Visiting a foreign country that you’ve always dreamed about is definitely an amazing experience, especially when it’s your first time. The excitement really does take hold of you, but don’t forget to step back and make sure that you are fully prepared for your trip! Especially when you’re visiting for a short time, you want to be sure to make use of every second and not miss out on anything.
This past May I visited Japan for the first time. It had been my dream to visit for over 10 years and the opportunity finally came. Traveling with my family, we spend a total of 10 days in the country, 4 in Kyoto and 6 in Tokyo.
Before leaving for a foreign country, there’s a couple things you need to do. First and foremost, if nobody fluently speaks the language, getting a small phrasebook does wonders. In my experience in Japan, many people there had enough knowledge of English to help us when we had basic questions, but it’s still a good idea to have some sort of mini guide for the more specific things you’d like to ask.
For Japan specifically, my biggest recommendation in terms of travel would be to purchase a Japan Rail Pass. As someone who never has needed to take trains to get around before, having an all-access pass, which made it so we didn’t have to purchase a ticket every time, was very helpful. Passes are purchased and last a specific number of days, ours lasting most of our trip. I appreciated how much English was present in the train stations, as it made it easy for us to figure out which line to get on. One of my biggest fears before traveling to Japan was transportation, simply because I had no experience with trains and thought it would be even harder in a foreign country, but it really is very clear in Japan. We took the subway multiple times too, and while that wasn’t covered by our Japan Rail Pass, It was very easy to buy tickets and get around.
Traveling to Japan was, of course, quite the long flight. I can never seem to fall asleep on planes so I was up the entire time, but luckily the airline had a wide selection of films for me to watch during the flight. Probably the worst part of traveling though took place this first day. We flew into Narita International Airport and had to take the Shinkansen to Kyoto, and wheeling a large suitcase through a crowded station was definitely not fun. Be sure to check that your bags roll well before taking a trip!
By the time we arrived at our hotel (the Kyoto Hotel Okura), it was already the evening and we were all incredibly jetlagged, so we of course went to sleep. I really liked the hotel we stayed at in Kyoto, the main reason being its location. While Kyoto Station was quite the walk away, there were so many different shopping streets one could walk through. At least once every day that we were in Kyoto, we walked through Teramachi Street and the other streets connected to it. They all contained a large number of shops, all very different too. I loved being able to just walk out of our hotel, go a couple blocks then be in a nice lively shopping center.
We had made a list of things we wanted to do while we were in Kyoto, and the first thing we decided to do was visit the Fushimi Inari Taisha. We took a cab to the bottom of a very busy street, and as we walked up to the shrine’s entrance, the street was filled with food vendors. Sadly we weren’t too hungry at that point so we didn’t get anything, which I regret! The whole experience of the shrine was truly breathtaking, especially the walk through the torii paths. Be sure to read about the places you decide to go though, because while we knew what the shrine was, we didn’t realize what a hike it would be to get to the top until we realized we were only halfway there. But we didn’t give up and made it to the top! On the way down we even took a path that led us through a residential area. I was worried that we were lost, but we eventually made our way back to the shrine entrance. It started raining pretty hard at that point and we just decided to take a cab back to the hotel to regroup and dry off.
The next day in Kyoto was spent mostly at Nara, a place I had always wanted to visit. Seeing all the deer roaming freely was really cool. We bought the biscuits and started to feed them, and it was hilarious to watch the deer practically chase my mom around to get some food! My mom had also read that you were supposed to make the deer bow to you before giving them anything to eat by holding the biscuit up, behind your back, then up again, and most of the deer actually bowed to us all three times! Of course the younger ones didn’t quite get it, but they’re still learning!
We then made our way to see Todai-ji, which was just as breathtaking as I had thought it would be. When I was in college I took an Arts of Japan class where we looked at pieces inside of Todai-ji, so it was truly amazing to see them in real life. Of course the Buddha held inside was gigantic! It’s truly amazing to be able to see pieces of art like that up close and personal.
Nara is a must for me when it comes to visiting Kyoto—the combined experience of the deer then heading into Todai-ji is in general just very cool. The deer themselves get very close to the temple grounds, but of course aren’t inside the main portion. Inside Todai-ji itself, you basically walk around the Daibutsu (Great Buddha), seeing different guardian statues as you do so. And once you’ve exited the main part of Todai-ji, there’s deer practically waiting to greet you again!
