by

A lot of people who are visiting Japan for the first time have no idea where to go. I understand! There’s a lot to see and do. While I personally tend to get off the beaten track, I do have a recommended “first-timers” trip for people who are heading to Japan for a week or two (which seems like the standard visit time for most people) and I’d like to share that with you. Of course, there are so many other things to see in Japan besides this particular trip itinerary, so don’t let this stop you from seeing other things. That being said, I hope this is helpful to those of you visiting Japan for the first time.

I’ll break this up into a two week stint, so that way you can remove things as necessary.

Things To Know

There are a few important things to know that have nothing to do with the actual places. They are:

The Route

Whether you stay for one week or one-point-five weeks or two weeks, the general route stays the same. You’ll do Tokyo area, then Kyoto, then Nara, then Koya, and then back to Tokyo. Throughout the route, I’ll mark things as “optional” as well. If you’re only staying a week, I’d recommend cutting out these things (unless you really want to go to them, then cut something else out). If you’re staying for two weeks, you should be able to go to all of these places, and maybe even diverge off to other places. In fact, I highly encourage this! Go where you want – this route is merely a suggestion.

Also keep in mind that I’m just going to be providing locations. You’ll have to do your own research as to how to get to them. Google and Google Maps helps a lot with this. I believe in you.

JR Pass

Whether you stay a week or two weeks, I’d recommend getting the JR Pass. This is like a magical golden ticket that gives you unlimited JR train rides (bullet train too) to anywhere around Japan. Not all things are free (for example, non JR trains as well as most subways), but if you take three rides on the Shinkansen that will usually make it worthwhile. You can get a JR Pass at jrpass.com (where I got my last one). Just be sure to take into account the time change when you schedule your ticket dates. Going to Japan involves traveling through both space and time.

Finding Places To Stay

I don’t really cover places to stay in this article, just the places to go to. Finding someplace to stay is up to you, though there are plenty of resources out there that will help you. I recommend hostels for adventurers / students / people with no money (they’re fun, cheap, and way less sketchy than other hostels I’ve been to). Guest houses are also great if you can find them. They tend to be a little cheaper than hotels, but the food / environments are a lot more interesting.

Packing

Since this is a pretty standard trip, most of the places are going to be pretty bag friendly. I wouldn’t bring a ton (lots of hotels have washing machines too), and would definitely recommend a backpack or something with wheels. Don’t make the mistake of bringing something you’re not comfortable carrying up and down long flights of stairs. You will run into a lot of these getting on and off trains, so if your biceps are tiny, only pack whatever you can lift (preferably less). Also, bring a lightweight duffel bag (or you can buy one) for the optional shopping you can do at the end of your trip.

That being said, let’s get started! You have some traveling to plan.

Day 1: Fly Into Tokyo

Flying into Tokyo isn’t terrible, but it isn’t great either. Depending on where you’re coming from, you may also be terribly jet lagged. If that’s you and you’re on the 2-week schedule, you get an extra day to take it easy in Tokyo. Nice. If that’s not you, you better be ready to go. No rest for the weary. After getting to the airport, you’ll need to go pick up your JR Pass (should be included with your ticket). If your flight comes in too late (and the ticket place is closed) I’d recommend shelling out the $30 or so to go into Tokyo without the JR Pass and get it the next day in the city.

Optional: You can also pick up a 3g hotspot / internet dongle for your computer if you’d like. Finding free wifi in Japan is a huge pain, and getting one of these will pay for itself if you need to do a lot of work, or something.

Once you’ve gotten your ticket, hop on the JR Narita Express (NEX) to Tokyo. When you get to Tokyo, check into wherever you’re staying and scope things out. It’s probably evening by now anyways, so do your best to unjetlag yourself and go to bed so you can wake up early.

Day 2, 3, & 4: Tokyo

*If you’re only staying for one week, cut out days 3 and 4 and then skip to Day 7. Alternatively, you could skip Day 2 as well and choose to do Day 5 or Day 6 (then your Tokyo time will be your shopping time on your way back). If you don’t really care about big cities like Tokyo, skipping this section won’t be too bad! :)

For the first few days, you’ll be exploring Tokyo. So many people. So many things. Hopefully by the end of your Tokyo time you’ll feel so tired of it you want to go somewhere nice and peaceful (don’t worry, you will!). There are various areas of Tokyo worth visiting, and they’re all quite easy to get to via the subway system. As long as you’re not hitting it during rush hour, you’ll probably have a great time scooting around. Since there are so many different tastes out there, I thought I’d list out the main places worth visiting in Tokyo, and then you can pick and choose what you like. I’ll even sort them by areas.

Central Tokyo

Akihabara: This area is famous for its electronic shops and otaku culture. So, if you’re into either of these, this is a fun place to be. Make sure you look up, too. Lots of multi-story buildings filled with all kinds of weird things. You can spend a while walking around here.

Northern Tokyo:

Asakusa: Asakusa has the feeling of an “old” Tokyo, I think. You can visit the Sensoji (famous Buddhist Temple) and Asakusa Shrine or hit up some of the various shopping lanes.

