What shouldn't I miss in Tokyo and Kyoto?
August 3, 2010 2:39 AM   Subscribe

Next week, I'm going to be in Tokyo for a few days and then Kyoto for another day or two. What shouldn't I miss?

(Possibly relevant details: I have never been to Japan before and neither speak nor read Japanese. I'm a vegetarian, so some food options aren't relevant to me.)
posted by kyrademon to Travel & Transportation around Tokyo, Japan (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know Tokyo, but I lived in Kyoto for about eight years, and all I can say is that you can throw a dart at a city map and find something great to see. Any of the "must see" temples and shrines will be worth seeing, including (but not limited to):

Kitano Tenmangu
Heian Shrine
Fushimi Inari Shrine

That's off the top of my head. Most temples have lovely gardens (often requiring an extra fee, but they usually throw in tea and a sweet with it) and in some of the Zen temples, you can do a zazen sitting. Regardless, bring an extra memory card for your cameras.

Oh, when you go to a temple, get a temple stamp - a shuin. You can get them loose, or you can buy a blank book at your first temple, and then carry it from one to the next. The book is usually 1,000 yen, and the stamps are about 300 each. They're lovely - here are mine, so you can see what I mean.

Also, if you're lucky enough to be in town on the 16th, be on the banks of the Kamogawa around 8 PM to see the Daimonji Festival. Just follow the crowds and look for the bonfires on the mountainside. The river itself is wonderful, and if you're able to get in, then I highly recommend you dine at a riverside restaurant - they have outdoor platforms along the river that are wonderful places to eat. The river runs alongside a major shopping area as well, so if you want to stroll through a shopping arcade and pick up some Very Japanese Souvenirs, it's a short walk to Shinkyogoku Street.

The Arashiyama district is nice as well, but its best seasons are fall and spring, rather than summer. It's a great place for traditional crafts and food, though. I can't say much about vegetarian options in Kyoto (not being a vegetarian and all), but a Google search for "vegetarian food in Kyoto" turns up a lot of results.

Seeing as how Kyoto is a major tourist city, you won't have too much trouble not knowing Japanese - and people are almost always willing to help you out, even if their English is kind of rusty. I could go on, but all I should really say is that you will wish you had more time in the city. Eight years was just about enough for me to do what I wanted, and I know I still missed a lot.
posted by MShades at 3:25 AM on August 3, 2010

Here's some of my favorite off the tourist route places around Kyoto to think about checking out.

If you're a vegetarian try finding some place to have shojin-ryori, or Buddhist food. I've been to Ajiro in the northern half of Kyoto, although while expensive, it was amazing.

Ajiro's homepage in Japanese
Review of Ajiro in English

I say that everyone who comes to Japan has to experience the hot springs here. If you have tattoos that might be a problem, but if not try spending some time at Tensan-no-yu. I could recommend others in Osaka or Kobe, but this is in Kyoto and near the beautiful Arashiyama area.

Tenzan-no-yu's flash heavy homepage in Japanese

Here's some info about Tenzan-no-yu in English. (I haven't yet written about it for my hot-spring site, but I've been there twice and liked it. Fair warning: It's a bit expensive, about USD $10 and always busy.)

If you get down to Osaka check out the very retro, very downtown Shinsekai area. There are tons of kushi-katsu restaurants around there. They serve meat and veggies that are fried on bamboo sticks. You might be able to find a place with an English menu.

In Kyoto and near Shinseikai a great way to get off your feet and see some of the more residential, and less touristy areas, is riding some of the old streetcar lines.

In Kyoto try the Randen (this one also goes to Arashiyama) or Eizan lines.
In Osaka the Hankai line from Shinsekai to Sakai city is nice.

As far as normal touristy stuff I recommend the Golden Pavilion and Fushimi Inari Taisha. I recommend the latter a bit more as the former is always crowded.
posted by sleepytako at 3:46 AM on August 3, 2010

Kyoto advice: my only caveat about Fushimi Inari Taisha is that it is a (short) train ride outside of the city, which means that it will eat up most of an afternoon. It is well worth seeing, however, especially if you like climbing stairs.

