Japan seduces you with its seamless blend of the ancient and modern.
Shinto shrines are shoehorned between skyscrapers; traditional teahouses co-exist with coffee shops. Japanese people cling as firmly to their ancient rituals as their smartphones.
The so-called Golden Route is a good start if you are visiting Japan for the first time. Following in the footsteps of samurai along the old Tokaido Road, this route along the Pacific Coast is the perfect introduction to Japan’s landscape, history and modern culture.
Some articles on this website contain affiliate links. This means that I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase through these links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Read the full disclosure here.
2-Week Japan Itinerary at a Glance
Two weeks in Japan will allow you to experience the country’s highlights as a first-time visitor. You will use Japan’s two most famous cities: Tokyo and Kyoto.
Using the country’s high-speed shinkansen, you will take day trips to the historic cities of Nikko, Kamakura, Nara and Kanazawa. You can experience the landscape immortalised in colour woodblock prints by Hokusai by visiting Mount Fuji and the Hakone region
Eat the best meal of your life in Osaka and marvel at Himeji Castle, one of Japan’s finest. Finally, visit Hiroshima followed by Miyajima Island, for a sombre remembrance and to see the bright red Tori gate ‘floating’ in the sea, one of Japan’s biggest tourist attractions.
My Experiences in Japan
Make no mistake. A Google search will churn out hundreds of Japan itineraries for first-time visitors, so why should you trust this one?
I have visited Japan twice and at the time of updating this guide, I am about to go for the third time. Being an utter travel geek I planned very hard for my first trip to Japan, spending weeks researching destinations to ensure that I would have the best time possible.
I didn’t get it all right the first time around. But I did learn from my mistakes and this itinerary has been tweaked to reflect that. I made the mistakes so that you don’t have to.
As a self-confessed flashpacker, I travelled independently on a mid-range budget with splashes of luxury. To avoid wasting precious time changing hotels when travelling, I stayed in two hotels only.
On each occasion, I travelled solo and Japan is an ideal destination if you are travelling alone for the first time.
Day 1: Arrival in Tokyo
I’ve learned from my mistakes and don’t have lofty sightseeing ambitions just after stepping off a long-haul flight.
Be kind to yourself. Check into your Tokyo hotel and start to acclimatise to Japan. Tokyo will be your base for the first six nights in Japan.
How to get from Narita Airport
The easiest way to get from Narita Airport is on the Narita Express, connecting the airport to Tokyo. The train departs from beneath Terminal 2 and stops at Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shinagawa and finally Tokyo.
The Narita Express is included in the JR Pass. Seat reservations are compulsory, but if you are activating your Japan Rail Pass at Narita Airport, the clerk there will take care of this for you.
How to get from Haneda Airport
From Haneda airport, take the Tokyo Monorail to Hamamatsucho station, from where you can continue your journey on the Yamanote line. All three terminals of Haneda Airport are served by the monorail.
Again the Japan Rail Pass is valid on this service.
Day 2 & 3: Tokyo
Your Japan itinerary starts in the nation’s capital, the ultra-modern yet historic city of Tokyo. Its brightly spangled cityscape is one of the things that Japan is famous for.
Swirling with people and brimming with densely packed buildings lit by garish neon, this home to 14 million souls has it all. World-beating cuisine, traditional shrines and temples, first-rate (and sometimes downright quirky) museums and galleries, sublime Zen gardens and, of course, that Blade Runner cityscape.
I’ll level with you. However long you spend in Tokyo, it won’t be enough. However, two full days will allow you to scratch the surface of the city’s highlights.
Here are my recommendations for what to see and do in Tokyo.
SHINJUKU AT NIGHT
After the sun goes down, head to the neon lights of Shinjuku.
Test your skills at one of the pachinko (vertical pinball machine) parlours or channel your inner Celine Dion in a karaoke bar. Then, for a glimpse of old Tokyo, dive into the narrow alleys of Golden Gai and Memory Lane that are unchanged since the Second World War.
For an iconic Tokyo experience, head to vibrant Shibuya, home to the world´s busiest pedestrian crossing. Each time the light turns green hundreds of people come from all directions at once, skilfully avoiding bumping into each other with graceful agility.
