I once made a claim “I will not be eating ramen again till I make it to Japan.” No, I did not follow through with that statement. I like to make dramatic claims ok! Japan has been on our travel radar for many years. We’d hear about the amazing food, orderly life, nightlife, historical attractions, amazing food and knew we would visit one day. When a Chile Carretera Austral road trip fell through in November 2019 and we had to find a destination for December 2019, Japan worked out as a last minute, underrated low season winter destination. 

If you’ve done a little research for your trip already, I’m sure you’ve read about Kyoto. Yes, it’s historic, picturesque, and everything else you’ve heard. However, we went in the low season and still found it to be crazy busy. I’ve listed alternatives to Kyoto itineraries at the bottom.

This is not the usual blog post style you’ll see. I want to present you with a condensed and highlighted version of our Japan trip with our favorite memories. This way, after you’ve scoured the internet you can view this post and get random inspiration. Follow along if you are a food lover who likes to explore the nooks and crannies.

Basics:

  • 17 day trip with 2 travel days
  • 5 cities
  • 2 week JR rail pass
  • SIM card purchased at NRT airport from a vending machine
  • Backpack and carry on only for luggage
  • Style of Travel: moderate spender $265/day for 2 people with everything considered, excluding flight costs 

Highlights of Our Trip

1 – Tokyo

Two Thoughts:

  • Dive into the sensory overload experience if you stick to the known popular areas: Akihabara, Asakusa, Ginza, Shibuya, Harajuku, Ueno, etc.
  • Take in a different pace of life with local markets and temples if you visit the areas Monzennakacho (Exit 6, turn left and walk at alley across the street) and Tsukishima (Monja street)

Favorite Restaurants:

  • Kyushu Jangara: Ramen in Akihabara, a cozy and busy spot
  • Tsune Sushi: Local family run sushi in Asakusa at an adorable side street and friendly owner
  • Shou Toyosu: “Budget” omakase experience: at $45 pp, don’t get too obsessed with which restaurant has the longest line and suffer waiting. If you can’t get into Sushi Dai it will be okay. 

Favorite Attractions:

Housing Tip: Do not stay in the Adachi area to save money, it is too far. The Shinjuku area is a good location.

2 – Kanazawa

Two Thoughts:

  • Compact city with all the dreamy attractions: castle, “third” best Japanese garden, historic 18th century samurai district, historic villages day trip options, and small temples with NYE traditions 
  • Introduced to the world of izakayas and we were forever changed (also introduced to attempting to eat during New Year’s Eve night in Japan and failing)

Favorite Restaurants:

  • Oriental Brewing: Best fusion pizza and karaage on the trip. Trust us, we had karaage 5 times 
  • Isaan: Wonderful one man izakaya with a hand written english menu 

Favorite Attractions:

  • Kenrokuen Garden: Japanese garden obsession at its finest, you’re in for a treat for anything “third best” in Japan
  • Higashi Chaya District: Go before 9 am before the shops open to really step back in time
  • Shiurai-Jinja Shrine: We went for NYE 2020 and got a hug with Kima-chan the temple mascot 

Housing Tip: Airbnb – Staying near the Kenroku-en garden is a good central location for walking to attractions and restaurants 

Higashi district of beautifully maintained 18th century houses
Higashi district of beautifully maintained 18th century houses

3 – Kobe

Two Thoughts:

  • More than beef, a more relaxed city compared to Osaka with parks and interesting history
  • Jazz, tempura, colonial buildings as Starbucks, a Chinatown, and the port in the evening are what we’ll remember 

Favorite Restaurants:

  • Ashiya Tengayu: A high quality multi course tempura experience that changed the way we view tempura
  • Kobe Beef Ramen Yazawa: A cheaper kobe beef tasting option with ramen
  • Neiro Restaurant: Located in a mall for a “cheaper” $35 tiny but delectable piece kobe beef teppanyaki experience, there’s a full menu of other delicious items too

Favorite Attractions:

  • Carpentry Museum: Architecturally beautiful modern building with wood workshop classes
  • Kobe Sone Jazz: A live jazz show with excellent performers 
  • Yamaya: Huge store to buy your Japanese for whiskey
  • Mount Shosha: Skip Himeji and do Mount Shosha for a true ancient temple complex
  • Kobe sake breweries crawl: Wish sake breweries were open for tours but they were closed for new year holidays

Housing Tip: Galo Hostel – Convenient hostel with a wonderfully helpful owner

View of the Kobe Harbor at night

4 – Beppu

Two Thoughts:

  • The hub of the Oita prefecture on the island of Kyushu and a must go experience for a traveler looking to explore a smaller Japanese city 
  • Onsens, mountains, quality affordable food, a bit of a grunge, a laid back pace of life and a great base to explore the region
  • Reddit post which inspired me to consider Beppu

Favorite Restaurants:

  • Noodle Factory Life: Refreshingly great ramen and side dishes with a warm owner 
  • Kamesho Kurukuru: The only conveyor belt sushi experience you need in your life
  • Yakiniku Arata: The highest quality yakiniku beef experience for ~$60 you won’t find in the big cities
  • Yamayoshi: Regional dried shiitake and shiitake soft-serve ice cream, no you won’t regret it 

