How To Plan Your First Trip To Japan: 2020 Travel Guide & Itinerary

We break down the cities, transportation, itineraries, and travel tips for your dream trip.

By Journy Team

3 August 2018

How To Plan Your First Trip To Japan: 2020 Travel Guide & Itinerary

Planning a two-week trip to Japan, but don't speak a word of Japanese? Trust us: you're not the first.

At Journy, we often get calls from customers with questions like, "When I visit Japan, does it make more sense to visit Tokyo or Kyoto first? How much time do I spend in each of the major cities? Is it worth spending a night in Hiroshima? HELP I'm in a Google rabbit hole!"

We've heard it all—and more—and now we're sharing the two most popular routes through the country to help you have the best travel experience possible.

Here, we break down the nitty-gritty of first-time Japan travel: a classic tour of the country through Tokyo, Hakone, and Kyoto, as well as an alternative route if you want to add in a visit to Hiroshima as well.

Plan My Trip To Japan

Option 1: Classic Tour Of Japan (Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto)

If you have just ten days to spend in Japan, here’s what we recommend:

Tokyo (4 Nights)

Tokyo Tower | Louie Martinez

Want to go straight from a twelve-hour flight to trying to find the right train departing in the right direction at one of the busiest stations in the world?

Yeah, we didn't think so.

We always recommend starting your explorations in Tokyo and spending at least four nights in the city, especially considering that your first day will inevitably be lost to jet lag. Because most restaurants in Japan charge hefty cancelation fees for last-minute changes, avoid making any meal or activity plans on your first day. Instead, focus on getting some rest so you can start the next day fresh and ready to go.

While you could easily spend ten days—heck, even a month—in Tokyo, four days is just enough time to cover all the major sights and areas without exhausting yourself.

One day should be devoted to visiting Tsukiji Market, followed by a hop up to Senso-ji Temple, Asakusa Shrine, and the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Shibuya Crossing | Thomas Ribaud

Another day should be spent exploring Shibuya, location of the famous Shibuya Crossing; Harajuku, the quirky fashion district; Omotesando, a luxe retail area; and Roppongi, an ideal place for dinner. Roppongi is also where you’ll find the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo City View, and other key attractions.

On day three, visit Akihabara, the electronics district and home to a fun owl cafe and excellent ramen shops, followed by shopping in high-end Ginza, where many of the city’s best sushi restaurants and cocktail bars are also located.

Shinjuku yakitori alley | Alexandre Chambon

Use your fourth day to explore Daikanyama, the "Williamsburg of Tokyo," with its tasteful design shops and chill vibes. Have dinner in the neighboring area of Ebisu, which plays host to a number of famous cocktail bars, before ending the evening in Shinjuku, the business and nightlife district, for some bar-hopping and late-night eats.

For more recommendations, read our full city guide to Tokyo here and here.

Want a little more guidance? Your Journy trip designer can factor in everything from hotel location to dietary needs to special interests to plan the best itinerary for you. And snag those hard-to-get sushi omakase restaurant reservations and tickets for activities like a sumo tournaments and museum exhibitions. AND help answer all your questions about wifi, sim cards, etc.  

Optional add-on days: If you have more time, head to Kamakura, just an hour by train from Tokyo, to see the famous buddha, or spend a day in the Yanesan area of Tokyo, which is much more historic than the city center. If your primary interest is food and you want to sample the best of the Tokyo gastronomic scene, budget an extra two to three days, since much of your time will be taken up by multi-course tasting menus.

Transportation: 1-hour, 40-minute bullet train to Hakone. For a more scenic option, take the Romance Car, which has more windows for enjoying the countryside views along the way—see our guide on how to get a Japan Rail Pass (aka JR Pass) and navigate Japan's rail network (hint: apps like HyperDia for schedules and timetables help big time!).

“Sarah (our trip designer) got right to work delivering superbly tailored itineraries. I was expecting a sterile schedule but received a flexible and well-thought out vacation plan.”


Couples Trip to Japan

Plan My Trip

Hakone (1 Night)

Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park | Manuel Cosentino

No trip to Japan is complete without experiencing at least one night in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn that may also have an onsen (Japanese hot spring). Hakone, a town at the base of Mount Fuji, is the perfect place to try one for a night.

We don’t typically recommend that travelers spend their entire time in Japan in ryokans, as it can be hard to get used to sleeping on a tatami mat without a mattress. However, the experience of dining on traditional Japanese food while lounging and being pampered in your ryokan is not to be missed—a number of options even offer private outdoor hot spring baths.

Optional add-on days: If you plan on hiking or sightseeing in Hakone, we’d recommend at least two nights here. Within town, the Hakone Open Air Museum includes a cool contemporary sculptural garden. Another activity option would be to take the Hakone Ropeway and then board the Hakone Sightseeing Cruise on Lake Ashi. You can also hike up Mount Kintoki, an easy two-hour hike where you’ll be rewarded with a stunning view of Mount Fuji.