For a bird’s eye view, take a seat in the Starbucks café on the 2nd floor of the building across the street and watch the never-ending show.
TSUKIJI FISH MARKET
Famous for its tuna auctions, Tsukiji Central Fish Market was Tokyo’s top sight. Sadly, it closed its doors in 2018 and moved to a new site in Toyosu, reopening as Toyosu Market.
The good news is that Tsukiji’s outer market, with its many shops and restaurants, remains in business.
For the freshest sushi in the world, combine a visit with breakfast or lunch at one of its restaurants. Restaurants are typically open from 5 am until lunchtime or early afternoon.
TOKYO SKY TREE
Enjoy a panoramic view of the Tokyo skyline from the observation deck of the Tokyo Sky Tree. Visit at sunset for the best views.
Don’t leave Tokyo without visiting this Shinto shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken.
Surrounded by a tranquil forest, Meiji-jingu feels worlds away from the city outside its walls.
TAKESHITA STREET (TAKESHITA DÕRI)
In the same district as the Meiji Shrine is Takeshita Dõri, where Tokyo’s goths and Lolitas come to shop. Teenagers from all across Japan make a pilgrimage to this fashion subculture bazaar.
Although the palace is usually closed to the public, its free garden is a peaceful respite from the city.
This Buddhist temple in Asakusa is one of the most popular and lively temples in Tokyo. Completed in 645 AD and dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy, it is also the city’s oldest temple.
A 200-meter-long shopping street, brimming with stalls selling tacky souvenirs and snacks, connects the outer gate to the temple’s second gate. The heady mix of secular and sacred may not be to everyone’s taste – it wasn’t my cup of tea – but it is undeniably vibrant.
HAMA RIKYU GARDENS
Sitting alongside Tokyo Bay, Hama Rikyu is a large landscape garden in central Tokyo, featuring seawater ponds that change level with the tides and a traditional teahouse.
If it wasn’t for the coronavirus pandemic disrupting travel plans, I would have based myself in Ueno on my second visit to Japan. This northern Tokyo neighbourhood is home to several museums, including the Tokyo National Museum, art galleries and Ueno Park.
Day 4: Day Trip to Nikko from Tokyo
Your first day trip from Tokyo is to Nikko, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Nikko’s cluster of Sinto shrines and temples, set amongst towering cedar trees, dates from the Edo period (1603-1868). The most famous of these is the Toshogu Shrine, built in 1617 as a memorial for Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate.
Be warned; Nikko is not exactly a well-kept secret and visitors descend in their hordes.
To avoid the worst of the crowds, tweak your itinerary to visit early on a weekday. Whilst Nikko’s main attractions can be covered on foot in the space of a morning or afternoon, it’s worth factoring in a few more hours to explore the less-visited smaller sights scattered in the hills.
Day 5: Day Trip to Kamakura from Tokyo
Formally the seat of the Shoguns and Japan’s first feudal capital, Kamakura is a small coastal town 30 miles south of Tokyo. Graced with dozens of temples – a legacy of those glory days – it is easy to visit on foot.
Its most iconic sight is the Daibutsu, an 11.4 m bronze statue of Amida Buddha, which dates from the 13th Century. Second only to the Daibutsu is the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, founded in 1180 and dedicated to Hachiman, the god of war.
Take time also to visit the numerous smaller temples and shrines off the beaten path.
Day 6: Day Trip to Hakone from Tokyo
On Day 6 of your Japan itinerary, you are faced with a choice.
You can check out of your hotel and spend the night in Hakone, in the heart of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, and travel onwards to Kyoto the following morning. Alternatively, you can visit Hakone and Mount Fuji on a day trip from Tokyo.
I didn’t stay overnight but given the choice again, I think that I would do so.
This area is very popular and it’s a busy day trip. There’s a lot to be said for experiencing this scenic place at a more relaxed pace and taking advantage of the onsen (hot spring baths) that Hakone is known for.