Ueno Park: Ueno Park is probably one of Japan’s most well known parks. Besides being parkish, it’s full of museums, shrines, temples, as well as the Ueno Zoo. Definitely the kind of place you fancier folks will enjoy. You can spend a whole day here, if you’re into this kind of thing.

Roppongi Hills: Want to see Tokyo from somewhere up high? Come to Roppongi Hills. You can go up into the Mori tower and look down on all those tiny people. Pro Tip: They don’t like it when you try to throw pennies off the observation deck. Also worth noting is the Mori Art Museum.

Kappabashi: Do you know how a lot of Japanese food places have fake foods outside showing you what the food looks like? There’s a chance they got it at Kappabashi, the kitchen capital of Tokyo. You can buy things for your restaurant, but the best part is the fake food, I think. It’s surprisingly expensive, too.

Western Tokyo

Shibuya: Shibuya is just a ward of Tokyo, but it’s particularly known for all its fashion and culture. A lot of shopping can be found here, but there’s also the Hachiko Dog Statue as well. Scope it out but come back in the “shopping days” at the end of your trip.

Love Hotel Hill: Technically this is part of Shibuya, but it’s worth noting on its own. This is just an area with a lot of love hotels. Pro tip: They won’t let three people in at a time, so if you want to check one out as a group, you’ll have to break up into pairs or bring a body pillow.

Shinjuku: Shinjuku’s kind of the party district, though that may be because of Kabukicho (northeast of Shinjuku Station) which is Tokyo’s big red light district. If you’re into nightclubs, bars, pachinko, neon, and other *ahem* things, this will be a place you’ll enjoy.

Harajuku: Love crazy outfits? You’ll fit in right here. Harajuku is home to Tokyo’s teen fashion and cosplay (if you visit on a Sunday). There’s also plenty of shopping and crepe stands as well (yum).

Meiji Shrine & Yoyogi Park: These two places are pretty close to each other, so I’m putting them together here too. It’s also a good place to go from Harajuku, since you’ll use the same train station. The Meiji Shrine is just one of many shrines in Japan, but it’s particularly interesting if you’re into modern Japanese history. Yoyogi Park, on the other hand, is just a really big park. Both are nice, though, if you’re looking to get out of the cement jungle known as Tokyo.

Day 5: Monkey Park, Jigokudani

Have you heard of those Japanese monkeys that hang out in the hot springs? This is one of those places, though depending on the time of year, they may not be spending too much time in the hot springs. I like this place in Winter, but other times are good as well. Summer means baby monkeys, after all. To get here, you’ll have to go North of Tokyo to Nagano (Shinkansen it!). From Nagano Station, take Nagano Dentetsu to Yudanaka. From there, you can take a bus to the Kanbayashi Onsen, which has the entrance to the Jigokudani Yaen-Koen. It’ll be a 30+ minute walk (depending on how much you stop) to get to the actual monkey area, though you may start seeing monkeys before then if you’re lucky. Check out the livecam, too!

If you’re going to Jigokudani, I’d maybe recommend heading up here at the end of Day 4 and staying the night in Nagano. There’s some interesting things up there too (that’s where they did the Winter Olympics in 1998!), so feel free to head up a bit earlier and check things out. Then, the next morning (Day 5) you can head out bright and early to Jigokudani and take your time with the monkeys and possibly hit the onsen. It’s a nice place. Then, you can head on back to Tokyo the same night.

Day 6: Toshogu Shrine, Nikko

Nikko is the mausoleum for Tokugawa Ieyasu. Basically, he and his relatives ruled over Japan as Shogun for 250 years (until the Meiji Restoration). That means he got a pretty sweet shrine. There are over a dozen Shinto and Buddhist buildings here, and it’s in a very beautiful setting. Need some peace from Tokyo? You’ll for sure get it here.

This can be a day trip (it’s really close to Tokyo) with some extra time left over. I’d recommend coming here, then either checking out other things in this area or heading straight to Tokyo in the afternoon or evening. Just be sure to give yourself 3-4 hours to travel, so don’t leave too late from here. Another option would be to leave the morning of Day 7 and get to Kyoto in the late morning or early afternoon. It’s totally up to you.

Day 7 & 8: Kyoto

*If you’re on the 1-week plan, skip day 8 and go to Nara instead.

Kyoto’s going to be your shrine and temple time here in Japan. Since it was the place where the emperor lived for over a thousand years, it’s full of cool, historical things. Take your pick and enjoy. Also be sure to just walk around at random. You’ll run into so many temple, castles, and shrines just by accident. It doesn’t hurt to explore, some. Oh, and bring your walking shoes. Things are about to get… walky.

Central Kyoto

Nijo Castle: This was where Tokugawa Ieyasu lived (remember his shrine, up above?). Later it switched to an imperial palace (after the Shogunate went down), and then later opened to the public. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is supposedly a big deal.

Kyoto Imperial Palace: When the Shogunate was in power, this is where the imperial family lived. You can even take tours in English, here.

Northern Kyoto

Kinkakuji: Also known as the golden pavilion, this is a building covered in gold.

