(And way too much detail on transportation here.)
Cities to Villages
Some notes on Tokyo and Kyoto are below, which of course are must-sees.
Just remember that’s kind of like visiting NYC and DC and thinking you’ve been to the United States. But in Japan’s case, cool small towns, villages, islands, mountains in between are only a train ride away and welcoming.
Tokyo has the best of everything, but it can get frenetic, especially if you’re new and flustered and spending your time only in major popular areas. It’s good to be intentional: the city is very large and very commercial, unless you’re tactically focused on seeing unique parts of it.
The rest of the country can have nice coherent cultural traditions and awesome nature. All are easily accessible from the lady/gentleman at the friendly info booth at the local train station upon your arrival, even without any pre-planning.
But, tradeoffs. Tokyo can be a world class city with everything from real speakeasies in deep basements of nondescript city buildings to a huge variety of mind-bending, truly amazing museums, to lots of unexpectedly quiet little neighbourhoods with tiny memorable gems of all kinds.
Friends have recommended lovely farm stays, including some English-speaking ones, which could be a nice way to see a different side of Japan. I haven’t done this myself, having lived on my own family’s farm.
Or you can just visit a small town. For example, my home village’s closest town is Hanamaki, a three-hour ride from Tokyo. Remarkably, it has a shinkansen bullet train stop. I heard all the local farmers pooled their money, a huge investment, so that train wouldn’t just whizz by our area without stopping, way back when they were building it.
Ridiculously clean air. Lush green hills with terraced rice fields. Small mountains and very traditional old hot springs, especially perfect after skiing nearby in the winter. Nationally known kagura theatre (I hope it’s survived: they are awesome!) and shishi odori at festival time in August. Miyazawa Kenji is the most famous inhabitant, and the museum is pretty cool. Surrounded in all directions by farms and villages. Next town over has famous thatched roofing (and crying baby sumo competitions). Nothing toooo special but very characteristic of rural life.
Random note: Kanazawa west-ish of Tokyo has gotten popular lately, though I suspect it was hyped up due to the shinkansen line extension. Nice gardens, interesting museums, some extra cool pottery, downtown has all the requisite designer shops. The ninja temple in Kanazawa is cool but somewhat overrated, other than perhaps from a covert architecture point of view. If I hadn’t had a JR unlimited train pass, I think I would have felt like it was a waste to go that far. There are excursions from the town that are supposed to be really lovely, though. To coast, up mountain.
Generally, each town tries to differentiate itself from others, but especially at the city level it’s all variations on a theme. I guess that’s the result of having one island of relatively similar people (mostly one race, one language with minor dialect differences, a general overarching culture, near-success at total marginalisation of indigenous groups, actual islands). That plus societal love of trends means random towns can trend for a period, like being put on a collective shifting bucket list.
Every little town in Japan has its own specialty food. (If you watch TV, you will see that on display on food shows.) Ask for the “senmon” of that town.
Organizing your travel by key destination temple/shrine + desired food is really not a bad way to explore different areas.
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 fields (and 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, flower fields and other lush 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 designed to delight visitors. In the winter, snowy festivals, ice sculptures, skiing. Lots of snow. A long slow ferry up if you don’t want an underwater train, but budget flights are super cheap and easy. Great road tripping territory. It’s easy to get to Sapporo and a few big towns by train, but to explore the rest of the island a car seems most fun (though there are very reliable buses and trains).
Kyoto & Nara
Kyoto, longtime capital of the country, is really necessary. Fantastic to explore — also a good place to start, because it’s more manageable. Slow pace, traditional everything, temples, shrines, river boats, natural beauty. Lots and lots of temples and shrines and surroundings, even ones you can climb up to on the side of a mountain (on well marked trails). There is a ton of info available on Kyoto, and Nara, and the histories are long. I’ve visited but don’t know enough to offer more info.
You can find amazing good food in the smallest hole in the wall spots, and it’s so accessible, you can just wander around. You can also look for Kyoto’s and southern Japanese special foods, like special wide noodles. But it’s still a big city and you can find whatever you want, e.g. organic groceries, zero waste shop, toothbrush shop, photo op character shop, uji matcha soft serve/cream.
Lovely. Eventually I’ll get around to writing more. No Shinkansen, so it counts as off the beaten path.
Also lots more unique places and subcultures further south, too, but I can’t really attest to that.
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).
Don’t discount getting off at the big stations and walking around that neighborhood, and between them. Everyone will be like, omg, that’s far, don’t walk, just take the train, we wear stilettos (or we think you can’t handle the walk?). But then you miss everything in between, which are the coolest parts of the city, in my opinion.
If you explore, you’ll find little pockets of different communities, e.g. street artists’ work, Rasta community, hippie clothing, amazing coffee, various artisans. Sort of the micro-communities of Tokyo.
