2 Weeks in Japan – Perfect Travel Itinerary for First-Timers

Kyoto - 2 weeks in Japan, travel guide
The two and a half weeks I spent in Japan gave me a daily dose of new and exhilarating experiences. I marvelled at the temples, swooned over the fashion, became a gluttonous food monster, and filled my heart with the kindness of strangers. I loved everything about it, but it was over all too soon.

I’d change very little about the trip, which is unusual for me as I have a tendency to return from somewhere wishing I had been there or done that. But not this time. It was just right. Well, almost.

I’m already daydreaming about my return. I want to marvel at the snow monkeys as they dwell in the hot springs of Hokkaido, hike up Mount Fiji and get lost in the sprawling suburbs of Tokyo. But for now, I’ll have to sit on that idea until my finances have more meat on their bones.

This 2-week guide is aimed at first timers in Japan who have limited time but want to see as much as possible without being rushed. It covers many of the highlights, but is, by no means, a comprehensive guide of the whole country.

Here’s my recommended itinerary.

  • Osaka – 2 nights
  • Hiroshima – 2 nights
  • Miyajima – 1 night
  • Okayama or Naoshima (Aka Art Island) – 1 night
  • Kyoto – 3 nights
  • Tokyo – 5 nights

In each place you also have the option to head out on a variety of day trips, from Osaka you can catch the train to Kobe or Nara, or you can visit these places in Kyoto before your final stop in Tokyo. The choice is yours.

 

Overview of Japan’s Layout

Japan has 47 prefectures that come under eight regions. These regions are; Hokkaido, Tohoku, Kanto, Chubu, Kansai, Chugoku, Shikoku, and Kyushu-Okinawa. In this 2-week itinerary you will visit three prefectures – Kansai, Chugoku and Kanto. Though if you have time it is feasible to visit Nagoya, Japan’s 4th largest city, located in Chubu between Kyoto and Tokyo.

Since I was strapped on time I concentrated on exploring the cities and caught glimpses of Japan’s alluring countryside while travelling from one place to the next. I didn’t climb Mount Fuji but it was a small consolation to see it from the train window. On my next visit, I’m going to head out into the nature, from what I’ve heard and seen in pictures, the nature is as inspiring as what you can find in Norway, Canada and New Zealand.

 

Osaka – 2 nights

2 weeks in Japan
As soon as I landed in Osaka I had a good feeling about it. It’s not a pretty city, but it’s got more layers than a red onion; a rawness that derives from its sprawling urbanisation and a general lack of conventional beauty. You don’t get the huge hoard of tourists in Osaka like you do in Kyoto and Tokyo, quite often you’ll feel like you’re the only foreign person in town, a rare quality for a city its size.

Like all great cities of the world, Osaka has a close relationship with food. Historically, it served as the centre of rice trade and is often called the ‘Nation’s Kitchen’.

Osaka travel itinerary - Including 2 weeks in Japan

Restaurants are aplenty and the smell of food often drifts through the streets from small street food vendors. The city is famous for Takoyaki, octopus balls made with a batter of flour, eggs, and “dashi” (Japanese soup stock). You can find a variety of Osakan street food dotted all over the city, including at Dotonbori and Shineskai. These two areas are compulsory if you want to see Osaka at its brightest, wackiest and most memorable.

Where should you stay in Osaka? Splurge: Cross Hotel Osaka. Budget: Fuku (capsule) Hostel.

 

Himeji – Pit stop

The beautiful Himeji Castle in Japan
Jump off the train between Osaka and Hiroshima to visit the small city of Himeji for a few hours. The star attraction of this place is Himeji castle, the largest and most visited castle in Japan. If this building looks familiar to you, that’s because you might recognise it from the James Bond film You Only Live Twice. In 1993 it was place onto the UNESCO World Heritage list which has helped boast the city’s profile.

 

Hiroshima – 2 nights

Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima
Upon hearing its name, there isn’t a city in the world that holds as much weight as Hiroshima. In lies a tragic past, all visitors pay respect to those affected and the 140,000 people who were killed on 6 Aug 1945 after the Atomic bomb known as ‘Little Boy’ was dropped over the city.

As you would expect you can find many ways to explore Hiroshima’s history, most prominently at the Peace Park and Museum. Leave the whole day to explore this side of the city, give it the time it requires to digest. You’ll be carried though a vast pool of emotions. Take a pack of napkins along to the museum as you’ll be taken on a heart-breaking journey through an unthinkable period in time.

It’s difficult to comprehend that humans are held accountable for such a huge loss of life: how can we use the gift of intelligence in such evil ways?

I’m keen to point out the city’s beauty, though marred by its devastating past, it has a peaceful and bright vision with lots of open green spaces, interesting architecture and holds a river through the city.

