Six weeks in Japan have passed by in the blink of an eye. We’ve really been spoiled here - eating some of the greatest food we’ve ever had, and with some of the most generous people we’ve ever met, in a country that is extremely clean, well-organized, and practices the best subway etiquette I’ve ever seen. Strangers were quick to buy us beers, help us hoist our forty-pound bags onto our backs, and were always down for one more karaoke song. Japan was the first country we visited on our trip, and we were sorely tempted to stay there and make it the last. We had too many amazing experiences to count, but did our best to whittle it down to a list of favorite places, experiences, and foods we had while there.
Places To Go
A few of our favorite specific attractions we went to in Japan, that we recommend you check out too!
• Iwanai. Alright, I may be a bit biased on this one, as Peter and I spent two weeks fixing up a fledgling ski lodge there. But it is truly a charming little coastal fishing village, and if you really want to get off the beaten path and see what small-town Japanese life is like, this is the place to do it. Visit temples and shrines, go kayaking on the coast, eat awesome seafood, and if you go in winter, you can ski on powder and take a ride on the ski lift we helped refurbish!
• Shibuya crossing. Tokyo is huge, it’s the most populous city in the world and makes Manhattan look like Milwaukee. Arguably the best place to experience this sheer magnitude of people is at the Shibuya Crossing, a hugely busy intersection where every few minutes, car traffic stops in all directions and thousands of pedestrians cross the street all at once. The flow of people is rushed and chaotic, dodging left and right as you try to hurry across the street but not crash into anyone going the opposite way at the same time. It’s definitely an iconic experience, but if you’d rather watch then join the scramble yourself, a great place to view is in the second-floor Starbucks at the QFront building.
• Gion in Kyoto. The Gion area is Kyoto’s oldest geisha district, and walking through there felt like a trip through time. The street was lined with traditional wooden merchant shops and teahouses, and crowds of men and women dressed in traditional geisha attire.
• Farm Tomita during lavender season. We had a serendipitous start to our trip in Hokkaido, we didn’t know it was lavender season when we booked our tickets but when we found out it was, we hopped on a bus and headed straight into the country. We were met with some of the most beautiful blooms of lavender, poppy, and sunflowers we’d ever seen, and the sweetest cantaloupe melons that Farm Tomita is famous for! If you make it out there be sure to stop by the Blue Pond in Biei as well, a stunning pond with deep turquoise waters.
• Mt. Fuji. Mt. Fuji is an icon within Japan, and has been a pilgrimage for poets and artists for centuries. Peter and I have hiked to the summit of Mt. Fuji twice now, and it remains one of my favorite climbs - watching the sun rise over Japan from the top of the country’s highest mountain is truly unforgettable. If you’re not looking to hike, though, the area surrounding the mountain (Fuji Five Lakes) offers breathtaking views of Mt. Fuji, tons of traditional guesthouses and other cultural experiences.
• Miyajima. Itsukushima, also known as Miyajima or “Shrine Island”, is a small island off of Hiroshima Bay. It’s famous for its huge torii gate that greets visitors as they come in on the ferry, nicknamed the “floating shrine” because when the tide is high it appears as if it’s suspended in the water. It was named one of the “Three Views of Japan” and is definitely worth a day to explore. In addition to the shrine, there are temples, tame deer wandering the streets, and amazing grilled oysters.
• The Dōtonbori. The Dōtonbori is the “Times Square of Osaka”, and Osaka is the “food capital of Japan”, so this is a must-see if you’re wanting to get some authentic Japanese street food! It’s a bustling hub that used to be an old theater district, packed with tons of people, entertaining shows, and lots of shopping. Osaka is also a great place to take day trips all throughout the Kansai region - the area is steeped with history.
• Other tourist attractions we enjoyed: Himeji Castle, Nara Park, Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Fushimi Inari-taisha, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, Tsujiki Fish Market, Mt. Rokko, Takeshita Street in Harajuku, Shinjuku Gyoen Gardens.
Things to do
Here is a list of a few of our favorite experiences you can try almost anywhere in Japan.
• Onsen. Onsen are Japanese hot springs, and are said to have all sorts of healing qualities. You can use the baths for day use pretty cheaply, or you can stay overnight in an inn - they’re often part of guesthouses or ryokan. We went to an onsen at a ryokan in Hakone after we climbed Mt. Fuji - definitely the best way to relax our sore limbs, plus we got to have a traditional kaiseki (multi-course) dinner. The baths are public and are separated by gender, so make sure you’re comfortable getting naked in front of lots of people. Call ahead if you have tattoos (often tattoos are not allowed into the onsen because of their traditional association with the yakuza) and be sure to drink a glass of milk after soaking in the bath (we were told this is traditional as well!)
