12 days in Japan
Discover what to do, eat, see and where to stay in our ultimate travel guide for Japan below. From the neon streetscapes of Tokyo, all the way down to the vibrant city of Hiroshima (with stops along the way at beautiful Kyoto and Nara), the Native Union team has done the hard work for you! This trip took us 12 days. If you only have a week, you could comfortably explore Tokyo and Kyoto.
What’s not to love about Japan? The food is perfection, the people couldn’t be more polite or helpful, the bustling cities are full of life and more than a little quirkiness, the magnificent landscapes, the trains are never, I repeat NEVER, late, the ancient traditions harmonised with the ultramodern (heated toilet seats anyone?)…it’s hard to know where to stop. It’s truly a country like no other and certainly one destination to tick off your bucket list.
BEFORE YOU GO
Buy a Japan Rail Pass if you’re planning to visit several destinations. It gives you access to the bullet trains (Shinkansen) and saves you a lot of money on transport. This is only available to tourists, and can only be purchased outside of Japan, so plan ahead.
Set up your phone for international data or plan to buy a sim card with data at the airport. English is not widely spoken, especially outside Tokyo, and the metro is pretty indecipherable when you first arrive. Google route planner will become your most helpful travel companion. Book popular restaurants ahead especially during peak tourist seasons to avoid disappointment.
The most populated metropolitan area in the world is big on size and big on surprise. It’s a veritable feast for the senses, and just walking around it you’re sure to see something you’ve never seen before. It’s rich in culture, history and tradition, with a heavy dose of wackiness. And let’s not even get started on the food. Prepare to be amazed.
There's no such thing as bad Ramen in Tokyo
EAT & DRINK
Dining in Tokyo is reason enough to visit this foodie capital of the world. It’s virtually impossible to eat badly. There’s thousands to choose from, but here’s some we’ve tried, tested and thoroughly enjoyed.
Traditionally a type of skewered chicken, Jomon serves up delicious Yakitori of just about everything. Feast on plenty of moreish meat, but leave room for the skewered gorgonzola tortilla. Nab a seat at the crowded counter to see the chefs in action at the grill and enjoy the boisterous atmosphere.
Potentially one of the hardest restaurants to find in the world (but worth the struggle), Shirube is famed for its flamed mackerel. Its tofu dish is pretty great too. This is a good guide for finding it. Good luck!
If you’re looking for some exquisite seafood, don’t miss out on Kaikaya which has somehow brought a chilled out beach vibe to an otherwise crazy city. Try the maguro no kama (tuna collar).
Omoide Yokocho (rather
unsavourably known as ‘piss alley')
Don’t let the name put you off. This narrow lane off Shinjuku is packed with tiny restaurants serving delicious yakitori. Duck into a few to try them out.
Sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market
No trip to Tokyo is complete without a trip to the fish market. If you’re brave enough, get up insanely early to catch the tuna auction at 5am, then treat yourself to a sushi breakfast afterwards. Sushi Dai is often touted at the best of the bunch, but if you’re not up for queuing until lunchtime, try the equally delectable Daisho Sushi or any of the other establishments for melt-in-the-mouth tuna fresh from the market.
Narrow streets filled with tiny bars that only fit 2-5 people inside. You could bar hop here for hours – just don’t go with a big group!
Park Hyatt New York Bar
Where Scarlett met Bill. Grab a Suntory on the rocks and enjoy some jazz with great views of the city at night.
We won’t give too much away here, and besides we couldn’t describe it even if we wanted to. Book ahead.
View from Roppongi Hills Sky Deck
The ultimate view of the Tokyo sprawl for as far as the eye can see. If you’re really lucky, you might spot Mount Fuji on a clear day.
You can’t take a trip to Tokyo without visiting the famous Shibuya crossing. No photo can quite capture the hustle and bustle of this landmark, but it won’t stop you trying (and trying) to get the perfect shot.
The birth child of Japan’s pop culture, people watching doesn’t get much better than Takeshita-dōri strip. Keep an eye out for the Harajuku girls and an overdose of anything and everything cute.
Yoyogi park & Ueno park
Who knew Tokyo had such beautiful parks? Take a break from the bustle of the city and take a casual stroll through one of these. If you’re lucky enough to be there during Sakura (cherry blossom season), sit under the trees like the locals and enjoy some sake.
Sakura (cherry blossom season)
One place that flies below the radar during Sakura is the Meguro river and the picture perfect canopies of cherry blossom that grow over the river.
