I went to Japan twice in 2019, and I would have never expected it to become one of my favourite travel destinations! The atmosphere, look, feel, food and people all create a place that I truly fell in love with.
So, having visited this location twice last year, I thought I would accumulate the information and experiences I had on each of my trips and showcase my Japan travel guide (of sorts) to help you see why it is a MUST VISIT destination.
My Two Trip Summary:
So firstly, why did I go twice?
Well, a Christmas/New Year’s family holiday was on the cards since the beginning of 2019. And then in March four of my friends and I decided to book a two-week-long trip during July, as flights were super cheap and we were all free (which is very rare).
During my July holiday, we remained in Tokyo and stayed a week in Shinjuku and a week in Akasaka.
Where as, for my December trip my family and I stayed in Ginza (Toyko), Hiroshima, Kyoto and then we went back to Tokyo where we stayed in Tokyo Bay for three days to visit Disney.
What amazed me about visiting Japan twice in one year was how different both of my trips were when I visited the same locations in Toyko. The most significant difference that I noticed between my two trips was the busyness of Tokyo.
Firstly, and sort of obviously, Tokyo was INSANE during Christmas and New Year’s. However, coming from Australia, Christmas is a public holiday for us, and it is a MASSIVE holiday celebration. However, we were super shocked to find that people went to work on Christmas Day and not only that, but, other than retail marketing and advertising there was nowhere near the presence of Christmas as there is back home.
However, this flipped when it came to New Year’s. Back home, New Year’s means a big party and fireworks show at midnight, and that is it. However, in Japan we found out it is a BIG deal. We were lucky enough to celebrate our introduction to 2020 at Disneyland, where we watched the midnight fireworks burst from the magical castle at midnight.
This was a great experience but having visited both Disneyland and Disney Sea during my July trip, I was shocked to see the massive increase in guests at the park over December and January. Now, we expected the festive season would bring extra guests to the parks. But boy, we did not expect it to be THIS busy!!
Having visited Disneyland in LA and Hong Kong and DisneyWorld multiple times, we thought we had seen a crowd, but we were wrong.
This is definitely something to be aware of if you are visiting during the festive season, especially if you are only going for one day. This is because it is tough to fit everything in one day with the crowds.However, crowd control (as always when it comes to Disney) was managed well. Also, with most of the rides having engaging lineups, it was not all doom and gloom; it was just time-consuming.
My Must Dos:
Lights, sound, people, food and fun; what more could you want? Since my first visit to Shibuya, I was hooked. It is genuinely an absolute hub for full Tokyo immersion. The bright shop lights and billboards paired with soundtracks being played through the streets and the photo booth and game stores’ hustle and bustle spilling onto the street makes this place is unforgettable.
Tip: Don’t miss exploring the side streets to find some fantastic and unique meals. My favourite place to grab a yummy meal is at this Gluten-Free ramen restaurant where you order your meal on a kiosk before taking a seat.
Shibuya is so much fun and you definitely need to go more than once. Just be aware that it is push and shove, but it is worth it for the atmosphere and experience.
2- Yoyogi Park
Pure magic in nature.
I visited this park during both of my trips and each time it was magical, calming and just so serene. Not only is the greenery so lush, but all you can hear it the crunch of rocks under your feet and you can smell and feel the crisp fresh air. This park is a great way to take yourself out of the hustle and bustle of Tokyo without having to go too far.
3- Studio Ghibli Museum
Fan of Ghibli or not, this is a must-do (just make sure your pre-book your tickets well in advance)! The architecture at this museum is breathtaking and magical; you really do step straight into a Ghibli film.
Walking up the winding staircase, squeezing through the tiny doorways or adventuring to see the massive Castle In The Sky Robot on the rooftop; this place is a playground for people of all ages.
One of the most amazing parts about this museum is the tiny detail hiding on every wall and floorboard. You have to keep your eyes peeled because character appearances and movie references are around every corner.
Tip: Make sure you visit one of the cinema sessions while you’re there! Although the two films were in Japanese, the visuals themselves make the film-watching experience worthwhile.
Also, note that the Museum address is 1 Chome-1-83 Shimorenjaku, Mitaka, Tokyo 181-0013, Japan. We almost went to TWO of the wrong addresses before departing for the day.
4- Disneyland & DisneySea
The reason I added this one onto my top three is because a) it’s Disney, so it’s an OBVIOUS must do! But also, both of these parks are genuinely immaculate and so much fun. I didn’t think the architecture of a theme park could blow me away, but DisneySea did that! It is a STUNNING park that genuinely takes you to another world. The rides, food and just general parks are an unmissable experience for people of all ages.
5- Deer Island (Miyajima)
As long as you are happy to deal with beautiful Deer stalking you around the island and trying to eat your jacket, this island is truly unmissable.
Visiting this island exposes you everything Japan has to offer; culture, shrines, temples, markets, food and overall serene and stunning nature. So, make sure during your Hiroshima visit you put some time aside to hop on the ferry and visit this island.
Time Saver Tips:
This is a bit of an unpopular opinion but if you are pressed for time, you can probably skip Harajuku or keep your time there to a walk down Takeshita Street.
I found Harajuku to be overrated when it was compared to other nearby locations like Shibuya or Shinjuku; even the crazy rainbow foods were available in other Tokyo areas.
