From Kyoto’s tranquil temples, wooden teahouses, and historical charm to Tokyo’s neon lights, arcades, and futuristic atmosphere, there’s simply too much to see and fall in love with. There’s even too much to eat! From fine wagyu beef and exquisite kaiseki cuisine to always-fresh sushi and even vending machine ramen. The sheer amount of fun, culture, and activity Japan holds is truly endless. Many travelers simply don’t know where to start when it comes to planning their trips.
In this detailed 2-week itinerary of Japan, I’ll share exactly where my family and I went for our first time in Japan. Prior to the trip, I had done extensive research spanning a few weeks. Yes, you heard it right. A few weeks of constant research!
This trip covers the highlights of Japan (with a few off-the-beaten-path attractions sprinkled in) and is ideal for first-time visitors to Japan. You’ll get to experience a bit of modern Japan in Tokyo, the traditional sides of Kyoto, Hakone, and Mount Fuji, as well as eat your way through Osaka!
This itinerary also works well for return visitors who want to revisit their favorite cities and discover some new activities. So let’s get right into it!
JAPAN 2 WEEK ITINERARY: OVERVIEW
I spend my first trip to Japan with my family of 4. As this was our first time in Japan, we wanted to experience as much as we could in two weeks’ time without feeling rushed or beat up from traveling too fast. We decided to visit two main areas (Kyoto side and Tokyo side) and planned for a few day trips from there. We kicked things off in Kyoto (5 nights total) with day trips to Osaka and Nara, and then ended our trip in Tokyo (5 nights) with an overnight stay in the Mount Fuji and Hakone area.
This itinerary is a great intro to Japan and is jam-packed with fun things to do, so follow along if you’re looking for some Japan trip planning guidance!
The cities you’ll be visiting on this itinerary include:
Kyoto – Nara – Osaka – Tokyo – Hakone
FLIGHT / TRANSPORTATION TO BOOK FOR THIS ITINERARY
Obviously, we’re going to need to figure out how to get from Kyoto to Tokyo. They are quite far away from each other and will require a ride on the high-speed bullet train (approx 2-hour trip). Though the train is fast, train tickets are super expensive (especially if you’re used to dirt-cheap travel throughout Europe). A roundtrip bullet train ride is going to cost roughly $350 USD alone.
If you want to avoid taking the expensive bullet train twice, you should book a flight that arrives at one end of Japan and leaves from the other. The example flight below is what I booked for my most recent trip to Japan. I started out on the Osaka/Kyoto region, then made my way over to Tokyo by train and ultimately flew back to the USA out of Tokyo.
Multi-city flights can be slightly more expensive than if you were to book a round-trip flight arriving and departing from the same airport. However, it may save you the time and money needed to travel by train once in Japan.
Example multi-city flight itinerary:
- Flight 1: LAX Los Angeles, CA to KIX Osaka, Kansai, Japan
- Flight 2: NRT Tokyo Narita, Japan to LAX Los Angeles, CA
If you’d rather save money upfront on the flight and book flights coming in and leaving from the same airport, and you don’t mind taking the bullet train again to get back to your starting point, then something like this would work:
Example round-trip flight itinerary:
- Flight 1: LAX Los Angeles, CA to NRT Tokyo Narita, Japan
- Flight 2: NRT Tokyo Narita, Japan to LAX Los Angeles, CA
Once again, the long-distance bullet trains (shinkasen) are not cheap. A roundtrip bullet train ride is going to cost roughly $350 USD, so keep that in mind when choosing flights.
If you do get a round-trip flight from the same airport, then you’ll have to opt for a round-trip bullet train ride. In this case, consider the national Japan Rail Pass, which will give you unlimited transportation all throughout Japan. The Japan Rail Pass is the mother lode of all travel passes, allowing you unlimited use of all JR trains from Kagoshima in the south of Japan right up to the northern tip of Hokkaido. You can ride various forms of transportation, including the Shinkansen (bullet train), local JR commuter trains, JR buses, and even JR ferries. You’ll save money in the long run by getting the 7-day or 14-Day JR Pass (ranges from $270 to $430 USD depending on the length of days your pass is good for).
If you’re hesitant on dropping that amount of money without a little more research on whether or not you’re getting the best value, you can use the Hyperdia website to find train times and costs. Once you plan out your entire itinerary, add up the costs listed for each train you’ll take and compare these to the cost of a pass. If the costs are similar, then just get the pass. Why because it’s so much easier to be able to hop on and off trains when you like and not worry about purchasing tickets each time or refilling your train card with money!
Please note, you will need to book Japan Rail Passes in advance before you arrive in Japan.
Japan transportation logistics are a beast to tackle, so don’t skimp on that part of the travel planning. You can find out more on whether a JR Pass is right for you here.
MAP OF JAPAN: 2 WEEK ITINERARY
Okay, let’s move on to the fun stuff– the actual Japan 2 week itinerary! The below itinerary starts in Kyoto and ends in Tokyo. You can certainly do this the other way around, starting in Tokyo and ending in Kyoto or Osaka. You’ll just need to adjust your flights to fly into the correct airport!
