Japan is one of the most interesting, culturally rich countries I have visited, and one that I would recommend without hesitation. You could easily spend months there and never run out of things to do and see, but sadly not everyone has that luxury. In this post, I have outlined a 2-week itinerary that will suit almost any budget. It includes futuristic and bustling cities, magnificent shrines, imperial castles, jaw-dropping landscapes and, of course, incredible food (which alone is worth a trip to Japan!).
What makes Japan extra special is the people; I was touched by how kind people were, and how they go out of their way to help tourists. One considerate commuter noticed that my boyfriend and I were lost in one of Tokyo’s maze-like metro stations, stopped his own journey and escorted us exactly where we needed to go.
How this itinerary is structured
This itinerary has been planned using public transport and focuses solely on Japan’s largest island, Honshu. It will take you from Tokyo as far west as Hiroshima, using the country’s excellent train network. I will make suggestions about what to see and do in each location but won’t give you a rigid checklist to follow. Depending on when you’re there, there might be some special local or seasonal events that you shouldn’t miss. Keep in mind that the weather in Japan can quickly change, which can scupper plans, so it’s good to be flexible and spontaneous. I’ve given each place at least two nights (except day trips) as I don’t believe you can get a real impression of a place if you only stay there one night.
This is a basic structure and shows what can be achieved in just two weeks but can easily be adapted depending on where you arrive or leave from. For example, my boyfriend and I landed in Tokyo and flew out of Osaka, but with the bullet train you can easily get back to Tokyo for an outbound flight.
How to get around Japan
Getting around Japan is incredibly easy thanks to its world-renowned public transportation system. For this itinerary you will be making use of Japan’s Rail Pass (JR Pass), which allows you to take the famous Shinkansen (bullet train) to each of your destinations. These high-speed trains travel at over 300 kmh, getting you where you need to go quickly and comfortably. Unlike in other countries, you won’t have to worry about missing any connections or late arrivals as public transport is incredibly efficient in Japan, to the point they have issued apologies for being two minutes late in the past!
Within each destination, you can use Japan’s extensive subway systems and bus routes. They are safe, reliable, clean and have English signs and stations written in the Roman alphabet. You can also find train station attendants who speak English and will happily answer your questions and give directions.
Day 1-5 – Tokyo
You will most likely be flying into Narita (NRT), Japan’s largest international airport which is roughly 60 kilometers away from central Tokyo. To get from Narita to central Tokyo you have a variety of options, including buses, trains, and taxis. Some trains are usable with a JR Pass, however, for this itinerary we suggest activating your JR pass when leaving Tokyo to save money. We used the Tokyo Shuttle Bus – also known as the Airport Bus Tokyo-Narita (TYO-NRT) – which takes you to Tokyo’s central station in just over an hour for JPY 1,300 ($13).
The Greater Tokyo Area is home to roughly 30 percent of Japan’s total population and spreads far and wide. For these reasons, I suggest you spend at least 4 days in this sprawling megalopolis. There is so much to see and do in Tokyo that you could easily spend your entire two weeks here. Get your fill of anime, manga, and video games in Akihabara, visit Sensō-ji Temple (Tokyo’s oldest buddhist temple) and the Imperial Palace, go for a relaxing stroll around pretty Yoyogi Park, shop til you drop at one of many giant malls in Ginza, and most importantly, stuff yourself with the mouth-watering food available (Check out 10 must-try dishes in Japan for my personal recommendations). Tokyo also has some amazing nightlife, so head out to neighbourhoods like Shibuya and Roppongi for beers or whiskey. One of the highlights of my time in Tokyo was visiting a karaoke bar with friends and singing my heart out in (thankfully) a private booth.
I’m a sucker for an observation deck too, so head to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building for a fantastic free view of Tokyo’s Blade Runner-like skyline. On a clear day, you even see Mount Fuji. Speaking of which, you can take a day trip to Hakone from Tokyo, where you will get up close and personal with Japan’s highest mountain. My boyfriend and I didn’t get to visit as the weather was too wet and foggy during our time in Tokyo, so it’s on the wishlist for next time.
Day 6- 7 – Kanazawa
After a tiring few days in Tokyo it is now time to activate your JR pass to travel to Kanazawa, the capital of the Ishikawa Prefecture. You may not have heard of Kanazawa as it rarely gets mentioned in Japan itineraries, but we both really enjoyed it. We wanted to spend some time in a quieter, less touristy place and Kanazawa was perfect for that. The main thing to see is the stunning Kenrokuen Garden – one of the three Great Gardens of Japan. Make sure to also visit the nearby Kanazawa Castle, a partially-restored castle dating back to the 1500s.
It is also home to some beautiful, atmospheric neighbourhoods that take you back in time. Take a stroll around Naga-machi, a preserved Edo-era district, or the former geisha district of Higashi Chaya. While not as famous as similar districts in Kyoto, these neighbourhoods are quieter and far less touristy. When you need some food, head over to Ōmichō market where you will find an abundance of fresh seafood to choose from.
During our time in Kanazawa we stayed at Hotel Wing International Premium. It is a pleasant, clean hotel with friendly English-speaking staff. We were unexpectedly given some free pajamas, face creams and lotions included in the price of the room. The hotel is really well-located; only a few minutes’ walk from the station.
