Traveling to Japan?

Many times I'm asked for advice on traveling to Japan. In addition to living there six years, I worked for the government of Hiroshima, and traveled extensively throughout the country.

Trying to keep things as simple as possible, while still providing insight, I typed up a few pages of info, including helpful links and started attaching it to emails to those people.
Now, I'm posting it here, without any of the pretty formatting it had in Microsoft Word, and I will add that back in over the coming week. Feel free to ask questions in the comments section!

4 main islands:
  •  Hokkaido – Alaska w/public transportation, Ski/Snowboarding HEAVEN (horseback riding, hiking, cycling, and even paintball in the summer) Snow Festival in Feb. 
  • Honshu – The main island, with most of the names, places, and things you’ve heard of
  • Shikoku – smallest and most rural of the main islands, friendly farmers, hot springs and the great outdoors
  •  Kyushu – Mostly rural, some great cities and sights, Food-y paradises
  •  Okinawa – Far, far south, think Hawaii, as different culturally from Japan as Hawaii is from “the Mainland”, you will need a rental car

Tokyo Neighborhoods to visit:
  • Shibuya (also the name of a train station) must see "The Scramble" intersection,you’ll recognize from Lost in Translation but also long-used in any media reference to "Japan", and Hachi statue of famously faithful shiba dog (made into a terrible Richard Gere movie)
  • Harajuku – (also name of train station) lets you off where the famous fashionstreet ends (Not like 5th Ave., much more crowded and people testing bizarre newfashions), intersecting with Yoyogi Park (think Central Park, but Japanese-y, perfect for people watching and picnics, alcohol is not illegal outdoors anywhere in Japan too, so it’s great to have a beer in the grass on a warm day), also walkingdistance from Meiji Jingu, big, beautiful Shinto Shrine. You often see couples in gorgeous traditional clothing getting their wedding photos taken!
The Lockup you can go to this izakaya for tapas-style dinner and drinks that has a
"haunted prison" theme! It's a totally fun chain of restaurants, so look it up
anytime you’re in a major city.
  • Asakusa (also the name of a train station):
Senso Temple - Big, bustling shopping area and ancient Buddhist Temple famous
for the Kaminari-Mon (“Lightning Gate”) **This is not Yasukuni Shrine. You
won’t upset anyone by going!
  • Shinjuku (also the name of a train station):
Kabuki-cho – like the theater “Kabuki”, this is Tokyo’s notorious red-light
district, run by Yakuza (Japanese mafia). It’s also lots of fun to just walk and look
around (read: not dangerous). This is where you’ll find the spectacular ROBOT
RESTAURANT. (a $50 show w/dinner, absolutely bizarre and crazy and
uniquely Japanese) There are lots of other interesting hole-in-the-wall places like
Metal Bar GODZ” which has thousands of heavy metal CDs stacked against the
walls and if it’s metal, they have it, and will play it for you, free of charge. One of
my favorite chain restaurants is a 1950’s-style izakaya, Hanbey has several
locations throughout Tokyo, and other major cities in Japan, including one in this
small area

Other Points of Interest and day trips:

Tsukiji Fish Market – Where “first catch of the day” fish are brought to market,
evaluated, sometimes auctioned, and sold. Classic tourist spot.
Tokyo Tower – Classic symbol of Tokyo, like a red Eiffel Tower
Tokyo Disneyland - (in Chiba actually, not technically Tokyo)
Mt. Fuji – “The fool climbs Fuji twice”...
Kamakura – big Buddha
Nikko – Mountain temple with lots of monkeys! This is also where the iconic
“see-no-evil, speak-no-evil, hear-no-evil” monkey statue resides.
Tokyo Sky Tree – This is a brand-new tower, similar to Seattle’s Space Needle,
but from what I’ve heard, Tokyo Tower is still better all-around for the price,
wait, and view!


 KYOTO  - I don’t even know where to begin, there are so many famous,
gorgeous, ancient temples, and the main train station has a great English language
brochure you can use to get around on the bus. Be warned, some of the temples
that take the longest to get to, such as Kinkaku Temple close at 5pm, so check
schedules and get there early! My favorite spots are Arayashiyama, Kiyomizu-
dera, and Nanzen-ji, and they’re all on different sides of the city.

 I think Shikoku (famous for mandarin oranges and all of ONE hot spring) is not
as interesting and definitely out of the way, while other cities and islands are on
the newly extended shinkansen (bullet train) line. But if you do go, they have lots
of nature, the 88 Temple walk (famous, historic Buddhist pilgrimage path), white
water rafting, and tons of natural hot springs.

Kagoshima is a gorgeous city at the southernmost tip next to Kumamoto on the
island of Kyushu. Famous for the finest pork, Sand-saunas (sunaburo), and the
active volcano Sakurajima. They also have great botanical gardens, street cars,
and a hop-on-hop-off tour bus route that is very foreigner-friendly.

 From there you can take a ferry or fly to Yakushima (the ancient island where the
film Princess Mononoke borrows its scenery). I've never been, but it is the most
ancient and pristine forest in Japan, and possibly the world! But this island is so
secluded, you might want to save it for a long trip.

