Japan is truly a spectacular country. There’s no place that combines old and new quite like here. You will definitely miss the heated toilet seats, vending machines and konbinis, and of course, the most polite of people.
My first trip to Japan was in the winter of 2017 and the second was in the Spring of 2023. Included in this travel guide are my favourite spots in Tokyo, details about 2 day trips to Nagano and Hakone, a brief guide to Kyoto and a couple of smaller day trips that are definitely worth doing if you have the time!
If there’s one thing you do in Tokyo that is a must, is get a great view of the city. There are so many buildings now with great, and reasonably priced views, In total, I’ve been to four now – and the two that come highly recommended to you is Shibuya Sky and Mori Art Tower. Both have truly unbelievable views, and there is a helipad rooftop a top each of them. I could have easily spent hours at each of them (and I think we did), Strong reccomendation to book far in advance, and to try and get a sunset slot to get both day and night views.
FOOD IN TOKYO
There are so any different types of foods here, beyond sushi. For my second trip here, I decided to make a list of foods that I wanted to hit. Check it out below and browse through some my Instagram Tokyo Food Diaries.
- Japanese Curry
- Shabu Shabu
- Wagyu/Kobe Beef
- Sakura flavoured things (Spring Only)
- Bakery goods
- Konbini (convenience store) meals
If you’ve got any Tokyo content on your social media for the last few years then odds are you’ve definitely seen a glimpse into the magic worlds that TeamLab can create. This interactive art exhibition is out of this world good, and definitely a highlight of my most recent trip. It is truly peak art and though it is constantly filled with people, it is still absolutely magical.
Be sure to wear pants that can be rolled up, or shorts under a skirt if you’re going, as you will be getting wet and mirrors are on the floor in multiple rooms.
Kiyomizu Dera, Kinkaku Ji (or the Golden Pavilion), Yasaka Shrine, Kodai Ji, and Fushimi Inari Taisha (thousands of torii gates) are just some of the shrines and temples in Kyoto and what I got to see in the three days I was there.
Most of these places do get pretty full with tourists, so best times would definitely be the start or end of the day. Be sure to take your time, try to find a quiet moment and take it all in.
Kyoto is so much more than just temples and shrines. Gion, the geisha district of Kyoto is definitely a wonderful place to explore and stroll. If you’d like to actually spot a geisha in action, I would recommend going for a guided walking tour. Ours took us through the small streets – where the maikos (geisha’s in training) lived, worked, studied and got ready. We even spotted a maiko at one of the busiest, well-known spots and it was amazing to catch a glimpse of this mysterious world.
ARASHIYAMA BAMBOO GROVE
Another popular spot that you’ve probably seen all over social media. It took a while for us to get there, as it was much further West, but we caught a bus that stopped right outside the entrance of the grove. We arrived late morning, and it wasn’t as crowded as we thought it would be.
A short walk later, and we were greeted by the magical bamboo trees on either side. The sound of the leaves slowly brushing across each other in the wind, made the experience ever more enchanting and peaceful. It even began to snow! Not even the pictures can capture the beauty of this place.
Travelling to Japan in winter, one of the top things we wanted to do was to see the Japanese Macaques in the hot springs, and to venture into a hot spring, or onsen, ourselves. Nagano was the perfect place for both. We did a short hike through the snow before coming to these cute red-faced monkeys. Enjoying an onset in the colder months is also a great way to relax after a day filled with hiking. Though most onsens are public, I managed to get one entirely to myself that evening. Watching the snow fall as I was in a warm bath was absolutely wonderful!
Only a short train ride from Tokyo, Hakone is the perfect 1-night trip to make if you’re just venturing through the big city. We stayed in a traditional ryokan and enjoyed the onsens onsite, a delicious Kaiser dinner and explored the town of Hakone the next day. We even got a view of the majestic Mt Fuji.
I would definitely recommend getting the Hakone Free Pass if you’re going to be venturing around here – the ticket covers all transport you’ll need including a sightseeing cruise. Definitely worth the money for ease and peace of mind.
Just 30 minutes on the Shinkansen, from Osaka Himeji castle is wonderful day trip. You can’t possibly miss this magnificent castle even from the train station. And if you do, you couldn’t possibly get lost with all the signs pointing you in its direction. It is the 🏯 emoji after all!
Located two hours from Osaka’s Namba station on the Nankai Railway, Koya San, or Mount Koya, was unlike anywhere else during our Japan travels. It was a long train ride, through the mountains, that ended in a stretch of cable car to the top.
The most magical part was Okunoin cemetery. It is the final resting place for many in Japan, with over 200,000 tombstones lining the way towards the main temple atop the hill. While we were walking through, snow covered the grounds, making this quiet cemetery all the more enchanting.
SOME PRACTICAL NOTES
- While Tokyo is much more card-friendly, there are still a number of places that were cash only throughout our trips.
- The JR pass is great if you’re hitting up multiple cities. Otherwise look at purchasing one-off tickets. Get one before you leave, as that’s the only way to purchase one as a foreigner.
- Good walking shoes are ESSENTIAL. Taking public transport in Tokyo is very accessible but you will do lots of walking through stations.
- Konbinis will have almost everything you need. Enjoy them and make use of them.
- Avoid busy areas like Shibuya or Shinjuku on the weekends, the hustle and bustle is fun but quickly overwhelming.