Japan had been at the top of my husband and I’s bucket list for several years and thanks to my favorite flight finder website, Skyscanner, I was finally able to make the dream of going a reality after snagging roundtrip tickets on Singapore Airlines for $405 each out of Los Angeles.
A few months after purchasing the tickets I found out I was pregnant with our son (oops!) and voila our Japan trip became a “baby moon.” Luckily we picked dates which put me in my second trimester and minus the immense amount of walking we did (which was at times pretty difficult on my already swollen feet) and the fact I had to skip out on any uncooked sushi (boo) Japan ended up being such a wonderful place to spend our last trip together before starting parenthood. Another couple, two of our close friends, ended up coming along with us which added to the fun. I would definitely recommend Japan as a wonderful option for group travel due to the many community oriented experiences it has to offer.
We spent 10 days total in Japan. Upon arrival we took a train from the Narita Airport to Tokyo which takes approximately 1 hour, depending on what part of Tokyo you decide to stay in. We stayed in a 2 bedroom apartment in Shinagawa, which was very comfortable and conveniently located across the street from the Shinagawa train station. We ended up using trains exclusively to get around Tokyo, which definitely took some getting use to because the train system in Tokyo is slightly complicated. However, we luckily never got lost and our prepaid train cards (we got Suica Cards) made hopping around Tokyo a lot more convenient.
Due to the time change, we woke up very early almost every day we spent in Tokyo. This meant there were hardly any options for breakfast as almost every food establishment in Tokyo doesn’t open until 11 am. However, we had heard from a friend who had spent a lot of time in Japan that the 7/11’s have really delicious and easy “to go” food options. We were pretty skeptical but due to lack of options we decided to give it a try and were pleasantly surprised by the results! We quickly learned that any place we went to in Japan had absolutely delicious food. When I travel I tend to look up what the best options are ahead of time but in Japan all of my research really didn’t matter. The less frills, the better. I would suggest looking up the best types of food Japan has to offer. Here are some of my top suggestions on types of food you should try (and where we had it) when in Tokyo:
Ramen - we had it a few times but our favorite was AFURI, which is pictured below
Japanese Curry - Curry wa Nomimono Akihabara shop
Tonkatsu - Tonkatsu Tonki
Sushi - Sushi Dai (which use to be located at Tsukiji’s market but recently moved to Toyosu Market - check out both markets during your trip)
KaitenSushi (conveyor belt sushi) - Genki Sushi
Yakitori - Yakitori Ton Ton
Udon - Shin Udon
Pancakes - Flippers, Egg ’n Things, and bills Omotesando, which is pictured below
Black Sesame ice cream - Tsukiji’s market, also pictured below
Izakaya - Ebisu Yokocho (unique “local” spot), lots of great options at Piss Alley
We spent a total of four days in Tokyo and each one was jam packed due to the endless amount of recommended options. Here are some of my favorite things we did during our time in Tokyo:
Chidorigafushi Park/Imperial Palace
Unfortunately, we had missed the cherry blossoms in Tokyo by a few weeks but apparently if you catch the cherry blossoms blooming this is one of the best places to see them. There’s a beautiful river with cherry blossom trees lining the river bank and row boats you can rent. It sounds freaking amazing. I’m sad we missed it but was still impressed by beauty and greenery of this park. It definitely served as a nice escape from the busy metropolis. We also checked out the Imperial Palace, which is located inside the park.
Yoyogi Park/Menji Shrine
The Menji Shrine was housed in another very serene park we visited during our time in Tokyo. We visited a lot of shrines during our time in Japan and this was definitely one of my favorites. I really loved the wall of colorful sake barrels, which you can see pictured below.
Visit a maid cafe
When researching "what to do in Tokyo” I would frequently come across “maid cafes” and decided to add it to our list. We visited Home Cafe because they had menus in English and it was a strangely wonderful experience. It was fun going to one without really understanding what they are so I won’t include any more information. Just do it.
Wow, wow, woowwww. Robot Restaurant is a Japanese pop-culture dinner show which features robotic monsters, dancers, and lasers. Skip the dinner part, get lots of drinks. It was AAAMAZING!
