11 Day Japan Itinerary
Planning a trip to Japan was difficult. Despite its smaller size, the amount of things to do in Japan and places to go in Japan is astounding. Reading guide books and travel blogs about Japan inspired a to do list that couldn’t ALL be accomplished in 11 days. My suggestion to anyone planning a trip to the Far East is to think about what kind of adventure you want, and plan your travels accordingly. For me, I wanted to experience classic Japan – a common tourist path encompassing some of Japan’s most familiar sites. That’s why I chose Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hakone as the trifecta for my itinerary.
Where to visit in Japan? What to do in Japan?
This was my first challenge. Although small, Japan is dense and rich with culture, food, history, and things to do. It makes trip planning overwhelming. The first step is deciding which cities to visit in Japan.
To figure this out, ask yourself a series of questions:
1. What interests you about visiting Japan?
Let your interests be your guide. If the Tokyo Tower doesn’t thrill you, don’t visit the Tokyo Tower just to say that you did. If you’re a museum mongerer, plot the different museums you’d like to learn in. If you’re a foodie, conduct research about the Japanese culinary scene and let your stomach be your guide. Allow your interests to be the vault to launch your trip planning. Create a list of all the things you want to experience in Japan. When you determine what kind of experiences you want to have, you can look into where you can have them. Some experiences (like hiking Mount Fuji) are very location-specific. Others (like taking a sushi making class), could be scheduled in many cities across Japan.
2. Do you prefer culture and heritage or the busy city or the quiet calm of nature?
Every location in Japan has it’s own unique personality and character. Knowing which personalities you get along best with can help you determine how long a relationship you wish to have in these locations. For the city lovers, Tokyo is all yours. If culture and tradition move you, spend more time in Kyoto. If you prefer peace, quiet, and nature, consider mountainside communities like Hakone.
3. How is your Japanese?
If your Japanese language skills are as basic as konnichiwa and arigato gozaimasu (like me), you may not want to stray too far from the tourist trail. The more off-the-beaten-path you wander, the thicker the language barrier. Assess your willingness to face language adversity.
Where to stay in Japan?
From traditional to modern to downright quirky and bizarre, you won’t get bored researching accommodation options in Japan.
However, I must insist that you experience a Japanese ryokan for at minimum one night. Ryokans are traditional Japanese guesthouses and quintessnetial to the Japanese expereince and cultural exchange. My experience at a Japanese ryokan took place in Hakone, which was one of my favorite Hakone experiences.
Is it worth buying a JR Pass?
It depends. I found the Notes of Nomads Japan travel blog to be extremely helpful when planning a trip to Japan. After some research and basic calculations, I decided to purchase a JR Pass for a few reasons:
- Unlimited use on all qualifying JR trains
- Riding the shinkansen (Japanese bullet train) on three separate occasions between Tokyo and Kyoto – without the pass would cost nearly as much as the pass itself
- Rebooking [Eric & I missed our train by 30 seconds. We booked our tickets the previous night and when we rebooked, we didn’t need to pay for a new ticket since this was included in our JR pass]
A few things I wish I would have known about the JR pass:
- Your JR pass must be purchased outside of Japan from an authorized dealer. This means you need to make sure you have adequate time to order you pass and receive it in the mail prior to departure.
- Finding an authorized JR Pass dealer wasn’t as easy as I’d thought. I’ve been victim of a travel scam on a few occasions, so I’m always weary of using my travel dollars. After googling “JR Pass authorized dealer” several times, I finally determined that going through the Japanese tourism website was my best bet. I ended up booking through Japan Experience. Another recommended company I’ve seen that is an official vendor is Japan Rail Pass.
- You need to validate your JR Pass within Japan. Most likely, this will happen at the airport. You’ll be joined by many more tourists attempting to authorize their JR pass, so expect to stand in line for a while. Maybe get a snack first to avoid that hanger.
- Not every train is a JR train. This is especially true in Kyoto, where our JR Pass felt severely neglected. We relied mostly on city buses and local subways in Kyoto. It hurts, forking over extra cash with a JR pass burning in your pocket, but that’s the reality of transportation in Japan.
Without further ado, the Japan itinerary you’ve been waiting for:
11 DAY JAPAN ITINERARY
This was our travel plan for Japan.
