Travel Recommendations for Japan

Are you planning a trip to Japan? As a long-time resident of Japan, I have been frequently asked for travel recommendations by friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. So, I decided to compile all my suggestions and share them here for future reference. Please note that these recommendations are based on my personal experiences and opinions. If you’re looking for generic travel advice, I recommend using Google or travel guides, as they can provide you with a more comprehensive experience.

General Strategy

Before diving into specific recommendations, let’s talk about the general strategy for traveling in Japan. Assuming that you don’t speak much Japanese and are visiting for a few days to a few weeks, it’s important to optimize your time wisely. However, if these assumptions don’t apply to you, there might be better options available for your trip.

My primary advice is to avoid the beaten path for tourists. While this holds true for visiting any country, it is particularly important in Japan, especially considering the boom in tourism over the past decade. The places flooded with foreign tourists often lack the charm and authenticity that you might have heard about. Furthermore, even as a resident who speaks Japanese, I have noticed a change in cultural attitudes towards tourists in heavily visited areas. The level of service and friendliness may not meet the traditional expectations associated with tourism experiences in Japan.

Where to Go?

When it comes to visiting Japan, it’s almost impossible to skip Tokyo. It’s a bustling city with a unique blend of modernity and tradition. If you’re planning to stay for at least a week and want to explore the country, I highly recommend purchasing the Japan Rail Pass in advance. This pass provides unlimited trips on Japan Rail (JR) trains, including most bullet trains, at a very affordable price.

Now, let’s talk about Kyoto and Osaka. While both cities have their charms, I suggest prioritizing Kyoto over Osaka. Kyoto offers a more distinct cultural experience, while Osaka’s charms are somewhat similar to Tokyo’s.

Here’s a suggestion that not many people take me up on: venture out of the cities. If you have more than a week in Japan, I encourage you to explore small towns and countryside areas. They offer a completely different experience from the bustling urban centers, just like how the Italian countryside differs from London. Trust me, these off-the-beaten-path locations will provide you with unique and memorable experiences.

Language Barrier

The language barrier used to be a significant challenge for travelers in Japan. However, smartphones have made it much easier to navigate the country, even if you don’t speak Japanese. While English may not be widely spoken outside of airports and major hotels in larger cities, you can rely on various apps and good old-fashioned goodwill to communicate and get by.

In areas away from tourist hotspots, most Japanese service businesses, such as restaurants, cafes, and hotels, are more than willing to serve foreign customers with limited Japanese proficiency. If you ever feel uncomfortable or unwelcome somewhere, don’t hesitate to politely excuse yourself and find another place to visit. Contrary to the xenophobia discourses you might have heard, my experience suggests that most establishments are accommodating and inclusive.

Where to Eat?

When it comes to dining in Japan, I highly recommend stepping outside your comfort zone and exploring places that are not well-known or frequented by foreign tourists. Train stations in Japanese cities are surrounded by a plethora of restaurants, but the ones closest to the stations are usually not the best options. Instead, venture a few blocks away from the station, and you’ll find hidden gems where you can have a truly authentic dining experience.

If you’re craving ramen, try dining at a local noodle shop where you can sit next to a salaryman on his way home from work. For sushi, opt for a restaurant that might be considered a special Saturday night outing for a middle-class family or a tucked-away hole-in-the-wall joint. When it comes to teppanyaki, look for a place located on the sixth floor of a nondescript building, sandwiched between a small bar and an establishment you might want to avoid.

Choosing lesser-known establishments often comes with perks such as better service, comparable or better food quality, and a more memorable story to take home. While it’s tempting to rely on review apps, I recommend using Tabelog for more reliable coverage and recommendations in Japan. Keep in mind that Japanese reviewers tend to be pickier, so a restaurant with a 3.7-star rating on Tabelog is likely to provide a wonderful dining experience.

Where to Stay?

