Do you know that it is now sakura season (hanami) in Japan? In fact the first official day was Sunday 17th of March. This sounds a pretty solid excuse to start dreaming about a trip to witness all the pink goodness in real life *wink* but also a good inspiration to finally deliver our Japan guide!
No matter the season Japan is always a good plan. We have visited it twice, both during autumn and couldn't recommend the season enough, with Halloween decor & the breathtaking yellow & red maple leaves dancing around.
Since helping people to plan a trip to Japan is always a favorite thing to do, we decided that it was about time that we wrote all those suggestions down in one single (and very complete) guide to Japan. Here's everything you need to know if it's your first time visiting, but also there are some eating & shopping tips that will be helpful for Japan addicts as ourselves too. Let's keep the planning itch rolling on!
This is a 2 weeks (15 nights) proposal for a circular itinerary taking into account that your flights land & leave in/from Tokyo:
- TOKYO (5 nights)
- AINOKURA (1 nights)
- OSAKA (2 nights)
- KYOTO (4 nights)
- NAKASENDO TRAIL (1 night)
- HAKONE (1 night)
- TOKYO (1 night)
Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto include day trips to Nikko, Kamakura, Disneyland, Himeji and Nara.
Disclaimer: We have actually been twice in Japan, so this itinerary is made using both trips while joining them together in a single one with the MUSTs from each.
Tokyo: Shibuya, Shinjuku, Harajuku
Tokyo: Shibuya, Asakusa, Akihabara, Ginza
Tokyo: Harajuku, Shimokitazawa
🎥 Tokyo: the film
🎥 Disneysea: the film
🎥 Kamakura: the film
In Tokyo we recommend visiting two neighborhoods in a single day to be able to get a glimpse of everything. Choose from the following below and then spend a complete day in at least 1-day of the getaways proposed.
Of course if it's not your first time or you are prepared to renounce to something, enjoy yo'self (*wink*): you won't ran out of things to visit, pictures to take, things to taste and heavenly stores where gladly spend your yens.
SHIBUYAfor the famous crossing, vibrant vibes and shops
Shibuya's crossing may be one of the most iconic images of Tokyo and if you love shopping &/or are on the hunt of the Purikura (the famous cute photobooth), this neighborhood will steal your heart. As a plus, it is near Harajuku (another must) and has plenty food options which make it a good place to set as your home base.
HARAJUKUfor a traditional -vs- modern face-off (& the best kawaii shops)
Harajuku is the perfect example of what Japan can offer: a modern & advanced mecca in perfect balance with a strong traditional culture. Take off at the Harajuku station, visit the Meiji shrine (it's probable that you find a wedding!) and then head over to Takeshita dori for a cuteness overload of shops & food stalls. Don't leave without trying the famous crepes or the colorful cotton candy.
ASAKUSAfor the most traditional part of the city
The Sensoji Buddhist temple grounds in Asakusa are famous for the big lantern entrance, a 5-story pagoda and the 200m Nakamise street full of little food & souvenirs stalls. Try here every typical Japanese sweet & savoury snack, plus buy all the souvenirs for those in your family & friends that prefer the traditional figurine or yukata over the kawaii knick-knack (we love both!)
SHINJUKUfor the city views & the most amazing park
Shinjuku could be compared to Shibuya if you change all the shops for restaurants, ha! Don't miss the free viewing spot of the Metropolitan Building (it pays off to be a morning bird) and also the Gyoen park, which is super lovely during autumn. Plan ahead because the park closes quite early, and make sure to stop at one of the neighborhood restaurants too. The famous (single-seating) Ichiran ramen is here.
AKIHABARAfor the manga figures, retro games & overall ambiance
Whether you are the biggest manga, merch and gaming enthusiast or either you don't have a clue of what Sailor Moon is (wonders why, though, ha!) you must visit this unique place in the world. Shops here are surely very different from the ones you've seen before and even people watching is fun & interesting. Don't leave without at least buying a surprise ball from the many Gashapon machines and be cautious with your time, you can spend hours admiring the figurines in the display cases.
SHIMOKITAZAWA / KICHIJIOJIfor an alternative neighborhood with fabulous vintage stores
We always like to include a more local experience in our travels, if that's your case too consider visiting Shimokitazawa or Kichijioji. It will make you experience what a hip yet relaxed neighborhood looks like in Tokyo. If I had the yens I would definitely live here: lots of bikes and vintage stores. As a bonus, Kichijioji is near the Ghibli Museum, so if you have tickets (sold in advance!) don't miss the opportunity to expand your day.
