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Asia Guides Insider Tips

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.

 

 

 

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!

 

Advice Asia

How To Avoid Looking Like A Tourist In Japan

Japan’s mystery unfolds in front of travelers in unexpected ways. In between its modernist skyscrapers, you’ll find ancient rituals and deep history. With its intensely rich culture, very unique customs, mouth watering beautiful dishes, there’s no doubt that travelers will find themselves enamored with the Land Of The Rising Sun. For travelers about to embark on their first trip to Japan, it can seem overwhelming to assimilate into its daily life. So, here’s our biggest tips on how to avoid looking like a tourist in Japan!

Walk To The Left

Japan, especially its largest cities, is an incredibly systematic country. The level of organization and attention to detail will floor you. Every step of your path, whether its walking to the cleanest subway system you’ll ever experience or maneuvering through bustling Shibuya crossing is organized.

Tourists, especially Americans, might struggle to (literally) go with the flow if they don’t know to always walk to the left. So, now you’ll know better! Walking, driving and riding to the left is the ticket to making your way through Japan a breeze. There are even markings that split the tunnel systems of Tokyo’s subway to show visitors where to walk!

Be Aware Of Your Volume & Space At All Times

Visitors can sometimes stick out like a sore thumb. You’re very likely to if you’re blissfully unaware of your volume when in Japan! The locals are very accustomed to being mindful of the level in which they talk. Public transportation is seemly almost silent on most rides! So, be conscious of how loud you’re being in public spaces. Turn your phone on silent, keep your chatter to a soft hush and never intrude on someone else’s conversation by overwhelming them with your own volume!

Similarly, be observant of your space at all times… especially on transportation and maneuvering through busy streets. Japanese locals are incredibly conscious of the space they are in. Be weary of invading anyone’s personal space and always apologize if you happen to brush by someone.

Know Local Customs

There are lots of little nuanced customs in Japan. But here are some basic ones to keep in mind!

  • Always return a bow (we’ll discuss more on customary ways to say hello later in this post!)
  • Be observant when you enter a restaurant. Take off your shoes if you see a pile of them in the entrance!
  • Acknowledge every greeting you recieve
  • Say “kampai!” before you clink your drinks for a cheers
  • Be mindful of how you use your chopsticks (more on this later!)
  • Don’t hand your money directly to the cashier… instead, place it on a tray that’s near the cash register
  • Take business cards offered to you with two hands

Know How To Dress

Sure, you’re bound to see young Japanese locals decked out in their wild outfits in Harajuku… but unless you’re part of the fashion scene, you’ll need to dress more conservatively. Generally in Japan, you’ll find polished looks and chic pieces everywhere. Men and women often are dressed incredibly professionally while out and about, especially since many of them are coming and going from their workplace.

​​​​​​​To fit in, dress up your look a little extra! Wear comfortable clothes that you can easily move in, but also are stylishly sharp. Tuck in your shirt to a well-fitting pair of jeans or shorts, and be sure to wear shoes you can easily slip on or off.

Clean Up After Yourself

When in Japan, you’ll notice how incredibly clean everything is. Any sign of litter, trash or rubbish is a completely oddity in the country. That being said, always be sure to tidy up after yourself!

Learn How To Handle Chopsticks

Yes, chopsticks are (typically) your only option for utensil in Japan. So, buff up one your chopstick skills if you’re a complete newbie. There are some classic no-go’s when it comes to using chopsticks. Here are some basic things to know:

  • Be sure not to point at something using your chopsticks. This is considered rude!
  • Avoid sticking your chopsticks straight up into rice. In general, it is good practice to always place them on the table when you are not using them.
  • Don’t pass food using chopsticks. This is considered impolite and mirrors the funeral tradition of transferring cremated bones to an urn. Yikes!
  • When sharing a plate, use the opposite end of the chopsticks that you eat from (the wider part) to take a portion.
  • Don’t rub your chopsticks together! This is often read as you telling the owners of the restaurant that you think they’re a cheap establishment!

Master The Subway

The Tokyo subway is fantastic (if you haven’t caught on already)! The public transport system throughout Japan is just as incredible. The buses, trains, subways and more are clean, efficient and impressively punctual.

To master the subway system, be sure to buy a prepaid card (like the Pasmo card)… even if you’re just visiting for a few days. Simply buy them at the vending machines in most subway stations and load them up whenever you need to. They’re able to be used on all trains, buses and subways in Tokyo! And most of the time, all you have to do is tap them on a sensor near the entrance gate.

