Japan Guide 101

As much as vacationing is fun, planning for one can be a bit exhausting especially if you’re going to a location for the first time and it has a lot to offer but you have limited time on your hands.

So I figured it might be a good idea to put together a thorough guide to Japan while the information is still fresh in my head. If I’m lucky, you might learn a thing or two here which you may not have stumbled upon just yet. Besides, sometimes the best resource for planning your trip is someone who’s been there recently and can give you their perspective of the place versus a guidebook’s which typically appeals to a much broader audience.

Planning your Japan itinerary:

  • TripAdvisor – the discussion forums especially are loaded with great tips & recommendations on travel planning.
  • Lonely Planet – I had the older version but 2015 editorial is coming out soon!
  • www.Japan-talk.com — my personal favorite! Their list of top things to do in each city were on point especially now that I’ve been there & done that.
  • www.Japan-guide.com
  • Boutique Japan – offers some decent lodging options but to find what you want you have to scroll through each post. I spent a few hours reading through this blog and found it very informative. There’s not a lot of content to browse through so you’ll get through it quickly.
  • Go Japan Go
  • Japan National Tourism Organization
  • Blogs such as Little Grey Box and Destination Japan offer great insight into Japan

Make sure to pack:

  • Umbrella – rain is frequent and unpredictable.
  • Cash – enough cash as many places do not accept American credit cards.
  • Hand sanitizer – grab a travel size from Bath & Body Works as the Japanese do not believe in soap (totally missing from most public bathrooms). Since restrooms are equipped with bidets, there really is no need to wash your hands with soap. But if you’re like me and find that soaps complete you! then yes, you’re going to need a hand sanitizer as a substitute.
  • Travel backpack – 2 reasons you’d rather carry a backpack then a purse: 1. there are limited trash cans in the city so you need a place to store your trash until you find a recycling bin, and 2. if you plan on shopping as you go then a backpack makes it much easier to carry your load as opposed to carrying multiple shopping bags especially when you know you won’t be heading back to your hotel frequently throughout the day.
  • Tissue or Wipes – Paper towels are also non-existent in public restrooms so carry with you ample tissue paper to wipe yourself as needed.
  • Portable charger – Amazon has several varieties; I purchased mine on either Groupon or LivingSocial, can’t remember which one, but it had several positive reviews and was discounted fairly well from it’s original price

Lodging:

TripAdvisor is a great place to research for lodging options but surprisingly, Airbnb and VRBO offered us great deals for the price. Remember, Japanese hotel rooms are very small, 2 double beds in a single room are hard to find unless you’re looking at 4- to 5-star hotels which come with a price tag. If you’re open to non-hotel options, try these two!

Transportation:

Prior to entering Japan: If you plan to travel a lot within Japan then buying the Japan Rail Pass may be your best bet. Since we didn’t travel much within Japan, we just bought Shinkansen (reserved) tickets at the train station a few hours prior to departure. Check this out to find out more on when it may make sense for you to invest in the Japan Rail Pass because you have to buy it prior to entering Japan!

Upon entering Japan: If you know in advance you’ll be hitting many spots within the city on a given day then investing in the one-day metro pass is a brilliant idea since metro is the best way to travel from one neighborhood to another especially within Tokyo. These metro passes range from $10-$16 per person per day and can be bought at the metro station. In Kyoto, we used mainly buses for transportation.

Dining:

Believe it or not, we Yelped a great deal to find where to eat. Just know that top-rated places get booked out fast so reservations are required and sometimes a couple of days in advance. If we knew we wanted to try a place, we just called & reserved it for a night. There were a few we came across on Yelp but we didn’t get a chance to attend. If you can, please do so!

  • Ryugin – 3-star Michelin restaurant in Roppongi Hills. Expensive though!
  • Aladdin – cheap but good halal Mediterranean buffet in Roppongi district
  • Kobe Beef Kaiseki 511 – said to be the BEST Kobe Beef in Tokyo!
  • Gonpachi Nishiazabu – this restaurant inspired the setting for the big fight scene in the movie Kill Bill between Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu and Crazy 88. Note: this restaurant was not used for the fighting scene; Quentin fell in love with this restaurant during his visit to Tokyo hence later using it as a setting for the scene. You will see the similarities once you walk in!

