The last time I was in Japan, “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga was charting, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1 had just hit theatres, and infinity scarves and hair feathers were in. Over ten years ago, I lived in Japan and attended fourth grade. This was my first time back in Japan since then, and I was beyond excited for the delicious food, amazing sights, and family and friends that I missed! I was also a bit nervous to navigate traveling in Japan by myself for the first time, and to see how much had changed. I had a great experience over my two week stay, and learned so much. These are my tips and mishaps on my first trip to Japan in over a decade!
A few weeks prior to my visit, I started filling out the necessary paperwork for entering Japan online. Visit Japan Web is the new system for Quarantine/Immigration procedures for entering Japan. Customs is already a stressful experience, and after my 13+ hour flight I was exhausted. Having the Visit Japan Web filled out prior to my trip helped make entering Japan much easier. I recommend saving screenshots of all of your barcodes (all three, for quarantine, immigration, and customs) ready and saved in your phone as the airport wifi isnt the most reliable.
After customs, the next step was obtaining wifi! I went with pocket wifi, which is a small rechargeable router that provides you with a wifi network. I picked mine up in the airport, and there are several different options for which company to rent through. I recommend picking this up at the airport so you can connect to wifi ASAP, and returning the device is easy since I was flying home through the same airport. Another option for getting signal on your trip are SIM cards. I opted for pocket wifi versus SIM because I was traveling in a group of 3, and this was more cost effective. SIM cards only provide internet for the one device it is installed in. SIM cards can be a great (and cheaper) alternative for those who travel solo. My pocket wifi with unlimited data usage cost about ~$9 per day.
Unlike the US, where mask usage and COVID protocols are lessening, Japan is still very COVID conscious. Make sure to bring extra masks and be mindful of COVID protocols in areas such as food courts and restaurants!
After getting through customs, obtaining wifi, and picking up my bags, I was ready to leave Narita airport and head to Haneda Airport, where my flight from Tokyo to Osaka (Kansai Airport) boarded. There is a train station in Narita that takes us directly to Haneda. In the past I would fly directly into Kansai Airport, but recently it seems like most flights to Japan come through either Narita or Haneda. This is where I learned that our four hour layover was not long enough to get us to Haneda. After the long lines for customs, waiting for baggage, and the 1.5 hour train ride between the two airports, I barely made it to the end of the boarding line for my flight to Osaka.
My aunt and cousin picked us up from Kansai Airport. We squeezed ourselves and our suitcases in her Prius. I was worn out from traveling, but so relieved for finally making it! We stopped by FamilyMart (a convenience store/conbini) for an easy dinner on our way to Wakayama, the next prefecture over, where my grandparents live and where my mom grew up. I felt so much nostalgia walking through my grandparents house, where I lived for a year, over ten years ago. Everything felt so much smaller than I remembered. My grandma gave me a handful of kairo (single-use handwarmers) which quickly became a necessity for those cold nights.
The next morning we went on a mission to get cash. My grandparents saved my piggy-bank cash from years ago for me to use, but having cash on hand in Japan is essential. I was surprised by the amount of drugstores and grocery stores that dont accept card payment. Cash is also a must for buying train tickets! My aunt took me to a bank but we were not able to withdraw Japanese yen from my US debit card. After some trial and error, we found that going to an ATM in 7/11 was the easiest way to get yen. Later on, I found that train stations in big cities often had foreign cash exchange agencies too if you have USD on hand.
I spent the next week at my grandparents house in Wakayama. My aunt took me to the local AEON mall, where I spent all day roaming food courts and shopping. My sister and I took our seijinshiki (coming of age ceremony) photos together, as I was a COVID seijin. We celebrated the new year with osechi and hatsumode (year’s first trip to a shrine). Our grandparent’s house is a stone throw away from a Lawson convenience store, which made for daily trips for a quick snack. When we werent indulging in cobini snacks, my aunt treated us to all-you-can-eat yakiniku, Gyoza no Oshyo (Chinese food, notable for great prices and even better gyoza), and lots of ramen!
Though every prefecture/region in Japan has its signature style of ramen, Wakayama’s is one of my favorites, with a rich tonkotsu soy sauce broth and a side dish of mackerel nigiri. A nostalgic childhood favorite and a must-have for matcha enthusiasts in this prefecture is Green Soft! For just 200yen (~$1.50 USD) you can enjoy the best Matcha soft serve. They also have other treats from parfaits to matcha hard candy that makes for a great gift! Wakayama is also known for its production of oranges and plums, so snacks and dishes based off of these ingredients is popular and are great souvenirs!
Leaving my grandparent’s home, our next destination was Osaka, where my dad grew up! We took the Nankai train, which my mom used to take for her commutes to work. I arrived in Shinsaibashi, a very tourist Osaka location. That night I stayed at Henna Hotel (directly translates to “Strange Hotel”) where a animitronic dinosaur checks you in. In Shinsaibashi, I visited the typical touristy sights such as the Glico man, and went shopping at the Pokemon Center and Ghibli Store (Donguri Kyouwakoku). I got to enjoy a childhood Osaka favorite for lunch: 551! They have the best pork buns and lunch sets!
