Japan has a wide range of experiences and each is special on its own. The first-timer’s itinerary to Japan is a sample of the many experiences to be had. Have fun with it, add to it, and take away the spots that may not be up your alley. Either way, Japan is magical and a must-visit.
The First-Timer’s Itinerary to Japan
What to Know Before Visiting Japan
- Most cities do not require a car. Everything is easily reached by foot, train, or bus.
- The Suica card is helpful for using the bus and local train. You can get one at the main stations and, with a small deposit, have access to reloading this card. If you have a JR Rail Pass, this is also applicable for certain lines in Kyoto and Tokyo. Be sure to apply and purchase your JR Rail Pass prior to arrival in Japan.
- Japan, even though it is incredibly modern, is still a primarily cash-only country. Carry Yen on you at all times to cover meals, shopping, and transportation. The best place to withdraw cash is at Seven Eleven.
- For all sights, if you’re looking for those “no crowd” photos, be sure to arrive no later than 7:30/8 am. The top attractions will get incredibly busy and it is worth it to get up a bit earlier.
- The best way to handle any restaurant reservation is to have your hotel concierge call and reserve. Most restaurants need reservations far in advance. There were quite a few where we couldn’t get one almost two weeks in advance.
- Read this post for an in-depth guide about transportation.
- Read this post for an in-depth guide to dining.
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(TOKYO – TSUMAGO – KYOTO – KAGAONSEN — TOKYO)
Day 1: Land in Tokyo
If one thing is true, the journey to Japan is incredibly easy. Most flights from the US will land in the afternoon. Head to exchange your rail pass, pick up a Suica card and be on your way into town in no time. The first day is a good opportunity to get oriented, maybe venture out for a meal or just spend the day at the hotel.
Read: The First-Timer’s Guide to Tokyo
Stay: The Ritz-Carlton or Hotel Claska
Day 2: Tokyo
There’s no better way to start a jet lag day then an early walk through the peacefulness of Meiji Shrine. Explore Yoyogi Park, make your way into Harajuku. You could spend hours exploring this neighborhood that spills into Omotesando. I’d recommend getting okonomiyaki and stopping by Cafe Kitsune for a coffee.
Read: 7 Hip Coffee Shops Not to Miss in Tokyo
Day 3: Tokyo
Hop on the train and make your way to the famous fish market, Tsukiji Market, to see one of the oldest fish markets in the world. Head here early, snack through the endless stalls, and walk into the market at 10 am when it opens to the public. It’s easily a full morning, and you can have breakfast and lunch here. Make your way towards Shinjuku neighborhood afterwards, where you can walk Piss Alley and enjoy endless street food. There’s plenty of shopping here, like LOFT, a must-visit. Grab the train down to Shibuya Crossing, and catch a magical sunset here where thousands of people cross.
Don’t forget to book your Japan Rail pass before you arrive!
Day 4: Tokyo
You’ll find most things revolve around food in Tokyo, and it’s completely okay. Stop by a hip coffee shop (any on this list will do), and fuel up for a day of exploring. An up-and-coming neighborhood is Shimokitazawa, where hip shops and cafes are plentiful. A great afternoon can be spent here exploring the local culture. Eventually, you’ll find that all roads lead back to Shibuya, and there’s plenty to do here. Head into Shibuya Nonbei Alley for a drink that night.
Day 5: Tokyo to Tsumago
After a fill of the city, the quietness of the countryside will soothe all. Tsumago is a small post town in the Kiso Valley and all sorts of magical. Grab the afternoon train, and make the 3-hour journey here. You’ll get into town later in the afternoon, just in time for a short walk in the town, a shower, and a meal at your Japanese Inn.
Read: Visiting the Kiso Valley
Stay: Fujioto Ryokan
Day 6: Tsumago
Waking up to a traditional Japanese breakfast is an art. Enjoy the slow meal and fuel up for one of the most beautiful hikes in Japan. Take the historic Nakasendo trail to Magome, and enjoy the views. Once in Magome, be sure to grab lunch and a coffee before taking the bus back to Tsumago. Time is meant to be savored here, and everything slow is wonderful.
Day 7: Tsumago to Kyoto
After a few days in the countryside, a city will certainly call you back. Take the train to Kyoto, to go experience the city of over a thousand of temples. Check into your hotel and explore your local neighborhood.
Read: The Ultimate Guide to Kyoto
Stay: The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto
Day 8: Kyoto
It’s an early start, but it’s always worth it in Kyoto to beat the crowds. Arashiyama and its magical bamboo grove are worth it. Explore the neighborhood, grab coffee at %Arabica and then head to the Golden Temple. You’ll see the sights faster than you think, so you can definitely see a lot in one day. I’d head to Wife & Husband afterward before continuing onto the Philosopher’s Path. You’re making the outer loop of Kyoto, but it’s easily reached by bus. For the last stop, the Honen-In temple is magical right before closing. Grab some noodles tonight to replenish a long day!
Read: 7 Coffee Shops Not to Miss in Kyoto
Day 9: Kyoto
Another early start, but this time it’s Fushimi Inari and its iconic red gates. Get here early to beat the crowds and then make the walk over to Tofuku-Ji. From there you can easily make your way to the historic district of Higashiyama and onto Gion. If you want to catch a glimpse of a geisha, head into Gion around 4:30/5.
Day 10: Kyoto
Today’s a great day to relax, sleep in, and enjoy the local scene of Kyoto. Stop into the food markets, eat in Pontocho Alley and catch a tea ceremony at a local house.
Day 11: Kyoto
If you’re up for one more day trip, this is the day to do it. Head to Nara to see the bowing deer or make a day trip to Osaka easily reached by train. I loved getting to spend more time in Kyoto so we hung out a bit longer. Four nights in Kyoto will let you easily see all the sights, but an added one will let you really take your time and get to know the city.
Day 12: Kyoto to Kagaonsen
One experience not to miss in Japan is a traditional onsen stay. It’s a must-do. This one in particular is beautiful, and a great way to zen out before the journey home. The point of the stay is to be still, soak, and enjoy incredible Japanese cuisine.
Read: Staying at an Onsen in Japan’s Countryside
Stay: Beniya Mukayu
Day 13: Kagaonsen
Sleep in, eat a long breakfast and follow it with a soak. This day is for rest, but by the afternoon you’ll be itching to get out. Try a soba or sushi class the ryokan, it’s truly incredible.
Day 14: Kagaonsen to Tokyo
A late morning checkout will get you into Tokyo by late afternoon, where you could easily catch a flight. I’d recommend one more night to split up the travel time, plus you can grab any last-minute bites you missed.
Stay: Mitsui Garden Hotel Kyobashi
Day 15: Tokyo Departure
Time to head home! Be sure to turn in your Suica card to get your deposit back!