Planning your first trip to Japan

Everyone knows I love to travel and I love Japan most of all so I get asked for some advice for the first time traveller to Japan regularly. Here’s my best tips for first time Japanese travel.

Tokyo (4 days or more)

  • Stay in Asakusa at Ryokan Shigetsu or Hotel Kaminarimon both are cheap and right under the shadow of Asakusa temple and the markets
    • The huge temple gate with the bright red lantern make this easy to navigate no matter how jetlagged you are or how bad your Japanese is
    • This is near multiple train stations including the express to/from the airport and easy access to Ueno & Akihabara
    • Asakusa is great for nightlife and for the temple, spend an entire day exploring. Easy access to affordable shops and restaurants make this a great hub for travellers.

  • Ueno Park is like the Central Park of Tokyo and has just about everything
  • Akihabara as a geek you can easily go to for a couple of days but I advise going on a Saturday unless you get anxiety in crowds. This ensures lots of shows and entertainment at the Maid Cafes and launches of new video games and toy lines

    • For Maid Cafes I recommend @Home and MaiDreamin for the best moe displays and sing along contests, pay to sit at the benches by the hour. Don’t take photos of the girls.
    • You can usually see AKB48 at their theatre
    • Gachapon Kaikan will fill up your capsule toy needs
    • Find the Gundam Cafe for all your robot needs
    • Remember that during busy times some train stations around Akiba are exit only, you may need to walk or bus to another station to get home.

  • Shibuya is the shopping mecca
    • Exit the station to see the Hachiko statue, this is a meeting spot for young people and makes for great people watching
    • The Scramble Crossing is supposedly the busiest street crossing in the world; go upstairs to the Starbucks and watch from the window
    • Easily walk from Shibuya to Harajuku and stop at some shops on the way, great for buying makeup
    • Marui One Dept Store in Shinjuku and Shibuya have some of the best Lolita clothes to be bought in Japan including HNaoto, Putumayo, Baby the Stars Shine Bright, Angelic Pretty & Alice and the Pirates. Much better than fighting tourists in Harajuku

  • Harajuku is not what it was a decade ago and is now more touristy than alternative
    • Check out some Lolita/Goth shopping guides before you go
    • If you can fit into the clothes some real bargains can be found at Body Line upstairs off Takashite Dori
    • Go on Sunday to seek out the alternative kids hanging around Yoyogi park but sadly the days of on street roaming packs of Harajuku girls and Lolita crowds are all but gone
    • Stop and eat crepes and fix your makeup, it’s what everyone else does!

Outside Tokyo ( Pick your favourites for 2-3 days )

  • Ghibli Museum is in Mitaka outside Tokyo – ~1 hour by train you must pre-buy tickets for a particular date so order these as soon as you have your schedule complete

  • Shinkansen Tokyo -> Kyoto or Osaka is a must must must! Consider buying a plane ticket into one city and out the other rather than doubling back. This trip takes most of a day once you account for station madness
    • Buy tickets on the Shinkansen the day you arrive in Tokyo to ensure good seats you can book up to a month ahead
    • Stop in the train station and buy a proper station bento (ekiben!) and some soda or tea for the trip as a packed lunch is so much fun to enjoy as Japan wooshes by
  • Mt Fuji can be taken as a day trip from Tokyo but be warned there’s not huge amounts to do here and you’re better off viewing it from the Shinkansen

  • Staying at a hot spring hotel is one of the most unique things you will do, take the time to do at least one night.
    • Make sure you read a guide on how to bathe before you do.
    • Ignore what people say about Tattoos, as a foreigner they usually don’t care. I have been to onsens with visible tattoos and unless you have Japanese style sleeves they won’t associate this with yakuza.

    • Hakone which is probably the most convenient Onsen town you will find from Tokyo. The Open Air Museum is stunning and includes a private collection of Picasso
    • Jigukudani is where the snow monkeys bathe but usually only in cold weather
    • Kinosaki is in Northern Kansai and a bit of a hike on trains but amaaaaazing if you can bring yourself to do it. 7 different hot springs in one town with many bath houses. Very few Westerners though so might be daunting on a first rip
    • Japanese Guest Houses is a great site for choosing Onsen and Ryokan and allows you to explore by region

Kyoto ( 4 days or more if you can )

  • Try to stay around Kyoto train station, this is a great hub for getting everywhere and has many restaurants in the train station and around the department stores.

