Although Japan looks relatively small on a map, don’t be fooled, the country has hundreds of cities that are bustling with incredible people, scrumptious cuisine, stunning landmarks, and unbelievable showcases of nature. The country is unique in the way that it maintains an impeccable balance between futuristic, neon bursts of entertainment and innovation, and intriguing, well-preserved locations of tradition and history. Pack your bags and get ready to voyage through some of the best Japanese cities!
How could you venture into Japan without drifting through Tokyo? The huge city that millions of people call home has been featured in countless movies like Inception, The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift, Resident Evil: Afterlife, and Kill Bill Volume I. Not to mention, it was the setting for the legendary movie Godzilla in 1954! Tokyo has been an inspiration to not only moviemakers, but people in general by starting the latest trends, always being a step ahead in technology, and embracing the flashy and new with open arms. Speaking of flashy, start your trip off in the center of it all: Shibuya Crossing. It’s the Times Square of Japan with hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of people crossing at a time. It’s considered the busiest intersection in the world, and is a must-see, just to live through the chaos of it all at least once.
After striding across the hectic crossing, take in the rest of Shibuya in a calmer location at Yoyogi Park. Gaze at the serene ponds, stroll through the trails, and of course, don’t forget to check out the Meiji Shrine. One of the country’s most popular, it was built to commemorate Emperor Meiji, the first emperor of modern Japan. The shrine is surrounded by a tranquil forest composed of about 100,000 trees, and in the center of the main buildings, you can partake in some Shinto (Japan’s main religion) activities. This includes purchases of charms and amulets, and writing a wish on a wooden plate called an ema; after you write your wish, leave it at the shrine in the hopes that it will soon come true!
Continue your historic trail by paying a visit to Sensoji Temple, the oldest in the whole city. It was built in 645 as a tribute to the goddess of Mercury, Kannon, after two brothers fished out a statue of her. They tried to deposit it back into the river multiple times, but it always returned to them, prompting the temple to be built out of respect. The Buddhist temple also has a street for shopping called Nakamise running from the outer gate to the second gate, where you can purchase souvenirs and snacks like mochi (traditional Japanese rice cake).
At this point, you’ll need to refuel to prepare for a night out in Tokyo! To truly experience the country, you have to sit down at a themed restaurant at least once. It’s kind of their forte. Get your grub on at the Instagram-worthy Kawaii Monster Café! This restaurant feels like you’re entering a hyperrealistic dream world. Inspired by the “Harajuku” culture, everything is a rainbow of bright colors and cutesy designs. Expect your burger buns to come in blue, pink, or purple… Even the wait staff are in on it, embodying different types of “Monster Girls” that range diverse personalities. It doesn’t get more kawaii than this!
Night has fallen, and you simply must explore the capital once more to get the true feel of the nightlife! However, this time, you’ll be sightseeing in a very special way. Forget traditional double-decker bus tours, and tap into your inner Mario. “Let’s-a Go!” is what you’ll be shouting as you take off in a go-kart to race around the energetic city. MariCAR’s sightseeing expedition allows you to choose an iconic Mario character costume, and once you’re all geared up, you can hop in your go-kart and drive up to 35 mph. You can even select a playlist to play through speakers while you speed through the streets. You know what this means…you can blast the Mario theme song all you want, but don’t throw any banana peels or turtle shells!
So how does one follow up that outlandish go-karting escapade? Naturally, with one just as out-of-this-world! The Robot Restaurant is a lot more insane than the name sounds, and it’s where even locals go to be wowed and amazed! Bright lights, lasers, live music, outrageous costumes, and even gigantic robot battles will suck you into this technologic world as you dine and drink. Enter to find video screens playing psychedelic and hypnotizing images, and tons of performers that will overwhelm you in the best possible way. Oversized stuffed animals waving glow sticks, clowns, girls pounding drums: there’s truly nothing else in the whole world like it.
A perfect retreat after a long day is Shangri-La Hotel. The artistry of the hotel is inspired by the writings of the Tang dynasty Chinese poet, Bai Ju Yi, with over 2,000 pieces of artwork from Japanese, Chinese and Western artists. Their spa, CHI, is award-winning and features ancient Asian traditions and rituals. When you’ve checked in to your suite for the night, don’t forget to have one last drink at the hotel’s Lobby Lounge, an elegant space for some downtime.
