In April 2017 we spent two weeks in Japan and loved it. Here is our Japan itinerary, detailing what we saw and did during that time.
We explored from North to South; mountain to gardens; city center to remote area. There were times we wandered through chaotic neon light-lit streets, relaxed in an onsen, visited temples, and ate delicious Japanese food.
This was our first time in Japan and we bought a Japan Rail (JR) pass to give ourselves complete freedom over where we wanted to go and for how long. We also reached out to old students that I had taught as an English Teacher in New York City, so we planned some of our Japan itinerary around their availability.
For our first trip to japan our itinerary was, in a nutshell: Osaka (3 nights) before going to Kagoshima (2 nights), Kyoto (4 nights), Tokyo (4 nights), Mito (1 night), Sendai (1 night) and Tsuru-no-yu Onsen (1 night). This was such a fabulous trip and we think about going back constantly.
How We planned our Japan Itinerary
We went during the cherry blossom bloom in early April and Japan was PACKED with people. We learned the hard way that making a reservation last minute was a terrible idea. This also meant that we got to some far-flung places that really took us off the beaten path and were awesome places to go for our first time in Japan.
We did some research on places to see, the cheapest airport to fly into (Osaka), and who would be willing to put us up while there (thanks, Hiroko!). We wanted to put together a perfect japan itinerary that wasn’t going to make us feel trapped in our plans, but also able to have some flexibility to go see awesome places.
My biggest piece of advice about planning a japan itinerary– if it’s your first time– is to buy your JR pass and book whatever ryokan you want to stay in WELL in advance, BEFORE you go to spend your two weeks in Japan.
Then: go in with an open mind!
How We Decided Where to Stay, Get Around, and What to Do
To be honest, because this was our first time in Japan, we had no clear idea about how busy it could be in early April (that, in hindsight, was mega stupid). That said, once we threw out the tired Osaka-Tokyo-Fuji-Kyoto trope that most travelers opt for, we found some great places that weren’t nearly as packed as the all-stars of tourism in Japan.
I first asked all of the students I’d had in New York if any of them wanted to meet up. It’s really important to hit up your network! Hiroko offered to put us up in Kyoto for 3 days and that was A-OK with us!
We knew the bigger cities wouldn’t be cheap, so we booked an apartment in Osaka through Airbnb. This turned out to be a great decision because we got our own place to do laundry and chill a bit.
Tokyo is super expensive, so for that we opted to use our credit card points from the Chase Sapphire Reserve card to pay for 3 nights at a 3-star hotel (that was a sweet $600 bucks we didn’t have to spend, hell yeah!).
For the smaller cities, it was much easier to find hotels to book through Booking. We didn’t do anything special in these places, we just looked for a good price that was available for the days we were passing through.
The ryokan was a different story. This is a seriously old-school place that isn’t frequented by tourists. As a result: they don’t have an official website, but you can book through a third-party site like we did. You can learn more about the details of that here.
We got the JR pass for two weeks. The beauty of the pass is how much it will save you. The cost upfront sucks, but– trust us here– you’re gonna save a bucket-load of cash from it (we saved hundreds of dollars, you can check this site to see how much you’d save, it’s amazing). Plus, there are different passes that’ll allow you in different areas of the country, or all over the place if you so choose. We opted for the latter and were so glad we got it.
As we were there for peak cherry blossom season, we needed to make sure we made reservations on the shinkansen trains at least a day in advance. This was easy, the Japanese railway employees are incredibly helpful and (most of them) speak English. All it took was stopping by a ticket office and making a quick reservation. This was no extra cost.
(Whenever we were looking to book a Shinkansen, I always looked up in advance the stations, and then wrote them down with the dates we wanted to travel. The railway employees seemed to really appreciate this, as it made their lives much easier! Google maps is very thorough, so you can easily find which trains depart and arrive and which stations using this. – Jackson)
Jackson was a champ at looking up obscure things to see and do. I was amazed when he suggested going to Mito because we had two days to kill before our reservation at the ryokan in Akita. To “kill time” we decided to make our way up the eastern coast by stopping in the obscure cities of Mito and Sendai.
We saw the 3rd largest Japanese garden in Mito, ate gyutan (grilled beef tongue) in Sendai, hiked around a volcano in Kagoshima and visited tons of temples, like, everywhere. We didn’t lock any of this down (other than the ryokan) and left ourselves plenty of wiggle room.
Deciding on Where to Eat:
We had hardly any research here. I mostly relied on my students’ local knowledge to guide us and I was so glad I did. That said, there were places that were a helluva’ lot better than others. Osaka, for example, is DA’ BOMB when it comes to cramming your mouth full of Japanese eats. Mito? Whew, boy: pretty forgettable.
