No place on earth is quite like Japan. I’ve never visited any other country that made me feel both at home and as if I was wandering around a different planet in the same stroke. Japan’s quirky and strange, and yet, oddly familiar; ultra-modern, yet, deeply traditional. It’s a paradox I still can’t explain. (And the big reason Japan still intrigues me so much.)
Don’t let the long transpacific flight stop you from visiting Japan. Even if you’re pushing your limited vacation time to the edges, you can experience some of Japan’s most interesting cities for travellers with minimal time spent cramped on public transport.
Pressed for time and want to pack in the best of Japan on a short trip? Discover what to do in Japan with this complete 10-day Japan itinerary for beginners!
Table of Contents
- 10 days in Japan: Things to know before you go
- Where to go in Japan in 10 days: A complete itinerary
- 10-day Japan itinerary: Tips, tweaks & more places to visit
10 days in Japan: Things to know before you go
When to go to Japan
The Japanese take pride in the fact that Japan is a four-season destination. Summers are hot & humid and winters, depending on what you’re used to, can be cold & chilly—especially in the northern fringes of Japan in Hokkaido.
Overall, for most travellers, the best time to visit Japan is either April or November.
Visiting in April, you’ll get a chance to see the majestic Japanese cherry blossoms take over much of the country under relatively sunny skies and mild temperatures. Likewise, November sees the beauty of Japan’s fall foliage unfold.
Whatever time of year you choose to visit, be prepared for anything Japan will throw at you with this complete Japan packing list.
Do I need travel insurance for Japan?
If there’s one expense that I never cheap out on it’s travel insurance. Although I’ve yet to make a claim myself (knock on wood!), I always make sure I’m covered. In those rare instances where something happens, the small cost of a good travel insurance policy will more than pay for itself.
When you’re shopping for travel insurance for Japan, look for a policy that covers important items like medical care and trip cancellation, as well as lost, damaged or stolen baggage.
One thing to really pay attention to in Japan is medical coverage. While medical costs in Japan aren’t particularly astronomical as, let’s say, the United States (they’re more in line with Australia or Canada), many Japanese hospitals refuse to treat foreign patients without proof of medical insurance.
And even if you find hospitals that would treat you, the out-of-pocket costs of longer-term hospitalization for a serious illness or injury could be quite financially damaging.
Looking for affordable travel insurance coverage? Travel insurance from WorldNomads.com is available to people from 140 countries. It’s designed for adventurous travellers with cover for overseas medical, evacuation, baggage and a range of adventure sports and activities. Unlike most companies, World Nomads even allows you to purchase a policy after you’ve started your travels! Get a quote by clicking here.
Getting connected in Japan
Like in most countries in East Asia, it’s not hard to stay connected in Japan. Most hotels in Japan offer free WiFi in both guestrooms and the common areas. Free WiFi hotspots are also conveniently placed around cities at major tourist sites, transportation hubs, restaurants, cafés, and bars.
Although you won’t likely have any problems finding free WiFi connections around Japanese cities, public hotspots, like anywhere else in the world, aren’t always convenient.
With so many random people connecting, speed and inconsistent connections are fairly common issues. Sometimes doing something as simple as posting a photo to Instagram can require several frustrating attempts!
Far better than relying solely on free public WiFi in Japan is to rent a portable 4G WiFi Router for Japan. The rental fee includes free pickup at several major airports in Japan as well as 7GB of 4G/LTE data usage.
Alternatively, if you have an unlocked mobile device you can rent a 4G Data SIM Card for Japan. Several plans are available including unlimited 4G for 8 days.
Virtual Private Network (VPN)
Whether you’re running on public WiFi or your own router/SIM card, whenever you connect to the Internet, your data could be vulnerable. That’s why I always recommend connecting through a virtual private network (VPN).
One of the better VPN providers for travellers is NordVPN.
Although Internet usage is fairly open in Japan (unlike in China, where having a VPN is almost obligatory if you want to get anything down), NordVPN has servers all around the globe. Connecting through different countries you’ll be able to access online services, like your home country’s Netflix, that may otherwise be unavailable.
Most importantly, connecting through a VPN makes sure that your most important private data stays just that. NordVPN’s double encryption technology ensures that your data is kept safe from prying eyes. They also don’t keep server logs, so you’re able to browse without worry. Check out the latest NordVPN plan deals by clicking here.
Is a Japan rail pass worth it?
Like many countries in Europe, Japan is a place that simply begs to be explored by train. The train system in Japan is one of the world’s best and most innovative. It’s comfortable, quick, and convenient, and is, by far, the best way to tackle your 10 days in Japan with gusto.
Want to save some serious coin on your Japan itinerary? I’d highly recommend picking up a 7-Day Japan Rail Pass or 14-Day Japan Rail Pass. With little more than one or two longer shinkansen (bullet train) trips, a Japan rail pass will often pay for itself.
Not convinced yet? I’ve written up a short guide—”Is the Japan Rail Pass worth it?“—to help you decide whether the Japan Rail Pass is the right move for your trip.
Other Japan travel planning resources
- Guidebooks: As much I rely on technology, I rarely travel without print guidebooks. Lonely Planet Japan provides one of the more comprehensive and up-to-date travel guides for Japan.
- Phrasebooks: Although it’s becoming easier to find English speakers in bigger Japanese cities, there’s no doubt you’ll run into language barriers in Japan. The Lonely Planet Japanese Phrasebookis a great partner to travel along with.
- Language learning resources: To go more into depth with learning Japanese, Teach Yourself Get Talking and Keep Talking Japanese is a excellent audio course for beginners. For a more comprehensive overview, check out Teach Yourself Complete Japanese.
