Visiting Japan for only a few days might leave you feeling like you haven’t seen nearly enough. There is so much to discover, so much food to try and so many places that will leave you in awe – Japan really has this overwhelming effect like no other country I have visited before. Therefore, I recommend crafting a Japan 3 week itinerary to get a good start on seeing the major cities and sights without feeling overly hurried. If you only have two weeks in Japan to spare, I’ve got you covered as well.
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Japan Itinerary 1: Narita and Sawara
You will most likely land in Narita but do not head straight for Tokyo, like most people do. Stay for half a day and walk from the train station to the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, preferably in the morning for the monks’ ceremony. On the way, you can grab your first flavoured ice cream, sweet red bean bun and souvenir chopsticks. Take a stroll around the temple area through the forest and past the lakes to make the most out of it.
Should your early start of the day lead you to having a spare afternoon and you are not that keen on the local samurai museum, take the JR to Sawara. This local gem looks straight out of the Edo period and you can admire traditional handicrafts and oldfashioned canals that have been used for transport.
Japan Itinerary Day 2-5: Tokyo
You can easily plan your entire Japan 3 week itinerary around staying in Tokyo. There is so much to do and see, so many districts that feel like you aren’t in the same city anymore. Tokyo promises to be always exciting!
Start off with the usual must see places, such as Shibuya, Harajuku, Roppongi and Ikebukuro. For sunsets, head to Shinjuku and to the top of the Government Buildings (entry is free). Then dine in a local izekaya, walk in bars. Pokémon fans should check out the Poké Center in Ikebukuro and the manga and anime scene at Nakano Broadway.
If you are visiting Tokyo during cherry blossom season, put Asakusa on your list. Here, you can visit local temples, stroll along the cherry tree framed river promenade and admire the Sky Tree. It is especially impressive at night, when the city comes to life.
Japan Itinerary Day 6-7: Nikko
For Nikko, three days is an ideal amount of time to spend in Nikko but if you solely have 3 weeks in Japan, opt for two if you can. Nikko is home to UNESCO World Heritage listed temples and shrines, such as Nikkō Tōshō-gū and Nikko Futarasan jinja, and they are well worth a visit! Their architecture and decorative ornaments are outstanding, especially the three monkeys are a visitor magnet.
But it’s not just manmade structures that made this place so world famous. It’s the nature as well. You will cross a river and walk into a forest before seeing the religious sites. Follow the riverbend and you will soon end up at Lake Chūzenji and its many hiking trails. Chase waterfalls, roam prairie-like plateaus and explore the Nikkō National Park.
If you are the art gallery and museum type, try the Kosugi Hōan Museum of Art or the Nikkō Tōshogū Art Museum. For more local cultural and religious insights, buy a ticket at the Nikkō Tōshōgū Museum. However, at the end of the day, you really should see the Kanmangafuchi Abyss with its icy blue water and the dozens of little statues meant to protect newborn children.
Japan Itinerary Day 8-10: Nagano
Nagano is a famous stepping stone on the way up North to the Jigokudani Monkey Park. Hold your horses and include Nagano into your Japan 3 week itinerary though. The street leading up to Zenkō-ji alone offers the best treasure hunt potential for foodies in Japan.
Try melon pan, mochi balls and stock up on shichi-mi tōgarashi (七味唐辛子, seven-flavor chili pepper). If you get a local tourist map, the best eateries and foods are listed there. The temple itself is an attraction. It allows you to touch the Gate to Heaven and be prepared to find it when your time comes. That’s the idea. Rub the golden bull in the tourist info to get an extra portion of luck. (And listen to its story, too!)
Japan Itinerary Day 11 Matsumoto
This is one of the oldest, still in tact castles in Japan. It’s impressive from the outside. From within not so much but a visit is still warranted. The castle has been built for defensive purposes, not to live in and that shows in its architecture and interior. Learn more about the samurai, about war strategies and Japanese weapons here in Matsumoto Castle.
On your way to and from the train station, stop by the canal and street food vendors at the Matsumoto Frog Festival. My foodie tip is getting the hot dog taiyaki with Japanese mayoinnaise. The shop owner boasted it is the only place in all of Japan that serves this combination and it blew me away.
