In May of 2019 I went on a trip to Asia with my two sisters. We visited two countries– and three cities– over 2 weeks: Tokyo, Kyoto, and Seoul. It was their first time ever in Asia, and my first time ever visiting South Korea! It was the trip of a lifetime, especially considering that the three of us have talked about doing this trip together since we were kids!
For pretty much our whole lives we’ve always had a big appreciation for Asian culture. All three of us have a deep love for anime, manga, Korean dramas, movies, K-pop, their food, art, music and so much more. Getting to experience all of that IN Asia together was a magical experience that I’ll remember always.
This upcoming travel series is a detailed count of those adventures. I plan to write this series in a way that it can be useful for anyone looking to plan a trip to Japan or South Korea, though.
These countries offer so much; there’s truly something for everyone. You can visit historical landmarks, explore street markets, cultural sights, visit the mountains, have a night out on the town, relax in a spa, and more!
So without further ado, I hope you enjoy this series. My first post is about 10 fun things you can do in Tokyo if you’re there for a few days.
#1: Spend A Night In A Capsule Hotel
In my opinion, this is such a classically Japanese (and unique) sleeping arrangement, that everyone visiting Japan should experience it at least once!
Capsule hotels kinda remind me of bee hives, but don’t let that turn you off to them! Imagine a long corridor, filled with tiny single-person sleeping pods carved into the wall on both sides of the aisle. That’s a capsule hotel.
For our first night in Japan we decided to stay a single night at the Shinjuku Kuyakusho-mae Capsule Hotel. On my first visit to Tokyo this was the one I stayed at based on a recommendation from my friend Cruise. I absolutely loved my stay there, so I had no problems returning there again on my second visit!
We booked 3 pods next to each other on an all-women’s floor. You get your own personal pajama set, locker and slippers on arrival. The shared bathroom for the floor is super clean, and comes with all sorts of free amenities like a toothbrush if you need it, lotions, face wash, etc. The pod itself is just large enough for a single person to crawl into, but they are very comfortable! I slept like a baby that first night (probably because I was so exhausted from a grueling day of ait travel!)
If you’re over 6 ft tall (like my sister Jennifer), you may need to sleep diagonal in your pod, lol. But regardless of that, I believe she still really enjoyed her unique capsule hotel experience!
Reservations with this capsule hotel can be made online, or you can call by phone. If you call you may get passed around a bit until they find someone who can speak English enough to help you, but both times I booked a stay here it was easy, quick, and in my opinion a good price.
Our Experience At Unplan Hostel
The morning after our capsule hotel night we traveled to a corner of the Shinjuku district, called Shinjuku City, to check-in to Unplan Kagurazaka.
Because this was Kathleen and Jennifer’s first ever international trip, I really wanted them to get a classic hostel experience. I say classic, but we didn’t actually stay in a dorm-style room. We booked a private room with a private bathroom that was super nice!
It came with 2 bunk beds, a private balcony that had a great view, and a nice, clean bathroom.
Overall I really recommend this hostel! It was definitely one of the nicer hostels I’ve ever stayed in. Every morning they served a complimentary breakfast. Similar to most hostels, all this really included was toast, tea and jam. But it was still nice!
You also got a few free drink tickets a day to use at the bar for a beer, juice, coffee, or whatever else you wanted. One morning we had tea on the rooftop deck, which again, had a great view of the city!
#2: Get Ultra-Blessed at The Sensō-ji Temple
Waking up the next day, we had a small breakfast with tea in the hostel’s dining area, then hopped on the subway. Our first stop was the Asakusa district to visit the famous Sensō-ji temple!
Sensō-ji is an ancient Buddhist temple, and also Tokyo’s oldest temple. It was originally built in 645 AD (whoa!), though due to fire damage, parts of it were rebuilt throughout its history. It was erected in honor of Kannon Bosatsu, the Bodhisattva of compassion. Something else that I learned recently, is that it’s the most widely visited spiritual site in the world!
There are a lot of interesting cultural practices to partake in while visiting this temple– and me and my sisters took full advantage of all there was to see and do!
Blessing #1: Sticks, Drawers, & Paper Fortunes
There are 2 buildings near the main gates where you can receive a paper fortune telling (Omikuji). There are these boxes you shake until a small wooden stick comes out. The stick has a symbol written on it, and you then look for the matching symbol on a wall of drawers. You open the drawer that belongs to your stick’s symbol, take a paper from it– and read your fortune!
