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Japan's Travel Itinerary Highlights

Written by Zoe Faulkner on 10 / 10 / 2023

Gap Year Advice

From temples, traditions and tantalising cuisine

Welcome to Japan and Zoe's perfectly curated 2-3 week itinerary

Japan is quite simply incredible as it so effortlessly fuses old with new, cities with natural landscapes and heavenly food aplenty. From ramen to ryokans, onsens to Osaka – I’ve got you covered with my handy guide to get you started.

I was here in March just in time for the first day of official cherry blossom season and cannot wait to tell you why Japan needs to be on your travel wish list.

Prior to arriving here, I thought it would be too chaotic, crazy with traffic and just a bit too difficult to get around and understand what was going on, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It is serene, the people are some of the most polite and friendly that I have ever met. Mix that with some incredible scenery, shrines and meticulous levels of hospitality and you’re on the right lines.

More than Tokyo and it's famous bustling Shibuya crossing, there is a whole range of incredible landscapes here - from mountain walks and deer strolling the hills in Nara, to shrines and old tea houses in Kyoto. This place is sacred, serene and sure to captivate you from the moment you arrive. From the heady heights of the Sky Tower in Tokyo to the peaceful national parks with cherry blossom if you're really lucky.

This place is a dream to travel around. It is meticulously clean, the transport system is arguably the best in the world, and the people are incredibly polite and welcoming. What more could you want?

Let's begin...

Tokyo: 5 days

Fly into Tokyo. There are 2 main airports Narita and Haneda (which is more central). The best way to get around Japan is by train. Get yourself a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) online valid for 7,14 or 21 days as train travel is costly but this JR pass will allow you on any JR train for 2 weeks – the trains are exceptional. The bullet trains are great but costly – use them perhaps for one of your longer journeys but use them wisely.

They are on time, clean, quiet and a pleasure to use. Your JR pass must be purchased before you enter Japan. Another great travel card option is the Suica Card – a prepaid card allowing you access on subways and the metro too – it saves you having to purchase a ticket from a vending machine and risk buying the wrong ticket and getting a fare adjustment. You can purchase your Suica cards at most JR stations and use them like an Oyster card – they can even be used in some shops to pay for groceries.

Now you’re all set up – it’s time to enjoy Tokyo.

First up – Tokyo is vast – it is impossible to see it all so consider staying in a district with great metro links such as Shinjuku. To ease your way into City life why not visit the beautiful Shinjuku National Gardens – a serene, calming area that you won’t believe is in the heart of the city. Think stunning greenery, lakes and temples. If you’re luck enough – experience it in Cherry Blossom season usually March to April – it varies each year depending on mother nature.

Things to explore while in Tokyo:
- Shinjuku National Garden
- Meiji Jingu Shrine
- Shibuya Crossing – the busiest pedestrian crossing yet perfectly orchestrated – everyone waits for the go ahead and calmly crosses the road. It’s a sight to witness. Top tip – there is a Starbucks opposite, head up to the first floor and sit and watch the crossing.
- Ichiran Ramen Restaurant – the best ramen in my opinion. Order from a vending machine and eat in your little cubicle – absolutely delicious
- The Sky Tree – head on up at sunset for epic views. Purchase your tickets online in advance to save queuing.
- Asakusa for Senso-ji temple

Top tip: Explore the convenience stores like Family Mart, Lawsons and 7-Eleven for unique snacks – peach bellini kitkat anyone?

Hakone: 2 days

A sleepy little region West of Tokyo nestled in the mountains. Known for its hot Springs and views of Mt Fuji – a great place to stay if you wish to visit it. Hakone is a wonderful place to move at a slower pace from the buzzy sites of Tokyo.

The big focus here is Lake Ashinoko – they do boat trips on it and you can also walk round some of it and see Hakone Shrine in it.

Onsens are popular in Japan and now is a great time to try one – FYI it is a hot thermal bath that you can either do privately (more expensive) on publicly. But warning – no clothing is allowed.