• Pray at a shrine. There are around 100,000 Shinto shrines scatted all throughout Japan, so they’re pretty hard to miss. Here are a few rules for praying at the shrines.
Wash your hands first, you’ll usually find a water pavilion near the entrance called a temizuya. It’s important to be clean and in good health before approaching the gods.
Gently toss a coin or two into the offering box. There’s no set amount you should give, but a five-yen coin is said to be good luck.
Ring the bell, which wards off evil spirits and purifies the space before the gods arrive.
Follow the rule of two-two-one (二礼二拍手一礼) - “two bows, two claps, one bow”. Bow deeply two times, to a ninety-degree angle, greeting the gods. Next, two claps to express your appreciation. Then, offer a silent prayer and thanks, and finally, end with one deep bow, showing your respect and excusing yourself.
Tip: if you pass through a torii gate to approach the shrine, be sure not to walk through middle of the gate - walk off through the left or right. The middle of the gate is reserved for the gods.
• Karaoke. Japan is the birthplace of karaoke, it was invented here in 1971 and is still a hugely popular pastime. You can do karaoke at a snack bar, where you’ll sing in front of the entire bar (while eating the provided snacks), or you could also rent a private room where you only have to make a fool of yourself in front of friends. I think my favorite is the private room - there’s usually awesome lights, tambourines, and you can generally be as obnoxious as you want (which tends to happen wherever beer and Journey songs are involved).
• ROUND1. This is a video and sports arcade chain - there are tons of them around Japan, and even some in the United States. We went to the one in the Dotonbori, which boasted about eight floors of every sport and video game you could imagine. It was really nostalgic to run around at an arcade, but just beware of the amount of time and money that will slip away here - we spent practically the entire day shooting hoops and playing DDR.
• Love Hotels. Hear me out. They're not just skeezy places to bring your mistresses, at least they don't have to be. Pay-by-the-hour hotels often get a bad rep, but they're unbelievably convenient for travelers. Peter and I had been wandering around Tokyo all day, we were sweaty, exhausted, and at 6pm, all we really wanted was a shower and a quick nap. But knew that if we spent the forty-five minutes getting back to our hostel, we'd never make it out again. As chance would have it, we ended up wandering through a pretty dicey part of Shibuya nicknamed "Love Hotel Hill", and quickly found ourselves surrounded by plenty of options to kick our shoes off and relax a bit. We picked our room off a huge screen (no talking to anyone required), and inside there was pretty much every toiletry imaginable - we got to use a jacuzzi, bubble bath, put on robes, take a nap, brush our teeth, brew some coffee, there were even face masks and a karaoke machine. I’m 100% sure we would have been totally lame and gone to bed super early if we hadn’t been able to spend two hours here recharging our batteries, both figuratively and literally. Yeah, there were also some sex toys and weird porn on the TV, but it's all part of the experience.
Food TO Eat
I was told by many, many people that Japan would ruin me for food. While I certainly hope that’s not the case (as we’ve got a lot more traveling left to do), I have a sneaking suspicion they may be right. Here is a list of just a few of the foods we ate in Japan and absolutely loved.
• Sushi, obviously, and because the first time I ever had sushi was in a small fishing village in northern Japan, unfortunately I know this one’s ruined for me. We never went to a sushi place we didn’t like, and you can’t go wrong chūtoro (中とろ) anywhere - it's the cut of tuna that is "medium fatty", as opposed to "extra fatty" or "red tuna", and every native I asked told me that this was their favorite kind. I learned when eating nigiri, you are only supposed to dip the fish in soy sauce - not the rice - so it's perfectly acceptable to use your hands if you need to. Tip: if you're dining at a sushi bar, it's good form to take off your metal watch, if you're wearing one, so you don't scratch the veneer on the bar. Chefs will notice this, and can show their appreciation by giving you an extra nice cut of fish.
• Ramen. Ramen is great food to eat when you're exhausted after a long day of traveling and sightseeing, because it's not only acceptable to eat loudly and messily and not give a fuck, it's encouraged. Before coming to Japan, I had no idea there were so many different types of ramen - Tokyo ramen (lighter broth, chicken and soy sauce base, straight noodles); Yokohama ramen (heavy, pork-based broth and thicker noodles); Sapporo ramen (curly noodles, seafood, pat of butter on top), but I think my favorite we had was tsukumen ramen, or “dipping noodles”. You are served a small bowl of thick, very flavorful broth, with a side of noodles that you then dip in and eat immediately. We went to a place called Fūunji in Tokyo, we had to wait in line for a while but it was well worth it for the best bowl of ramen I’ve ever had.
