First Timer’s Guide to Japan (Tokyo, Kyoto & Osaka)

We just came back from a week in Japan. This has been my favorite trip to date. The food was great for every budget. The people were very friendly. Despite the language barrier, we were always helped when we asked questions. Navigation was not hard because we had portable WiFi with us and google maps worked great. But finding the right gate or exit was sometimes a bit confusing since a lot of the stations were big and everything was in Japanese. We very often had to ask someone to help us find our way. It is definelty a country I would like to return to explore more of it. Or even go back to Tokyo just to eat. We were not sure what to expect there so we did a lot of research before our trip, to just to make it easier on us.

So here are my tips:

WiFi

  • Not many places offer free WiFi. Google maps works great to get around and to get public transport information but you can’t download it for Japan. So, you have to be online to be able to use it. Japanese people are very friendly and eager to help you, but the majority speaks very little to no English. Being able to use google translate and just being able to look anything up when we wanted to, just made our trip so much easier. It was definitely worth it for us. 
  • We rented a pocket WiFi device from Ivideo. Pieter found a discount code online. We ordered one for 8 days and we paid about 23 euros for it. We ordered it online and picked it up at the post office at the airport. It came fully charged and was ready to go. We could use it for up to 4 devices. The battery life lasted about 10 hours so in the evening, I would just charge it with a power bank while we were on the go. Ours came with a return envelope. So, before we left, we just dropped it off at one of the mail boxes at the airport. There were also stands where you can directly rent them at the airport, but it might be cheaper to do your research and rent it online. 

Transportation

The JR pass:

  • If you are planning on travelling through Japan, get a JR pass. With this pass you can travel throughout the country for a set price. The JR pass includes the Hikari Shinkansen (bullet train) which takes you from Tokyo to Kyoto (2 hours & 40 minutes) and from Kyoto to Osaka (15 minutes).  
  • If you are travelling with the JR pass, make sure to check online which trains are covered by it. For example, the Hikari bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto is covered but the Nozomi train which is 15 minutes faster is not covered. And the Kodama (also a bullet train) is covered but it is the slowest train, because it makes more stops.
  • You buy the JR pass online, it is only for tourists. Once you’ve bought it, you will get an exchange order sent to your home abroad and once you are at the airport, you exchange the voucher for the actual pass. Make sure to keep it safe. If you lose it, you cannot get refunded. 
  • You can buy it for 7, 14 or 21 days. Yo have to turn in your exchange order to get the JR pass within 3 months of purchase. So, don’t buy it earlier than 3 months before your trip.   
  • The JR pass also includes the Yamanote line which is a circular line that runs through major stops in Tokyo. To check in, you just have to show your pass to one of the officers at the booth next to the card check gates. 
  • Another tip, if you are taking the Hikari bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto or the other way around, make sure to get a seat on the side with 2 seats. This way you will be able to see Mount Fuji. The rows are switched to the direction the train goes, so the 2 seats will always have a view to the volcano. 

The Suica card:

  • This is a rechargeable transport card that you can use for public transport in Tokyo. We also used it to get around in Kyoto and Osaka. We bought one at the same booth where we got out JR passes at the airport. They charge you 500 Yen as a safety deposit. You can re-charge it at the machines on the stations. When you leave, you can return it at one of the machines at the airport and get the money that you still have on the card back. The machine just charges you about 200 Yen as a transaction cost.
  • The Suica card also works on some vending machines and some convenience stores. You can see if they accept it, if you see the logo. 

Payment:

  • Japan is a cash country. Make sure you always have enough cash with you. We could use a credit card in some stores, but most food places we went to were cash only. There are usually ATMs at convenience stores like 7 eleven. We withdrew some cash from our bank at the airport before our flight so we would just have some ready with us. One less thing to do when arriving. 
  • A lot of food shops and stands have a sort of vending machine where you can pick your dishes and pay to the machine. And then you wait to be seated down. So again, have cash with you. And prepare to wait in line, if a place is popular. 
  • In some places, the prices include tax and in some don’t. 

Etiquette:

  • Don’t leave a tip. Japanese believe that service should always be great and can get offended if you tip them. So just don’t. One less thing to calculate!
  • Don’t eat and drink while walking. It is frown upon. It is better to eat next to the shop where you bought your food/drink from, because you can’t find trash cans everywhere.
  • Trash cans: Japan is a very clean country and even though you cannot find that many trash cans on the streets, people don’t litter. If you buy food, you eat it inside (or next to) the shop where you bought it from. We would just find a spot to eat without disturbing traffic. You can more easily dispose of the trash where you bought it from, if the shop doesn’t have one, you can ask a person working there to disposed of it for you.
  • Public toilets are more easily found that trash cans in Japan. They are usually very clean and unlike the Netherlands, they are for free. 
  • Walk on the left side (like the way they drive). If you are on the escalator, keep to your left if you are not in a rush. The right side if for people who walk it.
  • This might be a given but it is just nice to remember. Especially in Tokyo where everywhere is crowded, so if you need to stop to look for directions, etc. Try to step aside, don’t just stop in the middle where there is a lot of people traffic. People are too polite to say something but it is better to not disturb the flow. 
  • Learn a few basic Japanese words. Arigato (thank you) and Oishii (delicious) were our favorite words to use. 
  • Form a line for taking the metro and train.You will see markings on the floor. Even for the escalator, people will form a neat line. Be aware of your surroundings and don’t skip the line. 

