“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing”. – H. Keller
PRINT & GO
Before your departure, do not forget to check/bring with you :
– Boarding Pass and Hotel Reservation
– Visa (if applicable)
DAY 1: TOKYO
On Christmas 2015, I decided to skip the traditional festivities in my hometown and go somewhere else. Of course my family was not so thrilled by the idea 🙂 and at first me neither, since I have always spent the Christmas with them. But eventually I checked the “least expensive” flights (no way to fly cheap on Christmas time!) and, with a 50/50 happy/sad feeling I decided to explore Japan. Apart several struggles with my Alitalia flight, the 50/50 feeling turn into a 100% pure happiness! I was incredibly surprised by the beauty of this country: spirituality, quiet, nature, history, mixed with speed, super-modernity, innovation, a cocktail of sensations, all accompanied by the unique sense of organization, safety, and politeness that belongs to Japan! In one week time, you can go from peaceful shrines in the middle of a forest to a completely high-tech neighborhood. I enjoyed every single second in Japan and I regret not having spent more time there, because there is so much to see! I tried to get the most of it in one week but if you have more time, feel free to stay there at least two weeks.
Traveling around Japan is the best and easiest experience, all places are extremely well connected and in a very short time you can reach most of the places of interest. Accommodation in Japan can be comparable to high-class hotels in Europe, even a simple capsule hotel can be so clean and new and with all facilities. And finally food in Japan is something you cannot miss, its huge variety will be a pure pleasure for your stomach.
Safety reaches its peak in Japan. We are talking about a country where people walk with the open bag and where bikes are parked in the street without a lock! For a solo traveler, Japan is one of the best choices, the danger is almost nonexistent and people are very friendly and polite. It might be hard to interact with them because their English is extremely poor (also, differently from other Asian countries, they will not come to you to ask questions, to take a picture with you, or to just interact with you, they will never do the first step…unfortunately Japanese people don’t have the same curiosity and extroversion as the rest of the continent), but once you find a solution to cope with the language barrier you will be astonished by how respectful, nice, and polite people can be over there (I’m sure Europeans might seem so rude to them! We are miles away from their civilized behavior!). This is something that I always recommend, and I will insist this time as well: don’t be a tourist in the negative and superficial way! Everywhere you go, obviously it’s great to visit the country’s attractions, but never leave the interaction with locals behind you. Part of a holidays always must include interaction with locals, take some time to meet them, talk to them, understand how they live.
From an itinerary perspective, I will give you some tips that you can modify according to your preferences and schedule. Something you should do at your arrival:
- As soon as you land at the airport (Haneda or Narita), after the passport check and luggage claim, go immediately to the JR office, located inside the airport, to get your JR Pass. Traveling by train in Japan can be extremely expensive, especially if you decide to take the amazing bullet train (Shinkasen). So instead of paying single trips, Japan Rail can provide a 1-week or 2-weeks pass at a very reasonable price (I took the 1-week one at 220 euros), and with this pass you are entitled to use all the Japan Rail system and Shinkasen for the amount of time you sign up for. You just have to go to the JR office, show your passport, and provide the start date…and then you will be ready to go and explore the country! You will see the Shinkasen will be useful to travel to/from big cities (for instance Tokyo-Osaka), whereas the JR network will be useful to travel to/from minor cities (for instance Tokyo-Yokohama or Kyoto-Nara), inside the cities (for instance, the Yamanote line will allow you to visit most of Tokyo’s attractions), and to/from the airports.
- This is something I never suggest, but for Japan it will be useful: get a WIFI pass! Normally when I am on holidays I always try to disconnect myself from the world, be unreachable for a while, just enjoy the places and not be writing all the time on Facebook or Whatsapp. It is also holidays from technology! I usually have WIFI only in hotels and I connect once a day to check my emails and give news to my parents. Based on that, I always discourage the unlimited availability of WIFI while on holidays and encourage its use only for necessity. Nevertheless, in Japan I will break my rule and suggest a WIFI pass…not to chat and check emails all day, but simply to have access to many things that can be useful for the trip, first of all the maps. You will see that walking in the cities can be very easy, but because of the lack of English signs sometimes it might be hard to find your way (especially when you will be inside the subway and you will have 10 exits and you don’t know which one to take). So take a WIFI pass, and don’t forget to use it only for emergency needs!