- Vaccinations: There are no required vaccinations for Japan. The CDC recommends being up-to-date with your routine vaccines. Travellers should consider getting vaccinated against Hepatitis A & B, and Japanese encephalitis if planning an extended trip or spending significant time outdoors and in rural areas.
Where to go in Japan in 10 days: A complete itinerary
You’ll be surprised with how much you can uncover in Japan in 10 days. Unlike travelling in many countries elsewhere in Asia, zipping around Japan is quick and comfortable thanks to a ultra-modern transportation system.
Many of the most popular destinations in Japan are crammed close together, meaning you’ll spend far more time exploring the country than sitting aimlessly in transit.
In this 10-day Japan itinerary, you’ll find a handful of obvious choices and a few lesser-known towns perfect for day tripping. Fitting in the stops here will cover the country at a broad stroke and give you a solid appreciation for Japan.
There’s no better place to begin exploring Japan than Tokyo. Not everyone agrees. But wander along the neon-splattered avenues of Shinjuku, sip on a biiru in a traditional izakaya, or snatch a moment of relaxation in Yoyogi Park and you’ll discover why Tokyo snagged the first slot on this Japan itinerary.
You could easily spend your entire 10 days in Japan in Tokyo without a single moment of boredom. (Not that you should do that on your first trip to Japan!)
I’d suggest dropping at least 4 days in Tokyo. That way you’ll have time to explore the city more leisurely while leaving time to take in a couple Tokyo day trips. (More on that later.)
What to Do in Tokyo
The world’s most populated city holds no punches for keeping you occupied. With only a couple days, of course, you can’t expect to see it all. At the minimum, try to fit in these interesting things to see & do in Tokyo:
Get in on the action at Tsukiji Fish Market
Tokyo’s most famous attraction isn’t your typical tourist magnet. A stinky fish market isn’t the place I’d normally want to spend a holiday! Even so, fighting your jet lag for an early morning visit to Tsukiji Fish Market is the perfect way to start your first day in Tokyo.
The early morning tuna auction at Tsukiji Fish Market attracts quite the crowd. If you’re not a morning person, I feel your pain. You’ll need to tough out a pre-4am arrival to snag one of the 120 entrance tickets. Keep in mind public transportation won’t be running yet.
Should the early-morning blues keep you from the tuna auction, you can still head to Tsukiji Inner Market to explore the shops and food stalls. Work up a hearty appetite? Chow down on an über-fresh sushi breakfast at the Tsukiji Outer Market to fuel up for your day.
Ready to make the most out of your visit to Tsukiji? Hop onto one of these hand-picked tours:
- Tokyo Fish Market Insider & Sushi Workshop: Become a sushi master in-the-making by taking part in this unique 3-hour workshop/tour combo. Your expert guide will take you through the world’s largest fish market to help you pick out the freshest ingredients and teach how to prepare your own sushi. This is a best-seller in Tokyo, so book early to claim your spot!
- Tsukiji Fish Market Food & Drink Walking Tour: Join a professional guide who’ll walk you through the maze of seafood vendors at Tsukiji Fish Market on this lip-smackin’ 3.5-hour tour. Sample everything from sushi & bonito to sake & savoury pancakes.
- Tsukiji Market Walking Tour & Rolled Sushi Class: Another Tsukiji walking tour and workshop combination focusing on teaching your how to prepare delicious authentic Japan dishes like rolled sushi, temari sushi, egg omelet, and miso soup.
See Tokyo at its most traditional in Asakusa
No area in Tokyo is more intriguing to wander around than Asakusa. Japanese wooden architecture mingles with traditional izakaya (pubs), ryokan (inns), and souvenir shops to create an escape from central Tokyo’s ultra-modern façade.
Start your journey at Kaminarimon (Kaminari Gate) and amble along Nakamise-dōri, a street lined with traditional souvenir shops. If you’re looking for kitschy Japanese souvenirs for loved ones back home, this is the place to whip out your yen.
At the end of Nakamise-dōri, walk through Hōzōmon and make your way to Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple. The Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples and well-manicured gardens of the inner grounds of Sensō-ji are worth exploring, even if briefly, before moving on.
My best advice for experiencing Asakusa, beyond these few top Asakusa attractions, is to simply wander. Every side-street seems to have something worth stumbling upon, whether it’s interesting architecture or a food stall wafting an intriguing aroma that beckons a taste.
Got time to dig into Asakusa in more depth? Take on one of these interesting Asakusa tours:
- Asakusa Local Food & Drink Tour: Avoid the tourist crowds and explore Asakusa by night with this satisfying 3-hour evening tour where you’ll get to visit a traditional Japanese izakaya to drink sake & eat typical after-work snacks like okonomiyaki alongside locals.
- Tokyo Asakusa Rickshaw Tour: See Asakusa in the most traditional way possible by hopping on this unique rickshaw tour! Your professional guide will cruise you through the streets of Tokyo’s most interesting area past temples, shrines, parks, and through off-beat neighbourhoods while giving you a little background on the area’s history.
- Asakusa & Ryogoku Walking Tour with Sumo Wrestler: Yes, you read that right! This unique 2.5-hour walking tour sets you up with a real sumo wrestler and professional translator who’ll give you a rare behind-the-scenes look at the sumo life while walking through Asakusa and Ryogoku (known as Tokyo’s sumo town).
Suck in the urban buzz in Shinjuku
The electricity of Tokyo is best experienced in Shinjuku, the beating heart of modern Tokyo. When you imagine Tokyo’s blazing neon and never-ending chaos, you’ve got Shinjuku on your mind. And I doubt it will disappoint!
