Last updated: August 5th, 2019
This guide draws from my personal experiences living in and traveling around Japan frequently since 2010. Over the years I've given plenty of recommendations and tips to my friends traveling to the country. I wrote a guide to Tokyo for a now defunct AOL travel blog. This guide has been built on top of all of that and has been continuously updated over the years. Also, this page is still a work in progress and will be updated and improved frequently.
This guide isn’t meant to be your only resource, use it as a jumping off point to research further. You have the Internet, use it.
Most guidebooks will give you a laundry list of cultural do’s and don’ts for Japan. It's built up as if you will be embarrassing yourself, your country, and insulting a millennia of Japanese culture if you use chopsticks the wrong way. Really, you really don’t need to pay that much attention to that stuff. You are unlikely to commit any social faux pas that will cause you or anyone else embarrassment. As long as you aren’t a loud asshole, you’ll be fine.
Being considerate of others is probably the most important aspect of Japanese culture. If you are messing up and doing something unusual, people will typically be incredibly kind and go out of their way to help you out. Japanese people are very aware of the fact that you are not used to their customs, and go so far as to think that no one in the world except for Japanese people can understand Japanese culture. Japanese folks will be amazed if you can use chopsticks.
Speaking of chopsticks, most guides dedicate a whole section on all sorts of chopstick etiquette. It’s true that chopsticks are an important cultural item in Japan, but just don’t use them for anything except feeding yourself and you’ll be fine.
My only real recommendation for dealing with cultural differences is that I recommend Americans speak quieter than usual, because we are loud as hell and and that annoys people. This is something to think about especially when riding on trains since it's considered rude to even speak quietly on the phone on a train. I've been on countless train cars in Japan and the only audible people on the entire train were Americans. I'm not telling you to whisper, just be mindful. Talking on your phone on the subway is considered very rude, but since you’re a tourist, you probably have no friends in Japan, so this doesn’t really apply to you. Of course, if you need to make a call while on a train, no one will yell at you for doing so, just do it quickly and quietly.
Japan is likely the safest country in the world. You can leave your laptop on a table at a cafe, take a walk around the block for an hour or two and it will still be sitting there when you get back. You can walk down any street in the entire country at any hour, blind-drunk throwing money around like confetti and you’ll be fine. The most dangerous place in all of Japan is safer than the average American neighborhood. Most importantly, nobody will be out to scam you or pickpocket you just because you’re a tourist.
There is zero tipping in Japan, you may have heard of a few exceptions, you will never run into those exceptions.
Most of the time the ¥ symbol for yen will not precede prices, instead you will see the Japanese character 円 (pronounced “en”) at the end. So, for example, something that costs 100 yen, will usually be displayed as 100円.
Be aware that there are very few public trash cans around the country. Most people simply carry their trash with them home. If you’ve got trash you want to get rid of, find a convenience store, they typically have trash cans.
You will be fine with zero Japanese language skills. Not because Japanese people speak great English, they generally don't, but because they are very kind and will go out of their way to help you. Most people throughout the country know some basic English, so it’s possible for you ask someone a question in English and they’ll understand you.
Here are a few basic phrases will help you out:
“Where is X?”
“X wa doko dess ka?”
“summi-masen” (one of the most used Japanese words)
“please give me X”
Ihe word for no, “iie,” is rarely used, there are many alternatives that we don’t have time to get into here, but the simplest is by crossing your arms, hands or index fingers in the shape of an X in front of you.
The manner that you order and pay at a restaurant are a little different than in the western world. After you’re seated, the server typically won’t always automatically come over to take your order or see how you’re doing. You will be left alone to decide your order, and when you’re ready you will politely exclaim “summimasen” and a staff member will respond with a loud “haaaaaaai” from across the room and come over to take your order. When you’re ready to pay call over the server with “summimasen” and ask for the check with “o kahn-joe oh-ne-guy-she-mass.” Some restaurants have a button on the table that will serve this same purpose.
Splitting the bill is no big deal at all, I’ve split the bill with parties of more than 10 people, and the staff didn’t bat an eye. Just say “betsu betsu oh-ne-guy-she-mass” and you’re good to go.
You likely already know that you have to take your shoes off when entering a Japanese home, this is also true of various other places like the more traditional restaurants and schools. It will always be abundantly clear when you need to do so because there will be a pile of shoes (or shoe lockers) and slippers at the entrance where you need to take off your shoes, and 90% of the time there will be someone there politely telling you where to put your shoes. I’d recommend bringing shoes to Japan that are pretty easy to take off and on, because sometimes you’ll need to do so multiple times in an evening.
