Japan Travel Guide
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.