Japan is one of those destinations that is on almost everyone’s bucket list, but it is also a destination that you might only visit once in your lifetime. And if you travel all the way there, you will want to to make the most of your time and tick off all the highlights, right? With so much to see and experience it can be pretty stressful deciding what to hit and miss, so we’ve asked an expert to share her tips. Intern Dyllis has lived in Japan for five months and put together a an itinerary for the most iconic places of Japan. With this itinerary in your pocket, all you need to do is book a flight!
What is the “JR Pass”?
You may have heard of it already, or maybe read about it somewhere: the Japan Rail Pass (or JR Pass for short). But what is this pass really for? The pass allows the pass-holder to make use of all the JR trains throughout Japan (with the exception of the two fastest bullet trains: NOZOMI and MIZUHO). It is intended for overseas tourists and only available for people that visit Japan on a tourist visa, so make sure to get that stamp when you arrive in your passport. The JR Pass is almost essential for tourists that are planning on traveling a lot through Japan, and can save you a lot of money since the train tickets can be very expansive. The route in this article is doable solely on the JR Pass and the travel times that are mentioned in this article have been excluded from the Nozomi and Mizuho shinkansen so that people who travel on a JR Pass can also follow this list.
The pass is available in 3 options, a pass for 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days. After you ordered the pass online you will receive an Exchange Order. Upon arrival in Japan this Exchange Order can be exchanged at an exchange office for the actual JR Pass. You can choose your own start date for the pass (but it must be within one month of retrieving the pass). You can check what office is most convenient for you here. It can be a real money saver when you plan on traveling long distances, visiting many cities since those tickets usually cost the most. To see all available JR Lines you can check out this map! So why stand in line for the tickets when you can just get one ticket and be done with it. And on top of that: it saves you money (and frustration on figuring out how the ticket machines work)!
Day 1: Tokyo
The first day will be the day that you land at the airport. With a bit of luck you’ll still have some of the day left to explore. Find a nice cafe or restaurant to treat yourself to some amazing food and try to get some rest to prepare for the next two weeks! With a hotel somewhere near the Yamanote line you can easily get to all the popular spots around Tokyo.
If you arrive in the morning you can go visit Asakusa, a beautiful place with a very famous temple; the Senso-ji together with its gate the Kaminari-mon. There is also a long street of shops (Nakamise-dori) where they sell all kinds of souvenirs (tip: Tokyo banana is one of the most popular souvenirs you can find in Tokyo!). Or choose one of the many restaurants that you can find at the station. In the afternoon you can go to the Skytree, a huge radio tower with an observatory on top, where you can get a good view of Tokyo. The other parts of the tower have all different kinds of shops and stores to look around at and you can end the day with some sushi at a Kaiten-sushi restaurant.
These are our suggestions for where to stay in Tokyo on any budget:
€ – Sakura Hotel Ikebukuro Tokyo – This hotel offers all your basic needs, a bed, desk and most important: free WiFi, in the middle of Tokyo for a great price!
€€ – Lungwood Hotel Tokyo – This hotel offers spacious rooms with a cozy feel, that include a mini-fridge, hairdryer and television.
€€€ – Hotel Niwa Tokyo – A luxurious hotel with a Japanese garden and courtyard that offers very nice Japanese-style inspired rooms.
Day 2: Shibuya & Ueno
On day two in Tokyo you can continue your adventure in Shibuya. Visit the busiest crossroad of Japan where thousands of people cross the road every time the lights turn green. Next to the station you can find the statue of Hachiko and those who are looking for some new clothes can go to Shibuya 109. Another great place to for shopping is Ikebukuro which is not too far from Shibuya. Continue your journey to Ueno park. This park is very popular during the bloom of the cherry blossom trees, so bring a picknick and enjoy the cherry blossoms. There are many other things to do in Ueno park. There is the National museum of Nature and Science, the Ueno zoo, a few art museums and more.
Day 3: Day trip Mt. Fuji
A trip to Japan can’t miss a trip to the famous Mt. Fuji of course. With a little bit of luck you can even see it all the way from Tokyo. The world famous volcano is just a two hour drive from Tokyo so you can easily do this trip with an organised tour (you don’t have to hassle with renting a car or traveling or by using public transport). The tour will pick you up at your hotel and you will travel with a comfortable bus to the highest mountain of Japan, while the guide will tell you all about the history about this volcano (in English of course). There is even a lunch included. It doesn’t cost no nothing, but in the end you will be able to say that you saw the highest volcano of the world. To see the prices and availability you can check this link.