At many of these traditional restaurants you will sit on the floor, you might not be used to this and will be uncomfortable. I have no tips for this, just deal with it.
A big deal is made out of slurping. I don’t know who made up the idea that slurping your soup and noodles in Japan is “showing appreciation to the chef,” the chef usually can’t see or hear you and will be too busy to notice. Japanese people slurp their noodles because that’s just what they do, it cools food off a little bit, but there’s no real reason behind it. No one will care if you don’t slurp, if anything they will be amazed at how you accomplished such a thing.
THINGS TO DO ACROSS JAPAN
Festivals: Absolutely look up what festivals (matsuri) are going on while you are there. They are amazing fun and one of the most uniquely Japanese experience. Summer is generally festival season and almost every neighborhood will have there own festival. They are an amazing show of old Japanese Shinto traditions, there will often be taiko drum performances and shrine parades. There's plenty of great food stalls that will give you a huge offering of different Japanese foods that you generally can’t find outside of Japan, and some you won’t really see outside of festivals. A lot of festivals have a theme or gimmick, there are penis festivals, horseback archery festivals, etc.
Baseball: If at all possible, go to a baseball game in Japan. I hate American baseball, but going to a Japanese baseball game is a blast because the fans are very into it and are having a fantastic time with songs, dancing, and weird rituals. The best teams to see are the Giants, the most successful team out of Tokyo, and the Tigers, who play near Osaka. They have a legendary rivalry and it be ideal to see them play each other in Osaka's iconic Koshien stadium.
Sumo: Sumo is great fun and incredibly interesting. It’s a lot of buildup for a few seconds amazing excitement. It only happens in certain months in certain cities, go look it up.
Hot Springs: If you have no problems with nudity, hit up an onsen (a natural hot spring) or a sento (more like a bathhouse). They are an absolute must do. Cities like Tokyo or Osaka have a rich sento culture, with many of them having gorgeous murals inside. Sento have actually been dying off in recent years, so they may be gone altogether soon. Onsen are found in more rural areas, often deep in nature with beautiful outdoor natural hot spring pools.
Japanese convenience stores are in another league. A typical 7-11 will have a great variety of products than that a lot of a Walgreen’s in the USA, all while being 5% the size. Snacks, meals, baseball tickets, copy machines. Keep an eye out for fun, limited edition flavors of snacks, Kit-Kats will often have some great flavors. Every year, more convenience store chains start making fresh food on site, mostly fried foods, and it’s all actually quite good for the price. Onigiri, rice balls, make for a great snack, all convenience stores have a great variety to choose from.
A hot tip of mine: If you get lost, go into a convenience store and ask for directions. They all have huge maps of the area under the counter and will be more than happy to help you, sometimes they’ll even walk you to your destination. They aren’t always 100% accurate and the staff aren’t always familiar with the area of the store, but if you’re completely lost it’s often the best option.
Eat all the foods. Use Tabelog, it’s Japan’s restaurant review site that they take very seriously and is a great resource. Ask the staff at wherever you’re staying for food recommendations in the area. People in Japan love to eat and usually know the best spots to eat near where they are and will likely be places you would never have eaten at otherwise. All the best food I’ve eaten on my trips to Japan have been from recommendations from locals. For better or for worse, Tokyo is the land of the neighborhood restaurant. The better being that you’re never far away from good food. The worse being that there are almost too many options.
Most of the “best of Tokyo” restaurants will cost at least $50 a person and will require you waiting in line or, for the fancier sushi spots, reservations, which will need to be made in Japanese.
Train stations are a popular place for Japanese people to buy food as gifts for family. A lot of the major train stations in Japan have a specialty when it comes to pre-made lunch-boxes, made for eating on your train trip (known as eki-ben, train lunch box).
An amazing place for eki-ben is Tokyo Station, there’s a shop called Eki-ben-ya Matsuri. Every morning, eki-ben from all over Japan is shipped to Tokyo Station and sold here, featuring food that is usually only available in those regions. However, it can be incredibly busy during rush hour.
There is a lot of Japanese food that is simply not available in most of the world. My favorite is okonomiyaki, but also be sure to eat ramen, yakitori, yakisoba, tempura, tonkatsu, and gydon. Gyudon [beef bowl] restaurants are the cheapest restaurant food you can get in Japan, for as little as $3 you can get a bowl of beef and sautéed onions over rice. Major gyudon chains are Sukiya, Matsuya and Yoshinoya.
