An Introduction to Japan
Like every other nation, Japan has some sights that are more famous than others. These sights tend to be in the major cities. The following itinerary covers the barest, surface-scratching minimum in modern Tokyo and glorious Nikko; the temples and shrines of Kamakura, the power center of Japan's first shogunate; the temples of classical Kyoto; and Nara, Japan's first permanent capital. Two weeks are obviously better than one in Japan. With more time you can visit Japan's mountainous areas, Osaka, Himeji, and Hiroshima.
Day 1: Arrival
Flights from the United States tend to land in the late afternoon, so you'll want to rest up and get to bed early on your arrival day.
Days 2 and 3: Tokyo
Visit the major Tokyo sights or shops that appeal to you. Ginza, Ueno Koen's museums, Tsukiji, the Imperial Palace grounds, and Asakusa are all among the top areas to explore. Arrange to spend your evenings in one or two of the nighttime districts, such as Roppongi or Shinjuku, or try to see a Kabuki, Noh, or Bunraku performance.
Days 4 and 5: Side-trips from Tokyo
Head to the picturesque Chusen-ji (temple) in Nikko either on your own or with a tour. Also make time to visit Kamakura, perhaps stopping in Yokohama on the way back. These trips can all be done conveniently by train.
Days 6, 7, and 8: The Japan Alps
Take the Shinkansen train to Nagano and visit Zenko-ji (temple). Continue by train to Matsumoto and visit Karasu-jo, the Japan Folklore Museum, and the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum. The next day travel via Kamikochi to Takayama, one of Japan's best-preserved traditional cities. Finally, on your third day head to the Asa-ichi (morning market); then see other Takayama sights—the farmhouses of Shirakawa-go village or the former samurai-controlled district of Kamisanno-machi—before taking a train via Toyama to Kanazawa in the late afternoon.
Days 9, 10, 11, and 12: Kanazawa, Kyoto, and Nara
Kanazawa has also preserved many of its traditional buildings, and it is one of the country's finest cities. Take in what sights you can, perhaps the Kenroku Garden or the Naga-machi samurai district, before catching the late-afternoon train to Kyoto (a trip of about three hours), where you'll base yourself for a few days. In the morning, visit the sights in the eastern district (Higashiyama) in the afternoon and take in the Gion district in the evening. On your second full day in Kyoto, visit more eastern district sights as well as those in the western district sights. If you are in the city on the 25th of the month, don't miss Kitano Tenman-gu market. On your third day in Kyoto, cover Central Kyoto in the morning, including To-ji market, if you're in town on the 21st of the month, and take a train to Nara in the afternoon to see the elegant temples, the Daibutsu (Great Buddha) of Nara Koen, and the famous deer. Return to Kyoto after dinner.
Day 13: Osaka and Kobe
This morning, take the train to Osaka, a sprawling city of never-ending urban intrigue, where you should spend a few hours or the night. Drop your bags at your hotel (or send them onto Kobe), and hit the consumer electronics shops in the Den Den Town; check out Senri Expo Park, or head to the Osaka Museum of History. In the afternoon, move on to Kobe, which is only 20 minutes by train. It's a port city known for beef and large foreign influence. If the Hanshin Tigers are scheduled in the evening, don't miss a chance to catch a game at the historic Koshien Stadium, midway between Kobe and Osaka. Spend the night in either Kobe or Osaka.
Day 14: Himeji and Kurashiki
Travel by train to Himeji to visit Himeji-jo, its remarkable castle. Continue on to Okayama and reach historic Kurashiki by early afternoon. In the historic Bikan area of the city, there are numerous museums.
Day 15: Hiroshima
Leave Kurashiki by train in time to reach Hiroshima for lunch. Visit the Peace Memorial Park and then take the train and ferry to Miyajima, with the glorious vermilion torii in the bay. If you are up for it, take the one-hour hike up Mt. Misen. Hiroshima is known for its okonomiyaki (a grilled pancake of egg, meat, and eggs). Give that a try before heading to your hotel for the night.
Day 16: Tokyo and Home
Return to Tokyo by Shinkansen train (about a four-hour trip) this morning, in time to reach Narita Airport in Tokyo for your flight home.
Tokyo in 1 Week
Tokyo is a metropolis that confounds with its complexity: 34 million people occupy a greater metropolitan area that includes soaring towers of glass and steel, rolling expressways, numerous temples, parks, and square mile after square mile of concrete housing blocks. Since the end of World War II, the city has constantly reinvented itself with new building developments and cultural trends. Few things have remained static other than its preeminence as Japan's economic center.
