The essential 12 day Japan itinerary that is jam packed incredible food, culture, and fun.
Japan was high on my list of countries to visit for a long time and when I finally got to go there, it met my expectations in every way and was a dream trip come true. Knowing everything that I went through in planning the trip, there were a lot of takeaways from my booking activities and hotels ahead of time, experience on the ground, and things I didn’t expect along the way. That’s why I’ve put together this detailed itinerary and collected all of the “need to know before you go” tips in this travel guide.
When planning for Japan, I knew I wanted to try to get a good overview of the “best of the best” of the country. So I knew that would have to include Tokyo and Kyoto but filling in the blanks was a challenge as there just wasn’t that much online to go on. It was a lot harder than other countries in part due to the difference in language and lack of English based sites. Restaurants were also a hard part to figure out as I didn’t really want to rely only on TripAdvisor’s biases. Luckily, I reached out to a local Japanese friend and she was able to provide a ton of suggestions which worked out well.
The overall trip to Japan was a huge success as we got a combination of delicious foods, culture, history, outdoors and everything that goes with the big city of Tokyo. I will say though that it was extremely hot and sticky in August. That certainly weighed down on us on the day to day and found ourselves much more tired than usual.
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If you’ve got 10-12 days only in Japan and want to see some of the best of the best, then you’re in the right place. Read on!
Click the links on the dates to take you to the associated blog entries. Scroll left and right to see the full itinerary.
|Date||Day 1 – Osaka - Reunited in Japan||Day 2 – Nara - When Deer Attack in Nara||Day 3 – Kyoto - Exploring Kyoto||Day 4 – Kyoto - Fushimi Inari Shrine||Day 5 – Hiroshima and Miyajima||Day 6 – Hiroshima - The Atomic Bomb||Day 7 – Tokyo - Not Early Enough for Tsukiji||Day 8 - Hakone - Hot Springs||Day 9 - Tokyo - Hato Bus||Day 10 – Tokyo - All Around||Day 11 – Tokyo - Tsukiji Attempt #2||Day 12 – Tokyo - Final Half Day|
|Breakfast||Breakfast boxes from Sheraton Grande Taipei Hotel||Breakfast at the hostel||Breakfast at the hostel||Traditional Japanese breakfast at the Ryokan||Breakfast @ the Conrad||Comfort Inn free breakfast||-Daiwa Restaurant|
-Conrad executive lounge for more food
|Conrad executive lounge||Conrad executive loungeConrad executive lounge||Conrad executive lounge||-Sushi restaurant in the Tsukiji Fish Market|
-More food at the Conrad executive lounge after nap
|Conrad executive lounge|
|Morning||UA 838 Flight from TPE -> NRT (10:20AM - 2:40PM)||-Subway + JR to Tennoji Station|
-JR Train to Nara
-Local bus to Nara Park
-Todaiji Great Buddha Hall
|-Subway + JR to Kyoto|
-Drop off bags at Ryokan Shimizu
|-JR to Hiroshima|
-Tram to Comfort Inn Otemachi
-Tram to Miyajima-Guchi
-Ferry to Miyajima
|-Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum|
-Hiroshima Peace Park
-Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for Atomic Bomb Victims
-Statue of A-Bomb Children
-Pick up bags at the Comfort Inn
-Tram to Hiroshima JR Station
-Tuna auction fail
-Line up for Daiwa
-Illegally explore Wholesaler's area
|-JR to Shinjuku|
-Purchase Hakone Free Pass
-Odakyu Train to Odawara then Hakone-Yumoto
|-Hato Bus Dynamic Tokyo tour|
-World Trade Center bus terminal to wait for others
-Happo-en traditional tea ceremony
|Shibuya||-3AM wake up|
-Tuna auction line up by 4AM
-Enter auction area at 5:40AM
|-Hop on a train to Odaiba|
-Explore Megaweb Toyota Exhibition Hall and VenusFort shopping mall
