DISCLOSURE: THIS POST MAY CONTAIN AFFILIATE LINKS. READ THE FINE PRINT.
Last June, Spencer and I realized we hadn’t taken a vacation day since the beginning of January, and so we immediately began planning our next trip. It went a little something like this (but not quite so dramatized):
T: There’s a lot of world out there, Spencer. Where did you want to go?
S: I don’t know. I’ve never been to Asia?
T: You know, neither have I!
S: We could go to Japan.
And then two weeks later we were boarding a plane to carry us from O’Hare to Narita for a week in Japan!
Let me just start off by saying how excited I am to bring you this travel itinerary for a week in Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima and more! It’s been almost exactly a year since we hopped on that 13-hour flight, so this itinerary has been a long time coming. But don’t worry, I took copious notes and even more photos to remind me of our amazing time in one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever experienced.
My first tip would be to make it a two-week vacation, but I know that’s not possible for many (oh hey there, fellow young professionals!), so you’ll just have to experience the most spectacular seven days in Japan to make up for it.
Day 1 – Tokyo
We landed at Narita International Airport in the early afternoon, and the first order of business was exchanging the order forms that were delivered to our house for 7-day Japan Rail Passes. I saw a lot of mixed reviews about these passes before we left for Japan, but I seriously don’t understand why. We got them for roughly $250 a piece, and we used them to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto, our second home base, and then to multiple other cities from there.
I highly recommend it if you’ll be in the country for 5-7 days and if you already plan to ride the shinkansen, Japan’s high-speed bullet trains, around the country. (If you’re on the fence, I get it. $250 is a lot to shell out for transportation. However, do yourself a favor and take a peek at the cost of what your individual trips will cost you because there’s a very good chance the Japan Rail Pass will save you money.) We purchased our Japan Rail Passes online before we left, received the vouchers in the mail, and then exchanged them for the actual passes at Narita.
We took the train out to Asakusa where I had my very first Airbnb fiasco. It was a total lack of Wi-Fi, miscommunication thing; I’m still a big proponent of Airbnb. We got ourselves checked into the APA Hotel Asakusa Kuramae instead, which was very nice and an eye-opening lesson in the size of Japanese living spaces, before venturing out to find some food. (More on that below!)
And then we got to bed, dreaming of the Tokyo Skytree and our first full day in Japan!
Day 2 – Tokyo
I’m the kind of person who forgets to take a breath when she travels because she didn’t include it on her itinerary, so you know I was up and ready to go the next morning (despite some pretty legit jet lag). First on my list in Tokyo? Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple. It was a quick 15-minute walk from our hotel in the Asakusa district, and I feel like it was a perfect introduction to a week in Japan.
Sensō-ji is a Buddhist temple that sits right beside the Asakusa Shrine, a five-story Shinto shrine. Even on a random Saturday morning, the area was bustling, and we had to file through a line of crowds to see all the different parts of the temple. (There was even a wedding taking place while we were there!)
I was absolutely captivated by this little dragon painted on the ceiling of the temple, and we also spent time in the gardens that sat along one side of it. Take your time and stroll around the area, getting a better sense of Buddhist traditions and Japanese culture.
From there, we took another 15-minute walk over to the Tokyo Skytree. It’s a relatively new observation tower (celebrating 6 years!) with shops, restaurants, and amazing views of the city.
We didn’t go all the way up it because the lines were insane (You should definitely grab your tickets ahead of time.), but we did enjoy the views from the lower deck, eat a quick lunch, and visit our first Pokémon Center. That’s right, Japan has Pokémon-themed stores with plushes, merchandise, and all the photo ops! Think the Disney Store but with Pokémon. Being the girl who attends cons and spends her bachelorette party at Disney World, I’m proud to say that we visited not one, but two different Pokémon Centers.
The second one we visited was the Pokemon Center Mega Tokyo in the Ikebukuro district. It had much more in the way of huge statues of Pokémon, merchandise, and this Alolan Vulpix plush that almost went home with me! It was definitely worth the walk/train rides to get there from Asakusa plus we got to see some of the huge department stores that this area is known for.
From there, we made it back to Asakusa, nibbled on some food that our EST stomachs were not interested in consuming, and got ready for a full day of traveling.
Day 3 – Hakone
When I was planning our trip, I knew I’d kick myself if we went halfway around the world and never even got a peek of Mt. Fuji. But I also knew that we didn’t have the time to get out to the Five Fuji Lakes district in our short week in Japan. Luckily, I came across Hakone and, most importantly, the Hakone Free Pass, which perfectly met our needs!
