Japan’s Big Three: Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka

Q.

Hi Shalome,

We wanted advice on planning our Japan trip- from 30th April to 19th May…. flying in and out of Tokyo.
We are thinking of:

30th April to 6th May in Tokyo

6th to 9th May in Osaka

9th to 14th May in Kyoto

14th to 16th May again in Tokyo

Plan to do day trips – can you suggest suitable places and experiences? Is Sapporo worth visiting? If yes, how can we fit it into our itinerary?

Thanks a ton !!!

Sailaja.

Hi Sailaja

TOKYO: MUST SEE & DO

  • Senso-ji Temple
  • Sumo Wrestling Tournament or Practice Session
  • Shibuya Crossing
  • Eat with locals in Ebisu
  • Shimo-Kitazawa
  • Yoyogi-koen Garden
  • Views from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
  • Tokyo National Museum

Aaah.. Japan! Sushi, zen gardens, neon lights and so much weirdness! So much to do and love!

I confess, I had to stop and get a sushi fix halfway through researching this answer.

Honestly, as excited as I am for you, though, I am also a little concerned: how do you fit everything into the trip without over-stimulating yourself five-minutes into your stay there and giving yourself Stendhal syndrome??!

So while I am putting down many sights and things to do in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka I have also whittled down these into things that I personally wouldn’t miss out on and included these in the ‘Must See & Do’ boxes.

Do remember to pace yourself through the trip so you’re not wilting a few days into the trip.

TOKYO

Futuristic, busy and buzzing with a thousand things to see Tokyo will keep you on your feet. I would suggest you focus on the city’s modern attractions because you will be seeing a lot of traditional architecture and history in Kyoto.

Lonely Planet has a comprehensive list of all of Tokyo’s attractions.

(Tsujiki Fish Market tops a lot of must-see lists in Tokyo, including this one, but honestly, I don’t think I could stomach it.)

The past and the future sit side by side in Tokyo

TIME Magazine has a great list of offbeat suggestions that will help you get under the city’s skin.

Sumo Wrestling Grand Tournament (13 – 27 May, Ryokogu Kokugikan, Tokyo): There’s going to be a sumo wrestling tournament on while you’re in Tokyo! How amazing is that!! I’d definitely go because the tournaments only happen a few times in the year. Ticket sales from April 27 onwards.

Tokyo: Day Trip

As for day trips from Tokyo I really like the sound of Hakone. This mountainous region is located about two hours west of Tokyo and is part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. This picturesque town is home to multiple hot springs, wonderful museums and offers views of Mt Fuji and sounds like it would be a great complement to the Japanese cities you are exploring. Even though you’re not going here in the winter, which is the ideal season for views of Mt Fuji or for sinking into a hot spring, Hakone would still be my choice. I wouldn’t even do it just as a day trip. I’d hang out in the hot springs in my onsen ryokan (hot spring hotel) till my fingers got all pruny and then walk around town in my yukata (bathrobe) ‘cause that’s how they do it here.

More day-trip options from Tokyo.

KYOTO

KYOTO: MUST SEE & DO

  • Stay in a traditional ryokan or shukubo
  • Walk around Gion district
  • Visit Kinkaku-ji Temple
  • Hike around Enryaku-ji
  • Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
  • Visit a Zen Buddhist garden

Kyoto, the famed 1000-year capital was originally founded as Heian-kyo (literally “tranquillity and peace capital”) by Emperor Kammu in 794. Today Kyoto is considered a guardian of Japan’s cultural history. Escaping the destruction of World War II, most of Kyoto’s architectural treasures are intact. Kyoto is also where the geisha practice is maintained, albeit in a modified way.

The Telegraph UK offers a great overview of Kyoto.

Kyoto has 17 world-heritage sites (eep!). But perhaps the most iconic of these is the Kinkaku-ji Temple or Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

The Lonely Planet, however, names Enryaku-ji as its top recommendation. This monastery complex contains some hundred and fifty buildings and is draped over Mount Hiei. If you want to combine your sightseeing with some hiking, this is a great option. Enryaku-ji also forms part of the scenic Kyoto Trail.

Vogue has a great article to help you understand the life of a geisha today and suggests ways on how you can best to see one.