Generally, the people that really stand out on the street are out to be seen. You can stare politely and take pictures and it’s all good.
A few Tokyo hoods to hit
(sorry, a map would make more sense than this list)
- Tokyo Station, emperor’s gardens area is lovely… give yourself a good long day, don’t go when it’s really hot and humid, pick the most central station to arrive into
- 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 awesome basement food stall markets.
- 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 — pick a museum or restaurant and find your way there — you’ll get to much more interesting sections.
My personal favourite hoods are a little funkier.
For a one day walk, if you have good energy and want to see real urban life, I would take the train to Shibuya and walk back towards Shinjuku. This path will look pretty clear on any map.
At Shibuya, get off at the north exits — the trains are really long — and you’ll find yourself following people out to the most famous giant pedestrian intersection, with the best Starbucks (second floor) for people watching, ever. And a serious amount of normal commercial retail shopping.
From Shibuya head towards Omotesando. But don’t stay on the main road. Walk back a few blocks to the side of the main road, and you’ll see some awesome little shops, restaurants, and things like a totally fake Christian church built just for wedding backdrops. Great area for small shopping.
Ometesando → Jingumae → Harajuku. Do take the main road at Harajuku, the famous chintzy kitschy young people’s narrow streets: food stalls, bling, various subculture coiture shops, thrift shops for clothes, the latest trending international shops. (Almost none of it seems environmentally or socially sound, but I suppose that’s just consumerism. 😬)
There are many really good restaurants, but the ones I know best were quite hidden and I never even knew their names.
Going to Shibuya in the evening — e.g. go get some beers and skewers — is also super interesting. A ton of activity. Red light and otherwise. Young people’s interesting fashion variations. Good little bars tend to be in alleys and/or on lower, 2nd, 3rd, 4th floors, with just a sign and stairs on the 1st.
If you like smaller neighborhoods, and want to just find your perfect corner bar, you can check out less major neighborhoods like Shimokitazawa (close to Shibuya) but really any slightly more distant train station.
There are also some fantastic museums a little walk from the main drags. Really cool ones, sometimes tiny, all around Tokyo in random places. Make them your destination, and you have a great roadmap to visit random neighbourhoods. The museums themselves will be memorably cool, e.g. one particular tradition or another (Edo, sumo) or modern art museums with large participatory installations.
My mom and I recently enjoyed the Nezu Museum, exhibits (which rotate) but also its architecture, and the gardens were nicely a little more wild than most other curated Japanese gardens: http://www.nezu-muse.or.jp/en/(The Nezu family has also an interesting history.)
More Tokyo walks, from an artist friend…
Asakusa (with the famous Kaminari mon) → Kappabashi (where they make all the waxy food displays for the restaurants)
Ueno (ameyoko market, park, museum, etc.) → Nezu (shrines, cemeteries, little boutiques selling traditional wares)
Akihabara (maid cafes, electronic parts for if and when you want to build your own computer, tons of anime and video game stores) → Ochanomizu (cool town with lots of music stores selling instruments, records, etc.) → you can also hop on the sobu or chuo lines at that point to go to Iidabashi. There’s an amusement park there.
Daikanyama (trendy neighborhood with live music venues and boutiques) →Naka Meguro (there is a street along the river that you can walk along. Small restaurants, boutiques, etc.).
Shimokitazawa. Lots of thrift stores. There is a famous beer bar — Ushitora — that’s good if you’re into local micro brews.
- Mori Building Digital Art Museum
- A friend told me about this new digital art museum in Odaiba: https://borderless.teamlab.art/. Apparently the tickets sell out fast so purchase them ahead of time.
- Top Museum. I also love this photography museum, they have good shows there: https://topmuseum.jp/e/contents/index.html I saw a really good Fiona Tan exhibit there.
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) Nikko which has amazing natural landscapes and unusually colorfully decorated historical structures. And also…
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.
Stay at a hot springs. I prefer small friendly places, whether hostel or ryokan. If you aren’t staying at a hot springs, make sure to visit one.
For the hot springs: Remove your silver jewelry. It’s sulphuric water. Your silver will turn funky, funky colours.
The Hakone open air museum is delightful and well curated. Many pieces, you can crawl in, on, over, through them. Inspires or restores creativity. Leave at least half a day to wander the grounds. Everything is thoughtfully arranged.
Note: There are other similarly amazing modern art museums in Tokyo. Just not as expansive/green, interactive, large.
Also in Hakone, there is a pirate-like boat you can take across the crater lake. And something like a furnicular that you can take up to a peak overlooking the lake. But just driving around Hakone, the rim of the crater, is beautiful and worthwhile. There’s a spring of eternal youth that everyone will know to direct you to only if you ask about it. Tasty fresh good mountain water.