MariCAR is a guided go-kart tour through the streets of Tokyo. You can dress up in Mario Kart character outfits. They are in no way affiliated with Nintendo’s Mario Kart and they will make that very clear throughout the tour (due to almost being forced to shut down and receiving a hefty fine for stealing Nintendo’s intellection property.) In order to drive the go-karts you will need to get an international drivers license (it is super easy to attain one at AAA in the states.)
I feel a little conflicted including this as something you should do during your trip to Tokyo, especially since realizing that owls are nocturnal animals but it was definitely a super unique and memorable experience. We visited a Hedgehog + Bunny cafe and later an Owl Cafe and both were really fun and somewhat therapeutic. For around $10 you can to play with animals and get a vending machine beverage. If you think I’m awful for going, I get it. I think owls are super beautiful and I selfishly wanted to hold one.
Favorite neighborhood: Harajuku
I’ve been OBSESSED with Harajuku street style ever since Gwen Stefani came out with her Love. Angel. Music. Baby. album in 2004. I even dressed up as a harajuku girl one year for Halloween. I was so excited to visit Harajuku and we ended up spending many hours here (thanks friends.) If you go, make sure to check out all the unique clothing shops and eat the many delicious treats such as the crepes and cotton candy, which are both pictured below. The week we went to Japan was also “Golden Week,” which is Japan’s largest national holiday week. Basically the whole country takes off of work and a lot of people visit different parts of Japan as well as other places around the world. This didn’t cause any problems during our trip with the exception of walking down Takeshita Street in Harajuku. That was INSANE (you can see it pictured below.) I later learned that it was smartest that we stayed in Tokyo for “Golden Week,” because if we had gone to Kyoto first we would have had crowds similar to what we experienced on Takeshita Street.
Other suggestions and things we did during our time in Tokyo:
Visit an arcade in Akihabara - we really liked TAITO Station, Tokyo Leisure Land, and Super Potato
Visit Golden Gai - I skipped out on this because I couldn’t drink.
Visit a Sumo Wrestling practice - our friends who went with us did this and said it was a definite highlight for them.
Ride swan boats and eat street food at Ueno Park
Sing your heart out in a private karaoke room- a friend who lived in Japan for several years told me this is a common activity for a first date in Japan. I love that!
Take a Purikura Picture
Visit an onsen - we did this later in Hakone.
Visit Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
Visit teamLab Borderless - a digital art museum, which looks AMAZING
Visit Mori Art Museum
Bonus: There are tons of vending machines everywhere in Japan - you can use your prepaid train card so it’s very convenient to buy stuff! A lot of vending machines include alcohol beverages, which you can drink while walking around Tokyo!
After our time in Tokyo we took a bullet train to our next destination, Kyoto. Before our train we stopped in what could be best described as the train station food hall and picked up lots of goodies to eat during our train ride. A few suggestions I’d like to pass along regarding traveling between Japanese cities via train are as follows:
Make sure to check if you need to get a reservation - we needed reservations in order to get from Tokyo —>Kyoto.
Trains in Japan are almost always on time and only stay at the stations for a few minutes - make sure you are waiting on your train and not running to it when it arrives at the station.
Tokyo ended up being such an amazing place to visit and became one of my favorite major cities I’ve ever visited to date. However, my favorite leg of the trip would have to be Kyoto. Kyoto offered the right mix of nature and city for me. The food was amazing and luckily it wasn’t too busy even though we visited on the tail end of Golden Week. We spent a total of two and a half days in Kyoto and while I would have preferred one more day, we were able to squeeze in the majority of main attractions that Kyoto has to offer. Here are some of my favorite things we did during our time in Kyoto:
The Higashiyama District is a wonderfully preserved historic area of Kyoto. It is a great spot to visit if you want to experience traditional Kyoto. Its neighboring district of Gion offers you the best chance of seeing a real-life geisha. Some highlights of our time walking through Higashiyama and Gion include visiting the Yasaka Shrine, participating in a traditional tea ceremony, walking through Maruyama park (which is a great spot to see cherry blossoms when they are in bloom,) and enjoying a green tea ice cream while strolling through the beautiful old town streets.
