2 Weeks in Japan
Japan is such an interesting country that there's something to see and do everywhere you turn. We spent two weeks exploring all over the country with the freedom of our Japan Rail Pass.
In week one, we soaked in cosmopolitan Tokyo and peaceful Kyoto. On our second week, we tried some off the beaten path cities and small towns!
If you're planning a trip to Japan and want some travel advice and itinerary inspiration, just keep reading.
Buy the Japan Rail Pass Before Your Trip
If you're visiting Japan for more than a week, I highly recommend picking up the JR Pass as it will save you a significant amount!
The Rail Pass is a multi-use, discounted ticket for Japan's high speed rail system (the famous bullet trains). It's only available to foreigners, so you have to buy it before you land in Japan.
The Japan Rail Pass can be bought in a 7, 14 or 21 day option and offers significant savings… depending on your itinerary.
I recommend planning a rough itinerary of the cities you want to visit and looking at the train fares to see if the pass is worth it for your trip. A good general rule of thumb is that if you plan to visit Tokyo, Kyoto and one more town, the ticket will pay for itself.
Two Week Japan Itinerary
Days 1-3: Tokyo
Today Tokyo is a vibrant, bustling city with many distinct neighborhoods offering a dizzying array of shopping, food, nightlife and culture. Plan to spend at least a couple days to see Tokyo's highlights and soak it all in!
Things to Do in Tokyo:
- Grab a coffee at the Starbucks in Shibuya and look down on the world's largest, busiest pedestrian intersection
- Shop till you drop at Shinjuku, the business/shopping area and also home to Shinjuku train station (the world's busiest!)
- Trendy teen shopping and crazy street style can also be found in Harajuku
- Important shrines & temples: Asakusa, Meiji and Senso-ji
- Visit Tokyo's futuristic district Odaiba for more shopping and amusement parks, including Oedo Onsen spa
Overnight: Park Hyatt Tokyo
After watching Lost in Translation, I just had to stay here and this luxury hotel did not disappoint! It's on the mid-tier floors of a department store mall and has the most divine swimming pool + gym overlooking Tokyo's business district.
We thought the location made for a convenient base and enjoyed the afternoon tea, downstairs pastry shop and of course sky lounge drinks.Book rooms: Booking.com, Hotels.com Check rates: our review, TripAdvisor
Day 4: Mt. Fuji
Mount Fuji is a nearly perfectly shaped mountain visible from Tokyo's skyscrapers on cloudless days. The dormant volcano has long been worshiped as a sacred mountain among the Japanese while tourists find plenty to do at its base.
Mt Fuji's lakes form a popular lake resort area with plenty of hot springs, museums and amusement parks.
Take a day trip to climb Mt Fuji.
A real highlight is hiking at night to reach the peak at sunrise (but only for active travelers as its quite a climb). We meant to do this but it thunderstormed badly on our designated day so I'll have to come back for this!
Instead, we spent a weird and fun night at Odaiba's amusement park and overnight onsen.
Overnight: Park Hyatt Tokyo
Days 5-7: Kyoto
Next, use your rail pass to hop on the bullet train to Kyoto, a serene city with loads of beautiful temples.
Kyoto was actually Japan's capital before Tokyo, and served as the emperor's residence from 794 until 1868 so it has lots of beautiful shrines, temples and structures.
Did you know that Kyoto was originally on the list of target cities for the atomic bomb during World War II? Luckily, it was dropped from the list in light of its historic value.
Things to Do in Kyoto
- Explore the gold & silver temple twins of Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji
- Visit Kiyomizudera, a temple famous for its large wooden terraces
- Marvel at Sanjusangendo Temple's 1,001 human sized statues
Overnight: Hyatt Regency Kyoto
A beautiful, calming hotel in Kyoto with classic Japanese elements: intricate woodwork, a Japanese garden and bright, spacious rooms. For a nice splurge, grab a room that overlooks the garden and try out the spa.Check rates: Booking.com, Hotels.com Read reviews TripAdvisor
Days 8-9: Hiroshima
When I was planning my itinerary, I had time to see one more city: Hiroshima or Osaka. Hiroshima is obviously known to many as the site of the first atomic bomb attack while Osaka has a reputation for great food and especially seafood.
In the end, I opted for Hiroshima – in part to visit the memorial and in part to experience the beautiful lakeside town of Miyajima, a popular Japan vacation spot.
