I finally got to go to Japan-- a fact that still seems so surreal to me. To go to land of the rising sun has been a long-standing childhood dream of mine for the past 15 or so years. So for it to finally happen, (with a bit of help from my parents)... words can't explain how grateful and happy I am.
I was in Japan solo traveling for two weeks, through Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Naoshima, then back to Tokyo. Every city, island, and town had its own charm and characteristics that have collectively filled Japan with so much beauty, and I'm so happy that I got to experience and see it for myself. Honestly, two weeks wasn't enough time for me to check off half of the sights, restaurants, museums, and shops on my list. But hey, this just gives me more of a reason to come back!
Going in, I didn’t have many expectations aside from the fashion scene, but for everything else I didn’t know what to expect. I wanted to keep it that way, so it would allow me to be more immersed in the environment and the present.
One of the big surprises was how homogenous the locals were in regards to fashion. I was hoping to see a lot of eccentric styles, like the ones I saw growing up in the now defunct FRUITS Magazine. Walking through Harajuku I rarely saw Lolita, Decora, or Visual-Kei stylistas. Even strolling through the local department stores like the infamous Shibuya 109, a lot of the brands had similar aesthetics, which had me questioning how these brands are differentiating themselves from one another or staying in business because there were just that many of them. Perhaps I didn't explore enough or go during the right times? Nonetheless, there were still plenty of well dressed people-- more so than in the states, that's for sure. Especially in Omotesando, I could have sat and people watched for hours with all the amazing looks putting my game to shame!
The public transportation is on a whole different and untouchable level in Japan. The trains were never late, not a single delay, and more punctual than all the type-A people in the world combined. It seriously made New York look like the *insert least favorite cheap mass market brand* of public transportation. Not to mention it's super clean, just like the rest of the country, barely a dried up gum drop in sight!
Not only is everyone in Japan polite and kind, but they're also extremely thoughtful, which isn’t just apparent in their behavior but also in their culture overall. From the dishes used to serve meals, to product packaging, to checking out at shops, everything is meticulously thought out to be as accommodating as possible to the country's inhabitants and consumers. Good service knows no class in Japan, which is something I highly applaud and respect about the Japanese culture and people.
Prior to arriving in Japan, I was curious to see how the locals would react to me, being the non-binary alien I am, but everyone was pretty much nonchalant about it all! There were the occasional stares, but no one really bothered me or antagonized me, which was refreshing. I still do hope that LGBTQ representation and equality is brought to light soon in Japan (Asia in general), so that they can comfortably live and truly be who they are, wherever they are in the country and not just within the gay districts of Japan.
I honestly wouldn't really recommend traveling to Japan alone, unless you can speak Japanese or have friends there. Looking back, the lack of human communication throughout the days got lonely and it would've been nice to have a companion to exchange thoughts and share all the greatness Japan has to offer. If you’re traveling with friends and even if no one in your group can speak Japanese, at least you still have that shared experience and dialogue exchange. I will say, however, that I got to meet and reconnect with some amazing people that I wouldn't have met if I hadn't traveled alone. So there is that upside, for which I’m extremely thankful.
The locals will do their best to accommodate you, but if a business rejects you because you’re a foreigner, don’t be offended. Just as I mentioned about the Japanese being super thoughtful and polite, they’re probably only rejecting you because they don’t feel that they can serve you to their full potential due to language barriers, which only makes me appreciate the people in Japan even more!
The cities in Japan are large, so everything is quite far from one another. Each area like Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ginza, etc are like their own mini cities within Tokyo. With that surprise, I wasn’t able to go to half the places on my intermarry due to travel time. But I still had an amazing time, and really enjoyed the areas I did get to explore.
There’s so much more I could say but here I'd like to share my list of highlights and recommendations for those planning to visit Japan soon!