Here’s where some hilarity takes place… On the table with the wall of drawers is a little slot where you can— optionally –drop a coin in for the temple as an offering, before getting a fortune. Me and my little sister, Jennifer, both had pretty standard fortunes on our papers. I think they were labeled as “good fortune” with nothing overly great or horrible about them. My older sister though, Kathleen, on her first try got the worst possible fortune there was! I swear it said something like, “Terrible fortune. Seek help. Your outlook is perilous and dire…” lol. She kept shaking for more sticks, trying again and again but kept getting bad fortunes!
Finally, she donated a small coin into the slot, got a new stick, and low and behold she had a great fortune finally! We all thought it hilarious. But let that be a warning to others. Sometimes, a little generosity to the temple can help you get a favorable blessing!
To secure your fortune you tie your paper in a little bow to a rack, and off you go (some people also tie their Omikuji to a tree). Blessing #1 down!
Blessing #2: Incense & Smoke
Next, we headed to the middle of the courtyard. There’s a huge circular bowl there, filled with ash, incense sticks, and smoke. People take their incense stick, light it, and put it in the center of the pot. You then waive the smoke onto your body while saying a small silent prayer.
This is a practice that is done at many Buddhist temples. It is meant to be a purifying gesture, and the belief is that it has a healing effect on the body.
Blessing #3: Drinking From The Fountain
The next purifying act, is to drink from one of the fountains, and once again bow with hands closed while saying a small prayer. These fountains are called Chozuya, or Temizuya, and once again are at almost every Buddhist temple.
Blessing #4: The Main Shrine
Finally, we walked up the long steps to the main shrine. There is a coin box at the top. The ritual is to throw a coin in, clap your hands together in a prayer, bow, and have a moment of silence.
After that, you can walk up through the main shrine building and view all of the amazing things there are to see inside.
The art and architecture of this place are all breathtaking. Definitely take your time walking through and appreciating all there is to see!
After visiting the main area of Sensō-ji, you can still enjoy all of the other courtyards, gardens, and surrounding walkways.
^ What Polacks do when they travel.
There are many cool statues, ponds, and green spaces to see! Overall, we left this temple feeling ULTRA BLESSED and just in a great mood in general. If you’re visiting Tokyo, I highly recommend Sensō-ji!
#3: Explore The Asakusa District Markets
In the immediate area surrounding Sensō-ji there are tons of criss-crossing streets with little shops, markets, street food stalls, and peddlers. After visiting the temple we walked around these markets and had a great time just seeing all the various things there are to see.
If you’re looking for souvenirs, this area is a great place to look! I’m not a big shopper myself, but I am a huge foodie. I had a lot of fun in these markets with my sisters just walking, snacking on street food, getting drinks here or there, and window-shopping all the interesting little shops.
#4: Visit the Akihabara (Anime) District
In my opinion, you don’t need to be a fan of anime in order to appreciate how unique and cool the Akihabara district is. Luckily, me, Kathleen, and Jennifer all LOVE it! So there’s no way we were going to visit Tokyo without a trip to Akihabara.
There is so much to see and do here. I recommend just picking a skyscraper, walking in, and exploring it from the ground up. I think the gaming ones are especially fun to walk through.
One, you’ll see more claw machines in one spot than you ever will again in a lifetime, and two, it’s really fun to see the people there who are SUPER good at the games going crazy on them.
I love walking down the sidewalk in Akihabara, hearing anime music blasting from every store, and getting some good people watching in. If you explore this area, you’ll also come across some really cool themed restaurants and cafes!
#5: Have Tea At A Maid Cafe
Speaking of those cafes… if you’re in Akihabara, then visiting a maid cafe is a uniquely Japanese experience to try as well! There are a lot of maid cafes in this district (also throughout all of Tokyo) and some of them have really fun themes like Alice in Wonderland, Cats, or Renaissance Princesses.
We visited a classic-style maid cafe while we were there called Maidreamin. On arrival you get a pair of cat, mouse, or bear ears to wear. They serve snacks and teas, most of which come in fun cutesy presentations like ice-cream cones shaped like animals, or pancakes with cute faces drawn on them.
If you want to get your maid server’s attention, you call out “meow meow!” and they come right away! It’s adorable, weird, Kawaii, and totally fun.
Fun fact, there are also butler cafes throughout Japan! We wanted to visit one of these as well, but the one that we really wanted to go to required reservations far in advance. So on this trip we didn’t get to see one, but maybe next time!
#6: Have a Night-Out in Shibuya or Shinjuku
Tokyo is one of the most bustling cities in the world. So naturally, I think it makes sense to experience one of their famous night-life districts at least once! Shibuya district and Shinjuku district are both well known for their night-life scenes, and so we explored both.