Of course, the best sushi and seafood in the world is had in Japan, but it comes as a price. Good sushi can be expensive, and cheap sushi is barely worth eating. Conveyor belt sushi is fun and cheap, but don’t expect great quality.
In my opinion, the best thing for visitors to eat in Japan is ramen. Good ramen is hard to find outside of Japan and good ramen in Japan will absolutely blow you away, so it’s worth finding a good spot. Also, most ramen outside Japan tends to be the same tonkotsu style. In Japan there is so much more variety. There is no such thing as “traditional ramen.”It’s a relatively new food with shops always coming up with new styles.
Ask people where ever you’re staying for their favorite spots. Every region of Japan has their own specialty when it comes to food, but this is especially true for ramen. However, it isn’t hard to find tonkotsu (pork bone broth) ramen that originated in southern Japan or miso ramen (my fucking favorite) from northern Japan in Tokyo. Tokyo is especially known for tsukemen ramen, where you dip chilled noodles in a separate broth bowl. The broth smells like rotten eggs, but tastes amazing.
I recommend that you don’t bother with western food in Japan, the affordable stuff is not great (especially Italian) and the good stuff (usually French food) is expensive. There are a number of Michelin starred French restaurants in Tokyo, but I have no experience with them. I have read that the pizza scene in Tokyo is becoming incredible. But you probably aren’t going to Japan to eat pizza.
Japanese bars are intimate places, usually with just one bartender and a handful of regulars. The bartender will likely try and strike up a conversation with you and try to make you feel welcome.
One of my favorite things to do in Japan is to go to a nightlife district and go into a random bar. In the big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, where there are streets with building after building with up to 7 floors with multiple bars on each floor, I’ve gone into completely random bars and have had legitimately some of the greatest, most unique experiences in my life.
If you're traveling with a large group of people, going to an izakaya or a British or Irish pub. Western-style pubs are also places where English speakers tend to congregate and where people often go to chat with strangers. Izakayas offer a huge variety of foods, from snacks to full meals and plenty of drink options.
Avoid snack bars. They’re expensive and have unnecessary cover charges and you are basically just paying for a woman (usually middle aged) to flirt with you. The clientele are usually old drunk businessmen singing karaoke. Hostess bars are the same deal, except are generally even more expensive and have younger women being paid to flirt.
Tokyo is huge. It’s the biggest city in the world. Almost 40 million people live in the Tokyo metro area, that’s about 5 times more than New York City. Of the top 10 busiest train stations in the world, 8 are in Tokyo. But luckily, most of the time it doesn’t get insanely crowded compared to other megacities in Asia. Riding the trains during rush-hour can be a bit tight, but it’s not too bad if you aren’t claustrophobic. A common concern is getting stuck on those trains you see in media where people are literally shoved into a packed train. This only happens at a handful of stations during peak hours and I have actually never seen this happen in person.
Tokyo is incredibly clean, truly the cleanest place I’ve ever been to. People in Japan always clean up after themselves and generally don’t mess up public spaces. Japanese people living around the world often form volunteer groups to clean up the city they live in.
You’ve probably read that Tokyo is the most expensive city in the world. While there is some truth to that, those rankings are usually based off a set list of items for every city in the world, which is usually stuff your typical American businessman buys in America. But Japanese people typically don’t buy loafs of bread or cheese, so those are expensive luxury items. If you buy what Japanese people buy, it’s about on par with any other big city in the world. I’d even say that Tokyo is generally a cheaper place than cities like Los Angeles.
Tokyo is broken up into 23 wards, similar to Manhattan’s boroughs. The central and western wards are where many tourists are going to want to spend their time. However, eastern Tokyo has seen a revitalization lately. Technically Tokyo also includes some rural woodsy areas to the far west that I hear are great for hiking and remote islands to the far south, but when people say Tokyo, they are generally talking about the built up area where the wards are.
Disclaimer: Tokyo is absolutely my favorite city in Japan and somewhere I’d love to live, but I don’t actually think it’s a great place for tourists. The first time I visited Tokyo I was unimpressed. But with each subsequent visit, I was able to discover more and more and find things that I loved. Because of its size and density, Tokyo rewards prolonged exploration. If someone only had 1 week in Japan I would recommend they visit Tokyo for no more than 2 days, if at all. I think it's a better idea to stick around the Kyoto/Osaka region (known as the Kansai region) with that amount of time. Kyoto is beautiful and has all the best traditional Japanese temples. Osaka is a fun city with amazing food specific to the region, friendlier people and has most of what Tokyo has to offer. Ideally a trip to Japan would include Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and more, but that’s not always possible.
Metropolis: English magazine with Tokyo event listings and recommendations.