Tokyo is a shopper’s paradise, whether you’re a design junkie, a manga enthusiast or a fashionista. Most of the biggest brands have flagships in Shinjuku and Shibuya. We love Loft in Shibuya, which is full of beautiful stationary, designer homewares and accessories, including our Native Union products.
Airbnb has really taken off in Japan and provides a good alternative to hotels. As you’d expect with most things in this country, apartments are very clean, efficient and compact.
Kyoto main station
Kyoto is easily accessible from Tokyo via the Shinkansen (bullet train) in just under 3 hours. The metro is a great way to get around the city, or if you like the feeling of the wind in your hair, one of the best ways to see the sights is by bike. There’s plenty of places to hire them. We tried J Cycle who were excellent.
You could spend days walking around beautiful temples and exquisite Japanese gardens. Here’s just a few of our favourite places in and around Kyoto.
From the Main Hall (Hondo), Kiyomizu-dera temple, Kyoto
Find out all about the Tokugawa Shoguns and admire elaborate wood carvings in the vast tatami rooms.
This stunning temple sitting on top of a hill has a rich history spanning 1,200 years and also offers one of the best views of Kyoto’s stunning cityscape. Enjoy strolling up the lanes towards the temple and visiting some of the teashops along the way.
Arashi-yama and the Bamboo Forest
Go early to avoid the crowds and soak up the atmosphere in this magical bamboo forest. Afterwards, stop off for tea at Sagano-Yu in Arashi-yama - a wonderful cafe in a converted bathhouse – and treat yourself to a green matcha latte and pancakes.
Tea at Sagano-Yu with our CLIC Marble Black
Fushimi Inari Taisha
Miles and miles of orange shrine gates lead a path up the side of this Kyoto mountain. Spot the Kitsune (or foxes) on route, which are said to be messengers of the Gods. Not one to miss.
Walk around the old geisha district and you might be lucky enough to spot a real geisha on her way to one of the district’s secretive teahouses. Visit Shirakawa street – widely considered to be one of the most beautiful streets in all of Asia – especially during the blossom season.
Pontocho bar alley
Bar hop along this narrow riverside alleyway full of bars. Stop at vintage bar Hey Dolly for some whiskey and jazz.
Fushimi Inari Taisha located in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto
Shot from the Hozugawa River. A two-hour ride from Tanba-Kameoka to Arashiyama in Kyoto
Nara Day Trip
If time allows, take a day trip to Nara which takes 45 minutes by train from Kyoto. Rent bikes under the main JR station there and head for Nara park.
Pay a visit to Todai-ji – a Buddhist temple featuring the Great Buddha Hall. It’s the largest wooden structure in the world and home to an equally large bronze Buddha. Legend says if you can squeeze through the hole in one of the pillars behind the Buddha – which is the exact size of its nostril – you will be granted enlightenment in your next life.
The park is full of very cute but rather greedy deers. They are considered in Shinto to be messengers of the Gods. Show them a deer biscuit, and you might get a polite bow (or a nip) in return!
Kinrin Lake, Yufuin, in Kyush
If time and budget allows, stay at a Ryokan – a type of traditional Japanese Inn - for at least one night of your trip. There’s plenty in the mountains outside Kyoto, and many have outdoor onsens so you can bathe underneath the stars.
Ryokan in Kyoto
You’ll typically take tea and sleep in a tatami room wearing Yukata (casual kimono). It’s a unique experience to Japan and a wonderful way to understand ancient Japanese culture.
A-Bomb Dome, Hiroshima
Hiroshima is sadly synonymous with the Atomic bomb that destroyed the city at the end of World War II. However, the city is anything but depressing. You’ll find a vibrant place full of culture and very welcoming people. It’s well worth fitting in a few days to explore.
Try to visit at high tide to see the great Torii shrine ‘float.’Miyajima Island
Peace Park: Cenotaph, Peace Flame, Peace Museum and A-Bomb Dome
Upsetting, yes, but an absolute must see. The peace museum, cenotaph, peace flame and A-Bomb dome were all designed to perfectly line up. Set aside half a day to visit the museum and park, and take in the dramatic architecture.
EAT & DRINK
A bar run by rock fan ‘Bom-san’ who serves up delicious small meals at the bar.
If you fancy a dance, head to MAC Bar where the owner picks from an entire wall of CDs. He takes requests – choose wisely.
Try the Hiroshima pancake Okonomiyaki – a noodle pancake with a variety of toppings.
Miyajima Island's great Torii shrine
interview with Ali Ganjavian
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by Antonia Peulevé
in collaboration with Geneva Vanderzeil
by Arthur Maitre
by Fabien Nauroy