Highlights of this region are Mount Fuji, one of Japan`s three sacred mountains, and Ashino-ko Lake with its red Torii gate. There are also Odawara Castle, Hakone Open Air Museum, Hakone Shrine, and Choanji Temple.
To make the most of your day in Hakone, follow the so-called Hakone Loop, which brings you to most of the main attractions in one day. Completing the circuit takes between six and eight hours if you don’t linger too long at the sights along the way.
How to get to Hakone from Tokyo
If you are travelling around Japan on the JR Pass, this will limit your choices for getting to Hakone unless you are prepared to spend more money. Here are your options.
Using a JR Pass to get to Hakone from Tokyo
From Tokyo Station, take a shinkansen on the JR Tokaido line to Odawara Station. From Odawara Station, it’s a four-minute journey on the private Hakone Tozan line to Hakone-Itabashi Station (not included in the JR Pass).
Alternatively, you can hop on a bus from Odawara Station to Hakone. This journey from Tokyo to Hakone will take just under two hours.
Take the Odakyu Limited Express Romancecar
The faster route from Tokyo to Hakone is via the Odakyu Electric Railway.
The direct Odakyu Limited Express Romancecar departs from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo to Hakone-Yumoto Station. However, as this is part of the Japan Railways network it is not covered by the JR Pass.
It takes the Romancecar train 80 minutes to travel between Tokyo and Hakone. To ride the Odakyu Limited Express Romancecar you need both a regular ticket and a limited express (surcharge) ticket.
It costs 2,420 yen for a one-way journey (December 2022 price). There is a small discount for booking online.
Make seat reservations at the Odakyu Sightseeing Service Center (near the West Exit of Shinjuku Station), at Odakyu Line ticket machines or through the website of the Limited Express Romancecar.
Visiting Hakone on an organised day trip from Tokyo
If you want someone to take care of the arrangements for you, it is easy to join an organised excursion from Tokyo to Hakone. Here is a selection of Hakone day trips that will fit the bill.
How to get around Hakone
There is an efficient network of trains, buses, cable cars, ropeways and sightseeing boats to get around the Hakone and Fuji Five Lake (Mt Fuji) area. If you are just in Hakone for one day, your best bet is to buy a Hakone Free Pass.
This two or three-day pass provides unlimited use of all Odakyu-affiliated trains, buses, boats, cable cars, and ropeways in the Hakone area. Even if you are in the area for just a day, you are still likely to save a small amount of money.
As the Hakone Free Pass includes the regular return ticket from Shinjuku, it will also save you money on the Odakyu Limited Express Romancecar.
>>> BUY YOUR PASS HERE
How to travel from Hakone to Kyoto
Make your way back to Odawara station and then catch the infrequent direct Hikari shinkansen to Kyoto. The journey time is just over two hours.
Although the Kodama bullet train travels the same route, it will take you an extra hour to complete the journey.
Day 7: Travel from Tokyo to Kyoto
It’s time to leave the neon lights of Tokyo behind you and make the journey to Kyoto on the Hikari shinkansen. This journey should take you just under three hours.
If you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll be treated to further views of Mount Fuji from the comfort of your window seat.
Exploring this Imperial capital begins in earnest tomorrow, but today check in to your hotel and get your bearings.
Day 8 – 10: Kyoto
Kyoto is Japan’s historical, cultural and spiritual heart.
Home to 400 Shinto shrines, more than1,600 Buddhist temples and 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Kyoto is a feast for the senses. Prayer chants echo across manicured Zen gardens; clouds of incense waft from temple complexes; geishas scurry along dimly lit streets to their next appointment.
GINKAKU-JI (HIGASHIYAMA JISJO-JI)
Ginkaku-ji, or the Silver Pavilion, was once the home of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436 – 1490). It owes its name to the silver leaf encasing its roof made from native cypress trees.
PATH OF PHILOSOPHY (TETSUGAKU NO MICHI)
The Path of Philosophy is an ancient stone path that runs alongside the Lake Biwa Canal, connecting Ginkaku-ji to Nanzen-ji. Without stops, it takes 30 – 40 minutes to walk its 1.8km length.
