Introduction - Tokyo
Tokyo is a city with lots to do and lots to eat - it's one of my favorite places that I've traveled to. The locals are friendly, the food is amazing, and navigation is a piece of cake. Japan is a place everyone wants to visit once in their lifetime for good reason - there's just so many good things to say! I loved it so much that I decided to visit twice in the span of 4 months and I have zero regrets.
My first visit to Tokyo was undoubtedly a lucky coincidence because my flight to Sydney required about a 19 hour layover in Tokyo in both directions. It was a cheap fare on a fantastic airline (ANA) so I jumped on the opportunity. The plane ticket was pricey but it was such a great decision.
In general, I thought that Japan was pretty safe because there aren't a lot of hecklers and beggars, but just make sure you apply common sense and traditional travel safety tips. Also, the best food I ate in Japan wasn't at any luxurious restaurants - it was usually metro stations that had the best food! A lot of the metro stations have relatively cheap restaurants where you order off of a vending machine. You basically select your meal, pay at the machine, and it gives you a ticket. Then, you give the ticket to the cook and they make your food and give it to you!
If you're looking for a place to stay, I liked my time at plat hostel keikyu asakusa station. I liked the layout where taking the elevator leads right to the room’s bathrooms and sinks and then the capsule beds so you don’t disturb anyone. But, it was odd to take the elevator to the shower rooms (where they’re centrally located and no stairs).
My flight from Los Angeles landed at Haneda Airport at around 5:20am, but I was surprisingly full of energy and ready to explore. Navigating through the airport was not challenging at all even though I don't know Japanese. After getting through immigration and customs, I decided to just sit down and take a rest for a while to plan my day. At the arrivals hall, there are coin lockers where you can store baggage, a tourist desk that sells train tickets, subway passes, etc., places to get a SIM card and pocket WiFi, and buses to other places in Japan.
Getting to the city center from Haneda is incredibly easy - I went to one of the machines and bought myself a PASMO card, which could be used on all public transportation in Tokyo and even in some convenience stores and vending machines (they have a lot of vending machines that sell anything you could imagine). It's much easier to use the PASMO card than deal with cash for every ride you take on the subway. However, the system is distance-based, so the further you travel the more expensive it is. I never needed to use a bus or take a taxi because the subway was just so convenient and easy to use. If you use the subway with Google Maps, it's pretty easy to get around. Signs and announcements are repeated in English.
I decided to head to Ueno Park for my first stop of the day. It was still pretty early in the morning but there were so many people out and about. There were lots of elderly Japanese men and women jogging and meditating. I also saw a lot of dogs! It was very cute. After walking around the park for a while, I decided to head to the Tsujiki Fish Market.
On the way to the fish market, I couldn't resist myself and had to buy some takoyaki - it's so expensive in the US and it's a food I really enjoy. I got some for around 580 yen and it was absolutely amazing.
The fish market was one of the most interesting sights I've ever seen. It's a pretty cool market that sells all sorts of seafood and some of it gets pretty wacky (I tried squid on a stick). You can get pretty adventurous here if you're in the mood! There are a lot of sit-down places as well, as you'll see a lot of people trying to usher you into their restaurant. They usually sell pretty similar things like sushi and sashimi, but I didn't get a chance to try it.
After eating at the fish market, I headed towards Tokyo Station in search of a particular store that exclusively sold Domo items (Domo is a Japanese cartoon that I'm a fan of). The inside of the station could almost be described as a mall because there's a lot of stores and small eateries inside. On the way, I saw a store that sold tasty egg tarts. When I got to the store, it did not disappoint as it was everything I imagined it to be. I would have bought out the whole store but I didn't have the money or the luggage to bring it all with me! I ended up just buying a Domo key chain that I still hang on my backpack.
After ogling at all the Domos, I headed towards Asakusa to see the Senso-ji temple. On the way, there are lots of little shops and restaurants selling all sorts of things. I decided to stop and buy a matcha ice cream cone which tasted amazing.
Senso-ji is a very cool temple but it was REALLY crowded when I went. It's really hard to get a nice picture with no tourists in the background but I still highly recommend going. You could also do this thing where you get a fortune after paying a small amount. You can either get a "good" or "bad" fortune, but I got the good one! I guess life is looking up. There are also small gardens and smaller temples you can explore around Senso-ji, which I think is also very cool. Afterwards, I decided to explore the area around Asakusa where there is also a huge pedestrian street if that's your scene.