I noticed that most public restrooms dont have paper towels for drying your hands, and hand dryers were non-operational likely due to COVID-related reasons. Something I completely neglected to think when packing for my trip was bringing a hankachi (hankerchief) for drying my hands. Luckily there are many, often really cute options in Japan available for purchase!
The next day I met with my childhood friend Hima in Kamishinjo, a city about 30 minutes away from Shinsaibashi by train. We took a trip to Umeda for the day, known for shopping and restaurants. We shopped around at Yodobashi Camera, a large electronics department store, and Loft, a household goods store that I love for its stationery floor. That night, back in Kamishinjo, we had drinks at Hima’s family’s business, El Camino. This bar with its pink walls and amazing decor is a perfect destination for foosball enthusiasts and those wanting to feel Osaka’s welcoming spirit! The next morning we went to another business of Hima’s family for lunch, a mexican restaurant Ogimachi Love Burrito in Tenma for some delicious chorizo tacos. I left Osaka with a full belly, a renewed appreciation for my Kansai roots, and love for my family friends who welcomed me so warmly.
Our next destination was Kyoto! Navigating train routes that often had multiple layovers, I downloaded a few apps in preparation, but Google Maps became my most helpful resource. When I made the mistake of buying the wrong ticket, the staff at the train stations were very helpful. Train stations also have booths where you can easily adjust your fare for overrides without penalty.
In Kyoto, we stayed at a hotel right across from Kyoto Station. In the station we stopped by Mister Donut, a donut chain store for a quick snack. We took a taxi to visit the shrine where my late grandparents were put to rest, then walked to Kiyomizudera. This temple visit was quite the walk, and I definitely shouldve worn better walking shoes! If its your first time visiting a shrine or temple, researching etiquette and how to make a proper visit is essential. Be sure to bring coin change with you for the offering box!
The next morning we headed out to Yokohama. I was very excited as we were taking the Shinkansen (bullet train) there! If you plan on taking the bullet train I reccomend reserving seats in advance online. They do have seating options for guests with big luggage, which was helpful for stowing away my suitcase. On the train we had eki-ben (station bento) which consisted of some onigiri and sandwiches. On our ride, we saw Mt. Fuji with very little cloud obstruction! December and January are known to be the months where you can get the best view of Fuji. We met with my friend Teru, who showed me around Yokohama. We took a walk to Osanbashi to catch the beautiful sunset along the Yokohama skyline, and got a light shadow of Mt. Fuji too! Yokohama is known for its Chuukagai (Chinatown) and Teru’s family treated us to an amazing dinner of baked Xio Long Bao and all-you-can-eat Chinese food, with candied strawberries and grapes from the street stands for dessert.
At this point I had done quite a bit of shopping, and the size of my luggage kept growing. Luckily Yamato Transport has a super convenient service where you can drop off your luggage at any of their counters and have it sent directly to the airport, so you can pick it up the day of your departure! I brought an extra empty bag for this purpose, but a cardboard box will also work. You can also have luggage sent to your next destination/hotel. This made getting through train stations and cities much easier. More info on this through their English website!
The following morning we headed to our final destination, Tokyo! We stayed in the Tokyo Sky Tree area, Oshiage, in a hotel conveniently close to the station. We visited Asakusa and saw the Kaminari-Mon. We also walked around Shibuya, visiting the statue of Hachiko, a very good boy, and perusing the many bookstores in the area. Then we headed to Tokyo teamLab Planets, catching a glimpse of the Tokyo tower on the train ride there. The interactive museum was beautiful, and we ended up going through twice! I should have done more research about the exhibits, as teamLab has rooms with mirror floors and areas where you are knee-deep in water, so outfit planning for your visit is key!
I planned a lot of foodie destinations during my trip but I also enjoyed fast-food and family restaurants for an easy casual meal, especially late in my trip when I was starting to get tired. I hate to admit that I am a fan of McDonalds (shortened to “Makudo” in Kansai region and “Makku” in Kanto region) and my go-to items are the samurai mac, shyaka-shyaka chicken, and a Qoo grape juice! My favorite Japanese fast-food burger chain is MOS Burger, with their specialty meat sauce in their burgers. Family restaurants, similar to American diners are a great place for an affordable and cozy meal, and they’re everywhere! My favorites are Gasuto, Bikkuri Donki (specializes in hamburgs), and Saizeriya (Italian-inspired dishes). Dont forget to order a drink bar pass so you can experience Melon Calipco Soda!
Departure day, my siblings and I were so tired (especially of each other) after spending two whole weeks together. I was so sad to be leaving Japan, but made sure I got to the airport early so I would have enough time to return my pocket wifi and pick up my luggage at the Yamato counter before checking in for my flight. I had my last Japan meal in the airport; some tea, salmon onigiri, and vending machine ice cream.
I had a great time over my two week stay in Japan, it definitely didn’t feel long enough! I felt like I learned so much through my experiences of trial and error, and caught myself dreaming about my next trip there! I felt a new appreciation for Japan, its delicious food everywhere, convenient travel, and endless supply of things to do and see. Next trip, I definitely hope to explore more prefectures and cities that I have never been to, and to immerse myself into different regional specialties! I hope that you are able to pick up a couple tips, do’s and dont’s from my experiences that will help you plan your trip to Japan!
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