After years of putting it off, I finally had the chance to visit Japan last month. It always seemed too expensive, too far away, too difficult to plan, so the trip just kept getting bumped to another year. Now having been, I am kicking myself for waiting so long to visit- Japan is by far the most exciting place I have ever been, so I’m writing a few posts about the trip to share some tips on what we did, and what I would have done differently.

Planning the trip took me months, mostly because I was interested in seeing many parts of the country and wanted to prioritize the right places without making travel between the cities too difficult. In the end our itinerary was as follows:  Tokyo (7 nights), Matsumoto (3 nights), Kyoto (6 nights with day trips to Nara & Osaka) and finally Hakone (2 nights). To get everywhere by train, you’ll need to book a JR Pass online about a month or so before your trip. And don’t panic like I did about how to plan your train journeys- just download the Hyperdia app for your phone and everything becomes wayyyy more clear.

Every city we visited was fantastic in its own way, but Tokyo completely won me over, and I wish I could have stayed longer. Everything in this city is just so easy. Do not be intimidated to take the subway, it’s actually super intuitive and there are always station clerks around who can help you if you get turned around. I recommend to buy a Suica card when you’re at Narita Airport at one of the train ticket kiosks, you can use this card on all the subway lines in Tokyo, and it just makes getting around really simple. You can also load up this card to buy things at the convenience stores and some vending machines! 

Predictably, my favorite neighborhood that we visited was Harajuku. If shopping for insane plastic accessories fit for an 8 year old anime fanatic & eating tons of sugary snacks is your thing, this is the place to go! 

Also I did not realize how great the vintage shopping would be- I found a fantastic second hand kimono that needed to come home with me.

You must try out the wacky Purifun photo booths! You’ll find these in virtually any arcade around, and it’s your chance to become a silky skin kawaii dream girl/boy with saucer eyes. So much fun adding the little stickers and drawings to your photos as well!

Near Harajuku in Shibuya is the Kawaii Monster Cafe, which definitely warrants a visit. I enjoyed devouring the insane Colorful Poison Parfait while watching the gorgeous decora girls wander around the cafe! And if it’s your birthday, let them know- the performance that the staff gives is kooky as hell.

Tower Records in Shinjuku is a must see.  I visited 2 times because once was just not enough! So many crazy bands that you have never heard of and great album artwork. This gem is from a band called Ladybaby, which I can only describe as kawaii heavy metal. Instant classic.

A really unexpected highlight in Tokyo was the Hanayashiki theme park in Asakusa. The rides are all vintage, sun bleached wonders, and they even have an old school coin-fed Sailor Moon ride! The best part is that you can ride around the park on a giant mechanical panda- much more frightening than it looks!

For a cool Japanese hipster vibe check out the Shimokitazawa neighborhood.  A little out of the way but worth the cab ride. Lots of cool bars & shops- and a great place to check out some Japanese indie music live.  We saw a band called Mock Heroic at a club called Mosaic- such a sweet gig!

We also were lucky enough to see a sumo tournament one day. Neither my husband nor I are really into sports, but this was fascinating. I would recommend to watch this film before visiting a sumo match, so that you can better appreciate the sport!

On our last day we stopped by Tokyo Tower- I’m a little bummed we didn’t have time to go to the top as it is featured in so many of my favorite anime, but I guess I can save that for my next trip!

This hardly sums up the whole Tokyo experience, but hopefully some of these tips can get you started on planning your trip. Next time I would like to have breakfast at the Tsukiji fish market, and also go for a boat ride in Tokyo Bay. I’m sad to have missed out on the Hello Kitty theme park, Sanrio Puroland. Give yourself as many days as possible to explore this completely magical city!

Recommended reading:

Cool Japan Guide by Abby Denson

A Geek In Japan by Hector Garcia