Western Kyoto

Kokedera: Also known as Saihoji, this is another UNESCO World Heritage Site (way to go, Kyoto). This temple is mainly known for its moss, and apparently has over 120 different varieties.

Southern Kyoto

Fushimi Inari Shrine: This shrine is known for its thousand torii gates. They’re bright orange and absolutely incredible to walk through. Highly recommended.

Eastern Kyoto

Kiyomizudera: One of the must sees, I think (and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site). This temple is high up on a hill and has a balcony that offers an awesome view.

Higashiyama District: You’ll run into this on your way up to Kiyomizudera, actually. Think of this area as a “historic shopping district.” Kind of touristy, but a lot of fun nonetheless. Grab something to take home!

Sanjusangendo: The building itself it’s amazing, but the inside is pretty remarkable. There are 1001 statues of Kannon in here, which is… well… kinda remarkable.

Gion: Like Geisha? this is Kyoto’s Geisha District. You will have to try pretty hard to get in to see a geiko, though, but good luck trying (hint: apparently some travel agencies will hook you up if you’ve got the yen).

Day 9: Nara

You can leave the morning of Day 9 or leave the evening of Day 10 and spend the night in Nara. Either is fine. You can even spend the night in Nara on Day 9 as well then move on early in the morning of Day 10. It all depends on how much you like temples and Deer.

While there’s some neat temples, shrines, castles, and other similar things here in Nara, I’d say you’re coming for deer. The deer here are pretty tame and will actually attack you if you have food (kinda fun to run from deer). Don’t worry, they have their horns cut off, though (it’s a religious thing), so you won’t be stabbed through, most likely.

Places you’ll want to go in Nara:

  • Todaiji Temple: Largest wooden structure in the world with Japan’s largest Buddha statues inside. Basically, think super sized. Definitely one of the best places to visit in Nara.
  • Nara Park: Has a lot of deer. Go buy deer food, the deer will thank you.
  • Kofukuji Temple: Basically a big temple. Very pretty, though.
  • Nara National Museum: If you’re interested in Japanese Buddhist Art, this will be a fun place for you. The building is also surrounded by ferocious, wild deer.

Consider this a day to walk around but not as much as when you were in Kyoto. Nara’s a lot like Kyoto in a lot of ways, though, so I’d recommend mainly hitting up the deer and then hitting up Todaiji Temple. Depending on how worn out you are on temples, though, you can stay here longer or shorter, deciding where you stay this night based off of that.

Day 10: Mt. Koya aka Koyasan

You’ll want to make sure you leave early this day, whether you’re leaving from Kyoto or Nara. You have a ways to go to get to Koya-san, quite possibly one of the most beautiful places in Japan (just my opinion).

There are a hundred temples here, many of which you can stay the night at. When you spend the night, you get the best vegetarian meal you’ve ever had (guaranteed), a room to stay in, and even the option to wake up (really) early to go watch the monks do their morning rituals. It’s so peaceful, a lot of fun, and one of my favorite places on earth. You’ll want to go to the Koyasan website for more information on lodging.

I’d recommend getting here as early as you can on Day 10, dropping off your things at the place you’re staying, then just walk around. You’ll be able to fill a good amount of time just exploring. The best place to walk, though? Probably the giant cemetery, which also happens to be the largest in Japan. Although some may find a graveyard creepy, it really is quite peaceful.

This, I think, will be one of your best days in Japan, so don’t skimp out on it if possible! Just be sure to get back to your temple in time for dinner.

Day 11: Travel Day / Osaka / Fuji

*If you’re on the 1-week schedule, you’ll need to get back to Tokyo. You’re running out of days.

Day 11 is mostly travel. You’ll want to leave Koya either late morning or early afternoon, depending on where you’re going next. If you like shopping a lot, you’ll want to get back to Tokyo on this day.

If you don’t need the extra time, consider stopping in Osaka (it’s on the way from Koyasan). You can visit the Glico Man, Osaka Tower, play some Pachinko, and eat some Takoyaki / Okonomiyaki (both famous in Osaka). It’s a bit different than Tokyo, but it’s still a big city. I’ll leave this one up to you, though. Osaka’s a lot of fun to just walk around and check out, though.

Alternatively, you could stop at Mt. Fuji on the way back too. I recommend the amusement park Fuji-Q Highland over climbing the mountain itself (it looks better from afar, you’ll have to trust me on this one) if you do this. Definitely don’t miss the horror house there, it’s top notch.

Whatever you end up doing, you’re reaching the end of your trip. Just make sure you’re back in Tokyo in time to do your shopping before you get on the airplane to leave. Of course, if you don’t shop, then you have more time to go to more places. If you do shop, get back to Tokyo.

Day 12 & 13: Shopping In Tokyo / Last Minute Visits

Hopefully you scoped out all the places you wanted to shop at, because this is your shopping time. Get the things you want for yourself and for your friends / relatives. Fill up that duffel bag you brought / bought and have fun. This is also a good time to just go around to the places you missed.

