Japan is a country filled with contrasts between modern society and ancient traditions (just watch our video). We spent an action-packed 8 days traveling and experiencing this peaceful, yet chaotic country. The itinerary below is a perfect guide for anyone visiting Japan for the first time.
Words of warning: This itinerary packs a lot in, and can feel a bit rushed. We think this would be ideally spread across 10 days. But if you’re like us, and want to see as much as possible in a short time, we’ve got you covered! This itinerary was created with a rather strict budget in mind. Check out our expenses in our Japan Budget breakdown.
Purchase a 7-day JR Pass and you won’t regret it. The pass quickly pays for itself – just a roundtrip from Kyoto to Tokyo is enough to make up the steep price. (Plus, you get to ride the famous Japanese bullet trains!)
Sidenote: you must purchase the JR Pass before entering the country. Give yourself at least a week for the voucher to be shipped to you.
Also, before you pack your bags and book your flights, don't forget to do this... you'll thank us later.
Day 1: Welcome to Japan
Fly into Osaka and head straight to Kyoto. The best part of flying into Osaka Kansai Airport: it’s cheap. Worst part: it’s on an island, so it takes about 30-45 minutes by train to Osaka city center. Once there, take an express train to Kyoto. You can skip Osaka for now and come back to it later if you have time.
Plan to stay in the Southern Higashiyama area of Kyoto. During the night, walk around your neighborhood, maybe try some noodle shops.
We stayed at Santiago Guesthouse and really enjoyed the location and clean rooms. Plus, you can’t beat the price.
Find other great guesthouses and hotels in Kyoto here.
Day 2: Explore Kyoto
This gem of a city has enough history that you could spend a month here and still not see everything. Get an all-day bus card for only 500 yen at your hostel (or directly on the bus) for the easiest and cheapest way to see the city.
Make your way west to the Arashiyama area and explore the old town. Walk through the magical Arashiyama bamboo grove (must-do while in Kyoto) and if you have time, try to catch a glimpse of the monkeys at Kameyama-koen Park. Grab lunch at one of the many noodle shops lining the street.
Afternoon: Head north by bus to Kinkaku-ji, the famous Golden Temple, and see it at sunset. It’s always busy so just bear with the crowds and enjoy the views. Once you had your fill, head back into town for dinner.
Evening: Walk the traditional Pontocho Alley and hunt for geishas. Keep your eyes peeled, because they scurry quickly between the restaurants and will vanish before you can blink.
Day 3: Explore Kyoto More
Morning: Wake up early and head south to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, famous for its orange gates. Take the JR Nara Line to JR Inari Station. Once you leave the station, you’ll be able to see the entrance to the shrine.
This place gets incredibly packed, so the earlier the better. Get lost taking pictures. If you want to get away from the crowds, head up the hill a little ways where you can get a picture without other tourists obscuring your shot.
Afternoon: Take a cooking class at Cooking Sun School. There are many class options but we would recommend the sushi making class.
Travel back to the city of Kyoto and explore the Nishiki Market near downtown. Try the octopus balls (it’s not what you think).
At Sunset: Take the short hike up Kiyomizu-dera Temple for a great view over the city. Then as the sun is setting, walk through the Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka – streets that have been preserved and feel as though you’ve traveled back in time.
Day 4: Hakone
Morning: Using your JR Pass, travel via Shinkansen (bullet train) to Odawara and grab a Hakone Free Pass for 4000 yen. Travel by bus into the Hakone region and stay in one of the many ryokan style guesthouses.
If you are daring, try an onsen — a Japanese-style bath house. Bathing suits not allowed. Similar style bath house, like the one we tried in Korea. The town of Hakone is known for having several onsens, so you'll have an array to choose from. Try one that is outdoors, and if you're lucky you'll be able to glimpse Mount Fuji! Typically, onsens are separated by gender, but many guesthouses in the area have private ones that you can have all to yourself. We took a steamy dip in the private onsen at Fuji-Hakone Guest House, and relaxed with wine as snowflakes fell all around us. Pretty magical.
