There are things about Japan that instantly grab you and don’t let go. It was the first place I traveled and felt a real otherworldliness, as though at every corner there was something my eyes had never seen. A sea of faces covered with white masks, unparalleled orderliness — from train lines to trash-free streets, the clashing of generations caught between old world tradition and millennial cool. And that food. Steaming ramen ready to be slurped loudly, varieties of bread on display in train stations, gyoza with tender chunks of pork, sushi traveling down conveyer belts into eager chopsticks, yakitori sticks of beef for less than two dollars.
If you are traveling to Japan for the first time, there are a few things you will need to know. Firstly, you should plan to return. The island country, over 2,000 years old, is so much more than just Tokyo, with mountainside retreats, natural springs (called onsens), temples, volcanoes (hello, Mt. Fuji) and rolling countryside that exudes peace. It is also one of the world’s most technologically and economically advanced countries; a toyland of sorts for adults who love gadgets, getting into character, and quite honestly, just being weird.
Secondly, you will never understand everything. In Tokyo, you may walk down the street where an Alice and Wonderland themed bar sits across from a cafe where women are dressed as housemaids. Why? Who cares? This is part of what makes Tokyo a thrilling ride for all five senses. Finally, expect to get lost, often, both in language and actual direction. This too, is part of the thrill of travel: having the best made plans and watching them all topple like dominoes. Fortunately, I got lost enough to help you out just a bit.
Here’s a Japan starter course for anyone eyeing a visit to this wondrous destination in East Asia.
Where to Stay
My apartment in Tokyo was a comfortable apartment in the quiet, residential neighborhood Yoyogi-Uehara. For travelers looking for budget friendly options and an opportunity to immerse in local culture, HomeAway is the perfect solution. A network of apartments in populous Tokyo allows you to get to know your neighbors, local hangouts and trains. After a 10+ hour flight, my apartment manager Clyde met me at the train station and gave me a brief intro to city and keys — another special touch for your first time navigating a city and having your own private space. Another must? Pocket WiFi. PuPuRu’s reliable network saved my life during this trip. Without it, I would probably still be lost on some random street.
If you are looking for an unforgettable hotel stay with seamless service, look no further than Park Hyatt Tokyo. In this 177-room luxury property, the movie Lost in Translation comes to life. Unwind in its Club on the Park Spa with a steaming cup of green tea. At night, New York Grill & Bar Restaurant offers incomparable cuisine and views from the 52nd floor. A burrata cheese starter from the Hokkaido region of Japan should not be missed, and neither should a curl your toes good piece of sendai Japanese beef. Just next door, the Tokyo skyline glitters at the infamous New York Bar to the sounds of jazz and clanking of perfectly made martinis. Sexy would be an understatement for this nighttime vibe. Do not miss it.
What to Do
There is no shortage of things to do in Tokyo. For first time visitors, Shibuya Crossing (one of the largest intersections in the world) is a must. Think Times Square on steroids, with crowds approaching from four different directions and probably a Mario Brothers go kart sighting for good measure. For fashion lovers, head to the upscale area of Ginza. If you’re looking for quirky, eclectic garb, then Harajuku is your answer. In this popular district, themed cafes run the gamut and fashion is not for the faint-hearted. For techies, Akihabara is an electronic lover’s dream. For cool, hipster vibes, don’t miss Daikanyama and its infamous T site bookstore and al fresco dining options.
At night, your options will intensify. In fact, most nightclubs in Tokyo don’t close until 6am. For an over-the-top, what exactly is going on here type of experience, do not miss the Robot Restaurant show in Shinkjuku. It is easily one of the oddest, most addictive live music performances you will ever witness. For hip hop and reggae, head to Cactus Club or Harlem.
What to Eat
For memorable meals, Tokyo delivers. In fact, it is a foodie lover’s dream. For an upscale, perfectly coursed tasting, visit Motif Restaurant & Bar in the Four Seasons Hotel. French cuisine gets a true farm-to-table upgrade in this intimate, 57-room luxury hotel. And don’t forget the views, which are some of the most envious in the city.
