While there are countless worthwhile tourist destinations spread throughout Japan, like Osaka, Hiroshima, and Mount Fuji, most travelers only have time to tour one or two cities during their trip. That's no problem! Tokyo and Kyoto offer more than enough to cater to travelers many interests, whether you're hitting the road with your sweetie or with your family in tow, or are after a culinary adventure to remember. Here are three Tokyo and Kyoto itineraries that are custom-tailored for families, foodies, or couples.
In Tokyo, get a bit of shopping done without boring the kids in the Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Ginza districts, where the neon lights are reminiscent of Times Square in New York. If it's raining—or even if it's not—slip into the four-floor Sony showroom to test out the latest electronic gadgets. When you're all shopped out, take the 75–minute tour of the Imperial Palace and its surrounding grounds, with grassy areas ideal for picnics and afternoon walks. Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea are other popular family excursions, as is the National Science Museum and the Ueno Zoo.
Kyoto is a much more manageable city than Tokyo and one of the best ways to explore its numerous temples, outdoor parks, and shopping strips is by bike. Kids really enjoy the Umekoji Park and Steam Locomotive Museum, especially when a real train makes an appearance on the outdoor turntable three times a day. Anyone who's ever read or seen Memoirs of a Geisha will want to experience the Gion District, while the Gion Corner is a great place for children to learn about seven different types of Japanese performing arts, including the Kyomai dance.
Tokyo is a veritable culinary playground. If you're looking for an overview of the country's gastronomic scene, consider signing up for a food tour. Both Veltra and Voyagin offer quick crash courses highlighting the different types of food you'll find in Japan. Ramen noodles, curry rice, gyudon, oyakodon, and eel rice bowls are among the most popular local dishes, and that's not even counting sushi, sashimi, tempura, and tofu. Make sure to visit the famous Tsukiji fish market early in the morning, and don't leave town without indulging in a Kobe beef dinner. Tourists can also sign up for cooking classes at Taste of Culture, or request private market tours.
In Kyoto, one of the best places to shop for traditional food and fresh produce is the Nishiki Market, a narrow street spanning five blocks and cluttered with vendors, tourists, and locals. Keep an eye out for seasonal ingredients and delicacies: Japan is very observant of the seasons and much of the fare offered on the streets or in restaurants reflects elements of fall, winter, summer, or spring. Kyoto is especially revered for its tofu, especially yuba (tofu skin). One of the major foodie trends here is kaiseki, a traditional multicourse dinner based on the tea ceremony rituals of the 16th century. Each small course features fresh dishes that are prepared with locally sourced ingredients. Finally, learn the art of sake brewing by going behind the scenes at Matsui Shuzo, where you can sample a few different varieties.
From the Tokyo Tower's main observatory, you'll get a memorable 360–degree view of the city. Alternatively, the private garden at Tofuya Ukai, located near the base of the tower, proposes the ultimate city escape. Or, to see the Tokyo Tower twinkling at night, go instead to the Roppongi Hills observation deck. Even if you can't afford to stay at a chic hotel like the Park Hyatt, you can easily dip into their cocktail bar, which also touts panoramic views, in addition to regular live music. Go off-the-beaten path with a quiet stroll through Rikugien, one of the best examples of a Japanese-style garden that's beautiful any time of year. If you're traveling during the spring season, don't miss the cherry blossom-lined canal in Nakamegura.
Kyoto is as romantic by day as it is by night. Take advantage of sunny days with a leisurely stroll through Higashiyama-ku, which will take you past Kiyomizu Temple and Sanjusangendo Hall. The walk should take a few hours and if you time it right, you'll reach Gion by sunset, perfect an evening walk through this quiet, mostly pedestrian district. Although expensive, the row of restaurants along the Kamo River has some of the best views and there are usually musicians performing on the banks below. If time permits, spend a day visiting the many temples, shrines, and bamboo groves in Arashiyama.
Megan Eileen McDonough is a freelance travel writer based in New York City. She also runs Bohemian Trails, a blog that covers global lifestyle trends for the savvy and stylish traveler. Her cultural escapades have taken her to Latin America, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.
Photo credits: Courtesy of Megan Eileen McDonough, BohemianTrails.com