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City Guide to Kyoto, Japan

I have visited Kyoto many times since I moved to Japan, yet it will never stop to amaze me. This former Japanese imperial capital is full of mysterious temples, majestic palaces, beautiful Zen gardens, and picturesque back alleys with traditional wooden town houses. It is a big city with small town charm and immense cultural heritage. However, it can be quite overwhelming for a first time visitor, because there are so many places to see. I prepared this article to help you plan your stay, it includes not only my favourite places to visit, but I added some extra activities to make your trip more memorable.

Best Places to See

Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine

Fushimi Inari Taisha is one of the most impressive and popular sights in Kyoto. This mountainside Shinto shrine is dating back to 711 AD and its main feature is a path made of thousands of traditional torii gates in vermilion colour. The area is truly picture-perfect and therefore very touristy. If you wish to get a photo without people, you have to come here very early in the morning, or you can try to come late at night as the shrine is open 24/7. In the evening the lanterns light up the way. Another option is to hike all the way up to top of the hill, where not many people go and the views are spectacular.

Fushimi Inari shrine is located on the south of Kyoto and you can get there by Nara Line from Kyoto station. The journey lasts only 5 minutes. The entrance to the shrine is free.

Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion

Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion was named, together with Mt. Fuji, as one of the greatest sights in Japan and it is easy to understand why. Surrounded by stunning Zen Garden with its reflection in the pond, shining in the sun, this sight can honestly leave you speechless. The pavilion was built in the 14th century as a retirement villa for a military commander, but after his death his son turned it into a temple.

Golden Pavilion is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm and the price is 600 yen per adult. To get there, you need to take the bus 205 which leaves from Kyoto Station from the B3 platform. Even though Kinkaku-ji is very popular and usually very busy, it is a must-see place in Kyoto and totally worth the longer bus ride!

The Path of Philosophy

The Path of Philosophy (also called the Philosopher’s Path) offers a quiet retreat from the city and it will lead you to many historic sites along the way. The stroll lasts approximately 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on your pace. It starts at the Eikan-do Temple, a lovely temple with famous Buddha statue looking over his shoulder and finishes at Ginkaku-ji Silver Pavilion. The path goes along a stream and it is lined with cherry trees, so this place is especially beautiful in spring when all the flowers are in bloom.

Gion District

Gion is very traditional neighborhood in Kyoto that has developed in Middle Ages as one of the most exclusive geisha districts in Japan. The chances that you will meet a geisha today are very small, but Gion is a lively and picturesque area to visit. The streetscape is very well preserved with high concentration of typical ochaya (teahouses) and machiya (merchant houses). Be aware though that many of these houses are private and their inhabitants do not wish people to take photos of them, so be respectful (you wouldn’t want to have masses of tourists in front of your house every day either).

The two most popular streets where you can take beautiful pictures are Ninenzaka and Sanenzaka.

Nishiki Market

Nishiki market, also called the “Pantry of Kyoto” is a lively place located in the city centre, where you can find hundred stalls with street food, fresh produce, sweets or handmade souvenirs. It is a perfect place to sample some unique dishes and enjoy the atmosphere. If street food is not directly your cup of tea, there are also many restaurants nearby.

Kiyomizu Dera Temple

Kiyomizu Dera Temple is one of Kyoto’s most famous and enjoyable temples. It was founded in 778 AD, and it’s a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The main hall, situated on the hillside of Mt. Otowa, has a large wooden veranda from where you can enjoy epic views over the city. The entrance fee is 300 yen per adult and it is open daily from 6 am to 6 pm. It is walking distance from Gion, or you can take one of the city buses from Kyoto station (numbers: 106, 110, or 206).

Heian Shrine

Heian Shrine was modelled after the ancient Imperial Palace and it is dedicated to the spirits of the first and last emperors who reigned in Kyoto. It belongs to the newer shrines in Kyoto, with its history dating back only about hundred years, but it has very impressive spacious grounds featuring a gorgeous garden full of weeping cherry trees that bloom around mid-April. There are a couple of museums in walking distance from the shrine, where you can hide in case of rain, and at its entrance you will also find some food trucks with Japanese and international dishes so you can take a nice break here when sightseeing all day.

Heian Shrine can be reached by Kyoto city bus number 5 or 100. The entrance to the temple is free, but if you want to visit the gardens you have to pay 500 yen per person. The shrine is open daily from 6 am to 5 pm (hours can differ during public holidays).