    • Eat at the Lipton Tea House in the basement of the station for the most amazing parfaits of your life. I dream of these for years
    • Katsukura is some of the best fried pork you will ever encounter at the top of the iSetan Depachika
    • Issian down a back alley near the station is some of the best ishiyaki I’ve eaten
    • Stop inside the iSetan to buy goth-tastic Japanese Anna Sui exclusives
  • Best temples – There are literally hundreds of temples in Kyoto, these are the big hitters designed for first time visitors

    • Kiyo Mizu Dera – Three holy springs and favour from the Emperor make this as Iconic as anything. Stop at the pilgrimage stores on the walk to the temple for great souvenirs and find the exit at the top of the temple to see an amazing and seemingly endless Japanese graveyard

    • Fushii Inari Taisha – 10 000 Red Gates and many cute Foxes everywhere surrounded by ghostly bamboo
    • Bamboo Forest at Arashiyama – Huge temple complex with the iconic Bamboo forest and gorgeous botanical gardens nearby
    • Ginkakuji (The Golden Pavillion) & The Philosopher’s Walk – This requires some navigation on the bus but it’s worth it. The temple is literally coated with gold and has many myths associated with it. This is *the* place to see Zen Gardens, the Philosopher’s walk is only worth while during Autumn & Spring and is designed to view plants along the canal

  • Go to Gion or Pontocho at Sundown for your best chance to see Geisha and Maiko in full regalia – but stay out of their way these are not characters at Disneyland but working women on their way to an appointment

    • Shirakawa Dori in the backstreets of Gion is one of the most beautiful streets in Japan
    • Aya and Maica are two famous “dress up as Geisha” services, be prepared to spend up to $300 for the makeup artist and photographer
    • Go out to Shimabara (now suburban Kyoto) to see the old Pleasure Quarter gates and Sumiya Ageya an Edo Period pleasure house

  • Kyoto Manga Museum is mostly in Japanese but has marvellous art displays, go on the weekend to see Otaku and Cosplay meetups

  • Nara is a decent day trip from Kyoto. You can see many beautiful pagadas and the mediaeval Emperor’s Palace in the Chinese style. The massive Buddha at Todaiji is worth the day trip alone. Beware the deer!

Osaka ( 3 days or more )

I long prefer Osaka over Tokyo and find it far more friendly to Westerners and alternative folk.

  • Stay at Yamatoya Honten – cheap, close to Dotonburi/Namba, no curfew, english speaking staff, possibly my best find in Japan.
  • If you must have a Western Hotel the New Otani near Osaka Castle is like something out of an anime
  • Osaka Aquarium – Absolute must and you can lose a whole day here, this is the best Aquarium in the world as far as I’m concerned. Ask at your local train station for a combined Aquarium ticket which also gives all day all Osaka subway access.

  • Osaka Castle is an amazing monument and one of the easiest ways to see Japanese military strategy without leaving a city
  • Umeda Sky Garden is a great night time city viewing spot be warned the train station and shopping center below it are a nightmare to navigate

  • Hozenji & Fudo-myoo are not easy to find but worth it if you can. There’s an old Edo style street in the back of Minami and the Moss covered statue is favoured by those in the water trade (ie. flesh trade)

  • America-mura is the Harajuku of Osaka and has many goth and lolita stores
    • Qutie Frash is my pick of the litter for unique fashion
    • HNaoto has a flagship store here and is easier than trying to shop at the one in Tokyo
    • When you’re tired buy some coffee or cocktail cans from the AM/PM and chill out with other geeks and alternatives at Sankaku-koen and watch the terribly bad skaters

  • Nipponbashi Den Den Town is the Akihabara of Osaka. It’s a bit smaller and less mad but I find it better for actually purchasing things
    • Melon Books is a huge Doujinshi paradise but not for the feint heart pretty much everything is porn
    • Super Position is my favourite store in the world as a toy collector. Total bargains to be found everywhere and the chance to complete rare gachapon series
  • Osaka is serious eating and party time. Spend at least one night drunkenly pouring through bars and small eateries in Dotonburi.