Exploring the streets of Shinjuku is where you’ll either come to love or hate Tokyo. (Although I’d bet on the former!) The energy in Shinjuku is infectious, and once you get used to the chaos, it’s a wild ride that every traveller to Japan should take.
There are a ton of things to do in Shinjuku, even if most aren’t of the typical “tourist” variety. A must-do (and free!) activity is to scale up to the observation deck at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building for a picture-perfect view of Tokyo’s skyline from above.
Want to explore Shinjuku to the max? Check out these hand-picked Shinjuku tours:
- Shinjuku Night Walking Tour: Explore Tokyo’s most exciting district by night on this 2.5-hour evening tour. Includes a light meal & drink at a traditional Shinjuku izakaya.
- Shinjuku Golden Gai & Kabukicho Izakaya Experience: Start exploring Shinjuku at the rustic bars of Omoide Yokocho (the district’s famed “piss” alley) on this action-packed 3-hour walking tour. Roll through the entertainment district of Kabukicho & the atmospheric retro area of Golden Gai, stopping along the way to taste 4 different authentic Japanese dishes & sip on local beverages.
- Robot Show & Dinner at Samurai-Themed Restaurant: Get all the kitsch out of the way while in Shinjuku with a fun-filled night of laser-shooting robots and warlords on this unique 4.5-hour dinner tour.
Where to Stay in Tokyo
I can’t say that choosing where to stay in Tokyo will be easy. Hotels in Tokyo are among the most expensive in the world, and even with the efficient (if crowded) public transportation in Tokyo, the city’s size presents a problem for the unfamiliarized.
Narrowing your search to the areas within walking distance (or a short metro ride) of Shibuya, Shinjuku or Ginza is a good idea. These top Tokyo districts offer the best entertainment and dining options and are well connected to the rest of the city by public transportation. Here are a few ideas:
- The Prime Pod GINZA TOKYO: Looking for compromise between comfort and budget? Try out one of Tokyo’s famous capsule hotels! This centrally-located capsule hotel is a good choice close to the action.
- Booking.com | Agoda
- Ueno Touganeya Hotel: Save your yen while not compromising on space in this comfy 2-star hotel in Ueno. Rooms include a private bathroom, a rarity in the Tokyo budget hotel market.
- Booking.com | Agoda
- Tokyu Stay Shinjuku: Splurge for a little less claustrophobic setting while getting to experience one of Tokyo’s most exciting districts up close.
- Booking.com | Agoda
- The Capitol Hotel Tokyu: One of the best value luxury hotels in Tokyo. Room shun the usual tight Tokyo standard and offer panoramic windows with epic city views.
- Booking.com | Agoda
Getting to Tokyo
Tokyo’s a major Asian airline hub, and, along with Kansai Airport near Osaka and Kyoto, is the most convenient entry point into Japan from abroad. Two major airports serve Tokyo, Narita International (NRT) and Haneda (HND), with the former serving most international flights. Several airlines including ANA fly from major destinations worldwide to Tokyo.
From the United States expect to pay about $550-650 return at the cheapest. Flights from Canada to Tokyo have increased in recent years with the cheapest flights generally hovering around C$850-1000. Flights from west coast North American cities like Vancouver, San Francisco and Los Angeles are usually the best value.
Day Trip from Tokyo
Even if the swarm of day trippers gets on your nerves, you can’t deny the awesomeness that is Nikko. The small Japanese city, set among lush woodlands, is one of Japan’s top tourist destinations and one of the best day trips from Tokyo.
Planning an extra day in Tokyo will give you time to head up north to explore Nikko’s ancient moss-covered shrines and temples. If you can spare it though, spend two days in Nikko to delve into the full experience. (Use these ideas for where to stay in Nikko to help plan it out.)
What to Do in Nikkō
Fitting in a day trip to Nikko from Tokyo will be one of the most rewarding experiences of your first trip to Japan. Most of your time in Nikko will be spent digging through UNESCO World Heritage shrines and temples that whisk you back into Japan’s ancient past
Start your day peeking around to find these interesting things to do in Nikko:
Experience the grace of Rinnō-ji Temple
Crossing over postcard-perfect Shinkyō Bridge, one of Japan’s most famous sights, you’ll enter into the mysterious world of Nikkō’s UNESCO World Heritage area. Although the Shinkyō Bridge technically belongs to the Futarasan-jinja Shrine, the first major site you’ll stumble upon after crossing the river is the Rinnō-ji Temple.
Rinnō-ji is less a single building than a Buddhist temple complex. Fifteen buildings adorn the site with the main hall, Sambutsu-dō (Three Buddha Hall), acting as the anchor. Even with Sambustsu-dō under renovation until 2021, it’s still worthwhile to explore Rinnō-ji. Besides the large wooden Buddhist deities at Sambutsu-dō (Bato-Kannon, Senju Kannon, and the Amida Nyorai), keep on the look out for Shoyo-en, a beautifully-manicured traditional Japanese garden. The best time to visit Shoyo-en is in autumn when the leaves explode into a cavalcade of fall colours.
Step back into ancient Japan at Nikkō Tōshōgū Shrine
The most important site in Nikko is the Tōshōgū Shrine, the final resting place of the first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. When you dream of ancient Japan, it probably looks something like this massive temple complex.
At Tōshōgū, Buddhist elements are sprinkled among traditional Japanese features to create a shrine unlike any other in Japan. Start exploring Tōshōgū at the Ishidorii, the main entrance gate. From here you’ll spot Gojūnotō, a five-storey Buddhist pagoda and Japan’s tallest.