Top Things to Do

Stay in a Traditional Ryokan

Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns that can be found all over the country. They offer you more than just a place to sleep, you will get here the opportunity to experience the real Japanese lifestyle and hospitality. In a classic ryokan, you will sleep on futon beds in tatami rooms, you can soak in famous Japanese bath and sample the local cuisine. Staying at least one night in ryokan is a must when visiting Japan.

Relax in an Onsen

Onsens are Japanese natural hot springs containing distinctive minerals. Soaking in an onsen after a busy day of sightseeing is one the essential experiences to have in Japan. Onsens can be public, or private as a part of ryokans. Kyoto is not very rich in onsen, but there are still a few to found around the city. Before visiting an onsen it is important to mention that there is an etiquette to follow – you have to take a shower first and you go inside without a bathing suit. Some more traditional onsens can forbid people with tattoos to enter.

Try a Kimono on for a Day

Nowadays, kimonos in Japan are used mostly for special occasions like weddings or official holidays. It is very rare to see young people wearing this formal attire daily. However, Kyoto is one of the cities where this tradition hasn’t quite disappear and people use kimonos frequently. There are many shops and kimono rentals so it’s easy to pick one and get the real kimono experience in the streets of Kyoto’s historical old town. The kimonos are beautiful and you usually get the full “make-over” including hairdo like geisha, make-up, wooden slipper shoes and little pouch for your necessities while browsing the city.

Kaiseki Feast

Kaiseki is a celebration of Japanese tradition, fresh seasonal and local produce and haute cuisine. It is traditional Japanese multi-course high dining with a long history that originated centuries ago in tea ceremonies and later it evolved into exclusive cuisine popular among aristocratic circles.

Kaiseki can be quite pricey and intimidating, if you haven’t got this experience before. The elegantly presented dishes often look like a piece of art and some restaurants don’t appreciate if you take photos of them. That is why I would recommend booking a food tour that takes you to kaiseki, where an experienced tour guide will lead you through each dish and tells you more about its cultural context.

Join a Food Tour

Japanese cuisine is very complex, it goes way beyond sushi, miso soup and ramen that are popular all over the world. Each Japanese city and each region have their own local cuisine and they take a great pride in using locally sourced seasonal ingredients. If you are a foodie and you would love to know more about Japanese food, I am sure you will appreciate a good food tour, where you will discover the whole philosophy behind each dish and its cultural and historical background.

There are plenty of food tours or cooking classes to choose from in Kyoto that suit all the budgets.

Getting Around Kyoto

The city centre of Kyoto is compact and easily walkable, however, if you want to get to further destinations such as Fushimi Inari Taisha or Bamboo Forest, you will have to use the public transport. Metro, trains and city buses are the most convenient way to get around. Taxis are very expensive in Japan so if you are traveling on budget, I wouldn’t recommend using them.

For international travellers the most convenient mean of transport are the city buses that have commentary in English and they take you to all the important sites. One journey costs 230 yen for an adult and you pay directly to the driver at the end of your journey, or you can buy a daily ticket in the office at the Kyoto station for 600 yen. Kyoto city buses are green and easily recognizable. They operate with numbers 5, 17, 100, 204 and 205.

Best Time to Visit

Kyoto can be visited and enjoyed in any season, but the best time to visit is spring and autumn. At the end of March and beginning of April, the cherry blossoms are in bloom and everything is covered in light pink. It is simply spectacular! Beginning of November is just as magical when all the leaves turn red, orange and yellow. Also the temperatures are moderate with little rainfall. However, keep in mind that these seasons are also the busiest.

Summers in Kyoto can be very hot and humid. The rainy season starts in June and continues until the end of July. Winters are relatively mild with January and February being the coldest months of the year.

Unique Souvenirs to Buy

Green tea – Japan, and Kyoto especially, takes pride in its green tea – matcha in Japanese. You can find matcha and matcha-related products anywhere in Kyoto, from convenience stores to high quality green tea leaves sold in big department stores.

Kimono or Yukata – Kimono and yukata (lighter kimono worn in summer) are also great souvenirs to buy in Kyoto, as there are many shops that sell them. Kimonos can be pretty expensive but yukata is usually a cheaper alternative.

Hand-made hand fan – summers in Japan can get very hot and you will see many people using hand-fans. They are colourful, cute and beautiful, and apart from being useful during hot summer months, they also make a beautiful souvenir to remind you of your trip to Japan.

Umbrella – I don’t mean the Japanese paper umbrella to protect you from the sun, but proper umbrella for the rain. In Japan you can buy high quality umbrellas in specialty shops that will protect you even during a typhoon. They usually have twelve collapsible ribs for extra protections against the wind and many of them have also UV protection against the strong sun.