Today Hiroshima is a modern, cosmopolitan city with amazing cuisine and bustling nightlife. Miyajima is famous for it's singular orange torii gate, free roaming deer population and fire roasted oysters.
Things to Do in Hiroshima
- Peace Park commemorates the drop of the atomic bomb in the very center of the city. Even if you're not looking for it, you'll likely stumble upon it as it was once the political and commercial heart of the city. The museum is accommodating to international visitors and is sobering
- The A-Bomb Dome was once the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall and was one of the few buildings to remain standing after the bomb drop. Its ruins remain as a memorial today and is an UNESCO World Heritage Sight.
- Downtown Hiroshima is a great place to try Okonomiyaki – Hiroshima has its own variety.
- Car buffs might want to check out the Mazda museum
Where to Stay in Hiroshima
Below are a couple additional hotel recommendations:
1 | RIGHA Royal Hotel Hiroshima – If you want a hotel for excellent views, pick the beautiful 5 star Righa which boasts amazing views of Hiroshima castle and the city below.
Rooms have large windows that let in excellent light and classy touches like fine china and Shiseido products. The larger complex has grocery stores, shops and restaurants and a subway below for convenience.
2 | ANA Crowne Plaza Hiroshima – This is a great hotel for travelers that are part of the IHG rewards program, as you can grab an upgrade for fantastic views of downtown Hiroshima.
The Crowne Plaza makes for a handy base to explore, as the Peace Park, grocery stores and other attractions are all nearby.
3 | Grand Prince Hotel Hiroshima – A grand lobby, spacious rooms and an authentic local onsen (hot spring bath) make the Grand Prince truly grand!
This hotel is a bit farther from downtown Hiroshima sights but instead, is close to the ferry to Miyajima which might be preferred by some.
4 | Hotel Granvia Hiroshima – This small, budget friendly hotel is a 5 minute walk from Peace Park and makes for a great base for first time visitors to Japan as it's located near all the local transportation.
A passage way at the Hiroshima JR train station connects directly to Granvia and local stores and restaurants are also close by.
Day 10: Miyajima
Miyajima is famous for the giant torii gate which seems to effortlessly flow on the lake during high tide. The town is considered a romantic spot by the Japanese.
Things to Do in Miyajima:
The island's main claim to fame is the shrine and the island itself has a long history as a holy site of the Shinto religion. Make sure to check the tide hours during your visit – you'll want to see it at high tide! If you're there during low tide, you can walk out on the “lake” and see the gate up close.
Take any one of the island's charming walking paths and stroll around the entire island. Some paths lead through Momijidani (“Maple Valley”) where the cherry trees bloom in early April.
Feed the deer roaming all over the island and take endless pictures with the cute animals up close
Make sure to stop for lunch! Grab some freshly roasted oysters and try the maple leaf sticky desserts, local favorites
Where to Stay in Miyajima
1 | Miyajima Seaside Hotel – This is another ryokan option about 30 minutes from the main pier, but the hotel offers complimentary pick up service. It's a beautiful hotel on the beach with on-site onsens and tranquility.
2 | Miyajima Coral Hotel – This hotel is located on the ferry pier and not directly on Miyajima, but rates are a great deal as a result. Comfortable, clean rooms and budget friendly.
3 | Hotel Kikunoya – This is one of the most scenic hotels in the country, located about 5 minutes from the Miyajima torii gate. There's both Western and Japanese breakfasts available.
The bathroom is an onsen, which makes for a unique experience!
4 | Sekitei – One of the original ryokans on Miyajima, Sekitei was built in the 1960's and is luxuriously decorated with private bath tubs, beautifully decorated gardens and fabulous multi-course meals.
Book Sekitei for a once in a lifetime experience!
Days 11-12: Mt. Koya
Mt. Koya is a mountain in Wakayama south of Osaka and is the headquarters of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism. The town was formed in 816 by the monk Kukai, who wanted a retreat away from Imperial Kyoto's court intrigue.
I'll be honest – most visitors have probably not heard of this mountain and skip it entirely in order to visit Osaka. I would highly recommend a stop here on your Japan vacation – it's an incredibly peaceful town and picturesque – up nearly 800 meters in a valley nestled among the mountain's 8 peaks and only accessible via cable car.
