To a first-time visitor, Japan can seem understandably intimidating. Tokyo alone is spread out over an area twice the size of Belgium, with a population four times that of New York City. Then there’s the language barrier.
But what will surprise you is just how easy Tokyo can be to navigate. With low crime and a welcoming population, the world’s largest city is a true urban adventure. Here’s how to spend an ideal day in Tokyo, followed by a relaxing one in Kobe.
Eat Noodles in Toyko
8 p.m.: When you land in Tokyo, it’ll likely be right as the bars and restaurants are filling up with businessmen heading home from work. Join them at one of the city’s “500 Yen” noodle shops — meaning the best bowl of ramen of your life will cost less than $5. Most joints sling traditional pork ramen with few frills but lots of true Tokyo color. An age-old favorite is Hakata Tenjin Shinbashi No. 1 Shop. Take advantage of the nearby train station plaza for excellent people-watching.
Take in a Traditional Breakfast
9 a.m.: After spending the night in the Western-friendly but still very Japanese Dai-Ichi Hotel, you’ll wake up and head to the basement for a traditional Japanese breakfast. You will likely encounter ingredients you’ve never seen before. There’s the dried seaweed you add to the homey rice porridge, and the poached vegetables in a light broth, and the insanely sour pickled fruit meant to end the meal.
Visit the Emperor
10:30 a.m.: In Tokyo, buildings that date back a millennium are encircled by skyscrapers so dense that they feel like the entire Miami skyline is packed into one block. Nowhere is this more evident than the national treasure of a park in the Chiyoda neighborhood. Most tourists head here for photos of the emperor’s tile-roofed palace. Far better are the Imperial Palace East Gardens, a study in the serene Japanese style, with waterfalls and carefully placed river rocks and springtime cherry blossoms.
Lunch Like a Local
Noon: There are endless ways to prepare udon, ramen’s wheat-noodle cousin. A great spot to experience many of those options is Kokuwagata, where you’ll pick cold or warm noodles and slurp them while standing at well-worn wooden countertops. The toppings are dizzying, like tempura-battered chicken breast, seaweed and egg, or fried fish-paste dumplings. But purists will attest to the minimalist pleasure of nothing but well-made udon in long-simmered broth.
2 p.m.: Built in the first century, Sensō-ji shrine is undoubtedly impressive — and crawling with tourists. For a more serene experience, head to one of the smaller Buddhist temples. At Shinbashishiogama Shrine, climb what seems like endless stone steps, worn smooth from centuries of pilgrims. Atop a hill, perched among the skyscrapers, you’ll find a koi pond and a temple where locals go.
See the City’s Endless View
4 p.m.: Put Miami’s two tallest buildings on top of each other and you’d still not reach the tip of Skytree Tower. At 2,080 feet, it’s the tallest structure in Tokyo, with a mall at its base, a restaurant at the top, and an observation tower that offers a view you won’t believe.
Happy Hour at an Izakaya
5:30 p.m.: The night begins like it does in Madrid or Miami, with small plates and free-flowing drinks. Izakaya bars often feature no chairs, limited menus and plentiful Japanese pilsner. At Ginza Shimada, a classically trained chef turns out thoughtful dishes like hamachi, seaweed spiced rice and fried cutlets.
8 p.m.: Tokyo has twice as many Michelin-starred restaurants as Paris — nearly 250 of ’em. Make a point to visit a restaurant specializing in kaiseki, the Japanese tradition of multiple courses. At Ginza Kojyu, chef Toro Okuda’s three-star temple to fish, you’ll dine on a meal that’s like Tokyo itself: mysterious, dazzling and pure adventure.
Head to Kobe by Train
9 a.m.: Sure, you’ve heard of the beef that bears its name. The ballplayer, too. But there’s far more to Kobe, Japan, than marbled meat and an NBA MVP. The Shinkansen bullet train to Kobe is itself a tourist attraction. First there’s getting on at Tokyo Station, an endless swarm of dark suits rushing somewhere. Before you board, be sure to grab a bento box. The ride will take you past Mt. Fuji to the west, and — on a clear day — a nonstop view of the countryside as you coast by at NASCAR speeds.
The Reason You’re Here
12:30 p.m.: Ushered into a tiny private room in front of charcoal cookers, you’ll be greeted with a parade of plates: vegetables, dipping sauces, salads, soups. And then, the holy grail: generous slices of Kobe beef. Back home, this meal would cost hundreds of dollars. Here, at Ishidaya, it’s about $25. Pro tip: Give the veggies a hard char on the grill, but for the beef, just a quick sear.
Kobe’s Healing Hot Springs
2:30 p.m.: Take a train through the mountains that surround Kobe, to the traditional village of Arima Onsen, which has catered to Japanese tourists for a thousand years. A half-dozen bath houses range from a no-gimmick soak for $5, to full-on spas with restaurants, musicians and monks. They say the springs that burble up from the mountain cure everything; a surefire way to soak away the outside world.
Yakitori Happy Hour
6 p.m.: To be clear, Kobe beef is actually raised in the next prefecture over, and locals eat it rarely, if ever. Instead, Kobe residents head to yakitori restaurants that grill skewers of vegetables, chicken, quail eggs and more. Iwasaki-juku Motomachi is located on one of Kobe’s many bright, strolling-friendly streets. Here, hipsters and company men shoulder up along barstools and at low tables to grill away their worries.
Yes, There is Jazz in Japan
8:30 p.m.: When Japan opened its borders to foreigners less than two centuries ago, Kobe was among the first ports to host outsiders. Over the years the city has been relatively quick to embrace outside influences, including becoming the country’s hub for jazz. Catch local acts at the quirky basement bar Jam Jam. In between sets, jazz fanatics will be blown away by the deep tracks from the owner’s rare vinyl collection.