Day 1: Arrive in Tokyo
Depending on your arrival time, you ought to just consider your first day a lost day. Between herding through customs, obtaining your luggage (or filing a lost luggage report, like us), validating your Japan Rail pass, traveling by train an hour into Tokyo proper, lugging your suitcase around a foreign land in attempt to find your accommodations, your first few hours in Japan will be spent on logistics.
Find your hotel, orient yourself, ask the hotel staff for a nearby restaurant recommendation. Fuel up on some good Japanese cuisine (may I suggest comfort food like ramen after that arduous flight overseas?) and get to sleep at a decent hour. You’ve got 10 days of jet leg to fight and adjust.
Day 2: Explore Tokyo — Ginza, Roppongi, Shinjuku
Day 2 is when your Japan itinerary really begins.
- Hoping that your experiences are different than mine. The first half of my day was spent shopping at Ginza to compensate for lost luggage. Homegirl needed some clean underwear after that long flight. But if you’re staying at Tokyo-Shiodome Hotel, take the skywalk over to Ginza and wander around the different shops. Ginza is most impressive at night, when it’s the signs light up.
- Get a bird’s eye view in at the Tokyo City View Observation Deck in Roppongi. Here you can see Tokyo Tower. Noisy and known for its loud party scene after the sun goes down, Roppongi was the only place where we were given warnings to be more mindful of our surroundings.
- In Shinjuku, there’s Golden Gai, narrow alleys of themed bars with limited seating. Shinjuku is also the place where you can stroll Piss Alley or experience the zany and bizarre Robot Restaurant.
Day 3: Explore Tokyo — Shibuya & Harajuku
Shibuya + Harkjuku
- Visit Shibuya Crossing, famously home to the busiest crosswalk in the world.
- Pay homage to the Hachiko Memorial Statue. Every once in a while, a viral story will cycle on social media about a loyal dog who would meet his master after work everyday at Shibuya Crossing. The dog continued to wait there long after his master’s death. This is a true story, and the statue of this dog is erected at one of the corners.
- While in the Shibuya train station take a look at the massive mural. The painting depicts the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
- Wander around Harajuku and get lost in this colorful, kawaii subculture. Overstimulating to all the senses, Harajuku is a place where it’s easy to be districted and drawn in to all the interesting shops, restaurants, and people.
- While in Harajuku, visit Meij-Jingu, Tokyo’s grandest Shinto shrine. Although it was reconstructed after WWII, it feels authentically original. The impressive wooden torii gate was created from a 1500 year old cyprus tree.
Day 4: Explore Tokyo — Ueno + Asakusa
Tokyo’s cultural hub
- Stroll around Ueno Park where you can visit the Toshogu shrine, Flame of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Kanei-ji temple. The flame is humbling, but small enough to be easily missed.
- Get a history lesson at the Tokyo National Museum. Walk among Japanese art and national treasures, samurai amor and swords, and other Japanese cultural items like kimono and calligraphy.
- Asakusa is home to Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple. Leading to the temple is a long street of vendors who easily distract with their trinkets and treasures. If you’re a shopper, this is a good place to pick up souvenirs for your friends back home. Senso-ji is also where you can get a paper fortune (omikuji)in English.
Pro tip: How to get a Japanese fortune: Put the requested money in the slot, grab the metal canister, shake it. Extract a stick. Match the number/kanji to the correlating drawer. The paper in the drawer is your fortune. Bad fortune? Tie it to a nearby tree. When in doubt, observe what the locals are doing.
- Grab some snacks at 7-11 and walk along the Sumida-Gawa river. Here you can see the architectural aesthetic “golden flame” of the Asahi headquarters, also fondly known as the “shit that’s lit” or the “golden turd.”
- End the day by cuddling furry friends at any cat cafe — you’re bound to encounter many during your trip!
Day 5: Explore Tokyo — Tsukiji Market + Akihabara
Something smells fishy.
- Wake extra extra early to watch the famous tuna auctions at the Tsukiji Market. Limited to only 120 visitors daily, those hopeful to earn a seat need to arrive at the the Osakana Fukyu Center at 5:00 a.m. or earlier. No, you cannot reserve your spot, you need to arrive, take a number, and a bright green vest. The actual auction tour begins at approximately 6:00 and lasts a quick 10-15 minutes. A word from the wise: plan to wake and arrive even earlier than what you’re thinking now. We woke up at around 3:30 in the morning to begin transporting over, got lost once we arrived to the market (workers and machinery everywhere… where’s the tour?!), and made it JUST in time before the 120 person capacity was reached.