Day 1: Tsukiji and Ginza
Start very early (around 5 am) with a visit to the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market (Tokyo Chuo Oroshiuri Ichiba) in the Tsukiji district to have the finest, freshest sushi for breakfast. Take a morning stroll through Ginza to explore its fabled shops and depato (department stores). Then hit a chic restaurant or café for lunch (more-reasonably priced ones are found on the upper floors of most department stores). The Sony Building and its showroom of electronics are worth a stop, as are the art galleries. The skyscrapers of Shiodome are just down the street, in the direction of Shimbashi. Take a peek on the first floor of the Shiodome Media Tower, where aerial photos of Ginza from roughly 100 years ago exhibit how the area was once a network of canals. In the evening, head back up towards Ginza and enjoy yakitori (grilled chicken) at one of the many small restaurants in Yuraku-cho.
Day 2: Asakusa and Ueno
Spend the morning at Senso-ji and adjacent Asakusa Jinja in Asakusa. If you're looking for souvenir gifts—sacred or secular—allow time and tote space for the abundant selection that local vendors at the Nakamise Shopping Arcade have to offer. Numerous jinrikisha (rickshaw) are here looking for customers to take on a tour. Kappabashi is a nearby street dedicated to outfitting restaurants and bars with dishes, cups, chopsticks, and even plastic food models. From there go to Ueno for an afternoon of museums, vistas, and historic sites. Ueno Park can be used for a break. Keep in mind that in the evening the crowds in Asakusa are not as intrusive as during the day, and many of the major attractions, including the five-tier pagoda of Senso-ji, are brightly lighted. A quick trip back might be worth it.
Day 3: Shibuya and Shinjuku
Start off at Hachiko Square and the "Scramble Crossing" and hit the nearby stores. Inside the station building is the once lost masterpiece by avant-garde artist Taro Okamoto, Myth of Tomorrow. In the afternoon see the Shinto shrine Meiji Jingu and walk through the nearby Harajuku and Omotesando fashion districts. Spend the rest of the afternoon on the west side of Shinjuku, Tokyo's 21st-century model city; and savor the view from the observation deck of architect Kenzo Tange's monumental Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office; cap off the day visiting Shinjuku Gyo-en National Garden. For those seeking a bit of excitement, the red-light district of Kabuki-cho, just to the east of JR Shinjuku Station, comes alive once the sun goes down.
Day 4: Akihabara and Imperial Palace
Spend the morning browsing in Akihabara, Tokyo's electronics quarter, and see the nearby Shinto shrine Kanda Myojin. There are also the "maid cafés," which are more a curiosity than a serious dining option. Then use the afternoon for a tour of the Imperial Palace and environs. The Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery has a wonderful park and a boat-rental facility—both great for unwinding. If the Yomiuri Giants are in town, catch a game at Tokyo Dome in the evening.
Day 5: Sightseeing Loose Ends
Fill in the missing pieces: see the Buddhist temple, Sengaku-ji in Shinagawa; the remarkable Edo-Tokyo Hakubutsukan in Ryogoku; a tea ceremony; a Kabuki play; or a sumo tournament, if one is in town. Or visit the Kokugikan, National Sumo Arena, in the Ryogoku district, and some of the sumo stables in the neighborhood.
Days 6 and 7: Yokohama and Nikko
You can make Tokyo your home base for a series of side trips. Take a train out to Yokohama, with its scenic port and Chinatown. There's also the preserved Yokohama Red Brick Warehouses that date back roughly 100 years. Short boat trips, some originating near Yokohama Station, that cruise through the bay are possible with a number of water ferries. A bit farther south is Kamakura, the 13th-century military capital of Japan. The Great Buddha (Daibutsu) of the Kotoku-in in nearby Hase is among the many National Treasures of art and architecture that draw millions of visitors a year.
Still farther off, but again an easy train trip, is Nikko, where the founder of the Tokugawa Shogun dynasty is enshrined. Tosho-gu is a monument unlike any other in Japan, and the picturesque Lake Chuzen-ji is in a forest above the shrine. Two full days, with an overnight stay, allows you an ideal, leisurely exploration of both. Yet another option is a trip to Hakone, where you can soak in a traditional onsen or climb to the summit of Fuji-san (Mt. Fuji).
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