We are going to divide the trip into 3 parts: 1. Tokyo Area: Tokyo & Nara 2. Kansai Area: Kyoto & Kobe 3. Sapporo Area:
See + Do
Ginza Neighborhood, Japan
Long the haunt of ladies who lunch, take in a show at the Kabuki theater, and shop in the big department stores and genteel backstreets, Ginza has suddenly become hip. While it's always boasted some of Tokyo's most exclusive clubs and Japanese restaurants, it's now also home to an increasing number of the city's finest French (Brasserie Paul Bocuse) and Italian (La Bettola da Ochiai) restaurants, and even tapas bars. Visit the Maison Hermès Forum or Shiseido Gallery for works by emerging contemporary artists, or take in the latest in gadgetry at the famous Sony Building (its electronics showroom is now compete with an Apple Store). There's a Barneys, flagships of such famous labels as Hermès and Dior, and the Chanel Ginza Building, which is topped by Alain Ducasse's restaurant Beige. Don't miss the Mikimoto Ginza 2 store: Designed by Toyo Ito (he was also behind the arresting Tod's store in Omotesando) with irregular windows and a central atrium, it is dazzling—and fittingly, it's home to Dazzle, a jaw-dropping restaurant and bar that's a good spot for evening drinks.—Updated by Rebecca Willa Davis
See + Do
Tsukiji Fish Market, Japan
The best time to visit the world's largest fish market is at dawn, when most of the action takes place. (On your first day in Tokyo, your walloping jet lag will surely wake you before the sun comes up, anyway.) Tsukiji covers an area of more than two million square feet and handles more than 2,000 tons of fish each day. Don't be shy about wandering the narrow, inner lanes, where fish flown in daily from around the world are displayed and haggled over. But watch your back and keep moving: This is a serious place of business, and sellers and buyers—and scooters and motorized dollies—move fast and furiously. (Spectators were briefly banned from the exciting tuna auctions because they were getting in the way; currently, the tuna auction is off-limits except from 5 to 6:15 am.) If you oversleep, don't despair: The outer market is a great place to buy everything you'll need to prepare a Japanese feast in your own kitchen (check out the beautiful knives!), plus traditional woven baskets for hauling your purchases home. And of course, there are great (if basic) sushi restaurants there for a late breakfast, such as Sushi Dai, guaranteed the freshest you'll ever eat (81-3-3547-6797). With a controversial move to reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay slated for 2014, it's worth experiencing Tsukiji now, in its present incarnation.—Updated by Rebecca Willa Davis
Open Mondays through Saturdays 5 am to 2 pm.
See + Do
Hamarikyu Gardens, Japan
Tel: 81 3 3541 0200
If the relentless concrete and expressways get to be too much, take a short walk from Shiodome station to historic Hamarikyu Garden. Originally built in the 17th century for a feudal lord, it served as the first shogun's official duck-hunting ground and later became the residence of Ienobu, the sixth shogun, in 1704. Today the garden is an unexpected pocket of greenery, with beautiful pines, a large tidal pond, and two duck-hunting fields (unused, these days). The teahouse serves traditional green tea and Japanese sweets. The new skyscraper district of Shiodome now towers over the garden, providing what the Japanese refer to tactfully as "borrowed scenery."
See + Do
Tokyo Midtown, Japan
Tel: 81 3 5413 0050
Does Tokyo's latest shopping, working, living, dining, and entertainment complex, which includes this earthquake-prone city's tallest building, the Midtown Tower (814 feet), relegate Roppongi Hills to "yesterday's destination"? Greenery-deprived and mall-loving locals, who relish Tokyo Midtown's cherry tree–dotted (and Wi-Fi accessible) grassy parks, seem to think so. Built in the heart of Roppongi on the site of the former Defense Agency, this is a great rainy-day destination. Check out the complex's art galleries, museums, and chic boutiques, or just wander and people-watch. With dozens of eateries, including Coppola's Vinoteca, which features wines from the film director's Napa vineyard (Tokyo Midtown Garden Terrace 2F, Akasaka 9-7-5; 81-3-5647-8301), and an outpost of New York's own Union Square Café, you'll never go hungry (Tokyo Midtown Garden Terrace 9-7-4, Akasaka Minato-ku; 81-3-5413-7780; www.unionsquarecafe.com). Better yet, book a suite at the complex's new Ritz-Carlton Tokyo (Akasaka 9-7-1, Minato-ku; 81-3-3423-8000; www.ritzcarlton.com/en/Properties/Tokyo). And if you decide you want to stay forever, the hotel also has luxury residences.
Open daily 11 am to 10 pm.
Kappabashi Dori, Japan
This street is filled with stores selling cutlery, crockery, and kitchenware to the restaurant trade. You might not want the vat-sized saucepans, but there are many bargains to be had, including good glassware, cheap ceramics, and Japanese kitchen implements. This is also the place to come if you're after one of those uncannily realistic plastic plates of food that sit outside many Japanese restaurants.
Most stores closed Sundays.