- Eat sushi for breakfast. Since you’re already at the fish market, queue up to any of many sushi restaurants for a breakfast of the freshest sashimi prepared by skilled sushi chefs. This was one of my favorite food experiences in Japan.
- Walk around the Tsukiji Market – look at the fish, meat, fruits, vegetables and other foods for sale by vendors market. Can wander here for hours, find a vendor to eat lunch at.
- Make friends at an owl cafe. While Japan has many, our owl cafe experience happened at Fukuro no Mise which isn’t too far from the Tsukiji Market.
- Get crazy at Akihabara, the heart of Tokyo’s geek subculture, famous for its anime shops, electronics stores, plinko, gaming centers, and other pop culture inspire stores. Also known as “Electric Town,” Akihabara was once the hub for electronics. When we first arrived here, I felt like I had been transported inside a video game.
- Learn about origami at Tokyo Origami Museum.If you time it right, you can even attend an origami class to learn how to fold paper as artfully as the Japanese. This is a small, quick museum, but it bursts with color and joy.
Day 6: Visit Hakone
Your Japan itinerary takes a turn — time to get out of the busy city to a mountainside retreat. Check out of your Tokyo accommodation first thing in the morning and get ready for the Shinkansen experience.
When you arrive in Hakone, your JR pass becomes nearly useless. You’ll need to take a bus to your accommodation. My recommendation would be to buy a multi-day Hakone bus pass. Essentially, there is one main road in Hakone. It’s winding and mountainous. Walking would be a bad choice. The bus gets very crowded. Our ryokan actually recommended that we ship our luggage vs. bring it on the bus with us. Depending on where you’re staying, the bus ride could take up to an hour.
*Note: you probably won’t be able to do all of these activities in one day, especially since part of your day will be traveling. You can do any of these on your second day in Hakone, but I wanted my list of things to do in Hakone to be in one section.
Here are my 5 favorite Hakone experiences. If you do anything, make sure you add those items from my list in your Japan itinerary! Once you’re settled at your Hakone ryokan, here’s what you can do:
- Visit Lake Ashi by taking a boat tour with Hakone Sightseeing Cruise. They say you can see Mount Fuji from the lake, but it’s more likely to be shrouded in fog (Fuji is pretty elusive). You can stop on the other side of Lake Ashi and explore. There’s a lovely walking path along the lake near the place you buy your tickets. You can buy lunch at Togendai View Restaurant and eat at any of the picnic tables.
- Get a birdseye view by sky rail on the Hakone Ropeway. The cable cars will take you up the mountains to get another view of Mount Fuji. What’s cool about the railway is being able to see all the steam and volcanic activity from the region. In fact, when we went, half the railway was closed due to toxic chemicals from the volcano. People who are old, sick, asthmatic, or suffer from allergies are advised not to ride. My sickness & allergies didn’t stop me (though I did wear a mask!).
- Increase your life expectancy by eating a black egg. The black egg is hardboiled in the hot springs from the volcanic activity. It’s a bit sulfuric, but that probably why they say eating an egg will increase your longevity by 5-7 years. Walk up a trail in Ōwakudani near the Hakone Ropeway to reach the site of the eggs. If it’s closed (like our situation), there’s a local shop that sells them. Just look for the crowds!
- Be captivated by the botanical gardens at the Hakone Museum of Art.
- Attend English Club. Our ryokan (Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse) hosts an English Club for the locals. It was such a unique language and culture immersion experience. The local ladies practiced their English and gifted us with Japanese sweets and origami.
- End your day with an onsen experience. An onsen is a Japanese hot spring. Powered by volcanic activity, if you’re going to experience it, why not in Hakone, one of Japan’s most active volcanic regions? In Hakone, you can experience a private onsen. If you’re naked-shy or have a tattoo, this is a great option. Schedule you onsen experience in the evening. Don’t shower and fall asleep after your time in the hot, relaxing, mineral-rich waters.
Day 7: Hakone to Kyoto
If your days went like mine, you’ll spend your morning and early afternoon in Hakone, wrapping up the things you didn’t do yesterday.
