A game developer recently asked me if I had any travel tips for Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. Since I recently went on a trip to those three places with my mother and have been to Kyoto twice now for BitSummit, I was able to write up quite a bit of advice. Since I went to the trouble of writing it all out, I figured I’d blog it so I won’t find myself writing it all out twice.
Osaka has a large aquarium which is really well known down by the bay; when I went around new year it was too effing crowded and I didn’t enjoy myself at all, though mom enjoyed it anyway. You’ll be here during the end of spring break, so you might have to worry about crowds, but it shouldn’t be anywhere near as bad [for you in early April] as what I had because spring break isn’t as much of a travel break as new year’s and Golden Week (in May). It is expensive to get in, though, so crowds are a thing to keep in mind.
Near the aquarium is one of the largest ferris wheels in the world (it’s 5th largest, or something like that), and it is totally worth it. Mom and I did that once during the day and once at night and were happy to have done so. The view of the bay and of Osaka is pretty excellent.
If you like Pokemon, Osaka also has the largest Pokemon Center in Japan. It’s in one of the buildings attached to Ueda Station. Ueda is a kinda cool shopping hub if you’re into looking at stores when you travel. There are also some really good eats there.
Rent a bicycle. Best way to see Kyoto, period, and only ~$12 a day, including insurance. Kyoto has a lot of tiny alleys with cool old buildings and shrines, and the only way back there is bike, motorcycle (also a good rental option, if you know how to ride one of those), or on foot. Take the alleyway shortcuts whenever you can — the city is very much a grid, so you can pretty much always cut through alleys instead of taking main roads.
Kyoto is often called Japan’s most beautiful city, and… I agree. But the good parts of Kyoto aren’t near the JR Kyoto Station, where the shinkansen come in. The JR Kyoto Station itself, however, is the largest train station I’ve ever been in, wrapped in the largest shopping mall I’ve ever been in, and is pretty interesting in terms of that.
Right across the street from the JR Kyoto Station is a tower, which is THE tallest point in Kyoto. It’s the only exception to ordinances on building height above something like 6 floors. I still haven’t made it up that thing yet, but you can see from Kiyomizu Temple that sticks out over everything, right from the middle.
Kyoto has a shitton of temples and the like, all with free or cheap entry. You really can’t go wrong with any of them. The aforementioned Kiyomizu Temple is up/on the mountainside with an amazing view, but if you have someone in your party with mobility problems… not the best place to take them. There is a way to get to the top and the main temple without ever touching stairs, but the entire temple grounds are steep. If you do go there, keep an eye out for a cobbled side staircase hidden in shadow near the little restaurant towards the end of the route. It goes down into a dip with a creek at the bottom and some benches. It’s the quietest place on the temple grounds, very lovely, and even though I went there on the busiest day of the year, no one else was down there. There’s a ramp at the other end, but both stairs and ramp are steep and the stone it’s cobbled with would be very slippery if wet, so be careful if you do that.
Hit Nijo-jo. It’s the castle of the Tokugawa shogun. If that’s not convincing enough by itself… it has anti-ninja floorboards designed to look normal but squeak. The place is cool.
If you are interested in seeing the old imperial palace, they have free tours, but they must be reserved in advance and you must use your passport to make the reservation. There’s information about that online if you look. All of this is also true of the current imperial palace in Tokyo. (I haven’t been to either, but I’ve looked into it.)
Every district of Tokyo has its own flavor. I haven’t spent nearly enough time there, so I still enjoy just picking a random district and walking around. I don’t recommend bothering with Roppongi at night unless you specifically want to party/check out host/hostess clubs/etc., though I still haven’t gone to see what it’s like during the day.
If you like anime and Japanese games and other nerdy stuff, you owe it to yourself to hit Akihabara electric town. There are a lot of stores there selling cool paraphernalia that is just sweet to look at, and sometimes you’ll find hidden gems like Japanese versions of D&D manuals and stuff. I hear the maid cafes are actually quite nice, more odd for how normal they are aside from the theme.
Things to know about Sky Tree if you’re considering it: if you want to go up there, you really should reserve a ticket up the elevator ahead of time. It is a major tourist attraction, and whether you reserve a ticket ahead of time or get it the day of, you will be locked into going up during a certain time slot. The way it works (the web site is absolute shite for explaining this) is that you pay like $20 to get up to the lower observation deck section, from which you can pay an extra ~$10 to get to the upper observation deck. It’s expensive. You are warned.
Other than that… I mean, it’s a huge city. There’s something to see everywhere you go.
Anyway, if you plan to take the shinkansen (bullet trains) between Kansai and Tokyo or otherwise do lots of train travel, you should get a JR pass if you haven’t already. The convenience of the JR pass is not to be underestimated. I was jealous of how easy mom had it.