During our two weeks in Japan we experienced as much as possible of what the country has to offer. From the neon lights of Tokyo to the wooden teahouses of Kanazawa; from driving go-karts dressed as Mario characters to the solemn and tranquil tea ceremony; from steaming bowls of cheap ramen to exquisite kaiseki cuisine; from temples, mountains and rice paddies to bullet trains, skyscrapers and arcades. We fell in love with the country even more than on our first visit.
Our Japan Itinerary
- Tokyo – 5 nights
- Nikko – 1 night
- Hakone – 1 night
- Takayama – 2 nights
- Kanazawa – 2 nights
- Tokyo – 5 nights
Our Japan trip was at the end of September until mid-October and was actually for 16 nights, but you could easily cut this down to 14 by spending less time in Tokyo.
Our Japan itinerary included five nights in Tokyo, six nights travelling with a 7 Day Japan Rail Pass, and ended with five more nights in Tokyo. We spent over three weeks in Kyoto on our last trip so we didn’t visit this time, but if you are travelling to Japan for the first time, I highly recommend substituting the second Tokyo stay with Kyoto as it really is a must-see.
At the end of this post I have included other suggested destinations if you decide to get a 14 Day Rail Pass for your two weeks in Japan and add more places to your itinerary and reduce the time spent in Tokyo or Kyoto.
As Japan is expensive and there is so much to do, we moved at a much quicker pace than usual. The week travelling with a rail pass was especially exhausting and we could easily have added an extra night (or two) to everywhere we visited. That said, we don’t regret our itinerary as we had an amazing time and loved everywhere we visited.
Japan Two Week Itinerary Map
This map shows our Japan two week itinerary with blue markers and other potential destinations to consider with red markers.
Getting Around Japan
Trains are the best way to get around Japan and we travelled with a 7 day Japan Rail Pass. Although the passes seem expensive (a 7 day pass is $250) they will usually save you money if you are travelling to many places, especially if you take the fast bullet trains (which you want to!). We saved $150 per person for this itinerary!
You can use the Hyperdia website to find train times and costs and compare these to the cost of a pass. If the cost is close then get the pass as it’s much easier being able to hop on and off trains when you like and not worry about purchasing tickets.
You need to book Japan Rail Passes in advance before you arrive in Japan. You’ll receive an exchange order in the mail that you then exchange for the pass in Japan. We booked ours with JRailPass.com who deliver anywhere in the world, including to your Japan hotel if you’ve left it to the last minute. We got ours delivered to a hotel in Bali.
See my detailed guide on how to calculate whether a Japan Rail Pass is worth it including everything you need to know to use the pass.
Days 1 – 5 Tokyo
It’s easy to spend five days in Tokyo, but if time is limited you could reduce your stay to three. It’s a huge sprawling city so it’s best to focus your explorations on neighbourhoods. Here are some of my recommendations and you can see my guide to the coolest things to do in Tokyo for more details.
Shinjuku Day: Shop in huge electronics stores like BIC Camera and the food basements of department stores like Takashimaya. Stroll around the beautiful Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden.
Shinjuku Night: See the insane Robot Restaurant show. Eat in a tiny restaurant on atmospheric Memory Lane. See the skyline view from the free Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Bar hop on the Golden Gai.
Shibuya and Harajuku: Walk across the famous Shibuya Crossing. Gawp at the crazy fashions of Takeshita Street. Enjoy stunning ukiyo-e woodblock prints at the Ota Memorial Museum of Art. Visit the Meiji Shrine in Yoyogi Park.
Asakusa: Step back into old Japan and get your fortune told at Sensoji Temple followed by a meal in a traditional restaurant (we had a 12-course vegetarian feast at Bon).
I also recommend:
- Spending a day at the magical DisneySea.
- Visiting the Ghibli Museum if you are a Studio Ghibli fan (book far in advance).
- Taking a two-hour Maricar tour in Roppongi driving the Tokyo streets in a go-kart dressed as Mario characters!
The Narita Express train is the easiest way to get from Narita airport to Shinjuku, Shibuya and Tokyo stations. It costs 2990 yen ($26) and takes 87 mins to Shinjuku. You must have a seat reservation but you can get this when you buy the ticket from the machine or counter in the airport station.
The Japan Rail Pass is valid on this line but if you are following this itinerary with a 7 day pass you won’t want to activate it until the day you leave Tokyo.
Buy a Suica card to use as a ticket on all trains and metro lines in Tokyo. You can also use it for lockers, vending machines, and even in many shops. If you return it at the end of your stay you’ll get the 500 yen deposit back.