This is a spectacular spot in sakura season when the banks of the canal are an explosion of white and pink blossoms.
To appreciate Eikan-do’s varied architecture, gardens and works of art, follow wooden walkways around the temple’s buildings. These are home to elaborate gold leaf silkscreens from the Edo and Momoyama periods and to painted sliding doors.
Don’t miss Eikan-do’s showstopper, the famous Amida Statue, with his face turned to look over his shoulder.
This complex of Zen temples and sub-temples has it all: a scenic location, an imposing two-storey entrance gate, a serene zen garden, a magnificent main hall and secluded sub-temples. Nanzen-ji is also home to a striking red-brick aqueduct, built in1890.
Occupying a commanding position overlooking Kyoto, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Kiyomizu-dera is one of the most celebrated temples in Japan. Founded at the end of the 8th Century, it is best known for its immense wooden veranda, jutting out from the temple’s main hall.
The geisha district of Gion is synonymous with Kyoto itself. Starting life as home to the teahouses catering to those visiting the nearby Yasaka Shrine, Gion grew to be Kyoto’s prime entertainment district.
Gion’s wooden-fronted teahouses, understated townhouses, temples and shrines are best explored in the evening when its narrow streets take on a dimly illuminated beauty.
ARASHIYAMA BAMBOO GROVE
Welcome to one of my favourite places in Japan. Whilst it is not exactly a well-kept secret, not even the most enthusiastic Instagrammers can detract from the serenity of the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.
KINKAKU-JI (GOLDEN PAVILION)
Formally the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Kinkaku-ji became a Zen temple upon his death in 1408. Trust me; you will never forget the sight of the temple’s shimmering reflection in a large pond, fringed by pine and cherry blossom trees, with a lush bamboo forest as a backdrop.
The Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine is Kyoto’s superstar.
Dedicated to Inari, the Shinto God of Rice, the complex houses five shrines that are sprinkled across the wooded slopes of Mount Inari. From the main shrine, hundreds of vermillion torii (Shinto shrine gates) line the 4km pathway that winds its way to the summit.
Day 11: Day Trip to Nara from Kyoto
Nara is a rewarding city to include in your 2-week Japan itinerary.
Japan’s first permanent capital is stuffed full of historic treasures and is home to no less than three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, some of Japan’s oldest temples and the world’s friendliest deer.
As Nara is a small city and all the sights are located within walking distance of each other, you won’t need to use public transport. Make sure that you pick up a copy of the free map at the Nara City Tourist Information Centre at Nara Station. Mine was excellent until a passing deer fancied it for lunch.
The main draw of Todai-ji, a massive temple complex, is the daibutsu (Great Buddha) housed within the Daibutsu-den, the largest wooden building in the world. Nara’s most beautiful garden, Isui-en, which dates from the Meiji era, is nearby.
Day 12: Day Trip to Hiroshima & Miyajima from Kyoto
Hiroshima and Miyajima are a long day trip from Kyoto and you will need to make an early start. But it will be so worth it.
Start your day in Hiroshima, a modern city that is the site of the world’s first atomic bomb. The Peace Memorial Park and Peace Memorial Museum are moving reminders of the events of August 6th, 1945.
Hiroshima’s eight tramlines connect Hiroshima Station with the city’s main attractions. You can pay with cash or use an IC card, including Suica and Icoca. One-day passes are also available.
From here, head to Miyajima Island (Itsukushima ). This small island is another UNESCO World Heritage site and home to one of Japan’s most popular tourist attractions, the red Torii gate of Itsukushima-jinja shrine which appears to be floating in the sea.
Day 13: Day Trip to Himeji & Osaka from Kyoto
You’re nearing the end of your two weeks in Japan and today you’ll visit two great cities in one easy day trip from Kyoto.
After exploring Himeji Castle, make your way to the adjacent Koko-en garden. Comprising nine separate walled gardens, each with a different theme, this modern reimagining of an Edo-period samurai residence is a delight.
After trying some local sake (nihonshu), take the train back to Osaka.
