If you’ve never been to Japan, now is the time to go. Whether you prefer cheap thrills or white napkin meals, Japan has endless offerings.
I typically keep a loose itinerary with lots of time padding to just wander around. This trip had a jam-packed agenda sprinkled with spontaneity and little treats. Traveling with Clare Shaheen lead to glorious meals, unexpected surprises, and a deep appreciation for the special island and culture of Japan.
Let’s start with general travel tips:
Use Hopper to get flight quotes and alerts. We were able to travel from JFK to NRT (one leg in business class) for $1,000 RT.As soon as you book your flights, order a pocket wi-fi and Japan Rail Pass. Japan Rail will physically mail you a voucher that you then will exchange for a fully registered card. This is critical for intercity and cross-country travel. The pass works on metro and bullet trains. You’ll pickup your pocket wi-fi at the airport from QL Liner, a kiosk just past customs.The sun rises and sets super early for American travelers, which is either terrible or helpful for jet lag. If you stay out late, expect full daylight by 4AM.
Uber is slightly more affordable than taxis in Tokyo. Taxis are excellent quality in all cities, particularly Kyoto. Never open your own door; The drivers are very particular about white glove serviceGoogle Translate is extremely helpful in communicating with locals and translating signs. You can use the photo-to-text feature for complex menus and signs. Just snap a photo and highlight the characters you’d like translated. A total lifesaver for more rural places!Trip Advisor has a super cool feature where you can translate destinations into local language. This is a more legible and well-designed way to show your driver where you’d like to go. If you don’t have wi-fi on the go, make sure to write down your hotel address.Most restaurants and bars prefer that you make reservations before your arrival. I highly recommend calling any place, particularly nice restaurants before dropping in.While tipping is not a thing in Japan (can be considered offensive), cover charges are posted in entryways for most bars. Expect great service for a $5–10 cover.Please be polite. The Japanese will go out of their way to help you, make sure you’re having a good day, and know which direction you’re headed. Learn simple phrases like ‘arigatōgozaimas’, ‘oishi’, and ‘onegaishimasu’ to show respect. If you ask someone for directions, chances are that they will just walk you to where you need to go.Help build great lists by checking in via Swarm & Foursquare. It’s fun exploring cities to see where friends have been before!
Tokyo is a dense city of young and fun culture. However niche your taste, it has probably been perfected somewhere in Tokyo. Our time here was optimized for eating, shopping, and nightlife. Here are a few favorites:
Fun Fun Fun
Robot Restaurant [Lowbrow in Shinjuku] — Ready for a sensory overload? You’re treated to a song and dance electro robot battle filled with cheap jar sake and popcorn. It’s a wild drunken version of the Disney light parade. Totally worth it. Make sure to reserve in advance!Golden Gai [Lowbrow in Shinjuku] — This area is just east of the Shinjuku station. Here you will find a small city grid packed with dozens of tiny 8–10 seat bars, each with a different theme and menu. This is a great place for locals and travelers to mix. A great destination to try a variety of izakaya. Expect to pay a $5–10 cover on busy nights.
Photo booths [Lowbrow, everywhere] — A cheap thrill, you can find photo booths within any arcade. These glorious machines are take your photo with Snapchat-like filters. They typically cost $4 a strip and will email you copies if you can navigate your way through the confusing all-Japanese interface. These are especially fun after a night of drinking.
Eat & Drink
Ramen [Lowbrow everywhere] — A very good reason to travel to Japan. We enjoyed $5–8 bowls of the best ramen on the planet. Many shops have a pre-paid vending machine where you place your order. Use Google Translate to decode the buttons, put in a ¥1000 bill, and prepare for a glorious meal.Vending Machines [Lowbrow everywhere] — In every town, on nearly every other corner, vending machines sell water, coffee, tea, and various local drinks for ¥100–130. Canned Boss Coffee is really tasty!Tsukiji Market [Lowbrow in Tsukiji] — There is a little something for everyone at the fish market. To see the tuna action, be sure to arrive promptly at 3:00AM. Any later and you’ll get stuck waiting in long lines for fresh fish breakfast.Takoyaki [Lowbrow on Cat Street] — This tiny food cart serves Takoyaki, a pastry filled with gooey seasoned octopus topped with onions and sauce of choice. A totally unique street food, I recommend tangy tomato sauce on top.