After seeing the temple, I had to start heading back towards the airport to catch my flight. While I was at Shinagawa Station transferring subway lines, I stopped at a small shop to get a bowl of udon. While I was ordering, the lady said something I didn't understand but I just nodded because I didn't want to show that I didn't know Japanese. Then, my udon ended up being cold udon! It was something I wasn't used to but I still thought it was very good.
Once I got to the airport, I got my luggage from the coin lockers and decided to take a short shower before my flight to Sydney. The shower facility is in the international arrivals hall, off to the side and it's only 1030 yen. They provide everything you need (towels, body soap, hair dryer, etc.) but you are on a time limit so make sure you don't spend too long in the shower! It was very clean and very refreshing, which I felt like was well spent. After going through security and such, I got a small gift for my friend at the duty free shop before getting on the plane - and I was surprised to find out I had a whole row to myself! That was a great ending to an amazing first day in Tokyo.
Once again, my flight from Sydney got into Tokyo pretty early in the day. I decided to relax by getting a milk tea and finalizing my plans for the day. Then, I headed off to Tokyo Sky Tree, where I was looking for the huge Pokemon store (relive my childhood, you know?). On the way, I got onigiri from a convenience store, which was amazing - I wish it was cheaper in the States.
Tokyo Sky Tree is a HUGE mall with a lot of shops and things to do. I was initially overwhelmed but I was focused on getting to the Pokemon shop first. But first, I stopped by a small store to buy some makeup products my sister wanted me to look for. I probably spent a good half hour just video chatting her over LINE and asking her which products she wanted - I never knew so many make up products existed. I ended up asking the shopkeeper for help and she was able to point me in the right direction. After that, I saw a small restaurant that had a special on a tempura bowl. I'm a huge sucker for tempura, so I ate my 2nd meal of the day (it's not even noon yet) but I had zero regrets because it was so good. Eventually, I finally found the Pokemon Center.
This shop was a childhood dream come true. They sell Pokemon themed everything, from stuffed animals to the games to pencil cases. I splurged a little and bought myself a small Pikachu key chain which I hang in my car. On the way out, I stopped by another store and bought my sister a Hello Kitty water bottle. I was beginning to doubt how I would be able to take all of this back on the plane, but I thought that I could figure it out later.
I got out of the mall and started to head towards Shibuya to see the Shibuya Crossing. The area around Shibuya is filled with shopping, food, etc. I would recommend just walking around and taking it all in because it's a lot to see! I personally think that Shibuya Crossing is something you definitely have to see, and Google Maps can get you there. You'll definitely want to walk across the crossing a few times just to absorb the fact that so many people are walking everywhere at the same time. It's definitely a surreal experience.
The best place to get a picture that I know of is the Starbucks at one of the corners. You'll have to really look for it, but if you pretend you want to get a coffee you'll see that the actual place they ring you up for orders is outside. Take the escalator to the second floor where you'll probably see a few other tourists trying to get a picture as well. Just wait around and someone will eventually leave. Then, just take your time and take pictures because it's a cool place to just people-watch for a good hour or so. The workers might tell you to move if you don't have an actual Starbucks drink but don't worry about that too much.
After people-watching for a while, I walked around Shibuya and stumbled upon a revolving sushi bar. I was feeling very hungry so I walked in and was not disappointed at all. They charge you by plate, but I was able to stuff my face relatively cheaply! My total bill came out to be less than anything they charge you in the US. Plus, all the sushi was very fresh and tasted amazing.
After eating, I headed towards Don Quixote, which is a huge chain megastore (I think the one in Shibuya is the biggest). It's a huge discount shop selling anything you can think of (Japanese snacks, stationary, cosmetics, sex toys (I'm not joking), etc.) and it's absolute heaven. Just be prepared to spend some time and money here because you'll be overwhelmed at everything that's offered. I personally think that the best thing in this shop is the Japanese snacks, especially the Kit Kats. Definitely splurge on the Kit Kats when you're there because all of the flavors are very unique and tasty, and they don't sell them in the US. Don't forget to bring your passport because after you buy your stuff, you can go back into the store and get a tax refund on some of the things you bought.