DAY 1 – KYOTO: GET YOUR BEARINGS
Land at Kansai Airport (KIX)
Pick up bags, go to JR ticket offices to buy train tickets to get from the airport to Kyoto. Buy an Icoca IC Card (convenient transportation card for JR subways, trains, and buses) and the Haruka ticket (to get from Kansai Airport to Kyoto/Osaka/Kobe/Nara area). You will be buying tickets for the JR Haruka limited express train to get from the airport to Kyoto. The IC card will be the card you use for transportation throughout your entire trip.
Take the train to Kyoto, which takes approximately 77 minutes via JR Haruka limited express train.
Check into your Airbnb or hotel
Freshen up, unpack, and relax. Chances are at this point, you will be jetlagged. Meaning you will either be tired or might not be able to sleep. Do your best to adjust to the time shift and don’t plan any paid attractions on your first day.
You’ll want to start your trip off with a light stroll around Kyoto. Below are some highlights that I visited on my first stroll through Central Kyoto.
Roam around one of the six major entertainment districts in Kyoto. Miyagawa-cho is a large entertainment district on the banks of the Kamo river, almost as large as Gion. There are several ochaya (teahouses) and oikya (geisha houses) here. If you are here between the hours of between 17:30 and 18:00, you might catch a glimpse of the maiko (geisha in-training) and the geiko (geishas) walking from their homes to their place of work.
Minamiza Kabuki Theater
The Minamiza Kabuki Theatre is Kyoto’s most famous theatre and one of the city’s must-see cultural landmarks in Gion. It is the birthplace of kabuki, one of Japan’s most renowned performing art forms. Kabuki combines drama, dance, and music in an extremely stylized manner. Aside from kabuki plays, concerts, rakugo (traditional comic storytelling) performances, and sometimes even geisha performances are held here.
This market is housed in a narrow, five-block long shopping street lined by more than one hundred shops and restaurants. Nishiki Market is where you go for all things food-related, spanning from knives and cookware to fresh produce and seafood. If you’re looking to discover Kyoto’s gastronomic specialties and culinary delights, definitely don’t miss this market. It’s a great place to pick up some sweets, dried seafood, picked goods, and even sushi. Some of the shops will give out samples and some of the food stands will sell small dishes and skewers meant to be eaten right then and there. There are also a few small restaurants within the market.
Yasaka Shrine, also known as Gion Shrine, is one of the most famous shrines in Kyoto. This shrine is well known for its summer festival, the Gion Matsuri, which is celebrated every July and is quite possibly the most famous festival in all of Japan. In front of the shrine sits a stage decorated with hundreds of lanterns that get lit up in the evenings. Admission is free.
Pontocho is a narrow alleyway packed with restaurants, bars, hostess clubs, karaoke establishments, and traditional teahouses. There are restaurants on both sides offering a wide range of dining options from affordable yakitori-style dining to traditional and modern Kyoto cuisine. Most of the restaurants on the east side of the alleyway have a view of the Kamogawa river. Some even offer a dining platform over the river. Whether you’re looking to spend a few bucks or an arm and a leg, there is something here for everyone, making it an ideal place to grab dinner.
DAY 2 – KYOTO
Fushimi Inari Taisha
Start your second day in Kyoto with the ultimate torii gate experience. The Fushimi Inari Taisha is a Shinto shrine in Kyoto famous for its thousands of orange torii gates that seem to go on for forever. The trails lead into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari.
Arrive before 7:30am to avoid throngs and throngs of tourists. Personally, I would recommend arriving at 6am. No joke, the Fushimi Inari Shrine brings crowds like I’ve never experienced before. If you’re looking to take a light stroll and snap some photos, feel free to stay near the entrance of the torii gate-covered hiking trail (where all the other tourists tend to huddle). However, if you want to get away from the crowds, keep walking upwards on the walking path.
Pro Tip: One thing to note, this is pretty much a hike. You will be climbing up a mountain, so dress accordingly (or just be prepared to sweat). The hike to the summit of the mountain and back takes about 2-3 hours, however, you can turn back at any time and return the way you came. Don’t forget to bring bug spray.
After finishing your hike, peruse the souvenir stalls by the entrance and grab some breakfast/snacks around the area before heading to the next must-see landmark. You’ll find hot dogs, pancakes, and an assortment of snack stalls lining the path to the shrine.
Kiyomizudera is one of the most celebrated and beloved temples of Japan. It also boasts absolutely gorgeous views in the spring and fall. I went during the fall, and the eruption of colors I witnessed among the trees was breathtaking! Kiyomizudera is best known for its wooden stage that juts out from its main hall. This stage will give you stellar views of the surrounding trees as well as the cityscape of Kyoto.
While you’re here, don’t miss the Otowa Waterfall, located at the base of Kiyomizudera’s main hall. Its waters are divided into three separate streams you can drink from, each said to have a different benefit (success, love and longevity). Just drink from one stream, because drinking from all three is considered greedy!
While strolling through the temple grounds, you’ll also find the three-storied Koyasu Pagoda and the Jishu Shrine (dedicated to the god of love and matchmaking). If you’re here during the autumn season, Kiyomizudera also has special illuminations during the second half of November.
Explore The Higashiyama District
Around the entrance of Kiyomizudera, you’ll find busy streets lining the Higashiyama District, perfect for strolling and exploring! Make sure to visit some shops in the area, selling products ranging from pottery and ceramics to local sweets to souvenirs.
Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka Preserved Streets
Steps away from Kiyomizudera, you’ll find a set of traditionally preserved streets that are both charming and relaxing to stroll through. They are by far Kyoto’s most attractive streets, in my opinion. These pedestrian-only streets are lined with beautifully restored wooden-facade cafes, teahouses, and shops selling locally made crafts and souvenirs. The traditional atmosphere makes for one of the most peaceful strolls in the entire city. The shops and restaurants tend to open around 10:00 and close around 5:00pm or 6:00pm.
Pro Tip: If you’re not interested in shopping or eating, it would be a much less-crowded experience to go early in the morning. You’ll be able to get that perfect shot of the empty, tranquil streets without crowds of tourists everywhere.
Kinkaku-ji Temple (Golden Pavilion)
After exploring the preserved streets to your heart’s content, head over to Kinkaku-ji Temple— one of Japan’s most iconic buildings. This temple was originally built in 1397 as a residence for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Known as the Golden Pavilion because of the fact that it’s completely covered in gold leaf, this is a must-see while you’re in Kyoto.
It’s another super-crowded landmark, but it’ll be easy to snap a few photos without other people in view. There’s a path that will take you around the pavilion and through some peaceful garden areas. The park is a beautiful place to walk around and admire, so make sure you have at least 1-2 hours to just stroll around. There is also a little courtyard with ice cream, snacks, and bathrooms.
If you’re looking for an intro to the many art forms of Kyoto, head to Gion Corner, where you can catch a 1-hour display of seven traditional performing arts, including a tea ceremony and a dance by two maiko. The event also highlights floral arrangements, comical theatre, puppetry, koto musical instrument and court music. Performance times are usually 6 and 7pm. Go early to secure your tickets and get good seats (seats are not tiered, so you’ll want to sit in the front).
After the show, you can wander around the narrow alleyways of the Gion District. Gion is Kyoto’s most famous geisha district, filled with shops, restaurants and ochaya (teahouses), where geiko and maiko entertain. The shopping streets between Sanjo and Shijo are where most people go in the evenings for bar hopping in Gion. If you’re looking for the more quiet, traditional lanes lined with teahouses – try Hanami-koji and Shirakawa-Minami dori.
DAY 3 – ARASHIYAMA / KYOTO
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
The Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is one of the most photographed sights in the city. A visit to this bamboo forest is best paired with a visit to the Tenryu-ji Temple. They are two popular attractions located literally right next to each other (more on that below). The best time to visit the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is early morning or late on weekdays, as you’ll find much fewer visitors.
Since I had trouble finding detailed steps on how to get there for my own trip, I’m sharing more detailed instructions here.
To get to the bamboo grove, just pretend you’re heading to Tenryu-ji Temple. If you’re interested in visiting, feel free to explore here first. To get to the bamboo forest, exit the north gate of Tenryu-ji Temple and take a left into a path that leads into the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. You’ll then walk for less than 5 minutes in order to reach the forest. The path isn’t clearly marked and the grove doesn’t start immediately at the street, but just keep walking and you’ll run into it. Once inside the forest, you can walk for a bit until you come across a shrine. You’ll need about 1-1.5 hours for this excursion.
This temple was ranked first among the city’s five great Zen temples and is now registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Tenryu-ji Temple is great for its incredible garden landscapes and mountain views, and if you visit during peak foliage, the changing leaves are truly a sight to see. There is an entrance fee, but you can get tickets for just the garden, just the temple, or both. As always, get here early!
Iwatayama Monkey Park
Disclaimer–I have an obsession with monkeys, so this just had to be on my Japan itinerary. The Iwatayama Monkey Park is home to over 120 Japanese Macaque monkeys. This is not a sad zoo, as the monkeys are free to roam in their natural habitat in the countryside. It’s truly a sight to see and be among their presence, especially if you love monkeys! Not to mention the dozens of baby macaques hanging out with their mothers… the sight is to die for. There is a feeding hut, where you can buy crackers and bananas to feed the monkeys from inside it. Do note that you’ll have to hike up to the top to where the monkeys are, so dress appropriately.
Togetsukyo Bridge and Shopping
After visiting the Arashiyama landmarks, stroll along the Katsura River and enjoy the view of this historic wooden bridge. Walk across the bridge, where you can enjoy amazing views of the river, mountains, and hills surrounding you. When you’re across, you’ll find a ton of various restaurants, shops, and ice cream booths selling matcha soft-serve. Spend an hour or two perusing and eating up all the soft-serve you can fit in your belly.
Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street
If you still have energy after all the walking you’ve done today, I’ve got more for you. Walk north to the Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street. You guessed it, it’s a preserved street (from the Meiji period), lined with traditional townhouses that have since been converted into souvenir shops and restaurants. Most of the thatched-roof buildings are restaurants serving kaiseki (Kyoto haute cuisine, which is expensive and a luxury experience).
Adashino Nenbutsu-ji Temple
Adashino Nenbutsuji is located at the end of the Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street. The temple was founded in the early 9th century and was meant to be a temple dedicated to the repose of souls who have died without families to remember them. Today, the temple grounds are covered by hundreds of stone statues to commemorate these souls. In the back of the temple, a short path leads through a bamboo forest. There is a small entrance fee to the temple.
