I don’t want to be that person who goes on a big vacation/trip and then spends an entire month posting about every little thing she did…that’s why I have a travel journal/scrapbook. I shared some of my favorite moments on Instagram but I wanted to elaborate a little more here in case you are planning a trip to Japan in the near future.
I’m not going to focus on the history of this beautiful country, the sweeping landscapes, the museums, or the temples and shrines in this post. This post includes my favorite non-“postcard” things that we ate/did/saw because sometimes it is the kindness of a stranger in a pharmacy that has a bigger impact on you than seeing famous “postcard perfect” landmarks in person.
My 10 Favorite Things About Our Trip to Japan
Robot Restaurant is one of those tourist attractions that is pricy but worth your time. After being featured on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown (Episode 7, if you want to catch it on Netflix), it looks like everybody and their mother want to catch the show. It’s an assault on the senses in every way possible…there are thousands of little details to catch in the lounge before your show (you do not need a ticket to get into the lounge, so you can go inside and enjoy a drink and watch the band play, if you’d rather not spend the money) including in the washrooms.
You’re instructed to go downstairs before the show begins are shown to your seats. There are not many seats in the theater and everybody is squeeze in pretty tightly, but that is part of the fun. If you’re in the front row, like we were, be sure to pay attention to their warnings that you’ll need to lean back and watch your head from time to time because the floats/performers/costumes may smack you in the face otherwise. Get earplugs for your kids (and if you’re like me, grab an extra pair for yourself!) and enjoy the show. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself wondering what you got yourself into…there’s music, light shows, screens with crazy videos, dancers, machines, and everything is over-the-top. It’s incredible.
Riding the High Speed Rail (Shinkansen)
The biggest benefit to getting our JR Rail Passes was we could book reserved seats on the high speed rail without worrying about having enough cash on hand to pay for the fare. We took the train from Tokyo Station to Osaka, from Osaka to Kyoto, and from Kyoto to Tokyo. We needed to make a few transfers on the local trains to get closer to our destinations, but Japan’s rail system is amazing so it was not a hassle at all. The seats on the train were very comfortable and had a ton of leg room. There is space above your seat for small parcels and at the back of each car for larger luggage. Each seat has a table like you’d have on a plane and each car has access to a waste basket/recycling, washroom, sinks, and there is at least one smoking room on the train. A concession cart comes through at least once per stop with alcohol, coffee, and some snacks, but most people bring a bento from the train station or do not eat on the train.
The food court in the Kyoto train station
Food halls are really popular in Southern California right now so it was awesome (and overwhelming) to see this “food paradise” under the Kyoto train station. Think: Whole Foods food court/marketplace. It is huge and busy and has everything you could possibly want. Alex picked up some beautiful sushi and I picked up some chicken and sushi rolls. It was hard not to try everything and fill up on samples but we knew we needed to have just enough to keep us full on the ride back to Tokyo. There are prepared bentos for the train ride, different types of desserts, barbecued meat, and Kyoto specialties.
Eating an over-the-top-crepe in Harajuku
If there is one thing that will give you a massive case of FOMO (fear of missing out), it’s seeing everybody eating outrageous crepes on Takeshita-Dori in Harajuku. There are several different places to place your order, but of course I went with the bright pink Santa Monica location. There were a few hundred different options displayed around the outside of this corner location. Each option is depicted in plastic and accompanied by a description in both Japanese and English, a number, and the amount. There are sweet crepes and savory crepes. There is a heavy emphasis on strawberry and whipped creme in most of the options. You can get something super simple, or you can get a mega-crazy option like the one I ordered.
I took a photo of the one I wanted: matcha ice cream, Oreo cookies, brownie with match chips, and matcha drizzle (with copious amounts of whipped cream!) and went to the counter to order. It took about 5 minutes to get my tightly wrapped and Instagram-ready treat and it was totally worth the wait. I sat on a curb with Alex and enjoyed every last bite of this giant treat.
Finding small craft stores featured in Tokyo Craft Guide
Before heading to the airport, I downloaded the Tokyo Craft Guide, written by two lovely bloggers who were both living in Japan and exploring the area for small boutiques that carried a variety of supplies. The illustrations are seriously adorable and I love that they included suggestions for cafes and other things to do when in different neighborhoods. It was well worth the small cost of the book and I made sure to get directions to the nearest shops whenever we headed out for the day. Alex was a trooper and enjoyed seeing different areas of the city that didn’t involve sight-seeing. I tried to buy at least one small thing from each shop we visited (I think we ended up visiting 5 locations?) as a thank you for their hospitality…to be perfectly honest, it was hard not to buy everything in each shop! I picked up some washi tape, fabric, and stationary. I had hoped to pick up a few craft kits from the different shops (as mentioned in the Tokyo Craft Guide) but I only had carryon luggage and new I would quickly run out of room!
If you want to see examples of the awesome crafts and supplies you can find in Japan, I suggest checking out Kimberly’s series “spending the Yen.” Kimberly and her husband were in Japan/Tokyo at the same time as Alex and I but never ended up meeting up.
