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 travelling Japan for two weeks to get a good start on seeing the major cities and sights without feeling overly hurried.
Travelling Japan Day 1: Narita and Sawara
You 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.
If you still have some time before you want to head to Tokyo, you can take the train to Sawara. This little town looks straight out of the Edo period (and is in fact caled “Little Edo”) with its historic wooden buildings and little canals and bridges that used to serve the rice transport. In July and October you can attend the Sawara Matsuri festivals, where you can see floats with dolls representing mythological Japanese warriors and heroes.
Travelling Japan Day 2-4: Tokyo
For Tokyo, you could easily spend weeks and still not have seen it all. I stayed there for two months and still discovered ‘new’ districts. I used a combination of walking between districts to get a real ‘behind the scenes’ look of Tokyo life but if you want to see as much as you can, get a pass and save your sore feet.
Places to consider are Akihabara for Video Games and the free little Anime Museum and Nakano Broadway for stocking up on anime and manga merchandise at amazing prices. But of course there are many more otaku hot spots in Tokyo.
Great kimono deals, affordable souvenirs and local food you can find for instance at the Ueno Station. Visit the nearby park and temple as well. Ueno Park is a great spot for enjoying cherry blossoms but there are lots more insider spots for hanami.
Check out Shibuya in the late afternoon for the busy crosswalk view from the train station and head over to Shibuya 109 for crazy quirky fashion. 109 Men’s is not very exciting. Harajuku is a 20min walk away but take the train anyway. Hit SoLaDo for a chance to see a live boyband performance and delirious fangirls.
Around the corner is the marvellous Meiji Shrine hidden behind crooked old trees and if you’re lucky, you can spot a wedding ceremony. If you want to see the biggest temple festival in Tokyo, come for the Sanja Matsuri at the Sensoji Shrine. You’ll see geiko dances, people carrying local deities in shrines through the streets, have a huge selection of food stalls and generally a great time. It will be insanely crowded.
If you want something very different entertainment wise, try the popular Takarazuka Revue with all-female cast and terribly dramatic acting and singing. If you queue for your day ticket the same day at least an hour in advance (it’s impossible to get tickets on short notice otherwise), you can greet the show stars as they walk by and collect fanmail.
For a glimpse of sumo, you can purchase tournament tickets far inadvance or attend a free training session (asa-keiko). Try the Arashio-beya dohyo in Hamacho.
Skip the Skytree Tower entrance fees and go up the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building for free. The best time is just before sunset and on clear days you can see Mount Fuji. Afterwards, you can stroll around Shinjuku and choose one of the many restaurants.
For an entirely different feel and a more historical district, check out Shibamata, where you can see doppelgängers of the iconic Japanase movie character Tora-san, visit the temple and stroll through the old streets.
A big thing for a lot of visitors to Tokyo is the Tsukiji Fish Market at 5am. If you want to see the craziness of the live tuna auction, check for public admission days and register at 4:30am.
Travelling Japan Day 5-6: Nikko
For a collection of the pretties temples and shrines in a forest setting and next to bubbling streams, head to Nikko. It is one of the most charming spots in Japan. Visit
You can also head out and go hiking in nature. Start at the Kegon Waterfalls and hike along Lake Chuzenji to the Senjogahara Plateau and past more waterfalls. There are different hiking paths with different difficulty levels.
The local 2-day bus pass is the best option to get around for an affordable price. Make sure to carry the timetable with you, which you can get from the train stations.
Travelling Japan Day 7-8: Nagano, Jigukudani and Matsumoto
Make your way up to Nagano and walk up to the temple. Already on the way there, you can find many foodie spots, taste different rice balls, miso ice cream (don’t!) and lots of other snacks. Get a local map to see the best spots marked.
At the temple, go inside the information to your left and rub the ox for good luck. Then stand near the incense burners and get some smoke on you or – even better – burn incense sticks (osenko) yourself. This is for good health. Take your shoes off at the temple entrance, throw in a coin before the deity, say a silent prayer and then turn right to go down to the gates of heaven.
The idea is that you have to feel your way along the pitch black passage downstairs and try to find the door and rattle it. This is so you can make a wish and know how to find the gate to heaven once you’re dead more easily.
The next day, buy a Snow Monkey 1 Day Pass and take the bus to the Jigukudani Snow Monkey Park. The pass covers the entrance fee as well. You’ll love the playful monkeys and can take pictures up close as they are used to visitors. Just don’t try to touch them or even think about taking a bath with them.
