2021 Japan Travel Guide
Japan, the land of the rising sun and robotics! What a truly exceptional destination. I must be honest, Japan was not in my top 10 countries to visit, but after experiencing the beauty, peacefulness and excitement from our Nippon adventure, I can say with conviction that Japan deserves a spot in everybody’s must-see list!
Japan is also a land of extreme variations that will awaken your senses in new ways and will, as it does to anyone coming back from Japan, make you miss and cherish those incredible moments. You may be skiing in the Japanese Alps of the Hokkaido island, sipping on a cocktail by the white sand beaches in the southern islands, getting checked-in by robots at your neon-filled Tokyo hotel, dine with a Geisha in training in traditional Kyoto or go on nature hikes around Mount Fuji… All of this – in the span of 2 weeks!
Oh, and let’s not forget to mention the Japanese hospitality. Wherever you are in Japan, people are remarkably hospitable but that sense of service is intensified at shops, restaurants and hotels. Everything is impeccable and tailored to insure you have a great time!
Planning a journey to Japan can be intimidating, many get discouraged and end up booking group tours. We do recommend using WandrHop travel engineers to help plan your Japan Vacation! In doing so, you will obtain a journey tailored for you, without the hassle of group tours and dependence on other people to enjoy your well-deserved time in Japan. Most importantly, saving quite a bit of money and time.
Below is a guide to your first time in Japan, the must-do’s and some tips along the way! This is not your typical “Top 10 to do in Japan” type list as I will go through a lot more off-the-beaten path places and experiences that I believe should be must-do’s for your first or tenth time in Japan.
Getting to Know Japan
Japan is a set of islands; the 2 largest ones are Hokkaido (the island to the North) and Honshu (the main island). In this article, we will focus mostly on Honshu and the top attractions/itineraries for your first time in Japan! We are assuming a 10-12 day stay in the country, additional days can be used for trips to Hokkaido (especially beautiful during the winter months) and the southern attractions such as Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Before Getting to Japan: What To Do and Know
Preparation and knowledge are key when planning a trip to Japan.
The two most important things you can do in advance of heading to Japan are related to transportation and you can do it all from the comfort of your home!
1. Get a Suica Card for the Metro System in Tokyo
The Suica card is a metro card and so much more! Order it and have it shipped to your home, so you have it handy on your first day in Tokyo. The card can be used anywhere in the Tokyo metro-area for transportation fares (metro, taxis, buses…), convenience store shopping, food and beverage in trains, and at the stations.
2. Order a Japan Rail (JR) Pass
The JR Pass allows you to travel aboard most of the trains in between your destinations, including the bullet trains between Tokyo, Fuji, Osaka, and Kyoto. Make sure you do some quick math to ensure the pass will yield savings. For the trip I've outlined in this article, the pass ended up saving $90 per person versus buying each ticket a la carte.
Important note: if you are like me and love to plan well in advance, you may be tempted to order it 5 or 6 months in advance. Well... do not make that mistake!
The JR rail pass voucher that gets shipped to your home is only valid for exchange for the actual pass within 3 months. In my case, I got extremely lucky because I ordered it on August 26 for a voucher-exchanged scheduled on November 24… I am sure others haven't been as lucky and there are not that many warnings online! It may seem complicated at first but trust me, it is very simple.
Here are the steps to get your JR Pass and use it:
Order your JR Pass online and have it shipped to your home.
Choose between economy or business class.
Choose duration of validity (7, 14, 21 days) depending on your itinerary.
Receive your JR Pass Voucher. The Voucher is more like a receipt that you paid for the Pass. Each voucher comes with two copies. Make sure to keep both copies because they will ask for it when you exchange for the JR Pass.
Once in Japan, exchange your voucher against the real JR Pass at any location listed at this link.
Optional (but recommended): Have a list of all the trains (or most) you plan on taking during your trip and try to book them in advance. It's more likely to guarantee you a seat.
Japan Travel Itinerary
Starting in Tokyo: The Old and The New
Where to stay in Tokyo?