The serene Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Kyoto

Or you can cheat and do the touristy version of a tea ceremony as offered by Maikoya. This is slightly clichéd feel but has received good reviews on TripAdvisor.

You cannot leave Kyoto without spending time in its gardens, the most famous of which is the garden of the Ryoan-ji Temple. Fifteen rocks placed in a bed of white sand have fascinated and puzzled viewers for over five centuries. To read about more. This is an interesting article about the symbolism of Japanese gardens.

One of the sights in Kyoto that most fascinates me is the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. This seemingly endless expanse of slender green bamboo looks like a soothing optical illusion. CNN Travel recommends you go there in the early morning or late evening to avoid crowds.

OSAKA

OSAKA: EAT & DRINK

  • Okonomiyaki
  • Kushikatsu
  • Udon-chiri
  • Hako-zushi
  • Sake
  • Kobe beef

Considered the food capital of Japan and even of the world(!) according to some, it’s pretty clear what you should be spending your time and money on here. Oh, the hardship!

Blessed with the sea and mountains, a variety of ingredients were available to the people in Osaka and they made good use of it by creating a unique cuisine of their own featuring foods like Hako-zushi, a pressed, layered sushi, a flour pancake called okonomiyaki and a multiple things covered in batter, deep fried and then slathered in sauce. Osaka even has a museum charting the long and flavourful history of… instant ramen noodles. Um… yeah. For more food and restaurant recommendations read this and this.

The New York Times recommends staying close to the main restaurant area of Dotonburi (or Dotomburi) and also has some great recommendations for local eats. Of course, the easiest way to find the best local food is by looking for the restaurant with a long queue of locals outside it.

To work up an appetite you could visit the Osaka-jo, a 16-century castle complete with a moat and tower that houses art, armour and quotidian objects. Don’t miss the views from the top-floor observation deck.

Osaka: Day Trip

Make time for a chilled sake

Besides food, the region is also known for its sake, a natural progression from its history as a centre for rice trade in the Edo period. If you’re a fan of this fermented rice drink you could try a sake tasting while in Osaka. You could book a sake tasting through AirBnb’s experiences. This one has tastings available on the days you will be in Osaka. Another option is this one, booked through Lonely Planet.

There are a number of sake breweries in Kobe, about 30 minutes away. TimeOut lists sake breweries in Kobe and Kyoto. Kobe is also home to the Hakutsuru Sake Museum housed in a building which was once a sake brewery. Admission is free to most of these but you may need to contact them in advance for permission.

If you decide to visit a brewery in Kobe and you want to try the venerated Kobe beef you can find recommendations for steakhouses and restaurants serving it on TripAdvisor and TheCultureTrip. Wakkoqu ranks highly on both websites for a fine dining Kobe experience. Reviews on TripAdvisor name Steak Aoyama and TheCultureTrip recommends Steakland Kobe as more affordable restaurants.

You could continue onwards from Kobe (or make a separate day trip) to Himeji Castle, considered Japan’s best preserved samurai castle and a world heritage site.

FESTIVALS

You may just be able to catch a few events of the Sanja Matsuri Festival (18-20 March, Asakusa, Tokyo). Time Out calls it Tokyo’s biggest and best traditional festival. The festival supposedly gives you a rare glimpse into Japan’s closely guarded secrets. There will be over a million visitors attending, though, so you must decide for yourselves if it’s something you want to do.

For more events in Tokyo in May.

Although cherry blossom trees typically bloom in March or early April you may be lucky enough to see a tree that missed the memo. More.

Senso-ji, the heart of Tokyo's Sanja Matsuri Festival

CHEAP CHEATS

Japan’s National Tourism Organization (JNTO) has an impressive, comprehensive guide on how to travel smart in Japan. They list free attractions, how to score a discount rail pass accommodation and even how you can enjoy a sumo wrestler’s lunch for a fraction of the normal price.

Lonely Planet has tips on saving money in Kyoto.

You could also save some big bucks by opting to stay in a shukubo. These temple lodgings were originally intended as accommodation for Buddhist monks but in recent times they have been opened to tourists. However, while staying in a shukubo is cheaper and also a great way to experience Japanese culture, each shukubo has its own set of rules and differing facilities. The bedding often consists of a futon and the food is most often vegetarian. Some also insist on attendance during religious rituals and meditation. You can read more about staying in a shukubo here and here.

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Shalome

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