookmarked in the Big Map of Fun), so it’s good to know there’s an interest in Taiwanese options too.
And a few snacks…
- Onigiri | A small ball of rice wrapped in seaweed and stuffed with a variety of things, such as fish, plum, and cod roe. You can grab these at any convenience store (7-11, Lawson’s, etc). Also worth noting, the food in convenience stores are actually good! Another convenience store staple is…
- Katsu-sando | Or a katsu-sandwich. A breaded cutlet sandwich with tangy tonkatsu sauce. Really addictive. The ones from Lawson’s are especially good.
- Gyoza | Japanese dumplings served as street food. Absolutely amazing in Osaka. They’ll top it with all kinds of stuff.
- Takoyaki | Small balls of batter filled with octopus and topped with Japanese mayo, a sweet takoyaki sauce, and bonita flakes. A must-try snack native to Osaka, but found everywhere.
- Tamago | Egg…prepared in various ways. You’ll find damn good ones in Nishiki Market in Kyoto.
- Castella Cake | Japanese sponge cake. Another Portuguese import! Super delicious.
- Taiyaki | A cake in the shape of a fish and traditionally filled with red bean paste, but these days you can find a variety of fillings.
- Daifuku | Mochi filled with red bean paste. A popular snack throughout Asia.
It’s worth mentioning again that convenience stores in Japan offer some pretty amazing food options if you’re looking for a quick snack. Both their packaged food and prepped food are surprisingly good. Also worth noting are Japanese bakeries. You’ll spot them everywhere, and especially in stations. They make Japanese variations on pastries, and are absolutely delicious. We lived and breathed Sizuya when I studied in Kyoto, a chain coincidentally only found in and around Kyoto.