Tokyo is a massive city with an immense number of hotels, which makes the task of choosing your accommodation daunting... but fear not!
The rule of thumb is: “Stay either in Shinjuku or Shibuya!”
Those are districts within the city of Tokyo, Shinjuku is known for those neon-filled gargantuan avenues as well as those narrow alleys lit by red lanterns and the tiniest restaurants in the world.
Shibuya is known for the Shibuya crossing and the plethora of great boutiques and nightlife. Either way, you can’t go wrong with either district, they are both extremely well situated within the city for easy access to anywhere around Tokyo. I opted to stay in Shinjuku at the Shinjuku Hilton Tokyo and stayed in one of their high-floor rooms with flawless views of Mt Fuji in the distance and only a few minutes away from Nishi-Shinjuku Station and Shinjuku Station.
How Many Days to Spend in Tokyo?
Japan is a small country but packed with an enormous amount of various wonders! As much as I loved Tokyo, I would recommend no more than a 2-3 day stay in the capital. It will give you enough time to get a feel for the city and introduce you to the charms of what is to come.
What To Do in Tokyo?
Omoide Yokocho (Shinjuku District)
Most of the flights from the US will have you arrive in Tokyo mid-afternoon to early-evening. Once you go through security, get your luggage and head to your hotel – you may be exhausted from the long trip. But if you're like me, you have a hard time going to bed right away (from the excitement). Opt for an evening walk around Shinjuku and most importantly, go for some snacks and street food on Omoide Yokocho!
Sensō-ji Temple and Nakamise Street
On your first morning, chances are you will wake up quite early. Take advantage of this by heading straight to the Sensō-ji Temple (40 minutes door-to-door from Shinjuku). The Sensō-ji Temple is a staple of the ‘Old Tokyo’ and will transport you into a peaceful state of mind, a feeling common to most of the temples you will visit throughout the journey in Japan.
There is something so enchanting about the smell of incense in the air, the sounds of religious prayers in the distance and the bells ringing as if they are trying to wake you up from a dream!
The Temple sits at the end of the long, scenic Nakamise Street, ideal for some souvenir shopping or snacking on the way to the temple – be aware that most of the shops on Nakamise open at 10am. I do recommend getting there ahead of the crowds (at 9:30am or before) and enjoy the peacefulness.
Once done with the Temple visit along with its gardens and side alleys, you can make your way to another staple of the city: the captivating Akihabara district. Akihabara is everything Manga and Kawaii (cute), and feels like a place out of a dream-city where your favorite Manga characters live, where Pokémon roam free and anything is possible.
Enjoy walking through the main arteries of the district and let the sounds and smells guide your steps, entering Hello Kitty stores, photo-booths, owl cafes, electronics boutiques and more.
A great lunch break (and quite the experience too) is to head over to @Home Café. The restaurant, in the heart of Akihabara, is not for everyone... but when in Rome… You will be served by waitresses dressed up like French maids and refer to you as “Master,” the food served is not only very Kawaii but also quite tasty, and you’ll be rewarded with one of the most peculiar shows at the end (sample song and dance in the video below).
An experience purely Japanese, purely Tokyo that I would not recommend missing out on!
Shibuya District and Shibuya Crossing
So, you probably saw Shibuya Crossing in pictures or video on numerous occasions, and the mad multi-angled crossing is indeed a must-see in the Shibuya District but there is a lot more to cover here!
Shibuya is also known for its great shopping! Lots of great options for higher-end clothing made in Japan, art pieces and overall great window-shopping. I recommend making a stop at Beams (department store with everything from chopsticks to luxury shoes to sculptures) and Loopwheeler, a brand that has harvested a cult following for their supremely soft and comfortable garments made in Japan with ancestral methods.
Shibuya’s main touristy street is Takeshita Street – known more for the cosplayer gatherings and the souvenir shops! While in Shibuya, don’t miss on visiting my favorite place: Reissue Café! 3D Art lattes, cappuccinos and hot chocolates are their thing! Choose between several characters on the catalogue or bring your own image for them to make!