On our first night in Tokyo after landing we walked around Shinjuku. I wanted to take Kathleen and Jennifer to an izakaya, since they’re a uniquely Japanese kind of eatery. An izakaya is a bar that offers drinks and light snacks. It’s a place many Japanese go to after getting off work, but before they go to dinner. You get a few beers with friends, maybe share a small bowl of edamame or fried potato (french fries!), and then head off to the next place in your evening.
It took us awhile to find an izakaya that was open that night. We landed in the afternoon, and so many weren’t open yet. But we eventually found one that was pretty close to our capsule hotel, and settled in for some drinks and snacks!
Shibuya is another great district for walking around at night. The packed streets lined with tall buildings and neon signs everywhere is overwhelming in the coolest way.
After a long day of sightseeing, we pregamed one night on the balcony of our hostel, then headed to Shibuya. One place we visited was called Good Beer Faucets. Beer breweries aren’t super common in Japan, but this one was really cool on the inside! The drink menu was extensive.
We wandered for a time, hopping from one little hole in the wall bar to another…
Eventually coming to a famous place in Shibuya that makes #7 on this list!
#7: See The World’s Most Crazy Intersection
An intersection made the list? Really?
Yes! It’s hard to describe why Shibuya Crossing is so cool to see, but it is. It’s the busiest crosswalk in the world. When the walking signs go from red to white, people from 8 different corners flood the street. This crosswalk goes from north to south, east to west, and diagonally in both directions. A massive sea of people all moving at once. And then in a few seconds, poof, all gone and the cars roll by once again.
It took us a few tries, but we made sure to snap fun photos in this intersection during those few brief seconds when it’s allowed for people to cross! It really is just a few seconds, so we had to keep waiting for the ok-go for people to walk, run into the center, snap some photos, and then run to another side. Repeating it as many times as necessary until we all got our photo!
Another fun landmark to see right off the side of this intersection, is the famous Hachikō dog statue.
The true story of Hachikō is a very well known one in Japan. Every day, Hachikō (a Japanese Akita) and his owner Ueno would walk to the Shibuya train station together. Ueno would take the train to work, and return home to Shibuya station in the evening, where him and Hachikō would walk home.
One day, Ueno died suddenly while at work. Every single day after that, until his death, Hachikō would return to the train station and wait patiently for Ueno to return.
I’m not crying, you’re crying…
#8: Step Into Another World At the Borderless Digital Light Museum
I think one of the coolest things we did in Tokyo was visit the Teamlab Borderless Digital Light Museum.
I was actually a bit unsure about visiting this place at first. Surprisingly, I’m not that into museums.
It’s also located in a part of Tokyo that is a bit far from everything else we wanted to see, and where we were staying. So it was a whole-day commitment to go out there and back.
Jennifer originally came across the idea of this place, and put up a good argument for why it was worth a visit. I was eventually convinced, and in the end I’m so glad that we went there. It was so cool!
We started this long day by taking a series of trains out to Koto City, of Tokyo. I believe it took about an hour to get there, but there were some nice scenic views along the way of the river and the city!
The place itself is huge, with tons of connecting rooms that each have a unique theme. Various lasers and projectors paint the floor, walls, and ceilings with moving light patterns in striking combinations.
The optical illusions that get created are crazy! At times it felt like you were swimming in a kaleidoscope, or walking through a fantasy dream-scape.
In the beginning were the “flower” rooms.
Another cool room was one where thin, long stalactite lights hung from the ceiling. It had the illusion like you were walking through the rain.
There was a rain soundtrack that played through this room, and it even include a “thunderstorm” moment, so walking through the lights and hearing the audio at the same time really helped immerse you in the illusion!
I think my favorite room overall was the lantern room. Lights hung from the ceiling, and mirrors were on every wall making it look like the room went on forever. The lanterns also subtly turned colors every few seconds.
It felt like being surrounded by stars.
There was a giant lily-pad room.
Lighted beasts walking across the walls.
Oh, and the egg-pod-balloons! We had a lot of fun taking pictures in this area.
The egg-balloons glowed and changed colors every few seconds. It was really cool to walk through.
One large room had a big trampoline in it, slide, and other things to interact with. There was a rock-climbing forest of sorts to crawl through? And these large wooden slats hanging from the ceiling to swing on!
It’s honestly a bit hard to describe it all. It’s definitely something to experience though, if you’re able to.
The very top floor holds a tea house, which you have to pay extra to visit. We did so, and once again I’m glad we did. You get to pick from a small selection of various authentic teas, and then sit in a dark room to enjoy your tea.
