Oh my god I'm finally going to Japan!
May 20, 2015 3:31 PM   Subscribe

After years of wanting to, I finally bought tickets to go to Japan this summer! (Eeeeeee!!!) I'll be flying into Tokyo and I'm already planning to get tickets for the Shinkansen to travel to Kyoto, Osaka, and Hiroshima. Can you help me figure out great places to see, delicious things to eat, special keepsakes to bring home, and how to deal with logistics while I'm there?

I will be traveling mostly solo August 12-27. My plan is to spend a few days in Tokyo, take the train to Kyoto, go down to Hiroshima and spend a few days with a friend who is teaching there, then go to Osaka on the way back up to Tokyo to fly home. My big goal is to enjoy experiences that I can only have in Japan. I could use recommendations on the following:

Places to stay in each of these cities. I like moderately nice hotels, but would like to avoid the insanely expensive. I care more about being centrally located than having tons of amenities. I'm also curious what neighborhoods might be best to stay in.

Places to eat. I LOVE the Japanese cuisine I've had here, so I am super excited to eat my way across Japan. Do you have any particular favorite restaurants? Are there regional specialties that I absolutely must try?

Places to see. Museums? Shopping? Must-have, only in Japan experiences? If there are any tours that you especially enjoyed, I'd love to hear about those as well. Do you know of any events happening during this period of time I should check out?

Things to bring home. I'd like to bring home one or two really special things, maybe a silk robe or an earthenware bowl. Can you recommend something special and quintessentially Japan? My favorite souvenirs are useful items that remind you of your adventures even when you're back in your everyday life.

Logistics. I already checked and my credit card will work abroad, but do most places take Visa? Should I get cash? What will I need to do to have a working phone during my trip? Is there anything else I should be planning now?

If you have any other suggestions for a first time traveller to Japan, I would love to hear them! I've heard the Tokyo Mefite contingent is pretty awesome, so I am planning to call a meetup. Can't wait to meet you all.

Thanks everyone!
posted by chatongriffes to Travel & Transportation around Japan (14 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
I only lived in Tokyo for a short time for work, and it was a while ago, but I absolutely LOVED every omelet I had there. No specific places to go, but OMG, Japanese omelets are amazing.
posted by xingcat at 3:37 PM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Somebody just asked a similar question a couple of days ago. My answer and others' address some of what you're asking about. One thing you should definitely look into, and which I mentioned in that thread, is a JR Rail Pass. It's much more economical than buying tickets if you do enough moving around.
posted by axiom at 3:38 PM on May 20, 2015

I lived in Hiroshima for a few years and I miss it terribly. These are the musts that I'm aware of:

-Eat Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. There are tons of small okonomiyaki shops, but for a fun experience I'd recommend Okonomi-mura downtown, it's a building with 25 different okonomiyaki restaurants.

-Take a day trip to Miyajima. The Itsukushima torii is OK, but the real stars of the show are Daisho-in temple (SO beautiful) and eating freshly cooked momiji manju.

-Visit the Peace Museum, it's incredibly moving.
posted by ripley_ at 3:52 PM on May 20, 2015 [9 favorites]

It will be a very busy time of year, lots of Japanese will be on vacation/traveling. Just FYI.

Logistics: In train stations, department stores, and some restaurants credit cards (MC/Visa) will work fine. (Even American Express!) BUT lots of places also won't support them, so you definitely need cash. You can use an American ATM card at any 7-11 ATM (and 7-11 is like absolutely everywhere in Japan, way more common than in the US) which is how I always do it.

For phone, if you happen to have T-Mobile you have free roaming and 2G data in Japan, which is what I use. Otherwise you can get a WiFi hotspot at the airport (I think both Narita and Haneda) which is relatively cheap, you can return easily when you fly back, and then just connect your phone/computer via WiFi.

Food: Well, everything is good, but stuff that is easy to find there but uncommon outside Japan --- okonomiyaki, takoyaki, onigiri/omusubi, omurisu (Japanese omelette with rice, I assume what xingcat is referring to). Also if you like bread/pastries there are lots of good shops around that sell various Japanese breads, I am a big fan of melonpan (pan = bread).
posted by thefoxgod at 4:08 PM on May 20, 2015

Best answer: I mentioned this before, but mid August is the extreme peak season for travel in Japan. You need to book hotels ASAP. It is not a government holiday, but many work places give time off.
August 15 is the 70th anniversary of the surrender of Japan, which is a huge deal around war-related places, including Hiroshima.