Day 4: Daytrip Nikko
Nikko is about two hours by train from Tokyo and is surrounded by nature. The mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu lies between the mountains at the Toshogu shrine. Ieyasu is the one who founded the Tokugawa-shogunate and is one of Japan’s most important historical figures. The Rinnoji is the main temple of the Tendai-shu, also a very popular tourist attraction. Indulge yourself in the nature of Nikko. (This would be good day to validate your JR Pass and use it to travel to Nikko.)
Day 5: Nagano
After you checked out of the hotel, you can take a stroll through Tokyo and then head to the station to the next destination: Nagano! The travel time from Tokyo to Nagano by train is a bit less than three hours, so you don’t have to spend too much time sitting in the train. Nagano is located between the Japanese Alps and takes pride in their soba noodles. The buckwheat that is grown here gets its water from the Alps, making them extra special, so make sure to try them! Shinshu Soba no Kusabue restaurant is located next to Nagano station and serves very good soba. The Zenkoji is one of the most famous temples of Nagano and is located in the middle of the city. The street that leads you to the temple is lined with souvenir shops and restaurants. Nagano is famous for its apples (so famous that even the mascot wears an apple on its head) so most of the souvenirs are candy and cakes with apple.
These are our suggestions for the best hotels in Nagano:
€ – Hotel Sunroute Nagano – A hotel with classy and minimalistic looking rooms
€€ – Metropolitan Hotel Nagano – This hotel offers very nice luxurious 4-star rooms with minibar, fridge, and free tea- and coffee machine.
€€€ – Jizokan Mitsuya Ryokan – This Ryokan is located only 5 minutes away from the Zenkouji and offers additional Japanese rooms with great service, guests can make use of the a beauty- and massage salon for a small price.
Day 6: Jigokudani
Jigokudani (Hell Village) is located in Nagano and is not far from the city. It gets its name from the volcanic activity that is happening here, creating many onsen and geysers. In the Jigokudani Monkey Park you’ll find snow monkeys that often take a bath in these onsen. You can get there by walking five minutes from the Noboribetsu Onsen bus terminal. You can spend the whole day hiking and enjoying the scenery, and of course the onsen.
Day 7: Kamikochi
Kamikochi is a great hiking spot located in the most iconic places of the Japanese Alps. To get to the hiking trails, you can walk over the Kappa-bridge. The best route is the route that trails along the Azusa river. This route is flat enough for most people to fully enjoy, without many hills to climb. Because the whole place consists of many hills and mountains, it can be difficult for inexperienced hikers to take the other routes. The Taisho lake was created by a volcanic eruption, and the Tashiro lake is one of the most beautiful and well-known spots of Kamikochi. The best time to enjoy Kamikochi is during the fall, when the leaves turn red and yellow.
Day 8: Kyoto
Time to get to the next city: Kyoto! It is quite the trip to travel from Nagano to Kyoto, but it’s totally worth it (and you can get most out of your JR Pass!). Once you arrive, you can take a look through the city and visit the Kiyomizudera, a temple with the famous Otawa waterfall. But what is a visit to Kyoto without trying real Kyoto sushi at Izuu! And because Kyoto is well-known for its authentic feel and old culture, it is recommended to spend your days here at a Ryokan.
You could choose to book a hotel in Kyoto and travel to Osaka from there, since it is only half and hour by train so you can get there in no time. Or you could choose to spend three days in Kyoto and three days in Osaka. Osaka is a big modern city with a bubbly nightlife, while Kyoto is a city where you can still find many traces of ancient Japan. The choice is yours!
These are our suggestions for the best hotels in Kyoto:
€ – Nishikiro Ryokan Kyoto – Located in central Kyoto this Ryokan offers cute Japanese styled rooms and great service for an affordable price.
€€ – Matsumoto Ryokan – This Ryokan is located within 2 minutes of walking to the Kyoto Tower in central Kyoto, and offers rooms with a fridge, high-tech Japanese toilet and a hair dryer. Guests can make use of the a bathhouse.
