Are you planning to visit Japan? Japan is a fascinating country and the Japanese dream trip is full of spectacular urban landscapes, intriguing culture, delectable food, beautiful forest, stunning cherry blossom trees, temples and pagodas, and suicide forests. We tailor-made this amazing 2 week Japan itinerary for our family who traveled to last March and are presenting it here for your benefit.
WHY SPEND 2 WEEKS IN JAPAN?
Japan has many beautiful cities and incredible tourist attractions including UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There’s so much to do and explore that planning a trip to Japan is not easy. 2 weeks is a perfect time to get out of Tokyo & Kyoto, explore the stunning landscapes including bamboo forests, understand the local customs and traditions like onsen, live in a ryokan and visit some of the distant attractions including the Japanese Alps. 2 weeks is also a good time to learn some basic Japanese phrases. We believe self-guided tours are the best way to experience a country and it is certainly true in the case of Japan. With some initial bit of planning and booking hotels in advance, the 2 weeks you spend in Japan will be the most memorable ones. If you have less time, you can also read this post about seeing the highlights of Japan in 10 days. If you are visiting Japan with kids, then check out this awesome itinerary by my blogger friend Melissa.
WHY SHOULD YOU FOLLOW THIS 2 WEEK JAPAN ITINERARY?
- This itinerary is perfect for first-timers who want to see the absolute highlights of Japan in a single trip.
- The itinerary assumes a leisurely pace of travel and is perfect for solo travelers, couples as well as families.
- It covers major cities of Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima and includes interesting side trips to Mt. Fuji, Nara, and Miyajima. It also includes trips to Nikko in Northern Japan and to Takayama in the Japanese Alps.
- The itinerary also offers suggestions for day tours, add-on activities and includes recommendations for hotels of all budgets. We have also included what and where to eat recommendations wherever possible.
- The itinerary relies on using the Japanese bullet train system to get around Japan. The bullet trains are safe, efficient, fast and extremely popular with travelers. 14 day JR Rail Pass is very inexpensive and a practical option compared to renting a car and most destinations can be accessed for free via the rail pass.
- Alternatively, the itinerary can also be used as a guideline if you are traveling via bus or driving a car on your trip to Japan.
- The itinerary is a very detailed guideline for seeing Japan and can be customized as per your travel plans.
- This itinerary assumes that you have your visas in order. For more on visas and Japan budget, read this guide for essential things to know before your Japan trip
So shall we dive in? But first, a little geography.
Japan is a long, thin island nation between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan. It is comprised of 4 main islands Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku and thousands of smaller islands. Honshu is the largest island and is also called the Mainland. It is where Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and all major cities are located and where you will go. Its area is roughly comparable to that of California.
Traditional Japanese tea
2 WEEK JAPAN ITINERARY FOR FIRST-TIMERS
Note: We typically like to explore the city we are flying in/out from at the end of the trip for a couple of reasons:
- We have lots of energy at the beginning of the trip and prefer to see cultural highlights first, which are mostly located away from capitals.
- We have found that we appreciate capital cities much more after taking in the country’s distant areas, natural wonders, cuisine, and culture.
- By exploring capital cities at the very end of the trip, it helps us ease out of culture shock and prepare for the return to America.
- We know how much budget we have to buy souvenirs and we prefer to get any shopping done on the last day before departure.
This itinerary also sets aside time for Tokyo towards the end of the visit. You can also explore Tokyo first and then continue with the rest of the itinerary.
Day 1 & 2: Kyoto
Lonely Planet describes Kyoto as ‘a walk in mysterious places’. We prefer to think of Kyoto as old Japan. The time stands still among Kyoto’s more than 2000 temples and shrines, age-old teahouses, tranquil Zen gardens and inspiring bamboo forests, and traditionally dressed geishas carrying dainty umbrellas. We would ideally recommend spending 3-4 days in Kyoto to see everything however for time-strapped travelers, 2 days is a great time to experience Kyoto’s highlights.
