Japan – A Visitor’s Guide
The last time I visited Japan I was in my 20’s and it was a total blur. I went with my girlfriends with a backpack and an open mind. I recalled cherry blossoms, partying in Roppongi, shopping in Harajuku, anime characters and lots of vending machines. I had dreamt of coming back, but didn’t realize it would take more than 15 years to visit again.
This time around I came with my my husband and five year old daughter. We wanted to take in as much as this little, yet mighty country has to offer, from culture, food to tourist attractions. The beauty of my family is, we love to try new things while having fun doing it. We’re like chameleons. Set us anywhere and we will be adaptable to any situation, even my five year old! Here is a list of places we visited and hope you find it useful on your next trip to Japan:
SHOPPING: We didn’t have too much time to shop and dragging my family to the stores were not all that exciting for them. My strategy was to skip the stuffy never ending department stores and shop at local boutiques, so we have a change of scenery and fresh air. I love discovering little shops and getting to know the neighborhoods, so it was the perfect plan.
Takeshita Street in Harajuku – Wow! I can’t say enough about this place. It has so much energy, color and excitement. There was a bit of fun for everyone in our family. From Barbie photo booths, enormous colorful cotton candy shops, funky apparel, weird souvenir items and much more! Just walk the street and you will be amused. Absolutely must visit.
Daikanyama & Naka-Meguro – The two quaint residential neighborhoods are great places to take a stroll and discover local shops, vintage stores and unique cafes. Make sure you stop by Harcoza and Okura for fashion and accessories. Vase for curated vintage pieces. Find a sunny day and take your time to enjoy what they have to offer.
Tokyu Hands – This chain mega store is a great place to shop for local goods from home supplies, stationery to nick-nacks. You can find many unique fun items to take back home. Make sure to include this store on your list when you’re visiting their many locations.
Flying Tiger Copenhagen – Original Danish designs in affordable prices with stores located all over the world. Think of it as the cooler sister to Ikea, but without the furniture. From the colors and patterns, they incorporated them into home necessities, party supplies, pet accessories and more. I love this store and bought many keepsakes for family and friends.
Muji – This is another Japanese chain store, but has a clean aesthetic using neutral colors. You must visit this mega mutli-floor flagship store in Marunouchi. They sell anything from apparel, snacks, home goods, office supplies and much more.
EATS: I think we are completely spoiled now that we’ve had the best of the best Japanese food and nothing can ever compare. From street food, ramen to conveyor belt sushi, we loved everything we ate. We’re no foodies, but we do enjoy a good meal. Here’s a list of restaurants we ate at and hope you get to go to some of them.
Gonpachi – Infamously known as the inspiration for the fighting scene of the movie Kill Bill. Yes that one! It’s definitely a tourist attraction, especially to many Americans, but it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re a big fan of the movie. They serve izakaya bar type food and is very busy. It’s kid and english speaking friendly, so reservations are highly recommended.
Udon Shin – Hand-cut udon noodles made fresh daily to please the patrons that wait patiently in line to squeeze into their tiny ten seater restaurant. It’s a wait but totally worthwhile, since the average bowl of udon is only 1,000 yen (about US $10).
Ichiran – We heard all the hype about this self-serve chain ramen restaurant opening in Brooklyn in NYC. We thought we give it a try. We loved it so much we went there twice and brought back home their ramen noodles. This is a MUST stop and make sure you select the “vinegar” with your order. It’s a game changer!
Zuo – A restaurant shaped like a boat, where you can catch your own dinner and tell the wait staff how you’d like to prepare. The different kinds of fish are just waiting to be caught and in your belly. This a fun place to take the family and kids can take sushi making lessons.
Gyukatsu Motomura – This is restaurant is worth the wait! The menu is pretty much beef katsu and it’s cooked close to rare. But there’s a stone burner that you can cook the beef to your liking. It was one of the best meals we’ve ever had. It was so good my daughter and husband had to have second helpings.