Unique Kit-Kat chocolates – famous Kit Kat is one of the most popular sweets in Japan because its name is pronounced similarly to ‘kitto katsu’ which means good luck. You can find here many different flavours that you cannot find anywhere else in the world – from green tea, to sake, to soy bean paste, to apple pie, you name it! You won’t know which one to choose!

Kanzashikanzashi are traditional hair ornaments often worn with a kimono. They are very fine and usually hand-made. It can be difficult to attach them at first, so make you sure you ask for instructions in the shop how to use them. They are a very unique special gift.

 

I hope this guide to Kyoto will help you to plan your visit! Kyoto is very popular and beloved tourist destination for a good reason. I love to come back every time I get a chance! If you have any further questions, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments below. Have you ever visited Kyoto? Or would you like to go there?

 

*This post is for the inspiration for your future travels. As per 10th August 2020, Japan remains closed for international visitors until the end of this year.

 

 

 

Food Hotels Insider Tips Instagrammer's Guides North America

A Portland Photo Diary & Insider Guide

What to Do

Powell’s Books

A visit to Portland is not complete without stopping by one of the most iconic independent bookstores, Powell’s City of Books in the upscale Pearl District. One could easily spend an entire day here with the many floors and stacks of books in this massive bookstore. We even found our hardcover book, Dame Traveler: Live the Spirit of Adventure on the shelves! You can also grab a copy on their website.

Portland Japanese Gardens

The gardens made me feel like I teleported to Kyoto. The Portland Japanese Gardens are located in the West Hills and are incredibly peaceful. On a clear day, you can even experience spectacular views of Mount Hood. You can pre-purchase timed tickets online. $18.95 per adult.

Catch the Sunset from Portland City Grill

Great spot for almost 360 views of PDX from the 30th floor.

Alberta Arts District

This was one of our favorite areas in Portland. Thanks to how multicultural the Alberta Arts District is, the neighborhood is super vibrant with tons of colorful murals and endless trendy restaurants and boutiques. Every inch of the place is photogenic. Explore the area on your own or on a good tour with Eat Adventures!

Day trip to Portland’s Wine Country, Willamette Valley

With over 200 wineries, tons of farmer’s markets and beautiful scenery, the Willamette Valley is the perfect place to spend a day sipping on some of Portland’s best wines and it’s only quick 30 minute drive from downtown. Our favorite wineries were Domaine Roy & fils and Fairsing Vineyard.

Day Trip to Multnomah Falls

This stunning waterfall is an Instagram favorite and is so easy to get to from PDX. You can get there by car or take a shuttle from Portland’s Gateway Transit Center to the falls. Round trip fares are $10.

Where to Eat

Bollywood Theater

In the Alberta Arts District, this spot serves up very authentic Indian street food and Instagrammable interiors.

Bunk Sandwiches

Your go-to spot for a sandwich fix, especially their grilled cheese.

Shalom y’all

We absolutely loved the vibe of this location downtown. The space is small and cozy but the best spot to have lunch is at the gorgeous bar. The service was friendly and the food is just sublime.

1927 s’mores co.

Located downtown, 1927 s’mores co. is the most charming little slice of heaven. The moment you walk in you feel like you’re entering summer camp and the s’mores take you right back to your childhood.

Tusk

Dinner at Tusk elevates the Middle Eastern dining experience. The romantic and trendy ambiance is incredible and the delicious dishes are creative while also maintaining the authenticity of the Mediterranean cuisine.

Hey Love

Fun spot for drinks and group friendly.

Where to Caffeinate

Stumptown Coffee Roasters

We love the location inside the Ace Hotel thanks to its retro ambiance, cozy couches and delicious coffee. Pictured here: Dame Traveler: Live the Spirit of Adventure book.

Case Study Coffee

We absolutely loved this cozy coffee shop in the heart of downtown. Gorgeous interior, friendly service and delicious coffee.

Where to Stay

The Nines, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Portland

This luxury hotel in the centrally located, Downtown PDX has one of the most beautiful views of the city from their rooftop, Departures. The excellent service is consistent with the Luxury Collection hotels and the posh aesthetic makes for a perfect stay.

Ace Hotel

One of our favorites in PDX, the Ace Hotel is a classic. The hipster and vintage style is perfectly aligned with the PDX vibe. It’s located in the Pearl District, making it super easy to explore the area by foot with easy access to some of the city’s top restaurants, bars and shops.

Woodlark Hotel

The interior design of the Woodlark is an Instagrammer’s dream. Light and airy spaces, vintage vibes and lovely attention to detail. Located Downtown.

Trip sponsored by Hotel Tonight.