We have tried lots of Ramen in Tokyo, but although Rokurinsha and Ichiran would certainly make our top 5 list, we are including here the less-known Afuri for a twist. Afuri is a lighter browl with yuzu, that feels refreshing after too many heavy Ramen. Also, they toast the chasu (pork piece) in front of you with a big carbon fire and have a vegan option (not that common in other Ramen shops!)
Everybody talks about Gyoza Lou, but it's for a good reason: the cheapest yet yummy dinner you'll get in Tokyo. Don't be impressed by the line in front, the queues run quickly. We tried both the grilled and steamed gyozas, but would only order grilled next time. Gyozas are presented with a bowl of rice and a light soup. For the perfect sauce, act naïve and ask the waiters to get the mix for you, they'll make it just perfect.
Tokyo has amazing sushi ranging from all prices, but taking it as a general rule, every nigiri piece is around half price, for the quality, you'll get for instance in Barcelona. Which means for us to be in tuna heaven *wink*. For the Kaiten (moving belt) experience try the Heiroku Sushi in Harajuku, and for sets and (gigantic) pieces go to Shibuya's Umegaoka Sushi no Midori. Also we loved Sushizanmai that has the advantage of being open 24h/7; when we came from Disneyland later at night we were able to round our day eating a delicious tuna set here.
- Hattiffnat Café
Hattiffnat is a category in itself! It's a café built in what looks likes a kids' tree house, the naïf colorful decorations add to the fairytale look. Please don't leave without trying their matcha latte, it's incredible & with the cutest latte art. They also serve lunch, I loved my curry rice menu. Next door they also have a cute tiny store selling their trademark plastic cups and independent artists designs.
Toys and merchandising from Sanrio characters & many others. We bought here lots of things: stationery, a bathroom mini bin, ear plugs, tsum-tsum and blind boxes... you name it!
- We ♥ C (a.k.a WC)
White, Pink and Purple heaven. If you have a thing for Harajuku style clothing, make a stop, it's worthy even just to window shop. I will always regret not buying here a vintage Minnie pink sweatshirt, so I won't make the same mistake twice on our next trip.
Home goods, design and a big stationery area. I can't leave this store without buying at least a dozen stickers, ha! They have several stores around Tokyo, but my favorite is in Shibuya. Also we bought here several souvenirs to take home!
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DISNEYSEA (or DISNEYLAND)happiest place on earth, even happier than ever
Disneysea is a unique park in the world, I'm sure you might have read it before. With a size almost the double of Paris Disneyland (!) surrounds the most beautiful (artificial) lake with a volcano (that fires up!). We can't praise it enough. If you are on the fence because you think it's not too Japanese, fear not, the wonderful Japanese groups with their matching outfits, the unique food treats and the special merch makes it the most Japanese experience ever. Don't leave without buying their popcorn buckets, oh! and take a seat for the night parade in the lake.
NIKKOAmazing temples on the top of a mountain
Nikko is the perfect way to experience a temple complex in the mountains, which is so very characteristic: Nothing can beat the feeling the temples among the mist. Do you know the emojis with the monkeys covering its eyes, mouth or ears? Well, those are the three wise monkeys, which are over a door of the famous Tōshō-gū shrine; dating back from the 17th century. Oh! and don't forget to take a picture next to the super famous red Shinkyo bridge.
KAMAKURALargest Buddha on the outside
Although the most iconic sight in Kamakura is the large Buddha (Daibutsu), our favorite part was the walk in the mountains that ends up in this precise spot.
Leave at the tiny station of Kita-Kamakura and then go right towards Jochiji temple. Leave the temple on your right and keep walking to find the starting point, it's easy to find! During your walk you will stumble upon the Zeniarai Benzaiten Shrine, which is quite funny & unmistakable because it goes past a big tunnel in the rock & you will find lots of people cleaning money in a stream. Before leaving, visit the Hase Dera temple and make a quick stop at Kamakura's shopping street, next to the Kamakura main station.
Kyoto: Gion, Kamo riverside, Nishikimarket
Kyoto: Gion, Kamo riverside & Nishiki market
Kyoto: Gion & Imperial palace
🎥 Kyoto: the film
Since Kyoto has its spotlights more clearly identified than Tokyo, and besides Gion, it's not that focused on neighborhoods but the shrines and temples, we propose a closed itinerary that will let you visit (almost) everything in your wishlist:
- Day 1
Start at Kyomizu Dera, walk through Matsubara dori (dori means street in Japanese), turn to Sannenzaka & Ninenzaka and end up in Gion taking Minamimachi dori. In the afternoon head over to Fushimi Inari.