After these recommendations, you can take your train to the hotel (please note: the public transportation system in Tokyo is probably the best in the world, so wherever you decide to stay you can be sure there will be a subway or a train taking you around the city…so if you are struggling with budget and want to stay out of the city center it is not a big deal), check-in, and start exploring the city!
As you probably know, Tokyo is one of the biggest cities in the world, which means plenty of places to see and huge distances to cover. Fortunately, everything is easier thanks to the amazing public transportation (you have subway and trains passing everywhere all the time), but still, do not underestimate the distances and most of all don’t think you can walk from a train stop to the next one, the space is too big to be covered on foot. Therefore, before starting any exploration, you need to check what you want to see and how to get there by transportation. With the JR Pass you can visit most of the attractions by going through the Yamanote line, but sometimes you will need to get the additional subway ticket.
In order to optimize the time, I tried to group the places to visit by area and/or same transportation line. For the first day in Tokyo I used the subway a lot, so it would be better to purchase a Subway Day Pass.
- Tsukiji Market (Hibiya Line – Tsukiji Station). Due to the jet lag, you will probably wake up very early in the morning, so take advantage of this and start your visit of Tokyo with the most popular market of the city, the Tsukiji Market. This is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. It handles more than 400 different types of seafood from cheap seaweed to the most expensive caviar, and from tiny sardines to 300 kg tuna and controversial whale species.
- Senso-ji Temple (Ginza Line – Asakusa Station). Sensō-ji is Tokyo’s largest ancient Buddhist temple and a major Tokyo attractions for Japanese and foreigners located in Asakusa. The temple is dedicated to the Bodhisattva Kannon, also known as Guan Yin or the Goddess of Mercy. It is Tokyo’s oldest temple, and one of its most significant. Formerly associated with the Tendai sect, it became independent after World War II. Located just before Sensoji after Kaminarimon or “Thunder Gate”, a massive paper lantern dramatically painted in vivid red-and-black tones to suggest thunderclouds and lightning, Nakamise is one of the oldest shopping centers in Japan. Apart from typical Japanese souvenirs such as yukata, keychains and folding fans, various traditional local snacks from the Asakusa area are sold along the Nakamise. You can have your lunch break around this area.
- Tokyo Skytree (Asakusa Line : Oshiage Station). One of Tokyo’s newest landmark & attraction, the 634 meter Tokyo Skytree is the tallest tower in Japan. The tower is the primary television and radio broadcast site for Kanto region.The Tokyo Skytree is its two observation decks Tembo Deck & Tembo Gallery which offer spectacular views of Tokyo city skyline. On the base of Tokyo Skytree host a large shopping complex with aquarium.
- Ueno Park (Asakusa Line: Ueno Station). Ueno Park is one of the most impressive parks in Tokyo. A huge piece of quiet in the middle of the city that includes shrines, lakes, bars, and a very interesting zoo.
For a relaxing evening, you can head to the dynamic area of Ginza (Ginza Line – Ginza Station). Ginza is considered the high fashion center of the city and contains many upscale shops and restaurants. It is one of the most expensive real estate in the world. During weekend, the street will be closed to motor traffic during the day hence becoming a Pedestrians’ Paradise.
DAY 2: TOKYO
- Akihabara (JR Yamanote Line – Akihabara station). Akihabara is the largest town collecting all kinds of electronic appliances and devices in the world. The products at the very top of technology are always abundantly available here. Over here, staffs master 20 languages of the world. Communication here can be going on smoothly without any problems. Customers can easily purchase the overseas model products. The area is also famous for its huge Manga stores.