All content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only. The owner of this blog makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. All opinions are my own.

 

Europe Insider Tips

A Guide to Krakow, Poland

*Covid-19 edit: this guide is purely for bookmarking purposes, please stay home as we help to Flatten the Curve*

Krakow is definitely one of the most amazing European cities that I’ve visited. This was my first time visiting Poland, and what an introduction it was. Krakow remains a perfect blend of the old and the modern with its fascinating history, sprawling metropolis, charming neighborhoods and world class cuisine, Krakow is truly a treasure.

With three days in Krakow, there’s plenty of time to explore the UNESCO World Heritage–listed Old Town, visit the city’s top museums, and see more of Poland’s historic sites and natural wonders. Here are some ideas on how to spend 72 wonderful hours in and around Krakow

Krakow Old Town

Start your city exploration in the Krakow Old Town – a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978. Follow our outline for a self-guided Krakow walking tour or join one of the Krakow sightseeing tours

Main Market Square

A stroll down Ulica Florianska (St. Florian’s Street) leads directly into the Krakow Main Market Square – one of the largest medieval squares in all of Europe. On the square are some of the city’s most historic sights. Link to Google Maps for sights on the Main Square.

 

St. Mary’s Basilica

Rising above the Main Market Square are the mis-matched towers of St. Mary’s Basilica.

Note: a ticket is required to climb the tower – and only a few people are allowed to climb it per hour – so purchase in advance if going to the top is on your list of Krakow things to do.

A ticket is also needed to enter the church to take photos. If you would simply like to enter to pray – and take a look around from the back of the church, you can enter through the door facing the square.

Town Hall Tower

The 230-foot-tall Town Hall Tower is all that remains of the Krakow Town Hall (the rest of the building was torn down in 1820), but an interesting fact about the tower is that it leans slightly, hence its nickname, “The Leaning Tower of Krakow.”

Another fun fact is that the basement of the tower was once a prison and torture chamber!

Krakow Cloth Hall

At the center of the square is the iconic Krakow Cloth Hall – a long, covered hall lined with vendors that dates to the 1300s. Goods, like spices and wax, were brought from the east and exchanged for local products, like textiles and salt from the mine.

Today, the shops sell traditional souvenirs such as Amber jewelry from the Baltic’s, lavender, handmade soaps, magnets etc. to passerby’s and tourists.

Rynek Underground

Below the Cloth Hall is the Rynek Underground – a fascinating museum detailing the history of the market and lengthy history of the city of Krakow. Opened in 2010, the museum incorporates the original excavated merchant stalls into hi-tech displays. Tip: Admission is free on Tuesdays.

Wawel Castle

 

Visiting the castle at the top of Wawel Hill tops the list of things to do in Krakow!

There is evidence of a castle on the hill dating to the 11th century. The castle was expanded and destroyed several times throughout history, resulting in an interesting blend of architectural styles. Today, the castle is a UNESCO Heritage Site and a museum.

Entrance to the grounds is free, but tickets are required to visit certain exhibits such as: The State Rooms, Royal Private Apartments, Crown Treasury, The Lost Wawel (I saw this room and it was VERY cool), Oriental Art, and The Dragon’s Den.

The Cathedral is free to visit, however, tickets are required for the underground tombs, the Bell Tower and Cathedral Museum.

Grab a Beer

Get a taste of Krakow’s buzzing craft beer scene at one of the many multitaps. Some popular suggestions for craft beer in Krakow’s Old Town:

Multi Qlti Tap, Viva La Pinta, House of Beer, Wielochmiel and Relaks Craft.

Interested in trying Polish vodka? You can get that at the craft beer bars, too! It’s cheap and pungent and is best used for its original purpose – to stay warm in the freezing winter months!

Jewish Quarter

Plac Nowy

Sometimes referred to as the Jewish Square, Plac Nowy is the market square in Kazimierz in the center of the Jewish quarter. Although it is slightly run down and fairly small for a market square, it remains very popular.

Market vendors line the outskirts of the square and sell their goods every morning at the market.

The building in the center of the square was originally used as a chicken slaughterhouse. Today it has a number windows from which vendors sell the traditional Polish snack, zapiekanka (a pizza baguette.)

Each vendor offers their own unique combination of toppings – and they are all cheap and filling, making for a great snack or dinner-on-the-go.

Wieliczka Salt Mine

The Wieliczka Salt Mine dates to the 13th century and was continuously used to mine table salt until 2007. Today, visiting the mine is one of the most popular Krakow day trips. There are a number of guided tours (in several languages), as well as a health spa.

