Hi friends! If you’ve booked a trip to Japan, I am so excited for you. It it without doubt my favourite country in the world and I know you’ll love it! Japan is deceptively large – geographically it’s only approximately the same size as the state of California, but packed into 377,708 square kilometres is a treasure trove of culture, history, religion, art and people. As such, I found it pretty difficult and a bit overwhelming when we planned the 10-night itinerary for our first trip. We’re moving to Japan in just over a month (can’t believe I’m saying that!) and to celebrate, I thought I’d pass on some tips and recommendations to make your life easier!
I think the key advice I would give is be realistic – often on Facebook travel pages or in forums I see people post their intended itinerary and in many cases, what they want to do is just not possible. Therefore, be realistic with your plans and ensure you give yourself more time than you think you may need. I always forget to factor in travel time, lunch stops and the inevitability that I will not get up at 6am everyday. It’s therefore important to prioritise the key things you want to see and do so that you don’t miss out, and then anything extra will be a bonus!
Day 1 to 3 – Tokyo
You are going to be jet-lagged if you haven’t slept on the flight. I thought jet lag was a bit of a myth until we reached Tokyo and I hadn’t slept for about 24 hours – nausea, dizziness, headaches and, obviously, extreme fatigue – I even had hallucinations! Jet lag for me is one of those things you can’t power through – I would therefore advise resting for at least the first day (if you land in the morning). If you were lucky enough to get a flight which lands at night time, you’ll be able to go straight to bed and feel refreshed the next morning. I’ve already got a blog post up about how to survive the long-haul flight, so be sure to check that out.
Once you’re rested, what you get up to in Tokyo really depends on your interests! If you’re a bit of a nerd, head straight to Akihabara for the merchandise shops, neon lights and game machines, for fashion head to Shinjuku, for shopping head to Ginza or Odaiba, and for shrines, temples and historic sites, you can find these almost everywhere! Favourites of mine include the Meiji Shrine near Shibuya, Sensō-ji Temple in Asakusa and the Gōtokuji Temple, home of the lucky cat! The first two get really busy during the day, so perhaps head there early in the morning or at dusk. When we visited Gōtokuji Temple, I think we were the only people there! It’s a little way out of central Tokyo but it’s totally worth it, even if just for the thousands of lucky cat statues. For more Tokyo recommendations, check out my blog post about making the most of your time in Tokyo.
You could easily spend an entire week in Tokyo alone – there’s so much in and around this massive city that realistically, you’re going to need days to cover the key areas. I’ve factored in 3 days for this itinerary but I would recommend moving things around if Tokyo is a priority for you – maybe skip Nara or Hiroshima for 2 or 3 extra days in Tokyo at the start or the end of your trip. We always use a spreadsheet to diarise our itinerary – it sounds super nerdy but it’s so helpful for setting out where you’ll be, what hotels you’ve booked and things you want to do in each destination. Here’s a template which is exactly the same as the one we use – maybe it will help!
Day 4 to 5 – Mt Fuji
For me, Mt Fuji was always a must-see during my trip to Japan, particularly given how close it is to Tokyo. You can get to Fujikawaguchiko in less than 2 hours by bus from Shinjuku station, though the Japanese government announced late last year that a new limited express train service connecting Shinjuku and Kawaguchiko stations will debut this year, making it even easier to view the mountain and explore the awesome landscape that surrounds it. If you decide to hop on a bus (and it is a really gorgeous journey!), check out the reservation site here – the bus drops off at a few different locations. You could easily fill 2 days with Mt Fuji and the nearby towns. My suggestions would include:
- Oshino Shinobi no Sato, a nearby ‘ninja village’ with a bunch of cool activities for visitors and home to a real training school for shinobis;
- Fuji Q Highland, a reasonably sized theme park boasting some of the fastest and highest rollercoasters in the world;
- Lake Ashi, Mount Hakone and Gotemba shopping outlet – we did a day tour from Tokyo visiting these three sites (including an all-you-can-eat yakiniku (BBQ) lunch) which I can heartily recommend, especially if you want to shop during your trip;
- Stay in a ryokan or a hotel with an onsen. We stayed at the Mizno Hotel which have rooms available boasting private, open air baths. Our budget didn’t quite stretch that far, but we every room is guaranteed a view of the mountain and we woke up the next morning to perfectly clear skies and the most awesome view I’ve ever seen out of a window! They have indoor public baths on site too and the hotel can be accessed on foot from Fujikawaguchiko bus station in about 20 minutes – the walk through the town and past the lake is gorgeous on a sunny day; and
- Chureito Pagoda, the famous tiered pagoda boasting an unobstructed view of the mountain.
There’s so much to do around Mt Fuji (in addition to actually climbing it!) that you could easily spend 3 or 4 days in the area. How long you stay there is up to you – we only stayed one night, but barely got any of the above done and still have lots of exploring to do when we go back.
Day 5 to 8 – Kyoto
I’ve posted a summary of my perfect Kyoto itinerary here, so please check that out for my recommendations. Kyoto, for me, was a tricky place to plan because there is certainly enough to do to spend several days there but we only had 3 days. I’ve only pencilled in 3 days for the purposes of this post but I would recommend listing out what you’d like to do while you’re in Kyoto and you can then judge (with the help of my Kyoto blog post) how many days you need there.
