I travelled to Japan in September 2015 for three weeks, after snagging a cheap return flight to Tokyo with Turkish Airlines. It was super difficult to choose which parts of the country to visit, I would happily have visited for three months! There is so much information out there it can get overwhelming. Feel free to comment or get in touch if you’d like to ask me any questions! I will do more detailed posts on the individual destinations in the future.
I did a lot of research before settling on the below itinerary. We moved quite quickly from place to place, with several days in Tokyo at the beginning and end of the trip. I felt it was better to sacrifice some chill time for the sake of seeing more of the country. Of course you could fly in and out of different airports, but this will usually be more expensive. There are some very basic tips on trains, accommodation and internet below also. We used the train network covered by the Japan Rail Pass 80% of the time, with some ferries and regional trains that we paid extra for.
Day 1 – 4: Tokyo
We booked a hotel on the limo bus route to Shinjuku for the first night, so we could see some of the city on the way from the airport, and stayed right in the centre to explore. The next three nights we spent in Shimokitazawa, a non-touristy and studenty part of Tokyo, to try and experience some local life. We found a nice airbnb. Really cool little suburb, a couple of stops on the subway to Shinjuku.
Day 5-6: Osaka
We stayed in Namba and had great food, met extremely friendly locals and found some great little bars. The neon lights in Osaka are amazing, the aquarium is worth a visit.
Day 7: Koyasan
The centre of Shingon Buddhism, we stayed in a monastery and visited Okinoin Temple and cemetery. Loved this place – so atmospheric.
Day 8: Naoshima Island
An island known for its art and sculpture installations. Less hectic, it’s a nice place to explore, we could have done with an extra day here.
Day 9: Onomichi
The Shimanami Kaido cycle, that crosses six islands and suspension bridges in the Seto Inland Sea, starts in Onomichi. We took two days to do it, but you could do it in one. Awesome experience!
Day 10: Omishima Island
We decided to break the cycle into two days. We found a guest house, Fujimien, and had an onsen and a delicious seafood dinner. This was one of our favourite stops on the trip.
Day 11: Hiroshima
We spent a day and night exploring Hiroshima and seeing the sights, especially the humbling Peace Memorial Museum. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but Hiroshima is a vibrant, lively town.
Day 12: Miyajima
We spent a night on Miyajima Island to see the torii gate at high and low tide, and did a small hike. Nice to stay overnight as the crowds thin out, and we splurged on a ryokan.
Day 13 – 15: Kyoto
Kyoto – temples and geisha spotting! It’s a much busier city than I thought, and with temple overload three days was sufficient, but you could spend longer here if you looooove temples.
Day 16: Kanazawa
Kanazawa is an interesting studenty town with a great jazz festival and the famous Kenrokuen garden. I could have spent some extra days here.
Day 17 – 18: Takayama
Famous for sake, with a beautifully preserved old town. And one of the best bars of the trip, Desolation Row. The owner, Ken, is a legend with a great vinyl collection.
Day 19: Tsumago
We took some time to do part of the Edo Trail from Magome to Tsumago. Definitely not a strenuous hike, it’s a pleasant walk, Tsumago is a beautiful old town, and we had one of the best meals of our trip here.
Day 20 – 22: Tokyo
We splashed out on the Tokyo Station Hotel and got a discount with our Japan Rail Pass. We were lucky enough to get tickets for the sumo tournament, which was one of the highlights of our trip.
Every travel site / blog will tell you to buy a tourist Japan Rail Pass from your home country to take advantage of cheap tourist rates for travel. This is essential – the prices are fairly similar but some sites add commission so shop around. The trains run like clockwork, and you can nearly always find somebody that speaks English. Google Maps generally has the correct timetables. We had to pay for a couple of extra days travel at the start of our trip, in Tokyo, but this was cheap as we were only using the subway.
I was pleasantly surprised by the range of accommodation available in Japan, with business hotels being really good value for money. Fine, the rooms are small but you’re not going to be there! We stayed in a mix of hotels, hostels, airbnb, guesthouses and traditional Japanese ryokan.
Many sites will tell you to get a pocket wi-fi device for your stay in Japan. We didn’t bother and managed to survive with regular wi-fi, and also paid for a subscription to Boingo, who have a lot of hot spots that you can log into using their app. Sometimes we were without internet – shock, horror! – which was actually kinda nice. I used Pocket to save maps and travel guides.