Japan...land of anime, technology, sushi, and onsens. Most of us in the western world have an idea of what Japan is like from TV and film, but are really clueless as to the day-to-day goings on in this incredibly modern yet traditional country. The cities are otherworldly and futuristic while the countrysides evoke a deep sense of archaic history and old-world tradition. You can be sitting at the robot restaurant in Tokyo and within 30 minutes be on a quiet riverbank surrounded by mossy temples. It’s a seriously impressive place and one of my favorite countries I’ve ever visited.
With a temperate climate, Japan has some breathtakingly beautiful natural spots that change with all four seasons it experiences. Cherry blossom season and autumn highlight the best of this, with the trees undergoing massive wardrobe changes, but this stunning country remains beautiful year-round. You can go skiing up north in Hakuba, swimming in the tropical Okinawa Islands, or hiking in the temperate middle chunk of the country. For this itinerary, we’ll focus in on that middle bit, so we can experience the highlights of Japan in just two weeks.
Fair warning: Japan is far more expensive than any other itinerary on this site, so be prepared to spend a bit extra for this one. But trust me, it’s worth it.
Food & Drinks to try in Japan
Sushi- Obviously! You’ll never want non-Japanese sushi ever again after trying it here. Go to the (old) Tsukiji Fish Market for the best of the best and conveyor belt sushi for some fun with your food.
Okonomiyaki- Japanese veggie and meat savory pancakes. Delicious, filling and topped with Japanese mayo (yum).
Takoyaki- Savory pancake balls filled with octopus
Ramen- No, not the $.99 cent grocery store kind. Japanese ramen is made of a rich broth with noodles, veggies and meat in it.
Tonkatsu- Deep fried pork or chicken covered with panko breadcrumbs, sometimes served with ponzu sauce or curry.
Yakitori- Grilled meat served by the skewer. Look for restaurants with red lanterns.
Yakisoba (or Yakiudon)- stir fried noodles with vegetables, meat and tofu.
Mochi- Rice flour-based squishy balls with filling inside (usually matcha mochi with red bean paste)
Taiyaki- Fish-shaped pastries filled with red bean, custard or chocolate.
Kobe or Wagyu Beef- the birthplaces of these very expensive cuts of meat, you’ll spend a pretty penny on this, but good lord is it worth it.
7-Eleven- I know, I know. In the west, 7-Eleven is reviled as the worst kind of food, but in Japan it’s chock full of fresh (yes, fresh) & tasty sushi, onigiri, sandwiches and steamed buns (try the pizza buns).
Safety in Japan
Other than being exceedingly modern, Japan is also known as one of the safest countries in the world to visit. In fact, it’s rated in the top 10 safest countries in the world, according to the Global Peace Index. It’s illegal to carry guns or swords through the streets (damn, I guess I’ll leave my sword at home), and the local police are very responsive. Crime is really low here, and the strong sense of tradition and etiquette ensure that people do their best to blend in. This is a country of rule followers, so best to follow the rules yourself. Other than that, just enjoy! The people are very friendly and kind, so you really won’t have any issues getting around or staying safe.
Using the JR Rail Pass in Japan
The JR Rail Pass is a huge money and time saver when traveling around Japan. At a steep price (of around $430 USD), this ticket may seem like a budget-buster, but if you calculate the cost of all the trains you’ll be taking in Japan, it pays for itself easily. If you come to Japan and don’t plan to move around a lot, you may not need this, but if you plan to bounce from city to city like I did, this is a definite good move. The JR pass allows any non-Japanese citizens full service of any JR station and train line in the country (including the newly renovated Shinkansen). This doesn’t cover every single train, so be aware of that, but it still winds up being a cost-effective and easy way to get around the country. You have to book yours ahead of time, so do a google search to find an agency that will sell you one in your home country. They’re quite easy to find.
