Back in February, Geoffrey Slacked our team a crazy deal for a new roundtrip flight that was being offered from Los Angeles to Tokyo—and I immediately jumped on it (thanks, G!). I went to Japan with my family back in 2014, but it's been at the top of my fiancé's travel bucket list for about a decade, and I wanted to experience the incredible country with him.
I'd seen most of the major attractions during my first visit, which meant we had more time to focus on eating the foods, seeing the sights, and experiencing the culture that intrigued us most. We spent a total of six day in Japan (four and a half in Tokyo and one and a half in Kyoto), and asked friends and family members to send us their greatest hits list so we could make our own.
After I wrangled all their recommendations (and did a fair amount of Instagram stalking accounts whose travel advice I trust), I entered every single place I wanted to visit into my Google Maps with the flag labeled "Want to Go." I'm the type of traveler who doesn't enjoy a detailed itinerary each day; instead, I want to head in a general direction and come across the places I've flagged that happen to be in that area, which is exactly what we did.
The forecast was looking grim when we were gearing up for the trip: Six days of humidity, rain, and 80 degrees. Luckily, that eliminated sandals from my packing list, so I wound up packing the following clothing and accessories:
- Two dresses (one from Doen and one from Free People)
- Two pairs of denim (one vintage and one pair of white jeans)
- One pair of bike shorts (similar here)
- Two white graphic tees (this and this)
- One pair of wide-leg pants
- Four tank tops – two white (similar here), one navy, and one grey (similar here)
- One vintage set (pants and a tank top)
- One jumpsuit (similar here)
- One jacket and one vintage sweatshirt
- Three pairs of lululemon leggings, three sports bras, and three work out tees (for running!)
- One pair of running sneakers (wore these on the plane!), my white Common Projects, my high top Converse, and a pair of Nike sneakers (similar here)
- Two pairs of earrings (studs and a pair of hoops)
- One black purse that worked with every outfit
The days were long and packed, but I felt like we made the most of every minute of our time in Japan. Below, I outlined how we spent our days, along with the most memorable parts of the trip.
*Note: I included one longer, detailed day below to give you a sense of our pace, then simply listed my top recommendations for each following day.
5 AM: Technically, we landed on Thursday afternoon, but with the travel from the airport and my intense jet lag (I fell asleep at 8 PM, just before dinner), I consider Friday our first real day. I naturally woke up at the crack of dawn (curse of an early bedtime!), messed around on my phone for 30 minutes, and decided to make the most of my extended morning. I threw on some exercise clothes and went for a walk/run around Yoyogi Park, which was a perfect way to start the day. It was also an entertaining yet spooky time to walk through Shibuya Crossing – there were fewer than 30 people (it's close to 2,500 at rush hour!).
8:30 AM: After showering, we were ready to get going around 8:30 AM – until we realized that the city is definitely a late sleeper. Most coffee shops didn't open their doors until around 9 AM, which was a major learning for the trip. We opted to walk to Path, a café that bakes some of the most renowned pastries in Tokyo, and pick up two of their pain au chocolat (that are so highly acclaimed that Konbi in Los Angeles flew out their pastry chef to train their team to make a similar version). It lived up to the hype.
9:30 AM: One of my favorite ways to see a city is by hitting up the most recommended coffee shops, so I make it a priority to do my research before arriving. First up was Little Nap Coffee Roasters, which happened to be a few minutes walk from Path. I ordered a latte, was properly caffeinated, and we set off for the rest of our day.
10:30 AM: As we walked towards Harajuku, we happened to pass the Meiji Shrine – one of the sights I remembered from my trip with my parents. It seemed to be too serendipitous to ignore, so we made our way in, observed, and read a bit about Emperor Meiji and the Shinto religion.
11 AM: We arrived in Harajuku – *the* location that Justin had been most excited to visit. You're immediately overstimulated by sounds, colors, and movement, but it's one of my favorite places in the city. We browsed through shops, people-watched, and enjoyed a chou pastry filled with soft serve ice cream (...yes, at 11 AM). It was one of the top bites from the entire vacation.
12 PM: Real hunger started to kick in (two sugary treats weren't going to do it), so we swung by AFURI in Shibuya, the most recommended ramen spot on our list I ordered a yuzu-based (a Japanese citrus) broth for my ramen, which was totally different than anything I've had in the US. I loved the complexity of the flavors and enjoyed eating something I couldn't get on Sawtelle (where some of the best ramen spots in L.A. are).
