Japan

in 10 days

A travel guide by
Matthew MarcóTwitter logo & Christina LeeTwitter logo

After returning from our ten-day trip through Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka in October 2013, we reminisced about the things we ate, did, learned, and enjoyed. We also thought that what we learned could be useful as you plan your own trip there.

Do before you go

Learn important phrases

Excuse me
sumimasen
Thank you
arigato gozaimasss
English
eigo

Read These

Tokyo City Atlas

Indispensable. Buy it and carry it. Google Maps on your smartphone (though a wonderful feat of software engineering) will not cut it: its user interface and zoom-based detail rendering are insufficient to handle Tokyo.

Survival Japanese

Well-organized phrasebook and pronunciation guide. We didn't commit too much of it to memory (we didn't have to), but it does come in handy.

Food Sake Tokyo (The Terroir Guides)

Helpful guide for identifying specific foods and restaurants we wanted to try.

Design Sponge Tokyo City Guide

Shopping-oriented guide. We tend to use these to navigate through any city we visit.

Spoon & Tamago

Japan-oriented blog that is a great read because of all the interesting projects they feature. Often they'll feature exhibits taking place around the time of your visit.

Tokyo

Peak Lounge at the Park Hyatt 3-7-1 Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku

Tokyo skyline.

Go for an amazing panorama of Tokyo at night, a well-mixed drink, and to satisfy your curiosity about a key setting in Lost in Translation. Expensive but worth it. (evening, up to 2 hours)

Bird Land 4-2-15 Ginza

Phenomenal nose-to-tail yakitori restaurant in the basement of an office building in Ginza. We lucked out here with an English-speaking waiter and no reservations. We shared one tasting menu, but could've easily gone for two (though it's pricey). Best yakitori we've had (make sure you get the mushrooms too), with a surprisingly powerful range hood in the room (to eliminate the charcoal odor that usually follows a yakitori meal).

Chicken, egg, and rice, pickles, and chicken broth

Bird Land is located next to Jiro's restaurant, and though the two restaurants are not comparable, Bird Land does offer a fantastic tasting menu for a fraction of the cost.

(evening, several hours)

Tsukiji Fish Market 5-2-1 Tsukiji

We're sure the fish auctions are entertaining, but we like to sleep in. Visiting at a later morning hour, we enjoyed sweet shrimp sushi, ridiculous uni bowls, cured kobujime, oysters steamed on the grill. (morning, several hours)

Untitled

Grilled oyster

Isetan Food Hall 3-14-1 Shinjuku

Several department stores have a food hall, but if you have to choose one, Isetan is the one we’d choose. Grab a matcha croissant from Sadaharu Aoki. Browse the endless array of Japanese wagashi. Choose from rows of colorful sushi rolls at We Love Sushi and have them packed with a mini ice pack to keep your rolls cold. (afternoon, up to 2 hours)

These (pronounced té-sé)2-13-19 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku

We met up with our good friend Eri for dinner at Gonpachi in Roppongi (the restaurant where they filmed Kill Bill) and sought out this bar for after-dinner drinks. Dark and intimate, the upper level boasts rows of bookshelves, comfy sofas, and even a hidden room that you access by sliding a bookshelf over. The cocktail menu is a bowl of fruit: select a fruit and a style and they mix a drink around it (I chose a persimmon and had it paired with dark rum).

Note: this is on a really narrow block between two streets and we were foiled by Google Maps. We thought the entrance and bar was on one street when really it was on the other. (evening, up to 2 hours)

Market at Asakusa Temple 2−3-1 Asakusa

Go for rice crackers, paper and craft boutiques. During the day, the temple is crowded with tourists. We had fun trying all the treats being sold along the thoroughfare, but be sure to check out the streets that run parallel - some of the crafts there are cheaper, and it's easier to walk too.