Tokyo, seriously a city like no other. It’s ginormous and so easy to get lost down the labyrinth streets not because of bad direction skills but because of curiosity and exploration. According to my iPhone’s health app, I was walking from 10-14 miles everyday, in comparison to the usual 2-4 miles I do in NYC. So yeah… bring cute flats and sneakers because you will be doing lots and lots of walking. I can’t wait to go back to see this amazing city again!
One of the great things I loved about Japan was that dining alone has no social stigma attached to it, as it’s quite normal. Plus, a lot of restaurants had bar seatings where you could watch the cooks and chefs working their magic, enriching your dining experience! To be honest, I don’t remember much of what I ate in Tokyo, mainly due to jet lag or being hungover. But here is what I do remember and highly suggest.
They opened a spot in Bushwick, Brooklyn last year, but I just had to try the original in Japan. Not so different and same great taste and a definite go-to for those who don’t have an Ichiran in their city, town, or country! A different dining experience on its own!
A slightly touristy restaurant with a couple of locations around Tokyo, but honestly it was the most perfectly crusted Tonkatsu I’ve ever had!
Tsukiji Fish Market
Famous for their fish market and AM Tuna auctions (which you can have a tour of), this foodie haven is the perfect place to start your day. Fresh sushi for breakfast? Yes, please! Just walk around the crowded alleyways filled with food stalls and eat to your heart’s content!
Park Hyatt Tokyo
Infamous for its Lost in Translation scene, whether you watched the movie or not (I still haven’t), definitely stop by the Park Hyatt’s New York Bar on the 52nd Fl for a night of bougie. Try to go during the sunset to catch a spectacular view of the immaculate city of Tokyo. If you’re feeling extra bougie, stay after 8pm with an extra $30 cover charge for the live jazz band. Another plus? You can smoke indoors while you sip on your drink of choice, probably the most glamorous moment of my Japan trip.
Once the red light district of Tokyo, Golden Gai is now an area in Shinjuku filled with small bars catering to locals or foreigners. Although, foreigners beware-- some bars will reject you!
I barely got to scratch my shopping list, but definitely leave some free space in your luggage if you plan on making it rain.
Placed at the infamous Shibuya crossing, Shibuya 109 is a famous department store amongst the Japanese youth. For a look at some local brands, take a stroll through the cylindrical building. My personal fave? Punyus, a brand created by famous comedian Naomi Watanabe. She created the line to cater to the reality of various sizes because in Japan most brands only offer “one size” for their clothes. So, not only is Punyus helping revolutionize the fashion system in Japan, but it also has some really cute and fun clothes.
Located in Harajuku, Chicago is a great place to find some inexpensive vintage clothes and beautiful secondhand kimono. The kimono are sold at the fraction of the price of a new one.
Dover Street Market
For the fashion lovers, DSM in Ginza is a must stop. The space is amazing and it’s like visiting an art museum accompanied by beautiful clothes and well-dressed sales associates. After you’ve worked your way to the top, take a rest stop at the Rose Bakery.
There is so much to see and do in Tokyo, I only got to go to a few areas and got lost with my curiosity quite often. Much of what you discover in Tokyo will happen along your spontaneous ventures.
I spontaneously stopped by here on my last day and it was the most perfect way to end my trip. To see the beautiful city of Tokyo with the sun setting in the background was such a dream and cinematic vision come true.
Kise-Beya Sumo Stable
I really wanted to see an actual sumo match but it was off-season (peak in Tokyo is Jan, May, and Sept) when I went-- you can still make a reservation to see the gigantic superhumans practice in the morning, then drink and have lunch with the wrestlers post-practice!
If you go during Sakura season, definitely stop by Meguro River. It is a strip of pink cherry blossom tree heaven lining Meguro River, and was the the dreamiest stroll I have ever taken in my life. A moment I will remember forever.
