...HELLO- KONNICHIWA... GOODBYE- SAYONARA... PLEASE- ONEGAISHIMASU... THANK YOU- ARIGATO...
WHERE TO SLEEP
Park Hotel Tokyo
Located in the Shiodome Media Tower, this hotel is definitely more for business travelers. That being said, it was perfect for an overnight stay providing stunning views of Tokyo and Mt. Fuji as well as an easy to find location. The rooms are comfortable and large for Tokyo's standards.
Dormy Inn- Tokyo
For a hotel more central to all the action without the space or frills this may be a better option. Not quite as small as the infamous pod hotels but close. Imagine two average sized Americans in a walk-in closet, although I must add that the furnishings were nice and clean and the bed comfortable. Plus you're right in Shibuya with tons of shopping and a vibrant nightlife.
Oil Street Guest House- Kyoto
This amazing two bedroom Machiya style guesthouse isn't in a prime location of Kyoto but it is worth the extra walking or longer subway ride to stay here. Yasu and his dog Burrito are wonderful hosts and provide a truly authentic Japanese experience that shouldn't be missed. And bonus- if you are there when it is warm enough, Yasu has bicycles you can tour around town on.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Sushi Yoshitake_ Tokyo
You will not find this place easily, even when equipped with a map provided by your hotel. Located in the luxe Ginza neighborhood, this 3-star Michelin sushi restaurant is worth getting lost for. The seven seat sushi bar is located on the third floor of an ordinary looking office building, it is truly "blink and you'll miss it". Be prepared for nearly 20 pieces of velvety, decadent, expertly sliced pieces of fish and perfectly seasoned rice.
Ippudo- Kyoto & Tokyo
Even though you can get authentic Ippudo ramen in NYC I still like to think when you eat it in Japan it tastes a little better.
The best ramen I have ever had is in Kyoto! Well they have other locations in Japan too but the Kyoto location is in a beautiful old Japanese house. Specializing in burnt soy and burnt miso ramen but they also have an extensive menu of other items. Let's be real though, you came for the ramen. Don't be deterred by the long line to get in, it's worth the wait!
Honke Owariya- Kyoto
This is by far the oldest restaurant I've ever eaten at. Around since 1465, this Kyoto soba restaurant started as a confectionary shop and it wasn't until the mid-Edo period that they started to serve soba. Served a variety of traditional ways, you may be tempted to order these house made buckwheat noodles hot and cold. This ancient establishment is not to be missed.
Not far from the temple Ginkaku-ji in Kyoto is this fantastic and affordable udon shop. It is a beautiful walk to or from the temple to this traditional restaurant. For a truly Japanese experience ask to sit downstairs where you sit on the floor, but if you prefer a chair they have Western seating upstairs. The udon is fantastic but don't skip the appetizers or seasonal options either. And don't forget to slurp, it's considered a polite way to let them know how much you are enjoying the meal!
Talk about another hard to find gem. This tofu based Japanese restaurant in Arashiyama is situated on a river in the middle of a wooded park. The multi-course menus change every month and is reflective of the season. The easiest way to find this magical place is to walk along the river's edge.
Another 3-star Michelin restaurant that has a sole focus on Kyoto-Kaiseki cuisine. Kaiseki is a traditional multi course meal that is generally based on the season which is represented in presentation and the ingredients used. The term kaiseki also refers to artistry and skill used in the preparation of these meals. Kichisen is a beautiful, albeit pricey meal but if you are in Japan you should try to experience this at least once.
★Omotesando Koffee- Tokyo
You think the US is obsessed with the craft coffee culture? Think again. Anything we have done, Japan has done 3 times as well. This particular coffee outfit now has locations worldwide but started as a pop-up shop in 2011 in an old Japanese house. Unfortunately the original cafe closed its doors in 2015 but they seem to thriving in their new spaces.
Lattest Espresso Bar- Tokyo
An awesome all female coffee shop in the Omotesando neighborhood of Tokyo. Get a great espresso and pastry and hangout with some kickass lady baristas.
Another great coffee shop in Japan, this one is located in the University area of Tokyo near the Oil Street Guest House. You walk down a long, dark corridor to arrive in a cafe with books, board games, spectacular coffee and cakes. The barista (when we went) speaks some English and is more than happy to let you sample some things before making a decision.
