The Best 2-Week Japan Itinerary for First-Time Visitors in 2021

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 they do to their smartphones.

But where do you start planning your perfect Japan vacation to make sure that you see the best that the country can offer? Faced with seemingly endless choices, planning your first trip to Japan can be overwhelming.

If you are visiting Japan for the first time, the so-called Golden Route is a good start. 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.

To discover a country like no other, follow my 2-week Japan itinerary, which is based on the Golden Route.  You’ll need to do some planning but to make it easy for you, I’ve included practical tips for travelling in Japan and restaurant and hotel recommendations.

man and woman in japanese traditional dress

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Why You Should Follow this 2-Week Japan Itinerary

Make no mistake. A Google search will churn out hundreds of Japan itineraries for first-time visitors, so why should you trust this one?

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.

And I did! So much so, that I returned and will go back yet again.

I read travel blogposts, devoured the Rough Guide to Japan and pumped friends who had visited the country for information. No stone was left unturned.

Sure; I didn’t get it all right. But whose travel plans, especially when there’s a relatively complex itinerary involved, go exactly to plan?

More importantly, 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.

My Travelling Style and Budget

To help you decide if this could be the right Japan itinerary for you, it might be helpful to share my travelling style and budget.

My aim was to experience the diversity that Japan offers in relative comfort. As a self-confessed flashpacker, I travelled independently on a mid-range budget with splashes of luxury. Using Japan’s excellent railway network to get around, I stayed in centrally-located hotels.

To avoid squandering precious time changing hotels when travelling, I try to change accommodation as little as possible. During these two weeks in Japan, I stayed in two hotels only.

Much of the time, including this trip, I travel solo, and Japan is an ideal destination if you are travelling alone for the first time.

Getting Around Japan by Rail: Do You Need a JR Pass?

people standing in front of railway indicator board at kyoto station japan

Thanks to Japan’s excellent railway network, it’s easy to travel around the country independently and a Japan Rail Pass can save you a ton of money. So before we dive into the itinerary itself, let’s consider the merits of a JR Pass.

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 train) aren’t covered.

As a rule of thumb, if you are making at least one long-distance return journey on a shinkansen, it is likely a 7-day JR Pass will be worth the money. If your train journeys are confined to one region, consider one of the regional passes.

To decide whether a JR Pass is worth it, it pays to do your research. For most itineraries, it will be a travel bargain, especially if you are away for two weeks and doing lots of day trips by train, but it pays to check.

Finally, and most importantly, buy your pass before leaving for Japan.  Although it is now possible to buy a JR Pass once you have arrived in Japan, it will cost you considerably more.

2-Week Japan Itinerary Overview

Two weeks in Japan will allow you to experience the country’s highlights as a first-time visitor. Think of this itinerary as a framework on which to hang your two weeks in Japan. It’s not meant to be followed slavishly, so mix it up as you go along.

You will base yourself in Japan’s two most famous cities: Tokyo and Kyoto. Maxing out your Japan Rail Pass on the country’s high-speed shinkansen, take day trips to the historic cities of Nikko, Kamakura, Nara and Kanazawa. Experience the landscape immortalised in colour woodblock prints by Hokusai by visiting Mount Fuji and the Hakone region

Eat one of the best meals of your life in Osaka and marvel at Himeji Castle, one of the best in Japan. 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.

Two Weeks in Japan: Map View

map of places on a 2-week japan itinerary for first-time visitors
Japan 2-Week Itinerary: Map View. Data @ 2021 Google (click on image for an interactive map)

Two Weeks in Japan: Day-by-Day Itinerary

illustration of day by day itimerary for 2 weeks in japan for the first time visitor

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. Likewise, be kind to yourself.  Check in to 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.

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, service was gracious and the location was excellent.

Here are a few more options that I have found that might be of interest:

Nogha 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.

Hotel Gracery Asakusa

Another casualty of the coronavirus pandemic, this 4-star hotel located close to Senso-ji temple offers good value rooms for its central location. Some rooms have a view of the Sky Tree.

Day 2 & 3: Tokyo

street scene in tokyo at night with neon lights

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.

What to do in Tokyo

Here are my recommendations for what to see and do in Tokyo.