Team Lab Borderless:
You probably already know what this place is because it is in everyones Japan social media content. And do not get me wrong, I really enjoyed visiting this display with my friends during my July trip. However, it is extremely overstimulating and is something that was not very different to the photos I had seen online. I do not mean to sound negative about this place, because it is still stunning. But, if you are short on time, this can be missed.
If you love vintage shopping then this is the place for you. But buyer be warned, vintage shopping in Japan is SUPER expensive and it is very easy to be sucked down the ‘I should just get it because I am travelling’ mentality and end up spending $50+ on a casual printed t-shirt. So, if you are on a budget please be wary when visiting or give it a miss all together if your schedule is tight. That being said, I still enjoyed my visit here. Even though I didn’t buy anything, the vibe and overall experience was super enjoyable.
Food Allergies in Japan:
The only challenge that I encountered during both my trips was correctly communicating my dietary requirements and finding food on the go that I could eat.
I am gluten and dairy intolerant and my Mum is a coeliac. So, I did have some leniency with my diet. However, when travelling with my Mum, it was essential we found appropriate food.
Unfortunately, after eating on the go and at multiple buffets, my mother and I can say that we consumed gluten due to difficulty communicating with staff about our needs. However, do not let this turn you off visiting this great destination. Even though it is not extremely easy to find dietary friendly options in Japan, there are still choices, you just have to dig around.
My number one recommendation would be to ensure you have Google Translate on your phone. This will allow you to scan packages to see if they contain the allergen you need to avoid. This app is a MUST if you do not speak your destination’s language and it saved us many times throughout the trip.
Secondly, Family Mart and 7-Eleven provide more snacks than you could ever imagine, and there are gluten and dairy-free options here. Sushi, edamame, salads, mochi, fruits, bars, milk alternatives and more are all available at these convenience shops and acted as lifesavers when we found ourselves in a food pinch. Also, these stores are quite literally on every street corner, so you can always get at least a small snack.
If you’re looking for something more substantial though, check out these places where I ate and had NO problem obtaining gluten and dairy free meals. All of the listed places had delicious food and fantastic service:
- The Sodoh Kyoto (I had THE BEST GF bread of my life at this place)
We had breakfast included at all our hotels during our Christmas trip, and we found that most locations had allergens marked on the food labels which was a great help!
When these labels were not available, or we were in a restaurant, we used THESE cards. Having these cards enabled us to communicate our allergies to staff, and they were then able to disclose whether or not we would be able to eat there. Having pre-organised most of our eating arrangements/ eating out of convenience stores a fair bit, we mainly used these cards while we visited Disneyland and DisneySea.
Finally, we also packed multiple gluten and dairy-free snacks as backups in our bags that we were able to have when allergen-friendly food was inaccessible. We also packed some gluten-free bread that enabled us to bulk up some meals we would order through room service, as well.
Where I Stayed & Ratings:
Rating: 4 Stars
Comments: Due to our late check-in, pillows were ‘sold out’ which resulted in our first night being a very uncomfortable sleeping experience on hard bean pillows. However, staff were incredibly kind and helpful with them providing directions and tips on local places to eat and explore.
This hotel is central in Shinjuku with many bars and convenience stores nearby. Also, Shinjuku station less than 10 min walk away.
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Comments: Robot concierge were a great novelty but they struggled to read international passports which made our check-in difficult; resulting in the staff needing to come out and assist us.
The room was very lovely, but super small – so be mindful of large suitcases.
December – January Trip:
Location: Ginza (Toyko)
Rating: 5 Stars
Comments: Impeccable service on all levels. From their check-in to bell boys, shops and food service staff. Rooms are well sized. I highly recommend the French restaurant on site. Central location in Ginza but still far enough from the mid-city craziness. Super close to Hibiya station and only a 5-minute walk from Ginza station.
Rating: 4 Stars
Comments: Great gym facilities and location is right near Eki City and a FamilyMart for all your food needs. Staff were very accommodating; however, the entrance to the hotel is slightly confusing.
Allergens at the buffet were marked.
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Comments: Dinner buffet was a fantastic mix of western and Japanese cuisine. Also, the view of the river from the hotel is stunning both day and night. Customer service was fantastic, and we felt very welcomed.
Allergens at the buffet were marked.
Location: Tokyo Bay (Disneyland)
Rating: 4 Stars
Comments: Great Disney flare even though it is not a specific Disney hotel. Fantastic dinner and breakfast buffet along with lots of amenities on site. However, due to the busy time of year and the language barrier, our check-in process was long and confusing. However, after this, the staff were very kind and helpful.
Allergens at the buffet were marked.
So, Would I Go Back?:
To me, Japan is a place I could continue to visit regularly. Despite having spent a total of 4 weeks there in 2019 during two seasons, there are still SO many places I have not visited yet. I would love to go during Cherry Blossom season, and next time I would love to travel further out of Tokyo city and spend more time in traditional Japanese locations.
However, I think every time you go, dropping into Tokyo is a must! The atmosphere is unparalleled to anywhere else in the world. But that doesn’t mean you should skimp on visiting the more traditional and natural areas found in Kyoto, for example.
With tourism to Japan continually growing and airline sales happening more and more frequently, if you have been thinking about visiting Japan or want a holiday destination idea, then this place is for you!
Have you been to Japan? If so, what was your favourite place?
Check out more of my Japan highlights on my Instagram @jessicatathem