The Selfish Guide to Japan
[Update: Since the Selfish Year, Mr. Selfish and I have spent some additional time in Japan, including Okinawa. I’ve updated the Fukuoka and Tokyo parts below and have added a section on Okinawa all the way at the bottom.]
Mr. Selfish and I spent a wonderful 43 days in Japan. Even though we were there for about a month and a half, we never got sick of it. We love the people, the food, the sights, pretty much everything about Japan. Here was our itinerary:
- 1. 1 day in Fukuoka
- 2. 2 days in Kurokawa
- 3. 23 days in Kyoto with day trips to Osaka, Nara, and Mount Kurama
- 4. 3 days in Kanazawa
- 5. 14 days in Tokyo
Fukuoka for Ramen
Mr. Selfish and I only spent one night in Fukuoka as a stop on our way to Kurokawa, which we regretted. Here is our barebones Google map:
Fukuoka is where tonkatsu ramen originated, and I would highly recommend visiting some ramen restaurants if you visit. Our favorite is Ichiran, where you can customize your bowl of ramen in at least eight different ways.
[Update] However, if you only have a short period of time and want to maximize your consumption of ramen bowls, you should head over to Ramen Stadium in the Canal City Mall. You can choose from eight different ramen restaurants!
I also highly recommend staying at the Grand Hyatt. Not only is the staff phenomenal but the location and the rooms are very nice.
Kurokawa for Onsen Time
Visitors come to Kurokawa onsen town to have a few days away from everything and indulge in onsens. We didn’t even make a Google map of Kurokawa. All you need is the paper map of where all of the onsens are.
You should buy an onsen pass, which will allow you to visit 3 onsens for 1200 yen total.
Then, all you have to do is choose your three onsens and enjoy them. Mr. Selfish and I really liked Ryokan Yamamizuki, Hozantei, and Yambiko Ryokan.
You should also stay at a traditional ryokan, where the service is impeccable and the meals are extravagant. We found the Ryokan Sanga to have the perfect mix of tradition and English-speaking staff.
Kyoto for Culture and History
Mr. Selfish and I spent 23 days in Kyoto and really got a great sense of it. Not surprisingly, it is my favorite city in Japan (thus far). I really enjoyed living in a city but still being surrounded by shrines and temples that are thousands of years old.
Because we spent so long in Kyoto, our Google map is quite extensive:
We hit all of the major sights in Kyoto, and here is our top 5 list of attractions:
1. Inari Shrine – a shinto shrine dedicated to the god Inari, who is the god of prosperity, and usually marked by orange-red torii gates. You can walk to the top of the hill through thousands of torii gates in about three hours.
2. Arashiyama – a district in the western area of Kyoto. Although it was a little difficult to get to, it was well worth it for the monkey park and my favorite temple of all time, Otaginenbutsuji Temple.
3. Kiyomizu – a beautiful Buddhist temple founded in 798. I highly recommend visiting during cherry blossom season or when the autumn leaves are changing.
4. Philosopher’s Path – a two-kilometer stone path that Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers, supposedly walked every day to meditate. You can start at the Silver Pavilion and end at the Nanzenji Temple.
5. Yamamoto Honke Sake Brewery – a sake brewery where you can take a private tour in English. Yamanoto is run by an adorable Japanese couple, who will tell you all about their prize winning sake.
As for food, we had many delicious meals in Kyoto, and here are top 5 standouts:
1. Chabuya for amazing yakitori
2. Fukei for crispy and delicious karaage
3. Izuju Sushi for Kyoto-style sushi
4. Marugame Udon for fresh and cheap udon
5. Kinako for delectable Japanese dessert
Even though we are an old married couple, we enjoyed the night life of Kyoto. In particular, we loved Samurai Café & Bar, which is a little karaoke shop right off of Pontocho-dori.
Finally, we also took three day trips from Kyoto. First, we went to Osaka, for which I definitely recommend you buy the Osaka Unlimited Pass. With the 2000 yen (~$20) pass, you can go to Osaka Castle, the Floating Garden Observatory, the Hep Five Ferris Wheel, Tsūtenkaku Tower, Spa World (at a discount), and other attractions.
Here’s our Google map for Osaka:
Second, we visited Nara and got attacked by deer. Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time. Aside from feeding the deer, you should also visit Kasuga-Taisha Shrine and Todai-Ji Temple while in Nara.
Here’s our Google map for Nara:
Third, we went to Mount Kurama, which I didn’t think was that worthwhile as a day trip (although I did get some good exercise from all of the walking).