Although this modern city has a castle, it’s not a patch on the one in Himeji. Instead, head to the Minami neighbourhood and the Tombori Riverwalk and step into Osaka’s past in Hozenji Yokocho.
Before you head back to Kyoto, visit Yakizen on Hozenji Yokocho okonomiyaki, a sublime savoury pancake.
Day 14: Day Trip to Kanazawa from Kyoto
During my most recent trip to Japan, I spent two days in Kanazawa. However, with a little planning, you can easily explore the city’s highlights in just one day.
On arrival at Kanazawa’s extraordinary station, make a beeline for Kenroku-en, considered one of Japan’s most beautiful gardens (and there’s stiff competition!).
From this Edo-period strolling-style landscape garden there are panoramic views over Kanazawa. It features crystal-clear streams, crisscrossed with graceful stone bridges, majestic ancient pine trees and an abundance of cherry and plum blossom trees.
Don’t miss Kanazawa’s traditional entertainment districts, which rival those in Kyoto. Higashi Chaya (East Chaya), the largest of these, is the most seductive with its narrow streets and Edo-period houses.
If you have less than two weeks in Japan or want a more relaxed itinerary
If you have fewer days or want to take the pace down a notch or two, you can tweak this 2-week Japan itinerary accordingly.
You will visit your fair share of temples and historic cities, so consider cutting a few of these from your schedule. For example; choose between Nikko or Nara (but I would keep Kamakura).
As lovely as Kanazawa is, I would be tempted to remove this from your itinerary if you are tight on time. Not because it doesn’t deserve it, but you can visit when you next go to Japan, including it in an itinerary that takes in destinations in Central Honshu.
It’s tempting to also put Hiroshima and Miyajima in this category as it would be easier to include them on a second-time itinerary that includes places like Fukuoka and Kagoshima on Kyushu. That said, Hiroshima and Miyajima are so important that I would omit them from a first-time Japan itinerary with a heavy heart.
I wouldn’t recommend sacrificing days in either Kyoto or Tokyo to the altar of time. Although it is possible to see many of Kyoto’s highlights in two days, this will feel rushed.
Suggestions for extending your 14-day Japan itinerary
If you have more than two weeks in Japan, the sky’s the limit. My priority would be to travel at a slower pace, giving you more time to savour each place and enjoy an onsen or two.
But if you are looking for other places to visit, Kyushu is a worthy addition to your itinerary. For example; base yourself in the lovely city of Fukuoka and take a day trip to Kagoshima, visit the pottery towns of Arita and Imari or soak in the hot springs at Beppu.
Is it a beach that you’re dreaming of? If so, you could end your trip to Japan by relaxing on Anami Oshima Island, located between Kyushu and Okinawa, or far-flung Miyako-jima.
The Best Time to Visit Japan
Although Japan is a year-round destination, the best time of year to visit depends on where in the country you’re headed and your interests. However, generally speaking, spring and autumn are considered the best times to visit Japan.
Visit in April and May for temperate weather and to welcome the cherry blossom. My most recent visit took place in March when sightseeing conditions were perfect and prices moderate. Although the cherry blossoms hadn’t come out to play, it was peak time for the weeping cherry and plum blossom in Imperial Palace Park.
Given the choice again, I would visit Kyoto in autumn. Although a busy time of year, the fall foliage is a kaleidoscope of vibrant colours, from the deep russet of the city’s maple trees through to vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows.
Getting Around Japan by Rail: The JR Pass
Thanks to Japan’s excellent railway network, it’s easy to travel around the country independently and a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) is a convenient and flexible way of travelling by train.
This golden ticket gives you unlimited access to all JR trains, as well as some partner railways, buses and ferries for 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days. Private trains and a handful of high-speed shinkansen (bullet trains) aren’t covered.
If you want the lowdown on how the pass works, take a look at my JR Pass explainer. However, the JR Pass is not the bargain it once was.
To decide whether a JR Pass is worth it, it pays to do your research. Unless you are travelling long distances over a short space of time, the Japan Rail Pass is unlikely to be good value.
Where to stay in Tokyo
As Tokyo is an enormous and sprawling city, you need to stay somewhere convenient. Transport links are all-important. If you can, try to stay near a Yamanote Line (Tokyo loop line) station. Failing that, make sure that you’re near a subway station.