We used Tripadvisor and Google Maps a lot to help us out when on our own, and they were such an awesome resource! We’d basically look out for anything above a 4/5 stars and were generally pretty happy with our choices.
Here’s Our Japan Itinerary:
Osaka: 3 nights, 2 days
Kagoshima: 2 nights, 1 day
Kyoto: 4 nights, 3 days
We went to Kyoto in cherry blossom season and it is about as packed as it’s going to get. And packed it was. There were some streets so choked with people we needed to duck into coffee shops to get a break (and listen to some awesome jazz on the radio because the Japanese love that?). I’d aim to spend your day visiting temples if you can, but know that there’ll be a million people on either side of you as you try to take a sweet shot of the Golden Pavilion.
Once we got an idea of the areas that are really crowded, we’d head off in a different direction. The beauty of Kyoto is that because it is so big and old you can find so many amazing things to see without the massive amounts of tourists.
Tokyo: 4 nights, 3 days
The capital of Japan: you’ll either be flying in to Narita or going out of curiosity.
Tokyo is really cool, but it is in some places totally overwhelming and like being in an amped-up Times Square and at other times like walking into a neon light’s wet dream.
That said, we did enjoy watching people cross Shibuya (the famous street that’s featured in all the movies) and walking through the streets as visitors was invigorating (the Japanese are not allowed to casually smoke on the street because it is so crowded they might accidentally put their cigarette out on someone near them…).
We stayed in Shinjuku which was a wild and crazy area of Tokyo, filled with casinos, strip clubs, food stalls and Godzilla himself (who’ll occasionally come to life and make a lot of noise from the rooftop of a nearby hotel). I know there are other areas of the city to stay in, but Shinjuku was really central and my students recommended that one.
I enjoyed going to Yoyogi park (Tokyo’s Central Park) and walking around.
Mito: 1 night, 1 day
Mito is not known for much, but we went because they have the 3rd largest Japanese Garden in Japan. What makes that special? No one knows about this place so we were the only ones there.
The Gardens were beautiful: full of cherry blossoms, bamboo, little wooden huts, tree-lined walking paths and very territorial black swans. I loved how empty it was and how much we were able to wander around the grounds (for free) to take pictures and imagine Japanese wood nymphs playing in the leaves. It felt magical. I wouldn’t spend more than a day here.
Sendai: 1 night, 1 day
Making our way North, we decided to stop on the coastal city of Sendai, a rather off-the-beaten path location as no one we knew had ever been there and we couldn’t find too much on the internet about it. Seemed like a good place to go!
Honestly, Sendai was somewhat unremarkable. We did like that we could walk around the downtown with very little tourism or locals to get in the way. I do wonder how much of the 2011 earthquake destroyed (this area was hit pretty hard by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami).
I was surprised by the amount of European influence on the architecture and when we did some reading about the city, we learned that Sendai is also called the “City of Trees” which I think is pretty accurate.
One thing you MUST do if you get to Sendai is try “Gyutan”. Gyutan is a grilled beef tongue served with a bone broth and rice. It was. The. Best. Meal. We went to Umami Tasuke and it was amazing. I would go back to Sendai and wander aimlessly all day just for the chance to eat at this place again. It was THAT incredible.
Tsuru-no-yu Onsen: 2 nights, 1 day
This is a very popular onsen (hot pool) and ryokan (traditional Japanese guest house) in the mountains of Akita, Northern Japan. They book out months in advance so we were only able to stay one night, but it was incredible. It’s a few hours from Tokyo by bullet train and then you take a bus into the mountains from the train station.
I was totally in love with this ryokan: it was clean, romantic and thoroughly Japanese. They’ll feed you traditional Japanese food as well as clothe you. I can’t recommend this place enough. I wrote in more detail about this onsen in the blog, including how to book a room if you are interested.
We Loved our Two Weeks in Japan!
Had we done anything differently, we might have skipped Sendai in favor of another day in Kyoto. That said, that beef tongue was honestly one of the best meals I have ever eaten in my life and could I trade that for another crowd-filled day? Maybe not. Your Japan itinerary can be based on whatever you want!
I do wonder what the 1st and 2nd largest Japanese gardens look like. But, would they have been as empty and personal as the one in Mito? Who knows.
We agreed that were we to go back, we’d spend more time traveling up North and seeing Hokkaido. The mountains were so beautiful, it’d be great to spend more time in Japan in the mountains and seek out more onsen to soak in.
Two weeks in Japan didn’t feel too rushed, gave us a good amount of time to get around, see very different parts of the country and left us wanting more. I can’t wait to go back one day.