Thinking about a trip to Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto in Japan? I’m spilling all the details about what to wear, what to eat, and what to do in Japan.
Our 8 day trip to Japan, why we went, and what month we went.
A few weeks ago we got back from our 8 day trip to Japan. Traveling to Japan has been on Philip’s bucketlist for years, and I was totally on board, so today I’m excited to share all about what to do in Japan, as well as where we ate and what I wore.
Many of you asked if it was a business trip, and it was not. Just purely pleasure!
Also, we traveled the first week of October. The weather was rainy but still warm, and the rain never canceled our plans, thankfully. If you want to see the fall leaves, I’d recommend going at the end of October or beginning of November.
What we did with the boys while we were away in Japan.
We are really lucky to have my mom who lives only 4 hours away, and that she’s willing to watch the boys once a year so we can do a getaway. Before we left, I arranged carpooling to and from school, canceled piano lessons, and made a menu for the week and bought groceries so it was as low key as possible for her. I also left my library card with her so she could take Sanny there during the day and stock up on books for the week.
If you have someone watching your kids for that long, I’d recommend making the effort to get prepped for the week so their experience with your kids is smooth.
We were able to talk to them on facetime and Marco Polo when we were connected to wifi (I talk more about how we dealt with wifi below!)
Upgrading our flights to and from Tokyo
We took a direct flight on United Airlines from LAX to the Narita airport in Tokyo. We purchased the airline tickets and upgraded to business class seats using our credit card points. We’ve done this twice, and for international flights the lay flat seats are GOLD.
Obviously using points to buy and upgrade our tickets saves us a large amount of money for travel, but the only catch is that you have to book these points tickets very early because they’ll sell out. We booked ours almost a year in advance — eleven months to be exact. Philip handles these transactions, so I don’t know all the specifics of how it works, but I know that using points for flights and upgrades cannot be done last minute.
Money exchange, transportation passes, and was cash really necessary?
When we arrived in Tokyo, we exchanged our American money for Japanese money in the airport, and purchased 1 week JR (Japan Rail) passes. It’s a pass that gets you access to most trains, including the Narita Express, which was the train we then took to Tokyo Station. This was about an hour train ride from the airport.
Our JR Pass train tickets were fairly expensive (around $250 each), but the pass worked on the Bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka which was $120 per person each way without the pass, and the JR Pass worked on many of the local trains. So it saved us a ton of money in the long run.
We got about three hundred dollars in cash when we arrived, which we typically do on trips just in case, but we were shocked to discover that very few places take a credit card, so the cash came in very handy.
Taking the Bullet Train (Shinkansen) and JR Train to Osaka and Kyoto
The first half of our trip was spent down in southern Japan, in Kyoto and Osaka.
We took the bullet train (called the Shinkansen) down to Kyoto station, which took about 2 1/2 hours, and then the JR Train Osaka the following day, which took about thirty minutes. As I mentioned above, the cost was around $120 each way.
The JR passes covered both of these train rides, which made the price of those passes well worth it.
All the details about the private tour guide we booked
Philip booked a private tour guide to guide us through Kyoto and Osaka, and then another guide for Tokyo. He booked them through TripleLights.com, and they turned out to be such a fantastic addition to our trip.
Philip and the guide communicated before our trip to determine which sites we wanted to see, and then the guide came up with an itinerary that was most efficient as we moved throughout the city.
They were able to navigate the city and the train stations quickly so we didn’t waste time figuring out where to go, they communicated in Japanese with other people when information was needed, and they knew so much about the history of the city and the locations we visited.
In Tokyo, our guide had us purchase a one day subway pass (which cost about $7 each) in addition to our JR pass, and this allowed us to travel by subway and train the entire day. In Kyoto and Osaka we had to take a good amount of taxis, which got expensive, but it was much quicker to get around the city and we were able to see a lot more sites.
Both of the guides had prepared fact sheets with images and dates that helped us learn about the areas we visited, and they taught us local customs, traditions, information about the culture, and so much more as we visited the temples, shrines, and other sites.
Also, not going to lie…it was really awesome to have someone with us at all times to take pictures of us together!