As a first-time visitor, I stayed in Shinjuku, which I recommend due to its excellent transport links and lively nightlife.
Newsflash! Tokyo hotels don’t come cheap and price may be your deciding factor.
Hotel Gracery Shinjuku
I stayed at this 4-star hotel, a 5-minute walk from Shinjuku Station, which was an excellent standard for its price point. The room was comfortable, the service was gracious and the location was excellent.
>>> FIND OUT MORE HERE
Nohga Hotel Ueno Tokyo
I was all set to stay here in March 2020. However, Covid-19 had other ideas.
Located in the heart of Ueno, a 5-minute walk from the station, this boutique hotel has garnered great reviews.
>>> FIND OUT MORE HERE
Hotel Gracery Asakusa
This 4-star hotel is located close to Senso-ji temple and offers good value rooms for its central location. Some rooms have a view of the Sky Tree.
>>> FIND OUT MORE HERE
>>> None of these places take your fancy? Search for other great places to stay in Tokyo here.
Where to stay in Kyoto
I recommend staying near Kyoto Station or in the downtown area.
Kyoto Station is the city’s main transport hub and a convenient location if you are taking day trips by train. The disadvantage of staying near the train station is that this area is not flush with good restaurants.
Although not so convenient for travelling out of Kyoto by train, the downtown area is within walking distance of the restaurants of Pontocho Alley and Gion and is on many of the main bus routes.
I have stayed in both of these areas and have stayed in all of these recommended hotels. They will suit a traveller on a mid to high-end budget (like Tokyo, accommodation in Kyoto is not cheap).
Hotel Granvia Kyoto
This 5-star hotel was my base during my first trip to Kyoto.
Located within the railway station, Hotel Granvia has spacious rooms are spacious (unusual for a Japanese hotel), service is top-notch and it has an indoor swimming pool.
>>> CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION
Cross Hotel Kyoto
This superb hotel was my base on my second visit to Kyoto.
The Cross Hotel is in a perfect location and, in terms of luxury, the hotel punches well above its 4-star rating with stylish and comfortable interiors and stellar service.
>>> CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION
Hotel Gracery Kyoto Sanjo
Whilst not as luxurious as the Cross Hotel, this is a great choice of comfortable accommodation in the same convenient area at a lower price. Free coffee is available in the guest lounge.
>>> CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION
Is Japan Safe for Solo Travellers?
It’s easy to understand why Japan is one of the favourite destinations for solo travellers.
Japan is one of the safest solo travel destinations in Asia, if not the world. This is a country that takes pride in its safety, uniformity and order and has a very low crime rate.
Whilst you shouldn’t be complacent, you don’t have to be as concerned about pickpocketing or walking alone at night as you would in other countries.
Safety as a solo traveller is a particular concern of women travelling alone. Use your common sense. Share your itinerary with someone back home, keep an eye on your belongings, drink alcohol in moderation and, your trip to Japan should be trouble-free.
Whilst it is highly unlikely that you will be subjected to the catcalling experienced in other countries, women have been the recipients of unwelcome male attention when riding the subways in Japan.
Chikan, or public groping, has been a dark cloud hovering over the country for many years. This has led to railway companies introducing designated women-only cars. In Kyoto and Tokyo, there are cars reserved for women on commuter trains.
One of my least favourite aspects of travelling alone is solo dining. As eating out alone is more culturally acceptable in Japan, you don’t need to fear the dreaded table for one!
Enjoy your first visit to Japan!
Whichever way you tweak it and wherever you end up, I hope that this 2-week Japan itinerary helps you plan an unforgettable trip to the Land of the Rising Sun.
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to ping me an email and I’ll do my best to help. Finally, if you have found this article useful, please share it with your friends or on your favourite social media channel.
Bridget Coleman has been a passionate traveller for more than 30 years. She has visited 70+ countries, most as a solo traveller.
Articles on this site reflect her first-hand experiences.
To get in touch, email her at email@example.com or follow her on social media.