On your second day, have a coffee at your hotel to prepare you for an eventful day of adventure! Today you will discover Osaka, Japan’s best hidden secret. This city isn’t as popular with tourists as other destinations like Kyoto, which is great news, as you get to avoid long wait times for attractions, and tour a city full of knowledgeable locals!
The first stop on your itinerary will be the Tempozan Market Animal Café. By now you may have heard of cat cafés, where furry felines fight for your attention (and food) while you eat snacks and drink coffee. They first became widespread in Japan, and now they’re pretty much all over the world. The intelligent country, of course, is always one step ahead so now they have moved on to “animal cafes” which include much rarer animals. At the Tempozan Market Animal Café, venture into the first room where you can sip on coffee while playing with guinea pigs, rabbits and turtles. In the second, pet dogs, cats, and two cute pigs. The final room is the strangest and most interesting with llamas, a massive tortoise, an iguana, kangaroos, Patagonian Maras, and capybaras. Definitely picture-perfect!
Located right next to the animal café is a famous must-see: Kaiyukan (Osaka Aquarium). It specializes in species that can be seen in or around the Pacific Ocean, and is home to roughly 30,000 fish and about 620 different kinds of marine life. The aquarium contains 15 different tanks, with its central tank holding three enormous whale sharks! Additional highlights are Asian otters, penguins, seals, and other fascinating marine life. It also has a small café that serves themed treats such as an ice cream cone in the pattern of a whale shark, and a shark latte!
Now that you’ve taken a dive into biology, crack open that history textbook at Osaka Castle! This significant landmark was built in 1583, and went through many transformations. It was destroyed multiple times, only to be reconstructed again and again, with its final touchup being in 1997, when tons of modern features were added. A museum detailing the castle’s owner Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and its long past remains inside, while the outside is a spectacle itself with tall stone walls, moats, and turrets.
The last place to see on your itinerary will be the “New World” district, Shinsekai, which was created in 1912 with a Paris-New-York middle ground in mind. Neon signs, floating lanterns, and loads of kushikatsu make it both a scenic and savory stop. Kushikatsu is one of Osaka’s most sought after specialties; it is a dish composed of skewered, battered, and deep fried foods. Different varieties include chicken and beef, while more dessert-based ones include bananas and ice cream. Be sure to also stop by Tsutenkaku Tower, which was built as an ode to the Eiffel Tower, and is a tourist attraction all on its own!
When it’s time to eat, you’re in luck! If there’s one thing Osaka is known for, it’s the food…Make reservations at Hajime, a French restaurant that boasts three Michelin stars, and is part of “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants!” Chef Hajime Yoneda adds a signature Japanese twist to all of his dishes, serving up some of the most renowned in the whole country.
For nightlife, the sky’s the limit, which is why you should jump high at Giraffe, a roof-raising nightclub! One of the city’s biggest and most admired nightclubs, it consists of four floors of fun! The first is a reception area, the second a dance floor blasting Hip Hop, the third VIP seating, and the fourth another dance floor playing EDM and House. They also offer an all-you-can-drink plan, so you can order drink after drink all night!
Since Osaka is almost six hours from Tokyo, rent another quality hotel for a night at the St. Regis. This lavish hotel includes three restaurants; Rue D’Or, La Veduta, and the NY Champagne Garden, a rooftop terrace inspired by NYC, that delivers trendy eats and fantastic views. It’s also a great spot to sip on cocktails, or if you prefer to drink indoors, the St. Regis Bar will surround you in rich blues as live Jazz plays daily! Pick one of the five elegant themed suites and settle in for a night of peaceful sleep.
From ancient rituals and teachings of culture, to brilliant laser shows and kawaii eateries, Japan has a bit of everything for every personality and interest. The Robot Restaurant is not easy to forget, and the serenity felt in the traditional temples will surely stay with you for the rest of your days. You will soon begin planning your next trip back because how can you not be a fan of Japan?
By Aaliyah Pasols