Finally! After the pandemic disrupted our first trip to Asia, we had no idea how long it would be until we revived that plan. Well, here we are three years later and we booked a trip to Japan for a two week adventure exploring the Golden Route including stops at Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto, and Osaka. We booked for late May to avoid both the crowds of Golden week (end of April / early May) and cherry/sakura blossom season, but miss the rainy season that starts in June. Planning a trip to Japan can be daunting and I will say, it was certainly the the most time consuming trip from a researching and planning a trip to date. I put all that information into one blog post – What to Expect When Visiting Japan for the First Time.
It was hard to believe we were actually here across the globe in Japan! Our first time on this two week adventure was in Tokyo – the pulse of Japan. Sitting four times larger than NYC, Tokyo is the largest city in the world by population – over 37 million people call Tokyo home. With so much to explore, we allocated a week of the trip to Tokyo and surrounding areas.
While many tourist stay in the Shibuya and Shinjuku, it is quite expensive to stay in this area. As with most of our travels, we prefer to stay outside the action in exchange for a more local experience – which has typically meant better food scene. The Airbnb we selected was in between Akiharbara and Ueno in Okachimachi. This location was perfect – just minutes away from the train and subway in a quiet neighborhood with plenty of space and a washer!
Anxious to get exploring, we checked in and freshen up to start our Japan adventure. Our first stop was exploring the 7/11. I know, it sounds so silly but I read how amazing convenience stores are in Japan so we took the opportunity to get a snack. We walked in and were blown away by all the offerings!
There are walls of refrigerated items from rice triangles, bento boxes, various rice and noodles bowls, sandwiches, and more. And for meals that can be heated up, the staff can do that for you as well as providing utensils for eating. Then there are frozen sections for various desserts and frozen meals. The rest of the store is jam packed with drinks, snacks, baked goods, household items, alcohol, and more. And finally there is the hot section of freshly made items such as bao buns, chicken, and more. We did several laps to familiarize ourselves before making a few selections. What we loved is how inexpensive everything was here! And did I mention these are all open 24/7?
We all tried our first rice triangles that came with specific instructions on how to open them to have the wrapper removed at the right angle so the entire thing did not fall apart. And it was delicious! Why does this 7/11 concept not exist is the US? It would be a strong Wawa competitor if they had these 7/11 stores.
Even though we were tired, we had some daylight to work with so we took a walk to the neighboring Akiharbara area known for neon lights, video games, and gachapons (toy vending machines).
Walking around was sensory overload – the buildings were tall and jam packed with so many different stores on each floor and large signs and lights indicating so. It was hard to chose one to go into but I had a list or recommendations. Our first stop was Super Potato – a strange name but it was the top store for retro games such as Sega, Nintendo, and Game Boy – they even had original Tamagotchis. The store took over three floors with every inch used for merchandise. Wandering around this store was so fun!
One our way back to the Airbnb, we stopped our first meal of the trip. Unlike all of our other trips, I did not have set plans each day for food. The reasons included 1) the inability to make reservations abroad or without Japanese 2) reservation times are strict and being late or early is not acceptable – I even read that a few minutes hate for a reservations constitutes giving it up. Since I did not know how our days would fall, I did not want to lock us into set times for meals with the risk of being late. Instead, I vetted restaurants in various neighborhoods we would be visiting so that we had options when we were traveling around with the goal of hitting each different cuisine at least once on the trip. Unfortunately, many of my stared spots were closed on Sundays so the options were a but more limited than I was expecting but Gyukatsu Ichi Ni San was our winner.
Read the dining review for Gyukatsu Ichi Ni San and tonkatsu here!
We walked back to our Airbnb in hopes that we outlasted the day long enough to combat the inevitable jet lag.
If you have followed any of our trips, you know Kevin’s coffee stops are a must do each day. But the conundrum in Japan was there is not a breakfast or coffee culture in the morning. Our best bet each morning was 7/11 or Starbucks. Luckily, we found SHI-TEN coffee around the corner that opened at 8AM. Kevin enjoyed sneaking over there as often as possible during our trip.