Either way, it’s good to be back in Tokyo a day or two before your flight leaves, that way you won’t miss your flight (unless you want to “accidentally” miss it, wink wink nudge nudge).

Day 14: Go Home

Hope you had fun in Japan. This is only your first trip, though. Now that you’ve gotten all the normal / main stuff out of the way, your next trip can be filled with strange, exciting places. Be sure to check out TofuguTV for some of those, and keep reading Tofugu for more in the future. There are certainly many, many “off-the-beaten-track” locations worth visiting, but we’ll save that for next time!

  • Rashmi

    Bookmarking this! Someday, someday I’ll go to Japan and this will come useful. Thanks a lot;)))

  • nagz

    what? no Hokkaido??

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    I <3 going to Hokkaido, but I probably wouldn't recommend it for someone's very first trip, unless it was more like a 2-3 week trip.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    npnp! I hope it does indeed help in the future!

  • Mescale

    This guide is terrible, where are the cats and the islands. CATS AND ISLAND MAN CATS AND ISLANDS THINK ABOUT WHATS IMPORTANT KOICHI! 

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    NOOOO – then the masses will discover my secret Cat Island base of operations. All my evil plans will be ruined! I was going to put guns on cats like Penguin did to… penguins!

  • http://www.electricbloomwebzine.com/ EB

    Helpful! We will be in Japan this October, but we will probably only be staying around the Tokyo area. Though it would be nice to visit Osaka!

  • Mescale

    Wait. So you’re saying you’re the evil villain know as ねこです? (Can you tell I haven’t been watching enough Japan Knees.)

    Somebody call Adam West Batman! (The best batman) \\SOCK////  >>>>>POW<<<<<<

  • testyal1

    I’m most interested in Osaka, mainly because of Osaka-ben.

    That sweet, sweet Osaka-ben.

  • http://samuelmcconnell.com Samuel McConnell

    We’re just about to leave for two weeks – I like the itenerary you present here, but we look to make it as far as Hiroshima and Miyajima. Will probably cut out Jigokudani, Nikko, and Nara, but Mt. Koya looks fantastic and I think we’ll add that to our must-see list!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/S2AC2WEJ46RIBHCC5MSWDRTGRM Julia

    If a girl were to go to the red light district at night, for the bars and such, would that be a safe call or no?

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Koya’s always my favorite! That’s the one I’d also not cut :D

    But… but… no monkeys! D: Heretic!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Gosh, I have no idea… :( Hopefully someone else can answer. I’m not one who frequents the Red Light District, and I’m also not a girl… except in those videos… which nobody can no about. shh.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    I have a friend in Osaka so I go there sometimes but… it’s a big city :( I no like big cities :(

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Get out of Tokyo if you can! It’s so… city-ish!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    NOT ADAM WEST PLEASE NO

  • ですこ

     What?! Is this a hint to the identity of Koichifanny?

  • Dino Milačić

    毎度あり!
    Although I plan to be in Japan for at least a few months when I eventually go there, this will definitely prove useful when the time comes. Bookmarked + Evernoted ^_^

  • http://samuelmcconnell.com Samuel McConnell

    I know! Maybe we can fit it in…the monkeys would be fun, but on our 7 day JR pass, I’m not sure if we’ll make it up towards Nagano. Was planning on doing a Tokyo > Kyoto > Osaka > Hiroshima > Tokyo thing. If there was a shinkansen line between Nagano and, say, Nagoya, it would be easier. But, uh, I don’t think there is.

  • testyal1

    Aaw, but they’re so pretty. 

  • judy

    Just a little word of caution about the cemetary in Koyasan…we went at dusk.  Apparently dusk stimulates the large jumping spiders…

  • evolutionxbox

    Seriously. Thank you, you have made my first trip to Japan a whole lot less stressful. =)

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    dun dun dunnnnn

  • kuyaChristian

    Testing my official disqus account so I don’t have to type my guest information everytime. :3
    Ahhh, makes me wanna go to Japan nao.
    By the way, are the maid cafes that crazy?

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    ooh, yeah – 7 days is difficult for sure :( At least Osaka → Koya isn’t too hard! Nagano’s definitely more out of the way, and like you say, doesn’t connect well with anything except Tokyo.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    oh good :)

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    whoaaa. Cool!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    sweet!

  • ですこ

    Oh, so at dusk the cemetery is filled with giant, jumping spiders. At that point, I think ghosts would actually make the situation less terrifying.

  • Saikou

    I think something else worth noting is to do some research in to the festivals that are happening around the time of your trip, and that includes national holidays as well as local festivals as these things have a habit of sneaking up and pouncing on you mid trip.

    If you want to see them, knowing where they are happening will help you find them, though if you don’t and just want to get on with the “normal” Japanese attractions, a good knowledge of their occurance will help you avoid the crowds.

    Also, Kobe is a good alternative to Osaka which can be fit in this plan with minimal change due to its proximity. 

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    If you go to the crazy ones, I suppose!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    really good points re: festivals!