For cheap, conveyer belt sushi fun, Genki in Shibuya guarantees a variety of rolls that will leave you stuffed for under 20 U.S. dollars. Ramen lovers should not miss Santouka or Fuunji in Shinjuku. Lastly, if there’s one thing Tokyo knows how to do, its pancakes. Grab a book and line up with the local crowds at Rainbow Pancake in Harajuku. This soufflé like mound is the fluffiest, sweetest treat your mouth will ever have.
Just three hours from Tokyo on the fast as lightning Shinkansen (bullet train), Kyoto is an enchanting city with lulling streams, verdant mountainsides, and a traditional aesthetic that isn’t afraid to play with modernity. Think city meets country, with an ever-changing twist on the customary. It’s a perfect weekend getaway from Tokyo.
Where to Stay
The Ritz Carlton, Kyoto is a design lover’s dream, seamlessly blending Japanese minimalism with sumptuous luxury. It is the type of intimate hotel you don’t want to ever leave, with unmatched service and cuisine. The 134-room property has four notable restaurants and bars and stunning views of the Kamogowa River from its rooms.
For proximity to the train station, Hotel Gravia is an excellent option with its Cotociel restaurant offering tender wagyu beef and panoramic views. It is also central to downtown Kyoto and a number of food and sightseeing options.
What to Eat
It’s show time at Kichi Kichi Omurice, where Chef Motokichi Yukimura prepares the always instagrammable stir fried rice topped with a perfectly whipped egg. Request a seat at the bar and watch chef pull out all the stops for customers. It’s an intimate, local experience worth checking off the list. Down a narrow garden pathway, AWOMB sushi offers do-it-yourself sushi plates, expertly curated by an all-female staff.
What to Do
Book a tour with Curated Kyoto to get a true taste of cool kid Kyoto. Headed by Sara Aiko, this company blends the best of traditional Kyoto with under the radar locations and artists. A tour can include anything from riverside shaved ice experiences to glass teahouses with a stunning 360 degree view of Kyoto.
Just a short, hour-long train ride from Kyoto, the port city of Osaka has a unique charm of its own. If you love street food and historical landmarks without the crazy crowds of Tokyo, you’ve found your match.
Where to Stay
For remarkable views and architecture, Intercontinental Osaka should not be missed. The luxury hotel has 215 rooms and 57 residential suites that overlook Osaka city. Contemporary art and floor to ceiling glass accents give the property a modern flair. In the evening, dine at Michelin star Pierre restaurant for haute French cuisine, then head next door to Bar adee for the best gin tonic of your life, set to the tune of live music under glittering chandeliers. This is the ideal hotel for every type of traveler.
For its proximity to the train station and budget friendly rooms, try Hilton Osaka as a great starting point to explore the city. A nice special touch are kimonos and slippers for guests.
What to Do
For historical landmarks, Sumiyoshi-taisha is among Japan’s oldest Shinto shrines and definitely worth a visit. Dotonbori, the city’s epicenter, comes alive at night with bright signs and endless food and theater options. On Orange Street, uber cool fashion boutiques, furniture stores and al fresco, rooftop dining are perfect for a Sunday.
What to Eat
Come to Osaka hungry – it’s a gastronomist’s dream. Hit the always popular food stands at Kuromon Ichiban Market for some of the freshest seafood in all of Osaka. Favorites include grilled scallops and baby octopus on a stick. For a family run affair and change from traditional Japanese cuisine, Alto Tritone offers house made pasta in an intimate, minimalist environment. The owner was trained in Italy, so rest assured, you’re going to slurping every authentic bite.
How to Get There
Singapore Airlines offers nonstop flights from LAX and is always my airline of choice for its service and timeliness. Upgrade to business class for an ultimate experience of comfort and precursor to true Asian hospitality. Each seat is up to 34 inches wide and lays as a fully flat bed once the jetlag begins setting in. There are up to 1,000 channels on the in-flight entertainment system, KrisWorld. Another perk? You can reserve your main course up to 24 hours online before the flight.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON JAPAN, VISIT: Japan National Tourism Office
Kristin Braswell is a travel writer and founder of CrushGlobal Travel. Love this definitive look inside travel to Japan? Sign up to the first to learn about a curated TOKYO guide HERE, and follow the adventures on Instagram, @crushglobal