Our last day in Kyoto consisted of visiting the Kyoto International Manga Museum, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, and the Gion district. The manga museum was of course a must-see for me, as someone who has been reading manga for most of their lifetime. It was very cool to see the progression of what we consider to be ‘manga’ (especially because I had researched this for my thesis paper!). It also made me realize just how old some series are. It’s amazing how some series can be from so long ago yet still be held so dear to many fans, old and new.
We headed off to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove next, and if you’re a fan of nature this is definitely a place that you need to go. The bamboo stretched so high up that I really don’t remember just how high it went—I just know it was pretty dang high! It was also incredibly peaceful there, even with all the fellow tourists enjoying the view.
By nighttime we had made our way to the Gion district, per my mom’s request. Gion is one of the most well-known geisha districts in Japan, and visiting it, especially at night, made it seem almost magical. Much of the buildings preserved traditional architecture, and with our hotel in Kyoto being in the middle of a pretty modernized area, it was very interesting to get to see an area untouched by modernity.
Each night that we stayed in Kyoto, we asked the concierge for dinner recommendations. Definitely take advantage of the fact that staff know about good places in the area, because each restaurant recommended to us was not only delicious, but it was also priced very well! Kyoto was an amazing place, and I am very thankful for the fact that our hotel was located very much in a central location. It wasn’t all that close to the train station, which is pretty important, but it wasn’t hard to make your way there on foot. Leaving Kyoto to go to Tokyo almost made me sad, because I didn’t think that my trip to Japan could get any more amazing than Kyoto. I was definitely wrong about that.
For the second half of our trip, we took the train back to Tokyo (which was a long but relaxing ride). Arriving at the hotel was the first amazing thing. While we had considered a hotel closer to the train station to make things much easier, as we knew we’d be taking the train a lot in Tokyo, we couldn’t help ourselves and ended up staying at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, known by many as the Lost in Translation hotel! The hotel was amazing in itself and we spent a pretty good amount of time just exploring our own hotel room, and the famous bar of course.
Before getting into our adventures in Tokyo, I want to advise anyone going on a trip to a foreign country that you should try to have more time than you think you need. When we planned our trip, we believed that we had planned enough days in both Kyoto and Tokyo to cover the things we wanted to do, and while we seemed alright when it came to Kyoto, I definitely wish we had spent more time in Tokyo.
Also be sure to make a specific list of the things you want to do, no matter how specific or broad they are. We had the large, specific destinations marked for our trip, but I wish I had planned to spend half-days or even full days in certain wards. In Tokyo it felt like we couldn’t stay any one place for too long, because there were always more places we wanted to be able to see. At times I felt I couldn’t just relax and take in the atmosphere of Tokyo. So definitely plan things out!
Our hotel was located in Shinjuku, and while we did explore the area every now and then, most of our time was spent in a different ward. Our first full day in Tokyo was spent visiting one of the most well-known wards in Tokyo—Shibuya. How can you visit Tokyo without seeing the famous Shibuya? And of course the first thing you have to do when you get there is experience Shibuya Crossing.
The photo above does the crossing no real justice, but I wasn’t about to try to take a panoramic photo while everyone was busy crossing. It was exactly as crowded as you’d think it would be, and even more. But to be within that swarm of people felt actually really cool. There were so many different people around me yet we were all part of the same blob of crossing bodies. Of course we crossed away from Shibuya Station only to realize we needed to cross back to see something we had really wanted to see.
My absolute favorite part about Shibuya as getting to see the Hachiko statue. As a big dog lover, I can’t help but always get choked up when I think about Hachiko—I can’t even watch any sort of film about Hachiko because I know I’ll just cry the entire time! So many people were there to see Hachiko, which I thought was really cool.
Most of the time we spent in Shibuya we spent shopping, of course. There’s so many individual stores and large department stores in Shibuya that you really can’t get bored. I also happened to luck out while we were inside one of the department stores; a popup shop for a K-Pop group I like (MONSTA X) had just opened up only a few days prior, due to their recent Japanese debut. There were soo many fans there waiting in line, and even though my family was not interested at all, I forced them to join the line with me! I was not about to pass up that opportunity.
We stopped in Harajuku for a little bit after our shopping adventure in Shibuya, and took the long walk down Takeshita Street. There were so many shops on this street, there’s no way I would’ve been able to keep count. It was almost overwhelming, especially since we had already spent quite a while shopping. While we did walk down to the very end of the street and back, I regret not spending a longer time here. We were all feeling a bit tired from being on our feet so much, so many things I would have loved to look at more were passed up for the thought that we’d be able to rest sooner.
