Hey! Hi! Hello! It’s me. Back in action.
I know I’ve been out of commission for quite some time now. To put it bluntly: life got tough, I got lazy, and I ultimately shelved one of my favorite hobbies: writing. Not having the energy to do one of the things I love the most remains a true disappointment.
Save your pity, though. The tides have seriously changed in recent months, and it’s been invigorating. Recently, I’ve found that my writing hiatus hasn’t been the result of negativity, but because – dare I say it *gasp*- I’ve actually been living in the moment more than ever before. I’ve found mental clarity, drive, and more confidence than I’ve had in very long time. Welcome back. It took a lot of reflection to get to this place, but as we all know, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Anyway, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…..I hope you’ve stuck with me because you’re in for the REAL treat! While it’s been quite a few months since I journeyed over to Japan, I’m still constantly getting asked about my itinerary. Ask and you shall receive, friends: I’ve FINALLY rounded up everything I did, ate, and saw over the 2-week trip to the ‘Land of the Rising Sun.’ I covered a ton of ground — kicking the trip off in Tokyo before traveling to Hakone, then onto Kyoto, Osaka, and back to Tokyo. I’ve got lot’s to write about, so let’s get this started, shall we?
Up first: Japan 101 – things to know before you go. If you want to skip straight to my Tokyo itinerary, keep scrolling for HOW WE TACKLED TOKYO.
Japan is very much a cash-based society. The thought being: you should only be buying what you can genuinely afford up front with cash. Wow. Why didn’t I consult these people when I started racking up credit card bills?
So what’s the deal? You will need cash regardless of where you stay, what you do, or how you get around. Many restaurants (yes, even the nice ones), bars, and tourist attractions (like the roof of the Magnet building where you can get incredible views of the famous Shibuya crossing or, my personal favorite, playing with Hedgehogs at the animal cafes) are cash only. I would recommend taking out AT LEAST ¥50000 Yuen out to start (around $500 USD) to avoid getting slammed with fees. There were 6 of us, so there was always enough cash to go around, but if you’re traveling in a smaller group, I’d probably suggest taking out even more, as this is a pretty modest amount. Use the 7/11 ATMs to take out your cash if you’re planning on doing it when you get there.
Speaking of cash, you will end up with a TON of change, as their currency consists of various types of coins in addition to bills. You will find that breaking a ¥10,000 bill is a slight pain in the ass when your purchase is significantly less. We all bought small change purses which was a GAME CHANGER.
It didn’t feel that expensive. Maybe it’s because I live in New York where there’s a premium tax on oxygen, but I didn’t consider Tokyo or the other cities we visited as particularly expensive. The cost question was one that came up frequently when I first booked this trip, and remains something I still get asked about. Even our flights were on the cheaper end – around $750 round trip via Alaskan and Singapore Airlines. The accommodations in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka didn’t shock me as anything out of the ordinary, either.
Some restaurants will charge a “table fee”, which is comparable to a cover charge. The ones we encountered were around ¥300. Cheap, but annoying by principal.
Tipping is NOT a thing, as with many foreign countries.
DRIPPIN’ IN GOLD.
Golden Week is an annual, national holiday week in Japan. Unbeknownst to us as we booked this hefty trip, we ended up selecting this particular week. To top it off, we were also in town for the transition of power between the outgoing and incoming Emperor. Wild. Between the holiday-week and the Emperor’s transition, every city we visited was extremely crowded. We couldn’t get into Onsens in Hakone; the quaint, trendy streets of Harajuku were mobbed; and the tranquil Kyoto bamboo forrest was a sea of people (*sigh* re: spoiled Instagram dreams) . It didn’t impact us in any particularly drastic way, but it would be something to keep in mind if you’re interested in traveling to Japan late April through early May. This is especially true if you’re looking to book train travel throughout the country ahead of time.
Uber exists in Tokyo, but we ended up opting for a cab the one time we used a car service. It was relatively cheap! Uber in Kyoto will hail a local taxi service, Uber worked flawlessly in Osaka.
The 72 hour tourist subway pass in Tokyo is a STEAL (~¥1500 aka around $15) and very useful. I’d highly recommend making the subway your primary form of transportation in Tokyo. Keep in mind, however, that Tokyo is absolutely MASSIVE (the most populated city on the planet, ICYMI) so while taking the subway is easy and cheap, it’s sometimes difficult to get to specific places because they fall in the gaps between various lines. It’s also not out of the ordinary to have to take 2+ trains to get to a particular location — not completely unlike New York. That’s also including the actual national rail line. Grab a magnifying glass, pop a Xanax, and check out the picture below to see what I mean. Be prepared to do a lot of walking either way!
