Woooweeee there’s a lot to cover here! I think it’s important to go into a trip like this knowing there’s no way you’re going to get to every restaurant or neighborhood you’d like to. Even if you have everything planned out, you WILL get distracted. This is also a place where you want to get distracted because there’s so much to see and do that you can’t possibly predict. This is just a basic guide of some places I discovered that I really enjoyed. I hope it helps inspire your own trip to Japan!
There are tons of places to stay in Japan, and in my experience most are pretty good and clean but very small. That goes for most airbnbs and low to mid priced hotels. They’re fine but they are what they are. Our final night we decided to splurge on a room at The Grand Hyatt Tokyo and it was great! The room was huge, breakfast was amazing, the pool and jacuzzi were so luxe. Definitely recommend it! I also recommend staying more central in Shinjuku or Shibuya when looking for hotels or airbnbs.
First things first: Japan is not a size inclusive country. Many of the shops I went to had ONE SIZE (!) many of which didn’t fit me, but luckily some stuff did. Just want to be totally honest about that because although many things are crazy cute, be prepared to be let down or just go for inspiration if you’re not an xs/s.
Shibuya 109 – I remembered going here the first time I came to Japan nine years ago and loving it. It’s a mall that is only cute women’s clothing brands. So much good stuff in here including this insane cake castle installation and so many vintage-inspired dresses.
LaForet – Another mall similar to Shibuya 109 but a little more edgy and pricy. Worth walking through for sure! Cute food court too.
Wego – I went into 3-4 different locations of this store because there were so many around Shibuya and they had great stuff and good prices. Some of their stores also carried vintage. Somehow I have no photos from this shop but this is where I bought most of the things I purchased on the trip.
Tokyu Hands – amazzzzzing department store in Shibuya. A great place for inspiration, souvenir shopping and buying cheap Japanese beauty products. Oh also dog kimonos and stationery so pretty much anything you can imagine. Set aside 1-2 hours to roam around in here.
Kinji – One of the only well-priced vintage stores I went to. It’s sort of like a Buffalo Exchange where they buy and sell vintage so the selection can vary quite a bit. Mostly focused on 90’s but found some 60’s and 70’s too priced below $40.
Amore Tokyo – stumbled into this store on accident and was shaken to my core. As soon as we walked in they locked the door behind us. I looked around and realized I was surrounded by the biggest vintage Chanel handbag selection I had ever seen. Naturally pricing reflected that but I still enjoyed the visit; it felt like a museum.
G2? – Adorable vintage store in Harajuku. In a sea of relatively high-priced vintage, this shop’s curation makes it worth the stop. And I’m still regretting not getting those shoes!
Shimokitazawa – This is a neighborhood of tons of cute little vintage stores. Loved walking around and exploring but truthfully didn’t do much shopping. Almost all of the vintage in Japan is purchased in the U.S. and just brought back so prices are much higher than what you’d see here for the same items. Again, it’s still fun to look around but don’t expect to find lots of deals.
Koenji – similar to Shimokitazawa, this is another neighborhood off the beaten path that has tons of little vintage stores. I found the selection here to be a little more elevated and even discovered a few non vintage Japanese brands I really liked. Both of these neighborhoods you can just take the train to the area and once you’re out of the station you’ll start to see shops.
First, it’s important to note that Tokyo has the highest number of Michelin star rated restaurants above any other city, even Paris. There are literally hundreds (maybe thousands) of top notch restaurants in Tokyo alone so you can be confident chances are high you will stumble into a great meal in any part of town. I ate 20-30 meals there and was only “eh” about one. Going into the trip knowing this, we didn’t make any reservations and just had a few recommendations we knew we wanted to check out. If you ARE interested in trying a specific place I highly recommend making reservations months in advance. Many restaurants are tiny so you can imagine what a bit of notoriety does for one’s ability to get a spot at the sushi counter.
World Breakfast Allday – Our jetlag going there wasn’t bad at all. Just stayed up as long as we could (9:30 pm I think?) and then slept 8 hours through the night. The only issue of course is waking up before 6 am and having nothing to do. Even cute coffee places don’t open til 9 for the most part. Oh also I woke up starving because my body thought I had missed dinner or something. Anyway, after doing some research we found this spot that opened at 7:30 and set out for it. It was so adorable and seriously delicious. They serve traditional breakfast options from 5 different parts of the world at a time and rotate often. I had the Malaysian and Aaron had Taiwanese and both were so good.
Eddy’s Ice Cream – I mean, I just had to?! Cutest ice cream ever and you get to customize it with your choice of cute cookies and cones. Oh, and it was delicious too!
The Latte Tokyo – I don’t drink coffee but I looove matcha so I had a lot of fun scoping out the best and cutest matcha shops. Thrilled to report this one even had soy milk. So yummy!
Genki Sushi – So this was one of my most favorite spots to eat at, haha. First, the sushi is cheap and good. Every order of two pieces of sushi was about $1.19 and DELICIOUS. Second, yes you ordered individually from a computer and your food suddenly appeared in front of you like magic. Three, great for snacks in between meals because you could go in and get 4 pieces of sushi, pay and then be back out shopping. Lastly, we ate here twice and walked by countless times and I never saw a line. Highly recommend!
Afuri Ramen – another place recommended by a few people I trust. Did not disappoint! And each bowl was under $10. They also have vegan options here if you’re looking for that!
Cafe Kitsune – cutie cafe with delicious as hell matcha.