I am fond of the main train station in Kyoto (although I gather others hate it). I cheerfully spent an hour looking just at the building and taking pictures. The fountain by the entrance to the New Maiko Hotel is worth seeing. My favorite temple in Kyoto is Sanjusangendo on, but any of the list from MShades would be worth seeing. I would tend to pick some in a cluster and focus on those -- seeing Kinkakuji and Kiyomizudera in the same day will involve a lot of bus time, for example.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:51 AM on August 3, 2010

My one brief visit to Tokyo some years ago: not a temple person so I was quite happy to hang out at the Sony Centre in Ginza and play, I mean, test the gadgets. Stationery/book stores were another source of wonderment. All the big department stores had food courts--deli display cases--in the basement which I loved for the variety and ease of choice.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:12 AM on August 3, 2010

Visit at least one Don Quixote mart, ideally when you're a little tipsy. There's one in pretty much every major district of Tokyo and Kyoto, so that shouldn't be too hard to find - just look for the penguin mascot.

Yaoya no Nikai in the Nishki Market in Kyoto is a vegetable shop that does a fabulous vegetarian 'set lunch' daily for around 2000 yen.

And if you're in Tokyo on Sunday, head to Harajuku and Yoyogi Park - there's a famous bridge with cosplayers who pose for photos, and on the south side of the park you may find rockabilly dancers and dozens of indie bands, all lined up along the sidewalk blasting rock music from portable amps (hopefully this is still going on, I have heard police were cracking down on the rockabillies in recent years).
posted by Gortuk at 8:12 AM on August 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

You know what we did in Tokyo that was awesome? Helicopter ride.
posted by mckenney at 8:21 AM on August 3, 2010

There are so many great things to do in Kyoto and Tokyo, as mentioned above. My favorite spots in Kyoto were Kinkaku-Ji (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion), Ryoan-Ji, strolling around Gion at night, eating a Kaiseki style meal...and a zen vegetarian meal, too.

Nara, outside of Kyoto, is worth a day trip for the beautiful temples and the largest Buddha statue in Japan.

My big piece of advice for you is to purchase an English-Japanese atlas. We had this one and it helped us many times, especially with cab drivers.
posted by Kafkaesque at 10:32 AM on August 3, 2010

Sample some wagashi.
posted by needled at 1:31 PM on August 3, 2010

Everyone has Kyoto pretty much covered. I was just in Tokyo and enjoyed the following:

Shiba park area - a few temples. I think the main one is called Sensoji.
Akihabara - lots of electronic stores
Shinjuku - lots of everything, including the only real skyscraper district in Japan
Ginza, and also Harajuku/Omotesando - high-end shopping
Shibuya - a more fun shopping experience
Yoyogi park (near Harajuku) - go on Sunday afternoon to see the... interesting people in costumes
Meiji Shrine - a nice shrine next to Yoyogi park
Ueno park - a very nice park with lots of museums, and even a zoo
Ikebukuro - if you aren't tired of shopping yet
Marunouchi/Nihonbashi - the area around Tokyo station. Big businesses, some shopping, Hibiya park , and the palace are all here. Ginza is right here as well.

Skip Tokyo tower. It kinda sucks.

All of those areas are near very major train stations and are in all the major tourist guides. They are all very safe and each has a unique character. That should keep you busy for a few days.
posted by twblalock at 3:08 AM on August 6, 2010

The thing I would not miss in Kyoto would be the Starbucks at Sanjo-Bashi Bridge along the Kamo River. It's a useful stopping-off point on the way to or the way back from window shopping along Kawaramachi and Karasuma Dori.

Although the mention of Starbucks may sound cheesy in the context of the exoticism of "Kyoto", it's nice to have something familiar to drink while chilling out by the river after a busy day of trooping around Kyoto. And Kawaramachi and Karasuma are pretty interesting places to stroll around (bonus points if you do it on a crowded Saturday and Sunday afternoon, too). We went to downtown Kyoto about once or twice a month, and we always did the Sanjo-Bashi Starbucks pit stop, and still do whenever we return to Kyoto.

If you go to Nara from Kyoto, take Kintetsu, not JR. It's cheaper and quicker.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:43 PM on August 6, 2010

« Older Chill out song?   |   Tips for getting an appraisal Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.