Japanese hotels are known for their exceptional service and hospitality. While branded hotels may charge a premium, I encourage you to consider local Japanese chains that specialize in serving domestic visitors. APA Hotels, for example, offer comfortable accommodations for business travelers at a reasonable price. If you’re on a budget, you can find salaryman-friendly hotels in various neighborhoods of Tokyo at surprisingly low rates.

However, if you want a truly unique experience, I highly recommend staying at a ryokan. These traditional Japanese inns can be found throughout the country, but I suggest choosing one in Kyoto or outside of major cities. To find the best ryokan, I recommend checking Jalan, a reliable website that features reviews from Japanese domestic tourists. Most ryokans are accommodating to foreign guests, even if their English proficiency is limited.

Tokyo

As someone who has lived in Tokyo for about a decade, I can assure you that this city has a lot to offer. Let’s start with some restaurant recommendations:

  • Ninja Akasaka: This restaurant offers a unique dining experience where everyone, including the staff, is dressed as ninjas. The food is a fusion of modern Japanese and American cuisines, making it a memorable experience.
  • Wattle in Marunouchi: If you’re looking for high-end Australian cuisine, Wattle is the place to go. It’s an excellent option for business dinners or special occasions.
  • Ivy Place in Daikanyama: Finding a great brunch spot in Tokyo can be challenging, but Ivy Place is one of the exceptions. Located near T-Spot, a flagship store of Tsutaya (a well-known bookstore chain), this restaurant offers delicious brunch options.

When it comes to coffee, Tokyo is a haven for coffee enthusiasts. Here are a few recommendations:

  • Streamer Coffee Company: With multiple locations, Streamer Coffee offers better coffee and ambiance than most chain coffee shops. It’s also more accepting of laptops and offers a comfortable working environment.
  • Cafe Facon in Nakameguro: This hidden gem in Nakameguro is known for its phenomenal coffee. The cozy atmosphere and acoustics make it a great place for conversations. However, it’s not suitable for spending hours with your laptop.

For those interested in painting or modeling, I have a couple of recommendations:

  • Hobby Tengoku 2: Located in Akihabara, this shop offers a wide range of products for hobbyists, including paints, knives, and brushes. It’s a paradise for painters and plastic modelers.
  • Pigment Tokyo: This place is dedicated to colors and the joy of creating. If you’re looking for unique art supplies, Pigment Tokyo is a must-visit.

Kyoto

Kyoto is a city known for its rich history and traditional charm. While there are plenty of tourist spots to explore, here are a few recommendations that might not be in the guidebooks:

  • Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts: This museum celebrates the art of traditional crafts, highlighting the techniques used by artisans in present times. It’s a unique experience that offers a deeper understanding of Japanese craftsmanship.
  • Heian Shrine and Kiyomizu-dera Temple: These two landmarks are popular among tourists for good reason. They represent the rich cultural heritage of Kyoto and offer stunning views of the city.
  • Murin-an: If you want to experience a Japanese garden, Murin-an is one of the best places to visit. It’s a lesser-known spot, which means you can enjoy the tranquility and beauty of the garden without the crowds. Don’t miss the opportunity to have tea in the tea room.

When it comes to dining in Kyoto, I suggest following the same principle of exploring lesser-known establishments. However, here are a couple of notable recommendations:

  • Katsukura: This restaurant specializes in katsu, fried pork cutlets. It’s considered one of the best places for katsu in Japan.
  • Lipton Teahouse: Yes, you read it right. This teahouse, associated with the Lipton brand, offers exquisite sweets that are not to be missed.

Ogaki / Gifu Prefecture

If you want to experience the authentic side of Japan, away from the typical tourist destinations, consider visiting Ogaki in Gifu Prefecture. It’s a charming town that offers a glimpse into the real Japan.

Here are a few recommendations for restaurants in Ogaki:

  • Chorky’s Diner: This establishment provides an American diner experience with a Japanese touch. The proprietor is known for his warm hospitality, and the food is delicious. If you go, tell him Patrick sent you.
  • Matsuoka Sushi: Among the countless sushi restaurants in Japan, this one stands out for its exceptional quality and service. The family who runs it is truly wonderful.