Tel: 81 3 3561 8311
Everyone's favorite stationery store, Ito-ya fills nine floors with every pen, notebook, and folder imaginable. Stock up on Camper notebooks, the school brand that has high-quality soft notebooks at bargain prices. There's a great selection of cards, wrapping paper, and hand-printed postcards. Be sure to go to the annex in back, which sells handmade paper or washi. This is the best place to buy intricately made washi in all styles and hues, as well as sheets of paper printed with delicate Japanese patterns.
Antiques Fairs, Japan
If you're looking for vintage finds or just a good browse, visit one of the city's outdoor antique markets. There are good ones at Nogi Shrine in Nogizaka (second Sunday of the month except November), Togo Shrine in Harajuku (every first, fourth, and fifth Sunday except December), and Hanazono Shrine in Shinjuku (every Sunday, closed in May and November). The largest antique fair in Japan—the Oedo Antique Market (www.antique-market.jp/eng/index.html)—is held on the first and third Sunday of every month at Tokyo International Forum in Marunouchi. The outdoor event started in 2003 and now has more than 250 dealers.
Akihabara Electric Town, Japan
Akihabara Electric Town, the electronics shopping district north of Tokyo's financial sector, is so densely populated with stores, so garishly neon-lit, and so swarmed with shoppers that it can be a real headache if you're not sure what you're looking for. Big-name electronics stores like LAOX and Yodobashi Camera dominate the main Chou Avenue, while the secondhand shops for phones, electronic translators, cameras, audio/video devices, and other digital wizardry line the inner grid of streets. Discounts can run as deep as 50 percent for name-brand electronics. There's also the geek appeal of high-speed tablets, the newest (and tiniest) laptops, and music accessories (cat-ear headphones, anyone?). Cheap electronics aren't the only reason to venture into this consumerist frenzy; this is also nerd central for manga comics, fantasy figurines, and retro Nintendo and Sega video-game arcades.—Updated by Rebecca Willa Davis
Nishiki Market, Japan
This narrow, mostly covered pedestrian shopping street is parallel to and one block north of Shijo-dori, the main street in the center of town, and runs for blocks and blocks. Open from early morning until late afternoon, it's a great place to browse and graze among the fishmongers, fruit and vegetable grocers, pickle purveyors, and endless stalls of prepared food, from grilled eel to pounded-rice cakes. Eat on the run or take it back to your hotel with youor just fill up on the free samples.
See + Do
Ginkaku-ji (Silver Temple), Japan
Kyoto 606-8402, Japan
Tel: 81 75 771 5725
The Silver Temple is almost as popular as its golden cousin, but many aficionados consider it far superior. Breathtakingly modern though half a millennium old, its sculpted sand garden would transport anyone into a Zen state (if not for the crowds). Ginkaku-ji is along Kyoto's "Philosopher's Path," a pedestrian stroll that follows a cherry tree–shaded canal and leads past a handful of interesting temples and gardens.
See + Do
Saiho-ji (Moss Temple), Japan
Kyoto 615-8286, Japan
Tel: 81 75 391 3631
Converted into a Zen temple in 1339, Saiho-ji Temple, in the southwestern outskirts of Kyoto, is justly renowned for its large and lush moss garden, which blankets the varied terrain with multihued green and blue fuzz. The effect is beautiful and rather otherworldly. To visit this World Heritage Site, you must reserve ahead of time by snail mail; the process is slightly complicated (you need a Japanese return address), so ask your travel agent or contact the tourist office for help a few weeks before you leave home. Visitors must be over 18. When you do arrive—at the assigned date and time—you'll be required, along with everyone else, to sit and chant sutras or else copy them out with ink and brush before the monks will allow you into the garden. It's all part of the fun.
See + Do
Katsura Rikyu Imperial Villa, Japan
Kyoto 615-8014, Japan
Tel: 81 075 211 1215
Built in the 17th century for an imperial prince, Katsura Rikyu is widely thought to be one of the best examples of how Japanese residential design masterfully integrates nature with architecture. As you walk through the villa, the views of the garden—which incorporates images from the classic Tale of Genji—change with each step. You must make reservations far in advance through the Imperial Household Agency. Instructions are on the agency's website, though you may ask your travel agent or hotel to handle arrangements for you, or stop by the Imperial Household Agency headquarters in Kyoto (3 Kyotogyoen, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto). Childreneven teenagersare not allowed, and tours are only in Japanese, though you can slip on a pair of headphones and listen to a pre-recorded audio tour in English. If you want to understand why traditional Japanese building techniques and aesthetics continue to influence architects and designers worldwide, it's worth the effort.
See + Do
Tokyo National Museum, Japan
Tel: 81 3 3822 1111
The national museum of Japan has a spectacular collection of Japanese art, but the displays can be on the old-fashioned side. One exception is the Horyuji Treasure House, a beautiful new building designed by Yoshio Taniguchi (the architect who remodeled the Museum of Modern Art in New York) to display the outstanding treasures of Horyuji Temple in Nara, one of the most important temples in Japan. The National Museum is located in Ueno Park, home to a clutch of top museums and Tokyo's Festival Hall.
