Now is a GREAT time to travel to Japan. The country has really opened up, thanks to Abenomics, a weak yen, and the impending 2020 Tokyo Olympics. New technology has also made it a lot easier to get around the country, and to find cool stuff. Japan is in the middle of a huge tourism boom, and who knows how long it'll last, so you might as well be part of it. Go see the world, take a trip to Japan!
Anyway, for a long time, people have been asking me for tips about what to do when they go to Japan. So instead of re-writing a list of recommendations every time, I thought I'd write a blog post. So here it is: Noah Smith's Abbreviated Illustrated Guide to Travel in Japan.
This list is HEAVILY weighted toward the "urban Japan experience", rather than touristy/historical stuff like temples, shrines, etc. or outdoorsy stuff like skiing and hiking. I've found that Japanese cities are the most distinctive thing about the country, and that people who do the "wander around in the city" thing and hit up some of these attractions on their first trip there tend to have the most fun.
It's also heavily weighted toward a first-time or second-time visitor who probably doesn't speak fluent Japanese, so it doesn't contain much hole-in-the-wall or out-of-the-way stuff either - i.e., Japan residents or regular Japan-goers will find this pretty "basic". If you're a Japan resident or regular Japan-goer who wants cool hip underground stuff to do and little unknown hole-in the wall restaurants or whatever, hit me up. Or better yet, you show me stuff. ;-)
When to Go
The most popular time to go to Japan is in late March/early April for the cherry blossoms (hanami). Warning: It will be very crowded and expensive.
July/August is also a great time to go - you can see fireworks and go to little traditional festivals with a bunch of yukata-wearing folk. It's fairly hot and humid. November is also a nice time to visit, and is much cheaper than spring or summer.
Getting around in a foreign country can be a bit of a challenge, but with these handy tips you should have no problem, even if you don't speak a word of Japanese (though you should learn Japanese because it's a cool language!).
Flights: There are lots of random cheap flights to Japan, and you just have to search a bunch to find them. But one trick you might want to try is to fly out of LAX. Try booking a round trip from LAX to NRT (Tokyo), and then booking a separate round trip to and from LAX to your home airport, and see if that saves you some money.
: Airbnb, at least until recently, has worked AMAZINGLY well in Japan. Many Airbnb owners are commercial operators, rather than owner-occupiers as in the U.S. So for a much cheaper price than a Japanese hotel, you can stay in a fully furnished Japanese apartment! Apartments for 2 or more people are especially cheap and often spacious. However, Japan has just stepped up regulation
of Airbnb, and there was one episode where many reservations were cancelled. The cancellation thing should be a one-time event (I hope), but still, you'll have to check to see how available Airbnb is when you make your trip. If you can't find an Airbnb, try staying at a cheap hotel like Solare
: This is incredibly useful. It'll let you use wifi anywhere in Japan, even on trains. This means you'll have a functioning cell phone without having to pay for international data rates (or phone if you use a voice calling app), AND wifi for your laptop. You can rent a pocket wifi from Global Advanced Communications
. You pick it up at the airport when you arrive, then put it in an envelope and drop it in a post office box when you leave.
Google Maps: Google Maps works incredibly well in Japan. Many Japanese streets don't have names, so you can find yourself wandering around aimlessly for a long time...unless you use Google Maps, in which case you can unerringly walk directly to your destination every time. You can copy-paste Japanese addresses into Google Maps and it will handle them just fine.
Japan Rail Pass
: This pass
allows you to take any JR train for free. That includes the shinkansen (bullet train), which is the easiest way to go between most cities in Japan. It also lets you ride JR trains within cities, which are especially useful in Tokyo. JR passes come in 1, 2, and 3-week-long varieties. If you're going to travel around the country, this will save you a lot of money, but if you're going to just stay in Tokyo, or just go to one other nearby city, it probably isn't worth it. You can buy a Japan Rail Pass in your own country at an approved location
or through a travel agent, or you can buy it in Japan at the airport until March 31, 2019.
Suica/Pasmo Card: Suica and Pasmo are actually two names for the same thing. This is a refillable RFID card that will let you use JR trains AND subways AND private rail lines throughout Japan. The only things you can't use it for are shinkansen and a few other special rapid trains. It's super useful. You can get it at the ticket machines at any train station. That is also where you refill it. Suica/Pasmo cards can also be used at all convenience stores, many drink machines, and many supermarkets! Super useful.
