Cool Stuff in Japan

So you’re planning an amazing first trip to Japan and could use some pointers. Here’s my list of recommendations, resources, and crucial experiences you should not miss.

Nara

Todaiji Temple and Deer Park

Kita, Osaka

Samurai Cafe

Roppongi, Tokyo

teamLab Borderless

Toyosu, Tokyo

teamLab Planets

Ginza, Tokyo

The Iron Fairies Ginza

Chain across Japan

Ichiran Ramen

Shibuya, Tokyo

Cafe Ron Ron

All you can eat desserts delivered by conveyor belt!

Ginza, Tokyo

Lunch at Kyubey Ginza

Akihabara, Tokyo

Nijigen Cospa Akiba

Odaiba, Tokyo

Unicorn Gundam Statue

Hakone

Hakone Geo Museum

Hakone

Ashinoko Hanaori

Shinjuku, Tokyo

Dug Jazz Bar

Shinjuku, Tokyo

Bar Albatross at Golden Gai

Akihabara, Tokyo

SEGA Akihabara 3rd

Koto, Tokyo

Fukagawa Edo Museum

Shimogyo, Kyoto

nokishita 711 gin & cocktail labo.

Minato, Kyoto

Round1 Kyoto - Kawaramachi

Kamigyo, Kyoto

Ippodo Tea Kyoto

Operating since 1717, Ippodo offers a narrow assortment of green teas that please a bitter palate. Easily my favorite chaya in the world.

Nakagyo, Kyoto

Nijo Castle

Nakagyo, Kyoto

Menbakaichidai Fire Ramen

Scallion-focused ramen that is literally set on fire ūüĒ•

Umeda, Osaka

Gudetama Cafe Osaka

Sanrio’s lovable “lazy egg” has his own cafe! Enjoy an assortment of egg-themed dishes, parfaits, and beverages as a grown-ass adult.

Chain across Osaka

Beard Papa Creme Puffs

This Osaka-based dessert shop sells at-request cream puffs. Chicago has a shop but it pales compared to the original at Osaka Station.

Everywhere

KFC (no joke)

Colonel Sanders’ seven herbs and spices is much-loved in Japan. Their recipe is lighter, crispier, mild. You might catch the life-sized statues of him as Santa in winter.

Chain across Tokyo

Hinoya Curry

The location in Kanda, Tokyo won a 2013 grand prize.

Mitaka, Tokyo

Ghibli Museum

Shinjuku, Tokyo

Samurai Museum

Shibuya, Tokyo

Fuunji Tsukemen

Kita, Osaka

Brewpub Center Point

Ginza, Tokyo

Bar High Five

Custom cocktails based on your tastes around $20‚Äď25. They get busy, no reservations. Dress nice. The bartenders speak English and are some of the nicest people. ‚ÄčOwner is a very chatty, lively fellow.

Akihabara, Tokyo

Hitachino Brewing Lab

‚ÄčLaid back. Very good craft brew. Eat beforehand.‚Äč

Chuo, Tokyo

Tsukiji Market‚Äč

Go for lunch for the freshest sushi imaginable.

Chiyoda, Tokyo

Rokurinsha ‚ÄčRamen

This is a small chain but very worth it‚Äč. ‚ÄčTry the yuzu broth at the end‚Äč.

Shinjuku, Tokyo

Golden Gai

Expensive drinks, but a must-see regardless‚Äč. These types of places have seat charges.

Shibuya, Tokyo

Yoyogi Park‚Äč

This ordinary park transforms into clubhouse central on Sunday‚Äč afternoons with nice weather. Meetups of all kinds gather: jogging club, garden club, jump rope club, rockabilly dance club, husky parade, exotic animal keepers, video game harpists, and all the folks gathering to people-watch. A Tokyo cultural experience not to miss. If you see torii, you entered the wrong park.

Shibuya, Tokyo

Design Festa Gallery‚Äč

Renown arts and graphic design gallery. ‚ÄčEasily accessible near the Harajuku/Shinjuku area, close to Yoyogi Park.

Akasaka, Tokyo

Ninja Akasaka

‚ÄčExtremely cheesy, worthwhile experience. The food is great! Make a reservation two days prior. Parties of 6 or more require pre-‚Äčordering your courses.

Asakusa, Tokyo

SensŇć-ji Temple

You can spend a whole afternoon walking around Asakusa’s historical district, shopping center, and by the river.

Sumida, Tokyo

Sumo at Ryogoku Kokugikan

This is a fascinating experience. You can rent an AM radio with a $30 deposit or bring your own and hear commentary broadcasted in English.

Shimokitazawa, Tokyo

Shimokitazawa

Great neighborhood with shops, food, record stores. Kinda out of the way but gives you a better idea of Tokyo life outside of the 23 special wards.‚Äč

Shimokitazawa, Tokyo

Beer Bar Ushitora

One of the most amazing craft pubs I’ve ever visited.

Yokohama

Minato Mirai 21

Kinda like the Navy Pier of Yokohama. Great for people-watching. 12 minutes from Tokyo‚Äč by bullet train‚Äč.

Yokohama

Cup Noodles Museum

‚ÄčKinda for kids but fascinating from a designer’s perspective. You can make your own cup noodles as a souvenir.

