Lanterns in Japan
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Deutsche Fassung German translated articles

Japan: the best 10-day trip (tips and hacks)

Table of Contents

Bernie and Petra in Kyoto, Japan

When I first mentioned the idea of going to Japan to Petra, she burst out laughing and thought I was joking around with her. After a few minutes, she realised that I was very serious and knowing me, once I put my mind to something, it would be difficult for her to convince me otherwise. 

Luckily, my timing was perfect; it just so happened that my oldest son, Kelvin, was racing in August of 2019 in the Suzuka 10-hour at Suzuka  International Racecourse in Mie Prefecture in Japan (which I must add they won on the weekend). This is where our adventurous (read-eventful) trip to Japan starts. It was one of those trips with many highs and some upsetting lows (that we cannot stop laughing about today). We will share some of these Japan videos on our Instagram stories, but let me not get ahead of the story.

Bernie with Kelvin before the race at Suzuka circuit

How to avoid letting uncontrollable events ruin your trip to Japan?

The week before we were due to leave on our trip to Japan via Hong Kong, travel chaos broke out in Hong Kong as the protests of the last few months escalated, many flights got cancelled, and major roads were blocked. I was due to fly from Johannesburg to Hong Kong on Cathy Pacific on the 14th of August (2019) and meet Petra there, and together, we would fly to Japan after a two-day tour of the city. The day before we were due to fly to Hong Kong, our flights got cancelled, and consequently, we cancelled our hotel, which refused to refund us (booked through a well-known booking site).    

Our first selfie after travelling 18 hours and meeting each other at the Tokyo airport in Japan

I got upgraded to first class on an Emirates flight to Japan

Because we don’t let anything get in the way of a planned trip, we immediately searched for new flights, and I found only a business class ticket in Emirates via Dubai to Japan. Petra luckily found a flight on FinAir via Helsinki, and she would land a few hours before me. This is where it gets exciting as I was about to board my flight from Dubai to Narita International Airport (Tokyo), Japan, when the air hostess softly asked for my boarding pass and said she needed to exchange it for another one. My immediate reaction was, what did I do wrong? Not wanting to make a scene, I continued walking down the aisle with the new ticket until my eyes noticed the new boarding class FIRST. I wanted to shout out to everyone, “I got upgraded”! This was the best experience of my life. First class in Emirates is something you don’t want to read about but need to be experienced. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much on this 10hr 40 min flight as I wanted to enjoy the moment and experience all the luxury and spoils on this flight. This experience deserves an article of its own.

To cut a very long story short, as Petra landed about 10 hours earlier than I did, she had to figure out the JR Narita Express on her own, travel to our hotel, and return to the airport to come and meet me (for our traditional airport selfie). That’s why Petra deserves an award for the best travel companion or, as we say, travel buddy!

Bernie' Emirates Golden ticket
Nothing beats an Emirates first class Cabin

A 10-day trip to Japan: A custom-designed itinerary

We planned a 10-day trip to Japan, starting in Tokyo (3 nights). From there, we went by high-speed train to Kyoto (2 nights), where we hired a car and drove to Nara (2 nights). We attended the 10-hour Intercontinental GT race in Suzuka (2 nights) and ended our trip in Osaka.

Tokyo Japan with its many skyscrapers
Tokyo, Japan

Three days in Tokyo, Japan

In Tokyo, we stayed at Hotel Villa-Fontaine Grand Tokyo-Shiondome (56km from the airport) because it is conveniently close to Shiondome Subway Station (metro and train 100m) and within a 10-minute’ walk (400m) of the JR Shimbashi Train Station. Although this is a commercial district, we found it close to the areas and stations we wanted to discover.

Things to do in Central Tokyo

Petra in the garden of Hotel Chinzanzo Tokyo

Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo, Japan

From our hotel, we took a leisurely walk (20 minutes) to the 80-year-old Tsukiji Fish and Produce market to admire the over 400 stalls selling kitchen utensils, fish, and shellfish, many of which we have never seen before and sample some Japanese favourites like fresh sushi. 