Though sleep was not great – jet lag hits really hard – we were excited for our first full day of exploring! Our first stop was 7/11 for breakfast which mostly consistent office based snacks before hopping on the train to Shibuya.
Upon exiting the train station at Shibuya, the reputation certainly followed – the number of people navigating around the station was incredible – people going to work, shopping, tourists all meshed together. When we emerged from the train station, we were right in the middle of the famous Shibuya Crossing.
Before partaking in the crossing itself, we found the famous Hachiko Statue, a symbol of nationwide loyalty. This small statue is a tribute to dog that would travel to Shibuya Station to meet his owner after work each day. When the owner passed away during the work day, the dog continued to appear at the station each day waiting for his owner.
We then participated in the ceremonious Shibuya Crossing as we made our way across the street … to the Starbucks! The Starbucks has a second story that is a great viewing platform for the crossing below.
Our next stop was Shibuya Sky for the 360 degree viewing platform on the 46th floor. I purchased tickets as soon as they went on sale for this date and glad I was proactive as the day was sold out. We arrived for our 10AM booking and were promptly ushered into an elevator that soared into the sky.
Before exiting to the platform, you are not permitted to take any bags outside. The lockers require 100 yen coin that you get back after you use it. We did not have any coins yet but a generous couple saw our predicament and gave us a 100 yen coin. It was a but confusing why after paying the ticket the lockers are not free for use since they are a requirement to enjoying the viewing platform. So make sure you have a 100 yen coin on you before going up.
Shibuya Sky offers a stunning view of the entire Tokyo and surrounding area. Unfortunately the air quality did not allow for us to see Mt Fuji but there was so much else to see. The city below looked like a model toy set with the trains moving silently. It was clear how enormous Tokyo really is with a view like this.
Our next mission for Shibuya was exploring all the wonderful shopping opportunities. Since we are not big shoppers, our stores were rather specific – Disney, Nintendo, and Pokemon. We accidentally stumbled upon the Disney Store which had such great merchandise that got us so excited for our Disney park days. With the outside being a giant castle, it was hard to miss and hard to resist!
Finding the Nintendo and Pokemon Stores were a bit more challenging – we thought with such prominent store names it would be on full display. Eventually we found the building and took the elevator to the second floor and when those doors opened, our jaws dropped.
Both stores were next to each other and the displays were amazing. We had such a fun time going through these stores – we have never seen merchandise like this for all these franchises.
The day was quickly flying by so fast! I originally wanted us to walk from Shibuya to Shinjuku through Yoyogi Park and see Meiji Jingu Temple but we just did not have the time. With lunch time looming, we hopped on a train to Shinjuku as we had several options.
After a bit of deliberating and failed attempts at ramen and Udon Shin (ticket system), we landed at Gyopao Gyoza. We ordered a bunch of dumplings which were all good but this was definitely a more touristy destination reflected in the pricing, the discounts for cleaning up, and the push to review on Google before we left – it was no wonder why it has so many Google reviews.
Our next stop was the Golden Gai district. Golden Gai is made up of many narrow alleys that are jam packed with almost 300 bars and restaurants. Unfortunately we got there too early as everything was closed – must only be a night joint but it was still fun to walk around and image what it must be like.
On our way to the Omoide Yokocho we passed a street with a giant Godzilla! I wish we had more time to simply wander around cause I am sure there are tons of things to be discovered.
We then entered the beautiful Omoide Yokocho which is another series of streets jam packed with over 60 restaurants and bras. This area was more active with people crammed into spaces the site of a closet. I can only imagine what this areas must look like at night.
Before we returned to the Airbnb, we took the train to Harajuku and walked the Takeshita Dori street. This spot was mobbed with people purchasing souvenirs and picture perfect treats ready made for social media.
We took the train back to our Airbnb and stopped for dinner around the corner at Kubota which serves up unagi… eel!
