Since I was a kid reading manga on a Saturday night, I have always wanted to visit Japan. Just traveling to Japan wasn’t good enough though, I had a bucket list item to see the cherry blossoms in Tokyo. The sakura (or cherry blossom to us Americans) is the official flower of Japan, and for a good reason. For just two weeks in spring, the tree lined mega city is blooming with tufts of white and pink flowers. Japan really is a sight to see during cherry blossom season.
Cherry blossom season in Japan
It was extremely challenging to fit all of the cultural, historical and fun things I wanted to do in just the week Jay and I were there for. If you are planning a three-city trip and need to take the Japanese bullet train (Shinkansen) I highly suggest giving yourself more than just a week. You should stay at least two weeks if you have as much on your list as we did. A few things we didn’t get to do that I would have liked to were Tokyo Sea, Tokyo Disney, the Instant Ramen museum in Osaka, and Tokyo’s Ramen Street.
Using Airbnb in Japan
I am pretty new to Airbnb and had never used it for international travel. While booking our Airbnb for Japan, I half imagined us showing up after 10 hours of travel to an abandoned warehouse. Luckily, our hosts were extremely good with communication and had guest guides with how to get to the apartment using the train. Plus, our hosts gave us walking directions in addition to pictures! This type of hand holding is definitely not provided when you stay at a hotel.
Hotel prices during cherry blossom season are outrageous! Airbnb is a life saver for affordable travel.
Airbnb in Osaka
In Osaka we stayed at a micro apartment right by Namba station. Our host, Taka was fantastic and provided everything from a pocket wifi to a washing machine in the Airbnb. If you are traveling to Osaka stay at Taka’s Namba apartment which is a block from the kitchen market Sennichimae Doguyasuji.
We took the shinkansen to Kyoto for our day trip and commuted back to Osaka. We almost had to stay overnight in Kyoto because we didn’t check the train times after hunting for geishas. Luckily, the ramen shop we were eating at was pay before you eat so we grabbed our stuff and ran to catch the last shinkansen back to Osaka.
See what food to eat in Japan that made my bucketlist.
Airbnb in Tokyo
We didn’t think a micro apartment could get any more “micro” than our Osaka Airbnb, we were wrong. Our Airbnb in Tokyo was a shoe box in comparison to Osaka. I knew we were going to be sleeping in a bunkbed, but that was pretty much all that was in the room. The only other piece of furniture was a bean bag chair, in which I had to sleep under in order to have room for our luggage.
The location was just steps away from Shibuya station entrance #1 so getting in and out was easy. I was able to get a picture with Hachi and do the Shibuya scramble upon arrival to Tokyo. If you are the type of traveler that just uses their room for sleeping, Paul’s Shibuya Airbnb is a great deal.
Using the Japan Rail Pass to get around
I was nervous about getting around using the Japan Rail Pass. We had to take the bullet train to Osaka after touching down in Tokyo. Since we didn’t speak the language or know much about the routes we were a little hesitant before getting on the trains. Luckily, the JR pass staff was really helpful and did their best to guide us. If you are going to be traveling around Japan and not just staying in one city, the JR pass is such a good deal!
You have to order and receive your JR pass ahead of time, because you need the paper voucher to redeem in Japan. the Japan Rail Pass is $250 each, but it saved us a ton of money since a one-way ticket between Osaka and Tokyo was already $100. Select train lines in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto use the the JR pass.
- Buy your rail pass ahead of time
- Redeem your rail pass at the airport (don’t lose them, they are not replaceable)
- Optimize your routes to utilize the JR Pass and save money
We found that Apple maps gave us the best public transit route options, and Google maps gave us the best walking directions.
Top 5 things to do in Japan
Visit an Onsen
This is my number one MUST DO in Japan. The Japanese onsen is an example of how the fast paced ever evolving technology culture of Japan is still rooted in tradition. I stripped down to my birthday suit and spent an evening bathing in the natural hot springs at Tokyo Somei Onsen Sakura.
This place was a great deal at just 1,300 yen and just one train away (Yamonote line). This local onsen has 6 spa baths for women, including three outdoor baths among the cherry blossoms and a sauna. The men’s onsen has 5 baths. The women get an extra “milk” bath that uses ultrasonic waves to help the spring water’s properties soak in.
Tokyo Somei Onsen Sakura Address: 5-4-24 Komagome, Toshima-ku, Tokyo (Open until 11 PM)
What the Onsen taught me is that the Japanese really believe in staying warm as a way to preserve health. Which I guess explains why they keep the trains so warm.
Shop at the Sennichimae Doguyasuji Shopping Street (Kitchen street)
The Sennichimae Doguyasuji Shopping Street was just a block away from our Airbnb. I really enjoy cooking and, as a result, I love eating. I believe good food comes from a well used kitchen. The Japanese have such a bustling restaurant industry that there is a huge demand for restaurant kitchen goods. The Osaka kitchen street has stores brimming with display plastic foods, neon “open” signs, lucky cats with waving paws, and at least 300 styles of chopsticks.
Do the Shibuya Scramble & see Hachiko
Shibuya station has two Tokyo tourist must-dos in one spot. One of the reasons I have always wanted to visit Tokyo is to see the Hachi statue. Every Christmas since our family’s first dog Lucky passed away, we’ve been watching Hachi as a way to remember our lost family members. The story of Hachi boils down to a faithful dog that would wait for his owner, a professor, at Shibuya every day for him to get off of work. One day, Hachi’s owner dies of a heart attack while teaching and never comes back. Hachi spends every day waiting at the exact spot where Hachiko statue stands for his owner to return, until he too passes away. It’s a beautiful story that every dog owner should watch.
During cherry blossom season, Hachi is surrounded in what looks like a crown of cherry blossom trees. Hachi looks almost regal sitting there with a line of tourists waiting to grab a picture with his majesty.
Shibuya station is one of the busiest stations in Tokyo, only second to Shinjuku. When the stop lights all turn red and the cross walk flashes green, mobs from all four corners of the Shibuya converge in the intersection. This convergence is known as the Shibuya scramble. Since you can cross from any point of the street, there’s a swirl of people coming and going from all directions.
Feed the deer at Nara Park in Kyoto
Feeding the deer at Nara Park was my second favorite thing to do while in Japan. Like other parts of Japan, Kyoto has their own animal attractions where tourists and locals can come face-to-face with wild animals usually kept in cages. Kyoto has Nara deer park. For 500 yen you can buy deer cookies that make all of deer come running to you. Be careful though, the deer can be a little feisty and try eat your clothes to get your attention.
Too bad Nara deer park wasn’t covered in cherry blossom trees like I had hoped.
Visit the Pokemon Center
Japan is the birthplace of Pokemon, one of the greatest animated shows of our generation. There are a few Pokemon Centers around Japan where you can find all things Pikachu and Poke goods. I visited the Pokemon Center in Osaka, as well as the Pokemon MEGA center in Tokyo. It was refreshing to see so many youngsters up on a Saturday morning to battle each other using their Gameboys.