What You Need to Know When Traveling Japan in December | Made of Lovely

What You Need to Know When Traveling Japan in December

I took a month long trip exploring South Korea and while I was there I decided to pop over to Japan for two weeks visiting Kyoto, Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe, and Nara, and boy, did it not disappoint! I actually wish I would’ve just extended my trip and stayed longer in Japan. I’m sharing the things I learned so that you can have a fun and easy trip.

This is what I’m going to go over:

  1. What to do BEFORE you go to Japan
  2. General things to know
  3. How to use public transportation
  4. What to pack in winter
  5. The Air B&B’s
  6. Shopping & Exploring in Japan
  7. Food in Japan
  8. Places worth going to (and a FREE travel itinerary)

What to do BEFORE you go to Japan

Aside from any sort of government traveling thing (simply check your governments posted requirements, here’s for US citizens), these are what I recommend that you do:

  • Get a SIM card.(If your phone plan already covers international travel then you can skip this.) It’s important that you have access to your maps so you do want to make sure that you have data. Google fi is a plan that covers you if you’re looking to switch providers. Otherwise, you can just purchase a temporary esim or a sim that you can pick up (or if you have enough time they will even ship it to you). I bought mine through Mobal for 14 days ¥5,990 *FYI PAY ATTENTION to hours for sim pickup. By the time we got through airport security/immigration the sim place was closed so we ended up having to take a train to a specific place in Osaka to pick it up and that added a few hours to the whole endeavor.

  • Add the Suica Card to your phone. This is a reloadable card for japan rail (aka major train line), stores, vending machines, some restaurants, cabs, coin lockers, and arcades. I only used it for trains and lockers. While it’s true you can buy a physical card (there’s some updates, go check them out in the public transportation section) or individual tickets for every ride, just trust me that the card on your phone is waaaaay better. You don’t even have to “open” your iphone, just place it on the tap area at the turnstile and it’ll charge it. There’s only one small issue, you may have to get the Apple credit card in order to remotely load the card on your phone for some reason (might allow a different Mastercard to purchase – you tell me in the comments!). So, here’s how to add to your phone’s wallet: Transit card > Find Suica > Tap to Add > Choose Amount > Pay > Done! voilà

  • Download these apps: Google Translate, Google Maps. Yes, there may technically be better translating apps like (DeepL or Papago) but I used Google Translate to read signs/menus, and it worked just fine for me. And Google maps will have accurate info on businesses, and is synced with the trains for navigation.

  • Get a credit card /debit that allows you to get cash with no ATM charges & no foreign transaction fees. You will need cash for some things (like the subway, sometimes Taxis, and restaurants), and pretty much everything else will take a credit card. Look into a debit card from Goldman Sachs or Charles Schwab as they currently have cards with $0 atm fees or reimbursement.

  • (Optional) Get an International Driving Permit. If you plan on driving anything, this might be a good idea.

General Things to Know

The old adage, “You don’t know what you don’t know” seems to ring particularly true when traveling to new places. There are cultural things you may be unaware of, and even just basic things can be completely different from what you’re used to at home. So let’s go over just a few that I found to be important during my travels.

Japanese Culture

The bottom line is that the Japanese are very respectful. It’s important to be polite while in Japan. Which means being courteous to others, by saying sorry if you bump into people, not taking up a bunch of space, not being loud, standing left on escalators (if you happen to find one that’s working! lol I feel like they were all out of commission while I was there), and paying attention in general to what the Japanese are doing in order to respect the culture & nature.

Here’s a few things to keep in mind:

  • Remove shoes went entering certain establishments (look for the shoe pile lol) and definitely when entering into homes/apartments.
  • Do not put your chopsticks standing upright in your rice as it is a symbol for funerals/death.
  • There’s not really any public trashcans and it’s rude to throw your trash away at places without buying something; it’s better to take your trash with you if you can.
  • Make sure to properly separate recycling when throwing things away because there are fines for improperly recycling.
  • Do not tip. There is no need to do this as they get paid well, and some may consider it rude.
  • Avoid taking things single-handedly. Always accept things with both hands.
  • Do not skip lines. Such as when standing in line for the train.
  • Do not blow your nose in public.
  • If you go to an onsen, be sure to wash yourself before getting in. Also, don’t go into the bathing area with a towel wrapped around you, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb. Just embrace the nudity — everyone’s naked so no-one cares.

