Once impenetrable shogun castles now standing sentry to empty chambers… ancient shrines wafting incense across ethereal Buddha images… slick skyscrapers and neon lights that surpass even New York City’s Times Square… Geishas on their way to the shrine…Want a Japan itinerary that hits all of these and more?
Bullet trains aside, seeing “the land of the rising sun” in a week – a country steeped in history and a dichotomy of tourist attractions – would present a challenge to all but the most intrepid travelers. But with a little planning and some long days of trekking, it can be done. Here are some essential tips to know before you go to Japan, an estimate of what it costs to go to Japan, and a sample itinerary below.
- Currency: Japanese yen
- Population: 126.8 million
- Largest City: Tokyo
- Size: World’s 4th largest island country
- Economy: Third largest national economy in the world, after the US and China
- Electricity: 100 volts, unlike the United States (110-120V)
Festivals and Holidays
- January 1 (national holiday) New Year (shogatsu)
- Second Monday of January (national holiday) Coming of Age (seijin no hi)
- February 3 Beginning of spring (setsubun)
- February 14 Valentine’s Day
- February 23 (national holiday) Emperor’s Birthday (tenno no tanjobi)
- March 3 Doll’s Festival (hina matsuri)
- Around March 20 (national holiday) Spring Equinox Day (shunbun no hi)
- May 3 (national holiday) Constitution Day (kenpo kinenbi)
- May 4 (national holiday)vGreenery Day (midori no hi)
- May 5 (national holiday) Children’s Day (kodomo no hi)
- July/August 7 Star Festival (tanabata)
- July/August 13-15 Obon
- Third Monday of September (national holiday) Respect for the Aged Day (keiro no hi)
- November 23 (national holiday) Labor Thanksgiving Day (kinro kansha no hi)
- December 24-25 Christmas
- December 31 New Year’s Eve (omisoka)
Japan Itinerary Day One – Narita
Day one is naturally getting to Japan, which probably means a long flight, traversing multiple time zones, transportation to your hotel, and… jet lag. Fly into the airport in Narita and check into the Kirinoya ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn – right on the edge of the small but quirky downtown. Take a short walk into town for an early dinner of tempura or sushi, then back to the ryokan to sleep off the jet lag – you’ll need to be fresh for the week ahead.
Japan Itinerary Day Two – Narita to Tokyo
After a traditional Japanese breakfast provided by your gracious host, take a short walk to the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, built in the year 940. You’ll want to devote at least a couple of hours here visiting the many temples and strolling around the surrounding park grounds which are as vast as they are exquisite, including a pond with giant coy, myriad walkways, meditation areas, and buildings of historical significance, as well as the picturesque shop-lined street bordering the temple complex.
By mid-afternoon, set off to take the Shinkansen, the bullet train into Tokyo, about an hour drive, then check into a hotel in one of the downtown sections. One great location to stay is in the Shinjuku District which is central to many things to see and do within walking distance. Click here for a Tokyo hotel guide.
Day Three – Tokyo
Get an early start, put on comfortable shoes and explore Tokyo, using the metro when necessary. Scramble across the world-famous Shibuya Crossing – one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in the world. Spend some time on Takeshita Street in the Harajuki District for photo ops of youth sporting wacky and elaborate pop culture costumes and shop for unique gifts. There are lots of shopping opportunities all over the Shinjuku, and even more places to grab a bite.
At dusk, go to the top of the Government Offices Building’s 45th-floor observation deck. It’s free and offers one of the best panoramic views of the city. Then head to Kabukicho, the so-called “red light district” and prepare to be visually stimulated by the sheer magnitude of the lights and the sights. Think Times Square on steroids. There are an almost infinite number of great places for dinner, as well as after-dinner activities such as Kabuki Theater, clubs, karaoke bars, and strip clubs, or head to Roppongi for even wilder personal encounters.
Looking for budget accommodations? Check out the 5 best party hostels in Japan.
Day Four – Tokyo
Go to see the things you couldn’t fit into the previous day. Some possibilities might be Nakamise Dori, a shopping street selling traditional Japanese goods and souvenirs. Close by is the Sensoji temple. Other options include the Imperial Palace, Yoyogi Park, Tsukiji Fish Market, or Tokyo Tower and the unique architecture in that area. At night, go back to Kabukicho or try another of Tokyo’s districts.
Japan Itinerary Day Five – Osaka
Take an early bullet train to Osaka. The three-hour drive will deliver you into Osaka by lunchtime, or you can also purchase a bento box lunch on the train to save time for sightseeing. Check into a hotel in the city, leave your luggage, then head right to Osaka Castle, an impressive shogun castle perched at the top of a steep hill with massive stone walls and a moat. It’s a bit of a hike across the bridge and up to the castle, albeit a pretty one.
Spend the evening in the Dotonbori section, well-known for its colorful nightlife.
Osaka is a great place for a family vacation. Check out the best things to do in Osaka with kids.
Japan Itinerary Day Six – Kyoto
Take one of the morning trains to Kyoto, less than an hour away. A good hotel option is Karasuma Kyoto Hotel which is spotless, reasonably priced, and close to both Kyoto Station and downtown. After checking into your hotel, walk a few blocks to the Nishiki Market for all manner of enticing (and repulsive!) seafood, other foodstuffs and Japanese candy. Grab a quick lunch on the go, then continuing walking to more downtown shopping where you’ll find anything your heart, or pocketbook, may fancy, from yukata – the casual kimono, to fans, jewelry, art, tea sets, paper lanterns, masks, and of course Maneki Neko – the Japanese lucky charm cat. Here’s a guide to buying souvenirs in Japan.
In mid-afternoon, grab a taxi and head over to the Gion district where ladies can be transformed into a maiko, a geisha-in-training, through a three-hour makeover. The ordeal begins with a green tea ceremony and ends with a slow stroll with a parasol to the nearby shrine – not an easy feat wearing geta, the traditional geisha thong sandals with high wooden soles. This head-turning experience is guaranteed to be a highlight of your Japanese trip!
If you have an extra day, consider taking a day trip to feed the deer in Nara. It’s a fun and memorable experience!
Dinner opportunities abound in Gion or back in the downtown area near the hotel.
Japan Itinerary Day Seven – Kyoto
Kyoto is awash in not-to-be-missed historical palaces and temples. The best way to catch the highlights is on Viator’s full-day tour. Nijo Castle – a UNESCO World Heritage Site and residence of the first (1603) Togugawa shogun, serene Sanju-Sangendo Hall’s 1001 statutes of Buddha, the exquisite Golden Pavilion, Kiyomizu Temple with its jaw-dropping views, are among the important sites on the tour. It would be difficult to get to all of these sites on your own in one day.
As an alternative, here is a one-day itinerary in Kyoto with kids.
Time’s up, it’s time to return home, and all too soon.
The see-it-all whirlwind scenario is not for everyone, even using the efficient Japan rail pass. Some prefer to choose one location and really get to know it. In that case, the best options would be to decide between the culture and excitement of Tokyo or the charm and history of Kyoto (here is a four-day itinerary). In either case, Japan will not disappoint.
If you have more time in Japan, Miyajima Island is a must-see destination.
Japan in 7 Days was first published byYahoo Voices.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning blog Luggage and Lipstick. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.