Japan was the first country I ever visited outside of Australia. I spent three weeks there in April 2007 and absolutely loved it. This is the general list of info I give friends as a starting point for further research when they’ve asked me for recommendations on what to do and see there.
I highly recommend getting a Japan Rail pass. You’ll have to buy it before you get there (it can’t be purchased inside Japan) but it gives you free passage on any Japan Rail (JR) trains which includes some shinkansen (bullet trains). Take note in Tokyo that while it allows free travel on the Yamanote (city circle) line it doesn’t cover the other inner city lines as they’re not operated by JR.
JR passes are expensive but worth it if you’re planning on doing several trips between cities. You can get more detailed information including pricing at the official Japan Rail Pass website and Hyperdia provides comprehensive timetable information. The trains always run on time.
Hotel and hostel rooms are tiny but very clean. If you want to treat yourself, stay at a ryokan (traditional inn) or minshuku (like a B&B). They can be a little expensive but really are something special. Japan Guesthouses is a great site for finding ryokans and similar accommodation in Japan. For another uniquely Japanese experience you could stay in a capsule inn. We spent one night in Capsule Inn Namba in Osaka just for the experience and it was interesting! (We chose that one because at the time it was one of the only ones we could find that allowed female guests, but this might be more common now.)
As with any country you might visit it’s definitely worth making the effort to learn some basic phrases such as thank you, excuse me, yes, no. (Japanese pronunciation is easier than you think!) I’d also recommend taking a phrase book as not everyone you will meet will speak English and it comes in handy… such as when you’re desperately trying to find the platform your bullet train will depart from in the next 10 minutes. In general I found people in Tokyo were less impressed with my attempts at Japanese than those further south, who were often quite delighted to hear us having a go.
Places to go
My favourite city (that I’ve been to so far – I plan to go back one day and see more!) is Osaka. You have to see Tokyo as well but Osaka is a bit more relaxed and friendly. (I like to think Osaka is to Tokyo what Melbourne is to Sydney.) Osaka is also very close to Kyoto, so if you’re going to one you should make time for the other. Kyoto is popular because it’s full of temples and shrines, although you do have to seek those areas out. It’s easy to arrive in Kyoto expecting to be transported back in time but if you don’t seek out the traditional areas it looks like any other modern city.
If you’d like to see somewhere that is completely traditional, Tsumago is the place to go. Tsumago is a beautiful old postal town on the Nakasendo highway which connected Kyoto and Tokyo. (It’s more of a hiking trail now.) The town is more or less a living museum – there are laws in place to make sure the residents don’t modernise their homes too much (by installing TV antennas etc) to preserve the historial look of the buildings.
Tokyo is HUGE. It’s the biggest city I’ve ever been to and it feels somewhat never-ending. It’s easier to tackle if you break it down into districts. The ones I’ve been to are:
Harajuku: A great place to check out on a Sunday – young trendies dress up in all sorts of costumes and crazy fashion outfits and stand around the train station posing for photos. There’s also a super cool multistory toy shop called Kiddy Land opposite the station. I’ve never seen sidewalks as crowded as the ones in Harajuku, it’s a sight to behold in itself!
Asakusa: A great place to go to see the sakura (cherry blossoms) in Spring. There are also lots of temples in the area and a cool (albeit somewhat touristy) market.
Akihabara: The electronics district. Full of video game arcades, techy shops and anime/manga shops.
Shibuya: Popular shopping district home to that famous intersection/pedestrian crossing and Love Hotel Hill.
Shinjuku: Popular nightlife area and home to Tokyo’s red light district.
Obaiba: Waterside area with theme parks (including a ramen museum!) and shopping centres with cinema complexes. The trip to Odaiba is half the fun as you ride the Yurikamome elevated train which weaves its way between skyscrapers. It feels like something out of Blade Runner.
Johnnie Hillwalker operates an excellent walking tour which explores some of Kyotos temples, shrines and small workshops. The tour ends at the beautiful and famous Kiyomizu temple which offers wonderful views of the city.
The Path of Philosophy is a popular place for hanami (sakura/cherry blossom viewing). The path is roughly one kilometre long and you can take detours along the way to visit various temples and shrines.
Before you get sick of temples and shrines (it happens!), one other place I highly recommend is Fushimi Inari Shrine. It sits at the base of a mountain and features trails that climb up the mountain to lots of smaller shrines. Inari is the god of rice and the patron of business and the paths are lined with stunning red torii (ornamental gates) donated by Japanese businessmen.
A nice day trip is to visit Arashiyama on the outskirts of Kyoto. Once you get there you can ride the Sagano Torokko Ressha (Romantic Train) along the Hozu River to a departure pier then take a boat back into the heart of Arashiyama. The boat tour takes about two hours and both trips (on the train and down the river) are very picturesque. There’s also a monkey park on the top of a mountain in Arashiyama!
Osaka’s aquarium is one of the biggest in the world and it’s the best aquarium I’ve ever been to. A giant tank runs up the centre of the building and a path winds its way around it in a spiral. The aquarium is home to some very cool residents, such as its famous whale shark and a tank full of giant deep sea crabs.
Dotonburi is a popular shopping and entertainment district full of neon and mechanised signs and lots of different places to eat, including stalls offering Osakan specialities takoyaki (octopus balls) and okonomoyaki (Japanese pancake).
Denden Town is Osaka’s equivalent of Akihabara in Tokyo; the main electronics district with its own fair share of video game and anime shops.
The Umeda Sky Building offers an excellent view of Osaka (particularly spectacular at night, imho). The basement houses a replica of a Japanese street from the early Showa Period which includes places to eat.
A nice day trip from Osaka is to take a train out to visit the stunning Himeji Castle.
One last general thing I highly recommend you experience at least once is to visit an onsen (bath house). Secret Japan has a great database of onsen including photos and ratings.
All in all this is just a tiny sampling of what Japan has to offer. Japan Guide is an excellent resource for further research into what there is to see and do in Japan. (It also has some really useful guides to Japanese etiquette, which I would recommend checking out as etiquette is taken very seriously in Japan.)