Otagi Nenbutsu-ji Temple
A ten-minute walk north of the Adashino Nenbutsuji, the Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple is famous for its 1,200 stone statues of rakan, devoted followers of Buddhism, each with a different facial expression. There is a small entrance fee to the temple, but well worth a visit.
Arashiyama Boat Rental (Optional)
Boat rentals are a favorite for couples or families with kids. Not only are they a good way to get away from the crowds that flock to Arashiyama, but you can also get a different perspective of the landscape, from the river! Boat rentals can be made from either side of the river. Rentals are by the hour. A small boat fits three people and costs approximately 1400 yen/hour.
At this point, you’ve done a lot for the day. Head back to Kyoto for dinner before kicking your feet up and hitting the sack.
DAY 4 – NARA / KYOTO
Kyoto Free Walking Tour
Start your day off with a free walking tour of Kyoto. Tours typically start at 10:30-11am daily and last approximately 3 hours. Tours are tip-based, so tipping at the end is common ($10-15/person is good). Tour companies such as Kyoto Free Walking Tour hold specialized tours with specific topics spanning from the “Gion & Higashiyama Tour” to the “Fushimi Inari Night Tour”. Others like Kyoto Localized, are more generic and will give you an overview of all of Kyoto.
Nara was the first capital city in Japan, so with that significance comes a lot of historical landmarks, including some of Japan’s oldest and largest temples. Dedicate a few hours exploring a few of the shrines located within the city. A must-visit landmark is Todaiji, a large temple that houses the largest statue of Buddha in Japan, and Nigatsudo at sunset, offering one of the most beautiful views in all of Nara.
Visit a few more shrines and temples of your choice before heading to Naramachi, the former merchant district of Nara, for some souvenir shopping. Here you’ll find boutiques, shops, cafes, restaurants and a few museums lining the narrow streets.
The famous deer that inhabit the city can be found all over the place, so don’t worry about adding them as a specific activity. They’ll be in the parks, outside the temples, near shopping streets, literally everywhere. You can buy snacks from vendors around the city and feed them if you like. A day trip to Nara should take you no more than six hours.
Head back to Kyoto for dinner and take a post-dinner stroll around town. There’s seriously so much to see just walking around in the streets. Get more green tea soft serve or other green tea desserts, because once you leave Kyoto, it becomes harder to find!
Other Kyoto activities worth mentioning:
- Participate in a tea ceremony with a geisha or maiko
- Walk around with kimono
- Visit the Eikando Zenrinji Temple
- Walk down the Philosopher’s Path in Arashiyama
- Visit the Kyoto International Manga Museum
- See cherry blossoms at Maruyama Park (seasonal)
- Hike from Kurama to Kibune (+ outdoor baths at Kurama Onsen)
- Take a Japanese ramen cooking class
- Day Trip to Hiroshima & Miyajima
DAY 5 – OSAKA
Today is the day where you get to eat your way through Osaka. Come with an open mind and more importantly, come hungry!
Shitennoji Flea Market
I love local activities, so naturally, I went out of my way to find an activity that only locals knew about– the Shitennoji Flea Market that happens on the 21st and 22nd of every month in Shitennoji. If you’re in town and enjoy treasure hunting, definitely check it out! There were so many kimonos for sale, as well as wooden sculpture antiques, porcelain, and many other goods splayed out on tables (many that wouldn’t have fit in my luggage). It was a lot of fun to peruse the isles of treasures and you can find things there for bargain prices!
Be sure to head to the food stalls when you get hungry. Now’s your chance to get your first taste of regional specialties such as takoyaki (octopus dumplings) or okonomiyaki (savory pancakes).
HEP FIVE Shopping Center
HEP FIVE is a quirky, whimsical shopping mall aimed at teenagers and younger adults. Even if you don’t end up shopping, it’s great for a quick visit to see the enormous red whales hanging in the atrium area! There is also a Ferris wheel on the roof that you can ride. We came here specifically to have lunch at the Gudetama Cafe on the 7th floor. We love Gudetama and his eggy-ness, so it was only natural that we got to eat him. The taste of the food was just okay (as expected), but the cuteness factor of the cafe and the food was through the roof.
Amemura, or the American Village, is another lively and youthful area in Osaka. It’s full of Japan’s take on American culture and therefore makes for great people watching and window shopping. Here, you will find dozens of shops catering to fans of urban apparel, hip-hop wear, as well as lolita, goth, and punk clothing. There are lots of cafes, bars, and restaurants in the area too. If you’re missing “international” food, you’re in luck, because you’ll find a high density of pancakes, burgers, pizza, and artisan coffee here!
Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade
Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade and the surrounding Shinsaibashi area is Osaka’s premier shopping area. Spanning 600 meters long, the Shinsaibashi-suji Shopping Arcade is the quintessential shotengai (covered shopping arcade). This huge shopping area combines chain retail stores and trendy boutiques with expensive department stores and designer fashion labels. While the main arcade can be quite overwhelming (you better have some shopping stamina), it is worth taking a peek to see what’s on sale. If you have more in you, wander off to the side streets to explore the smaller, quieter mom-and-pop shops!
