Travel recommendations for Japan

I’ve lived in Japan for my entire adult life and, somewhat frequently, friends, colleagues, and business acquaintances ask me for travel recommendations. Since I’ve written them a few hundred times in email and Slack I thought I’d put them here for future copy/pasting. These are opinionated and assume you’d ask me specifically for advice. If you want generic recommendations, Google and travel guides exist and they’ll give you a… fine… experience.

General strategy

I assume you don’t speak a material amount of Japanese, are coming for a few days to a few weeks, and are trying to optimize on your time. If these don’t apply, you have better options than this page.

My one overarching piece of advice is avoid the beaten path for tourists. In addition to this being a good way to experience other countries/cultures everywhere, the boom in tourism in Japan over the last decade or so has made the beaten path… less than wonderful. You probably have heard excellent things about e.g. Japanese service culture or authenticity or whatnot. If you go to places that have hordes of foreign tourists your ability to experience it will be impaired.

I am not saying this for hipster cred. I would not have said it in 2004 or 2008 or even maybe 2012. All cultures change over time and this culture has perceptibly changed.

Even as someone who lives in Japan and speaks Japanese, I look like how I look, and in tourist-heavy areas in the last decade I’ve begun to get, I don’t know how to say this politely, a level of surliness and annoyance which does not meet the traditional expectation either here or abroad for tourism experiences in Japan.

Where to?

You’re going to Tokyo, virtually no way around it. If you are savvy and are here for at least a week, you will likely buy the Japan Rail Pass, which is the best travel deal in the world (and which you must purchase before you get here), and which gives you unlimited trips on JR trains including most bullet trains at the price of less than one roundtrip to Kyoto/Osaka. (Edit: In October 2023, JR increased the price of this pass by ~70%, which makes it less of a screaming deal and more of a calculation given how much of the country you want to see.)

90% of you will want to go to Kyoto or Osaka. I’d tell you to pick Kyoto; Osaka has its charms, and the Osakans will regale you with them endlessly, but Osaka’s charms are like Tokyo’s and Kyoto’s are far less so.

Very few people take me up on this part of the recommendation: get out of the cities if you are here for more than a week in your life. Tokyo and, for example, small towns in Gifu Prefecture are approximately as different as London and the Italian countryside are. Both wonderful experiences, and some bits rhyme, but they’re very different wonderful experiences.

Is there a language barrier?

Smartphones have made Japan more than 100X more accessible than it was in e.g. the late 2000s. It’s truly remarkable. You probably shouldn’t expect anyone to converse with you in English outside of the airport and hotels in larger cities, but with good will and standard usage of apps already on your phone, you probably can get by.

Outside of tourist hotspots the overwhelming majority of Japanese service businesses (restaurants, cafes, hotels, and e.g. hair stylists) will not feel it is a great imposition to serve a foreign customer with limited Japanese proficiency. If you ever feel like the vibes are off prior to being served, feel free to make your apologies, walk out, and walk somewhere else.

I will note that, in a little town you’re unlikely to visit in central Japan, a hair stylist was so offended by hearing someone was turned away for a haircut that they walked into City Hall and asked if someone would please write “We will cut your hair.” in five languages so they could put it in their window. I feel this is overwhelmingly more likely to be representative of your experience versus discourses you may have heard about xenophobia.

Again, have to say it: a decade ago I would have confidently predicted this for tourist-heavy places and I no longer have arbitrarily high confidence for those places.

Where to eat?

You should have most of your meals at places which you don’t know the name of and which, ideally, see relatively few foreign guests. Almost every train station in Japanese cities has an almost arbitrary depth of restaurants around it. The ones closest to the station are not your best options, but go out any station gate and walk 2-3 blocks (a few hundred meters) and then just walk in anywhere.

If you want ramen, eat ramen sitting next to a salaryman going home from work. If you want sushi, eat at a restaurant a middle-class family would make a special Saturday night out of or a little hole in the wall, not at one whose name appears in the New York Times frequently. If you want teppanyaki, find someplace on the 6th floor of a non-descript building sandwiched between a bar with six seats below and a cabaret-you-probably-shouldn’t-visit above.

