Japan is one of the most interesting and foreign places I have ever visited. My boyfriend and I decided to go to Japan this year for our birthdays (we are one day apart), and it was definitely the most memorable trip we have ever done together. It’s exciting, and also challenging to get lost in a place where the culture is so vastly different. For one, the language barrier is a big challenge. When taking cabs, we quickly learned to bring printouts from our hotel of the places we are going with the Japanese address. In this post I have included some tips for navigating the culture gap.
We started our two-part trip in the ancient city of Kyoto—the spiritual capital of Japan. We flew into Haneda Airport in Tokyo and took the Keikyu Airport Line’s Rapid Limited Express train to Shingawa Station, and then transfer to a shinkansen bullet train for Kyoto. The whole route can take around three hours. Our trip took place in late November when all the leaves are changing colors—an incredible sight to see! I highly suggest going during this time. However, it can be chilly so be sure to bring warm clothes.
Three thousand shrines and temples dot the city, including three shrines and 14 temples on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Kyoto is the birthplace of Japanese Zen and has five huge Zen monastery complexes where serious students still sit in meditation; it is home to the headquarters of three other large religious sects in Japan, too. If you have a week in Japan, spend three days in Tokyo and three days in Kyoto.
What to Expect
- Remember that you will have to remove your shoes often—when visiting some restaurants, a home, a traditional inn (ryokan) and many of Japan’s attractions. And never walk into a temple wearing shoes.
- Always clean your hands with the towelette they bring you at the beginning of meals.
- Try to learn some basic phrases, including “thank you” (arigato), “good day” (konnichi wa), “good evening” (konban wa), “goodbye” (sayonara), “excuse me” (sumimasen), “delicious” (oishii)
- Expect to be crowded or pushed in public, especially on trains. The Japanese sense of personal space is different than that of Westerners, and crowding and pushing are considered acceptable behaviors.
- Bring cash (yen). Debit is rarely used and credit cards are only used for big purchases. Outside large hotels and department stores, they aren’t likely to be accepted.
- There is no need to tip in Japan. Sometimes service is already added.
Where to Stay
- Tawaraya Ryokan– A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn for travelers who want to experience Japanese culture and hospitality. Most tourists only stay for one or two nights because ryokans tend to be very expensive. Private gardens and incredible attention to detail make Tawaraya a very special Kyoto experience. They have no website, so you have to call to book at 81-75-211-5566.
- Ritz Carlton– Stunning luxury hotel chain with Japanese flair and outstanding service. We stayed at this downtown hotel and had a fantastic experience. They really went above and beyond to make our stay spectacular. Highlights: the spa and breakfast!
- Shiraume Ryokan– A traditional Japanese Ryokan over 100 years old located on a stream in Gion (the Geisha district). Expect nothing less than royal treatment here.
Food + Drink
- Ippudo– Amazing ramen spot. A must when visiting Kyoto. Ippudo started in Fukuoka, Kyushu, and quickly spread not only across Japan but also to such countries as the United States, the UK and Singapore.
- Omen– A very popular udon noodle restaurant with two locations in Kyoto. Try the seasonal tasting menu if you are very hungry.
- Mizai– A three-Michelin-starred kaiseki restaurant in Maruyama park. Kaiseki is a Japanese haute cuisine with many courses. Tip: be sure to make a reservation several months in advance. Mizai is one of the hardest restaurants in Kyoto to get a reservation.
- Gion Karyo– Another excellent kaiseki restaurant located in the Geisha district of Gion. Set in an old Kyoto house, the setting is authentic and traditional without feeling too formal.
- Temples & Shrines– Visit some of the thousands of temples/shrines around the city. We did a bike tour at our hotel which was great because we got to see more than we would have been able to on foot. My top picks are: Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, Eikan-do temple, Toji temple, Saihoji temple, and Ginkaku-ji temple.
- Arashiyama Monkey Park– This was one of the coolest things we did in Kyoto. You hike up a hill for about 20 minutes and at the top there are monkeys waiting to be fed by tourists.
- Day trip to Nara- Nara is Japan’s oldest capital and my favorite place that we visited while staying in Kyoto. It’s about 45 minutes from Kyoto by train. The deer in the park are friendly and they will come up to you to be hand fed. The giant Buddha in the Todai-ji temple is a spectacular sight to see. It is well worth the trip.
- Nishiki Food Market- A 400-year old market located on a narrow lane in downtown Kyoto. The shops of Nishiki focus on the best ingredients and the rarest Kyoto delicacies.