SHINJUKU AT NIGHT

business man walking in front of a neon lit window
man sitting in front of a pachinko machine

After the sun goes down, head to Shinjuku to be blanketed in neon to the soundtrack of pachinko (vertical pinball machine) parlours, or to channel your inner Celine Dion at one of the karaoke bars. 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.

SHIBUYA CROSSING

people walking across a busy pedestrian crossing

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.

TSUKIJI FISH MARKET

japanese man gutting a tuna fish

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.

MEIJI SHRINE

barrels of sake wrapped in straw
Barrels of sake wrapped in straw at the Meiji Shrine. Once a year, they are offered to the enshrined deities

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)

two women posing for a photo in tokyo
funky shoes for sale in a shop window

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.

IMPERIAL PALACE

Although the palace is usually closed to the public, its free garden is a peaceful respite from the city.

SENSO-JI

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, Nakamise, leading from the outer gate to the temple’s second gate, is brimming with stalls selling tacky souvenirs and snacks. 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.

UENO

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

prayer blocks hanging in line

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, date to 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.

How to get to Nikko from Tokyo

From Tokyo Station or Ueno Station, take the shinkansen to Utsunomiya Station and transfer to the JR Nikko Line to JR Nikko Station. The journey time is around 100 minutes.

How to get around Nikko

From Nikko train station, walk uphill for about 30 minutes to the Futarasan Jinja Shrine at the far end of the shrine area. If you don’t fancy the walk, catch a bus 1B from the train station.

Day 5: Day trip to Kamakura from Tokyo

giant buddha statue

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.

How to get to Kamakura from Tokyo

There are a number of options for travelling between Tokyo and Kamakura. Although there’s not much in it, the easiest option is not necessarily the quickest.

There are direct services between Tokyo and Kamakura that cover the journey in just under an hour.

  • JR Yokosuka Line service from Tokyo Station
  • JR Shonan-Shinjuku Line from Shinjuku Station

For a slightly faster journey (45 – 50 minutes) you will need to change trains.

From Tokyo Station, take the JR Ueno-Tokyo Line to Ofuna Station and transfer to the JR Yokosuka Line to Kamakura Station. Alternatively, change trains at Totsuka Station and take the JR Shonan-Shinjuku Line from there.

You can also take an indirect route from Shinjuku Station

How to get around Kamakura

As Kamakura’s main sites are located around the city’s train stations – and are connected by hiking trails – you will only need to use transport if you want to visit temples that are more off the beaten track.

Day 6: Day Trip to Hakone from Tokyo

boats on lake with mountains in background

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 as 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 on 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 and costs 2,330 yen for a one-way ticket (July 2021 price). 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 prefer, 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

Hakone is blessed with 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.

You can also buy a Hakone Free Pass that includes the round-trip from Tokyo to Hakone. It costs from 4,600 yen (July 2021 price).

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.

japan-mt-fuji-view-from-shinkansen
View of Mount Fuji from the shinkansen

Exploring this Imperial capital begins in earnest tomorrow, but today check in to your hotel and get your bearings.

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 brimming 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 can recommend all of these hotels in which I have stayed. They will suit a traveller on a mid to high-end budget (like Tokyo, accommodation in Kyoto is not cheap).

Kyoto Station area

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.

Kyoto downtown area

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.

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.

How to get around Kyoto

As Kyoto’s attractions are scattered across the city, you won’t be able to avoid tackling the city’s public transport system at some point during your visit.

Although the city has subway lines, these are of limited use to access the places that you will want to see as a visitor. Buses or taxis are likely to be your best option.

Like most buses in Japan, you pay as you get off the bus with cash, a travel pass or a rechargeable IC card. Kyoto has both flat-fare routes (within the city) and non-flat-fare routes.

In 2021, this flat fare is 230 yen. If you are travelling outside of the flat fare zone, take a numbered ticket when you enter the bus. When you are about to disembark, a screen at the front of the bus will show your number and fare.

You can pay with cash, depositing the exact fare into a machine by the driver’s seat. Travel passes, available from any Kyoto Tourist Information Centre, are a convenient alternative to cash fares.