You will get better service (if perhaps filtered a bit through the language barrier), frequently comparable or better food, and a much better story than if you go to places in the guide book or recommended by a foreigner-friendly hotel as being obvious places to go. (Pro-tip for talking to concierges everywhere: ask them where they would go, not where they would send you.)

If you absolutely must use review apps then Tabelog has better and more reliable coverage than Yelp or Google Maps in Japan. Note that Japanese reviewers are substantially pickier than you are, and so the right way to read 3.7 stars is “You will probably have a wonderful time.”

Where to stay?

Japanese hotels are wonderful. You’ll pay more for a brand you recognize versus a brand which specializes in domestic visitors, at roughly comparable experiences, so why not try one of the local ones? APA Hotels is a perfectly serviceable chain for business travelers. If you’re optimizing for cost, many neighborhoods of Tokyo have salaryman-friendly hotels available at shockingly low price points (~$40 a night). These are not largely capsule hotels, which seem to target people who want to pay extra for the capsule experience. No, I don’t get it, either.

But if you stay in Japan you simply must stay in a ryokan at some point. Which one? Pick any, ideally either in Kyoto or outside of a large city. I usually find them on Jalan and believe me you will not find any more reliable tourguide than the starred reviews from picky Japanese domestic tourists. Most ryokan are extremely solicitous of foreign guests, though many will apologize for their limited English proficiency.


I’ve lived in Tokyo for about a decade, in the Nakameguro neighborhood.


See above; the best way to eat in Japan is to have no idea of where you’re eating. But if you absolutely must make some reservations…

  • Ninja Akasaka. One of my favorite dinners in Tokyo. Modern Japanese/American fusion, sort of, the cuisine is a bit hard to pin down. The reason anyone would suggest going here is not the food (underrated and one of my favorite dinners in Tokyo) but because the shtick is everyone there is a ninja. It is played totally straight. You think that this could not possibly be enjoyable above the age of seven, and you are wrong. The most jaded people I know have said things like “magical” and “one of the best dinners of my life.”
  • Wattle in Marunouchi. High-ish end Australian cuisine. The second most likely place I’d invite you to if I wanted to impress you with a business dinner.
  • Ivy Place in Daikanyama. Great brunch spots are surprisingly difficult to find in Tokyo; this is one of them. Also it is adjacent to T-Spot, a Tsutaya (think Blockbuster/Borders/etc conglomerate) flagship, which is worth some time looking at. (T-Site recently has a coworking space style Share Lounge on the second floor which is one of the few I’d recommend. If you get a table at the Starbucks downstairs you’re luckier than I have been in ten years of living here.)


Tokyo is a mecca for coffee snobs. I am not one.

Many smaller Japanese cafes are not thrilled by remote work culture. Please be considerate and do not damage their ability to make the (substantial) rent; they need to turn tables relatively quickly. If you are not surrounded by Japanese people with laptops out, and want to pull your laptop out, I’d recommend finding a Starbucks or similar.

  • Streamer Coffee Company (multiple locations). Much better coffee and ambiance than most chains; likely available quite close to where you are; slightly more accepting of laptops/etc than most small Japanese cafes.
  • Cafe Facon in Nakameguro. Off the beaten path in Nakameguro, where most cafes are surprisingly difficult to get a table at most of the time. Phenomenal coffee. Also has somewhat better acoustics and (limited) privacy for conversations versus most cafes in Tokyo. Very not a place to spend with a laptop for a few hours; I’m not sure what the staff would do, but the other cafe-goers will treat you as profaning a sacred experience.
  • Starbucks Roastery in Nakameguro/Aobadai. Would I tell someone who flew 15 hours to come to Japan to visit a Starbucks? Yes, I would, if it is this Starbucks. Best thing on the menu is “Barrel-aged cold brew”, which is non-alcoholic, has slight notes of whiskey and vanilla, and is my favorite coffee preparation in the entire world. The food is also much better than standard Starbuxen. This place is packed during peak tourist season and I would probably not stand in line for 45 minutes to get a ticket allowing one to go in if one stands in line for another 90 minutes.