|Lunch||In flight||Late lunch near a covered shopping arcade for sushi||Fast food lunch nearby||Shichifukujin (ramen)||Takoyaki near Miyajima-Guchi||Grabbed some quick food at the JR station||Japanese curry restaurant just outside Akhirabara station||Lots of Japanese snacks purchased along the way||Mokushun-do (inside Chinzan-so garden) for Japanese BBQ||Some lunch at a restaurant right outside Meiji Shrine||Go Go Curry in Shinjuku||N/A|
|Afternoon||-Reunite with Chantelle in Narita|
-Narita Express to Shinagawa Station
-Shinagawa to Shin-Osaka Station
|-JR back to Osaka|
-Subway to Namba Station
|-Bus to Gojozaka stop|
-Kiyomizu-dera + Jishu Shrine
-Explore the winding streets
-Yasaka Shrine Maruyama Park
-Pass by Chion-in and Shoren-in Temples
|-Fushimi Inari Shrine|
-Kyoto downtown core
-Daimaru for the basement food court
|-Check out the floating torii gate|
-Walk along shopping streets of Miyajima
-JR+Tram back to Hiroshima
-Covered shopping arcade
|JR to Tokyo via Osaka||-Imperial Palace East Gardens|
-Harajuku (mainly Takeshita street)
|-Cruise ship across -Lake Ashi|
-Hakone Ropeway to Owakudani (geothermal activity)
-Cable car + train back to Hakone-Yumoto
-Tenzan Hot Springs
|-Imperial Palace -East Gardens gate|
-Sumida River cruise up to Asakusa
-Nakamise shopping street
-Harajuku - Takeshita Street
-Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
|-Bus limo to Narita airport|
-AC4 flight from NRT to YVR
|Dinner||Dinner boxes purchased at the Shinagawa Station||-Kanidoraku Honten (Crab restaurant)|
|Food festival along the river||Chirashi-type restaurant downtown||Okonomi-mura to try 2 different restaurants||Executive lounge food at the Conrad Tokyo||Random Japanese restaurant off of Ometesando street in the Harajuku area||Uokin near Shimbashi||-Snack - Tiny ramen shop under a bridge near the Conrad|
-Real dinner - Shoutaien for Japanese BBQ
|Gonpachi||Shabusen (Japanese hot pot restaurant)||N/A|
|Evening||-Shinagawa to Shin-Osaka Station|
-Subway to Azawa Station
|Drop off gifts to a friend at Lilo in Veve in the area||Cab back to the Ryokan||-Frozen yogurt at Snola|
|Head back early||-Arrive in Tokyo at 7PM|
-Taxi to Conrad Tokyo
|Walking around Harajuku's main streets||Upgrade to Romance Car on train ride back to Tokyo|
-JR back to Shimbashi
|Watch the Obon festival fireworks from behind the lobby bar||-Rappongi Hills|
-Cab back to the Conrad
|Accommodations||Hostel 64 Osaka||Hostel 64 Osaka||Ryokan Shimizu||Ryokan Shimizu||Comfort Inn Otemachi||Conrad Tokyo||Conrad Tokyo||Conrad Tokyo||Conrad Tokyo||Conrad Tokyo||Conrad Tokyo||N/A|
What We Missed
At the end of the day, 12 days in Japan is just enough to explore the tip of the iceberg. There were so many things we wanted to do but simply couldn’t fit into the itinerary. Thinking back on the trip, if I were to isolate the top 5 things we regret not doing, it’d be the following:
- Climbing Mount Fuji – I was this close to doing it but alas the weather conditions weren’t very favourable in August.
- I wish I got to spend a little more time in Osaka itself. We opted to switch out our day in Osaka with Nara since a friend said it would be nice out there. Another night in Osaka also would’ve been nice to try out more food as Osaka is known to be the foodie capital of Japan.
- Kobe is another place I regret not going to. That mouth watering, butter-like quality beef lingers as an item I still have not been able to check off. I couldn’t include it due to the lack of days I had but if this is your priority, you should definitely try to fit it in.
- Koyasan (Mount Koya) was another option as a day trip from Osaka but seemed too ambitious as a day trip.
- Outside of Tokyo I also thought about doing Yokohama or Kamakura but ultimately I chose Hakone because I wanted a more authentic onsen experience.