Favorite Attractions:

  • Hyotan Onsen: A 100% natural spring water recently renovated foreigner friendly public onsen with $20/hr private onsens too
  • Beppu Park: Stroll at this park and get a cheese tart at the Starbucks at the edge
  • Haruki River Park: Look at the mountains and sit by the river on the stairs 
  • Mount Tsurumi: Wish we had time to go to this spot for views but onsens were calling 

Housing Tip: Airbnb near Beppu Station with a bunch of restaurants around and well linked to transportation

Private onsen at Hyotan

5 – Kyoto

Two Thoughts:

  • The most popular hub for people to visit. If you decide to visit, we highly recommend going during low season
  • There are still gems here if you’re looking for peaceful temples and walks

Favorite Restaurants:

  • Hinode Udon: Hinode Udon for curry noodles near Philosopher’s Path
  • Takashimaya: Sushi at a “depachika” a department store basement level fancy food court
  • Hisadori: Charcoal yakitori restaurant, look for a little sign and go up the stairs
  • Ramen Sen no Kaze: Visiting during winter, you need a ramen every 2 days 

Favorite Attractions:

Housing Tip: Elitz Inn – This location of Elitz Inn was perfect for attractions, accessibility, and food. Don’t stay near Kyoto Station.

Sunset at Kiyomizu-dera temple

Lessons Learned

  1. New Year travel: plan very carefully for busy times on the train and for attractions to be closed
  2. Alternative to Kyoto: look for smaller cities! We found Beppu, Kobe, and Kanazawa to be our favorite places.
  3. Lawson and 7-11: get your morning coffee here 
  4. Cash: always keep cash for restaurants 
  5. Nagomi visit: it will feel expensive but is a local connection building experience 
  6. Basement grocery store sushi: higher quality than home and so tasty
  7. Train station regional cookies: high quality and the choices are endless
  8. Sulfur: this smell will get on your clothes if you go to a mud onsen, plan for older clothes 
  9. Knife at department store: spent $60 on a Kai Seki Magoroku Japanese branded knife if your budget was mid range like mine and you won’t regret it
  10. Beef: don’t get too obsessed with paying $150 for beef, $50 will be amazing too
  11. High winds can stop trains for 3 hours so have downloaded shows and books ready
  12. Ramen can be bad in Japan; if you see an unclean greasy wall restaurant then walk away
  13. Izakayas are the best places to eat a variety of food with a unique spin based on the region (don’t be afraid to go to no English menu ones)

Japan Suggested Itineraries

Alternatives to Kyoto #1: Seven Days in Oita and Kumamoto Kyushu

Alternatives to Kyoto #2: Seven Days in Kanazawa and Kobe

  • Day 1 – Kanazawa
  • Day 2 – Kanazawa
  • Day 3 – Kanazawa
  • Day 4 – Kanazawa to Kobe
  • Day 5 – Kobe 
  • Day 6 – Kobe to Mt Shosha
  • Day 7 – Kobe

Alternatives to Kyoto #3 – A Non Traditional Two Week Japan Itinerary:

  • Day 1 – Kanazawa
  • Day 2 – Kanazawa
  • Day 3 – Kanazawa
  • Day 4 – Kanazawa to Kobe
  • Day 5 – Kobe 
  • Day 6 – Kobe
  • Day 7 – Kobe to Beppu
  • Day 8 – Beppu 
  • Day 9 – Beppu
  • Day 10 – Beppu to Kurokawa
  • Day 11 – Kurokawa
  • Day 12 – Kurokawa to Fukuoka
  • Day 13 – Fukuoka
  • Day 14 – Fukuoka

Favorite TTM Cards for Trip

  1. Jump at the chance to ask a local about the area
    Asking the owner of the Galo Hostel to tell us about the Kobe area was fantastic. We got so many good tips on places to eat and what to see. Without his help, we may have skipped Mt. Shosha, one of the highlights of our trip!
  2. Create a breakfast with local products
    Lawson for the win! OK, we know that’s cheating. Instead of breakfast, we often bought a mid-day snack at the grocery stores. The grocery store sushi often beat the stuff we get at restaurants in the US (even the nice ones.)
  3. Bring back a souvenir that can be consumed 
    We brought back 2 bottles of Japanese whiskey (finally had luck at Yamaya), the best dried shitake mushrooms we’ve ever had (from Beppu), and miso paste.
  4. Choose a restaurant without looking up reviews online
    We were rejected from five straight restaurants on New Years weekend because we didn’t make reservation in Kanazawa. We randomly walked into an izakaya that had a couple of seats left. No one on the staff spoke any English and Google Translate wasn’t working well on this menu. Luckily, we made friends with our neighbors who ordered food and drinks for us! It was one of the friendliest travel experiences we’ve had.
  5. Evaluate if you could live here
    Whew, this one is hard. We loved our time in Japan but living there would be tough given the language barrier and cultural challenges. But we definitely want to visit again!

Questions?

Please leave a comment below or email me. I’m happy to help!

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