Tips and plans for a first-time visit to Japan

We have absolutely fallen in love with Japan and can see why so many people rave about it. It’s an eclectic mix of old and new, traditional meets modern, temples and hipster coffee shops plus, it’s not as expensive as you think (more on that coming soon…)

Japan can be a confusing place to figure out how to get around. We definitely spent many hours trying to figure out the different rail systems and remembering neighbourhoods before we arrived. Things you should definitely do to help:

1. Download Citymapper to use in Tokyo. This was invaluable to us as it worked offline! Plan your route using Google Maps for other cities

2. Decide if you’ll be travelling enough between cities to warrant a JR pass. We travelled from Tokyo, to Fuji, to Kyoto and on to Osaka and actually didn’t need the JR pass.

3. Make sure you have cash as lots of market stalls and hole-in-the-wall places don’t accept card! Many ATMs don’t accept international cards, but 7/11 often has ATMs which do.

4. Learn some basic Japanese. The Japanese are wonderfully helpful and polite but don’t be that person, insisting on only speaking English. Even if it’s a simple konnichi wa (hello) or arigato gozaimasu (thank you) with an added bow of your head to show respect, it’s very much appreciated!

Right, now onto what (we think) you should do!

Have sashimi and sake for breakfast at Tsukiji Fish Market

Once the biggest fish markets in the world, the wholesale part of the fish market and the infamous tuna auction have moved to a nearby location but the Tsukiji market itself is where all the food stalls still remain. Take a couple of hours to wander the small alleys full of food stalls, drink counters and delis. It’s frowned upon to walk while eating and drinking in Japan so a lot of the stalls have little table and stools set up for you to enjoy your food. Most will also let you bring in something bought from another stall – so how about parking up at a Sake counter and bringing over some sashimi from across the way?

Visit Mount Fuji and go for a hike

You can get the bus from Tokyo for around £15/€17 a person. The buses leave from Shinjuku Station which is across from the Shinjuku train station and very easy to find. You can buy tickets at the station or in advance. For Fuji, the buses go to both Fuji-San and Kawaguchiko. We got off at Kawaguchiko where our Airbnb host picked us up (the buses have WiFi and plugs).

Mount Fuji is only open to hikers when the snow melts which is usually in July/August. According to our host, a lot of people who visit Mt Fuji in those months actually leave disappointed because the snow melting causes cloud above the mountain, hiding it from view. So, pro-tip: visit in Spring and experience actually being able to see Fuji from the local area! We visited in mid-May while the morning time was clear, but even in the afternoon you could only see the bottom half.

We stayed at a lovely ryokan (see our upcoming budget blog for more info) and could walk out straight onto the trail for a hike up Mount Shukiyashama. The hike took us about 3-4 hours to get up and back down. Some parts were quite steep and you have to pull yourself up with a rope but once you get to the top, the views of Fuji are spectacular.

Wander the Gion district of Kyoto

Gion is oldy-woldy Japan, in the heart of Kyoto. Ramshackle old wooden ryokans, tiny izakayas and temples around every corner. It’s also the main remaining home of the Geisha. It’s a really nice place to just walk around, popping in and out of various bars and cafes and strolling between temples. If you do spot a Geisha, be respectful – in our experience, too many tourists were so caught up with chasing the women for the perfect photo that they failed to consider the person behind the white make-up.

Visit the Fushimi Inari-taisha gates and climb Mount Inari

One of Kyoto’s (and Japan’s!) most iconic sights, Mt. Inari is allegedly home to around 32,000 vermillion gates and a number of shrines. It’s a roughly 5km hike to the summit, with multiple stops along the way for light refreshments including water, beers and soup noodles. It’s quite steep in points but the paths are good, and you’ll definitely want to stop more than a few times for photos! Plan for about 3 hours, round-trip. Entrance is happily free.

Eat well Japanese style

One of the best ways to immerse yourself in Japanese culture is to experience the full range of incredible food options. The stuff you’ve probably had and enjoyed at home, but is so much more ‘real’ where it comes from. For starters, visit a sushi conveyor belt restaurant, a gyoza restaurant, a ramen shack and a Katsu curry place. Ramen can be found in a number of small hideaways, often with a machine-ordering system that can be a little confusing for first-timers but is often labelled sufficiently. Katsu can be a bit confusing – it is often eaten without the curry sauce we know it for. Our favourite was actually chain restaurant CoCo Ichibanya which offers the classic Katsu, multiple variations and at good prices. The sushi conveyor belt restaurant originated in Osaka, so if you’re in the area…

Stuff not to worry too much about

Some things that we thought aren’t quite worth the hype were the Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo and the bamboo forest in Kyoto. We did also visit a cat cafe and, whilst cute for a few minutes, it’s an expensive way to have a coffee. Go, but don’t plan to stay long as it’s a pay-as-you-stay experience.

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