A guide to the essential places to go, things to do, and how to get around in Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan
Many expats living in Singapore favour Bali or Phuket for easy getaways, and can overlook the amazing cities of Tokyo and Kyoto. The flight time is longer, at six and a half hours which means a weekend might be a stretch. But if you’re looking for some culture, history, great shopping and some of the best food Asia has to offer, Japan should be your next destination of choice.
First stop: Tokyo!
Singapore Airlines flies direct daily to Tokyo Narita for around SGD1200 return. But if you’d rather save your money for sushi and shopping, you can fly via KL to Tokyo Haneda with Air Asia for around $750. It’s a good idea to avoid Golden Week which usually falls in the first week of May. The Japanese get a whole 7 days of public holiday (lucky them!) so air fares usually take a hike.
Some hotels will run an airport transfer bus for a small fee of around JPY2000 ($25) which will take you from arrivals straight to the door of your hotel, depending where you’re staying.
If the bus times don’t suit you, you can take the train straight into Tokyo’s main train station, Tokyo JR. It’s an hour long journey and, as with most Japanese public transport, it’s efficient and comfortable. Once you reach the madness that is Tokyo JR (think busy, crowded and huge), you’ll need to hop in a taxi to your hotel. The taxis all run on a metre system, the drivers are courteous and will do their very best to get you to your destination even if they don’t speak English.
Blow the budget – Stay at the Park Hyatt. This hotel is opulent, to say the least. The rooms are tastefully decorated and all have a view of the Tokyo skyline or Japan’s famous snow-capped Mt Fuji.
Downtown affordable luxury – check out the Hotel Okura in Roppongi. This hotel has a distinctly Japanese feel and is viewed by many as one of Tokyo’s top hotels. It boasts 9 restaurants, indoor and outdoor pools, a tea ceremony room and an art museum. You won’t be disappointed.
Tokyo is a large city, with lots to see and do. It’s fair to say 2-3 days is not long enough to fit everything in, so work out what’s important to you and prioritise: shopping, good restaurants, more shopping and the sights.
Shibuya is an absolute must. It’s famous for its bright lights, advertising screens (think Times Square NYC) and its iconic cross-road. Wait for the lights to change red, and watch hundreds of tourists and locals zigzag their way across the intersections to get across the road. There is a Starbucks overlooking the crossing, a perfect spot to watch the spectacle with a double-shot latte in hand. Shibuya also has an array of small boutiques selling cute local Japanese fashion and an abundance of socks – yes, socks…..
For all you pro shoppers, Shinjuku is the place to go. It’s great for department stores such as Isetan and Takashimaya. Shinjuku is also your ‘go-to’ area for electrical goods (look out for BIC Camera and Odabashi Camera) and is also where you will find your high-end fashion brands such as Louis Vuitton and Prada.
Lost in Translation? For many visitors, no trip to Tokyo is complete without dinner and drinks in the spots featured in the 2003 film starring Scarlett Johansson. Let your personal chef whip you up the best tepanyakki in Tokyo at Mon Cher Ton Ton and then head on over to the New York Bar at the Park Hyatt for an amazing cocktail and an even better view. Be sure to book in advance, the success of the film has made both of these top of the Tokyo bucket list.
Old Tokyo – Take a taxi or hop on the Metro over to Asakusa, Tokyo’s Geisha district. This area has a distinctly Japanese feel and an afternoon here will feel like a trip back in time. Kannonura Street is a must if you want to catch a glimpse of a real Geisha in a kimono and traditional make-up on her way to a tea house. Nakamise Street is also worth a look for souvenirs.
A trip to Takeshita Street on a Saturday or Sunday is a modern and fun alternative to Asakura. You will find wall-to-wall boutiques selling pop and manga inspired fashion, fronted by Harajuku girls in crazy costumes and make-up shouting over loud music for you to come in and buy. It’s hectic and it’s crowded but totally worth the experience, even if you don’t see anything tempting to buy.
