Preparations to travel to Japan

Flights

Book flights to Japan enough time in advance. We waited to book our tickets last minute, based on Sakura (cherry blossom season) predictions and it definitely costed us a ton more. 
I flew to Tokyo Narita with ANA airlines. ANA was recently awarded with a spot in the list of 10 best airline companies in the world and I can see why. The movie selection is exuberant (all the latest blockbusters like Bohemian Rhapsody, Green Book, VICE etc), the food is delicious (I had snow crab meat as lunch) and you have a lot of room in your seat. They don’t fly the most modern planes however, but the service makes up for that. 

Get a Japan rail pass to travel around

If you plan on traveling around Japan, get a Japan Rail Pass which allows you to travel around unlimited by Japan Rail. Japan Rail mainly operates trains between cities (inclusive fast trains between Tokyo and every other major city in Japan) but also operates subways and buses in for instance Tokyo or Nara. If you book a hotel close to a JR subway you can save a lot of money by not having to buy metro passes in Tokyo for instance. 

You need to order your Japan Rail pass while you’re outside Japan and they ship a voucher to you through FedEx, so make sure to do this enough time in advance. It takes about 3-4 days to get the voucher home. There are different services and travel companies that sell Japan Rail passes and depending on where they are located they ship it for free, which can save up to $30, so do some research here!

Travel prep

I did not do enough preparation in advance to know where I wanted to go and what I wanted to visit, which was too bad. Japan is full of hidden small villages, with exceptional beauty but you need to be pointed in the right direction. A good start is browsing through Japan-guide.com. It’s full of good tips and recommendations. 

Absolutely must do/eat/sleep recommendations in Japan:

  • Tokyo – Get Michelin star Ramen and pork on rice in Nakiryu
  • Tokyo – Get Michelin star Ramen in Tsuta
  • Tokyo – Get Tonkatsu at Maisen
  • Tokyo – Get breakfast at the Intergate hotel
  • Noashima – Visit the whole art island island and pay a visit to Chichi Art museum
  • Wazuka – Take a tour of the tea fields with AirBnb
  • Hiroshima – Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
  • Miyajimacho – Island of Miyajimacho & Buddhist temple
  • Osaka – eat at this Mushroom restaurant
  • Osaka – Snack on all the food in Osaka, but visit literally nothing because there’s nothing there
  • Nara – Stay in Super Hotel near the railway station & check out the pillow room
  • Visit the library in Tokyo
  • Try all the Baumkuchen

3 weeks in Japan – Full itinerary

Sunday March 24 – Tokyo 

I arrived Sunday afternoon in Narita airport of Tokyo. I went to the bathroom and was surprised by the heated toilets and all the options on the toilet. I took a cab to our hotel and was lucky enough to have an English speaking cab driver that took me to APA Shinjuku. The room was tiny! Later at night we went to a super small street nearby, Memory lane, and got dinner in a super local Noodle place. When the waiter put rice on the counter to use in a dish, Danny took it by accident and there was wonder everywhere where the rice went. He tried the dishes of our neighbors as well. Afterwards we went to the terraces of theTokyo Governmental building to check out the view of Tokyo late at night, which was pretty great. 

(click the pictures to enlarge)

Monday March 25 – Tokyo
Tsukiji Market, Omotesando, Shibuya

We got up early to go to Tsukiji Market to see the tuna auction. We made a quick stop for breakfast in a super small, local Noodle restaurant where we used a vending machine for the first time. I just pressed the button that the Japanese person in front of me pushed and got noodles with some kind of fried potato cake in it that dissolved slowly. I don’t think we actually walked in the right tuna auction market, but it was fun regardless. We found a croissant place and bought a croissant that was really horrible and overcooked. We then walked to the street where okonomiyaki originated. We were too early (all restaurants open around 11 AM in Japan) so we went to McDonalds to heat up and get a coffee since there was no coffee place around it. On the way there we bought some Lemon bread, which is clearly a thing in Japan. We skipped the pancake restaurants and walked to the subway and went to Harajuku street. We strolled around and walked on Omotesando street. We got hungry so Danny led us to a Tonkastu restaurant; Maisen. Later we found out this place was super popular. We made a quick pitstop in the coffee shop where allegedly the Blue bottle owner got his inspiration from; Chatei Hatou. It’s a crazy expensive place and the dessert was really not that great. But maybe I don’t appreciate coffee enough, who knows? After that we made our way to the Shibuya crossing afterwards to see people cross.

