Japan: The Ultimate 2-Week Itinerary

7 May 2017
Japan took me by surprise – I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did. It has everything: the most stunning landscapes & mountains, delightful fresh food, an intriguing history & culture and tons to see and do.

It’s tough to pick only a handful of places to visit on a first trip, and though the below itinerary might feel like it’s too much, it actually allows for relaxation, plus all the essential things you can't miss!

Top tips before you go

1) Get the JR Rail Pass

It will allow you to cover massive distances in very short time which is SO worth it, when you consider Japan is a large country with VERY different cities and counties. There are 7, 14 and 21 day passes, and you only have to activate it on the first day you are going to use the pass, so you can stay in one city a few days before you activate it. You must get the JR pass before you enter Japan. Here’s the JR pass website with info.

2) Get a Wifi dongle

It’s very hard to find wifi spots in Japan – the most reliable way to always be connected is to hire a personal wifi dongle from websites such as these. You order and pay before hand and can decide where you want the dongle to be shipped (e.g. your hotel) or pick up at the airport. When you’re leaving Japan, simply pop it in the post box at the airport.

3) Download offline Google maps & Google translate

Most places in Japan don’t name things in English. Maps, menus, names of restaurants will be all in Japanese. Having an offline version of the cities you’re going to visit plus Google translate will get you out of any situation. 

4) Download Hyperdia

A great app showing you all the information you will need for travel, including times, platforms and stops for JR trains and subway alike.

5) Read how to do “Onsens”

Read online about what to do and not to do in an Onsen. Also, read about bath culture in Japan, as most hotels you will stay at will have a public bath which they will offer to run you a bath on. Say yes! It’s a fantastic experience.

6) Book at least one Ryokan

If you can, book more. Ryokans are Japanese traditional hotels and guesthouses, but you will be mesmerised and surprised at how much more comfortable their futons are to our western beds. Do the bath / sleep routine and you will sleep like baby.

7) Take a gift

Or a few. Just chocolate bars or something like that. When someone does something nice for you (in a hotel they might be super accommodating, or help you find something… or a restaurant maitre d’ might give you an umbrella to take with you if it’s raining outside). If you give them the gift, they will bow deeply and give you a gift back!

8) If you plan on driving, you will need an international license

You will. It's true.

The Itinerary

Days 1 & 2: Tokyo

If you can, fly into Haneda airport. Getting into Tokyo from here is faster and cheaper than Narita.

Spend your two days in Tokyo getting to grips with Japanese technology and culture. Be amazed at their toilets and convenience shops, and buy cold or hot Boss coffee from vending machines. You can follow a tried-and-tested Tokyo route or try my alternative guide to Tokyo (where you still get to see the best bits!)

Some experiences you can have in Tokyo include the Robot Cabaret or the Tsukiji Fish Market tour. If you’re interested in something different, you can also buy tickets for Sumo!

Where to stay in Tokyo

Staying in Tokyo is not cheap. Something you’ll find in Japan as well is that rooms are often tiny unless you book a traditional Ryokan.

Emblem Hostel Nishiarai offers excellent value, beautiful rooms (individual beds and private rooms as well) and a good breakfast, if only slightly away from the hustle and bustle (but very conveniently located).

Space Hostel Tokyo is very close to the main Tokyo temple of Sensi-ji and offers simple rooms with bunk beds but no meals on site. It is also very highly rated by couples.

Finally, Good Diner Inn Copain is superbly rated by travellers because of its cleanliness, friendliness and amazing breakfast at super, super cheap prices for a bunk bed.

Day 3: Nikko (day trip from Tokyo)

On the 3rd day, activate your JR pass at a participating station and take a very early train up to Nikko (just over 2 hrs). Nikko is a must-see for your first time in Japan, famous for its peaceful shrines set amidst the lush forests and hilly woods. Here’s a great post on a day spent in Nikko exploring the shrines.

