If you’re reading this, you’re probably planning your trip to Japan.
(or you’re my friend that just reads everything I write because YOUS A REAL ONE. LOVE YOU FAM)
Before you plan anything, I highly suggest you invest in a JR Pass, get your hotel concierge to book the restaurants that are hard to get into, and buy tickets for events/shows. These things are time sensitive and will make your stay so much better and easier to plan once those are into play.
My blogs, if you read them in the past, are broken down into categories and this one will be no different with the exception of the first section which is the time-sensitive section:
- TIME SENSITIVE
- IG Locations
- OUTSIDE TOKYO
- MT. FUJI VIEW
1. TIME SENSITIVE
The JR Pass is a 7 day pass that lets you travel throughout Japan on a flat rate vs having to pay for each individual ticket every time you go to the station. It will not only save you time, but save you money if you are traveling (to yo hos) to other parts of Japan other than Tokyo. I highly recommend getting this at least a few weeks in advance, otherwise you have to pay a late fee which doubles the amount.
If you want to try any place in Japan that is hard to get into, I highly recommend getting the hotel concierge to book them for you. Just send them a list at least 3 months in advance from your flight with a list ordered by most fave to least and what dates you are available for reservations. The better the hotel, the better chances you have of getting into the top restaurants (rule of thumb).
Here is a list of restaurants Oliver and I submitted to Park Hotel:
- Sushi Saito
- Sushi Sujita
- Sushi Kimura
- Sushi Tokami
- Sukiyabashi Jiro
Out of the list, the hotel was able to book us for Sawada and Ryugin (which I will go into detail in the Tokyo section).
Activities in Advance
The tickets we bought in advance were Studio Ghibli Museum, Robot Cabaret Restaurant, and Tokyo DisneySea. I highly recommend all of the above if you have the time for it, especially Studio Ghibli if you are a huge Miyazaki fan such as I. IT WILL TAKE YOUR SPIRIT(ed) AWAY…*cricket cricket*
Also bring enough cash to last you the whole time. Most places don’t accept card. $1000 a week should suffice. Anything fine dining or luxury shopping wise will accept card.
Sato Yosuke (Ginza)
Quoting their website, their udon has “a smoothness that your throat can feel” and I bet you have never felt that QURL (omg I’m so sorry, I don’t know why I’m like this). In all seriousness, these are the best noodles you will have in your life. Their inaniwa udon is a thin udon noodle with a delicious bounciness that compliments their savory broth incredibly well. I highly recommend the hot + cold udon set so you can try both options as well as the tempura. The batter is so light and crispy, you’d never see tempura the same way again.
Tsukiji Fish Market// Daiwa Sushi
I can see the appeal of waiting in the cold for 4 hours for sushi from Sushi Dai, but I honestly would rather be asleep and wait half an hour for Daiwa instead. If you get here 1hr to 30 min before they open, you don’t have to wait that long to eat inside. The sushi is just as amazing and you get served immediately upon seating. You might not get the one-by-one service, but it’s efficient, it gets me fed faster, and I’m full and happy. Ain’t nothing to complain. 10/10 would recommend. Also made some friends waiting in line who made us take sakura sake shots the whole time, so time was definitely relative.
HOW DO I BEGIN TO DESCRIBE THE AMAZING EXPERIENCE THAT IS SAWADA. A six-seater, 2 michelin starred omakase experience by the amazing and incredibly kind, Chef Sawada. Reservations are incredible hard to come by and I’m so blessed to have been able to have gotten a seat here. We weren’t able to take any photos in there, but I’m honestly glad I didn’t have a choice because I just immersed myself in the whole experience. I can’t even call this a meal because it was so much more than that. It was the ambience, the details put into every single bite, the cut of the knife, the heat from the kamado stove, the laughter of Chef Sawada emanating throughout the room. I will never forget this meal. It was a life changing moment and I don’t think I can have normal omakase ever again. Their lunch meal was around $500 for 2 people which is such a good deal for the amount of sushi we got.
This place was 3 michelin starred, but honestly I think Sawada was way better. This meal was a very unique expression of Japanese cuisine, mixing traditional with modern techniques and was heavily influenced by seasonal produce and the blooming sakura blossoms. It was a very poetic meal and very beautifully crafted, but in terms of experience, ambience, and taste, Sawada takes the cake. I would recommend RyuGin to those very strongly inclined to Japanese cuisine and culture, not to those testing the waters with Japanese food for the first time. You’ll have some of the best cooked fish of your life, ones that will burst in your mouth with juiciness that you wouldn’t expect from fish, and the most delicate balancing act of flavors in each dish.