Overhead, a projector paints a blooming flower inside your tea cup, that eventually explodes into a gentle spray of petals when you pick up your tea cup to drink. Soft music plays… it was really peaceful and serene.
I believe we all got the jade-lemon tea sweetened slightly. It was delightful!
If you do visit this museum, I recommend getting there FIRST THING after they open for the day. Our goal was to be one of the first people in line that day. I’m glad this was our strategy, because it does get pretty crowded here as the day goes on, but we got to explore some parts of it when there were few people.
#9: Hike Mt. Fuji
Boy oh boy, do I have A LOT to say about this particular adventure! But I’ve decided to save those tales for its own dedicated post!
And really, I think it’s fitting. Visiting Mt. Fuji is definitely a whole-day commitment, but one that is totally worth it.
There is a lot of confusing information out there, about how to get to Fuji, and how to hike it. We had a difficult time putting together our strategy for this day. But in the end, it was such a memorable experience, and I can’t wait to write about it in my next post.
All I will say for now though, is that it’s a great place to go. If you’re an experienced hiker, this mountain will definitely challenge you. But if you like to enjoy nature in a more relaxed way, there are flat and easy trails in the surrounding area of Fuji that can be enjoyed as well. There’s also a beautiful lake at the base. So I think for anyone that appreciates natural beauty, and being outdoors, visiting Fuji is a must!
#10: Indulge In Street Food & Find Unique Restaurants
One of the reasons I love traveling is being able to try interesting local foods and flavors. Japanese food is some of my absolute favorite, and I had so many delicious meals during this trip!
I’ll take the time in this section to showcase some of my favorite meals– and the restaurants I especially recommend as worth a visit!
Cold Soba Noodles With Tempura at Gonpachi
After a long day exploring Asakusa one afternoon, the three of us were famished! We eventually made our way to a place along the river called Gonpachi. I found it earlier in the day on the Happy Cow app, and we’d been looking forward to it all day long!
It was pretty hot that day, and we had been on our feet the whole time. So right away we ordered 3 beers, which was so refreshing. All three of us ordered a soba noodle meal (cold noodles with dipping sauce), which was their specialty. I got mine with vegetable tempura on the side. We ate at the bar while enjoying a great view of the Sumida river. After our entrees, we got a complimentary tea to finish off the meal. After such a long time walking, this meal gave us life!
Afterwards, we walked around the river area a bit, saw the famous Golden Turd of Tokyo, and headed off to our next planned adventure. If refreshing soba noodles are on your list to try while visiting Tokyo, I highly recommend the meal I had at Gonpachi!
Authentic Sushi At Itamae
A trip to Japan is not complete without trying authentic sushi, right? Well, believe it or not this objective was actually a little tricky to accomplish.
Vegetable sushi is a pretty Americanized concept. It’s rare to come by in Japan, as most sushi is all seafood based over there. Me being vegan, Kathleen having an extreme shellfish allergy, and Jennifer not liking seafood sushi, made our task difficult! But once again, Happy Cow came in for the rescue. Itamae Sushi had multiple vegetable sushi and sashimi rolls to try, including a unique one I never had before using lots of fresh chives– that I really liked!
One thing it’s important to understand about Japanese eating culture, is that their portion sizes are a lot smaller than what we Americans are used to. After Itamae I was still pretty hungry, ha, and so I found a little Onigiri shop nearby to top off my meal. I got a pickled plum flavored one, one of my favorites!
Hole-In-The-Wall Ramen Shops!
Only a short walk away from our hostel was a ramen shop called Ramen Gossou. It was really tiny on the inside! But those are the kinds of places where you know it’ll be good.
You place your order at a little vending machine near the entrance, then hand the chef your ticket. The language barrier was pretty apparent at this place, but honestly the vending machine system they had in place helped.
This place had a fun assortment of toppings you could to add to your bowl after it was served, like vinegar, chili oil, scallions, soy sauce, etc. I’d never had ramen with vinegar in it before. But when in Rome (er.. Tokyo), right?
Surprisingly, I really liked it!
Vegan Burger At Martini Burger
We found ourselves eating at Martini Burger one night, kind of by accident. Once again we’d had a long day of walking, and just wanted to eat near the hostel and go to bed. There weren’t too many vegan-friendly places near the hostel, but I did try my best to find one using a combination of Happy Cow and Google. Among a few others, this burger place showed up along with one vegan restaurant, which we decided to give a try first.
I forget what the all-vegan place was called, but upon arrival it was a bit… strange. The owner asked if we had a reservation, even though it was pretty empty inside. A projector was being set up, like a home movie was going to be played.
