The Best ‘First Trip to Japan’ Itinerary

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re starting to plan your very first trip to Japan….and damn, I’m jealous.  I haven’t even started writing this post yet and I’m already getting major nostalgia-bombs.  There’s nowhere quite like Japan, and there’s nothing quite like your first visit.  Every perceived notion you have about Japan will probably be met and exceeded.  Every culinary joy you want to experience will probably happen.  Everyone vending machine dream will most definitely come true.

I’ve lived in Japan for over 2 years now, so perhaps a bit of the “magic” has worn off for me, but I’ll never forget my feelings and experiences on my first trip here.

Now, to be fair, I hyped up Japan pretty much my entire life.  I’d always wanted to visit.  It was #1 on my travel list but seemed just out of reach.  Let’s face it, Japan was downright expensive up until very recently.  Thanks in part to “Abenomics”, however, the Yen dropped and my magical dreamland suddenly became a viable travel destination!

I spent months planning a perfect itinerary.  I scoured travel sites, talked to friends, lived and breathed research to make sure my first trip went off without a hitch.  I was also traveling solo, so I had the freedom to do exactly what I wanted to do (but also needed to pack it all in to keep my solo-self entertained).  I’ve tweaked it a slight bit now that I’ve lived here for a while.

So now I pass this knowledge on to you.  This is what I think is a perfect itinerary for someone’s first visit to Japan.  This itinerary spans 10 days, but I’ll add in little side trips you can take to expand your trip or tell you where you can decrease it to a shorter one.
I’d say all in all I spent around $3,000 usd on my trip, but I also splurged and shopped a lot, so it can be done more cheaply.

Before you get on the plane, make sure you’ve picked up your 7 Day JR Pass (or a longer one if you’re staying longer).  A regular JR pass is fine.  The green cars are nice but they’re not that much of an upgrade from the regular ones.  You’ll want to make sure you have pass coverage for all of your shinkansen rides.  If you’re only planning to take 2 shinkansen (say roundtrip to Kyoto), it’s cheaper just to buy the tickets and not bother with the pass.  The pass only benefits you financially if you’re taking more than 2 trains.

10 Day Japan Itinerary

  • Day 1 – Arrive to Tokyo
    You can arrive to either Haneda or Narita airports.  Both are great airports with easy public transportation to and from.  For ease of transportation for the next day, stay in either Tokyo (near Tokyo station), Shinagawa, Shibuya, or Shinjuku.  You’ll want to stay somewhere that has easy train access from the airport and shinkansen access for your next day.
  • Day 2 – Tokyo → Kyoto
    Make your way to one of the JR offices in the station and exchange your JR Pass voucher for your actual pass (note that if you’re at Shibuya station you’ll go to the Welcome Center instead of the JR office).  Once you have your pass you can book your reserved train seats at the ticket office.  Grab a ticket to Kyoto, snag a bento and then check out my Kyoto Travel Guide – Part 1
    Kyoto is going to be your hotel hub until Day 5.
  • Day 3 – Kyoto
    Kyoto Travel Guide – Part 2
  • Day 4 – Nara / Fushimi Inari
    Less than an hour from Kyoto is Nara, home of all those bowing deer you keep seeing Facebook videos about.  It’s also home to some of the most impressive temples and shrines in Japan.  Wander around Nara in the morning and afternoon, then catch the train and stop to check out Fushimi Inari on your way back to Kyoto.
    Kyoto Travel Guide – Part 3
  • Day 5 – Kyoto → Hakone or Miyajima*
    Finish up in Kyoto and grab a shinkansen to your next destination.  Choosing between Miyajima and Hakone is pretty tough.  I’d say go to Hakone if you want to relax and enjoy hot springs (onsen) and go to Miyajima if you enjoy the outdoors and hiking (and don’t mind a longer commute back to Tokyo).
    *If you’re going to Miyajima you’ll probably be staying in Hiroshima as opposed to actually Miyajima.  Miyajima will give you quite a few hours of exploring, but definitely also give yourself an hour or more to look around Hiroshima.
  • Day 6 – Hakone or Miyajima* Tokyo
    If you’re heading back from Hakone you’re going to have about an hour commute to Tokyo, so feel free to explore some of Hakone in the morning.  From Miyajima (Hiroshima station) it’ll be about 4-5 hours.  Depending on when you arrive to Tokyo, you’ll potentially have half a day to explore.  Maybe dive head first in to “weird” Japan and go watch a show at Robot Restaurant and then bar hop the mini bars of Golden Gai.
  • Day 7 – Tokyo
    It’s time to lose yourself in Tokyo!  You’re probably a bit temple’d-out so head out in to the streets of Shibuya, Harajuku, and other surrounding areas.  Check out all the kitschy shops, have a crepe on Takeshita Dori, visit a cat cafe, go chill in Yoyogi Park (make sure to go visit Meiji Shrine, as well), and eat some conveyor belt sushi.
  • Day 8 – Tokyo
    Hit up the East side of Tokyo.  Nerd out to your heart’s desire in Akihabara (also owl cafe!).  Stroll the covered shopping streets and fun touristic “old school” Tokyo fare in Asakusa.  Go fight your fear of heights and check out the tour from Tokyo Skytree (the aquarium there is pretty cute, too).  And if you have time, check out the Edo Museum.
  • Day 9 – Tokyo
    Maybe you want to visit some of Tokyo’s less known neighborhoods?  For vintage shopping and hitting up interesting cafes head over to Shimokitazawa or Koenji.  If you’re in Koenji, head next door to Nakano to visit the nerdy heaven that is Nakano Broadway.  Maybe you want to get out of the city a bit?  Take an hour train out to the beach side and visit the giant Buddha in Kamakura.  Get lost in the many streets of Ginza and get your high-end shopping on.  There’s loads of options!
  • Day 10 – Home
    Wah wah wah…the trip is coming to an end.  Time to pack it all up and head home.  Don’t worry if you’ve not managed to eat before arriving to the airport – both Narita and Haneda have great restaurants in the departure areas.  If you haven’t managed to pick up your omiyage (souvenirs – I highly suggest hitting up a Donkihote for this) don’t despair!  The airports also have tons of fun and delicious things you can snag.


