There is so much to see in Japan! I love love love loved my time there and I hope I’ll get a chance to go back.
I agonised over the itinerary for months. Here are a few of the best places to visit in Japan and a few things I wish I would have known in advance when planning my trip:
1. Book Ahead
For the cheapest and best places, book as far ahead as possible. Seriously, I was trying to book affordable accommodation in Kyoto in November for April, and couldn’t find anything!
If you’re into food, book any Michelin star restaurants you want to visit in advance.
We didn’t have a kaiseki meal or an evening with a geisha mainly because of the expense. A friend of mine did however, and it looked fantastic! If I’m going back to Japan, I’m hoping to do both!
2. Japan is Not Half as Incomprehensible as Lost in Translation Makes It Out to Be
You seriously do not need to travel on a tour to Japan. Sure there are benefits, and I was tempted to book one, but I’m glad I didn’t.
I was convinced that we would be constantly lost, unable to find our way, or understand anything. I even spent a few months learning some Japanese in preparation. I loved learning Japanese but I really didn’t need to. Sure, it helps to be able to read a few of the basic signs, but pretty much everything is sign posted in English as well as Japanese, and almost everyone we came across could speak fluent English.
If you are having difficulty with anything, Japanese people, are the friendliest and most helpful I’ve ever come across.
Seriously, don’t worry about it.
3. What’s the best time of year to visit?
Spring for the cherry blossom and fall for autumn leaves. Either of these periods will be insanely beautiful.
Summer is good for hiking in the mountains but the rest of Japan is super humid. Winter is good for skiing.
4. Must Visit Places in Japan
Tokyo (1-2 weeks or as much time as possible)
It’s hard to say how long you need to spend in Tokyo. You could easily spend a week or two weeks in Tokyo. We spent a week and could definitely have spent longer. It’s one of my favourite cities in the world.
Where to stay in Tokyo was another thing I wasn’t sure about. We stayed in Shinjuku and Asakusa.
To be honest, anywhere fairly central and a few minutes walk from a train station is good. If you can, stay near a station that serves more than one train line.
The local train system in Tokyo is well organised, and easy to understand. If you do make a mistake and buy the wrong ticket for anything, you can easily get a refund, or pay the difference. Trains run every few minutes and almost everything is sign posted in English as well as Japanese.
Hakone (at least a day or two)
Definitely worth a visit to see Mount Fuji, and have an onsen. If you’re not comfortable getting naked in public, book somewhere like the Fuji-Hakone Guest House where you can book a slot at a private onsen, and enjoy one with your partner.
Go for a long day trip, or stay overnight if possible. You can always stay on your way to or from Kyoto.
Kyoto (4+ days or as much time as possible)
Another place you could spend a week to ten days, especially if you like temples, gardens; or it’s cherry blossom season or autumn. We spent just under a week here in total, getting up uber early every morning to see the sights before hoards of tourists descend. It was exhausting and we still have loads left to see.
Nara (at least a day)
We managed to see most of the sights in a busy half day but should have arrived earlier or stayed a night to really appreciate it. You can easily reach Nara from Osaka or Kyoto.
If you are planning on visiting Nara between Osaka and Koyasan, or somewhere else, you can leave your luggage at Nara train station’s left luggage lockers. If those lockers are full, fear not – the kind organised considerate employees at the tourist information next door to the Nara JR station will look after your luggage for 410 yen. It is open from 9am until 7pm.
Osaka (at least one day)
Most people, like us, didn’t spend too much time in Osaka. We stayed a couple of nights in transit, en route to Koyasan and Nara but would have liked to have spent at least a full day there.
The Dotonbori area of Osaka is the place to be at night – it’s loud, tacky, and full of neon lights and restaurants. I loved it!
Namba station which is just south of Dotonbori serves trains that go to Koyasan. The JR Train station that serves Nara is also close to Namba train station.
Koyasan (at least one day or two – it’s worth staying over night)
Everyone goes on about how special this place is and I’m no exception. It’s worth staying in one of the monasteries and experiencing shojin ryori – the best vegetarian cuisine I’ve ever experienced in my life! Even if you’re a carnivore, you will not be disappointed.
Himeji (at least half a day)
Worth it for the castle. Stop off or stay overnight. I’ve written more about visiting Himeji here.
Hiroshima and Miyajima (at least two days)
A must visit to learn about the atomic bomb and to eat Hiroshima style okonomiyaki.
You can also do a day trip to Miyajima which is highly recommended. If you like walking, it’s worth spending a full day (at least 6-8 hours on Miyajima) to hike up the mountain.
Takayama and Shiragawa Go (1-3+ days)
I really liked Takayama. It’s a quiet town in the mountains, but there are a few museums to see, and the day trip to Shiragawa Go (or further afield if you have the time) is worth doing. In the summer, you can also access cable cars, and buses go to hiking areas in the mountains.
The train between Takayama and Nagoya is pretty scenic. For the best views, sit on the right going south, or left going north and pick a sunny day if you can. Go in the morning when you won’t be looking into the sun too.
5. Places You Might Want to Visit
Matsumoto (at least a day or half a day)
This is a pretty town surrounded by mountains with a pretty castle and lots of bars and restaurants. If you’ve visited Himeji you might want to give it a miss, otherwise it’s worth checking out if you want to see a traditional Japanese castle.
