12 Days in Japan, and Why You Should Go
This fall I spent 12 days in Japan with my two best friends from college. We had an incredible trip -- I wanted to go back as soon as we left!
There are a million travel books about Japan and experts on the country who are much more knowledgable than me. But I wholeheartedly loved our trip (and I love reading about other people's trips), so I thought it was worth sharing what we did.
For each post, if you want the tldr for where we stayed, where we ate, and what we did, just scroll to the very bottom:
Aside from what we did, here are just (a very few!) reasons we fell in love with Japan:
You can get anywhere you want in Japan via efficient public transportation, most notably on the Shinkansen (the famous bullet trains). Not only do the trains run on time, down to the minute, they're clean, efficient, and comfortable. It makes you depressed to come back to the United States's sad excuse for transit.
If you go, make sure to buy a JR pass which gives you unlimited travel on the Shinkansen for the time period you select. It's about $200 for a one week pass, and since one-way tickets run about $120, take it just twice and the pass pays for itself.
Since the JR pass is intended for use by tourists, you have to buy it outside the country and have it mailed to your house abroad. Once you get to Japan, you take your paper order to a ticket office in the station and they'll give you your pass to use in the country. Make sure you activate it on the day you want your pass to become valid, not before, since it's limited to a certain timeframe (one or two weeks).
It's also nice to have a JR pass because we could be flexible in our transit choices, hopping on trains that fit our schedule and not having to buy tickets each time (you just show your JR pass as you walk through the turnstile.)
Fast, efficient, and timely transportation isn't just limited to the Shinkansen. Tokyo's subway is massive and incredibly easy to figure out. Make sure to get a personalized subway card when you go. And even the tiny bus system in Kyoto was perfectly on time.
Design and Architecture
The craftsmanship, minimalism, and appreciation for natural materials makes Japanese design, architecture and art a real dream. From our gorgeous Airbnb, to modern Tokyo architecture, to world-famous art, to handmade Japanese crafts, the country's appreciation for good design was everywhere we looked. It's hard to say enough how much we loved it:
Naturally a country that appreciates good design also makes for good shopping. I brought home beautiful ceramics, paper goods, socks, and kitchen knives, plus some 7-11 chocolate and coffee thrown in for good measure. Even the fliers on the street and information pamphlets at museums were frame-worthy:
You also can't miss the many cross-overs between Japanese and Scandinavian design:
Did you know that for ten straight years Tokyo has earned more Michelin stars than any other city in the world? (The second is Kyoto.) Even if you're not dining at Michelin starred restaurants, which we only did once by accident, the food in Japan is unparalleled. And it's much more than sushi and tempura, although both are not to be missed. Many of Tokyo's Michelin stars have been awarded to restaurants with European cuisine too.
David Chang picked Tokyo as the best food city in the world, writing that "everyone else should just bow down," and I totally get it. Just try to get through Eater's list of 38 essential Tokyo restaurants without getting hungry. We didn't have a bad meal our entire trip.
Quality On the Go
Just imagine if there was a vending machine on every block, even in dark alleys, selling hot coffee and tea along with every kind of soda imaginable. Or if train stations sold lunch in a box that was actually tasty. Or if the best fried chicken around is sold at 7-11. This is all true in Japan, where food on the go is high quality and convenient (and charmingly packaged to boot). Here were our highlights:
There is 1 vending machine for every 23 people in Japan selling anything you could imagine. They sit in dark alleys, on the top of mountains, and in every corner of cities. I particularly loved the $1 cans of "Boss" coffee that was actually really good, but we hit up a wide variety of vending machine products. "Pocari Sweat" looks like water but is actually a Gatorade-esque product, take note.
The boys fell in love with the fried chicken called "Famichiki" sold by none other than Family Mart, the ubiquitous Japanese convenience store. Basically a huge chicken nugget, Famichiki is incredibly popular and was often sold out when we stopped by different stores. Put aside any American suspicions you might have about convenience store dining and give it a try. 7-11 and Lawsons sell similar, but not quite as good, versions:
You can't ride the train in Japan without picking up an ekiben, or a bento box lunch. "The world's finest packed lunches" supposedly began because Japanese workers take very little time off, and travelers don't want to spend time in restaurants on their journeys. You can read more about ekiben and their many varieties here. Just imagine if our airport and train station lunches were this delicious: