JAPAN – Three days seems like a blink of an eye in Japan, a country whose rich history and infinitely interesting culture could take months (or even years) for an outsider to fully understand. My short visit was jam-packed with vibrant introductions to two of Japan’s most well-known cities, Osaka and Tokyo, which left me wanting to book a return visit ASAP.
Did I sleep? Hardly. Was it worth it? Totally. Here’s a glimpse of my itinerary, seen through a first-time visitor’s lens.
Osaka is known for its food culture, so wandering the quaint side streets of Namba and Shinsaibashi is a good idea — you may stumble into a prime spot for Osaka’s well-known dish, okonomiyaki, a savory pancake made of egg, flour, yam, and cabbage that you can dress with toppings as you wish.
My plane touched down after dark in Osaka, but I found a hip home away from home at the Moxy Osaka Hommachi. In addition to a spacious, design-forward atmosphere, it offered 24/7 services that made a late arrival (and fighting jet lag) a breeze: a self-service “grocery store” to grab snacks any time, speedy WiFi access, and an assortment of work spaces and games.
Your eyes do not deceive you: This is, in fact, a wall full of instant ramen cups. The Cup Noodles Museum is about half an hour outside of central Osaka and it’s worth the drive — even for people like myself, who haven’t eaten much instant ramen since, well, college
Learn about Cup Noodles’ fascinating history, then head to the onsite factory to customize your very own Cup Noodles, from choosing ingredients (those colorful chips are dried fish sausage) to decorating the packaging. If this doesn’t get the kid inside you excited, I don’t know what will.
It takes two and a half hours to get from Osaka to Tokyo via bullet train, and snow-covered fields and peaks like these offered stunning views for the journey. Friends told me to stock up on bento boxes, onigiri, and Maisen pork cutlet sandwiches at the train station beforehand — not only are they delicious (the Maisen sandwiches taste like BBQ-dipped chicken nuggets layered with fluffy white bread), they come in packages that stash easily in your carry-on bag.
As far as souvenirs went, I kept my eye out for vintage kimonos and Sukajans (baseball-style souvenir jackets made popular post-WWII). I found both in the vibrant Harajuku neighborhood — along with an array of local street style tableaus.
All goes quiet for a Shinto wedding procession at Meiji Jingū shrine, nestled in the Yoyogi Park forest just outside bustling Harajuku. Despite heavy tourist traffic, the shrine is remarkably tranquil. I arrived during magic hour, which felt like the perfect time to leave a wish and an offering.
Though touristy, Tokyo’s famed Omoide Yokocho (a.k.a. “Piss Alley") still feels like a secret find. Tucked away from the flashing neon lights of Shinjuku Station area, its winding lanes are packed with smoky yakitori stalls and teeny-tiny bars — prime territory for noshing on grill-to-table dishes and people watching.
In Shinjuku, a friend and I found ourselves on the same strip as the famed Robot Restaurant. Instead of willing ourselves to stay awake for the last show, we decided to wander through the toy and gaming arcades nearby. This grab-the-plushie game brought back all the childhood feels —and there were countless other stalls like it in down the row. Score.
In Tokyo, scenes like this reminded me a lot of Times Square in New York City — except instead of just one neon-lit neighborhood, there were seemingly endless iterations, in all directions, as far as the eye could see. I stopped at the New York Bar at Park Hyatt Tokyo (of Lost in Translation fame, and definitely worth a visit), and was surprised by the sheer expanse of city lights that unfolded around me. On the ground, wandering through them felt like a psychedelic dream. Needless to say, I barely scratched the surface of this epic and beautifully complex city. I already have a Google Flights alert set for Tokyo — my traveler’s vow to return ASAP.