It’s been six years since I had the chance to travel back to my home country. This time around, I had the opportunity to travel with my girlfriend which was a really special experience. We both saw Japan in a new way (for my girlfriend it was her first time) as we explored parts of the country that we’d never been to before.
The itinerary of our trip was Tokyo, Kyoto, Kobe, Koyasan, Kobe, and back to Tokyo. Kobe is my hometown so I had some friends and family to meet up on the trip. For most travelers the major destinations will likely be Tokyo, Kyoto, and perhaps Koyasan (these are the three areas this post will focus on). I really enjoyed all stops on the trip but I particularly enjoyed the stay in Koyasan.
While the sights and sounds of Japan are amazing the trip to me was a big foodie trip. Amazing food everywhere and an endless supply of ramen, sushi, and so much more. I probably don’t need to eat any ramen for the next 5 years now! (Just kidding).
For a detailed look at our itinerary, feel free to refer to this spreadsheet. If you go to the Lodging and and Transportation tabs in the spreadsheet, you’ll be able to see how much we paid for those on our trip. Finally, I’ve also included a price range next to each food/drink/accommodation recommendation so you know roughly what to expect when you go.
¥ = Cheap; ¥¥ = Moderate; ¥¥¥ = Pricey
Without further ado here are some of my reflections and highlights:
Tokyo may have become my favourite city in the world. There’s so much to do in fairly condensed area and the extremely efficient subway system makes it easier to get anywhere. Considering how Japan is one of the more homogenous countries in the world Tokyo feels more international than any other city I’ve visited in Japan. As someone of mixed heritage (or for foreigners living there) it’s nice to feel like you blend in.
Our time in Tokyo started with a visit to Tsukiji Market (築地市場) – the biggest fish market in the world. We took a tour with Mr. Naoto Nakamura who took us on a renegade (i.e. unauthorized) tour of the market. We got to see things that normal folks don’t get a chance to see and got up close to certain auctions. It was a bit worrying thinking that we might get kicked out at any point but it was definitely worth it. We wrapped up the tour by lining up for a special sushi breakfast at Daiwa Sushi.
Tip: If possible, schedule the Tsukiji Tour for the morning after you arrive in Japan. The tour starts at 3am so you can leverage your jetlag for an early wake-up in the morning.
After our morning at Tsukiji, we walked over to Roppongi Hills to visit the Mori Art Museum. The walk over to Roppongi was beautiful as we got a chance to see the Tokyo Tower and explore some of the residential neighbourhoods along the way. The beauty of Tokyo is that if you have the time and energy you can cover a lot of ground just on foot. The Mori Art Museum is a beautiful contemporary museum and a nice reprieve from the busy streets of the city. We had a chance to see a beautiful exhibit by Indian artist, N.S. Harsha. Exhibits rotate every 3-5 months and tickets include access to the Tokyo City View observation deck. So no need to spend money on going up the Tokyo Tower or the Tokyo Skytree!
After our stop at the Mori Art Museum, we headed back over to the Ginza area to see if we can watch a traditional Japanese kabuki show. The Kabuki-za (歌舞伎座) is one of the principal theatres for kabuki in Japan and you can get a single-act ticket on the day of. Kabuki shows typically last 5-6 hours but with the single-act ticket you can get a taste of the experience. I recommend lining up for a ticket about 30-40 minutes before ticket sales start. There’s usually 3 acts that you can get tickets for so go to the theatre and find out when those tickets go on sale and get in line at the appropriate time. You can also rent an English translation device so you can understand what’s being said on stage.
On our second day, we decided to Shinjuku Gyoen (新宿御苑) to see if the cherry blossoms had made an early bloom. Shinjuku Gyoen is a beautiful park only about a 10-minute walk from Shinjuku Station. It’s got a variety of gardens and is a great place to visit at any point during the year. Luckily we were able to see a few cherry blossoms that were already in full bloom.
From Shinjuku, we walked towards Meiji Jingu. We stopped along the way at Tokyu Hands which is a department store with a eclectic selection of the latest stationary, toys, travel goods, high-quality livingware, and so much more. You might enjoy browsing around and finding some funny items like a rice ball shaped hat (check out below). It’s also a great place to pickup postcards to send back home.
Meiji Jingu (明治神宮) is one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan and worth a visit. The main shrine was under repair when we visited so we couldn’t see the entire building but the walk up to the shrine and the big Torii gate along the path it make it for a nice experience.
Harajuku (原宿) is about a 10-minute walk from Meiji Jingu if you’re looking for a completely different experience from the calmness of walking the Meiji Jingu grounds. Harajuku is the mecca of Japanese fashion and you’ll see a lot of young people wearing the trendiest clothing or sometimes even in costume. There are a ton of retail stores in this area if you’re looking to do shopping. My girlfriend loves cats so we also decided to drop into Cat Café MoCHA where you can sip a cup of tea while playing with adorable kittens.