 My “Second Hometown” (lived here for 5 years): Hiroshima
Go see these things IN THIS ORDER! (Explanation below)
Atomic Bomb Dome and Peace Memorial Museum and Park: Yes, it is a downer,
but an absolute must and only 50 cents to get in to the museum. I recommend
going slowly through the museum first, because it gives you some necessary
perspective before seeing the rest of the park. Of course you should save indoor
stuff for rainy days, but if weather allows, do it first so you can spend the rest of
time enjoying all the fun things in Hiroshima and leave on a high note.
Miyajima deserves a whole day if you can spare the time. Get there as early as you
can and stay til 5 at least (5 is when all the shops close). If you like hiking, you
can hike up – OR - take a (pricey) ropeway car to the top of Misen (the mountain
on Miyajima) and there are tons of 1400 year-old temples and monkeys and
panoramic view of the Seto Inland sea, covered in tiny islands. If you come
down the other end (or even if you skip the mountain completely) you should
see Daisho-in, my FAVORITE temple in all of Western Japan! It has lots of
interesting Buddha statues on the side-path from the entrance staircase up, so
explore thoroughly! The shops on the path to the famous Itsukushima Shrine
have tons of great seafood, but if you’re avoiding meat, you still have to try
momiji-manju, a confection with your choice of filling. There are two shops
toward the end of the street that also sell them deep-fried, and if you like, on ice
cream! SO GOOD! Last thing I’ll say about Miyajima: If you want to go camping
on the beach, the sand isn’t that great, but at night, there
are blue-glowing photo fluorescent plankton in the ocean that will blow your mind! Also deer
that will come visit your tent if they smell food, or grazing on grass in your front yard, if you rent a

Other places: If you haven't already seen a dozen castles, you can check out
Hiroshima Castle, and it's just a short walk to Shukkei-en, a traditional Japanese
garden, and both are only a couple bucks to get in, but they also close early (like
5). There is a huge, covered shopping street called Hon-Dori, underground
shopping corridors nearby, electronic stores, Donkihotte (a crazy store that sells
everything… I mean EVERTHING, like those full body stuffed animal costumes,
Pikachu, etc.)

Getting Around
Streetcars can take you all over, or bike-shares you can rent from stands all over
town with a credit card, or busses, and trains (recommended for going to/getting
back from Miyajima)

When you get to Hiroshima, you should be able to find a "Get Hiroshima" map
with bars, hotels, sight-seeing, and shops all written in English on an easy-to-
read map. If you go to the bars "Kemby's", "Southern Cross", “Revolución” or
"A.M.", all the staff and owners are my friends, so you should mention I told you
go and maybe they'll give you some special treatment, or at the least some good
conversation. All three bars usually have a good mix of ex-pats and Japanese
people who are chatty and likely to take you to a dance club on the seedier side
of town. If you looking to hook up with some strange, go to Mac Bar or El Barcos, and that’s all
I’ll say about that.

In downtown, there is a place called "Okonomimura" (Oak-Oh-No-Me-moo-ra), a
building where the entire 2nd, 3rd, and 4th floors are dedicated to the Hiroshima
specialty "Okonomiyaki" (Oak-Oh-No-Me-yaw-ki). They are used to foreigners so
they will probably have English menus and speak really, really, hysterically
broken English. It is literally tons of wall-to-wall indoor food stalls and all of them
will aggressively call for you to sit down at theirs. Just enjoy the atmosphere and
ignore them until you find one you want to sit down at. When you do, I
recommend niku-dama-soba, the traditional form, with pork, egg, and soba
noodles, or you can get fat, Udon noodles and choose totally different
ingredients if you’d rather. They cook it on a teppan right in front of you, and
you can get other ingredients thrown in if you want to pay extra.


TERMINOLOGY: You don’t need to know it, but it might come in handy:
Always remember: Japanese is almost 100% monotone. You don’t emphasize any one
syllable in a word. (Basically, speak like a robot.)
Also, there are no "r" or "l" in Japanese, but rather, something in-between that sounds closer to a "d" sometimes.

IZAKAYA” (is-a-Kye-yaw) – Tapas-style of Japanese restaurant
YAKINIKU" (yaw-key-knee-coo) restaurant. It's the Japanese version of a Korean do-it-
yourself BBQ!
YAKITORI" (yaw-key-tore-ee) restaurant. Every different part of a chicken, slow grilled
and served on skewers. My favorites are skin, hearts, and gizzards: Delicious!
KARAOKE” (kaw-daw-okay) The best with a lot of friends/fun people. Private rooms
with phones on the wall so you can order more drinks/snacks without even having to
leave! If you hear Japanese people in another room seeing an English song, it's totally fun
to bust in and start singing along with them. Most of the people there are in various stages
of drunkenness, so they love it and go absolutely crazy!
TABEHOUDAI” (taw-bay-ho-die) Byu-fe, and bi-kin-gu all mean "all-you-can-eat",
NOMIHOUDAI” (no-me-ho-die) means “all-you-can-drink”!
Any restaurant, including izakaya, yakiniku, AND Karaoke, often have tabehoudai,
nomihoudai, or both options, and it isn’t very expensive compared to Manhattan
restaurants. (Typical chain restaurants have 2-hour open-bar AND open-menu for 30 -
40 dollars! The nicer the place, they higher the price, of course.)
RYOKAN” (Rio-khan) – Japanese, traditional hotels. Bamboo grass-woven rugs called
tatami, Japanese, traditional futon-beds, sliding-paper “shoji” doors.
ONSEN” (own-sen) – Japanese hot spring/public baths. Artificial hot
springs/saunas/bath houses are called “SENTO”
ROTENBURO” (row-ten-boo-dough) Open air baths, usually accompanied by
spectacular views of beaches, mountains, forests, or even skylines. Some hotels have
rooftop private rotenburo available for appointment.


  1. Sexy so far. I haven't read GoT yet, but it makes sense to me, so I still find it amusing. <3


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