The main shrine area begins at Omotemon where you’ll be able to start gazing upon the traditional Japanese architecture of buildings such as Sanjinko (Three Sacred Storehouse) and Shinkyūsha (The Sacred Stable). While wandering around Tōshōgū, try to spot the four famous wooden carvings by Japanese sculptor Hidari Jingoro: nemurineko (sleeping cat), and iwazaru, kikazaru and minazaru (the three monkeys).
Connect with nature at Futarasan-jinja Shrine
Just beyond the Nikkō Tōshōgū Shrine, in the shadow of Nantai-san (Mount Nantai), lies Nikkō’s most famous religious site, Futarasan-jinja Shrine. Unlike other Nikko shrines that deify the Shoguns, Futarasan-jinja serves to worship nearby mountain deities.
The structures at Futarasan-jinja aren’t quite as ornate as Tōshōgū or Rinnō-ji, but it is Nikkō’s oldest shrine, dating back to 1619. For the views alone, the trip up to Futarasan-jinja is worthwhile.
Want to experience more of Nikko without hassle? Check out these recommended Nikko tours:
- Nikko World Heritage Full-Day Tour: Explore Nikko to its fullest on this action-packed full-day tour of all the town’s best cultural sites. Includes visits to Toshogu Shrine, Tamozawa Imperial Villa, Rinnoji Temple, and Kirifuri Falls.
- Nikko Guided Tour by Bullet Train: Zip over to Nikko on the shinkansen on this 9-hour full-day tour. A visit to the Watanabe Sahira Sake Brewery makes this tour perfect for food & drink enthusiasts.
- Day Tour to World Heritage Sites in Nikko: See more of Nikko with this complete day trip from Tokyo focusing on cultural & natural treasures like Toshogu Shrine, Kegon Waterfall, and Lake Chuzenji.
Getting to Nikko
There are a multitude of options available for travelling between Tokyo and Nikko. One of the cheapest—and most convenient—is the Tobu Railways route from Tobu Asakusa Station.
Tickets run about ¥1360 each way, taking two hours. Foreigners should consider the Tobu Nikko City Area Pass (¥2,670). It’s slightly cheaper than two one-way tickets between Tokyo and Nikko and includes, in addition to return transportation from Tokyo, local transportation in Nikko and various discounts.
Using a Japan Rail Pass on the Tokyo-Nikko route is more challenging. Routes between Shinjuku and Nikko use the Tobu network for part of the route, meaning the standard JR Pass won’t fully cover the two-hour route. Other Japan rail passes including the JR Tokyo Wide and several JR East passes do the trick, however.
Does all this seem a little too complicated? Let someone else handle the logistics with the Nikko Guided Full-Day Tour from Tokyo. The tour includes return transportation from Tokyo Station and a private tour of Nikko and the Watanabe Sahira Sake Brewery.
Day Trip from Tokyo
Aside from Nikko the best one-day escape from Tokyo is Kamakura. The small coastal city is one of the most important from medieval Japan, wearing its history on its sleeve with a massive concentration of temples and shrines strewn throughout town.
Day trippers beware: Kamakura can crowded; it’s one of the most popular destinations in Eastern Japan. And with good reason. Carve out extra time to get the full Kamakura experience. Otherwise, stick to the basics and get excited for one of the best day trips from Tokyo.
What to Do in Kamakura
Kamakura’s got more than a little Kyoto in it. Like Japan’s former imperial capital, Kamakura is jam-packed with historic temples and shrines. On a day trip, you can’t expect to see them all. Get started with these few interesting things to do in Kamakura:
Get eclipsed by the Great Buddha of Kamakura (Kamakura Daibutsu)
One of the most famous landmarks in all of Japan, the Great Buddha of Kamakura (Kamakura Daibutsu) makes the trip to Kamakura worthwhile on its own.
Standing beside the 13-metre-high bronzed Buddha lets you appreciate the grandeur, surpassed in Japan only by Nara’s own Daibutsu at Todaji Temple.
Wander through the bamboo garden at Hokokuji Temple
There’s small army of temples stationed in Kamakura. Choosing any one temple over another is challenging. But Hokokuji Temple is special. Set among hilly woodlands, this small Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple is isolated from the rest of city, a serene escape from the chaos of urban Japan.
The temple itself is humble, lacking the showy and ornate details you might find elsewhere. The real treat of Hokokuji Temple lies in the bamboo garden hiding behind the temple’s main hall. Wandering through the stone paths that wind through thousands of bamboo trees is rewarded with break at a secluded tea house with incredible views of the forest.
Want to see more of Kamakura without hassle? Book yourself onto one of these hand-picked Kamakura tours:
- Kamakura & Tokyo Bay Full-Day Bus Tour from Tokyo: One of the top-selling tours from Tokyo, this bus tour whisks travellers away from Tokyo’s bustle to the beautiful scenes of Tokyo Bay and the lovely town of Kamakura.
- Kamakura Nature and History Walking Tour: A 5-hour historical walking tour starting along the beautiful trail between Kita-Kamakura and Hasedera Temple. Offers the perfect escape from the big city!
- Private Full-Day Kamakura Tour: A private 9-hour guided tour exploring all of Kamakura’s top attractions including Kamakura Daibutsu, Shrine of Tsuragoaka Hachimangu, and Hokokuji Temple. Tour includes hotel pick-up and drop-off.
Getting to Kamakura
On Japan Railways, it’s a quick trip between Tokyo and Kamakura. From Tokyo Station, the JR Yokosuka Line offers direct trains to Kamakura Station taking about one hour (¥920 each way).
Starting in Shinjuku? Hop onto the JR Shonan Shinjuku Line. It’s the same price as above but not all trains offer a direct connection to Kamakura Station. Be sure to only use trains bound for Zushi or else you’ll need to change trains at Ofuna Station to reach Kamakura.
