26 Jul 2016

Travel Diary | What I Learned From Travelling Around Japan

a little nap coffee shop tokyo japan
vintage grey car in tokyo
design and homeware store in tokyo japan
visvim store tokyo japan
vending machine in tokyo japan

This post is a little later than I planned, but what with us flying over to Las Vegas to plan our wedding and it being so flipping hot in England, everything has been running a little slower. For this travel diary I wanted to take a different angle to what I'd normally do. With Japan being so far away and somewhere that you definitely need to plan for, I want to put together a list of things that we learned in the 10 days we spent traveling around Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, as well as a few of our top tips.

I'd love to hear from anyone who has been to Japan, or if you're thinking about going soon?

Take Recommendations, But Find Your Own Way

Tokyo is massive. With every district comes different interpretations of city guides and things to do, but with an economy which moves so fast it's hard to for guides to keep up. Before we left for Japan Yasumi gave us some sound advice, "Don't worry about following specific guides. Recommendations are great but businesses come and go every single month, so the chances are that you'll be disappointed. Just go explore on your own!". 

yellow van in tokyo
eames chairs in japan
dan marc furniture designer in toyko japan
vintage blue car in tokyo
road sign in tokyo

Wander Down the Backstreets

We were in Japan on business, but as it was a research project for Dan's furniture brand we constantly on the lookout for inspiration. Having Yasumi's advice in the back of our minds worked out perfectly, and as we weaved in and out of the cities backstreets especially in Harajuku we came across all sorts of coffee shops, design studios, independent stores, local makers, intriguing characters.

Take Artless Craft for instance; a beautifully designed coffee + tea shop in central Harajuku. We spent a good hour chatting to the owners about their design business (just behind the coffee shop), football, and how the city is constantly changing...

red fixed gear bike in tokyo japan
the bike shed in tokyo japan
fixed gear bike shop in harajuku japan
rent a bike in tokyo japan
Cycling was a great way to see Tokyo

Renting Bikes is a Great Idea

This was one of the best decisions we made. After finding out just how vast Tokyo was we decided to rent push bikes for 2/3 days. Not only was it a great way to see many of the central districts, but it was tons of fun! Cycling down Tokyo's busy high streets at night is a memory I'll never forget. We were able to cycle from downtown Shibuya, up to Shinjuku for the afternoon, and back (with a bunch of stops on the way) to the bike depot comfortably in 8 hours.

We rented our single speed bikes from Pillar Cafe, just near Shibuya station. They weren't the newest of bikes, by far, but they worked totally fine and didn't have the look of a classic rent-a-bike. The cafe provided us with a chain lock, and we put down a deposit of 1500 Yen per bike.

The Language is Tricky but Good Manners will go far

I'm embarrassed  to say that English is the only language I speak, but we did our best to get by. The basics really do go along way; please, thank you, hello, goodbye, single numbers, names of food types and the pronunciations of landmarks and places was pretty much all we could muster. You'll do pretty well with the simple stuff if you take things slow. Of all the people we encountered the majority could speak basic to very good English.

osaka river in osaka
museum of kyoto in japan
bamboo forest in kyoto japan with british designer dan marc
bamboo forest kyoto japan
architecture in japan
We travelled from Tokyo to Osaka + Kyoto

Buy a Suica Travel Card

We found the Suica Card (Japanese version of an Oyster Card) gave us access to more train and underground lines than we knew what to do with. Japan's travel system is legit; with markers telling you specifically which queues to stand in and at what time. But with there being SO many lines and stations you might freak out at first. It's busy!

We bought our Suica Cards at the airport's station for around £10 deposit and £5 top-up after being recommended it by one of the staff, and it couldn't have been easier to use. We travelled around Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, with each fare being really affordable some journeys costing us less that 10p a go! 

But Always Check the Restrictions

As many of the train lines around the country are owned by different companies you will find there are a few restrictions. You may need to pick up a JR Pass if you want to travel to Kyoto (from Tokyo) and beyond, at specific times. We found this out the bad way! That's right, we got slung off the Bullet Train in the middle of nowhere, on the way back from Osaka so make sure you do some research before you set off!

If you pre-pay for your JR Pass in advance online you'll get a decent discount. It's worth noting that time restrictions can apply on the Suica Cards, so if you arrive in Japan at 7am you may have to wait for your pass to be active (at around 8:30am).

kaikado tea caddy made in japan craft
kaikado tea caddy made in japan workshop
kaikado tea caddy made in japan
 Off the recommendations of Chris at AJOTO we visited the workshop of Kaikado in Kyoto
asakusa festival in tokyo japan
handmade in japan buddy happy shoes

The People are Extremely Welcoming and Helpful

If there's one thing that I could take away from my experience travelling around Japan it's just how respectful, gracious, warm and genuine the people are. Having spoken about this to people since returning I've struggled for the right words which accurately describes the warmth from the people that we interacted with. It's best experienced first-hand, I can't do them justice. But I do know we came back from our trip with a very positive and uplifting feeling.

They'll Even Show you Around...

On more than one occasion, what started in simply asking for directions or chatting about the local area, resulted in us actually being guided around local curiosities or shown their recommended locations. We ended up in coffee shops, restaurants and vintage stores that we'd have never otherwise found.