The subway system is very easy to understand. Most of Tokyo labels their neighborhood by its nearest subway station. Simply using Google Maps will direct you. Be sure to note which exit you should take! Some of the stations you’ll be using are incredibly huge and you don’t want to be on the opposite side of where you want to be!

Slurp Your Noodles

The notion of slurping makes Americans shudder. But in Japan, loudly slurping your noodles is a signal of the deliciousness of your meal!

Don’t Harass Geishas Or Sacred Deer

There are many sacred traditions in Japanese culture. Do not overstep the boundaries!

P.S. if you’re planning a trip to especially see Japan’s magical cherry blossoms… check out this post!

Don’t Leave A Tip

Unlike American culture, the Japanese do not view tips as a recognition of great service. In fact, many consider it to be rude! Unlike other restaurants around the world, you’ll find that Japanese restaurants have their customers pay at the front register when they are ready to leave. So, save yourself some cash and avoid looking like a tourist in Japan at the same time!

Learn Basic Phrases

Knowing a few simple phrases is a great way to show respect for Japanese culture… and it goes a long way! Here are some basic ones to keep on hand:

  • “Konnichiwa” (hello)
  • “Sayonara” (goodbye)
  • “Arigato” (thank you)
  • “Sumimasen” (excuse me)
  • “Oishi” (delicious)

Greet Locals Appropriately

Japan may be the most polite country in the world! And that is no joke. You’ll find that Japanese culture lends itself to expecting all citizens and visitors alike to show grace and appropriate behaviors at all time. Here are some things to keep in mind when interacting with locals. You’ll be charming them in no time!

  • Address professionals by “sensei” or “san” … but never refer to yourself as “san”
  • Know when to bow! The longer and deeper the bow, the more respect you convey. Simply put your hands behind your back and bow for an informal interactions. Casual interactions don’t require a bow, but always return one if someone gives one to you! If you’re meeting someone for dinner or thanking them, lower is better. Men should also keep their hands at their sides, women with their hands in their lap for more formal situations.
  • Handshakes are very common after or during a bow!
  • Take your shoes off when entering a home. And always be sure to take a peek if others have taken their shoes off in restaurants and gathering places.
  • Pour your friends drinks and never pour your own. This tradition comes from the viewpoint many Japanese have that pouring your own drink is selfish.
  • Never point using your fingers, use your whole hand instead!

 

Asia Insider Tips

48 Hours in Kyoto

Firstly, about Kyoto – It is a city on its own right, but one that is very rich in culture and history, as it is the city with the highest number of shrines in Japan. It has 400 Shinto shrines and several other smaller ones. It is accessible via High Speed Rail 3h from Tokyo and you can purchase a JR Pass that will bring down the price of the return tickets, which will also allow you to take JR trains anywhere in Japan.

Kyoto is easy to get around by bus, as long as you have Google maps to guide you. You can purchase a one day bus pass at 400yen from any bus driver.

Here are the top temples I’d recommend you not to miss if you don’t have time:

Shrines and Sights

The first four sights listed here are located in the same vicinity and you are able to walk to see all four sights in over half a day:

Kyoto kissesvera-18
Kyoto kissesvera-19
Kiyomizu-dera
Kiyomizu-dera is a must visit! It is one of the biggest temples in Kyoto and it consists of a main hall, pagoda and shrine, built on a wooded hill overlooking Kyoto. The temple was originally associated with one of the oldest schools within Japanese Buddhism, but formed its own sect in 1965, and it is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.There is a trail up the wooded hills where you can see some of the Kyoto city from a bird’s eye view, and it is especially beautiful in spring (cherry blossoms) and fall (maple leaves).

*Note: Its main hall is currently covered up for restoration works till March 2020.

Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka
Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka are two small winding lanes that lead down from Kiyomizu-dera towards Kodai-ji. It is very charming for it is lined with old, wooden traditional shophouses. You can experience traditional Kyoto atmosphere here, and also shop for lots of matcha biscuits, Uji matcha ice-cream and traditional handicrafts.Kyoto kissesvera-22
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Kodai-ji

Kodai-ji was established in 1606 in commemoration of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of Japan’s greatest historical figures. It features richly decorated interiors and is surrounded by beautiful Zen gardens, including a beautiful rock garden. There is also two small teahouses up a path behind the main temple, and the return path bath to the temple features a small, beautiful bamboo grove. 

