I first began writing this as a draft in December 2019, but never ended up finishing the post. Still, better late than never, I guess.
As of now, it’s been more than three years since my vacation in Japan. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to embark on my last major pre-pandemic travels. Japan is an amazing place and it was an incredible time. From November 18 to November 29, 2019, I traveled around Japan for 12 days with a friend, beginning in Tokyo, then visiting Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo again. Here, I want to document my day-by-day itinerary in detail (I jotted down notes every other night during the trip), so as to better remember my time there.
The trip consisted of three main legs:
Part I: Tokyo (Day 1 – Day 4)
Part II: Kyoto (Day 4 – Day 7)
Part III: Tokyo Again (Day 7 – Day 12)
Part I: Tokyo (Day 1 – Day 4)
Day 1: Arrival in Tokyo
- November 18
- Arrived at Haneda airport at 3:30pm local time
- Got a Pasmo card and exchanged JR Pass voucher
- Hopped on the subway right before rush hour; messed up by not getting off at Keikyu Katawa and had to double back from Kawasaki (facepalm)
- Walked around Shibuya Station
- Walked through an overpass; was mildly lost as I had intended to visit the Phantom Thieves overpass by the Ginza line entrance but ended up in a different one
- Visited Hachiko statue and crossed Shibuya Scramble
- Settled in at the Airbnb in Shibuya
- More general walking around; ate tonkotsu ramen at Ichiran
- (Mild rain during all this, made everything very glisteny which was cool)
Day 2: Shibuya and Shinjuku
- November 19
- Meiji Jingu – already hella tourists by 9 am, cool big gates and shrine though
- Yoyogi Park – big and beautiful, low key hangout; not many tourists in the morning
- Walked around Shimokitazawa (very old school Tokyo vibes, and one of the few areas where I saw actual grocery stores)
- Brief visit to Sangenjaya; Rain on the Roof was closed for lunch :(, but I saw the famed laundromat/bathhouse entrance… abided by the “no photograph” sign which I thought was funny it was there
- Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden – cool place with some beautifully juxtaposed views of nature and the city skyline, but too many tourists
- Walked around Isetan briefly (ugh, 3fancy5me)
- Looked at street food near Golden Gai but didn’t get anything (so crowded!)
- Tonkatsu/wasabi sandwich from 7/11 near the Airbnb (very solid taste)
- Met up with my friend and grabbed a casual midnight dinner (curry bowl) at a Sukiya near the Airbnb
Day 3: More Shibuya and Shinjuku
- November 20
- Harajuku (completely dead in the morning)
- Omotesando Avenue (very upscale stores; vibes vaguely similar to Unter den Linden in Berlin; could hear quite a few Chinese tourists, as usual)
- Visited Meiji Jingu again, since my friend missed out on it yesterday
- Ate at random café in a cellar near Shibuya Scramble for lunch after failing to find a teppanyaki place at the address provided by Google Maps (in its place was some kind of beauty salon, where I inadvertently terrified the receptionist with my broken Japanese lol)
- Satei Hato coffee shop – had the Hato original blend and orange chiffon cake (amazing atmosphere and coffee and cake; unique decor for each table)
- Walked around Shinjuku and Kabuchiko (ayy lmao; sketchy “peep shows,” quasi-brothels, and love hotels—to be clear, I did not set foot or partake in any of these)
- Briefly stopped in Isetan to use the bathroom (fancy heated seats and bidet spray lol)
- Entered Sega arcade (huge; arcade upstairs, claw machines downstairs; only took a few tries to win big blue doge from the claw machine even though a few other machines took my coins and did nothing lol)
- Saw the Godzilla Head on top of Hotel Gracery (was in the afternoon so no lighting/smoke effects yet)
- Walked around more and shopped at Don Quijote (Waterfront umbrellas and Kit Kats, ayyy)
- Hit up pre-dinner street food near Golden Gai (my buddy got a fish-on-a-stick thing; nothing appealed to me much so I didn’t get anything, same as yesterday)
- Walked around shops on B1 of Shinjuku Station (huge expanse wtf)
- Visited Kiddyland (disappointing, boring and overpriced) and walked along Omotesando at night
- Briefly revisited Harajuku to see if it was more poppin at night (not at all, still very few people)
- Dinner at Tonteki near Shibuya Station
Day 4: Shinkansen to Kyoto
- November 21
- Shinkansen to Kyoto
- Picked up ekiben from a shop called ecute in Shinagawa Station (I chose a duck entree, which tasted great)