Language Barrier:

Language is a barrier in Japan but most people we came across understood common English words. With a little charades on our part, we would somehow find our answers eventually. Almost everyone working in 7-Elevens or similar marts knew limited but “workable” English. However, all products have Japanese handwriting on it. To help us translate Japanese words to English, we used Waygo, very effective, worked 100% of the time. I also used the Learn Japanese app to help me communicate verbally, it has handy phrases which you expect to use from time to time. Another good app is Triposo – good for exploring sightseeing, dining, nightlife and day trip options. Since I didn’t do much research on apps, here’s one resource where you can start. Plus, BuzzFeed just released this article on 29 Apps That Will Make Traveling So Much Easier – pretty good read!

Other Tips: Make sure to – 

  • carry your passport with you at all times as many shopping stores offer tax-free option but only if you have your passport on you
  • ask for WiFi access (for tourists) at the airport. We found out too late that airports do offer you some options but not sure which type though
  • pick up the Tokyo Handy Guide (a yellow guidebook) at the airport full of handy tips and itineraries
  • O.D. on snacks at the local marts. Nothing you’ll see outside of Japan!
  • hydrate well throughout the trip!

Places we didn’t get to see:

Honestly, there’s nothing on my itinerary I would advise you to skip. I enjoyed each and every spot I went to. There were a few places we had on our watch but didn’t have time to visit. I encourage you to include these on your itinerary if you can:

Tokyo

  • Sensoji Temple in Asakusa district
  • Tokyo Skytree Town (including Tokyo Solamachi) in Ryogoku
  • Tsukiji Fish Market in Ginza
  • Kabukiza Theatre & Show in Ginza – friends saw it and loved it!
  • Meiji Jingu Shrine in Shinjuku
  • Kappabashi district known for its kitchen supplies
  • Jimbocho for rare books collections
  • Ikebukuro Butler Cafes

Kyoto

  • Miyako Odori are cherry blossom dances performed nightly in April by Gion’s Geisha in historic Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theatre since 1869
  • Nijo Castle
  • Fushimiri Inari Shrine

On Places to See, visit my posts on Kyoto here and here, on Tokyo by clicking here and here, and on Hakone/Fuji by clicking here. Click away!

Most Unusual Kit Kats in the World:

Japan has the reputation for having the most unusual and diverse collection of Kit Kat flavors in the world. And since my two sisters are Kit Kat crazy, I set out to explore where I could find the strangest flavors. I began my quest on Google and then followed its directions. Unfortunately, Google wasn’t much help but we got lucky in a few places. Hope you can learn from our experience:

  • Pharmacies & Convenience Stores – carry only a few flavors mostly Green Tea
  • Laox – Akihabara’s duty-free shop had a decent collection precisely 4 flavors to choose from
  • Airports – honestly, instead of running around the city, we should have just focused at the airport because the stores there carried a pretty good variety similar to what we saw in Laox & elsewhere. So when you arrive at Haneda or Narita, check out the stores before you exit & then keep an eye out for additional flavors as you navigate through the city.

Where we didn’t get a chance to shop for flavors but Google suggested we should:

Here’s a picture of my final stash of Kit Kats:

kit kat collection

Flavors: wasabi, rum raisin, pudding, chili, green tea, strawberry cheesecake, red beans, cherry blossom, soy sauce (interesting right??!)

Well there you go! Your extensive guide on Japan from the perspective of a first-time visitor who had but 10 days to explore a vast, beautiful and culturally-rich country. Hope you find this guide useful! I seriously hope you do! I’ve been typing away for an hour, no kidding!!!

BON VOYAGE!!!

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Japan Diaries – Last Stop, Hakone and Fuji

You cannot leave Japan without catching a glimpse of the breathtaking Mt. Fuji!!!

