How To Get The Best Out Of A First Trip To Japan: A 21-Day Japan Itinerary

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A three-week Japan Itinerary encompassing all the main sights of Honshu Island, including mega cities, traditional temples, and offbeat attractions.

When travel is concerned, I firmly believe that you should always, always stay in a place at least as long as it took to get there—especially when that place is halfway across the world. You’ve got to make it worth your while! With that in mind and with 19 hours of transit ahead of me, I set out to put together my three-week Japan itinerary which, as a first timer in the land of the rising sun, would take me to all the main sights.

From Edo-era castles to metropolises, from shogun villages to iconic volcanoes, and from tranquil temples to surprising wildlife, here’s what I did in the space of three weeks.

My Three-Week Japan Itinerary

Tokyo // three days

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With most flights landing into Narita airport, it only made sense to spend a little time in the Japanese capital; plus, it’s the kind of mega city you’ve just got to be in to fully grasp its tremendous size and significance. Tokyo really does spread out as far as the eye can see.

Nevertheless, I was adamant about spending too much time in Tokyo, however fascinating it may be, as I wanted to cover as much ground as possible. What I did, in a nutshell:

Mt Fuji // one day

Japan Itinerary

Located right outside Tokyo, the majestic mountain is one of the most popular day trip destinations in the area. Rightfully so; the stratovolcano is Japan’s highest peak at 12,389 feet tall as well as both a Special Place of Scenic Beauty (a great page to bookmark if you want to hit Japan’s prettiest sights, by the way) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fuji’s unusually symmetrical snow-capped cone is a well-known symbol of Japan and it is frequently depicted both touristy and authentic artworks.

The easiest and most cost-efficient way to admire Fujisan is by sitting on the right-hand side of the shinkansen travelling between Tokyo and Kyoto. The mountain majestically soars into the picture about 45 minutes into the journey.

Many tour operators offer day trips to the sacred mountain. Viator has one with forest hiking, one with a lake cruise, and one with a VIP experience with local priests; Japanican offers a motorcoach excursion which includes a trip up to Mt. Fuji’s 5th Station and a ride on the Komagatake Ropeway as well as a few other options. Should you wish to travel to Mount Fuji independently, note that hiking trails are only officially open in July and August.

Kyoto // five days

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Kyoto is without a doubt my favourite city in Japan. I was just amazed at how intimate the city felt despite the extent of its reputation. As Japan’s former capital, there’s a LOT to see and do here; don’t go and think five days in Kyoto is too generous.

Not only does Kyoto hold an impressive quantity of temples and castles, it is strategically located on the Tokaido Shinkansen line for easy side trips and has plenty of mouth-watering restaurants to keep your appetite satisfied. Good to know, though: most of the noteworthy temples are located in the same area north-west of the train station, making it easy to visit all of them on a single day.

Handy tip: if you’re planning on wearing sandals or go commando in your shoes, bring a pair of socks with you; this being Japan, you won’t be authorised to enter temples with your shoes on or barefoot.

Nara // one day

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Nara was an absolute delight and one of my absolute favourite stops on my Japan itinerary. It just ticked all the boxes of things you expect to find in a place like Japan: cute animals, wareshinobu-clad maikos, immense Buddhist temples, and mystical forests. I found all that here, in this small city just outside Kyoto.

Although a destination in its own right (there are a few hotels near the train station), Nara is a worthwhile day trip from the ancient capital. It was Japan’s first permanent capital in the year 710; as such, it is home to over eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, second only to Kyoto as a directory of Japan’s cultural heritage.

  • Tōdai-ji: the largest wooden building in the world, which, astonishingly enough, is actually a mere two-thirds of its estimated original size. It contains the Great Buddha (not an understatement, at 16 metres high and 437 tonnes of bronze) is housed inside.
  • Horyuji Temple
  • Nara Parkk and its equal parts tame, hungry, and adorable deer
Osaka // one day

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From what I gather people either love or hate Osaka. Whereas Tokyo is bustling but incredibly civilised, and whereas Kyoto is filled with history and exhales respectability, Osaka is the city where there are no rules.