Part II: Kyoto (Day 4 – Day 7)
Day 4: Kawaramachi
- November 21
- Walked from Kyoto Station to fancy yet reasonably priced Airbnb (Elitz Inn) in Kawaramachi
- Walked along the banks of the Kamo River
- Stopped by Ikariya coffee for an afternoon snack (craft latte and salted milk kinako, yum)
- Explored Shijo and Teramachi until nighttime
- Walked along Pontocho at night
- Got Kobe wagyu sirloin at Pontocho Kyoshikian (delicious buttery melt-in-mouth; chef was a tall dude who made friendly conversation with us)
- Stopped at Pontocho Whiskey Museum, drank the eponymous beverage (tasted decent)
- Crossed the river and walked around Gion
- Explored Yasaka Shrine and Maruyama Park (very serene at night)
- Snackies from FamilyMart (as usual… Ohayo Jersey Milk = best pudding; wagyu steak flavored Lays chips are legit too)
Day 5: Osaka
- November 22
- Hankyu line to Osaka in the morning (got omegadelayed, ended up taking like 3.5 hours; also, at first we accidentally stumbled into a women-only car for a minute lol)
- Passed by the Umeda building but didn’t get out of Umeda Station, instead continued to Dotonbori
- Walked around Dotonbori (like toned down Shibuya) and grabbed some takoyaki
- Grabbed spicy miso ramen at Tonkotsu Ramen Hakata Furyu Sennichimae in Shinsaibashi (very delicious, hella big portions/refills)
- Walked to/around Tsutenkaku (did not go up the tower due to the huge line of students)
- (I think we inadvertently walked through part of Denden town to get to Tsutenkaku, but the streets were pretty quiet… didn’t see anything crazy except some mild weeb posters)
- Walked on the bridge past the Osaka Zoo / Art Museum to Tennoji Park
- Walked out of the park into an alley with random sketchy motels, then accidentally stumbled into a peace memorial/shrine which had a cool secluded overlook of the river
- Visited Osaka Castle Park (huge and amazing views, worth dealing with the large crowds of tourists)
- Went to some famed sushi place on the 5th floor of Keihan Mall Kyobashi for an early bite (solid sushi but not blown away)
- Took the Keihan line back to Kyoto (no delays this time; saloon double-decker train was cool)
Day 6: Castles and Shrines
- November 23
- Nishiki Market in the morning for various snackies and gift shopping
- Stopped by Weekenders Coffee (random chill little spot at the back of a parking lot)
- Walked to Nijo Castle, entered castle and walked around (looked at replica paintings like the bootleg tigers lol) then walked around outside
- Stopped at random ramen place across the street from Nijojo (aight but not as good as Ichiran or the place in Osaka)
- Walked to Kyoto Gyoen National Garden, walked around the garden and entered Kyoto Imperial Palace
- Took a taxi to the south end of the Philosopher’s Path (very nice older driver, surprisingly I was able to converse with him a bit in Japanese)
- Walked north along the Philosopher’s Path (hella tourists, place was like the High Line in NY; still, beautiful little stream with fluffy duckies and red-orange-yellow foliage)
- Decided not to continue to Ginkakuji due to how ridiculously crowded the path to it was
- Chilled for a bit at Bambi Café (got blueberry tea and matcha parfait, both delicious)
- Walked west along Imadegawa-dori to a subway station and took a train back to Elitz
- Fushimi Inari at night – hiked all the way to the top and back (it was a great idea to go at night: beautiful weather, clear skies, amazing views, not crowded at all)
- Got hella expensive Kobe beef at Steak and Wine Pontocho ($200 Chateaubriand; it was really good, but Kyoshikian was much better value)
- Ultimately never got to try out the elusive ChaoChao Gyoza (always lines, then closed early; sadge)
Day 7: Shinkansen to Tokyo
- November 24
- Nishiki Market food tour, part 2 (got big fried shrimp, soymilk croquette, soymilk ice cream and soymilk donuts; YEET)
- Ikariya coffee, part 2 (fruit latte was really good)
- ChaoChao Gyoza for lunch!!! Classic ChaoChao gyoza, pork curry gyoza (my favorite) and shrimp gyoza, awesome sweet matcha tea
- Walked along Kamogawa then went to Kiyomizu-dera (hella crowded though)
- Walked to the outside of Kodaiji but didn’t go in
- Walked around the streets of Gion proper (skipped over it a bit the other night)
- Shinkansen back to Tokyo
Part III: Tokyo Again (Day 7 – Day 12)
Day 7: Asakusa
- November 24
- Airbnb in Asakusa is awesome, right next to the Skytree (never ceases to amaze me how cool it looks, and how close we are to it)
