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.
Days 2 and 3: Tokyo
Visit some of the major Tokyo sights or shops . 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
Nagano is 90 minutes from Tokyo by bullet train; from there it's 1–2½ hrs to the other destinations by train/bus.
Take the Shinkansen train to Nagano (90 minutes by bullet train) and visit Zenko-ji (temple). Continue by train to Matsumoto (one hour) and visit Karasu-jo (the castle), the Japan Folklore Museum, and the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum. The next day, travel via the mountain village of Kamikochi to Takayama (two hours by bus), 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 (2½ hours).
Days 9, 10, 11, and 12: Kanazawa, Kyoto, and Nara
Nara is about one hour by train from Kyoto.
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. 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, 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
Osaka is 30 minutes by train from Kyoto.
In the morning take the train to Osaka, a sprawling city of never-ending urban intrigue. Drop your bags at your hotel (or send them on to 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 an interest in all things foreign, dating from its days as a trading port. 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
Himeji is one hour by train from Osaka; Okayama is one hour by train from Himeji.
Travel by train to Himeji (one hour) to visit Himeji-jo, its remarkable castle. Continue on to Okayama (one hour) and reach historic Kurashiki by early afternoon. In the historic Bikan area of the city, there are numerous museums.
Day 15: Hiroshima
Hiroshima is 70 minutes by train from Kurashiki. Miyajima is one hour from Hiroshima by train and ferry.
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 cabbage). Give that a try before heading to your hotel for the night.
Day 16: Tokyo and Home
Tokyo is four hours from Hiroshima by train.
Return to Tokyo by Shinkansen train this morning, in time to reach Narita Airport in Tokyo for your flight home.
Tokyo in 3 Days
Tokyo is a metropolis that confounds with its complexity: more than 35 million people occupy a greater metropolitan area that includes soaring towers of glass and steel, rolling expressways, numerous temples, parks, and many quiet neighborhoods just off the main streets. Since the end of World War II, the city has constantly reinvented itself. Few things have remained static other than Tokyo’s preeminence as Japan’s economic center.
Day 1: Tsukiji and Ginza
Start early (around 5 am) with a visit to the Fish Market in the Tsukiji district to catch the lively tuna auctions and then have the finest, freshest sushi for breakfast at Daiwa Sushi. Take a morning stroll through Ginza to explore its fabled shops and depato (department stores). 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; aerial photographs show Ginza as it was roughly 100 years ago—a network of canals. In the skyscrapers’ shadows are the charming Hama Rikyu Tei-en Gardens, whose pathways and ponds are ideal for a late-afternoon stroll. In the evening head back up toward Ginza and enjoy yakitori (grilled chicken) at one of the many small restaurants under the elevated railway lines in Yurakucho.
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 the local vendors along Nakamise-dori have to offer. A 10-minute walk west is Kappabashi, a 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, and take a break at Ueno Park. 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. It's worth it to loop back to get a different view of the area and end the evening with dinner at one of Asakusa’s izakaya (a drinking den that serves food).
Day 3: Shibuya and Shinjuku
Start off at Shibuya’s Hachiko Square and the famous “Scramble Crossing” intersection and hit nearby stores like Shibuya 109, which is crammed with teen fashion boutiques. Inside the station building is the once-lost masterpiece by avant-garde artist Taro Okamoto, Myth of Tomorrow, while towering over the east side of the station is the 34-story Shibuya Hikarie building, one of the latest redevelopments filled with shops, restaurants, and businesses to hit Tokyo. 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; savor the view from the observation deck of architect Kenzo Tange's monumental Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office; and 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; Kabuki-cho and neighboring Golden Gai are full of good places to eat and drink.
Tokyo in 5 Days
Add these two days onto the three-day itinerary.
Day 4: Akihabara and Imperial Palace
Spend the morning browsing in Akihabara, Tokyo's electronics quarter, and see the nearby Shinto shrine Kanda Myojin. In the afternoon, tour the Imperial Palace and the grounds surrounding it. 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. If not, try a traditional hot spring bath or ride the roller coaster at LaQua amusement park next to Tokyo Dome.
Day 5: Get Out of Town to Kamakura
For a different perspective of Japan, spend a day out of Tokyo. Easily accessible by train is Kamakura the 13th-century military capital. The Great Buddha (Daibutsu) of Kotoku-in Temple in the Hase area of town is but one of many National Treasures of art and architecture in and around Kamakura. An early start will allow you to see most of the important sights in a full day and make it back to Tokyo by late evening. As Kamakura is one of the most popular excursions from Tokyo, avoid the worst of the crowds by going on a weekday, but time it to avoid rush-hour commuting that peaks roughly at 8 am and just after 6 pm.