The biggest market in Japan is over several blocks of crowded, narrow lanes. It is argued to be the best place to learn more about Japanese cuisine and culture at the many authentic restaurants. The market is famous among tourists, locals, and wholesalers. To find out about the best foods to try at the fish market, read Japan Wonder travel blog’s article “15 Best foods to try at Tsukiji Fish Market”

Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo

How to get to Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, Japan?

Take the Toen Oedo Line and get off at Tsukiji Shijo Station, walk out at exit A1; the market is about a minute’s walk from the exit OR

Take the Hibiya Line and get off at Tsukiji Station; walk out at exit 1 or 2; the market is about a minute’s walk from the exit.

Imperial Palace, Tokyo, Japan

Imperial Palace the main residence of the Imperial family

The imperial palace is the official residence of Japan’s imperial family. The palace grounds are not open to the public except for New Year’s and on the emperor’s birthday, the 23rd of February, when visitors can enter and wave to the Imperial Family as they appear from the balcony. We found this palace rather unimpressive, but it could have been because it was unbearing hot by the time we reached the place, and we didn’t have the energy to walk around and admire a fort-like building from the outside.

Things to do in Western Tokyo, Japan

Shibuya Crossing Tokyo, Japan

This iconic intersection, swarming with people, is located just outside Shibuya Station. It is featured in movies like The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and Lost in Translation. The busy intersection is characteristic of Tokyo and its people. Three massive television screens are mounted on the buildings facing the intersection, including tons of flashing advertising boards and lights (did I mention lights?). Besides the chaotic intersection, Shibuya is famous for fashion and trendspotting, and every foodie’s dream comes true. This is the ideal spot to learn about Japan’s Depachika (in-house food basement halls) culture. These food markets in department stores are known for selling everything from immaculately packed foods, ready-to-eat meals, and picture-perfect bento to packaged gifts.

Shibuya crossing
Shibuya crossing

PRO TIP: Take your time wandering the aisles and look for free food samples. Arrive at a Depachika about forty-five to half an hour before closing time, and be sure to receive significant discounts. Most ready-to-eat food items will then be discounted to clear.

Things to do in Southern Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo Tower Japan

Tokyo Tower standing 333 meters high in the center of Tokyo

When driving in Tokyo, it is impossible to miss the towering red and white stripes of Tokyo Tower. This 333-meter-high tower in the centre of Tokyo is the world’s tallest, self-supported steel structure (3 meters taller than its model, the Eiffel Tower). Until the construction of Skytree in 2012, it was the country’s tallest structure. Tokyo Tower has a dual purpose, first as a broadcasting tower and second as a tourist attraction with magnificent viewpoints over the city. A large elevator takes visitors up to the main deck at 150 meters; alternatively, one can use the 600-step staircase. The views are pretty good from there; there are some glass floors to stand on for a different angle view. A second elevator connects the main deck to the 250-meter-high top deck. Here, you get a bird’s eye view of Tokyo. At the tower’s entrance is a souvenir shop and a basic café. In the basement are shops, restaurants, and an e-sports entertainment complex.  

What are the admission fees and opening hours of Tokyo Tower in Japan?

1200 yen (main deck) 7.60 Euro (2023)

3000 yen (both decks) 19.01 Euro (2023)

2800 yen if purchased in advance for both decks (17.74 Euro)

Opening hours: 9:00 to 22:30 (entry until 22:00)

How to get to Tokyo Tower in Japan?

The closest subway stations to Tokyo Tower are Onarimon Station on the Mita Subway Line, Akabanebashi Station on the Oedo Subway Line and Kamiyacho on the Hibiya Subway Line, which is all about a 5 to 10-minute walk from the tower. Alternatively, you can reach the tower in about a 15 to 20-minute walk from Hamamatsucho Station on the JR Yamanote Line or Daimon Station on the Asakusa or Oedo subway lines.

What to do in Northern Tokyo in Japan?