My sisters were weirded out, and to be honest, I was a bit too. It had a big hippy woo-woo feeling to it. I really hate how some vegan places turn out like this. Vegan food is normal food! It’s pizza, and lasagna, and dumplings, and stir-fry, and tacos, and any kind of meal you’ve ever had, just made with plants.
But for some reason, every once in awhile you come across a vegan restaurant that leans heavily into what I call the woo-woo, which has nothing at all to do with veganism. I feel that places like this do the vegan movement a disservice. But I’m going off on a tangent a bit… back to the main story!
So, we left that place and headed back towards the hostel. At this point we were STARVING, and just took a hard left into this burger place when we passed it again. I knew they had a vegan burger on the menu, and while “American” food wasn’t really on our to-do list for this trip, in the end this meal was delicious! My vegan burger was amazing, and it definitely hit the spot.
Yep, one night after (another!) long day of walking all we wanted to do was get food near the hostel and sleep. Kathleen and Jennifer ate pizza from the hostel’s kitchen menu, and I went a street over to get carry-out pad thai.
It’s moments like this one, and in the burger story, that I remember it’s OK to not eat “100% local cuisine” when you travel. Traveling is a vacation, and you should always feel empowered to just do what makes you happy at the end of the day.
Just because you’re traveling in Italy, that doesn’t mean you have to ONLY eat Italian food when you’re there. Likewise, if you’re traveling in Japan, don’t feel like you’re being a “bad traveler” if you don’t eat Japanese food for every single meal. Do what makes you happy!
And that night, I was seriously craving pad thai, because it’s one of my all-time favorite foods (I constantly crave it). It was delicious! And I didn’t feel bad about not having a “Japanese” meal one bit. If you’re new to traveling, I hope you are able to embrace this concept too. Yes, immerse yourself in local foods and culture, but also take a break when you need to and do what makes you happy. Or in this case, eat what makes you happy. 🙂
Vegan Food In Tokyo
I’ve written about the struggles of being vegan in Japan in my first Tokyo post. I’ll reiterate the message here too.
Interestingly enough, it is both easy AND difficult to be vegan in Japan! It’s easy, because we live in a modern age where Google and apps like Happy Cow exist. Finding vegan restaurants when I travel is easy these days with the internet.
Another plus about Asian cuisine, is that dairy is pretty rare in their authentic dishes. Much of Asia is lactose intolerant, and so I never have to worry about hidden milk powder or butter in my meals. Another big plus is that tofu/soy, as a protein option, is common in many Asian dishes.
In my opinion, being vegan in Japan on this trip came from 2 main struggles. The first one, is that fish paste/broth, is used in almost everything. It is the milk powder of the east…
Not knowing the language, I tried my best to write down messages, and articulate what I wanted with my meals. But at the end of the day, it’s impossible to know whether or not a noodle dish I ordered had fish flakes in it somehow. Veganism is not about being perfect though, it’s about trying your best. And I know without a doubt, that I do my best to eat vegan when I travel, as I always do. So for any vegans reading this, take comfort in knowing that it’s OK to do your best and then hope for the best with what you get!
The second main struggle of this trip came from traveling with 2 non-vegans. Unfortunately, between my values and Kathleen’s extreme shellfish allergy, sometimes it was hard for us to find a place to eat.
We made it work though. To anyone who may find themselves in a similar situation with their travel partners, my advice is this: to remain patient with each other, approach conversations from a place of compassion, understanding, and figure out where and how compromises can be made.
One of the compromises we occasionally relied on with this trip, was to agree to eat at separate places for some meals. For example, for one of our meals in Seoul, they wanted to visit a traditional Korean BBQ restaurant (very meat-heavy), and I was able to find an all-vegan restaurant one street over. They enjoyed their meal, and I enjoyed mine!
More details on that meal are to come, as it was one of my all-time top 3 best vegan burgers I’ve ever had in my LIFE!
Anyways, I hope these sentiments are helpful to any vegan who loves to travel, and loves to travel with others.
Download Happy Cow, research native dishes beforehand, write down and take with you a few handy phrases in the local language like “I don’t eat meat”, or “Is there a vegetarian friendly option?” etc. and you’ll be fine!
I hope this Tokyo travel guide was a fun read for you! This concludes part 1 of my Asian travel journey with my sisters. Part 2 will be… hiking Mt. Fuji!
Stay tuned for all the details on how to climb Mt. Fuji from the TRUE base, how difficult this task actually is, what to do if you hear a wild boar in the woods, and all the fun you’ll have climbing up a mountain with a day’s supply of Onigiri for 3 people. 🙂