For first timers visiting Japan, planning an itinerary can be a daunting task. Upon first glance, there are an infinite number of places to visit, and each one seems to offer a bevy of side trips. It took me a month to read through blog posts and websites before I was able to settle on a 10 day itinerary for Julia and I. Ideally, 20 days would have been much more accommodating, but like most, 10 days was the limit of our vacation time. In this post, I’ll share some advice and research I found that helped make this adventure possible, as well as the specific trips I planned for each day of our visit to Japan.
Getting Around Japan – As I mentioned in a previous post, if you’re going to be traveling from Kyoto to other parts of Japan and have day trips planned, you’ll want to get a JR Pass. A Japan Rail Pass will help save you some money and allow for unlimited train travel while you visit. Train travel is very dependable and safe in Japan. Every train departs right on time, and we experienced no delays. You can use the website Hyperdia to research and set your train traveling schedule.
Cost Of Visiting Japan – Japan has become much more affordable for visitors in the past few years, with prices getting close to those of big cities in the United States. Still, Japan can be an expensive country for a backpacker, so be sure to seek out deals wherever you can. I’ve put together a post to help you save some money on food. You can see the Yen currency exchange here.
Do I Need To Speak The Language? – Japanese is one of the most difficult languages to learn. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to get by in Japan without knowing how to speak it. Almost every street sign, train station posting, store price, ect, is listed in both Japanese and English. Most ticket gate attendants in Japan speak at least basic English, and those who don’t, have English note cards to point you in the right direction. I did my best to learn all of the common courtesy greetings, but that was just to be polite.
Helpful Apps – Make sure to download Google Maps and Google Translate before arriving to Japan. Google Maps is great because the app gives you step by step directions and train times with platforms for each leg of your trip. Google translate is nice because you can take pictures of Japanese characters and it will translate the photo with English text. Before visiting Japan, I suggest you use Japan-Guide.com, as it’s the most comprehensive resource for Japan travel online.
Packing List- What you need to pack for Japan is largely based on preference and season. Julia and I tend to pack light, as we don’t like to haul around heavy luggage. This is something you should consider if you plan on taking trains all around Japan. There is large luggage storage on some green cars, but don’t count on being able to take large bags with you on most trains. A backpack and a small carry-on, on the other hand, will be easy to transport on just about any mode of transportation.
My Japan Itinerary
We broke our trip up into two sections, with our first four days based out of Kyoto, and the next four days based out of Tokyo, before returning to Kyoto to fly home.
Day 0: LAX To Osaka To Kyoto – I flew into Osaka from LAX, as it was cheaper than flying into Tokyo. I also wanted to start my trip in Kyoto, which is only a short train ride from Osaka. You can also complete this itinerary in reverse if you plan on starting in Tokyo. Whichever option you choose, I suggest flying with Japan Airlines. The 12 hour flight from Los Angeles was quite enjoyable, with the best food and service I’ve ever had on an economy class flight.
- LAX To Osaka Kansai: Japan Airlines
- Osaka Kansai to Kyoto: JR Limited Haruka Express Train (More Info)
Day 1: Exploring Kyoto – For our first day in Japan, we stayed in Kyoto and explored the temples in the central and eastern parts of the city. We also made sure to enjoy a lot of the great food in Kyoto.
For accommodation, we stayed in a Ryokan. This is something I highly recommend and have written about in a separate post.
- Kyoto has a great public transportation system, with buses and subway trains that will take you all around the city. You can also take taxi’s around if you so choose. Google Maps is a great way to track trains and buses.
Day 2: A Day Trip To Miyajima Island – This was our first experience on the Shinkansen bullet trains in Japan. Miyajima Island is famous for a Torii gate that appears to be floating in the water. The island is also home to sacred deer, treasured temples, and a great network of hiking trails. If you don’t feel like hiking, you can take the cable car to the summit of Mt. Misen.
- From Kyoto we took a shinkansen to Hiroshima. From Hiroshima we took the local train to Miyajimaguchi. From Miyajimaguchi, we took a JR ferry to the island. All travel was covered by our JR Pass. We returned that night using the same transportation.
Day 3 and 4: Visiting The Holy Land Of Koyasan With An Overnight Stay In A Buddhist Temple – This was probably my favorite part of the trip. Koyasan is the birthplace of Shingon Buddhist, and has an abundance of temples located on the top of a mountain. This is a lot to see and do here, and if you’re into hiking, it’s hard to beat Koyasan. Staying in an a Buddhist temple was an experience I’ll never forget.
