When I first arrived in Japan, I only had one week to see as much as possible.
Four days in Tokyo meant late-night parties, culinary adventures… and lots of time spent getting lost.
Then followed three days exploring temples and cherry blossoms in Osaka and Kyoto. That trip was short, but it was impactful enough to make me move to Japan a few years later.
While living in Kanagawa, I traveled all over the country and fell in love with the lesser-known southern island of Kyushu (which you’ll read about in week two of this guide).
There I soaked in hot springs, visited abandoned islands and slurped on the best bowl of ramen I’ve ever had. I had to admit, I was head over heels for the country.
Based on my travels around my favorite country, this Japan itinerary will help you pack in as much as possible. Even if you don’t have the full two weeks, you’ll be able to pick the parts that pique your interest.
How to Get Around Japan
Traveling in Japan might seem like a daunting task, but it’s one of the best countries in the world to visit using public transportation.
The staff is super helpful and the trains are always on time!
Buy a Japan Rail Pass
If you want to travel to more than one city, the Japan Rail Pass is the most cost-effective ways to get around. It’s only available for foreign tourists and can be bought for seven, 14 or 21 days.
You can still reserve seats with the pass, too. Just go to any Japan Rail ticket office ahead of your departure.
Want to plan your train travel ahead of time? No problem. Websites like Hyperdia will give you the latest timetables and prices in English.
You can easily hail a cab in Japan’s cities, but they’re expensive and can take a big chunk of your spending money. Even for a short ride!
Luckily, the metro systems in big cities are well-connected. Instead of buying a ticket for each ride, consider getting a pre-paid card. In Tokyo, you can get a PASMO smart card at most ticket machines and offices.
Despite its hi-tech reputation, Wi-Fi isn’t available everywhere in Japan. Make sure you download street maps and metro maps so you can use them without a connection.
Ask a local
Japanese addresses are renowned for being extremely confusing. Many streets don’t have names, and the order of the building numbers follows no logic.
By becoming conversational in Japanese before you go, you’ll be able to ask a local to point you in the right direction. The less time you spend trying to find your way, the more time you can spend exploring!
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Where to Stay in Japan
Japan, especially Tokyo, is notorious for having pricey accommodation. While this is true if you stay in swanky hotels, it’s possible to explore the country on a shoestring.
Traditional Japanese inn
Looking for an authentic experience? Opt for a 旅館 (りょかん) – ryokan. These traditional guest houses are kitted out in typical Japanese fashion with 畳 (たたみ) – tatami mat floors and futons, and are a great way to immerse yourself in the culture.
Some are super luxurious and pricey. However, there are cheaper options available, too.
Weird, wonderful hotels
Mostly used by Japanese businessmen, capsule hotels are budget-friendly places to crash for the night (although not the best choice if you’re claustrophobic).
We recommend getting a cup noodle, watching a Japanese movie and making the most of your cozy surroundings. Note that some capsule hotels are men only, so be sure to check in advance.
If you don’t mind sleeping in a weird (but wonderful) environment, try a love hotel. Each room is decked out with a crazy theme and, contrary to popular belief, many people just use them as a place to crash.
While it was once hard to find love hotels that would accept foreigners, these days many have opened their doors to travelers.
Young Japanese use internet cafes as a place to sleep after a night out or as a kind of temporary accommodation.
You’ll be able to reserve a completely private booth, with a big comfy chair to rest in.
Lots of cafes also have kitchen and shower facilities. And you’ll have plenty of entertainment if you can’t sleep!
The budget traveler’s accommodation of choice, hostels in Japan are generally clean, safe and friendly.
For a unique experience, search out some of the more unusual locations like temples, rural cottages and family homes.
Top Tips for Traveling Japan
Train tickets booked? Hotel sorted? Bags packed? Here are a few more tips to help your trip go smoothly.
Cash is king
Card payments aren’t common in shops, restaurants and cafes, and you’re advised to always carry paper money.
Don’t be nervous about traveling with cash on hand. Theft rates are low and chances are if you lose your wallet, it’ll be kept safe until you return.
Some ATMs don’t accept foreign cards, but you can count on the machines in the numerous 7/11 stores.
Embrace local customs
Charm the locals and avoid offending people by getting to know a few of the local customs.
Always remove your shoes when entering someone’s home. Bow when you say hello (no hugging!). And remember, don’t talk on your phone while traveling on the metro or train.
If you don’t have a Japanese phone, you might not have an internet connection while you’re out an about.
