ViaHero · Updated September 19, 2018
Choose your own adventure with 2 weeks of popular spots, day trips, and off-the-beaten-path excursions. Hit the highlights, dig deep into the culture, and put your own spin on the Japanese trip of a lifetime! Any questions? Just ask!
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The Essential Destinations
Tokyo: 3 days in Japan’s concrete jungle
One does not simply visit Japan and not explore Tokyo. Made up of 23 wards, Tokyo offers a totally immersive Japanese experience for visitors looking to level up past typical tourists.
Let’s start with the essentials, shall we? Get your toes wet in the metaphorical Japanese water!
- Arguably the most iconic spot in southern Tokyo, the 1,000-foot Tokyo Tower crowns the skyline, lighting up orange in the winter and cool blue in the summer.
- If you buy a Tokyo Tower day pass, you’re welcome to go to the top as many times as you’d like! Totally ideal for getting daytime and sunset views of Tokyo’s urban sprawl–the crowning part of your Tokyo itinerary.
- Pro tip: Send a postcard from the Tower’s Skydeck postbox, where you might meet the Tower’s two mascot brothers (which kind of like highlighters to us.)
- Nestled in a small business district, artfully-landscaped Hibiya Park reminds you that Tokyo isn’t all about concrete and billboards.
- Entrance to the park is totally free, so you can wander among flower gardens, lush forests, and elegant bridges to your heart’s content.
- Pro tip: Ask a local Hero about Hibiya’s special seasonal celebrations, like the stunning fall colors and Tokyo’s Oktoberfest, or the November flower displays and Christmas markets.
- Just a short walk from Tokyo Station and Hibiya Park, the Imperial Palace is fairly young in Japan time (a little over 100 years old) and houses the Imperial Family–Tokyo is Japan’s capital, after all!
- Visiting the Imperial Palace is like taking a time machine back to ancient Japan–the entire palace, complete with moats, bridges, and towers definitely look like lodging for royalty.
- Pro tip: Visitors can only enter the inner courtyards on December 23rd (Emperor’s birthday) and January 2nd (Royal New Year’s greeting).
Harajuku and Shinjuku
- Forget what you know about shopping–Tokyo’s Harajuku and Shinjuku districts are Japan’s must-see spots that take consumer culture and worldwide trends to a whole new level.
- Only a subway stop away from each other, these districts are packed with only the newest fads, all showcased on brilliant, stories-high billboards. Think Times Square on steroids.
- Pro tip: Very basically, Harajuku is about fashion; Shinjuku is about entertainment. Both have the cutest little cafes and the biggest nightclubs in Tokyo–which one will be your favorite?
Kyoto: 2 days in the world’s geisha capital
Although Kyoto is only about 3 hours southwest of Tokyo, Kyoto’s vibe is substantially more relaxed than Tokyo’s 24/7 hustle. With over 1,600 temples and gardens, Kyoto is the perfect city to see urban life right at home with nature. Here are the can’t-miss spots in Kyoto, Tokyo’s classy sister-city:
- If you see nothing else in Kyoto (which would be crazy), the Gion district should be your priority #1. Overlooking the Kamo river, the district’s lantern-lit pathways and teahouses are Japan’s geisha capital.
- The Gion district is at its most stunning around sunset when geisha apprentices (maiko) dress in their full, intricate ensembles for their nightly rounds to local teahouses.
- Pro tip: Don’t be fooled by studio geisha, costumed women who stroll casually around Gion and stop for pictures. Actual geisha don’t stop for pictures–you can take pictures as they pass, but don’t stop them on their way to appointments.
Iwatayama Monkey Park
- One of Kyoto’s hidden gems, the Iwatayama Monkey Park is home to over 100 Japanese snow monkeys, including several fluffy little babies.
- The park sits atop a mountain–bring a water bottle and a handkerchief (actually very trendy in Japan) because you’re gonna break a sweat here. The 30-minute, slightly intense hike is so worth it when you get to hand-feed monkeys.
- Pro tip: For the love of monkeys, don’t miss the feeding times–you’ll get to see the teeny tiny newborn monkeys up close! Prioritize Japan’s fluffy critters in your personalized itinerary.
- A shoo-in for your Kyoto itinerary, Kinkaku-
jiis one of Kyoto’s (and Japan’s) most iconic spots.
- The Golden Pavilion overlooks a reflection pool, hemmed in by ancient pine trees and zen gardens. The entire top 2 floors are covered in–you guessed it–gold leaf.
- Pro tip: Kinkaku-
jican get pretty crowded–get a local’s inside scoop on when to go and how to get the best unobstructedviews.