What To Do:
Kyoto, which was once the imperial capital of Japan, is a perfect introduction to Japanese culture and presents innumerable opportunities to immerse in Japanese culture. Here are the 5 must have Japanese experiences in Kyoto that can be easily covered in two days:
Top left: Inari shrine | Top right: Ginkaku-ji | Bottom left: Golden Pavilion | Bottom right: Bamboo forest
Golden Pavilion or Kinkaku-ji
The Golden Pavilion of Kyoto, Kinkaku-ji is one of Japan’s popular sights. Reconstructed in 1955, the temple with its gold-foil covering is very spectacular. Visitors cannot enter the temple, however beautiful views of the temple surrounded by the lake can be seen from the garden. Being one of Kyoto’s top sights, it is always crowded. You can avoid crowds by visiting early in the morning on weekdays.
This Shinto shrine is most photographed sight in Kyoto. The shrine was built to honor Inari, the Shinto god of rice and is famous for its endless array of bright orange torii gates. The shrine is guarded by the many statues of sacred foxes of Inari. Visiting this shrine requires a 90 min hike up the mountain and we recommend starting early to avoid crowds.
Ginkaku-ji stands for the silver pavilion however the temple was never actually covered in silver. This Buddhist temple has a very beautiful Zen garden that looks spectacular especially in spring and in autumn. The garden has beautiful sand sculptures, small waterfalls, and many other structures and is a great place to unwind.
Nishiki Market is a busy, bustling traditional Japnese market selling everything from food to souvenirs. It is a foodie’s paradise with thousands of unexpected food items to tease the taste buds. Specialty shops selling varieties of pickles, tofu, and dried fish are fascinating to look at. The market also has shops selling Japanese knives and other fascinating accessories.
Bamboo Forest Street
The walk through the street lined with bamboo trees is incredibly pleasant. There are usually lots of people on the hike and it is crowded but walking slowly and letting other people pass is a good way to enjoy the tranquility of the hike. The view over the river at the end of the hike is impressive.
Gion is Kyoto’s largest and most famous geisha district. The district is very picturesque with traditional teahouses lining up the roads and dainty geishas walking to work. In the evening, Japanese paper lanterns cast flickering shadows and Gion looks even more beautiful in their light. Gion is full of upscale restaurants serving delicious Japanese food.
Special Tip – Wear a traditional kimono or dress as a geisha
We highly recommend this one of a kind experience in Kyoto. Visitors can rent a kimono for a day and walk about the charming old town. Gion is a great place to take a photograph in a traditional kimono. Alternatively, many shops also offer a geisha costume and makeup to tourists. Dressing up as a geisha is an incredible way to understand this aspect of the Japanese culture.
Where To Stay:
We highly recommend staying in a Ryokan in Kyoto. Ryokan’s are present all over Japan, however, there is a special charm in staying in a Ryokan in the heart of Japan’s cultural capital of Kyoto. For a luxurious stay, you can also try the Four Seasons Kyoto!
Day 3: Nara
Nara was once the imperial capital of Japan. Just like Kyoto, Nara is all old Japan and has 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Visitors love walking through Nara Park’s moss laden statues, tranquil shrines and friendly deer.
Left: Todai-Ji | Right: Nara Park
Things To Do:
Daibutsu or the Great Buddha statue of Nara, located in the Todai-ji temple, is a magnificent bronze figure. The statue is over 16 m high and housed in the temple’s Great Buddha Hall – the original structure was the largest wooden building in the world, the current hall is two-thirds that size.
Nara Park is a tranquil garden with many paths and plenty of friendly deer. The deer are a special highlight of the park due to their sheer number and willingness to come close to tourists. Visitors can buy deer crackers from vendors and feed the deer. The Nara Park also has Kohfukuji National Treasure Hall, the Tokodo hall and the Todaiji Museum which have a great collection of Japanese sculptures.
This beautiful Japanese garden is a must visit especially in spring and fall. The garden is also spectacular in summer when the entire landscape is a rich green hue. The teahouse, interesting garden layout, and sculptures, streams, stepping stones are beautiful to see. The Yoshikien Garden located next to the Isuien garden is also must see during spring and fall.
Naramachi is a quaint, historic neighborhood with 2 traditional Japanese style merchant houses open for viewing, lots of shops, rustic teahouses, and temples lining the streets. A walking tour in this area is best started at the visitor center where you will get maps and locations of interesting sites. We highly recommend having tea in one of the traditional teahouses to end your trip.