So we leave Tokyo early morning to catch a train to Hakone

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Everyone tells you the ride into Hakone/Fuji is one hour. NO! It is not! First, you take a 90-minute train to Kanagawa. Then you catch another train (proper term: romance car) to the main station where you then ride a funicular to the top to catch a cable car into your final destination where, if you’re lucky and you get there early enough (say, before 2 pm), you catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji. The view is a hit or miss. Even if the weather indicates clear skies, clouds can take over Fuji unannounced. So be prepared to be disappointed. You can’t win against nature – the brutal truth.

On the way there, we take in the breathtaking scenery of Japan’s countryside.

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Do yourself a favor and use the restroom before you hop on the 90-minute train ride. Do NOT make the mistake I made. I almost died otw to Fuji. My bladder was screeeeeching in pain. I kept thinking to myself this will be one embarrassing headline in the evening news! So I held on tight to my life and couldn’t even manage to get my camera out when we saw Fuji on the way. Hence, this picture below was borrowed from my friend Keith!

Fuji

ISN’T THIS BEAUTIFUL????

I’m soooooooooooooooooo glad one of us took this picture! You know why? Because after we arrived at the famous upscale resort town of Hakone

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…and sunk in the gorgeous views of the beautiful Hakone Gora Park

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…and then rode the funicular up…

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…to hop on the cable car in hopes to catch elevated views of Mt. Fuji…enjoying sulfur reserves and natural hot springs along the way…

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…we arrive at the main view point to finally find…guess what??? No Fuji!!!

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It’s somewhere there behind the clouds 😦

Now you know what I mean!!!

So lesson learned: pee before you get on the train so you’re not holding on to your life and instead, focusing on looking out for Fuji!!!

It wasn’t all bad though. We ate the famous black eggs!

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..and spent a good hour souvenir shopping which I totally recommend – great finds for your friends & family!

Finally made our way back on the ferry over Lake Ashinoko…more of a pirate ship then your typical ferry…

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Back in time in Asakusa district for our Okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes) dinner at Asakusa Okonomiyaki Sometaro. A grill-it-yourself experience. You mix it, grill it and then eat it! On the way there we caught a lighted up glimpse of Skytree which is the tallest tower in Tokyo. But since we were running late, we looked at it and kept walking to have enough time to enjoy this…

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Long day, mostly spent in trains…but this was worth it!

Fuji

So this ends my day-to-day itinerary of Japan. An adventure I’m so grateful of being blessed with. Loved loved loved the country, its people, its culture, its food, its undeniable hospitality..and most of all totally loved the company I was with…my two partners in crime “Compass” and “Naughty Naughty”.

2 days in Kyoto, 4 days in Tokyo and 1 day in Hakone/Fuji. ALL…WORTH…IT!!!

Check out my other posts on Kyoto and Tokyo.

Next up: Japan Guide 101…

Japan Diaries – Tokyo, Day 3 and 4

Our last two days in Tokyo were back-to-back packed with shopping & eating adventures.

Started the day in Shimokitazawa district. This place won’t be on the Tokyo Metro map you’ll pick up at the station. You will have to Google map it or ask someone at the train station on how to get there. I wish I remembered the trains we took to get there but unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, I wasn’t the designated “Navigator” of the trip. My duties were limited to (a) serving the tea to the gang every morning (aka the official chai walli), and (b) planning the day’s itinerary.

Let’s shift our focus to Shimokitazawa or better known as Shimo. My most favorite part of Tokyo! Not only because shopping is sui generis and dirt cheap!! It’s crazy trendy!!! How about Tokyo Vogue coming to life on the streets! This district is also the hipster part of town so vintage stores are in abundance. In the evening, on weekends, this neighborhood turns into a photographer’s dream. If The Sartorialist made it to the Galata district in Istanbul, he’s bound to have been here at some point!!