Important Phrases to Learn

  1. Sumimasen – “Excuse me.” Sounds like soo-me-mah-sen. Use this if you need to pass by someone like on the train, or if you need to get someone’s attention. Or if you accidentally bump into someone.

  2. Arigatō gozaimasu – “Thank you.” (Present tense) Sounds like aw-ree-got-toh go-zai-mas. This is the polite way to say thank you right after kindness or favor. IOW right at the beginning of something, like someone giving you their seat on the train. (Learn here)

  3. Arigatō gozaimashita – “Thank you.” (Past tense) Sounds like aw-ree-got-toh go-zai-mash-ta. This is when the action you’re grateful for is completely finished. IOW right at the end of something, like you saying thank you again to that person who gave you their seat on the train when you’re leaving.

  4. Hai – “Yes” Sounds like h-Ī

  5. Daijobu desu – “No thank you / I’m ok.” Sounds like Die-jo-boo-des. This is a soft and polite expression you can use to refuse offers.

  6. Toire wa dokodesu ka – “Where is the toilet?” Sounds like toh-ee-ray wah do-ko-desk-ka.

  7. Sumimasen, kakuninshitekudasai – “Excuse me, check please.” Sounds like soo-me-mah-sen oh kai-kay-koo-dah-sai. Alternaltively, you could just say “Oh kai-kay” while crossing your fingers, or arms into an ‘X’ 🙅‍♀️(that is the universal symbol for “done” in Japan)

  8. Hitori desu – “Table for one.” (technically “I am alone.”) ; Hitori futari – “Table for two” I super recommend that you check out this video to learn basic phrases for eating out.

  9. Oishii desu – “It is delicious” Sounds like oh-ee-shee des-oo; Oishi katta desu – “It was delicious” Sounds like oh-ee-shee ka-ta-des

  10. Sumimasen, nihongo ga wakarimasen – “Excuse me, I don’t understand Japanese.” Sounds like soo-me-mah-sen nee-hon-go-gah wah-ka-ree-mah-sen.

  11. If you buy something at a store they will ask you two questions (typically). The first is: “Genkin matawa kādo de shiharaimasu ka?” (Will you pay with cash or card?) which you respond to by either saying Kādo(card) or Genkin (cash). The second is: “Fukuro ni oireshimasu ka?” (Do you want a bag?) which you respond to by either Hai (yes) or daijobu des (no thank you). They may also ask “Reshiito wa yoroshii desuka?” (Do you want a receipt?)

If you have more time before your trip, then I highly recommend that you try to learn more phrases in Japanese.

Money Exchange

Japan does seem to still use a lot of cash. Not every place though. It really felt 50/50 to me. So you are going to need to have cash. Always make sure you have enough for your meals just in case. There are a lot of coins being used so having a coin bag is definitely a good idea.

ATMs (like at 7/11) with a good card, like I already mentioned above, are probably going to be your best bet (and that is what I did). But you can look up money exchange places like Ninja Money Exchange or Namba Currency Exchange (depending where you are) as they may give you the best rates without any commissions or extra charges. I’d probably stay away from converting money at the airport or at banks since they seem to charge the most.

And every once in awhile you will see money exchange machines in shopping areas.

How To Use Public Transportation

Taking the trains is probably the best way to get around. Taxis are incredibly expensive, so I would try to avoid them if you can.

There are a few different train companies, which we’ll briefly go into in just a second.

But in general, once you are trying to get into the train platform area you will simply need to scan or tap your train ticket, card, or phone on the “IC” card area. You will do this both on entering and after your ride on exiting. If you have any issues there are usually train attendants that can help you.

If there’s a decent amount of people on the platforms, they will stand in orderly lines. So follow suit.

Remember trains stop running at midnight, and typically start back at 5am. Rush hour is typically 7:30am to 9am (the trains are packed, the train attendants even have poles to push people in. It’s craziness.) but it also depends on your city/area.

On the inside of the trains there are usually maps right above the door telling you where you are and where you’re headed. Overall, the train system is pretty easy to figure out, even if you do not speak Japanese. Google maps also gives you train directions just FYI.

If you just need to check train times for some reason you can use Navitime website.

