Cherry blossoms, snow monkeys, ancient temples, rainbow-haired pop singers, and more. This itinerary will take you to some of Japan’s most iconic sites in just one week. That said, this itinerary is not for travel amateurs, or those who wish for a leisurely tour through the country. What you will find here is an action-packed tour that will keep you moving every few days, with full day trips in between. But if you’re up for the challenge, follow this guide and you will get to experience some of the most amazing sites in all of Japan (and you can sleep when you get back home, right?).
Day 1: Arrive in Tokyo & explore the city
Day 2: Take the bullet train for a day trip to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park
Day 3: Explore Tokyo in the morning then move on to Kyoto
Day 4: Explore Kyoto
Day 5: Explore Kyoto
Day 6: Take the bullet train for a day trip to Miyajima Island
Day 7: Head to Osaka
Day 8: Fly home.
Day 1: Tokyo
Whether your flight arrives at Haneda or Narita, you will likely be at least an hour from your accommodation (if you’re staying somewhere in central Tokyo). Plan to arrive in Tokyo as early as you can (or the night before is possible) so that you can make the most of your first day. Head straight to your hotel, drop your bags, and then hit the streets.
The depth of insanity of Tokyo’s transit systems (yes, that is systems, plural) could fill an entire post, so I’ll just say a few brief things here. First, be ready to be confused. There are dozens of different rail systems operating in the massive city, each with its own labyrinthian network of lines to get you where you need to go. Apparently you can get a prepaid IC card, which will allow you to travel on these various different systems with just the one card. Unfortunately, I ran out of planning time before my trip and did not know this, so every time I had to change operators I had to go to a machine with cash and buy a new ticket. It was a mess. I highly recommend looking into the IC card and saving some time and headaches. On the plus side of this massive and confusing mega-system, most stations have people on hand to help you figure things out if need be.
Once you are able to navigate, all you need to do is figure out where you want to go. Since Tokyo is one of the largest cities in the world, there is no shortage of options. If you are visiting during cherry blossom season, as I was, I recommend heading to the hip Nakamegruo district where you can walk along the canal lined with flowering cherry trees. Nakamegruo is one of the few cherry blossom destinations recommended for nighttime viewing since the trees are lit by spotlights, streetlights, and lanterns. It will be crowded, but it is still a truly amazing experience.
Day 2: Day Trip to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park
Contrary to many of the blogs you will find online, a day trip from Tokyo to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is fairly easy. Jigokudani is a fair distance away from Tokyo, so it will take some time to get there, but other than that it is fairly straightforward. You simply need to take the shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagano (the trip takes just under two hours). When you arrive at the station in Nagano you will see signs for the snow monkey park, offering both train and bus options for the remainder of the trip. However, ignore these and make your way down to the basement where you will find a little booth that sells combination bus/entrance tickets to the parks. This is the most cost-effective and easiest option. The booth is a bit out of the way and difficult to find, but there are people around who can point you in the right direction. Once you have your tickets make you way outside to the bus queue. The trip to the park takes about 45 minutes. You simply follow the reverse route to get back to Tokyo.
If you visit in the spring, likelihood of snow on the ground will be hit or miss. There was no snow when we visited, and I would like to return in the winter to see the park in its snow-covered state, but in my opinion lack of snow is certainly not a reason to skip the park. The monkeys are quite amazing on their own! In addition to weather-related issues, keep in mind that this is a natural habitat, not a zoo or sanctuary. That being the case, the monkeys come and go as they please. Jigokudani runs a facebook page that posts notices of when the monkeys arrive in the park (and importantly, when they are not present). If you visit on a day trip you obviously will be stuck with the day you visit, but if you stay in the area and have a choice dates to visit you can check the site and try to ensure that you will see the monkeys.
Day 3: Tokyo to Kyoto
On day three, spend some time soaking in another area of Tokyo. I chose to spend my time near Tokyo Station since I would be taking the shinkansen from there to Kyoto. Tokyo Station also happens to be located near the Imperial Palace, whose large East Gardens are a great spot for cherry blossom viewing.
When booking your tickets from Tokyo to Kyoto, make sure you request the D/E seats so you have the opportunity to view Mt. Fuji if the weather permits. Mt. Fuji is often shrouded in fog and difficult to see, but if you get lucky you may be able to catch a glimpse as you zoom past.
Day 4: Kyoto
Kyoto was my favorite part of this itinerary. They city has so much charm and culture it is infectious. The streets are full of people walking around in traditional kimonos, and there are so many temples and shrines you will be hard pressed to visit even a small fraction of them. To optimize your time, I recommend you rent a bike. Kyoto is a biking city so you will fit right in. Rentals are inexpensive, and biking through the city adds an appealing quaintness to your Kyoto experience.