If You Have More Time
With a week or more, you can make Tokyo your base for side trips. After getting your fill of Tokyo, take a train out to Yokohama, with its scenic port and Chinatown. A bit farther away but still easily accessible by train is Nikko, where the founder of the Tokugawa Shogun dynasty is enshrined. The decadently designed Toshogu Shrine complex is a monument unlike any other in Japan, and the picturesque Lake Chuzenji is in forests nearby. Two full days, with an overnight stay, would allow you an ideal, leisurely exploration of both.
Highlights of Kansai
Yes, Japan is a modern country with its skyscrapers, lightning-fast train service, and neon-lit entertainment areas. But it's also rich in history, culture, and tradition. Japan is perhaps most fascinating when you see these two faces at once: a 17th-century shrine sitting defiantly by a tower of steel and glass and a geisha chatting on a cell phone. This part of the Kansai region might be the best place to view this contrast.
Days 1–3: Kyoto
For many visitors Kyoto is Japan, and few leave disappointed. Wander in and out of temple precincts like Ginkaku-ji, perhaps spot a maiko (a geisha in training) strolling about Gion, (and dine on kaiseki ryori, an elegant culinary event that engages all the senses. Outside the city center, a day trip to hillside Arashiyama, the gardens of the Katsura Rikyu, and the temple of Enryaku-ji atop Hiei-zan is a must. With nearly 2,000 temples and shrines, exquisite crafts, and serene gardens, Kyoto embodies traditional Japan. For taking some with you, the Kyoto Handicraft Center stocks painted screens and traditional wear. Many restaurants serve dishes based on locally sourced ingredients. Embodying this spirit is the seven-hundred-year-old Nishiki Market, which includes roughly 100 mom-and-pop shops offering fish and vegetables.
Day 4: Nara
In the 8th century, Nara was the capital of Japanese civilization, and many cultural relics of that period, including some of the world's oldest wooden structures (though repaired and rebuilt over the years as necessary), still stand among forested hills and parkland. Be sure to visit Nara's 53-foot-high, 1,300-year-old bronze Daibutsu (Great Buddha) in Todai-ji temple and to make friends with the deer of Nara Koen. At the Kofuku-ji temple, the beautiful three- and five-story pagodas are worth a visit. The Nara National Museum has numerous examples of Buddhist scrolls and sculpture.
Day 5: Koya-san
More than 100 temples belonging to the Shingon sect of Buddhism stand on one of Japan's holiest mountains, 48 km (30 miles) south of Osaka. Kobo Daishi established the original Garan temple complex in AD 816. An exploration of the atmospheric cemetery of Okuno-in temple takes you past headstone art and 300-year-old cedar trees. But the temple’s primary function is as the mausoleum for Kobo Daishi.
Day 6: Ise-Jingu
Ise-jingu (Grand Shrines of Ise), with their harmonious architecture and cypress-forest setting, provide one of Japan's most spiritual experiences. The Inner Shrine and Outer Shrine are roughly 6 km (4 miles) apart. In addition, there are 123 affiliated shrines in and around Ise City.
Day 7: Osaka
Although by no means picturesque, Osaka provides a taste of urban Japan outside the capital, along with a few traditional sights. The handsome castle Osaka-jo nestles among skyscrapers, and the neon of Dotombori flashes around the local Kabuki theater. Osakans are passionate about food, and you'll find some of the finest in the country here. The Hanshin Tigers have perhaps the most raucous fans in baseball, and the historic Koshien Stadium is the place to see them (and the Tigers) in action (though they play in the Kyocera Osaka Dome in August). The Namba Grand Kagetsu Theatre is a home to traditional manzai (stand-up) comedy and contemporary entertainment. Head to Den Den Town, which has shops selling consumer electronics and anime and manga products—much like Akihabara in Tokyo.
Day 8: Kobe
Kobe has recovered from the dark day in 1995 when it was struck by an earthquake that killed more than 5,000 people. The Kobe Earthquake Memorial Museum is dedicated to the event and its aftermath. Some of the first foreigners to live in Japan after the Meiji Restoration built homes in Kitano-cho, near the station, and the area retains a mix of architectural styles. The city will forever be associated with beef, but a trip to its Chinatown will reveal numerous Chinese delicacies. At an elevation of 931 meters, Mt. Rokko is accessible by cable car and features a museum and garden. On the way up the mountain take a look at Nunobiki Falls, considered one of Japan's most picturesque. The city also has a “life-size” statue for Tetsujin 28 (Gigantor), the robot in the popular manga and TV series.
Day 9: Himeji
The city's most famous sight, Himeji-jo, also known as the White Egret Castle (Shirasagi-jo), dominates the skyline. The castle takes only a few hours to see, and it's about a 15-minute walk (or a short bus ride) from the train station. Since Himeji is a short (50-minute) train ride from Kobe, it's a pleasant and unhurried day-trip destination for those based in Kobe (it's 15 minutes farther if you are based in Kyoto). If you get back early, use the rest of your day to buy last-minute souvenirs.