- Koyasan can be tough to get to from Kyoto. We took the Shinkansen to Shin Osaka, a local train to Osaka Station, the Osaka Loop Line to Shin Imamya, and a Nakai express to Gokurakubashi. From Gokurakubashi, we took the cable car up the mountain, and then a bus into Koyasan. All of this can be done with the JR Pass and the purchase of the World Heritage Ticket. See this link for a travel map and helpful info.
Day 5: Visiting Tokyo – Julia and I aren’t really interested in big cities, but were very excited by all of the day trips near Tokyo. We spent our first day in Tokyo exploring some of what the city had to offer. Although it’s usually not my cup of tea, I’m really glad we did. Shibuya was a lot of fun.
- Much like Kyoto, we relied heavily on the underground Metro system to see Tokyo. You can purchase and all day pass for 600 Yen. This really helps when getting around to different parts of the city. Make sure to use Google Maps to help plan your trips.
Day 6: A Day Trip To Kamakura – Kamakura is home to a host of beautiful temples and the second largest Buddha in Japan. At one point, Kamakura was the capital of the Japanese Empire. We got hit with a rainstorm halfway through our visit to Kamakura, but still had a great time.
- It takes about an hour to get to Kamakura from Tokyo. We took the Tokyo Metro to Shibuya Station and changed over to the JR Shonan Shinjuku line.
- Once at Kamakura Station, we bought a ticket for the Enoden tram line that runs throughout the city. See this link for more info.
Day 7: A Day Trip To Nikko And Lake Chuzenji – A day trip to Nikko National Park is a must for anyone visiting Tokyo. Home to Toshogu, Japan’s most decadent shrine, and Lake Chuzenji, Nikko has a little something for everyone.
- From Tokyo, we took the Shinkansen to Utsunomiya and transferred to the JR Nikko Line. This entire trip was covered by our JR Rail Pass.
- Once in Nikko, we purchased a bus pass to travel to the temples around Nikko. This pass also covers the ride out to Lake Chuzenji.
Day 8: Hiking Mt. Takao and More Tokyo – If you’re looking to do some hiking in the Tokyo area, there are few places better than Mt. Takao. Mt. Takao is only 50 minutes away from Tokyo by train, and is a very popular spot amongst locals. The mountain has hiking trails, temples, and a monkey park. If you’re short on time or energy, you can take a chair lift of cable car towards the summit of Mt. Takao. From the summit, you can look down on the city of Tokyo, the views are pretty amazing.
- There is a direct Keio Takao line from Tokyo. We had the JR Pass and used the JR Chuo line. Taking the JR Chuo Line, we got off at Takao Station and took the Keio Takao line for one stop to arrive at Takaosanguchi Station. See this link for more info.
Day 9: Return to Kyoto And A Day Trip To Nara – After spending 4 days in and around Tokyo, we made our way back to Kyoto for our final night in Japan. We arrived in Kyoto after an early morning Shinkansen trip from Tokyo. Our first stop was at Kyoto Tower, before making our way down to Nara. Nara is a must see city for visitors to Kyoto. It’s a one hour train ride and makes for a very easy day or half day trip. My favorite part of Nara was Todaiji Temple, the largest wooden structure in the world that houses the largest Buddha in Japan.
- From Kyoto Station, there is a direct local train that will take you to Nara. Once at Nara Station, you can walk or take a bus to Nara Park, the central hub for temples, sacred deer, and street food.
On our final day in Japan we made an early morning visit to Nijo Castle. Nijo Castle was the residence of the Shogun during the Japanese Edo Period. The castle has a beautiful garden and the tour inside was something very special. It was the perfect way to end our 10 day Japanese trip.
- We took the subway from Kyoto Station to the stop right outside of Nijo castle.
- We took the Haruka Express from Kyoto Station back to Kansai Airport in Osaka for our flight home
Add-ons- Just like every travel itinerary, we had to budget our time and cut some things out. If I had a few more days in Japan, I would have loved to spend a few more days exploring Kyoto. I would have also liked to add a day in Hakone to explore Mt. Fuji, and a trip north to Nagano to explore the Japanese Alps. If you have some additional days in Japan, you can probably get in a lot more than we did.
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