After I spent a ridiculous amount of money, I took the subway to Shinjuku to eat at Piss Alley, which I was excited to visit because there were a lot of articles online that said there were lots of things to eat here. When I visited, I realized that was definitely a true statement. All the walkways are very small, but it's packed to the brim of small bar-style restaurants where only around 10-15 people could be seated at a time, all while serving amazing Japanese food. I ended up waiting to eat some soba at this one stall, and it was worth the wait. The bowl was so simple yet so tasty and cheap at the same time. I was a happy camper! By then, it was time for me to go back to the airport for my flight to LA
PLACES I DIDN'T HAVE A CHANCE TO MENTION
TIP: NIGHT BUSES
When you want to get to another city in Japan, usually people think of the bullet train. If you have the chance, I would recommend taking the bullet train just because it's very fast and efficient. But to save some money, night buses are a REALLY good option and are way better than anything in the US (Greyhound, Megabus, etc) and it’s reasonably priced.
The company I used was Willer Express– just do a search on Google, go on their website and translate it to English and put in your dates and destination (I took a night bus from Tokyo to Osaka and back). The Tokyo-Osaka route I took had the same general route, but different stops along the way – you have to look at the buses’ route carefully and see there’s a stop you want (ex. for Tokyo, Shinjuku vs. Akihabara vs. Tokyo Disneyland – they're all in “Tokyo” but if you put all of these on a map they’re quite far from each other).
They have a lot of different buses with different amenities with small differences in cost but my general hand-wavy summary is that you’ll have your own seat (they’re pretty spacious) with a curtain around it so you really have maximum privacy (if you want this you’ll have to book a bus with that 1-1-1 configuration) and the seat reclines pretty far with a foot rest (depends on the bus) and might have a small table or light.
Once you buy your ticket you’ll get an email confirmation with a designated pick-up point which you want to go to on the day of your trip. What I did was that I took the point and tried to look it up on Google Maps and replicate their exact map perfectly so I wouldn’t go to the wrong place. Then I saved the point as a “starred” destination in Maps so I could refer to it once I was in Japan. When you get to the stop, a guy will be there. Just show him your email confirmation and he’ll check your name on a list he has, then you can put your bag under the bus, etc.
I was really worried at this point because I thought I would screw up because I don’t know Japanese but I didn’t really need to speak – just go to your assigned seat and get settled. They may or may not say the stops/announcements in English so you kind of have to gauge where you’ll be getting off – what I did was that I set an alarm 10-20 minutes before I was supposed to get off and keep track of my progress through Maps. In terms of the bus, think of it as being on a plane as they dim the lights and all that stuff.
Introduction - Tokyo
Tokyo Disney Sea
Universal Studios Japan
If you have time to visit other places in Japan, I recommend visiting the following spots!
Osaka Castle Park - It's pretty cool to just walk through the park and around the surrounding area - you'll feel a very medieval vibe. If you want to go inside the actual castle and climb all the way to the top, it costs some money but I didn't have the chance to do it!
Dotonbori - This places has so much food to eat it's not even funny - I would recommend just walking up and down the street and looking at what strikes your eye. I would definitely come with an empty stomach! I ended up eating at a revolving sushi place which was pretty tourist-y but I was starving. It was really good and they price by plate, which would still be cheaper than anything you get in the US!
TOKYO DISNEY SEA
If you have the time, I would definitely recommend visiting the Disney Resort in Tokyo. I only had time to go to DisneySea but it was way different from the Disneyland in CA and DisneySea is supposedly a very unique Disney park compared to HK, Paris, etc. (if you had to make a choice, go to DisneySea – I LOVED it)! I would recommend a whole day at each park, and the whole resort is somewhat pretty small – you’re most likely going to get off at the JR Maihama station, and then there’s a Disney Resort Line that takes you to the parks and the hotels in a circular fashion but you could always walk (the Resort Line costs money).
When you're visiting the park, consider these tips:
When you visit, definitely spend some time and just appreciate the architecture/buildings/etc of the park – the detail is impeccable and it’s what makes the park really pretty and special (it's personally my favorite part)! On the day, I would get there at least an hour beforehand because Japanese people are insane and wait in line a few hours before the park opens to be the first one inside. If you go too late in the day, the lines are supposedly very, very long (think Disneyland CA on a weekend during the summer).