Unlike the savages of NYC, people actually queue to get on and off subways and trains. Respect!
Women’s only cars during business hours Monday to Friday are a thing, too.
There are also attendants helping guide traffic onto and off of trains at the major Tokyo stops during peak commuting hours. These people have literally everything down to a science. Say it with me now: ‘efficiency.’
Final tip regarding the subways: don’t be a dick. Try to keep the noise level down if you need to chat. They ride in near silence.
Oh, and stand left, walk right on the escalators.
Follow the yellow brick road: Japan is an incredibly accessible city for the vision and hearing impaired. There are large, raised yellow paths that line almost every sidewalk or pedestrian walkway both indoors and out. The pathways have either raised lines or circles so that visually impaired have a sense of where they’re walking, where there are steps, turns, or crosswalks. Fascinating.
The JR pass is absolutely worth it if you plan on heading out of Tokyo. They have different types of passes, but we only needed one week’s worth of travel to take us from Tokyo to Hakone; then Hakone to Kyoto; from Kyoto to Osaka; Osaka to Nara, and finally Osaka back to Tokyo. It cost us $260 for the 7 day pass, and we ended up using the JR line once in both Tokyo and Kyoto too, so you’ll absolutely get your money’s worth.
Last note on getting around and probably the most important if you don’t want to look incredibly ignorant: NO JAYWALKING.
BLOSSOM DU JUR
We landed in Tokyo on April 24th, and unfortunately we missed the Cherry Blossom season. We knew this risk from the beginning, but aside from one or two semi-dying trees in Hakone, we didn’t see any. Your best bet is to head to Japan within the first two weeks of April if you want to catch them!
OTHER MISCELLANEOUS THINGS + THOUGHTS:
There are public bathrooms nearly everywhere and they are very clean (especially the subway restrooms!) Use them.
Public garbages are far and few in between. Seriously. You’ve been warned if you take your coffee/food to go.
Eating your food and walking is honestly just a NO. Not that I typically do this (that) often….Even if you’re at a market, you’ll be asked to eat at that specific stall and will not be allowed to take the food and walk.
Eating or drinking on the subways or any trains is also a no.
Swastikas….are a thing. Except they don’t mean what you’d associate the symbol with. The swastika is actually an ancient religious icon in Japanese culture before it was repurposed by the Nazis. You can find them at temples, and even on Google Maps to indicate where those temples are located.
SMOKING IS A THING. Even in restaurants and bars. The odds of you visiting a small, trendy bar and leaving smelling like an ashtray is a real possibility. Embrace it.
No napkins. If you get street food, you better have some tissues on you already!
Beer vending machines are a thing! Grab and go forth, my friends. Live your truth and pour one out for your girl.
The pork buns, yakitori, and other traditional Japanese eats from 7/11 are INCREDIBLE. You could build an entire meal with the offerings at your local 7/11. Enjoy.
Skip the Robot Cafe. We did.
Check out the Don Quijotes.
The toilets are FUTURISTIC AF. They all have various buttons to do an array of things (including flushing, cleaning, heating, de-odorizing, providing running water sounds to give you some privacy, and triggering the bidet.) Did you know this already? Am I just… not cultured?
One last note about toilets: Use the ‘western toilet’. And then thank me later.
House slippers are a thing! Don’t be surprised if your AirBnb host asks you to swap your sneakers for slippers.
Sake is cheap AF. Especially at the Don Quijotes. Enough said.
HOW WE TACKLED TOKYO
So, to put it simply: Tokyo was the most amazing city I’ve ever visited. From the scale, to the culture, to the food and everything in between, it’s an experience unlike any other.
Flying into Tokyo Narita airport, we spent the first four full days of our trip exploring the city. (Yes, this is a hefty flight, and after enduring a ~16 hour direct flight to Hong Kong a few months earlier, I can definitely say I’d recommend breaking up the journey with a layover in Los Angeles. It’s a great opportunity to stretch, HYDRATE, grab some food, HYDRATE, wash your face, and did I mention HYDRATE?) I am a HUGE advocate for Airbnb, and after some research, we settled on a local Airbnb in the Shinjuku-Ku neighborhood, which is a subset of the greater, poppin’ Shinjuku area. This area was relatively central, had tons of food and drink options, and all of our areas of interest were accessible from the massive Shinjuku station 10 minutes down the road.
We also had a day and a half in Tokyo on the way back to the U.S., and I think we definitely had enough time to tackle everything worth seeing. Of course, being a behemoth of a city (quite frankly, how I’d describe this post) filled with culture, I’m confident you could spend weeks exploring.