Skytree, Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo Skytree is a television broadcasting tower and famous landmark of Tokyo with a height of 634 meters. It has two observation decks, one at 350m and the other at 450m, the highest in Japan. Unfortunately, we didn’t go up this tower because our time was limited in Tokyo.

Tokyo Skytree with a height of 634m

What are the admission fees and opening hours of Skytree, Tokyo?

You can purchase same-day tickets from the ticket counter on the 4th floor. On busy days (typically when the waiting time would exceed one hour), visitors will be assigned a 30-minute time slot during which they can enter. On very busy days, same-day tickets may sell out:

Reservations can be made on their wesbsite for a specific time slot on a specific date and at a discount of a few hundred yen.

First observatory: 2100 yen (weekdays) 13.30 Euros, 2300 yen (weekends/holidays) 14.57 Euros

Both observatories: 3100 yen (weekdays) 19.64 Euros, 3400 yen (weekends/holidays) 21.54 Euros

Opening hours: 10:00 to 20:00 (entry until 19:00)

Sensoji Temple, Japan

Sesoji Temple also known as Asakusa Kannon Temple

Sensoji, also known as Asakusa Kannon Temple, is the oldest temple in Asakusa; completed in 645. According to the legend, in the year 628, two brothers pulled up a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, out of the river Sumida, and even though they returned it to the river, it kept returning. Consequently, the Sensoji Buddhist temple was built to honour the goddess. The most impressive part of this temple is the large red Kaminarimon Thunder Gate lantern, a landmark of Asakusa. This lantern weighs about 700kg. There is also a magnificent five-storied pagoda next to the temple.

A highlight for us was visiting Nakamise-dori Street, Japan’s oldest shopping street (about 250m long) (adjacent to the temple grounds). Here, you will find abundant souvenir shops and traditional Japanese snack shops.

Petra standing at the main hall
The large red Kaminarimon Thunder Gate lantern
A shopping street of over 200 meters called Nakamise leads from the outer gate to the temple's second gate
Asakusa shrine is very popular and many people vist it daily.

What are the opening hours of Sensoji Temple, Japan?

Sensoji Temple is open daily and lit up every evening until 11:00.

Is it worth observing a Japanese tea ceremony in Tokyo, Japan?

A beautiful bonsai display in the gardens of the tea ceremony

You cannot say you have been to Japan without observing a traditional Tea Ceremony. The tea ceremony is fondly known as chanoyu, or sado, in Japanese, while the art and performance of preparing and presenting matcha powdered green tea is called otemae. Chakai is an informal gathering to appreciate the ritualised serving of tea, while the more formal occasion is a chaji. This customary ceremony is immersed in history. Our experience was very disappointing and overrated, the typical tourist trap. Don’t make the same mistake as we did! Although tea ceremonies are held across Japan, Kyoto and Uji are known as the best destinations to enjoy Japan’s tea culture. We also learned afterwards that there are varying degrees of formality and authenticity; some are held in traditional gardens, cultural centres or hotels. Don’t fall victim to cheap imitations. Click here to read more about the Japanese cultural tea ceremony procedure. 

The demonstration of a tea ceremony
Preparation for the Japanese tea ceremony

Where to eat the best Sushi in Tokyo, Japan?

We met a good friend who lives in Tokyo but is originally from Texas for dinner in Skytree Town, and she recommended Rokurinsha Tokyo Soramachi (one of the best Sushi restaurants).

Meeting up with our friend for a traditional sushi dinner
Petra and Bernie admiring the fantastic display of 'fake' sample foods
The delicious sushi we enjoyed
The sushi conveyor belt of the restaurant

Good to Know (Japan):

Don’t worry if you don’t understand Japanese; most restaurants display plastic replicas called ‘sampuru’, meaning samples of the type of food on offer in their windows. If you would like one of these food replicas as a souvenir, Kappabashi Street in Tokoyo has many of these shops.

Toyko to Kyoto Shinkansen train (bullet train, Japan)

The Shinkansen train

How much is the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, Japan?