Iwatayama Monkey Park
Not only is this a must do during your trip to Japan because you get up close and personal with adorable monkeys but the hike and views you are greeted with at the top of the mountain make this a triple whammy experience. As you can see pictured below, the view overlooks the entire city of Kyoto. The hike is mostly uphill and takes you about 40 minutes to complete but offers a nice retreat from the city. The monkeys were definitely a little unpredictable so I would recommend only approaching them respectfully and it is to be noted that you are only allowed to feed them in the caged house pictured below.
Hozugawa River Boat Ride
After visiting the monkeys we took a 20 minute train ride from Kyoto to Kameoka Station for the Hozugawa River Cruise. The cruise was two hours long and I would definitely recommend putting it on your list while visiting Kyoto due to the beautiful scenery and thrilling aspect due to the rapids along the river. Watching the guides steer and move the boat was impressive in itself. Definitely a must do!
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
The initial reason I put Kyoto on my list of places to visit while in Japan was due to this iconic bamboo forest. I imagined it to be one of the most serene places on earth and though I do feel the large crowds took away from that feeling at times, the sound of the trees whispering back and forth in the wind was very therapeutic and makes this a definite must do while in Kyoto.
Nishiki Market is rich with tradition and is the best place to visit if you are looking to try all the famous foods that Kyoto has to offer. There’s also some great shopping here if you are looking to take home a Japanese souvenir. The hotel we stayed at was near the market so we also ate at some delicious nearby restaurants including the one pictured below called Gyuurakutei.
If you decide you only want to visit one shrine during your trip to Kyoto this is the one you’ll want to visit. The shrine sits at the base of a mountain and includes torii lined trails which lead up to additional smaller shrines at the top of the mountain. It takes approximately two hours to climb to the top but I’m guessing thats not accounting for the many stops you’ll take documenting this stunning place.
After Kyoto, we headed to Hakone, which was our last leg of the trip. We knew one thing we really wanted to do during our time in Japan was to stay at a Ryokan. So for our last two days we headed to one of the most beautiful ryokans I found while researching for our trip.
A Ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that features tatami-matted (traditional Japanese) rooms, communal baths known as onsens, and typically includes two meals (dinner and breakfast) in the price per night. It is custom at ryokans to leave your shoes off at the front of the inn and to change into slippers or zori (japanese sandals) for the length of your stay. In addition you are also asked to only wear a yukata (a casual kimono) or provided pajamas throughout your stay and when on the property.
We decided to stay at Hakone Ginyu because it was a higher end option with private onsens on the balcony of each room. We ended up trying out the communal onsens as you can see pictured below because that is an experience you must try while in Japan. We received our dinner in our guest room and it was one of the most amazing meal experiences I’ve ever taken part in. Our meal was 7 courses and since I was pregnant they provided me an accommodation to substitute crab legs in place of the sashimi. The experience as a whole was super relaxing and the perfect way to end a week of adventuring through the country.
Hakone Free Pass
With only one full day in Hakone we decided to take a self tour by purchasing the Hakone Free Pass. This pass gives you 2 day unlimited access to all the different types of travel offered throughout Hakone. We started the trip from our ryokan and traveled by train, cablecar, ropeway, boat, and finally by bus back to our Ryokan. Some highlights from our route, which should not be missed, included the Hakone Open Air Museum, Owakudani (a volcanic valley where you can eat black eggs which are suppose to be good luck,) Lake Ashi, and a hike to the holy Hakone Shrine at Moto-Hakone (don’t forget to check out the beautiful rotii situated on the lake.) Check here for more information regarding the Hakone Free Pass.
I really enjoyed our trip to Japan. There is so much I admire about the Japanese culture, especially after being fully immersed in it. I hope to go back in the future as there is still so much of the country left to explore and I hope you too will take the time to experience Japan for yourself. Thanks for reading!