The Tourist Route takes visitors down 800 steps into the mine and traverses multiple corridors that tell the history of the mine. Throughout the mine there are statues of Poland’s most famous residents – all made of rock salt – as well as four chapels.

The most impressive chapel, St. Kinga’s Chapel, is a cavernous space complete with bible stories carved along the walls – and an altar and chandeliers… all made of rock salt. Visiting the Wieliczka Salt Mine is one of the top things to do in Krakow, Poland.

Lake Zakrzowek

Spend an afternoon at Zakrzowek; an old stone quarry which was closed and filled with water. Zakrzowek offers a turquoise oasis almost right in the city center. It’s truly only about a 5-10 minute drive from the Jewish quarter, but you feel like you’re in the countryside once you get to the lake.

There are paths around the lake and hiking trails in a nearby park. You can even take scuba diving lessons here as the water is 30 meters deep and the school has permission for diving.

See a Live Jazz Show

I had the pleasure of seeing a jazz show on my birthday in Krakow! It was such a special, memorable experience. After traveling for such a long time, it had been a hot minute since I’d seen a jazz show, and it was so worth it.

Steps from the Old Town Square, underground you’ll find Harris Piano Jazz Bar. It is a truly lovely atmosphere in this underground cozy cellar. You can purchase food, snacks, drinks, or just hang out by candle light until the music starts.

Where to Eat

There are a TON of restaurants to choose from in Krakow of all different types of cuisine. I typically ate breakfast in the Jewish quarter every morning, as I loved wandering around the (less crowded) streets and having a bit of peace to start the day.

These 3 cafes boast traditional Jewish breakfast food, typical American style breakfasts, delicious tea and coffee, and let’s not forget croissants, pancakes, and crepes.

 

BreakfastHevre, Urban Coffee, Le Scandale

For lunch every day, I found myself in the Old Town as I was in between sight-seeing. I found one of these restaurant, Chimera, on Trip Advisor, and I can honestly say I don’t think I would have found it otherwise. It looks like a tiny diner from the outside.

Upstairs is a buffet-style serve yourself lunch. Downstairs is an actual cave that as you enter you feel like you’re stepping into a different world. They serve Polish/French cuisine, homemade soup, bread, and delicious local wine and beer. Such a fun way to break up your afternoon.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Sissi is a cute outdoor patio tucked away from the Main Street. They serve fresh salads, charcuterie, cocktails, and local fish and other meat dishes.

LunchKolanko No 6, Chimera, Sissi

Dinner is always a hard meal for me if I only have 3 nights in a city. Trezo was the first dinner we had in Krakow and it did NOT disappoint.

Similar to Chimera with the style of food, but in a much more modern, upscale restaurant in the Jewish Quarter. There was live music and a lovely atmosphere to enjoy our first meal in Krakow.

For a more casual dinner, Hamsa served traditional Israeli cuisine – hummus, fresh pita, kebabs, you name it. It was all delicious.

DinnerTrezo, Ristorante Sant’Antico, Hamsa Mediterranean

Overall Krakow was such an amazing introduction to Eastern Europe – a part of the world I had never been to before! I hope that these suggestions and ideas will inspire you to arrange your own trip to Poland!

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Armchair Travel Books to Help You Travel from Home

Travel Books We're Loving in 2020

From traveling the world (literally) to traveling the world… literary! Covid-19 has completely disrupted the world as we know it across all industries – travel being one of the most impacted. So many of us travelers have had to face difficult, heart wrenching choices to cancel flights and awaited adventures due to closed borders, risk of exposing vulnerable populations and overwhelming local health organizations. It’s a time unlike any other for our planet. But, there’s one thing that we’re turning to in these difficult times… travel books.

We’re the first to admit, we’re major book nerds over here at team Dame Traveler! On any given night you can find us curled up, sifting through photo books, literary novels and destination guides for travel inspiration. There really is something about having a library of stunning travel books to turn to in times when we’re not able to get out there and explore. Armchair exploration will be our guiding light during this time. Clear some space on your bookshelves… here is a roundup of our favorite travel books we’re curling up to while social distancing!

Dame Traveler: Live The Spirit Of Adventure

It’s been the ultimate goal of ours since the creation of Dame Traveler to have a book filled with the brave, courageous women in our community on bookshelves. And here it is! From backpackers in Peru to artists in Berlin to storytellers in Morocco, Dame Traveler: Live The Spirit Of Adventure” celebrates the diversity and bravery of women from around the world who are not afraid to think (and live) outside the box. We can’t wait to see it on your bookshelves soon!