Karashibi Miso Ramen Kikanbo
They’re famous for their Demon Level Ramen which will literally bring hell to your butthole. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you can handle extreme spice. I ended up getting their “Less” spice level and that was perfect for me. I wasn’t about to eat something labeled DEMON and hop onto my flight back to LA right after fam. That sounds like a terrible plane ride. Get there early because the queue starts before it opens! Once they open, they turn on their vending machine where you insert money and order directly from the screen. Just click what you want and take the receipt inside after you order. If you’re a fan of Sichuan’s numbing spiciness, I highly recommend this place! Their pork was extremely juicy and soft so get more than one!! But if you don’t order everything you wanted, you can always pay inside and adjust your order.
Japan has a ton of animal related cafes for some reason. I’m not complaining of course, we need more of these in the US. I’m a little sad I didn’t get to go to the shiba cafe this time around, but this bird cafe we stumbled into “pecked” our fancy. It’s super close to the Ghibli Museum, so if you happen to be in the area I’d suggest checking it out. If you’re not already in that area, I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to go there. The cafe itself is super small and warm, and the only way to interact with the birds is to pay a fee (I thought the birds were just flying around the cafe, but that wouldn’t make sense poop wise). They have a couple cute bird-themed confections and a random curry dish with the rice shaped like your chirpy little friend. It was almost morbid slicing into the head of our yellow beaked buddy, but the first bite made it worth it. I love how Japanese desserts are delicate and the perfect amount of sweetness. I’ve never met a Japanese dessert I haven’t liked, and this bird cake didn’t disappoint.
We went to a couple different places for Yakitori, mainly because it’s open pretty late and they’re in every busy alleyway you walk through. Consensus is that it’s pretty consistent wherever you go (I’m sure there are places that are probably super amazing, but we usually ate at yakitori places because we were hungry at like 11pm) and I will always have a special place for gizzard in my heart…and bottom. If you don’t know what gizzard is…I recommend you eating it before knowing. Like most asian foods, they taste better than they sound. Make sure to get beer with your meal, otherwise you ain’t a G.
You can’t leave Japan without going to a Yakiniku place. I recommend making a reservation because the good places get booked pretty quickly. But trust me, you’ll have some of the softest, most tender beef in your life. Highly recommend trying wagyu and their beef tongue. AMAZING.
I’ve always wanted to try this because of Shokugeki (Food Wars), that weird anime where people’s clothes rip off when they orgasm after eating something amazing. Yeah, it’s weird, but the way they present food in that show is an art form in itself. Anyways, they showed this rice dish that you pour green tea over it and I knew I had to try it when I was in Japan. It was just as delicious as I expected and honestly, it’s super easy to make at home. I tried it when I went back home because I was craving it and it was BOMB. Green tea + fish + rice + furikake. DONEEEE.
Night Markets/St Food
I love Asia because you can just go to a night market and eat your way down the street, trying little bites at each stand so you don’t have to settle on one thing to commit your night to. Highlights were toasted mochi sticks, takoyaki, grilled corn in soy sauce, and sweet soy sauce mochi balls. (pro-tip: Mitsuru Cafe in Little Tokyo sells some of these items and more if you need your fix).
Family Mart/Vending Machines/Snacks
LITERALLY MY LIFE. You will find these everywhere you go and they are great for a quick snack or drink on the go when you’re traveling early in the morning or in between cities with very little around you. Family Mart has amazing, juicy pork buns, delicious onigiris, snacks, coffee lattes in cans—you name it. It’s the asian 7-11. (Pro tip: go to any Japanese market in Little Tokyo and they have most of these things, including onigiris that a lot of you guys have been asking me about).
Vending machines got coffee, energy drinks, water, CLEAR MILK TEA (which I’m still on the quest for), and to my surprise, creamed corn in a can. I don’t know how many creamed corns I went through my trip, but every time I found a vending machine that had it, I WENT TO TOWN. Best thing ever.
The thing to bring back to your friends and family? Tokyo Bananas and flavored kit kats. Even if you don’t like artificial banana flavored things, you will most likely fall in love with the fluffy custard deliciousness that is the Tokyo Banana. Sadly I finished most of them the week I came back, but they are literally pillows of happiness that melt in your mouth. Don’t leave without buying yourself a box! You can find them at the Tokyo Station (or most major stations) and I guess, even Disneyland! The Disney one is even better because it’s filled with caramel + banana custard.