- Day 2
Today is the temples tour day: start at the Ryoan-ji temple with its MUST zen garden, then stop at one of the big higlights in Kyoto, the Kinkaku-ji or Golden Temple, and then take a bus to Ginkakuji temple, considered the twin sister of the former. At the Ginkakuji there's a very easy-to-follow sign to the Philosopher's path. Enjoy it for 20 to 30 minutes (admire the cats!) and you will arrive at the Nanzen-ji temple. Head over now to Heian Shrine, and don't miss the gardens, specially if you are visiting during spring, but it is lovely pretty much every season. During the afternoon relax by the Kamo riverside, take snack at the Nishiki market & have at traditional dinner in Pontocho street. You have mastered Kyoto on day 2, ha!
- Day 3
Visit Nara during all day and enjoy afterwards Gion's nightlife. If you are even more active, maybe you could squeeze a morning visit to Nijo castle too (they open at 8:45)
- Day 4
Arashiyama has a lot to offer so give it 1 day to enjoy it fully.
GIONto walk among geishas into a gorgeous past
Gion is what you could consider the city center of Kyoto (in a tourist point of view). The beautifully preserved paved streets around Hanamikoji dori with its wood houses will make you swoon at each step, and everything is so pristine clean that seems unreal (for its perfection). There's a special place called Gion Shirakawa that it's maybe the most perfect street from Gion, and as a plus a good spot to watch Geishas and Maikos walk by to their work. The staff from our hotel called it "the lovely area", and Japanese can't lie! If you are looking for something to eat, this is also your neighborhood.
KYOMIZU DERAViews, cemetery and a shopping street that's a walk into the past
The impressive wood structure from the Kyomizu Dera is one of those iconic sights you can't miss in your visit to Kyoto. It's better if you can come here early in the morning as it is quite the popular spot. We got there via the cemetery way, so when the visit finished we walked to Gion along the traditional streets of Matsubara dori & neighboring, once they were already opened (thus, souvenir & snacks opportunities!). Inside the Kyomizu don't forget to purify yourself with Otowa Waterfall. Also bear into account that until 2020 the temple's main hall is under renovation, which affects the"postcard perfect" view of the temple (e.g: our pic on top).
FUSHIMI INARIthe temple of the famous walk of torii
The Fushimi Inari is a large walk of torii, the orange arches that traditionally mark the entrance of a shrine. It is impressive because it has more than 32.000 torii that run up & down of a hill, all of them are a donation made by particulars & companies to the spirit Inari. In case you wonder why there are lots of foxes statues acting as guardians of the shrine, it's because they are known to be the messengers of Inari. Our recommendation is to make enough time to climb until, at least, the mid of the hill, to avoid the crowds that usually only get to the first road division.
NORTH TEMPLESRyoan-ji (zen garden), Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji
We are including the three of them together because they are usually visited one next to the other. The Ryoan-ji has a zen garden where you are challenged to find the hidden rocks in it. The Kinkaku-ji, or Golden temple, is the most famous but take into account that it's only visited on the outside to preserve it (we are mentioning because some people is deceived by this!). Finally, the Ginkaku-ji, or Silver temple, is less impressive than its twin sister, but has some amazing gardens. All three are a MUST.
PHILOSOPHER'S PATHfollow the path of the philosopher Nishida Kitaro
(In Japanese) Tetsugaku no michi is a 2km path along a canal, built during the Meiji period, that starts at the Ginkaku-ji. The path is lovely any time of the year, but it's specially popular as one of the sakura season spots. We went during autumn and were almost by ourselves all the time, which gave it a plus in charm. Well, I'm lying, some cutie patootie cats walked with us *wink*
KAMO RIVERSIDEchill out by the riverside, or ride your bike!
The river gives a very special mood to Kyoto and also is the perfect rest spot when your legs are feeling the touristy activity. Locals walk their dogs (or bunnies!), their bike from one part to the other and also just sit, eat & talk. It's not weird to find street musics playing instruments too. When you are feeling more relaxed, famous tiny Pontocho street full of good restaurants runs parallel to the river.
You can't leave the country without eating at least once in an Izakaya, the famous taverns. Izakayas offer fresh-from-the-market food in a great variety, from soups, to sushi and tempura. Usually you will be seated in the counter which also adds to the experience as you will be able to enjoy the art of the chefs. Take into account that it is usually allowed to smoke inside the izakayas; quite shocking because in Japan it is forbidden to smoke in the street. There are plenty of izakayas, here are our two good addresses: Kappa and Manzara
- Yojiya café
No matter how cramped do you like your travel itineraries to be, please make enough time to stop at this café. We ordered a matcha pancake (a MUST) and matcha latte; everything was very yummy. We liked how there was a mix between locals and visitors. Don't forget to buy a tin of matcha cookies to bring home. Oh! their women profile signature logo is adorable.