Transportation Cards

We already talked about getting the Suica card set up on your phone, this way you don’t have to keep buying individual tickets (unless you want to do that) or deal with the headache of trying to find a physical card.

Do note that you cannot get any money refunded that you put on the card (both digital and physical). And if you transfer a physical card to digital, you can no longer load the physical card.

There’s a few different transport cards that you can purchase (at train stations) and they all work relatively the same (UPDATE: as of Aug. 2023 they are no longer allowing purchase of physical Suica & Pasmo cards to foreigners due to a global semiconductor material shortage.)

  • The Suica Card – It is a tap card & rechargeable. The Suica card works pretty much everywhere: on all JR East train and bus lines, as well as on many lines owned by other Japanese rail companies. While some stations do not accept the Suica card, that’s pretty rare. As long as they have an “IC” card area you can use your Suica card. I did not personally come across any station where it was not accepted.
  • The “Welcome Suica” Card – This card requires no deposit and automatically expires after 28 days. **You must purchase it at the airport. It is a tap card & rechargeable.
  • The Pasmo Card – this is the same as a Suica card.  You can use it for trains, subways, metro stations and some buses.  It is also a tap card & rechargeable.
  • The Pasmo Passport Card – Much like the Welcome Suica card, except that you are purchasing a 5 day or 3 day pass. Only valid for the amount of time that you purchased, and the timer starts on the date of purchase.
  • The ICOCA Card – Icoca is the same Suica and Pasmo but is sold at vending machines in train stations in west Japan like Kyoto and Osaka. There is a small deposit amount (like $5) that you will get back after you return it to a ICOCA machine. It is reloadable.

Just FYI: These transportation cards also typically work in stores, some restaurants, cabs, buses, coin lockers, vending machines, and arcades.

JR Pass

If you are going to go further (like from Kyoto to Tokyo) then you’ll likely want to take a bullet train. So the cheapest thing you can do is purchase a JR pass (JR national trains include Shinkansen bullet trains and Narita Express trains; the DO NOT work on Mizuho trains along the Kyushu/Sanyo Shinkansen, or Nozomi trains along the Sanyo/Tokaido Shinkansen.)

You may not even need the Suica card if the JR pass works in accordance with your trip.

I only bought a 7 day pass (they are consecutive days from the moment you start using it), so I did use my Suica card at the beginning and end of my trip.

You can buy your JR tickets online, receive your exchange order, then visit a JR Exchange Office (JR Ticket Office) in Japan for your actual JR Pass. All purchasers must be there in person and have passports ready in order to receive the actual ticket.

You should be able to use Google Maps to find JR Exchange Offices; otherwise, they are usually at the bigger stations usually connected to a Shinkansen or just a larger station. You have to go to the tourist ticket area office. Airports may also have them.

*MAKE SURE YOU DO NOT LOSE YOUR TICKET

Additionally, if you want to be on a certain side of the train (like we wanted to be on the Fuji side when traveling from Tokyo to Osaka) and if you have larger luggage, you can go to the same JR Exchange Offices to reserve seats for free.

Whether a car has reserved seats or is free-seating, seating will be noted on the inside of the Shinkansen and on the train cars themselves there is a sign next to the door that has the train name, car number and reserved or unreserved. If you have any issues identifying such, feel free to ask the Shinkansen attendants on board.

Also pay attention and do not try to go into the “first class” cars they have a green clover on the outside to let you know (aka Green Car or Gran Class Car unless that was the ticket that you purchased).

While on the train platform there are numbers for you to stand on, to form an orderly line.

If you’re wondering whether or not to purchase the pass you can use this Japan Guide’s Japan Rail Calculator. It’s not 100% accurate, but it’s quick and easy to use. 

Lockers (Typically At Train Stations)

I found these to be particularly convenient when you had luggage but didn’t want to carry it around all day. You can simply use your Suica card to rent out a locker. Just find the screen and follow the instructions.