Kit kats are also a huge thing in Tokyo. Buy a bunch of delicious flavors to split among your friends and try! I tried the cantaloupe, sake, apple, and tokyo banana (of course). Cantaloupe and Banana were good, but you’d really have to like sake to appreciate that one. All I thought about as I bit into it was my first date with Oliver when we blacked out on sake—I mean had a very safe and wholesome night (hi mom).
Never swerve that soft serve. Japan’s ice cream game goes hard with the softest, silkiest soft serve you’ll ever taste. Highly recommend trying Silkream and Zakuzaku if you’re in Shibuya/Harajuku area. The texture literally melts in your mouth. No ragrets here.
Totti Candy Factory
Last but not least, the infamous rainbow cotton candy cloud from Totti Candy Factory in Harajuku. Need I say more?
Honorable mentions that we didn’t have time for this trip:
- Rokurinsha for Tsukemen
- Mitsukabose for Ramen
- Ramen Nagi Shinjuku
- Umegaoka Sushi no Midori Shibuya for Okonomiyaki
- Moritaya for wagyu beef
- Afuri Ramen
- Fuunji for Tsukemen
- Shiba Cafe in Osaka
- Ishibashi for Sukiyaki
- Sumibiyakiniku Nakahara
- Torishiki for Izakaya
( I’ll be back Japan with a hungry stomach )
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
If you come to Japan during cherry blossom season, you can't miss a chance to view them inside Shinjuku Gyoen. Within 5 minutes of walking into the garden, you're already surrounded by tons and tons of cherry blossom trees. it's absolutely breathtaking and the petals float in the air with every passing wind, almost resembling softly fallen snow (she was a poet and didn't know it). The Japanese highly revered them because of their beautiful, but fleeting lifespan. Cherry blossoms bloom and fall off the tree very quickly, which makes it a little difficult to predict exactly when is the exact thing the blossoms will be in full bloom when planning your trip. Early April is usually the best time to go, but check their calendar and see when they predict it to happen each year! Sakura reminds all of us that life is short, so cherish everything around you and pay attention to the little things in life.
Funny story about this photo. A random Japanese man saw my boyfriend and I taking photos of the sakura and asked us to take a photo together. He grabbed my camera and positioned us carefully in the blossoms and tried to take a photo of us romantic in love...and this is what happened. Two awkward turtles huddled under a tree trying to understand a japanese man's directions as he takes photos of us. Nailed it.
You should visit this park regardless of the blossoms though. It is beautiful year round and worth just strolling through to admire the time and attention put into maintaining it.
Take allergy medicine before you go if you're allergic to pollen/trees omg. I literally died in there even though I took a zyrtec when I got there. Aside from me disrupting the tranquility around me with ear shattering sneezes and blowing obnoxiously into tissues from lunch, it was (like all places in Japan) beautiful in a serene, graceful sort of way...minus the hoards of tourists in your shots. I'd recommend getting here early so you can get the crispy morning air, the sunrise gleaming through the trees, and the nature trail to yourself.
Check out their wall of sake barrels and wash your hands and mouth in the cleansing station before entering the shrine--make sure you read the signs and you're using the running water!
Tokyo Imperial Palace/Edo Castle
I highly recommend finding the castle at the edge of the moat before venturing inside because Oliver and I got super lost trying to find it! We are both directionally challenged so I doubt you guys will have much trouble, but here are some photos of the pretty gardens we stumbled upon inside. I'd give at least an hour or 2 to fully walk through it all because it's enormous.
Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku
What an incredibly long name to remember LOL. This is another iconic spot worthy of the gram and has been photographed many times by those mesmerized by the million mirror reflections that capture every angle of the busy street. If you were going to commit a crime or pick your wedgie, I probably wouldn't do it anywhere near here because it would be hard to stay hidden.
There are a couple places to view this famous crossing, but a lot of them are super crowded by other photographers trying to get their own glimpse of the organized chaos. We scoped out a hotel with a promising viewpoint in the elevator, snuck in, and just took photos of the street as the elevator went up and down. A popular spot to view the street from is the Starbucks Coffee Shibuya Tsutaya located on one of the corners on the 2nd floor.
This stop is for aesthetics, transportation, and the food/shopping center. It's a place you'll probably end up at if you're traveling anywhere in Tokyo or outside of the city. Don't just breeze by though! Stop and browse around! Visit the shops, explore outside the station, grab a quick lunch inside, and immerse yourself in the culture (yes, even the public transportation system in Japanese is fascinating).