However, do the maths to make sure that a travel card will represent good value. Much of the time it’s quicker to walk between Kyoto’s tourist sights and you may not use public transport as much as you might think.

Kyoto’s subway lines run from north to south (Karasuma Subway Line), and from east to west (Tozai Subway Line). In 2021, single fares for adults range from 210-350 yen, depending on the distance travelled.

Kyoto also has six train lines, which can be used to get around the city as well as for journeys further afield. The JR Sagano Line, connecting Nijo, Uzumasa and Saga-Arashiyama with Kyoto Station is particularly useful (and free for JR Pass holders).

The private Keihan Line can also be a useful option.

Traffic permitting, taking a taxi in Kyoto is often be a speedier way of getting from A to B. Expect to pay around 600 yen for the first 2 km, and then an additional 80 yen every 400 meters. Most taxis charge a 20% surcharge between 23:00 and 5:00 am.

Day 8 – 10: Kyoto

temple building of kinkaju ji with reflection in pond which is one of the best things to see in kyoto in three days
Kinkaku-ji, 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.

What to do in Kyoto

Below are my recommendations for what to see and do in Tokyo, based on my 3-Day Kyoto itinerary. However, if you only have two days in town, take a look at this two-day Kyoto itinerary instead.

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)

narrow canal lined with foliage and buildings in kyoto known as the philosophers path

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.

EIKAN-DO

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 silk screens 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.

NANZEN-JI

2 women dressed in kimonos walking towards the temple of nanzen ji in kyoto japan

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.

KIYOMIZU-DERA

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.

GION

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

bamboo trees at arashiyama-bamboo-grove-kyoto

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.

FUSHIMI-INARI-TAISHA SHRINE

path lined with orange tori at fushimi inari in kyoto

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

deer-holding-map-in-mouth-in-nara-japan
Busted!

Nara is a super easy and rewarding addition to 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.

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.  

How to get to Nara

From Kyoto, the JR Nara Line Rapid Service will take you to Nara in 45 minutes. There is also a JR Nara Line Local service which takes over 70 minutes to make the journey.

The private Kintetsu Limited Express service is the fastest way to get from Kyoto to Nara (35 minutes) but it is not covered by the JR Pass.  

How To Get Around Nara

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.

Day 12: Day trip to Hiroshima & Miyajima from Kyoto

arch of hiroshima peace memorial
Hiroshima
red tori gates in ocean at miyajima
Miyajima

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 is 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.

From here, head to Miyajima Island (Itsukushima ). This small island is another UNESCO World Heritage site and is home to one of Japan’s most popular tourist attractions, the red Torii gate of Itsukushima-jinja shrine that appears to be floating in the sea.

How to get to Hiroshima

From Kyoto Station, take the Shinkansen Hikari to Shin-Kobe and then change to the Shinkansen Sakura to Hiroshima. The journey time is a little under two hours. There are alternative routes via Osaka and Okayama but these are slower services.

At the time of writing, the only direct service between Kyoto and Hiroshima Station was on the Nozomi train which is not covered by the JR Pass.

How to get to Miyajima Island

Using your JR Pass, you get a free ride on the ferries that leave from Miyajima-guchi. However, as this is outside Hiroshima, you’ll need to take a 26-minute train journey (JR Sanyo line) to Miyajima-guchi Station. From here, the JR ferry takes about 10 minutes to reach Miyajima Island.

Getting around Hiroshima & Miyajima Island

Hiroshima’s eight tramlines that connect Hiroshima Station with the city’s main attractions.

In 2021, the flat fare on the tram within Hiroshima city limits is 180 yen. Pay with cash or use an IC card, including Suica and Icoca. One-day passes are also available. Get more information on public transport in Hiroshima here.

As Miyajima Island is small, so you can get around by walking.

Day 13: Day trip to Himeji & Osaka from Kyoto

white tiers of a japanese castle against a blue sky
Himeji Castle
neon signs along the banks of a canal in osaka japan
Tombori Riverwalk, Osaka

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.

Start your day in Himeji, home to Japan’s most magnificent castle. 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, stay for okonomiyaki, a sublime savoury pancake, in Yakizen on Hozenji Yokocho.