What To Pack For Japan in Winter

Just as I always say, you’ll have to consider what activities that you’re going to be doing, and where specifically you’re going, but here’s what I brought for my two week trip during the first two weeks of December:

  • 5 Long-sleeved shirts
  • 3 Sweaters
  • 2 Pants
  • 2 Thermal leggings
  • 1 Down jacket w/ rain-proof shell
  • Gloves
  • Scarf
  • Beanie
  • 1 Lightweight jacket
  • 1 Pair of Hiking shoes
  • 1 Pair of Comfortable Sneakers
  • 1 Small towel/washcloth for drying your hands as many public restrooms do not have towels or dryers. You could also just buy a towel there. In winter it was not great having wet hands.
  • 1 Small coin bag (Japan is still very cash based; or you can easily buy one there if you’d like)
  • 1 Three-Prong Plug Adapter

It’s definitely cold in the beginning of December. Some days when the sun was out were fine with a long sleeve shirt and sweater, and there were of course days that were pretty dang cold as well. The highs might be low 60°’s F on warmer days and normal days probably somewhere in the 40-50°’s F. With nights getting down to the 30°’s F.

It didn’t rain much or heavily. Maybe one day or two, so overall it was dry.

As far as adapters & converters go, you shouldn’t need an adapter if you’re coming from USA. However, you will probably have issues if you have a three pronged device, so you will need an adapter for that — the sockets are all two pronged. You may need a converter, but you’ll have to check your individual gadgets voltage.

The Air B&B’s

True to form, we simply booked all of our places to stay via Air B&B. I’m not linking the actual places we stayed because it seems like places come and go in Japan (meaning they’re no longer available).

If you’re traveling solo and you really want to save money you might consider looking into capsule hotels (pay attention as some are only for women or men) or a Manga Cafe. If you’re on an incredibly low budget maybe look into free stays by “working” — aka house sitting and couch surfing.

If you have a little extra money to spend you may want to consider staying in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) at least once.

Staying in Kyoto

This place was really nice and conveniently located near the Higashiyama station. It had a small kitchen (we never used), a bathroom, washer, a desk area, and a small balcony (I never went out there though as it was cold). I honestly have no calms about the place. I loved that there was a washing machine for clothes, and then you could simply hang them in the shower room and press the button to heat up that room and dry the clothes. And overall it was really decently sized.

As I already mentioned, you do remove your shoes in the little entry way, and all trash you are suppose to properly separate.

Staying in Tokyo (Ikebukuro)

I didn’t take any photos of this place for some weird reason — no idea why. It was a bit confusing and hard to find. Overall, it was ok, but holy moly was the bed hard! My hips fell asleep while I was sleeping (yes, you read that right. I said hips. It was such a hard bed it was crazy.)

The area itself was ok. It sorta seemed a tad far from things, but everything in Japan is pretty accessible so it honestly wasn’t that big of a deal. Plus, this area was a lot cheaper to stay in. So it’s do-able if it pans out the same way for you. We were in block 69 which is close to the main streets of Gekijo-Dori Avenue & Mitake-Dori Street.

There were a so many stairs that we had to climb to get to this little apartment. And on the way up there were these two gnomes, I thought that was very random.

Staying in Osaka

This place was really spacious, and thank gawd the bed was actually soft. There was a weird hole in the wall that was letting in freezing cold air right next to the bed, but I just put pillows over it, and that seemed to do the trick.

This place in particular had a “limited supply” of hot water — meaning you were on your own small tank (which is the panel right by the kitchen) I was worried at first but it didn’t seem to be an issue for two people taking approx. 15min showers or less.

The area also seemed a little out there, but again, because train stations are so close it wasn’t a big deal at all. We were in Ebisuhommachi near Shin-Imamiya station.

Shopping & Exploring in Japan

There is plenty of shopping in Japan. Most things seemed relatively affordable except for any kind of electronic stuff (like external hard drives, certain cords, gadgets, etc.) So make sure you have those sorts of things with you when you come if you need them.

The other thing is that many stores will not charge you tax if you ask about it. They will scan your passport and then your item will be tax free which is the most convenient thing possible. There is typically some sort of purchase limit, may be about $50 in order to get the item tax free. (Most places will have little signs about if they do tax-free.)

When it comes to exploring, be on the look out for quirky things. Japan does a really good job at themes (it’s almost reminiscent of Disneyland IMO), and it’s so much fun.

Shōtengai

Shōtengai are a style of Japanese commercial district, typically in the form of a local market street that is closed to car traffic. It seemed like you would find a bunch of similar type stores on that street, like one we called kitchen street because it was all kitchen stuff like knives, dishes, cooking stuff, and food market at the end. If you pay attention to each street entry way, there’s usually a differently themed arch.