At night, the little shops are all boarded up and you’ll see a few locals visiting to pay respects at the temple. While we were there, we saw a man ride up to the temple with three dachshunds. (morning/afternoon)

Muji flagship 3-8-2 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku

MUJI cafe

(afternoon/evening, up to 2 hours)

Cafe de L’Ambre 8-10-15, Ginza, Chuo-ku

Cafe de l'Ambre coffee set

Founded in 1948, Cafe de L’Ambre is the oldest kissaten in Ginza. With an old wooden counter and stained glass light fixtures, the place has great ambiance. The shop only serves coffee drinks. We were mesmerized by the amount of care the barista put into making each cup of coffee. (morning/afternoon, up to 2 hours)

Be a Good Neighbor Coffee Kiosk 3-51-6, Sendagaya, Shibuya-ku

Coffee fix

Solid espresso-based coffees in between Shibuya and Shinjuku. The distance between the two neighborhoods is a bit of a walk, but this coffee shop bridges the gap nicely if you're visiting both in the same day. (morning/afternoon, up to 2 hours)

Cha Ginza 5-5-6 Ginza

Matcha shot

Go for a traditional tea service in a modern setting in the heart of Ginza. (morning/afternoon, up to 2 hours)

Goodbeer Faucets 1-29-1, Shoto, Shibuya-ku

Goodbeer Faucets

This Shibuya bar has 40 craft beers on draught. Curious about the Japanese craft beer scene? This is a great place to start.

(evening, up to 2 hours)

Tokyo Ramen Street Tokyo Station

Grab some ramen from any one of the shops along this street under the Yaesu Underground Exit at Tokyo Station before you catch your train. Most ramen shops require you to place your order outside the shop via a ticket machine.

Ramen #2 (Tokyo Ramen Street)

Very few of these ticket machines had pictures to indicate what you were ordering. Since we don’t read any Japanese, all our ramen was “Surprise Ramen,” but very delicious. We were asked a question we could not comprehend and it took a couple waitstaff before we had enough of a language bridge - they basically want to know how 'done' you want your noodles. (afternoon/evening, up to 2 hours)

Golden Gai Shinjuku

Golden Gai is crowded with lots of charming-looking bars with cover charges that we didn't enter. We found ourselves here for decent sardine ramen.

Claska Design Shop “Do” 15-1 Udagawa-cho

Claska has several design shop branches around Tokyo. We went to the one on the ground floor of the Parco Department store which is home to a few other design shops. Super adorable home goods. (afternoon, up to 2 hours)

Kappabashi

Known as “Kitchen Town,” Kappabashi-dori is a street close to Asakusa Temple. The street is populated by restaurant supply shops. Shop for kitchen utensils, ceramics, or even the plastic display food that shows up outside many Japanese restaurants. A lot of the ceramics we bought on the trip were purchased here, several at a corner shop at the southern end of Kappabashi-dori near the Asakusa subway station. (morning/afternoon, half a day)

Bic Camera 1-11-1 Yurakucho

The second floor has a decent liquor section. Check out the stereo section. Coming up the escalator, we seriously thought there was a live jazz quartet playing at the top.

Kyoto

Arashiyama bamboo forest Arashiyama, Ukyo-ku

Block about an hour for the actual forest, which sort of sneaks up on you and gets epic in a hurry. Best at sunrise or sunset. Get your hero shot for social media.

Bamboo grove

Block out another hour for the neighborhood around it, which is super easy to get lost in, but very charming and suburban. Also features this lake:

We wandered through the cutest neighborhood in Arasiyama and stopped to admire this lake that was a deep green. We heard a nearby German tourist tell his children that this was a matcha lake. #latergram

(afternoon/evening, up to 2 hours, outside city center)

Fushimi Inari 68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho, Fushimi Ward

This is the temple with the orange gates.

Fushimi-inari

Block a whole day for this one - the hike to the top will take you at least a few hours (we spent at least 2 hours ascending, including photography breaks, and were scarcely a quarter to the top). (morning/afternoon, several hours, outside city center)

Nishiki Market Nishikikōji-dōri, between Teramachi & Takakura

This lively market is packed with over a hundred little shops and restaurants. We loved trying all the little snacks along this five-block shopping street including fried tofu donuts, takoyaki, and dried sweet tomatoes. Roasted chestnuts were also in season.

