Nature, around every corner
I can’t wait to dig into.
As you probably know, my mom and I got the incredible opportunity to visit Japan together with Noken just last month. Noken is a mobile app that helps you get the most of out your trip from top to bottom. The app is available offline if you don’t have any wifi access, and it helps guide your trip with daily self-guided walking tours, dining recommendations, and real-time human support if you need any help. They truly take the stress out of traveling. They are currently offering trips to Iceland, Japan, and Portugal, and if you use code “LEE”, between now and 3/31/19, you will get $200 off your trip! Learn more about Noken here.
Needless to say, Japan was my favorite trip I’ve ever been on. And that’s saying a lot: especially for 2018- where I traveled to places like Croatia, Rome, Paris, and Stockholm.
Why’d I love Japan so much? I loved how different it was. I loved how beautiful it was. I loved how orderly it was. But most of all, I loved the people I met there.
The smiles people offered my mother and I were genuine. You can tell the people there really respect and love one another, and it was a really special thing to experience.
Oh, and the food. The food was so good too.
The only thing I’d change about Japan? I’d go for longer next time. We spent 3 days in Tokyo and 4 days in Kyoto, but it wasn't enough! My mom and I both agreed that it wasn’t until about day 7 or 8 that we finally felt in the flow of the new culture, and our culture shock had winded down enough for us to really relax and enjoy. Needless to say, I’ll certainly be going back again soon, and I’ll be using the tips and guide below to revisit everywhere I went. We saw a lot in that one week there, and I hope you get the most out of the tips and recommendations below.
Bring a small bag out with you for trash if you plan on creating trash for yourself while walking around. There are little to no public trash cans.
Rent a pocket wifi router to carry around with you. This will help save money so you don’t eat up all your data! They are small, compact, and last all day walking around. Perfect so you can get directions, translations, and update your Instagram stories while you explore. We rented the Ninja one.
You can always pop into a 7-11, FamilyMart, or Lawson to use a bathroom, find a trash can, or get something to eat or drink. They are open late and the food here is amazing. I bought breakfast here everyday: onigiri and fresh fruit.
Pay attention to etiquette. Look around! People queue behind one another at the crosswalk, instead of cutting in front of one another. On a crowded sidewalk, you walk behind the person in front of you, rather than trying to pass them. Waiting in line for the subway? Get in line, don’t cut. People do not speak on the rails or subways. Follow suite and be cognizant of the already-established etiquette and rules. They are lovely, respectful, and orderly. Take advantage of this exciting culture- do not push to get ahead!
Get your money exchanged at the airport. Most places are cash only. Despite a few high-end restaurants and shops where you can definitely use your credit card, cash is the way to go.
There are plenty of ways to say thank you, but we were encouraged to use this phrase: ありがとうございました, Arigatōgozaimashita, pronounced ah-ree-gah-toh goh-zah-ee-mas. This is the way of expressing deep gratitude to someone of higher ranking, so we said it to everyone: our hotel staff, baristas, public transportation employees, etc.
Enjoy the warm toilet seats with all sorts of different functions, and take advantage every time you eliminate.
Speaking of toilets, sometimes you will find yourself peeing in a toilet in the ground. For this, you squat.
Have an open mind, and be flexible. Traveling to a country like Japan is much different than the US and Europe, so you definitely want to pack your patience. To keep your cortisol under control, do your research, pay attention, and remember to enjoy everything: even when you get on the wrong train heading the opposite way. Pack a sense of humor and your ashwagandha if you need it.
Tokyo is a vivacious, bustling, energetic city with SO much to do and see. It can be overwhelming navigating the city- but within a few days of consistency and dedication, the public transportation system becomes second nature. Stay patient, ask questions, and remember, don’t talk on the phone in the subway. Follow the actions of the locals and be as respectful as possible.
Meiji Shrine - Free
Noken recommended we did this first thing in the morning- and boy, was it just the perfect way to kick off our trip. The park was practically empty as we wandered the wide pathways just as the crisp fall sun was rising. It was such a peaceful oasis in the middle of the bustling city.
Glutenfree Cafe Littlebird, Shibuya - $$
A 100% gluten free gem in Tokyo! You don’t have to worry about cross contamination here, this cafe is specifically made for people wanting to enjoy food without worrying about any gluten getting in their food. Get the gyoza dumplings and the ramen with a piece of GF fried chicken on top. It was so good, I couldn’t tell this place was gluten free.
I recommend after checking out the restaurant, take a walk around Shibuya. It’s such a fun neighborhood with so much to see and do!
Sushi No Midori - $$$-$$$$
This sushi chain (yes, it’s a chain) has a few locations across Tokyo, and for good reason. The quality is there, but even more than that, the mood is too. When you walk in, you are greeted warmly by the whole staff. As soon as you sit down, you are given a warm cup of matcha. Prepare for lines, my mother and I arrived 30 minutes before open time and were probably 40th in line. The one-hour wait was worth it. Also, we were the only Americans in there which is always a good sign!