I was only there for a day for my sushi class, and I wish I’d had more time to explore this quirky, alternative city with a lively waterfront.

Himeji // one day

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Confession time: I didn’t actually go inside Himeji Castle. I unknowingly turned up two days after the castle had reopened following massive renovations, and frankly I wasn’t too keen on the three-hour long queue. I decided to stick to the flowery gardens instead, knowing that another fabulous castle was on my itinerary later in the week.

Hiroshima // one day

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You simply can’t travel along the southern coast of Honshu Island and not spend some time in Hiroshima. Even though Hiroshima was largely obliterated by an atomic bomb —ironically named Little Boy— during World War II, the city is now thriving and well. Hiroshima Castle and Shukkeien Garden, two major monuments pertaining to Hiroshima’s historical heritage, were destroyed during the bombing and were later on reconstructed; they can be visited today. The UNESCO A-Bomb Dome acts as a stark symbol of Hiroshima’s newfound peace, as only the skeleton of what once was Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall building remains. Nearby is the lush and leafy Peace Memorial Park, built over the former business district, which commemorates people who lost their lives on that fateful day in 1945.

Miyajima // one day

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Almost right across the bay from Hiroshima is the quaint island of Miyajima, home to the iconic Itsukushima Temple. Its claim to fame is undoubtedly the bold Itsukushima Shrine, which dramatically soars 16 metres high out of the water; it’s often referred to as a “floating torii gate” in popular culture. Interestingly, it’s possible to walk right up to the shrine at low tide—which is why I highly recommend spending a full day on Miyajima.

Other fun things to do on the island:

Kanazawa // one day

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I wanted to visit Kanazawa because of its famously well-preserved heritage from the Edo Period when it served as the seat of the powerful Maeda feudal Clan. It was one of the wealthiest clans in terms of fief sizes and rice production, but with great power come equally great threats. The Maeda clan, therefore, employed several samurais and offered them property at the foot of Kanazawa Castle in Nagamachi District, which can still be visited today.

Japan’s most celebrated landscape garden, Kenrokuen, as well as Higashi Chaya District, filled with ancient wooden teahouses where geishas work and perform, are both well worth a few hours.

Yamanouchi // two days

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Moving on to the Japanese Alps for the last few days of this Japan itinerary, where I had planned on hanging out with snow monkeys and experience a ryokan with an onsen and a traditional dinner. It was absolutely perfect and even though I was terrified of committing a cultural faux-pas I managed to make it out unscathed, and infinitely more appreciative of my time in the Nagano prefecture.

Matsumoto // one day

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The detour by this somewhat underrated portion of Honshu Island was mainly to visit Matsumoto Castle, one of Japan’s premier historic castles and a splendid work of art. Its value is simply inestimable, as it still contains original wooden interiors and external stonework. It really was a fascinating journey into the history of the military in Japan; the castle is awash with secret passageways, tricky steep stairs, and other secrets that only samurais were privy to.

I think I ended up having a much better and more informative time at Matsumoto than I would have at Himeji, which was way too crowded.

Nikko // one day

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At last! The small city of Nikko is located in a mountainous area north of Tokyo called the Tochigi Prefecture, and is home to some of the most famous and esteemed shrines in the country: UNESCO World Heritage Site of Toshogu Shrine, erected in 1617 to commemorate the founding ruler of the Tokugawa shogunate and ultimate feudal military government, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Here, you will find luxuriant woodlands with rows and rows of stone lanterns, occasionally dotted with vermillion gates. A truly spiritual and grandiose place and one of the most popular day trips from Tokyo.