Where to Eat in Tokyo?
I am purposely not providing as many restaurant recommendations on this post because it is quite hard to stick to plans and reservations while in Tokyo as you will more likely go where you please based on weather and wants!
That being said, I do recommend picking a couple must-eat-at places in every city and make reservations. Here are the two restaurants I would recommend to anyone going to Tokyo:
One of them in Tokyo is Shabu Zen Shibuya for a Japanese foodie staple. The same way you would have (or pretend to have) Steak Tartar in Paris, you must have a Shabu Shabu while in Japan. Shabu Shabu is a hotpot dish of thinly sliced meat and vegetables boiled in water and served with dipping sauces.
The second recommendation is Ninja Shinjuku. The restaurant boosts the most amazing food experience we’ve had in Japan! You will be greeted by a Ninja robot before heading to your private dining room and enjoy course after course of the most delicate foods (Omi beef, Sashimi, Truffles etc.). Don’t forget to photograph each dish (especially the Bonzai dessert)!
Full Immersion in Shibu Onsen & The Snow Monkey Park
Shibu Onsen is ALWAYS a good idea, and a great day-and-a-half trip away from the hustle and bustle. Are you looking for an immersive experience, where most of the tourists are locals and dress up in traditional Japanese attire while enjoying the warm waters of the Onsens (Japanese Hot Springs)? Well, this if for you!
How to Get to Shibu Onsen?
Shibu Onsen is a hot spring town with more than 1,300 years of history with cobblestone lanes and surrounded by traditional wooden ryokans! Stroll through the streets of the town and access the 9 public Onsens which are only accessible by guests of the town!
Step 1: Head to Tokyo Station (main station in the city) either via Taxi or Subway
Step 2: Take the Express train to Nagano Station (Shinkansen train) – Beautiful station with lots of shops and mountain views!
Step 3: Take a local train (Nagano Electric Railway Express) to Yudanaka Station – Tip: Sit at the very front of the train (conductor sits above) for breathtaking views on your way!
Step 4: Either walk from Yudanaka Station to Shibu Onsen (15-20 minute walk), take a taxi, or wait for the free shuttle (starts at 3pm). Total trip duration = 3 hours.
Tips to make the most of the Shibu Onsen experience: Chances are, you are spending quite a bit a night in this small gem that is Shibu Onsen. Even though check-in starts at 3pm for the few ryokans (inns) in the village, I recommend getting there as early as 10am!
You can easily leave your luggage at the reception and get a head-start exploring the city in your yukata (light cotton kimono) that your hosts will provide upon arrival, you will be expected to wear the yukata while outside (onsen-hopping, sightseeing, shopping etc.).
Where to Stay in Shibu Onsen?
The town has several Inns (Ryokans). After quite a bit of research I landed on staying at Kokuya. The inn is centrally located (not that the village is large by any means, but this inn is in the center of it all) and will amaze you with its traditional Japanese minimalism, architecture, service and the extraordinary food you will be served upon arrival, for dinner and breakfast! The room rate includes all the above.
Want to splurge? You will have the option to choose a room with a private onsen. That's what we did and it was well worth it! Enjoying an onsen in the middle of the night while star-gazing is something you will never forget!
What to Do in Shibu Onsen?
Shibu Onsen is all about being Zen and enjoying the scenery while being fed exceptional meals! The village has 9 public onsens for you to enjoy (on top of the ones at your Inn or room), quite a few little shops and boutiques, a temple on top of the hill and a “sake museum.”
The sake museum is not really a sake museum--it is a tiny museum about traditional Japanese arts and architecture (and has a sake bar). There, you can taste (pour yourself as much or as little as you’d like) from a selection of eight or nine bottles of local sake. Be prepared to buy at least one bottle and help the small shop owner! Plus, you will be more than happy having this bottle with you later that day when you relax by the onsen in your room or bring it with you to the dinner table!
Jigokudani Monkey Park
Most people know of Shibu Onsen because of the very close proximity to the Monkey Park, made famous by the furry snow monkeys that live and bathe there year-round.