A shop called Sawawa had the best green tea soft serve we have ever had. You can’t miss it. There is stone mill that grinds matcha at the front of the store and the aroma is heady and grassy. You can also buy packages of buttery, green tea cake. We wish we had bought more.

Green tea soft serve (from Sa-Wa-Wa, Nishiki Market), Kyoto. #nofilter

For coffee nearby, there is also Rokuyosha kissaten east of the market on Kawaramachi-dori and a coffee kiosk west called Bean Stop (look for a green canopy) on Takakura-dori. (morning/afternoon, up to 2 hours)

Suntory Whisky Distillery Tour 5-2-1 Yamazaki, Shimamoto-cho, Mishima-gun, Osaka

This is about 45 minutes out of the city and involves a lovely train ride through the countryside. The tour is led by a Japanese tour guide, but they have audio guides for non-Japanese speakers to follow along with. The room with the giant stills smells of plum pie. At the end of the tour, the staff prepares some complementary whisky and sodas to sip with little squares of chocolate. There's a nice patio there where you can enjoy really, really good (and unbelievably cheap) whisky while their playlist for whisky spins on ridiculous audiophile equipment.

Hakushu 18, at Suntory Yamazaki Distillery. #nofilter

(morning/afternoon, several hours, outside city center)

Cafe Bibliotec Hello! 650 Seimei-cho, Yanaginobanba-higashi-iru, Nijo-dori, Nakagyo-ku

Café Bibliotec HELLO!

This cafe with floor-to-ceiling bookcases, a hand-illustrated menu, and an amazing sound system is a good place to wind down the night if you're staying near the city center. We flipped through books about tranquil Japanese gardens and the Apollo space mission while enjoying some plum cake for dessert. (afternoon/evening)

Osaka

Osaka is just a 20-minute train ride from Kyoto. We only spent a day in Osaka, taking a shinkansen from Kyoto back and forth. Armed with a Japan Rail Pass, you could conceivably do this multiple days with very little fuss. However, if you are quite intent on exploring the Osaka city center, you could relocate for a day or two.

Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan 1-1-10 Kaigan-dori, Minato-ku

Passing by

(morning/afternoon, several hours)

Horai 551 pork buns 3-6-3 Namba, Chuo-ku

Two steamed buns

Order two buns to take out from this Chinese Chain. The buns come nestled in a red box and are filled with a meatball that is juicy and flavorful with little flecks of caramelized onion. This snack pairs wonderfully with the little packs of spicy mustard they give you.

Namba Parks 2-10-70 Namba-naka, Naniwa-ku

Namba Park Gardens

Namba Parks is a shopping mall with a little garden on the roof that provides a perfect respite from the city below to enjoy your Horai 555 pork buns (as recommended by the New York Times). Inside the mall, visit Andon for cool housewares and a selection of local jazz music. (afternoon/evening, up to 2 hours)

Okonomiyaki Dontonburi

Okonomiyaki

A visit to Dontonburi, a large pedestrian street in the heart of Osaka (like Times Square), will provide numerous opportunities to eat Okonomiyaki, a Japanese savory pancake and a real speciality of Osaka. In a nation that is food obsessed, Osakans are known for being intense foodies. Sadly, since we were only there for a day, we didn’t get to explore the restaurants and street food culture as much as we would have liked. (evening)

Notes

Money

Divide prices by 100 to get an approximate American price. Or think 1 yen = 1 cent (essentially true - there are no decimal points in Japanese prices).

You can use most ATMs to access American bank accounts (rest assured they also offer English interfaces), and you should be prepared to carry cash.

Water and bathrooms

Convenience stores are abundant in city centers; vending machines are abundant (defying logic) everywhere. Water and other soft drinks will be very easy to get, provided you're carrying coins.