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My Three-Week Japan Itinerary: A Few Tips

  • I travelled almost exclusively by train for the duration of my trip, with the brief exception of the time I hired a car in Nagano (which turned out to be mostly useless).
  • It is possible to stay put in a few select cities (Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Kyoto are popular bases) and go on regular day trips instead of changing hotels every night. The rail network is very efficient.
  • I like a crammed schedule. It would be very easy for travellers with a slower pace to drop a few of the remote places and still have a grand time.
  • Accommodation-wise, I did a mix of Airbnb and mid-range hotels, depending on how long I stayed in each destination.

Disclaimer: I received discounted Japan Rail Passes for the duration of my trip; everything else was paid in full by yours truly. All opinions are my own.

A three-week #Japan #itinerary encompassing all the main sights of Honshu Island, including mega-cities, traditional temples, and offbeat attractions.

36 Comments on How To Get The Best Out Of A First Trip To Japan: A 21-Day Japan Itinerary

  1. Ray
    July 29, 2016 at 12:09 am (1 year ago)

    Thanks for sharing this three itinerary with us! Out of curiousity, how close were you to Nagasaki? I have read and watched other travel stories about Japan where people will go to Hiroshima for obvious reasons, but I never hear or see much about Nagasaki at all. You would think that might draw more foreign tourists given its significance in WWII, but it doesn’t appear to be the case at all.

    Reply
  2. Katie @ the tea break project
    July 29, 2016 at 6:41 pm (1 year ago)

    Super useful post, thanks – I’ve never been to Japan and know hardly anything about it. I don’t think I’d know where to start with planning though, so thinking I’ll be pinning this for future reference :-)

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      August 1, 2016 at 10:43 am (1 year ago)

      Happy to help! :)

      Reply
  3. Anna
    July 30, 2016 at 10:24 am (1 year ago)

    Great post! Your itinerary is very useful for anyone visiting Japan.

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      August 1, 2016 at 10:35 am (1 year ago)

      Thanks Anna!

      Reply
  4. Joey
    July 31, 2016 at 11:20 pm (1 year ago)

    This is a very through guide … I might end up using this soon!

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      August 1, 2016 at 10:29 am (1 year ago)

      Wonderful news! Happy to help.

      Reply
  5. Ken
    August 1, 2016 at 11:35 am (1 year ago)

    Among my circle of friends, Kyoto is everyone’s favorite! I was there back in May, visited the same sites, and boy was it crowded! Shoulder to shoulder crowded! Interestingly, I would say the crowd consisted of about 85% Japanese school children (on field trip?) vs 15% foreign tourists. Just wondering if you had the same issue (maybe it was just the week that I visited)?
    Getting a nice shot of the Golden Pavillion was a major task!

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      August 1, 2016 at 12:52 pm (1 year ago)

      Me too! If I go back to Japan, I will be spending considerable time in Kyoto. It was my favourite city on the trip. It was very crowded as I was there during cherry tree season, lots of Japanese and Chinese tourists (with completely different attitudes!) but it was manageable.

      Reply
  6. Erika
    August 11, 2016 at 5:06 pm (1 year ago)

    I devoured this amazing post. I’m traveling to Japan in October and your tips will come in handy. I’m just wondering if you could help me with some of my questions. Which company did you use to rent of the pocket wifi? I’m doing some research and there are various out there, I would just feel better to use a company that someone who has been there before and I know it works. Did you stay at an Airbnb in Kyoto? If not, did you stay in a nearby hotel by the train station?

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      August 17, 2016 at 1:59 pm (1 year ago)

      I cannot for the life of me remember which company I used for the pocket WiFi, my apologies! I did get an Airbnb in Kyoto and I also stayed at the Granvia Hotel inside the train station for the first night.

      Reply
  7. Taylor
    November 17, 2016 at 11:25 pm (10 months ago)

    Thank you for the post, it has been very helpful as I plan my trip to Japan! I’m wondering if you can say a bit more about your travel/sleeping itinerary? For example, you list many places as “1 day,” does this mean that you used Kyoto as a base and did day trips? What time of day did you travel/why?

    Thank you so much!