Peace Park in Hiroshima - 2 weeks travel guide in Japan

The Peace Park is exactly as its name suggest. And please can we just take a moment to appreciate the topiary? I’m in awe.

Where should you stay in Hiroshima? Splurge: Sheraton Grand Hiroshima Hotel. Budget: Sansui Ryokan.

 

Miyajima – Day-trip or 1 night

Only a 45-minute boat trip from Hiroshima, the idyllic island of Miyajima shouldn’t be missed. Known affectionately for the deer which roam through the streets photobombing tourists, there’s little not to like about this island.

Itshukshima shrine on Miyajima Island, Japan

The most iconic landmark is the venerable Itsukushima-jinja, where the vermillion gates rising out of the sea is regarded as one of Japan’s most ethereal views. I’m sure you’re inclined to agree when the tide is high and it looks like it’s floating on water.

Oysters in noodles - what to eat in Japan

Where food is concerned, the island is famous for its oysters. Often I’m not a fan of oysters but the best I’ve ever had were on this island and you can try them in many varieties, in a bun, in noodles (above), or simply on their own.

 

Okayama or Naoshima (aka Art Island) – 1 night

Korakuen in Okayama - 2 weeks in Japan
En route to Kyoto from Hiroshima I decided to spend a night at Okayama, home to one of Japan’s Top 3 famous gardens – Korakuen. But the main reason of spending a night here is the easy access to Naoshima, a striking island combining nature with eye-catching sculptures, art museums and the luxurious hotel Benesse House.

Naoshima aka Art Island - how to spend 2 weeks in Japan

Sculpture on Naoshima © Forbes

However, and it pains me to say this, I missed the boat to get there. My only opportunity to visit fell to the floor with a loud and depressing thud.

Not reaching Naoshima is the only regret I have from my trip to Japan so don’t make the same mistake, plan this right and you’ll find yourself on this utterly unique and surreal island! I’ve heard from other people that exploring this art island was a highlight of their whole trip – for a country chock-a-block with attractions, that says a lot.

 

Kyoto – 3 nights

Kyoto, beautiful city
I spent 5 days in Kyoto as I had more time, but you’ll be able to see all the top attractions in 3 days. I became smitten by Kyoto, it’s the most charming and romantic of all the cities, not least beautiful.

I’ve heard it can get very busy in the height of the season, so you may want to factor this in when you’re planning to go. If you can only go during busy dates I advise you to head over to the main attractions early in the morning or toward the evening, especially the Golden Temple and the orange wonder that is Fushimi Inari Taisha.

2 weeks in Japan - travel itinerary

This former imperial capital is home to a sublime collection of temples, shrines and gardens. It’s easy to get bogged down in trying to see everything yet really seeing nothing in a hurry so choose what you’d like to see the most and spend the rest of your time exploring the city’s tightly woven side streets.

 

Tokyo – 5 nights

Kabukicho, Tokyo

Saving the best for last is TOKYO, Japan’s capital city.

Tokyo is the sound of a million cities compounding into one, Tokyo is never guessing what’s around the corner, Tokyo is seeing everything with new eyes, Tokyo is, quite simply, da bomb from head to toe.

This restless metropolis has everything you’d hope the world’s largest city would possess in every conceivable way. There’s so much more you could ever wish to see in five days so the best thing to do is to stick to a few neighbourhoods.

Japan 2-week travel guide

But if you want eclectic, travel to Shinjuku for neon-lights and Cosplay girls, Shibuya for the city’s famed skyscrapers and endless shopping, Akihabara for mind-blogging tech shops and gaming centres, or Ueno Park where a variety of first class museums are concentrated closely together.

You’re never short of restaurants in Tokyo either. Along with France it has more Michelin star restaurants than anywhere else in the world. But things don’t have to come at a big cost, you can grab cheap and tasty food on nearly every corner. For a memorable experience, soak up the energy of market life offered at Tsukiji Fish Market. And if you’re not averse to early mornings, try and make it for the 4am tuna auction – but that means you have to get there even earlier if you want to be one of the fortunate few who get the chance to see the live auction taking place. Only the first 60 in the queue make the cut.

Further Information

Travel around by… train. You’ll need to purchase a JR Pass before you enter Japan. It’s not cheap but in the long run will you save a lot of money as travelling between places, especially using the Shinkansen is expensive. See www.jrpass.com for more details. It is possible to buy travel passes when you arrive in Japan but they’ll be more expensive.

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Exploring Japan in 2 weeks - travel itinerary packed with tips, recommendations and photos

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A travel & culture blog specialising in Scandinavia and the Arctic, peppered with the rest of the world in between.