At the end of the day, head back to Tokyo for the night, but not before enjoying dinner at Komekichi Kouzushi.

Day 4: Hakone (onsen)

The next day, head to Hakone on the Shinkansen (2 hhrs) which is the perfect stop to indulge in some of Japan’s greatest traditions.

Start by heading to Lake Ashinoko and getting a postcard-picture of its sacred red Torii gate and Mt Fuji in the background. Explore the rest of Hakone’s natural wonders like the grass fields, the volcanic vapours (Owakudani) and the Choanji Temple or head to Odawara Castle.

At the end of the day head back to the Hotel Green Plaza Hakone, which, for around 1600 yen (£10/$15 USD) lets you use their magnificent outdoor Onsen (a rotenburo) with views of Mt Fuji.
And if you’re a little shy of going nude for the Onsen, you can read about my first Onsen experience and how to do it right here. The perfect end to your day!

Where to stay in Hakone

Ryokan stay with dinner and breakfast included is recommended. You should experience traditional Japanese hospitality. The perfect meals served at these are also a great and surprising experience.

Two Ryokans that won’t break the bank are Hakone Gora Kanon and Suirinso – they both have mountain views and hot spring baths. They include 4x meals (2 dinners and 2 breakfasts) so although they might seem pricey, they're a steal.

Day 5: Matusmoto

It’s day 5 and you are now uber-relaxed from your hot spring experience and hopefully, you also got a massage whilst in Hakone. Now it’s time to jump on an early train to Matsumoto (just over 4 hrs).

Arriving in Matsumoto take it easy. Take a stroll, relax and visit Matsumoto Castle – one of Japan’s most beautiful original castles.

At night, try delicious and fresh handmade Soba noodles at top-rated Kobayashi Soba and then head back to your hotel to rest.

Where to stay in Matsumoto

The 2 highest rated western style hotels on booking.com are the Richmond Hotel Matsumoto and the Dormy Inn.

Day 6: Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route

Wake up super early the next day for a spectacular experience of nature and wonders. This route is a unique path through the Northern Japan’s Alps. You cross them via a multitude of transport, including cable cars, trolley buses and ropeway, and get to see the Tateyama Mountain Range in all its glory.

Here’s a brilliant blogpost about a day doing the Alpine Route. The route is completely closed off between December and mid-April.


Day 7: Osaka

Osaka is cool city, and in this itinerary, it’s also a tactical stop. The morning of the 7th day, after a good breakfast (provided by your hotel), get on the JR Shinano line to Nagoya and then switch to the Shinkansen to get to Osaka (4 hrs). You’ll get there ready for lunch, so head straight to drop your bags at your hotel and then pay a visit to the Dotonbori, an area by the river full of restaurants and shops.

Ichiran Dotonbori serve cheap but good Ramen. Okonomiyaki Chitose do the famous Osaka Okonomiyaki (fried omelettes with noodles and lots of goodies inside), also cheap. Most places to eat in Osaka are cheap and cheerful, with a variety of causal Izakayas (pub-like restaurants to drink and eat lots of little dishes).

At the Dotonbori don’t forget to visit the crazy shop Don Quijote. Floors upon floors of the craziest little things, super cheaply. This is where you stock up on Japanese paraphernalia to take back for yourself your friends.

When you’re done, head to the Umeda Sky building for amazing views of the city at sunset. Or if you fancy skipping all of that, you can visit the Museum of Housing and Living. It’s a life-size model of a city (buildings and streets) from Edo Period.

Where to stay in Osaka

We stayed at the fabulous Hotel Ichei. Right by Osaka station and within walking distance of lots of great things to see & do. Highly, highly recommend getting a Japanese-style room.

Day 8: Nara (day trip from Osaka)

On day 8 take the train up to Nara for a fantastic day trip exploring lush gardens and visiting some of the most ancient and important temples in Japan. You’ll also have long walks discovering the scattered temples along Nara park, where the famous deer live.