We took the Nozomi bullet train to Kyoto, which took 2 hours and 15 minutes, leaving Tokyo station.

Currently, a reserved seat costs 113.73 euros per passenger one way. You can book your Shinkansen tickets from the link provided. They send your tickets to your hotel in Japan (what we did), your home country, or a post office in Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto. Make sure you are on time, and these trains are NEVER late!

The seating in the bullet train
Bernie buying some snack at the bullet train station
The Shinkansen train
Clearly market signage on the platforms to indicate which train is arriving
On our way to Kyoto with the bullet train

PRO TIP: Mt. Fuji view on the way to Kyoto. In good weather, you can see Mt. Fuji from your window in the Shinkansen on your way to Kyoto. The best seat to see Mt. Fuji is window side seats on the right hand. The best time to see Mt. Fuji is approximately 44 minutes after departing Tokyo station. Therefore, try to book window seats on the right-hand side of the train.

Two days in Kyoto, Japan

The traditional wooden houses of Kyoto

Kyoto was beyond anything we could ever imagine, and we regret not allocating more time to explore Kyoto. Although Kyoto is known for Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines (the most famous one, Fushimi Inari Shrine), places and gardens, it is the perfect place to experience and learn about authentic Japanese culture, and what better way to experience it all than to rent a kimono (to Petra’s embarrassment). The most prominent landmarks not to be missed include Kyoto Imperial Palace, Kiomizu-dera, kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji and Kyoto Tower. 

We enjoyed walking through the charming streets of Gion and were lucky enough to spot a geisha, called ‘geiko’ in the Kyoto dialect, walking straight past us one evening. 

There are fewer than 200 geishas in Kyoto, so their shows are often booked out far in advance.

The geisha we got a glimpse of one evening on our way to dinner
Gion, KyotoThis photo was taken near the Shimbashi bridge
Beautiful laterns in Nakagyo Kyoto
A typical Japanese lantern outside a restaurant
Beautiful stone gardens in Kyoto

Where to stay in Kyoto, Japan?

Bernie standing in front of our boutique hotel Ethnography

Our accommodation in Kyoto was the best during our entire stay in Japan. We stayed at Hotel Ethnography in the heart of Gion Shinmonzen. Our hosts spoke English well and went out of their way to make us feel welcome and meet our needs. They gave us helpful information on where to go, what to do and how to get there.

We have a hilarious video that we will share on our Instagram page about us trying to figure out how the air conditioner works (remember, everything is in Japanese writing) as it was somehow on a heating setting. The video shows me shouting at Petra because I am so hot and cannot breathe while she is taking a video of me (not helping the situation). Desperate, we opened the hotel room just to get cool air.

Where to rent a kimono in Kyoto, Japan?

Petra in her beautiful kimono

We rented our kimonos in a nearby street of the Kiyomizu temple. We paid 4000 Yen each for our robes for the entire day. You can have your hair and makeup done at the rental companies. At first, Petra was horrified by the idea of us parading the street in ‘costumes’ as she referred to them, until we saw the streets of Kyoto swarming with Westerners and Japanese women dressed in kimonos or, instead, Jakutas (the summer version). There are rental companies all over town, although Shinkiyogoku Street is back-to-back with kimono and souvenir shops.

Getting makeup and hair done at the kimono rental shop
Bernie enjoying the dress-up
Parading in our kimonos in the Higashiyama district

Our top 5 must-visit locations in Kyoto, Japan

We visited these top locations since we only had two days in Kyoto.

Yasaka Pagoda, Kyoto, Japan

Yasaka Pagoda is one of the most visible and recognisable landmarks in the Higashiyama District

This beautiful pagoda is next to Ninezaka and close to several attractions in the Higashiyama district. In this area, people buy colourful balls to make a wish or crawl under the colossal round rock to drive away bad luck.