Tuesday March 26 – Tokyo
Shinjuku Gyoen, shopping @ Shimokitazawa, Japanese dinner

We got up and walked to the big park right behind our hotel, Shinjuku Gyo-en where we saw the first cherry blossom trees flowering. It’s an amazing park! We walked around the entire park and then went looking for some lunch. Danny found a great place, but when we arrived, it hadn’t open yet. So we walked back to the big streets where we saw lots of restaurants and we entered a random one with a vending machine. We got great Ramen, but Danny was less convinced even though his Ramen was better than mine. We then hopped on a subway to go to a further part of town that is known for its quaint vintage shops, Shimokitazawa. We found a super nice cake and coffee place full of sunlight, but unfortunately I can’t remember the name.  We walked the way back and saw a beautiful garden behind a fence, great architecture in narrow streets and made a stop in a cool coffeeshop. At night we met up with a Japanese coworker and had a fantastic traditional Japanese meal in a VIP-room. She explained us the Japanese traditions etc. We had fresh tofu, delicious pork, Ramen with cold soup that wasn’t that great, rice balls, bamboo shoots… it was really fun!

Sunset
Traditional Japanese dinner
Shinjuku Gyoen
Shinjuku Gyoen
Shinjuku Gyoen

Wednesday March 27 – Tokyo

We got up super early and took a subway to Tsuta, a Michelin star Ramen place. I didn’t do my research well and the restaurant was closed because Wednesday is its closing day. We went to Ueno Park afterwards. We were both hungry, so bought some delicious noodles from a small stall around the temple in the park. We chilled out in the park and read. We then made our way to the spectacular origami museum (the museum was such a joke). After that we hurried to Nakiryu, another Michelin Star Ramen restaurant. We got there around 10:30 AM and there was already a line of 30 people. We had to wait for 3 hours until we finally got in. It’s a better idea to go as the first people in line (at 10:00 AM) or go at 12:30 PM when you risk to be too late because they close the line, but if you’re not you will have a shorter wait. The Tantanmen Ramen was delicious, but what stole the show was the pork on rice. I ordered by accident leak on rice instead of the sardines with raw egg, which was a total bummer since the leak wasn’t that great. We enjoyed our noodles and had to drag ourselves outside because we were so full. We walked around and just explored by walking. After a while our feet started hurting, so we wanted to get a coffee somewhere. We walked into Cafe de Peru but they refused to serve us because “closed” even though it wasn’t really closed. So we walked on to Omotenashamoji, which is a small cozy coffee shop. They had great coffee but less great cake though. We then took the subway home. We stayed in the hotel for a while and very late at night left again for food. We ended up in the Gyoza restaurant across the street. We were pleasantly surprised how delicious the gyoza and squid were. The ice cream on the other hand was a total bummer.

Ueno Park

Thursday March 28 – Tokyo to Hiroshima
Hiroshima Peace Museum

The morning is a bit of a haze here. However we did end up in Hiroshima (which is a long way from Tokyo) in the afternoon. My Japanese coworker recommended us her favorite restaurant Denkosekka, which we visited since it was close to the railway station. It’s a whole floor with only okonomiyaki restaurants, situated on the 6th floor of a big building. After eating our Japanese pancake, it was getting late and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial museum was closing soon, so we took a cab there. We weren’t able to see the entire expo and museum, but we were very moved and emotional by the things we did see. It’s a beautiful museum. After the museum we went to our Airbnb and stayed there.

