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It has been a few years since I visited Japan. But I wanted to put together a Japan itinerary on the places I went to, as this was a great introduction to the country. For anyone limited on time due to annual leave, or anything else for that matter, this would be an ideal 7 – 10 day Japan itinerary.
I travelled with my mum, and we joined a tour booked through Kuoni which shaped our Japan itinerary. I can only imagine the arguments that would have ensued if we had to nagivate our way around the country on our own. You can read about my thoughts on Group Travel tours here.
Tokyo: 1 -3 days
Where else would you start a Japan itinerary? The capital of Japan, world renowned and really quite remarkable.
There are so many different vibes in different parts across the city so I feel it is important to try and soak up as much of the different atmospheres as possible.
First stop – the Tokyo tower. It is taller than the Eiffel Tower, on which it was based, so you can only imagine the views from the top of the tower. But do make sure you visit on a clear day, otherwise, as you can probably guess, the views would be missing!
Tokyo feels like a very modern city, but there is a bit of history to be found if you’re looking. The Imperial Palace was originally build in 1590. Now only the inner circle remains. However, the emperor and his family still live in the complex, in a part that was rebuilt after World War II. The Palace is only open to the public twice a year, but there is a great view of it from the picturesque Nijubashi Bridge.
Senso-ji Temple is Tokyo’s most sacred and spectacular temple, and really feels like the Japan you are searching for. Located in Northern Tokyo and easily accessible using the subway. Although the temple did not survive World War II, it was rebuilt the traditional Edo Style. The buildings themselves are impressive, but it is equally interesting watching people following their daily rituals.
If you’re looking for some shopping and general hustle and bustle of Tokyo, then head to Ginza. Home to large Japanese department stores as well as Ginza Yon-chome crossing, which is the busiest crossing in the world.
Day trips from Tokyo
If the above hasn’t kept you busy enough, I would recommend taking a day trip out of Tokyo in your Japan itinerary. We did to this to see some of the surrounding areas. I would definitely suggest that one of the days you are based in Tokyo to try and escape the city for a bit.
First stop was the Hase-dera Temple. This is famous for having a huge wooden statue of Kannon. But I found most touching was the garden full of little statues dedicated to still born and miscarried children.
From here we went to the little seaside town of Kamakura. Firstly, visiting the very interesting Kotoku-in Temple. This enormous statue of buddha is incredibly impressive and even more so, as you can actually go inside. It has survived fires, earthquakes, tidal waves and tycoons and now has shock absorbers at the base.
The final location of the day was the Sankenien Garden in Yokohama. These peaceful garden were delightful to wander around, full of pines and flowers. There is also a three story pagoda and I got the chance to take part in a traditional tea ceremony.
Hakone: 1 day
After leaving Tokyo we made our way to Hakone, on bus. The plan was to view Mount Fuji from the 5th station. Which is the point most treks up the mountain start from. However the weather had other ideas.
When in Hakone there are a couple of things to see and do. Lake Ashi is a beautiful lake which is lovely to take a boat cruise on. The Hakone Komagatake Ropeway is well worth a look as well. This 7 minute cable car gives you beautiful views on Mount Fuji – again on a clear day.
But, by far my favourite thing to do in Hakone was the Onsen, which the town is famous for. It is a hilly hot spring town, which means it has lots of natural hot springs. For those of you who don’t know – Onsen is Japanese for hot spring and is used to refer to the places where you can bathe.
It was a very unique experience and I will give you a quick run down! The hotel we were staying in, the Yumoto Fujiya Hotel, has an Onsen within it. They also provide a Yukata (Japanese style pyjamas), which you can wear anywhere in the hotel, except the restaurants. So, I popped on my Yukata and headed for the Onsen. The first thing to know, is that you must be naked when in the water.
The baths are split into male and female. As you arrive there are lockers to leave belongings. You then enter the Onsen and there are rows of small stools and shower heads, with which you clean yourself before entering the water. You have a very tiny towel, but this is too small for modesty. When in the bath, the towel goes on your head. The Onsen I was in had indoor and outdoor elements.
It was a very unique Japanese experience, and one of my highlights of the trip.