For evening activities there’s plenty to do in Tokyo as most restaurants and shops are open much later than they are over here. One of the areas worth checking out is Kabukicho (歌舞伎町) which is an entertainment and red-light district in Shinjuku. It’s an area that a lot of people come to drink and party and it’s generally safe as long as you don’t go looking for trouble or getting wasted. My girlfriend and I had fun just walking around seeing the ridiculous storefronts, various clubs, izakayas, and popping into video game arcades. If you’re looking for a whacky (but uber popular) show, check out the Robot Restaurant where they give you a full sensory overload of costumes, dancing, robots, and scantily clad women.
Recommended places to eat and drink:
In Tokyo, you can’t really go wrong with the food because the competition is so fierce only the cream rises to the top. Here were our favourites from the trip:
Daiwa Sushi in Tsukiji (¥¥¥)
If you’re at the Tsukiji Fish Market, make sure you get a chance to eat the freshest fish at this sushi bar. You can go with the chef’s “omakase” (chef’s choice) for ~¥4000. The fatty tuna piece was to die for. If you’re like me and not a fan of sea urchin (“uni” in Japanese) make sure you let them know so they can replace that piece for you. It’s expensive but well worth the experience.
Gonpachi close to Roppongi (¥¥)
This izakaya is one of the most popular in Tokyo. It’s well visited by expats and had a really nice, lively atmosphere when we went there. If you’re familiar with the Kill Bill films, the architecture of Gonpachi inspired the scene with Uma Thurman fighting off the 100+ yakuzas. As with any izakaya, the selection is very broad so you can experiment with a variety of tapas style dishes or order a set menu item as well.
Tip: Place a reservation before you go! We waited about an hour and a half to get in as walk-ins and we saw many people skip the line-up with reservations. Save yourself the time.
Numazuko in Shinjuku (¥¥)
An excellent “kaiten” (i.e. the sushi comes around on a revolving conveyer belt around the restaurant) sushi restaurant in Shinjuku. It’s a bit on the pricier side but the quality is excellent. If you’ve never had sushi in this style of restaurant, it’s definitely worth a visit. The sushi comes in pairs and the colour of the plate indicates the price of that sushi. It’s also very popular with foreigners so there’s English signage and menu to help you out.
Tip: If you’re looking to be cost effective, make sure you keep an eye on the colour of the plates! You might not be too happy with the bill if you keep eating the most expensive dishes.
Kikanbo Ramen in Akihabara (¥¥)
This was probably my favourite ramen place in Japan. It’s known for their (optional) spicey broth which you get to decide from no spice to “hell-ish” spice. The pork belly also just melts in your mouth. If you aren’t too spice tolerant go for the “less” or “little” option as it’ll still give you a bit of a kick.
Annam Indian Restaurant in Ginza (¥¥)
What?! An Indian restaurant on a Tokyo restaurant list? Yes, you’ve read this right. This hidden gem in the Ginza area probably served the best naan that I’ve ever heard. With competition generally fierce for restaurants in Tokyo, ethnic food restaurants like Indian really have to prove their worth to stay in business. We went around 2pm which seemed like it was the best time to go as there were plenty of seats available. We ordered the butter chicken and vegetarian curry; both were fantastic.
Airbnb – Bright, Quiet Studio in Juban (~100 USD per night)
Fantastic little apartment studio located in Juban. The Oedo subway line is only a 5-minute walk away and the Roppongi area is only a 15-minute walk. It’s quiet and super convenient.
Tokyo Stay Shimbashi (~140 USD per night)
We stayed here on our last night in Tokyo before heading home. It’s clean, comfortable, and convenient with the Shimbashi station only a 5-minute walk away. If you’re headed to Narita or Haneda, you can buy your Airport Limousine ticket at The Royal Park Hotel Shiodome for ¥3100 and jump onto the bus at the hotel.
Our stop in Kyoto was brief but still memorable. We stayed at a fabulous Airbnb located just a 5-minute walk from the main downtown thoroughfare. Kyoto is a little bit more difficult to navigate than Tokyo as the subway system is not as robust. Depending on where you need to go taking the bus, walking, or even hopping on a taxi might be the best choice.
Kyoto is well known for its beautiful temples and gardens. Once the capital of Japan, it’s still the cultural capital of the country. At many of the historic places in Kyoto, you’ll feel like you’re hopping on a time machine. As with any popular place in Japan, it can be very busy with tourists – especially in the high season between April and September. So just be prepared for some crowds.
Given that we only had a day and a half, we decided to keep our activities pretty simple and focus on one area. We took a bus in the morning to Ginkaku-ji Temple (銀閣寺) also known as the Silver Pavillion. The nice part is that it’s a bit less hectic compared to the other sites which makes for a nice walk around the grounds. At the end of the walk, there is a gift store and tea area where you can enjoy some traditional Japanese matcha tea.
Following Ginkaku-ji Temple, we walked along the Philosopher’s Walk or Tetsugaku-no-Michi (哲学の道) which is a pedestrian path. It’s a beautiful walk along a canal lined with cherry trees. It was still a bit too early in the spring for us to see the cherry blossoms but it was a wonderful walk nonetheless.