On Sunday morning, we checked out of the APA Hotel Asakusa Kuramae and took our first shinkansen ride on the Kodama 639 to Odawara station. I was so excited for the bullet trains, and I fell in love from our first trip. They’re clean, super fast, and run like clockwork.
The shinkansen took us to Odawara where we put our bags in lockers (which were definitely big enough for carry-on rolling luggage despite many posts I’d seen to the contrary) and purchased our Hakone Free Passes. For about $45 each, we received 2-day access to the five modes of transit that make the Hakone loop: train, cable car, ropeway (where you can catch a peek of Mt. Fuji), sightseeing cruise, and bus.
The whole experience was fun, a little touristy but fun. The cable car made multiple switchbacks up the mountainside, which was disconcerting at points, but I was effectively distracted by all the beautiful hydrangeas blooming along the tracks.
The ropeway takes you up over sulphur mines, and you can eat black sulphur eggs from the gift stands that supposedly bring good fortune, but I didn’t feel that in need of a boost.
The photos don’t do Mt. Fuji or our view of it justice. Not to worry, though; you’ll get to see it yourself on your trip!
And then we hit the really touristy part of the whole thing: a sightseeing cruise on a pirate ship. I’m not going to lie, I was kind of in love with the whole thing, but maybe that’s just me.
The bus ride was a little cramped and hot, which is why I didn’t snap any photos, but it took us back to Odawara station where we caught the Hikari 523 to Kyoto! This time Airbnb worked out perfectly for us, and we got settled in before taking a relaxed, evening stroll around the area. (See? Sometimes Spencer can get me to stop moving a million miles an hour while we’re on vacation.)
Day 4 – Hiroshima and Himeji
More shinkansen trips today! We had a very Japanese breakfast of onigiri (more on that below) and then took a bullet train west to Hiroshima. Remember when I suggested the Japan Rail Pass? It really comes in handy. For instance, not only did it get us to Hiroshima, but it also gave us free access to the Hiroshima Sightseeing Loop Bus. And that bus took us everywhere we needed to go in Hiroshima!
As we got on the bus from the train station to the city center, it started to rain, which felt appropriate since we were on our way to see the site where the very first nuclear weapon was dropped. I’m not going to lie; it was a very chilling experience. We got off the bus at the stop for the Atomic Bomb Dome, and there it was, right next to the road.
The Genbaku dome is both impressive and horrifying all at once. Originally called the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition, it retained its shape because the atomic bomb exploded approximately right over the dome. They had planned to take it down during demolition of the rest of the city ruins, but people had already begun taking pilgrimages to the site, and so it now stands as a symbol of peace and a memorial for those lost in the explosion. It’s an ever-present reminder of what took place in this little city in the west of Japan.
The dome ruins are just one part of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which Spencer and I spent about half an hour walking through on that rainy July 4th morning (no, we didn’t plan this, and no, we didn’t wear any ridiculous ‘Merica paraphernalia). There are multiple statues and memorials dotting the small park, and each includes a little marker and normally some information in multiple languages. If I learned anything during my time in Hiroshima, it’s that the people want to ensure no other city has to experience such tragedy.
The most beautiful and heartbreaking piece of the park for me was the Children’s Peace Monument. The monument was erected in memory of all the children who perished in the bombing, but one girl in particular kicked off the development of it. Sadako Sasaki was exposed to radiation from the atomic bomb when she was two years old, and ten years later, she died of leukemia brought on by the radiation poisoning. Before she died, she had a vision to create 1,000 origami cranes, and these cranes, along with others from around the world, are displayed in cases behind the monument.
The park also includes the Flame of Peace, which has burned continuously since it was lit and will continue to burn until all nuclear bombs on the planet have been destroyed. The entire park is both a memorial to the victims as well as a strong symbol for world peace.
After exploring the park, we visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. I can’t believe I didn’t get a picture of the outside, but it was raining pretty steadily at that point. It’s only $2 per person to enter, which just goes to show that education and not profit drives the entire operation.
The museum includes incredible recreations of pre- and post-bomb Hiroshima and lots of interesting information about the development of the first atomic bomb and the timeline. Nothing came even close to being as compelling as the first-hand accounts of survivors of the bomb. One of the very first rooms in the museum includes a screen, a few benches, and video after video of survivors, describing the day the bomb dropped, the horrific aftermath, and the people they lost in the attack. They also do daily, in-person interviews with survivors who still live in the area, which is just amazing to me.