Yokohama

Paletas

‚ÄčPretty cool place for ice cream.‚Äč

Nakagyo, Kyoto

Aritsugu ‚Äď Knife Store

‚Äč‚Äč450 year old knife seller in Nishiki Market, adjacent to Kiyiomizudera‚Äč Shopping District.

Nakagyo, Kyoto

Tea Ceremony at En‚Äč

‚Äč‚ÄčReally friendly staff, small demonstration, beautiful tea ceremony room.‚Äč

Nakagyo, Kyoto

Gear Show

‚Äč‚Äč‚ÄčBetter than Cirque, if they’re still running‚Äč.

Fushimi, Kyoto

Fushimi Inari

‚Äč‚Äč‚ÄčA must. ‚ÄčAbout 2‚Äď3 hours to the top and back.

Higashiyama, Kyoto

Samurai Kembu Kyoto

‚Äč‚Äč‚ÄčDemonstrations for tourists. Very nice.

Minami, Kyoto

Drinking at Kamo River

‚Äč‚Äč‚ÄčGet some chuhai, beer, or whiskey and drink ‚Äčat the river‚Äč. There’s a lot of street performers and people relaxing as the city winds by.

Between Kyoto and Osaka

Suntory Yamazaki Distillery

‚Äč‚Äč‚ÄčThis is truly vacation. Go here with some cash‚Äč for the whisky museum and the tasting room. If you can swing it, book a distillery tour. They’re cheap but fill up fast. ‚ÄčOyamazaki station is 20 mins from Kyoto in Osaka Prefecture.

Osaka

Osakan Cuisine

‚Äč‚Äč‚ÄčStuff as much food in as you can. Okonomiyaki, takoyaki, and kushikatsu are musts.

Chuo, Osaka

Space Station‚Äč Bar

‚Äč‚Äč‚ÄčConsole gaming and cocktails‚Äč. English focused.

Kita, Osaka

Smokehouse Ape

‚Äč‚Äč‚ÄčAmazing craft beer selection, with many international choices.

Near Hiroshima

Miyajima

‚Äč‚Äč‚ÄčSpend a day on Miyajima island. Lots of hiking, food, and wild deer.

Hiroshima

Peace Park and Museum

‚Äč‚Äč‚ÄčHiroshima is a powerful experience. Visit the museum and memorials in the morning, and try Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki for lunch.

Kinosaki

Kinosaki Onsen

‚Äč‚Äč‚ÄčThis is a great day-trip or you can book a ryokan for the night. Maybe 2.5 hours west of Kyoto on trains through the mountains. The town is mostly a getaway for locals and tourists, and shops shut down around 6pm because everyone’s eating dinner in their rooms. The bathhouse itself is maybe $10 and you can spend a few hours there.

Research

Japan-Guide.com is a one-stop-shop for tourism advice. TripAdvisor, Atlas Obscura, OpenTable, Expedia, and Tabelog offer great insight into restaurants and attractions. Plot your stops into a custom Google Map to optimise neighborhood visits, and download an offline version before leaving.

Costs

A 2-week trip averages $3k. $1400 for airfare, $250-450 for shinkansen (bullet train) access. The yen never rebounded after Lockdown ended in Oct 2022, which boosts your spending power. 1 USD = ~130 JPY as of Apr 2023!

Lodgings

Choose functional business hotels with snug rooms at half the cost of the big chains. Frugal travelers find hostels clean, safe, and worth the risk of a shared-room snorer. I’ve enjoyed many stays at K’s House and Khaosan. Airbnb offers a local experience at a good price, but operate in a regulatory gray zone that might complicate your plans.

Transportation

The quintessential Japanese experience starts and ends with trains. This is required reading. Buy a JR Rail Pass “Exchange Order” three weeks prior to travel to save on shinkansen fare to Osaka, Kyoto, and beyond. 7/14/21-day passes are $250-450 at JRPass.com. Get a Suica card in Tokyo to simplify fare.

Safety

Crime is practically non-existent for tourists, but take the same travel precautions in any city. Patrol officers will kindly provide directions to lost travellers and offer Lost & Found dropoff.

Meals

Daily cuisine is mostly agreeable for Western palates. You might get addicted to konbini (convenience store) food. Major restaurants supply English menus and display photos or plastic models. Vegans might encounter fish oil and such in sauces. Learn to communicate your dietary needs with confidence and hope for the best.

Hot Springs

Enjoying a public onsen with strangers is a wild experience. Learn etiquette, find a bathhouse, book a ryokan stay, and reserve a kaiseki meal for an authentic getaway.

Communication

Unless you’ve got T-Mobile, book a wifi hotspot via JRPass.com for pickup/dropoff at the airport. Major cities are plastered in English signage, and Google Translate fills the gaps as an AR superhero.

Phrases

  • Hai = Yes
  • Ii¬∑e = No
  • Su¬∑mi¬∑ma¬∑sen = Excuse me
  • A¬∑ri¬∑ga¬∑to = Thank you
  • Toi¬∑re = Toilet?
  • O¬∑kan¬∑jo ku¬∑da¬∑sai = Check, please
  • O¬∑mi¬∑zu ku¬∑da¬∑sai = Water, please
  • Tasu¬∑ke¬∑te = Help!
  • Wa¬∑ka¬∑ri¬∑ma¬∑sen = I don’t understand