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As soon as you step out of the station, follow the path into town and keep an eye out on your right side for a warehouse full of at least 15 adorably cute stores in it, lined up flea-market style. That’s the spot you want to explore! And don’t miss shoe candy at Oriental Traffic – Aldo of Tokyo but better!

Stopped by J.S. Pancake Cafe to refuel ourselves with these heavenly desserts: (yum squared!)

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After an entire day of emptying out our wallets, we headed back to Shinjuku to get to the famous Robot Restaurant. HMMMMH I had heard from plenty this was the best thing they did in Tokyo. I’m not sure if I echo the same sentiment. It is definitely the strangest thing I have seen. Quirky. Not like anything I have seen before which by definition makes it unique. But…it certainly wasn’t the “best” item on my itinerary. On a scale of 1-10, I give it a 4 on “Entertainment” because I felt it was erratic and a bit childish in its production. But it gets an 8 on “Robot Madness”. Yep, so if you want to see Robots fighting each other Japanese style, go for it. Or you know what? whatthehell…go for it anyways! It’s once-in-a-lifetime experience for sure!

The staircase leading up to the show is one colorful passageway…

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Show starts off with a drum performance – the best part:

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My favorite part? Seeing Daryl Nixon (from The Walking Dead) on the Celebrity attendance wall!!!

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After the show, walked the vicinity and let the the competitive bit out at a local arcade. Tell you, I felt all-out Japanese after being in an arcade!

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Finished the night off with fish cakes, meatballs, grilled veggies, Yakitori (skewers), plates full of Kimchi and…a selfie!

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Following day, made our way into Akihabara district, Tokyo’s Manga/Anime/ Electronics capital! We didn’t have to buy much so we quickly browsed through. However if you intend to do some serious shopping then make sure to take a tour guide with you who can show you around because everything is in Japanese! If you into hair and make-up, they have some cool gadgets to offer. One thing we wanted to go to was a Maid Cafe in Tokyo and Akihabara is known for those. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time but if you do, put it on your list! And try to visit Akihabara on a Sunday – it’s a costume show!

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Off to Odaiba to see Gundam Statue. Odaiba is a nice part of town, bit suburbia. We were there for a very brief stop (we had a Gundam fan!) but if you have time, there are two huge malls – Aqua & Diver city malls – worth exploring.

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A quick autograph of Gundam and we were back in Harajuku for more last minute shopping. Bad decision! Bad decision! Three words: United Nude and Monomania!

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I’ll leave the rest to your imagination!

Made it in time for our 9:45 pm reservation at Rokkasen. Totally recommend the place but do make reservations in advance.

We got to grill our own A-Grade Meat!

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Last stop: Shibuya Crossing, the busiest crosswalk in Tokyo, featured in The Amazing Race and Resident Evil! Guys, this is our last night in Tokyo. I bid thee beautiful city with its beauuuuuuuuuuuutiful residents farewell in no better way then celebrating the many lights which keep this city shining bright all night long!!!

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Give your imagination a ride of your life and visit Tokyo!!!

Japan Diaries – Tokyo, Day 1 and 2

Tokyo is like no other city!!!

A fascinating culture with the most generous, respectful and patient people by miles!

I am not exaggerating…

It literally is that accurate!

I had no idea we had it in us to be this nice!

Don’t get me wrong. For people living in it, it’s not an easy feast. They work hard…in fact they may just work too hard. At times they appear solemn. Japan’s suicide rate exceeds world average. It is the second leading cause of death among younger generation. Japanese are an accomplished society and they pay a heavy tag for it. You’d think a nation this maxed out would scorn at the sight of a tourist who gets in their way towards the end of the night. Yet their gentleness is evident only then. One evening we stood lost in the middle of the metro station figuring out which train to embark on. A lady came by, instructed us to follow her, she led us straight to our train, we marched inside hoping she’d follow our footsteps, instead she waved us goodbye and took off to catch her train. People are willing to go above and beyond to make your life easy. This is just one of several examples of Japanese hospitality we encountered. It shows me how devoted they are to their country and the extent of pride they hold in their culture.