Discount Stores

There are a few chain stores in Japan where you can get things pretty dang cheap. The most notable are Don Quijote (usually just called Donki and it’s the biggest discount store in Japan), Konbini (which is a convenience store), Bic Camera (for electronics), and ABC Mart (for shoes).

You can very easily get things that you forgot or planned to buy while in Japan like nail clippers, toothpaste, contact solution, dry shampoo, beauty products, laundry detergent, etc.

Even if you’re not planning on buying anything like toiletries and such, it’s worth going into a Donki just for the experience — it’s complete madness! lol

The Man Holes

Uh. YES, yes, and yes. Japan is not only clean and safe, but they also don’t mind having fun. All of the man holes have some sort of theme depending on where you are. Even their street cones are themed to the area. All very Kawaī (kah-wah-eee which means cute).

Can We Talk About Toilets?

Now, hear me out. I know this is a pretty weird thing to talk about, but coming from USA, trust me that using a Japanese toilet will be an experience for you.

I walked into a public restroom, that somewhat reminded me of a camping type restroom back home. And when I opened the door to the stall, the toilet lid automatically opened, a light inside came on, and maybe air freshener was sprayed. It about gave me a heart attack! I was having flashbacks to when I was a kid and I watched some strange movie with a talking toilet. haha

But aside from being startled a few times, the bathrooms are all spotless, and the toilets are all high-tech. In another restroom, music started to play when you sat down. I never knew what to expect. lol

Strangely enough many places did not have paper towels or dryers. Which may be fine in summer, but was not pleasant in winter. So you may want to consider bringing/buying a small towel with you (like how the Japanese do it), or just hoard napkins as you see them. lol

Vending Machines Galore

There were so many it was insane. I guess you don’t have to ever be worried about being thirsty or hungry. Some of these vending machines even sold hot ramen. Japan is the land of vending machines.

Gachapon Pop-Ups

Sometimes I’d randomly stumble on gachapon areas. It was fun looking at all the little figurines. Some were so strange. Japan is truly unique in it’s quirkiness. FYI gahapons seem to go like hot-cakes, even the machines may be removed the following day, so if you see something you want, better get it while you can or you might miss your chance.

Shops I Personally Enjoyed

I loved how streamlined a lot of the fashion and stores were. The buildings in shopping areas were absolutely stunning. Some places seemed equivalent to American prices. But the stores I enjoyed perusing and purchased things from were:

  • The thrift stores (2nd Street, Book Off, TreFac Style, & Kanful)
  • Custom Jewelry stores
  • ASAHI Tou’an Craft Shop (Bought some cool blue mugs there)

Food In Japan

You really can’t go wrong with food in Japan. Even eating their “fast-food” seemed healthier and tasted great.

The prices, however, seemed to be a little all over the place. Some places were affordable, while other places were a bit more expensive. The good news is that Google Maps does a pretty decent job of giving you an idea of the price range per the business listing. Also, many places do lunch specials which is a full meal for a fraction of the price.

As far as selection, there’s plenty of food places to choose from. I did notice that Japanese people seem to love standing in line, so if we went somewhere and there was a super long line we’d just go somewhere else without any problems.

Also, a few places would have you take your shoes off before you sat at your table. So again, just pay attention. The other interesting thing was that dry napkins were a bit far and few in-between. I started taking a few extra from coffee shops since I don’t want to use a wet napkin to wipe ramen off my face. lol

It’s also important to note that you will typically pay up front and not at your table.

As far as what to eat, there really are so many different kinds of foods to try but the food that I personally enjoyed the most were:

  • Ramen
  • Udon
  • Soba
  • Sushi (and it’s so inexpensive!)
  • Okanomiyaki
  • gyoza

If you’re interested in going to some of the places that I ate at, go download my FREE Japan travel itinerary.

I also have to mention that if you want to go to a themed cafe (like Pokémon Café, SANRIO Café, Kirby Café, etc.) you better make reservations way ahead of time as they are typically booked out quite far.

Coffee & Desserts

The price of coffee seemed pretty equivalent to American prices for the most part. I didn’t have any bad coffee, but the place that I loved the most, in terms of flavor & price, was Reimis Japone. They do have some Japanese coffee chains which were maybe slightly less expensive than local coffee shops: Tullys and Doutor (least expensive coffee).