Public restrooms in subway stations, train stations, etc. are generally clean and well-maintained. It doesn't hurt to carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer.

Public transportation

In Tokyo and Kyoto (unlike American cities), there are multiple public transportation providers, and though some may transfer at common stations, not all ticket protocols are the same. For instance, in Kyoto, we largely used the Kyoto Municipal Subway to navigate the city but used the Hankyu line to get to the Yamazaki Distillery and JR to get to Osaka (more information about how many systems there are).

Addresses

Japanese addresses are composed of 3 numbers, separated by dashes. An example is “2-1-10 Asakusa.” While major streets have names, most small streets don’t. Instead, this address identifies:

2 = “chome” or neighborhood
Within Tokyo, there are wards (districts or boroughs) like “Asakusa,” “Shinjuku,” “Ginza,” etc. This first number identifies in which neighborhood in that district you’ll find the address.
1 = block
A chome is composed of several blocks, as many as 15 or 20. These are identified on buildings on street corners.
10 = building number
Buildings are numbered on a block in order of when they were built. Fortunately, blocks aren’t very large and these side streets are very walkable.
Asakusa = ward
This one is in Tokyo. Others you may have heard of include Shibuya, Ginza, or Shinjuku.

Here's a sample street sign on a corner (2-1 Asakusa):

Street signs.

General Food Notes

Train bentos!
It’s considered rude to walk and eat or eat while on public transit. You’ll notice that there are waiting areas outside ice cream shops for patrons to gather and eat their scoops before continuing on. This seems ordinary enough, but you don’t realize how ingrained it is in western culture for you to wander around with an ice cream cone.

One exception to this rule of eating on the go is eating while on the bullet train. Visit the food hall at the train stations for a selection of cute bento boxes or other packaged meals, and pick up a mini beer for the the voyage.

Kit-Kats
Narita Airport offered us the best overall selection. Train stations are good bets for interesting flavors. Most convenience stores offer a basic selection. Now there is a dedicated Kit-Kat store. (If you are unfamiliar with the phenomenon, listen to this.)
Plastic food
One of our best meals we had during our visit was the very first meal. Jetlagged and hungry, we ventured out the morning after we arrived for sustenance. Armed with very little Japanese, we wandered around looking at the plastic food displays in the front of many restaurants. We settled on a restaurant that seemed to specialize in rice bowls. For less than 1000 yen each, we got a full meal of soup, rice, and a poached egg. As the first warm meal in over 24 hours, it was heaven.
7-Eleven & FamilyMart
When in Japan, do as the locals do and frequent your local konbini to grab some food to start the day. For us, it was packages of onigiri and cans of coffee.
Things we enjoyed
We discovered the following in Japan and ordered them several places we went: Mets soda, Umeshu soda, and kara-age.
Kara-age.

Things we wished we could have done

About This Guide

This is written by moderately well-to-do New Yorkers who have high standards for food and a lot of access to shopping. We don’t speak or understand Japanese and therefore are less comfortable seeking out “unspoiled” places. These should be taken into consideration as you read these recommendations: if you are from some place that is not New York and have some fluency in Japanese, you might feel differently about some of what’s available in Tokyo.

Our itinerary included 6 days in Tokyo, 2 days in Kyoto, and 1 day in Osaka.

Where we stayed

Tokyo

Asakusa, K’s House Tokyo Oasis

A hostel recommended by friends. Includes a communal pot of coffee in the morning and laundry facilities. We did our own dishes and booked one of the few private rooms with an en suite bathroom. You will have to leave your shoes at the front door.

Kyoto

Kyoto Royal Hotel and Spa

A hotel recommended by our travel agent. Comfortable, moderate-sized room on par with a Hilton in New York City. Conveniently located near Nishiki Market, a solid boulangerie, and a kissaten. I availed myself of the happy hour specials at the bar to enjoy a fastidiously mixed sidecar.

Credits

Text and images by Matthew Marcó and Christina Lee.

Thanks to Rob, Aly, Julie, and Eri for their guidance.