While Japan may seem like a small country, getting around can take more time than expected. The bullet train is great for travelling long distances quickly, but if you want to get off the beaten path, prepare for a train between two relatively close places to take as long as travelling half way across the country between major destinations.
This itinerary combines some of the major sites in Japan with some slightly off the beaten path destinations. This is a great itinerary for the spring season when the cherry blossoms come into full bloom. While it will still be chilly closer to Fukushima, the locations outlined here should still be accessible (it’s always a good idea to check when trails are open with your travel dates if you plan on doing some hiking).
The itinerary as outlined may or may not be most cost effective if you purchase a Japan Rail Pass (affiliate link). Once you have an idea of the places you want to visit, compare train ticket prices on Hyperdia with the cost of a Japan Rail Pass (see my post Japan Rail Pass: How it Works and Will it Save You Money). There are several different options for passes and it’s a good idea to check out which one will work best for you. For this trip, we purchased a two week, all over pass which also included some local transportation in Tokyo.
Since much of the time you will be based in Tokyo or Kyoto, there is a lot of flexibility in this itinerary. You can change the order in which you do things, or skip some side trips altogether substituting in something else.
Two Weeks In Japan:
Day 1 – 4: Tokyo & Day Trips
Day 1: Arrival and Tokyo City
Arrive in Tokyo and activate your Japan Rail pass at the airport. Explore the city as your schedule permits. If you arrive in the morning and have a full day, you may wish to start exploring some of the local parks and maybe even take a rowboat out on Chidorigafuchi Moat for some great cherry blossom viewing. Also, check out this list of the best cherry blossom sites in Tokyo.
Day 2: Disneyland
We are on a mission to visit every Disneyland in the world. It started out as Laura’s mission, but ever since Space Mountain in Paris (it was an epic ride!), it has also become my mission. There are actually two Disneylands in Tokyo – a traditional Disneyland and an ocean-themed Disneyland Sea. Interesting fact: the Disneyland in Tokyo is the only Disneyland not actually owned by Disney. Also, they still have the old-school electrical parade.
We have been to three Disneyland parks around the world now, and every time, for one reason or another, I have been unable to ride India Jones. Perhaps it really is cursed….
Day 3: Yamadera
Get up early for the long train ride out to the Fukushima region. Take your time walking up, and down, the 1000 stairs to this mountaintop temple. Create haikus like the famous poet Basho did when he was here in the 1600s.
You may want to stay overnight in the area and combine this sight with something else in the area. A walk around Goshiki-numa with its brightly coloured lakes in the Ura-bandai region would compliment the serenity of Yamadera.
Day 4: Tokyo
Have a bit of a rest day exploring some more neighbourhoods in Tokyo. Alternatively, take a shorter day trip to a nearby location of your choice.
In the evening, head to 2-Chome for a drink in this LGBTQ+ friendly neighbourhood. Once a month, Bar Goldfinger holds an all night lesbian party and women only bar night.
Day 5 – 7: Kyoto & Area
Day 5: Fushimi Inari
Start your day with a visit to Fushimi Inari with its seemingly endless tunnels of tori gates. The farther up the mountain you go, the fewer tourists you will encounter. This shrine can be done as a quick visit if you want to fit more sights into your day or you can turn it into a hike by following the path all the way up the mountain (there are at least two trails that will take you to the summit).
If you are in Kyoto during cherry blossom season, there is a light show at Nijo Castle that is worth checking out in the evening. It’s nothing spectacular, but certainly mesmerising and well composed.
Day 6: More Shrines
Many tourists like to visit the golden (Kinkaku-ji) and silver (Ginkaku-ji) pavilions, but we opted for two quieter sites. Start at Honen-in temple. Supposedly, there is a waterfall behind the aqueduct, but we hiked up the mountain for an hour with no sight of anything resembling a waterfall. It was still a gorgeous hike though, and I highly recommend spending some time on these trails.
When you’re finished at Honen-in, walk along the pretty Philosopher’s Path to Nanzen-ji. If you’re lucky and it’s not raining, you may get to see some monkeys. Otherwise, enjoy the relative solitude of this little temple set amidst a cedar forest.
In the evening consider taking in a Geisha performance. My expectations for this were low, but it was one of my favourite experiences in Japan. The dance we saw was produced by Miyako Odori – buy your tickets in advance. We opted for tickets that included a pre-show tea ceremony. While this ceremony felt more rushed than ritualistic, it does also come with a pretty souvenir plate.
Day 7: Osaka
Skip the Arashiyama bamboo grove and head straight to Osaka. Spend the day however you like – shopping in America-Mura, checking out Osaka Castle, or going to the top of the futuristic Sky Tower for a view of the city. Have supper at Megumi – hands down our favourite gluten-free restaurant in Japan – before heading back to Kyoto.
