Even the most seasoned traveler will be dazzled by Japan. Aside from the island nation's beautiful temples, endless shopping, incomparable sushi and unrivaled tea, you'd be hard pressed not to be blown away by the Japanese people themselves. Enviably calm in demeanor, they are the most well-mannered, clean ($1,000,000 to anyone who spots a single piece of garbage while they are there…) and polite people you'll ever meet. Two weeks in Japan and I never heard so much as a scream, car horn or crying baby, and I traveled to the most populous areas at peak season.
Be prepared, however, for the fact that 99.9% of the people you will encounter do not speak English, including servers at top restaurants, hotel staff and cab drivers (nor can they read the Latin alphabet, so your best bet is to show them a piece of paper with where you want to go written out in Japanese). If you can afford it, get a private guide because getting around any other way is nearly impossible; in fact, even with a private guide you may have trouble finding things, as there are no western-style addresses and the buildings are not numbered sequentially. The city is divided in Ku (the character for Ku is 区, a Ku is then divided into several Machi (町), which are then further divided into several Chome (丁目). After that is a number within the Chome–but again, buildings are not numbered sequentially. It cannot be understated how difficult it is to get around if you do not have a guide that speaks Japanese and knows the area very well.
Lastly, it is worth traveling during Japan's cherry blossom season, which usually ends in late March. This is the peak season, however, so it's essential to reserve hotels, restaurants and guides ahead of time. It's worth bearing in mind that Japan–already very expensive–is considerably more pricey during this very popular travel time.
Here's a closer look at what makes Japan one of the most unique places in the world.
Where to Stay in Tokyo
Most people start their Japan trip in Tokyo, a great option since it has access to bullet trains. Be forewarned that the airport is about 90 minutes outside of central Tokyo, which translates into a $250 cab ride unless you are able to get on a bus (which will only stop at select hotels and often fill up). There are many hotel options, including all the well-known top ones like the Ritz-Carlton, the Mandarin Oriental and the Peninsula, all of which are well located. Also worth singling out is the Imperial, which is just steps away from the popular Ginza shopping area.
Taxis in Japan cost a fortune. Ten minutes can easily set you back $20 since they start at around $7.50. On the plus side, you'd be hard pressed to find cabs anywhere else in the world that are as clean and the drivers wear suits and white gloves–just don't expect them to speak English.
About every other person in Japan wears a surgical face mask. I was told it's because they're sick...that's a lot of unwell people! Given how well-mannered the Japanese are, it's perhaps not that surprising that they try so hard to be considerate of others by not spreading germs.
Fruit in Japan is incredibly expensive and not easy to find, as evidenced by my breakfast, which cost $40 and got progressively smaller as the days went by.
Even if you don't make it to Tsukiji Market in time for the tuna auctions (they start around 5:30 a.m. and end by 7:00 a.m.), it's worth the trip to see the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world.
There are a number of tiny spots around the fish market to eat sushi and people line up very early to get some of the world's freshest fish (peak times are around 7-8 a.m. when you can expect to wait an hour or so).
Meiji Jingu Shrine
Arguably Tokyo's most famous temple, it's dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and his wife.
Try your best to head to the Meiji shrine on Sunday when you're likely to see a traditional wedding procession.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
Always stunning, this traditional garden is especially beautiful during cherry blossom season.
Aside from the temple itself, there are two adjacent shrines and the street leading to the temple, Nakamise-dōri, is full of shops.
The Imperial Palace, Shinjuku Gyoen and Rikugien Garden are also popular sites.
Most gardens and temples have an area where traditional matcha tea and sweets are served, but you'll have to take off your shoes and enjoy it seated on the floor.
Food Around the Temples
Nearly every temple has tons of interesting food options at the exits.
Cherry Blossom Crisps
Among the unique buys you'll find as you exit the temples are dried, pickled cherry blossoms.
See What You Eat
Most places don't have English menus, but they do have plastic re-creations of every or nearly every dish on the menu (though many often look alike and it's impossible to tell what kind of protein may be in a dish).
You might have questions about the food even if there are images AND the menu is in English, but given how clean most everything is in Japan, you should try to be more adventurous when it comes to food.
Eating on the Floor
It is very common for even the most physically fit person to become uncomfortable eating this way. If you're planning on having a traditional kaiseki dinner (which lasts 2-3 hours), you may want to inquire whether it involves sitting on the floor.
Traditional ramen is widely available. You've got to try it at least once!
New York Grill
As one of Toyko's most famous high-end restaurants–thanks in large part to Lost in Translation–New York Grill will not disappoint. The thought of going to an American-themed steakhouse in Tokyo may seem absurd, but not only is the food perfection, the view from the 52nd floor is unbeatable. If you can't afford the fine dining restaurant, there is an adjacent bar with equally gorgeous views and live music.
Go to at least one teppanyaki restaurant where food is cooked on an iron griddle right in front of you. If you're an animal lover however, avoid ordering lobster and prawns, which are inhumanely put live on the griddle.