I grew up watching Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso, and even that one Studio Ghibli film that most people don't talk about, Pom Poko. Long story short, it's about raccoons trying to get their homeland back from the humans by using their ballsacks. Yes. Ballsacks. I will link a clip here if you get curious. To be honest, aside from that, the message behind the movie is quite powerful. It will..hit you right in the nuts....of your heart. It talks about the implications behind deforestation and how it can destroy ecosystems and cause animals to migrate to find a new home. Deep stuff.
This museum is an absolute treat if you appreciate MIyazaki's craft and the amount of detail and time they take to animate these films. Every Studio Ghibli film I've watched has been nothing short of amazing and to be able to go to their museum and see the behind the scenes as well as a never before scene film short in their mini theater was a great start to my trip. You can't take photos inside sadly, but you can take them outside with one of the Laputan robots from Castle in the Sky.
If you're a sneakerhead, definitely check out the different stores while you're in Tokyo. We were able to find shoes that were either new releases or were about to launch in the US the next day. Hypebeast culture is also pretty big so visiting the shops are an experience in itself. Other honorable mentions are The North Face Standard (for their Japan exclusive purple label collection), the Line Friends store (yes, those adorable stickers from the app are the main attraction), and the OFF-WHITE Tokyo flagship store.
Another attraction you need to buy tickets in advance for...and possible get drunk before as well. It is a Robot Cabaret and it's as weird as it sounds. Upon entering, you'll notice that the seats are incredibly close to each other and the stage is literally up to the feet of the row in front. It's such a small stage that they put up chains in the front row so the robots coming in won't poke your eye out. Fair warning, this show is pretty long! I'd commit 1.5 hours here since there are 3 parts to this show...and those 3 parts have nothing to do with each other. I'd honestly just walk in with a very open mind and a good understanding of Japanese pop culture because the show you're about to watch will involve people dressed up as anime characters, robots of the mechanical kind, robots of the animal kind, robots that will breathe smoke and dart lasers, loud electronic music that probably never made it to any top 40s list, and robots that look like they could have copyright infringement issues (like a super decked out, guerrilla fighting ninja turtle). Soooo with that said, have fun!
We stayed at the Park hotel in the Shiodome because we fell in love with the gorgeous Artist Rooms they have available there. Each room of their Artist Room series is created by a different artist and is supposed to be their interpretation of the world. You're not allowed to choose your room so it is a surprise when you get there! We got the Wabi Sabi room by the Artist Conami Hara and it was breathtaking. The metallic foil and organic figures on the wall truly immersed us in a different ambience, contrasting with the minimal, geometric, grey-scaled patterns of the city outside.
A note from the artist:
In this room, there's no story.
In this space, there's only driftwood, rusty foil, and time which slips by.
In the Orient, the number 15 represents perfection.
The karesansui (arid landscape) is said to represent the universe. The 14 pieces of driftwood, which take the Ryoanji rock garden, the typical karesansui, as motif, symbolize imperfection.
The changes with time that occur in silver foil left all over the space, and the passage of time, are also part of the work.
We cannot go against the years.
After time has whittled away the outer layers, what's left behind at the core?In an imperfect world like the universe, everyone wanders around seeking something meaningful.
In this little universe, try to drift with the driftwood.
- Conami Hara
I had to stop by DisneySea because it's the last Disney park on my list and now I can actually compare all the different parks around the world! With that said, Japan's Disneysea is my favorite park outside of the US. The reasons why I love the Disneyland back in SoCal are the quality of the rides, how you can get lost in the magic of each part of the theme park (fully immersive experience), and the amazing food you can get inside. None of the other parks around the world (Paris, Hong Kong, Shanghai) capture all three elements, except for Tokyo DisneySea.
Spicy smoked chicken leg 10/10: juicier, more flavorful than a turkey leg back home and easier to eat. We paired it with a sparkling mango tapioca drink 8/10 that you can purchase at the same stand!
Green alien mochi dumplings 7/10: definitely for the aesthetic, but they are pretty damn good for being so cute. The mochi skin is super soft and the ones filled with strawberry are my favorite!
Garlic Shrimp Popcorn 9/10: I already miss this because it's addictive! You can smell the popcorn a mile away and your mouth will start drooling in...3...2....1. It tastes exactly what you think it would if you ever had any asian snack that is shrimp flavored. I'd probably stay away from it if you're not an avid seafood lover though, since it will leave your breath smellin' HELLA GOOD for your loved ones to enjoy for the rest of the day.