In Japan, public transportation closes around 11:30 to midnight. So when you go out, you either take a taxi home (super expensive) or you go ALL out. As in, party til the subways open again around 4:30/5AM. For my last weekend, I partied all weekend and basically didn’t sleep for 48 hours. How did I do it? I’m not sure. But while In Tokyo, I went to an event held by Maison Kitsuné and a couple of gay bars. Here I’m only able to suggest the gay bars I went to, but who doesn’t love a gay club?
Located in the gay district of Tokyo, Shinjuku’s Nichome, Dragonmen is a hot spot on the weekends for the LGBTQ. Consisting of foreigners and locals alike all dancing to western music, it’s so great to see the locals indulge and let loose on being who they are. It’s just a shame that once they exit Nichome, that ends and I hope in the near future that changes.
Just around the corner from Dragomen, Arty Farty has a similar vibe to the former; an international crowd mixed with the locals. If you get tired of one place, just walk around to the other for a continued night of fun!
Osaka, I found to be a strange and interesting city. Maybe because I was staying in a possibly seedy area surrounded by sex fantasy businesses, love hotels, and Pachinko Parlors. There isn’t much to do here in comparison to Tokyo, so 2 or 3 days is plenty of time to spend here.
One thing that Osaka is famous for? It’s food! Eat everything while you’re here.
Osaka’s main area for nightlife and food. This area is literally sprawling with different local food stands and restaurants. Have an empty stomach before approaching this area and indulge your tastebuds on kushikatsu, takoyaki, okonomiyaki and more of Osaka’s famous foods. Your stomach and tastebuds will thank you.
Set a bit far out from central Osaka, Yashichi ramen is seriously one of the best ramen I’ve ever had. There’s always a wait here, and they give you a time card for when you should return. Once your time is next, you order from a vending machine and wait for your perfectly cooked ramen. I highly suggest the Shio ramen with its perfectly boiled-for-hours creamy chicken broth.
There aren’t many sightseeing spots in comparison to Tokyo or Kyoto, so I spent most of my time exploring and eating my way through Osaka.
Umeda Sky Building
I stopped by here the night I arrived, and it was so beautiful to open my stay in this great city. Go at night to see the beautiful skyline of Osaka and head up to the open-air observation deck to fully envelop yourself with the amazing view.
Probably the most famous tourist attraction in Osaka, as it’s quite grand. Not only is the castle beautiful, but the land and immense walking grounds are just as great. If you’re here during Sakura season, there will be spurs of cherry blossoms, perfect for a picnic or book break.
It was actually somewhat difficult to find just a bar in Osaka. Most places are just restaurants and serve alcohol by itself that won't serve drinks on its own.
A gay bar tucked away in Osaka's gay district Doyama, was the most lively for a Wednesday night. Filled with welcoming bartenders, foreigners and locals singing their hearts away to some karaoke.
Bar Aloha Counter
After walking and looking for just a simple bar with a good friend, Sander, we came across Bar Aloha Counter-- another small bar tucked away from the main Osaka streets. We peeked in through the door, not knowing what lay behind each door down this corridor, and owner Masa warmly welcomed us despite being foreigners. If you haven’t guessed what the theme of the bar is… it’s all things Hawaii. Masa is a Hawaii veteran, having been there more than 10 times! It was a cute place to reconnect with a friend while being transported to tropics with all the Hawaiian memorabilia, trinkets, and beer.
Kyoto was absolutely beautiful and so magical. If you do go, I highly recommend venturing to the old capital and historically preserved city during Sakura season, as Japan’s national flower only enriches the traditional beauty that Kyoto possesses. There’s quite a bit to do here in regards to tourist sights, so I allotted 3 days here which was the perfect amount! Also, if you can, definitely try to stay a night or two at a traditional Ryokan to be transported back in time for a full Kyoto experience.
I had the most amazing host, Kyoko, while staying in Kyoto through AirBnB. It was a bit far away from central Kyoto, but she made me breakfast all three days while staying at her guesthouse, one day making a traditional Japanese breakfast and the other days a more westernized breakfast so I only really ate out a couple of times in Kyoto. If you’re also able to indulge, try booking dinner with a Maiko (a Geisha in training), and you’ll truly have a genuine Kyoto experience. Also try a Kaiseki meal, as Kyoto is known for the traditional multi-course dinner.