Rather not sort out your own transportation to Kamakura? Try the Kamakura and Tokyo Bay Day Trip from Tokyo! The full-day tour includes return bus transportation (pickups available from several Tokyo hotels) from Tokyo and a guided tour through Kamakura’s best attractions.
Dreams of Japan are always fulfilled with a stop in Kyoto. The old imperial capital is Japan’s most intriguing major tourist destination where temples dot the backstreets, geishas shuffle around and gardens and shrines hide in the deepest recesses.
Unload at least four days in Kyoto to take the city in at relaxed pace and leave room for a couple awesome Kyoto day trips.
What to Do in Kyoto
Exploring Kyoto begins with stepping away from its modernity to dig into the past. Not sure where to start the journey? Load up your Kyoto itinerary with some of these awesome things to do in Kyoto:
Admiring Kyoto’s spectacular temples and shrines
With over 2,000 temples and shrines located in the city, every nook and cranny in Kyoto seems to hide a scene that takes your breath away. The most impressive temples and shrines aren’t always the easiest ones to reach. Test your navigation skills and seek out some of these:
- Kiyomizu-dera: Famous temple perched on a mountain overlooking the city. Visit in the evening to see the temple—and the panorama of Kyoto—at its most enchanting.
- Fushimi Inari-taisha: Shinto shrine famed for its 10,000 or so vermillion gates along the hiking trails that lead up Mount Inari. Hiking to the top takes a couple hours, but excellent views of Kyoto present themselves halfway up the mountain at about the 45-minute mark.
- Kinkaku-ji: Rising from a tranquil pond that reflects its image perfectly, Kinkaku-ji (or Golden Pavilion) is Kyoto’s most iconic temple and most well-known symbol.
Want to make the most of your time in Kyoto? Book yourself onto one of these recommend Kyoto tours:
- Kyoto Full-Day UNESCO and Historical Sites Tour: Watch old Kyoto unfold before your eyes on this superb 10-hour historical tour. Highlights include Kiyomizu-dera, Sanju-san-gen-do, Fushimi Inari-taisha, and Kinkaku-ji.
- Kyoto Walking Tour: A budget-friendly 5-hour walking tour that wheels past off-the-beaten-path temples, shrines, and workshops. An interesting alternative to your typical Kyoto tour.
- Full-Day Kyoto Sightseeing Tour: Experience the rich culture heritage of Japan’s former imperial capital with this complete 9-hour tour! Includes visits to Kinkaku-ji, Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto Imperial Palace, and Nijo Castle.
Walk with the geisha in Gion District (Gion-Shinbashi)
Within Kyoto’s modern centre, there’s no more intriguing place than Gion District (Gion-Shinbashi). This traditional entertainment district offers one of the last remaining glimpses into the Kyoto’s past with its old wooden merchant houses, restaurants, and teahouses.
The best stretches for travellers looking for Gion’s old-world charm are Hanami-koji Dori, north of Kennin-ji, and Shirakawa-minami Dori, a beautiful, quiet street along a cherry-tree-lined canal. In and around either of these areas, you can enjoy some of the area’s best restaurants serving up kaiseki (haute Japanese cuisine) Kyoto-style. (Just don’t expect it to come cheap!)
Besides simply taking to the streets, the most memorable souvenir in Gion-Shinbashi is a chance encounter with a geisha. The full authentic geisha entertainment package is exclusive and quite expensive; as a traveller, it’s unlikely you’ll experience it without prior connections in Kyoto. But your chances of seeing a geisha wandering the streets of Gion are higher than anywhere else.
If you miss out on spotting a geisha, don’t worry: There’s a daily cultural show for foreigners at Gion Corner that speeds through Japanese culture and traditions and features performances from geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha).
Looking for the full Gion experience? Here are a few hand-pick Kyoto tours including Gion:
- Night Walk in Gion: Witness Kyoto’s beautiful geisha district by night on this 100-minute evening walking tour. Guides are well-versed on geisha culture and will take your through a cultural journey explaining their daily lives, styles, & rules.
- Maiko Performance and Kaiseki Dinner: Can’t afford the full geisha entertainment experience? Treat yourself to maiko (apprentice geisha) performance while wandering around Gion. The tour also indulges an epic Kyoto kaiseki (haute cuisine) dinner.
- Kyoto Night Food Tour: A brilliant evening tour through Gion & Shirakawa focused on Kyoto’s famous kaiseki, a multi-course culinary style focusing on fusing innovating local & global flavours.
- Kyoto Lanes & Lanterns Tour: Another evening tour though Gion taking in atmospheric nighttime sites like Yasaka Shrine and lesser-known quarters like Pontocho and Teramachi.
Explore Arashiyama District
Prowling through Arashiyama District is the perfect escape from Kyoto’s bustling centre. Start exploring Arashiyama at Monkey Park Iwatayama, not far from the Arashiyama railway station. About 10 minutes of uphill walking will set you up with sweeping views over Kyoto shared with a troop of cheeky monkeys all to happy to relieve you of your belongings if you’re not on guard.
Elsewhere in Arashiyama lies one of the Kyoto’s five great Zen temples, Tenryu-ji Temple. Dating back to the 14th century, Tenryu-ji Temple and its gardens are worth exploring, even if just for a half-hour.
Whatever your schedule save time for Arashiyama’s most unique attraction, the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. It’s one of the most famous sites in Kyoto—and with good reason. The short walk, starting just north of Tenryu-ji Temple and running to Okochi Sanso, feels quite otherworldly as slivers of light slice between bamboo trees swaying and reaching towards the sky.