2-Week Japan Itinerary
Day 1: Fly to Tokyo
Welcome to Tokyo! Chances are you’ve had a long flight with plenty of layovers, especially if you’re coming from North America, so you’ll want to get to your hostel fast. Tokyo has two major airports (Narita and Haneda) with Narita being an hour outside the city and Haneda being 30 minutes from Tokyo’s city center. If you have your JR pass, you’ll easily be able to navigate yourself from either airport to most major parts of the city. If you’re confused, use the free airport WiFi or ask a JR Pass information desk for help.
Days 2-5: Tokyo
Oh man, we do not have enough hours in the day to cover everything to see and do in Tokyo. Tokyo is a microcosm of Japan in that it seamlessly weaves together breakneck technology and modernism with quiet, serene nature and old-school architecture. Stroll in any of the city’s parks to see what I mean. It’s peaceful and still as can be within the parks, with the futuristic Tokyo Skytree peeking out over the horizon and sirens buzzing on the streets. But get ready for an action-packed few days, because in some parts of the city, like Shinjuku and Akihabara, walking through the city is like walking through a life-sized pinball machine.
What to do in Tokyo
See the show at the Robot Restaurant
Whether or not you’ve heard of the world-famous Robot Restaurant in the Shinjuku neighborhood, I promise you’re not prepared for what you’re about to see. Somewhere between a live-action anime, a laser show, and a robot battle, this show is a sensory overload in all the best ways. It’s a bit pricey (about $75 USD), so maybe have dinner elsewhere and head here for drinks afterwards.
Have the best Sushi of your Life at the (old) Tsukiji Fish Market
The Tsukiji Fish Market is a classic destination for any fish-lover when they visit Tokyo, but it’s important to know which one to go to. I went to the new one in Toyosu, which I would strongly advise against. It’s hyper-sterilized, removed from the action, and essentially a sanitary market for cooking appliances at this point. But head to the old site of the Tsukiji Market for some good, classic market experiences and for some of the tastiest and freshest sushi you’ve ever had.
Check out TeamLab (Planets)
You’ve probably seen TeamLab on Instagram at some point recently, but it’s essentially an interactive art exhibit unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my life. It involves lights, water, forced perspective and much, much more. There are two of them, and I accidentally got tickets to Planets (which is less famous and lesser known than its popular counterpart Borderless) but I would recommend this one over Borderless any day. It wasn’t crowded, was far less expensive, and by all accounts was just as amazing as its twin. Definitely a must-do in Tokyo.
Tour any of the famous shrines, temples and gardens
Tokyo is chock full of incredibly lavish and traditional Japanese shrines and temples, like the Senso-jii Temple, the Meiji, Hie, & Nezu shrines, and the Nakamise Walking Street. It also has a bunch of parks with traditional Japanese gardens worth checking out like Ueno Onshi Park, the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Meiji Jingu Gaien, and the Imperial Palace. You can easily spend entire days just walking through these massive parks.
Check out Genki Sushi, Tokyo’s Iconic Sushi Train Restaurant
Located in Shibuya, this is one of Tokyo’s most famous sushi train restaurants, where you can sit and order your food on a touch screen in front of you. Watch your fingers when your order slides over to you on a conveyor belt with pinpoint precision. It’s a really fun way to eat sushi, and can easily result in overindulging, but hey, when in Tokyo, right?
Have tea and some fun at any of Tokyo’s animal cafes
Whether you like puppies, kittens, owls or hedgehogs, Tokyo has an animal cafe for you. Pay a small entrance fee and spend a few hours petting some lovable animals while sipping on some tasty green tea. Your visit is usually limited to a time slot from anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour.
Cross the Street in Shibuya’s Scramble Square
For whatever reason, this is a must-do for any tourist visiting Tokyo. Shibuya Crossing is the most heavily trafficked street crossing in the entire world, so get lost in the mess or just view it from a nearby building, but definitely make sure to check it out. (it’s a great spot for a time lapse, by the way).
Get into Anime in Akihabara
The anime capital of the world, Akihabara is home to all sorts of wacky and fun cosplay experiences. Walk through endless anime comic book stores, check out a maid cafe, or just buy some pokemon gear in any of this neighborhood’s eccentric stores.