Need to slow down? A walk around the Meiji Shrine can be a welcome break from the Tokyo buzz and is considered Tokyo’s top attraction. The shrine itself is truly beautiful, surrounded by a lush green park and is a short walk from Shibuya or Harajuku. Think ‘Zen’ and you’ll get the idea.
Tsukiji fish market – The famous tuna auction starts around 5am, so set your alarm! Visitors are limited to small numbers of people and tickets can be difficult to attain, so plan this well in advance. If you’re not lucky enough to get tickets to the auction inside the market, you can go to the outside market area where you can see fresh fish being sold. There is also plenty of good sushi to be had.
Roppongi – This area is a modern, international part of the city and home to many embassies and banks. The nightlife is good, and popular with locals and foreigners alike.
Tokyo Tower – Even taller than its Parisian twin, this Japanese Eiffel Tower was opened in 1958 and has a fantastic café where you can see Tokyo laid out before you. The view is not to be missed. Admission is around JPY820.
Sushi and Sashimi – Anywhere you go, there will be sushi, ramen, tempura places. Prices vary (especially for sushi and tempura), so it all depends on how much you want to pay! Not every restaurant will have English menus, but many places will have pictures of the dish in the menu. Tip – You can’t go wrong with restaurants in hotels or department stores.
If fine dining is what you’re looking for, try Narisawa. It’s head chef Yoshihiro Narisawa artfully combines French and Japanese cuisine to create mouth- watering dishes including Wagyu beef, with all ingredients sourced from sustainable farm land across Japan. The decor is beautiful, modern and the kitchen can be seen through large windows, making this dining experience one to remember. Located on Aoyama Road, it’s best to book in advance.
Tokyo’s metro system can be confusing but it’s efficient and affordable. Purchase single, return or daily tickets to get around the city. If you need help, just ask one of the ticket inspectors or guards. Failing that, the locals are friendly and usually willing to help – and mostly speak good English.
Taxis are easy to hail and run on a metre so you won’t be ripped off on fares. Be sure to keep in mind the scale of Tokyo. It’s one huge city, so a ride from Roppongi to Shinjuku can be expensive during rush hour or late at night.
JR Rail passes are a good way to travel if you want to venture further than Tokyo. Foreigners get preferential rates and you can order a weekly pass online for around $350. The upgrade to first class is not much and worth doing if you are moving around a lot. Economy carriages on the Shinkansen (that’s the bullet train) are comfortable but nothing beats first class. The seats recline, it’s quiet and there’s extra space for your luggage.
Next up: Kyoto!
Kyoto is a must-do if you have time. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site and was once Japan’s capital. A minimum of a couple of nights stay here is advisable if you want to take in the sights. You can reach Kyoto from Tokyo in just two short hours. Think Geisha, Maiko, tea ceremonies, temples and bamboo – you will find it all in Kyoto!
The quickest way to reach Kyoto from Tokyo is by Shinkansen from Tokyo JR. If you bought a weekly JR pass, this will cover your journey. If not, tickets can be purchased at the station for around JPY13520 each way.
As with Tokyo, Kyoto is a large city. Try to consider the sights you would like to visit and look for accommodation around that area. Alternatively, look for accommodation located near a Metro station. Kyoto offers plenty of traditional accommodation known as Ryokans, where you can relax on tatami-floored rooms, sleep on comfy futons and have your meals prepared for you. After a long day of walking, this can be a welcome end to the day.
A well located boutique hotel that combines the charm of a Ryokan with the modern amenities found in a hotel is the Kanra Kyoto Hotel located in Shimogyo. This hotel is situated right by a metro stop, is decorated in traditional Japanese style, and serves delicious breakfast, lunch and dinner. The rooms are spacious, light and quiet. The staff speak very good English and go out of their way to help. A suite here, which can sleep up to 5 people with an additional futon, will set you back around JPY100,000 which is great value for money too.