Getting to Kanazawa from Tokyo
Kanazawa is roughly 2hr 30 minutes from Tokyo Station, with trains departing throughout the day. The quickest service is the Kagayaki high-speed Shinkansen train, but you can also use the Hakutaka service. Both services are covered by the JR Pass.
Day 8 to 9 – Kyoto
Kyoto is arguably Japan’s most beautiful city and is known as the country’s cultural capital. It can be insanely busy with tourists, especially during the cherry blossom season, but try not to let that put you off. There are plenty of things to do in Kyoto to keep you busy, including visiting its UNESCO World Heritage sites. Step back in time to feudal-era Japan with a stroll through the geisha district of Gion and southern Higashiyama, gorge yourself on delicious cuisine at Nishiki market, and explore Nijō Castle and its beautiful surrounding gardens. Admire the pretty historical streets near Yasaka pagoda, get unforgettable views of Kyoto from Kiyomizu-dera (a stunning Buddhist temple and one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto) or follow the famous Fushimi Inari pathway (a mountainside Shinto shrine dating to 711 AD). Make sure you sample some matcha green tea products in Kyoto, as it is home to some of the finest.
You can stay in Kyoto or do it as an easy day trip from Osaka, as we did. If you want to stay in Kyoto overnight, look for a room in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) or machiya (townhouses).
Getting to Kyoto
Kyoto is just over two hours away from Kanazawa. You can use your JR Pass on the limited express Thunderbird train from Kanazawa Station to Kyoto Station. This is the fastest route between the two cities.
Day 10 – 12 – Osaka
Next up on your Japan adventure is the port city of Osaka, which we absolutely loved. You should spend at least 3 days here (although I could have spent a full month in Osaka!). It is Japan’s foodie capital and the birthplace of famous street snacks like takoyaki. It might not be as pretty as nearby Kyoto, but there is plenty to do and see here. We also found Osaka rather affordable in comparison to Kyoto and Tokyo, so it’s an especially good place to stay if you are on a budget.
Eat your way through the famous Dōtonbori neighbourhood, go for drinks and kushi-katsu in the Shinsekai district, soak up some culture at Osaka Castle, and check out street art and boutique shops in chic America-mura. If you fancy a bit of relaxation, you should visit the Osaka Aquarium, which is considered one of the biggest and best aquariums in the world! Osaka also has some amazing modern architecture, including a skyscraper with a highway running through it (only in Japan…).
Getting to Osaka
There are a few ways to get to Osaka from Kyoto, but the quickest way is to use the bullet train on the Tokaido Shinkansen line, which gets you into Shin-Osaka in less than 15 minutes. You can take either the Hikari or Kodama trains from Kyoto station or the Special Rapid service. Be careful if you want to take a Nozomi train; they are not covered by the JR Pass. You can also take the Limited Express Thunderbird, which takes around 30 minutes from Kyoto Station to Osaka Station.
Day 13 – Day trip to Hiroshima
While you can stay overnight in Hiroshima, the bullet train makes it an incredibly easy day trip from Osaka. My partner has always been a World War 2 buff, and Hiroshima is a fascinating place. On 6th August 1945, the “Little Boy” nuclear bomb was dropped on the city, reducing it to rubble. It is one of humanity’s most shocking moments and the impact was devastating. 70% of the city was destroyed and more than 80,000 people died, with thousands more injured. Hiroshima commemorates those who lost their lives through a series of moving memorials and museums. It is now a thriving, modern city, which has not forgotten its tragic past.
One of the first sites to visit is the former Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, which is now known as the A-Bomb Hall. The “Little Boy” bomb was denotated above this ruin. Standing just feet from where such a pivotal moment in history happened is a truly strange feeling. Afterwards, take a stroll through the Peace Memorial Park to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The museum is haunting; you will learn about what happened on that harrowing day and in those that followed, hear first-hand accounts from survivors, and see objects that were melted, mangled and scorched by the intense heat. While it is certainly a sobering, solemn museum to visit, I think it’s essential viewing.
After an emotional but incredibly interesting day, it is now time to head back to Osaka where you can cheer yourself up with some delicious food, beers, and a fun night out before your journey home the next day.
Getting to Hiroshima
Hiroshima is an easy 1 hour and 30 minutes journey from Osaka. Simply take the Sakura or Hikari trains on the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen line from Shin-Osaka, both of which are covered by the JR Pass. As with Kyoto to Osaka, you can take the Nozomi train, but it is not covered by JR Pass.
Day 14 – Goodbye Japan
It’s time to say Sayōnara to Japan. You can either fly out of Osaka airport like we did, or return to Tokyo from Osaka on the Hikari bullet train in just over 3 hours. Depending on when your flight is, you might want to bring forward your day trip to Hiroshima and get the train back to Tokyo on day 13 of your 2 week trip. That way you can stay overnight in Tokyo before your flight, either in the city centre or close to the airport.
Have more than 2 weeks in Japan?
If you are lucky enough to have more time to spend in Japan, there are so many more options. Why not visit Nara and hang out with the cute deers which wander freely and love eating snacks out of people’s hands? Or head to Kobe for some delicious world-famous steak. Visit Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido (home to volcanoes and breath-taking scenery), or even climb Mount Fuji!
I hope this itinerary has given you some inspiration for your trip to Japan. I had wanted to visit Japan for a long time, and now I can’t wait to head back and explore more of this majestic country. If you have any other recommendations, please leave them in the comments below.
Ciao for now
The Curious Sparrow