Japan has been at the top of my travel bucket list for a very long time. As I got older, I became more and more fascinated by Japanese food and culture. (Shout out to sushi, matcha, Norwegian Wood, Pachinko, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Maniac from Netflix aka the inspiration of all my retro-future fantasies.)
I made it a goal this year to actually go to Japan. And ladies and gentlemen, I finally made it happen!
Because I was so excited for the trip, I went hard on the planning front. I crowdsourced and Google-searched and travel-guided my way to what I think is a really excellent first-timers 2-week Japan itinerary. (Yes, as usual, I got the Lonely Planet Guide to Japan to help me plan!)
Below you’ll find the Google map I created with all the sites, accommodations, and restaurants we planned to visit. You can refer to this map as you go through the itinerary below – I find mapping out things of interest helps with organizing what to do in a day and the logistics of getting from point A to point B. Orange icons indicate stuff we did and blue icons indicate stuff we wanted to do but didn’t get to. You can click on icons to see any notes and photos I may have added.
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“I can’t go because Japan is too expensive”: A note on budgeting for a trip to Japan
If you’ve always wanted to go to Japan but have been putting it off because it’s too expensive, here’s my advice:
- Go for a shorter trip and don’t try to visit a ton of places. Christie and I went big with 2 full weeks and lots of moving around. But you could just do Kyoto and Tokyo in a week and have a really amazing trip.
- Don’t try to do Japan on a shoestring budget. It’s not a cheap country and you will miss out if you skip things due to cost. I’ve seen so many blog posts on how to do Japan on the cheap and I just think you’ll get what you pay for and it’s not worth it.
- Travel with a friend or two. Don’t go alone— this way you can afford to share rooms in hotels which is way more comfortable than the pods in hostels (and the same price when shared). And also share any taxis and maybe some food!
- Establish a budget (I think $100 to $150 a day is totally possible) and save the amount you anticipate needing for the trip ahead of time. I calculated I spent about $125/day and that included a 14-course meal and two nights at nice hotels, which means you can easily spend less and still have amazing experiences.
- Don’t go in autumn or spring. They aren’t kidding about high season and you’ll not only have to contend with masses and masses of people (crowds like I’ve never seen before I’m not even kidding — or maybe this was because of the Rugby World Cup, I’m not sure) but also have more limited choices for, well, everything.
My point is, I’ve wanted to go to Japan for YEARS—5, 6 something like that— but didn’t go because I deemed it too expensive. That was silly. Life is short, book the ticket.
Transport in Japan
Christie and I each got a 7-day JR Railpass. It covered almost all of our inter-city travel. (The only trip that wasn’t covered occurred outside the 7-days.) You will find a lot of blog posts out there discussing whether one such rail pass is worth it. For us it was. You can use this Japan rail pass calculator to determine if the all-inclusive JR pass is worth it for your Japan itinerary.
Specific train schedules can be found on HyperDia.
Okay, let’s get into the 2-week Japan itinerary!
2-week Japan Itinerary: Tokyo – 5 nights
IRL we flew into Tokyo and immediately went to Kyoto and then did Tokyo at the end of our trip, but this was because a few of Christie’s friends were in Kyoto and we wanted to cross paths with them. I would ideally start the trip with Japan’s capital city. Conquer the madness while you’re still buzzing from the adrenaline of arriving to Japan.
If you’re wondering what neighborhood to stay in Tokyo, we stayed in three different spots during our time there and by far Ginza was our favorite. We expected Tokyo to be an insane hustling, bustling Asian metropolis but it was actually so quiet and tame outside of the major shopping areas near Shinjuku Station and Harajuku.
We loved our stay at the Hotel Oriental Express Tokyo Ginza. It’s a “business hotel” so nothing fancy here but a good mid-range option and very comfortable.
Browse more hotels in Tokyo on Booking.com:
The teamLab Borderless Museum is a bit of a shlep from the rest of the city but an incredibly magical experience. You can wander the museum rooms aimlessly and become immersed in glittering, dazzling displays of light, motion, color, and sound. Plus take tons of photos for the ‘Gram. (*eyeroll emoji* but also #me.) Book ahead!
Shibuya Crossing is worth checking out. We got lucky and saw it on Halloween when it was very busy and festive but I think it’s probably exciting no matter what day or time!
At night, check out the teeny tiny bars in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai area. Go to one of the karaoke room places and sing/scream your heart out for an hour or two. We did it at Karaoke Kan but there are chain places all over you can look up that have lots of good English song selections. (I feel like you didn’t visit Japan until you’ve done this, ya know?)
We did a super fun sushi-making class while in Tokyo. If you love sushi as much as I do I feel like this is a no-brainer?
Lastly, we did go to see the Imperial Palace and grounds but like you can’t go inside so it’s really just a photo and that’s it.
