Want to visit Japan but don’t think you have enough time? Follow in my footsteps and you’ll be amazed at how much you can see with just 1 week in Japan!
Japan is one of my favorite countries I’ve visited, which surprised me! When I lived in Korea, I didn’t even bother going because I thought it would be so similar to Korea. To be honest, I only went because I wanted to go somewhere new in Asia and Japan cost the fewest AAdvantage miles to get to. I am so happy I went! Whether you’re into big cities, culture, food or nature, you will find what you’re looking for in Japan.
This is the exact itinerary I used on my trip and I have included optional changes if you want to tweak your visit to spend more time in a city or visit a different area nearby. I arrived in Japan on a Saturday and departed the following Sunday, for a total of 8 nights.
Days 1-3: Tokyo
Tokyo is Japan’s capital and one of the most energetic cities I’ve ever been to. There is so much to do and see in Tokyo and each neighborhood is unique and you could easily spend a day in every area.
A must-see in Tokyo is Meiji Shrine, which is a giant temple complex in the middle of a park in the heart of the city. If you’re lucky, you might get to watch a traditional Japanese wedding procession!
We also walked to Shibuya Crossing, which is truly a sight to behold. Known as the ‘Shibuya Scramble’, this is the world’s busiest intersection. When the stop lights turn red, thousands of pedestrians cross the roads from every direction. If you want to see it from a bird’s eye view, find the Starbucks on the second floor of the all glass building on the right of this picture and watch the crossing from above.You can’t leave Tokyo without experiencing the world famous Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku. It’s a bit pricey but the crazy show is worth the yen. Part musical, part dance, part robot, the Robot Restaurant is probably the most uniquely Japanese show you’ll experience. Have the front desk of your hotel call to make reservations or you probably won’t be able to get in. There’s a guy outside with a clipboard and you aren’t allowed inside unless your name is on the list. Also, our tickets did not come with the bento box that some other people got, I think if you want food you have to pay extra. My advice would be to eat before or after as nobody appeared to like the food in the bento box. You can buy small snacks during intermission between acts if you get hungry.
If you want to really get a feel for how huge Tokyo actually is, head to either Tokyo Tower or Tokyo Skytree. Both towers offer observation decks where you can view the city in every direction. I went to Tokyo Tower, which has the added bonus of having Zojoji Temple right next to it. This was our favorite temple in Tokyo because it had a lot of statues and shrines to photograph.
Tokyo Tower has 2 observation decks: The Main Observatory and the Special Observatory. You can buy tickets for one or both of them.
We went to the main observatory and the view was spectacular. On a clear day you can see all the way to Mt. Fuji. Unfortunately for us, Typhoon Vongfong was approaching the city when we went so visibility was reduced, but we were still able to see a lot.
Day 4: Day trip to Nagano (or use Day 4 as an extra day in Tokyo or to take an excursion to Mt. Fuji)
With our JR rail passes, we took a day trip up to Nagano. We were on a mission to see monkeys. After a 90 minute train ride and a 45 minute bus ride, we arrived at the Jigokudani Monkey Park. This was my favorite day in Japan and you can read more about it by clicking here. If you love monkeys like I do, this might be one of your favorite travel experiences ever! The hot springs are home to dozens of wild snow monkeys who like to soak in the spring when the weather is cold.
Day 5 and 6: Kyoto
No Japan trip is complete without visiting the ancient capital of Kyoto. There are many trains per hour between Kyoto and Tokyo and the journey takes about 2 hours and 20 minutes. We arrived in Kyoto around lunchtime and headed down to the Gion district. Our first stop was Yasaka Shrine, which apparently is a popular place for dressing up in kimonos and being photographed. I felt a bit out of place because I wasn’t wearing one!
Later, we saw a geisha show at the theater house called Gion Corner. Gion is the area where the geisha are usually spotted, however they can be elusive and many people leave Kyoto without seeing one. Gion Corner gives you the opportunity to see a traditional Geisha performance, as well as other traditional Japanese ceremonies and cultural skits. The tickets were $25 and you have to line up and wait for the tickets as you cannot book in advance. The show was average. The highlight, of course, was the Geisha dancing, but the rest was a bit anticlimactic. But since we didn’t manage to see a geisha on the street, I was glad we were able to at least see one at Gion Corner.
Kyoto is home to Japan’s most famous shrine called Fushimi Inari. The mountain path is lined with thousands of orange torii gates. It is seriously impressive. The walk is not strenuous and, although there are tons and tons of people there, you will have the opportunity to take some really beautiful pictures.
If you didn’t make it to Jigokudani Monkey Park but still want to see monkeys, there is a place in Kyoto called Iwatayama Monkey Park where wild (but extremely tame) monkeys live. We decided to go because apparently we had not seen enough monkeys on this trip. If you go here, please note that it’s a bit of a hike to get to the monkeys. And by a bit of a hike, I mean you have to hike up to the top of a mountain. The hike takes about 30 minutes and it can be quite steep. Once you’re up there, you will be treated to amazing views of the city and lots and lots of monkeys.
Unlike the monkeys in Nagano, you can pay to feed the monkeys here and they’ll literally eat out of your hand (although you are inside a wooden structure so they won’t attack you for the food). Some of the monkeys here were quite aggressive and would charge at you if you got too close. I much preferred the monkeys in Nagano.
My favorite part of Kyoto was the Arashiyama bamboo forest. We actually went here twice: once around lunchtime and once at dusk. When we went earlier in the day, I was very disappointed. There were thousands of people walking around, including multiple tour groups. It was not at all peaceful. Then we passed by the entrance on the way back to the train and Husband and I decided to try it again to see if there would be less people. It was so amazing.There were hardly any people around and you could hear birds and the creaking of the bamboo in the wind. There’s also a few temples located in the forest and we could hear gongs every now and then. We stayed in the forest until it started getting really dark, then stopped at a little glowing shrine on the way out.
Day 7: Hiroshima (or use Day 7 to see more of Kyoto as well as Nara)
By day 7 we were templed out. There are a lot of temples to see in Kyoto, but we wanted a change of pace, so we took the Shinkansen bullet train 100 minutes away for a day trip to Hiroshima. The cool thing about Hiroshima is that, if you have a JR passes, you can ride the bus for free! The bus loop is right outside of Hiroshima Station and you’ll have to exit the station via sliding doors that lead to escalators, which lead to a hotel lobby. It sounds confusing, but if you look for this, you probably won’t spend almost 2 hours of your day trying to find the bus on the wrong side of the station like we did! The bus takes you around to all of the major tourist attractions and you can get on and off as many times as you’d like. We took the bus to Peace Memorial Park stop, which is right in the middle of the A-bomb Dome and the Peace Memorial Park and Museum.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is about a 5 minute walk from the A-bomb Dome. Admission is only 50 yen (About $0.41 US) and it was moving and haunting. You will see destroyed artifacts that used to belong to people in the area, including children’s clothes, bikes, lunchboxes, books etc. There’s a section of a wall that is streaked with black stains from the black acid rain that fell after the blast. There are paper cranes made by Sadako Sasaki, a child made famous by the book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. Sadako was diagnosed with leukemia from the bomb radiation and she made thousands of paper cranes, hoping that if she made enough she would be granted her wish, which was to survive the cancer.After the museum, we took a short bus ride to Hiroshima Castle. The original was destroyed by the bomb but the city has created an exact replica of the castle and grounds.
Optional Hiroshima extra: If you have the time and/or energy, you can take a ferry from Hiroshima to Mayajima Island to see the famous Itsukushima Shrine. When the tide is high it appears to be floating. We didn’t do this because we were tired and still had a long journey back to Kyoto. However, if you wanted to you could also stay the night in Hiroshima and see the shrine lit up in the evening.
Day 8: Kyoto and Tokyo
Before we left Kyoto, we woke up in the morning and walked to Toji Temple, which is only a few blocks away from Kyoto Station. Toji Temple is home to Japan’s tallest pagoda, and also a very nice Japanese garden and temples with ornate shrines inside, which you are not allowed to photograph.
We took the Shinkansen back to Tokyo in time for us to eat at the absolutely fantastic Sushi Bar Yasuda, which I wrote about in detail on my post about food in Japan. Click here to read it. The restaurant was featured in an episode of Anthony Bourdaine’s show Parts Unknown. Tokyo is famous for its amazing sushi restaurants. If you plan to eat at one of the famous restaurants, please make reservations well in advance as some have waiting lists of one month. We were lucky to have gotten in the week we were there, and it was only because someone was sick and had to cancel.
After dinner, we took the Narita Express train to the airport and slept in a nearby hotel, then departed Japan the next day.
- If you plan to visit more than one city in Japan, buy a JR pass before you go. You cannot get them in Japan. The passes are good for unlimited rides and you can get them for 1-3 weeks in length. I bought my pass from JTB USA and they arrived quickly. Click here to go to their website.
- When booking hotels in Japan, check out the site Agoda.com. I compared prices from Agoda to those found on US based travel sites and Agoda was always the cheapest.
Have you traveled Japan on a similar itinerary? Would you add anything to this itinerary? What was your favorite part of your Japan travels?