I also highly recommend hunting down some taiyaki (I usually get red bean filling).

Places Worth Seeing & Going To

There are a seemingly endless amount of things to explore in Japan. I was only there for 15 days and only visited a few places. But I’m sharing the places that enjoyed and some of the places that I will go back to see.

I’m sure it goes without saying, that what and where you might enjoy is going to be dependent on your personal tastes/preferences. Additionally, what time you wake up and your overall pace can make a difference when it comes to how much you see/do. However, I created a basic itinerary with places you could see in specific areas and Google maps pins (all that I’m mentioning in this post and some extra ones) — that way you’re maximizing your time by being able to go to things in that radius.

If you have more or less time you can adjust accordingly. 🙂

If you’re looking for activities other than walking around and exploring here’s some to consider:

  • Visit an Onsen (Natural Hot Springs)
  • Look for Festivals (depending on when you’re going to be around there are sometimes cool things going on such as every year in April the geisha districts put on spectacular dances where you can see dozens of geiko and maiko (apprentice geisha) dancing, acting, singing, and playing traditional instruments.)
  • Ride a bike (in Kyoto along the Kamogawa or Kamo River)
  • Go to Museums like the Manga (Comic) Museum
  • Go hiking
  • Get a Omikuji (fortune-telling paper strip that can be purchased at temples or shrines. The fortunes range from great good luck to great bad luck. If you do happen to get a bad fortune, make sure you tie it in the dedicated area at the temple to avoid having bad luck. If it’s a good fortune, carry it with you. Some of the more popular temples like the Golden Temple in Kyoto have fortunes in English).

Kyoto, Japan

TOTAL DAYS SPENT: 7

Kyoto was my favorite place. If I could live there for a time I think that would be a dream. Very walkable (although that might be most of Japan. lol) It had some parts that had a very old-timey feel and I loved that. They also do a better job at incorporating nature into things so it’s very pleasant just walking around and exploring.

There are plenty of shrines, temples, and districts to explore (like Miyagawa-chō, a geisha district along the Kamo River just south of the more well-known geisha area Gion).

Also, parks and many shrines are open 24/hrs so you can still go look at things at night. BUT remember trains stop running at midnight, so don’t go too far.

Before I share where I went here’s a brief list of what I didn’t get to see that was on my list, so maybe you can actually check them out:

If you don’t mind doing touristy things you may also consider:

Yasaka-jinja Shrine (Free)

Gion

Super cute area. Plenty to eat, shops to see, and there’s a temple tucked back in there (up next). I really enjoyed this area. It does get quite crowded in the day, but wasn’t too bad early morning or late at night.

Even Maruyama Park is quite nice at night.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple (Free)

Also in Gion, up the hill is this temple. It was pretty crowded up there FYI (if you’re wondering how I got shots with no one in it, it’s because I am a master at timing shots. haha)

Kyoto Imperial Palace (Free)

The property was a decent size, and in winter with the trees being different colors it was quite pretty and peaceful. You really have to walk to get to the palace entry from the gate where you got onto the property. But I thought this was worth seeing.

Arashiyama: Bamboo Forest, Okochi Sanso Garden, & Togetsukyo Bridge

Such a cute little area. Fair warning that the bamboo forest is known to be insanely crowded. We just happened to get lucky when we went — I’m not sure if it was because we were there during a less touristy season or what. I believe people tell you to go super early to beat crowds, so that may be how you have to do it. But I quite enjoyed walking around this area.

Make sure you get off at the Saga-Arashiyama station. I know it looks like you can take a train further to some station called “Arashiyama Torokko” but this station doesn’t exist and the next stop is way far.

If you wander through the bamboo forest, you can make your way to Okochi Sanso Garden area where the paths will give you a view of the Katsuragawa River.

When you get down by the bridge there are little kayaks and boats you can rent, which seemed fun.

Additionally, there is the Sagano Romantic Train or Sagano Torokko that might be worth doing and I believe that it ends in a boat ride that takes you to the Togetsukyo bridge area.

Across the bridge is a delicious soba place Togakushi and if you’re here during lunch time it’s an excellent price. If you’re around in winter there is also a hot coffee place to enjoy something warm.