- Sukiyaki Iroha
In those autumn chilly nights there's nothing that will warm you better than a tasty shabu shabu in your belly. A shabu shabu is a fondue (hot pot) with a veggie broth where you boil thin meat slices, mushrooms, tofu and other veggies as well. You eat first the add-ons, but can drink the soup as well afterwards. The restaurant has this individual rooms you can reserve where you eat all alone and in the floor, super traditional and cute. You'll have your waitress entering in the room when there's something to bring or change. Super thumbs up.
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NARADeers & the largest buddha inside a temple
DEERS DEERS DEERS Ok, in case you are not a crazy enthusiast of the adorable creatures and need a little more rational argument ha! Nara is a World Heritage site with the Todai-ji, a temple holding in their main hall the largest bronze statute of Buddha. If you are feeling more sporty, walk up towards Kasuga-taisha, the temple with hundreds of lanterns. On your way up you'll also find playful deers and stone lanterns with moss (top photography-wise!). Don't miss also to spend some time in the town itself, it's very charming indeed.
ARASHIYAMARiver, monkeys and the temple
This western district of Kyoto is famous for the Instagramable Bamboo Groove. I'm sure you can have a pretty idea of how it looks like, well, now add hundreds of people and that's the reality of it. Unless, you go super early first thing in the morning, or stay late in the afternoon. However, don't miss the other things that Arashiyama can offer, the Tenrui-ji temple is an unique view during autumn (buy both the interior & gardens tickets) and the monkey park is such a fun activity (just, to put you at ease, the monkeys are completely free in the mountain, that's very important to me too).
Osaka: Castle, Umeda, Dotonbori night
Osaka: Dotonbori, Yasaka shrine, Den Den town
🎥 Osaka: the film
We certainly will have a second date with Osaka. On our first short visit we were able to visit the following musts:
DOTONBORIthe food district
If Osaka was a mall, Dotonbori would be the food court, ha! The most famous image of the district is the large food figures on top of every shop. It makes very easy to identify what they are serving: a big octopus? takoyaki, a hand holding a nigiri? sushi. Easy peasy. Although the main street is the most flashy, all the little surrounding streets hide also gems. Don't leave Dotonbori without trying takoyaki (octopus puff), okonomiyaki (japanese omelette) and kushikatsu (deep fried sticks); all of them typical from this area.
OSAKA CASTLEhistoric calm
Osaka castle is also one of those must-see spots during the hanami (cherry blossom) season. We went (in autumn) to see the sunset and it was lovely. We didn't got inside because we read it was completely remodelled with a modern structure. However the park and the outside was a hit of us!
UMEDA BUILDINGstunning views
Instead of taking pictures on top of the Osaka Castle, we preferred to climb the much higher Umeda Building to enjoy the vibrant Osaka at night. There is a fee to access here, but the overall experience is worthy. There are two floors with views, one inside the building with top chairs for couples to cuddle while watching them (cute), and the one in the outside with a special floating garden observatory. I have to admit that due to my fear of heights this second floor was a little challenging, and so was the impressive clear staircase to climb to the terrace.
DENDEN TOWNa mini retro Akihabara
If you have already been to Akihabara you will probably find this neighborhood like its little brother. We visited it on our second trip to Japan (so no Akihabara) and it was nice to be able to step into the merch & manga craziness again. I think the stores here are much more retro looking than in Tokyo. We bought here a Yokai watch for my nephew Samuel, the cutest Rilakkuma soap container and a Harry Potter blind box (quite the mix and match, right?). Take into account that pictures/filming in some areas inside the stores are not accepted, that's an issue that has only happened to us here.
NAMBA YASAKA SHRINEthe dragon temple
In the middle of a completely common street, just like that you'll find yourself immersed inside an anime/movie location. When we arrived to the shrine, the sound of drums filled everything and saw lots of curious peeking their heads between the torii in the entrance. We were lucky to run into a traditional concert in the shrine, with rums & the transverse flute that added a magical atmosphere to the already imposing 1970s dragon (in fact, it's a lion) head altar.
- Street Food: Takoyakis
From the three MUST-try foods from Dotonbori, takoyakis should be the first in your list. Takoyakis are little balls of dough with a few slices of octopus inside that are cooked in a special pan. It is quite a show to see how the skilful takoyaki cooks move the balls to cook both sides using sticks. Although the classic is with octopus, there are also varieties like the shrimp takoyakis. We loved this little place between Den Den Town and Dotonbori called Naniwa Ebimaru Honpo.