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      November 18, 2016 at 10:38 am (10 months ago)

      Happy to help! I did use Kyoto as a base for seven days, renting an Airbnb. I would simply go to the train station in the morning and spend the day in either Nara, Hiroshima, etc., and come back to my apartment in Kyoto late in the evening.

      Reply
      • Kellye
        April 5, 2017 at 1:54 am (6 months ago)

        Was Hiroshima a doable day trip from Kyoto? I am spending three weeks in late July/early August and had dropped it because it didn’t seem to have more that I wanted to do beyond a single day. My daughter is living and working in Japan, so we are giving more time to Kanazawa where she lives, and visiting some other cities. I was a history major in college though, and so I have kind of agonized over skipping Hiroshima…l

      • Marie-Eve
        April 26, 2017 at 5:38 pm (5 months ago)

        Yes I did Hiroshima as a day trip from Kyoto. It was very doable and easy to visit. It doesn’t even have to take a full day.

  8. ISLAMUL
    March 7, 2017 at 12:15 am (7 months ago)

    Wonderful and very helpful post! Just a quick question on travelling within the cities. Can the JR Pass be used to travel within the city of Tokyo or Kyoto? Or do you have to buy separate day passes for bus or metro lines within these cities?

    Thank you very much!

    Reply
  9. Tina Hatzistavrou
    April 10, 2017 at 2:08 am (6 months ago)

    This is an amazing 21 day blog and will be very beneficial to myself as I am travelling late July for 21 days, I am spending 5 nights in Kyoto, would you suggest staying in Downtown Kyoto, I was also told my girlfriend from Hong Kong that Air bnb is illegal in Japan, I am hoping to use Airbnb in Kyoto? Thanks in advance.

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      April 26, 2017 at 4:49 pm (5 months ago)

      I don’t know about Airbnb being illegal in Japan as there is quite a lot of apartments available. Personally I stayed there during my time in Kyoto: https://www.airbnb.ca/rooms/5799991

      Reply
    • Paul H
      July 15, 2017 at 8:19 pm (2 months ago)

      AirBnB is not illegal Japan. Was there a couple months ago! Hope you have a good time.

      Reply
  10. Linden
    May 14, 2017 at 8:10 pm (4 months ago)

    I’m doing a 21-day trip in October. I’m wondering if you made Hotel & lodging reservations before you arrived in Japan or did you just show up at the hotels and ask if there were any rooms available? The reason I’m asking is because I don’t have a set agenda and I want to have the freedom to be spontaneous when I travel

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      May 15, 2017 at 10:28 am (4 months ago)

      I did most reservations in advance because I was visiting during sakura season, one of the busiest times of the year. I don’t think it will be that busy in October.

      Reply
  11. Shota
    May 17, 2017 at 8:33 pm (4 months ago)

    Thank you so much for sharing, even though I am from Japan I love to read blogs to find new ideas! Learning some Japanese before your trip can make your trip way more enjoyable, if you need some help I would be more than happy to help!

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      May 23, 2017 at 7:32 pm (4 months ago)

      Thank you Shota!

      Reply
  12. Iryna
    May 25, 2017 at 2:00 pm (4 months ago)

    Thanks for sharing your experience with us in three-week trip to Japan. Your post is really useful and interesteng, and it was only a peasure to read it. I have never been to Japan, but I want to go there for some reasons. Firstly, if I go to Japan, it will increase my knowledge about the culture of this country, because you know that it differs from all other cultures of the world. Secondly, this trip will give me chance to visit famous places. Finally, I want to try Japanese food, especially sushi. I can cook it by myself, but you know that it is not the same taste as a real sushi. I’m just wondering, whether it’s worth to go there. Would you recommend me from your experience to spend my summmer holiday in Japan?
    Thank you so much!