Jetlag hit hard this night and we lied wide awake. I had this crazy idea to get ramen and after an hour of insomnia at 2AM, convinced Kevin that a night walk and ramen would be the best way to spend the time. I found Ichiran Ramen located a ten minute walk and open 10AM to 6AM – we still had plenty of time before their brief morning closure. Ichiran Ramen is a chain ramen spot that is very popular throughout Japan and while it is a chain, it is known to have some of the best ramen.
We walked through a bit of drizzle rain through the Ueno neighborhood and discovered Ameyoko Shopping District all closed up but looked like a very active and fun vibe.
Is it worth the hype? Read our Ichiran Ramen dining review here!
We looked at each other completely pleased with our spontaneous decision to get ramen at 2AM. We made it back to bed at 3AM and slept soundly for the rest of the morning.
Today’s weather was a bit of a rainy day so we were lucky to have our first activity of the day be an indoor one! I booked tickets for the opening time slot of TeamLab Planets – a wildly popular experience on social media. Typically there are two museums of this kind but the larger, more popular one (TeamLab Borderless) was in the process of being relocated. I was a bit skeptical of the experience but I decided it was a good test to see if it was worth the hype.
Is visiting TeamLab Planets worth it? Read about our experience here!
The lunch spot I wanted to hit today was for seafood donburi bowls at Tsujihan ZEITAKU. Made famous by travelers on social media, this place is very popular so we headed there arriving at the opening time of 11AM and there was already a long line. We were hoping the rain would deter people but that did not seem to be the case. All in, we waited two hours to get into this restaurant.
Was it worth the wait? Read our dining review for Tsujihan ZEITAKU and seafood donburi bowls here!
After late night / early morning ramen excursion and this rainy day, we went back to the Airbnb and took a much needed nap. We have a longer night ahead and three very jam packed days so the nap was welcomed and needed.
One dining experience we were excited for was our omakase sushi meal that we had scheduled for tonight. Searching for one was tough a there are so many to choose from and the price ranges are all over the place. After many hours of searching, I picked Isana Sushi Bar.
Read our dining review of Isana Sushi Bar and our omakase dining experience here!
A day we were very excited for this trip finally arrived – our day exploring DisneySea! Often referred to as the best Disney park in the world, we could not contain our excitement as we readied in the morning, grabbed our breakfast at 7/11, and started our journey to the theme park.
Read our magical day at DisneySea here!
We had a very early wake up this morning which was a bit challenging after our long theme park day yesterday but today we had exciting things ahead. Today we were experiencing the famous Japanese tuna auction at Toyosu Market and the Tsukiji food market – the largest fish market in the world!
Read all about our day exploring the Toyosu Market tuna auction, the Tsukiji food market, and so much more here!
After a whirlwind of a day, we went on a much needed walk to help digest the marathon of eating. This entire area was new for us so we enjoyed taking in everything – including a beautiful garden.
But we were not just walking aimlessly, we had another very exciting event to attend – sumo wrestling! We were so lucky to be visiting Tokyo while a Sumo Tournament was occurring.
Read about our experience at the Grand Sumo Wrestling Tournament and how to attend here!
Another marathon of a day head – This was certainly the most jam packed portion of our trip – but how often do you get to visit Japan right? was our last full day in Tokyo. We could not visit DisneySea without DisneyLand and after how much fun we had at DisneySea, we knew it was going to be a great day.
Read our magical day at DisneyLand here!
Our final morning in Tokyo and we could not believe how fast the week went but also how much we were able to see and do. Tokyo is an extremely impressive city in so many ways and I know we only scratched the surface. I know our travels will take us here again and we are looking forward to exploring so much more. Now, our travels take us into the countryside to visit Hakone and if we are lucky, Mt Fuji.
Tokyo has an incredible international reputation and our first visit far exceeded my expectations. Tokyo was an immersion of the senses – the sights, the smells, the tastes, the sounds – it was all new and all so exciting. The city is so easy to navigate despite the size and density, every corner is clean and we never felt safer I wish we had more stomach space for all the food as what we did eat was all amazing. Tokyo is a major metropolitan city done right. I cannot wait to return again as I know it will not be our last visit to this beautiful city.