If you will be using a Japan Rail Pass during your stay make sure you swap your exchange order for a pass and activate it at one of the JR offices in train stations. You can’t change the start date once you have done this.
Where to Stay in Tokyo
Shinjuku is our favourite area to stay in Tokyo as it has excellent transport links, good food, and many of the attractions above are in walking distance. Shibuya is another convenient base but we found it too crowded.
We stayed in an Airbnb studio apartment a 10-minute walk from Shinjuku Station. It was small (everywhere is in Tokyo) but comfortable and well-equipped with fast WiFi and a washing machine. Our host sent us excellent directions and we were able to self-check-in by picking up the key from the mailbox. We found Airbnb better value than hotels in Tokyo and there is lots of choice—sign up here to get $39 off your first stay.
If you are looking for luxury, the Park Hyatt has a great location in Shinjuku and fantastic views. It’s where the film Lost in Translation was filmed.
Where to Eat in Tokyo
There is so much amazing food in Tokyo from cheap eats to fine dining. Even as vegetarians we ate really well with some planning. See my post on our favourite Tokyo vegetarian restaurants. The highlight was Bon which serves exquisite multi-course Zen Buddhist cuisine in private tatami rooms—it’s an experience more than just a meal.
Day 6 Nikko
On Day 6 we activated our Japan Rail Pass and headed off early to Nikko, a temple town in the mountains a few hours north of Tokyo. Many people visit on a day trip from Tokyo but as it’s a fairly long trip we decided to stay the night.
The air felt cool and fresh and it was lovely to see mountains after Tokyo’s concrete jungle. From the train stations it’s a 30-minute walk along the main road to the bright red Shinkyo bridge and the temples start up the forest covered hill just beyond. Nikko’s shrines and temples are a UNESCO world heritage site.
Toshogu Shrine is the most famous Nikko attraction and is the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan for over 250 years until 1868. It’s one of the most stunning temples I’ve ever visited with more than a dozen intricately decorated red and gold buildings amongst huge cedar trees (some over one thousand years old). But on a Sunday it was overwhelmingly busy and we didn’t stay long.
Luckily Nikko has many other shrines to explore that are much quieter than Toshogu. Although they are less spectacular we had a more enjoyable experience at Futarasan-jinja shrine, Taiyuinbyo temple, and up the mountain at Takino shrine.
Although half a day at the temples was enough for us, it would have been better to visit Toshogu first thing in the morning before the day trippers arrived. With more time we could also have done some nearby hikes.
Nikko has two train stations that are a few minutes walk from each other. Tobu Nikko Station is served by Tobu Railway trains and Japan Rail Passes can’t be used on this line, so with a rail pass you’ll arrive at the JR Nikko station. There are lockers at both stations where you can leave luggage.
From Tokyo I recommend getting the bullet train from Tokyo Station to Utsunomiya then changing for the local train to Nikko—there were even friendly staff at Utsunomiya showing us where to go. The whole journey takes about two hours.
Don’t make the mistake we did on the way there and take the JR Shonan-Shinjuku line from Shinjuku to Utsunomiya. This is a local line so is busy and not very comfortable for the long trip. It took us three hours to get to Nikko.
The Nikko train stations are about a 30-minute walk from the temple area or you can take the bus. We walked everywhere. I recommend picking up a tourist map from the train station as not all the temple signs are in English.
Where to Stay in Nikko
We stayed at Nikko Park Lodge Tobu Station which has a convenient location close to the train stations. We chose the most expensive triple room with private bathroom, but there are cheaper rooms with shared bathroom. The decor was rather dated, but the bed was comfortable and it was spacious by Japanese standards with a double bed, single bed, armchair, and kitchenette (although no plates or pans were provided). Breakfast costs extra but there’s a big supermarket close by.
Where to Eat in Nikko
We had lunch at Yasai Cafe Meguri, a vegan cafe in an old art gallery with a beautiful painted ceiling. It’s on the main road not far from the temples—look for the sign that says “Oriental Fine Arts & Curios”. It gets rave reviews and is often fully booked, although at 11.30 am we had no problems getting in. We each had one of the two lunch sets that come with miso soup, salad, and a few vegetables—Simon had avocado, tomato and seaweed on rice and I had the local speciality yuba (tofu skin) stuffed with rice. It was nice and healthy but not outstanding and a little expensive at 1600 yen ($14).
Many restaurants in Nikko close in the evening so Komekichi Kozushi was a great find just a few minutes walk from our hotel (and the train stations). This small family-run sushi place has two tables, counter seating and a tatami room where we ate. It was the first sushi place we found in Japan that had plenty of vegetarian options on the English menu including pickled plum, pickled vegetables, natto, cucumber, and egg.