I look forward to sharing my pictures to show you how marvelous this place is. And hopefully convince you to visit Japan in your lifetime to be able to experience its hospitality first-hand.

With that said, let’s start with our itinerary!

Late night arrival from Kyoto to our luxury apartment in Shinjuku. We got lucky! This is spacious for Tokyo standards. Thanks to Airbnb!

Started our day with a stroll down Shinjuku, Tokyo’s largest skyscraper district.

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Made our way into Shinjuku station for lunch, one of Tokyo’s busiest stations. Tokyo Metro stations are blackholes on Earth – once you make your way into them, you can’t get out, just letting you know! There are fully equipped cities buried in there. For instance, check out this extensive cafeteria where we stopped to grab midday meals

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$140 melons!!??!!#$#%#

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Grabbed our goodies and headed to rooftop of the metro station – 8th floor – for a relaxing meal and view!

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Then made our way to Omotesando, Japan’s trendy district.

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Here’s Prada store, a popular landmark:

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Condomania, a popular chain, not kidding!

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We started breathing once we saw Zara, Forever 21…more fitting for our wallets. GU and Uniqlo are other stores you definitely want to pay a visit to, both low-cost brilliant fashion chains, guaranteed to take half a day! GU’s Ginza location is their flagship store.

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Much later in the evening I discovered a heaven called Laforet Harajuku. I realized then I was standing at the corner of Omotesando and Harajuku, the epicenter of Tokyo fashion! I wish I could have photographed all of Laforet – talk about fashion on steroids – unfortunately no photography was allowed inside 😦

Wasn’t long until I had at least 15 lbs to carry in each hand so it only made sense to end the night quick.

Next day, visited Tokyo Metropolitan Government building, a few blocks from our apt. The observatory on the 45th floor provides free views of the city.

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That’s Yoyogi Park below, Tokyo’s version of Central Park. On Sundays, Tokyo’s harajukus crowd the park – said to be Photography heaven!

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Be sure to stop by Crank Trunk on the 45th floor, close to the exit. Unique souvenir finds!

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Olympics 2020 banners everywhere – they…are…ready!

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Headed to Ginza, Tokyo’s premier district. Think Rodeo Drive!

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If hungry for a quick snack, drop by a corner cafe called Le Cafe Doutor – $12 for a sandwich, coffee, salad and soup with complimentary dessert, all pretty good.

Mitsukoshi, a huge department store, is only a block away from this cafe. We had to go there to try the famous macarons of Laduree. Worth…every…step…we…took…on…the…way…there!

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Flavors: Rose Lychee, Cherry Blossom, Pistachio

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Ended the night in Roppongi, known for its night life and definitely very famous with foreigners. It reminded me so much of Wilshire Blvd. and Santa Monica at night.

A view of the Tokyo Tower

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Roppongi Hills

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Crystal fireworks…you can instantly create your own fireworks on their website

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Wish we’d spent more time in Roppongi. It definitely looks like the hideout for the romantics, actually might not be a bad place to stay!

Goodnight Tokyo…

Japan…in a nutshell

  • Suit city 
  • Soapless 
  • Heated toilet seats
  • Green tea and red beans
  • Cherry blossom
  • Shrines & temples
  • Plastic food display
  • Arcades
  • Portable wifi 
  • Neon lights
  • Crosswalks
  • Shimokitazawa
  • Street fashion
  • Luxury bidet
  • Vending machines 
  • Food porn
  • Metro stations
  • Robot cafe

What the world can learn from Japan is discipline, patience and hospitality!!!

The most intriguing culture I have been exposed to in a city which sticks out like no other!

Here’s Japan in a nutshell…

Lack of (a) time, (b) proper sleep and (c) proper wifi (but mostly sleep and time, I won’t lie) has kept me from updating my blog daily however more to come next week…stay tuned!!! 

  

  
   

 

   
  

  

     

   

    

  

 
    

   

Daryl Nixon was at Robot cafe in Japan. How awesome is that!!!

Coming up soon: my day to day journey into the wonderful world of Japan!!!