What we did and saw in Kyoto, Japan
Tenryuji Temple and Bamboo Forest. These were right next to each other. We walked through the bamboo forest first, which was spectacular, and then sat outside the temple in front of the small lake. The seating area outside the temple, according to the tour guide, was the place where you were to “find your zen.” Not hard in a gorgeous place like that.
Monkey Park Iwatayama. This was such a fun place to go. It was inexpensive to get in, and after a twenty minute hike up the mountain (wear sneakers!) we got to the monkey sanctuary at the top. The views of the city are insane up here, and the monkeys roam free around the area. There’s a little building where you can go inside, purchase food, and feed the monkeys through the window.
Kinkaku‐Ji Temple. Probably my favorite temple of all of them. The grounds were large, the temple was gold and sparkled in the sunshine, and it was just really beautiful. HIGHLY recommend this one. This is where I took THIS PHOTO. It costs 400 yen per person to go in.
Fushimi Inari Shrine. This is the most famous shrine — the shrine with 10,000 Torii gates up the mountain. You’ve probably seen this one before on Instagram. It’s crowded, and you have to move fast to get a good picture, but it was so cool to see in person. Definitely recommend this one as well. Free to enter!
Kiyomizu‐dera Temple. This temple has spectacular views of the city! It was partially under construction when we saw it, so we didn’t end up going inside.
Gion Area. This is an area you for sure do not want to miss. It’s the area where all the Geisha’s (or Geiko’s) and Maiko’s (Geisha’s in training) live and are spotted. There are tons of people dressed up in the traditional Geisha costume, but it’s rare to actually spot a real Geiko or Maiko running between the houses and restaurants as they entertain and serve. What we loved best was walking through the beautifully lit cobblestone streets, and winding our way through the little alleys in between the restaurants, shops, and homes. It felt so romantic and cozy. We also ate our Kobe beef dinner in Gion — details on that are below in the food section!
What we did and saw in Osaka, Japan
Umeda Sky Building. Sadly this was closed the week we came because of their recent typhoon, so we only saw the outside of the building, but if you have the chance to go up to the top you should! Additional details and entrance fee details are here.
Osaka Castle. This was the first castle that we went to in Osaka and our guide taught us a lot about the history of the castle, which was super helpful since mostly everything inside is in Japanese. It’s gorgeous from the outside, but I didn’t feel like the inside was particularly worth the time. It’s closed on Mondays, and entrance fee is 600 yen for adults, and free for children under 15.
Namba Area (Dōtombori, Ebisu‐Bashi Bridge, Doguyasuji Arcade). We spent a couple of hours in this area, and although it’s pretty touristy it was fun to walk through the arcades (long covered streets with shops on either side), get some tempura for lunch, and have sensory overload. This area is where I took THIS PHOTO and THIS PHOTO.
Sumiyoshi Shinto Shrine. This was one of my favorite shrines to visit. We went early in the morning and it was basically empty and very quiet. The very steep bridge at the entrance was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, and as we made our way into the shrine a man grabbed us and showed us a snake in the river; the snake is the god of that particular shrine. He had been coming to this shrine once a month for thirteen years, and this was only the second time he’d ever seen the snake, so it was very good luck!
What we did and saw in Tokyo
Ginza Area. We stayed at the Hyatt in Ginza, so the heart of Ginza was within walking distance. The major street with all the department stores and the clock tower was spectacular, and we had a blast walking around looking in all the designer shop windows and checking out the food halls in the basements of the department stores.
Akihabara area. We’re not into Japanese anime at all, but this area was so cool so we had to stop by and check it out. It’s another sensory overload area with lights and signs and colors.
Tokyo Imperial Palace. The crazy thing about Japan is how packed it is with high rises. But the Imperial Palace is one area that has wide open space with no high rises, just land. The palace has gorgeous gardens that we walked through, and our guide taught us about the emperor and the history of the palace, which made it way more enjoyable to see. It is free to enter.
Zojoji Temple. This temple was very cool because it’s right next to the Tokyo Tower, and both in a picture together looked awesome! The temple itself is free to enter, and was beautiful.
