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
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’.
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.
Himeji – Pit stop
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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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