From the Airport: If you fly into Tokyo, use the Keisei Skyliner to get to the city, UNLESS you got the JR pass, in which case use the Narita Express because it's free. If you fly into Osaka, use the Nankai Airport Line.
Local Transportation: You'll mostly be using the train. Taxis are around but they're very expensive. Uber is basically nonexistent. The train stops running between midnight and 1:00 AM, so be careful not to get stranded. In Osaka you can also buy a bicycle if you want, which will run you about $100.
Paying for Stuff: You will need cash in Japan, so keep some on you. Visa cards can be used at a lot of stores and restaurants. Suica/Passmo cards can also be used in many grocery stores and convenience stores. But you will need cash. To make international ATM withdrawals, use the ATM in 7-11, which is pretty ubiquitous, or another ATM chain called Prestia. Google Maps can help you find the nearest 7--11 or Prestia if you're short on cash.
Places to Visit
There are too many cool places to visit in Japan for me to tell you even a few of them, and if I do tell you some, you'll all just go to the same places and won't be able to swap stories. So I suggest you wander around, ask friends who live there, look on the internet, etc. etc. But just in case you still want me to tell you some places to check out, here's a short list.
Much of what you'll visit will probably be on the west side of the city. This is where all the famous "cool" neighborhoods are: Shibuya, Shinjuku, Harajuku, Shimo-Kitazawa, etc. So I recommend staying somewhere near that area, for easy access. You'll mostly use the JR Yamanote line (loop line) to get around.
Shibuya: Remember that one crazy neon-drenched intersection you see in every Western movie or news report about Japan? That's called Shibuya Crossing, but its real name is Hachiko Square. (It used to kick Times Square's ass, before they redid Times Square and turned it into Blade Runner.) Hachiko Square is a convenient place to meet up with people, people-watch, or begin your adventures into Shibuya. Shibuya has tons of good places to eat, lots of giant stores and malls, alleys full of cool little bars and trendy dance clubs, and (weirdly) startup offices. Just go there and wander around. It's the quintessential "urban Japan experience" you're probably looking for.
: This is where the fun kids hang out, or used to before it got taken over by tourists. You can still go to cool boutiques like Dog
and see fashion kids of the type advertised on the @TokyoFashion Twitter account
. Fight the crowds on Takeshita Street, or wander the less crowded backstreets of Ura-Harajuku. Most importantly
, visit Tokyo Design Festa Gallery
, a free art gallery with a cool cafe out back. I've met too many interesting people there to count, and the crowd is fairly international.
Yoyogi Park (Yoyogi Koen): This is Tokyo's equivalent of Central Park or Golden Gate Park. It's right next to Harajuku station on the JR line. The park has a huge and beautiful old Shinto shrine called Meiji Jingu, a huge hangout area where people picnic a lot, and wooded jogging/biking trails. During hanami season in late March/early April it's especially amazing, especially on the weekends. At the south end of the park is a footbridge that crosses to a cool amphitheater area where they have events on weekends, and if you keep walking that way you'll get to Shibuya.
: 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 where you can 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.
: This is known as "geek city", but it probably won't seem that different from the rest of Tokyo. Go wander around some geek shops
, play video games (Taito Station is my favorite arcade), visit a maid cafe (warning: pointless, cheesy and overpriced), etc. But don't expect to be mobbed by anime geeks in full cosplay (for that, go to Comiket
or other similar events).
Shimo-Kitazawa: If you want to go to a hipster neighborhood, this is probably your best bet if you're in Tokyo for the first time. Jake Adelstein lives here, so make sure to bring a sword.
Odaiba: A giant game center, with some little beaches nearby where people party in the summer. Nice views of the city and bay from the monorail (which is actually not a monorail, interestingly enough).
Ikebukuro: Where the fun kids hang out and do fun stuff now that Harajuku and Shibuya have been mobbed by tourists. Of course now you'll read this guide and mob Ikebukuro too, and they'll have to find somewhere else! Damn general equilibrium!
Shimbashi: Also known as Shinbashi, this is where to go if you want to see and interact with Japan's famous "salarymen" in the after-work hours. Well, this or Yurakucho. Or Kanda. Or Ikebukuro. Damn, Tokyo has a lot of salarymen.