Ready to explore Arashiyama to its fullest? Join in on one of these great Kyoto tours featuring Arashiyama:
- Arashiyama and Sagano Morning Walking Tour: A 4-hour guided walk that takes in the mystical bamboo grove and several beautiful temples among world-class natural scenery.
- Kyoto Food & Drink Tour in Arashiyama & Sagano: A snack-as-you-go 3.5-hour through Arashiyama & Sagano. Includes a visit to the bamboo grove, Togetsukyo Bridge and the World Heritage gardens of Tenryu-ji Temple.
- Kyoto Arashiyama Rickshaw Tour: Hop aboard a rickshaw at Togetsukyo Bridge for a relaxing 30- to 180-minute guided tour through the lovely natural & cultural scenes of Arashiyama.
Where to Stay in Kyoto
Moving from the capsule and love hotels filling up the Tokyo accommodation scene, Kyoto feels almost like a completely different country!
Like Tokyo, hotels in Kyoto are plentiful, but expensive. The selection is, however, noticeably more traditional; finding one of the best places to stay in Kyoto is generally a more “classic” Japanese experience than in the capital. Here are a few ideas to start your search:
- Kyoto Himawari Shijo Kawaramachi: An excellent budget homestay-style guesthouse offering traditional Japanese tatami-style rooms in the central neighbourhood of Shimogyo.
- Booking.com | Agoda
- Kyoto Inn Gion The Second: A delightful 3-star hotel featuring more Westernized digs with a private bathroom in Kyoto. Located in the beautiful Gion District.
- Booking.com | Agoda
- Hana-Touro Hotel Gion: A stunning 4-star hotel in the heart of Gion District. All rooms are equipped with terraces that serve up mountain and city views.
- Booking.com | Agoda
- The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto: The ultimate in Kyoto 5-star luxury hotels. Splurge for the epic Garden Terrace Suite featuring a breathtaking private Japanese garden terrace and views of the Higashiyama Mountains.
- Booking.com | Agoda
Getting to Kyoto
The most convenient, though not cheapest, way to move between Tokyo and Kyoto is by shinkansen (bullet train). The two quickest trains are the Nozomi (2h20) and Hikari (2h40), costing ¥13,710 and ¥13,400 respectively. The Japan Rail Pass only covers the Hikari trains.
The cheapest, but slowest, option to get between Tokyo and Kyoto is bus. Buses between the two cities take between 6 and 9 hours, not exactly a good use of a travel day. Tickets, however, will cost you only ¥3,520.
Day Trip from Kyoto
Anyone seeking the ultimate Japanese cultural experience mustn’t ignore Nara. Like Kyoto, Nara was once Japan’s capital, the country’s first permanent one. From its heyday, Nara left behind a trove of cultural sites whose exploration belongs on any serious Japan itinerary.
With extra time on your trip to Japan, consider overnighting in Nara (check out this guide to the best hotels in Nara to help you choose where to stay). Otherwise, visit Nara as a day trip from Kyoto or, if you want to visit later in the trip, Osaka.
What to Do in Nara
Only Kyoto compares with the number of cultural attractions you’ll find in Nara. Get started planning out the best things to do in Nara with these suggestions:
Seek enlightenment in front of Daibutsu (Great Buddha) in Todai-ji Temple
Hopefully you’re not templed-out yet: You wouldn’t want to miss Todai-ji Temple, one of Japan’s most beguiling tourist attractions.
The grand main hall of Todai-ji Temple, Daibutsu-den (Hall of the Great Buddha), is home to Daibutsu (Great Buddha), a 15-metre-high bronzed Buddha statue. While the immense Daibutsu is bound to captivate you, Daibutsu-den itself is impressive. (It’s the world’s largest wooden building!)
Explore the backwoods of Kasuga-Taisha Shrine
One of the most magical features of Nara is its setting. And perhaps no Nara attraction shows it off better than Kasuga-Taisha Shrine.
On the surface Kasuga-Taisha is much like other Shinto shrines you’ll find throughout Japan. What makes this one special is the network of lantern-lined pathways and auxiliary shrines strewn throughout the complex. Visit Kasua-Taisha Shrine in early-February or mid-August to see the lanterned paths lit up in full glory.
Hang out with the deer of Nara-koen (Nara Park)
Many of Nara’s top attractions—Todai-ji Temple, Kasuga-Taisha Shrine, and Isui-en Garden—lie within Nara Park (Nara-koen), a massive and beautiful greenspace stretching to the east of the city centre.
Beside the park’s temples, shrines, and gardens, the stars of the show are the over one thousand deer that roam freely within the grounds. The abundance of wildlife gives Nara a vibe unlike any historical town you’ll find anywhere else in the world.
Although the deer are used to human contact and mostly docile, be careful if you decide to feed them as they can get (unintentionally) aggressive when hungry.
Want to visit Nara without hassle? Hop onto one of these hand-picked Nara tours:
- Kyoto and Nara Full-Day Sightseeing Tour: A full-day tour including stops at a couple Kyoto star attractions like Nijo Castle & Kyoto Imperial Palace before heading off to Nara to check out Todai-ji Temple, Kasuga Shrine and Nara Park.
- Nara Big Buddha, Bambi and Backstreets Cultural Tour: Explore the ancient streets and temples of Nara while saying hello to the city’s friendly furry friends on this 3.5-hour guided tour. Includes all entrance fees and some tasty local snacks.
- Nara 1-Hour Kimono Rental Photo Plan: Enjoy some kitschy Japanese fun by renting a kimono on your trip to Nara. Get fitted by a professional and get ready for your glamour shots! Includes a printed photo to commemorate your Japan trip.