When it comes to unique experiences in Ogaki and Gifu Prefecture, consider the following:

  • Ogaki Castle: This historical landmark is associated with the legendary figure Oda Nobunaga. While visiting, keep in mind that the people of Ogaki and Gifu are proud of their connection to Nobunaga, so it’s best to avoid discussing him in certain places, like local churches.
  • Mt. Kinka in Gifu City: If you’re up for a brisk hike with stunning views, Mt. Kinka is the perfect destination. The mountain offers accessible trails suitable for all fitness levels, including older Japanese hikers who might put you to shame.
  • Ukai Fishing: If you visit during the summer, don’t miss the opportunity to witness the traditional practice of Ukai fishing. It’s a unique experience that involves fishing with trained cormorant birds.

If you have the time, I recommend making your own plastic food in Gujo Hachiman or trying your hand at Japanese papermaking in Minokamo. These hands-on experiences offer a deeper appreciation for Japanese craftsmanship and traditions.

Is climbing Mt. Fuji worth it?

Absolutely! Climbing Mt. Fuji is a challenging but rewarding experience. However, keep in mind that it’s a popular destination, which means you’ll encounter many other climbers along the way. If you’re looking for a less crowded experience, I would suggest prioritizing other destinations for your first or second trip to Japan. That being said, reaching the summit of Mt. Fuji is an achievement that I found incredibly memorable and worthwhile.

“I like winter sports.”

While I personally don’t engage in winter sports, Japan offers excellent opportunities for skiing and snowboarding. The country is known for its world-class ski resorts, particularly in Hokkaido and Nagano. I recommend reaching out to local ski resorts or travel agencies for specific recommendations based on your preferences and skill level.

“I like beaches.”

If you’re looking for a beach getaway in Japan, Atami is a wonderful resort town located just 40 minutes from Tokyo. It offers beautiful beaches and a wide range of amenities. While it caters to tourists, it primarily attracts domestic visitors, giving it a more authentic feel. One standout hotel in Atami is Risonare Atami, which offers a unique and luxurious experience among many great options.

If you decide to visit Okinawa or any other beach destinations, I would love to hear about your experience. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to explore them yet, as I’ve spent most of my time in landlocked regions of Japan. However, if you’re looking for beach recommendations, I can suggest exploring the stunning beaches of Hawaii, which are easily accessible from Japan.

Payments and Money

Managing money while traveling in Japan has become much easier in recent years. However, I still recommend planning ahead to avoid any inconveniences. Here are a few tips:

  • Carry some cash: While credit cards are widely accepted in most places, it’s a good idea to have some cash on hand, especially for small establishments that may not accept cards. Convenience stores like Seven Eleven and post offices are reliable places to withdraw cash using your foreign cards.
  • Use mobile payment apps: Apple Pay and Google Pay are increasingly accepted in Japan, making contactless payments convenient. However, be sure to select payment in yen instead of your home currency to avoid unnecessary conversion fees.
  • Get a Suica or Pasmo card: These stored-value transportation cards are widely accepted in most transportation systems across Japan. They offer convenience and save you from the hassle of buying individual tickets for each trip. You can easily obtain one at train stations, and most of the initial deposit can be refunded when you leave Japan.

Duty-Free Shopping

While duty-free shopping can be a popular aspect of travel, it might not be worth your time in Japan. The value-added tax (VAT) in Japan is relatively low (8% to 10%), and unless you’re planning to purchase expensive items, the savings might not justify the effort. Instead, I recommend focusing on immersing yourself in the local culture, exploring unique experiences, and savoring the delicious cuisine Japan has to offer.

So, whether you’re discovering the bustling streets of Tokyo, exploring the cultural wonders of Kyoto, or venturing off the beaten path to find hidden gems, Japan has something to offer for every traveler. Follow these recommendations, embrace the unique experiences, and create memories that will last a lifetime. Safe travels!

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