The people we encountered had a lot of time for us. We even stopped off to meet Tetsuya, the owner and designer of Buddy Japan, who recently collaborated with Whistles

shibuya crossing japan
busy streets in japan
white t shirt with chino shorts in japan
 Wearing - T-Shirt by Urban Industry | Shorts by GAP | Sneakers by New Balance | Sunglasses by Whistles
homeware store in toyko japan
men's style in toyko japan
Tetsuya of Buddy Japan showed up around some of his favourite stores in Shibuya

Definitely Rent Pocket WIFI

Before we travelled over from the UK we'd heard a few people mention "pocket wifi", and how invaluable it was. Man, this became one of the most important steps we took. Our Airbnb, in Asakusa, fortunately came equipped with one devise (which acts as a mini modem, and can easily be stored in your bag), which was perfect for two travellers. Many apartments do provide this service but if not you can rent them at the airport or many convenience stores for around £35 per week. If you're looking for a hotel then check out the best deals on Travelodge.

The range is really good, you can walk around 20ft from the device and still get a decent connection. But make sure you bring a portable back-up charger with you, as it'll need charging at least once if you're planning to be out all day.

deus ex machina coffee shop harajuku japan
coffee shop in kyoto japan with copper interior
coffee shop in kyoto japan
artless craft cafe coffee shop harajuku tokyo japan
 Hanging out at Artless Craft coffee shop in Harajuku

Like Coffee? They Have it Covered

These guys seem to run on coffee, and there's endless options for places to drink it from. There's obviously plenty of Starbucks (which is macha mad!) but Tokyo was full of cool independent coffee hangs, seemingly one on every corner in Harajuku! We took Rod's recommendation and cycled up to A Little Nap, just west of Yoyogi Park. Streamer Coffee, with their incredible looking "camo" coffee (a mixture of coffee, macha and milk) seems to be where a lot of locals liked to hang out, but our personal favourite was Deus Ex Machina in the centre of Harajuku.

You May Learn a lot About Yourself

Japan was definitely the most fascinating country I have ever visited. We may have only spent 10 days in the country but I feel like I learned so much about myself as a person installing confidence in the things I love and the career I have chosen. 

Looking back at the trip we managed to cram so much in; 3 cities, endless stores, cycling around the city, trips to shops, factories and local workshops, meeting up with designers and even bumping into some friends from London! But with a ton of time spent on the underground network and the train services there was still plenty of time to stop and take what was happening around us.

I'll do it all again in a heartbeat.

Have you ever been to Japan, or is it a country you'd love to visit? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!


  1. I really loved this post Mat, and you got some awesome photos. Japan is definitely near the top of the list for me!

    Jane / deluminators

  2. Dylan Craven22:27

    Hey Matt,

    What a great read.

    Glad you enjoyed yourself so much. It really is an amazing place that has no equal. I can't wait to touch down there in 7 days time.

    PSI didn't know you were getting married congrats :)

  3. Oh, Japan is just so awesome. It's on my list of places to visit. Loved seeing the photos. <3

  4. Adhi wahyudi14:19

    love this post! great pics and thanks for sharing


  5. That workshop! Sounds like you guys had a really nice trip!
    Alexander @ Mr Essentialist

  6. That's some sound wisdom Mat! Great photos and looks like a blast. Never heard of that pocket wifi before and it sounds like a great tool abroad

  7. Thanks for taking a look, Dillion. I wanted to put together something a little different to a regular photo series. I really loved all of your Euro travel posts, but it wouldn't let me comment on any of them.

  8. That was a highlight, apparently the business is now 5th generation. Cheers!

  9. Thanks for stopping by

  10. Next summer yep, still finalising bits. So, you should be off to Japan very soon then? What's your plan while you guys are there? Thanks for reading.

  11. You got the emojis sorted! Thanks for taking a look, Kelly. These big posts can often get overlooked, so I do appreciate it.

  12. Thanks Jane, I enjoyed pulling it together. I'd love to go back, so much to explore.

  13. Japan is in my list of travel destinations. Stunning visuals!

  14. I had a bunch of problems getting disqus onto my new layout, so I guess back to old blogger commenting for now!

  15. So amazing! I'll be in Tokyo for 2 days, then Obuse for a week and then back in Tokyo for 3 days, so this advice is all super useful!

    One thing that really resonated with me is the warmth and kindness of the people you mentioned. I feel the exact same warm energy every time I visit Vietnam and that's why I always keep coming back. It leaves me recharged and reminds me how far kindness can go in any culture.

    Kosta // Cool Gear Cavalier

  16. I love vacationing in Japan! People are super friendly and polite :) I always discover something new when I go.

  17. this is really nice. i've never been to japan but yes, kindness breaks language barriers. especially japanese people who would literally go all out to please you. i think despite the language, japan is one of the most traveler-friendly country to go. things, esp the transport system, can be confusing but once you get the hang of it, the possibilities are endless. as once a student of japanese studies i still bear a huge dream to go there. possibly one day! thank you for the tips. might forward this to friends who are going to japan in the near future.

    xx http://tanaditya.co.vu

  18. Dylan Craven23:41

    To be honest we're kinda gonna play it by ear. The one big thing that we both want to do is Universal Osaka for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I like
    Harry Potter, but the wife is made about it. We're also gonna try get to Fuji Five lakes if we can.

  19. Maria Fallon21:11

    Such useful tips, Japan sounds amazing!

    Maria xxx

  20. It sounds fantastic there, it is useful to have friendly people familiar with the area and I am glad you've had a pleasant experience. I'll keep all of that in mind when I get to visit Japan, it will probably be years away but the country remains firmly on the top of my must visit list!

    Katrina Sophia

  21. Can't believe I never replied to this, sorry Kat! We had an amazing time, I just can't wait to go back. It was like no other travel experience I've had.

  22. Sorry for the suuuuuper late reply, but thanks for taking a look Maria.

  23. Sorry for the mega slow reply, this one slipped through. But I appreciate that, and I loved putting this post together for that reason.

  24. Where have you visited?

  25. I've been to Tokyo, Nagoya, Nara, Kyoto, and Osaka :)

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