Getting to Nara
Both JR (Japan Railways) and Kintetsu Railways offer train service from Kyoto to Nara. Direct JR trains depart Kyoto Station for JR Nara Station every half hour (45 minutes; ¥710).
Kintetsu offers both limited express and express trains from Kyoto Station to Kintetsu Nara Station. Limited express trains leave twice an hour (35 minutes; ¥1120) while express trains leave hourly (45 minutes; ¥620).
Note that a Japan Rail Pass only covers JR trains to Nara.
Want to make the most out your time in Nara? Visit the magical town on a Nara Afternoon Tour from Kyoto! The five-and-a-half-hour tour includes transportation and a guided tour of Todai-ji, Kasaga-taisha, and Nara-koen.
Day Trip from Kyoto
There’s not much to Himeji at first glance. It looks like any other big Japanese city, a jumble of high-rises and urban sprawl. That is until you see what hides amidst.
What to Do in Himeji
No, Himeji’s hardly one of the most diverse places to visit in Japan. But what Himeji does, it does well. Very well, indeed. Hidden among the traffic-laden streets lies one of Japan’s best-kept secrets among foreign visitors. Make the quick trip and discover these few unmissable things to do in Himeji:
Dabble in Japan’s feudal past at Himeji Castle
There’s one major reason that Himeji is one of the most popular day trips from Osaka or Kyoto: Himeji Castle. The UNESCO-listed Himeji Castle isn’t just one of the finest castles in Japan, but anywhere in the world.
Dating back to the mid-14th century, Himeji Castle is one of Japan’s twelve original castles. Neither war nor natural disaster managed to break its spirit. Much of Himeji Castle’s mojo bubbles from its illustrious centuries-old history and the distinctive white façade that slapped it with the nickname White Heron Castle (Shirasagijo).
The castle complex encompasses over 80 buildings guarded by the main 5-storey Tenshukaku (Castle Tower). Take your time exploring Himeji Castle, stopping along the way for massive views of the city, to get the full experience.
Unwind in Kokoen Garden
Inch just west of Himeji Castle to relax in the serenity of Kokoen Garden. Unlike the neighbouring castle, Kokoen Garden doesn’t have hundreds of years of history to back up its good looks. The garden is a fairly new creation, jumping onto the scene in the early 1990s.
Designed with styles dating back to the Edo Period, Kokoen Garden disguises its young age well. Nine walled gardens decorate the space, once occupied by a feudal lord. Walking through Kokoen Garden—among stone bridges, ponds and maple trees—is a treat all year round. Visit in autumn for an extra dash of colour!
Walk in the footsteps of history at Mount Shosha (Shoshazan)
Dreams of ancient Japan come to the fore at Mount Shosha. Hiding among the deep forests of the top of Mount Shosha, a 30-minute bus ride from Himeji Castle, is the massive Engyoji temple complex. Over one thousand years of history stand between us and the origins of Engyoji.
You’ll need to expend a little energy to dig into the best of the complex. From the upper ropeway station, it’s about a 30- to 35-minute walk to Mitsunodo, a trifecta of wooden temple halls. The tranquil setting and classical Japanese wooden architecture Mitsunodo makes it a favourite among film crews looking for a stand-in for ancient Japan. Along the way, eat up the views at Maniden, a stunning wooden temple clinging to the slopes of Mount Shosha.
Getting to Himeji
Whether you’re visiting Himeji from Osaka or Kyoto, there are a number of train services to get you there quickly.
From Osaka, take the Shinkaisoku commuter trains on the JR Kobe line. The trip is 57 minutes from Osaka and costs ¥1,450.
Starting in Kyoto, hop onto the Hikari shinkansen to get to Himeji in less than an hour (starting at ¥4750). Cheaper but slower trains (90 minutes) leave Kyoto about every 15 minutes. Japan rail passes including the one-day JR West Kansai Pass are valid for these routes.
Rather skip on public transportation to Himeji? Consider the Himeji Castle and Akashi Kaikyo Bridge from Kyoto Tour! The tour includes return public transportation tickets, a guided tour of Himeji Castle, and a buffet lunch.
Second in urban Japanese awesomeness only to Tokyo, Osaka is a must-visit stop on any Japan itinerary. While Osaka lacks the obvious historical and cultural underpinnings of nearby Kyoto, this modern and energetic Japanese city hides a handful of amazing attractions among its neon-plastered streets.
To squeeze the most out of your stay, spend at least two days in Osaka—more if you can spare it. One day in Osaka itself, with time carved out for one of the best day trips from Osaka, is a good introduction to Japan’s second city.
What to Do in Osaka
A long history predates Osaka, a surprising fact considering the tough-to-crack modern veneer. On the surface Osaka feels much like other large Japanese cities. Osaka’s not exactly that simple, though.
The city prides itself on its uniqueness. Whether showing off Osaka’s unique food or their favourite cultural attractions, Osakans are fiercely proud. There’s a healthy rivalry between Osaka and Tokyo with neither side ever emerging a clear-cut winner on all accounts. Why not decide yourself by tackling these few wonderful things to do in Osaka:
Relive the history of medieval Japan at Osaka Castle
If we’re comparing tourist attractions in Tokyo to Osaka, there’s nothing in the Japanese capital whose grandeur rivals Osaka Castle. To say Osaka Castle had a rough history is an understatement. Originally built in the late-16th century by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Osaka Castle has been destroyed and rebuilt, whether by rival rulers or natural disaster, several times in its long history.
From 1665 until the twentieth century, the former site of Osaka Castle stood empty. It wasn’t until 1931, when the current intrawar-period reincarnation was completed, that the former regality of the castle was revived. Most amazing is that despite much of Osaka getting wiped out by WWII bombing campaigns, Osaka Castle still stood.