1:30 PM: We shopped around Shibuya, finding a Teva pop up and some boutiques where I purchased a couple of fun clothing pieces (BEAMS, BEAUTY&YOUTH, Hollywood Ranch Market, and a vintage store named Santa Monica were my favorites).
3 PM: We took the train to teamLab Borderless, the world's first digital art museum. I had no clue what to expect except that friends told be I'd "love it for the 'gram." It was so much more than that. It's highly interactive, beautifully executed, and gave me a real appreciation for the design work that went into such a spectacular experience. We spent over two hours exploring and feeling like kids on a playground.
6:45 PM: Justin wanted to grab a cocktail, so we did some quick Googling and discovered a low-key cocktail bar near the restaurant. Our waiter didn't speak a word of English, so we communicated exclusively through Google Translate. Honestly? It was one of the highlights of the day – the bartender, Justin and I sat through the uncomfortable silence, laughed at the absurdity of the situation, and used nonverbal communication to get through most of it.
7:30 PM: We walked to Mikawa Zezankyo, one of the two restaurants Justin made a reservation for. The space was small and intimate, and we sat at a bar, experiencing what I would describe as the "omakase of tempura." The chef has been practicing his craft there for 30 years, and every piece of tempura was perfectly fried and out-of-this-world delicious. We ate shrimp heads, full fish, and uni, a food I previously refused to try (can you blame me?! Sea urchin gonads did not sound appealing!).
10 PM: Full and sleepy, we made our way back to the hotel (Cerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel – which, while reasonable if you're splitting the cost of the room with someone else, I found to be a bit of a disappointment).
Coffee: Onibus. Multiple friends told me about this coffee shop, and when we arrived I totally got it. It was a caffeine oasis (with tons of plants and vines crawling all over) at the end of a small road.
Bakery: Trasparente. We knew we were going to head to a famous pizza shop the moment it opened at 11 AM, and we needed something to hold us over. We ordered a couple of pastries and though they weren't as good as Path, we were still thoroughly impressed.
Early lunch: Pizza at Seirinkan. After watching David Chang's Ugly Delicious on Netflix, we vowed to visit Seirinkan when we went to Tokyo. And it, without a doubt, lived up to the hype. I preferred the margherita and Justin favored the marinara, but we both left completely satisfied.
Late lunch: Shima. A mentor of mine had posted about the Shima steak sandwich on Instagram about nine months ago, and I haven't stopped salivating thinking about it since. We had our hotel call to order us a steak sandwich to go, which was pricey (we split a single sandwich and paid about $40 each). It was one of the tastiest, most unique sandwiches I've ever eaten, and I would absolutely get it again.
Shopping: Justin went to a Japanese baseball game in the late afternoon (which he loved and highly recommends), so I swung by 1LDK, Ragtag, Pilgrim Surf + Supply, J'Antiques, Milli Vintage, and Shibuya Loft (one of the variety stores I found a ton of pens at!).
Dinner: Shin Udon. We met back up at Shin Udon, a must-visit for udon lovers.
Breakfast: Grabbed two pain au chocolat from Path for our bullet train to Kyoto. Easy, delicious, and efficient.
Coffee: % ARABICA Coffee. Three hours later and immediately upon dropping off our bags, I power walked to % ARABICA Coffee (my caffeine headache was nearing!). The branding is the cutest and the coffee instantly revived me for a day of exploring.
Shopping: Blue Blue. An indigo store that we hopped into in both Kyoto and Tokyo. I personally thought it had a better men's selection than women's!
Attraction: Nishiki Market. This was one of my favorite stops on my trip with my parents, so I walked Justin through the narrow, long, five-block street that makes up the market. We tried takoyaki (octopus balls, which we weren't huge fans of), ate some strawberry and red bean mochi, and topped it off with a milk-matcha swirl ice cream cone.
Attraction: Fushimi Inari-taisha. Justin had two asks for Kyoto, and one was to see Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine. We made our way there by bus, and walked through the 10,000 gates to a beautiful view of Kyoto. We loved every second.
Dinner: Hitomi. After a long travel day, I fell asleep early – but Justin headed to Hitomi for yakitori (grilled chicken on skewers).
Attraction: Kinkaku-ji. The Golden Temple was the screensaver on Justin's Nokia phone for years, so it was a bucket list item for him to see.
Shopping: Ippodo. There are Ippodo locations in the US, but I wanted to experience a real Japanese tea shop. I left with high-quality matcha for my sister and sencha tea for myself.