It’s truly harrowing but so powerful, and I would encourage everyone to visit this museum and listen to these survivors. We were actually approached by an older woman who asked if we were American, and then explained that there would be an English translator at the afternoon interview, in case we were interested in attending. I sometimes wish we had stuck around in Hiroshima for six extra hours just to see them.
The museum’s goal is to promote global peace, and this clock sits in the lobby (I don’t believe cameras were allowed inside the museum exhibits), keeping track of how long it has been since the last nuclear weapon tests. So far it has been reset 15 times.
From the museum, we needed a little levity, so we hopped back on the sightseeing bus and drove around until we reached the stop for Okonomimura. Okonomiyaki is a savory Japanese pancake with layers of yakisoba, batter, cabbage, pork, and a fried egg. It’s such a big deal in Hiroshima that there’s an entire building full of okonomiyaki stands, and it’s even on the sightseeing bus route.
You can read the full list of okonomiyaki stalls at Okonomimura, but I would highly recommend the one we tried: Yamachan. It’s all the way at the end of the second floor with a yellow shop curtain. The sweetest woman made our okonomiyaki and even took a picture for us! (And I don’t think she was offended when I was only able to eat half of mine; the portions are huge!)
After filling up on “pancakes,” we took the bus back to the train station and caught a shinkansen back toward Kyoto with a stop at Himeji. I’ve been dreaming of Himeji for years. It’s got the iconic castle look that’s on all the postcards, and I couldn’t wait to explore the feudal castle in all its glory!
And then the sky fell out. Here’s the one photo that I took in Himeji where you could almost, almost see the entire castle through the deluge. What was supposed to be a fun afternoon strolling around the castle grounds and learning about ninjas turned into a quick stop at the train station.
Please go see Himeji Castle, take so many photos, and post them for me in the comments. I’ll be back, Himeji!
It wasn’t raining quite as badly when we got to Kyoto, so after a quick nap, we braved the weather for some dinner.
I absolutely love Kyoto at night. It’s so beautiful, pretty quiet for a bigger city, and has the most stunning bits of Japanese architecture and culture around every little bend. That night we caught the only quick peek at a geisha we got the entire trip and experienced yakiniku, Japanese barbecue, for the first time! (More about that below)
Day 5 – Nara
Get excited! Day 5 is when you get to experience my favorite city in Japan: Nara. Hundreds of years ago, Nara was the first capital of Japan, and a collection of sights in the town are grouped as the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara,” a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, the real reason people come to Nara is clear from the moment you step off the bus: the deer.
The deer in Nara are everywhere, and they’re so chill and well-behaved that you just want to take them home with you.
They’re also first-class photo posers. Obviously.
We had intended for our first stop to be Todaiji Temple (after spending at least 30 minutes taking photos of deer), but upon visiting the iconic Buddhist temple that houses a 15-meter tall bronze Buddha statue, we realized we didn’t have enough cash to pay the entry fee! Still, it’s a beautiful building from the outside (in fact, it’s the world’s largest wooden building), and we spent a very happy hour or so walking through its grounds, Nara Park, and the outer level of Kasuga Taisha.
This group of students on a field trip asked me to fill out a sheet about our Japan experiences for their English class. (And then they wanted to take a photo, and I couldn’t be the only one not rocking the peace sign!)
And now, back to what you’ve all been waiting for: more deer! You can buy shika senbei, or deer crackers, in little kiosks and stores along the path that winds through Nara Park, and they’re only $1.50 for a stack. I then cut those in half and fed them to deer throughout the park.
Here’s one incredibly fun trick that I learned from Earth Trekkers: The deer have learned to “bow” for the crackers, so if you hold one over its head, it will bow for you. But you aren’t done yet! Then hold it behind your back for a second bow, and overheard once more for a third bow. Three bows for one cracker: not a bad deal!
Nara is where we got our first taste of conveyor belt sushi (my new favorite thing!), but you can read more about that below. Instead I’ll leave you with a photo from the little covered market area where we had the sushi. Even the modern areas of Nara are into the deer aesthetic.
Want another tip for how to have the best week in Japan? Especially in the summer? Schedule in time for chilling. Spencer and I took the rest of the day to wander the area around our Airbnb, and it helped us make it through the final two days.
