Japan Recommendations

Japan Recommendations

I get asked a lot what we recommend for Japan. Food, accommodation, cities to visit etc. Here is a compiled list of my thoughts. Obviously we don't live there, but we have been there enough times to form some opinions. I'll also provide brief thoughts on what to see. Always double check locations in case they are no longer in business or available. These are my opinions and suggestions and may definitely not be the best for what you are looking for.

City specific posts are coming soon…


If you are looking for a introductory visit to Japan, the three main cities are Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. My suggestion is to fly into Osaka or Tokyo and leave from the opposite city. This means you can work your way through the country and not have to backtrack.

My preference is to fly into Osaka and leave from Tokyo. I always like leaving and ending the trip from Tokyo because it is the city I prefer the most.
If you are flying via Tokyo there are two airports. Narita and Haneda. Narita is outside of the city and requires transit that can take up to an hour by bus or fast train adding an additional expense and wasted time. Haneda is in the city and easily accessible by subway or taxi. Haneda is my preference if pricing and timing works for you.

Book directly with the airline. If something goes wrong, you will only have to deal with the Airline and not a middle man like Expedia.

Many of the Japanese airports have observation decks! Haneda, Nagoya, and Nagasaki are a few that we have been to. Always take a look at the airport map.

Hotels or AirBNB?

We are hotel people, we would rather use points or stay in hotels when travelling over AirBNB. Hotels tend to be more conveniently located, sometimes right next to train stations and hubs of activity. All the walking adds up, especially if you want to head back to get a nap and although AirBNB's may have some benefits, the thought of having to clean up after yourself sort of ruins the fun of travelling. Let me leave my towel on the floor!

We game the hotel system by using the Amex Cobalt Card. This card provides 5x on grocery stores and you can transfer the points accrued to Marriott Bonvoy or Air Canada. We have stayed in some very nice hotels, largely because of these points.

There are Western style hotels and also Japanese style. We tend to stay at the Western style hotels because of our points and benefits, but there is nothing wrong with the Japanese style. In my experience, Japanese style hotels tend to have smaller rooms and bathrooms which may be an adjustment. We even found a hotel once that had three single beds when we were travelling with a friend, but normally rooms that sleep more than 2 are harder to find.

Shinkansen and Train Pass

If you plan to take the Shinkansen (bullet train) around the country and it is worth the cost, the JR Pass is a lot of fun. With recent increases to the cost, it may be harder to get your moneys worth. It all depends on your itinerary, I love having the pass if it is worth it for a trip because I will not hesitate to hop on a Shinkansen or even a regional train which is also included, for an hour to visit a small town or hit up a restaurant on the coast.

The Shinkansen is one of my favourite places to be. The smoothness, the gentle sway and the sound it makes when it passes another train in a tunnel at 300km/h. The trains are so comfortable and really a fantastic way to get around the country. You also don’t need to be early, you can arrive 5 minutes before your train leaves.

Eating on Shinkansen is accepted, I always bring my convenience store eats. Eating on a subway or local train is not.

It is not hard to navigate Japan. Map systems, I prefer Apple Maps for very detailed transit directions, are so well programmed there is never a problem navigating the subway and train system. Stations themselves are incredibly well signed. My favourite is that every station will have a diagram telling you want train to be on for the best exit for stairs, escalate, elevator, or transfer so you be as efficient as possible at every station. Follow the map directions, it will tell you what exit is best for your destination. We also find that Apple maps is better for general searching also over Google Maps. Data is a must, use your eSim!

Random Thoughts

I like to make Osaka the home base instead of splitting time between Kyoto and Osaka. It is 30 minutes by train to Kyoto, 60 minutes by train to Nara. Kyoto is a beautiful city for the main sites (once), but I would much rather be in Osaka.

Nara is fun to visit for the deer. It's a good half day trip or longer if you would like and is always worth a first time visit. It is really fun seeing deer run after people who have treats for them.

We aren't temple people. We enjoy them if there is some defining characteristic, like the largest wooden temple in Nara for example. But we normally see the hot spots and then move on from castles, temples, and shrines. Temple fatigue, it's real.

For historical purposes, Hiroshima is a great visit for the Peace Museum. You can also bundle Hiroshima with Miyajima.


Random Tips

The Suica card will be your best friend. You can get the app in the App Store and add money via Apple Pay. Everywhere in the country takes Suica, especially at stations. This will allow you to pay for transit, taxis, food sometimes, shopping sometimes, many vending machines and of course 7-11 and other delicious convenience stores. And as you run out of money you can easily add immediately from Apple Pay.

Set your Suica card as your Express Transit Card if you have an iPhone. You can do this either on your Apple Watch or iPhone. You won't need to authenticate when you use Suica, you can just tap.

I yearn for the department stores of Japan. Not only the variety of products and selection, but also for the food. The upper floors are normally restaurants, some casual, some higher end. The basement levels are food too, normally a grocery store and stalls where you can pick up various ready made foods. There are always some more fast style restaurants in the lower floors too. Don’t discount the food of department stores! Lastly, many department stores incorporate gardens and open space on the roof. Sometimes you can get a great view of the surrounding area from the roof of a department store! Often times there are playgrounds and kid play areas also. Always take the time to look at the department store map to see what they have to offer. The restaurant floors normally have an express elevator that is available after the store closes to service the later hours of the restaurants.