One of the trickiest things for do-it-yourself travel planners to work out, especially when visiting a destination for the first time, is how to arrange the itinerary so that you make the most of your time on the ground, without trying to pack too much in. So in this post I have outlined a sample 13 day Japan itinerary (which just happens to be the very itinerary we followed!).
In a country as rich in diverse experiences as Japan, there is a real temptation to race around, trying to hit as many of the ‘top’ sights as possible. But in doing so, you may miss some of the quieter experiences. We like to pace ourselves so that we get an opportunity to scrape a little below the surface of a destination.
With just 13 days to spend in Japan, I knew we’d have to limit our cities/destinations. So we narrowed it down to Tokyo, Hakone and Kyoto and included a side day-trip from Hakone to Nara.
- 3 nights in Tokyo (Shimbashi)
- 2 nights Hakone
- 5 nights Kyoto
- 2 nights in Tokyo (Bunkyo-ku)
Read on for the full list of what we did within this time. Suggested activities or things to see are in dot points under each day. We bought 7-day JR Rail Passes which we used for days 6-12. Outside those days we purchased individual tickets for each trip, which worked out to be a cheaper option than having a 14-day JR Pass.
I’ll add the post links as I write about individual items. You may also like to read:
- Planning a first time trip to Japan
- 10 things you need to know before visiting Japan for the first time
Sample 13 day Japan itinerary
Day 1: Arrive in Tokyo – Take the Narita Express train (N’Ex) from the airport to Tokyo Station, then taxi to the hotel. (Our hotel was in Shimbashi, which is near Ginza)
- Hit the shopping streets of Ginza – walk along Chuo-dori Street from Shimbashi to Kyobashi stations.
Day 2: Tokyo
- Meiji-Jingu Shrine
- Yoyogi Park
- Harajuku – explore Takeshita Dori
- Walk along Cat Street
- Shibuya: Hachiko statue, Scramble Crossing, Shibuya 109, Hepineko Cat Cafe
- Sushi breakfast at Sushi Zenmai at Tsukiji Fish Market
- Tsukiji Hongan-ji Temple
- Wholesale Tsukuji Fish Market (open to the public after 9am)
- Tokyo Tower
- Check out some mind-blowing Tokyo stores: Daiso, Uniqlo, Tokyu Hands, Muji
- Dinner at Ninja Asakasa Restaurant
Day 4: Train from Shinagawa Station to Hakone, via Odawara (buy a 3-day Hakone Freepass in Odawara)
- Hakone Open Air Museum
- Hakone Tozan train – very picturesque mountain switchback train
- Explore Gora including Gora Park
- Take a ride on the Hakone Cable Car
- Stay in a ryokan: the one we chose was Fukuzumiro Ryokan
- Try out an onsen (the linked post tells you all you need to know about onsen etiquette)
Day 5 – Hakone
- Hakone Kowakien Yunessun Spa Resort
- Use the Hakone Free Pass to take the Hakone Tozan bus to Lake Ashi
- Hakone sightseeing cruise on a pirate ship across the lake (glimpse Mt Fuji if you are lucky!) to Togendai-ko
- Look longingly at the Hakone Ropeway (currently closed due to volcanic activity)
- Take ropeway replacement bus to Sounzan at the top of the Hakone cable car
- Cable car back down to Gora
- Squeeze in some Japanese geocache finds
Day 6 – Hakone to Kyoto (via Hakone Tozan rail to Hakone-Yumato, Odakyu train to Odawara, Shinkansen to Kyoto)
- Sanjusangendo Hall
- Walk through the Gion district
- Visit the Pontocho area for dinner. It’s a narrow alley running from Shijo-dori to Sanjo-dori, one block west of Kamogawa River. We went to Wabiya Rakuchu-tei for yakitori skewers.
Day 7 – Kyoto
- Day trip to Nara via local train – do a Narawalk Classic Tour (3.5 hours), which covers the main highlights of Nara including the rambunctious deer.
- Explore the futuristic Kyoto Train Station complex (there’s even a geocache to be found on the station roof!)
Day 8 – Kyoto
- Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji)
- Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-ji)
- Philosopher’s Walk
- Fushimi Inari-taisha: home of those much-photographed vermillion torii gates
- Kyoto games arcades and crazy photo booths
- Nishiki Market and the surrounding lanes/arcades
- Dressing up in Kimono at Yumeyakata Kimono
- Tea Ceremony workshop
Day 10 – Kyoto
- Arashiyama: bamboo groves, Tenryu-ji temple
- Walk alongside Hozu River and over Togetsukyo Bridge to Sagano, then walk back
- Traditional multi-course tofu lunch at Shoraian Restaurant
- Night walking tour of Gion (WaRaido Guide Networks)
- Dinner in Gion – we chose Yagenbori Restaurant
- Visit a karaoke bar to belt out a few tunes – we went to Jumbo Karaoke
- Indulge in totally outrageous icecream desserts at Karafune-ya
All our plans for this day went out the window when our relatively quick train trip turned into a 6 hour marathon due to an incident on the line.
- Go to a baseball game at the Tokyo Dome – we saw Tokyo Giants vs Hiroshima Carp
- See fireflies in the Hotel Chinzanso gardens (from approx middle of May – beginning of July)
Day 12 – Tokyo
- Asakusa area: Senso-ji Temple, Nakamise-dori, Five Storey Pagoda
- More soaking time in an onsen
- Dinner in Kagurazaka – we chose Torijaya Restaurant
- Visit another karaoke bar for a swansong performance – we went to Karaoke Big Echo in Kagurazaka
Day 13 – depart Tokyo (take Skyliner Access Express train from Nippori Station to Narita)
What items interest you most? What do you want me to write about next?
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Creating an itinerary packed full of memorable moments is no accident. If you would like to know my method for doing it, download your free copy of my e-guide: Memorable Moments: How to pack your travel itinerary full of opportunities to create those memories.