- Shinjuku and Kabukicho (JR Yamanote Line – Shinjuku station). Kabukichō is an entertainment and red-light district in in north east Shinjuku beyond Yasukuni-dōri Avenue.It is very famous for hostess bars, host bars, love hotels, shops, restaurants, and nightclubs, and is often called the “Sleepless Town”. The district’s name comes from late-1940s plans to build a kabuki theater: although the theater was never built due to financial difficulties, the name stuck. You can have your lunch break here.
- Meiji Shrine (JR Yamanote Line – Harajuku station). Meiji Shrine is the Shinto shrine that is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken. The shrine is located in a very beautiful forest. At the exit of the station you can also have a tour in the Harajuku area, plenty of shops and restaurants.
- Shibuya (JR Yamanote Line – Shibuya station). Shibuya is one of the most popular place in Tokyo. In this area you can find the busiest crossroad in the world…any time you pass there, you will be surrounded by a huge crowd! Besides the famous crossroad, Shibuya is also famous for its streets full of stores, bars, and restaurants, a nice place to do some shopping!
For your 2nd night in Tokyo, you can enjoy some amazing places:
- Roppongi (Toei Oedo Line – Roppongi station). Roppongi ,well known as the city’s most popular nightlife district among foreigners, offers a large number of foreigner friendly bars, restaurants and night clubs. Recent redevelopment projects, Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown have increase Roppongi’s appeal to a wider range of visitors big shopping complexes & luxury hotels.
- Tokyo Tower (Toei Oedo Line – Akabanebashi station). Tokyo Tower the world’s tallest self-supporting steel tower is a communications and observation tower. At 332.5 metres (1,091 ft), it is the second tallest artificial structure in Japan. Completed in the year 1958 as a symbol for Japan’s rebirth as a major economic power. Visitors can ascend to the main observatory at 150 meters and the special observatory at 250 meters to get a bird’s eye view of Tokyo.
DAY 3: OUTSIDE TOKYO: KARAKURA AND YOKOHAMA
After two big days in Tokyo, it is time to get out of the city and visit other great places, such as Karakura and Yokohama. Both cities are very easy to reach, as both connected to Tokyo via the JR Yokosuka Line. You don’t need to reserve a seat or check the timetable in advance, trains operate very often and there is always room to seat.
In around 1h30mins you will arrive to the coastal city of Karakura. The former Imperial city was founded in the 12th century, before the emperor moved his digs to Kyoto and long before Tokyo became the capital.
When you get off the station (south exit), you can find a bike rental office which charges around 1500 yen for three hours. If the weather is good, I think visiting the city by bike is the best option.
You can start your ride along the bay, where you can admire the beach and the sea and its beautiful houses around.
At some point, make sure to turn right to get to Hasedera Temple. In 721 AD, the resident monk found a camphor tree big enough to carve two statues of the goddess Kannon. The monk sent one to a temple in Nara and threw the other out to sea. It washed up on shore fifteen years later, and the people built this temple to house the statue.
After 20mins walk from the temple, you will arrive to the Great Buddha. This fellow is about three stories tall, making him the second largest Buddha in Japan. Visitors can climb inside for paltry 20 yen. The Buddha was cast in bronze in 1252, and you learn a little about the construction method by examining the trusses and seams inside.
If you stick to the schedule you will have your lunch break in Karakura. In this case, you need to experience their typical dish: it is a rice with some tiny fishes in it and a egg yolk…it doesn’t sound the best when I describe it but once you taste it I’m sure you will like it.
After a trip to Karakura, you can take your train back and after 30mins you can stop in Yokohama. Differently from Karakura, Yokohama has more the structure of a city. Once you get there, take the subway and get off at Chinatown, the most popular district. Before exploring Chinatown, walk 15mins away and reach the Yokohama tower and go up there to enjoy the stunning view of the city. After this great experience, you can go back and explore Chinatown, the biggest Chinese area in Japan. You can find here plenty of stores, bars, and restaurants, where you can have a delicious dinner before heading back to Tokyo.
With the trip to Karakura and Yokohama, my staying in Tokyo comes to an end. Of course if you have more days I strongly suggest you to use an extra day to enjoy Tokyo (shopping, museums, parks…) or perhaps have day trips to Nikko or to the Mount Fuji area.