The ball that people buy to make a wish

Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto, Japan

Kiyomizo means ‘clear water’. The entire main hall is made from wood, and no single metal or nail is used to support the structure. Kiyomizu-Dera Temple is next to Yasak Shrine and only a 10-minute walk from the Gion district.

Kiyomizo means ‘clear water’.

Kinkakuji Temple, Kyoto, Japan

Kinkakuji is a Zen temple in northen Kyoto of which the two top floors are entirely covered in gold leaf.

This golden-covered structure is worth a visit. The public cannot access the golden pavilion’s interior, but there is a beautiful garden that you can stroll around with some beautiful water features. We took a bus to visit this temple. Click on the link to see how to access available transport to the temple. The temple is open all year round from 9:00 to 17:00.

The entrance for the Kinkakuji Temple is 3.17 euros.

Ninezaka or ‘Two-year hill’, Kyoto, Japan

Ninezaka is within easy walking distance of Gion, about 4 minutes (950m). This paved pedestrian road in Higashiyama has traditional buildings, antiques, and quaint coffee or tea shops. Petra and I have this fascination with Starbucks, and thus always look for unique ones on our trips. The Starbucks in Kyoto is the world’s first tatami-floored (soft wooden-like flooring with unique fragrance). You will find this Starbucks in Ninezaka, a famous street of the World heritage listed Kiyomizudera temple. Click here to read more about the special Starbucks

Bernie sitting on the tatami-floored Starbucks in Kyoto
The Higashiyama district is a great place to admire traditional old Kyoto like this unique Starbucks Building
The Higashiyama district along the lower slopes of Kyoto's eastern mountain is one of the cities most beautiful historic sites.

Shijo-dori street, Kyoto, Japan

This is a fantastic shopping street and foodies faradise. This street runs from East to West through the heart of Kyoto city. You will find anything from high-end fashion to restaurants and souvenir shops here. This street is clean, with many sidewalks perfect for those Instagram moments.

Where to eat in Kyoto, Japan?

Bernie staring at the fascinating interior of Teppan Tavern Tenamonya

A friend referred us to this husband-and-wife-run private restaurant in Gion, Kyoto. The restaurant can only serve ten people per evening. If you only follow one of our recommendations, this is it! You need to make a reservation.

Visit their Instagram page to view their cosy restaurant and some of their delicious meals.

Eating dinner at Teppan Tavern Tenamonya

Five interesting facts about Kyoto, Japan

You can find really helpful information from the following website, as the author is a resident of Kyoto. Click here.

What is better, traditional Kyoto or modern Tokyo in Japan?

While Tokyo is Japan’s modern economic hub and capital, Kyoto oozes Japanese history, culture and tradition. You must experience both to appreciate Japanese efficiency, architecture, culture and traditions.

Two days in Nara, Japan

Nara Park, Nara
Deer walking freely in the streets, over pedestrian crossing and in town at Nara

Is it easy to rent a car in Japan?

We rented a car in Kyoto and drove to Nara. Picking up our rental car was a nightmare as no one in the agency spoke English, and the documentation was in Japanese. Note to self: “Make sure you have a good translator app when travelling to a foreign country” (recommendations welcome in the comments).

Nara, or as we call it, Deer City, is less than 50 km (about an hour’s drive) from Kyoto. Besides Todaiji Temple and Nara Park, there is little to see and do in Nara. If you are in the area, it is worth visiting Nara.

Our rental car contract 🙂

Todaiji Temple, Nara, Japan

Todaiji Temple, Nara, Japan

Here, we visited the impressive Todaiji Temple. Until recently, Todaiji’s main hall, the Daibutsuden ‘Big Buddha Hall’, held the record for the world’s largest wooden building. The building is impressive with its massive bronze seated Buddah statue of 15 meters tall. Many deer walk the temple’s ground as Nara Park is next to the temple.

