- We stayed at a hostel called UNPLAN Shinjuku. Shinjuku (more below) is central, easy to get to, and filled with things to do. The hostel featured small booths which were cramped by clean and provided needed privacy. If I were to go again and money was not an object, I would try to find a hip hotel in Ebisu as its greener / less cramped in that area.
Restaurants / Bars:
- Nabe: Delicious shabu shabu spot
- Nakajima – it is the michelin starred restaurant that has the sardines-three-ways-lunch and it is very affordable. There is always a line up the stairs so don’t go when you are starving! It is in the Shinjuku neighborhood which is where we stayed last time- and I would recommend this neighborhood if you haven’t already found a place.
- Golden Gai: A number of streets featuring a ton of bars that fit 8-12 people. Most places serve some food (usually yakatori) and serve beer and Santori Highballs. We had varying levels of success at the different bars.
- Afuri Ramen – Super bomb ramen spot where you place your order on a ticket vending machine. There’s one in Harajuku but there are several locations throughout the city.
Activities / Others:
- Explore Shinjuku (from Noah Smith): This maze of neon backstreets is another quintessential “urban Japan experience”. If you come out of the east exit from JR Shinjuku station, you’ll arrive at an old red-light district known as Kabukicho. In Shinjuku you can also go to Robot Restaurant (warning: it’s silly), hit the bars at Golden Gai, explore Japan’s most famous gay district at Ni-chome, or even see the last few yakuza if you go to the right monjayaki restaurant. Or just wander around, really.
- Yoyogi Park + Meiji Shrine
- Explore Ebisu / Omotesando Street
- Daikanyama T-Site (From explore Tokyo): “This tasteful, low-rise specialty shopping complex [in Ebisu] is anchored by a large branch of Tsutaya bookstore, and it also features boutique-style shops specializing in cameras, bicycles, toys and pet supplies. The Ivy Place restaurant offers all-day cafe.”
- Sumo Tournament at Ryogoku Kokugikan — This was an absolute high-light for us. The tournaments run a few times a year and we purchased the tickets about a month ahead of time. We sat in the second row and watched about four hours (!!!) of sumo. There is great food for sale inside. (Tonkatsu Hasegawa is also a close by restaurant)
- Tsukiji – This is where the famous fish market is. They have daily auctions where sushi chefs from all over the city come and inspect the day’s catch and make their inventory purchases. The actual auction happens super early in the day (like 5-6am) but you can buy fresh fish from stalls or sit down at a restaurant all day.
- Ajinoya osaka – Laid back spot featuring traditional okonomiyaki, savory Japanese pancakes fried at the table. Definitely the best place in town for this dish but make sure to arrive before 7 or else the lines will be crazy.
- Yakinuki Dondon – Really amazing bbq spot. It’s definitely warm and a bit smokey so be ready and don’t wear anything fancy. You sit at the bar and tried the various kimchi and mains. The ribeye beef, wagyu, and spicy ribeye were all delish.
- Craft Beer Works Kamikaze – Great, local beer spot. The craft beer scene in Japan is definitely not affordable but it was fun to try some new beers. This place is a good early evening spot (or maybe a precursor to Bar Nayuta).
- Hana Sake Bar – When we arrived a number of Americans were about to receiving a Sake tasting class (courtesy of AirBnB Experiences) so we sat in on the experience. This was a fun way to learn about the history of sake and the different styles.
- Bar Nayuta — This was by far my favorite bar we found in Japan. The location is hidden – look for a geometric symbol on a sign outside of where the bar is supposed to be, I think the actual place is on the third floor. I highly recommend the Old Fashioned.
Activities / Others:
- Walking Tour
- Kuroman Market — This was my culinary highlight. It opens at 9 am and is filled with different Best tuna is halfway through across from Familymart).
- America-mura: The most entertaining part of Osaka is walking around and seeing all the bright lights. Its a very walkable city and includes some gem neighborhoods such as America-mura which is designed with sort of an American carnival look and feel.
- Denim: Osaka is home to some of the best denim in the world. From Heddel’s, “Japan’s love affair with jeans was born because no other commodity embodied the American ethos the same way that a pair of jeans could… The Japanese denim revival didn’t start in Tokyo – it happened in Osaka, a comparatively free-spirited and relaxed region with five companies in particular that were later known as the Osaka Five.”
- Ryokans – I would book a ryokan in Kyoto. They’re traditional Japanese inns that can range from budget accommodation to super high end. Many of them have onsen packages where you get access to a hot spring bath, and sometimes they have private ones in your room.
- Gyoza Chao Chao – Super delicious and cheap gyoza spot with lots of beer and even sweet Gyoza. I think I had like 50 gyoza here – must go in Kyoto.
- L’Escamoteur – Very high-end cocktail bar located in one of the nicest areas of Kyoto. Definitely designed for tourists but features good music and some amazing, once-in-a-lifetime cocktails (see pictures for their smoked old fashioneds).
Activities / Others:
- Nishiki Market / Pontocho Alley – Very crowded but amazing market similar to Kuroman Market in Osaka. This market is a bit more structured so doesn’t have the same charm but is still a great source of snacks.
- Kurama Hot Spring – Fantastic onsen north of Kyoto than can be a pain in the ass to get to but is remote and friendly (even to those with tattoos).
- Katsura River – Really scenic river that runs through the base of a few mountains on the western side of Kyoto. Young people sit on the western edge of the river during the evening – find some cheap beers at the 7/11 and stroll along.
- Fushi Inari (Red Shinto gates) – There are countless shrines in Kyoto but this one is the most popular and definitely my favorite. You take a train from the city. Suggest arriving early to beat the crowds.
- Philosopher’s Walk – THis is a wonderful walk on the Eastern side of the city that covers many of the city’s most famous shrines. There is definitely no need to try to cover all of the shrines you walk by but the walk itself is peaceful.
- Suntory Distillery – South of the city, near Fushi Inari, you can visit the fames Suntory Distillery. In Japan, the most famous, largest distilleries are also the best and you can’t do much better than Suntory.
- Gion – Historic traditional area of Kyoto that’s known as the geisha district. It’s a really pretty area with cobblestone bridges, little rivers, bamboo trees, etc. Hanami-koji Street is the main area. Definitely recommend watching Life of a Geisha ahead of time.
Getting Around / Other:
- Suica or PASMO card: This is the equivalent of a Bart card or Oyster Card (London). You pre-load funds onto the card and can use in all of the stations. I estimate this saved me 30 min. of waiting in line to purchase tickets. I estimate I used $50 on public transit (not including the JR pass).
- JR Pass: We purchased a 7 day pass which activates on a designated day and you can use for regional trains as well as some local subway lines in Tokyo and Osaka. You can reserve seats ahead of time at the station or get on one of the cars (I think 5) for non-reserved seating.
- From Narita Airport to Shinjuku in about 65 minutes. You need to make one transfer; get off at Nippori Station and switch to the JR Yamanote Line to complete the journey. You can buy Keisei Skyliner tickets online in advance.
- Pocket Wifi:
- Little wifi hotspot devices that are really popular in Japan. If you’re staying in an Airbnb your listing will probably have one for you. I would recommend renting one of these for your entire trip. You can pick it up and drop it off at the airport and they usually support like 5 devices at a time.
- Japan Guides