Powered By Tokyo: all sorts of recommendations around Tokyo and video features on Tokyo locals.
THINGS TO DO
Shibuya Scramble: The crosswalk is the most famous destination in Tokyo and is a must-see. It's pure madness at night. It's also a great place start off exploring the neighborhood from, with tons of restaurants and bars in the area. Between the crossing and the station is a statue of the famous dog Hachiko, which is a popular meeting place.
Yoyogi Park: right next to Harajuku Station and it’s kind of Tokyo’s Central Park. Inside is Meiji Shrine, a must see, which is the imperial Shinto shrine, and one of the nicest and largest in Tokyo. Like all Shinto shrines, it’s free. If you only go to one shrine while in Japan, Meiji Shrine should be it.
I recommend you hit up the Harajuku area on a Sunday afternoon, Yoyogi Park comes alive. At around 2pm, The Tokyo Rockabilly Club congregates at the main entrance of the park. Dressed in their best leather and denim, they just hang out, dance their hearts out, drink beers and comb their hair. They are one of my favorite sights in all of Japan.
Robot Restaurant: A couple of years ago someone decided to manifest westerners distorted ideas of Japan into a physical place, and that’s the Robot Restaurant. It’s not really a restaurant so much as it’s the most insane small-scale light and animatronic show around. My eyes were tired from all the input they received. It’s exclusively designed for tourists, you probably won’t find any Japanese people there, and all the signage is only in English.
Kabukicho: the former/semi-current red light district near Shinjuku station with an absurd amount of bright signage. There are plenty of decent restaurants and bars in the area.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden: a really beautiful, calm, and nice garden although a little out of the way. Entry is ¥200, if you aren’t excited by the idea of a national garden, give it a pass.
Roppongi Hills: a large multi-use tower, it has an amazing observation deck at the top for ¥1,500, that includes the price of the Mori Art Museum up there which often has fantastic exhibits and is worth ¥1,500 alone. The first few floors of the tower is also an upscale mall with shops and some decent food.
Chidorigafuchi (Imperial Moat): With a winding path, this moat of the Imperial Palace is a nice stroll under the trees. Especially beautiful (and crowded) during cherry blossoms. Make sure to take a path that leads you to the Budokan, Tokyo’s famous arena where the worlds biggest music acts perform.
Tokyo Station: Easily the most beautiful train station in Tokyo, and possibly all of Japan. The main entrance to the Imperial Palace is a short walk away from the station.
Be sure to check out Ekiben-ya Matsuri (“Train Station Lunch Box Festival”) located in the station across from the entrances to platforms 5 and 8. This shop features specially made lunch boxes, intended to be eating on your train journey, from across Japan. These ekiben are shipped in every morning featuring local specialties and designs from where they were created.
21_21 Design Sight: A design museum created by architect Tadao Ando and fashion designer Issey Miyake. Typically, the modest sized museum features a few exhibits on a common subject. the The exhibit subjects vary widely, such as city engineering, Japanese textiles, cell phone design, and more. Located in a park behind Tokyo Midtown, which has some nice shopping and food.
Website • Location
Design Festa: A free museum in Harajuku with a constantly rotating selection of art on view. Exhibits range from anime fan art to photo exhibits on 60 year-old bikers who traveled the world. Notably, the building is a weird mess of scaffolding.
Website • Location
Tokyo-Edo Museum: Interesting if you’re into Japanese history and/or miniatures. It has tons of miniatures depicting Edo-era Tokyo and shows you the history of the Meiji restoration in the late 1800s.
Website • Location
Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum: Me and a buddy only went as a joke, but it’s now my favorite museum in Japan. The first floor is a typical museum “here’s how we make ramen.” But the basement is where the party is at. It’s modeled up like a war-time era Japanese town, with shops and actors dressed up in period clothing. The best part is that there a number of ramen shops in the basement, each representing a different regional style of ramen.
Website • Location
Studio Ghibli Museum: I’ve heard that it’s such an amazing museum, a truly magical place for fans of the animation studio. There are Ghibli shorts that are only shown at this museum, but last I heard there was virtually no English at the place. Requires reservations far in advance, you will not be able to get tickets day of. I’ve continuously forgotten about the need for reservations which is unfortunately why I’ve never been to the museum.
Website • Location
Shinjuku/Shibuya: These two neighboring districts epitomize most people's mental image of Tokyo. Incredibly dense with so much to see and do. I'd recommend trying to stay in or around either area. Shibuya Station can be one of the most confusing places, especially when it’s crowded, so pay attention to the signage.