Daikanyama: This is a very cool, modern, "new urbanist" style mini-neighborhood near Shibuya.
Asakusa: This has another cool shrine, and an old-looking district around it, as well as a nice riverwalk.
Roppongi: Here's where to go if you want to hang out with English-speakers, meet seedy characters, or hit the international clubs. Go to the top of Mori Tower for a nice panoramic view of the city. There's a nice art gallery in the building too, which always has surprisingly good stuff in it.
is probably Japan's best dance club, if you like dance clubs. It's a little ways out of the city, so you have to take a bus.
In Osaka, you'll mainly be getting around via subway. The Osaka Municipal Subway is the best-run train system in the entire Universe. In most of Japan, you walk on the left, but in Osaka you walk on the right, so remember to do this, so that you bump into all the people visiting Osaka from other cities. Also, watch out for bicycles.
: Umeda is Osaka's answer to Shinjuku, but is actually kind of what Shinjuku was like before it got mobbed by tourist hordes. Lots of great food and cool neon streets. Visit the Hep Five mall
and go up on the ferris wheel to get a nice view of the city.
Namba: Even cooler than Umeda. See the Glico Man and the other big neon signs next to the Hikakebashi bridge, and walk around the riverwalk there. Go to Dotonbori street and eat some yummy food and go to cool shops. Walk down Namba Walk, a covered shopping arcade, all the way up to Shinsaibashi (where there are many good restaurants and clubs). Or go underground and wander the endless vast subterranean shopping centers. Or head over to Nipponbashi (where I used to live) and go shopping for electronics. You really can't miss, in Namba.
: This mini-neighborhood, near Namba in the south of Osaka, is called "America town", but is neither American nor a town. It IS, however, a very cool place to hang out, with fashion shops and fashion kids in the daytime and cool clubs and bars at night. The streetlights look like robots, and one building has a giant clown on it. Go catch a live show at Sunhall
, which was a rockin' place a decade ago and probably still is. Or go buy rock & roll records at Time Bomb
. Or just hang out in Triangle Park, which isn't actually a park, but more of a concrete slab where kids sit around. In Ame-Mura you can almost feel the ghost of young Noah Smith wandering around taking pictures of fashion kids and asking for band recommendations...
Osaka Castle Park: Also known as Osaka-jo Koen, this is a big nice park with a castle at the center. The castle has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times, and is now a facsimile, but the park is really great and has fun people to meet and excellent views of the city. And lots of stray cats.
Tennoji Zoo: A zoo that has some Asian animals that you might not see as much in Western zoos.
Sakuranomiya: The best place to do hanami if you're there for cherry blossom season.
A Few Other Places
Kyoto: Everyone likes to go to Kyoto and see the temples and shrines and geisha (who are actually not geisha but who cares). If you do that, make sure to go to Kiyomizu, Yasaka, and Gion, and then Kinkakuji and/or Ginkakuji if you want even more traditional stuff. If you'd rather hang do something more hip in Kyoto, go hang out on the Kamogawa riverbank.
: This is an island full of bunnies. It takes a day to get there and a day to get back. You decide if it's worth it, for an island full of bunnies.
: A town with a bunch of onsen. If you want the real "country ryokan and onsen-hopping" experience, go here. You can also take a bus or taxi to a tea shop that has great views of Mt. Fuji. But if you want to see my favorite onsen in Japan, go to Kawayu
in Wakayama south of Osaka, and visit the senninburo (giant outdoor river bath).
Himeji: Possibly the only real samurai castle in Japan. Unfortunately, samurai were quite short and didn't have access to much metal or other materials, so the castle consists mainly of plain wooden corridors that are too small to stand up in. It also has a haunted well.
Really, I'm the wrong person to ask about touristy stuff around Japan, since I don't do a lot of touristy stuff. Places like Sapporo, Okinawa, Hiroshima, Mt. Fuji, etc. are pretty famous tourist destinations, but I've actually never been to them.