The interior of Todaiji Temple, Nara, Japan
Todaiji’s main hall, the Daibutsuden ‘Big Buddha Hall’, held the record for the world’s largest wooden building

Nara park, Japan

Nara Park is a large park in central Nara and next to Todaiji Temple. Nara is home to thousands of deer roaming freely. We saw deer crossing streets, walking around shops, and on hotel grounds; wherever you look, there are deer. The clever deer have learned to bow to visitors to beg for ‘shika senbei’ a biscuit treat sold for around 200 yen, 1.27 euro. The deer are notably tame but sometimes get aggressive if they realise you have biscuits in your hand and take too long to feed them. Our Instagram highlights show a funny reel of Petra being bitten by a deer because she took too long to feed them. We had a lot of fun interacting with the deer.

A deer eavesdropping on Bernie' conversation with Shaun

How to get to Nara Park, Japan?

Nara Park is a five-minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station or about 20 minutes from JR Nara Station.

Where to stay in Nara, Japan?

We stayed at Nara Hotel but cannot recommend this hotel. Besides the hotel being overpriced, the staff were unfriendly and unhelpful to the point of being almost rude. The hotel’s atmosphere is unwelcoming, and the rooms are dusty. When we visited, the hotel was under renovation, which could have contributed to the dire state of the hotel.

Petra at the entrance of Nara hotel

Nara to Suzuka Circuit, Japan

Kelvin's biggest supporters at the track
A proud mom at Suzuka trace track

We travelled by car from Nara to Suzuka circuit, about 99km (1 hour 30 minutes). Kelvin’s team won the 10-hour GT Intercontinental race, which made our trip beyond amazing.

Here we had the most drama with our accommodation. We stayed at Hotel Wellness Suzukaji where no one spoke English. We arrived an hour before check-in, and even though the hotel was half empty, reception refused to allow us to check in earlier. I read somewhere that they lock you in the room until the morning to make sure you don’t leave without paying your bill, and this led to a massive argument with reception as I was trying to explain to the man that he would ‘NOT’ lock us in the room. To cool off, Petra suggested we go for lunch just down the road in a ‘quint’ (read awful) little restaurant (see photo), which we afterwards realised was someone’s private home. Petra didn’t want to hurt the old man’s feelings and ate the ‘special’ meal he prepared for us.

The 'gourmet' soup that Petra pretended to enjoy 🙂

One day in Osaka, Japan

The beautiful city of Osaka

Osaka is Japan’s second-largest metropolitan city after Tokyo. We spent the day shopping and having lunch in Osaka as we had enough shrines and temples. Osaka’s shopping combines high-end brand names and designer goods with discount shops. The city has two large shopping districts Umeda in the north and Namba in the south.

We flew back home from Osaka airport.

What are the most authentic experiences to do in Japan?

Visit this website for more authentic experiences in Kyoto. Click here

Kakigori - Shaved ice
The beautiful Koi fish in a traditional Japanese garden

Things to know about Japan before you go

Conclusion

Japan is great for a cultural experience, fun (smart toilets, deer using pedestrian crossings, people that don’t understand you), and beautiful (incredible scenery and architecture). Ensure you spend enough time in places worth visiting, like Kyoto and Tokyo. Will we revisit Japan? Only to the cherry blossoms.

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About Author

As a freelance travel journalist and seasoned business professional, Bernie van der Linde has made it her mission to explore the world's most unique and luxurious destinations. With a PhD in business studies from the University of South Africa, Bernie has channeled her passion for travel, web design, and writing into founding the travel blog Travel Buddies Lifestyle. Here, she shares her adventures alongside her best friend and travel business partner, Petra, who seamlessly translate and compile articles relevant to their German and European audience.

Bernie's love for exploring new places has taken her to some of the world's most exotic locations. Whether gazing out at the glittering skyline of Dubai or enjoying the tranquillity of a private beach in Mauritius, Bernie is always looking for unique experiences that will inspire and entice her readers to travel.

Through her thoughtful writing and unparalleled passion for travel, Bernie van der Linde has made a name for herself in the world of travel writing. Her knack for uncovering hidden gems and sharing her experiences with her readers has made her a trusted source of inspiration for those looking to explore the world in style.

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