  • Twinkleredgames

    hi koichi! I’ve been accepted to go to Japan this summer for 4-5 weeks as an exchange student. Can you make a post about anything an exchange student would need to know? Family rituals, stuff at school, how personal you should be at the beginning etc. Thanks if you can! If you can’t, that’s ok too (:

  • Le_Gambit

    I have to say I am impressed that you mentioned Koyasan.  It was the highlight of my trip to Japan, and it was such a good break from the cities.  I stayed there 2 nights and loved it.  I would suggest though that considering the trip was about 3 hours (there was a landslide across the tracks when I headed up there) staying the night is a must.  The trip up there is also very enjoyable.  You take a train out of Osaka, which then meets up with a cable car which then takes you to a bus station which then takes you into the town.  You can buy a combined ticket which includes all those things in the fee but it is only valid for a 2 day return (the day you buy it for the return on the following day)

    My single biggest tip if you do stay the night there is to only take a backpack with you and get your suitcase/travel bag forwarded onto your next hotel.  I got my suitcase forwarded from the hotel I stayed at in Kyoto (Hotel Anteroom) to the hotel I stayed at in Okayama.  I think that it cost me about 1500yen.  This was so much easier that taking my bags with me up the mountain.  

  • http://twitter.com/Meroigo Johannes / ヨハネス

    Tokyo feels much bigger though, because it has so many cool parts! Osaka doesn’t feel very big because it’s mainly just “Kita” (Umeda, Osaka station etc) and “Minami” (Glico man, Den Den Town etc), and you can, if you’re healthy, walk from Kita to Minami. ….but, like other big cities, it lacks nature and have too many cars and stuff…

    I’ve lived in Osaka for over a year now (at least 2 more to go), and before that I lived in Kyoto for 1,5 year. I have to say Kyoto is nicer to live in. It’s so beautiful and nice… And how I felt nostalgic when you mentioned Higashiyama and Sanjusangendo, because I lived in that area. :’O

    Anyways, you’re welcome to come back to Osaka and become my friend koichi, and you can change “a friend in Osaka” to “two friends in Osaka”. :D

  • tealeaf

    Great post! And quite good timing, I’m heading to Tokyo in three days with a similar itinerary. Tokyo for three days and Kyoto for ten (hitting up osaka and nara from Kyoto). 

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    I’ve added it to our post ideas list, ty!

  • niz5000

    You can save some time by making this a one way route:  Fly into Tokyo, and fly out of Osaka using Kansai International.  

  • simplyshiny

    bookmarked! it won’t be my first trip to Japan, but it will be the first one I plan on my own and not going with a tour group….now just to find the dates….

  • jhen095

    I’ve been to Miyajima, and if you walk to the top instead of taking the gondola you may spot some wild monkeys. I did :D 

  • jhen095

    Great article Koichi! I’ll be sure to visit some of those places I didn’t know about. 

    One bit of advice I would like to add, is that when I went to Nara, if you go to the information center in the middle of town (should be easy enough to find), you can ask for a free guide. It’s a volunteer service put on by the city. We got this great old guy who was full of information, history and stories. We walked around with him for most of the day and then bought him a meal at the end of it. For FREE! 

    Also while you are waiting for the guide to turn up, the info center has some nice displays and historical info about Nara. Finally, we did Nara as a day trip from Kyoto and found it was enough. Left our luggage at the Kyoto hostel and only took backpacks.

    If the trip is longer than 2 weeks, then Hiroshima and Miyajima is a must! We did this in only two days from Kyoto. The peace dome and museum were a highlight of my life (in a sobering way), and Miyajima is beautiful for a day trip.

    Cheers

  • Belthazar

    My trip was something like that when I was there in 2010, except we went Tokyo-Osaka-Hiroshima-Kyoto-Tokyo, for a total of sixteen days. We visited Koyasan while staying in Osaka, and Nara while staying in Kyoto. Also, our two Tokyo stays were reversed from what you suggested – we spent the first stay visiting Fuji and the Ghibli museum, and the second stay exploring central Tokyo.

  • TripMasterMunky

    I would absolutely recommend climbing Mount Fuji. Yes, of course it’s hard – you’re hiking up a giant frickin’ mountain. But it’s awesome, and when you’re done you’ll be glad you did it.

    Personally, I plan to do it again next time I go to Japan.

  • http://twitter.com/arleas_ Lee Rolfing

    There’s a youtube channel that has a whole “how-to” playlist that would probably be helpful to you… I don’t think he’s done a video especially for the exchange students but a lot of his stuff covers the basics.  

    The channel is https://www.youtube.com/user/TheJapanChannelDcom

  • deryck

    I definitely recommend Nikko!  Stay in a nice Ryoukan there if you can afford it.  My wife and I had a most wonderful honeymoon there and visited Toshogu shrine as well.   Good times!  As an aside, I also recommend getting an international drivers’ license from AAA before you leave the states.   We rented a car and drove to Nikko from Hitachioota, which afforded us the opportunity to stop along the way as we desired, and we found some nice restaurants as a result.

  • http://japan-australia.blogspot.com/ Japan Australia

    A very comprehensive guide and well recommended. I would also add if time permits Hiroshima and a day trip to Miyajima, which is a must see place in Japan.