Maruyama Park
Maruyama Park is found further up after the visit from Kodai-ji and it is especially beautiful and great to visit during the Cherry Blossom season.The below two locations are in further up in Northern Kyoto and I would recommend you to visit these two temples together with Arashiyama Bamboo Forest:Japan Travel - KissesVera-60
Kinkaku-ji

Kinkaku-ji or Golden Pavilion a Zen temple with the top two floors entirely covered in gold leaf. This temple was originally the retirement villa of a shogun and was then converted it into a temple. It is especially beautiful as is built next to a pond and the reflection of the gold temple with the carefully landscaped pond makes it look right out of a painting.Ryoan-ji
Ryoan-ji is located near Kinkaku-ji, and is very famous for its rock garden. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to visit this one due to lack of time. The rock garden really makes you feel very Zen and along with it you can also visit the Hojo, which is the former residence of the temple’s head priest, and also the temple’s restaurant where you can get a taste of traditional Kyoto tofu cuisine.

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bamboo forest
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
To get to Arashiyama, you need to take either the normal train, or a JR train. From either station, it would be around 10 – 15 mins walk to get to the bamboo forest. Standing amidst the tall, soaring green bamboo is really unlike any other feeling – You get a sense of calmness settling over you and walking along the path makes it feel almost like you’re entering a spiritual path when there’s nobody around.Kyoto kissesvera-9Japan Travel - KissesVera-55
Fushimi-inari Taisha

Finally, you can squeeze out half a day to visit the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha, which is the most unique of all temples as it features a trail with 10,000 Tori gates lined along the way.

To Eat

Nishiki Market

Nishiki Market is food market in central Kyoto. Here, you can find Kyoto specialties such as roasted chestnuts, sesame soft serve ice cream made with hand pounded sesame, mochi, and several food varieties. Many of these stores are operated by families for generations, and everything sold at the market is locally produced and procured. Do also stop by for sushi at Hide Sushi, a 10 seater tiny sushi bar. It serves an affordable 8pc sushi set at only 1000 yen. The sushi is very fresh and well seasoned by chef.

Tousuiro Gion
I’d recommend everyone not to miss this! There are a couple of tofu restaurants in Kyoto, but this was the only one we had time to try and it turned out to be the right choice! The tofu is served in several courses in different styles – grilled, poached, hot and cold, and with different textures – In hard blocks and soft silky tofu style. I seriously had never had so much tofu in my life and still feel like it wasn’t enough.

 
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Okakita and Yamamento 
These two udon noodle restaurants are side by side to each other and they’re equally good in their own ways. Okakita is famous for sasame udon: thin, delicate noodles that are quite popular in Kyoto. While the other restaurant, Yamamoto Menzou’s chef was trained in southern Japan, hence specialize in making sanuki udon. Sanuki udon is thicker and more chewy.
 
I only managed to try Yamamoto Menzou – The restaurant interiors is very tastefully done up, and the udon was chewy and absorbed the flavourful hot broth, making it a perfect meal in winter.
 
Tsujiri Teahouse
Kyoto is famous for Uji Matcha, which is a very flavourful and strong green tea that is very famous in the region. Hence, they are also equally famous for their matcha desserts. Tsujiri is reliable for serving a good one, but here’s a more comprehensive list.

Day Trip – Nara Deer Park

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I can’t resist putting this in but if you have one extra day, please make the trip down to Nara Deer Park! You can take a train down from Kyoto Station to Nara Deer Park directly via the Kinetsu line in just 35 minutes.
 
Nara Deer Park is known for semi-wild deer free roaming throughout the entire park grounds and you can freely pet and feed them! The deers are super cute and they will bow to you before you feed them.
 

Within Nara Deer Park, there are actually several shrines and temples and the park is quite sizable. The most significant of all is Todai-ji, a temple that was constructed in 752 as the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples of Japan. Todai-ji’s main hall features the Big Buddha and it is the world’s largest wooden building now housing a bronze Buddha 15m tall.Hope this guide inspires you in visiting this old city where you can immerse yourself in Japanese culture!

 

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You’ve Done All The Traditional Touristy Stuff In Tokyo, Now What?

The non-traditional stuff, that’s what! These unique sights, activities, and noms will show you Tokyo through a quirky lens and allow you to explore the city’s cultural and culinary nooks and crannies.