Days 6-8: Hakone
Just an hour-long train ride from Tokyo, Hakone is a lovely mountain resort town that couldn’t be more different from Tokyo if it tried. It’s quiet, serene, temperate and absolutely delightful. Originally known as an onsen town, this place landed on the travel map for its close proximity to Mount Fuji, and more notably, it’s beautiful views of it. Because Hakone is shaded with dense forests and moss, it’s an absolutely lovely spot to get in some hiking and then rest those aching muscles in an onsen. It was truly the highlight of my trip and I think you’re going to love it.
What to do in Hakone
Soak in an Onsen
An Onsen, or a traditional Japanese hot spring, is definitely an experience. Onsens are separated by gender and require guests to strip fully naked before soaking, but they’re incredibly relaxing and an easy way to break the ice (and the awkward tension) with other travelers. The hostel I stayed at (this one) had both an indoor and outdoor onsen, and wound up being the catalyst for making friends with 10 other hostel guests. You’d be surprised how easy it is to chat once you’ve seen each other naked.
Take the Hakone Tozan Cable Cars
These cable cars, just a 30 minute drive from Hakone’s center, have three rides in all, each with its own spectacular view of Mount Fuji. The prices are pretty affordable and the cable cars are reliable, safe, and quick. Make sure to wear clothes you don’t mind stinking up, though, as one of the stops is at a volcanically active sulfur mine. Be sure to sample one of the black eggs here, as they’re boiled in the sulfuric spring water (yum…?).
Hike Around Lake Ashi
Lake Ashi is a beautiful lake a quick ride away from Hakone that also has spectacular views of Mount Fuji. There are some stunning hiking trails around its edges. Make sure to catch a glimpse of its gorgeous Tori Gate for some really beautiful snapshots. You can also take one of the pirate boats across the lake to where the cable cars are located.
Do a Half-Day to Chisuji Falls
More of a sight to see than somewhere to swim, Chisuji Falls are a 3 meter high set of waterfalls just a 15 minute hike from Hakone. They’re an absolutely lovely sight and an easy half-day activity for days where you don’t feel like doing much.
Visit the Open-Air Museum
I didn’t do this myself when I was in Hakone but I wish I did. The Open Air Museum features modern art and statues from artists from all over the world, and blends them seamlessly into the natural surroundings of Hakones forests and hills. It seems like a really lovely way to spend a day, so I’d recommend checking it out if you have the time.
Wondering where to stay in Hakone? I very much recommend K's House Hakone (it has a 2 free built-in onsens)
Days 7-9: Kyoto
Kyoto is one of Japan’s most populous cities and once served as the capital of the country before the late 19th century. It was damaged during World War II but thankfully spared the wrath of the atomic bomb, leaving much of its archaic architecture and temples in tact. As a result, Kyoto is a wonderful city to walk or bike around in, because it’s much quieter than Tokyo and has a multitude of these lovely shrines to visit. Sample some wagyu beef, sip on some ramen, or feast on conveyor belt sushi before heading out and exploring this lovely and serene city.
What to do in Kyoto
Rent a Bike & Go Temple Hopping
Perhaps my favorite day of this entire trip was the day I rented a bike and explored the temples and shrines of Kyoto on my own. The traffic here is pretty mellow, so you don’t have to worry too much about safety, and everything is quite easily accessible by bike. There are far too many temples and shrines to list, so ask your hostel what they recommend and make some notes on your map of what to see.
Check out the (crowded) Bamboo Grove
I’m not going to lie to you, folks. This place is far more crowded than you think. I truly don’t know how early instagrammers get here when they take their pictures, but it’s pretty impossible to snap a pic of this spot without at least 50 people in your shot (I’m told that Kodai-ji or Tenruan in Nanzen-ji are solid alternatives to this overcrowded one). Nevertheless, the Bamboo Forest is an exceptionally cool sight, with endless rows of trees straddling the sides of the pathways. Spend some time walking through and exploring the Japanese Gardens that are connected to it.