I live near Kyoto/Osaka so I'll specifically talk about that: You need to go to Kiyomizudera in Kyoto. It is iconic and super beautiful. I recommend going there above anywhere else in Kyoto, including the Golden Pavilion. Please take care against heat exhaustion - it is the peak of summer in mid-August and it is extremely hot and humid. Getting to Kiyomizudera includes a 15 minute walk!

Please eat Okonomiyaki and/or Takoyaki while you're in Kyoto/Osaka. I'm from Tokyo but I don't eat these foods in Tokyo anymore, as they are much better here.

Food in 7-11s are extremely good and well worth a try. 7-11 in Japan is owned by a large supermarket chain, and their distribution is incredible.

I have a meet up with another visiting Mefite this weekend! We are going to Fushimi Inari. Let me know, please, when you are coming to Kyoto/Osaka!
posted by xmts at 4:26 PM on May 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Food:

Fugu. I don't know if you can get this outside of Japan, so you may as well eat it on your trip. I've never been impressed when I had it (but maybe I never got the good stuff), but at the very least you can say you had it and survived.

Okonomiyaki isn't too common outside of Japan. You should get it in Osaka and Hiroshima. I prefer the Hiroshima variety myself and second the recommendation of Okonomiyaki Mura.

In Osaka you can also get Takoyaki. The definitive place to get it is near Dotonbori bridge.

Mosburger makes pretty good fast food burgers. Definitely worth at least one meal when you don't have anything else planned.

If you are a fan of anime then a visit to the Studio Ghibli museum is a must. You need to buy tickets in advance and they have lots of holidays so if you are interested in going you may want to buy your museum ticket before scheduling anything else.

You're going during the Obon period which means that most cities will have festivals going on. Here are two big ones that I've never been to:

The Daimonji Yaki festival. There are kanji carved into various mountains around the city and on this day they light them all up on fire. I don't know if it is actually impressive, but it is a pretty big event.

Alternately you could go to Tokushima for the Awa Odori festival. It is a big dance festival where people from all over Japan come to perform.

There are large flea markets on the 20th and 25th of every month in Kyoto. You can find lots of Japanese things (used Kimono, old postcards, tools, dishes) and its a pretty decent way to spend a day anyway.

For accommodations you should spend at least one night in a Japanese style in (Ryokan). When my mom went to Japan with some friends I booked her for one night on Miyajima and she said it was a good experience. You should also spend a night in a love hotel. There are many different themed hotels (including a Santa Claus one in Umeda, Osaka) and they generally offer pretty good value. Also spend a night in a capsule hotel. There's one in Shibuya right by the station that was decent.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 4:29 PM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm about as gaijin as they come, so definitely listen to the natives and more experienced travelers here, but when I was in Japan a few years ago we took two day trips from Osaka that were both pretty remarkable: one was to Nara, particularly the temple complex at Tōdai-ji and the surrounding areas, and the other was Mt. Kōya. Take the Nankai Kōya Line to Gokurakubashi Station and then the cable car (funicular, 30-degree incline) up the mountain to Kōyasan Station. I visited a lot of beautiful and amazing places in Japan but those two were among my favorites.

Also seconding the folks cautioning about the heat and humidity -- my friend and I were there in late July and we were not prepared for how hot it was. Be prepared to sweat a bit and keep some water on hand.
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 4:50 PM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

As far as I know, some offices will be closed for Obon on August 14-15, which means that travel on the 13th and 16th will be ridiculously busy. Try to make your hotel reservations as soon as possible.

Maybe a night or two in a ryokan for the traditional experience, and then Toyoko Inn (cheap, clean, close to train stations, free breakfast, they once gave me really good socks). Last time I was in Kyoto, I did a temple stay for ten days here. It was really peaceful. From there I did day trips to Osaka, Kobe, Nara, Himeji, etc.

Japan is pretty small, so if you get the rail pass, you can see lots of things. Seeing all "three views of Japan" in a single visit is possible.

One of my favourite unique Japan experiences is Takarazuka. They should be in Tokyo when you're there, but you do have to buy tickets ahead of time because they sell out.
posted by betweenthebars at 5:21 PM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yes! You must eat okonomiyaki. Try Hiroshima style and Osaka style. I prefer Hiroshima style, but they are both great!

