The Ultimate Jetset Travel Guide to 10 Days in Japan
My first time going to Japan (8 years ago!), I didn’t know what to expect. I had never been to Asia before, and to be honest I wasn’t that excited about going to Japan. It just seemed so different from anywhere I had ever been, and I was a little scared of the unknown of this (very) foreign destination. The culture, the food, the language, the customs, everything scared me about Japan at the time. You can travel to Europe and South America and feel the “foreign” excitement that comes with it, but those destinations are nothing quite like going to Asia for the first time. They feel like home. They’re western. Japan, on the other hand, is another world.
I went to Japan for the first time for 8 days on Semester at Sea in college. We traveled to Tokyo, Yokohama, Nara, Kyoto, and Osaka all in 8 short days. It was February and it was freeeeezing cold (you all know I don’t do cold). I didn’t know how to speak the language. I didn’t know anything about Japan. I didn’t even like Japanese food (yet… I’m now obsessed with sushi, because of that trip!) I didn’t know how I was going to get around this country.
But, something amazing happened when I opened my mind up to the idea of Japan – it blew me away.
Japan was hands-down the easiest country to get around (the world-renowned bullet train was the reason we were able to see so much in so little time!). The people were so wonderful, so patient, and so kind, that you could even get around not knowing the language. There were endless things to do and see (even after my second trip, I am still anxious to get back and explore more of Japan!), and the culture, while very different from my own, was absolutely incredible.
The Japanese’s quiet, organized, law-abiding, hard-working society, mixed with their wacky & wonderful quirkiness (they are famous for their hilariously bizarre pop culture) does something amazing to you as a traveler – it turns you from a visitor, into a spectator. You feel like a spectator on their incredible world, so different than your own that you are so enthralled that you can’t look away. Their values, culture, history and tradition are so engrained into their society, that when you are experiencing them, you feel like you’re merely a witness to someone else’s world. It sounds bizarre, I’m sure, if you’ve never been to a place like Japan – but, if you have, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Japan is not the type of place you ‘go’, it’s the type of place you experience.
This year, I had the amazing opportunity to return to Japan in partnership with Beauty of Japan – a high-end Japanese tour operator that specializes in tours all over the country. For our trip, we focused on Tokyo and a beautiful area I had never been to before, Nikko. If my first trip to Japan so many years ago was about experiencing the historical and cultural beauty of Japan, this trip was the perfect complement to that – my weeklong trip focused on the natural beauty of Japan. And nature, it turns out, is extremely important to Japanese culture. They quite literally worship nature and consider every part of their environment sacred. They hike, they soak in natural mineral baths, they worship mountains. The Japanese appreciate every inch of the beautiful country that they have been gifted. And, as a spectator to their beautiful marriage of nature and faith, it’s hard not to feel the gratitude and spiritual zen yourself as you walk through Japan.
I’m often asked about visiting Japan, and what to do with a week or two weeks traveling there. So, I wanted to compile my ideal 10-day itinerary for you guys! Basically, this itinerary is meant for those taking one week off work and two weekends to travel to Japan. These 10 days are (in my opinion) the perfect combination of historical, cultural, and natural beauty that Japan has to offer (from what I’ve seen in my two trips– I’m sure there are so many other places that I need to go! Let me know where in the comments!) .
This itinerary combines the thriving cities of Osaka and Tokyo, with the cultural and historical havens of Kyoto and Nara, and the natural beauty of Mount Fuji and Nikko.
Table of Contents
2 nights in Tokyo
No trip to Japan is complete without a few days in the bustling center of the country – Tokyo.
Must-do’s in Tokyo:
Shibuya Scramble Crossing – Arguably the busiest intersection in the world (and definitely in Japan), Shibuya Crossing, with throngs of people walking in every-which direction, and lights lighting up the skyscrapers all around, is a must-do on any trip to Japan – and the perfect “Welcome to Tokyo” moment.
Sushi – Getting sushi while in Japan is of course a must-do, as you really, really haven’t had sushi until you’ve had it here. If you’re wondering where to go, just step outside and start walking. I read about this one conveyor belt sushi spot and when I got there there was a line long out the door. The thing about sushi in Japan is it’s not the raved-about, written-about spots that are going to give you the best experience, it’s the low-key, almost-hidden neighborhood spots, the ones run by old Japanese men who look like they could have been Samurai warriors in their past lives. Their sushi is their art – and they take every slice very seriously. They may not speak English, but the art they’ll make for you will be out-of-this-world, melt-in-your-mouth good. Oh, and it’ll only ring you up about $10 for an entire meal.