One of Kyoto’s most famous ramen spots, known for it’s Burnt Miso Ramen, and after trying it I totally understand why! It was such a different taste in comparison to the ramen we all know and love, but it was still so good!
Mochi Ryori Kitamura
When in Kyoto, one must have at least one Kaiseki dining experience. Although, do your research and make a reservation ahead of time, as most places don’t take walk-ins (I learned the hard way), and are usually booked. I was walking around for an hour in the cold but I was determined to find a Kaiseki restaurant for my last night in Kyoto. I finally came across Mochi Ryori Kitamura, a Kaiseki restaurant that specializes in mochi! Owner/Chef Ysuhira Kitamura and his wife Mayumi Kitamura and staff were all so welcoming and spoke English! They will converse with you as you dine by the bar, doing a great job at making you feel welcome which was nice after an hour of slightly humiliating rejections. It’s casual in comparison to most Kaiseki dining spots but also not as expensive. So if you’re looking for a more unique dining experience without punching your wallet, I’d definitely stop by Sochi Ryori.
Similar to Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, just walk around and eat all the delicious foods that intrigue your nose!
The sights and settings are really what make Kyoto so special. There are so many places to see while in the history-filled city.
If you go here during peak seasons (spring and fall), you MUST catch the night illuminations they do for the temple and walking grounds. It was a breathtaking walk as I strolled through and past the beautiful red temples, surrounded by lit cherry blossom trees and the full moon radiating its soft glow creating a romantic scenario. Since it’s also set atop a hill, you’ll catch an amazing view of Kyoto.
Yasaka Shrine/Maruyama Park
A great place to go to after Kiyomizu-dera. I actually accidentally stumbled upon Yasaka on my walk to Gion. Thankfully I listened to my intuition because as I entered the shrine, the walkways were filled with mouth-watering local street food vendors. As I walked further back into Maruyama Park, it was more of Sakura heaven because you could dine and gulp on your ale under beautifully lit cherry blossom trees. Seriously, just eat everything and embrace this dream that is actually a reality.
I’m sure you’ve seen the famous vermillion torii gates of Fushimi Inari everywhere online, but you must go see it in person, as it’s an absolute surreal moment to be in a place with so much history and beauty. If you want to go to the top, it’s quite a climb so prepare yourself! According to my health app, I climbed 70 flights of stairs that day. But honestly, the climb to the top was more zen than grueling-- and don’t forget to make a wish or prayer at the shrine up top!
Another must-stop while in Kyoto, despite it being an infestation of tourists. Not only is there the famous and beautiful bamboo forest, but there is the monkey park as well! Plus, it’s a great place to have a picnic under the Sakura, surrounded by nature and yummy food stands.
A strip in Kyoto lined with bars and delicious restaurants, and it’s where you want to go to in the evening for any sort of nightlife. If you’re there during Sakura season, it is lined with cherry blossom trees along the Takase River. At night the trees are beautifully lit and even in the rain, this sight was like stepping into a romantic dream.
Take a walk through the historic district and you may catch the oh so rare and beautiful Geisha or Maiko scurrying to their next gig.
My favorite bar I came across in Kyoto. It reminded me of speakeasies in New York with their delicious craft cocktails and rustic/quirky interior. It was nice to come here after a day of solo sightseeing as a majority of the crowd were also foreign travelers. So, to unwind with a good drink and conversation was the perfect way to end the day.
I had a similar experience here as Shibuya 109, lots of similar local brands, except I loved Another Edition. It’s a super cute and quirky brand. I still think about this baby blue knit set that I did not bring home!
.Naoshima, Teshima, & Inujima.