'2 Weeks in Japan – Perfect Travel Itinerary for First-Timers' have 23 comments

  1. April 29, 2016 @ 11:13 am Theo Shepherd

    Wow! Thanks for the tips Shing! I’ve been meaning to visit Japan for some time now so will definitely refer to your list when I finally go. I hear Japan (especially Osaka) has one of the best electronic music scenes in the world so have to go ASAP!

    Reply

    • May 2, 2016 @ 6:02 pm Shing Yoong

      Osaka and Tokyo has amazing nightlife, and they’re both very different so I urge you to visit both cities (as well as the rest!).

      Reply

  2. May 4, 2016 @ 6:39 am Victoria@ The British Berliner

    Lovely post Shing!

    I would love to travel to Japan and when I do so, I’ll be devouring your blog for details!

    Reply

    • May 4, 2016 @ 6:19 pm Shing Yoong

      Glad you enjoyed reading this post, Japan is definitely worth the wait Victoria!

      Reply

  3. May 12, 2016 @ 7:54 pm Kirsten Bukager

    Love your photos, Shing! I also visited Japan in April, but only for 5 days. You managed to cover many interesting cities and places, and I feel inspired to go back! Japan is different from other Asian countries, and I’ve listed some of my Aha! moments in Tokyo and Kyoto on my website.

    Reply

    • May 14, 2016 @ 8:05 pm Shing Yoong

      Hey Kirsten, I completely agree with you, Japan is very different from other Asian countries, funnily enough I call it the ‘Scandinavia of the East’. Can you see where I’m coming from??

      Reply

      • May 17, 2016 @ 7:58 pm Kirsten Bukager

        You definitelty have a point there: Similar climate and sense humor, minimalistic design, love for nature. But Scandinavians have much to learn from Japanese etiquette!

        Reply

  4. October 25, 2016 @ 9:43 pm Gary

    Great read 🙂
    Planning to go again in April next year with a group of friends that will be their first time, mainly staying in the Tokyo area with day trips to Osaka and Kyoto 😀

    Reply

    • October 29, 2016 @ 12:17 pm Shing Yoong

      Hi Gary, looks like you’ll be there for cherry blossom season, lucky you, eh? Have a wonderful time going back to Japan, I wish I could say the same thing as I’m desperate to return! Hopefully I won’t have to wait too long 😉

      But only a day trip to Kyoto – can you squeeze in at least a night?

      Reply

  5. December 26, 2016 @ 10:44 am Marie @mariestravels.com

    Thanks for the perfect itinerary. I am planning to go to Japan for 2 weeks in 2017 and I think I will do everything you just described! 😀

    Reply

    • January 1, 2017 @ 2:37 am Karen

      Ditto! I just booked two weeks from early July and this itinerary looks perfect. Thank you

      Reply

    • January 4, 2017 @ 3:33 pm Shing Yoong

      Hi Marie, if you have any question I’d be more than happy to try and asnwer! You’ll love Japan, it’s impossible not it!

      Reply

      • January 4, 2017 @ 3:35 pm Shing Yoong

        Hi Karen! Great to hear that you’ve got Japan in the pipe line! I’m happy you’ve found this itinerary helpful, but if you have any questions, feel free to ask 🙂

        Reply

  6. January 6, 2017 @ 3:50 am Kent

    Great blog post!

    I’m actually headed there for the first time next week! I’m going solo and was wondering if it was a good idea to get the JR pass.

    Thanks!

    Reply

    • January 6, 2017 @ 9:40 am Shing Yoong

      Hi Kent! How long are you going for? If you’re planning on travelling quite a bit and travelling the length of Hiroshima to Tokyo I would definitely suggest getting the JR Pass as it will save you money (even though it’s already expensive!). Alternatively, when you arrive at the airport you can buy other passes for separate regions but once you total them up you will find a JR Pass works out quite a bit cheaper, and it’s simpler to buy just one pass for everything instead of individual ones. I hope you have a wonderful time and let me know if you have anymore questions!

      Reply

      • January 9, 2017 @ 7:15 am Kent

        I’m going for two weeks as well! I ended up getting the pass as I figure it’s about the same price, minus having to worry about getting tickets everywhere. I think my routes is pretty similar to yours, except I’m going to go to Nagano to see snow monkeys 😀 If you have any other suggestions on food and other places to see I would greatly appreciate it! Thanks!

        Reply

        • January 16, 2017 @ 12:58 am Shing Yoong

          Great to hear you bought a JR Pass, it’s certainly more convenient and you’ll find it saves you money. Ahhh I’m so envious that you’re going to Nagano to see the snow monkeys – you’ll have to let me know what it was like as I really want to go myself.

          If you’re into food Japan obviously won’t disappoint. Here are a few dishes you shouldn’t miss: Okonomiyaki, hirata buns, takoyaki, soba noodles, and just about all the sushi imaginable!