Travel Books We're Loving In 2020

The Travel Book

This is kind of like the keystone travel book in our eyes! Lonely Planet’s “The Travel Book” is a whirlwind trip around the world through every single country in the world. Yep! Every single one. It’s the ultimate introduction to the world of travel and one that we always end up referring to when we need any information on a given destination. Whether you need a book to learn about a specific culture or history, or you’re on the hunt for some photo inspiration for your next trip – this book has got it covered! It’s a tome that any and all travelers will love.

Travel Books We're Loving In 2020

London In Bloom

Escape to the charming streets of London-town amidst the spring blossoms in “London In Bloom.” The iconic charm of London’s architecture juxtaposed next to the blooming flowers of spring are the perfect escape we’re all craving right now. Inside each page you’ll find unique views of the city, lush, floral beauty, some of London’s best parks, gardens, florists and flower markets too. It’s like a spring-time walk through London through the lens of one of our favorite botanical photographers!

Travel Books We're Loving In 2020

Wonders of the World

A deep dive into the world’s most dazzling sights, both natural and human-made. Of course you’ll find an inside look at the iconic sights like the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat and the Great Wall of China… but Lonely Planet’s “Wonders of the World” goes so much further. You’ll find less famous sights that are totally spectacular and less-explored (think tree bridges of Meghalaya, the Rijksmuseum, the Naqsh-e Jahan in Iran, untouched Buddhist temples in Java and so much more). Natural beauties, undeniably striking museums, itineraries and the resources and tools on how to discover them yourself. This book is one we’re always happy to re-read over and over again.

Travel Books We're Loving In 2020

Roaming America

National Park lovers will adore Renee Roaming’s beautifully curated love letter to the great outdoors. After a a seven-month journey to every national park in the USA, this collection highlights all 59 national parks, road trip itinerary tips, suggested itineraries, best-of recommendations, and more. “Roaming America” will be your go-to travel books to source inspiration and resources for your next great road trip through America.

Travel Books We're Loving In 2020

 

 


What travel books are you turning to while social distancing? We’d love to know your favorites!

Asia Guides Insider Tips

Top 20 Places to Visit in Tokyo in 2020

I have a feeling that by the end of 2020 Tokyo is going to be the “it” city to visit in the world. Why is that? Well, if you haven’t heard, the summer Olympics are coming to Tokyo. And after people see the sights and neon lights of Tokyo on their TV sets or their computer or phone screens, they’re going to want to visit. So, you better beat everyone else to the hottest city of 2020 and book your ticket NOW!

Tokyo is a great place to explore the two sides to Japanese culture: the traditional side of temples and history and the modern side of manga and robots. Here are my top 20 places to visit where can experience both sides of Tokyo in 2020:

Where to see the best traditional Culture of Tokyo:

1. Senso-ji Temple

The oldest and one of the most important Buddhist temples in Tokyo is Senso-ji.

Originally built in 645, Sensoji is dedicated to the Bodhisattva of Compassion (a.k.a. Guanyin in Chinese culture). Senso-ji was destroyed during World War II, so the current one that you’re seeing was built in the twentieth century.

Pro Tip:  Make sure to get a omikuji, a paper fortune. Just follow the instructions (written in English). Don’t worry, if you get a bad fortune, just tie the paper around a nearby rack to stop the bad luck from happening.

2. Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine is one of Japan’s most popular shrines. This shrine is the one Tokyoites visit at the beginning of every year in order to pray for good fortune.

Built in 1920, the shrine is dedicated to the deified spirits of the Meiji Emperor and his wife, the Empress Shokun.

What to do at Meiji Shrine: Write your wish on an ema, a votive tablet, and place it under the big camphor tree to the right of the main hall.

3. Tokyo National Museum

This museum is the best place to visit in Tokyo to get a sense of the overall history of Japanese art.

The Tokyo National Museum is made up of 5 buildings. It would take you a few days to visit all of them. However, you don’t need to do that. Just head to the one in the center, the Honkan Gallery. Here you’ll see an overview of Japanese art from the Jomon to the Edo periods.

Pro Tip: I love the paintings by Hakusai. His most famous one, “Great Wave of Kanagawa,” was located on the first floor when I visited.

4. Edo Tokyo Museum

This spectacular museum in Sumida covers the fascinating history of Tokyo.

The Edo Tokyo Museum takes you through the history of Tokyo when it was called Edo to the present day. It’s filled with reproductions such as the Nihon Bashi Bridge (considered the center of Edo), a Kabuki Theater, and a Japanese apartment from the 1960s.