When the park finally opens, there is a very orderly stampede rushing towards Toy Story Mania, which is the park’s most popular ride but you’ll want to go get a Fastpass for Toy Story/Tower of Terror and then head to the second tier of most popular rides (10000 Leagues Under the Sea, Finding Nemo, etc). If you do some research online, you can really maximize your day in the part. There’s a lot of articles out there that show you how you can do your visit. Toy Story Mania is supposedly very similar to the Toy Story ride in Disney California Adventure, so if you’ve been on that you can pass on Toy Story.
The food is really good (try the different flavored popcorns, I had the curry one and it was surprisingly tasty)! Take advantage of the Fastpass system – if you’ve been to Disneyland before you probably know this, but read more about this online to maximize your visit. Here's my take on the key rides (recommended ones in bold):
Lodging at the Disney Resort
If you can find a good deal on one of the official/Disney-affiliated hotels, snatch those up. I got a really good deal on hotels.com at the Tokyo Bay Maihama Hotel Club Resort for around $70-$80 USD for one night. The hotel itself is REALLY nice for the price I got,
My room had two beds, a hot water boiler, pajamas, slippers, a nicely stocked bathroom, outlets near my bed, a heater/AC, and a nice view of the parking lot with the volcano at DisneySea in the distance. The staff was really helpful, I was able to drop off my bags in the morning, go into Tokyo for the day, and then come back at night to pick up my bags and check in. At check in, the guy could clearly see I was struggling with not knowing Japanese so he was super helpful in terms of checking in! In my opinion, the hotel was way nicer than anything I’ve stayed in the US. I cannot recommend this hotel highly enough!
universal studios japan
I had such a good time here and wasn’t expecting to have such a great time, so I would highly recommend that you go too! I would recommend planning out your day a little more than I did, but everything ended up working out. Before you go to the park, make sure you download the app (to check wait times, etc.) and buy some snacks at a convenience store! There’s food in the park but it’s more expensive – you’ll want to trust me on this. You’ll want to do the following:
Quick guide (Super Nintendo World):
This area is probably the coolest area I’ve been to any theme park, hands down. Everything is super cute and decorated so tastefully. You’ll really feel like you’ve traveled back in time to your childhood. There’s a lot to digest, so I’ll split it up below:
Place to stay: HafH Fukuoka THE LIFE - overall very cozy, friendly staff and lots of working space. Bed was comfortable.
Nagatare Seaside Park - in the outer parts of Fukuoka where it’s a lot more quiet and the coastline is great to walk through! If you have limited time I would skip though.
Atago Shrine - getting here is basically doing the Stair Master but the shrine is beautiful and has a nice view of Fukuoka.
Ohori Park / Fukuoka Castle Ruins - really nice to walk through. I would recommend walking across the bridge to the little island that’s in the lake within the park.
Canal City Hakata - just your typical mall, but a section has a “ramen food court” called Ramen Stadium where there’s a bunch of small ramen restaurants to choose from. Easily the best part of the mall.
Uminonakamichi Seaside Park - unfortunately my friend and I didnt get here in time while they were open, but taking the train out here is worth the endeavor itself. And the park is supposedly very pretty! My friend and I just walked along the coastline and back.
Food Stalls (Yatai) - lots of small food stalls concentrated along the river and looked amazing, but lines were a little long. Ended up not eating here.
Maedaya Motsunabe Nakasu - easily one of the best meals on the trip. There might be a little wait, but the staff gave out fans beforehand so you can fan yourself in the hot weather! The motsunabe (which is a soup filled with yummy things) was absolutely amazing and the service was great as well. Definitely a little more high end than your regular restaurant.
Yoshizuka Unagi - also might have a long wait, but my friend and I got here right at opening and only waited around 15min or so. The unagi was really good but it was a little expensive.
Kalonoulon かろのうろん - hole in the wall noodle spot that really hit the things we were looking for. Cheap, simple and tasty although they have an interesting rule on no photographs.