How to get to Himeji and Osaka

From Kyoto Station take direct Shinkansen Hikari to Himeji, a journey time of 55 minutes. The Nozomi train does this journey in 43 minutes but it is not covered by the JR Pass.

To get from Himeji to Osaka, jump back on the Hikari train to Shin-Osaka, a journey time of 37 minutes. The JR Special Rapid Service also travels along the same line but takes over an hour.

When you are ready to return to Kyoto, simply hop back on the train at Shin-Osaka. The Hikari will get you back in under 15 minutes; the JR Special Rapid Service takes ten minutes longer.

Getting around Himeji & Osaka

As Himeji Castle and Koko-en Garden are within easy walking distance of the train station you shouldn’t need to use public transport in Himeji.

Getting from Shin-Osaka station to Minami is easy using the city’s subway system. The closest subway station is Namba.

Day 14: Day trip to Kanazawa from Kyoto

two women in kimonos walking past wooden fronted buildings in kanazawa japan

During my most recent trip to Japan, I spent two days in Kanazawa. However, with a little forward 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 to be 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.

How to get to Kanazawa

From Kyoto Station take the direct Limited Express Thunderbird service to Kanazawa, a journey time of just over two hours.

Getting around Kanazawa

This is where the JR Pass is the gift that keeps on giving.  The JR Kenrokuen Shuttle Bus is the faster way to travel between Kanazawa Station and Kenrokuen Garden and is free for JR Pass holders.

To reach Higashi Chaya, your best bet is the Kanazawa Loop Bus. A flat fare applies and a one-day pass is also available.

If You Have Less Than Two Weeks in Japan

Or want to take things a bit slower.

If you want to take the pace down a notch or two, or have less time, 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 also to 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.

If You Have More Than Two Weeks in Japan

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.

Planning Your Trip to Japan

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.

close up of white blossom in kyoto
pink blossom in kyoto

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 to Japan

Most visitors arrive in Japan by air.  

The country’s two main international airports – Narita and Haneda – are located on the outskirts of Tokyo.  Kyoto is served by Kansai International Airports. Despite its name, Osaka International Airport (Itami Airport) caters to domestic flights only.

There are also ferry services to Japan from South Korea (Busan), China (Shanghai), and Russia (Vladivostok).

When You are in Japan

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!

Is Japan expensive?

This is the question that I am most often asked about travelling in Japan. Although Japan is expensive compared to other Asian countries, it’s not as pricey as you might think.

Let’s put this into context. During my most recent 2-week trip to Japan in March 2020, accommodation costs totalled £1005 and the JR Pass was £327. This comes to a total of £1332, excluding spending money and international flights.

Considering that accommodation costs are higher as a solo traveller, I don’t think that this is an outrageous price to pay for two weeks in Japan. The JR Pass saved me buckets of money but check that it will do the same for you.

Is there a language barrier in Japan?

There’s no need to be worried about a language barrier.

As with any country, it’s helpful to have a smattering of words and phrases in the native language, hotel staff will speak some English and signs throughout the subway and railway network are in English.

Japan: Suggested Reading

Do you want to learn a little bit more about Japan? Here’s my pick of books to read either before travelling to Japan or whilst you are there.

One of my favourite books ever, Hiromi Kawakami’s gentle novel sets three national obsessions – dining out at izakaya, hanami (flower viewing) parties during cherry blossom season and discussing baseball – against the growing relationship between a thirtysomething woman and a much older man. The literary equivalent of being wrapped in a warm blanket.

There had to be at least one Murakami book on this list and this is my current favourite. In this tale of love, friendship, and loss, the main protagonist tries to make sense of being abandoned by his closest friends. Unforgettable and heartbreaking.

Ever since reading The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro has been one of my favourite authors. This excellent novel set in post-war Japan features an artist who uses his skills promote the military government’s imperialist ambitions

Sayaka Murata’s offbeat but wonderful novel delivers a message of non-conformity wrapped up in a great read. Keiko Furukura doesn’t really ‘fit’ anywhere until she finds purpose and happiness working at a convenience store.

Two Weeks in Japan Itinerary: Final Thoughts

If you are a solo traveller, Japan is one the best places to travel alone for the first time.

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.