Tax free shopping:

  • Some stores offer you a tax refund. But this only works if you have your passport with you. 

TOKYO

Where to eat:

Ichiran Ramen

This is a minimal interaction ramen shop. You choose your ramen from a vending machine. You pay to the machine so make sure to have cash with you. Then you get a little form where you can customize your ramen. And finally, you get seated in your very own little cubicle. You will have a bamboo roll up window blind in front and that’s where your food will come from without you seeing the face of your waiter. You also get your personal water on tap for free. 

Flipper’s (Soufflé pancakes)

This shop specializes in soufflé pancakes. And they were the fluffiest I have ever had. When we were there they had a limited time one that came with strawberry gelato covered in mochi and fresh strawberries. I recommend you to try it if they still have it when you go. 

Sushi No Midori

This restaurant has great sushi for a reasonable price. And it is very popular because of that. It opens at 11am. We were there at around noon and there was already a huge line. 

There is a machine outside of the restaurant (next to the take-out area) where you have to get a ticket with your number before sitting down to wait in line. Don’t forget to get your ticket because at least when we were there, there was no one to tell you that you should get a ticket. A person from the restaurant would come out every so often to call the numbers (with a number board, so don’t worry about the Japanese). If you don’t mind waiting, request to be seated at the bar while you get your number at the machine. It’s a nicer experience to see the chefs preparing your dishes. We paid around 40 euros for the both of us.

Misoya Hachiro Shoten (Ramen)

This ramen shop specializes in tonkotsu (pork bone) and miso based ramen. It was incredible! You also need to pay to a vending machine before sitting down. So again, don’t forget to have cash with you.

Gekko (Mochi)

This is a traditional mochi and tea house. They make the mochi by hand every morning. The restaurant only sits 12 people and they only make a limited amount. Go early if you want to try something specific from their menu. The restaurant opens at noon. We arrived around 2pm on a Sunday and we had to wait in line for about 1 hour. By the time we got seated, there were already quite a few items sold out from the menu. They serve savory and sweet mochi. I would definitely recommend to give it a try. Once thing to keep in mind, they have a sign outside of the door that says that they don’t allow children aged 6 and under inside. I didn’t know why until I posted in on my stories and one of you guys said it was probably a choking hazard. After a little bit of research online, I read that in fact young children and elderly people who cannot chew properly can suffocate if it is not cut down into very small pieces. 

Tonkatsu Maisen 

This restaurant specializes in crispy fried pork cutlet. It was incredibly tender. We had two menu items. Both came with rice and miso soup. We paid about 30 euros for the both of us. 

Itteki Hassenya (Udon noodles)

This shop specializes in udon noodles. Their chicken tempura was also great. I know they offer a lunch especial where you can try two different kinds of udon dishes but we went there for dinner.

Piss alley (Omoide Yokocho)

It’s a small street full of small restaurants and bars. It used to have only one bathroom so the visitors would relieve themselves in the alley, hence the nickname. This is a great place for yakitori (skewered meat). 

Ameyoko Market

This market is full of food stands where you can try anything from sushi, to Chinese dumplings, kebabs, fresh fruit on a stick among other things. We really enjoyed sharing some bites there. 

Tomato (Korean food and BBQ)

It is located in Shin-Okobu which is Tokyo’s Korea Town. The area is worth visiting since it has a lot of street food stands, restaurants and Korean beauty shops. This restaurant offers Korean food and BBQ.

For Coffee or tea:

Blue Bottle 

This was a must stop for us since we had one close to our hotel. Can’t start the day without a good cup of coffee.

Café Kitsuné

Great coffee with some Parisian food

The Alley (Bubble tea)

I loved their brown sugar bubble milk tea and their Aurora series iced tea which was made with butterfly pea flower.

For Street food:

Korean potato corn dog

There are many different stands that sell this popular dish on a stick. We had the one with mozzarella cheese (without the hot dog). It’s pretty impossible to not run into one of these if you are in Tokyo. We always saw a line of teenage girls eating them. Do what the locals do was our motto when it came to street food. We didn’t add any sugar to ours though. 

Popo Hottoku 

This is a stand in Korea Town (Shin-Okobu). They sell Hottoku, which is a sweet Korean pancake. We had the one with honey & cheese, and it was so delicious. We came back on our last day to have it again but we were too late and it was already closed. We did buy the ready to mix box at one of the supermarkets in the same area to try to make it at home.

The Gindaco

They make Takoyaki (mini savory round pancakes stuffed with octopus) and they are located all over Tokyo. 

Eiswelt Gelato 

They serve the cutest ice creams.

Totti Candy factory

They sell the famous rainbow cotton candy.