Leave Hakone and take the Shinkansen to Kyoto. Look to your right as your pass to see if you can catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji. If you left in the afternoon, you’ll arrive in Kyoto in the evening. Forget trying to see or do anything. Use this opportunity to get literature from your hotel, grab a classic Japanese dinner, and (if you haven’t already) come up with a Kyoto game plan.
My suggestion for your first meal in Kyoto: SHABU SHABU
It’s as fun to eat as it is to say. Ask your hotel to make a reservation for you at a nearby shabu-shabu restaurant. Make sure you get good directions because I swear, Eric and I confusedly walked around Kyoto for a solid hour asking anyone to help us until we found the dang place.
Shabu shabu is SO. MUCH. FUN. You get a private room with a service buzzer. You select your package and it’s all you can eat and drink. Sure, it may put you back $80/couple, but for the amount of food and drink, impeccable service, and private room, it’s worth it. Don’t know what shabu shabu is? Read about it in my favorite Japanese dining experiences.
Day 8: Explore Kyoto
Meet Japan’s traditional culture.
If you long for a more traditional Japan away from the anime and electronics, you’ll love this day. You’ll start out in Arashiyama then spend the rest of your time in Gion.
- Wake early. Be one of the first to visit the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. It’s open 24 hours, so you’re welcome to arrive as soon as the sun begins to shine. Only a 10-15 minute walk from the nearest JR line, the bamboo forest is enchanting. However, it loses it’s charm with the crowds. That’s why I recommend arriving early.
- Meander around Kameyama-koen Park, a lovely hilltop park. It’s away from the crowds and they say you can see monkeys in the forest (though I didn’t!).
- Explore the Arashiyama area. There are walking paths, small restaurants, gift shops, and plenty of temples. Many of the temples have entry fees. One of the most popular is Tenryu-ji Temple.
- Take the train to Gion – you’ll be spending the rest of the day there.
- Visit Yasaka Shrine, the focal point of Gion (free!).
- Participate in a traditional tea ceremony. There are many teahouses in Gion. We visited a teahouse called En, just north of Yasaka shrine on Higashioji-dori street.
- If you walk along Shijo-dori, one of the main streets in Gion, you’ll encounter many antique shops and stores. Here’s where you should take the opportunity to indulge in a matcha parfait.
- Walk along Shimbashi street. They say it’s one of the most beautiful and iconic streets in all of Japan.
- Gion Corner is the entertainment district. Watch a maiko show or cultural show here. Note: if you look up shows in Lonely Planet, note that some shows are only available during certain months, days, and times. It was tricky to be in the right place at the right time. This is something you need to plan for. We were lucky to find a cultural show at Gion corner where we watched small vignettes of Japanese art and culture, such as maiko dances, kabuki, flower arranging, and a short play.
- Watch the sunset as you eat sukiyaki at a restaurant overlooking the Kamo river. Enjoy taking your shoes off and sitting on a bamboo mat. We ate at Izumoyo in the Pontocho alley.
- Drink a beer at any of the bars down the Pontocho alley along the river (Kamo-gawa). If you happen to drop in to Jive Beer Bar, find the $20 bill posted on the bar with our names (Amanda and Eric from Michigan). If you do, take a photo and send it to me! Maybe you’ll see a Geisha in Pontocho alley with her entourage after hours (like we did!). Pontocho alley is the second best place to see geishas outside of Gion.
Day 9: Day trip to Nara
Befriend sacred deer.
Ah, Nara. A place that will convince any visitor that magical lands with animal spirits do exist. Somewhere, in that brain under those velveteen antlers is a soul of a beast that actually wants to communicate with us humans. Nara’s peaceful, animalistic energy coupled with its storied history of Japan’s original capital makes it worth a day trip (or longer, if you have time). An easy ride on the JR from Kyoto to Nara station.
- Befriend the Sika deer at Nara Park. Considered a national treasure, these adorable, friendly creatures are revered and regarded in Japanese culture. Also known as “bowing deer” they lower and lift their heads like an overenthusiastic nod. No, their good manners aren’t charming you for your friendship; they’re after your shika senbei (deer crackers). Purchase these deer treats around the park for an affordable price. As an animal lover, I can say that they deer alone are reason to visit Nara.