Day 6 – Kyoto
At the end of our trip, I wanted nothing more than to continue to explore Kyoto like we hadn’t been able to in the evenings. So on day 6, we grabbed a backpack, filled up our water bottles, and took the train out to Fushimi Inari Taisha. Nothing says iconic Japan like the red shrine gates, and I was determined to make it to the top of them. (Spoiler alert: The top is a long, long way from where I took that first photo.)
Fushimi Inari Shrine is a Shinto shrine known for its thousands of red gates. Inari is the Shinto god of rice, and according to lore, foxes are Inari’s messengers, meaning there were foxes galore at the shrine!
This photo is right at the beginning of the actual path that leads up to the top. You can see that the incline hasn’t begun yet, but…
it definitely has here! I’m not going to lie; getting up to the top was a struggle! It was a hot and humid July morning, and we were exhausted from five full days of Tyler-traveling. But I wasn’t giving up, and I have a very indulgent husband who climbed and climbed with me.
All in all, it took us about an hour to get to the top. Along the way we passed thousands of gates, which are donated by individual people or companies, a bunch of fox statues, and beautiful trees, plants, and other greenery.
Hello, Kyoto! I do have to admit, though, that this view at about a third of the way up at the Yotsutsuji intersection was the very best that we saw. (So if you only make it this far, good on you. You’ll still get the first-rate sights.)
After making it back down the path, we lingered a bit at the shrine buildings at the entrance before heading back to our Airbnb for a shower and a little sustenance.
Then we took a train out to the Arashiyama district in the western part of Kyoto. It was beautiful when we were there, but it’s supposedly just breathtaking during cherry blossom season and in the fall during the color change.
We took the Togetsukyo Bridge across to the Sagano area, which is densely wooded with bamboo and feels completely outside the rest of Kyoto and Arashiyama. And then we began to climb again!
(In hindsight, this was a lot of climbing for one day, especially so late in our trip. My Fitbit was loving it, but my legs? Not so much.) We took another fairly vertical path all the way up to the summit with amazing views and…
MONKEYS! That’s right, Iwatayama Monkey Park in Arashiyama is home to a group of over 100 macaques. What I loved about the visitor center is the fact that the humans are the ones enclosed in a tiny space with bars instead of the animals. The macaques are free to roam throughout the monkey park, and they voluntarily come up to the small visiting space to be fed.
We wasted no time and immediately bought food before waiting our turn at the windows. For a few dollars, Spencer and I got a bag of peanuts and a bag of apple slices, and we took turns feeding the macaques that were chilling up on the wire fence. We were cautioned to hold the food out on flat palms and wait for the monkeys to take it instead of shoving it toward them. Obviously, you also aren’t supposed to take the animals.
The macaques were so expressive, and each one had its own personality. Plus there were a few little territorial squabbles while we were there, but nothing too extreme. Can you see the adorable baby clinging to his mother in the picture above? He was too cute and refused to let go of her, even as she continued to move from person to person, gathering food.
We lingered in the monkey park for a long time before finally packing up our things, thoroughly washing our hands, and making the climb back down to Kyoto. From here, we could’ve done a number of things. There was an owl cafe that I wanted to try, but being wary of animal treatment in those places (and on the end of our cash supply), we decided against it.
Instead, we grabbed some ice cream and made the walk back to the train station. Fun fact: Did you know that people in Japan don’t eat and walk? We made this discovery the hard way when, in Tokyo, we bought ice cream, ate it while taking a stroll to Tokyo Skytree, and then couldn’t find a trash can to throw the paper away. Turns out there are very few trash cans on Japanese streets, but these habits mean the streets are so clean. There’s no trash on sidewalks, in flower beds, or on the streets themselves. It’s spectacular!
Finally, we had another chill evening in Kyoto, saying goodbye to one of my favorite cities I’ve ever come across.
Today (which was really day 7.5 after our initial half day in Tokyo) was pretty much a travel day for us, though if you’re hoping to cross one more thing off your Japan bucket list in Kyoto or Japan, you’d probably be able to sneak it in. I would definitely recommend splitting up the hike to Fushimi Inari Taisha and the hike to Iwatayama Monkey Park, and it might work to do one of those this morning, flight permitting.
There are also about a dozen other temples and sights I hoped to see in Kyoto, but that just means I’ll have to travel back there again someday!
We packed up our things, checked out of the Airbnb, and made it to the Kyoto train station in time for our final shinkansen ride back to Tokyo. Before we knew it, we were in the air, traveling back to the States and already marveling at the best week in Japan we’d just experienced!
