This year’s adventure was to Japan. David and I were lucky enough to go with my two best friends and their husbands and enjoy everything that Japan has to offer on our 10 days there. Our friends only went for 5-7 days so we went first and saw Kyoto & Osaka then travelled back to meet them in Tokyo. We recommend seeing both Tokyo and Kyoto/Oskaka if time permits (minimum 8 days to see both we would say).
Important note: We did not receive anything free or gifted on this entire trip! We paid 100% of it out of our own pockets so this blog is to provide advice based on the things we liked and did in Japan. It is not a sponsored or paid blog in any respect but we hope that it will help provide you with some fun things to do whilst you’re over in Japan.
We flew return with Philippines airlines. We booked with them as the flights were a good price for flying over Easter holidays, roughly $925 return. We would however recommend (if able) paying slightly more to fly with a direct airline as we had a layover in Manila for 3-4 hours then a 1 hour delay for our flight then another 1 hour delay on the tarmac. The stopover was a pain and the airport in Manila was not like any international airport we are used to (very basic). There was minimal food available and there was nothing much to do or see. The delays were another pain and we didn’t arrive into Toyko until the early hours of the morning and were absolutely starving when we arrived. Lesson learnt, next time we will pay a little more for a direct flight as we’ve realised time = money.
Quick check list of things to organize before you leave
- JR rail pass (if you’re travelling to more than one place eg. Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto)
- International driver’s license (to do Maricar)
- Travel insurance
- Accommodation on your first night if you arrive in late
Day 1: Arrive Haneda Airport, Tokyo
We flew in quite late and stayed the night at the international airport as we didn’t get all luggage etc until about 1am. We stayed in the Royal Park Hotel that is in the Haneda Airport International Terminal. It was pricey ($250AUD/night) but we decided to do this so we could get straight to sleep and wake up early the next day to get to Kyoto.
Day 2: Tokyo to Kyoto
We bought a 7-day, whole of Japan, Japan Rail (JR) Pass (note you need to order this before you go then activate it when you get there). This saved us quite a lot of money riding the JR Shinkansens (fast bullet trains), plus trains on all of the other local JR Lines (it does not cover all train travel as many rail lines in Japan are privately owned). We only used trains within Japan, although flying between places is an option too, we found trains much easier and saved time waiting in airports etc. The rail pass was roughly $360AUD each for 7 days and if you’re going to be travelling outside of Tokyo then we would recommend it. As an example, if we went 1 person, 1 way from Tokyo to Kyoto it would be roughly ¥13,000 which is about $180. Do that trip return and you’ve basically made your money back and we used multiple trains every single day and the majority were JR lines so were covered by our JR Rail Pass.
Hot tip: We ordered our JR Passes through Klook which seemed to be the cheapest offering at the time. Their prices seem to have increased since then and are now AUD$395.
Whoever you buy the pass from will most likely send you an exchange order which you exchange for the JR Pass in Japan.
The exchange order is valid for 90 days, so you don’t want to purchase it too far ahead of your trip. Purchasing it 1 to 2 weeks out is a probably enough time to ensure it arrives before you leave. Klook posted ours express and it came about 4 days later.
Leaving our hotel inside Haneda Airport, we just went down a few levels (the train station is inside the airport too) asked for help to find the JR Rail Office to activate our rail pass. This took roughly 30 minutes as there was a line. They customer service workers there were lovely (and all spoke English!) and told us exactly how to catch the monorail and train train transfer to get to where to go to catch the Shinkansen from Haneda to Kyoto. We recommend that, if you’re going on a long trip, you reserve a seat on a particular Shinkansen service rather than catching the next available one. While most Shinkansen services do have unreserved seating carriages, you may find yourself standing, shoulder to shoulder for 2 hours. #notfun.
The closest station to Haneda Airport on the Shinkansen line is Shinagawa Station. To get from Haneda airport to Shinagawa station is fairly straight forward:
- From Haneda airport international terminal, catch the Tokyo monorail on track #2 to Hamamatsucho station.