Harajuku (a neighborhood within Shibuya): A Japanese fashion hub, there also some great food to be found.
Chiyoda: Some of the older sights are found here. Tokyo Station was recently renovated and the exterior looks great. Tokyo Station is walking distance from the Imperial Palace which has fantastic grounds, especially during cherry blossom season. But know that thee’s no access to the actual palace where the emperor lives.
Akihabara: Located at Akihabara Station. Browsing through a store with nothing but anime figurines, light fixtures or original Famicom games in original packaging is very fun. It’s a totally unique Tokyo experience. There are some multi-story arcades in Akihabara and throughout Tokyo, notable big arcade chains are Taito Hey and Sega City. Don’t expect amazing prices on anything in Akihabara, it may even be more expensive than what you're used to. You may get lucky and stumble on a sale but that sale will likely be just as good as any sale back in the US.
Be sure to check out Super Potato and The Mandrake Complex.
Roppongi: Seen as the International/American neighborhood. If you go here at night, men will get hounded by Nigerian men trying to get you into whatever shady pseudo-strip club they are working for. They are trying to rip you off. Simply ignore them, talking to them will only get them to follow you.
Ginza: Famous shopping neighborhood. There’s some really great architecture in the neighborhood, but most of the stores you’ll find here are international chains that you can find pretty much anywhere in the world.
Asakusa: the tourist hot spot. It has Senso-ji, a famous temple with a long shopping arcade right and a huge lantern right in front of it. The Tokyo Sky Tree (the second tallest structure in the world) is in Asakusa, the observation deck has likely the best view in Japan. Last I checked, it requires a reservation.
Odaiba: It’s a bit out of the way (I’ve never been), but people say good things. It’s a man made island in the Tokyo Bay and the train ride to it is supposed to be real nice. I think that’s where the life-sized Gundam is right now, but it moves every once in a while, so double check. Apparently they have a nice mall there too.
Yokohama: Second largest city in Japan, but it’s kinda just a suburb. It’s actually a really quaint city and one of only places in greater Tokyo that you can get up close to the ocean. It’s a popular date spot and rightfully so, it’s quite romantic. It’s listed in a lot of guides as a good day trip form Tokyo, while I don’t really have any bad to say about it, there isn’t much going on to warrant a day trip if you’re in Tokyo for a week or less.
Okonomiyaki Kiji (お好み焼ききじ): This is one my personal favorite restaurants in Tokyo, serving my absolute favorite Japanese food, Okonomiyaki. There are a couple of locations, the most convenient is near Tokyo Station. Google Maps Link
Sakuratei (さくら亭): A make-your-own okonomiyaki restaurant in Harajuku. It’s in a great location and a good place to eat if your hanging out in the area all day. The interior is pretty great, with great drawings all over the walls. Official Website
Ramen: It's hard for me to recommend any one ramen spot in Tokyo, there are so many amazing spots located all over the country. My favorites are small local spots, ask someone where you are staying what are their favorites in the neighborhood. If you're feeling adventurous, here’s a ranking of the best ramen in Tokyo, many of the top spots are at least an hour away central Tokyo, but all will likely be worth the trek.
Basement Food: In the basement of most department stores, which are tied to a lot of the bigger train stations, there is a great selection of food to be had. You'll usually pay by the weight.
Kissaten: For people into coffee, these post-war style cafes are a great glimpse of a period of Japan that is on its way out the door. Generally styled to look like a western or European cafe, but ultimately being something very uniquely Japanese. The coffee is typically made with a siphon method and they often have a menu of sandwiches and small snacks. There will be wood panelling in every direction, warm lighting, there will be only a couple of people there with you, likely smoking, and aside from the light orchestra or Frank Sinatra music, the place will likely be dead silent. These are great places to relax and read.
Tsukiji: While the famous Tsukiji Fish Market has moved and now has dedicated viewing areas for tourists, I think that eating fresh seafood near the site of the original market. You can get sushi, donburi bowls, and much more, and all likely to be some of the freshest seafood you can find anywhere.
Daikanyama T-Site: My absolute favorite bookstore. Made by the Japanese mega retailer Tsutaya, T-Site was designed to be the best bookstore possible, and it absolutely is. With a phenomenal selection of books on art, and travel, there’s also magazines, music, and movies from around the world, it’s easy to find something you’d be interested it. There are a couple of cafe areas, with the lounge on the top floor especially nice.
Tokyu Hands: a massive department store near Shibuya Station that is uniquely Japanese. With a ridiculous assortment of products, it feels like it has everything.