Things To Know Before You Go
Here are a list of top tips and tricks of things that I learned along the way. I’d like to impart on you things you really should know before you head off on your trip to Japan.
All of Japan
Japan by Train – The JR Pass is pretty much a must if you’re going to be travelling between major cities in Japan. Read more about Japan by Rail.
Get Your JR Pass Before You Go
If you’re looking to do any travelling around Japan, I highly recommend picking up a JRailPass. Keep in mind that you’ll need to purchase it before your trip and ship it to your home.
Train Schedules – If there’s one site you need to know when travelling with a JR pass is www.hyperdia.com. First of all, it’s English friendly so no need for complicated translations. This is an excellent page to figure out the train schedules and since you know the Japanese railway system runs like clockwork you don’t need to worry about whether it’ll be early or late. I used this on many occasions during the trip to figure out the most effective trains to take to get from point A to B.
- For example when going from Kyoto to Hiroshima most of the itineraries involved a transfer in Osaka which would waste time. I played around with different departure times and eventually found a direct Shinkansen that ran from Kyoto to Osaka and then to Hiroshima. No transfer required = less time = more sleep on the train.
ATM’s – If you have a foreign debit card like I did, you’re going to run into problems withdrawing from normal legit bank ATM’s. For some reason these machines don’t take foreign cards. The only machine that worked for me the entire trip was the 7-Eleven. This one worked all the time. So don’t worry…your card didn’t get locked. It’s the bank’s problem. Just go over to any 7-Eleven which won’t be hard to find and you’ll be good to go.
Baggage Delivery Service – Look for Yamato either at the airport or anywhere in major cities to get it done. They’re fast, simple and reliable. You can either use this service to ship bags from the airport to a city ahead of you so you don’t have to lug it around while taking the train. You can also do what I did which was to ship my larger suitcase to my last destination in Japan.
Most Useful Website – Aside from my own of course ;), Japan Guide was probably the most useful site for Japan that rivalled even TripAdvisor and their forums.
Travel Advice on Tokyo
Tsukiji Fish Market
- The bottom line is you have to wake up really early to even make it to the tuna auction. They recently changed the rules so that only 120 people area allowed in each day split over two time slots (5:25AM and 5:50AM). The second time we went to the fish market we made it there just after 4AM and we were already #78 and #79. The experience is quite worth it but you’ll see the details in one of my last blogs from Tokyo.
- Also make sure you make it to the restaurants there. Sushi Dai and Daiwa are the go-to places but expect to line up. If you failed at going to the auction you might as well go straight to the restaurants.
- Seafood Intermediate Wholesaler’s Area – This place is only open after 9AM to 11AM. It’s also worth it to do this section if you time everything well. It’s pretty interesting to see the comings and goings of fishermen, shop owners and fresh seafood.
- AGAIN, if you want to do the tuna auction make sure you get there by 4AM. This is no longer a hidden gem and they’ve restricted it to 120 per day so if you only have chance to try this make it count and go early. You’ll be damn tired but the experience is totally worth it. You won’t see anything like this anywhere else.
Restaurant Reservations – For a lot of the well-known restaurants in Tokyo it’s important to make reservations a day in advance. We did this for the entire trip and didn’t run into any problems.
Harajuku – One of the must-visit neighbourhoods of Tokyo. It was a ton of fun to explore even when packed. Filled with many boutique shops, girls in Lolita costumes, and many snacks.
- TIP: To see Lolita girls, make sure you go on the weekend.
Hato Bus – This is a popular tour bus company that locals use and is just as well known for visitors. Hato Bus is a great option in Tokyo because it saves you the hassle of figuring out public transit and allows you to see way more in one day than you would on foot. They offer high quality tours that are quite affordable as well. For the tour that we went on, it also came with a fabulous lunch in a zen park.
- TIP: If you’re doing the Hato Bus, just make sure you plan your itinerary around the tour so you don’t end up redoing any sights.