    • For the Malks meet up with Chris and Mizuki and get them to take you to Torikizoku for cheap beers and bar snacks

    • Find an all you can eat Kushikatsu do it yourself deep fry restaurant for drunken Osaka style eating

    • Takoyaki and Okonomiyaki stalls are everywhere on the street around Dotonburi, eating hot street food with toothpicks is the quintessential Osaka experience
    • In fact get in the kuidaore spirit … eat one of everything

Travel Sites

JapanICan – Easily book tours and ryokans
Wikitravel Japan – the poor man’s travel book
Japanese Guest Houses – Great pictures and guides to smaller hotels and onsen stays
Danny Choo – The ultimate otaku guide to Japan

Useful tips

Health and Safety

  • Don’t take drugs or commit crime, be sensible
  • Japan is very safe and people are very helpful but be careful if you are drinking or lost
  • Discrimination is not illegal; you may be prevented from entering some venues because you are foreign or LGBT. Don’t even bother fighting it, just go somewhere that wants your money.
  • There are no responsible service of alcohol laws, if one of your party falls asleep or falls down they will not stop them drinking. This is not always a good thing.
  • Mostly the rule in Japan is “anything goes, so long as it doesn’t affect anyone else” this means upside down rules for many North Americans – Drunkenness and lewd content is acceptable even for very young teens, but smoking or fixing makeup on the street is verboten. When in doubt do as the locals do and anything else go to a cafe or your hotel.
  • If a very pretty person with elaborate hair or clothing in a nightlife district is trying to get your attention they are likely a kyabakura (host/hostess), don’t accept their offer of taking you for a drink as you will be charged (lots!!!) for their company
  • Most Japanese food contains Fish (even the vegetarian dishes!), fast food almost always contains MSG be sure to be explicit if you are allergic or vegan. When in doubt seek out vegetarian restaurants and tell them you need shojin ryori – devotional food, this means a strict vegan buddhist diet.


  • Don’t travel in Golden Week this is like travelling at Christmas or Thanksgiving and you will end up with expensive and crappy hotels
  • Ryokans are *always* cheaper than Western hotels and are a great fun adventure, there may be rules about when you need to leave your room so they can clean it
  • You can’t easily buy prepaid mobile cards at stores as a traveller use a service like Econnect for cheap mobile data
  • Japan is a surprisingly cash driven economy
    • Small hotels may not take credit card, check on the website.
    • Foreign cards don’t work in most ATMs in Japan, you can usually only take out 50000Y per day (~500USD) so be wary if you need a lot of cash
    • 7/11 brand convenience stores (and no other brand) will have an ATM that works with Visa/Mastercard
    • Post Offices have ATMs that work with Foreign Cards but shut at 5pm (yes, even the machine)
  • You can use vending machines for lots of things, but you cannot buy alcohol or cigarettes from a vending machine without a Japanese issued ID
  • Trains, hotels and more have quite conservative curfews (~midnight) and you may have trouble if you are out longer than this. If you are stuck find a train station and look for a capsule hotel to crash until morning.
  • Google Translate
  • If you can’t face ordering food in Japanese find a restaurant with a “meal ticket” machine and order based on the pictures, they will collect them and bring your food without language barrier

Travel and transport

  • Google Maps has great transport information around Japan (esp Tokyo) and will tell you which platforms and exits to take as well as connecting trains. Get a simcard and use it regularly!
  • You cannot hail a taxi, you must instead go to a rank to get a taxi. Taxis in major cities are not affordable, take a bus or a train.
  • If you can’t work out how much the train fare you need is don’t bother and buy the cheapest ticket. When you get to the other end go to the fare adjustment machine and pay the difference.
  • Addresses in Japan are confusing as hell since street numbers are not in order but in order of when the address was created (1 can be next to 5000!)

Media and buying
  • Leave room in your luggage for toys and fabrics as you will fall in love, buy traditional souvenirs at Temple Markets
  • Remember that “girls comics” actually mean yaoi and may be in a different building to the other comics
  • Doujinshi are fan made comics of licensed characters, this doesn’t mean they are bad quality though and many published manga-ka start with Doujinshi. Many of these are adult content though and can be alarming if young or innocent characters are portrayed in a lewd fashion
  • Kinokuniya is the Barnes & Noble of Japan and a great place to buy books and more
  • Media (music, movies) is fracking expensive, don’t bother buying any