After you’ve had enough, you can visit the local art museum by the bus stop and then take the bus to the local villages to take a bath at an onsen. If you need an extra dose of good luck, soak in all nine onsen of the Shibu Onsen area.
Now it’s time to visit one of Japan’s oldest castles, Matsumoto. You can take the local bus from the train station, which leaves every 30 mins and costs 190 yen one way or rent a free bicycle daily from 8:30am to 5pm at various locations.
To get into the castle and its museum, you have to pay an entrance fee. The castle museum is located inside the buildings and displays samurai history, weapons and clothes.
Between the station and the castle you will cross a canal and along it you can find food stalls. Grab a pancake fish with a sausage and Japanese mayonnaise. It’s divine and apparently it’s the only place in Japan that sells it with this filling.
Travelling Japan Day 9-11: Fuji Great Lakes and Nagoya
Ok, this one can easily be stretched to a three day adventure. But if you really want to see Mount Fuji – especially in mid April for the pink shibazakura that cover the ground – then you need to make a detour. The area has a lot to offer: sacred springs, old villages, ice and bat caves, the lookout stations at Fuji and of course onsen. It’s a hiker’s paradise.
You can invest in day passes as well but make sure to know the timetable as well as the actual bus stops since bus drivers easily ignore you I found.
I visited Fujikawaguchiko for the northern part of the Fuji area but I know a lot of people visit Hakone (the well-known postcard spot). Both are beautiful destinations.
When you have had enough of the area (will you ever?), head down southwest to Nagoya and visit the local castle. Again, you have to pay an entrance fee and it’s particularly worth it during spring festivities. You can also attend free Noh Theatre practices – but without the costumes and masks.
Day 12-14: Osaka, Nara and Kyoto
In Osaka, you can take a walk among the cherry blossoms by the river and then see some more at the base of the Osaka castle. Make a quick stop at Dotonbori for the flashing neon lights and the famous ‘Runner’.
Take the train down to Shitennoji and explore the temples and, if you like, the zoo. For the evening you can taste local fried teppanjaki and okonomiyaki (make it yourself!) a little further up in Tennoji underneath the tower. Try the fried ice cream on a stick!
The next day, take a day trip to Nara and visit the temples, get a cutesy dose of the sacred deer. Hundreds of years ago, Nara was a favourite hunting ground but legend has it that a deity sent a deer as their messenger and from that day onwards, deer were not allowed to be harmed. And they certainly know it.
You can hike in the forest, but be warned that the ‘pristine’ forest has a big concrete street winding through it, which is the hiking path as well. Also visit the Isuen garden and as a foreigner, you can get free access! Walk through the Nara Park and visit the Seven Great Temples.
Nara is further away than it seems because of the train network, so you should plan a whole day for this and for Kyoto as well, which luckily you an reach within 15 minutes from Osaka. Know what you want to see in Kyoto in advance to avoid crowds by going early and covering more ground. It is bigger than it seems.
Start with the coveted red Torii gates of the Fushimi Inari Shrine. The walk up is harder than it seems and can take about two hours. Then catch the bus to the Gion district to hopefully spot a geisha. If your budget allows, invest in a local Kyoto cuisine, such as “Kyo-kaiseki-ryori,” “Shojin-ryori” (good for vegetarians), and “Obanzai”. Then get a ticket to the geisha dance (better book in advance or show up early) and visit the Buddhist temple at the end of the street.
Head over to the castle and parks and then take the bus to the Golden Pavilion. Don’t overlook Arashiyama with its kimono and bamboo forest.
If you have some more days to spare, go west and visit Okayama, Himeji and Hiroshima (try the okonomiyaki!) for some more Japanese castles and cherry blossom walks. A very special place is the island of Miyajima with its deers, the floating gate, the many temples and mountain hikes. You can easily spend two days here.
The cheapest way to travel around Japan is by bus. Willer Express has pink plush seats, a sleeping hoodie and retro nintendo console games. The most fun, fastest and classiest way is by bullet train, Shinkansen. I cannot recommend the RailPass enough, which can only be bought while abroad and gives you discounts the Japanese cannot access. You can board the trains without a reserved ticket. Just check for the few lines that are not included and whether you need to reserve a seat.