• Fried chicken, called karaage. I know it seems weird, fried chicken sounds about as American as it gets. But it's different in Japan, marinated first then fried in potato starch, much fattier and often served with lemon.
• Okonomiyaki and takoyaki. "Yaki" means "grilled" or "cooked over direct heat", and there are tons of "yaki" foods out there but these two were my favorite. Okonomiyaki literally means "as you like it, grilled", and it's basically a sort of crepe usually containing cabbage, eggs, green onion, meat - and whatever else you would like, hence the name. It can be found throughout Japan, but different regions have variations, Hiroshima in particular is known for theirs. Takoyaki is grilled octopus balls, most famous in Osaka, and perfect to eat while wandering around the Dōtonbori.
• Kobe beef. Kobe beef is known for its marbling, melt-in-your-mouth texture, and exclusiveness - there are a laundry list of requirements for meat to be considered authentic Kobe beef (and it's said the cows are also played classical music and given massages with sake before they are slaughtered). Therefore, it's quite expensive and definitely a splurge, but if you've got something to celebrate like we did (hey, it's technically our honeymoon after all), it's well worth the money. I would recommend, at all costs, going out for lunch instead of dinner - restaurants will charge significantly less for a lunch (in our case, ¥6,000 less), despite serving the exact same amount of beef.
• Milk-flavored ice cream. It seems like a strange flavor, and I spent most of my time assuming it was just a mis-translation for “vanilla” or something. But no, it is definitely its own thing, and it blew my mind. Hokkaido-milk-flavored soft serve has a solid place near the top of the best ice creams I’ve ever had.
I only have two complaints about the food here. One - the fruit is extremely expensive, and it’s always wrapped in so much plastic (seriously, why do oranges and bananas need to come individually wrapped in a bag?!) And the bread. The bread here sucks, it’s weird and super thick and almost gummy in texture. Other than that - yes, Japan may have ruined us.
Phrases to know
English was pretty prevalent everywhere we went in Japan, but it’s always good to learn a little bit of the native tongue wherever you’re going. In addition to all the staples (e.g. "hello", "goodbye", "thank you", "I'm sorry", etc.), I found these few other phrases to be extremely helpful!
• Omakase (お任せ), "I'll leave it up to you" - You'll say this at a sushi restaurant if you want the "chef's choice" for that day, trusting him to give you what he knows is the freshest pick or best flavor combinations. Try saying this when you're sitting at the counter - when we did this, the chef would stare at us intently as we ate, watching our faces to see how we'd react to what he’d created and what our favorites might be. He even made sure we ate it exactly correctly, down to the precise number of pumps of soy sauce to use. By watching us to see what we'd like, he tailored our next pieces of sushi based on our reactions to the first ones, so we just kept on ordering omakase. Definitely some of the best sushi we had!
• Daijobu (大丈夫), "all right / I'm okay" - This actually has tons of different meanings, so it comes in handy in all sorts of situations. You can use it at the store if a salesperson is being pushy, to let them know you don't need help. Or if someone on the train offers you their seat and you don't want to take it, or a waiter asks if you want more food but you're full.
• Gaijin (外人), "foreigner" - A good way to refer to yourself and all the other gaijin you see around Japan.
• Oishii (おいしい), "delicious" - Say this to the chef as compliments. If you want to pretend like you're from Hokkaido, you can add "namara" to the front (なまら), which is a Hokkaido-only word meaning "very" or "extra", it'd sort of be like saying "wicked good" if you're from Boston.
• Suimasen (すいません), "excuse me" - In Japan, the dining out experience is a little different; you’re not doted on by your waiter, it's up to you to get their attention if you need something. Sometimes you'll have a button to press, but usually you'll have to grab their attention by saying "suimasen". Peter and I were in a crowded restaurant, we were essentially playing chicken with who could scream it loud enough for the waiter to hear, because to us it felt very rude to yell like that. It wasn’t until we heard some other locals bellow at the top of their lungs that we felt a little more comfortable!
We spent six weeks in Japan - longer than we've ever spent in a country - but now that we're gone, we're painfully aware it wasn't enough. There is still so much we know the country can offer, but that we didn’t get to do - like cherry blossom season in the spring, skiing in winter, visiting Nagasaki, Ishigaki, or Yakushima. We still didn’t try fugu or shirako (cod’s sperm, I know it sounds gross but it’s on the bucket list). We’re going to return, and soon, for all those things - but mainly, we want to come back for the friendly, respectful people, and the connections we made with them across the country.