What to Eat in Japan
Conveyor belt sushi – Somehow it took us until the fifth day of our trip to try conveyor belt sushi… and then we had it at least twice a day for the next two days. Things I love about it:
- You only pay for what you eat, and each of the little plates on the conveyor is a certain color, which signifies the price.
- You can try a variety of different things without breaking your bank (but if you see something go by that says “horse meat and mane,” don’t grab it because it really is horse).
- It’s all self service, including the little spigot of hot water at your seat for green tea!
Ice cream – I never really understood the whole “Japan is an island” concept until we spent a week there in July. In the summer, it’s hot, it’s humid, and you drip sweat everywhere just walking down the street. So we combated the heat just like the locals do: with lots of ice cream. You can’t go wrong with good old green tea (or cherry blossom swirled with green tea), assuming you like matcha. Because this isn’t some wimpy Lipton’s stuff.
This isn’t ice cream, more like shaved ice, but I had to include it (plus Spencer’s head for reference).
Yakiniku (Japanese barbecue) – We stumbled upon Yakinikuyaruki, a little Japanese barbecue place in Kyoto, after our day in Hiroshima, and the entire experience was so fun. Spencer got beef tongue, I got beef (not the Wagyu, though that was on the menu), and we cooked them on the little grill in the middle of the table. It also came with rice and miso soup.
Okonomiyaki – You can read all about our Japanese “pancake” experience in the Hiroshima section above.
Onigiri – We noticed people eating these in the train station on our very first day riding the shinkansen, and I had to know what it was. They’re little folded cubes of rice and fish or vegetables, wrapped in nori, and they quickly became our Japanese breakfasts. You can buy them in convenience stores in the train stations for $1 per onigiri, and they come wrapped in plastic wrap (so the contents don’t soak the nori) that you deftly peel off without losing the shape of the onigiri. Or at least that’s what happens a day or two later once you get the hang of it!
Squid intestines – That is specifically what Spencer got on our first night in Japan, but I’m including this here to say “Be adventurous! Try new things! Order what you’d never be able to find at home!” Whether that’s squid intestines, puffer fish (bought from a reputable source), or just sushi with a crazy type of sea creature on top, have fun.
Udon noodles – Or just noodles. All the noodles. Ramen, udon, soba, rice; I don’t care which you choose as long as you’re choosing some!
Things You Should Know to Have the Best Week in Japan
It’s not easy to come by, which we learned the hard way on our first night. Do yourself a favor and rent a personal Wi-Fi device (or choose an Airbnb that has one like ours did in Kyoto!). You’ll use it for maps, social media, and of course, catching that elusive Farfetch’d in Pokémon Go.
If you don’t have it in your budget to rent a Wi-Fi device (though they’re pretty cheap from what I’ve read), make sure you download the Japan Connected-Free Wifi app before you leave home. It’s one of my top apps for traveling around Japan because so many cities use it to host their free connections for tourists.
Japan is still very much a cash country. We’re pretty frugal travelers, so changing $400 into yen right at the beginning of the trip was able to last us for the entire week. But you’ll use it for food, transportation, sights, and more! Take stock of how much you plan to spend and go ahead and exchange your money at your local bank, which will normally weigh the fees unlike airport kiosks.
And don’t think that because you only have a pocket of change that you have no money. Most yen is in coins, and you’d be surprised just how much those little coins are worth. Learn how to count it out early!
The Japan Rail Pass is a godsend, and it’s so easy to use. Once you change out the voucher for your actual pass, you simply show it and your passport at the gate to get onto the train platform, and they’ll wave you right through. Although we never did it, you can also reserve seats ahead of time on some of the shinkansen. (There was only one time that Spencer and I couldn’t sit together, and he ended up having the nicest conversation about Nara with a older gentleman seated next to him.)
I used HyperDia to know how to get from one station to the next, when the trains would arrive and depart throughout the day, and which trains we were allowed to get on with the Japan Rail Pass. (It’s another of my must-have Japan apps!)
There you have it, my day-by-day itinerary for the best week in Japan! And I truly mean that. I will never forget the experiences we had, the food we ate, and the people we met. I’m so fortunate to have made the trip halfway across the world, and I will keep sending out good thoughts in the hopes that we’ll make it back there one day.
Have you ever spent time in Japan? What’s the best thing on your Japan bucket list that we didn’t fit into our trip? Was 70 photos about 20 too many or just right? I want to hear from you!
P.S. You should download these apps before you go, too.