- Get off here and go to the Yamanote Line (track #3) then ride this to Shinagawa station.
- Get off here and go to find your Shinkansen and your reserved seat.
The journey from the airport to Shinagawa station only took about 20 minutes.
We found our Shinkansen and sat back in luxury until we arrived in Kyoto. We were VERY impressed with the standard of the Shinkanses in Japan! The chairs are very wide and have foot rests and charging plates and staff come through to check tickets and help you store your luggage and purchase food if need. Even the toilets are more hotel style rather than ‘train’ style! The fastest type of shinkansen is called the Nozomi (which we took) and takes around 2 hours and 15 minutes and costs Y13,080 for a one-way trip in an unreserved seat. As we had our JR rail passes, we didn’t pay a thing.
Once we arrived in Kyoto station, we used Apple Maps to find our hotel and it was a short 15-minute walk from the station.
Hot tip: If you’re like us and didn’t pay for overseas roaming or a local SIM card, you can download an App called Maps.me. Maps.me allows you do download local maps of any place in the world (when you have data or a wifi connection) and allows you to see the map and your location without data or a wifi connection.
In Kyoto, we choose to stay at the Almont Hotel, reasonably priced and newly refurbished rooms. Once we settled into our hotel, we just walked around and explored the area on our first afternoon/ night and found a grocery store to purchase some simple things like milk, yoghurt, bananas (for breaky the next day) and ended up eating dinner inside Kyoto Station as on the bottom levels are rows of great quality and reasonably priced restaurants. On our first night we had Japanese beer (Asahi) and Japanese pancakes for dinner (Okonomiyaki).
Day 3: Kyoto, Fushimi Inari Taisha, Gion Kyoto, Nishiki Markets, Geisha Show
We woke up early and caught the train to go and see the Fushimi Inari Shrine. The shrine is an important Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto which is famous for thousands of orange vermilion torii gates, which lead up the mountain. This is free to enter but be warned, there are THOUSANDS of people here so go early to avoid the crowds! We only walked ¼ of the way up as we couldn’t handle the tourists and didn’t have much time up our sleeves.
It would have been nice to walk the entire way up the mountain but we simply didn’t have the time or the patience! From there we caught a train to the Goin region.
Gion is Kyoto’s most famous geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) district, located around Shijo Avenue between Yasaka Shrine in the east and the Kamo River in the west.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not that easy to spot a geisha or a maiko in Goin. You’ll more than likely only see tourists dressed up like geisha or maiko.
Goin is a lovely area with traditional tea houses, local shops and restaurants and also during our visit, blooming cherry blossoms along the river (mid April).
We strolled around Goin and accidently stumbled upon the Nishiki markets (and we’re so glad we did!). Nishiki Market is a marketplace in downtown Kyoto which is renowned as the place to obtain many of Kyoto’s famous foods and goods. We sampled tempera prawns, Japanese pancakes, baby octopus, Matcha ice-cream and fresh chestnuts. Highly recommend visiting the marketplace if you go to Goin as it’s free to enter.
In Goin, we decided to book into the cultural show (be warned we waited in line for over an hour to buy a ticket then get a good seat). The cultural show is held a few times every day at Gion Corner at the end of Hanami-koji. The show is a showcase of several traditional Japanese arts and include short performances of a tea ceremony, ikebana, bunraku, Kyogen comic plays and dances performed by real maiko. It was interesting from a cultural perspective but not a highlight to be entirely honest (but the show does feature a real maiko for those who don’t see one out and about!). If you are tight on money/time then skip this.
After the show, we grabbed dinner at a local Gyoza place. We walked past and noticed the line so figured it must be good and they did not disappoint! The gyoza from Gyoza8 are a MUST if you are in Goin.
We were on our way back to the train station and were lucky enough two Geisha’s escorting business men into a high end Japanese steak house. This made our night as we got to see them in real life interacting with locals.
Hot tip: You’ll most likely see a geisha or a maiko in Goin at dusk on Tuesday to Friday evenings.
We caught the train home quite late from Goin but felt safe the entire way including walking back to our hotel as there were lots of people out and about (including locals and tourists).