Day 4-5: Osaka
Osaka is Japan’s third largest city after Tokyo and Kyoto. Not many tourists visit Osaka, which is a shame because this vibrant city has great shopping and is a foodie’s paradise. Osaka has many tourist attractions and is a perfect introduction to modern Japan after the charm of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and old Japan in Kyoto.
What To Do:
Osaka Castle is among Japan’s most famous castles and one of the must-see attractions in the city. Visitors can take a tour of the Osaka Castle. The interior has been reconstructed into a museum and hence does not feel original; however, the exterior is a splendid example of magnificent Japanese castles. Views from the top of the castle are impressive.
Osaka Castle Park
Located next to the Osaka Castle, the large public park is a beautiful place with sculptures, mature trees, and duck ponds. In spring the park blooms with cherry blossoms and plum blossoms and is one of the best places for hanami (cherry blossom viewing) in the city. The park has beautiful views of the Osaka Castle.
Left: Dotonbori at night | Right: Dotonburi during the day
Dotonbori neighborhood is the heart of Osaka’s modern lifestyle and is filled with theatres, restaurants, street shacks, shopping and more. The area looks colorful during the day but is best viewed at night when all sorts of colorful neon signs come to life. Visitors enjoy walking along the neon-lit storefronts, shopping for souvenirs and eating local cuisine off roadside eateries. Some of the must eat street foods in Osaka include takoyaki, skewered chicken, Kobe beef, ramen, fugu fish, and other seafood.
Minami (Namba) and Shinsaibashi
After Dotonbori, these two areas are Osaka’s biggest night attractions. All 3 shopping areas are located near each other. Minami and Shinsaibashi also come alive at night with street food vendors, brightly lit neon signs, and an unbelievably large number of visitors.
Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine
Founded in the 3rd century, this shrine is one of Japan’s oldest shrines. The architecture style is purely Japanese (lacks Buddhist style influences) and is stunning with its straight roofs and finials. It is also surrounded by a tranquil Japanese garden with sculptures and beautiful trees. The highlight of this shrine is the red arched bridge called Sorihasi, also constructed in a purely Japanese style.
Osaka also has many other attractions which are popular with families including Universal Studios Japan, the Osaka Aquarium, Kuchu Teien Observatory, and the Ferris Wheel.
Day 7: Kobe
A must for culinary travelers, Kobe is famous for its seared Kobe beef and crisp, locally-brewed sake. This cosmopolitan town is situated on the slopes of Rokko Mountains adjacent to the sea and has origins as a popular port city. Kobe is a delight to wander and explore for most travelers. We recommend Kobe as a short day trip from Osaka.
Left: Kobe beef is popular with culinary travelers | Right: Kobe skyline at night
Things To Do:
Port of Kobe Memorial Park
Kobe was damaged due to a severe earthquake in 1995 which resulted in the complete devastation of the port area. The Memorial Park, dedicated to the victims and destruction, is a great place to visit and view the immense damage in the form of demolished structures and tilted light poles.
Kobe’s Chinatown may be small but it is a great place to visit especially if you are hunkering for delicious Chinese food. Must try items include steamed dumplings, meat skewers, and the famous Kobe Beef.
Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum
The Brewery Museum is a great place to understand the traditional sake-making equipment and the sake brewing process. The visit starts with a free self-guided tour and ends with free sake tasting. Visitors can also try sake ice cream at the souvenir shop.
Located in the center of Kobe, Ikuta Shrine is famous in Japan. It consists of several shrines around the main building and a surrounding wooded garden. The shrine is dedicated to relationships and finding love. Visitors can tie love prayers in the garden. Many weddings take place at the Ikuta Shrine.
Day 7-8: Hiroshima – Miyajima – Himeji
The name Hiroshima evokes unpleasant memories of the atomic mushroom cloud, innumerable deaths and destruction on a never seen before scale. However, the present day Hiroshima shows great resilience and has come a long way from the bleak, abandoned blast zones. It is a beautiful, cultured city that is a delight to visit. To visit Hiroshima is to honor the cities hundreds of thousands of victims and their stories.
Left: Hiroshima Peace Monument | Right: Atomic Bomb Dome
Things To Do:
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
The world’s most somber peace monument, the park does a great job of explaining everything that happened in the city on that fateful day. The museum has many artifacts and exhibits about the atomic bombing.