DAY 4: KYOTO
On the 4th day, no chance for a lazy wake up! Set your alarm clock as earlier as you can, check out from your hotel, and head to Tokyo Station, where you will take the Shinkasen to Kyoto (you will find a direct one or a Shinkasen with connection in Shin Osaka). Differently from the JR, the Shinkasen should be reserved, so once you get to the station go to the JR office, show your JR pass, and book your free seat for the next Shinkasen. The journey will take around 2h30m, so you will be able to sleep in the train.
Once you arrive in Kyoto, do your check-in at the hotel and go out immediately to enjoy this pearl of Japan. Kyoto is one of the most beautiful places in Japan and in the world, a city full of temples and shrines and forests, a peaceful place where you can astonish your senses.
As in Tokyo, Kyoto can be visited by JR or subway, but, differently from Tokyo, it is easier to walk. The first place to go is absolutely the temples’ area.
- Kiyomizudera Temple. This is a beautiful ancient temple with a great view over the city. Founded in AD 790 and dedicated to the 11-headed Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy whose statue can be seen here, the existing buildings were erected after 1633 in the period of the third Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu, and stand mainly on a rocky outcrop high above the Otowa Waterfall. Highlights include the large terrace of the Main Hall, built on 30-meter-tall pillars with five rows of cross-beams and used as a stage for temple dances and ceremonies. The terrace affords spectacular views over the city and the surrounding wooded hills, especially when the leaves change color in fall.
- From the temple, walk down Sannen-zaka and Ninen-Zaka, two preserved streets surrounded by souvenir shops, but with very nice small houses and with some luck you can spot some traditional geisha.
- Chion-In Temple. Chion-in is the head temple of the Jodo sect of Japanese Buddhism, which has millions of followers and is one the the most popular Buddhist sects in Japan. The temple has spacious grounds and large buildings. Visitors will surely notice the temple when they come across its massive Sanmon Gate. You might see just a small part of this temple, since it is under construction right now.
- Shoren-in Temple. This is a temple of the Tendai sect of Japanese Buddhism located at the foot of Kyoto’s Higashiyama mountains. It is one of the city’s monzeki temples, which are temples whose head priests were traditionally members of the imperial family. A winding route takes visitors through Shoren-in’s various temple buildings and gardens.
After this beautiful walk around ancient temples, beautiful parks, and traditional streets, you can relax and enjoy the night in Kyoto in the Gion area. This is an area opposite Yasaka shrine (just cross the bridge and you will get there) and is composed by a set of narrow streets surrounded by the river and hosting plenty of restaurants, bars, karaoke bars, and stores. You can have a delicious dinner there and enjoy Kyoto’s nightlife.
DAY 5: KYOTO
The second day in Kyoto will be even better than the first one, since we will visit three iconic attractions. If the first day we managed to do everything on foot, this time we will need our JR Pass and some subway/bus tickets.
- Take the JR and head west to Arashiyama. Once you are there, after 10mins walk you will get to the amazing Bamboo Forest. You can follow the main road through this beautiful forest and admire the nature and the peace around you.
- The Bamboo forest will take you to Tenryu-ji Temple. Tenryuji is the most important temple in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district. It was ranked first among the city’s five great Zen temples, and is now registered as a world heritage site. Tenryuji is the head temple of its own school within the Rinzai Zen sect of Japanese Buddhism. Around the temple is a beautiful garden and other small temples and houses.
- At the exit of the temple, you will find yourself in a nice street surrounded by souvenir shops and restaurants. You can have a quick lunch break there and have a digestive walk through the Togetsukyo Bridge. This bridge was originally built during the Heian Period(794-1185) and most recently reconstructed in the 1930s. The bridge looks particularly attractive in combination with the forested mountainside in the background. A riverside park with dozens of cherry trees is located just adjacent to the bridge.