- Nishiki Market is a six-block slice of culinary heaven–the perfect taste of Japanese culture, with food to get you out of your comfort zone. (Think crawly, wriggly, and scrumptious.)
- Each market stall offers totally fresh produce, meats, and seafood, most of which are locally produced. Sample your way through this ultimate farmer’s market.
- Pro tip: Spend some time getting to know Nishiki Market, buying food to cook at your hostel or grabbing some seafood ramen from a small market restaurant–the market isn’t fast food by any means.
Osaka: 2 days in “Japan’s Kitchen”
Japan’s third largest city, glittering Osaka is where Michelin-starred restaurants stand next to family-owned food shacks and street vendors, each with their own twist on Osaka’s culinary creations. Osaka isn’t only about food–the city is also home to iconic sights that only increase your wanderlust. Here’s what you absolutely must do in Osaka:
- Bring on the romance (and good eats) as you take a boat ride through Osaka’s Dotonbori district, which glitters under massive billboards and giant (but fake) octopuses and crabs.
- The Dotonbori Canal is 200 years older than the USA, with restaurants that have been around since the canal opened in 1615. These family-owned food stalls have been setting Japan’s food trends before the Mayflower set sail.
- Pro tip: Venture around the Dotonbori in the nighttime, when chefs really rev up their deep fryers and true foodies come out to play. Chart out your dinner plans with a personalized map of incredible street food shacks.
- It’s hard to single out just one Osakan restaurant, but Ghar Curry is a can’t-miss stop in Osaka. Ghar Curry puts a spicy Japanese twist on this
traditionallyIndian cuisine. (Just thinking about it makes our own stomachs grumble.)
- Pro tip: As huge fans of traveling Japan on a budget, we’re also in love with Ghar Curry’s low prices. (Only around 800 yen, or $7 USD, per plate.)
- Decked out in gold leaf and white-green gables, the five-story splendor of Osaka Castle makes it a must-see on your Japanese itinerary.
- Visitors can opt for a guided tour inside the castle, but if it’s a sunny day, our Heroes highly recommend having a picnic on the castle grounds (especially since wandering the parks are totally free).
- Pro tip: For the most awesome off-the-beaten-path tour, take a boat tour around the castle moats–we love the traditional
Cup Noodles Museum
- Japan is home to some off-the-wall creative museums, and the Cup Noodles Museum in Osaka is no exception! Essentially a shrine to instant ramen, the Cup Noodles Museum is perfect for a rainy day.
- Pro tip: Not only can you make your own Cup Noodles ramen pack, but you can also wander the Instant Noodles Tunnel and make chicken ramen by hand. What more could you wish for on your Japanese adventure?
Ideal day trips
One of the coolest parts about visiting Japan is the incredible public transport–especially the shinkansen (bullet train) that goes up to 200 mph. The
By making Tokyo, Kyoto, or Osaka your home base, these are the day trips that will make your personalized trip truly unforgettable:
- Mount Osorezan’s “Mouth of Hell”
- Nara’s tame deer
- Iwayama’s underwater caves
- Toyama’s firefly squid
- A seaside city with unbeatable mountain views, Kagoshima is perfectly situated right next to the Nagisa Lava Trail and its active volcano Sakurajima.
- Kagoshima is small and non-touristy–the ideal must-go in Japan for travelers looking to dive into authentic Japanese culture.
- A world-famous pilgrimage site, sacred Mount Koya is home to ancient temples deep in the ancient forest–perfect for an eerie overnight.
- Japan’s dramatic seasons give Mount Koya a brand-new look every few months, especially when the shrines are surrounded by lush summer greenery or coated in deep layers of snow.
Tashirojima / Cat Island
- On Tashirojima, Japan’s “Cat Island,” nearly 100 cats roam free and are loved beyond belief by the local population–in fact, the cat population is equal to the human population, with an approximate 1:1 ratio!
- Cat Island is only one of the hundreds of places to see Japan’s cute, cuddly creatures–so many must-do Japanese adventures involve fluffy foxes, baby monkeys, and more!
- A favorite day trip for Tokyo locals, Hakone is packed with some of Japan’s must-see destinations, like the Hakone Ropeway’s panoramic view of Mount Fuji and several active volcanoes.
- Don’t miss off-the-beaten-path spots like the Hakone Glass Museum, an absolutely breathtaking Venetian-style mansion entered via an arched glass bridge.
As you can tell, opportunities for adventure in Japan are as limitless as your imagination allows! Ready for your 2-week adventure–or want to extend your adventure by a few more days? Chat with a Hero and get insider advice for your personalized itinerary. Check the essentials off your list: