I think most of you know by now that Japan is one of my favourite places in the world. I have done previous city guides (my last Tokyo one linked here, excuse the old formatting – it was 10 years ago!) but this is a new, updated one with everywhere we went this trip. Kyoto will be next!
HOW TO GET THERE
We booked our flights with Finnair, it worked out much cheaper than BA and had direct flights to Tokyo Haneda, it partners with Japan Airlines (whom our flight was with) and I cannot recommend enough. We got a taxi to our Hotel from the airport after a long flight but I have caught the train before and it’s pretty easy.
TRAVELLING IN JULY
July is such a great time to travel around Japan! There were many reasons for this: firstly, we travelled in July for our honeymoon and loved it – the Gion festival (Arts festival) was on in Kyoto, it was very HOT which made it hard in some ways but also meant there were less tourists than, say, September (when lots of tours are on) or April (considered the best time to visit for cherry blossom season). It’s around 30 degrees in Tokyo but everywhere had air conditioning, even the metro stations, plus the tall buildings means there is plenty of shade so it felt more pleasant than travelling around London in similar weather. It was very humid and it is rainy season, although we only had one short downpour this entire trip (last time we had a few days of rain) . We chose school holidays as it meant our kids went on their own holiday with grandparents at the same time. If we go back, it would definitely be with the kids (maybe in 5 years time), once they can really get involved and cope with jetlag a bit easier, we saw lots more families with older kids this time around.
HOW TO GET AROUND
We walked or took the metro everywhere, taxis are quite expensive and it’s so easy to navigate the city using public transport. We used a Shinkansen (bullet train) pass to get from Tokyo to Kyoto and something we didn’t realise last time is that you also get free travel on all the JR lines in Tokyo and Kyoto with your bullet train pass. Often, you can get to where you need on these lines alone (or walk a bit extra to make it work) which saved us quite a bit of money. But the bullet train might not be the most cost effective decision if you’re not travelling around that much. You can get more local trains or buses between Osaka/Kyoto/Tokyo which might work out better value for your trip.
For other metro journeys we just topped up a card with cash and used it like an oyster, it was really affordable to get around this way (these cards/passes work in Kyoto too). Always make sure you tap out at stations – I accidentally didn’t tap out in Tokyo and then my card didn’t work in Kyoto and I had to wait until I got back to Tokyo to sort it! For Kyoto I just paid per journey.
If you are travelling around, there is an excellent luggage forwarding service (Takkyubin) which your hotel can help you with. We used it once (although has gone up in price since last time – it’s now roughly £15-£20 a suitcase) this trip, we sent our suitcase ahead to Kyoto and took a holdall into Mount Koya for one night and our case was waiting for us in Kyoto. They offer next day delivery usually but I probably wouldn’t risk it the day you fly home! Most stations also have luggage storage if you need to leave cases for a day.
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed at the Muji Hotel in Ginza. I have only stayed in Ginza once around 15 years ago when I was travelling on my own – it’s the shopping district with tons of luxury shops so figured it was a safe place to stay as a young woman on my own. Funnily enough we didn’t even go to Ginza last trip as we thought it was boring – but we LOVED staying there this time! The shops close in the evening and then it is so quiet, it feels quite villagey, local and safe (especially as it so well lit from all the signs). Here’s why we loved Ginza:
The Muji hotel – I was so excited to stay here and it didn’t disappoint. Small but perfectly formed rooms, it was minimal yet functional, calm and comfortable. It’s above their flagship store and as you check-in they present you with a list of items you can take home with you (including slippers and stationery!). Breakfast was the perfect introduction to simple Japanese living: udon noodles, fish and curry but also eggs and bacon if you wish. Our tip is not to go down to breakfast on the hour (as that’s what everyone does!) – try 10 to or 10 past the hour.
Nightlife – Ginza isn’t buzzing like other Tokyo districts at night but it has a lovely atmosphere and we discovered so many amazing restaurants in our neighbourhood. We loved heading out on the metro in the day and then just walking to and from dinner in the evening. There were loads of karaoke places nearby too.
Location – Ginza is really close to most places, you can walk to Shimbashi, it’s near Tsukiji Fish Market and our hotel was also right by the Metro (Ginza-Itchome) which is a central stop for getting around the city.
The shopping – this trip I wanted to enjoy the shops more and Ginza has them all – Daiso (the 100 yen store, everything under £1), Itoya (100 year old stationery store), and Loft as well as the fancier stores like Louis Vuitton and Gucci (which we didn’t frequent!).
WHAT TO DO
This time we wanted to spend time in Tokyo like locals, we did all the big sights last time (the Sensō-ji Temple, Yoyogi Park, Harajuku) and this time we wanted to just eat and relax. But first: Studio Ghibli Museum (which was shut last time we were here – it’s closed on Tuesdays!). It’s really hard to decide whether or not to visit this museum, you’re not allowed to take photos inside so there’s not much to research online and it’s a 45 minute journey outside the city but we decided to take a punt on it, after all we were in Tokyo and Chris is a huge fan.
It was gorgeous, the area of Mitaka itself was suburban, leafy and a joy to walk around, try to get there on time as the queues start for the gallery as soon as it opens. There are limitations on visitors everyday (Oomi Japan organised our ticket for this, aparently they’re quite hard to get hold of in advance!) which means it’s busy but not overly so. There were a lot of families and kids (were we the only grown-ups on our own? Perhaps, but we didn’t feel weird) and there is a lot to see: original illustrations, stills from films, lots of interactive elements and you get to see a unique short film only available to visitors (in Japanese, but it’s quite a simple plot to follow!). It was a morning well spent, it still felt very local and not too touristy, you also can’t spent more than a few hours there which was a nice surprise and meant we were back to the centre of Tokyo by lunchtime.