Kanazawa for the Sushi
Mr. Selfish and I spent 3 days in Kanazawa at the lovely former geisha house, Yogetsu Inn. Here’s our Google map:
The primary reason to go here is for the sushi. Apparently, Kanazawa is in the ideal location for sushi – it’s close to the ocean (allowing for an abundant supply of fresh fish) and near the alps (providing the area with fresh spring water and great conditions for rice). We absolutely loved the sushi at Otomezushi. Be sure to make reservations in advance as it is a small and popular restaurant.
Tokyo for the City Life
Mr. Selfish and I spent 14 days in Tokyo this time around. Here’s our Google map of Tokyo:
We spent the first nine days at an Airbnb in Shinjuku, and for the last five days, we relaxed in luxury at the Park Hyatt Tokyo. If you enjoy Lost in Translation or hotels with superb service, I would definitely stay at the Park Hyatt.
I love wandering around the different areas of Tokyo and people watching. As we were enjoying the Meiji Temple, we caught a traditional wedding procession.
We also happened upon the weekly Sunday cosplayer get-together in Harajuku. I couldn’t imagine dedicating that much time, effort, and resources to costumes for fun, but those cosplayers were sure into it!
In Shinjuku, we discovered the Toto Showroom and has a blast looking at toilets for our future forever home.
I also highly recommend catching a sumo tournament if you can. It was a lot more entertaining and epic than I thought it would be.
[Update] For a very odd but quintessential Japanese experience, I recommend the Shinjuku Robot Show. The show is a mixture of robots and strippers. I’m not really a fan of strippers, but man, these ladies were in great cardiovascular shape!
As for food, the 35 Steps is our favorite izakaya hands-down. The food is tasty and reasonably priced, and the service was excellent. Do try the cured mackerel; it’s quite delicious!
[Update] If you’re looking for some fantastic wagyu beef, go to Maruni. The beef is scrumptious and the meal is fairly well priced for wagyu. Mr. Selfish and I spent 5,000 yen per person for a multiple course prix-fixe meal that included unlimited alcohol for two hours!
As for day trips, we absolutely loved Tokyo DisneySea. From the multi-flavored popcorns to the obsession with Duffy to how perfectly the park is designed, DisneySea is the best Disney park in the world in my humble opinion.
For another day trip, if you’re a Ghibli fan, I highly recommend visiting the Ghibli Museum. There are two huge plushes of Totoro and Catbus – enough said.
[Update] Okinawa: Beachy and Very Different from the Rest of Japan
In November 2013, Mr. Selfish and I spent four nights in Okinawa. It was an entirely different experience from the other parts of Japan we’ve visited. The culture and the food had a completely different vibe. Plus, there were so many Americans there from the military base that almost everyone spoke English and knew that we were American.
We spent two nights in Naha, which is close to the airport, and then two nights in Nago, which is in the middle of the prefecture. We also rented a car and found it quite easy to navigate around Okinawa.
Here’s our Google map from Okinawa:
The first thing I recommend in Okinawa is to enjoy all of the shisas, which are similar to Chinese fu dogs. We saw them everywhere on the island and even purchased a set for ourselves and a few more sets as gifts.
As for the sights near Naha, I recommend Shuri Castle, which was the official palace of the islands from the 15th to the 19th centuries. It has been masterfully restored and is quite lovely.
I also recommend Shikinaen Garden, which is close to Shuri Castle. Mr. Selfish and I went quite late in the day and was able to enjoy the serenity of the garden all by ourselves.
Near Nago, I recommend the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, which is currently the third largest aquarium in the world. The biggest attraction is a huge tank with three whale sharks.
Close to the aquarium is the Nago Pineapple Park. If you love kitsch, definitely go here. Plus, you can eat pineapple product samples to your heart’s content.
The Nakagusuku Castle Ruins is also a very nice and easy attraction to see. Mr. Selfish and I stopped here on our way back from Nago to Naha.
Mr. Selfish and I loved the food in Okinawa. It was quite different from the other parts of Japan with a focus on pork belly, bitter melon, tofu, and soba. Yum!
You must also try taco rice, which is the ultimate fusion of American and Japanese comfort food. It sounds a little odd but I rather enjoyed it.
Last but not least, if you see a Blue Seal, stop there and order a cone of soft serve and scoop ice cream. I really enjoyed Beni-imo (purple sweet potato) and Ube (sweet purple yam) as flavors.
Mr. Selfish and I love Japan so much that we are taking Baby Selfish there in May 2015. She will be approximately three months old then. We’re planning on going back to our old haunts in Tokyo and Kyoto.
[Disclaimer: These are our personal Google maps for Japan. It is possible that not all of the pins are accurate since we did not visit all of them.]