- After lunch, you can take the JR to Nijo and from there take the bus to Kinkaku-ji Temple, the famed “Golden Pavilion” in Northwest Kyoto. Originally built in the 14th century as a retirement villa for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu and now a Zen Buddhist temple, the magnificent Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) is one of Kyoto’s most picturesque attractions. Taking its name from the gold leaf adorning the top two of its three floors – a design element believed to alleviate any negativity associated with death – the structure has been rebuilt in its original form a number of times, this most recent incarnation dating from the late 1950s. Built over a large pond, the site is also famous for its beautiful grounds, as well as its old stone pagoda and the Sekkatei Tea House with its traditionally served beverages.
- From the Golden Pavillon, take the bus back to Nijo or Kyoto Station and take the JR Nara Line and stop at Inari. There you will find what I consider the coolest place in Kyoto: the Fushimi Inari Shrine. One of Japan’s most famous shrines, the Fushimi-Inari Shrine is a must-visit when in Kyoto. Founded in AD 711 and dedicated to the goddess of rice-growing, the shrine is still frequented by merchants and tradesmen who pray for prosperity. The main building dates from 1499 and features a spectacular four-kilometer-long avenue of bright orange “torii” or arches, each dedicated by a business. It takes some two-hours to travel past the 32,000 arches lining the route, so make sure to be there in time. Once you get to the top of the mountain, you will enjoy a spectacular view over the city.
DAY 6: KYOTO
After two busy days in Kyoto, I think it is time to take a short break and have a relaxing day. On the third day in Kyoto, you can visit two beautiful places located in the same area: Nijo Castle and the Imperial Palace. You can either have a walk, either rent a bike and enjoy the greenery around these places.
- Nijo Castle (JR Line – Nijo Station). This castle was built in 1603 and later served as the seat of government. The complex has several buildings containing many significant works of art and is famous as the location chosen by the emperor to issue the rescript abolishing the country’s once powerful Shogunate. Highlights include the castle’s East Gate (Higashi Otemon, its main entrance); the Inner Gate, or Karamon, notable for its fine carvings and decorated metalwork; and beyond this, the elaborate Mikuruma-yose.
- Kyoto Imperial Palace. This palace remains one of the city’s most visited historic sites. Although the present building was constructed in 1855, it still impresses. Occupying a large (once-walled) enclosure near the heart of the city, the palace includes highlights such as its finely decorated gates, along with a chance to see a number of the palace’s most important rooms and buildings, including the Hall for State Ceremonies (Shishinden), the Emperor’s Residence (Seiryo-den), the Courtroom (Ko-gosho), and the Imperial Library.
Alternatively, you can also use this day to visit some attractions that were planned the days before and that you missed, or you can have a relaxing walk in Nishiki Market and surroundings for some shopping.
DAY 7: HIROSHIMA
After a relaxing day in Kyoto, it is time to set up the alarm again and head to Hiroshima for a fabulous day trip. Hiroshima is another wonderful pearl of the country, a city plenty of history and interesting places to see. To get to Hiroshima you will have to take the Shinkasen, so make sure to get to the station early to book your seat and embark for a 1h30 journey.
Once you arrive at the Hiroshima station, before visiting the city, you need to take the JR Sanyo Line and, after a 25mins journey, get off at Miyajimaguchi Station. From there, take the ferry (included in your JR Pass) to the beautiful Miyajima island. This is a real paradise: a small island with small streets where you can walk surrounded by sweet deers. Walking along the beautiful coast, you will arrive at the Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage site, consisting of a wonderful shrine located in the middle of the sea.
After the shrine, you can enjoy the trail that will take you to other beautiful temples and shrines. Direction signs are everywhere so you don’t need a map to walk around. On your way back to the ferry (estimate around 2hrs visit), stop in one of the several kiosks in the street and taste the specialties of the island, such as oysters, seafood, etc.