Day 4: Kyoto, Arashiyama, Kinkaku-ji, Ryōan-ji, Osaka – Osaka Castle, Dontoburi
Again, we jumped on a train and made our way to Arashiyama, a district on the western outskirts of Kyoto, Japan (about a 30-minute trip). Our first place to visit was the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove which was a 15min walk from the train station. We spent 1-2 hours here and it was magical (and free to enter!). Despite the thousands of tourists, we enjoyed walking the bamboo trail and experiencing some nature! This was a highlight so we would recommend it!
Next on the list was to visit Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) which is a Zen Buddhist temple in northern Kyoto whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. The admission fee is ¥400 as it is a very popular landmark in Japan designated as a National Special Historic Site and is one of 17 locations making up the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto which are World Heritage Sites. After admiring the pavilion from the outside across the pond, you can then visit the head priest’s former living quarters (hojo) which are known for their painted sliding doors (fusuma) and continue to wonder around the grounds. We only spent about 45 mintues here as we wanted to see many other things on our last day in Kyoto.
Next on our list came Ryōan-jia Zen temple located in northwest Kyoto and one of Japan’s most famous rock garden’s. The garden consists of a rectangular plot of pebbles surrounded by a concrete wall with 15 rocks laid out in small clumps of grass. What’s great about the garden’s design is that from any sitting or standing point at least one of the rocks is always hidden from the viewer. Go on, try to see all 15 at once, we dare you!
We only spent 30 minutes here before racing back to the train station to head to Osaka. First stop was the Osaka Castle and as we were there quite late (4:30pm) the line wasn’t too crazy (unlike some other tourist attractions). The entrance fee is around ¥600 for each adult.
Hot tip: If you can take the stairs, the line is basically non-existent. It’s only a few levels up but everyone refuses to take the stairs so the line is over an hour long but if you take the stairs, you can go out at each level and explore/rest then keep moving up the stairs and you get to walk straight in rather than lining up for the elevator.
I’d suggest a large coat as well (even in Spring) as the top of the Castle was freezing and super windy in April! You can walk around the top of the Castle and see the 360-degree view of Osaka which is magical and well worth it! We highly recommend Osaka Castle over the Golden Pavilion if you had to choose. The walk from the train station to Osaka Castle is quite long but gorgeous! You walk from the base of the park through the grounds to reach the Castle at the top of the hill but there are gorgeous trees, flowers and Cherry Blossoms along the way!
Lastly on our huge day, we visited the Dontoburi district to check out the food stalls for dinner. It was a short train ride from the Castle and is a famous strip which remineded me of a cross between the Asian food markets in Malaysia and the flashing signs of New York City! It’s a must if you love food and are in Osaka! We had ramen, Takoyaki (octopus balls), dumplings & yakitori (chicken & prawn skewers) + dessert of crepes and melon pan. We walked back to the train station from here and caught the train back to our hotel (felt safe at 1am) after 35,000 steps in one day and a few too many blisters!
Day 5: Kyoto to Tokyo, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Maricar Shibuya
To kick off day 5, we walked to Kyoto Station and spent the next few hours dozing on the Shinkansen back to Tokyo exhausted from the previous day.
Hot tip: The day before, we reserved our seat on the Shinkansen using our JR Rail passes. We did this firstly to guarantee a seat and secondly (because we specifically asked for seats on the Mount Fuji side of the train) to enjoy the stunning views of Fuji San that are visible from the Shinkansen line.
When we arrived at Tokyo Station, made our way (via the JR Chuo Line) to Shinjuku Station and walked to our hotel to meet up with our friends. We all stayed at APA Hotel – Higashi-shinjuku Kabukicho Higashi (reasonably priced, clean and good location). The rooms are TINY in Japan (we were quite shocked) and the beds and pillows are rock hard, we really didn’t expect this and would have had a hard time sleeping if we weren’t so exhausted from walking so much the previous days!