Looking For Great Views? – If you’re looking to go up a skyscraper with fantastic views of the city AND you want to do it for FREE, look no further than the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is the one you want to go to. Based on personal experience though, the one thing to note is that the views from the top are somewhat limited. I feel that Tokyo Tower or Tokyo Skytree would offer better views but those have paid admission.
Best Shrine – If there’s one shrine you want to go to in Tokyo, I would recommend Meiji Shrine. My #2 would probably be the one in Asakusa.
Recommend Restaurant – Gonpachi is a must-do restaurant in Tokyo. Make reservations! It’s the restaurant that inspired the epic restaurant scene in Kill Bill.
Odaiba – I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Odaiba to first time visitors of Tokyo but if you’re looking to do some shopping and want to hang out at as a local for shopping and entertainment arcades, you can definitely make the trip out to this man-made island.
Travel Advice on Osaka
Hotels in Osaka – Accommodations aren’t the easiest to find in Japan but Hostel 64 Osaka was recommended by my Japanese friend and it sure was a winner. Highly recommended for their spacious rooms, location, service, and breakfast. It has many of the hostel qualities but out of all hostels I have ever stayed at, this has to be #1.
Foodie Paradise – Come to Osaka for the food. There’s just so many options here and things seem more accessible here than in Tokyo.
Travel Advice on Nara
Is Nara Worth It? – Without seeing much of Osaka outside of Dotonbori I can’t really say whether Nara was better than Osaka or not but it’s definitely a side trip worth doing. The deer experience alone made it worthwhile.
Travel Advice on Kyoto
Ryokans – One of the must-try things in Kyoto is to stay at a traditional ryokan. Ryokans are a type of traditional Japanese inn that has existed since the eighth century. For something on the budget side of things Ryokan Shimizu is perfect. It’s clean, it has its own en-suite bathroom, and is close to transportation. Get the ryokan experience for a fraction of the cost.
Higashiyama District – You can easily spend a full day in the Higashiyama Area and I would highly recommend it if you have 2 days to work with. This is the area where you’ll be able to see Kiyomizu-dera and Yasaka Shrine.
Plan Wisely – Something you should note as you plan your trip is that special buildings such as temples, shrines, and castles close between 4PM-5PM. This means that if you don’t want to run risk of being shut out of any places, it makes sense to do these sights earlier in the day.
Fushimi Inari – Now what’s unique about this cascade of red torii gates is that there’s no official closing time here so when planning your day, slot this towards the end of the day so you can still see your temples, shrines and castles and then round out the day exploring Fushimi Inari. For the photographers out there, Fushimi Inari is absolutely stunning for photos.
Travel Advice on Hiroshima
Photography at Miyajima – One thing that people say about photographing Miyajima and the floating torii is that you have to decide whether you want to shoot it with the tide up or down. I didn’t have the luxury of choosing when I went so this was a non-factor for me but if you want to shoot it at high tide, go in the morning. If you want to see it at low tide and be able to walk right up to the gate, you’ll want to be there in the late afternoon. Of course the time of the year matters as well but I believe the tide trend should stay the same.
Why Hiroshima? – Hiroshima is definitely something not to miss if you’re going to be in the Osaka region. Even if you’re not a WWII history buff, the atomic bomb history is thoroughly interesting and of course Miyajima is beautiful.
Remembering – The atomic bomb monuments, museums, and park can done in half a day so if you have a full day in Hiroshima, you can easily do both the atomic bomb sights and Miyajima island.
Travel Advice on Hakone
Hakone Free Pass – If you’re going to be going to Hakone and going to do the round-the-city tour like we did, this is the one to get. 5000 JPY can’t be beat. Get an earlier start than we did and in one day you can pretty much see all the main sights and activities in Hakone.
Hot Springs for Couples – Do your research beforehand and if you’re not sure, ask your concierge if you have any questions or get them to call to get the answers. If you’re looking for hot springs for couples, they are rare in Hakone. The onsen we ended up choosing was Tenzan and they had them available but only for 2 hour time slots. On top of that, you can only reserve them when you get there. There are only 3 or 4 of these type of rooms but you only get one temperature pool and that’s it. We opted to go to the regular onsen area as we wanted to experience it to its fullest (nude and all).