Hiroshima food
Food
Hiroshima Peace Museum

Friday March 29 – Miyajimacho & Hiroshima
Buddhist temple, floating Tori gate, dears and more Peace Museum

We got up early and went to Miyajimacho, a stunning island with the floating Tori gate in the sea. It took an hour to get there and I wanted to see the floating gate with high and low tide, so we had some time constraints. That said, I had the tide timings wrong and we didn’t see it at both tides. We were able to explore the island though when there were not a lot of people yet, which is recommended. We also saw the pagoda and temple. Afterwards we made our way up to the Buddhist temple Daisyoin, which is just stunning. We spent some time enjoying the sun and buying vintage kimonos there. After that we walked back down and visit the nature park with deer along the way. After chilling out in the park, and walking back to the harbor around lunch, we noticed a bunch of tourist had flooded the island and we were happy we were there early. We took the ferry back and made a stop for lunch at Hanako. I had a great lunch with veggies and squid that was delicious. In the afternoon we still had time to go back to the Peace Memorial museum, which we did. I bought a pin (I later lost) and we went to get a coffee afterwards at KIKI, a small coffeeshop in Hiroshima. We headed back to our AirBnb to chill for a bit. At night we went out and ended up at a BBQ place where we had delicious meat. 

Saturday March 30 – Naoshima
Art, stunning architecture & more art

We packed our bags and took them all the way with us to Naoshima, the art island a coworker of mine recommended. We walked to the Chichu art museum and enjoyed the beautiful nature on our way. The museum itself was absolutely stunning. We enjoyed the architecture, the Van Gogh works that fill an entire white room etc. We especially enjoyed the work of Turrell that completely screwed us because it looked like an illusion. We also loved the white Monet room. Afterwards we made our way to the other museums on the island but didn’t visit them. We did see a Kusama pumpkin. As it was getting dark and we were hungry we went to this tiny place with delicious food on the other side of the island. All of a sudden it started pouring rain so we stayed there for a while.  In the dark – via the other side of the island we walked back to the port to catch the ferry and train to Osaka. At the port we saw a very strange animal and we still don’t know which animal it was. MYSTERY! We arrived pretty late in Osaka and checked in in Hotel Androoms. We didn’t find it at first, but were pleasantly surprised when we found it and hopped in the Onsen.


Sunday March 31  – Osaka
Dotonburi, Americana Village & halal Ramen

Our first stop of the day was Dotonburi street because we were hungry. Since there were long lines, we hopped in a random building but didn’t find a restaurant. So we walked in some backstreet and Danny found a restaurant, Hozenji Sanpei, with Okonomiyaki.  It was a delicious pancake for sure! We then strolled through some streets and found this great vintage shop where I bought a nice trenchcoat. We strolled some more in Americana village and ended up with a coffee in Streamer’s coffee, which is a nice place to hangout! We ended the night in a Halal Ramen place that gave us horrible service and left us with a lot of discussions.

Monday April 1 – Osaka
Western Library, Osaka Castle, octopus balls & mushroom deliciousness

We took the train to Osaka castle. On the way we made a stop to see the old, very Western-looking library. We walked into the wrong building (the City Hall) and were literally stared out. The library was very Roman-looking and that was weird to see that in Japan. We then walked to the Rose garden on the same small island. We crossed the river and had lunch in a little shop where Danny got the meat and egg on rice and I got sea food noodles. After lunch we walked to Osaka castle. After Osaka castle we got some coffee in Lapland. We walked along little streets with markets and ended up back at the place with the vintage shop. Danny got a dinosaur backpack and we picked up some octopus balls at an allegedly Michelin star place. We stopped by a vintage store to shelter from the rain. We then went for another coffee at Lilo because it was raining. On the way we stopped at a vintage store that had a cool red jacket with advertising on it. But it was 100 Euros. We were wet, got a coffee and chilled out. After the coffee we went for dinner in this fabulous Mushroom restaurant. We had big mushrooms coated and fried with egg mayo. We then got a pot to mix everything in. It was great. We returned home through the underground shopping center featuring a subway as well. 

Osaka Castle

Tuesday April 2 – Nara
Temples, seismology, cozy coffee and raw octopus

We traveled to Nara in the morning. We dropped off our bags in the Super hotel and started exploring. We first did the main shopping street and some streets around it. Got some Ramen for lunch that was delicious. I ate a kiwi and hid it in a little bowl. We then marched on to the temples and Nara park. Across the park with deer there is a “seismological museum” it’s built by a company making anti-earthquake systems, but is still very fun and has a great patio with a view. Danny got a simulation of what the Japanese earthquakes felt like. It started raining so we walked to a coffeeshop through the park. The coffee shop was housed in an old house with cozy seats. We had a coffee, spicy chocolate cake and read. After that we made our way back to the hotel. I went into the hot tub. Later that night we went to Kura, a very small restaurant. We had raw squid, dumplings, an egg… We met Italians that loved Apple and use Stripe, some cocky Canadians etc. We had a fun night and returned to the hotel for some more bathing. 