Want the best of without reading? Watch here:
SEND NOOOOODS (AKA: TOKYO EAT + DRINK)
Of all the things I get ask about, I can honestly say that the most common question is “how was the food?” Short answer: amazing. Long answer: THE MOST DELECTABLE, UNIQUE, CULTURAL CULINARY EXPERIENCE ON THE PLANET. Here are my picks:
Shin Udon – This was my first Udon experience and it was so amazing, we went back TWICE (which is a vacation sin in my book, but it was just that good.) Located in Shinjuku-Ku. Cash only. Mild waits outside. Maybe 10 seats overall!
Tsukumo Ramen – WOW, REAL RAMEN IS SO MUCH BETTER THAN ‘CUP OF NOODLES’, GUYS! This place is going to feel a tad off the grid, but it’s absolutely worth the visit. We sought this spot out after reading amazing reviews, and we walked through an incredibly trendy neighborhood to get there (after we took about 3 different trains…) The Ramen was fantastic — I had mildly firm, thin noodles with the classic pork. It was cheap too, and, of course, cash only.
Harajuku Gyoza Lou – Dumpling spot in Harajuku! If you head here around lunch time, be prepared to wait! The menu is pretty straight forward, but the dumplings are delicious.
Oreryu – Just down the street from Gyoza Lou, you’ll find this ramen spot. IT’S GREAT. You also get the experience of ordering from a ticket machine out front and waiting for the quick turnover to sit. We went here when we couldn’t get into Ichiran, which is just up the block in Harajuku.
Takiyaki- Don’t be scared of these deep-fried octopus balls. And don’t dive right in as soon as they hand them over because you’ll scorch the roof of your mouth. You can pick this classic Japanese street food pretty much anywhere.
Burnside Street Cafe– This is a great spot in Harajuku if you’re looking to try a classic, fluffy Japanese soufflé pancake. They were heavenly.
Domo Cafe – So my vibe. A sleek coffee spot at the bottom of a boutique hotel in Shinjuku-Ku, about a 10 min walk from the Shinjuku station! Don’t bother with the sandwiches, just get a latte or a coffee and call it a day.
Ebisu Container – Another sophisticated coffee spot designed inside a former shipping container. It’s another spot with a sleek aesthetic and is great for a jet-lag pick me up!
Kaffee Mameya – This is a very unique coffee experience in Harajuku, and is absolutely worth the wait (and yes, you will wait to get inside. It’s a slow process, and a rather small spot…) Once you make it to the counter inside, you’ll chat with a coffee expert about your taste preferences, and then they’ll walk you through a large chart showcasing the different aspects of each bean they have. It’s absolutely FASCINATING. And then they’ll pour the drip coffee for you. You can also buy the beans if you’re feeling sophisticated. They don’t sell K-Cups so…. I’m out.
Alfred’s– Because of the novelty aspect, why not? Located in the Shinjuku station mega mall. Grab your Matcha and browse the mega mall – and try not to get lost inside.
Bar Baobab -Tokyo Record Bar in NYC isn’t just for the frills, it’s an actual homage to Japanese culture (not to mention, it’s fabulou$, so please set a reminder on your phone a month in advance and be ready to fight for a re$y.) Record bars are apparently huge in Tokyo, and Bar Baobab in Shinjuku not only has a great cocktail selection, but a collection of more than 4,000 records. Try the mojito.
Brussels Beer Project – GREAT, great, great selection of beer from around the world in a laid-back venue that reminds me of Amity Hall in NYC.
Eiswelt Gelato: Ok, so was this cone for the ‘gram? Obviously. Was it good? Hell yes. That’s coming from someone who doesn’t eat ice cream (oh, relax.) Eiswelt sits at one end of Harajuku’s staple Takeshita Street, so it’s worth grabbing a cone and experiencing the over-the-top oddities of the district.
TOKYO DO + SEE
Shibuya Crossing: Arguably the busiest intersection of the world, the Shibuya Crossing scramble is unlike anything you’ll have witnessed before. When the right of way is indicated (remember: no jaywalking!), thousands of people pour into the intersection, crossing from what seems like every possible direction. Not to mention, they’re illuminated by the over-the-top digital advertisements on the buildings above. Think: Times Square 7.0. In addition to being a part of the scramble, the best views are from the Starbucks in the intersection (just take the elevator up to the second floor – no purchase necessary!) and from the top of the Magnet building, where you’ll get a birds-eye view. Cash only to access the roof! Shibuya in and of itself is the true definition of hustle and bustle: restaurants, shops (+ tons of streetwear spots like Supreme, BBC, Bape), bars, bright lights, 1-hour hotel rooms (if you get where I’m going with that…) You name it, you’ll find it in Shibuya. I’d suggest getting lost and seeing where you end up!