On your first morning in Kyoto, head to the dazzling Fushimi-Inari Shrine. Before I visited, I had seen the classic photos of the bright orange torii gates, but I did not realize how large this shrine actually is. The shrine starts at the base of Mt. Inari, and continues five kilometers up the mountain to the summit. The impressive torii gates line almost the entire path up the mountain. It is absolutely amazing. Getting all the way to the top will take a few hours, but on the plus side you will lose the crowds as you continue to climb. The higher you go the more opportunities you will have to capture incredible photos of the gates.
In the late afternoon, head to the traditional area of Gion to Maruyama Park, which is home to dozens of cherry blossom trees beneath which you can dine or picnic for the evening. The highlight of the park is the massive weeping cherry blossom tree, which is over 80 years old.
Day 5: Kyoto
On your second day in Kyoto, take full advantage of the freedom that cycling allows, and follow the river north to the Golden Pavilion. The path along the river is one of the best routes through the city, as it allows for nearly uninterrupted cycling. The beauty of the surrounding trees, shrubs, flowers, and river add to the experience. You will also have opportunities to see some of the majestic waterfowl of the area.
When you realize that the Golden Pavilion, unlike Fushimi-Inari, is really quite a small site consisting of the temple itself and small grounds, you may wonder if the long bike ride to get there is worth it (it takes about an hour from the center of town without stops, which, let’s face it, as a tourist you are going to stop to take in some additional sights along the way). But when you come around the corner and the striking golden temple comes into view, you will understand that it is. This temple can only be fully appreciated in person. The golden exterior mirrored in the still water of the surrounding pond sparkles in the midday sun. The regal phoenix on top of the temple exemplifies its royal beginnings.
Day 6: Day Trip to Miyajima Island
For years I have been wanting to visit the torii gate of Itsukushima Shrine. Standing serenely in the water for centuries, this incredible gate was truly a bucket-list location for me. And it did not disappoint. A day trip from Kyoto to Miyajima Island, where the shrine is located, is quite easy. You can take the shinkansen to Hiroshima in about one hour and forty minutes. From Hiroshima simply hop on the metro to Miyajima-guchi station, and then take the ferry to the island. Miyajima Island has a lot more to offer than just the floating torii gate, so I recommend spending the entire day here, but you could also split your time between Miyajima and Hiroshima city. When planning your visit, be sure to check the tide schedule. This is essential to ensure that you will be there in time to see the gate floating in the water when the tide is in. When the tide goes out the gate is surrounded instead by wet sand, which provides quite a different view.
In addition to shrines, pagodas, parks, and an aquarium, Miyajima Island is also home to some very friendly deer. They are quite docile and you can even pet them, but be sure to keep any paper you may have well out of their grasp (they love to eat paper for some reason).
One of the most amazing finds on Miyajima island was a beautiful park filled to the brim with cherry blossoms at the base of Momijihodo Nature Walk. There were so many blossoms here it felt like I was floating on a cloud of petals. Head up to the nature walk for some amazing views of the rest of the island.
After exploring the rest of the island, head back down to the torii gate. The tide will have receded by this point, and you can walk right out to the gate to view it up close.
Day 7: Osaka
While on this short trip to Japan with all the amazing sights in Tokyo and Kyoto I started to wonder why I tacked on a one-day stopover in Osaka instead of just spending that time in one of the other two cities. Shortly after arriving in Osaka I stopped wondering: Osaka is one of Japan’s cultural centers, and the beating heart of Japanese culture is felt almost immediately. One step into Dotonbori Street and you will understand what I mean. Walking amongst the shops, restaurants, and pop singing groups complete with rainbow-colored hair and ridiculous outfits, you will feel the indescribable pull of the Japanese culture. You will find it all here. I do not think my trip to Japan would have been complete without this stop in Osaka. Spend the evening in the Dotonbori area, soaking in the crazy atmosphere and enjoying some of the street food and performances.
The next morning head out for one last unique Japanese experience before you head home: Osaka Castle. While it is a modern reconstruction, Osaka Castle is an amazing example of a traditional Japanese fortress, consisting of a multi-storied keep set high on stone walls surrounded by a moat. And if you are there during cherry blossom season this is yet another fantastic location for viewing.
And there you have it! A whirlwind, once-in-a-lifetime trip through Japan! You will be tired, but it is worth it. There are so many amazing things to see in Japan, and this itinerary will help you make the most of the short time that you have there. So go, enjoy, and check back soon for more posts!
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