The Peace Museum is life changing, and I really recommend going. Just be prepared for absolute emotional devastation... but it's good for you.

Plan for a day at Miyajima island, it is the most magical place. If you can, look up times for the tide. There is this shrine that you can walk up to when the tide is low, and then you can watch the water rise up around it. When the tide is high, you can pay someone to paddle you through it in a boat! It's cool. Lots of great temples and such. If you like hiking, there is a mountain you can climb. There is a ropeway that is kind of expensive, but will take you almost to the top. The view on the ropeway is gorgeous.

When we were in Osaka, a local friend brought us to this place for lunch. It's just two old guys frying stuff up, but it's the most amazing thing I've eaten in Japan. We had to wait in line for an hour, and the place has maybe a dozen seats, but it was worth it. That whole area is full of cool stuff to see, too, and you can go up into Tsūtenkaku (the big tower) and see a bunch of Billiken (The God of Things as they Ought to Be!) stuff. You won't miss much if you skip the tower, though.

In Kyoto, Kiyomizudera is amazing and worth a day in itself to explore. We met some students who were giving free tours to foreigners to practice their English, and they were delightful. We took them out to dinner afterwards to thank them, and we still keep in contact. I also recommend going to Sanjusangendo, it's a sight to behold.

Tokyo has so much stuff, it's unbelievable. You've got to check out Harajuku and get crepes, they're insane. Akihabara, Shinjuku, Shibuya... just walking around and seeing the different neighborhoods is worth it. A stroll through Ueno park is good for the soul. Tokyo is strange because it feels much more international, but also more intensely Japanese in some ways. If I could choose, I probably wouldn't spend the majority of my time there, but that's just me.

The Studio Ghibli museum is a wonderland. You must buy your tickets ahead of time, it is a very popular destination. They have a few short films that they only screen at the museum, and you get to see one when you go to the museum, so that's worth the trip alone.

You may find yourself in need of a quick bite sometimes, and I will second the recommendation to check out the 7-11 and Lawson's. Their onigiri is tasty, and I swear to you, they have the most perfectly cooked hard boiled eggs.

This one's up to you, but if you are debating buying a selfie stick, do it. They are really popular here, and you won't be weird for using one. Even if you don't use it for selfies, there will be instances where you will want to capture something amazing, and maybe you want to get a shot above a crowd or from a weird angle. If that's not your thing, don't worry about it. But if you're on the fence...

Some various tips: Pack or pick up a small hand-towel to dry your hands because not all bathrooms have towels or driers. Also, pack your own tissues, and be prepared to carry your trash with you because garbage cans are kind of rare. Get some comfortable slip-on shoes and decent socks. You will be walking a lot, and you will be taking off and putting on your shoes A LOT. If you have to lace them or bend down to pull them off, it is going to be a pain. Japan is very much a cash-based society, so I recommend carrying cash and not relying on your credit card. Dealing with coins took me a while to get used to, but it's kind of cool. Signs usually have English as well as Japanese, so getting around isn't too hard. In the big cities, people are more familiar with English, but don't expect a lot of fluent speakers. People here are generally friendly, though! You will probably get by with some simple words and a lot of pantomime. Oh, and on the subject of flying, if you are coming from the USA, my wife and I have noticed that our jet lag coming to Japan was not bad, but going back was pretty terrible. When you get back, you may want to get some melatonin supplements to get your sleep schedule on track.

Anyway, HAVE FUN! It's a great country.
posted by buriednexttoyou at 6:56 PM on May 20, 2015 [6 favorites]

Watch out for the specially-flavoured KitKat chocolate bars! There's a KitKat store in Tokyo that sells various flavours. But there are some flavours are only specific to a city or region. For instance, I had a strawberry cheesecake-flavoured KitKat in Yokohama then an orange-flavoured KitKat from Hiroshima and Kobe pudding-flavoured KitKat from Kobe. I brought different flavours back home which I gave out to friends and family.

I stayed at Guest House Lappy in Hiroshima and had the most marvelous time there. For an additional 600 yen (if I remember correctly), the owner will teach you how to make Hiroshima style okonomiyaki. That was a memorable experience for me.
posted by Carmine Red at 8:28 PM on May 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

I bought some kitchen knives from the Kamata store in Kappabashi in Tokyo. I gave them as gifts and really wish I had bought one for myself. This is a nice, everyday item to being home. Kappabashi shops (all kitchen stuff, including plastic food models) are pretty fun and it's close to Asakusa, which is an older part of Tokyo with temples and traditional buildings.
posted by vunder at 11:05 PM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

+1 kitkat bars. When the guys visit the Japan office, they usually bring us back some and it's an Event. Also just randomly try candy from the 7-11 as it is nothing like what we get here in North America. Buy whatever looks fun.

