The essential 12 day Japan itinerary that is jam packed with 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 ultimate 12 day Japan itinerary and collected all of the “need to know before you go” tips in this travel guide.
12 Days Japan Itinerary Overview
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 for real local recommendations 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.
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!
Where to stay in Japan?
- If you’re looking for great places to stay, my recommendation is to take a look on Booking.com whether you’re staying in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, or Hiroshima. They’re probably the most versatile hotel platform now mainly because they not only have a big hotel inventory but they also have a ton of B&Bs as well.
Japan 12 Day Itinerary
Click the links on the dates to take you to the associated blog entries. Scroll left and right to see the full itinerary. If you’d rather have a downloaded version of the itinerary, sign up to become an insider to get access to the Japan in 12 days 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|
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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 you need to know before going to Japan
As you’re planning out your trip to Japan, I can relate to how head-ache inducing it can be because there’s either too much information or some of the information you’re looking for on official sites aren’t translated to English. It’s totally overwhelming. Thinking about my own trip experiences, I captured a BIG LIST of things that I know will be useful for your very own 12 day itinerary 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, it’s not you when your debit card doesn’t work anywhere else. 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.
Tuesdays – This one easily creeps up on you without you realizing. There are many places including attractions and restaurants that are closed on Tuesdays so make sure to double-check.
Travel Advice on Tokyo
Tsukiji Fish Market Toyosu Fish Market
- NEW IN 2019 – Toyosu Market (豊洲市場) opened October 2018 and is the new site of the Tsukiji Fish Market. Tuna auctions occur at 5:30 and 6:30AM and can be viewed from a few places – observation windows, observation deck (reservation required).
- How to get to the observation deck – Advance reservation is required to access this deck during the tuna auctions. Similar to before, there are 3 groups of 40 that are allowed in for 10 minutes at a time between 5:45AM and 6:15AM. You must submit your application a month prior at a selected time. It’s a lottery system which is good and bad – good that you don’t have to attempt in the morning and fail but bad in that it is possibly even more competitive because everyone will put their names in.
Wake up early – 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.
- Eat lots – 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. These classics from Tsukiji Fish Market have been relocated to the new market.
- Seafood Intermediate Wholesaler’s Area – The area is off limits to visitors but they also have their own observation windows for viewing. That said the views are quite narrow and limited.
Seriously wake up early – 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.
Recommended 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.
Where to Stay – Here are my recommendations for top 4 picks in the city that caters to all budgets.
If you’re looking for cheap accommodations in Tokyo (sub $100), you’re looking at hostels and ones that are going to be a little away from the core. The host, Kato-san is extremely friendly which is why the property is so well reviewed. It’s minutes away from Haneda airport and 16 minutes walk to the train to head into the downtown.
Brand new hotel as of February 2019, this a 3-star hotel with affordable prices because it is in the Shinjuku Ward which should not be confused with Shinjuku. You’ll need to take the train into the city but for the cost and as a brand-new property, this can’t be beat.
Located near Shinjuku, this hotel is conveniently located 10 minutes walk from the Isetan department store and more importantly right by the train station. The rooms are spacious, clean, and comfortable and up to standards as a mid-level hotel.
This property is well deserved of Hilton’s top brand. Located near Shimbashi and Shiodome, this is located in a financial area which means there isn’t too much around directly in its vicinity but Shimbashi certainly makes up for it. It is also walking distance to Tsukiji. Impressive room, executive lounge, the lobby, and impeccable service.
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.
Where to Stay – Even with only a couple of days here, you’ll need to find a good place to stay as a base of operations whether you’re doing Osaka, Nara, or any of the other outlying cities.
This is a killer hostel that’s conveniently located right along the Dotonbori River, is really cheap, and comfortably spacious for shared accommodations. This one is top in my books for Osaka.
A great steal of a property for those not looking to stay at a hostel where I’ve seen prices hovering around USD$60 or less. What you need to know that this is located north of central Osaka in Yodogawa Ward district and right by Shin Osaka station. Bonus is that they include a mobile phone with internet access.
A hotel that includes all the fixings you’d expect from a modern property. The highlight though is the location which is just a here 5-minute walk to Umeda station and a 10-minute walk to Osaka station, respectively. There is free wifi at this hotel.
Looking to go a little fancy? Well right up there in terms of top properties in Osaka is the Nikko Osaka which sits right above Shinsaibashi subway station which gives you access to the shopping and restaurants of the Dotonbori area. It is also located Daimaru. The rooms are of the highest class and many offer excellent views of the city.
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.
Where to Stay – Kyoto has an interesting mix of accommodations that makes it one that you really have to do some research for. As mention above, there are the traditional ryokans that most of you will undoubtedly want to try here. I pick out the best affordable ryokans in Kyoto but what are others you should consider?
It’s crazy to find such a popular property (close to 6,000 reviews) at such cheap prices (USD$50) in Kyoto but here it is. The surprising thing is that their rooms are just like any other high quality hotel room. You can’t go wrong with this one.
Another property that should be more expensive than it is. Hotel Keihan is directly connected to the JR Kyoto train station, is 10 minutes from Higashi Hongan-ji Temple, and 15 minutes from To-ji Temple. All of the modern rooms also come with free wifi.
Located in the Nakagyo Ward, just north of Kyoto station, you’re only 1.6km to temples such as Shoren-in. This is comfortable and upscale hotel that is built in the modern style but mixes in the ambiance of what it’s like to stay in a ryokan.
Completely authentic ryokan experience that is definitely more expensive than the budget ryokans I’ve written about but the reason for this is all the extras you get – private hot bath well prepared for you each evening, tea ceremony at the tea room, and love the homemade Kyoto style breakfast.
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 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 memorials and Miyajima island. If you’re looking for a tour, this full day tour that combines Hiroshima with Miyajima is excellent.
Where to Stay – When in Hiroshima, you’ll need a few nights stay so here are my top picks for the city.
The rooms here are tiny but for the cost, you can hardly complain. At rates around US$50, you’re walking distance from the Hiroshima tram and in between the train station and the downtown core. Note that they only offer free wired internet.
Ranked #2 in Hiroshima, this hotel is directly connected to the JR Hiroshima station which makes it uber convenient. Also, you’ll find that the rooms are larger than most hotels in Hiroshima. Wifi is free as well.
Smack right in the middle of the Hiroshima core is this top-end hotel that can only be described as grand. As more of a business-hotel, the rooms are extremely spacious but some have said are a bit dated. The best part is that it is only 5 minutes away from the city’s main attractions.
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).
12 day Japan itinerary in photos
The visuals really tell the story of why it was so easy to fall in love with Japan in a matter of 12 days. Here’s a glimpse of the things I was able to capture.