Meiji Shrine and Takeshita Street. The Meiji shrine was a really peaceful and beautiful area with huge trees, and giant torii gates at the entrance. I don’t think it’s particularly worth stopping here just for this, but we wanted to see the Harajuku area, especially Takeshita Street, which is a super trendy area five minutes away from the Meiji Shrine with shops and food. It also had LOTS of crepe stores for some reason. Our guide was a man in his sixties, and he did not like Takeshita street because it’s full of youth who are rejecting the traditional Japanese culture, but it was interesting and fun to see. Also we got some really good ice cream cones and a Croquant Chou at Zaku Zaku.
Shibuya Crossing. The busiest intersection in the world. This was overwhelming, exciting, fascinating, and fun all at once. The amount of people crossing the street at once is unreal, and it’s fun to experience it in person, and then go up to the second story Starbucks on the corner and watch from the window!
Tsukiji Fish Market. This fish market had actually moved just the week before our trip, and the new location was far out of the way. But many of the shops still remained at the old location, so we walked through it for an hour or so, checking out all the crazy foods, and sampling the ones we were brave enough to try. Information about the new location (and name) are right here.
Tokyo Tower. This was our last stop in Tokyo and definitely my favorite site on the entire trip. It was the most expensive (although still very affordable), but we spent a couple of hours on this tour and it was totally worth it for a 360 degree view of the city. Pricing is right here. It would have been amazing to do this at night, but it was also spectacular during the day. They provided a device that gave you information and history for nearly every major site you could see from the tower, which made the tour really fun and interesting. HIGHLY RECOMMEND.
Two things I regret not doing in Japan
- A visit to the fabric district. I didn’t know they had an amazing fabric district until we were already there and it wasn’t close enough to visit. I also had no extra room in my suitcase for fabric, so it’s a good thing we didn’t go this time. Next time, for sure!
- Riding go-karts through the city dressed like video game characters. We also hadn’t heard about this until we were already there, but we saw several groups driving through the city in their go-karts and it looked like such a blast. Note: You have to have an international drivers license to drive the go-karts, so make sure you take care of that before your travel!
Some of our favorite restaurants we ate at in Japan
Moriya Gion for Kobe Beef. When you’re in Japan, you have to have some true Kobe Beef. Philip found this restaurant, and we made a reservation a few days in advance since it’s a very small restaurant and books quickly. It was very expensive (our entire meal cost around $400), but it was literally the best meat we’ve ever had in our lives, and the meat comes with a full dinner – vegetables, soup, dessert, etc. We’re total foodies, so it was an experience we’ll remember forever just as much as a meal.
Irupappararudo (Italian Japanese Fusion). We stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel in Kyoto and this little restaurant was right across the street. After a lot of sushi and noodles and seafood, some Italian food was a nice change of pace. But it was all locally sourced, and was Japanese Italian fusion, so we had some amazing seafood pasta, as well as a wood fired pizza with local mushrooms. The restaurant was cozy and the food was delicious.
Ramen Street in Tokyo Station. We’d heard about this area in Tokyo station, so we made our way down there as soon as we arrived in Tokyo and grabbed dinner. There were tons of Ramen restaurants right in a row, all of which were pretty similar. They have a machine outside each restaurant where you pay (with cash only), select your food, receive a ticket, and then they seat you inside.
ChaoChaoSanjō Kiyamachi in Tokyo. We found this little hole in the wall Gyoza restaurant in Tokyo and it was so yummy. We ordered all different kinds of gyoza, which are all made fresh just moments before eating them, and walked out spending under $20.
Ramen in Shimbashi. I looked for over an hour to find the exact restaurant we went to, but the language made it basically impossible to find. But let me tell you, it was THE BEST ramen we ate on this trip. We exited the Shimbashi Station in Tokyo into the business district and there were a bunch of ramen restaurants right around there — like a two or three minute walk outside of the station. Above is a picture of Philip outside of the restaurant if any of you speak Japanese and can figure out the name of the restaurant!
What we did with our phones while traveling internationally
We don’t have an international plan on our phone plan, so once we got on the plane we turned our phones onto “airplane mode” to keep it from picking up the network and charging roaming fees. We kept them in airplane mode for the entire week until we returned back to the States.