In the afternoon you can go back to Hiroshima for the visit of the city center. If you own a JR Pass you can have free access to a hop-on hop-off bus leaving from the station, which will take you to the city’s main attractions. Alternatively, you can have a nice walk, distances are not so huge. What I did for instance is to stop at Yokogawa station on my way back to the island, take tram 7 from there and get off at Genbaku, where the A-bomb Dome is. The Genbaku dome, being the closest structure to withstand the explosion, has been preserved in the same state as immediately after the bombing, now serving as a reminder of nuclear devastation, a symbol of hope for world peace and elimination of all nuclear weapons. The dome is located in a beautiful area along the river, you can have a nice walk around there and enjoy the quiet of the riverfront and the surrounding park. In the park you will run into several monuments related to the Atomic bombing. Finally you will arrive at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. This museum was established in August 1955 with the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Hall . The museum exhibit presents the facts of the atomic bombing, with the aim of contributing to the abolition of nuclear weapons throughout the world, and to achieve the world peace. It is certainly a museum that you cannot miss.
After this enjoyable and useful walk along the river you will arrive at the Peace Boulevard, a huge boulevard hosting monuments with messages of peace and which become a place for recreation and relaxation for citizens.
On your way through the Peace Boulevard you can do a short deviation to the Shopping area, otherwise you can continue till the Shukkeien Garden, a wonderful Japanese garden located at few minutes from the Train Station.
After the visit of the garden, you can take your train back to Kyoto.
DAY 8: NARA
If you are in Kyoto, you cannot miss a visit to the beautiful town of Nara. You can get there by train ( JR Nara Line) in around 45 – minutes time.
The visit to Nara is an enjoyable day trip that you can do very easily, with no planning, no maps and no early wake up. Normally you should be done in half day. Since my time was short, I checked out from the hotel, left my luggage in Kyoto station’s lockers (you will see, there are plenty of lockers in the station…you put your luggage, insert some coins – around 3-5 euros, depending on your luggage size – set up a code, and you collect your luggage at your return), and on my way back to Nara I collected my luggage and took my train back to Tokyo. Of course if you have more time you can go to Nara and spend the rest of the day in Kyoto.
As I was saying, visiting Nara is very easy: you get off Nara station and you just follow the signs and the crowd! You will have to walk 2kms through a shopping street, and eventually you will arrive in the core of the town, a big fantastic trail of museums, temples, shrines, parks, monuments, and sweet and cute deer all around! In your entire itinerary you will be surrounded by deer that are very docile, you just give them some food and they will be next to you to be pet.
Besides these cute animals, some top attractions in Nara:
- Todai-ji Temple, a beautiful temple hosting the Great Buddha (Daibutsu).
- Nigatsu-do Hall, a beautiful hall that overlooks the city of Nara and provides a view of its ancient structures and cityscapes. Visitors line up along its balcony to reflect on the spectacular view.
- Wakakusa-yama, a grass covered mountain behind Nara Park. The mountain is about 350 meters tall and affords unobstructed views over Nara City. Tourists are allowed to climb Mount Wakakusayama only in spring and fall to protect the native grasses that grow on the mountain.
- Kasuga-Taisha Shrine, Nara’s most celebrated shrine. Beyond the shrine’s offering hall, which can be visited free of charge, there is an inner area which provides a closer view of the shrine’s inner buildings. Furthest in is the main sanctuary, containing multiple shrine buildings that display the distinctive Kasuga style of shrine architecture, characterized by a sloping roof extending over the front of the building.
- Kofuku-ji Temple, the former family temple of the Fujiwara, the most powerful family clan during much of the Nara and Heian Periods. At the height of Fujiwara power, the temple consisted of over 150 buildings. Today a couple of buildings of great historic value remain, including a five story pagoda and a three story pagoda. At 50 meters, the five story pagoda is Japan’s second tallest. It was first built in 730, and was most recently rebuilt in 1426.
A trip to Nara is a great experience, a cocktail of nature and history.
After that trip, I took the train back to Tokyo for my flight the day after, but if you have more time there are other great destinations you can visit and that are not very far from Kyoto, such as Osaka or Kobe.
Perhaps one week in Japan is not a relaxing trip, since you have so much to visit in short time, but surely you won’t regret this choice. If you set up a good schedule you have time to get the most of the country and at the same time have some relaxing time and enjoy this spectacular place. Whatever your decision is, for sure Japan needs to be in your to-go list!