Notes from Japan
My trip to Japan was preceded by a truly neurotic amount of research and preparation. I am an anxious traveler (before this trip I became very concerned with precisely which bowls of ramen I should eat, and on which days), but fortunately I was able to channel some of my nervous energy into gathering advice from people who have actually spent time in Japan and know what they’re talking about.
This guide mostly focuses on food, but I’ve divided it into three sections:
- How to get around
- What to eat
- Everything else in the country
When we put together our itinerary, we leaned heavily on Trip Advisor (excellent for Japan) and Atlas Obscura. I also got a lot of fantastic advice from frequent Japan travelers Dave Lang, Harper Reed, Jordan Ho, Patrick Klepek, and Ben Hantoot. The best food recommendations came from Grant Achatz (chef and owner of Alinea and Next), courtesy of Nick Kokonas, and if nothing else good comes of this guide, his list should see the light of day.
General Advice (Travel and Planning)
- Don’t over-plan your trip. Especially in Tokyo, the most interesting and memorable moments will be spontaneous. Leave plenty of time to just pick a neighborhood and wander. For example: one time we got lost in a weird neighborhood outside of Tokyo and found this fishing store from the first town of every RPG:
- Bring a camera. It’s nearly impossible to take a bad photo in Japan. I shot everything here with a Sony RX1, which is small and great for street photography (reviewed here and here). Having a fixed prime lens in a situation like this is a blessing — I didn’t have to think too much about taking pictures. The new cool fixed-lens full frame is the Leica Q.
- You don’t need to try hard to eat great food in Japan. Mediocre food in Japan is better than good food in America.
- On our trip, we traveled to Tokyo and Kyoto. Tokyo is the largest city in the world by land area, population and density; it is sprawling, immaculate, and futuristic. Kyoto was the Imperial capital of Japan, and it’s about history and tradition.
- In Tokyo, we stayed at the Capitol Hotel and Hotel Andaz. These which were both fancy hotels in the middle of the city. Both hotels have a concierge that can get you reservations (this will come up later). The Capitol Hotel has a 7/11 in the basement (this is a high-end convenience store in Tokyo with any toiletries you didn’t bring, and surprisingly great food). Hotel Andaz has a stunning rooftop bar — it’s a great way to get a sense of the scale of the city.
- In Kyoto, we stayed in a traditional Ryokan. We stayed in Gion Hatanaka, but there are many great options in the Gion neighborhood which is very old and walkable. Our Ryokan offered a Kaiseki-style breakfast and dinner. I suggest trying a Kaiseki meal in your hotel before committing to a more expensive Kaiseki later in your trip (again, more on this later).
- There’s a language barrier in Japan. If you ask people questions on the street, they will look you in the eye and confidently say, “yes, yes” even though they don’t understand a word you’re saying (it’s impolite to say no). If you get lost or confused, find the nearest hotel; someone will speak English.
- Take the Narita Express bullet train from Narita airport to Tokyo station. When you land in Narita, lots of people will offer you ways to get to Tokyo. Cabs are easy but expensive. If you’re offered a “limousine,” that’s kind of a super-shuttle that stops at major hotels.
- Take the Shinkansen bullet train between Tokyo and Kyoto. Here’s the timetable to Kyoto (you want an express train).
- Don’t take cabs if you can help it. There’s multiple train lines running through Tokyo, and Google maps have the full rail schedule (the trains run on time). Avoid the trains from about 8am to 10am, they are crazy during morning rush hour and people will literally cram you on from the outside. If you do take a cab, drivers don’t speak English, so you should have a map ready to go on your phone. Cab drivers in Japan tend to be old (Japan is an old country, old people work) and many are unfamiliar with smart phones, so be ready to demonstrate how to use the map. Also cab doors open and close automatically.
- The JR Rail Pass is the cheapest way to get around. You have to buy it before you get to Japan, but it works in Tokyo and Kyoto, and on the Shinkansen. A ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto costs $130 one-way, so if you’re making that trip, the JR Rail Pass pays for itself.
- Speaking of Google maps, get this wi-fi dingus. Someone will meet you with it at the airport (or you can have it waiting at your hotel) and it will give you unlimited 187.5Mbps data during your whole trip. It comes with a pre-paid envelope to return it when you’re on your way home. All credit for Jordan Ho for this suggestion, which was the most responsible and helpful thing I did before the trip.
Food in Tokyo
We couldn’t get into Jiro, but I had one of the best meals of my life at Sushi Hashiguchi in Akasaka (Ben has eaten at both and says Hashiguchi is better; eating at Jiro can be intense). If you stay in a nice hotel, they can get you in to Hashiguchi with a few weeks notice. Chef Hashiguchi does not allow any photos, but here’s a fun illustrated review.