They even have an English guide to sushi etiquette, so you don’t make a faux pas like dipping the rice end of your sushi in soy sauce. We loved the pickled vegetable sushi and especially the inari zushi—tofu stuffed with rice. At 700 yen ($6) a plate it was excellent value.
For a snack, try dango, grilled rice balls on a stick brushed with miso or soy and sold at a few stands on the main road.
Day 7 Hakone
Hakone is an area encompassing Lake Ashi and the mountains around Gora. It’s known for its views of Mount Fuji, hot springs, and the unique loop that takes you to all the sights on different forms of transport.
We began at midday by Lake Ashi in Moto Hakone where we were staying. It was a cloudy day so our hopes of seeing the reclusive Mount Fuji were dashed, but as we walked along the lake the iconic mountain appeared through the clouds. It lived up to our expectations and the fact that it kept disappearing and reappearing through the day only made the sight more special.
We hopped on the pirate ship (yes, really!) to head across the lake for more views of Mount Fuji and the surrounding mountains. At Togendai we switched to the ropeway (cable car) which took us up the mountain to Owakudani. We were delighted to see Mount Fuji on the way up and from the top.
Owakudani is an active volcanic valley so steam and a bad smell rise from the yellow earth. The Japanese go crazy for black eggs that are cooked in the hot sulphur springs, but we passed.
From Owakudani you can continue on the cable car to Sounzan then down to Gora, but from there we would have had to take the bus back to Moto Hakone, so it made more sense for us to return the way we came and keep enjoying the Fuji views.
We got off the boat a stop early at Hakone Machi and walked the 2 km back to our hotel which took us through the ancient Cedar Avenue. We spent the rest of the afternoon soaking in an onsen and enjoying our wonderful ryokan room at Hotel Musashiya.
In the morning we walked through the mist and drizzle to the nearby Hakone-jinja shrine with its large red torii gate overlooking the lake.
On our way back to Odawara station we continued with the loop by taking the bus to the Ninotaira Iriguchi stop and walking to the Hakone Open Air Museum, which is a highlight of the area with outdoor sculptures, unusual art installations, a Picasso gallery, and even a free hot spring foot bath. There are lockers for luggage.
From the nearby Chokokuno-Mori station we took the Tozan mountain railway on a winding track through the forest to Hakone Yumoto where we switched trains to Odawara.
Although we managed to complete most of the Hakone loop in 24 hours we would have loved to stay an extra night and have more time to enjoy our beautiful ryokan.
To get to Hakone from Nikko we had to backtrack through Tokyo so it was an exhausting morning of travel. We left at 7.30 am and took the local train to Utsunomiya, the bullet train from there to Tokyo, and another bullet train to Odawara.
In Odawara train station we bought a Hakone Free Pass at the Odakyu Sightseeing Service Centre. The pass costs 4000 yen ($35), is valid for two days, and can be used on the buses, pirate ship, cable car, and mountain railway.
As we were staying in Moto Hakone we took the H bus there from Odawara which took about an hour on a windy mountain road and arrived around 11 am.
Where to Stay in Hakone
As Hakone is a large area it can be confusing deciding which town to stay in. The most important thing is to stay somewhere with good transport links. We decided to stay by Lake Ashi to have a second chance of seeing Mount Fuji in the morning.
We stayed in a ryokan (traditional inn) called Hotel Musashiya on the shores of Lake Ashi in Moto Hakone. Although it looks like a modern hotel from the outside, the minimalist tatami rooms are traditional with futon beds (that are cleared away during the day), a low table and chairs, and unusually a small ensuite bathroom. We had a gorgeous view of Lake Ashi from our room and there are also lake views from the onsens (hot spring baths) and lounge (where there’s WiFi).
In typical Japanese style the onsens are public with outdoor and indoor baths for men and women. Once I got over my fear of public nudity it was a wonderfully relaxing experience to soak in the hot water and I felt blissed out our whole stay.
Hotel Musashiya was by far our favourite place we stayed in Japan and I highly recommend it.
Where to Eat in Hakone
Vegetarian options are limited in Hakone. When we arrived in Moto Hakone we had a quick lunch at Bakery and Table—you can choose from a number of rolls (stuffed with cheese, potato, etc) and pastries and take them upstairs to eat overlooking Lake Ashi.
Dinner and breakfast were included at Hotel Musashiya and they were happy to cater for vegetarians. Dinner was served in our room and was a real feast—tempura, rice, miso soup, yuba, pickles, vegetable and tofu hotpot, eggplant and mushrooms in a delicious sauce, Caprese salad, matcha pudding, and plum wine.