Highlights of Western Japan
South and west of Kyoto and Nara, Japan takes on a different feel. The farther you go, the more relaxed people become. Far from Japan's main islands, the stark divide between the tropical beaches of Okinawa and Honshu's concrete metropolises is reflected in a different culture and cuisine.
Day 1: Matsuyama
Start off in this castle town, Shikoku’s largest city and home to several Shingon Buddhist pilgrimage temples and the ancient hot springs of Dogo Onsen.
Days 2 and 3: Iya Valley
The Iya Valley may be slightly difficult to access, but it offers untouched, deep canyons, the best river rafting in Japan, and good walking trails. Despite its isolated location, there are some fantastic lodging options here. .
Day 4: Naoshima
Adjust to the even slower pace of Naoshima, spending a day at the world-class Chichu Art Museum, which integrates artworks into everyday locations, often with inspiring results and the Benesse House Museum.
Days 5 and 6: Hiroshima
A quick glance at the busy, attractive city of Hiroshima makes no allusion to the events of August 6, 1945. Only the city's Peace Memorial Park (Heiwa Kinen Koen)—with its memorial museum and its A-Bomb Dome (Gembaku Domu), a twisted, half-shattered structural ruin—serves as a reminder of the atomic bomb. From Hiroshima, make a quick trip to the island of Miyajima to see the floating torii of Itsukushima Jinja, a shrine built on stilts above a tidal flat .
Days 7 and 8: Yufuin and Mt. Aso
One of the locals' favorite pastimes is relaxing in an onsen, and in the artsy spa town of Yufuin on the southernmost island of Kyushu, you can soak in mineral water or bubbling mud. Nearby, five volcanic cones create Japan's largest caldera at Mt. Aso. An immense 18 km (11 miles) by 24 km (15 miles), the stark volcanic peak contrasts vividly with the surrounding green hills. One crater, Naka-dake, is still active, and reaching it on foot or via cable car affords views of a bubbling, steaming lake.
Days 9 and 10: Okinawa
Check out cosmopolitan Naha, which gives a feel for how Okinawan culture and cuisine differ from those of "mainland" Japan. Explore the main island's many reminders of its tragic fate during World War II. Take a boat to one of the smaller Kerama islands to relax on unspoiled beaches. And to truly appreciate the beauty of the ocean, get into the water—there are plenty of scuba diving and snorkeling centers.
Highlights of Eastern Japan
With 80% of Japan's surface covered by mountains, the country is a dream for hikers and lovers of the great outdoors. The wilds of Hokkaido, quietly impressive Tohoku, and the vertiginous Japan Alps reward exploration with spectacular scenery and experiences of traditional culture that you are unlikely to have in the urban areas.
Days 1 and 2: Nagano
Nagano Prefecture, host of the 1998 Winter Olympics, is home to the backbone of the Japan Alps. Visit Zenko-ji temple in Nagano City before heading to the hot springs of Yudanaka Onsen or Kusatsu. In summer, try some day trekking in Hakuba.
Day 3: Matsumoto
A one-hour train ride from Nagano, Matsumoto is home to the “Black Crow,” Matsumoto Castle, as well as the fabulous Ukiyo-e Museum. Spend a day wandering the cafés and craft shops of this samurai town.
Days 4 and 5: Takayama
A bus ride over the mountains from Matsumoto brings you to Takayama, with an optional stop in summer at the alpine retreat of Kamikochi. You’ll find traditional inns, ancient temples, mouthwatering Hida beef, a preserved historical district, and the thatched-roof gassho-zukuri farmhouses in the memorable Hida-no-Sato folk museum.
Day 6: Shirakawago and Kanazawa
Between Takayama and Kanazawa lie the well-preserved farmhouses of Shirakawa-go, many of which are open to visitors for day visits or overnight stays. Continue on to the modern city of Kanazawa to visit serene Kenrokuen gardens and wander through the Nagamachi samurai district.
Days 7 and 8: Haguro-san (Mt. Haguro)
This mountain, the most accessible of the Dewa-san range, a trio of sacred mountains in Tohoku, is worth the trip not only for the lovely but rigorous climb (or bus trip) past cedars, waterfalls, and shrines but also for the thatched shrine at the top.
Days 9 and 10: Sapporo
A day’s ride on the Shinkansen, an overnight ferry from Niigata, or a quick flight on low-cost carrier AirDo gets you to Sapporo, a pleasant and accessible city that serves as a good base for exploring the dramatic landscape of Hokkaido. Mountains encircle Sapporo, drawing Japanese and increasing numbers of Australian skiers in winter. Take day trips out to Toya-ko or Shikotsu-ko, picturesque lakes where you can boat or fish, and to the excellent Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum for an insight into the island’s original inhabitants.