You are probably already going to the Tsukiji fish market. We returned to eat there a few times. In the outer market, there are dozens of stalls selling sushi and street food. Make sure you get a tamago skewer.
The inner market is holocaust of sea life being auctioned off and slaughtered. If you’ve never spent a good amount of time thinking about the sustainability of humanity’s seafood consumption, this is a great opportunity to reflect on the issue. We took a tour of the inner market, but that wasn’t necessary. You can just wander around until it looks like somewhere you shouldn’t be, and then you’re there. Look for the telltale rivulets of fish blood running through the stones in the floor. (Eat in the outer market).
At Tsukiji you definitely want to get sushi, but don’t worry about the exact place that was on Anthony Bourdain or whatever; all the sushi is amazing. Workers at the market have distinctive tall black rubber boots — look for where they are eating and go there. Jordan Ho writes, “Go to Tsukiji ASAP when you arrive. Use your jetlag to your advantage. Lines queue up. As far as best places to eat, there are a couple of most famous restaurants: Sushi Dai and Daiwa Sushi. Many people say Sushi Dai is a bit better, but Daiwa Sushi, next door to it is also amazing. The biggest difference is that Daiwa actually owns two restaurants so their throughput is 2x faster. Regardless of the time you arrive, there’ll be a line.”
For fine dining, chef Achatz recommends Narisawa, Ryugin, and Aronia de Takazawa (he says: “these are my dear friends [at Takazawa] and they are doing modern Japanese, like Alinea-style, with Japanese ingredients”).
Chef Achatz also recommended Tachikichi in Shinjuku for deep-fried skewer cuisine by the piece, which was one of the most surprising and fun meals of the trip. A few more places he suggested that we weren’t able to make it to: Sawaichi, Takeyabu (soba), Vascu, Nabura, Ryokan Sugimoto, Le Musse, and Torishige (“Pork SASHIMI… pretty strange. I can’t say everything was good, some parts of the pig you maybe shouldn’t eat raw, like vagina. But it certainly is a rare dining experience…no pun intended.”)
Bars in Tokyo are incredibly fun, as my friend Harper said, “drinking in Japan is like a super power.” We did most of our drinking in Shinjuku. Check out RPM Bar for classic cocktails and a world-class vinyl collection. This is a quiet bar; people are there for the music and atmosphere. I also loved Godz Bar, which was blasting heavy metal that the youths were vigorously and unironically playing air guitar to. This is not a quiet bar. You can find great bars and street food at Golden Gai (recommended by Matt Hooks) and Piss Alley (recommended by Dave Lang).
In Shinjuku, Chef Achatz recommends Cellar Bar and New York Bar (famous from “Lost in Translation”) at the Park Hyatt Hotel. In Ginza he recommends Penthouse G, Tender Bar, St. Sawai Orion’s, Mr. Hoshi’s Bar, Doulton Bar, Star Bar, JBA Bar, and Little Smith Bar. In Roppongi Hills, he recommends B Bar (though Dave Lang wrote, “DON’T GO INTO ANY BARS IN ROPPONGI HILLS, JUST TRUST ME ON THIS ONE.”) A few other bar suggestions from Chef Achatz that I wasn’t able to try: Space Shower Brunch, Soho’s Omotesando, XEX, Café Bed, Rubicon Sapphire, 2nd Radio Bar, and 3rd Radio Bar.
A lot of your fancy food will be in the upscale Ginza neighborhood. We wandered into the basement of many random department stores and had pastries, tempura, and snacks. One of the most interesting places we went to was this 100-year-old coffee shop called Cafe de L’Ambre which serves aged coffee. I had a cup brewed from beans that were picked in Guatemala during the Clinton administration.
Every bowl of ramen I had was extraordinary; it didn’t matter if it was on a “best ramen” list or not. Even bad ramen in Tokyo is good. The ramen places in the basement of the Tokyo train station were excellent (we went to Rokurinsha). Kagari Ramen in Ginza was on the Lucky Peach list and was great. Jordan Ho recommends Saikoro (off of Nakano Train stop on Chuo line), Fuunji (in Shinjuku) and Ramen Saikoro (by Tokyo station). Don’t worry as much as I did about finding great ramen, it turns out you really can’t fuck this up.
Other Stuff in Tokyo
We spent most of our free time just wandering around Tokyo. In Akihabara there are tons of arcades (Patrick Klepek recommended the Sega arcades with the networked mech warrior booths; this was kind of a glorious mess and we had to get a lot of help from an attendant) and pachinko parlors. Super Potato is the famous retro gaming store with vintage and Japanese consoles and games.
We really liked the touristy Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku, but for the love of god, don’t eat there.
Harajuku has a lot of great toy stores and shopping. When we were there, teenagers were lined up around the block for Garret’s popcorn. If you get off at Harajuku station, take a walk through Meiji Shrine, a wonderful park in the middle of the city.
