July 21st, 2023
I first moved to Japan in September 2008 on the Daiwa Scholarship; a unique 19-month programme of language study, work placement and homestay in Japan. My work placement led to a job offer at RIKEN Brain Science Institute founding several businesses and ultimately about 12 years on and off in the land of the rising sun.
Given my long relationship with Japan, I often get asked for travel tips from friends or friends of friends who are about to go on their own Japan Adventure. I thought it best to try and write one guide to give my take on how to approach a trip to Nippon.
Let me start by saying, I genuinely believe that you could go to Japan with absolutely no plan and have the time of your life. The things that make Japan fascinating; the mix of modern with traditional, its strong cultural identity alongside its flirtations with western values, are there to see in everything you will come across. If you go to Japan with an observant and open mind, a sense of adventure and simply follow your own nose, you will soon sniff out the things that interest you the most and have an adventure completely unique to you. If you’re anything like me, by the end of your two week trip, your adventure will probably feel incomplete, and you’ll definitely a reason to come back again and explore some more.
Whilst I’ve travelled through most of Japan, I spent the bulk of my time in Tokyo, so I’ll devote most of my attention here. Just like French people will tell you Paris isn’t the real France, Japanese people will tell you Tokyo isn’t the real Japan.. but for your purposes I think it’s Japanese enough. Honestly, if you decided to stay in Tokyo for 2 weeks and just run a few day trips or overnight stays in places like Hakone, Chichibu, Yokohama, Nagano (in the winter), Nikko, Isshiki Kaigan (in the summer) you could have a great time and see some different sides to the country.
If you want entertainment, bars, restaurants and good access to most parts of the city by train you should choose Shibuya, Shinjuku (make sure you are specifying the station, these names also represent large areas of the city and a place can claim to be in these districts but actually not offer the access you desire). Those of you that know me, know I booked a lot of hotels for musicians with my live music crowdfunding startup Alive, Personally I always found this specific hotel to hit the sweet spot in terms of size of rooms to price ratio, 10 mins walk from the station, with mini kitchenette and a 24 hour supermarket across the street and plenty of great restaurants and things to do in walking distance, including Shibuya Station which is just 10 minutes away (be careful not to book the other Shibuya hotel owned by this chain though, it’s not bad but its on the more boring side of the station). If you want to splurge in Shibuya I’d probably book the Cerulean Hotel, they have the best breakfast. There’s also Trunk Hotel, which is very hip, never stayed there though.
For Shinjuku I won’t recommend any hotels.. because to be honest, my personal attitude towards Shinjuku is it’s fun to visit.. because I know I live somewhere else. I find it more dirty, there's a lot more red light district (though you can find districts all over Tokyo - this guide won’t cover those - sorry), and it just feels a bit more rough to me. That’s just my personal taste though, some people love it, and it’s very well connected transport wise.
You’ll probably notice a lot of cheap accommodation around places like Shinagawa; don’t stay here. This is basically a soulless business district that dies completely when the workers go home on the weekends. It’s not worth the discount in my opinion. Note there is a major station for the Shinkansen here (bullet train) but it’s easy to get here by train from Shibuya or Shinjuku and you won’t be riding the Shinkansen everyday.
I used to live in a district called Shimokitazawa, which I guess was like the old Camden Town of Tokyo, very bohemian, lots of live music venues, second hand clothes stores and students milling about. Also great restaurants, bars and a more local feeling… but that all changed. Just like Camden Town, redevelopment came and the old market, standing bars, yakitori stands and hole-in-the-ground squat toilet that made me fall in love with the place were bulldozed for a new train and bus station! It’s not what it was, but it still retains some of its old charm (definitely not as much). Anyway, as part of the redevelopment it finally has a hotel (here’s a review), so Shimokitazawa could be an option, it has direct trains to Shibuya and Shinjuku, so fairly easy to get around, if you are happy to add an extra 20 mins to your journey time.
Remember, I was 22 when I arrived in Tokyo.. so I have a tendency to lean towards more noisy exciting places.. as an older person, possibly with a partner and children, I might make very different choices.
2023/07/21 - Right, that’s all for today. I am going to keep updating this when I have time. Feel free to email me using the contact form if there is anything specific you absolutely need covering in this guide. Also words of encouragement appreciated... because this is already taking a lot more time than I'd hoped!