Jimbocho: Tokyo’s used bookstore district has over a hundred bookshops with shelves overflowing with old Japanese books. Even if you can’t read Japanese, there are plenty of shops with art books, antiques, Japanese magazines, manga, movie posters and other paraphernalia. Most bookstores are located just south of Jimbocho Station.
The largest nightlife areas of central Tokyo are neighboring Shibuya and Shinjuku. But there are plenty of small local bars scattered around the city, often around train stations.
Tokyo has a reputation of being a crazy 24-hour party city, I maintain that is not really true. There’s plenty of late night action that goes on until sunrise, but since trains stop running at about midnight on the weekends and taxis are fairly expensive, most people go home before the last train. The trains do start up again at around 5am and many people simply stay out until the first train.
If you do feel like staying up bar-hopping, some larger residential areas like Meguro will often have nightlife districts near the major train station with restaurants, bars and izakaya catering to the locals and since there’s no last train to catch people tend to stay out a bit later. These bars will be smaller and with only a handful of patrons. If anyone there speaks English they may try and strike up a conversation with you.
Golden Gai: One my favorite place for getting drinks in Tokyo. It's a square block of hundreds of tiny bars squished and stacked together located near Shinjuku station. It’s been called “the worst kept secret in Tokyo” and has become a bit touristy, but luckily that hasn’t ruined the experience. The bars are truly tiny, most have 4 or 5 seats. Many of the bars have a cover charge (often called a table charge, this is not uncommon for bars around Japan, but there doesn’t seem to be a set criteria for which bars have a table charge and which don’t).
Many of the bars in Golden Gai that don’t have a cover will have signs in English advertising this and will be more friendly to tourists and can be quite fun. Many have themes, such as horror movies, classic Japanese music, rockabilly, etc. I suggest going to at least two bars, one with a cover and one without, the ones with a cover will likely have locals and regulars in it and will give you a more “authentic” experience. Golden Gai can be surprisingly tough to find if you don’t know where to look, here's a link to it on Google Maps.
Grandfather’s: near Shibuya Station. The gold standard of LP bars, feels like a time capsule of the 60s and 70s. Grandfather himself spins vinyl all night, gladly accepting requests, with a decent whiskey selection to choose from.
Map | Website
If you’re going to go dancing at a nightclub in Tokyo, I suggest that you only go on nights with big events. In my experience, clubs in Japan are usually pretty empty unless there some sort of event going on. Look up nightlife event websites to find those, or go directly to the club/bar websites.
Drag Shows: Drag in Tokyo is both familiar and unique, I don’t think I could possibly describe it beyond that. If drag is up your alley, absolutely check one out in Tokyo. I went to a show at Aisotope Lounge in Shinjuku Ni-Chome, Tokyo’s queer nightlife district. Here’s a link to their schedule in Japanese.
First off: you will get lost in Japan. There is no avoiding it. The infrastructure is so dense and complicated, even if you are fluent in Japanese and have a map with GPS, you will get royally lost. But that’s okay, because there’s a lot of neat stuff down almost every street in Tokyo, so embrace it. And when you get lost you will be fine, you probably won’t get so lost that it’ll fuck up your whole day. And you can feel free to ask people and they will be happy to help you out.
You’re probably flying into Narita Airport, which is about an hour outside of the city. There are a few express trains that will take you from there to the city and cost around $30, but which one you take will depend on your destination. So find out from you're staying which is the best one to take into the city. If you fly into Haneda, which is only a half hour from the city center, you can just take the train into the city. Just be aware that some red-eye flights land before the train starts running at 5:30am, you can take a taxi into the city, but they are pretty expensive.
Tokyo has the most extensive public transport network in the world. Unfortunately, this makes it comically confusing. There are literally hundreds of train and subway lines run by dozens and dozens of different companies. I’ve been to Tokyo 30+ times and the system still confuses the hell out of me. Luckily major signage is also in English and the staff is incredibly helpful. So while it’s inevitable that you’ll get on the wrong train or the map won’t make any sense, you won’t be lost for long.
The trains run frequently, are always very clean and are famously punctual. Tokyo trains can get quite expensive, prices are based on distance. Fares will start close to $3 and will start to rise just after two stops. Plan your route ahead of time. A tip to help keep train costs down, try to avoid transferring between different transport companies, not only does it increase prices but it adds a lot more confusion because sometimes you have to buy multiple tickets.
