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.
- 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
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!
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.
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 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:
- 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
- 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
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:
- First Avenue Tokyo Station
- Kit Kat Boutique in Seibu department store in Ikebukuro and in Tokyo’s station Daimaru
Here’s a picture of my final stash of Kit Kats:
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!!!