Other spots worthy of seeing: Tochoji Temple, Kushida-jinja Shrine
Fushimi Inari Taisha – This is the famous red pillars that you may have seen on Instagram. It’s super picturesque and you can make a hike out of it (it goes up to a mountain peak) but there’s no need to hike that far. Definitely try to come early to avoid the crowds, but the further up you walk the less people there will be.
Nishiki Market – This market has all the Japanese food you want to try! I’m guilty of stopping and buying something from at least like 4 different stalls.
Kiyomizu-dera – Walking to this temple requires you to walk through Nineizaka / Sanneizaka, which is a really cute area where you could take nice pictures and admire the architecture/stalls. Overall it’s incredibly pretty and has a lot of history to it!
Other spots worthy of seeing: Gion / Hanamikoji Street, Yasaka Shrine, Kodai-ji, Higashiyama Jisho-ji, Kinkaku-ji, Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Kofuku-ji & Todai-ji – Two of the most notable temples to see while you're in Nara. No need to spend money on admission here since I personally think just seeing it from the outside is amazing enough.
Maguro Koya – The cutest old couple serve these fantastic tuna bowls at an amazing price. Super hole in the wall and everything was so hearty. I would come back in a heartbeat!
Nakatanidou – This place sells this chewy mochi-type thing (wasn’t sure what it entirely was but it was fantastic, I would recommend!
Todai-ji Nandaimon Gate + Nara Park – All the deer kind of hang around here and it’s really amusing to see people try to feed the deer. And then, they’re all surprised when the deer start to follow them for food! The deer aren’t joking around though – definitely be careful but they are used to people taking pictures of them.
Kasaga-taisha – This temple/shrine is much further out but it’s beautiful – I would definitely recommend making the trek here. There’s a lot to see besides the shrine.
Other spots worthy of seeing: Higashimuki Shopping Street, Noborioji Park,
Ashoka Pillar, Todai-ji Nigatsudo
Mt Fuji is a great day trip option and everything I did is listed in order. I only got to Mt Fuji at around 11am and left at around 6:30pm so if you get here earlier you’ll definitely be able to do everything here and then some.
There are lots of ways to get to Mt Fuji but I would recommend taking the bus from Shinjuku (Expressway Bus Terminal). I took the train there (to save time) and the bus back but I recommend the bus because the train is twice as expensive as the bus. Only thing I would say is to try and reserve the bus a few days beforehand because when I tried to buy on the day, it was all sold out until later on in the day. However, I was able to just hop on the train with no reservation. Both were equally comfortable.
Another thing to note is that buses around Mt Fuji only come sporadically. So you’ll want to try and time your arrivals/departures so you aren’t stuck waiting around for the bus. You can use an IC card for the buses.
I visited Sapporo during the winter and it's magical around that time! I highly recommend going during any time of the year, but winter is definitely the time to go. Come prepared with your warmest clothes and your best shoes for the ice! I was okay with wearing sneakers but having boots with a tight grip would had been better for the snow and ice.
If you can, I would recommend coming for the Sapporo Snow Festival! The festival is held at 3 venues: Tsudome, Odori Park, and the Susukino Ice Sculptures. You can definitely hit all 3 areas in a day if you wanted to, but you maight want to spread it out. If you want to come around this time, make sure you book your accommodation EARLY. Same if you want to ski in Niseko!
If you want to ski in Niseko, I recommend that you take the Hokkaido Resort Line bus from New Chitose Airport. You will meet near their desk and then the bus will drive you to Niseko proper and do a bunch of drop-offs at different hotels. You can also take the JR trains, but taking the bus is much easier since the trains run on a haphazard schedule around the area. I would make sure you book the bus there and back from the last resort you hit, just so your transition can be seamless. I recommend going to Annupuri, but there are lots of other resorts where you can stay.
If you have time during your time in Sapporo, I recommend that you do a day trip to Noboribetsu. The onsens and the view is to die for, and you could definitely spend some time staying over for a night. I stopped by and saw Enmadō and Jigokudani (Hell Valley). I liked the day pass for the onsen at Dai-ichi Takimotokan since if you go after 4pm it's cheaper. But I'm sure there are other options to choose from. The food options were a little on the more expensive side, but I liked the vibe at 道産子ぷりん【ぷりんと、スープカレーのお店】. It's a soup curry place and they have a set menu where you get the soup curry, a drink and a cute pudding!