Potato churros 8/10: not your basic churro fam. It's basically a large french fry, but better. The inside has a mochi-like chewiness, the outside is savory and deliciously salted.
Tiramisu ice cream sandwich 6/10: tastes like a regular ice cream sandwich, nothing amazing about it.
Yucatan sausage roll 7/10: pretty tasty, but nothing mind-blowin
Tokyo Disney Banana 10/10: YOU CAN'T LEAVE WITHOUT GETTING THESE. I'd recommend buying a lot because I went through them so quickly. They also make great souvenirs.
20,000 leagues under the sea 10/10: a must see when you're here! Super unique concept and good execution of visual effects. This ride takes you on an "underwater" adventure inside a submarine you'll be sharing with a couple other passengers.
Journey to the center of the earth 10/10: probably my favorite ride here. A very well made thrill ride with high production value featuring a scary bug alien looking thing that almost made me sh*t my pants.
Raging Spirits 6/10: too many anticlimactic moments, not enough thrill. It's the gateway rollercoaster if you need to warm up to bigger rides.
Little Mermaid's castle 10/10: This isn't a ride obviously, but it will take your eyes...on a VISUAL RIDE OF YO LIFE. The most beautiful "themed lands" I've ever been to inside a Disney park.
Gondola ride: I wish it wasn't so windy the day we went, otherwise I would've ridden in it, but we still got a photo on the boat to imagine what it might've looked like if we did go on it LOL
5. OUTSIDE TOKYO
If you have the time, Japan has way more to offer than just Tokyo. It will be a pretty lengthy train ride out, but with your JR pass, all the fees are paid for and the trains are so comfy (with reserved seating might I add) that you might actually enjoy the trip!
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Get here early! We got here at sunrise and there were already a pack of photographers trying to get their shot. It's a really short pathway so if you come during busy hours, it will be impossible to get a photo with no people in it.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
A sight to see, with people or without! What is Fushimi Inari Taisha? It's the head shrine devoted to the god, Inari, where you'll see thousands of shrines adorn a pathway circling a mountain. Keep hiking up if you want to avoid the crowds trying to get their photos taken in the pathway! Once you climb down, I suggest checking out their cute trinket shops and their night market for delicious snacks to enjoy!
Nara Park is a place I hold deer to my heart...no literally, I had a deer front kick me trying to steal my biscuits when I visited. As beautiful as the park is and no matter how a-doe-able these woodland creatures appear to be, it didn't prepare me for Bambi 2: GIVE ME BISCUITS OR DIE. The custom is, upon entering, purchase a bundle of biscuits at the front of the gate, find a deer, bow with the deer 3 times and hand it a biscuit. Some deer are friendly, but some are impatient and would rather bite your jacket or front kick you to scare you badly enough that you drop all your biscuits and go running for the hills.
If you explore the rest of Nara Park, you'll find that they have a gorgeous lake where you can row (or in my case, have your boyfriend row) across the lake.
If you're the type to wake up early to get shots of landmarks without people in it, this location is not one of those times. There is an organized line to take a photo in front of this shrine so everyone gets their BANGERS. It's a little scary stepping on the platform, so just make sure you wear comfy shoes with grip and watch out for any waves!
Hakone Onsen (Hakone Yuryo)
I highly recommend checking into a private onsen when you visit Japan (whether it's in Hakone or not). The whole experience is magical and whisks you away into a traditional setting, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Hakone Yuryo is great because they don't mind if you have tattoos and the private onsens can be rented hourly for a pretty affordable price. Just email them in english with your reservation time and they get back to you promptly with confirmation. No Sweat!
Another spot you can hit up in Hakone if you're touring the area! We walked around the castle grounds but didn't care to pay to tour the inside of the castle, so it was a pretty short visit, but the castle architecture is still one to admire!
Honorable mentions that we didn't have time for: michelin star soba, black eggs, and the Great Boiling Valley
MT. FUJI VIEW
We took a midnight train, out of whim, on our last day here just to check out the Chureito Pagoda in Fujiyoshida City for the infamous view of Mt. Fuji during sunrise. 5am, we trudged 400 steps up to get a glimpse of a gorgeous pink and blue sunrise peaking through the mountains and cherry blossoms (on the other side of the pagoda....not Mt. Fuji side). If you want the sun behind the pagoda, I suggest going for sunset! We still got some cool shots and the view is not one to complain about. It is a rare occasion to be able to witness the mountain behind cherry blossoms considering the fragility of their bloom, so I call this trip a lucky one!