- Visit Todaiji Temple – the largest wooden building in the world with one of the largest bronze statues of Buddha. A UNESCO heritage site, this temple will be swarmed with tourists but trust me – it is worth the visit. A walk around Todaiji Temple feels like a walk back in time. While here you can also visit Todaiji Museum, but note its hours of operation (closed from April to September).
- Find peace in the natural beauty of the Isuien Garden or Yoshikien Garden.
- Cool off with a deer-inspired parfait. Because who can say no to layers of ice cream and corn flakes topped with gingerbread deer?
Day 10: Explore Kyoto
The day of shrines and temples.
There are so many temples and shrines in Kyoto, with the largest collection of UNESCO sites in one location (17!). It’s challenging to visit all of them, unless you’re a master logistics planner and have a lot of time. My suggestion would be to make a list of the ones you’re most interested in and plan your route that way. Here’s what we did:
- Wake early for a morning hike through Fushimi Inari shrine. Though one of the most instagrammable sites in Kyoto, don’t be fooled by those vermilion tori gates: Fushimi Inari really is a level 10 stair master. Arriving early is key to beat the crowds, though I’ve been told that even if you do arrive late, all you need to do is hike high enough to pass the underachievers who won’t make it to the top. I truly recommend walking the entire shrine; you’ll feel so accomplished.
Pro Tip: At the top, you’ll find a shop that serves coffee and will write a prayer on a torii gate for you with your name written in kanji. An awesome souvenir.
- Indulge in all the street food. At the foot of Fushimi Inari, streets will be lined with food vendors. Try it all — you deserve it if you spent the past couple hours hiking.
- Known as the Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji is considered one of the top sites in Kyoto. Adorned in golden leaf and sitting atop a tranquil pond, it’s easy to see why the Golden Pavilion is inundated with tourists. An interesting fact: you’re not looking at the original structure. It was rebuilt in the 1950s after a crazed man burned it down.
- Find your zen and stroll along the Philosopher’s Path, a cherry tree lined walk adjacent to a canal. Walking the path doesn’t take long, but that’s not the point: take the time to meander along, visit the shops, grab an ice cream, and detour to visit the various shrines and temples along the way. If there’s any place in the world to get philosophical, this is it.
- Ryoanji Temple is home to Japan’s most famous rock garden. Many aspects of the garden’s origin is unknown, making the designer, intent, and meaning a mystery.
- If I had to pick one shrine or temple that ranked as my absolute favorite of all that I visited in Japan, it would be Honenin Temple. The reason why it ranks as my favorite has nothing to do with any historical significance or stunning designs. Visiting this temple was the one time that I physically felt washed with calm. Blanketed in moss and sparsely uninhabited by tourists, Honenin Temple flipped the switch that made me say, “I get it; I finally get it.” What is “it” becomes difficult to define. For me, Honenin Temple evoked a consciousness that transcended beyond words. Bonus: admission is free
- The grounds are expansive at Nanzenji Temple. Set at the base of the Higashiyama mountains, Nanzenji fits in nature among the trees. Perhaps most unanticipated is the sight of the Kyoto Aqueduct (Suirokaku Aqueduct), whose Western influence seems to disrupt the traditional Japanese architecture. The grounds have free admission, but expect additional fees to enter any of the buildings.
- It’ll be nearly impossible to miss the monolithic torii gate at the Heian Shrine, one of the largest in Japan.
Day 11: Return to Tokyo
Our final day in Japan was an incredible one. Journey back to Tokyo from Kyoto, whizzing past the cities and countryside on the ultra-speedy train. Sure, the Shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo was an experience in itself, but I definitely fell on a commuter train during rush hour which was another memorable event.
But the best part of that final day of our Japan itinerary was taking a sushi making class. In my opinion, no Japan itinerary is complete without some kind of food tour or Japanese cooking class.
More Japan Travel Stories to Inspire Your Japan Itinerary
- Japan Travel Apps You Need to Download TODAY
- First Impressions of Japan
- 7 Things I LOVED About Japan
- 5 Things I Hated About Japan
affiliate disclosure: Some of the links in this post may take you to Amazon or booking.com, which are the sites we used to purchase items & secure our Japan accommodations. It’s an affiliate link, which means if you purchase any of the items I mention here, I get a small commission! Don’t worry though, it’s the same price whether you go through my blog or direct; I promise! Think of it as tipping your hat to me for putting together this itinerary for you.