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Somehow, time got away from me and I am super late on posting my recommendations of things to do in Tokyo and Kyoto. Here is a list of the experiences we had in Japan last year, things we did and loved and would suggest to anyone who is planning a visit:
My Tokyo Top 10
1 :: First let's talk accommodation! I would go for an airbnb flat in Shimokitazawa, which is a super fun and accessable neighborhood with lots of boutiques, restaurants, and a very trendy vibe. Also good coffee which is not so easy to find in Japan. If you want to stay right in the middle of the action, go for an airbnb in Shibuya, we really loved this one.
2 :: There are so many good places to eat in Japan! I definitely recommend Ippudo for ramen, and hooray! because they've just opened one in London! But really it's hard to find bad ramen in Japan. Don't be afraid to walk into some local shop where you order by machine and take a seat at the bar to be served. Adam and I were nearly put off by one place because we didn't know how to work the machine, but everyone in Japan is so friendly that in a second there was someone there to help. Also, try to find somewhere that serves okonomiyaki. It's a kind of eggy pancake thing with noodles - oh man, it's good.
3 :: The Tokyo Sky Tree! Adam always wants to see a birds-eye-view of a city, and Tokyo was so amazing to see from above. We had to queue for a while and it was pretty full of school children on field trips, but it was worth it.
4 :: Ueno! This is where we ate the best tempura of our lives! Around here you have a little market that's full of cheap stuff you probably wouldn't want to buy, but it's nice to have a wander and then some lunch. And then you can walk over to the park close by which has some beautiful temples and the Tokyo Zoo! It was closed when we got there on a Monday which was sad because we didn't get to see the panda, but not so sad because zoos can be a little depressing.
5 :: The Golden Gai! Shinjuku is a fun area to walk around, but buried in there are a few tiny streets full of tiny bars. It's a fun night out and a good way to chat to some people from Tokyo. English isn't as widely spoken as in other countries we've visited, but I really loved that!
6 :: Meiji Jingu - a really lovely shrine and a nice place to experience some quiet in the middle of Tokyo. Also, it's really close to Harajuku! Which, if you haven't heard of it, is a great place to see everything cute about Japan and visit the bunny cafe - one of my favourite things about our time in Tokyo.
7 :: Asakusa temple. It's pretty busy and touristy, but it's one of the oldest temples in Japan so it's a must see for those of us who love visiting temples and churches. Also, there's a little shopping street down the road and it's where I tried my first mochi - which was good but maybe not something you would want to eat loads of.
8 :: Shibuya is a good place to visit on your first day in Tokyo. It's got the famous Tokyo crossing and is a bit overwhelming with crowds but is a good way to immerse yourself in all things Japan. It's quite touristy, but full of interesting things to see.
9 :: Tokyo public transport. I know this is a funny thing to add, but we had such a good time trying to figure out what on earth was going on with the transport system as we navigated the city. It was so complicated, but once we got the hang of it there was such a sense of satisfaction. And it was a great way to immerse ourselves in Tokyo life! And if you want another way to immerse yourself into some Japanese culture, check out a Tokyo Giants game! I'm not a baseball fan but I had lots of fun.
10 :: All you can eat shabu shabu!! I can't recommend this enough. Oh my goodness. Shabu shabu is the most delicious food you will ever eat, I think it may even win out as my favourite food ever. Even above macaroni and cheese! I know, I know, a bold statement. But if you're ever in Shibuya, go here.
My Kyoto Top 10
1 :: As far as airbnbs go in Japan, the earlier you book the better. We booked really late and ended up staying at this airbnb in Kyoto. It was lovely! And a great way to experience how many people in Kyoto live and sleep, but it would have been nicer to be a little closer to a train station, if not the center.
2 :: Kinkaku-ji or the golden temple. This was the only point at which I got frustrated with crowds in Japan. There were SO many tourists here that we didn't stay for very long. However, it was still worth it because the golden temple was amazing.
3 :: Once you're done at Kinkaku-ji, hop on over to Arashiyama, the bamboo forest. Again, it's going to be touristy, but it's so peaceful you won't even notice. It's easy to do the temple and the bamboo forest in one day but the earlier you get there the better.
4 :: Gion is a great place for an early evening stroll. It's fun to see if you can spot a geisha, although it's really difficult so don't be disappointed if you don't. It's a beautiful old part of the city and a wonderful place to take photos.
5 :: Nishiki Market is a great place to try out Kyoto's street food! Adam ate a grilled cuttlefish skewer, but he's a lot braver than I am. It's a good place to get lost for a few hours, but if you're looking for a restaurant to eat at, do your research first! We just chose one at random at it was not good.
6 :: Kyoto Gyoen National Park holds my favourite memory of our trip to Japan. We had just arrived in Kyoto and walked to the Park from the train station. Adam fell asleep on a bench while I sat and watched a yoga class near by, it was one of those "at peace with the world" moments.
7 :: Fushimi Inari Shrine and a hike - possibly one of the most famous spots in Kyoto. It really is as beautiful as you would imagine it to be - but there is a long walk you can do all around the grounds of the shrine. It's up-hill for a lot of the way, but it's very much worth it.
8 :: Kurama Onsen and a hike - this is home to one of Kyoto's famous hot springs. You take a train to get there, and the train itself has a leaf viewing car. So if you get to the station early enough you can grab one of those leaf viewing seats and enjoy the ride out of the city looking at all the beautiful trees. At the station you can get a map of the town where the spa is and the surrounding nature walks. I suggest getting off a stop early and doing the hike from the station to the spa. There's nothing better than a long soak after some exercise! It's not too expensive, but you do have to be completely naked in the pools - no swimming costumes allowed! So if you have a problem with public nudity, this may not be for you. But having said that, I do have a problem with public nudity but I just made myself get over it. I'm a big believer in not letting your fears hold you back.
9 :: Pontocho at night. This is one of my favourite streets in Kyoto. It's full of restaurants and bars and it's just so very old world Japan. Finding a place to eat is hard though, and it's very much a local spot although it seems touristy. Adam and I had to search for a while to find a restaurant with an English menu, and even then we saw others ordering delicious looking dishes that just didn't seem to be on our menu. But we persevered and thankfully Adam isn't afraid to look like an idiot when it comes to pointing, asking questions, trying to make conversation where no one speaks the same language, and just giving things a go.
10 :: Shinbashi Dori is a beautiful little street to walk down. It's not far away from Pontocho and Gion, you can do all of that in one night if you like, but it's lovely to just wander around this part of town and get lost in the old world-ness of it all. When I imagined the old culture of Japan, Shinhabshi Dori is what I thought it would look like.
Just a few last points about Japan...
:: Be patient with yourself, you will get lost. Many people don't speak much English and the transport system is so complicated in many cities - but if you embrace the adventure of it then you'll have nothing but fun trying to figure out what the hell is going on.
:: Bullet trains! Expensive but pretty much as awesome as you've heard.
:: Coffee: it's not good. Starbucks is your friend. Maybe we were unlucky with our local coffee choices but we only found one place in Shimokitazawa that was good, and unfortunately I can't remember what it was called.
:: Pack snacks! It means you don't have to spend so much money on eating out. But that's just a good travelers tip in general.
:: Mobile wifi!! Most airbnbs offer it but make sure you get it otherwise it's going to make traveling around a lot more difficult!
:: You can do a day trip to Osaka from Kyoto, and we did, but it was so crowded and such a crazy city that I didn't add it into my list of must-do's because I don't think it's a must.