To make the ticket buying process much easier, buy a transit card that you can pre-load with cash to pay for tickets. You simply tap your card at the ticket gate when you enter, then again when you exit and the correct fare will be deducted from your card. This way you don’t have to spend time trying to interpret how much you have to pay, and will help you avoid overpaying. There are two transit cards in Tokyo, Passmo and Suica, they both work exactly the same and work everywhere. You can even use it to buy food and drinks at certain convenience stores and vending machines.
Keep in mind that there are above ground trains as well as subways. The Yamanote loop line (green trains) runs around the greatest hits of the city. Try your best to find a place to stay near a station on the Yamanote Line. Don’t bother with buses in Tokyo, almost all of the information is exclusively in Japanese and the system is even more confusing than the rail system. I once asked a bus station attendant where a certain platform was and he said he had absolutely no idea where it was or even how to find it, only a cop walking by who took that bus home happened to know where it was.
The Shinkansen (bullet train) is very convenient and fast if you’re going to leave Tokyo, but it can be pretty expensive (a 30 minute trip costs upwards of $50). So it’s worth it to get a JR Rail Pass if you’re going to visit other cities outside of Tokyo.
TOKYO DAY TRIPS
Hakone: This one is probably what I’d recommend the most. It’s a national park area with the best view of Mt. Fuji I’ve ever seen and it’s such an absolutely gorgeous mountain (to qualify this, I used to live in Fuji City where I saw the mountain every single day). It’s about an hour and a half bullet train ride from central Tokyo and the fastest trains costs about $40 each way. If you go, be sure to check Mt. Fuji’s visibility that day, the mountain is often obscured by clouds in the summer.
Kamakura: Just over an hour local train ride from central Tokyo, it's great little seaside town, has some really nice temples, nice antique shops, and the Great Buddha statue. If Hakone is too far, this place is a must.
Nikko: You’ll probably see this one listed a lot if you are looking up day trips. It’s a tourist oriented ancient temple town nestled in the wooded mountains. It is a really nice place, a bit far/pricey to get to without a JR pass. It’s cool, the monkey carving that “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” comes from is there. I wouldn’t really call it a “must do,” look at photos online, if it looks cool and you’ve got time, hit it up.
In many ways Osaka has much of what Tokyo has to offer a traveller, a huge metropolis with plenty to see and do. While it may not have as many Michelin stars as Tokyo, there’s more local flavor to it’s food scene and is often considered the food capital of Japan. The people of Kansai, and Osaka especially, are known for being louder, friendlier and a little more weird than most of the rest of Japan.
Dotonbori: Essentially the Times Square of Osaka, a must see collection of neon lights, restaurants and gift shops. As part of the famous Namba area there’s plenty to do nearby, with plenty of bars, restaurants and shops to check out. The famous Shinsaibashi shopping arcade is right in the center of it as well.
Sega Arcade in Den Den Town: I don’t remember exactly where it is in Den Den Town because I found it by accident, but it’s worth finding, I believe it was 5 stories of the lastest arcade machines that you can likely only play in Japan.
Osaka Aquarium: It’s on all the lists, but it gets insanely crowded and just isn’t what I would call a fun time. I only recommend it to people who really like aquariums. They do have capybaras though, and those guys are the best.
Osaka Castle: Sure it was rebuilt relatively recently, but it’s still a huge sight to see and the surrounding park is great.
Osaka is famous for a few foods: Okonomiyaki (people call it a pancake, but it’s a unique thing unto itself), takoyaki (fried octopus balls), harumon (fried pig/cow “innards”), Kushikatsu (fried food on skewers) and teppanyaki (food grilled on a metal griddle, think Benihana).
Chitose: This small family-run restaurant is a complete Osaka experience and one of my favorite restaurants in Japan. The food is a phenomenal, if heavy, example of okonomiyaki. Located on a small back alley off a gritty, blue-collar shopping arcade, in the Debutsuen-mae neighborhood, I consider it a must go. Last time I went, mid-day on a weekday in 2019, there was a pretty long line forming before they even opened.
Google Maps Link Official Website
Hiyashi: Another great okonomiyaki restaurant that's popular with locals. Located in a shopping mall walking distance from Chitose in the Tennoji neighborhood. The okonomiyaki is bigger with more options and is daaaaaaamn good.
Google Maps Link Tabelog Link
Namiba is the famous nightlife district of the city and I always have a ton of fun there. It’s pretty easy to find places to drink, but not necessarily easy to find a good spot with people in it, mostly because there are so many damn bars. One thing to note, and this is a general rule for Japan, but especially true for Namba, is that for roads that look like this:
Notice how there are lit up signs going up and down pretty much every building. Those all signify that those are businesses on multiple floors up the building. It’s not uncommon for bars, restaurants, clubs, etc. to be on the 2nd 3rd or 4th floor of a building. So keep an eye out for that.
