It’s been over two weeks since I left the comforts of home and started my travelling adventures. My first week in Japan was spent exploring the beautiful sights, absorbing the unique culture and, of course, devouring the most delicious and authentic Japanese food.
Japanese food is one of my absolute favourites so it was no surprise that Japan was at the top of my list of places to visit (although not only for the food). With so much to see (but unfortunately so little time) we limited our sights to Tokyo and Kyoto. We managed to pack in loads of great things that I’m excited to share with you!
Here are my top 15 must-sees / dos / eats from my time in Japan:
Tsujiki fish market:
You’ve never experienced a food market quite like this one. We were advised to arrive either at 3am to witness the tuna auction or at 9am for opening time. Although the tuna auction is apparently crazy, we opted for a few more hours sleep. The market is over about 5 or 6 adjoining roads which are filled with vendors selling everything from the freshest sashimi to teriyaki glazed sardines to sweet corn covered white fish (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it). They had an abundance of flavoured nuts, beans and so on. We filled ourselves up with free samples that were enthusiastically handed to us – ideal for travellers on a budget. Aside from the food, the atmosphere of the market was also amazing!
Dessert is definitely not at the forefront of Japanese cuisine but we came across a real winner. Strawberry daifuki is a sweet treat made of Soft Mochi. It comes in a variety of flavours and is filled with a jam like substance made of Red bean paste. It’s so delicious we went back for seconds.
If you’re a fan of matcha, one of the latest superfood trends, you need to visit Japan – it is absolutely matcha crazy. You will see matcha desserts and drinks as frequently as you see a Starbucks in london. In fact, even Japan’s Starbucks serves a matcha frappucino. There’s also matcha kit k ats and ice cream stalls on almost every corner selling only matcha flavoured ice cream. We actually aren’t matcha fans ourselves and seriously struggled to find a simple chocolate and vanilla scoop.
It goes without saying that a trip to Japan is incomplete without sushi. All the sushi we came across was better than or just as good as anything I’ve tried in London. It’s all so fresh! They have sushi restaurants with all sorts of interesting technology – after ordering on a screen attached to your table your chosen dish will zoom down a conveyor belt stopping precisely in front of you. I was far too amused by this – definitely beats the yo sushi conveyor belt. So yes, eat sushi and lots of it!
It’s safe to say that Amy and I aren’t the best of singers but we didn’t let this stop us from experiencing an authentic Japanese karaoke bar in shinjuku in Tokyo. We were taken into a small room equipped with a tablet device on which we could order food and drink which would be brought to our door, a screen and another tablet to select song choices. For 2 hours, we stayed in this room belting out every guilty pleasure we could think of. It was so much fun – perhaps not for the people next door! We are now hoping that the videos never surface.
Harajuku is an area in Tokyo that you have probably heard of through Gwen Stefani. We spent the day here browsing the shops (and reminding ourselves we are backpackers on a budget). They have everything from designers to high street brands to vintage – we intrigued by all the weird and wonderful things to be found. This area also has Yoyogi park and Meji shrine which are a definite must. Try to go to harajuku on a Sunday to see all the harajukus walking around in their crazy colourful outfits.
Shibuya crossing is known as the largest pedestrian crossing in the world. When the lights go green, we stood back and watched thousands of people cross the road together, somehow managing to get across safely and without much pushing and shoving – this would be very different in London! Grab a seat upstairs in the nearby Starbucks to get a good view (and make use of the free wifi).
Golden Pavillion Temple:
We were taken aback by how beautiful this temple in Kyoto was – photos really don’t do it full justice. It’s set in a pond with stones and trees – so tranquil and amazing. If you go in the fall or blossom it will be extra special as the leaves change colour.
Cycling is the best way to explore Kyoto. You can hire bikes really cheaply and enjoy navigating your way around the beautiful city.
This is a shrine in southern Kyoto dedicated to the God of Rice. It’s set at the base of a mountain which you can follow a 2-hour trail to walk across for amazing views of Kyoto and to see another smaller shrine. Alternatively, there’s an easier route through the ‘torii’ the red ‘gates’ which are truly amazing! Right outside the shrine is a great street food market as well.
You’ll find pachinkos everywhere! It’s a Japanese obsession – a mix between an arcade game and a gambling device. You’ll see local people completely transfixed by these machines for hours. We had a go and didn’t get what all the fuss was about but it was a definite experience!
The metro / bullet train:
If you’re up for a challenge, find your way around Tokyo’s metro. It’s confusing – prepare to get lost, to buy the wrong ticket, to make yourself comfortably on a first class carriage only to be embarrassingly kicked out (yes, these things all happened to us). Download the Tokyo subway iPhone app- it’s a life saver. The metro also a great experience as everyone is so polite – the Japanese people form orderly lines to get on the trains and board in a calm and collected manner – plus they return your money to you when you buy the wrong ticket . Couldn’t be more different from the London Underground! The bullet train is also a must if you’re travelling around Japan – it’s super speedy (hence the nickname), spacious and clean!
Speak to the local people – they are some of the kindness and most polite people you will ever come across!
Tokyo’s street food is ideal for travellers on a budget. It’s cheap and just as delicious as what you’d expect from a good restaurant. We found all sorts of interesting dishes including this pot of sweet potato which we thought were fries and then discovered the salt was sugar and they were a sweet and delicious Japanese dessert.
If you like monkeys, you have to go here! It’s on the West side of Kyoto a little far out. After a 20 minute uphill struggle you’ll be greeted by about 50 monkeys of all different sizes and a stunning view of all of Kyoto. It’s amazing, if not slightly scary, to be able to be so close to the monkeys!
If Japan wasn’t already on your bucket list, I hope it is now. I’m already planning my next trip.
Stay tuned for my next travel update.