  • Vivian Morelli

    Great post!! I’ll send it to all my friends who are planning to come visit me. Priceless deer picture, too.

  • Vivian Morelli

    Koichi, hope it’s okay I linked it on my blog, in this post:
    http://vivianlostinseoul.blogspot.jp/2012/05/planning-first-trip-to-japan-via-tofugu.html

    I loved it!!!

  • Joseph Goforth

    i’d be at home with the deer of nara.  growing up on a farm, we had a couple pet deer at different points of my childhood. (sometimes when cutting hay in the early summer, you would scare off the mother deer from their bedding in the field and they tend to abandon the fawns permanently :( so we raised a few and kept them semi-wild so they went back on their own with the herd nearby eventually).  Our poor housecat used to get licked by the deer…she put up with it grudgingly.  particularly since the fawns played with the dog a bit more roughly.  hooves>dogs. 

  • Rachael Sachse

    Any chance of a follow-up article for secondary/tertiary trips to Japan? A lot of the stuff here is pretty covered in most travel articles, sadly (but here with that Kochi zing), so it’d be nice to see some more locations for us “Dear god I loved Japan, but where to go now I’ve been to Osaka/Kyoto/Tokyo/the usual places” people.

  • Lena

    Actually, if you’re looking more for culture and Japanese traditional buildings, Tokyo is definitely NOT the place to spend your time. It’s much better to spend time in Kyoto, Nara (though a day at most in Nara), and Hiroshima if you have the time. Kyoto is not to be skipped!!

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    Would be cool to see a “off-the-beaten” path type article. Ko definitely has the experience to share such information :)

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    After the first series of TofuguTV is done I’ll start doing that… though that may take a while. Before the end of the year, I hope!

  • Kiriain

     バットマン!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jathon.thompson Jathon Thompson

    Have you done much traveling in the West side of Japan? I’m going to Matsuyama for 6 months in August, and it would be nice to have a travel guide for that area as well. :) By the way, really enjoyed this article. I want to see those hot spring monkeys!

  • http://www.electricbloomwebzine.com/ EB

    I know but all our buisness is there D:
    Hopefully we can get out for atleast a day! Might end up going crazy from all the neon!

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    Hmmm. I personally prefer to go to “special” places, too, that are less known.
    However, for somebody who visits Japan for the first time a bit of Tokyo (but please with some day trips!!) and Kyoto might just be right for 1-2 weeks.
    For only that I wouldn’t recommend the JR railpass.
    A lot of foreign tourists also seem to go to Hiroshima. Personally I’m not a big fan of Hiroshima. If it’s about the bomb museum, I’d recommend Nagasaki (still one of my favorite cities in Japan!).
    However, Miyajima is GREAT and just a few minutes away from Hiroshima, so I guess Hiroshima makes more sense.

    Personally I would NEVER recommend Tokyo for travelling. It’s good to experience ONE side of Japan, but that’s it. It also depends what somebody is looking for when coming to Japan for the first time.
    Kyoto is always a good idea, but can be very crowded.

    I can always recommend besides Kansai, the Chugoku area, Shikoku and Kyushu. It’s also a good option for people who are too worried about radiation as they’re really far away from Fukushima.
    On the other hand I just visited Tohoku myself this month. No problems at all. However, I was shocked to see the damage the earthquake and tsunami caused – even 1 year after it happened!
    Some houses were left exactly that way!
    Doors were pushed in, walls broken open, the laundry still hanging. You could see that people left in panic and there’s not enough money to clean it up yet.
    If anybody is interested, I’ll post some photos of it in my blog soon. I felt like throwing up while taking those photos, so be prepared! :(

    Uhm … if anybody has questions about planning their trip to Japan, feel free to contact me.
    Not that I’m an experct, but out of the 47 prefectures in Japan I’ve visited 41 of them (trying to finish the last 6 this year).

    Great post, very helpful for Japan “newbies”! :D

  • Billyboomerang

    Man I wouldn’t go around the red light districts if you were a girl on your own day or night. I was trying to meet up with my friends in Kabukicho one DAY for karaoke and got hassled by almost every male host promoting their clubs on the street. Later that night one of my guy friends walked me back to the subway and it didn’t happen a second time. 
    Also, some of my girl friends from school told me specifically not to go unless you had a guy with you. They went somewhere in Kabukicho as a group of girls and the same thing happened to them. 

  • FoxiBiri

    Everyone stop staying Tokyo isn’t cool! I agree it’s only one side of Japan but if you are a city person you will love it!

    I know of some sweet cat cafes in Ikebukuro if anyone’s in that neighborhood touring the real life setting of Durarara. Most of the anime took place on the East side and that’s where the sweet neko cafes are! There’s a pretty popular one on the top floor of Tokyu Hands, and behind that building, heading towards Sunshine city mall on street level, keep your head up and you’ll find Nekorobi  ねころび!!Just pay 1000 yen (like $10) for an hour and you’ll have all the pussy and drinks you can handle! I love this place >..< also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you can't afford to stay at a nice Ryokan theres a sweet little hostel owned by an older couple somewhere I don't remember. They made us breakfast in the morning packed with vegetarian friendly nourishment! We found our way to an onsen too somehow, best night ever!