Pro Tip: The Edo Tokyo Museum is huge! To see it all, you’ll want to schedule three or four hours. Be sure to arrive early because most museums in Japan close at 5:00 pm. Also, make sure you have enough time for the post World War II section of the museum.

5. Ukiyo-e Ota Museum of Art

If you’re looking for a break from the teeny boppers crowds of Harajuku, head to this small, gem of a museum, the Ukiyo-e Museum of Art.

This museum focuses on Japanese woodblock prints of the Floating World in the Edo and Meiji periods. The Floating World was the term used to describe the pleasure world where Japanese went to watch kabuki, drink, gamble, and visit geishas and prostitutes.

Pro Tip: It’s small, so you need just an hour to visit. You could go back to this museum every month as the prints change monthly.

6. Kabuki-za Theater

Watching a kabuki performance at Tokyo’s Kabuki-za Theater is a must for anyone wanting to explore Japanese traditional culture more deeply.

Kabuki is traditional Japanese drama. The stories usually feature tales of romance and heroism. It was traditionally performed by all female casts, but the Japanese people felt this was too risqué, so female actors were banned and replaced by an all-male cast.

Pro Tip: The Kabuki-za theater has four to five performances every day from morning to evening. You can buy single act tickets on the day of the performance from 600 yen to 1,500 yen. I highly recommend renting an electronic translator at the theater to get a translation of the play.

7. Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Stadium

Seeing a sumo match is not just for the sports enthusiast, but also for those wanting to experience one aspect of Japan’s unique culture. You can do that at the Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Stadium in Samida.

Official Sumo tournaments only take place in January, March, May, July, September, and November. If you’re not in Tokyo in those months, you can also watch a morning practice session.

Pro Tip: You can buy tickets on Voyagin or Viator websites. You can also buy cheap same day tickets at 8:00 am. However, they sell out very quickly, so get in line really early in the morning.

8. Oedo Onsen Monogatari

Another cultural experience you must try before leaving Japan is a visit to a hot springs (called onsen in Japanese). An easy way to visit one in Tokyo is at a hot spring entertainment park called Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Odaiba.

At Monogatari, you’ll find an outdoor foot bathing area, a food court, and a gender-separated bathing area with several different kinds of baths. The other unique aspect about this experience is that you’ll wander around the park in a traditional Japanese robe called a yukata.

Pro Tip: Japanese hot springs can be an intimidating experience for the first-timer. Before your visit, watch some videos to learn how to tie a yukata and read up on Japanese bathing etiquette.

9. Tsukiji Outer Market

You can’t leave Japan without experiencing its world-famous food. One of the most fun ways to do it is to visit Tsukiji Outer Market. Here you’ll get to sample Japanese street food like tamagoyaki, sea urchin, and oysters. There are also lots of delicious restaurants for a sit-down meal of sashimi or seafood rice bowls.

Tsukiji Market used to be divided into 2 parts: the outer market for tourists and the inner wholesale market. The wholesale market moved in 2018 to modern facilities in Toyosu. You can also visit, but it’s far away and it lacks the character that Tsukiji has.

Pro Tip: Shops are open from 9:00 to 14:00. All are closed on Sundays and some are closed on Wednesdays.

10. Staying in a Ryokan

You should at least experience staying in a traditional Japanese inn, called a ryokan, at least once during your trip to Japan. Tokyo is a great place to experience this only-in-Japan style of accommodations.

Ryokans have several features that are uniquely Japanese. They’ll have their own hot spring bath for their guests. Some of them will also serve a multi-course breakfast and/or dinner consisting of seasonal dishes.

Pro Tip: Asakusa and Yanasen areas have some affordable ryokans for around (and sometimes under) US$100 a night.

11. Visiting traditional pre-war neighborhoods

If you want to see what Tokyo was like before World War II, the neon lights and shiny skyscrapers, then wander through the streets of Yanasen. 

Yanasen consists of three areas: Yanaka, Nezu, and Sendagi. Here you’ll find pre-war wooden buildings, lots of old temples and cemeteries, and shops selling traditional sweets and home goods.

Pro Tip: Try to have lunch or dinner at Hantei or Kamachiku.

Modern Japanese Culture

12. Visiting Shinjuku

If you have time for only one place to visit in Tokyo, make it the district of Shinjuku. Here is where you’ll see the Tokyo from the movies: the neon lights, unique bars, the crazy pachinko parlors, modern skyscrapers, and crowds of hip Tokyoites.

When visiting Shinjuku, there are three modern places to visit: Kabukicho, Omoido Yokocho (a narrow alley filled with tiny bars and yakitori restaurants), and Golden Gai (a series of small lanes filled with more tiny bars).