Afternoon: Use your Hakone Free Pass and hop on a bus to the cable car to get a glimpse of Mt. Fuji (hopefully you’ll have better weather than we did!). At the top of the cable car don’t forget to try the black eggs. Legend has it that if you eat one, you’ll add 7 years to your life.
Evening: Have dinner at a local restaurant and relax in an onsen.
Day 5: Morning in Hakone, Tokyo at Night
Morning: Head to Togendai to get another picturesque glance at Mt. Fuji while on Lake Ashi. This is probably the cheesiest boat ride in the world, but have fun with it! It’s a nice way to take in the landscape (and it’s included in the Hakone Free Pass). Get off at the first stop, Hakone-machi Port and walk northeast heading towards Moto-hakone Port. Follow the road, but keep to the hill side and walk through the stunning Cedar Tree Forest.
Afternoon: From Moto-hakone Port, travel back to Odawara and then on to Tokyo via JR Rail.
Evening: Travel by subway to your hotel or hostel. We recommend staying in the Shinjuku or Shibuya area. AirBnB is a great way to save some money while staying in Tokyo. Make use the place has Wi-Fi or a pocket Wi-Fi, because you do not want to be stuck in the technology capital of the world without internet access...like us.
Day 6: Jigokudani Yaen-koen Snow Monkey Park, Nagano
Morning: Travel using your JR Pass to Nagano. From Nagano station, walk to the local station, Nagano Dentetsu station. Then take the Yudanaka line to Yudanaka station.
From there, hop on a bus to the entrance of the Jigokudani Yaen-koen Snow Monkey Park. The walk into the park may take 30 minutes, but you are going to take longer in order to take pictures of this fairytale forest. Spend the whole morning just monkeying around. This was one of our favorite things we did in Japan!
Afternoon and Evening: Head back to Tokyo and make your way to the Shibuya crossing, the busiest intersection in the world. Climb up to the Starbucks across from the train station to get a great view.
Day 7: Explore Tokyo
Today, travel via metro and hit some of the major spots in Tokyo. The easiest and cheapest way to travel throughout Tokyo is get a Toei Line All Day Pass. You can use this pass on any Toei metro or bus lines in the city.
Morning: Head to Tokyo Tower, just off subway stop Akabanebashi Station on the Toei Oedo Line. After you get some cool pictures, enjoy a sushi lunch at the Tsukiji Fish Market (Toei Oedo Line Tsukijishijo Station). You will find some of the best and freshest sushi in your life! We still dream about it.
After lunch, head to Sensoji Temple and check out the massive red paper lantern at the Thunder Gate.
Evening: Go to the crazy, wild, sensory-overload Robot Restaurant show. This is the craziest show you will ever see! And a must-do while in Japan. But make sure to eat beforehand because even though it says restaurant, the food is not what you come for.
Day 8: Osaka and Fly Home
Morning: Before making your way out of Tokyo, visit Meiji Shrine. Although it is just a few stops outside of the bustling center, you’ll feel like you’ve ventured out of the city for good. Breathe the fresh air, and wander the wide paths lined by towering trees as you make your way through the woodsy temple. If it happens to be a weekend, you’ll likely see a traditional wedding ceremony.
Afternoon: Fly out of Tokyo or head back to Osaka via JR Shinkansen to catch your flight home.
If time allows, wander around the Dōtonbori Area in Osaka and try Okonomiyaki – also known as Japanese pizza, one of our top foods to try in Japan.
Traveling for less than 8 days?
If you have less than 8 days, we’d recommend staying in the Kyoto and Osaka area, and excluding Tokyo and Hakone from your itinerary. There is simply not enough time to make it worthwhile. Believe me, you will not be disappointed with Kyoto.
Traveling for more than 8 days?
Really spread the days out. There is so much to see in Japan. If we had to choose one city to spend more time in, it would be Kyoto. Take another few days there and possibly try out an onsen. If you still have extra days, you could spend more time in Tokyo and slow down your travels even more, or head to another region altogether.
Want to know more? Check out our other posts on Japan:
Are you ready to book your tickets now? What are your must-do’s in Japan? Do you have any other tips on traveling this country? Share in the comments below.