  • gorudonu

    Thank you Koichi! great job :) 

  • 8bitstargazer

    I to will bookmark this as well, im going to tokyo in september for 2 & 1/2 months.  And besides learning japanese i know nothing about where im going or what im  doing , so anything helps….will be fun getting lost i hope

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    Getting lost is the best way to travel in foreign land. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/irini Irini Greyerbiehl

    Thank you for this list. We are going for a week in the summer so it is very timely and helpful advice.
    I am a new visitor to your website and like it very much.

  • Lucas

    I think this is a good framework for a trip to Japan (especially a first one).  I would argue the time spent on the Nagano leg could be used better but I haven’t been there yet so I wouldn’t be totally confident in making it.

    As for Western Kyoto, don’t you need to go through some sort of elaborate reservation process to get into Kokedera?  Plus you don’t even mention Otagi Nembutsuji, which is your headline photo for Kyoto and a really cool little temple in Arashiyama.  Then there’s Tenryuji and its neighboring bamboo grove.  Oh, and Arashiyama has monkeys too.  Plus a nice view of Kyoto.  Which you can look out over once the monkeys finish with the binoculars.

  • Julie

     I only went to one maid cafe. The maids were VERY cheerful and energetic, kind of chubby and average-looking girls with huge smiles and extremely loud voices. The floor was covered in mirror so you could see up their skirts. But no underwear for the maids… they were wearing these petticoat bloomers that went down to their knees. Mine, on the other hand…

    The only customers were men, all dressed in black, with their heads down looking depressed or shy. They just sat there reading comic books and drinking sweet-looking drinks. The music was really fast dance music. There was a sign on the table in Japanese saying that you could talk 1-on-1 to the maids for 500 yen. It didn’t say how long she would talk to you for. We didn’t try it. We left after about 10 minutes.

    I was satisfied, and don’t plan on going to another one!
    Hope this helped!

  • Julie

     Totally safe. If you’re foreign, you might get some Nigerian guys handing you club flyers. They are pushy but friendly and certainly nothing to worry about. I am small, quiet and speak Japanese, though. I also don’t dress provocatively. I have heard that girls who show cleavage sometimes get harassed a bit. I have never been bothered, though.

  • Dr3am3rz

    Wah!! Cool.. Of all the places in Tokyo you’ve mentioned, I’ve only been to Harajuku, Ueno, Yoyogi, Shibuya, Akihabara. The places in Kyoto, maybe the next time if I can go again. Been trying to find some sceneries places in Japan. If possible, would wish to travel with you guys the next time you all go!! Haha =x

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    well, when we start the Tofugu Japan Tours company, we’ll be sure to let you know first, then :p

  • Dr3am3rz

    Haha.. Sure!! Anyway, I did sent you an email regarding the Japanese counter but you didn’t reply me.. =x

  • http://twitter.com/FakeFoodJapan FakeFoodJapan

    If you are looking for an online shop that sells [Made in Japan] fake food related items in English and ships all over the world, you may want to check out Fake Food Japan: http://fakefoodjapan.com/

  • rantony420

    This looks Awesome!!! How much would you expect to take on this trip if it was for 2 or more weeks going to most of these recommended places??

  • rober

    you´ve helped me a lot!! I´m travelling for one week.

  • tr4velgeek

    I am going to Japan in two weeks time and have been referring to this post for our itinerary base. Thanks for an awesome post :)

  • Tom

    No Hiroshima? O_o

  • Tom

    am actually going in may, but not sure where to stay, do you think it would be a problem finding hotels on the day we turn up? or better to book in advance?

  • Katherine

    This looks amazing! My boyfriend and I are going to be in Japan this Nov/Dec and will definitely be following this, although our first 2 days are in tokyo as is our last week. Do you think we would need to stay the night somewhere near Mt Fuji?

  • Katherine

    ps. thank you!!

  • evolutionxbox

    I should also say it was a rousing success! I (kind of) followed your guide, and it was a blast! Thanks sooo much Koichi.

  • JoNathan

    it’s going to be my first time in Japan in Oct 2013. Is 12 days in Tokyo only an overkill?

  • Alexius Coronado

    Great information, beautifully detailled with those awesome pics. I have been in Tokyo before but working, it just allowed me 3 or 4 hours to sightsee, this time I am coming with my wife in a three weeks trip, so I am reading the most you posted here and I am finding it all very useful. If I have any question, could you be so nice in giving me some help? Thks in advance and congrats on your site!

  • http://twitter.com/AlyssaIvanov Alyssa Ivanov

    So many interesting places. If I get rich one day I so wanna spend a couple nights in a guest house in gion and see about seeing a Geisha. :D

  • Miranda

    This is awesome! Going to be useful in my trip planning.