Tokyo Skytree – look out onto the entire 360 view of the city from the third tallest building in the world!! There’s also awesome dining options here (I like Toriton), and some fun shopping.
Get a beer at a vending machine – Yep, that’s right! In Tokyo, no minor would ever dare disobey the rules,
so beer is available at vending machines throughout the city. It’s definitely a fun Tokyo experience.
See a baseball game –
If it’s season (March-October) and the timing lines up, seeing a baseball game in Tokyo is a must. Baseball to Japanese is like soccer to Brazilians. They go nuts for it. This is an experience you can’t miss in Japan, especially if you’re a US baseball fan.
Visit the fish market –
As the biggest fish market in the world, the Tsukiji Market is a bustling jungle of a market, and definitely a must-do in Tokyo. You can do a morning tour of the fish market through Beauty of Japan. My favorite sushi restaurant in San Francisco even flies in their sushi from this market!
Where to stay in Tokyo:
Mandarin Oriental Tokyo – for the ultimate in luxury.
A sleek city escape like no other in Japan.
Travel from Tokyo to Nikko – $45 train, 2 hours on Tobu railway.
Day trip to Nikko (or an overnight)
Nikko is a gorgeous area in the mountains of Japan, just 2 hours North of Tokyo by Tobu railway, that features hiking, fishing, waterfalls, a beautiful lake and multiple world heritage sites. It is one of the most naturally beautiful areas in all of Japan.
Wondering what to do in Nikko? Check out my blog post on 8 must-do’s in Nikko.
Travel from Tokyo to Mount Fuji
2 days, overnight in Hakone (I recommend this hotel)
At 3,776 meters, the beautiful Mt. Fuji is the highest peak in Japan. In Mount Fuji, you can choose to climb the mountain & hike (which I’ve never done!), or just enjoy the beautiful views from the town of Hakone and Lake Ashi.
However, if you’re looking for Mount Fuji views in cherry blossom season -April/May- skip Hakone and head to Hitsujiyama Park instead!!
Where to stay in Hakone near Mt. Fuji – Hakone Gora Karaku
Travel: from Mount Fuji to Nara
for the day
Less than an hour outside Kyoto and Osaka is the site of Japan’s first capital city, Nara. The city is full of beautiful and historic temples and buildings but my favorite part of Nara is Nara Park.
Throughout Nara Park, you’ll find lush green grass, vendors selling delicious japanese food and soba noodles and hundreds and hundreds of friendly wild deer.
Travel: from Nara to Kyoto
2-3 nights in Kyoto
Ah, Kyoto. One of my very favorite parts of Japan.
Don’t miss the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, the gated Shinto Shrine, and the Bamboo forest!
Where to stay in Kyoto:
With 134 rooms but the feel of a boutique luxe hotel, The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto offers fine dining at the sleek Mizuki restaurant, and an indoor hotel pool and spa that’s hard to beat in Kyoto.
If an intimate villa is more your style, this property has ten historic wooden machiya townhouses on a quiet Kyoto lane that have been exquisitely renovated into minimalist-chic rooms with private gardens, mid-century furniture, abstract artworks and a unique, contemporary Japanese design.
Travel from Kyoto to Osaka
1 night in Osaka
Japan’s second biggest city features historic castles, world-famous restaurants, and a gorgeous skyline.
Must-do’s in Osaka
The Osaka Kaiyukan Aquarium – One of the best aquariums in the world, everyone will tell you not to miss the aquarium in Osaka- famous for their whale sharks!
Shintennoji – The first buddhist temple in Japan! Shitennoji is a must-see any time of year, but if you happen to go on the 14th of any month, you can also experience the largest flea market in Osaka- a super lively place to pick up used kimonos, antiques and Japanese pottery.
Dotonburi – This road is the epitome of Osaka culture. The road is packed full of restaurants and bars trying to lure you in with huge animatronic signs and bright neon lights
Kuromon Ichiba Market – Get some fresh seafood at Osaka’s famous market! The market is open from morning until evening time, so a perfect stop for breakfast or lunch. It is easily accessible from Osaka or Nipponbashi station.
Osaka Castle – One of the most historically significant sites in Japan, the castle was originally constructed in the late 1500s. The gardens surrounding the castle are full of plum trees & parks that are popular with tourists and locals alike.
Enjoy your trip to one of my very favorite countries! If I missed any must-do’s, let me know in the comments!