Wednesday April 3 – Nara to Kyoto
Gyoza, Nishiki market, Baumkuchen and best Kyoto restaurant

In the morning I want to check up on our laundry. I looked in the washing machine and it seemed gone so I talked to the reception desk to ask where the laundry was and they didn’t know. I asked them if someone stole it. After 5 min they took me to the laundry room and pointed out that I was looking at the washing machine and not the dryer. And there were my clothes, in the dryer. Super embarrassed I walked back up to Danny. We then got breakfast in our hotel in Nara. It was pretty gross, but it was funny to see Japanese people eat croissants with their sticks. We left the hotel to go to Kyoto. When we arrived in Kyoto, we checked in into our hotel, Il Verde, and went exploring the temples around it. We got some gyoza lunch. Danny loved it, I found it mediocre. We made our way down to Nishiki market. I was very unimpressed. We took a break in a cute coffee shop where we got some Baumkuchen. We stayed there for a while. We then returned to the hotel. In the evening we went out for dinner to a super fun and good restaurant KuraKura. We had the most delicious mushrooms with lemon & teriyaki in a papillote. I had delicious grilled fish as well. The eggplant on the other hand was not great. It was fun to sit at the bar and see them make the dishes. We made a stop in Family Mart for breakfast and made our way home.

Gyoza lunch
Kura kura before…
Kura Kura

Thursday April 4 – Kyoto
Bamboo forest, cherryblossoms, kimono shopping, family restaurant and Kyoto castle at night

We got up early in the morning to visit the bamboo forest before anyone else. Funny enough there were literally 0 tourists. The bamboo forest was great and we found a little hidden park with cherry blossoms where we sat down for a while.  We then continued our journey to a shrine that was supposed to have nice cherry blossoms as well confer Google maps. The shrine and alley with cherry blossom trees was beautiful. We then made our way back down to the railway station. We had a hard time understanding which train to get since it was only written in Japanese. We took the train to the last stop Karawachi and looked for a place for lunch. In doing so we stumbled upon this old part of town and beautiful cherry blossom walk along the water side. We had Ramen in a touristy vending machine place. I got rice with egg & chicken. After lunch we walked back to our hotel along side the water.  We found a woman that was selling kimonos in her front garden and Danny bought another one. We made a quick coffee stop at the coffee shop behind our hotel. Because we got up so early we had a long day. At 5:30 we got out of the hotel and went looking for a place for dinner. 2 of our places were completely full and we were getting hangry exploring the little streets. All of a sudden we stumbled upon the smallest place in a super small alley. The owner was super friendly and showed us pictures of the food. Especially the Donburi was a hit = rice with spring onion, chicken, egg and teriyaki (?) on top. We also had squid, chicken, vegetable tempura and yams. After the restaurant we sprinted for ice cream because all places were closing down. When we arrived there the place was closed unfortunately. We then speed walked to the Kyoto Castle where the cherry blossoms were lighted up at night. It was beautiful and I very much enjoyed wandering with Danny, listening to the soothing music. It was getting late and we were both tired but there didn’t seem to be public transportation back to the hotel. All of a sudden it popped up on Google maps again. We took a Subway home but first made some stops in 7 eleven and family Mart to compare snacks and conclude they don’t sell condoms. At home I fell asleep immediately. 

Bamboo forest
Osaka Castly by night

Friday April 5 – Kyoto
Golden Temple, Hanadadrien gardens, best bread and tea dinner