Finally, we stumbled into this department store in Marunouchi; it’s an entire mall full of book stores, galleries, and design shops where I found almost everything I bought on that trip.
Food in Kyoto
The Nishiki market was one of my favorite food experiences in Japan.
This is a great place to get gifts (including tea, candy, sake, honey, and cooking utensils) and the street food is on point. Get one of these crazy candied octopus/quail egg skewers (available in a few places) and a soy milk donut from Fujino Tofu.
Nishiki Market is the home of Aritsugu, a 450-year-old knife shop run continuously for 18 generations. If you get a knife there, they will engrave it with your name.
Kyoto is the place to do a fancy Kaiseki meal. We went to Nakamura,which has three Michelin stars (here is a wonderful review), but our palates were still too American to really enjoy it. The food was beautiful, seasonal, and delicate, but every dish was pretty challenging to us; Kaiseki favors chewy, boney, grainy, and gooey textures with maximum amounts of umami and minimal amounts of salt and fat. Make sure you know what you’re getting into before you shame yourself at a world-class Kaiseki restaurant. If I never see another tile fish or conger eel so long as I live I could die happy. Chef Achatz recommends Nakahigashi for Kaiseki (“It is almost impossible to book a table but you should ask the concierge to call to see if they have any cancellations. Needs to be a Japanese speaker to get in. This is one of Chef Takazawa’s most favorite restaurants in Japan.”)
Fire Ramen is a tourist trap, but a great one (your ramen is served ablaze with a huge grease fire). We stumbled upon this hole-in-the-wall Okonomiyaki place on Foursquare that turned out to be one of the best meals of the trip. Go here and get the beef chin, don’t worry about it.
There are lots of relaxed tea shops in Kyoto — the city isn’t packed-in and buzzing with energy like Tokyo. Jordan Ho recommended Ippodo Tea, where they offer classes and tastings. Chef Achatz recommended Wakuden, which was a delight: “Whenever we visit Kyoto, we go here. They serve wonderful shade-grown tea called Gyokuro. This is remarkable. And of course, the sweets are also good.”
Gyokuro tea was one of my favorite discoveries in Japan — it’s funky, earthy, sweet, and sour when brewed correctly (steep an impossibly large baseball-sized wad in 110º water for about 90 seconds). I picked some up in bulk at the Nishiki market which turned out to be a great gift… Gyokuro is hard to find in the U.S.
Dave Lang wrote, “By far the coolest thing I did is drinking down by the river. Basically, late at night, people congregate at a few different spots by the river and just drink. It’s amazingly scenic, and great for people watching, and the weather this time of year is great for this. My favorite spot was here. And there’s a Lawson’s right on the corner there where you can get drinks, it’s super easy.
Chef Achatz also recommends Kitcho (“one of my favorite places”), Kawamoto, and Narita (tskukemono sushi).
Other Stuff In Kyoto
In Kyoto, we got a tour guide to drive us to some of the shrines and parks, which was a great way to pack a lot of sightseeing into just a few days of travel. If I had to do it again, I would spend more time in Kyoto and get a bicycle.
The Fushimi-Inari shrine is the number one tourist thing in Kyoto, and for a good reason! It’s very cool. (Something many visitors miss: each of the roughly 10,000 torii was donated by a Japanese company for about $10,000 a pop).
The biggest surprise of our sightseeing was the Ryōan-ji rock garden, which was stunning and nearly free of tourists. The rock garden, moss garden, and surrounding park are all incredible. Something I learned at Ryōan-ji is that the American saying “a rolling stone gathers no moss” has the exact opposite meaning in Japan; Japanese culture values moss because it signifies longevity and sophistication. If you’re always agitating and moving around trying to find the best ramen, you’ll never become a shokunin — an artisan with the expertise necessary to work for the wellfare of your people. (Please don’t tell me if this story is inaccurate, I like it too much).
The bamboo grove and the Iwatayama monkey park in Arashiyama were also incredibly cool, though the hike up the mountain to the monkeys in 100% humidity nearly killed me.
For our ancient Japanese architectural sightseeing needs, we partook of Nijo Castle and the Golden Pavilion. My greatest regret of the trip was that we couldn’t get in to Katsura (the architecturally-transcendent Imperial villa) — you need a reservation in advance. I’ll have to go back.
On the way back from Kyoto, we spent one night at Kinnotake Tonosawa in the hot springs town of Hakone. This is one of my best memories from the trip; each of our rooms came with a private volcanic hot spring bath on our balcony overlooking a bamboo forest. It turns out that this is the correct kind of bath to soak in after your heart nearly explodes on a Japanese mountainside. The dinner was a Kaiseki, but I stayed in my room and had a tonkatsu sandwich from a drug store. It was perfect.