Day 9 to 10 – Hiroshima or Nara
I have to confess, I’ve not visited Hiroshima and I really regret not doing so while I was in the Kansai region of Japan. Hiroshima is just under 2 hours from Kyoto by shinkansen (bullet train) and only an hour and a half from Osaka. This makes the city a great option for a day-trip or short, one night stay out of Kyoto or Osaka. Inside Kyoto has a great guide for Hiroshima here – be sure to check it out.
If you’re not up for the journey out to Hiroshima, I recommend a quick stop in Nara on your way from Kyoto to Osaka (or visa versa). The ‘bowing’ deer are very endearing (though be careful not to feed them bits of paper or plastic – they will chew on anything!) and the Tōdai-ji temple is phenomenal, boasting the largest bronze statue in the world of Buddha, known in Japanese as Daibutsu. Nara hotels are really cheap and we stayed in the awesome Onyado Nono Nara Natural Hot Spring which was extremely well priced, had an onsen and felt traditionally Japanese.
Day 10 – 13 – Osaka
I had a love/hate relationship with Osaka, but that could be partly because it rained the entire time we were there. The street food is awesome though there aren’t very many places to sit and eat (we ended up perched on a kerb outside 7/11). Dotonbori is really busy and actually once I’d seen it, I was happy to explore the rest of Osaka and not go back to such a crowded area. I loved Nipponbashi / Denden town as this is like a tiny Akihabara – we found some really awesome stores there and visited the top rated restaurant in all of Osaka for kastu curry! The aquarium is amazing and High 5 was pretty awesome too (though not if you’re afraid of heights!). Osaka Castle is a photographer’s dream, and if you head inside you are taught all about the famous samurai warrior Toyotomi Hideyoshi. I think when you visit Osaka you’ll either love it or you won’t like it at all, but I would definitely recommend squeezing it into your itinerary if you can.
Day 13 – 14 – Tokyo
To finish off my 2 week itinerary, I would spend day 13 travelling back to Tokyo via the bullet train and then try to cover anything we missed the first time in Tokyo.
There is so much to do in Japan that isn’t covered here! This post will mostly directyou to the key ‘tourist’ spots but there are alternatives. Here are a few more ideas:
Want to see the Japanese Macaques in the forests of the Jigokudani valley in Yamanouchi? I would suggest allocating at least an entire day – an overnight stay is ideal. It’s about 3 hours each way by train and once you get to Yamanouchi, the area where the snow monkeys live is another hour or so on foot. I think the best way to do this would be to get a train to Nagano station and then arrange a day tour to take you the rest of the way. Voyagin have a few options that you could check out, including this one day tour.
Fancy spending a weekend on a tropical island? If you have the budget for it, you could spend a few days on one of the beautiful Okinawa islands. The remote Kerama islands are home to gorgeous coral reefs, colourful fish and hundreds of awesome activities such as kayaking in the mangroves of Iriomote or snorkelling with turtles off the coast of Zamami. We visited the main island at the capital Naha and went diving with whale sharks during our stay (I will post separately about our experience of Okinawa sometime in the future). Unfortunately the rest of our time there was disrupted by Typhoon Trami, but if you can visit outside of storm season and have the budget for the flights and hotels (Tokyo to Naha flights are around £150pp return), definitely visit one of these beautiful islands (and here is a guide to help you decide which one!).
We haven’t visited Hokkaido yet, but I really want to, and you should too! Hokkaido looks so awesome in photos, especially in the winter when there’s thick snow surrounding small, traditional ryokans with open-air onsens. It looks such a beautiful, peaceful part of Japan and somewhere I am determined to go next time I’m in the country. Sapporo is about an hour and a half by plane from Tokyo and often less than £50 each way. For this, you could exchange the hustle and bustle of a cold (and probably rainy) Tokyo for a wintry city famous for its beer, skiing and annual Sapporo Snow Festival, complete with enormous ice sculptures!
The Japanese are masters at luggage delivery, and I urge you to use it. When we got on our bus in Tokyo for Mt Fuji, we decided we didn’t want to haul our suitcases around the countryside and instead arranged for them to be sent ahead of us to our Kyoto hotel. This was a really good decision and something I strongly recommend doing. Find parts of your trip where a suitcase might be cumbersome and see if you can arrange for it to be sent separately (ensuring you contact your hotel first to tell them the luggage is coming). You can even arrange for luggage delivery between Narita or Haneda airports and your Tokyo hotel. It’s a perfectly safe and reliable service and it only cost us around £20 for each huge suitcase to go from Shinjuku bus station to Kyoto. The helpful staff at Shinjuku Service Center speak English and can assist you – here’s a link to their site.
I hope this post helped you plan your upcoming trip to Japan. It’s a real challenge to condense this amazing country into a few days of sightseeing, but with the right planning, you’ll get to see so much of it. I may write a separate post on practical tips for hotels, trains, currency, food – let me know what you’d find most helpful!