We were settled into our hotel around 2pm and took the train (using our JR rail passes) to Shibuya. Here we ate lunch at a little laneway place we found called Osaka OHSHO Shibuya Ekimae. We all ate noodle soup which came with a side of Gyoza and steamed rice. We found the place by accident but it was very cheap (although limited English) and tasty food.
We would often wonder off the main road and down little alley ways and look for food places which were busy with locals and we found we were able to eat for a lot cheaper and the food was more ‘local’ and authentic. After lunch we went to the famous intersection outside Shibuya Station called Shibuya crossing where approximately 2,500 people are thought to cross it at a time (and over 2 million each day!).
After this we went to Maricar Shibuya. We have previously booked this from Australia before we left (¥8,000 each) and we needed a passport and international driver license to be able to do this (we got ours from RACQ a month before we left for roughly AUD$30). We also paid another small fee to include insurance on the day. The Street Go-Karts were a highlight of the trip although they were a little dangerous. I would recommend sunglasses and tying back any hair/hats etc as the little Karts go pretty fast (50-60km/hr) and you drive on the road with all the other cars. I nearly got hit buy a car who pulled out without looking (first near death experience!). It was really fun but we would 100% recommend insurance and only doing It if you are a confident driver. We choose to do it during the day also as we felt a bit safer this way but you can do it at night. Check out David’s Instagram video of our Maricar adventures.
We ate dinner near a local restaurant that night and had a few drinks at a local bar and then under when our Japanese right of passage at a few of the many skill tester game arcades through Shinjuku and Kabukicho. We got pretty good!!!
Day 6: Tokyo Disneyland, TeamLabs Planets, Tokyo Tower, Imperial Palace
One of the things I was most excited about was Disneyland!
We had pre-booked our tickets online from Australia before we got there as we heard the ticket lines were very long.
We ended up going on Sunday which was our first mistake! The fact that it was Easter Sunday was our second mistake!
What we didn’t realise (silly us!) is that it is entirely for kids (there are no ‘adult’ rides or roller-coasters at all) and second to that, the locals LOVE to take their kids there so it is absolutely packed, particularly on a Sunday! I have never been in a place so packed in my entire life! You could barely even move around the grounds let along get to a ride you wanted. We were put off from the sheer number of people as soon as we got there but thought we would solider on and go on at least one ride as we went all the way there. We chose a some-what ‘adult’ ride and the line said the wait time was 1.5 hours but you could get an ‘express’ ticket which meant that it reserved your spot in the line and you just came back at the designated time and used the VIP line to get straight on the ride. Seemed like a great idea so after waiting in line for 30 mins, we decide to try this as no-one else seemed to be using this option. We got out of the line and booked our ‘express’ ticket but as soon as it printed out, we soon found out that our designated time was 5:45pm which was zero help to us at it was 10:45am. We basically got the shits and left after that ha!
Sorry Disneyland but you were our greatest disappointment all trip! We didn’t even go on one ride and the food at the grounds was terrible as well (all process junk and super pricey) and the lines to eat were enormously long also so we just cut our losses and left. If you don’t have kids, skip Disneyland Tokyo and if you do have kids and they insist on going, do it on a week day and wear some good walking shoes + pack lots of snacks and water!
After the Disneyland disappointment, we decided to try a more adult experience and go to teamLab Planets. We booked online using our phones (¥3200) but still had to wait to get a ‘sitting’ time when we arrived but it was only about 30 minutes (better than Tokyo Disneyland!). This is something I highly recommend if you have time as it was an incredible sensory experience! You can read more about here. There are actually two in Tokyo but the teamLab Borderless was booked out for the next 2 days so we weren’t able to go there with our friends. I have actually been to both and recommend teamLab Borderless first if you can book in advance and teamLab Planets if you are booking on the day. If time permits, do both, they are both different and both amazing! Teamlab was a highlight of the trip.
After this we took a train to Tokyo Tower where we had to pay an entrance fee to climb the tower and see the view from the top. This was disappointing as half the tower was closed off for renovations so instead of a 360 degree view, we only got to see one side of Tokyo.