Download guides, translation apps, maps and timetables ahead of time.
Lots of the best bars and restaurants aren’t at ground level. You’ll see buildings with neon signs stretching right up to the top floor.
Be brave, climb the stairwell and see what awaits at the top!
Make Every Moment Count with Our 2-week Japan Itinerary
Week One: Tokyo and Kyoto
Day one: Tokyo by night
You’ve arrived at your accommodation after a long flight, but don’t be tempted to go to bed just yet! Diving straight into Tokyo’s incredible nightlife is a great way to beat jet lag and get your sleep pattern back on track.
Start off with a cheap bite at a 焼き鳥 (やきとり) – yakitori stand (found all over the city), before heading to the infamous dive bars of Shinjuku’s Golden Gai.
Next stop is an unmissable show at the Robot Restaurant. Think strobe lights, loud pop music, neon-clad dancers and giant robots doing battle.
If you’ve still got some stamina, head to one of the city’s many karaoke joints, and be sure to ask for 飲み放題 (のみほうだい) – nomihōdai, an all-you-can-drink offer that usually lasts the entire night.
Then round the night off with a piping-hot bowl of the city’s favourite hangover cure, 拉麺 (らーめん) – ramen.
Day two: Modern Tokyo
Spend the day immersed in Japanese pop culture and enjoy the sights of contemporary Tokyo.
First head to Akihabara to hit the city’s hottest electronics stores. If you’re a fan of 漫画 (まんが) – manga, you’ll also find shops packed full of the latest selections. Then catch the metro over to Harajuku to see the latest wacky street style.
Next up, catch amazing views from 634 meters up at Tokyo Sky Tree, before enjoying the shopping and nightlife in the super chic Roppongi district.
Day three: Historic Tokyo
Rise and shine! Today’s an early start to visit Tsukiji Fish Market, which supplies the city with delicious fresh sushi for the rest of the day. Get there at 4:00 a.m. to see the market in action before grabbing breakfast at one of the sushi counters.
After your subsequent nap, take a ride over to Asakusa to see the epic Senso-ji Buddhist temple, before hitting the beautiful Ueno Park and Zoo.
Pass the afternoon at the Imperial Palace, complete with cool moats and bridges. Then spend a rowdy evening in a local Japanese-style pub, known as an 居酒屋 (いざかや) – izakaya.
Day four: Day trip to Kamakura
Only an hour away by train from Tokyo Station, Kamakura is an easy way to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. You’ll see shrines, temples, beautiful mountains and beaches.
I recommend visiting the famous giant Buddha statue, before visiting Hase-dera and Houkokuji temples (including a magical bamboo garden). Then spend a few hours chilling out by the sea.
Day five: Day trip to Yokohama
Often overlooked by visitors to Tokyo, many locals consider Yokohama to be its cooler, calmer cousin.
Spend the day wandering by the pier. There are boats and other sights to check out, along with a giant Ferris wheel. Book in advance and you can even do some stand-up paddleboarding.
Fancy a snack? Take a walk over to Cup Noodle Museum. You can learn about Japan’s favorite fast food and even make your own creation.
As evening approaches, be sure to feast in Japan’s largest Chinatown. An Instagrammer’s dream, it’s full of beautiful lights, impressive buildings and, of course, incredible food.
Day six: Bullet train to Kyoto
It’s time for your first bullet train ride! Take the 新幹線 (しんかんせん) – shinkansen from Tokyo station and make sure to book a seat on the right-hand side to get a great view of Mount Fuji.
You’ll have a couple hours to kill on the train. Why not brush up on your Japanese by listening to an audiobook or download some real Japanese anime?
Once you’ve settled into Kyoto, enjoy an authentic taste of the culture with a traditional tea ceremony. Then sample Japan’s finest whisky in one of the cities countless bars.
Day seven: Discover Kyoto
Feeling hungry? Start the day off by visiting Kyoto’s famous Nikishi Food Market, where you’ll find plenty of locally grown and prepared foods. My favorites are the tofu donuts at Konna Monja!
Next up, make a stop (and take an obligatory photo) at the beautiful Fushimi Inari Shrine, famous for its thousands of bright red 鳥居 (とりい) – torii gates.
Enjoy your evening in the historic Gion district and wonder at the area’s ancient architecture. You’ll find shops, restaurants and tea houses, and you could even spot a real 芸者 (げいしゃ) – geisha.
