Japan in a Week
Last November, I traveled to Japan for a week full of eating and touring. Through my photos, I’m going to bring you along with me to this country that is so rich in culture.
How to Get Around
Before diving into the food and the rest of the itinerary, let me give you a couple tips on traveling throughout Japan. First, if you plan to travel to Kyoto or anywhere else a decent ways outside of Tokyo, I highly recommend getting the Japan Rail Pass before you arrive in Japan. This pass is around $280 USD and pays for itself if you go to places other than Tokyo. After purchasing online, you get a voucher to take with you. Upon arrival in Japan, you need to go to the Japan Rail Travel Service Center in the airport and redeem the voucher for the actual pass. If you get the JR Pass, you can take most Japan Rail lines throughout Tokyo and most Shinkansens (bullet trains). The Yamanote Line makes a big circle around Tokyo and announces each stop in both English and Japanese. You can get the JR Pass here.
The national currency of Japan is the Japanese yen. For convenience, we exchanged our US dollars for yen at the airport upon arrival. The exchange rate was very good at the time. I found that around US$100-US$150 was enough to carry around, as major credit cards are accepted in most restaurants, stores, and hotels.
After landing at Narita (one of Tokyo’s two major airports), we took the Narita Express (NEX) to Shinagawa Station. Shinagawa is a business area, but our perfectly located hotel, InterContinental “The Strings” Tokyo, was only a short walk from Shinagawa station. This close proximity made traveling anywhere within Tokyo a total breeze. If there is one thing I can’t stress enough, it’s to get a hotel near a train station, regardless of what area of Tokyo you stay in! While the JR lines are already easy to navigate, staying near a station will make traversing the city even simpler.
After dropping off our luggage at the hotel, our first (and last) stop of the day was a katsu restaurant within walking distance of our hotel. This fried pork cutlet was crispy and juicy. On its own, it seems quite simple, but paired with the cabbage, miso, rice, and a tangy, yet sweet, katsu sauce, it makes for a delicious meal. This was a great way to end a long day full of travel before heading back to the hotel and crashing for the night.
The next morning, we decided to go eat a “Japanese bucket-list” dish- the Fluffy Pancake. Fluffy pancakes are found in numerous places throughout Tokyo, but the restaurant we went to was “A Happy Pancake.” Be sure to get here early and put your name on the list outside the door, as they fill up quickly! These pancakes, sometimes known as souffle pancakes, were light and fluffy, but also had a somewhat creamy texture. They are served with a caramel syrup and honey butter. We loved the pancakes enough that we made a couple trips back here before we traveled home.
After filling our stomachs, we went to the Meiji Jingu Shrine, which is dedicated to one of Japan’s past emperors, Meiji, and his wife. The shrine is a great place to walk around and relax, especially if you need an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. You can hardly tell you’re in the middle of the city when surrounded by the lush trees and chirping birds. Speaking of trees, the Ginko trees were a brilliant yellow at this time of year. Note: There are tons of temples and shrines throughout Tokyo; I recommend researching your options beforehand and deciding which ones you want to visit so you can better appreciate their history.
In contrast to our peaceful morning at the shrine, we later went to the world’s busiest crossing, Shibuya Crossing, to watch the scramble of people as the walk signal turned on. It’s definitely an interesting sight. For the best view, I recommend going up to the second floor of Starbucks on the corner of the crossing.
Another place we found ourselves returning to was the ramen bar, Fuunji. This ramen is spectacular (as is most in Japan). We tried a few different restaurants, but this was by far our favorite ramen bar. This place is a small “hole-in-the-wall” that always has a huge line of people, even before they open. When you enter, you go to the vending machine near the door, choose which dish you want and what you want to add (if anything), pay, take your ticket, and wait in line. The workers behind the bar will signal you when it’s your turn to sit (as there is limited seating), ask you what size noodle you want, and will plate your ramen for you. The broth is rich and creamy from the pork bones used. The soy/mirin marinated egg is a perfect soft boil when broken into. When you mix it all together and eat the noodle, pork, egg, and broth in one bite, it’s absolutely divine! Honestly- if you only take one recommendation from me, take this one: eat at Fuunji! P.S. Don’t be afraid to get loud and slurp!!