Orrr 246 [Lowbrow at the intersection of Omotesando and Harajuku]— This beer garden atop Tokyo Plaza serves delicious local brews and teriyaki squid on a stick. On a hot summer day, it’s the perfect place to retreat from the busy streets of Harajuku.Nozy Coffee [Highbrow on Cat Street] — This hub in the middle of Cat Street offers delicious pastry, freshly roasted coffee, and coffee cocktails by nightfall. Open until 10:00 pm.Sushi Ichi [Highbrow in Ginza] — While they aren’t yet Michelin-starred, they are a great contender for their superb omakase. Expect to pay upward of $300 for lunch.Bar High Five [Highbrow in Ginza] — This highly recommended craft cocktail bar attracts the detailed drinker who cares about the clarity of ice. Make a reservation and budget time to sit and enjoy something special.Gen Yamamoto [Highbrow in Azabu-Juban] — Experience a sake tasking menu with a flight of carefully crafted seasonal sake cocktails. Quoted from their site “The environment at Bar Gen Yamamoto allows the customer to taste the seasons in each cocktail. The tasting menu is not set, but is created bespoke for each customer.”Deus Ex Machina [Highbrow in Harajuku] — The Residence of Impermanence, Deus Ex Machina’s flagship shop in Harajuku honors third-wave coffee and beastly bikes in a quiet corner of this busy shopping district.Sakura Lounge [Highbrow at Narita Airport] Treat yourself to the Japan Airlines business class lounge at Narita Airpot. You can enjoy pre-flight massages, delicious Japanese cooking, cocktails and sparkling wine. The ideal way to rest before a long haul.
Cat Street [Highbrow along Omotesando] — This tidy little corner of Harajuku offers high-end boutiques like Opening Ceremony and Comms de Garcon mixed with local retailers like Sketchbook and the Wafflish Waffle. A great place to shop for well-made Japanese fashion.Takeshita Street [Lowbrow in Harajuku] — This area is where the Harajuku girl was born. Shopping is cheap and trendy. Lots to see!
Radiall [Highbrow in Harajuku] — A well-designed menswear shop that mixes California surf vibes with bespoke selvage denim and Japanese tailoring. A handmade shirt will easily run ¥180,000.Kiddy Land [Lowbrow on Omotesando] — It’s either a wonderland or a nightmare depending on your taste. This multi-level toy store blares video game music and strobe lights onto the plushy stuffed shelves. Check out the basement for a shrine honoring Snoopy.Tokyo Plaza [Lowbrow at the intersection of Harajuku and Omotesando] — A narrow shopping mall at the edge of the bustling shopping district of Harajuku. The shops are cute and the air conditioning is a lifesaver on hot summer days!
Rest & Relax
Hamarikyu Gardens [Highbrow in Chuo] — Pay a small fee to decompress in these beautiful gardens. Each season offers varietal flora from chrysanthemums to iris. Visitors are welcome to enjoy a traditional tea ceremony overlooking the koi pond.
CapsuleInn Pod Hotel [Lowbrow in Shinjuku] — Our stay in the capsule hotel was inspired by Fhloston Paradise Hotel in The Fifth Element. Slightly more comfortable than a coffin, these cheap and easy resting places are nicer than expected! You’re given pajamas and slippers upon arrival. Pay attention to gender-specific rules when booking as most pod hotels cater to business men only.Lounge at The Ritz-Carlton [Highbrow in Roppongi] — Whether your an overnight guest or just stopping in for a drink, the service at the Ritz is ritzy! Visit the 45th floor for beautiful views in a serene environment. Ask for the extensive whisky menu for a real treat!
While this is a short list of fun things to do, Tokyo really does offer something for everyone. Share your favorite places in the comments section!