Dotonburi is an explosion of color, neon, entertainment, and food. One of Osaka’s most popular tourist destinations, this street runs parallel to the Dotonbori Canal. It’s what people picture when you talk about the city of Osaka. After you’re done shopping, head to the Dotonburi District for dinner and a stroll. At night, it is lit by hundreds of neon lights and mechanized signs, including the famous Glico Running Man sign and Kani Doraku crab sign. While there are plenty of restaurants along Dotonbori to choose from, street food is the real highlight. If you haven’t had it yet, don’t miss trying local specialties like okonomiyaki and takoyaki.
After the food and neon light overload, train back to Kyoto for a good night’s rest before you move on to Tokyo.
Other Osaka activities worth mentioning:
DAY 6 – TOKYO: GET YOUR BEARINGS
Take the shinkansen to Tokyo
Take the high-speed bullet train from Kyoto Station to Tokyo Station. The whole trip only takes around 2 hours and 15 minutes. Time the trip so that when you get to Tokyo, it’s already time to check-in to your Airbnb or hotel. That way, you won’t need to lug your luggage around town as you explore.
Grab a Late Lunch / Cat Cafe
Since you’ll likely be arriving at Tokyo Station, make your first stop Rokurinsha, even before you head to your lodging. It’s the epitome of what a quality tsukemen should be, not to mention it’s so conveniently located, right in the Tokyo Station! This is our go-to tsukemen spot every time we’re in Tokyo. It’s located in the ramen alley and easy to find because of the long line. Be prepared for a wait–it’s almost certain you’ll have to wait at least thirty minutes in line but is completely worth it.
After checking in, you can spend some time strolling around your hotel. Need an afternoon pick-me-up? Why not head to a cat cafe to get a caffeine fix while petting some kitties? We visited Cat Cafe MOCHA in Shinjuku, but there are plenty more dotted throughout Tokyo. Monta in the Taito neighborhood exceeds the typical cat cafe expectations, and Temari no Ouchi is a super-unique option as it’s set up as a pint-sized cat village.
Free Walking Tour of Tokyo
Get your bearings in your new city with a free walking tour. Tokyo Localized has a wide variety of tours that take place throughout the day. One of our favorite tours to date was the Shinjuku Night Walking Tour which takes place nightly at 7pm. If you’d rather do a walking tour in the daytime to get a better overview of Tokyo on your first day, they also have the following tours: Flagship Walking Tour of Tokyo, Meiji Jingu & Harajuku Tour, and Asakusa Walking Tour (and another night tour, the Shibuya Night Walking Tour). They’re a great company to tour with. And remember to tip at the end.
Pro Tip: I try to do a walking tour each time I visit Tokyo–I even do multiple tours per trip. There is so much history to learn about in Japan, and each tour focuses on something different so the content is not repetitive. Walking tours are a great and affordable option for travelers looking to learn more about Japanese history and culture.
Make sure to walk across Shibuya Crossing on your first or second day, then head to the nearby Starbucks for an awesome view from above.
DAY 7 – TOKYO: HARAJUKU / SHIBUYA / SHINJUKU
Yoyogi Park Run / Meiji Shrine
Right next to the bustling streets of Harajuku is a beautiful place of tranquillity and peace. Start your morning off right with a light jog around Yoyogi Park. This park is one of the largest city parks in Tokyo, and right in the middle of it sits Meiji Shrine. We were staying in an Airbnb near this area, which made Yoyogi Park and the Meiji Shrine quite easy to get to on foot.
The entrances to the shrine grounds are marked by massive torii gates. They are breathtaking to see, especially given that they’re backdropped by tall trees and the beautiful greenery of the surrounding forest. On the way to the main shrine up the hill, there is a teahouse, a cultural hall, and large stacks of sake and wine barrel offerings to the royal deities. Meiji Shrine is open from sunrise to sunset each day with no closing days. Admission is free.
If you’re not staying in this area, run to the nearest park–there are tons of parks and gardens in Tokyo.
Visit The Harajuku District
Spend a few hours in the colorful, quirky, fashion-forward district of Harajuku. There are tons to do in Harajuku, and you can spend literally hours here strolling, taking photos, and people-watching. Head to Kawaii Monster Cafe for a crazy colorful cafe experience, grab a crepe from one of the many crepe stands along Takeshita Dori, shop for very unique clothing/costumes, go vintage/thrift shopping, or take kawaii (cute) pictures at Purikura along with the rest of the Japanese teenager girls!
Takeshita Dori (Takeshita Street) is a narrow, roughly 400-meter long street lined by shops, boutiques, cafes and fast food joints targeting Tokyo’s teenagers. This is where you can endlessly spot people in cosplay/costumes. It’s the quintessential Harajuku experience and birthplace of many of Japan’s fashion trends.
Aside from the many vintage stores in the area, a few of our favorite shops to browse include La Foret (13-floor store containing numerous small clothing and culture boutiques) and Kiddy Land (huge toy store featuring tons of Japanese brands including Studio Ghibli, Hello Kitty, Gudetama and Rilakkuma).
Visit Shinjuku District
Shinjuku is a major business and entertainment district. Imagine towering skyscrapers, neon signs, and bustling, vibrant streets filled with local shoppers, tourists, and commuters. Shinjuku is most known for its nightlife and shopping and is definitely worth a visit.