I started the day at hibi coffee which was nice. The cappuccino was good, I had some time for myself, there was some jazz music.. Danny came to pick me up and we went back to the hotel because I had to poop. We figured out a plan for the day and I tried to book a tea experience with Airbnb that was super frustrating. We then went to visit the golden temple. The bus ride took forever but the temple was beautiful. A tourist tried to push me away for a picture which I didn’t appreciate at all and I said so. We walked around there and then got some soba noodles. I got typical Kyoto noodles, but it wasn’t that great. We made our way to Haradanien gardens by bus. I wasn’t too impressed with the gardens, but Danny was. We sat there for a while, staring at the trees. We then made our way back down by foot. A beautiful walk in the mountains. We stopped by a little bakery Ange that just had the most delicious cheesecake with raspberries and yoghurt/lemon. We also bought a bread for Danny. The bread was delicious. I ate half of it as we kept on joking how it was Danny his bread. We then got on the bus to the city center which took us an hour, while we read Reddit posts. In the hotel we booked another night and watched some Billion. Around 8:30 PM we made our way to dinner. We found this small Izakaya restaurant where we got delicious raw octopus with wasabi, croquettes, chicken wings, and some weird rice dish I had to poor green tea over. I poured way too much on and completely messed it up. I also had delicious sake.

Golden temple

Saturday April 6 – Wazuka tea fields

We got up early and I went to the coffeeshop again for a coffee. After half an hour I came back to the hotel to pick Danny up. We walked to the railway station and took the train to Wazuka. We made a mistake and got on the wrong train. We had to wait a while for the bus. The bus ride was beautiful, with an old Buddha, water, tea fields… We got lunch first in this cute restaurant where we ordered delicious vegetables with pork and a pancake with potatoes. We stayed there for a while. After a couple of hours we walked up a hill and explored in the tea fields. We saw a fire burning behind a bush and it went crazy as long as we were there. We came back down and made our way to the pick up point and bought some mouth masks on the way. 20 min later our host Greg (through AirBnb experiences) arrived and took us to his house. We drank matcha tea and talked about how he ended up in Japan etc. We talked about how tea is made etc. We then left his house, took a stick and went exploring in the tea fields and forest. It was a beautiful walk and super informative. We talked about rocks, animals… I saw a gigantic bee with a long angle. He dropped us back off at the station and we took the train back to Kyoto. 

AirBnb experience we did

Wazuka sunset
Wazuka sunset

Sunday April 7 – Kyoto – Kanazawa

We had a lazy day on Sunday. We packed our bags and left for Kanazawa. The weather was bad in Kanazawa and we stayed in our hotel room at Dormy Inn for a while. Around 6 PM we left to grab some food. We didn’t have cash and finding a 7 eleven was difficult. When we had cash and walked back to the Indian curry place where we wanted to get some food, we were bummed they didn’t have places anymore. So we walked to Oink Oink, a pork restaurant. We got pork tongue, pork steak, some pork oven dish and a mushroom dish. We socialized with the chef that was super impressed we ate the tongue. I then almost left my purse and the chef ran after me. We returned to the hotel afterwards, with a detour to see the castle at night. Unfortunately the castle was on a hill and completely enclosed with walls, so we couldn’t see a thing. In the hotel, we went in the hot tub. 

Monday April 8 – Kanazawa (and train to Tokyo)
Gardens, castles, curry, coffee and night snacks

We got up early to visit the Kenrokeun gardens in Kanazawa, that are crowned as one of the 3 master gardens in Japan. We didn’t have to pay admission (score!) and arrived just before the tourists started flocking in. We strolled along the garden, taking in every corner. Danny loved it.  We then made our way to Kanazawa castle, where we secretly joined a tour. We then went to the historical district in Kanazawa to explore. We got a croquette and I tried to book tickets to go to a mountain village that afternoon, but I couldn’t pay so we abandoned the plan. We got hungry and went to Turban Curry. I got the curry with Croquettes and Danny a Large portion Curry with pork cutlet. It was delicious for the cheap price we paid. We then went to Higaside coffee to get a coffee, but we were treated rude and the coffee/orange juice was really not that good either. Afterwards we went to pick up our bags and went to the station to catch a train to Tokyo. Before we got on the train we got some ice cream in the shopping mall, because I promised Danny. The dark chocolate was delicious! In Tokyo we dropped off our bags at Intergate hotel, where we got a smoking room because I made a mistake. We then to the lounge to check out the late night snacks, which were surprisingly good!