€€€ – Garden Ryokan Yachiyo – A great and unique Ryokan that offers a lot of amazing and diverse rooms, such as Arabian-style and Western-style rooms, on a great location in central Kyoto.
Day 9: Arashiyama, Fushimi-inari & Kinkakuji
Time to visit some of the famous spots of Kyoto, like the Kinkaku temple, Fushimi-inari (with the many red torii gates) and the bamboo forest: Arashiyama. Please keep in mind that the main temple of the Fushimi-inari is located on top of a mountain and that climbing all the stairs may not be suitable for everyone. Nevertheless, it is still worth climbing halfway for some amazing shots of the many torii gates.
Day 10: Day trip Kobe
There are many day trips that you can take from Kyoto, for example a day trip to Kobe! You can take a stroll at Mt Maya, climb Mt Rokko and take a ride with the Kobe Nunobiki Ropeway, visit the Nobuki Waterfalls and the Ikuta shrine. You can end the day with some delicious Kobe-beef at Wakkoqu. (Tip: there is also a Dutch stroopwafel cafe located in Kobe: ワーフルハウス – ストロープワッフル “Wafelhuis Stroopwafel”)
Day 11: Day trip Nara
Nara is located near Kyoto and Osaka. Here you can feed the many deer that walk around the park and visit the Todai temple, where a huge bronze Buddha statue stands. There are many beautiful temples and architectural buildings to look at, so you can well spend an entire day walking and looking at everything (don’t forget to take some lunch with you). You can get a private tour with a friendly local though Nara here, and experience the city on a whole new level!
Day 12: Osaka
If you want to switch hotels and spend the next few nights in Osaka, then this is the right moment to do so. Dotonbori is a busy street in Osaka packed with shops and restaurants. Also make sure to order some ramen at the one of the Kinryu ramen restaurants. These restaurants are very popular and easy to recognize by the golden dragon at the entrance. Pay a visit to the Osaka castle and sing the night away at a Karaoke bar during the bubbly nightlife of this big city.
These are our suggestions for the best hotels in Osaka:
€ – Hotel Consort – This hotel offers cute and cozy rooms with television, fridge and tea- and coffee machines.
€€ – Hotel Trusty Osaka Abeno – This 4-star hotel has a luxurious feel and offers spacious rooms with flat-screen, a bathtub and fridge, located within walking distance of the Tennoji Park and the Shitenno Temple.
€€€ – Crowne Plaza ANA Osaka – A 4-star hotel with a stylish and luxurious feel offers amazing rooms, with 24-hour roomservice, coffeebar, jacuzzi, and a great view over the city.
Day 13: Day trip Hiroshima
Hiroshima is easily accessible from Kyoto and Osaka. Visit the peace monument, stroll through the peace memorial park, visit the museum and end the day with some delicious local specialties. Try the Hiroshimayaki (Okonomiyaki from Hiroshima) together with some hiroshima sake! And don’t forget to buy a souvenir. The most popular souvenirs from Hiroshima are the momiji-manju, small cakes shaped like a maple leaf.
Day 14: Universal Studio’s Japan
You can’t leave Japan without experiencing some true Japanese theme park madness. Universal Studios Japan is only 10 minutes by train from Osaka. Once you leave the station, you will arrive in a wonderland of Ghibli and other cartoon shops. If you keep following the road you will end up at the entrance of the theme park. Make sure to be prepared during the summer heat. The lines will be pretty long and without an umbrella or hat you stand the risk of getting a heatstroke. It is also recommended that you buy your tickets in advance to avoid long queues at the ticket office. You can buy the at the official site or at our recommended vendor Getyourguide.
Book a hotel near the park: Universal Port Hotel – A 4-star hotel next to the port with a festive feel with light and spacious rooms that is within walking distance of Universal Studio’s Japan. No more early alarm clocks and early trains!
Day 15: Return to Tokyo
The last day in Osaka has arrived, time to pack your stuff and head towards the station. It’s about three hours to get from Osaka to Tokyo. Once you arrive in Tokyo, you could head out to do some last minute shopping, hiking or visiting temples. Or you could head directly back to your hotel and find some dinner. It is recommended to book a hotel near the airport, usually the hotel offers a free shuttle bus from and to the airport which saves you some stress and time.