    Reply
  13. Ankit
    June 9, 2017 at 4:17 am (4 months ago)

    Hi Marie
    Thanks for sharing your experience. It was very interesting to read. I am also travelling to Japan in Sep/oct for three weeks with my family(my wife and 3 yrs old son), so I am keen to get ur feedback on what I have planned:
    Tokyo 4 nights
    My Fuji 2 nights
    Takaymana 2 nights
    Kanzawanna 2 night
    Kyoto 4 nights
    Osaka 4 nights
    Hiroshima 2 nights
    Tokyo 2 nights
    What I am scared off is changing hotels every 2 day. So can u pls suggest me how sld I plan so that I don’t have to change my hotel very frequent?
    Also any suggestions of other cities that I should cover and probably skip the ones mentioned above.

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      June 9, 2017 at 3:10 pm (4 months ago)

      Hey Ankit,
      One of the best ways to avoid changing hotels too often is to go on day trips. For example, you can easily visit Osaka while staying in Kyoto or vice versa, they’re very close. You could also go to places like Nara and Himeji. You can also do a day trip to Kanazawa from Tokyo with the new bullet train. It can be tiring to change hotels almost every night so it would be wise to invest in a train pass that will allow you to move around as much as you want while coming to the same room for several nights in a row.

      Reply
  14. Kirsten
    June 18, 2017 at 10:00 pm (3 months ago)

    What time of year did you visit dear?

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      June 19, 2017 at 9:31 am (3 months ago)

      That was early spring, in order to catch the blooming cherry trees.

      Reply
  15. Jazmin Daniels
    June 25, 2017 at 8:54 am (3 months ago)

    This was a very thorough itinerary! Thanks so much for writing this. If you dont mind, what was your budget for this trip (minus plane ticket). Did you purchase travel insurance/health insurance? No need for details I am planning to use your itinerary for spring 2018 and want to know what Im looking at as far as a budget. Thanks again!

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      August 15, 2017 at 3:02 pm (1 month ago)

      Didn’t really get around to add up all expenses for the trip but I would say a rough estimate, excluding airfare, would be about 3500. Accommodation was about 120-220 per night for two, food was about 75-100 a day for two.

      Reply
  16. Elizabeth Nigro
    June 29, 2017 at 4:04 pm (3 months ago)

    This is very helpful. We are planning a 3-week trip this October. Can you please tell me how your (smart)phone worked or did not in Japan? We have Samsung Androids with Verizon service and have heard very conflicting reports as to whether or not these will work in Japan. (We would expect to pay the Verizon fees if they do/did, but the point is, will they work at all?) Did you rent a phone while you were there or use your own? Why did you rent a wifi router? Did it get delivered to your hotel on arrival? Was it useful and easy to use? thanks for any details about these questions. Elizabeth

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      August 15, 2017 at 2:59 pm (1 month ago)

      I was able to connect to WiFi and used a wireless WiFi device for the rest. Did not use an SD card.

      Reply
  17. Lorenzo
    July 25, 2017 at 9:23 am (2 months ago)

    Hi Marie,
    Thanks a lot for this amazing post, it really helped me out for planning my trip to Japan until now. As I write this, I am planning the last few days and was wondering if you did anything else in Matsumoto. I know that there is an Art Museum worth visiting but since I will stay the night there, I am looking for other things to do there. Would you have any suggestion to give me for things to visit in Matsumoto ?
    Thanks in advance for your reply,
    Lorenzo

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      August 15, 2017 at 2:42 pm (1 month ago)

      I only did the castle and walking around in Matsumoto, not much else to do really. Sorry I can’t be more helpful.

      Reply
  18. Nayani Karunajeewa
    September 12, 2017 at 7:22 am (2 weeks ago)

    Hi Marie,
    Really enjoyed reading your post!! Your information will be certainly very useful for anyone who is planning to visit Japan. We are planning a visit next year Aug-Sep period, for three weeks. I will certainly follow most of your itinerary, which looks really practice. Just one question, since you have been there during the Spring, the weather would have been really nice. But it may be too warm in Aug-Sep period , I guess. Do you think any of the cities that you have mentioned should be avoided in Summer? Thank you very much! Nayani

    Reply

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