My favourite shop in Tokyo is Loft and there’s a 5/6 story one in Ginza which I spent a lot of time in. It’s like walking around the bottom floors of a department store like Selfridges: teas, chococlates, gifting, stationery – but way more affordable. The exchange rate to GBP was really good, so even in the 100yen store Daiso (my other favourite store), each item was around 65p each. We mainly bought gifts for the kids or stationery we can’t get easily in the UK (see my reel on what I bought here). Lawson, 7 Eleven and any Pharmacies are also worth visiting, where you can find quirky gifts, food, snacks and Japanese beauty products cheaply.
Akihabara was another place on our list as we only briefly visited last time, it’s ‘Electric Town’ and a larger than life part of the city filled with anime and manga shops, gaming stores and 5 story buildings filled with ‘Claw Machines’ that didn’t seem to be rigged – we both won on our first go! It’s a tween/teen heaven but also fun for adults, we enjoyed spending a few hours here and brought back photobooth stickers of us as anime characters (after using the beauty stations set up next to the booths, of course).
A highlight was karaoke, there are lots of places to do it – Big Echo is a popular one, we did Karaoke Kan which was right by our hotel and had great views out to Tokyo (it was roughly £25 for an hour which included 2 beers).
And then we spent the rest of our time eating!
WHERE TO EAT
We mainly ate noodles in Japan, it’s much easier to come across and a much cheaper, everyday meal. You can’t really go wrong with ramen here and even the cheapest food you order from a vending machine is delicious! Our first night we arrived late so asked the staff at Muji for their recommendations (I would always recommend this) and we ended up in a cute, stylish ramen place nearby called Menya Yukou – 2 beers, 2 ramen dishes and a side of gyozas came to £20. There’s no tipping culture in Japan so it made a big difference to how much we spent.
We love the simplicity of Coco Ichibanya for katsu curry. Kaitensushi (conveyor belt sushi) is an affordable way to eat but they’re not as common as you’d think, a lot are in department stores or train stations – we did see Sushi-go-round which looked good and for affordable sushi – Sushi No Midori. The best places for us are the small, unassuming places that don’t look fancy, they often have the best atmosphere, too. In Ginza most restaurants are at ground level, so many places in Tokyo you have to get a lift to the entrance and it’s very hard to back out if you’re not sure on the vibe! Here you can peek in and see if it’s busy or the food looks good.
We did a ‘Ramen Tour’ whilst in Tokyo with Frank, a ramen enthusiast (his site 5am ramen should become your go-to if visiting) who taught us the different types of ramen, from my favourite: tsukemen (dipping noodles) to all the different varieties of broths and toppings. He gave us a low-down on his top 5 ramen restaurants in Ginza (they were all within 5 minutes walk!), gave us their history and backstory (each one had a niche: female owned, family run for 50 years, famous for their spicy broth etc) and we picked our favourite to visit.
We ended up in Hashigo – it was a simple bar, no tables and so busy that as soon as you have finished, you leave, to let those in the queue behind you start. It was the best ramen I have ever tasted and it was a small unassuming place we’d passed by a few times without noticing (probably because there were no English signs – but they had an English menu once seated). These were Frank’s other ramen recommendations (in/around Ginza):
A small word of warning: if you buy snacks or a takeaway iced coffee, there are no bins. Literally. Not one on the streets. We spent hours walking around with a plastic container and couldn’t find any. We realised after a while that no one was eating ‘on the go’ and there are even signs in cafes asking if you take away, you take your rubbish home with you. I am still incredulous that the streets are so clean without any bins! But that’s another one of the amazing things about Japan.
We took mainly cash, which seems crazy in such a modern city but it helped us track our spending plus we had read a few articles saying that overseas cards don’t always work and the few times we tried our card they were temperamental! Everywhere we went accepted cash no problem, and in the countryside it is preferred (the Temple we stayed in Kyosan insisted on cash, and apparently it’s quite hard to withdraw as only certain cashpoints within 7 Elevens work with overseas cards). Something to bear in mind.
Data roaming was expensive for us, so we used wi-fi from the hotel. Most tube stations and shopping malls (and Starbucks) have wi-fi readly available and in places like Kyoto they had their own ‘city wifi’.
Plugs and voltage are the same as the US, in other words your straighteners might not work. Thankfully I had a pair of $5 Target mini straighteners which served me well!
Google translate is helpful for menus but we found no problem with language and were always understood in some way!
We booked our flights then used Oomi Travel for a lot of our itinerary (previously Unique Japan Tours – whom we booked our honeymoon with!). We paid for our trip and knew roughly where we wanted to go but Darina helped book everything and all the extras we wouldn’t have imagined – our itinerary was quite simple this time and was basically Tokyo – Koyasan – Kyoto – Tokyo – London (our last trip was more intricate and you can personalise your itinerary as much as you like). Oomi recommended the Muji Hotel, the trip to Koyasan, booked all our bullet trains and transport, in Koyasan we had a private tour guide and stayed overnight in a Buddhist Temple run by Monks, in Tokyo we also did a sushi making course run by the most amazing Japanese women. It is totally possible to book Japan by yourself but for the extra trips (especially Koyasan, or the incredible island of Amami where we visited on our honeymoon, a lot of these hotels have no English websites), Oomi helped make it extra special (and saved us time whilst working full-time with two kids!). This is not a paid promotion but wanted to give a shout out, as I have recommended them to anyone we know going to Japan!
A few affordable restaurants recommended by Oomi Japan:
Ramen Jiro (famous ramen spot, queues start as early as 7am!)
Tonkatsu Maruya – a typical office workers lunch spot
Yakitori Takumi – for yakitori, typical Japanese kebab style food, meat charcoaled on (often) bamboo skewers)