The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.— William Gibson
Japan had been at the top of my Bucket List since 2011, when I watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
I also wanted to go because of the opening quote. Tokyo is the largest city in the world (37 million people compared to NYC’s 8.5 million) and there is no traffic. They are good at utilizing space. For lack of a better word, the city works.
In the US, we like our space, and we like big houses and cars. As you have noticed, these are getting more expensive and traffic is getting worse.
The average size of an apartment in the US is 800-1,200 square feet. In Tokyo, it’s 300-600 square feet.
There is a pressure, or gravity, to use real estate more efficiently as land, material, and labor costs increase and city populations increase.
So, seeing Japan manage slowing growth and a lot of people is a little like seeing the future United States (after visiting, I believe this will likely be true economically and not culturally.)
I think we should study it.
- People in Japan care. Obsessive respect for detail.
- Everyone is polite and respectful.
- Zero trash. It is so clean there is not even a gum wrapper on a storm drain. We saw a woman pick up a stranger’s dog’s poop.
- Ironically, no trashcans. If you eat somewhere, throw your trash away there or else you will be walking round with an empty water bottle for 30 minutes. (This apparently dates back to a 1995 terrorist attack in the subway with sarin gas.)
- Crime is absurdly low to non-existent.
- If you left your luggage in the train station, not only would it probably still be there when you came back, someone may have done your laundry and repacked your suitcase.
- The food is arguably the best in the world, at any price point. Whether you are eating fried chicken at a 7-11 or sushi at a $350 omakase, it is remarkable.
- Limit your travel group to four people. It will be hard to get into restaurants, etc. with bigger groups.
- TikTok is the most useful tool for ideas and planning where you want to go.
- Research is rewarded. Recommended cities for first trip: Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka.
- The best time to go is April. July was Houston hot.
- 10-hour flight from LA.
- Language: You will be fine with English. Some people speak fluently, many speak a little. Google Translate can be useful, but we barely had to use it. You can accomplish a lot with pointing and trying to figure things out with your phone.
- Before the trip, I translated my allergies into my Notes app to show restaurants when needed.
- Google Maps for navigation (trains & cars).
- Bring comfortable shoes – we averaged 19,000 steps per day (~10 miles).
- Best toilets in the world. #bidet
- American-style electric outlets
- Time zone: 13 hours ahead of Eastern Time Zone; 16 hours ahead of Pacific Time Zone
- 7:00pm in New York City is 8:00am the next day in Tokyo
- Diversity & immigration: 99% of Japan’s population is Japanese.
- Tokyo used to be the most expensive city in the world. Much more affordable now.
- As of July 2023, the exchange rate is roughly $1 to 140 Yen. (This tied for the best it has been for Americans since the 1980s.)
- Convenient conversions:
- 1,000 yen = $7
- 10,000 yen = $70
- 100,000 yen = $700
- Memorizing these, thinking in multiples of 7 is an easy way to figure out the cost things.
- e.g. if something is 5,000 yen, you can think, “Okay 1,000 yen is $7, then $7 x 5 = $35.
- Credit cards are accepted most places, but you still need some cash (ATMs are at 7-11).
- You can get yen in Japan – no need to get it in US.
- For credit card payments, select the Yen option (not US dollar) because your credit card company gets the best exchange rates, which means you get the best exchange rate (applies to all foreign country transactions).
- Pocket Wifi: $10/day (get it at the Japan airports)
- Cell phone service for Verizon/AT&T is fine with an international plan, but the Pocket Wifi is nice for streaming & social media.
- Remember to return it at the airport before leaving.
- No tipping
- Bring passport while shopping to avoid paying taxes.
- Recommended time in each city:
- Tokyo: 3-5 days
- Kyoto: 2-3 days
- Osaka: 1 day
- Uber works well. They are generally inexpensive. Taxis are more expensive.
- The vans (Toyota Alphards) are excellent. Leather seats, recliners, etc.
- The subway can be intimidating, but it’s relatively easy/straightforward once you try it.
- Subway is cheapest. We used this when it was faster or when travel time was more than 40 minutes. Anything under 30 min, we usually used Uber.
- For subway, individual daily tickets at the ticket kiosks are like $3.00.
- Check weather. Bring rain jacket.
- Bullet train: It made sense for us to get the JR Rail Pass for 7 days, but the cost is scheduled to increase soon. If you are only going to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, it may be worth buying individual tickets unless you plan on going to multiple cities. You must purchase this before getting to Japan. Purchase online and it gets mailed to you.
- The name of the bullet train between Tokyo & Kyoto is the Shinkansen (about 2 hrs 40 min)
- Kyoto to Osaka is 15 min on the bullet train, so it’s worth checking out.
- The food is good, everywhere.
- You may find something that doesn’t suit your taste, but you will unlikely find any bad food.
- The cities with the most Michelin Star restaurants in the world are Tokyo, Paris, Kyoto, and Osaka.
