One year ago I took my first trip to Japan, spending 10 days travelling around the country, from Tokyo to Kyoto, via Mt Fuji and Hiroshima.
They were quite possibly the best 10 days of my life. In fact, visiting Japan is what pushed me to quit my job and leave London so I could travel full-time.
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, but prior to planning this trip, my knowledge of Japan was mostly limited to Tokyo.
And in the spirit of honesty, I should probably confess that a lot of it came from watching Lost in Translation.
Yeah, I know. Not great. It’s a pretty good film though, you have to give me that.
But fear not – after spending a good 6 months researching Japan, I put together an itinerary that extends way beyond cosplay spotting in Harajuku.
Going to Japan for the first time? Not sure which cities to visit?
Here’s how you can nail your first trip to Japan:
Explore Tokyo – 2 days
Tokyo was what I’d imagine an acid trip to be like. Weird, fun and very addictive. This is partly because many of Tokyo’s neighbourhoods have this old-school look and feel that’s just impossible to miss.
For example, take the Akihabara electronics district. In the middle of Tokyo, there’s an entire neighbourhood filled with arcades, gameboys, retro video games and Sega consoles.
Basically, Tokyo is like every 90s kid’s wet dream.
To make the most out of this city, you’ll need to do some serious planning. Check out this post to see how much stuff you can cram into 2 days. Spoiler alert: a LOT.
Must-do in Tokyo: eat sushi for breakfast in Tsukiji Fish Market, watch a real life Mario Kart race in Shibuya, witness a wedding at the Meiji Shrine and have the most awkward drink of your life in one of Golden Gai’s tiny bars.
Warning: Don’t ever go to a Maid Cafe. You’ll see things in there that you’ll never be able to unsee.
Tokyo travel tip: Download the Tokyo’s subway app on your phone. It’s a great planning tool which comes in handy when planning impromptu activities too.
Make your way to Mt Fuji – 2 days
Mt Fuji, Japan’s sacred mountain, is about 2 hours away from Tokyo via a combination of Shinkansen (bullet train) and public transport.
Mt Fuji is a notoriously shy mountain, so there’s no guarantee you’ll actually get to to see it. But the surrounding region of Hakone is worth the trip alone.
A hot spring resort, it’s gorgeous and eery, especially when the fog sets in.
Things to do include sailing across Lake Ashi, visiting the active volcanic zone of Owakudani (filled with hot springs and sulfur fumes) and riding Japan’s oldest mountain railway.
Must-do in Hakone: Relax in an onsen, a natural hot spring bath. And no, you can’t wear a swimsuit. You might need a little dutch courage before getting naked in front of a bunch of strangers. Do whatever it takes. It will be worth it.
Travel tip: You can ask your hotel/ryokan to send your bags to one of the train stations in the area, in exchange for a small fee. This is great if you want to explore the area before leaving, as carrying heavy suitcases around the mountain probably isn’t the best idea.
Don’t skip Hiroshima – 1 day
Many people who visit Japan for the first time will give Hiroshima a miss, simply because it can be a bit of a pain to get to.
Don’t make that mistake. Believe me, the five hour trip from Tokyo is worth it.
The first thing you should do in Hiroshima is visit the Peace Park, a memorial space dedicated to the victims of the atomic bomb.
I’m not going to lie – it’s a pretty troubling experience.
But it would be a shame to just define Hiroshima by it’s tragic past. It’s a buzzing city with so much to offer, including the best Okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancakes) you’ll ever eat.
Must-do in Hiroshima: visit the Peace park in the evening. It will probably be empty and quiet, allowing you to reflect in peace. The A-Bomb dome, the remains of a building at the epicentre of the explosion, is lit from the inside, making it look like it’s on fire.
Take a day trip to Miyajima – 1 day
One thing you absolutely cannot miss is the island of Miyajima.
Less than an hour away from Hiroshima by train and ferry, this little island is home to the famous Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO world heritage site.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg – you’d be surprised to see how much this tiny island has to offer.
Temples, shrines and pagodas from all shapes and sizes are hidden amongst the mountains and trees. Some of the temples, such as Daisho-in, are like something from another world.
Did I mention there are hundreds of deers just roaming around?
Must-do in Miyajima: walk to the top of Mt Misen from the hiking trail behind the Daisho-in temple. It takes about 2 hours and there are a lot of steps, but I promise you’ll do anything for that view.
Travel tip: get to Miyajima very early in the morning. The island quickly fills up with tourists. There’s nothing quite like experiencing a temple or shrine by yourself.
Save the best for last: Kyoto – 4 days
If Kyoto’s not on your Japan itinerary, it needs to be. Add it right now.
Out of the five different places I visited in Japan, Kyoto was by far my favourite. And that’s saying a lot considering how much I loved the rest.
Kyoto is perhaps most famous for it’s temples and it’s not difficult to see why.
Must-do in Kyoto: Go temple/shrine hopping (suggestions below), experience a top Gion sushi restaurant, walk around the beautiful street of Shirakawa (you might even spot a Geisha if you’re lucky) and visit the bamboo grove in Arashiyama.
Travel tip: There are over 1600 temples and shrines in Kyoto, which means that unless you relocate there permanently, you won’t get to see them all. Pick 4 or 5 per day and enjoy them slowly. Some of my favourites include Fushimi Inari-Taisha, Kinkaku-ji, Nanzen-Ji, Ginkaku-ji and Chion-in and Gio-ji.
Some More Tips Before You Go
Buy a Japan Rail Pass – valid on all trains across Japan Railways (including the Shinkansen) this will save you a lot of money. Make sure you purchase one online before your trip as you can’t get them in Japan.
Book accommodation near train stations – some hotels, such as Granvia Kyoto are located inside of the train station, making it easier for you to move from one destination to the other without having to worry about luggage.
But stay in a ryokan at least once – I can’t recommend this enough. So what if you’ve got to sleep on the floor? You’ll get to eat a 9-course kaiseiki meal in your bedroom EVERY night.
If you have food allergies, be prepared – my fiancé, who is gluten intolerant, had difficulties finding food that didn’t contain flour or soya sauce. Make sure you carry some snacks in the event you’re not able to find anything suitable around you.
I flew into Tokyo from London and left via Osaka airport, stopping by Seoul. All the destinations in the above itinerary are listed in chronological order.
What did your first trip to Japan look like? Do you have any other tips for first-time travellers?