Take the train over to Shinjuku Station, but don’t leave the station quite yet. What you’ll notice is that this train station is huge. Crazy fun fact: Shinjuku Train Station is the busiest train station in the world. There are close to 1,000 shops and restaurants in the station’s two underground malls and 4 department stores. Spend some time getting lost among the shops and restaurants!
Once above ground (and once you’ve gotten your fill of shopping), start your Shinjuku exploration with a skyline view of the city from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, for free! The 243-meter tall building has two twin towers, and each houses an observatory deck at a height of 202 meters. Each observatory has a cafe and a souvenir shop.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
Head over to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden for an afternoon picnic lunch on one of the massive lawns. You can buy a variety of take-away items at the gourmet food hall in the basement level of Takashimaya department store, just south of the Shinjuku Station. This was by far one of my favorite gardens in all of Tokyo, so I’d highly recommend you visit!
Once inside the garden, grab a map and check out all the major gardens, such as the French and English gardens as well as the Japanese Traditional gardens featuring ponds, pagodas, and a teahouse. There’s also a charming Taiwan Pavilion that you can go inside and look out the second-story windows.
Omoide Yokocho (Piss Alley) / Golden Gai
Round off your evening with some yakitori and ice-cold beer on Omoide Yokocho (Memory Alley), also known as Piss Alley. If beer isn’t your thing, try a highball/chūhai (carbonated alcohol drink). Food stalls are usually open from 5pm to midnight. Follow up with some bar-hopping around the charismatic Golden Gai bar district.
Optional Night Activity: Robot Restaurant
First, I must say, the show is so kitschy and made for tourists. But because it is so wild, energetic, and random, it is also somehow great. Sadly enough, I do recommend it if you like weird entertainment! Get your Robot Restaurant tickets here–but skip the dinner option and eat elsewhere.
DAY 8 – TOKYO: TSUKIJI / GINZA
Tsukiji Fish Market
Welcome to the world’s largest, busiest fish market! If you happen to be jetlagged and find yourself wide awake at 4-5am, it’s not too early to head to Tsukiji Fish Market for the live tuna auctions. The Tsukiji Outer Market is a great place to discover all of Japan’s traditional foods. Here you’ll find a mixture of wholesale and retail shops along with numerous restaurants lining the streets.
No visit to Tsukiji is complete without a sushi breakfast. There are plenty of sushi counters and any stand will be good here. No need to hunt or stand in line for hours unless you’re a diehard foodie (in which case you can wait in line for Sushi Dai or Daiwa-Zushi).
If you want to catch a real kabuki show, head to Kabuki-za Theater. The traditional art of kabuki is something unique and, of course, best appreciated by watching a play. Since these plays are done in Japanese, it might not make sense for you to book tickets for the whole show (usually three hours). No worries, they sell single-act tickets. They are reasonably priced available only on the day of the show and limit the time of your experience so it does not get too exhausting.
Don’t fancy a show? You can still go through the Kabuki-za Gallery with a voice guide to learn all about the art on display. There is a rooftop garden on the 5th floor and on sunny days, it’s a very wonderful place to spend some time.
teamLab Borderless has got to be one of the coolest and most interactive museums I’ve been to in my entire life. It’s an immersive digital art museum that features multiple 3D art exhibitions that seamlessly flow from one exhibition room to the next. Everywhere you turn, you’ll find that the museum is covered with vibrant, colorful, and vivid designs—truly transporting you into a world of its own! With over 10,000 square meters of art to enjoy, you’ll need to allow about 3-5 hours to wander and see it all.
Tickets are not sold at the museum, so you’ll need to buy them online ahead of time.
Explore Ginza / Shopping
If you like upscale, then you’ll like Ginza. There’s hardly a corner in Ginza that doesn’t have an upscale fashion boutique or Michelin-starred restaurant sitting on it. In fact, there are more Michelin-starred restaurants in Ginza than anywhere else in Tokyo. Ever heard of the popular 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi? One of the most famous restaurants in Tokyo, Sukiyabashi Jiro, holds 3 Michelin stars and is located right in Ginza.
For those of you more interested in shopping, you’re in luck! Walk down Chuo-dori in Ginza and you’ll get a taste of Tokyo’s most prestigious shopping, including Japanese department stores like Mitsukoshi and Matsuya to international brands like Dior and Prada.
Aside from all the high-end boutiques you’ll effortlessly stumble upon, there are a few stores that are just fun to check out. One of those is the 9 stories tall Itōya Stationery Store (Japanese people love stationery). Don’t miss the flagship Uniqlo in Ginza, standing 12 stories tall. There are also huge duty-free stores such as Laox, located in the Ginza Yamato Building.
My absolute favorite store to visit and spend a few hours hunting for souvenirs and snacks? Don Quijote! Don Quijote, Donki for short, is a massive discount store chain instantly recognizable by its mascot – the adorably kooky blue penguin above its doors. They sell just about everything you can think of. Do yourself a favor and step inside if only for a few moments. It’s such an experience!
Yurakucho Restaurant District
Need a break from the glamour of Ginza? Head over to the atmospheric restaurant district at Yurakucho for some old Tokyo vibes and some yakitori and beer. Though this is only a 5-minute walk from the Ginza station, you will feel worlds away. Since it’s located between a luxurious shopping district and a business district, Yurakucho has a very unique atmosphere that blends both neighborhoods together. There are plenty of cafés, bars, and restaurants catering to those with both fat and tight wallets. Don’t miss Yakitori Alley!