Japan Itinerary Day 12-13 Kawaguchiko
During the time of shibazakura, Fuji is a must see destination. Get a 2-day bus pass and drive over to the Shibazakura Festival to see meadows upon meadows covered in pink, purple and white flowers. With the snow tipped volcano and lush green forests in the distance, it makes for an impressive view!
Afterwards, hop on back into your bus and drive up to Fifth Station on Mount Fuji. It will be cold, so pack an extra all weather jacket. Then, you can visit the historic villages and caves to complete your day. You can schedule in one or two days during your 3 weeks in Japan since getting here even with a Japan Railpass takes quite some time out of your day.
A popular alternative to Kawaguchiko is Hakone. This is what you will recognise from the typical Japan photos with red gates in the water and Fuji in the back as well as that red pagoda in the pastel sunsets. With Fuji passes, you can easily get around the entire area if you want to.
Japan Itinerary Day 14 Nagoya
Nagoya has its own castle and when you are done exploring it, why not attend a cultural event? The nearby Noh Theatre puts on traditional shows and you can enjoy Japanese performances. Just be warned: it isn’t everyone’s taste.
Shopping can also be done in Nagoya and is much more affordable than in Tokyo, for instance. There are plenty of places to do that, so why not start at the Underground Mall in Sakae and the Nagoya Station Mall. It is a typical thing in Japan to have malls at metro stations. Another impressive shopping centre is Oasis 21, which has an oval shape and it made out of glass.
Just around the corner is a very convient network of shops and malls in the typical Japanese shopping street style: Osu Street and Kamimaezu. Two things you need to see/try in Nagoya, so I am told, is the temple Osu Kannon and the staple Nagoya dish), which is basically anything covered with miso.
Japan Itinerary Day 15-18 Osaka
Osaka is a great starting point for a Japan 3 week itinerary in general. You could explore the main Japanese island, Honshu. Go for day trips to Kyoto, Nara, Wakayama, to name just a few. You could also head all the way to the West and visit Hiroshima, Miyajima and then go down south to Kyushu island.
Either way you go, Osaka is a vibrant city. Check out the many foodie streets in the centre, stop by Osaka castle (大阪城天守閣) and try the famous Osaka okonomiyaki. (I prefer the Hiroshima okonomiyaki but don’t ever say that in Osaka!)
Japan Itinerary Day 19 Himeji and Okayama
You can easily cover the two cities and their respective castles in one day. So it will not take too much time out of your Japan travel itinerary. Those two Japanese castles are extremely impressive. One ivory white and the other pitch black, both especially striking when surrounded by oceans of pink cherry blossoms.
If you are into religious and sacred sites, try the Kibitsu Shrine, Kibitsuhiko Shrine, Saijo Inari Shrine and the Saidai-ji Temple while in Okayama. A local favourite is the Kōraku-en garden, which is kept in the Edo style and lies across the castle.
For Himeji, you can tick off shopping and local food. If you are into museums, pay a visit to the Himeji City Museum, Himeji City Aquarium and the Himeji City Museum of Literature. Alternatively, you could chill out at the Central Park if you want to recharge your energies. With the Japan Railpass you can easily get around between the cities and can relax in a shinkansen as well.
Japan Itinerary Day 20-21 Kyoto
Kyoto deserves at least two days out of any Japan 3 week itinerary. For one, you have to see the castle, which used to be the political centre of Japan. After all, Kyoto once was the capital of the country. Then move on over to the temples. You can dedicate an entire day for those. Start off with Ginkaku-ji Temple
The second day, you should spend at Arashiyama. Not only can you find the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and Kimono Garden here, but the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji Temple) as well. Next in line should be Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine. Get up early and have a energising breakfast to avoid the crowds and gain strength to climb all the stairs up to the top. It is quite the challenge, actually!
Last but definitely not least is the old Historic District in Kyoto. Walk the old streets, admire the wooden houses and spot the rare geisha. During April, you can attend the Miyaki Odori, the spring dance, where you can witness geishas dancing up close. It is an art form and the geishas and their trainees, called geikos, train for an entire year.
Are 3 weeks in Japan Enough?
Three weeks in Japan are ideal, if you ask me. It gives you plenty of time to cover a lot of ground but also enough time to schedule in short breathers and stay in a place longer than a night. Some Japanese destinations deserve more of your time!
Tell me, are these the main stops you would have included in a Japan 3 week itinerary? Would you have added something? What are you looking forward to most?