Later in the week, I discovered that I enjoyed spicy tsukemen (“dipping noodles”) more than ramen. It consists of a bowl of broth (with egg, meat, etc) and a plate of thicker noodles. You then dip the noodles into the broth yourself and eat them.
One thing I was really excited about trying in Tokyo was sushi. We decided to go to Manten Sushi for lunch, as we read that it was some of the “most affordable, high-end sushi” you can get. I disagree with this statement. One odd thing to note: if you do not make a reservation for lunch, but show up and get a table, your meal is ~$30 USD, instead of ~$60 USD with a reservation. We first arrived on a Friday morning 30 minutes before they opened and there was already a huge line out the door. They began letting people in promptly at 11:00 am. When we arrived at the door, they said they didn’t have room and we would have to make a reservation for the following day. We decided to do it, since I really wanted to try this sushi. The next day, Saturday, came and we showed up 15 minutes prior to opening (our reservation was at 11:00 am)- there was not a soul in line. When they opened, we went in and they seated us. One other table showed up later, but that was all. I found this quite odd, since the reviews were spectacular and the previous day it was packed. They began serving us our meal, 26 courses in all. The first course was miso, but it tasted very similar to dish soap. The first piece of fish to arrive was chewy, off-colored, and unbelievably “fishy” tasting. The 24 courses that ensued were the same: not good. I have eaten many odd things, but I could not eat some of the pieces of fish that came to our table. I was extremely disappointed with Manten Sushi.
Moving on from the bad sushi, we visited Tokyo Tower. This tower is a broadcast antenna, and used to be the tallest structure in Tokyo, until the Skytree was built.
We had a couple beautiful, clear days in Tokyo, before it began to rain. We had three days of rain, but luckily it makes for neat reflective photos throughout the lit-up streets. While it’s raining in Tokyo, there’s not much to do other than eat and visit museums. We went to teamLab borderless across the Rainbow Bridge. It’s a digital museum, meaning everything in there is created from computers. Animations on the walls, light shows in trippy rooms, etc. Despite rave reviews, I was not a huge fan of this place: it was overly crowded and just a bunch of projections on the walls. I will have to say, the light display in one of the rooms was very neat, but that was the only thing I personally found interesting.
We were hesitant, but we decided to try some more sushi (from a different restaurant, of course). We went to a conveyor belt sushi restaurant, which there are PLENTY of in Tokyo. Honestly, I think a conveyor belt sushi restaurant is a “must-try” while in Japan. It is affordable, really neat, and delicious! Above are just a couple pieces of sushi we tried (but ate many, many more platefuls). This was 100 times better than the original sushi experience we had. The sushi comes around on a conveyor belt beside your booth and you can grab whatever you want off of there, as long as it is on the correct conveyor. You can also custom order off the menu and they send it on the upper conveyor. They charge based on plate color. I thoroughly enjoyed this experience.
For a late night snack, I suggest going to Piss Alley in Shinjuku for izakaya and yakitori. This small alley is filled with smoke from the grills, the smell of delicious meats, and lanterns floating above you. There are several vendors along each side, most all trying to get you to come into their shop. I continued walking until I saw a completely packed store with an older lady cooking, not even trying to draw anyone into her shop. The aroma lofting out from here drew me in immediately. I pointed to what I wanted to try and she began cooking it on the grill. I began to salivate upon hearing it sizzle and seeing it cook. When it was done, she sat the plate down in front of me. This yakitori (meat on a stick) was perfectly charred, had a smoky flavor, and was slightly sweet from the glaze over the top. The food here was delicious, and the alley itself gave us a taste of traditional Japan.
About halfway through our week, we boarded the Shinkansen (bullet train) and headed south to Kyoto to spend two days. The journey from Shinagawa Station to Kyoto took a little over two hours and provided great scenery of the Japanese countryside. Once in Kyoto, we stayed at 22 PIECES, a very nice and modern hotel. I highly recommend staying there, as it’s located in a great area and is very clean.