Accomodation wise there are some incredible Ryokans here which is like a homestay guest house with exceptional Japan hosting and culture. A very special experience. A fantastic hotel to stay at is Hakone Ashinoko Hanaori – epic views of the lake, private onsens and incredible hosting. Definitely recommended. It is rather remote so I suggest buying the lift pass to get to Hakone station eventually as you need to take trains and cable cars, so it is cheaper to get a lift pass.

Kyoto: 3 days

Known as the cultural capital of Japan, Kyoto is another must-see destination in Japan. Stay in Downtown Kyoto for convenience. 2.5 hours on the Shinkansen train if coming from Tokyo. If coming from Hakone, consider stopping over on route by going to somewhere like Nagoya. Kyoto is the ancient capital city of Japan and home to 1600 shrines and temples.

Must see:
- Arashiyama Bamboo Forest – day trip
- Fushimi Inari Shrine – walk through thousands of red shrine gates into the mountains.
- The Golden Temple
- Nijo Castle

Fun fact: Travelodge hotels and APA hotels are great chain hotels to stay at – hospitality is done incredibly well in Japan.
If time: Half Day trip to Mount Kurama for a mountain walk (think Switzerland meets Japan)

Read more about Japan

For more information about Japan, join the Backpacker Hub . FYI - this hub is free of charge and full of top tips for traveling around Asia, Africa, Central and South America.

Tell me more

Osaka: 2 days

Another epic highlight of Japan. Known as the foodie capital of Japan and I can see why. Stunning river views, busting bridges and endless food markets – it is fascinating to just sit and observe. From Wagyu Beef, Kobe beef, delicious ramen, sea food the list goes on. Eat your way through the streets and get some amazing sunset photos of the purple sky as night draws in. Think bright neon signs and fun figurines across the market stalls.

Must see:
- Osaka Castle
- Dontonburi District (great for food markets)
- Umeda Sky Building

Nara: 1 day

Head to Nara for a day trip from Osaka. This traditional town was the first capital city of Japan, it is known for its deer park. (Don’t worry more deer to feature later in this itinerary if you can’t make it to Nara). Over 1,000 deer roam free and enjoy this stunning destination they call home.

Kobe: 2 days

When you think Kobe you think Kobe beef which is absolutely a must try. You will find it sold frequently on the food markets and restaurants. While in this harbour town you should also take the cable car up to Mount Rokko to explore the botanical gardens and observation deck – it is so peaceful up here and they even had foot baths with lavender in grown on their herb gardens if you’ve had enough walking. Then plonk yourself in a hammock and enjoy the view

Hiroshima/Miyajima Island: 2 days

Of course, a must see while in Japan is Hiroshima. Start at Hiroshima Castle, destroyed in 1945 by the atomic bomb, since reconstructed. Then walk to the atomic bomb site memorial which is a harrowing and sombre experience but an important one none the less. There is also the museum which should be experienced – queues are particularly long on weekends.
While in Hiroshima you must try the local delicacy Okonomiyaki – think savoury pancake topped with all manner of things like cabbage, egg, teriyaki chicken – all cooked in front of you on a hot plate, it is a real art.

From Hiroshima book a ferry trip to Miyajima Island. This is a little gem – think giant red torii gate on the water – ranked as one on Japan’s top 3 views. People go there specifically to get a photo, top tip do it when the tide is in as it means you get a photo from the edge of the land rather than when the tide is out, and people walk right up to it and slightly ruin the photo. You don’t need long on the island but you can easily walk and explore the pagodas, many deer wondering around and sunbathing, and the fascinating shops.

Head back on the ferry to Hiroshima. Fly out of Hiroshima or get the bullet train back to Tokyo to fly home/onwards. Job Done.

For more information and to chat it through with me, join the Backpacker Hub and let’s get you started. FYI - this hub is free of charge

I look forward to chatting to you soon


Read more about Japan

For more information about Japan, join the Backpacker Hub . FYI - this hub is free of charge and full of top tips for traveling around Asia, Africa, Central and South America.

Tell me more

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