Pablo 

They serve mini cheese tarts in many flavors. We had the one with sakura mochi and the one with strawberry. So delicious. 

Convenience Stores

There are 7 Eleven and other convenience stores that are open 24 hours pretty much on every street. When we had very early days, we would just grab a sandwich and some onigiri there to have for breakfast. 

Vending machines

There are also vending machines with drinks pretty much on every street. 

About the Cherry blossoms

We were lucky to see some cherry blossom in full bloom while we were in Tokyo. We were a bit too early when we arrived, but on our last day we got lucky. We went to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden because I had read that this park had then most variety of cherry blossom. So you were most likely to see some in full bloom during the season (some kinds bloom earlier and some are late blooms). The park opened at 9am and they charge 500 Yen (about 4 euros) entry fee. Because we knew it is very popular during this time of the year, we arrived at 8:30am and there was already a line. I do advise you to go early if you want to take nice pictures. No alcohol is allowed here.

Purikura (Japanese Photo booth)

These are the popular photo booths where you can edit the pictures to make your eyes look bigger, put filters and stamps on. It is very popular among teenagers and just an overall fun experience if you are in Japan. There are many all over the city. Just search for Purikura on google maps. We went to one located on Takeshita street in Harajuku.

Shopping:

Don Quijote

This is the most popular discount store in Japan. While I wouldn’t call their prices the cheapest (We did see some of the same items cheaper on other random stores that we walked into), it was nice to visit because they have such a huge stock of items. The store has many floors ranging from beauty to electronics, to food and souvenirs. They have many stores all over Tokyo. We literally spent hours there. 

Tokyu Hands

This is a department store. They had a bit of everything from home goods to pet accessories. 

Ito Yokado (supermarket)

We went to the one in Shinjuku because it was the closest to our hotel. It was in a more residential area but we really liked it because it was a proper big supermarket. I love visiting supermarkets abroad not just to buy stuff to bring back home but also to see what the locals buy and eat. 

Where to stay in Tokyo:

We stayed at the Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku. The location was perfect. Just a short walk from Shinjuku station. And they have a bus service to the airport. Our room was small but very clean. We didn’t have breakfast there. We paid around 138 euros per night. 

KYOTO

We found Kyoto very beautiful. Our first stop there was the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest which is open all day. We were lucky that the tram that went directly there was only about a block away from our hotel. We arrived around 8 am and it was already starting to get busy, so taking a nice picture without a crowd was just a waiting game. We saw some couples running towards the end of the forest to take pictures. Towards the end, the path gets a bit more narrow. 

At the end of the bamboo forest, you can just keep walking following the river and end up at % Arabica Kyoto Arashiyama which is a really good coffee shop.

After that we headed towards Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine. Because it was already later in the morning, the crowd here was much larger but we still managed to take some nice pictures if we were just patient enough to wait for the right moment. Going up to the shrine is a really nice walk in nature so we really enjoyed it. By the time we were leaving, we had already worked up an appetite. And luckily enough they have many food stands at the bottom of the shrine. More expensive than street food because it’s a touristy place but the food was still nice. We loved the Mitarashi Dango which is grilled mochi on a stick brushed with a sweet soy sauce glace. 

After that we headed towards the Higashiyama district which is the preserved historic district. It is where you will find a more traditional old Kyoto. The streets are lined with small shops, cafes and restaurants. It was really nice to walk around. But we were there during the middle of the day and it was very crowded.

Where to eat and have coffee:

Omen (Udon)

I loved this Udon restaurant. I had the cold udon with crispy tempura and Pieter had the hot soup noodles with baby shrimp and mackerel sushi.

% Arabica Kyoto Arashiyama (Coffee)

This coffee shop is just a little walk from the end of the bamboo forest if you follow the river. They do offer soy or almond milk which is rare in Japan. 

Where we stayed in Kyoto:

We stayed at Karaksa Hotel Kyoto One. It is a small hotel. Our room was tiny but it was very clean and the service was great. We had a metro stop right across the street and the tram that went directly to the bamboo forest was only a block away. We paid about €85 per night.O

OSAKA

We took the Hikari bullet train from Kyoto to Osaka. It was covered by our JR passes and it only took 15 minutes. We actually came to Osaka because I really wanted to try the famous Rikuro jiggly cheesecake. It is super popular and we had to wait in line to get one. I love cheesecake but I was a bit disappointed with this one. We got one right out of the oven so it was still warm. It was missing something like vanilla for me. It was too eggy in taste and I wasn’t a fan that it was still warm. It wasn’t horrible or anything like that, just not my kind of cheesecake. I’m still happy I got to try it, so at least it is off my list.

After that we just walked a bit around the city and then took the train back to Kyoto where we were staying since Pieter was sick with a cold and we were very tired. So, we didn’t do much else there. 

For more foodie inspiration, travel & lifestyle; you can follow me on Instagram and Facebook. For behind the scenes, more of Amsterdam and a peek of press events, you can follow my Instagram stories and Youtube channel.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: