If you are planning a trip to Japan, prepare to despair. There are so many amazing and interesting things in this country that no vacation will be enough. I’ve probably never spent so much time planning an itinerary. We had only two weeks in this country, which I wanted to spend as effectively and as diversely as possible.
As a result, for 12 days in Japan (+2 days round trip) we visited 11 different cities/villages. We rode over 2 thousand kilometres on trains and buses. We slept in the temple, played with snow monkeys, had coffee with a robot, got lost in ancient villages and completely fell in love…
I’ll show you my favourite spots in this article.
You can download the full “Japan in 2 Weeks” itinerary with a step-by-step description for each day, maps, transportation, restaurant recommendations, useful tips, and a trip budget – here
Tokyo will blow your mind with its crowds and contrasts. It’s like a tornado of different flavors, colors, and endless energy swirling around you. You don’t resist, you just follow the flow.
We took a free tour of the Imperial Palace(book here), saw robots at the Museum of Innovation, climbed the Tokyo Tower, and got lost in the endless stores of Akihabara. The most interesting things in Tokyo happen behind closed doors, where you can’t take pictures or photos. Next time you’re there, try ninja restaurant(menu) and @home maid cafe. The best view of Shibuya intersection – the roof of Mag’s park shopping center (free)
Hakone National Park is a must-see if you want to see the impressive Mount Fuji (go in good weather). You can sail around the lake on a boat and ride the ropeway under a volcanic basin Owakudani. There is a station just in the middle of a boiling valley, where you can try famous black eggs, which are boiled in the sulfurous waters. Cool modern art museum and hot springs there. I also liked Onshi-Hakone Park.
Even though Hakone is only an hour and a half away from Tokyo, it would take a whole day or even two to explore it I bought a special Hakone Pass, with transportation included (ship, buses, cable car, train) and discounts to museums (from Shinjuku, for 2 days)
Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park
In winter, during cold weather, wild monkeys come down from the snowy Japanese mountains and bath in the hot springs. To get to the monkeys, you have to walk through the forest for about 1.6 kilometres. When we got to the park, there were monkeys everywhere except for the hot tub! We waited as long as we could. But I guess it was just too good weather for them. So If you wanna catch Japanese monkeys chilling in a bath, go in January or February. We stayed overnight in the nearby village of Shibu Onsen, in a traditional Japanese house. Read more in the article below.
READ MORE: Jigokudani Snow Monkeys
Kanazawa is a large and interesting city. I liked the old chaya districts, where the real geisha sometimes perform, the quarter of rich samurai – Nagamachi and the castle. Another gem – Kenroku-en Garden. in Japanese it means “garden of six virtues”: spaciousness, tranquillity, artistry, antiquity, water and magnificent view. You can’t really argue with that! Kenroku-en is considered one of the best gardens in Japan for its scale and beauty.
Kanazawa has been the main supplier of golden leaf in Japan for 400 years. The gold leaf is very thin. The process of producing it is very complex, requiring special temperature and humidity levels. In Japan they use golden leaf to cover jewelry, statues and temples. We went on a workshop at one of the oldest companies – Sakuda. I booked a workshop in advance. We made gold chopsticks under the guidance of the master and had a lot of fun.
READ MORE: Kanazawa: What to see in 1 day
Maps, prices, restaurants, activities, time for each location, and other helpful travel tips
Shirakawa is the most popular village in Japan. For a long time, this region has been isolated, preserved and is now protected by Unesco. It is located deep in the mountains and even nowadays, it’s hard to get there during the rainy and snowy season. The main craft of the locals was silk weaving. Workshops were set up in their homes, in giant multi-story attics. Massive thatched triangular roofs were built in the style of gassho – which is unique to Japan. Now there are no more silkworms, the houses have almost all been sold and adapted for tourism, but the place is still amazing. I have an article about it.
READ MORE: Shirakawa-go: Japan’s most famous village
The cultural and tourist capital of Japan. The number of people and the beauty around you just make my head spin. There are about 1,600 temples in the city. In a couple of days, we managed to see five or six of them. The thousands of Gates of Fushimi Inari, Kinkakuji Golden Temple, Kiyomizu-Dera (definitely a must-visit!), Ninenzaka Street and Geisha District Gion, Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Samurai Museum and Otagi Temple.
We didn’t have any special plans for Osaka. We took the subway to the center and walked around the famous Dotonbori with restaurants, street food, and funny signs. Along Orange Street with trendy modern stores and cafes. Nipponbashi is kind of like Tokyo’s Akihabara. My dad is into fishing and asked me to bring him something from Japan. In case you need one too, there’s a giant Fishing Max in Namba in Osaka
I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to stay in Osaka and spend a lot of time, but it’s definitely worth a short visit.
In Takayama, like Osaka, we stopped by chance. The village is very charming and vibrant. We left our bags in the locker at the station and walked to the old Sanmachi Suji district, checked out the Takayama Jinya museum(hours and prices here) and the Takayama Matsuri Yatai Kaikan (official website). We ate some street food at Sanmachi.
Himeji is a chic seven-story castle in the form of a soaring white bird. It is a Unesco Heritage. And also the most visited castle in Japan, so you have to go early in the morning. The number of people per day is limited. Schedule at least two hours to explore the area. How to get there, when to go, interesting facts, where to eat and other useful things about Himeji – in the article below.
READ MORE: Himeji White Heron Castle in Japan
Koyasan was my favourite place of the entire trip. A sacred city on top of a mountain, home to 117 temples and a mecca for people seeking their way and harmony. We came here with several transfers from Kyoto. We stayed overnight at the temple with the monks, ate traditional vegetarian food, and went to prayer in the morning.
According to legend Japanese monk Kobo Daishi threw a small trident into the sky and decided to build a temple where it would land. This is how Koyasan was founded. In 816, a monk built a school of Buddhism here and the beautiful Danjo Garan Temple.
Another major temple, Kongobuji, is known for its largest stone garden in Japan.
READ MORE: Koya-san: visiting Japanese monks
The city of Nara is simply my love. More than 1,000 deer live in its central park. They walk freely everywhere, poking tourists with their horns and begging for cookies. Some of them are very polite. If you bow to them, they will nod back at you.
Several of Japan’s oldest and largest temples are also located in Nara. For example, the Todai-ji Temple is a must-see. It was founded in the early 8th century, and its main hall with its giant statue of Buddha is one of the largest wooden buildings in the world. Inside there is a column with a hole through which people climb to achieve enlightenment and good fortune, of course, if they can get through.
In Nara, we checked into the great NARA Visitor Center INN with a view. We had dinner at a restaurant with a menu written in handwritten hieroglyphics. And we couldn’t believe that our journey had come to an end. But the truth is that Japan is endless history and love, at least for us.
Have a wonderful trip! Please share your favourite places in the comments.