Nara: 1 day
From Hakone, head to Nara. The most impressive thing to see in Nara is Nara Park. A huge area where lots of the temples are located. There are also hundreds of tame deer, which I absolutely loved. There are stalls located around which sell food for the deer. Beware however, as soon as you have a bag the deer appear from everywhere and become VERY interested in you!
Located in the park is the Todai-ji Temple, which houses the most impressive Great Buddha Hall. This hall has been re-built twice, due to earthquakes and fires. This was one thing that did surprise me a lot about Japan. Throughout history so many of their buildings seem to have been destroyed through various factors, earthquakes, fires etc, so they just build it again. Often nearly identical. However, the current hall is now only two thirds of its original size. Considering how big it was, I can’t imagine it being any bigger! The seated Buddha figure, made in bronze, was simply enormous. I can’t describe how small it made me feel.
Behind the Buddha is a wooden pillar with a small hole bored through it. It is said if you can squeeze through it you will attain Nirvana. All I can say is good luck – I didn’t attempt to try as I am sure I would still be there.
Kyoto: 3 days
The Imperial capital of Japan. Full of history, intrigue and excitement. One of my favourite things to do in Kyoto was simply wander around the little back streets and find hidden gems. Plus Geisha spotting is a must!
But there are a few key spots you should try and seek out:
- Nijo Castle – the official residence of the first Tokugawa Shogun. Exactly as I imagined Japanese history to be. It also has the most amazing nightingale floor that ‘sings’ when you walk on it.
- Kinkakuji Temple – A famous and stunning Golden Pavilion. Rebuilt after the original burnt down.
- Kyoto Imperial Palace – one of the temporary residences of the Emperor.
- Sanjusangendo Temple – Full of rows and rows of of nearly identical statues of Kannon, almost hallucinogenic effects!
Kyoto was my favourite place I visited in Japan, and we actually had a couple of days where we could just explore. Lots of delicious food, cafes and beautiful parks to check out.
Wander around the Gion district, it is a fairly sure bet you will see a Geisha or at least a Maiko, who are Geshia’s in training.
Hiroshima: 1/2 day
From Kyoto you can take the bullet train to Hiroshima. synonymous with the most horrific acts, and really needs no introduction. It is a very sober and heart breaking place to visit, but one I felt was important on a Japan Itinerary.
We actually started the day with visiting Hiroshima Castle. It was destroyed in the bomb, but was faithfully reconstructed afterwards and is a very impressive building.
We then visited the Peace Memorial Museum which graphically explores the devestation of that day. It is incredibly tough to go around, so do be warned.
After the museum make sure you head to the Peace Memorial Park. By the Northern Entrance is the Peace Bell, which visitors can ring themselves The park also contains the Peace mound, where ashes are buried, the Peace Momument and the Flame of Peace.
The Children’s Peace Momument is a monument full of paper cranes, to remember the children. A 12 year old girl died of leukaemia 10 years after the bomb. She believed if she made 1000 cranes she would live. Sadly, she didn’t manage to so her friends carried on for her.
At the edge of the park is the one remaining, destroyed, structure left after the bomb as a remind of the devastation of the day.
As I mentioned, this was not the most cheerful of days but I think necessary to witness.
Miyajima island: 1/2 day
This famous island is home to the great Torii gate which I am sure has been featured on many an Instagram post you might have seen. The island is definitely worth a visit on any Japan itinerary.
Take the ferry from the main lane across to the UNESCO world heritage site island.
The main attraction on the island is the Great Torii gate, which is the sea entrance to the Itsukushima shrine. This is also definitely worth spending some time in. There was actually a wedding going on when I was there!
If you have a bit more time, take the cable car behind the shrine up to Mount Misen.
In the main town there are lots of shops and food to try, it does feel a little touristy but a lot of the food is authentic. There are also tame deer which roam freely around the island, I am very fond of the deer!
Hiroshima and Miyajima can also be done as a one day trip from Kyoto if you are on a shorter Japan itinerary.
Other considerations for a Japan itinerary
Of course, this Japan itinerary is never going to cover everything. It is a huge and diverse country and I wish I could have spent weeks or even months there. But you have to start somewhere. If/when I return I definitely want to visit the following:
- Jigokudani – to see the monkeys
- Niseko – for skiing
Have you ever been to Japan? What are your must see’s?
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