What about Japanese coffee chains? I’m glad you asked, Internets. Doutour, Excelsior, and Ueshima Coffee are all perfectly adequate chain coffee, and I’d likely pick them in preference to Starbucks. Dotour has good sweet drinks, Excelsior sometimes feels classy, and Ueshima Coffee has a really nice light breakfast menu before 11 AM (on the dot).

Oh, power when getting around: prior to running out of cell phone power download ChargeSpot from your phone’s app store. You can find an automated kiosk with them either a) using the app or b) at almost every convenience store in Tokyo these days. Renting a (fully charged!) charger costs a ridiculously small amount of money and you can return it to any convenience store with a kiosk, as well as many other places.

Painting / Modeling

I relatively recently got into 3D printing miniatures and painting them, and if you have a similar hobby, I have some recommendations.

  • Hobby Tengoku 2. Akihabara is very not my scene but I’ll make an exception for this shop, which (among a lot of things aimed at the crowd that makes Akihabara not my scene) has a third floor which is a particular joy for painters and plastic modelers. Aside from the Vallejo paints you can probably get at home, which is the thing I get the most value out of, you can find many wonderful products from Tamiya, less well-known Japanese manufacturers of e.g. hobby knives and brushes and similar, and the like.
  • Pigment Tokyo. A temple consecrated to color and the joy of making things.


See books for tourism recommendations but if you absolutely must ask me:

  • Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts. By and for people who celebrate the making of things, and in particular, you will love that it celebrates living arts and devotes no small amount of time to how the art is done by people who make a living doing it, today. (Slightly off the beaten path, there are many places where you can actually watch an artisan work and/or buy something directly from them. Far and away the best way to get souvenirs if this is your sort of thing.)
  • Heian Shrine and Kiyomizu-dera Temple are in all the guidebooks but, well, deservedly so.
  • Murin-an is far less well known. If you’ve ever wanted to see Japan’s take on a Japanese garden experience, this is one of my favorite places for it. Also has a tea room available.
  • Suntory Whisky Distillery in Yamazaki, which is not in Kyoto but is close enough to swing by on a Kyoto trip. Suntory is the premier whiskey manufacturer in Japan and you will enjoy the tour even if you will never taste a drop of alcohol in your life. It really nails the convergence of “an utterly modern hypercompetent chemical manufacturing facility” and “traditional work done by artisans.”


Notable standouts, though see above advice for how to eat in Japan, and it goes doubly for Kyoto.

  • Katsukura in Sanjo or Shijo-kawaramachi. Katsu (fried pork cutlet) is the main thing on offer; this may be my favorite in Japan.
  • Lipton Teahouse. Yes, that Lipton. Yes, I am telling you to go to a Lipton-branded tea house on your trip to Japan. The sweets are sublime.


I didn’t drink coffee when I lived in Kyoto and so I have no idea. Sorry!

Ogaki / Gifu Prefecture

If you want a semi-convenient way to see “the real Japan” (all Japans are the real Japan, etc etc), on the bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka/Kyoto get off in Nagoya and take a local train 30 minutes to Ogaki, where I lived for a decade. It is a truly charming town.


  • Chorky’s Diner. The proprietor’s take on an American diner experience. He’s truly wonderful; you’ll love him. Tell him Patrick sent you.
  • Matsuoka Sushi. Japan has a hundred thousand hole-in-the-wall sushi restaurants. This one was mine. The family who run it are truly wonderful.
  • There is a really good kaiseki (high-end Japanese seafood) restaurant near the train station. I don’t remember the name or where it is. Ask at the information desk or at the tourism centre. The Ogaki tourism centre is always very enthusiastic to hear that foreign tourists have come to partake in Ogaki’s many wonderful experiences and will happily talk your ear off.


  • Ogaki Castle. Local historical figure Oda Nobunaga, perhaps you’ve heard of him, holed up there once. He must have been pretty cramped. Ogaki and Gifu are quite proud of Nobunaga; I recommend not mentioning him at e.g. local churches.