See + Do
Shinjuku Neighborhood, Japan
Shinjuku is a metropolis within a megalopolis, an elevated neighborhood on top of the world's busiest station and Tokyo's western hub. This is modern Tokyo at its most unapologetic: a fast-paced, neon-branded, mind-boggling labyrinth of shops, high-rise malls, and clubs (some of which are a bit dodgy). Take a wrong turn and you could easily end up in edgy Kabuki-cho, the red-light district; the black-suited yakuza men outside clubs named Vanity or Goddess are a sure sign that you've strayed into Tokyo's darker side. The high-rise area around Nishi (west) Shinjuku is where you'll find the cathedral-like headquarters of the Tokyo government and one of the city's best hotels, the Park Hyatt. But the modern quickly fades to the grit and back-alley vibe of early postwar Tokyo in Golden Gai, which houses a warren of cubbyhole bars for live music and light snacks. Tokyo's gay district, Shinjuku Ni-Chome, has a decidedly international flair, with Euro-centric bars and clubs and the New York–inspired Brooklyn Parlor, as well as the legendary jazz favorite Pit Inn. Shinjuku also has one of Tokyo's most impressive public parks, Shinjuku Gyoen, which is popular during cherry blossom season in early April and well worth the small entrance fee.—Updated by Rebecca Willa Davis
See + Do
Aoyama + Omotesando Neighborhood, Japan
All the big-name Japanese designers are clustered together in this district on the tree-lined Omotesando Boulevard: Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garçons, and Issey Miyake and his other lines (HaaT and A-POC), plus interesting younger Japanese labels such as Tsumori Chisato and Frapbois. Look out for Sou-Sou, which sells its own version of the traditional split-toed soft Japanese shoe, and Arts & Science, whose elegant leather bags are perfect for carrying home your new purchases. Prada's spectacular glass store, designed by the Swiss duo Herzog & de Meuron, is here, too. Tod's, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and others are wall-to-wall, and they're housed in buildings by native architects whose names are bigger here than Marc Jacobs' (whose Japanese lantern–inspired Tokyo flagship, opened in December 2010, was designed by Jacobs' own all-star team). Tadao Ando's 366,000-square-foot development, Omotesando Hills, opened in February 2006, is a minimalist's fantasy mall, housing brands such as Yves Saint Laurent and Dolce & Gabbana. Unlike Tokyo's much larger luxury malls, which can be overwhelming, Omotesando Hills feels exclusive and manageable in both its gorgeous design and its choice offerings. Go on a weekday evening to avoid the weekend crowds; you'll have the entire place to yourself.—Updated by Rebecca Willa Davis
See + Do
Ueno Neighborhood, Japan
Ueno is the old-fashioned part of town that's popular with visitors who come for its cultural attractions. Several museums (including the Tokyo National Museum) and the Festival Hall are clustered in Ueno Park, which is also home to Japan's oldest zoo and Toshogu Shrine. The park has more than 1,000 cherry trees and is a popular spot for spring cherry blossom viewing. Ueno is close to Akihabara, also known as Electric Town, which is the place to go for the latest gadgets and electronics. The neighborhood is also ground zero for Japanese denim; stroll through the market (which was first established in 1949) that runs alongside and under the train tracks. Local brand Hinoya has not one but three shops—Plus One, Plus Mart, and Sun House—selling sought-after locally produced jeans by Burgus Plus, Momotaro, and Sugar Cane along the side street.—Updated by Rebecca Willa Davis
See + Do
Sumo at Ryogoku Kokugikan Stadium, Japan
Tel: 81 3 3622 1100
Sumo wrestling is one of the quintessential Japanese sports, and there are three tournaments a year in Tokyo, all held at the sumo stadium in Ryogoku. Matches begin with the lower ranks and end with the top wrestlers. The best seats are in boxes of four (on tatami mats), although it will be hard to find a seat anywhere near the ring (or dohyo) on the day. Sumo is a hierarchical, traditional sport and rituals are strictly adhered to; even the waitstaff runs around delivering food and drinks in anachronistic garb. Bouts are short and tense, and crowds respond to well-fought matches by throwing their cushions in the air. Join the fans afterward and watch the supersize wrestlers leave the stadium in their cotton robes (yukata) and wooden shoes (geta). The Ryogoku area is brimming with historic sumo connectionsthere are numerous sumo stables in the area and many restaurants serving the chanko-nabe stew that wrestlers eat to bulk up. Consult the Sumo Association website for schedules and ticket information.
See + Do
Meiji Jingu (Meiji Shrine), Japan
Leave the bedlam of Harajuku behind and walk to Meiji Shrine, a peaceful, wooded haven dedicated to Emperor Meiji (1852–1912). Pass through the giant cypress gate (or torii) at the back of Harajuku Station and walk along the wide gravel path. The shrine is an impressive sight—austere wooden buildings surrounded by greenery. On a quiet afternoon it can feel a long way from Tokyo. Meiji Jingu is a popular place to get married; on the weekends you're likely to see a wedding party in traditional outfits.