Kanazawa (at least a day)
We visited for the park, which is one of the most beautiful in Japan. There’s also a samurai and geisha district and a musem about the Zen philosopher D.T. Suzuki.
Okayama (at least a day or half a day)
We stayed here for the park, one of the most beautiful in Japan and for a day trip to Naoshima
Magome to Tsumago hike (at least half a day if not longer to take your time hiking)
These are pretty little touristy villages with a walk between them. The hike is not not too taxing from Magome to Tsumago. It’s steeper and harder in the opposite direction. It wasn’t as scenic as I was expecting it to be and the walking trail runs close to a road in parts.
The nearest station is Nakatsugawa. From there a bus will take you to Magome, and then on to Tsumago if you want.
Yudanaka for the Snow Monkey park and Shibuya Onsen
These places look amazing in the snow.
I can imagine that it would be very picturesque in winter, less so during the rest of the year. The monkeys are also less inclined to get into the water when it’s not very cold. We visited around 20 April and all the snow was gone. Reserve it for winter if you can.
I wasn’t looking forward to visiting after reading the dismal review in the Japan Lonely Planet guide, but I loved it! If you enjoy wildlife watching or taking photographs of animals, it’s worth a visit.
We had a great stay and amazing dinner at Senshinkan Matsuya in Shibu Onsen, Yamanouchi, and enjoyed visiting the town’s public onsens.
6. Places you might want to give a miss depending on your interests
Nagoya (half-one day)
We stayed in a good hotel here. There are lots of hotels ,so you should be able to get something reasonable for not very much. There’s not that much to see, but it’s a good place to stay between train journeys.
The Toyota museum is a short trip out of town. You can see cars being built and it sounded quite interesting. Advance reservations are usually recommended.
Nagano (half-one day)
The Zenko-ji temple is fairly interesting. It’s the most important temple in Japan. We went on a festive weekend when we could see the Buddha that’s only seen every 7 years, so it was pretty cool. Other than that, I wouldn’t really recommend it unless you have the time, or are really into temples.
Having said that, I am hoping to go back. I need to find the “key of salvation” which I managed to miss in the tunnel of darkness under the Zenko-ji temple.
I also want to re-visit the amazing gourmet food supermarket at the railway station – the sushi and cakes there were sensational.< 7. Places I Missed But Have Been Highly Recommended to Me
Japanese Alps and Kamikochi
These opened a few days after we left. Generally the trails and cable cars are only open May to October. Friends of mine who have been promise that it’s stunningly beautiful.
For skiing or driving around beautiful countryside, this is the place to go. I’m also told that they have the best onsen in the country.
We met a couple who had cycled across from the mainland to the island of Shikoku and highly recommended this bike ride. You can hire bikes from the mainland. From Shikoku you can get a ferry to Kyushu.
Amazing onsen, less tourists and warmer weather I’m told.
Exotic beaches and hot weather. You can also get to some quieter tropical islands by boat from here.
8. Suitcase or Rucksack – which is best for travelling in Japan?
If you’re travelling around a bit, I would recommend taking a rucksack with comfortable back support. Train stations are huge, so even if you are staying somewhere near by, chances are you will have a bit of a walk.
Suitcases are better then, no?
No. Suitcases are great for wheeling around, I hear you Cinderella. The problem is, most trains don’t have a space to store suitcases.
The seats on JR trains have more leg room so you can comfortable fit a small hand luggage type suitcase there. However, a large one would take up most of the space. If you are going on any local buses or smaller trains as well, a suitcase would be a huge struggle!
If you had a rucksack on the other hand, you should be able to squeeze it into the space above the seats without any problems.
The other problem is finding a locker big enough to fit a large suitcase if you want to use left luggage facilities. At least rucksacks can be squeezed into most spaces, and if you have to, you can even empty the contents out and squish the rucksack into a smaller locker.
9. Buy a JR Pass Before You Leave for Japan
This is common knowledge but essential. You can order them from Japanese travel agents in your country.
Research where to get them from in advance as it might take a few days for the form confirming your purchase to be sent to you. The passes seem expensive, but should save you a fortune if you are travelling around and are definitely worth it for the flexibility they provide.
If you are not sure whether it is worth buying a pass, you can compare prices of train journeys by using the Hyperdia website, (there is a tick box to exclude private lines so that you only get results for JR lines). JR passes do not cover Nozomi and Mizhuo trains but there are plenty of other fast trains that you can take.
Bear in mind that there is often a reservation fee on top of the standard fare for a lot of journeys, which is waived if you have a JR pass. Reservations are recommended, especially for peak periods.
Personally, I don’t think it’s worth paying extra for a Green Rail Pass (First class). Green Passes were recommended them to me so that you can increase your chances of getting a seat, (as less people use first class carriages). However, some trains don’t even have Green carriages, and if you make reservations anyway, you shouldn’t have to worry about getting a seat.
Reservations are easy, just go to the train station, and tell the dude at the ticket counter where and when you want to go. The dude will suggest some times, you choose the train you want, show your passes, and he hands over your reservation cards. Simples.
Passes are collected when you take your form confirming your purchase to a JR office in Japan. The pass does not need to start on the day that you collect it, you can ask for the pass to start on a day in the future. If you are staying in Tokyo for a few days for example, you might only want the pass to start when you leave for Kyoto etc.