The cable car ride up is breathtaking and this is such a unique experience! For those visiting Japan and wanting to go off the beaten path, Mt. Koya makes a great stop for a truly unique Japan vacation
There are over 100 temples dedicated to religious studies, many of which offer lodging to travelers and it's an incredible experience to stay in a traditional Buddhist temple. Note that they are vegetarian.
Things to Do in Mt. Koya:
- Visit Okunoin, the site of Kukai's mausoleum. Kukai was the founder of Shingon Buddhism and one of the most revered persons in Japan's history.
- The cemetary is especially haunting.
- Have a uniquely Japanese, vegetarian meal for breakfast
- Experience morning prayers with the monks
Staying in a Buddhist Temple on Mount Koya
The highlight of our visit to Japan was staying in a traditional monastery.
In popular pilgrimage destinations throughout Japan, local monasteries will offer temple lodging, or shukubo, accommodation that is attached to a Buddhist temple. We chose to do this for our visit to Koya and really loved it – it's an incredibly unique, tranquil experience.
Overnight: Hozen-in Shukubo
The temple dated back to the 1800s and was very traditional, with tatami mats, a relaxing koi pond and extensive gardens. There isn't (much, if any) interaction with the monks although you will see them throughout the temple grounds and can watch prayers.
I would recommend this for couples or friends traveling together – if you're solo, it might be a little lonely (we were the only travelers in our shukubo during summer season) and it's a bit too religiously solemn for small children.
The breakfast is included and very unique – it's a complete tray with little dishes and saucers of various Japanese veggies. I didn't know half of what I was eating and I typically avoid vegetables but everything was quite delicious! There was definitely tofu, some pickled root veggies like taro and sweet creamy yogurt-esque things.
This particular shukubo is located near Okunin cemetery, which was hauntingly beautiful and the highlight of our visit to Koyasan.Check rates: Agoda Read reviews TripAdvisor
Top Shukubo in Mt. Koya
There are over 100 temples in Mt. Koya, so here are some additional suggestions if Hozen In temple is booked.
Temple lodging varies by the size of the temple. Some are smaller and more tranquil, others are large housing many monks and with extensive grounds. Keep in mind that most rooms are decorated simply and starkly – but we really loved that authentic aspect! Think tatami mats, communal bathrooms and vegetarian set meals.
In our experience, the bathroom was only communal in that you would be sharing with our travelers. The monks stay and live separately.
1 | Eko-In Temple – Courteous monks and simple rooms are what you'll find at Eko-in. Learn to copy mantras, participate in ‘ajikan' meditation and try Buddhist cuisine (shojin-ryori) at this simple shukubo.
2 | Kongo Sanmaiin – This temple is located about 5 minutes off the main road, lending the temple grounds extreme tranquility and peacefulness.
The gardens are also quite beautiful! Rooms are bare bones and in a facility constructed at the back of the temple. Similar Buddhist activities can be done here as well.
3 | Onsen Fukuchiin – The gardens at this temple are stunning and well maintained, one of the last to be created by Mirei Shigemori.
If staying here, consider splurging on the one private room available that has its own private bathroom and beautiful views of the inner garden.
Days 13-14: Nara
Only two days left in Japan! Depart Hiroshima and head back towards Kyoto, stopping at the town of Nara.
Nara holds the distinction of being Japan's first permanent capital and is a beautiful city to visit, with 8 UNESCO World Heritage sights and some of the country's oldest and most beautiful temples.
Things to Do in Nara:
- Top temples: Todai-ji (Great Eastern Temple), Daibutsu-Den Hall (Hall of Great Buddha), Shin-Yakushiji
- Explore Japan's Buddhist art at the Nara National Museum
- Feed the free roaming deer and relax in Nara Park
- Stroll through a traditionally preserved neighborhood of machiya buildings at Nara Town.
Machiya are long townhouses where merchants once opened their shops on the first floor and lived above. Some of these are well preserved and open to the public. Curious as to why the shops are so narrow? Taxes were once calculated on a property's street access (vs. total area) so machiya were kept narrow to save on the taxman's bill!
Overnight: Nara Hotel
An old, grand hotel conveniently located near Nara Park. The rooms are comfortable and overall Nara Hotel has lots of charm and a wonderful ambiance for a reasonable price.Check rates: Booking.com, Hotels.com Read reviews: TripAdvisor
And that's our recommended itinerary for Japan! Some parts cosmopolitan, some days classic – but all around a guaranteed amazing experience. I can't wait to go back to Japan!