Hotel: Intergate in Tokyo
Food: Turban Curry

Kenrokeun Gardens

Tuesday April 9 – Tokyo/ Kamakura
Giant buddha, garden coffee and Indian dinner

I got up before Danny and went to breakfast, where I took some time for myself. The breakfast of the hotel was A-MAZING! It had fish, eggs, a lot of vegetables, bread etc. We stayed there for 2 hours. We then hopped on a train to Kamakura, outside of Tokyo. Danny wanted to see a giant buddha and they had one there. We went inside the buddha and I found out I lost my Hiroshima pin (sad moment!). Danny bought some great chopsticks and then we decided to go hike. We first took wrong turn and had a great view but had to walk back a lot of stairs. We then were on the right trail but couldn’t find the shrine. So we stopped hiking and then found the shrine after all. We stopped by a beautiful Starbucks after the hike, because it was in a stunning building with great garden. Around 5 PM we returned to Tokyo. In Tokyo we immediately went for dinner in an Indian Restaurant that was just such and so.

Giant Buddha

Wednesday April 10 – Tokyo
Art & Uniqlo shopping and $200 steak

It was raining in Tokyo. We did another 2h breakfast (different food was served this time!), packed our bags and dropped them off at the reception. We went to Itoya, a gigantic art store, where I bought some art stuff and spend too much time browsing around. Afterwards we went to a shopping mall to get Danny a shirt. We hated the shopping mall so we went to Uniqlo instead where we found him 2 shirts and a pair of jeans. We then decided to go to a well-rated Ramen place. We then went back to the hotel and dropped off our luggage in the other hotel we stayed in for the second part, APA. We dressed up and left for our Kobe beef dinner at 511 Kaseiki. We both got extensive Kobe beef menus. The steak was delicious, though we did feel like we overpaid. We went back to the hotel afterwards and got into the Onsen.

Thursday April 11 – Tokyo
Michelin Noodles, Oriental library & lazy garden strolls

It was our last full day in Japan and the chance to go to Sutra Soba Noodles. We got up early and went to pick up a number in the restaurant. We were pretty late and I was worried we wouldn’t get a number anymore (go early!). There was no one luckily and we could choose between 1 PM and 2 PM. We decided to go at 1 PM. Afterwards we walked to Beyond Z coffee to get a coffee. I cleaned my pencils and Danny was reading. We chatted with the super friendly owner who had lived in San Diego. After an hour, we decided to leave because if we wanted to do something we didn’t have much time left. I researched an article of what to do in the neighborhood around our hotel, and found the shopping street Sugamo Jizo-dori Shopping Street. It was like a shopping street for old people, but we did find a super market with Pork jerky, open until 12 AM. We turned around somewhere halfway the street and went to the Oriental Library Toyu Bunko. The library view was amazing. At 12:30 we walked over to the restaurant and waited in line. We got the tickets from the vending machine and went back to the line. Because we were 2 people we got in earlier. I got the Truffle Shyo soup and Danny got the lunch time special Miso. We ordered extra rice + pork. It was a delicious meal. The soup & noodles were better than Nakiryu. The meat was better at Nakiryu. The thin slices of meat here didn’t taste like much. The truffle soup on the other hand was subtle but got more flavor over time. After that, my tummy hurt and we walked back to the gardens that we had a combo ticket for: Rikugien. We had a lazy stroll around the garden that had 88 poem dedications in it (and we kind of laughed with it).  We walked back to the library to get a drink in their stunning garden cafe, but unfortunately it was closed. Later that night we decided to go to a late night supermarket to pick up whiskey and snacks for the plane.
GOBBLE GOBBLE.

Sutro Soba Noodles

Friday April 12 – Tokyo

I had to get up early to get my flight. I ended up on the wrong subway and started panicking. Luckily I had enough time and made it in time to the airport. I had a good flight back home, watched a bunch of movies, almost forgot my laptop at security in Munich and got snow crab as dinner on ANA airlines.

Still to do in Japan

  • Tokyo – Ghibli museum Tokyo
  • Tokyo – Ramen restaurant Ginza Kazami 
  • Tokyo – Bakery Boul’ange Kyoto
  • Tokyo – Get fluffy pancakes
  • Kyoto – Manga museum
  • Kyoto – Eat in Kanoko Kyoto
  • Kyoto – Go to the moss temple garden in Saiho-Ji & the garden of Ryoan-Ji and make reservations months in advance
  • Kobe – Visit the city & get Kobe steak
  • Kinosaki Onsen – Visit this town full of Onsens Hida & mountain villages
  • Adachi Museum of Art

Extra resources for your trip in Japan