- Wandered the streets of Asakusa at night (very chill/mellow vibes, polar opposite of Shibuya/Shinjuku) – briefly walked around Sumida Park (smaller than expected, ground was muddy from rain, and it was very misty which created a “too quiet” vibe; reminded me of when I randomly walked around at night in Barcelona) then crossed the bridge over the Sumida River (subdued/serene lighting but beautiful nonetheless)
- Walked to Sensoji Temple (beautifully lit up at night, relatively few tourists at this hour, so got some nice photos)
- Walked down empty Nakamise-dori and continued to the crazy big Vegas-esque looking 24h Don Quixote (ridiculously busy at 10pm on a Sunday… like an NY Trader Joe’s), grabbed various snackies (pudding, Cheetos, Kit Kats, etc.)
- Walked back to the Airbnb across the same bridge (absolutely stunning direct view of Skytree… I couldn’t stop looking up the entire way)
Day 8: Akihabara
- November 25
- Late start to the day to rest up
- Walked all the way to Akihabara
- Checked out the outside of Radio Kaikan (lots of maids at every street corner trying to hand out ads for their cafés)
- Had lunch at Aoshima Shokudo (long line but was worth it, best broth I ever had and the chashu and ramen were amazing)
- Stopped for some coffee at Keys Café
- Explored Yodobashi Camera (spent way more time here than I expected, the afternoon just flew by; also, video games in YC were way more expensive than they are in the US)
- Explored Radio Kaikan (building was way smaller and had a much different layout than I expected based on Steins;Gate; still cool though)
- Walked to Ueno Park (cool big plaza with reflecting pool, which was memorable in the night lighting; parked police car’s orange flashing lights would make for a great cinemagraph)
- Further walking to Ueno Pond (completely filled with lilies, could barely even tell there was water there) and small temple in the middle
- Rested at Airbnb for a bit then headed to Steakhouse Matsunami for a 10-course dinner (excellent service and lots of good food)
- Walked to Donki again and picked up some snackies (got some nice pics/cinemagraphic video from the Kototoi Bridge on the way there; took Azumabashi on the way back)
Day 9: Yokohama
- November 26
- Mid-morning start to the day, took the train down to Yokohama
- Explored Chinatown and had a really fancy lunch experience at Manchinro Honten (seriously, place was huge and super fancy, very extravagant and liberal use of plates/utensils; the food was quite unique from Chinese food in the US or China, kind of like “conservative” or “streamlined” versions of authentic Chinese dishes, but not quite diluted in a cheap way like some Ameri-Chinese fusion… I liked it a lot)
- Walked around Chinatown a bit more and dropped in a gift shop to buy some souvenirs (i.e. panda merch)
- Walked along Yamashita Park for some great harbor views (random large group of girl scouts/students were walking there at the same time as us lol)
- Walked to the Red Brick Warehouse and experienced an interesting Japanese take on a Christkindlmarkt (no Lebkuchen or glühwein to be found though, darn… there were, however, lots of schnitzel and wurst advertised on flyers hung profligately from every stall)
- Went into the warehouse and explored the different shops in there
- Continued on to Minatomirai, which we explored briefly before taking the train back to Tokyo (Roppongi)
- Arrived at Roppongi Hills and went into Mori Tower, up to the 52F observation deck (fantastic night view of the city, despite it being too dark to see Mount Fuji)
- Walked to Sakurai for a traditional tea ceremony (very cool and extremely zen, really “realized” the concept of setsuna as I smelled/sipped the delicious hojicha)
- During our 15-minute wait for Sakurai, we went to the stationery shop on the second floor (cool but hella pricey items)
- Checked out the Porter store in Omotesando (was hoping to find a bag under $150 but no such luck, these things are mad expensive)
- Super tired at this point so subwayed back to the Airbnb to call it an early night (grabbed some Karaage-kun from the neighboring Lawson, good stuff)
Day 10: Odaiba
- November 27
- Late morning start to the day, went to Odaiba
- Got off at the Daiba stop and took in the views of the big bridge, Fuji TV building, and bootleg Statue of Liberty (lol)
- Walked past Diver City and the Gundam Unicorn statue
- Checked out the Mega Web history gallery and VenusFort (got suckered into the hyakuenya (100 yen shop) Seria, kind of fun to hunt for the Made in Japan stuff)