Once we arrived, we planned to get a portable wifi unit, which you can rent for the week and take with you as you travel so you have constant wifi. However, we didn’t end up getting it because we were crunched for time and our train was leaving. But not having it ended up being fine because we had wi-fi in our hotel, in train stations, and other locations, and the rest of the time we were fully able to unplug and be together.
Other important things to know about traveling in Japan:
- Many, many, many places are cash only. Make sure you exchange your money when you arrive at the airport or the train station!
- Almost every train station, restaurant, and shopping center has free wi-fi (sweet!)
- Every public restroom we used in all three cities had western toilets (thank the heavens), but very few of them had hand washing stations. And those that did have hand washing stations NEVER had paper towels or air dryers. Everyone carries around their own hand towel. So be prepared to shake off your wet hands, dry them on your skirt, or bring your own hand towel.
- In every restaurant, they only bring you the check if you ask for it. They will ever assume and bring it on their own. Also, there is no tipping in Japan!
What to wear in Japan
The fashion in Japan is all over the place. The Japanese people have fun with their clothing, and honestly, you could wear anything and be totally fine. But the clothing I saw on women the very most was long skirts (hitting between their calves and ankles) and a non-fitted top, like a blouse, tee, or sweater.
In Osaka and Kyoto we saw tons and tons of sneakers with this style of outfit. In Tokyo, I saw more dressy shoes like stacked oxfords or loafers.
A few other outfit related things to keep in mind:
- Japanese women dress very modestly. Covered shoulders, long skirts, and no low cut or cropped tops. There were definitely exceptions to this, but for the most part we saw very conservative outfits on all ages. Even if a girl’s outfit was funky and trendy, it would usually be modest and covered.
- Most of the women we saw were dressed up. Not just in the business areas, but almost everyone puts on nice clothing on the train, in restaurants, and walking around. I didn’t see anyone local in sweats or grubbies. I like to match that level of dressiness when I travel, but that’s totally a personal preference!
A few FAQ’s from you about the trip
Tips on how to budget for these bigger trips, how to find cheap airfare, nice hotels, etc.
- As I mentioned above, we purchased our airfare almost a year in advance using our credit card points. So our flights were very inexpensive.
- We splurged on the Four Seasons Hotel, but then used our Hyatt points for our hotel in Ginza. We also love using Hotels.com to book our hotels because with every ten hotel nights you get a free night!
- Another tip for budgeting is to spread out your purchases. We booked the flights a year in advance, then our hotels a few months after that, and our JR passes about a month before our trip. Once our trip rolled around, we felt flexible to spend on the trip because the large expenses were long paid for.
Would you recommend the time you went?
I would have loved to go in cherry blossom season, of course, but it’s so expensive that time of year AND it’s packed with tourists. If I could have changed anything, I would have gone at the beginning of November so we could see Japan in full fall. But going at the beginning of October was nice weather and only a little rainy!
Comfortable shoes for walking around all day?
I wrote a post about my favorite shoes to travel in RIGHT HERE!
Did you book your trip through a travel agent or book on your own? When did you book your excursion? Did you do it a la carte or as a package?
We booked on our own, but my husband is the son of a travel agent so he probably knows a few more tricks for booking than the average person (like me). We booked very early so we could use credit card points and hotel points for airfare and hotels, but besides that we just booked everything a la carte over the last year.
How did you get around while there? Train, taxi, etc?
I talked about our JR pass above, and that was a huge help. But we also use the subway system (which was not included in the JR pass), and taxis. Most taxi drivers didn’t speak english, but if you told them your destination they could understand that and get you there. We also brought a paper with the addresses of all our locations so we could provide that if necessary.
Do you guys have a list of places you want to travel to and how do you decide when to travel to a specific place? Also, how do you decide on where to travel as a family versus as just a couple?
We don’t have a written list, but we talk about places we want to go often. Right now, while our kids are little, we’re choosing to do big walking cities and countries for our couple trips (like our Italy and Spain trip last year), and then more low key, kid friendly locations like Hawaii or Yellowstone for our family trips.
And, because I love making these little memory videos, here’s a quick video of our time in Japan