I am always torn when people ask me for my advice on what is unmissable in both Tokyo and Kyoto. It is a really hard question to answer. There are so many amazing things to see in both places. However, as I am currently planning a trip with my mum and step-dad (their first time), I am trying to narrow down the most unmissable things for their 2 days in Tokyo and 6 days in Kyoto. (This blog started out as the Top 10…. I just couldn’t rationalise it any further).
Some things I feel are very touristy, but the reason for that is that they are worth seeing and everyone wants to go there. There are certainly amazing nooks and crannies around Japan that we have stumbled across, completely by accident, but you can’t plan for that, it is organic. The happy coincidences and the getting lost, mistaken discoveries, will happen regardless of your planning.
So, in no particular order, here are my Top 15 for Tokyo and Kyoto…..
Senso-Ji and Nakamise-Dori
Senso-Ji is athe oldest temple in Tokyo, situated in Asakusa, in the old area of Tokyo. (The shitamachi- low city). Nakamise-Dori is the covered marketplace street in front of the temple, but essentially part of the temple complex. The Kaminarimon, or Thunder Gate is a recognisable landmark and marks the entrance. The market is excellent. The temple is always busy with people lighting incense and worshipping. The whole surrounding area is really interesting, and there are many Showa Era soba restaurants, that serve delicious meals. You can read more about my experiences here.
Shibuya Crossing and Hachiko
Shibuya Crossing, or the Shibuya Scramble, is the busiest intersection in Tokyo. Around 1,000 people cross at each light change, many taking selfies or videos while they do so. The crossing is surrounded by highrise and neon and busyness and is very much Modern Tokyo. Just near the crossing is the statue of Hachiko, a famous Akita dog who waited at Shibuya Station every night for more than 9 years after his master had passed away. Read more about the crossing and the story of Hachiko here.
Edo-Tokyo Museum is an excellent way to become aquainted with Japanese history. Edo is the old name for Tokyo and the Edo period was from around 1604-1868. The museum has wonderful dioramas, life scale models, original equipment, vehicles, clothing and technology. There are swords, interactive exhibitions and I highly recommend this place for a little cultural background. The musuem also has rooms set up with Edo Era, Meiji Era and Showa Era furniture. The museum has a team of English speaking volunteer guides, who are very knowledgable, and as many descriptions are in Japanese, a great resource. You can read more about the museum on their link (there is a language option at the top) and more about my experience and lots of photos here.
Meiji Shrine and Harajuku
Meiji Shrine is right in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Harajuku. The shrine is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and his with Empress Shouken. Originally built in 1920, but raised during WW2, the current building was built in 1958. It is really spectacular, the buildings, the gardens and if you are lucky, a Shinto wedding ceremony. Just outside the Tori gates is the epicentre of pop-culture in Japan. Harajuku, the fashion capital. Takeshita Dori is lined with fashion shops (including Lolita and Goth and all the unique Japanese fashion styles), lolly shops, sock shops, souvenier shops and crepe shops. Harajuku crepes are super delicious, and my favourite shop is Marion Crepes. Serving deliciousness since 1976. Kiddyland and the MoMa shop are also located in Harajuku. (And every other possible designer you can think of). If you are really into fashion check out Cat Street. Read more about Meiji and Harajuku here and here.
Omoide Yokocho means Memory Lane in English. The affectionate name for this place in Japanese is “Piss Alley”. This highly “Instagrammed” alleyway in Shinjuku is lined with izakayas and tiny eateries, many of which seat only 8-10 people, and you often have to squeeze between the people and a wall to get a seat. This is, to me, the real Tokyo. Sitting in an izakaya, drinking house sake and eating yakitori after yakitori, seriously one of my favourite ever experiences. Read about Omoide Yokocho in Super Sake Boy’s excellent blog here.
Built in 1958 as a communications and observation tower, Tokyo Tower is a great way to get some perspective on Tokyo. At 332.9 m or 1092 ft, and inspired by the Eiffel Tower, it gives an excellent view across Tokyo. Bright orange and white, and lit up with neon at night, I really enjoyed going up to the Observation Deck (at 150 m) and watching the sunset over Mount Fuji in the distance…. My Tokyo Tower and surrounds experience can be read here.
Path of Philosophy, Ginkaku-Ji and Nanzen-Ji
This is a bit of a cheat putting these three major attractions in as one, however, you can certainly cover all three in a day, as we did, and it was magical, right at the peak of cherry blossom!! Ginkaku-Ji, or the Silver Pavillion, is a Zen Temple in Higashiyama, in Kyoto. Originally built as the retirement villa for Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the 8th Shogun of the Ashikaga Shogunate. Fashioned after his grandfather’s pavillion, Kinkaku-Ji, which I will discuss soon, this is one of my favourite buildings in Kyoto. Very simple and beautiful, in a wabisabi way, the vision of silver-foiling the exterior was never realised as the Onin War interrupted the construction. Yoshimasa did retire here, and lived out his life as a Buddhist monk. The Path of Philosophy, or Tetsugaku-no-michi, is a walking path, along a canal that runs from Ginkaku-Ji and ends at Nanzen-Ji. Named after Kyoto University philosopher Nishida Kintaro who walked the path in daily meditation, the canal is lined on one side with shops, selling local craft, potters, selling their wares and teaching classes in pottery and cafes. It is a wonderful stroll, busy in Spring with market stall vendors, buskers and many wedding photo shoots taking place. Nanzen-Ji is a Buddhist Temple completed in 1291. It burnt down several times and the current building dates from 1597. It is a spectacular temple, with delightful gardens and well worth a visit. You can read about my adventure along this very path here and extra information about Ginkaku-Ji here.
Kiyomizu-Dera, Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka
Kiyomizu-Dera means Clear Water Temple. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was originally built in 778, the current building was constructed in 1633, without a single nail being used. It is a wonderful temple, currently under restoration, but due to be finished in 2020. All of the building is still accessible, as it is the roof being restored. There are several vantage points in the ground to get a great view over Kyoto. The two steepish streets that run from the temple down to Nene-no-michi are Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka. These two streets remain reasonably unchanged over hundreds of years, and they are positively delightful!! Many beautiful old buildings, housing shops and restaurants and in one 100 year old machiya, a Starbucks, this area of Kyoto is really so charming. These streets get super busy during cherry blosoom and Golden Week, but they are worth dealing with the crowds for. The effort is far outweighed by the beauty and sense of timelessness that this area offers. One of my favourite Kyoto spots. Read about my experiences here and here.
NB. When I wrote the second blog linked here, I had no idea that many tourists dress up as geishas. So, it was my first trip and I was definitely a little less informed than I am now…..
As I have rambled on, I have decided to split this article in two. Making this list was not an easy task. I love so many things in Tokyo and Kyoto. Tune in next time for Tatsuminouen; Gion and Ponto-cho; Nijo-Jo; Daigo-Ji; Kinkaku-Ji; Arashiyama and last, but most certainly not least, Fushimi.