The way down is also a horrible tourist trap and you can’t get out without passing through what seems like 10 gift shops. If you are time poor, we recommend skipping this. The view and history at Osaka Castle was far better!
Our final stop on day 6 was to the imperial palace but we forgot to check the closing time and missed it by 10 minutes!
A shame as it would have been nice to see! We caught the train back home and had dinner near our hotel at a local Sushi bar.
Day 7: Harajuku + Memory lane for drinks and dinner
We got up nice and early on day 7 and caught the train to Harajuku. Let’s be honest, we just wanted to go for the sweets! We heard the food was amazing and it didn’t disappoint! The youth culture was also very interesting with lots of school kids and younger locals dressed up in colourful fashion and lots of street art. Harajuku is renowned for its fashion scene, with quirky vintage clothing stores and cosplay shops along Takeshita Dori (dori is Japanese for street), and more traditional, upmarket boutiques lining Omotesando Avenue. Although Takeshita Dori is the ‘main’ street, there are plenty of small bars and trendy cafes in the surrounding lanes and streets so we definitely recommend venturing off Takeshita Dori and taking your credit card as there is plenty of shopping!
The sweets we enjoyed were ‘animal’ shaped ice-creams, matcha lattes, cheese puffs, rainbow rolled ice-cream and rainbow toasted cheese sandwiches. Visit Rainbow Sweets Harajuku in Takeshia Dori for the rainbow treats and above that is an amazing fairy floss place which makes the most enormous fairy floss I’ve ever seen (let’s be honest, I didn’t eat it all, I just got it for the photo haha).
We spent the majority of the day wondering around the surrounding areas of Harajuku.
Hot tip: We stumbled across the best gyoza place again! (however I think this was slight better than then the one in Gion but they are both excellent in my books as I am a massive Gyoza fan!).
There was a 40-minute wait for a table (the locals know a good thing) but it was so worth it! I’d recommend waiting if you are in the area and love Gyoza! Check them out at Harajuku Gyozaro.
Later that night we went to check out Omoide Yokocho (affectionately know Memory Lane) which is located outside the west gate of Shinjuku Station. Locals call this ‘Piss Alley’ but don’t let the name put you off! It’s a cool little collection of small bars (and I mean small as some of them only seat 8-10 people in a straight line!), yakitori grills, food stalls and a western karaoke bar!
Most of the little bars and eateries charge a “cover” fee which is basically a fee when you sit down and they bring you a small snack.
It’s a reasonable price (from memory maybe $5-10) and this is included in your bill when you leave.
I’d recommend trying some yum Yakatori here and grab yourself a Japanese drink to try like a highball, whiskey sour, shochu or sake (we enjoyed warm sake if you can get it!).
We went on to explore the nearby Golden Gai, with is another collection of historic alleyways and hole in the wall bars, and stumbled across a little karaoke bar called Champion that was packed out the door with locals and tourists all belting out golden oldies and even a few traditional Japanese numbers. Needless to say, we spent a few hours singing. It was a tiny space and people were standing out the door singing but a whole lot of fun!
Day 8: Mount Fuji, Kawaguchiko, Shiba Sakura Featival
There are several ways to get from Tokyo to Mount Fuji (or Fuji San as the locals affectionately call the mountain). There are road buses and and a couple of rail options. What makes the train journey a little difficult is that part of the journey is on the JR Chuo line and the second part of the journey is on the privately owned Kawaguchiko-Otsuki Line. The quickest and easiest way, and the one we opted for, is the JR Fuji Excursion. The Fuji Excursion leaves twice a day from Shinjuku Station and is the only direct train service (catch any other service and you need to change trains at Otsuki Station).
Hot tip 1: You need to reserve tickets for the Fuji Excursion both ways. There are no non-reserved carriages. Make sure you’re on the right carriage because the train literally splits in two at Otsuki Station.
Hot tip 2: If you have a JR Pass, it will cover you for the cost of your trips between Shinjuku to Otsuki. You don’t need to pay for the remainder of the trip on the Kawaguchiko-Otsuki Line until you arrive at Kawaguchiko Station at Mount Fuji.