Attraction: Daimaru. On the bottom floor of many department stores, you can find selections of food that will make you feel like you're dreaming.
Shopping: Tokyobike. If you want to browse through some of the sleekest, chicest bikes you've ever seen, check out this shop.
Shopping: Akomeya Tokyo. When I entered this store, I immediately thought "this is the Williams Sonoma of Japan" – and I stand by it. They sell cookware, home goods, rice in varying qualities, and excellent gifts.
Dinner: Savoy. You've already read about the pizza culture in Japan, and since it's Justin's favorite food, we opted to have a pizza crawl for dinner. Four pizzas later, we unanimously decided that we preferred Seirinkan, though we are still divided on which pizza took home the crown.
Coffee: About Life Coffee Brewers. This wound up being my favorite latte (and I later found out was also G's favorite on his trip to Japan with E!).
Breakfast: A Happy Pancake. I watched the fluffy pancake trend come and go on Instagram, but had to get a taste while we were in Tokyo. Friends of mine said they wound up eating here three times throughout their own trip, so we ordered the original with whipped Manuka honey butter and caramel sauce. They were light, airy, and overall the experience was worthwhile.
Shopping: Pivoine. This boutique had the most gorgeous dried flower display I had ever seen, along with stunning ceramics and easygoing knitwear.
Attraction: Tsukiji Market. We ventured to the fish market in the late morning (we'd heard that the 6 AM visit isn't worth the early wake up) and tasted some fish, pickled vegetables, and an assortment of other delicious foods.
Shopping: Uniqlo Ginza. Yes, I know you can get Uniqlo in the States, but the flagship location is epic. Plus, the prices are even more reasonable in Japan!
Lunch: Ippudo. We weren't leaving without another ramen meal. This is a chain that's also in the States, but it was significantly better in Japan.
Plane snacks: 7-Eleven. We stocked up on snacks for the plane – the winners were Pocky (of course), a random pack of peach sour gummy candy, and a Milano-like cookie (...that actually might be better than Milanos!).
Dinner: Bifteck Kawamura Ginza. We generally put the majority of our travel budget into food, and this trip we decided to eat at one of the best steak restaurants in Tokyo to experience Kobe beef. My life will never be the same.
Grab snacks at Lawson's or 7-Eleven: You can find one on basically every corner. Grab an egg salad sandwich and onigiri.
Fuglen: This was was another one of my favorite coffee shops we visited, and it turns into a cocktail bar in the evening.
Harajuku Gyoza Lou: Before our flight, we headed here for some melt-in-your-mouth gyoza. Would absolutely repeat if I went back.
Asakusa and Senso-Ji Temple: This is the "old town" of Tokyo, and has a more traditional feel than the rest of the ciity. Senso-Ji is one of the most popular Buddhist temples to visit.
Sake brewery for a tour and sake tasting: My family organized this when I was in Japan in 2014. I'm not a huge sake fan, but for anyone who is, I would make a reservation.
Sushi: The one culinary experience we skipped on this trip was omakase sushi (because it's relatively expensive and I'd been twice when I was in Tokyo in 2014). Sushi Sawada is one of the most acclaimed in Tokyo, and Sugita is another excellent option. Get reservations if you can!
Arashiyama bamboo groves: This was also a part of my family's itinerary, so we didn't visit on this trip. But it was one of the most stunning places I've ever been.
Stay at a ryokan in Hakone: I did this for a night with my family and loved it. You experience a Japanese inn, eat traditional food, and relax all in one place.
Hakone Open Air Museum: My family stopped here while we were staying at a ryokan, since it's Japan's first open-air museum. They have works by Picasso, Taro Okamoto, and so many other famous artists.
Take a cable car ride by Mount Fuji: I have passed by Fuji during both of my trips, and each time it was too hazy to see anything. But the cable car ride was a blast, and made the missed viewing a bit more fun.
Milk Craft Cream: If you need a little something sweet, grab a milk ice cream soft serve here. I went to the Shibuya location (which is just a window) as my last Japanese bite.
Nara: If we had an extra day in Kyoto, I would have taken the train to Nara Park to see the sacred bowing deer.
P.S., Everything I did is saved to the Highlights on my Instagram! Feel free to swipe through for more visuals.
P.P.S., I'll be writing another blog post next week with my biggest takeaways from my trip and tips if you're planning your own to Japan!
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