In Kyoto we took taxis, trains, or walked to most places. The taxis seemed to be slightly pricier and only a couple of the train lines in Kyoto work with the JRPass.
Our first stop in Kyoto was the Nishiki Market. This is an extremely long shopping market. They have almost any kind of food you can imagine, so it’s a great place for adventurous eaters! There are plenty of samples being passed out, too.
One perk of going to Kyoto in the fall is the stunning fall foliage. Consequently, one con of going to Kyoto in the fall is the HUGE flocks of tourists to see said foliage. Needless to say, it was PACKED. However, the vibrant orange, red, and yellow leaves on the trees were magnificent, and made navigating through thousands of people to see them worth it.
As we continued walking and admiring the foliage, we saw neat statues, lots of restaurants, and the bamboo grove. The bamboo grove was even more crowded than the main street was, which made for a very unpleasant time. The grove has a path everyone walks down, shoulder to shoulder, and you look at the bamboo while walking. There is a fence so you cannot go into the bamboo and there is hardly any room to walk. I was very excited about seeing this, but when I experienced the herd of tourists, I was disappointed. Lesson learned: Go EARLY if you want to see the bamboo without thousands of people blocking your view.
We visited Nijo castle while in Kyoto. Nijo castle was the home of the first Edo Period shogun. It has beautiful trees, flowers, and landscape throughout. Unfortunately, the palace in the center was being repaired when we visited, so we did not get to see it. Nevertheless, it’s a neat sight.
For dinner we went to Donguri and ate okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese “pancake.” You order on a tablet at your table and can design your pancake however you like. There are several toppings at the table, including mayonnaise, seaweed, and barbecue sauce. We also had gyoza for an appetizer, which was quite tasty.
The next day, we headed south to see the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine. We arrived early in the morning when it was not overly crowded. There are 10,000 Torii gates here, which you walk through to the top to see the shrine. After touring this for awhile, we wandered around the area and stumbled upon a (kind of creepy) bamboo forest. It was so much nicer than the original bamboo grove we visited, as it wasn’t crowded. This proved to be our favorite shrine.
After Fushimi Inari Taisha, we went farther south to Uji- the home of matcha. This was one of the highlights of the trip for me. We visited a matcha store and partook in a traditional tea ceremony. Our teacher spoke perfect English (and a few other languages, including Japanese). We ground our own matcha, then were taught the proper way to whisk it to make it creamy. It was served with a sweet red bean candy. The matcha was smooth, creamy, and had a very complex and rich flavor.
After the ceremony, we visited Byodoin Temple. The temple grounds are beautiful and Phoenix Hall is picturesque. A walk around the grounds was very nice and we got to learn about the history of the temple. After walking around the grounds, we went through the museum to learn more.
We then returned to Kyoto, did some more sightseeing, and returned to Tokyo for another day. We ate more ramen and tskumen, before boarding the plane to head home.
I loved the culturally rich (and food-rich) country of Japan. Tokyo is a foodie-heaven: divine ramen, masterfully prepared sushi, fluffy pancakes, and so much more. Be sure to do your research on certain temples and shrines beforehand, so you’ll know which ones you want to visit and know their history. Kyoto is extremely packed and I enjoyed the towns and shrines south of Kyoto much more than the city itself. Though, if you find yourself in Kyoto, be sure to check out Nishiki Market for the variety of snacks. I highly recommend going to Uji and partaking in a tea ceremony if you like tea…. or even if you don’t.
A few tips:
Get the JRPass if you will be traveling anywhere away from Tokyo (like Kyoto, Osaka, etc.)- it will pay off.
Take the Yamanote Line to get to most place within Tokyo.
Respect their customs and learn a few commonly used words (Arigato = Thank you; Sumimasen = Excuse me; Konnichiwa = Hello)
Download Japanese on your Google Translate App
Use Apple or Google Maps for everything (will tell you which train to get on and the departure times). You can download a map of Japan on Google Maps, too.
Convert a couple hundred dollars to Japanese Yen and have it with you for taxis, markets, etc. Most places accept major credit cards, though.
There is so much more that we didn’t get to see, so I will definitely be back to Japan in the near future.