Okonomiyakis are usually translated as pancakes, but the most accurate would be scrambled eggs with Japanese cabbage and then lots of of other ingredients to your taste. Okonomiyakis are made in front of you (and in some restaurants, even by yourself) in a big griddle. The restaurants also offer yakisoba which can be eaten as a side, order it with a wrapping omelette. We stumbled in Dotonbori with this yummy Okonomiyaki resturant: Houzenji Sanpei
- Wagyu beef barbecue
There's more besides Kobe to taste the famous wagyu beef, both Kyoto and Osaka serve Qualified Denomination of Origin beef that you will cook to your taste in a barbecue. The sets include different parts of the cow and have an identifying tag, it is an interesting experience if you eat meat. If not, bear into account that although there are veggies to be eaten as a side, everything is very meat focused. We followed the recommendation of the foodie lady Tokyobahnbao and reserved a seat at Matsuzakagyu Yakiniku M. Reservations are required.
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HIMEJIthe white heron castle
Himeji is probably the most beautiful castle in Japan. It is (rightfully) a World Heritage Site that dates from the 14th century, and it has been preserved in a glorious shape. The castle 5-storey all wood structure (in reality 6 floors, as the top two look like one from the outside, clever!) is an architecture feat, but so are the defensive methods used in the castle, like the different shapes of the loopholes in the keep. People tend to go quickly to the top floors, but if you linger you'll be able to enjoy the castle rooms in your own.
Once you leave the castle grounds, make sure to make a little room for a french pastry & a latte in the cute Hello Kitty café too!
Nakasendo trail: Magome to Tsumago
🎥 Nakasendo trail: the film
AINOKURAfor the hatched roofs with an alternative twist
Ainoukura is the gorgeous little sister of the most famous Shirakawago. We visited this tiny village on 2012 when it was almost a completely stranger to non-Japanese travellers; over the years it has gained more visibility & popularity and even the reporters from the famous Japan guide website have agreed on designate it as best 2017 travel spot. Spend a night here to witness rural life & watch the hatched roofs up close. Tip: external visitors are not allowed until 10 AM, so seize the early morning to be the few people wandering around. You'll find more information about our lovely minshuku (traditional guest house on our post, link on top of this section)
NAKASENDO TRAILto follow the path of the samurais
The Nakasendo trail is the ancient route the samurais took to travel from Kyoto to Tokyo, with postal towns along the way to supper & spend the night. This walking route has been preserved and so the towns, that have all the original charm by keeping them without visible electrical wires. You can travel all the route, that will take you days, or just have a taste by going from one town to the next. We went by bus to Magome and then walked towards Tsumago, where we slept in a traditional inn. It's a unique experience. Tip: in Magome look for the post office and send the bags to Tsumago, or like us, send them from one hotel to the next and come here with only a small backpack.
🎥 Hakone: the film
I don't have many experience with spas so I was a little hesitant what the onsen would feel like, and now I can't praise it enough. An onsen is a hot spring, but usually the inn/hotel that has those bathing facilities is also called like that. They have some strict rules, like you must bathe naked and that is separated by gender. But then some are mixed, and also in others you can rent a smaller onsen for a few hours. We looked to many (maybe way too many) and ended up choosing Takuminoyado Yoshimatsu in Hakone, because it had rooms with private onsens in the balcony and, let's admit, because their kaisikei dinner (included in the night) looked completely amazing. Jumping naked at 4º (around 39F) in a 42º (around 108F) natural spring water, while listening to the cricket chirps and surrounded by a garden, was something I don’t really know how to describe; that I felt happy is probably a good approach. To experience an onsen there's a large budget range difference, from the ones that are public baths to the private on-suite, so choose what fits better for your trip.
- For a rail trip like the one proposed here we recommend getting the Japan Rail Pass to save on your budget,it is exclusively sold outside Japan and allows taking as many train rides as you like. Remember that you can reserve seats in any of the Japan Rail (JR) offices, or you can use the non-reserved wagons too an only showing your JR pass at the entrance.
- In order to check the train schedule beforehand use the website Hyperdia, it will even show you which platform should you head to.
- For your rural getaway (Ainokura, Nakasendo), reserve the lodging in advance & take cash with you as they don't usually accept credit cards.
- We rented a pocket wifi that we could use for both phones at the airport. Ours was from Global Advanced Communication but there are several options.
- We have yet to visit Miyajima and Koyasan, but both are good alternatives to some of the adventures here, so consider them too!
- Remember to be a mindful & kind traveller, they will be amazingly kind to you so give it back with smiles, bowing and nice words :)