- 7-11 & Family Mart are some of the most valuable stores.
- They have ATMs.
- The food is shockingly* good. Trying the fried chicken there is a must-do.
- Good option for quick breakfast.
- Restaurants: Book dinners as far as possible in advance (some require months).
- Generally, the nicer the restaurant, the harder it is to book from the US. Most require a phone call and only speak Japanese.
- Pocket Concierge was helpful.
- If you have a concierge service through your credit card (e.g. Visa Concierge), this can be extremely useful because they have Japanese-speaking representatives that will reserve it on your behalf.
- Canceling a reservation is deeply frowned upon.
- Best views of Tokyo: Tokyo Sky Tree or Shibuya Sky
- Tokyo is NOT a morning person city. It gets going around 10:00am (even on weekdays). Many coffee shops open after 8:00am. Starbucks are everywhere and generally open earliest.
- The nightlife peaks from 12:00am – 4:00am. Hard to do when you are jet-lagged and waking up at 5:00am.
- Roppongi & Shibuya are the nicer areas to go out.
- Shinjuku & south of Shibuya are fun, but more dive-bar-like.
- Shibuya has some of the best shopping in the world.
- Shrines & Temples: They are open 24 hrs, so if you are jet lagged and up early, this is the place to do it. Ideally, you would start your trip here, but flights are usually more expensive. There are a bunch to choose from, and they get crowded in the afternoon.
- Much easier city to navigate than Tokyo.
- Nishiki Market
- The Kamo River, running through the center of the city, is beautiful at sunset. It reminds me of Florence.
- Kyo kaiseki is a traditional multi-course dinner. I am normally willing to try anything, but it did not look appealing at all.
- Target one-star Michelin restaurants for upscale dining over two- and three-star ones. The reviews consistently say the two- and three-star rated restaurants in Kyoto are overrated and underwhelming for the expectations and cost.
- Dotonbori – Main thing to do. Food vendors, comparable to a NYC Times Square feel with the large advertisements, etc. except it’s on a canal. Go at night.
- The Osaka Castle is okay, but once you’ve seen the shrines in Kyoto, diminishing returns.
- We knocked out everything we wanted to do in half a day.
- Tsukiji Fish Market (Tokyo)
- One of the coolest culinary experiences in the world.
- Go in the morning, bring cash.
- High-end sushi omakase – You will never regret this. Reddit has some good recommendations on specific restaurants.
- New York Bar (Tokyo) – Top of Park Hyatt. Excellent view, filming location of Lost in Translation, live Jazz band. Recommend at sunset.
- Memento Mori (Tokyo) – Bar with intricate cocktails and great ambience. Inside office tower.
- Four Seasons Kyoto – Back patio for a drink overlooking koi pond
- Kyoto Gion Okaru (Kyoto)- 100 year-old noodle restaurant
- Lurra (Kyoto) – Michelin star. American chef living in Japan. Ambience, food, service – exceptional.
- Katsukura Tonkatsu (Kyoto) – Whether fried pork sounds good or not, trust me it’s fantastic.
- It is remarkably quiet in public. People do not have audible conversations in public.
- If you walk up to a restaurant, bar, person, waiting to be addressed before talking goes a long way.
- Generally, people walk on the left, but it was mixed.
- Bowing: A bow can range from a small nod of the head to a deep bend at the waist. A deeper, longer bow indicates respect and conversely a small nod with the head is casual and informal.
These are not bad, just not worth going out of your way for unless you feel like you have to check it off your list.
- Shibuya Crossing – If you go, go when it would be busy, like Friday night. Otherwise, underwhelming.
- TeamLab – Couple of cool exhibits, but everyone is barefoot so it smells like feet.
- Bamboo Forest – Didn’t even go because of underwhelming videos and friend reviews.
- Few homeless people – Drugs are hard to get and therefore abuse. Many mental institutions.
- Mario Kart Go Karts – You must get your Japanese temporary driving permit in the US before you get to Japan. This sounded fun in theory, but people doing it did not look like they were having fun.
- There is 1 vending machine for every 24 people. They are everywhere.
- Heard the Suica IC Card is helpful for local trains & convenience store purchases.
Things I Wish I Did / For Next Time
- Sumo wrestling
- Baseball game
- Sushi Dai- at Toyosu Fish Market (Tokyo)
- Stay in a Ryokan in Kyoto
- Seirinkan Pizza (Tokyo)
- French & Italian Michelin Star restaurants – I wanted to stick to mostly Japanese first time
- Monk (pizza place in Kyoto featured on Chef’s Table)
- Benizuru Pancakes
- Miyako Jima – Japan’s version of the Bahamas
Things America Does Better
- Ubiquitous Air Conditioning
- Food variety (no Mexican food in Japan)
Thanks to James Bunch and Suzanna V. Wood for reading drafts of this.