Japan has always been high on my list of places to see. So this past winter when we were given a three week holiday from school, my husband and I decided to make a trip to Japan. He had studied there in college and wanted to return to revisit some places and friends, as well as to go farther in his travels now that we had the means and travel know-how. I wanted to experience an Eastern culture and indulge in the delicious food!
We spent a total of eleven days (not including the grueling 14 hour flight with a layover in Seoul) in Japan, beginning in Tokyo, traveling down the coast to Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Osaka, and ending in Tokyo. It was easily one of the best trips I've ever taken, second only to our honeymoon around the Mediterranean.
The following is list of some of the sights in the Tokyo area. We experienced a lot, so you'll notice that this recap is broken into four different parts to keep down the length of each post. I hope you'll find my tips and suggestions substantial, but if you want a recommendation and can't find one my posts, then please leave your questions in the comments.
What to see in Tokyo
Tsukiji Fish Market - This was one of our first stops in Tokyo. The tuna market is closed to tourists, but you can still walk around and see many of the fish stalls and other market stalls. They sell everything from chopsticks to pottery, and a line of tiny eateries in the back make some of the freshest sushi in the world! You'll have to wait a good while (around 30 minutes to an hour) during lunch time to get into some of the smaller 10-person sushi bars, but it's well worth the wait.
Tokyo Station - The station building in the Maranouchi district is lovely, but head underground and you'll find an impressive shopping mall that spans for what seems like miles. It's a fun way to spend an hour or two roaming through the halls. You'll find everything from cheap, but stylish jewelry and accessories to children's toys and designer brands.
Tip: Getting around on Tokyo's subway can be complicated at first, but it's very convenient. The subways were fast, clean, and much less crowded than I expected. I rarely felt as cramped as I have on my way to school in the morning on Stuttgart's local U-bahn line. There are even women-only cars during peak hours for safety. You should, however, plan to give yourself some extra time to get to each location until you can get used to the system. In particular, Tokyo's subways aren't all owned by the same company, as is the case with Stuttgart's bahns. You may end up traveling on two or three different lines to get to one place, and so you'll have to enter and leave different lines despite staying in the same station. This happened to us many times, but the ticket controllers were always nice enough to help us out. We purchased Suica cards (and then later ICOCA cards in Kyoto) and topped them off with money at the kiosks in each station. That way we didn't have to pay for each journey separately. With a Suica card, you just swipe into the station, go to your destination (on one line), and swipe as you leave to pay from your card. It wasn't as convenient as our single pass-and-carry system in Stuttgart, but it made sense for the multiple lines in Tokyo.
Tokyo Skytree - The Skytree recently opened in 2012. While we didn't make it to the top (the wait was excessive and the price a bit much), I enjoyed walking around the shopping area. There were tons of cute, local design stores, making it a great place to purchase gifts. I was also surprised to find both a Coldstone Creamery and a Denny's there.
Note: After have lived in Germany for so long, I was surprised to see so many American stores and restaurants in Japan, including GAP, Denny's, and let's not forget, 7-Eleven. They're fun to check out, but know that some restaurants, like Denny's, just won't be the same as in the States (don't bank on hashbrowns).
Bus Tour - I usually try to hop on a bus tour in just about every city we go to. When the weather is nice, the double-decker bus can offer some stunning views and take you all over a city for a fraction of the cost and time that a subway would take. The double-decker tour that we took, for example, took us from Maranouchi to the Skytree, Ueno, Akihabara, Roppongi Hills, Shinjuku, Tokyo Tower, and more. Plus, they offer information in English.
Ueno - This area of the city offered good shopping and great food. We really enjoyed passing by the market stalls selling fresh foods, cheap shoes, and clothing. It's also a great area for sign-spotting (i.e. looking for cool signs).
Akihabara - This district is famous for the neon signs advertising video games, anime, and manga. We also saw tons of "maid cafés" where men (and women) can go to be served by young Japanese girls dressed up as French maids (no, no sex involved). We also saw lots of girls walking around in short skirts and high heels, which I found especially surprising in the middle of January!
Roppongi Hills - This more business-y district is centered around Mori Tower. It's not as tall as Tokyo Tower or the Skytree, but it still offers an impressive view of the city. Your ticket to the top also includes a visit to the Mori Museum of modern art. Go at night when the views of the city are the best, but make sure you check out the museum first before it closes. Then enjoy the panoramic views of the city as you drink a beer or cocktail at the tower bar. If you go during the day, you can also wander around the surrounding neighborhood where there are tons of shops and restaurants, including one of the biggest Muji stores in Tokyo (think Ikea, but Japanese-style and with amazing stationery).