Let me be honest: I’m not a coffee snob. I knew that the first few days in Japan would require lots of caffeine in order to be remotely-human while the sun was shining. Thanks to Yelp! and Reddit, we were able to locate some really great coffee places that weren’t Starbucks or McDonald’s. Our first great cup was at The Roastery, located in the Harajuku area of Tokyo along the same street as a lot of shops from famous outdoor brands like KEEN, Columbia, The North Face, and Gregory. It was cool to see all our favorite brands so close to one another on a really cute street. The barista at The Roastery was really nice and gave us a lot of advice on things to do and see while in the area. He told us to call him if we have questions or need help translating while in town (so nice!). We ordered coffee and cronuts, because why not.
In Kyoto, we walked to tiny % Arabica for coffee. I loved the simple design of the location and how they used Chemex coffee makers to create a beautiful lighting fixture in the small washroom. The favorite thing we did in Osaka was stop in a Hoshino Coffee (it’s a chain, there is a location in Harajuku very close to the train station. The coffee to try there is charcoal-roasted and the pancake souffle. Honestly, order the double order of the pancake souffle and you can thank me after. On our last day, we spotted a tiny Airstream trailer above the road and saw that they had iced coffee and a shady spot to sit down for a bit. This one was located in the Shibuya shopping area and I couldn’t find a name for it.
Navigating on our own
A few of my coworker friends were in Japan recently and assured me that getting around wouldn’t be as stressful as I assumed. The directional signs, signs at the train stations and airport, and even most of the shop signs have English translations. The trains have English translations for the announcements, too, so you’ll know when you need to make a transfer instead of trying to match your translation app to the posted signs. We had a pocket wifi with us so I was able to use Google Maps for most of our needs. I did need to ask for help getting around the Shinjuku train station at one point when we got off of a subway and I didn’t recognize where I was. Thankfully, everybody we encountered in Japan is really nice and helpful and Alex and I learned key phrases like “how do I get to the train/the bathroom” so we wouldn’t come across as bumbling fools.
Addresses work differently in Japan. The numbers of the address do not go in sequential order but it does give you a lot of information about the building and what floor your destination may be on. Google maps won’t give you specifics while you navigate by walking. Expect to see cross the road, turn right, cross the road instead of turn right on Main, continue on 1st Street. Take a screen shot of the address you’re looking for and possibly the name of the destination and ask for help when you can.
The dedication to carbs
Tokyo is very pro-carbohydrates (and so am I, as you can see in this photo). There are cafes serving delicious desserts and French-inspired bakeries all over the place. Our go-to meal (other than the revolving sushi place by our hotel) while on our trip was soba. I expected to eat a lot more ramen while in Japan, but most of the restaurants focused on pork-based broths so soba was an easier meal for us to get our noodle fix. We did find one restaurant in the Times Square area of Shinjuku that specialized in fish broth ramen, which was unexpected and delicious. Whenever we popped into a cafe for an iced tea or iced coffee (and to escape the heat), we would order a dessert or some sort of treat… croissants, pancake souffles, cheesecakes, whatever! In fact, the French-inspired bakery near the Shinjuku station served fantastic pastries and treats that changed daily. Alex enjoyed the almond croissant and the veggie quiche and I really liked the chocolate croissants and was very interested in the matcha baguettes but never brought myself to purchasing one.
I felt like there were really three options for restaurants in Japan: Japanese food, bakeries/cafes, and Italian food. All carbs, all the time! If you subscribe to a gluten-free diet, try to stick to the more hipster cafes and restaurants because the gluten-free trend hasn’t really made it to Japan yet.
Everything is super cute, even the cars
Everything in Tokyo had some sort of cartoon mascot or other cute feature to it…construction signs, notices on the streets, everything. It’s adorable and I wish we had more of these cute signs in the States. The cars we saw were all tiny and adorable. Delivery trucks, garbage trucks, and even the ambulances were somehow less aggressive looking than the ones at home, including the cute pizza truck I spotted while out shopping one afternoon. I saw a postbox with a panda on it and even donuts decorated to look like puppies. I wish I took more photos of every damn cute thing we saw, but I’m not sure my phone has enough space to fit it all. Think Wild Olive-type characters everywhere!
Shopping in Shibuya and in Tokyu Hands
Tokyo is a huge shopping destination so I made sure to look up the Magnificent Mile (Chicago) version of Tokyo and Shibuya is apparently the place to be. We walked from Shinjuku to Shibuya on our first day and visited once more after that via train since it was a short ride away from our hotel. There are familiar brands along the shopping district, including a huge Nike store and Apple store. On the weekend there were hundreds of people on the sidewalks but it never felt crowded. You can see in the photo above that the sidewalk is packed with people. If you only have a short amount of time in Shibuya, stop by Kiddy Land, which is a giant toy store. It’s worth the 30 minutes or so you’ll spend wandering around the aisles.
Tokyu Hands is a giant department store chain that is kind of like a high-end Target without the groceries and clothes. I shopped in the one in Shinjuku near Times Square because it was close and because the top floor is dedicated to stationary! I picked up a ton of washi tape, some cards, and paper. The photo of me “wearing” a tiger mask is actually a “magic mirror” that recognizes faces and stretches an image of a novelty face mask onto passerby. Every few seconds, the image changes to a different design like this Kabuki one, Frankenstein’s monster, panda, and vampire. I didn’t buy any because they are about $12 USD each.
Hopefully these ideas help fill your itinerary for a future trip to Tokyo!