Atomic Bomb Dome
Atomic Bomb Dome has been preserved in its original state of devastation. It serves as a haunting reminder of the vast destruction caused in a single moment. We also recommend visiting the dome after dusk to understand the eerie silence and atrocities of world war II.
Some of Hiroshima’s other peace monuments including Memorial Hall for the victims, Children’s peace monument, the peace bell are well worth a visit. If you want a more detailed travel guide to Hiroshima, check this one out!
Miyajima is a small island in the Hiroshima Bay and is known as the island of the gods. The entire island is preserved as part of the UNESCO world heritage site and is one of Japan’s most popular tourist attractions. The friendly and tame deer that float all over the island are one of the top attractions.
Left: The Great Torii at Miyajima | Right: Deer are all over the island
Things To Do:
Itsukushima – The Great Torii
The Great Torii is a single free-standing gate of the Itsukushima Shrine. At high tide, the Torii is surrounded by water and appears to float on the sea. It is one of the most photographed sites in the world and the gate is commonly called ‘The Floating Torii’.
Mt. Misen is Miyajima’s highest peak. The observation deck at the top of Mt. Misen is accessible via a 2 hr hike or a ropeway and offers beautiful views of the island.
Five Story Pagoda
This lesser known attraction on Miyajima is a beautiful sight. Almost 27 meters tall, the majestic Pagoda is dedicated to the Buddha of Medicine.
Himeji is home to Japan’s most beautiful castle. A stopover at Himeji is necessary for history lovers, art and architecture patrons, and culture geeks.
Things To Do:
Almost everyone comes to Himeji for the castle. The beautiful castle has been recently renovated and is a glorious example of Japanese architecture. The castle is a world heritage site and looks spectacular during the cherry blossom season.
Kokoen Garden is home to 9 reconstructed Samurai style houses. They reflect Edo period style architecture and are surrounded by stunning Japanese gardens with water features, sculptures, and elegant trees. The garden is spectacular in spring and fall.
Himeji makes a perfect day trip from Kyoto and Osaka and is a perfect stopover on the way to Hiroshima.
Day 9-10: Takayama Shirakawa-Go Shinhotaka
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Day 11: Hakone & Mt. Fuji
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Day 12-14: Tokyo
Tokyo, Japan’s bustling capital is a perfect way to end this your amazing trip. Tokyo is a unique city: a startling mix of the ancient and the modern. Your time in Tokyo will be a bustling mix of cultural sights, museums, wide open places, neon skylines, and the strange animal cafes – in case you are wondering whether they are ethical and worth a visit, then read this guide on why you should avoid the animal cafes while in Japan. While we suggest spending 3 days in Tokyo, you can easily spend a week to a fortnight in the city and still not want to leave.
Things To Do In Tokyo:
Tokyo National Museum
A must for history connoisseurs, the Tokyo National Museum has several exhibits and artifacts about the Japanese history and culture. The museum is largest in Japan and has an amazing collection of art pieces, artifacts, and relics dedicated to Japan’s intriguing history. Here you will find samurai swords, kimonos and clothing articles, ancient pottery, beautiful paintings, and sculptures.
Tsukiji Fish Market
Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market is world famous for its gigantic seafood section. The market also has the distinction of being the oldest fish market in the world. Here you can get everything you want from cheap breakfast sushi to expensive caviar and sea urchins. Whether you are looking to buy anything or not, just a stroll through the Tsukiji Fish Market is an unforgettable experience. The market is open for business since dawn when the first fishing ships arrive from the sea.
Fresh seafood for sale at the Tsukiji Fish Market
Senso-ji Temple is the oldest and most visited temple in the city. The temple is dedicated to the Buddhist God of mercy and happiness. The temple and its grounds are grand and have beautiful architectural features which are highly popular with most visitors. Entry to the temple is free and it is one of the best free things to do in Tokyo.
Odaiba is located on the Tokyo Bay right next to the Downtown. Odaiba has everything from stunning buildings, museums, parks, beaches, and even a Legoland. In fact, Legoland is not the only amusement park on this island; Odaiba has many kid-friendly attractions from go-karting, Ferris wheels, and even a natural hot springs theme park for adults.
Are you looking forward to your trip to Japan? What are you most excited about? Drop a comment and let us know!