Of course we didn’t really rest after that, our next destination being Meiji Shrine. I can’t even begin to explain how gorgeous each and every shrine in Japan is. Though we visited quite a few, it never felt boring, or like we were seeing the same thing. The shrines are beautifully constructed, and Meiji Shrine specifically was surrounded by so much nature. The torii that stood at the base of the shrine grounds led us through what felt like a calm and green park area. Though we had just been inside of so many shopping centers, it felt like we were so far away from that in that moment.
We woke up pretty early the next morning because my sister was adamant that we visit the Tsukiji Fish Market. Though we didn’t end up getting their as early as she had originally wanted, because we read that they preferred tourists not to be there early in the morning due to auctions taking place. When we did get there though, there was soo much fish (as you’d imagine)! We ate so much while simply walking around, I felt like I could have eaten there all day. Sadly the area where we assume the auctions had taken place was pretty empty when we got there, only full of people packing up. I didn’t necessarily mind that we didn’t get to see the auction, because if it’s true that they prefer tourists aren’t there, then I’m glad we weren’t an unnecessarily distraction.
Tokyo Tower was our next destination. How could you ever visit Tokyo without visiting Tokyo Tower? (Though I am upset that we decided on Tokyo Tower and not the Skytree, or even both.) We took the train to Tokyo Station and the look of the station from the outside was very interesting to me. It wasn’t exactly modern, but it wasn’t traditionally Japanese either. It felt European, but it was a very gorgeous building.
We walked from the station to Tokyo Tower and god it was truly worth visiting. Landmarks like Tokyo Tower are ones that you simply imagine seeing for most of your life, but when you are actually there, standing at the base of the tower and looking up, it’s really amazing. We did not end up going inside sadly, another thing I regret!
The next stop was probably where I was looking forward to going the most in Tokyo. It was time to visit Akihabara! Of course this is any anime fan’s dream, and I just about spent all the money I had left in Akihabara. Even not going inside the buildings, it was such an experience. There were so many different types of people walking on the streets. There were so many girls advertising maid cafes that I felt like I had to go inside one! The streets were littered with so many different gachapons also. For anyone going to Japan who plans to get a bunch of gachapons, make sure to have a LOT of 100 yen coins handy! Half the time I didn’t have any, but inside many of the buildings in Akihabara were machines that would give you change in 100 yen coins, which was really convenient!
We spent some time in Ikebukuro afterwards, though sadly not too much time. My sister absolutely loved it, especially because her favorite animal is the owl and there were so many owl-themed things in Ikebukuro, including owl cafes! Even while we were just walking down the street, we came across a girl advertising a nearby owl cafe, and she let us pet the owl she had with her.
It honestly felt like our last full day in Japan came too quickly, and while we had done a lot, it didn’t feel like a lot. But then it also seemed like we didn’t have all that much left to do in Tokyo, because of the fact that we hadn’t made a very specific itinerary. For our last day we decided to head over to the Imperial Palace. While it’s an interesting destination for many reasons, of course, one of our main ones was actually to see the architecture. Many places we had gone to previously on our trip were also for the architecture, as my mom is an architect and we both love Japanese style architecture. The Imperial Palace was gorgeous of course, but this was one of the most tiring days we had. Rather than going in as much as a tourist could, we decided to walk AROUND the palace instead. It was a very long walk that I had not been expecting. Of course it was a gorgeous walk to take, I really did not have the stamina for it!
While we were in Kyoto we asked hotel staff for food recommendations, but while we were in Tokyo, most of the places that we ate were places we just so happened to stumble upon. One night we ate inside of a department store, which had a basement food floor. It felt like we were outside on a busy street while we were actually inside in the basement. This is where the little bits of Japanese I remembered clearly enough to confidently use came in handy, as more local places like this didn’t have too many employees that spoke English.
Being able to visit Japan for the first time after dreaming about it for at least 15 years was one of, if not the most amazing experience of my life. And while there’s many things that I wish I had done differently while I was there, you can’t help that! No trip will go perfectly as planned, and you could always use a bit more planning when you’re actually there, but just living that moment is an experience in itself. When I go back of course I will use this past experience to help me have an even more enjoyable time, if that’s possible!