Kintan – Hidden gem (literally the location is in the basement) in Akasaka, a commercial neighborhood. If you’re a meat lover and want to eat wagyu beef, this is a fantastic place to enjoy a meal with some sake. They have a few choices of set menus or a la carte menu. This place is a bit more Korean cuisine than it is Japanese, with all the chhan (side dishes in Korean) they serve with the meat. The highlight was the foie gras hot stone bibimbap.
ATTRACTIONS: Our mission was to visit places that was fun for everyone and a bit off the beaten path. Therefore, one visit to a shrine was plenty for us. Check our list of fun places to visit with a five year old in tow.
Tsukiji Fish Market – One of the largest markets in the world selling fresh seafood daily made famous by many sushi chefs in the area. A great place to enjoy well-priced fresh fish in any of the restaurants near the market. There are lots other local foods and souvenirs to bring back home. The infamous tuna action begins at 5am and you need to be registered upon entering the event. They only allow 120 people into the auction, first come first serve. Make sure to check your information before you go.
Yoyogi Park – Next to the Meiiji Shrine, this is the largest park in Tokyo with ponds and cherry blossom trees. Think of it as the sister to New York City’s Central Park. It’s a nice stroll to take with the family, a quiet escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Sanrio Puro Land (aka Hello Kitty Land) – We wanted to make sure we did a bit of everything for all of us, during our vacation, and this one was definitely for Kinsley. I think all of us had fun, especially me, living my childhood again seeing all the new and old Sanrio characters, from Hello Kitty, My Melody to Gudetama. Just seeing my daughters face light up was all worth it! I recommend to visit on a weekday and possibly a rainy day, as it is an indoor amusement park. Recommended age 3-7 years old.
Hedgehog Cafe – This was definitely on top of our list to visit with my daughter. How often do you get a space to play with hedgehogs? One visit allows her to play with the cute little animals for 30 minutes. Reservations are highly recommended especially during holiday seasons.
HIGHLIGHTS IN OTHER CITIES:
Ise City: Ise Shrine, one the most sacred Shinto Shrines, was a serene and peaceful visit to enjoy Japan’s nature and culture. Even the world leaders paid a visit on the G7 Summit May 26th 2016. See photo. Make sure to spend some time here and take in all the zen nature there is to offer. After a visit to the shrine, make sure to stop by Okage Yokocho, a street with traditional style buildings hosting restaurants and shops completed in 1993. We had so much fun trying green teas, matcha soft serve and had the best lunch at Ebiya. There set lunches tasted as delicious as it looked. Meoto-Iwa two sacred wedding rocks located by the Pacific Ocean, in small town of Ise City, with breathtaking views and picture perfect sceneries. This is a must stop visit.
Fushimi Inari – A Shinto Shrine with thousands of bright orange torii gates that leads into a forest trail of nature and smaller shrines. As you continue the hike, which can take 2-3 hours to complete, you will eventually reach the top of the mountain with a beautiful view of Kyoto. Don’t miss the opportunity to try Kyoto’s street food on your way to the shrine. We tried many local eats such as grilled terikayi quail, popcorn chicken, takoyaki and more. For dinner we ate at MeetBowl, a Yakiniku located Gion District, serving premium wagyu beef and delicious sake.
Dotonbori – A nightlife and entertainment district, full of bright lights and energy. We had the most fun here in Osaka, from food to shopping. This place had so much life reminding me of New York City’s Time Square. Amerikamura a hipster hangout popular with young people. You can find vintage pieces, old records with influences with America, hence their name. Uncle Rikuro famous in Japan for the lightest and fluffiest cheesecake and only sold in Osaka. It was hard to find amongst the crowds and shopping malls, but was all worthwhile as my family and I devoured the entire cake instantly.
Now that I’m home writing this post and “relived” all the places we visited, I really do miss Japan. I love the culture, vibrant colors and zen nature of this beautiful country. I found endless inspirations for my designs, from the kimono patterns to the street fashion in Harajuku. Can’t wait to start designing!
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed all the pictures on our journey through Japan. Please leave comments below and let me know your favorite places to visit.