I went here with a good friend of mine, Naomi Hirano, who is an artist, entrepreneur, and architecture lover. These 3 islands are scattered with museums and art houses curated over many years by Benesse Holdings, Inc and Fukutake Foundation. The history and story of how this came about is so interesting and so in-depth, I’ll leave that research for your own time. It’s a bit out of the way, but if you have 2 to 3 days available, I highly recommend anyone who is an art and architecture aficionado to take the time to stop by these amazing and well-curated islands. It’s also a great place to step away and relax from the bustling cities of Japan.
We stayed on Naoshima, the main island of the three, and it was so peaceful. The water was beautiful, the people friendly, and nature abundant. A completely different vibe from Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. Everything closes super early, though, and shops have “irregular hours” so definitely stock up on snacks and drinks (alcohol) during the day.
Designed by Architect Tadao Ando, this museum is seriously one of the most beautiful spaces I have ever set foot in. Built within the natural slopes of the island - merging nature and architecture, it’s every minimalists dream. Not just that, but with only 4 installations from artists including Monet and James Turrell, I’ve never experienced a more fluid and impactful art venture. Every installation, flowed so well with the space, the entire museum felt like an exhibition on its own. There’s no photography allowed inside which is a frown for social media mavens, but this only allows you to be fully immersed in the space, absorbing and observing all the nuances within every room. Being here was like an out-of-body experience, and it is my favorite museum to date.
Lee Ufan Museum
Designed in collaboration with artist Lee Ufan and Tadao Ando, this museum is another minimalist’s dream that is very similar to Chichu Museum. It wasn’t as impactful as Chichu, but still a beautiful space to step foot in with great contemporary art by Lee Ufan.
Benesse House Museum
Placed on a peak on Naoshima alongside the Benesse Hotel, it’s the perfect place to end your art-hopping day. After walking through the corridors and rooms filled with contemporary art ranging from photography and sculptures to paintings, you can sit atop the gift shop/bakery with a drink to take in the beautiful view of the Seto Inland Sea. It’s another great space, designed by Tadao Ando, perfectly working nature, art, and architecture together.
In addition to the museums mentioned above, there are various art houses that you visit in the Higashicho Prefecture of Naoshima. These art houses are old homes that were renovated into installations by a range of artists. Of the 7, Minamidera was the most memorable. It’s an installation experimenting with light by James Turrell. You enter a minimal house made of dark wood, and are told to place your left or right hand against the wall and use that as your guide as you walk and turn through the corridors, until your legs reach a bench. It was pitch black and honestly scary AF, especially for me, who is terrified of the dark. Then, you’re told to sit there for 5-8 minutes, (slowly thinking about when death will arrive) as your eyes adjust to the darkness. Then, the subtle but big reveal comes to… well, you will just have to go see it for yourself!
One of the 3 islands curated by Benesse and Fukutake, Inujima is filled with various art houses and sculptures all around the island. Walking throughout Injuima felt like a treasure hunt for art, a super fun experience while on an island surrounded by beautiful water and weather! What’s not to love about that?
Most of the installations were closed when we were on Teshima, another of the 3 art islands. But we did get to see Teshima Art Museum, created by artist Rei Naito and Ryue Nishizawa. This museum is made to resemble a water droplet in the moment of landing. Once you step inside, silence is mandatory, allowing you to be immersed in the space and hear the sounds of nature that enter and exit through the oval openings. Once you’re done, step out to see the rice paddy terraces with a beautiful view of the Seto Inland Sea!
So there you have it, my extensive and hopefully insightful Japan list. Thank you so much to everyone who sent me their lists! My trip would not have been as memorable without the help of you all! I seriously suggest everyone go to Japan at least once in their life. It’s such a life-enriching experience that you will remember forever.
If you have any more questions, feel free to reach out to me as there is so much more insight I could’ve provided and didn’t include in this post. Definitely do your research, as there is so much to see and do!
Japan, I’ll be back! Jya, mata!