The entire walk takes about 30 minutes and it’s all on flat ground (no inclines or declines) so you can go at a leisurely pace. There are plenty of benches and areas to relax so really take it up as an opportunity to escape the city hustle! Along the path there’s a small Buddhist temple called Honen-in (法然院) that is highly recommended. At the end of the walk, you’ll be about a 5-minute walk from another impressive temple called Nanzen-ji (南禅寺). Nanzen-ji is a sprawling complex with multiple smaller temples and gardens. The most impressive is the main gate called Sanmon which you’re able to go up and see the view from up top. Note that some of the smaller gardens and temples may require a fee to enter.
As a contrast to the serene temples and gardens you can explore during the day, Kyoto also has a vibrant downtown core area. If you’re looking for somewhere to explore local foods and goods, look no further than Nishiki Market (錦市場). This long arcade-style market has a ton of interesting stores you can explore at your leisure. From local delicacies to hand-crafted knives, it’s a good place to scope out potential souvenirs and gifts to bring back home too.
Recommended places to eat and drink:
There was no shortage of good ramen in Japan and this restaurant was definitely right there for me after Kikanbo Ramen in Tokyo. The ramen broth is excellent and the gyoza (fried dumplings) complemented the ramen perfectly. It’s usually quite busy so going during the off hours like 11 a.m. or 5 p.m. is probably your best bet to grab a seat quickly. Otherwise, expect to wait at least 10 to 20 minutes.
Sama Sama (¥¥)
A really cool Indonesian bar just off the Kamo River. The atmosphere is warm and cozy and the selection of drinks is fantastic. We ordered a couple of their specialty Indonesian drinks and they were delicious. The owner and most of the staff speak English so it’s a nice way to reconnect to speaking English again. We didn’t try the tapas-style food there but it seemed very authentic and tasty.
Airbnb – Great Location in Kyoto 3B (~120 USD per night)
A great apartment located just south of the Nishiki Market area. Hosted by a father and daughter duo that both speak English and are very helpful and responsive. It’s a really nice value for the price.
Personally, Koya-san was the highlight of the two-week trip. Located in the heart of the mountains in Wakayama prefecture, the journey to get there is part of the magic. Koya-san is well known for being the world headquarters of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. For Japanese people it’s a sacred place and many make a visit to pay their respects to Kobo-Daishi a Buddhist grandmaster who is said to be still alive and praying at the Okunoin mausoleum for over one thousand years.
Koya-san is a big change of pace from the rest of Japan. Going from the ubiquitous urban sprawl to a small town in the mountains literally felt like a breath of fresh air and calmness. Koya-san has a vibrant tourism industry but it’s not overwhelming at all.
The town is also well known for its “shukubo” (i.e. Buddhist temple lodging) that are in wide supply. The shukubos provide visitors with an opportunity to experience staying in a traditional Buddhist temple and eat traditional vegetarian meals prepared by the Buddhist monks called “shojin-ryori”. For foreign travellers, I recommend taking a look at Ekoin which is a shukubo that is very accustomed to hosting foreign travellers and most of the monks there speak English.
Some of our favourite activities in Koya-san included participating in a meditation class at the Ekoin (¥500 for non-guests), morning prayer at the Okunoin (free), a hike on the Women’s Pilgrammage trail, trying our hand at “shakyo” (Japanese caligraphy) at the at the Daishi Kyokai, and night tour of the Okunoin by the monks from Ekoin.
There is plenty to do in Koya-san so take the time to spend a night or two there. You can find more interesting spots to visit on the Koya-san official website.
Recommended places to eat and drink:
A very nice vegan cafe located in the heart of Koya-san. They’ve got a delicious lunch menu set that comes with coffee/tea and dessert. It packs up pretty quickly so make sure you go a little early for lunch.
If you’re looking for non-vegetarian meals, try Tonkatsutei located at the edge of town past the Okunoin. The family-run business specializes in fried pork cutlets and shrimp.
An incredible little guest house with a minimalist design and decor. They provide small rooms with a double bed or individual “capsule” style bunks. It’s a very friendly place for travellers who are looking for a comfortable place to stay in Koya-san without having to stay at one of the local shukubos. We really enjoyed our time here.
A shukubo in Koya-san which caters to foreign travellers. Most of the monks there speak English and provide translations for the various services they provide. As mentioned earlier, the meditation class and Okunoin tour are offered by the monks from this shukubo. We didn’t stay there but the temple lodging looked very nice.
There you have it! I hope this serves as a helpful “starter pack” of information as you plan out your trip to Japan. There’s certainly more that you can dig into through various guidebooks and websites that are available. We found the latest Lonely Planet Japan Travel Guide to be quite helpful and I recommend picking one up before you leave.
Do you have any recommendations for traveling in Japan? Feel free to post below with any additional recommendations you might have.