Although Osaka Castle is hardly as impressive as nearby Himeji Castle or Matsumoto Castle, walking around the grounds—admiring the refurbished castle tower, stone walls, gates, and moats—is a great way to spend part of an afternoon. Visit during cherry blossom season to see Osaka Castle at its most magical.
Assault the senses in Shinsekai
One of my favourite things about Japan is the pure intensity that a visit to a big Japanese city brings. Shinsekai is one of the best places in Osaka to get your fill.
Following popular industrial expo held in Osaka in the early 1900s, Shinsekai developed into an exposition piece itself. The area was modelled after both Paris and Coney Island in New York. The most obvious landmark hearkening back to Shinsekai’s origins is Tsutenkaku Tower, a 103-metre-high tower unmistakably tributing the Eiffel Tower. The main observatory deck, sitting above 90-metres, provides an epic view of Osaka.
Besides wandering around colourful Shinsekai, some of Osaka’s best food hides among the busy streets. Follow the smells and the crowds to deliver kushikatsu, a famous Osaka snack resembling skewered tempura, straight to your tastebuds.
A little intimidated by the Osaka food scene? Eliminate the hassle with one of these Osaka tours:
- Osaka Gourmet Walk: A self-guided tour where you’ll get to chow down on 8 different snacks from 60 vetted establishments scattered throughout Namba, Shinsaibashi, Shinsekai and Umeda. Wherever you end up, just pass off your ticket and eat the recommended dish!
- Osaka Soul of Kansai Tour: A 3.5-hour guided tour slipping through Dotonbori & Shinsekai as you gobble snacks like kushikatsu and takoyaki (octopus balls) along the way.
Let the night lights flood your eyes in Minami
Tokyo has Shinjuku; Osaka has Minami. Osaka’s famed reputation for unleashing Japan’s best drinking and partying scene starts right here in the luminescent Minami (Namba), the city’s most popular entertainment district.
Minami isn’t only about burning the midnight oil. It’s also one of Osaka’s best food and shopping districts. Dotonbori, an area in Minami named after the canal running through it, is the most exciting place to walk at night in Osaka. Experiencing Dotonbori is best done through the senses, none more prominently than taste. Grab a bite of okonomiyaki or takoyaki at any hour to let your tastebuds decide who reigns in the Osaka vs. Tokyo food battle.
Fashionistas will likewise find a reason to linger around Minami. Loosen your purse strings (or dust off your wallet) in Shinsaibashi, Osaka’s trendiest shopping area; Amerikamura, an edgier alternative district; or Den Den Town, the city’s high-tech heaven.
Ready to make the most out of your visit to Osaka? Don’t miss out on these awesome Osaka tours:
- Osaka Walking Tour: Get jazzed up for an action-packed 3 hours on this epic walking tour including visits to Shinsekai and Dotonbori, and kushikatsu snacks along the way.
- Osaka Book a Friend Local Tour: A unique concept that pair you up with a local who’ll create a custom experience for your interests whether that’s off-the-beaten path spots or classic Osaka sites.
- Osaka Full-Day Walking Tour: Experience the breadth of the city on this full-day sightseeing tour. Stops include Umeda Sky Building, Osaka Castle, and a 1-hour riverboat cruise.
- Namba Bar Hopping Food Tour: Grab some local food & drink with new friends on this 3-hour evening walking tour through Namba. Whether you’re munching kushikatsu in Dotonbori or sipping shochu around Hozenji Yokocho, you’ll love this tour!
Where to Stay in Osaka
The good news: You’ll get a much better bang for your buck when searching out where to stay in Osaka compared to Tokyo or Kyoto, especially when looking in the mid-range and luxury. Get your search started with these top Osaka hotels:
- Funtoco Backpackers Namba: Japanese-style backpackers digs, including tatami floors in rooms, in a central Osaka location.
- Booking.com | Agoda
- Hotel Sakura: A cheap and comfortable option within walking distance of Osaka Castle that offers both dorms and western-style rooms with private bathrooms.
- Booking.com | Agoda
- Karaksa Hotel Osaka Namba: A modern 4-star hotel with spacious and clean rooms. Dotonbori and Namba Station are 5 minutes away by foot.
- Booking.com | Agoda
- St. Regis Osaka: The top 5-star luxury hotel in Osaka combining contemporary decor with traditional Japanese touches. Besides the tremendous views over Osaka, guests will enjoy the chain’s famous private butler service.
- Booking.com | Agoda
Getting to Osaka
From Kyoto, it’s a breeze to get to Osaka. The shinkansen (bullet train) completes the trip between JR Kyoto Station and Shin-Osaka in just 12 minutes for ¥1420.
A slightly cheaper alternative is the Special Rapid Service on the JR Kyoto Line. Unlike with the shinkansen, you’re able to travel directly to Osaka Station (the main train station) on the JR Kyoto Line in just 28 minutes. The cost is quite a bit less, too, coming in at ¥560 each way.
10-day Japan itinerary: Tips, tweaks & more places to visit
- Got more time but like a slower pace? Add a couple days in Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka and partake in more day trips. Other awesome Japanese destinations like Yokohama, Hakone, and Kobe are just steps away from these cities.
- Looking for some epic adventure? Carve out time to hike up Mount Fuji.
- Want more culture and a smaller town feel? From Tokyo head to Kyoto via Takayama, a beautiful traditional city set among the mountains.
- Need something a little more offbeat? Explore Japan’s rugged north where volcanic landscapes, hot springs, and handsome seaside towns await. Start planning your getaway with this complete 7-day Hokkaido itinerary.
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