Planning a Route across Japan, or Tokyo

Cities vs Villages

Some notes on Tokyo and Kyoto are below. But remember that’s kind of like visiting NYC and DC and thinking you’ve been to the United States. Except in Japan’s case all the cool towns/villages/islands/mountains in between — the entire rest of the country — are only a train ride away. And super easy and friendly.

Hokkaido ❤ the island up north

The top island Hokkaido is lovely. Woodsy and agricultural with notable artisan trades and a great ski and chill surf culture (despite the frigid water!). Delicious local beers (and summer beer fests), infinite fresh seafood tapas-style at cute little bars, monk dairy butter slathered on a really good split fluffy potato, summer lavender ice cream. With agricultural fields and cows all around, all food feels like it tastes better on Hokkaido. It could be the air, too: dense woods and mountains to hike, remote forest hot springs, fields of lavender and other landscapes, fantastic little art museums, glass blowing wonders, cool cafes and shops in the most unlikely-seeming places, lovely lakes with well tended trails, very cute farms open to visitors (okay, intentionally designed to delight visitors). In the winter, rugged towns set themselves up to delight visitors. Ice sculptures. Skiing. Lots of snow. A long slow ferry up if you don’t want an underwater train. Great road tripping territory (easy to get to Sapporo and a few big towns by train, but to explore the rest of the island a car seems most efficient).

Kyoto

Kyoto, longtime capital of the country, is almost a requirement. Fantastic to explore — also a good place to start, because it’s more manageable. Slow pace, traditional everything, temples, shrines, river boats, natural beauty. There is a ton of info available on Kyoto, and I haven’t been in a long time so won’t attempt to be more specific.

TOKYO

It’s a giant city, where every big train station stop (on the train line that circles the city) is like its own Times Square, with its own character. Almost every single train stop will have its own distinct neighborhood (well, a good # are commercial & electronic, with very similar array of major stores).

  • Ginza — the ritziest… window shop, check prices if you try to eat anywhere, probably not worth eating there unless you want a fancy meal and you know exactly where you’re going to make that worth it.
  • Akihabara — just to see the electronics mecca. but don’t buy them here; buy them around Shinjuku. not that prices are ever good. :P
  • Ueno — park, zoo (if that’s your thing), amazing museums around it, including world’s-top modern sculptures and installations ones that are really fantastic
  • Roppongi — famous for nightlife, and a new mall. But plan well if you go out out… otherwise it can be unnecessarily expensive, or really seedy. But also with planning you can find an amazing jazz show, or rave… and anything in between.
  • Famous landmarks: The palace and its moat are totally worth a stop. The temple grounds right next to Harajuku — prob Harajuku, or Yoyogi — are also awesome. Meiji jingu (shrine) also a great spot. Akasaka, too.
  • Shinjuku is the largest train station in the world in volume. Avoid rush hours and very last evening trains. Also, keep track of which exit/entrance… not just south, but southeast, southwest, etc.
  • Right at the Shinjuku train station, and other big ones, there are a couple of the huge department stores with amazing basement markets. Don’t underrate Tokyo department stores and their amazing basement food stall meccas… go, sample, buy, eat. So good.
  • Generally, Shinjuku is glitzy and worth experiencing, but it’s also really business-focused, with lots of commercial buildings, lights, electronics, etc. BUT if you go off the path 5 blocks, e.g. pick a museum or restaurant and find your way there, you’ll get to much more interesting sections.

More Tokyo walks, from an artist friend…

Northeast

Just Outside Tokyo

Finally, if you get really tired of Big City life, there are some half-day excursions, e.g. Kamakura (though I’d argue not really worth it unless you really want out of the city), or slightly less frenetic nearby cities like Yokohama, or (farthest) Nara which has some amazing natural landscapes and unusually colorfully decorated historical structure​s.​ And also…

HAKONE

​I love Hakone. ​A long-day or easy overnight trip from Tokyo on the romance car train (Odakyu, not JR). Looovely views of Mt Fuji.

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