Fushimi Inari Pathway (Torii) – Free

Another popular destination, so pay attention to timing to try to avoid crowds. A torii is a traditional Japanese gate, which marks the boundary between the sacred and mundane — most commonly found at the entrance of or within a Shinto shrine. Passing through a torii gate represents passing from the unsacred into the sacred world.

There’s intriguing etiquette and Japanese customs when it comes to shrines, which I highly recommend you look into.

There are 1,000 gates here and a decent walk up the mountain. If you can, and have the time it’s worth going to the top. Halfway up you will come across a pond, and there’s a legend that if you clap your hands in front of the pond, the direction that the echo returns from is where the missing person you are looking for can be found.

The writing you see on the backside of the gates is from the worshipers who have donated that torii to express prayers and appreciation.

Philosopher’s Path

This is a lovely, peaceful walk. We went pretty late in the evening so we never made it into the Nanzen-ji (which is near the south end of the path), a large Zen temple complex that’s well worth a visit. You will have to pay to enter some of the area like Tenju-an, which has lovely gardens. Alternatively, Eikan-dō (Zenrin-ji) Temple is slightly closer (also costs an entry fee).

Tokyo, Japan

TOTAL DAYS SPENT: 6

Tokyo is surprisingly easy to navigate while being a very large but dense city. While I was in Tokyo I was mostly just exploring different areas and looking for good food.

While I spent 6 days here, I’d probably recommend more like 3-4 days and include a day trip somewhere close. There was no set itinerary. The areas I went to were: Ikebukuro, Asakusa, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Setagaya, Minamiaoyama, Hanakawado, & a few more. I do wish I would’ve went to Tokyo Sky Tree at sunset, seems like that would’ve been pretty great (I love sunsets!).

(Day Trip) Nara, Japan

I really loved Nara. We went there traveling from Tokyo to Osaka. But again it’s pretty close to Osaka, so it would be an easy day trip from there (it’s also easy to day trip from Kyoto FYI). And I felt like a full day was enough time to explore this area.

The city was cute, but the deer park was a lot of fun. You can buy crackers to feed the deer and they bow to you to get one! BUT they also follow you and headbutt you. So I would not go around any deer with antlers. There was one deer that was chasing me. His head was sorta bloody. We named him Scabs. He followed us for quite awhile, it was sorta freaky.

If you’re into Buddha statues there’s a giant bronze one next to Daibutsu-den (requires an admission fee). And if the insane crowds at the Bamboo forest in Arashiyama are just too much for you, there’s a bamboo forest at Kodai-ji temple.

Osaka, Japan

TOTAL DAYS SPENT: 4

Osaka was probably my second favorite major city that we visited. It seemed like there were a lot of different food options here, and walking around the main food area was quite the experience (there were giant sea creatures on buildings that moved, and even a jumbo tv that was playing a cat video non-stop). I never made it to the namba yasaka shrine but it looked pretty interesting.

(Day Trip) Kobe, Japan

From Kyoto, and on our way to Tokyo we did a day trip down to Kobe to ultilize our JR pass. It would probably be better to day trip to Kobe though from Osaka since it’s closer. You could also book the Kyo-train Garaku if you want a unique train experience.

It was a smaller little city. Cute little shops and such. But I think the biggest appeal here is having Kobe Beef (which I actually didn’t end up doing because I had too late of a breakfast 🤦‍♀️. Yes, mistakes were made.) — Kobe Beef is a type of Japanese Wagyu beef known to be the most delicious (and expensive) beef in the world, so if you’re on a budget look for lunch specials.

I personally wasn’t super fond of this area, but it wasn’t bad by any means. There did seem to be a lot more thrift stores in this area and that was kind of fun. It seems like you really need to make a plan for this area, otherwise it was kinda “Meh” in my opinion.

Should You Visit Japan?

My vote is: heck yes! There really is so much to see, explore, do, and experience. I loved Japan and all that it had to offer. I will definitely be back to have more adventures.

I’d recommend spending as much time as you can. Two weeks did not feel like nearly enough. (Make sure you grab your FREE Japan Travel Itinerary!)

Now, I’d love to hear from you! Any questions? Have you been to Japan and you have some must-see recommendations? Please share in the comments below!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top