Tokyo Sky Deck: Honestly, this is probably the highest open-air roof-top experience you’ll ever have. For ~20 bucks, you can get jaw-dropping 360-degree views of this megalopolis from the top of the Mori Building. Skip the “City View” experience, since it’s indoors and has long waits. Instead, opt for the Sky Deck. There’s an art exhibit component that’s included in the ticket as well, but…. yeah. It’s also worth noting that we skipped visiting the top of the Tokyo Tower, and opted for a view of it from the Sky Deck.
Harry Hedgehog : Just down the road from the Sky Deck, you can partake in one of Tokyo’s staple (tourist) activities: playing with Hedgehogs. They will literally charm you to TEARS. No? Just me? This was the best $8 I’ve ever spent. Feel free to close out of this tab and stop reading if you think otherwise.
Metropolitan Government Building: For more views of the city (and you know, I’m a huge rooftop gal particularly when alcohol’s involved….) you can head to the top of the Government building for a grand total of $0. The views are still amazing, but this experience is indoors.
Walking through Harajuku: Harajuku is major shopping district where vintage stores (AMORE… holy shit), high-end brands, and streetwear (think: Supreme, Human Made, Bape, Noah, etc) meet. This was honestly my favorite neighborhood in the city because it was super trendy. And I was able to get a green juice. Thank God.
Meiji Shrine: Just outside of the Harajuku subway stop, you’ll find a large park and the Meiji Shrine. We didn’t head all the way to the shrine specifically, but we walked through the park and checked out the Torii Gate and the Shinto Shrine (the sake barrels!)
Harajuku Quest Mall: This is another one of the mega shopping malls in the city, but the highlight of this particular commercial hub is the fascinating kaleidoscope-looking architecture at the entrance. You will have to battle the crowds for a picture.
teamLab Borderless: If you have an Instagram and love a good mindless scroll, odds are you’ve seen a post or two from teamLab Borderless. TeamLab is a completely immersive digital art museum that will heighten your senses. So why “borderless”? Well, to keep it simple and without spoiling all the fun, some of the artwork travels from room to room, and various different works even interact with each other along the way. In addition to an open concept, the exhibit showcases a few different rooms with specific experiences (the lantern room was my favorite, followed by the wave room – see above and the video for reference).
Additionally, every “installation” has something completely unique to offer when it comes to scents, sounds, and imagery. Crowds? Yes. Far from the center of the city? Also yes. Located in a particularly touristy area that I wouldn’t recommend spending any time in otherwise? Uh, yes. That being said, it’s an experience worth looking into if you’ll be in Tokyo for an extended period of time. You’ll also need to reserve your tickets ahead of time.
Sensō-ji Temple and Nakamise: Located in the Asakusa neighborhood, Sensō-ji is a large and overwhelmingly beautiful Buddhist temple. We drew fortunes, tossed yen into the donation box (you’re supposed to clap and bow when you do, FYI), and battled some majorly massive crazy crowds along the way (shout out to you, Golden Week.) We also explored the Nakamise food and shopping stalls that make up the surrounding area. It’s got a sweet street market feel.
Golden Gai: An interesting nightlife scene tucked away in Shinjuku (it’s actually the first timelapse in my video.) This network of 3 alleyways (which are riddled with even narrower passageways) is home to cozy bars and restaurants. Some of which seat 10 people or less – that’s how small we’re talking. Fancy a drink? Not so fast. It’s rumored that some bars won’t let you in if you’re not with a native Japanese speaker. It’s not a total rumor, though, being that I did notice some signs indicating no tourists were allowed. It’s such an interesting scene that whether your goal’s a drink, or simply another site to see, it’s worth passing through at night.
Shinjuku’s Memory Lane: Taking a stroll down Memory Lane sounds semi-nice. Taking a stroll down Piss Alley- not so much. Unfortunately, the later is the nickname for this awesome pedestrian passageway in Shinjuku. Located a stones throw away from one of the most extravagant Uniqlos you’ll ever see in your lifetime, it’s lined with tons of tiny restaurants and food stalls. Honestly, the ambiance of the alley itself is pretty cool, too. Yakitori is allegedly the name of the game here.
Karaoke: Because who doesn’t want to drink cheap beer and jam out to Meredith Brooks? You don’t need me to tell you how huge the Karaoke culture is in Japan. We opted for a local spot near our Airbnb, but you could go anywhere to have yourself a time.
And that’s all I’ve got. Stay tuned, since I’ll be writing about Hakone next, followed by Kyoto, and Osaka!