The area around the “Capsule Hotel Asahi Plaza Shinsaibashi” has a lot of great nightlife, it’s on Google Maps. Also, if you’re out late and far from where you’re staying, and you miss the last train you can just pop into the Asahi Capsule Hotel and catch a snooze. It’ll probably end up being more expensive than a night in a hostel, but will be cheaper than any cab ride longer than 15 minutes, and is a classic “only in Japan experience.”
Kiyomizudera: Probably the best view of Kyoto, and an absolutely beautiful temple that has a famous waterfall that you can drink from for good luck and health and all that jazz. No joke, best water I’ve ever had.
Fushimi inari taisha: The iconic never-ending tunnel of bright red-oranage tori gates. The path itself is about 11 miles long, so no need to see it all, but there is an absolute need to see some of it.
Kinkakuji: The Golden pavilion, an obvious must see.
Bamboo forest: stunningly beautiful, and the neighborhood is quaint as well.
Sanjusangendo Hall: Of all the traditional buildings in Kyoto, this one is very understated and for some reason just as powerful.
Gion: Mostly a touristy shopping area, but there are some great little alley ways. You’ll want to check out Hanamikoji Street to maybe get a glimpse of a geisha in training. Definitely spend some time along the Kamo River, it’s beautiful.
Ginkakuji: A non-golden replica of the Kinkaku-ji (note the difference in the spellings). Some people really like this one because it’s less crowded and the garden is incredibly nice, but that wasn’t enough for me to recommend it.
There isn’t much going on in Kyoto nightlife wise. I asked one bartender what he does for fun, his response was “go to Osaka.” I will gladly recommend you go to Rock Bar Jam House in Gion. The bartender is an incredibly nice man who lives for rock music and tours the world with his band. He speaks a good amount of English and loves to chat music.
Himeji Castle: The most famous castle within Japan and it’s beautiful. It’s a bit of a trek from Himeji Station and that really all there is to see in this town. Its certainly one of the most beautiful castles in Japan.
Nara: The most mentioned day trip in Japan, and for good reason. The free-roaming deer are really interesting and Todai-ji is a sight to behold. The largest wooden building in the world and it is impressive. Most everything you’ll want to see is in Nara Park and it’s also a very nice place to wander around, with temples scattered about.
Koya-san/Mt. Koya: 90 minutes from Osaka, which makes it a full day trip, but completely worth it. There are dozens of temples of all sorts of denominations all perched in the trees atop a beautiful mountain. There’s an amazing cemetery there that is said to be the most sacred in Japan and it is stunning. Highly recommended.
OTHER PLACES TO GO
Sapporo: Famous for its snow festival in the winter, but I highly recommend going in the summer, especially during the Susukino Matsuri festival. The weather is absolutely perfect in Sapporo during the summer and because it gets so cold and buried in snow during the winter, the city really comes alive in the summer. Odori Park, which runs through the center of the city and is very large, turns into a giant beer garden, with each city block of beer garden run by a different beer company, some of which are smaller brands not common outside of Japan. Susukino Matsuri is truly the best festival I’ve ever been to in Japan, everyone in town is just having a ton of fun. In the day time, the streets are over flowing with stalls run by neighborhoods bars offering great food and plenty of beer.
The local food in Sapporo is also great. Miso ramen and soup curry are my favorites. I highly recommend Chaos Heaven for soup curry.
Fukuoka: Fukuoka is probably the best, least famous city in Japan. Famous for yatai, street food stalls. They offer great food, drinks and company. The city is often voted as one of the best places to live in the world. It’s a big city, but not overwhelmingly big like Tokyo or Osaka. It’s also the only big city in the region, so it’s very easy to get out and explore rural Japan from.
Kumamoto: A small, quiet city, Kumamoto Castle is absolutely stunning, one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately a recent earthquake did some damage to it and its under renovation.
Nagasaki: One of the least visited famous cities in the world. A beautiful small port city with plenty of Chinese influenced local food. The atomic bomb memorials in Nagasaki are much more somber and less crowded. Actually, when I went I was literally the only person at any of them. It’s pretty out of the way, but a great part of a Kyushu trip.
Izu Peninsula: A region famous for hot springs and a popular destination for people living in Tokyo due to its proximity. The train ride down the peninsula is beautiful and much of it has a small town vibe. I recommend staying in Ito.
Thanks for reading. Let me know if you found this guide useful and I'm always looking for new recommendations, so let me know if I left out something great.