Shinjuku - We stayed in Shinjuku after we returned from our trip to the south, and I loved it! The area is jam-packed with shopping and restaurants, and has one of the biggest subway stations, making it easy to get to most anywhere in the city. We stayed at Apartment Hotel Shinjuku, which was inexpensive, centrally located, and clean. The hotel also doubled as an antiques dealer, so you got to see some cool items on sale in the lobby as well as in your designer room. Tiny kitchens and fridges also made the space convenient for travelers on a budget.
Note: Smoking in Japan is not permitted on the streets, so if you smoke, you'll have to find a smoking area or risk being fined. I found that the smoking areas outside, ironically, were designated by a wall of plants so that all you saw was a cloud of smoke above the leaf line. In shopping malls and train stations, there were smoking lounges enclosed in glass walls like fishbowls. Sadly, in most restaurants and bars smoking is still permitted.
Shimokitazawa - This hip neighborhood is filled with tiny shops and second hand stores, though you'll have trouble telling which stores are secondhand and which aren't. I once read somewhere that the young Japanese are so trendy (and their closets so small), that they'll frequently buy the latest clothing, wear it once or twice, and then resell it to a secondhand store where the clothing, naturally, is almost as good as new. I found a lovely Zara sweater dress and embroidered skirt here for a steal.
Shibuya Crossing - I was told I couldn't visit Japan without seeing Shibuya Crossing, which is the busiest crossing in the world. Thousands of people will cross from all directions as the lights change, making it truly a sight to behold.
Senso-ji - This Buddhist temple in the Asakusa area is Tokyo's oldest temple. It's a beautiful old structure guarded by huge gates and a row of cute little shop stalls called the Nakamise-dori. Next to the temple you can also visit a Shinto shrine, called the Asakusa Shrine.
Yoyogi Park - We were told you can see some crazy sights in the park, as it's a common meeting place on the weekend for cosplay groups. However, when we visited in January, the park was filled with pilgrims to the Meiji Shrine dressed in traditional kimonos, making the park nonetheless a worthwhile visit.
Takeshita Street - This fun shopping street (meaning "cat street") next to Yoyogi Park in the Harajuku neighborhood is packed with all kinds of small stores selling clothes, trinkets, and cosplay outfits. Definitely visit Kiddyland, which has several levels of toys and other souvenirs from the likes of Hello Kitty and Studio Ghibli to Snoopy (who is still very popular in Japan).
Studio Ghibli Museum - A must-see for any fan of Mizaki films and Studio Ghibli, this whimsical museum is part playground and part art museum. You can learn how hand-drawn animated films are made, see a real-life model of Miyazaki's drawing room, and view drawings from past and upcoming films. There's also a theater showing short pictures that you can only see at the museum. We saw Koro's Big Day Out, which is about a little puppy who gets lost while out on an adventure in the city. Note that the giant, plush Cat Bus is only for little kids to play on.
Ginza - We walked through Ginza one night on our way to dinner. It's filled with tons of fancy expensive stores, like Gucci and Cartier. Even if you can't afford it, go to check out the elaborate window (and building) displays.
Note: Japan's currency, the yen, offers a great exchange rate against the dollar and euro. We found most foods and goods to be inexpensive in comparison to our usual standards. Still, we ended up spending a bit too much in the end. All of those zeros make sums look like monopoly money and we lost track somewhere...
Yebisu Beer Museum - Since Japan has some pretty good lagers, we decided to go to a local brewery in Ebisu to check out Yebisu beer. The museum was located in (surprise!) an outdoor shopping mall, making the area a great place to spend an afternoon. The museum itself is only one room of pictures, artifacts, and a short video, but next to that is a small bar where you can taste Yebisu on tap.
Odaiba - This manmade island in Tokyo Bay reminded me a bit of Pleasure Island in Pinocchio. We went for the giant arcade and spent a very fun evening playing taiko drum master, shooting some hoops, mini-bowling, shooting zombies, and playing air hockey. The island is also filled with more stores and, of course, restaurants. We were delighted to have garlic cheddar biscuits at Red Lobster as we watched the sun set across the bay. I also, oddly enough, got to pet a seal at an outdoor zoo, though Matt put his foot down when I wanted to take home an Akita puppy that looked like a little fox. Moral of the story: Like in Pinocchio, leave the island while you're still having fun (and avoid the pet shop).
Mt. Fuji - Disclaimer: We didn't actually go to Mt. Fuji, even though we'd planned to. The bullet train we took out of Shinjuku station to get to Kyoto afforded us a beautiful view already without the hassle of organizing the bus trip out to the base of the mountain. Whichever way you choose to see it, Fuji-san is breathtaking.
Go to Part 2 for a recap on what to eat in Tokyo.