What to See

Shinjuku Neighborhood’s Godzilla Head
Lounging outside of the Hotel Gracery Shinjuku’s 8th floor lobby, the hotel’s resident pet peeks over the building, roaring and spitting light and smoke a few times each hour. While only guests of the hotel can see the Godzilla Head up close, the best view is from the street, as you walk towards the hotel from Shinjuku Station’s east exit.

 

The World’s Busiest Intersection
If you want to glimpse orderly chaos, head over to the 2nd floor of the Starbucks in the Shibuya neighborhood. Situated at the head of the world’s busiest intersection, watch hundreds of pedestrians walk the spider-web crosswalks as they cross the intersection.

Hachiko
If you love animals and want to have your heartstrings pulled, head to the Shibuya metro station. Outside of it is the famous statue of the Akita dog Hachiko (1923-1935), which symbolizes fidelity and loyalty. Hachiko waited every day for his owner, a professor of agriculture at the University of Tokyo named Hidesaburō Ueno, to return home from work. One day, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage during a lecture and did not return on his commute home. Hachiko kept waiting in the same spot for his owner for nine years, finally passing away when he was eleven years old.

What to Do

MariCAR Tour
The tour is hands down the must-do activity for first-time visitors to Tokyo. There is no better way to experience the energy of the city than to zip through traffic in a go-kart. And doing so in full costume is the quirky cherry on top of this wacky sundae of sightseeing. The tour options range from one hour to three hours. The one-hour tour is 6,000 Yen per person (roughly $54) and you drive by the Tokyo Tower and through Shinagawa. The two-hour tour is 8,000 Yen per person (roughly $72) and you drive by the Tokyo Tower and through Roppongi, Shinagawa, and Shibuya (where you drive through the World’s Busiest Crosswalk). The three-hour tour is 10,000 Yen per person (roughly $90) and you drive by the Tokyo Tower and through Roppongi, Odaiba (where you get to test the speed limits of your go- kart as you drive on the Rainbow Bridge and see the bay), Shinagawa, and Shibuya. I recommend the three hour tour at sunset (tour started at 6:30pm and ended at 10pm). Seeing the cityscape at night lit up and sparkling is breathtaking.


Robot Restaurant’s Evening Cabaret Show
A psychedelic blast. For 8,000 Yen per person (roughly $72), you get 90 minutes of this high-energy, Alice-in-Wonderland-esque performance. It’s the flamboyant love child of Cirque du Soleil (without the acrobatics) and Medieval Times (exchange the horses for lit-up robots) and definitely a unique experience. You’ll leave entertained but scratching your head at what exactly you just saw.


Owl Café Skip the clichéd cat café and visit an owl café instead. At the Owl Village Harajuku Café, you get to interact with nine owls for an hour which costs 1,500 Yen per person (roughly $14). Included in the price, you get a drink before and one free souvenir after playing with the owls. You can pet and hold them and pay extra to feed them. Definitely do the feeding. Some of the owls are being trained and you can participate in the training by having them fly to your arm to retrieve the raw meat treats.


What to Eat

Anti-Social Ramen

If you want to taste some of the yummiest ramen in Tokyo, head over to one of the local shops where you order your ramen through a vending machine of sorts. Made for those with hermetic tendencies, this is a limited-human-interaction experience. Once you place your customized ramen order through the machine (select extra toppings like a soft-boiled egg, additional garlic, etc), the machine will spit out a ticket. Once you plop down on a bar stool with privacy screens on each side, you hand the ticket to the pair of hands that reach through the window in front of you. Once your ramen is served through the front window, the server pulls down the sliding screen and you can slurp your noodles in privacy. Try Ichiran in the Shinjuku neighborhood.


Yakitori in an Izakaya For carnivorous souls, head over to an Izakaya, a Japanese tavern, like Torikizoku Okubo in Shinjuku. A local joint, half the fun is navigating the Japanese-only picture menu and ordering through a touchpad screen located at each table. Salivate over succulent skewers of grilled meats and don’t forget to try the fried chicken skins and chicken butt.


All You Can Eat (AYCE) Yakiniku
Translating to “grilled meat”, the Japanese BBQ is a fun experience. Much like Korean BBQ, each table has a grill in the middle of it and you order an assortment of beef, pork, seafood, and/or vegetables to grill yourself. If you’re in the Shibuya neighborhood, try the Yakiniku Fufutei Shibuya. In addition to AYCE, you have the option of ordering All You Can Drink. You’re allotted two hours to eat and drink to your heart’s content. Try the beef tongue.

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