Totti Candy Factory – another thing I just had to do in Harajuku! Honestly, it was yummy too (each layer was a different flavor).
Tokyu Food Show – One of my favorite things about Tokyo is how many department stores house elaborate food halls in their basement. This one is one of my favorites. Keep in mind: most of these don’t have a cafe area for you to sit and enjoy the food you eat because they’re expecting you to bring it back home/work to eat. You can find stunning pastries, sparkling produce, and of course lots of sushi among other treasures here!
W/O Stand – Grabbed this delicious matcha when I was doing vintage shopping in the cool neighborhood of Shimokitazawa.
Gram Pancakes – I’ve been dreaming about these jiggly souffle pancakes since I saw them on instagram last year. I’m not sure if Gram is the first place that made them (you can get them at quite a few spots now) but they definitely seem to be in the highest demand. They only have three seatings a day at 11 am, 3 pm and 6 pm and you have to get there an hour early to get a ticket. The good news is you’re in the heart of Harajuku so once you snag your ticket you can easily wander around for an hour until it’s pancake time. I personally loved them! Definitely are more on the eggy side which I like; I didn’t feel weighed down by them as I would eating regular pancakes. Worth it!
Seirinkian – We saw this spot on Netflix’s Ugly Delicious a few months ago and had it bookmarked. They only offer two types of pizza and some great antipastis so don’t expect lots of options. So good though! Another delicious and cheap meal.
Awomb – One of our friends picked this place out and we had our hotel in Kyoto make a reservation for us (one of the perks of staying at hotels is you can email them ahead of time to make reservations for you!) and it was a really fun experience. Definitely a meal for a more adventurous eater as they only have one plate they serve with lots of little plates of fish and pickles and a side of rice and broth and you kind of just make bites on your own. Reaaally yummy! Also the neighborhood it was located in was just stunning.
Shunbou – One of our last meals in Tokyo was this delicious lunch. A traditional Japanese lunch elevated. I loved everything I tried and the presentation was so pretty!
Nishiki Market – A fun outdoor market in Kyoto with loads of produce, soft serve, fried octopus and so much more. Loved it!
Mister Donut – I can’t remember how I discovered this chain but I immediately recognized the donut looking similar in shape to one we had in Oahu last year that had a chewy texture and was so good. I read some reviews and YUP this was the same donut. When we finally stumbled across one it was just as good as I remember. It almost has a mochi-like texture.
Morning Glass – Cute little Hawaiian breakfast spot we found in Osaka. I enjoyed a delicious egg sandwich and Aaron indulged in some mac and cheese pancakes, naturally. Coffee and matcha were great too!
Fushimi -Inari Taisha Shrine – loved visiting this gorgeous shrine and getting to walk through the bright orange Torii gates. Definitely go early as it gets busy later since it’s the most popular shrine in Kyoto.
Nara Park – A dream come true! A little out of the way but if you’re going to Kyoto, it’s worth the extra leg of travel. Felt pretty magical. They sell food there you can feed to the deer but keep in mind we saw most vendors closing down at 4 pm so you wanna get there before then. Aaron also spotted an ice cream truck and had one of the yummiest cones of our trip: melon and hokkaido milk swirl! You only have to walk for 5 minutes from the train station before you start running into deer.
Dotonbori – Super cool neon shopping area and outdoor food market in Osaka. We read that it inspired Bladerunner which I can definitely see. Real talk: I got a bit overwhelmed while eating here and had to go back to our airbnb early. I think I was just overstimulating and drained from dragging our bags on the train and traveling and walking all day. Still fun and we ate some delicious tempura!
Harry’s Hedgehog Cafe – I had a really fun time here as expected! Got to feed and play with hedgehogs, otters, bunnies and chinchillas. Literally what more could you ask for?
- Don’t rely on google maps or yelp – There were plenty of times that we thought we knew where we were going from google or apple maps and then got totally turned around. Just know you’ll need a bit of a sense of direction when finding some of these spots and prepare to get frustrated at times. Many places are tiny and may seem hidden. Also, I recommend discovering places to go through guides (like this one!) and don’t expect to use Yelp or similar services to find good stuff. They aren’t big Yelpers out there and so it’s not easy to discover using those platforms. I had a bit more luck on Tripadvisor but keep in mind all of those reviews are from tourists so…
- Get pocket wifi – there are tons of websites that do this. You pick it up and return it at the airport so it’s super easy and ensures you have wifi while you’re out exploring. This is the one we used.
- Respect the public space / be quiet / don’t leave trash anywhere – The residents of Tokyo (and Japan throughout) are serious about respecting public space. Do not litter anywhere under any circumstances. Bring bags big enough with you if you have to hold some of your trash because there aren’t tons of public trash cans. Also, train etiquette is important: don’t eat, drink or talk loudly on them.
- Learn a few phrases / download google translate – super easy to do and helps with the few interactions you may have where you definitely are not understanding someone.
- Travel the least possible between cities – I definitely regret the way we planned our trip with spending a few days in Tokyo, then heading to Kyoto and Osaka and then back to Tokyo for a few more days. I had the best of intentions but the least you can travel, the better! A trip like this can be extremely draining and you don’t want to make it harder on yourself than you have to. Same advice goes for staying in multiple neighborhoods: not necessary! It’s so much easier to get comfy where you are and explore other areas by taking public transit around during the days and nights.
- Sign up for alerts for cheap flights (we use Scott’s Cheap Flights and Kayak). That’s how we found our flights for $500! I highly recommend it.