Days 8 – 9 Takayama
Takayama is one of my favourite places in Japan. It’s a small town on the edge of the Japan Alps with a beautifully preserved historic centre of wooden houses, temples, neatly shaped trees, and bright red bridges over the river. There’s so much to do in the area we could easily have spent longer than two nights here (a theme of our trip!).
Our highlights included wandering the old town in the early morning before the crowds arrived, buying delicious apples and pears from the morning markets, seeing the extravagant, colourful floats at the Festival Floats Exhibition Hall, and visiting the Hida Folk Village, a display of traditional thatched houses from the area.
We also spent an afternoon in nearby Hida Furukawa, an adorable town that’s well worth a visit. We did an excellent (and easy) cycling tour with Satoyama Experience where we biked through the beautiful countryside past rice fields and idyllic villages and learnt about the traditions of the area.
From Hakone to Takayama we took the 2.08 pm bullet train from Odawara to Nagoya then changed to the Limited Express Wide View Hida train to Takayama which has large windows to take advantage of the beautiful river and mountain views. We arrived in Takayama just after 6 pm.
Takayama is a small town so we walked everywhere except when we took the 15-minute train ride to Hide Furukawa for our cycling trip.
Where to Stay in Takayama
We stayed at Super Hotel Hida Takayama, a business hotel close to the station and a 10-minute walk from the old town. Our room was tiny but had everything we needed—ensuite, desk, fridge, kettle, WiFi, and free breakfast buffet. There’s even an onsen but we didn’t have time to use it.
Takayama is ideal for experiencing a traditional inn or ryokan. If we had the budget we would have stayed somewhere more atmospheric like the highly rated Oyado Koto No Yume.
Where to Eat in Takayama
Our favourite place to eat in Takayama was Heinraku, a tiny restaurant run by the friendliest lady we’ve ever met! There’s a multiple page vegetarian section on the menu with a mix of Chinese and Japanese dishes including local specialities like the delicious Hida miso ramen. The chile tofu and vegetable gyoza were also excellent and don’t miss their homemade plum wine.
Suzuya is a good place to try local specialities. They do a tasty vegetarian version of hoba miso where vegetables and tofu are cooked at your table on a large magnolia leaf spread with miso paste.
Fukutaro is a cute cafe that makes excellent gohei mochi, mashed rice grilled on a skewer with sesame sauce.
Mitarashi-dango is another local dish to try—small, almost creamy rice balls grilled with soy. The Jinya Dango stand near Jinya Mae market makes the best in town.
Days 10 – 11 Kanazawa
At first glimpse Kanazawa seems like another Japanese concrete city but when you begin to explore you’ll discover some of the most beautiful gardens in the country as well as three geisha districts with preserved wooden buildings.
Higashi Chaya is the largest geisha area where geisha used to perform and entertain guests in the wooden teahouses dating back to 1820. It’s beautiful but crowded with tourists and souvenir shops. We preferred the quieter geisha areas of Kazuemachi and Nishi Chaya.
Kenroku-en Garden is one of the top three gardens in Japan. It’s known to get crowded but we had it almost to ourselves at 7.30 am. The gardens are lovely but they would be better in the spring or autumn.
I actually preferred the tiny but exquisite Gyokusen-en Gardens which has all the classic Japanese garden elements in a small package—moss covered rocks, stone lanterns, carp-filled ponds, a wooden teahouse, and maple trees beginning to turn red.
One of the highlights of our trip was the tea ceremony with did with Ms Nishida who is from the fifth generation of the family who owns the gardens. Wearing an elegant kimono she took us through the rituals of the ceremony, starting with washing our hands and mouths to purify ourselves.
In the tatami room we were served a sweet mochi (rice cake) while she carefully prepared the bright green matcha tea by whisking the powder with hot water in a small bowl. We learnt the phrases to say to our host and other guests before drinking the tea and how to examine the tea bowl afterwards to appreciate every detail. We then made our own tea for each other. It was a calming experience and fascinating insight into Japanese culture.
To book the tea ceremony call the gardens or email email@example.com at least three days in advance (response by email is slow). It costs 3000 yen ($26) including entrance to the gardens.
After spending the morning in Takayama we took the 1.15 pm train to Toyama—another beautiful journey past mountains, rivers, and rice fields—where we switched to the bullet train to Kanazawa. The journey took two hours.
Kanazawa is a large city so we had to take a 10-minute bus ride from the train station to the Katamachi area where we were staying. From there we could walk to all the main attractions.
