My co-worker friend Will has provided me with a pretty extensive write-up of tips and takeaways from his recent trip to Japan. Putting this up to share with my travel mates and for easy access in the future.
The feature image is the exterior of a Ryokan, referenced below.
General Trip Advice
Get a JR Rail Pass. You’ll need to do it in advance, and you have to pick it up the US before you head over.
In terms of navigating around, if you can pick up a pocket WiFi thing you can use Google Maps. (we picked up one of these: http://www.econnectjapan.com/products/wifi - really nice, they deliver it to your hotel and it includes packaging to ship it back before you leave the country).
If possible, I'd recommend you venture outside of the cities and see more of the countryside. We took a few day trips and spent one night in a mountain town, and even with that I wish we'd spent a lot more time outside of the city.
Tipping is not a thing in Japan. Taxis and restaurants don't accept it, so whatever your bill is – that's what you pay. If you leave a tip they'll probably chase you down trying to return the money you forgot on the table.
People will not mess with your stuff. You're basically safe leaving your things unattended (assuming they're out of the way), and no one would even think about taking them. It's just not something that happens.
More than language, you should try to study a bit of the etiquette before you go over there. Japanese behavior is very structured and therefore predictable, so after a while you'll learn to read context clues and navigate social situations pretty easily. A few pro tips:
- Don't talk on the subway (unless you're in Osaka)
- Don't eat/drink in public places, esp. while walking.
- Be careful where/how you throw things away.
People are extremely polite and helpful, so you should have no trouble. I mean, the customer service at a 7-11 in Japan is on par with that of a 5-star hotel in the US. Speaking of...
This is your north star. Your safety net. Your mother's milk.
In Japan, 7-11 is a utopia filled with amazing food and resources, and it was the only place where the ATMs would accept our cards. If all else fails, look for the green and orange banner.
Golden Gai, highly recommended, a few alleys filled with tiny bars
We stayed in two hotels. The first 2 nights were at the Cerulean Tower – it's a massive business hotel right near Shibuya crossing, so it has a strong Lost in Translation vibe. The rooms were fine. The best part was the cocktail bar on the 47th floor with live jazz and a view of the Tokyo skyline.
After that we spent about 5 nights in a hotel I really liked called Claska. It's quite small, the rooms are all unique, and it has a cafe, bar, design shop and dog grooming studio all within its walls. It's a bit far out from the main area of Tokyo, but it's actually near a good scene for design and fashion in this neighborhood called Nakameguro. I'd highly recommend it if you're ok being a bit removed.
- Ramen - you can't go wrong with it. The best we had was at a place called Afuri. At most of them, you purchase a ticket via a vending machine outside and bring it to exchange it at the bar.
- Izakaya - Lots of great izakayas. Our favorite was definitely this place.
- Soba - My favorite thing I ate in Japan was the soba at http://www.yutoku-soba.co.jp
- Department stores - in Tokyo there are huuuge department stores, and on the bottom levels you’ll find hundreds upon hundreds of gourmet food stands. Many of them have free samples, so you can make an entire meal out walking around and trying lots of weird/delicious foods. The one we went to was called Mitsukoshi
- 246 Common - pretty cool outdoor food market, sort of like Smorgasburg but in Tokyo.
- Golden Gai – Not a bar but a neighborhood. Highly recommend this area for drinking – it’s basically a few alleys filled with tiny bars (3-6 seats each), often stacked on top of each other. Our favorite one was called Albatross (make sure it's the right one, there's another bar nearby with the same name that was no good)
- Buri - cool little sake bar with hundreds of little sake jars on the wall. Looks like this.
- Tsukiji Fish Market – v. awesome, but make sure you go early. We made the mistake of going around noon and only caught the tail end of it.
- Ghibli Museum – if you're a fan of Miyazaki's work, or creative things in general, this is a must. It's amazing. A bit outside of town, so you’d need to allow half a day to make the trip. Also get tickets before you go.
- Harajuku - crazy district famous for the Harajuku fashion scene. Not too many shops you'd actually want to spend money at, but it's totally worth exploring.
- Shibuya crossing – needs no explanation.
- Pachinko - not much fun to play but worth checking out a parlor
- Akihabara - the electronics/anime district. Hasn't changed much since the 80s, so there isn't anything mind-blowing in terms of the actual technology, but the shops themselves are amazing. Go to the Mandarake store and prepare to get weird.
- Mori Art Museum - Tokyo's main art museum, pretty great modern art, also super high up in the sky with an awesome observatory on the roof.
Kyoto is beautiful
We stayed at a ryokan, which is a traditional inn (tatami floors, breakfast, etc.). It was amazing, but very expensive. So if you can afford it, you should by all means experience it – even just for a night. Otherwise there are plenty of normal hotels around, or you could stay in a capsule hotel.
The Kyoto food market is incredible, and like the dept. stores in Tokyo you can subsist off of samples alone.
We heard about this chopstick maker further out in Kyoto, Ohashi Kobo. The man who runs the shop is considered the best in Japan, and if you go there he’ll help you find the perfect set of chopsticks, taking into account your height, arm length, shape of hand, etc. It’s like something out of Harry Potter.
SOU SOU - cool shop that modernizes classic Japanese workwear. Stuff like this.
- Temples – there are many temples but I'd recommend picking out 2-3 that interest you and spending some time at each. They're incredible, but honestly after a while they start to all look the same.
- Gion District - Geisha territory. Great for wandering in the evening.
Kazu. One of my favorite bars in the world. It is extremely difficult to find. Like, you literally have to walk down a few back alleys, cross over a garden, go up a backstreet and then a few flights of stairs to reach the door. Go at night. More
We only got to spend 2 days in Osaka, but it was one of my favorite parts of the trip. Awesome nightlife, good (and cheap) food, just all around fun and a nice break from the quiet, reserved mindset of other areas in Japan. We stayed in Dojima hotel. It was nice.
The only recommendations I really have are to go to the Dotonbori part of town and explore the scene. ENDLESS restaurants, bars, shops, nightlife in general. Two of my favorite Japanese foods come from Osaka: Okonomiyaki and Takoyaki. Eat them both, ideally after a few drinks.
We got okonomiyaki at a place called Chibo. It was excellent and I'd recommend it.
Wow, that was some excellent advice! Thanks again, Will. If anyone has something to add or critique, please let me know in the comments.