We were too tired and busy to make it to a good viewpoint over the city, but I would’ve loved to see the city from the observation room on the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.
It’s honestly kinda hard to go wrong when it comes to food in Japan, but here are a few of our outstanding food experiences in Tokyo I recommend:
- Tsukiji Market for sushi breakfast – It’s apparently not what it used to be (aka a wholesale fish market), but I still think Tsukiji is worth a visit. We found this really great sushi guy who just makes nigiri as you order, brushes it with some soy sauce and you eat standing up. God it was good.
- Kagari – Called a “soba” place but it’s actually ramen. Best ramen of the trip. They make chicken ramen, which we hadn’t seen anywhere else. Incredible.
- Savoy Pizza – For when you’re ready for non-Japanese food (which will happen after 2 weeks). Pretty sure this was the best pizza I’ve ever had in my life. It’s not cheap but it’s worth it. Make a reservation as the place is tiny and very popular.
Hakone – 1 night
I prioritize balance when planning trips, so after doing the city thing for a few days, it’s nice to have a night in a more natural setting. Hakone also makes the list because you can see Mount Fuji from here if you’re lucky! (We weren’t – it was rainy and grey on the day we planned to go hunting for the elusive stratovolcano.)
We opted for a bit of luxury and stayed at Kuoritei. The hotel onsen was lovely and some rooms even have their own onsen. The 14-course dinner and Japanese-style breakfast were both delicious and fantastic experiences I highly recommend!
As I said, the weather was terrible during our time in Hakone so we didn’t get to do much outside the hotel. What I would have liked to do was go to the Arakurayama Sengen Park and try to see Mount Fuji from the Chureito Pagoda.
There is also a lot of geothermal activity in the area and I thought it would be cool to check out the sulfur vents at Ōwakudani.
Kyoto – 4 nights
Kyoto is a must-see on your first trip to Japan. I was surprised just how crowded all the tourist spots were. For some reason I expected Japan’s unofficial arts and culture capital to be super chill. Boy was I wrong. I recommend trying to go to sites outside of peak hours if you can.
We stayed in an Airbnb outside the main tourist center for the first part of our time in Kyoto and then did one splurge night near the Nishiki Market area at Luck You Kyoto Bukkoji-Higashimachi. It was cool seeing where the locals lived while in the Airbnb but we much preferred our stay at Luck You in the area closer to the sights, restaurants, and excitement of the center of the city.
Do + Eat
Our first day in Kyoto, we checked out the Arashiyama area. We walked through the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest which is free (!) but was soooo packed with people it didn’t feel zen at all. Then we climbed to the viewpoint at the Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama which was pretty awesome. They have lots of Japanese monkeys wandering around and it was cute (and a little bit scary) to see them doing their thing.
The following day, we checked out the Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) and Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion). Both were absolutely stunning, though I think I enjoyed the Silver Pavilion a bit more as it was less crowded and had peaceful moss and sand gardens you could walk around.
I recommend doing a day trip to Nara whilst in Kyoto. Nara Park was insanely crowded when we were there but I doubt it’s always like that and I loved the experience of meeting and petting the oddly calm deer in the park. Todaiji Temple with its giant Buddha was truly a sight to behold.
We walked by what appeared to be a famous and very popular sweets place for some mochi while walking from the train station into Nara Park (it was called Nakatanido). This was pretty memorable. We also went to a teeny tiny udon restaurant with no English name while in Nara for lunch (see the map at the start of the post to find it). Get the curry udon, it was out of this world good!!
Our final day in Kyoto was probably our favorite. We started with a tea ceremony while dressed in kimonos. Then walked around Nishiki Market and sampled food and ogled at the different seafood stalls. We had an unexpectedly hilarious and fun time at the Samurai and Ninja Museum and ended the evening walking around Kyoto’s historic geisha neighborhood, Gion.
Takayama – 2 nights
End your 2 week Japan trip in this mountain town in the Japanese Alps.
We saved some coin and stayed at the Takayama Station Hostel. Their private room was actually very comfortable and the location was very convenient: it is literally steps from the train station.
Do + Eat
We loved walking around Takayama’s old town, rainy as it was that day, with buildings preserved from the Edo period. We stopped in at sake breweries to do tastings.
Use your second day in Takayama to do a day trip to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Shira-ka-wago. We booked a tour bus through our hostel and it included stopping off at a viewpoint and then allowing us a few hours of free time to explore the village below.
We loved our hands-on Hiwa beef experience at the restaurant Hidatakayama Kyoya. It turned out to be one of our favorite meals of the whole trip!
I hope this itinerary is helpful at least in some ways as you plan your two week trip in Japan!
Thank you and shout out to Christie Jones who provided lots of the photos in this post.