Even though it's touristy, I also really enjoyed seeing the daibutsu (giant buddha) in kamakura, and here is a list of all the daibutsus in Japan if you're into that kind of thing.

The other thing I really enjoyed was a day trip from Tokyo. We went by boat to one of the islands for hiking, museums and seeing another buddha statue. We went up by cable car and it was a great view. I think it was Miyajima island and it was indeed magical. I was on a tour and wasn't ready to leave when they called us back to the boat. I've been thinking about it ever since and want to go back.

I went in July and it was HOT. So you could plan to visit a beach in Tokyo. Shaved ice with sweetened condensed milk was nice way to beat the heat too. You can get red beans on it too (yum?)

I also stayed in Yokohama, which had some nice areas such as this Japanese garden.

I found it helpful to have at least listened to a traveler's cd worth of Japanese and get some familiarity with the basic writing symbols. It made me feel more confident or at least not so overwhelmed.

I see from your picture you're blonde. The further out you go, the more this will be novel and yes people asked to pose with me for photos! The other thing I can say is that the "taboo" items and manners of expression are different from north america so take your cues from the body language of others as to whether you're being too forward/loud or doing something uncouth. For example I accidentally stepped on the 2nd step of a family home (with shoes on) and it was a drastic mistake - everyone looked stunned. But of course you'll get a lot of leeway as you are foreign.

Have fun! Japan is the one place I've been that feels completely different from anywhere else.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:05 AM on May 21, 2015

Best answer: Some thoughts - I've been to Japan a bunch and generally travel a bit and find that Japan is unique in sort of being disinterested in accommodating westerners. I don't consider that a pejorative, its actually something I like about it. Sort of a "this is how we do things. OK. We understand you don't innately get how we do things, but we aren't necessarily interested in changing things around for you" Sometimes you see something and be like "this makes no sense" the only thing to do is shrug. Its not a friendliness thing at all. People are super friendly and helpful when they can be. Perhaps I'm not explaining it well. I love visiting Japan.

1) Much more cash centric than most of the rest of the developed world. Like you always need to check if a place takes cards. I've paid for 800 dollar meals in cash there.
2)ATMs are more of a hassle - really the seven-11's are your only consistent spot to use a western ATM. However there are enough of them around that its not worth actively worrying about having cash on you. Easy to find ATMs that will work at Narita as well.
3)Tabelog is really really useful for finding food place. Use it with google translate. NB - I find booking is pretty important at anything beyond super casual places. Even in secondary cities.
4) A Japan Rail Pass is almost certainly the most cost efficient way to take the train although while you are in Tokyo (maybe Kyoto?) you'll want a Suica card - which I think you can bundle with the train from Narita into town (assuming your rail pass isn't starting the day you arrive)
5) I'll n-th spending a night or two in a traditional ryokan.
6) If you are going to be taking the train, will have a decent amount of luggage and will be in cities for a few days at a time consider using a takkyubin company to ship your bags to your destination for you. I sort of love it, especially traveling with kids. Actually what we do is bring a smaller bag, and if we are just visiting a place for a day, just pack the small back and send our main luggage to a future destination. Shinkansen aren't optimized for luggage. Its usually fine unless you are say...on the last shinkansen on a sunday night heading back from a ski resort to Tokyo and carrying a gear bag with enough clothes for two people for three weeks....not that I know from personal experience or anything.
7. Tokyo is awesome, but its not a "sights" city in a way. Like there are sights, but its not like Kyoto where you can lose yourself in Temples for a week.
posted by JPD at 7:52 AM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Please please eat tsukemen and hitsumabushi. Also, take taxis to the Kyoto temples instead of the buses if you can afford it, you get to cover far more ground and avoid peak hours. Have a map ready to get to each of the temples, and point and tell them where to go. Have tons of cash and coins. Research cute Japanese convenience stores (konbini) and 7/11s and get their special goodies, like kitkats and skincare products like Hada labo. Delicious bento boxes are discounted to 50% off to 70% off after 7-8 pm at major stores.
posted by yueliang at 7:12 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

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