Pro Tip: Join a food tour of Shinjuku to get the inside scoop on where to go. You can sign up with tours through Get Your Guide.

13. Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing is THE famous crosswalk where you see a mess of people coming from all directions at one time to cross one intersection. To add to the experience, you’re surrounded by bright neon lights, huge television screens, and slick skyscrapers.

Don’t feel embarrassed if you do the crosswalk numerous times. I think all tourists do it! After doing Shibuya Crossing, check out the surrounding neighborhood. I found it to be a great place for street photography.

Pro Tip: Find a place from above to watch the crossing. An easy place to watch is from Starbucks. Sometimes it’s hard to find the exit from the station for Shibuya Crossing. Be patient. Look for the Hachiko Exit. This also leads to the statue of the famous dog called Hachiko.

14. Takeshita Dori Street

Takeshita Dori is a fun street to visit in Harajuku. It’s where Japanese teens go to shop, to eat, and to strut their stuff in the latest fashions.

Takeshita Dori is the perfect place to do both your people watching and shopping. You’ll see Japanese teens showing off their latest hairstyles and clothes. There are lots of trendy boutiques, inexpensive shops selling things you really don’t need, cat cafes, hedgehog cafes, and cafes serving crepes, cotton candy, and whatever the latest snack fad is.

Pro Tip: Stand at the beginning of the street to take a photo of the sea of people bobbing their heads as they parade down the street.

15. Fluffy Pancakes

The Japanese like to take foreign dishes and put their own spin on them. One dish that the Japanese have made their own version of is the pancake called the fluffy pancake. You can find restaurants all over Harajuku selling this delicious it.

You can find fluffy pancake restaurants in Harajuku. Here are some popular ones: A Happy Pancake, Burn Side Street Cafe, Flippers and Rainbow Pancake.

Pro Tip: Expect to wait in line to get in. I arrived at A Happy Pancake before it opened at 9:00 am, put my name on a list, and went off to wander the streets of Harajuku.

16. Akihabara

Another teen hangout that epitomizes modern Japanese culture is Akihabara.

You’ll find lots of stores for electronics, manga, anime, and video games. Looking for a Maid Cafe? Look no further than Akihabara.

Akihabara is named after Akiba, a local shrine. On Sundays, the main street, Chuo Dori, becomes a pedestrian only zone from 1:00 to 6:00 pm.

Pro Tip: You’ll see “maids” standing outside maid cafes getting customers to come inside. Please ask first before taking photos of them. They hate it when you snap one without asking.

17. Robot Restaurant

Some may say that the Robo Restaurant is a tourist trap, but it’s a fun and only-in-Japan tourist trap that keeps people coming. 

The Robot Restaurant isn’t a restaurant per se. You can order food, but you don’t have to and you probably don’t want to since the food isn’t all that good. The main focus of the “restaurant” is the robot show.

Pro Tip: Buy tickets for the show through Klook to get a discount.

18. teamLab Borderless

MORI Building Digital Art Museum: teamlab Borderless is the newest tourist sensation in Tokyo. It’s a museum devoted to interactive digital art. The digital art is projected onto the walls, floors, and ceilings. It’s constantly changing so that you can enter a room twice and experience different works of art.

There are actually two of these museums in Tokyo: teamLab Borderless and teamlab Planets. The teamLab Borderless in Odaiba is a permanent museum, while another one is temporary.

Pro Tip: Buy your tickets ahead of time because they sometimes sell out AND arrive before the museum opens to be the first ones in the museum. You’ll avoid crazy long lines.

19. Tokyo Sky Tree

The Tokyo Sky Tree is the best place to see 360 degree panoramic views of Tokyo. It towers over the city at 634 meters. 

Tokyo Sky Tree was finished in 2011 in Sumida district of Tokyo. It has one of those glass floors that you can walk on and see the world below you.

Pro Tip: Some people suggest skipping the tree and going to the Tokyo Government Building in Shinjuku. It’s free, while Tokyo Sky Tree isn’t. I felt the views were better from the Sky Tree, and you can actually take photos without the glass causing a glare on your camera.

20. Studio Ghibli Museum

The Ghibli Museum is the animation museum of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. The studio made many famous Japanese anime movies such as Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Princess Mononoke.

You’ll find exhibits on the process of making an animation movie and an opportunity to watch a movie that can only be seen at the museum.

Pro Tip: You need to buy the tickets online and in advance. You can’t buy tickets at the museum. Online tickets go on sale 3 months before the date of the visit. They sell out quickly, so as soon as your ticket date is being sold, buy it. Don’t even wait a day.


To read more about what to see and do in Tokyo click here!

 

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