Where to Stay in Kanazawa
Smile Hotel Kanazawa was the cheapest ensuite room I found in the centre of Kanazawa. It’s a standard business hotel with all the usual facilities but our room was larger than in Takayama (with access to the bed on both sides!). The location was convenient as it was a 15 to 30 minute walk to all the sights.
Where to Eat in Kanazawa
We struggled to find Japanese vegetarian food in Kanazawa so ended up eating Western food.
Taste and Scent is a mostly vegetarian cafe near the Ninja Temple. The 800 yen ($7) set lunch with rice and a variety of salads and vegetable dishes was very good.
Slow Luck is a tiny place with four tables run by two young Japanese guys. They make creative Italian-influenced dishes using organic farm vegetables. There’s a vegetarian section of the menu and they give you a survey to fill in with what you can’t eat. The food was amazing including grilled vegetables with a wonderful basil dip and a thin, crispy pizza topped with pesto, potato, and mascarpone cheese that was so good we ordered another one.
Oriental Brewery in the Higashi Chaya area serves craft beer brewed in-house and excellent beer yeast french fries. The pizzas looked good too.
Days 12 – 16 Tokyo (or Kyoto)
On the last day of our rail pass we took the bullet train from Kanazawa to Tokyo (2.5 hours direct) where we stayed in an Airbnb in Shibuya for the last five nights of our trip.
If it’s your first trip to Japan I recommend travelling from Kanazawa to Kyoto (2.5 hours direct) instead and spending at least three nights there. You could then fly out from nearby Osaka airport or take the bullet train back to Tokyo.
Alternative Japan Destinations
If you have more time or decide to get a 14 Day Japan Rail Pass and spend more time travelling and less in Tokyo, you could consider these destinations that we enjoyed on our last trip:
- Kyoto – A must-see with many stunning temples and other attractions to explore.
- Nara – Beautiful temples that are an easy day trip from Kyoto.
- Koya-san – A temple town in the mountains a few hours from Osaka where you can stay the night in a Zen Buddhist temple.
- Tsumago – A picture-perfect traditional village of wooden houses in the Kiso Valley.
- Hiroshima – To see the moving Peace Memorial Park.
Two Weeks in Japan Budget
We spent £180 ($238) a day for two people staying in mid-range accommodation with private bathrooms and one splurge on a lovely ryokan in Hakone. Our average cost of accommodation was £65 ($87) a night.
We ate out for all our meals and spent £42 ($55) a day on food. Most meals were around $20 but we had a few expensive meals like Bon in Tokyo. We travelled with a rail pass for a week and by trains and metro in Tokyo and averaged £38 ($50) a day on transport. We did plenty of activities and spent £24 ($32) a day on entertainment.
You could certainly travel in Japan for less by staying in rooms with shared bathrooms (or in hostel dorm rooms), cooking for yourself (or eating in the cheap ramen joints), focusing on free activities, and travelling at a slower pace to reduce transport costs.
You can also see our post on how much it costs to travel in Japan from our last trip in 2011. We averaged £140 ($183) a day on a two week trip with one week in Tokyo and one week travelling around with a rail pass. We were more budget conscious on that trip but still had splurges like ryokan and temple stays and two days at Tokyo Disney.
Prices haven’t actually risen in Japan since then as the pound and especially the dollar are stronger against the yen now so you get a better exchange rate.
Japan Travel Resources
- Japan Rail Pass – Make sure you order your pass online before you go to Japan.
- Travel Insurance – Essential in case anything goes wrong as Japanese healthcare is expensive. We used True Traveller as always—they are the best deal we’ve found for UK/EU residents. World Nomads is another well-respected company we’ve used in the past and is available worldwide.
- Guide Book – We used the Lonely Planet Japan published in August 2017.
- Accommodation – We used Airbnb for apartments in Tokyo and Booking.com for hotels everywhere else.
- SIM card – We bought a Umobile data SIM card from a vending machine at Narita airport.
- Voyagin – For booking fun activities in Tokyo and beyond. They offer discounts on attractions like the Robot Restaurant and Maricar.
Japan Travel Blog Posts
- Planning a Trip to Japan: Dos and Don’ts
- Where to Stay in Japan: The Ultimate Guide to Accommodation
- Is a Japan Rail Pass Worth It?
- Vegetarian Survival Guide to Japan
- 72 Random Observations About Japan
- 15 Fascinating Books About Japan
- 17 Cool Things to Do in Tokyo
- The 12 Best Vegetarian Restaurants in Tokyo
This two week Japan itinerary is the perfect introduction to the country for first-timers, and it’s also ideal for second-time visitors like us who want to revisit Tokyo and/or Kyoto as well as explore some new places. We hope you enjoy this weird and wonderful country as much as we did!
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