Breizh Cafe- Tokyo
This French creperie was conceptualized when the chef/owner was traveling from his native Brittany to Japan and stopped in Paris along the way. He now owns multiple locations in both France and Japan and draws inspiration from both countries. Expect French crepes and galettes made with Japanese skill and attention to detail.
Kitchen Street in Tokyo Station- Tokyo
You can find anything from high-end dining to izakayas to ramen in this maze of restaurants in Tokyo Station. To get the best meal ask a local.
WHAT TO DO
Tokyo Station- Tokyo
What can't you do in Tokyo Station? You could spend a whole day here! There is tons of great shopping, restaurants, sake bars, oh and transportation! Definitely plan to spend at least a couple hours here, it's sensory overload.
★Fushimi Inari Shrine- Kyoto
This may be my favorite place on the planet. The shear awe you will feel when you get here is indescribable. The shrine is dedicated to the rice god, Inari. It is located at the base of Mount Inari but the best part lies behind the shrine. You can take the 2 hour walk on trails through thousands of torii gates through wooded forest, passing smaller shrines along the way as well as small restaurants that offer themed dishes containing tofu which is said the be a favorite food of the foxes who are Inari's messengers.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest_ Arashiyama
Walking through this densely planted bamboo grove feels a little like you have stepped back in time... if you can ignore all the tourists and selfie sticks. But for real, it is beautiful and majestic but a just a tad overrated. If you are in the area definitely take the time to walk through but don't make a special trip just for this, there are many other things in Arashiyama to see as well.
★Okochi Sanso Garden- Arashiyama
A former home to 1930's Japanese movie star Okochi Denjiro this gorgeous villa and Japanese garden is now open for public touring. We stumbled on this amazing place after exiting the bamboo forest and were amazed by how few people were touring it and how cheap it was to get in. The winding path through the gardens will lead you up a hill to an incredible view of the Kyoto area. You will finish up at a tea house near the entrance with matcha and a sweet cake.
Harajuku District- Tokyo
This area between the Shinjuku and Shibuya neighborhoods was probably made most famous when Gwen Stefani made a whole album about it, just kidding. It is actually known worldwide for being the culture and fashion center of Japan with anything from independently owned boutiques to high-end fashion houses. Even if you don't feel like shopping, the people watching alone is worth coming for.
★Nishiki Market- Kyoto
This five block long, food oriented market in downtown Kyoto has been around since 1310. No that is not a typo, many generations of families have been operating their shops within the market for centuries. Come here for handmade ceramics, fancy chopsticks, knives, Japanese pickles, fresh seafood, dried seafood, spices... pretty much anything food related.
Tsukiji Fish Market- Tokyo
The biggest wholesale seafood market in the world is obviously worth visiting, right? While the inner market where they do the tuna auctions has now been restricted for visitors, the outer market is still open to the public. If you have a little jet lag, go early in the morning for a fresh sushi breakfast.
Ginkaku-ji Temple- Kyoto
Not to be confused with Kinkaku-ji, this silver pavilion is often passed over for its golden predecessor. The temple was built in 1474 in an effort to emulate the golden pavilion. The temple grounds once held more buildings but all that is left is the silver pavilion. The garden are incredible and also offer great views of Kyoto.
The Philosopher's Walk- Kyoto
This cherry tree lined path follows a canal running between Ginkaku-ji and the Nanzen-ji neighborhood. Along the path you will find many shops and restaurants as well as some notable temples and shrines. If you visit in April you will likely see the cherry blossoms in bloom!
Gion District- Kyoto
This area is the most well-known geisha district in Japan. The geisha in Gion refer to themselves as geiko, meaning "child of the arts" or "woman of art". You can visit the traditional ochayas (teahouses) or just wander the paths of the neighborhood and see the beautiful machiya houses. If you are lucky you might spot a geiko walking to or from an engagement but rememember to be polite and ask before photographing her.
Imperial Palace- Tokyo
A palace is home to the Emperor of Japan and is within the grounds of the former Edo Castle. Some of the moats, defensive walls and turrets still remain intact. Also within the grounds are beautiful gardens that can be toured. As a foreigner you must apply online to tour the palace and even then it is not guaranteed you will get in. But fret not, if you are not granted a tour, you can still walk around the outer park and see some magnificent bridges and gardens.