Because we had our JR Rail pass, the cost of our train trips to Mout Fuji was about $100 each but doing it ourselves was far cheaper than a travel company).
David wanted to drone Mt Fuji from a distance so we caught a quick taxi to a near by park (Yagisaki Park) and took in Mt Fuji from a distance. The park was a little out of the way but the view was amazing and it was a lovely place to sit and relax for half an hour and admire the cherry blossoms here.
Catching a cab back to Kawaguchiko Station was difficult as we had no phone to call one and the park was not near a taxi rank so we ended up walking down the road for a bit and catching a local bus which took us back to the train station.
We wondered down the street a little and had lunch at a yummy little Tempura restaurant (Fuji Tempura Idaten).
After lunch, we had done our research and realised we had two choices, to go to the base of Mt Fuji and see the view out from the mountian or to go to another park and explore it from afar. We both decided it was better to ‘see’ Fuji then to be ‘on it’ so we decided to attend the Shuba-Sakura festival instead as it was such a beautiful clear day and the staff at the train station also recommended this option.
The festival runs during spring and is a few kilometers south of Lake Motosuko in the Fuji Five Lakes area. The festival has incredible and breathtaking views of the vast fields of flowers of shibazakura, with Mount Fuji in the backdrop.
We booked our ticket for this festival at Kawaguchiko station for ¥2,000 each. There was a bus included as part of the ticket price to take us to the festival (about an hour away).
Once at the festival, we spent 1-2 hours wondering around the beautiful grounds looking at all the shiba-sakura (or pink moss) and eating some of the delicious local food which was available as part of the Mt Fuji Gourmet food festival. We caught the second last bus back to Kawaguchiko station but got caught in traffic and road works so the trip took a little longer. At the train station we messed up a little, missing the last Fuji Excursion for the day and taking local trains back to Shinjuku. It took nearly 2.5 hours as local trains stop every stop and we needed to switch trains at Otsuki Station. We didn’t get home till 8:30pm.
Hot tip: If your partner tells you it’s ok to miss the Fuji Excursion because he can get you back by another express service, don’t listen to him. Contrary to his belief, it will not be fine.
Harajuku, Kawaii Monster Cafe, Mame-Shiba Café
Day 9 was our last full day in Tokyo so we just wanted more of a relaxing day. We thought about going to the Robot restaurant for dinner but it was actually quite pricey so we gave it a miss and went back to Harajuku for the day as we loved it so much. We wondered back down Takeshita Street trying new foods this time and ended up going to a Mame-Shiba Café (dog café) and also Kawaii Moster Café.
If you had to pick one, I’d recommend the Moster café (particularly if you have kids!) located in YM Square. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the dog café to be honest (and I love dogs!) as it was just 10 dogs running around on a floor and they offer you a vending machine coffee (hardly a café or relaxing and the poor dogs looked completely exhausted).
The monster café was great however and its got incredible themed rooms with Harajuku girls, an hourly performance plus lots of food/drinks. It was quite entertaining (even for adults) and there is a small cost to get in which we thought was reasonable for the show.
We wondered in and out of the shops around the Harajuku area but the Australian dollar was so bad that everything was much more expensive than back home so we didn’t buy too much but enjoyed window shopping and trying the local treats at every opportunity we got.
We caught a train back to Shinjuku and had sashimi and crepes for dessert for our last meal complete with hot sake at a local bar before calling it a night.
Day 10: Tokyo to Brisbane
Checked out of our hotel in the morning but left our luggage there as we didn’t need to leavefor the airport until mid-day. Played some more arcade games and had lunch at a local Ramen café (if you can find it, try Ichiran Ramen while you are in Japan, the best Ramen place!). Then we caught the train and monorail back to the international airport and flew home. All in all a fabulous trip and we thoroughly enjoyed Japan for it’s food, culture and sights. The locals are lovely, we felt completely safe and the country is clean and welcoming for tourists. Highly recommend visiting! Ask me any questions below about our trip!