Week Two: Osaka and Beyond
Day eight: Head over to Osaka
A short train ride from Kyoto you’ll find Osaka, with great local food and a vibrant party scene.
Your first stop is the famous Dotonbori area. Get a picture in front of the iconic Glico Man sign at Ebisu-bashi bridge before sampling some local dishes. Try お好み焼き (おこのみやき) – okonomiyaki (a savory pancake with different types of fillings).
Spend the rest of your evening on a pub crawl or, if your budget allows, book a private sake tour.
Day nine: Amuse yourself in Osaka
Ready for some serious fun? Amusement parks are popular spots for couples and friends in Japan, and they’re definitely not just for kids. Get your tickets to Universal Studios and scream yourself silly on the rides.
If roller coasters aren’t your thing, take a trip to the world’s largest aquarium. After 5:00 pm, the venue lights up with an otherworldly night show.
In the evening, visit the Tempozan Ferris Wheel and get a spectacular view of Osaka Bay’s illuminations.
Day ten: 24 hours in Hiroshima
Continuing your journey south, take the short ride to Hiroshima. (You can also do this as a day trip from Osaka if you prefer.)
Here the trip takes on a somber mood as you visit the Memorial Peace Park and Atomic Bomb Dome. Gain a deeper insight into Japan’s recent history and learn about the devastating impact that the bomb had on the city. You’ll also see sculptures, gardens and community art promoting peace.
The evening is a great chance to catch a baseball game, one of Japan’s favorite sports. Book tickets in advance to cheer on the Tokyo Carps team along with the locals. Once in the stadium, stock up on sodas and snacks and watch world-class players in action.
Day eleven: Explore Fukuoka
Many travelers forget about Fukuoka when planning their Japan trip. Big mistake! Situated on the southern island of Kyushu, it’s a great way to get a taste of city life without tons of tourists.
After wandering around the city, head over to Canal City Mall, one of the country’s largest shopping centers. You’ll find shops, restaurants, games, a cinema and a canal that runs through the entire complex.
As the sun goes down, visit the 屋台 (やたい) – yatai on the southern end of Nakasu Island. These cozy open-air food stands each seat around seven or eight people and are best known for serving steaming bowls of delicious Hakata ramen.
Day twelve: Day trip to Beppu
Accessible by train, Beppu is a scenic resort known for its natural hot springs, or 温泉 (おんせん) – onsen. Take a day to chill out and enjoy thermal baths, sand baths, steam baths, mud baths and more.
Before heading over, be sure to brush up on your onsen etiquette. First of all, no bathing suits allowed! You’ll need to be butt naked before you’re allowed in the baths. You’ll also need to shower before you get in and make sure any towels you take in don’t come into contact with the water.
Be wary if you have any tattoos. The vast majority of onsen won’t accept inked visitors as tattoos are a taboo associated with the ヤクザ – yakuza (Japanese mafia). I got around this by hiding small tattoos with Band-Aids and by hiring a private bath out of view from others.
Day thirteen: Get to know Nagasaki
Visiting Nagasaki is another opportunity to hear about the country’s history at the Peace Park and Atomic Bomb Museum. The park is a tranquil spot that remembers the lives of the victims.
While in town, head to Hashima Island by boat (also known as Gunkanjima). It’s an eerie abandoned island that has been uninhabited since the 1970s. See derelict buildings and scenery featured in the James Bond film, Skyfall. To access it, you’ll need to go with one of the organized tours that depart several times per day.
For dinner, enjoy award-winning Nagasaki beef. I recommend checking out Steak Keiten!
Day fourteen: Back to Tokyo
Catch an early flight to Tokyo to get a few last-minute souvenirs and prepare for your flight home. The flight from Nagasaki takes just under two hours.
Do some shopping in Shibuya and pick up a few beauty favorites or 可愛い (かわいい) – kawaii cuddly toys for friends back home.
Don’t forget to stop by one of the many プリクラ – purikura booths for a photo memento. If there’s a group of schoolgirls in the booth ahead of you, find another one! They’ll likely spend hours posing, airbrushing and picking cute stickers to get the perfect picture.
You could spend months traveling across Japan and still only scratch the surface, but our whistle-stop two-week itinerary will give you a great glimpse into the Land of the Rising Sun.
Who knows? Maybe you’ll fall in love with Japan, just like I did, and start planning another trip. Or even a big move!
Emma Brooke is a travel writer and serial expat currently living in Paris.
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