In the evening, take a walk around the Gion corner, Kyoto’s famous Geisha district. You might be lucky enough to see a real Geisha or Maiko (Geisha apprentice) walking to an appointment at one of the many tea-houses in the area. Most are shy but if you ask nicely, they may stop and pose for a photo.
Walk like a ‘philosopher’
Kyoto’s Path of Philosophy is a pretty, cherry blossom-tree lined path along a canal near the Silver Pavilion. If you’re not already suffering ‘temple fatigue’ you will pass a number of temples and shrines worth a look, such as the Otoyo Shrine.
Souvenirs and street food
You can combine souvenir shopping, great street food and a visit to a beautiful temple if you make a trip to the Kiyomizu Temple. Possibly the most visited temple in Kyoto, it’s set on a hill-side and close to the centre of Kyoto. To get to the temple itself you must take a walk along an old cobbled street lined with souvenir shops selling ‘karate kid’ style head bandanas, ‘Hello Kitty’ soft toys and hand-made fans of every color. You can also sample some great local food and will see lots of girls dressed in kimonos who are always happy to pose for a photograph.
Temples, shrines and more temples! Kyoto was once Japan’s imperial capital and is home to some of the oldest and most beautiful temples and shrines Japan has to offer. Top of your list should be the Golden Pavilion, set on an ornamental lake and probably one of the most photographed temples in Japan. Go early and be prepared for crowds. Next on your temple list should be Ginkaku-ji, the famous ‘Silver Pavilion’. Whilst this temple is not actually covered in silver or as ornate as the Golden Pavilion, this is a Zen temple well-known for its beautifully kept gardens. It’s quiet, peaceful and many come here to meditate.
Be sure to visit the orange shrine of Fushimi Inari. Made famous by the film Memoirs of a Geisha, this shrine is located at the base of a mountain in south-west Kyoto. A walk into the inner shrine is via a pathway lined with thousands of the iconic orange ‘torri’ gates. Don’t be surprised to see local school girls re-enacting the film and running up the path!
Another must-see icon is the bamboo forest at Arashiyama. The sheer scale of this place is impressive. Be sure to go early in the morning as this is a big tourist draw and gets busy, though it’s definitely worth seeing. The small village of Arashiyama is quaint and located on a picturesque river. A leisurely walk along the main street will take you past local cafes serving ramens and noodles, and a multitude of ice-cream vendors serving the local flavor of choice, matcha green-tea icecream. Not your average scoop!
The Imperial Palace is top of most people’s Kyoto sights and is located in a large park in north-east Kyoto, a ten minute subway ride from Kyoto’s main station. Once home to the emperor of Japan, the grounds are now open to the public on a guided tour basis only. Advance reservation with the Imperial Palace Agency office located in the park is necessary if you want to secure a place on a tour. Whilst none of the actual buildings can be entered, the hour long tour around the grounds is a great insight into Imperial Japan and its history.
Finish off your days by sampling the great food Kyoto has to offer. Pontocho Street along the river is lined with restaurants serving some of the best food in Kyoto. You can find somewhere to suit every budget too, from up-market places serving fine wine and Kobe beef, to reasonably priced sushi places where the chef will make your order in front of your eyes.
Nishiki Food Market is also worth visiting if you want to try seafood or something unusual. It’s located in the middle of Kyoto’s main shopping street, Shinkyogoku Street.
Kyoto is a large city and as with Tokyo, a taxi from one sight to another can be expensive during busy times. However, all taxis run on a metre and the drivers usually speak English. It often helps to take the name and address of where you would like to go in Japanese with you and show this to the driver just in case.
The metro system is similar to Tokyo. It’s efficient, cheap and covers the whole city.
Best time to go: The best time to visit Japan is in spring (late March, early April), when all the cherry blossom or ‘Sakura’ are in bloom.
This article and all images were contributed by the talented Nicola Mcmahon of Bright Star Photography.