- Met up with my friend, continued to explore VenusFort a little bit then went to the main Toyota Mega Web Showcase (yuge space, pretty cool)
- Got lunch at Sojibo in Diver City (delicious chicken curry soba)
- Teamlab Borderless for the afternoon for some very trippy digital art experiences (will have to try Planets next time)
- Walked along the shores of Daiba Park (wanted to walk across the Rainbow Bridge but it was closed at 6) for some awesome evening views of Tokyo
- Split paths with my friend, checked out Joypolis/Decks mall briefly
- Shopping at Muji Akiba (awesome, very neat department store, but I guess they exist in a few US cities to, so not really a Japan-exclusive thing)
- Returned to Airbnb and hung out with my friend a bit before bidding him farewell (he’s flying back to the States the next morning)
- Went to Lawson to stock up on some indulgent snacks and walked to the Skytree Makku (McDonald’s) for a “Gran Clubhouse” burger, some fries, and a coke (latter two were remarkably consistent with US McDonald’s; former was much better quality than the average US Mickey D’s though)
Day 11: Nakano and Kichijoji
- November 28
- Yet another late morning start to the day, went to Nakano
- Walked around SunPlaza and the area around Nakano Station, explored the Sun Mall briefly
- Spent a lot of time in Nakano Broadway (like the weebmalls in Akiba, except in an older jankier building and less crowded, which was good; there were hella Mandarake stores in this building; I kind of felt bad for spending so much time inside, until I stepped outside again and remembered how rainy and gross it was today)
- Ended up weebing out with a few random capsule machine purchases and a Jack Frost doll from Mandarake (I also wanted to try out the 8-scoop ice cream cone from Daily Chico but just wasn’t really feeling up to it, will have to save it for next time)
- Walked from Nakano to Koenji, passing by Nakano Central Park (cool view; the whole area along the walk felt not like super old old school, but had an 80s/90s vibe which I thought was cool; there was also quite a bit of art deco influence on the architecture, which was interesting)
- Grabbed a quick bite/rest at a FamilyMart in Koenji (made a bootleg strawberry FamiChiki sandwich, yum); also stopped in a Dorama to buy a few cheap Vita/DS games
- Koenji felt super hipster and was cool to walk around despite the rain (to be honest, the clothing street near Koenji Station was similar to what I had expected Harajuku to be)
- Took the train to Inokashira Park and walked around the pond (was wavering on whether to do this, and I’m really glad I did—even though it was dark and raining, the park was beautiful, true to Persona 5’s portrayal; there was a random guy playing guitar and singing and it was pretty moving)
- Took the long train ride back to the Airbnb (experienced the infamous sardine crowding for the first time on the Asakusa line from Nihonbashi; the Chuo/Tozai line had been completely empty from Kichijoji to there)
- Wandered around inside Skytree Solamachi (was originally going to get tickets to go up Skytree, but didn’t want to wait in line so went into Solamachi instead – place is YUGE, like the SouthPark mall but bigger, classier, and somehow less annoying… I ended up buying a Porter bag from Loft lol; it’s interesting that this shopping complex inside the Skytree tower was like a bustling hub of commerce when the rest of Asakusa is so quiet at night)
- Got snackies and karaage-kun from Lawson again to cap off the night
Day 12: Farewell Tour
- November 29
- Beautiful, perfectly sunny morning for my last day in Japan :'(
- Stored my luggage in a coin locker in Oshiage Station then chilled on the side balcony of Solamachi for a few minutes while sipping a Dr. Pepper
- Strolled through the side alleys and main streets of Asakusa to Kappabashi to browse various interesting kitchenware (ended up buying a few more chopsticks lol)
- Strolled to Suzukien and got a bowl of grade 7 matcha ice cream (very rich taste) and bought some tea souvenirs
- Walked back to Skytree and took the Keisei line to Narita airport (was so fast getting through security though, I could have spent a couple more hours in Asakusa)
Here is a very non-exhaustive list of my observations during my travels in Japan, in no particular order. These were my impressions as of 2019; obviously, the world has changed a lot since then, so some of these might not be as accurate anymore.