Want to take your Yurakucho eating experience further? Join in on one of these handpicked tours featuring Yurakucho:
Tokyo by Night: Japanese Food Tour – Discover Tokyo’s nighttime food scene and sample local specialties like succulent grilled meat skewers, sweet cakes and refreshing sake on this 3-hour food tour.
Walking Food Tour in Yurakucho, Shimbashi and Ginza – Sample yakitori accompanied by drinks and enjoy food tastings plus dessert at popular and traditional venues. Start amid Yurakucho’s rustic charm, continue on to modern Ginza, and finish your tour among a maze of local eateries in Shimbashi.
DAY 9 – TOKYO: UENO, ASAKUSA, AKIHABARA
Ueno Park / Tokyo National Museum
Ueno Park is a large public park next to Ueno Station in central Tokyo. This is one of Tokyo’s most popular and lively cherry blossom spots with more than 1,000 cherry trees lining its central pathway (usually in bloom during late March and early April). Ueno Park is also home to many important museums, including the Tokyo National Museum, the National Museum for Western Art, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, and the National Science Museum. It is also home to Ueno Zoo, Japan’s first zoological garden.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Ueno area, why not take a walking tour? A 90-minute guided walking tour of the Ueno Park area takes place every Sunday, Wednesday and Friday at 10:30am and 1:30pm. Tours depart from Ueno Green Salon, located between JR Ueno Station and the National Museum of Western Art.
After exploring the park grounds, head over to the bustling shopping street of Ameyoko. Historically, Ameyoko began as a black market during World War II but has since transformed into a popular shopping area, known for its discount prices and a wide array of products for sale (clothing, accessories, groceries, dessert shops, and food stalls). If you’ve been missing matcha ice cream, head over to the popular tea shop, Cha no Kiminoen, for a green tea soft-serve fix!
By now, it’s obvious that temples are literally all over Tokyo. However, Sensoji is the oldest and most famous, boasting almost one and a half millennia of history. This area features Tokyo’s biggest souvenir market as well as the Kaminarimon Gate, instantly recognizable by the massive red chochin lantern. There are many ways to visit the Sensoji Temple and its surroundings, but the simplest path is to start from the Kaminarimon Gate and move upwards.
After snapping a million photos of the lantern from the Kaminarimon Gate, head on up to Nakamise Dori. Nakamise Dori is a lively traditional shopping street that runs from the Kaminarimon gate right up to Sensoji Temple. Being one of Japan’s oldest shopping arcades, you will definitely feel that traditional Tokyo charm as you stroll through the strip. There are about 90 stores lining the 250-meter long strip, making it an ideal place to hunt for Japanese gifts and souvenirs. There are also many food stalls along Nakamise Dori, including stalls selling freshly made hot drinks, rice crackers, dango (sweet dumplings made of sticky soft rice flour), and age-manju (fried buns with a sweet bean paste filling).
From there, head over to the temple itself. It’s worth going up the stairs and wandering around. The main temple closes at 5pm; stalls close around 6pm.
Want to learn more about the deep history of Asakusa and Sensoji Temple? Check out this handpicked tour:
Tokyo Asakusa Rickshaw Tour – Climb aboard a traditional Japanese rickshaw for unforgettable views and stories of the Asakusa district in Tokyo. Your guide will steer you to some of Tokyo’s many iconic sites while illuminating the history behind them all.
Akihabara is the perfect place to spend an afternoon people-watching and taking in the anime culture. Akihabara used to be Tokyo’s electronics district, but in more recent years, this district has become wildly famous for being the center of Japan’s anime and manga culture. This neighborhood is bustling, loud, and full of comic book stores, video game stores, and anime gift shops. In addition to the otaku shops, you can find manga cafes as well as the cosplay-themed maid cafes, where waitresses dress up and act like maids or anime characters. Maid cafes are popular with both men and women but aren’t cheap to visit! Some cafes, like the @Home Cafe, offer English speaking maids.
If you’re actually in the area to do some electronics shopping, check out Akiba Yodobashi, the most colossal discount electronic store ever.
DAY 10 – OVERNIGHT STAY (OR DAY TRIP): HAKONE AND MOUNT FUJI
Hakone is an area encompassing Lake Ashi and the mountains around Gora. It’s famed for its views of Mount Fuji, the Hakone Shrine, and hot springs and onsens galore. Sure, it’s touristy, but this is a spot that definitely can’t be missed. Especially if you’re looking for a quick bout of rest and relaxation.
If your main goal is getting a clear view of Mt. Fuji, then your best strategy would be to do a day trip and pick your day based on the weather forecast. People who want a bit of relaxation in their trip will often stay overnight in Hakone at a ryokan. If you want to stay at an onsen ryokan, you’ll have to opt for an overnight stay. Let me tell you, I love the ryokan experience. It’s a bit more expensive than a normal hotel stay, but that’s because it’s an entire experience. One night is all you need to fully enjoy relaxing in yukatas, soaking in public or private baths, eating a relaxing in-room dinner, and ending your stay with a traditional Japanese breakfast. If ryokans are not your thing, a day trip to Hakone is fine.