  • Maximuz

    Thanks for this. I must compliment this blog on two points. First, I relied heavily on this information for my first trip to Japan (Sept 2012). Second, I have modeled some of my blog: http://juliosworldmarvels.wordpress.com/ partly on your site.
    I do have one question. Why bother to go back to Tokyo? I mean, we already spend most of our time there, it just seems like a waste if all that we will do is go home. Why not do a “multi-city flight” where we fly into Tokyo and fly out of osaka? It is a huge city, and direct flights to the states (and Korea where I live) exist.

  • erna

    why wont you pick JR rail pass? can i have your contact to ask about japan?

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    Why I won’t pick it? Because as a resident of Japan I can’t get the railpass. Or did you mean why I don’t recommend taking it for the suggested route?

    Sure! You can contact me anytime: http://zoomingjapan.com/contact/ ^____^

  • http://www.facebook.com/daniel.leibovic Danny Leibovic

    thanks so much for posting this; im trying to plan a summer trip there (graduating high school this year)

  • http://twitter.com/iamgreenfin Farhan

    Wow..thanks for such a wonderful write up.
    I would really, really love to visit Japan.. Gonna save this page for future use!

    Thanks much dude

  • Cassidy

    I’m a huge foodie and am heading to Japan in two weeks. Could you email me some great fun food places? sammgirl8@aol.com ps. I eat just about anything and everything

  • John Pineda

    i’ve read through this thoroughly like 4 times already haha im planning a trip for mid august 2013 for 2 weeks and this is gonna be my first time in japan without any parental/guardian figures, aside from when i was 7 years old. i have no idea what im doing lol. any tips on navigating about or first timer tips?

    oh im gonna be with my girlfriend btw in total including tickets we should have around $5,000
    so an estimate of around $2,300 spending money. would that be enough for the two of us?

  • Diego

    How much do i need for the 2 weeks trip

  • Lilian

    Great tips. I’ve never been to Japan but when I do go , this info will definitely be useful

  • CandyTheUnicorn

    Son, I’ma book mark this page.

  • Dr3am3rz

    Hi guys, I wonder does anybody have any famous and delicious Vegetarian restaurants to recommend in Japan? lol =x Preferably in Tokyo area.

  • Senjougahara

    Thanks so much for this article and the food ones.I hopefully will be using them this winter, as I’m planning on taking at 10 day trip. Two musts (that I saw on TofuguTV) are the catch-it-yourself restaurant and the site of reversible destiny.

  • Simone

    My friend and I are literally mirroring your blog for our 14 day trip. Thank you so much you have really helped us!

  • Archie de Leon

    If you want a real adventure in Japan you should bring around $3,000-$4,000. 2 weeks is quite a long vacation and you should bring a lot of money in you. The hotels might cost a little expensive and the trains,shopping,tickets and etc. I lived in Japan and everytime i go on a vacation in other parts of Japan, I always bring around $2,000 because it is really expensive.

  • Dr3am3rz

    Hi, can I add you on Facebook or email you? Would like to ask you some things. :)

  • Courtney Burkett

    Thanks so much for sharing this! My husband and I are doing almost 2 weeks in Japan and are using your recommendation as a guide. We changed it up a bit, as there are a few things/places we wanted to go that weren’t on the list. We are starting in Tokyo for 2 days, then off to Nagano for the 3rd night. From there we are headed to a hotel at the base of Mt. Fuji so that we can hike it REALLY early and make it down in time to hit up Fuji-Q for the rest of the day and crashing at the same hotel that night. From there, it’s Kyoto to Nara to Koyasan. Headed to Hiroshima from there to see Peace Memorial Park and then back to Tokyo for one more day/night and then last minute shopping before heading home on the 12th day.

    Your guide has been so helpful and has made the planning for our honeymoon so much easier than I could possibly have imagined!!!

  • KG Zheng

    I love this post. I’m actually not heading to Tokyo for my first visit. Instead i’m going to Osaka/Kyoto in April-May. Budget travels depending on which flight is the cheapest.

    BUT!! This is still an awesome post which I’m sure will help a great bunch. Thanks a lot really.

  • MBzer

    Hey, thanks so much for this. We’re planning to go in April/March ish. And I heard that that was the cherry blossom season. Is there anywhere specific where we can see the cherry blossom trees?

  • Heidi

    I’m going to be in China for a month then fly over to Japan from the 8th -20 th. I’m lucky enough to have a friend that lives near Shibuya that is letting me stay at her place while I’m in Tokyo. My intention is to fly into Tokyo and leave for Hiroshima the next day (no jet lag here with only an hour difference from Beijing). I plan on going from Hiroshima and work by way back to Tokyo with stops at Kyoto, Osaka and maybe Kobe or Nara (Mt. Fuji will be a day trip from Tokyo later on). My only real concern is getting around in the cities. I plan on taking buses/trains/subways when needed and walked when I can. Does anybody have a good site for transportation information (outside a JR Pass) that will work in these cities, and also any map information to help navigate my way through the cities. My japanese is minimal in speaking but can read hiragana and katana to know place names. I’m afraid of getting lost on the public transportation and wasting precious time there!!

    Thank you!
    Heidi

  • Francis A.

    Awesome guide. This definitely helped me plan my upcoming trip in May. Thanks Koichi!