Elsewhere in Gifu

  • Mt. Kinka in Gifu City. Want a brisk walk up a mountain with a difficulty level set to “very accessible to 70 year old Japanese grandmothers who will certainly embarrass you with how good they are at this”? Look no further. Also has a ropeway if you’re just there for the view or if you want to save yourself the downhill trip.
  • Ukai fishing (commorant fishing). Available for a brief period every summer; worth a day trip for.
  • Make your own plastic food in Gujo Hachiman. A store which is a factory which also gives impromptu classes to anyone who asks for trivial amounts of money, in the art of making plastic food. Although this tradition is going out, it used to be the case that many restaurants in Japan would have a physical representation of their entire menu outside the shop in plastic. (The tradition dates to the movement to cities in the mid-20th century where recently rural workers might not know how to interpret what the written menus suggested was on order. The execution of the artwork is the sort of stunning mix of art and semi-scaled industry that Gifu rightly prides itself on.)
  • Make your own Japanese paper in Minokamo. This one is a bit trickier because the factories which do tutorials/experiences may not offer them every day; Ishikawa Paper Goods may be a good search term to help you find whomever is doing them whenever you want to visit, or check with the (very helpful!) Gifu tourism folks.

Is climbing Mt. Fuji worth it?

Yes, though it is very on the beaten path, and you can infer some things from that about what the human experience of a Fuji trip will be like.

I would likely not tell you to prioritize it on your first or second trip to Japan, but making the summit is both not a forbiddingly complicated achievement and was also one of the more memorable experiences of my life.

“I like winter sports.”

Cool. I don’t. Ask someone else.

“I like beaches.”

Atami (about 40 minutes from Tokyo) is a wonderful resort town and has beaches available. While it is absolutely tourism-centric it serves mostly domestic tourists. Risonare Atami a particularly standout hotel to stay in among hundreds of great options.

If you go to Okinawa or similar and have a good time, please let me know. I intend to get out there one of these decades. (I did not explicitly plan this but did end up parking myself in one of the few areas of Japan which is totally landlocked for more than a decade, and so my beach-fu is largely limited to the time-honored Japanese tradition of flying to Hawai’i.)

Payments and money

I’m professionally fascinated with this topic but feel like the typical tourist doesn’t need to plan very hard about money management in Japan anymore. This was not always true.

Personally I’d pull 20,000 yen out in cash and keep it in your wallet in case you hit one of the (increasingly rare) cash-only places. Seven Eleven and post offices will accept almost any card you would use at home to get cash out; put the transaction through in yen and not in your home currency unless you want to donate to the payments industry. (We thank you for your support!)

Apple Pay / Google Pay are increasingly accepted in most of the places you’ll use most frequently. Your Visa/Mastercard/Amex are likely to work in the vast majority of places.

Purely for convenience value when using subways/buses/etc I’d generally suggest picking up a Suica or Pasmo (mutually compatible stored-value transportation cards similar to Oyster or Metrocard or what have you; they work in almost all transportation places across Japan). There is a 500 yen (~$5) deposit when purchasing it in cash; you can get it back from any train station (including at the airport) when you leave; most people end up accidentally donating it to the Japanese economy.

The Welcome Suica is specifically designed to trade the necessity for a deposit for a) a 28 day usage limitation (you don’t care about this) and b) not offering a refund of any money you put in if you put in too much. I would recommend most travelers just get the standard Suica instead; if you end up with < $10 on it (inclusive of deposit) then you can either get the refund, just keep it for your next Japan trip, or consider it a minor cost of travel. If you miscalculate and end up with much more, then just spend the few extra minutes to get the refund.

Duty-free shopping

Overwhelmingly not worth your time. VAT here is only 8%~10% and you are unlikely to buy the thousands of dollars worth of taking-them-home-with-you goods that would make it reasonable to spend time optimizing for this.

Who am I?

My name is Patrick McKenzie (better known as patio11 on the Internets.)

Twitter: @patio11 HN: patio11

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