- Japan’s reputation for hospitality and top-notch service is well deserved. Everyone I interacted with was very courteous and professional.
- I don’t regret spending so much of the trip in Tokyo; it’s such a large amalgam of cities, I never felt like I was even close to completing my explorations of it.
- Three days felt like the right amount of time to allocate to Kyoto; however, I probably could have spent at least another full day in Osaka.
- Tokyo’s subway system is freaking awesome, and not crowded at all. With the exception of a couple of train lines, most still had very comfortable spacing during rush hour, and I rarely had to wait for a train for more than a few minutes.
- Staying in Shibuya first was a great decision; it’s quite centrally located, which makes it easy to get to just about everywhere else in Tokyo.
- The JR Pass is so worth it.
- Even in the most popular tourist spots (e.g. Osaka Castle), there are some beautiful niches with almost no other people around.
- It’s a good idea to go to super popular destinations at night (e.g. Fushimi Inari, Sensoji Temple). It’s much less crowded and the vibes are immaculate.
- Japan is obsessed with Christmas (decorative lights and Santas everywhere).
- The sound-proofing of side streets and alleys (esp. in Kyoto) is amazing.
- FamilyMart is the best konbini #FamGang4Life. I probably relied a bit too much on konbini food, though.
- Ohayo Jersey Milk is the best pudding.
- The wagyu beef at Pontocho Kyoshikian ($34 for a serving in 2019) is much better value than the $200+ Kobe beef from other restaurants.
- Retail places open quite late in the morning and close quite early in the evening.
- As a visibly East Asian man, I blended into the crowds everywhere, and flew under the radar of tourist-scammers (there weren’t a ton of them, but they exist). Because locals always assumed I was also Japanese, I got to practice speaking Japanese, which was awesome! (Of course, in cases when the conversation carried on for more than a minute or two, it inevitably became obvious to my conversation partners that I was not a native speaker lol.)
- Everywhere is so clean; I really admire how serious everyone is about no littering.
- Public restrooms are awesome; don’t understand why Toto’s high-tech toilets are not widely adopted in the US.
- It’s really important to have good socks and shoes; I walked between 10 to 12 miles a day on average.
- It’s okay to start the day a little later and turn in a bit earlier than a “full” day, as the active part of the day tends to be jam packed. It’s necessary to rest, and I didn’t feel too bad about the opportunity cost, as it felt like I was still seeing/doing a ton every day.
Japan is probably my favorite place that I’ve ever traveled to, and I certainly hope to visit again someday. I was incredibly lucky to have been able to take this trip, unaware that Covid-19 was going to shut everything down within the next few months. The total cost of the trip, including lodging, airfare, food, entertainment, souvenirs, etc. was upwards of $3,000. Totally worth it.
Not gonna lie: when I got back home in the States, I was in withdrawal for a while. But, it gave me motivation to continue studying Japanese (which, at present, I need to get back on it) and plan for the eventual next trip. Also, watching The Devil is a Part-Timer! while munching on the Japanese snacks I brought home was a good “chaser” to the trip.