Transportation: 3-hour train to Kyoto.

Kyoto (4 Nights)

Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) | Oskar Vertetics

If your main interest in Japan is its history and culture, Kyoto will be the highlight of your trip. To see all the major sights, you’ll need at least three to four days, depending on how much you want to get done: though not as large and dense as Tokyo, Kyoto is still pretty spread out. Plus, you'll want extra time to stroll through the temples at a leisurely pace.

You'll want to budget an extra day or two if you plan on taking any day trips. Osaka is only twenty minutes away by train, which is why we typically suggest that travelers with more limited time in the country use Kyoto as a home base to visit Osaka. Meanwhile, Nara is an hour away by train; consider joining an afternoon tour that will take you directly to Kasuga-Taisha Shrine and Nara Deer Park.

Fushimi Inari-taisha | Thomas Tucker

Spend one day exploring Higashiyama Ward, home to the beautiful Kiyomizu-dera Temple. (We recommend going at sunrise, when it’s empty—you’ll find that, unlike Tokyo, Kyoto is an early morning/early dinner type of city.) Follow up with a visit to Fushimi Inari-taisha, the shrine with the super-Instagrammable orange torii gates, and end with dinner in Gion, Kyoto’s famous geisha district.

For day two, take a bike ride north of the city through Heian Shrine, the Philosopher’s Walk, and the Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion), followed by a stroll through Nishiki Market to shop for beautiful knives and chopsticks and to explore the endless varieties of food.

Arashiyama | Walter Mario Stein

On day three, visit Arashiyama, the bamboo forest, which is home to a monkey park and a number of stunning temples and shrines. Keep in mind that Arashiyama is fifty minutes by public transit from Kyoto Station, so you'll want to leave enough time to get there and back.

On your last day, spend the morning in the northern part of the city with a visit to the Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) and Ryoan-ji, which features a famous rock garden. (Note that this area is also about forty minutes by public transit from Kyoto train station.) If you're feeling ambitious, take a day trip to Nara to play with the deer in Nara Deer Park or to Osaka to take in the street food and bustling nightlife.

For more recommendations, read our full city guide to Kyoto here, as well as our guides to Osaka and Nara.

Want a little more guidance? Your Journy trip designer can factor in everything from hotel location to dietary needs to special interests to plan the best itinerary for you.

Optional add-on days: If you have more time, spend a night or two in Osaka, which can also include a day trip to Kobe. A shorter trip could include a visit to Uji, a well-known tea town just outside of Kyoto. Serious art aficionados should consider a day trip to Naoshima Art Island, though be aware that the day would start at 5 a.m. and get you back at 10 p.m.  

Transportation: Since most travelers get round-trip flights in and out of Tokyo, you’ll take the 3-hour shinkansen bullet train back to Tokyo to catch your flight.

Tokyo (1 Night)

Spend one last night in Tokyo so you’re not stressed about catching your flight after taking the train back from Kyoto.

Total: 10 nights (with extra time for any of the day trips mentioned above)

Option 2: Classic Tour Of Japan, Plus Hiroshima

If you want to include Hiroshima, we’d recommend adding on an additional night so you have a minimum of 11 nights in Japan. Your itinerary will look similar to Option 1 above.

Tokyo (4 nights)

See above for activities.

Transportation: 5-hour train to Hiroshima

Hiroshima (1 Night)

Torii Gate of Itsukushima Shrine | Nicki Eliza Schinow

We recommend staying on Miyajima Island in a traditional ryokan for the night. When you arrive, you can explore the island, do an afternoon hike of Mount Kisen, and, most importantly, see the famous Itsukushima Shrine, with its floating torii gates that you can walk out to during low tide.

Spend the night having dinner in your ryokan and the next day exploring the historical sights in Hiroshima before taking the train to Kyoto.

A note on luggage: Japan has luggage forwarding services that will transport your luggage for you and arrive at your next destination the following day. From Tokyo, you could have your luggage sent directly to your hotel in Kyoto and take just an overnight bag to get you through one night in Hiroshima.

Transportation: 2-hour train to Kyoto

Kyoto (4 Nights)

See activities above.

Transportation: 3-hour train to Hakone

Hakone (1 Night)

See activities above.

Transportation: 1-hour, 30-minute train to Tokyo

Tokyo (1 Night)

Total: 11 nights (if you only have 10 nights and definitely want to fit in Hiroshima, spend one fewer night in Tokyo or Kyoto).

Another consideration when planning your first trip to Japan? What credit card is best, how to withdraw money from ATMs, and when to exchange your dollars into yen. Get all the information you need about money exchange here.

And if you're visiting Japan in the spring, don't miss our must-read travel guide for cherry blossom season. Venturing further north? Consider Hokkaido—and hear what this male host-turned-Shinto priest had to say about it.

And remember—if you need help planning all the details of your trip, scheduling out the best order of activities, navigating the complex train system, getting restaurant reservations, booking hotels and traditional ryokans and more, turn to Journy.

Masaaki Komori