          Reply

  7. January 6, 2017 @ 3:43 pm Mauricio D'Rugama

    Hey Shing!
    I’ve just seen this and its really look amazing.
    How much you think it would take the hole vacation/trips/food/hotel?

    Thanks

    Reply

    • January 16, 2017 @ 1:15 am Shing Yoong

      Ahhh tough question that might deserve a whole post on it’s own! In brief, when I went in 2015 it was not as expensive as I thought it would be. I generally spent between £30 – £35 for accommodation per night on average, which isn’t bad if you’re splitting the cost i.e. £17.50 per person. However, it is possible to find cheaper accommodation as well but I had a little more money to spare. Tokyo is more expensive so I used an Airbnb which I recommend if you want to avoid hotel prices. On food I spent about £20 a day but sometimes less (you can buy a decent meal for £5). For travel I recommend getting a JR Pass as travelling by train between cities is quite pricy. There are lots of free things to do in Japan, but I put aside £10 per day for sightseeing (Some of the temples in Kyoto require an entrance fee for example).

      In somewhere like Japan it ranges from affordable to very expensive – but what you certainly do get is quality for your money, even if you go for the cheaper options in most cases. If you’re on a budget you can definitely visit Japan on a cheaper budget than I laid out for myself if you’re prepared to do a bit more research on free attractions, and more affordable accommodations and restaurants. I hope this helps, let me know if you have anymore questions.

      Reply

  8. January 13, 2017 @ 9:38 am Ehjay Macapinlac

    Hi Shing,

    Great blog! thank you for sharing your Japan itinerary and how it went.
    I do wonder, how big was your budget for this, or overall how much did you spend?
    Might have some other things I have been wondering, if you don’t mind giving me some of your insight, please exchange email?

    Again, thank you for this helpful blog! 🙂

    Reply

    • January 16, 2017 @ 1:22 am Shing Yoong

      Hi Ehjay, glad to read that you found my blog helpful! In regards to your questions, another person has asked the same question, so I’ll copy and paste the same reply:

      In brief, when I went in 2015 it was not as expensive as I thought it would be. I generally spent between £30 – £35 for accommodation per night on average, which isn’t bad if you’re splitting the cost i.e. £17.50 per person. However, it is possible to find cheaper accommodation as well but I had a little more money to spare. Tokyo is more expensive so I used an Airbnb which I recommend if you want to avoid hotel prices. On food I spent about £20 a day but sometimes less (you can buy a decent meal for £5-7 per person). For travel I recommend getting a JR Pass as travelling by train between cities is quite pricy. There are lots of free things to do in Japan, but I put aside £10 per day for sightseeing (Some of the temples in Kyoto require an entrance fee for example).

      In somewhere like Japan it ranges from affordable to very expensive – but what you certainly do get is quality for your money, even if you go for the cheaper options in most cases. If you’re on a budget you can definitely visit Japan on a cheaper budget than I laid out for myself if you’re prepared to do a bit more research on free attractions, and more affordable accommodations and restaurants.

      If you have anymore questions you can send them to shingyoong@hotmail.com. However, my preference for answering questions is within the comment section of each post because it might help other people who are planning their trip to Japan as well 🙂

      Reply

  9. January 18, 2017 @ 4:12 pm Chloe White

    Hi Shing,

    First of all, I love your blog, so colourful and fun!!! 🙂 . I loved reading your itinerary, so organised and the fact you got to see to much. I hope to visit Japan soon as one of my next long-haul trips with my parents and younger brother (aged 15/16).

    I know this is a silly question to ask, but from your experience, did you have any problems like with the language barrier with people or even finding your way round places? In other words, was there enough people to understand english incase you was asking for help or directions?
    Also, overall, are the majority of things expensive to buy (food/tickets/souvenirs etc) if say a family of 4 was travelling to do a similar plan you did?

    Again, many thanks to your wonderful blog! 🙂

    Reply

  10. May 3, 2017 @ 4:34 am Flo

    Hi Shing,

    Great and helpful read! I’ll be travelling to Japan in November and doing my research wayyyy in advance! I have a few questions if you don’t mind helping me out. I’ll be flying in to Osaka and then flying out from Tokyo. Instead of doing round trips, I plan to do one way trips starting from Osaka. I believe that’d what you did, right?
    So do you think this route is viable : Osaka – Kyoto – Nara – Miyajima – Tokyo
    What would you suggest? I am going to be spending 11 nights in Japan.
    Seeing that it is a one way trip, would it be worthy to get the JR Pass?
    I’ll be lugging big luggages around so that is something that I am putting into factor whether to do round trips or one way as planned.

    I appreciate your help in this in any way you can! Thanks!

    Reply


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