Supplementing your trip with extra days

Have more than 10 days in Japan?  You lucky dog, you!  Here are a few places that make awesome extra add-ons.

  • Nikko – 1 Night / 2 Days
    Just a short 1 hour shinkansen from Tokyo is Nikko.  Home to one of the most elaborate temples in Japan, it’s a gorgeous little town along the river surrounded by ancient pine trees.  Stay in the historic Kanaya Hotel or one of the many onsen ryokans available.  On a budget?  No problem!  There are quite a few hostels in town, as well.  Make sure to get some soba while you’re here!  This prefecture is known for it.
  • Takayama – 2 Nights / 3 Days
    Take a gorgeous scenic view train from Nagoya in to the hills of Hida and you’ll arrive to Takayama.  A “mini Kyoto”, Takayama is known for it’s preserved old town, sake distilleries and their annual spring and autumn festivals.  If your trip falls during the dates of either the Takayama Matsuri GO.  Replace something in your above 10 day trip (probably Hakone/Miyajima) and 1000000% go to the festival.
  • Osaka – 1 Night / 2 Days
    Want to eat until you’re going to pop, shop, and then party a bit?  Head on over to Osaka.  Shop, eat, and play in Shinsaibashi.  Visit the famous neon Glico man and giant crab.  Stay in a funky capsule hotel.  Nerd out in Osaka’s answer to Akihabara – Dotonbori.  If you have time, go pretend to be Harry Potter at Universal Studios Japan!
  • Koyasan – 2 Nights / 3 Days
    Not an actual mountain, but multiple ones, Koyasan is the home of Shingon Buddhism.  A small temple town has been established around the main headquarters, and many of the temples there offer overnight stays.  You’ll sleep in a central room, eat monk food (vegetarian) and wake up around 6am to go to prayer with everyone.  Considered one of the most spiritual places in Japan, this is a good stop if you need to rebalance and enjoy misty pine forests.  I give it 2 nights because it is not easy to get to – you’ll probably take at least 4 different trains and have to hike a bit.
  • Kawaguchiko – 1 Night / 2 Days
    Situated at the base of Mt. Fuji, Kawaguchiko is a small town located on the banks of Lake Kawaguchi.  Known for its stunning views of Mt. Fuji, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better place for iconic “Japan” photos.  Take a canoe out on to the lake, visit the lavender fields, and enjoy some purple softcream while you gaze at Fuji.  If you can splurge, try out the “glamping” experience at Hoshino Fuji.  There are plenty of great ryokans situated around the lake, though, as it is a favorite weekend destination for people in Tokyo.

So there ya go!  I hope you have an amazing time in Japan.  If you have any questions, feel free to comment below and I’ll answer them if I can.
Do you have any place you feel is an absolute “must” for a first-timer?  Also comment below!

-Ruby

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