Day 8: Nara
See the giant Buddha at Todai-ji – the tallest bronze Buddha Vairocana in the world. After gazing in awe at this magnificent piece, walk around behind the Buddha to find a large pillar with a small hole near the base. It is said this hole is the same size as one of the Daibutsu’s nostrils and those that can climb through it are guaranteed enlightenment.
Have a picnic lunch in the park. Choose a spot where you can watch the tame deer chase tourists for treats under a grove of cherry blossoms. Afterwards, go to Yoshiki-en (next to Isui-en garden) garden for a short stroll free of admission. Note that the floor-to-ceiling glass windows at the teahouse here are handblown!
Day 9: Koyasan
While Koyasan can be visited on a day trip from Kyoto – or even combined with a trip to Nara for the extremely energetic traveler – many people like to stay the night in a shukubo – temple lodging – to experience the Okunoin cemetery at night and to partake in morning meditations.
You can easily spend a few hours – or a whole day – hiking the Choishi Michi Trail. For a shorter hike, try the Women’s Pilgrim Course. We had originally planned on walking the latter track, but ended up on the wrong trail. Fortunately, we realised our mistake after about an hour and a half of walking. Trail heads are not clearly marked and, when they are marked, are in Japanese. Ask other people in the area if you’re unsure about which way to head.
Day 10 – 14: Tokyo & Day Trips
Day 10: More Tokyo
It’s a long train ride from Koyasan to Tokyo. By the time you arrive in the city and get checked in, it will likely be late afternoon. Use the rest of your day to explore more of Tokyo.
Day 11: Kamakura
Take an easy day trip from Tokyo to visit the Great Buddha – Daibutsu – the second tallest bronze Buddha in Japan. You can hike the Daibutsu course from Kita-Kamakura station to the statue. When you’ve had your fill of gazing at this giant, head to the beach for a lunch break. Watch surfers catch waves and maybe catch a view of Mt. Fuji on a clear day. While there may be a lot to look at, don’t leave your food even slightly unguarded. The sky here is chock full of circling hawks and crows that make their living stealing food from unsuspecting picnickers.
Day 12: Nikko
By this point, you probably couldn’t care less about seeing another shrine. Unless shrines are your thing. Even if you don’t want to pay ¥1300 to see a famous shrine (that is currently partially under renovation), Nikko is still worth a visit. Walk about 20 minutes from the bus stop at Shinkyo bridge to Kanmangafuchi Abyss. Try counting the Bake (ghost) Jizos. Apparently, you get a different number every time. We were too relaxed by the running river, forest, and lack of crowds to bother testing this theory (let us know if you do it!).
To get there, take a left after crossing the bridge and follow the river. The road will eventually lead you across another bridge. Turn right after crossing this bridge and follow the path to the abyss. There are occasional signs along the way to help you out.
You can easily spend more than a day in Nikko, especially if you’re into shrines or nature. But if you’re ready to leave by early afternoon, head back to Tokyo for a baseball game (make sure to get seats in the home team section for the full experience).
Day 13: Mt. Takao or Other Day Trip
Choose a day trip to suit your interests. Mt. Takao is popular, but if you don’t mind hiking, there are courses other than the main trail that are less populated. On a clear day, you may be able to see Mt. Fuji. If you would like a hike without features such as a “Monkey Park,” which has the animals in a glass enclosure, try your feet on Mt. Mitake.
We were pretty exhausted by this point. And by pretty exhausted I mean hardly able to get out of bed or walk more than a kilometre without our feet screaming at us. We had planned to head out on one of the many day trips we had considered. But we didn’t. Instead, we passed a lazy day strolling through Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. If you get your energy back, check out the hipster neighbourhoods Shimokitazawa and Koenji for a different shopping scene than the maddening crowds on Takeshita Street.
In the evening, you can check out an unexplored neighbourhood of Tokyo. We headed to Akihabara and had a fabulous lunch at Gluten-Free Bar Hapa. Give your vocal cords some exercise with some karaoke – you will still feel like you’re checking something off your bucket list, but you also get to sit down and have a drink.
Day 14: Last Minute Sightseeing and Departure
Fill your last day as time, interest, and energy permits.
Even though we had had our fill of Tokyo, we didn’t have the energy to deal with trains and crowds on another day trip. A relatively quiet stroll through the Meiji shrine followed by a chill afternoon on the grass at Yoyogi park may be more up your alley. Remember, it’s legal to drink in public spaces in Japan. Buy a small bottle of sake and set up camp near one of the people playing music in the park. Or, just watch the young people joyfully, and civilly, play drinking games with their friends (the good behaviour of people here will make you wonder why we can’t drink in parks in North America).
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