Turret Coffee - $$
Before heading to the Fish Market, I stopped in here for a cheeky shot of espresso. It’s got great coffee with an adorable vibe inside. The staff are SO friendly and nice (I mean, it’s hard not to meet a sweet staff in Japan) but they were exceptional, plus, they spoke a bit of English! They asked where I was from and when I told them LA, they gave me one of their Turret Coffee stickers. When you order, they offer you a platter of unique antique ceramics to choose from.
Tsukiji Fish Market - Free
A trip to Tokyo is not complete with a morning spent at the fish market. Arrive early, come hungry, and prepare for crowds! My mother and I spent hours roaming around this place and still didn’t see everything. Yes, it may be known for it’s infamous daily tuna auction, but you can get so much more than raw fish to prepare at home here. Fill up on matcha ice cream, fatty tuna everything, corn fritters, sea urchin steamed buns, grilled eel skewers, giant oysters, munch beef cutlets, Japanese rolled omelettes, matcha lattes, ramen, and mochi to boot.
Kyoto holds a special place in my heart. After spending a few days in the thick of Tokyo madness, Kyoto’s warm and village-like mood was a welcome respite. There is easier access to widespread nature, open skies, killer sunsets and because it is much smaller, it’s easier to navigate.
Hotel Kanra Kyoto - $$
A beautiful hotel in a perfect location in Kyoto. It’s in between the city and the train station, so it’s ideal for getting around. The staff was the most friendly- plus, it’s got a great cafe and tea shop inside. Though, my favorite thing about this hotel was it’s authentic Kyoto-style design and architecture. The hotel is simply stunning, there’s no other way to describe it. It was such a treat staying here.
Spick & Span - $$$
Head here for some of the COOLEST clothing in Japan. I purchased a sweet corduroy hat here that graced my head for the duration of my trip. Think high waisted baggy pants, fuzzy trenches, baby pink eskimo gloves, see-through purses, and modern heels. There is an eclectic mix of Japanese and European brands here. Some American stuff too. They curated this shop very well.
Nishiki Market - Free
Spend a day wandering the Nishiki market for delicious bites. Some of the best food of the trip was enjoyed here. We loved the octopus balls, mochi, fresh fish, and people watching. It’s similar to the Tsukiji Market, but smaller and more manageable.
Kyoto Imperial Palace Park - Free
A great location to run, walk around, or picnic in. A lot of nature and cool birds, too. I loved heading here in the early mornings.
Sannezaka & Ninenzaka Preserved Districts - Free
Here is where you can lose yourself in visiting small vintage ceramic stores, incense shops, and vendors selling mochi and Japanese pastries. Spend an early evening meandering the cobblestone streets, admiring the stillness and getting lost in the moment. I liked it so much because I barely saw a crowd here Some of my fondest memories lie here and I’m grateful for Noken to pointing this hood out to us or we would have missed it. P.S. - load up on the ceramics, they are incredibly affordable here!
% Arabica - $$
There are a few locations sprinkled around Kyoto that you must try. They had the best lattes in Japan. Yes, they have almond milk. Many of the other coffee shops in Japan made a pretty watered-down, overly-milky latte, but % Arabica always made a nice and strong one. The trendy shops have a familiar vibe which I appreciated and felt welcomed to. Plus the staff started recognizing me by my 2nd visit. I think I visited every location and the one near the Bamboo forests in Arashiyama was my favorite.
Arashiyama & The Bamboo Forest - Free
Did you even go to Japan if you didn’t check out the bamboo forests? Of course you did, but I highly encourage you to check this tourist attraction off your to-do list. It’s fabulous. If you go, please go before 8:30am. After then, it apparently gets so crowded with people. My mom and I went around 8:30 and were one of maybe 10 people in the whole forest. We saw a wedding going down and it was a tear-jerker.
Ippodo Tea House - $$$
As you guys know, Ippodo tea is my favorite matcha brand, and their headquarters are based in Kyoto. I highly recommend stopping by the shop to learn more about all the different types of green tea they produce and sell. If you are a freak fan like me, invest in the green tea workshop tasting where you will spend an hour getting educated on 10+ different types of matcha and green tea blends, learning about the growing process, cultural history, etiquette for drinking, and more. Oh, and they’ll provide you with plenty of wagashi (Japanese sweets) to enjoy with your green tea so you do not get a belly ache. These sweets are traditionally made with pounded rice, red bean paste, and or fruit.
Santomi Center - $$
I discovered this coffee shop one night while roaming around the streets of Kyoto. I took note and jetted here the morning after for an infamous “Sawada-style latte”, also known as a matcha latte with a shot of espresso. It was delicious, the coffee shop is so cute, and the employees were too kind! Stop here for me and let them know I sent you!
So there you have it! What are your favorite spots to check out in Japan? Anything you’d add to my list? Join the conversation by posting below!