Go wild at Conveyor Belt Sushi
I’m not talking about sushi train sushi...no, I’m talking about conveyor belt sushi. Kyoto is home to many spectacular conveyor belt sushi restaurants, where you have the option to order specialized sushi rolls, or better yet, just grab a plate of whatever you like off the conveyor belt beside your table. Combined with four of my friends, we plowed through 81 plates of sushi, which definitely garnered some funny looks from locals, but it was a really fun experience with really fresh and tasty food. Just make sure to ask the front desk at your hostel to help you make a reservation, because you can wait hours in line to get a table around dinner time.
Go Shopping at Nishiki Market
Head to the Golden Pavilion for Sunset
The Kinkaku-Ji Temple is a stunning building laden in gold at the top of a hill bordering Kyoto. It’s a beautiful sight on its own, but is made better by the meticulously-kept and pristine Japanese Garden that it sits on. Get here at sunset to see the Pavillion gleam with light. But expect crowds at all times of the day.
Whether you’re looking for food, clothes or anime, Nishiki Market has it all. From wildly creative donuts (lookin’ at you, Koe Donuts) to wildly inappropriate anime magazines, you can find anything in this strip. This is a great spot to buy souvenirs, as things are relatively affordable and seem to be good quality (my friends bought some quality chef’s knives here).
Days 10-12: Nikko
Once you’ve finished up in Kyoto, catch the Shinkansen back to Tokyo, where you can transfer to a train to Nikko. All in all, the travel time should take you 7 hours, and you’ll notice as soon as you arrive in Nikko that you’ve moved deep into the rural side of Japan. Nikko is a sleepy mountain town 3 hours north of Tokyo that sees a lot of tourists, both Japanese and foreign, especially during the fall and cherry blossom seasons. This is because Nikko is nestled comfortably in Japan’s temperate forests and undergoes a massive change during these seasons. I went in fall and can safely say that Nikko was home to some of the most spectacular foliage I’ve ever seen in my life.
What to do in Nikko
Spend the day touring the local shrines
Toshogu, Futarasan and Rinnō-ji make up the three major shrines in Nikko. They’re extensive, lavish and truly beautiful, casting bright reds and browns from the greenery of the surrounding forests. Spend a day walking around and seeing them, all walking distance from the center of Nikko.
Visit Lake Chuzenji & Kegon Falls
Lake Chuzenji is a picturesque lake at the base of Mount Nantai and only a short hour-long drive from Nikko. You can spend the day hiking the 25 km around its edges or explore it by boat. Couple this with a trip to the nearby Kegon Falls and you have an excellent plan for a full-day activity.
Explore Town and see the Shinkyo Bridge
Nikko town has plenty of lovely restaurants and shops to explore on both rainy and sunny days, and the nearby Shinkyo Bridge is a huge hot spot for tourists looking to snap a picture of its bright red structure. Fair warning, however: you can only cross the bridge if you pay a fee, so best to get your pictures from the side. The view’s better from there anyway.
Day 13: Back to Tokyo
Once you’ve gotten your fill of nature in Nikko, it’s time to head back to Tokyo. Hop back on the JR Train and head 3 hours south to the capital. Depending on how early you leave Nikko, you’ll likely have plenty of time to see whatever sights in Tokyo that you missed on your first leg of this trip. Take advantage of this last full day and get in as much sushi or ramen as you can before heading home tomorrow.
Day 14: Fly Home
Though it was a short 2 weeks, hopefully you feel that you covered many of Japan’s major highlights during this trip. Out of every country I visited, Japan is the only one that I’m dying to run back to. There’s so much to see, so much culture to take in, and such an abundance of variety from region to region, that I’m sure I’ll be back sometime real soon.
If you’re interested in seeing other parts of the world, you can always check out my other itineraries right here. Happy travels, my friends!