Cherry Blossoms at Night
If you go to Tokyo during cherry blossom season, make sure to stop by the Ritz-Carlton, which is surrounded by illuminated trees.
For some of the best people watching and a slew of boutiques, head to Harajuku, which tends to be affordable and teen-friendly.
Omotesando, Shibuya, Aoyama and Ginza
Next to Harajuku is Omotesando, an upscale shopping area where you will find very design-minded shops. Also nearby are Aoyama and Shibuya, and equally high-end, but not in walking distance, is Ginza.
This area is like Times Square for gaming and tech stuff. Interestingly enough, many of the games have food items as prizes (versus stuffed animals).
Margiela in Japan
Rickshaws were invented in Japan and are a fairly popular way to see the city...check out the "drivers'" shoes, which must have served as inspiration to Margiela.
You can't leave Tokyo without checking out the food court in at least one mall. The most well-known one is in Isetan (the Bergdorf Goodman of Tokyo).
Sushi K at Isetan
Expect to find the most perfect sushi rolls.
Kit-Kats are extremely popular in Japan, so it's fitting that they opened a shop in Tokyo that sells all kinds of flavors not available anywhere else in the world. Flavors include Strawberry Cheesecake, Rum Raisin, Apple and Green Tea, Mandarin and Lemon, Purple Potato and Cinnamon Cookie. Matcha is worth singling out as a must-try. It's hard to come by in Tokyo, but easy to find in Kyoto–though be prepared to pay between $5 and $10.
One could spend hours being entertained by the packaged goods at 7-Eleven and other convenience stores located on nearly every block.
There are countless designer boutiques in Tokyo, but they are very hard to find–even locals have trouble locating them because of the way the city is organized. Your best bet is just to wander the shopping areas singled out in previous slides. If you come across a branch of The Dayz Tokyo, however, make a point to stop in, as it is one of the few places you can buy things not available online or in the U.S.
Though they don't stock much you can't find in the U.S. in terms of ready-to-wear, it's worth going into at least one mall (Isetan is the most impressive).
No matter how fancy (or questionable) the restaurant or hotel in which you find yourself in is, odds are it will have a very sophisticated toilet.
Kinkakuji in Kyoto
Getting from Tokyo to Kyoto is a quick two-hour bullet train ride, but it's well worth staying in Kyoto for a few days. Among the most popular sites is the Golden Pavilion, Kinkakuji, a zen temple whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. It's located in a beautiful park.
Kiyomizu-dera, Nanzen-ji and Ryoan-ji temple
Kiyomizu-dera, Nanzen-ji and Ryoan-ji are three other noted temples. The latter is famous for its rock garden.
The Path of Philosophy
A cherry blossom-lined path leading to Ginkaku-ji Temple at the northern end.
Maruyama-koen Park is one of the most popular spots in Kyoto for cherry blossom viewing. Also worth checking out is Kamo-gawa River, which is lined with them.
This impressive temple contains a thousand life-size statues of the Thousand Armed Kannon, the main deity of the temple.
Founded nearly three centuries ago, this is the place to go for the highest quality Japanese green tea. You'll find a tea room in addition to the shop, which offers tastings.
Many women and a few men roam the streets in traditional dress–if you're lucky, you might find one of them taking a selfie...
Be prepared to work for the best views at some of the temples/shrines.
Known as "Kyoto's Kitchen," this seemingly never-ending market has countless vendors selling everything from little knick-knacks and fresh produce, to dried fish, dumplings and teas.
The geisha district, Gion, is filled with Ochaya where customers drink and dine while Maiko (a Geisha in training) and Geisha entertain them.
Hiroshima is about two hours by bullet train from Kyoto. It's not the nicest city, so while it's worth a day trip, you probably won't want to spend the night.
As one of the few things that didn't get wiped out by the atomic bomb, the skeletal ruins of the former Industrial Promotion Hall is now on the World Heritage List.
Peace Memorial Park's Eternal Flame
Called the eternal flame, the hope is that it will one day be turned off when all nuclear weapons in the world are abolished.
Children's Peace Monument
You can read more about this touching memorial, dedicated to the children who died instantly as well as those who died afterward from the effects of radiation, here.
A Traditional Ryokan
From Kyoto or Hiroshima you can easily get to Hakone where you can stay at a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese Inn. The experience is unlike any other. Gora Kadan is the most well-known and considered to be among the top five hotels in Asia–given that you sleep on a futon, this says a lot.
Gora Kadan serves one of the most elaborate kaiseki dinners in Japan. The best part about the meal? You don't have to leave the premise, as following traditional custom, it is served in your room.
Head to Hakone's gondolas, called the Hakone Ropeway, for a view of Mount Fuji.
Hakone Open-Air Museum
You could spend all day at Hakone's famed outdoor museum. The sprawling space is peppered with more than 400 20th century sculptures (both outdoors and indoors) and includes works by Carl Milles, Willem de Kooning, Joan Miró and Henry Moore. The museum also boasts a Picasso Pavilion and several installations for children.