Food to Eat
The problem with Japanese food is that A) there is a ton of amazing stuff, but B) the traditional stuff that people typically go for is not the best, and C) there is a lot of bad stuff too, so if you go around trying random stuff you also won't have the best experience. On top of this, I'm a bit afraid of sending too many people to a few awesome restaurants that I know, for fear of swamping them and forcing them to become uncool tourist attractions. So writing a Japan food guide is tricky. Instead, I'll focus on types of food to try, and mostly let people find their own stuff, recommending only a few places. To search for good food, use Google, Tabelog
, and Tripadvisor
: The best food in Japan is actually found at izakaya, which are basically Japanese tapas restaurants. The problem is that lots of izakaya are cheap chain restaurants - good for parties, but not exactly fine dining. But the slightly upscale izakaya are the place where real creative cuisine happens in Japan - in fact, not eating at izakaya is the biggest food mistake that tourists make. But there is such a dizzying array of izakaya that it's impossible to give any general guidelines for how to find the good ones. Just two of the many that I'd recommend are Teppen
in Shibuya and Fumoto Akadori
in Tamachi. If you must go to a chain, go to Nijyu-Maru or Za-Watami.
: Everybody loves ramen, but you should definitely eat ramen in Japan, because it's just...better. There are two basic types: A) ramen without a ton of fat in it, and B) ramen with a ton of fat in it (aburamen). For normal ramen, a very good place is the most famous touristy place, Ichiran
. For fatty aburamen, my favorite is Kyushu Jangara Ramen
in Harajuku. Ramen is one of the rare foods that's as good in Tokyo as in Osaka. There's actually better stuff out there too - ramen gets as fancy (and as snobby) as you like.
Nabe: Japanese hot pot. Really damn good. Served year-round but more popular in the winter months. Try chanko nabe, the traditional food of sumo wrestlers.
: Barbecue! Japan does it very well. This can include pricey wagyu, Korean-style stuff, or weird seedy places that are difficult to describe. Try them all! A favorite of mine is Shibaura
, not to be confused with the neighborhood of the same name.
Okonomiyaki: A bready cabbage pancake with meat or other stuff inside and sweet barbecue sauce and mayo on top. Do NOT eat this in Tokyo; eat it only in Osaka.
: This is what Americans call "sushi boat" - sushi on a conveyor belt. Japan does it better than anywhere, of course, and it's actually pretty cheap. Genrokuzushi
in Osaka is the best, and Heiroku Sushi
near Harajuku is fun and touristy and good.
Monjayaki: This is a Tokyo specialty - a gooey hash made on a griddle at your table. The best places are in a neighborhood called Tsukishima.
Kaiseki: This is a kind of restaurant where you get a long series of very small, very well-presented dishes. It's fairly expensive.
: Japanese Italian is different from what you'll get in the States or elsewhere. For lunch, little Italian eateries can't be beat. Il Buttero
in Shibuya is a good example.
: Japan has gotten into the craft beer game, and there are lots of nice places where you can try good stuff. My personal favorite is Craftheads
in Shibuya. Weirdly, Japan is into craft pilsners, which you don't see a lot of, so that's worth trying.
Sake: There are too many awesome sake places in Japan to count. The key is to try "amakuchi" and "karakuchi" sake, to avoid just getting the dry-tasting stuff we usually get in America. Also, of course, try a bit of nigori.
Crepes: The best place to eat Japanese crepes is probably on Takeshita St. in Harajuku, or Namba shopping arcade in Osaka.
Fun Stuff To Do
This is just a random list of fun stuff to do in Japan. Some of this is redundant to stuff above.
Shop for cool clothes in Shibuya, Harajuku, or Ame-Mura.
Buy some fireworks at a corner store and shoot them off in the park (legal!).
Drink on the street or in a park (legal!).
Go to a rabbit cafe, an owl cafe, a cat cafe, or whatever type of animal cafe you can imagine. It probably exists. Just Google it.
Visit the Shibu House
art incubation space (you have to email them for an invite).
Walk around the huge underground shopping malls in Osaka and get totally lost.
Picnic in Yoyogi Park or Osaka Castle Park.
Go to a rave
, which is still probably fun even now. Or go clubbing at Ageha
Go to a live house (music club) like Sunhall, Fandango, or any of the places
And obviously, go to a park if you're there for cherry blossom season. In fact, just live in the park. Camp out there every day. Meet all the people. It will make you happy.
And there you have it! Noah Smith's Abbreviated Illustrated Guide to Travel in Japan! This guide will be updated with random recommendations over time, but those are the basics. Happy travels, and post pics!