In terms of exploring, start at Hakone Gora Park and walk the Old Tokaido Road along Lake Ashi, where you can view and strike a pose by the famous Hakone Shrine. On a clear day, look up for beautiful views of Mt. Fuji by the shores of Lake Ashi. Then, hop aboard a pirate ship (yes a real pirate ship!) and cruise on Lake Ashi for more views of Mount Fuji and the surrounding mountains.
At Togendai, switch to the Owakudani Ropeway (a cable car). This will take you up the mountain to Owakudani, a sweeping geothermal valley created by the eruption of the Hakone volcano 3,000 years ago. Here, you will find even more Mount Fuji views as well as the region’s specialty food–black eggs, hard-boiled in natural sulfurous hot springs.
After a day of exploring, head back to your ryokan for a nice, long hot spring soak before dinner.
Rather do a day trip than an overnight stay? Consider visiting Hakone with a guide:
Hakone Day Trip Private Tour – This tour will show you around all the highlights of the hot spring town and also take care of all the transportation!
Other Hakone activities worth mentioning:
DAY 11 – RETURN TO TOKYO / RELAX AND PACK
If you’ve opted for an overnight stay in Hakone, train back in the morning or after a delicious lunch. Once back in Tokyo, make sure to take it slow today.
We usually reserve our last day for souvenir shopping, taking it slow, and getting our final meals-of-choice in. What you do today is completely your choice! Maybe there wasn’t enough time to hit up some of the spots in this itinerary, or perhaps there were other activities that piqued your interest! Spend your last day doing these activities! You’ll need to reserve some time for packing and maybe even last minute souvenir shopping. It’s your last chance to eat good food, so you should prioritize eating too.
Other Tokyo activities worth mentioning:
- Fall Evening Illumination at Rikugien Garden (seasonal)
- Yayoi Kusama Museum
- Samurai Museum
- Edo-Tokyo Museum
- DisneySea or Tokyo Disneyland parks. (DisneySea is the first of its kind across the world!)
- Visiting the Ghibli Museum if you are a Studio Ghibli fan (book far in advance)
- Visit the artsy neighborhood of Nakameguro
- Day trip to Nikko from Tokyo (Edo Wonderland in Nikko is a ton of fun)
- Attend a Sumo tournament at Ryoguku Kokugikan
- Shop at the Oedo Antique Market (held twice a month)
- Eat your way through various depachika (underground food halls) across the city
- Buy a ton of sliced sandwiches and ramen from the convenience stores and eat them in your hotel room. They are absolutely delicious, especially compared to what we have in the USA.
DAY 12 – GO HOME
Today is the day where you must say goodbye to an epic adventure in Japan. The JR Narita Express train is the easiest way to get from Tokyo to the Narita Airport (from Shinjuku, Shibuya and Tokyo Station) It costs 3000 yen (approximately $30 USD) and takes ~60 mins. If you bought a JR pass, you can use it for this ride.
A more affordable option, the option we normally go with since we don’t always get the JR pass, is to take the “Airport Bus TYO-NRT”. These buses operate multiple times per hour between Narita Airport, Tokyo Station, and Ginza Station. The one-way fare is 1000 yen (approximately $10 USD) during the day and 2000 yen (approximately $20 USD) for late-night and early-morning departures.
WHERE TO STAY IN TOKYO
Choosing where to stay in Tokyo can be confusing because it’s just such a massive city. We can help with that. In terms of neighborhoods to choose from, Shinjuku is our favorite area to stay in Tokyo because it’s so central and has many attractions within walking distance. Shibuya is another convenient base but can be too crowded for some people.
No matter where you choose to stay, just make sure it is within walking distance from the JR Yamanote Line (loop train line that hits all the major attractions and parts of town). Staying around this train line will save you so much time and money, trust me. You won’t have to transfer to buses or taxis after hopping off the train or walk for days to get you back to your lodging.
We always go with Airbnb apartments (they usually come with pocket wifi that you can take with you around town for instant/free wifi). I’ve found Airbnb to be better valued than hotels in Tokyo, especially if you’re traveling with 3 or more people. There are tons of apartments and housing to choose from. If you haven’t tried it before, sign up here for $65 off your first stay.
EXTRA DAY TO SPARE? TOKYO VS KYOTO
If you’ve got an extra day or two to spend in Japan and are deciding where to spend that extra time, it’ll likely come down to choosing between Tokyo or Kyoto. Here’s a quick breakdown of each city.
- Tokyo is modern, while Kyoto is traditional.
- Tokyo is huge, so exploring tends to take a lot of energy and train travel to see “everything”. Kyoto is more compact, so exploring tends to be more relaxed.
- Tokyo is about 30% more expensive than Kyoto for travelers.
If you prefer bustling big cities, high-tech, neon lights, and nightlife, spend your extra day in Tokyo. If you’re more interested in temples, shrines, gardens, geisha culture, and nature, spend your extra day in Kyoto.
I personally love the old-world charm of Kyoto. On my next multi-week trip, I do plan on skipping Tokyo (since I’ve been there twice), spending a lot more time in Kyoto and Osaka, as well as spending a few days in Kyushu (known for its rejuvenating hot springs, dramatic mountains, and peaceful beaches). There’s simply too much to see and do in the amazing country that is Japan!!!
Hope this 2-week Japan itinerary has helped make your trip planning a million times easier. Safe travels abroad!