Buy deer cookies and learn how to feed the deer! Lunch at the tiny backstreet hole Maguro Koya is thoroughly recommended. In fact, you will never experience anything like it in your life.
In the evening head back to Osaka.


Day 9, 10: Koyasan

On day 9 wake up really early and head to sacred Mount KoyaHere is a circuit of temples in the mountains, a primaeval forest and the largest Buddhist cemetery in Japan (Okunoin). Koyasan is the place to experience spirituality and the monastic life.

To fully appreciate the experience I would normally recommend a stay at a traditional Shukubo (temple lodgings), where you will receive bare accommodation, simple vegan food (if booked in advance) and an opportunity to take part in Buddhist rituals that will leave you feeling in a state of bliss and calm. But for shorter itineraries (and depending on what you like) you cab skip staying here and head back to Okayama for a third night sleep and a faster start the following day.

The highly recommended meal here is an odd one. It’s a tiny little family-run shop where you’ve got a couple of benches to sit and enjoy the food you get. It’s flanked by a little stream of fresh water, which is one of the 3 ingredients used in making what they make. Tofu. You’re sniggering at this point, but I promise you, just pretend it isn’t tofu. Because when you try their silken marvellous piece of heaven, you will realise you’ve never tasted anything like it before. The place is called Hamadaya.

Where to stay in Koyasan

We stayed in Yochiin Shukubo. Bring earplugs as all Shukubos have very thin walls and creaky floors. Can be cold in the winter!


Day 11: Hiroshima & Mijayima

Day 11 is a bit of a travel day, but all in an effort to see the best bits. Wake up early and take a train to Hiroshima (5hrs). You could also have an earlier stop at Himeji (4hrs) to check out the beautiful all-white Himejijo (castle),  before heading for Hiroshima in the afternoon.

Go to Peace Memorial Park and visit the Museum (under renovations until July 2018 / limited access). Both very recommended as a deeply moving remembrance of history.
When you’re ready to leave, take the short train to Miyajimaguchi station (1hr) and then the short ferry to Miyajima (in Itsukushima Island), the famous island with the much-photographed floating red Torii.
You’ll arrive at dusk and it will be magical. You’ll be picked up by your hotel’s transportation at the port and, because the town is tiny, you’ll be dropping your bags and putting your feet up in 5 minutes. Make sure they feed you well before you head back out to see the little town at night when it comes alive. And make sure to get your picture of the red Torii at night too! 

Where to stay in Miyajima

For this trip I recommend Momijiso, a very humble and rather affordable traditional Ryokan nestled in the primaeval forest. They’ll run you a bath before you head to bed.


Day 12: Mt Misen (Miyajima)

This will be a fun day. Follow the tips on this blog post to make the most out of it.

Then, around mid-afternoon, head back inland and catch a train to Kyoto.


Days 13 & 14: Kyoto

You’ll arrive in Kyoto as the day ends, but that’s only when the fun starts! Here’s what to do when you get there, and on your second day. We stayed in a homestay which was incredibly fun and just so different. We thoroughly enjoyed it and getting to know our host family.

The one thing I would adapt for this itinerary in Kyoto from my linked blog is that you need to see Fushimi Inari Jinja shrine, the famous forest filled with Torii gates within your 2 days here. On my trip to Kyoto, I spent three or four days and even went further north to have more Onsen experiences, as I loved them so much! I didn’t do a Geisha dinner with entertainment, but my friends have and they really recommend it.
At the end of your second day you can head back to Tokyo for your flight back home.

That's it!

If you need to adapt this for a 10-day itinerary, at least you know what there is in each city and you can adapt this to what you like most. For example, for me after a while of seeing temples, I don’t want to see many more. I prefer to see the temples in the quiet towns like Koyasan or Nikko instead of Kyoto!

Hope you enjoyed this post and found it informative! If you liked it, please share it with someone who will find it useful. 

Japan 2 week itinerary for first timers see it all travel blog

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