It seems as though everyone has been in Japan this year. It’s so easy to fall in love with the culture, the food, the architecture, and the shopping. (Anastasia Beverly Hills even has a Ginza outpost). The highlights are worthy of a novel, but here are a few good places to start for first-time visitors to two of Japan’s most happening cities, Tokyo and Kyoto.
The Park Hyatt: Immortalized by Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, this soaring hotel boasts some of the best panoramas of the city and Mount Fuji, plus that amazing pool with a view and the glistening 52nd-floor New York bar, where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson have their movie meet-cute. 3-7-1-2, Nishishinjuku, Tokyo 163-1055
Higashi-Yama- This sleek, minimalist restaurant is a must for modern takes on kaiseki (Japanese tasting menus). The options vary seasonally, but spring highlights included sashimi, an on-point beef dish, and an ice cream sandwich flavored with cherry blossoms. s1 Chome-21-25 Higashiyama, Meguro, Tokyo 153-0043
Tempura Kondo- Master of the form Fumio Kondo presides over the fryer at this tiny, top-of-the-line tempura restaurant. Order the set menu for a little bit of everything, or picky eaters like myself can enjoy à la carte items like a bird’s nest-esque tangle of peeled carrot, a whole sweet potato (be prepared to share), and giant shrimp. 5 Chome-5-13 Ginza, Tokyo 104-0061
Kyubay- Located inside the South Wing of the storied Okura hotel, a 1970s design gem in and of itself, serves some of Tokyo’s best sushi. Try to get a seat at the bar for an up-close look at what the chef is up to. 2-10-4 Toranomon, Minato, Tokyo 105-0001
Daikanyama T-Site book store- Located in a fashionable shopping district, this sprawling book mecca is worth a visit for its vast selection of art tomes, Japanese and international. There’s also a cozy café with mural-adorned walls that’s perfect for posting up with a book and a cup of great Japanese coffee or tea. 17-5 Sarugakucho, Shibuya, Tokyo, 150-0033
Ritz-Carlton Kyoto- If you’re looking for a luxurious stay in Kyoto, you might as well make it the Ritz. The ultimate in Japanese hospitality and design meets stunning river views and A+ amenities. You’ll never want to leave.
Ippodo Tea- You can smell the leaves roasting blocks away from this storied Kyoto teahouse, which serves up some of the finest matchas and oolongs you’ll ever hope to drink, accompanied by Japanese sweets, under the brewing tutelage of the expert servers. There’s also a retail area where you can buy tea to take home, which you’ll definitely want to do. 52 Tokiwagicho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, 604-0915
Giro Giro Hitoshima- A great value for an upmarket kaiseki meal, Giro Giro delivers new tasting menus monthly, with such recent seasonal hits as whole sardines and cherry blossom gelee with sorbet. 420-7 Nanba-cho, Nishi Kiya-machi-dori, Higashigawa, Matsubarashita, Shimogyo-ku; 81-75-343-7070
Comme des Garcons- Yes, you can shop at any of various CDG stores in the U.S., but in Japan, Rei Kawakubo’s wares and wears are significantly cheaper. At the location in Kyoto, the more accessibly-priced Play line is restocked on Thursdays, and shoppers line up in droves prior to the 11 am store opening in order to grab as many heart-emblazoned tees, cardigans, and sneakers as they can carry. Bring your passport along for tax-free shopping. 604-0941 Kyōto-fu, Kyōto-shi, Nakagyō-ku, Kameyachō (Gokomachidōri), Kyoto
GRANPIE Spanish for “Bigfoot,” this impeccably-curated shop sells top-notch artisanal wares from around the globe (textiles from India, dishware from Pakistan, etc.), with a smattering of local workmanship as well. Granpie.com
Nanzen-ji Temple- Quieter when we visited than many of Kyoto’s famous temples, this sprawling Zen complex was converted from the residence of an emperor. Stroll the gardens and various buildings before adjourning for Kyoto’s famous tofu at the restaurant Okutan on the premises. 86 Nanzenji Fukuchicho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto 606-8435
Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine- You’ve probably seen Instagram pictures of this iconic Shinto shrine in Southern Kyoto, which is known for its thousands of orange gates. Hike through them all to the top of the mountain if you’re in the mood for a healthy walk. Worth braving the crowds of tourists, which thin out as you approach the summit. 68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho, Fushimi-ku, Kyoto 612-0882
Gingkaku-ji Temple- This peaceful temple boasts some of the more impressive rock gardens you’ll see; worth stopping by if you’re in the area. 2 Ginkakuji-cho Sakyo-ku, Kyoto 606-8402