From your inn, on a beautiful day it will take you 35-45min to walk to the park (which I recommend). Once at the entrance of the park, it will take another 15-20 min walk to reach the best area for monkey sighting. Plan to arrive close to opening time as it can get crowded quite fast (with people and monkeys).
24 Hours in Fuji
Mt. Fuji is the symbol of the country with its white hat and its head in the clouds! A few tips on the best ways to enjoy the astounding areas all around the mount. Since it is likely you will not be able to see it, due to cloud activity and weather patterns in the area – I would not recommend spending more than 24-32 hours in the area.
Plan on getting here from Shibu Onsen (take the train from Shibu Onsen back to Tokyo, then take the high-end bus straight to Fuji Q Highland Station for 1h and 50 minutes).
Where to stay around Mt. Fuji?
The Fuji Q Highland area is my favorite to stay at as it is very central to everything you’ll want to see. Fuji Q is a famous Japanese theme park (that you can visit if you wish) but not really what you should be doing while so close to such a natural wonder!
We stayed at the Highland Resort Hotel & Spa, which is a 5-second walk to the Fuji Q station (bus stop) and has great views from everywhere around the hotel. If you arrive early enough (pre-sunset) go check out the rooftop bar!
Where to see Mount Fuji?
It took some research, but I finally settled on two places to see Mt. Fuji from. Pro tip: as usual, the early bird gets the worm! In this case, the best views! Clouds usually start getting larger and more obstructing around 10-11am, plan for sunrise or sunset visits to get better views (less obstruction) but also better light!
Ayakuyarama Sergen Park
The first stop and by far the most rewarding (takes a good 15min carb-burning walk up steep steps) at the Arakuyarama Sergen Park. The gorgeous views of the red pagoda and the volcano in the background will leave you speechless. Sunrises offer the best spectacle. This is about 10min by cab from the hotel.
The Pagoda view offered more of an elevated view with a foreground object, the Lake Kawaguchiko on the contrary focuses a lot more on the volcano and its superb reflection in the water. The lake is another 10min by cab to reach, ask the driver to take you to Momijitei-Hoto restaurant, from there you can grab a coffee and/or head to the lake shores and walk around until you find the perfect spot for a picture! The area has quite a few shops and cafes for you to take a break when needed!
Once done with Fuji (hopefully you got to see it on a clear day) – you can make your way to Osaka. Don’t make the mistake of taking the bus back to Tokyo and then the Shinkansen to Osaka as it would add quite a bit to your itinerary! Instead, hop on a comfortable bus to Mishima Station (3 stops - 1h and 30 minutes) and then grab the shinkansen train to Shin-Osaka Station. The entire trip should take no more than 4 hours.
One Day in Enchanting Osaka
Where to Stay in Osaka?
By far the most thrilling place to stay in Osaka is the Namba area, but more specifically on Dotonbori! Since Osaka is often a 24-48 hour stop on the way to or back from Kyoto, it is important to stay somewhere central. We selected the S-Dotonbori Hotel Namba and were amazed by this find, each ‘room’ is actually an entire apartment with windows looking straight inside the Dotonbori Street.
What To Do in Osaka?
Spend Your Evening on the Dotonbori
Walk the Dotonbori Street from start to finish and come hungry! There will be lots of street vendors to choose from! My all-time favorites are the kobe beef (cooked rare) on sticks.
Plenty of Instagram-worthy shots to be had there too so hold on with that first bite!
Once you’ve done Dotonbori, cross the main bridge (you can’t miss it) that crosses the river and you’ll get the first glimpse of the famous Osaka runner or “Glico sign.” Then you can follow up on Mido-Suji Street (either side of the river) for more shops, more food and more surprises!
Osaka Castle is massive, and you won’t realize it until you stand right at the bottom of it! The actual castle opens at 9am but the gardens around it open at sunrise, which means that if you are not planning on going in you should head over there as early as possible for a great experience and some great shots of the castle and its gardens.
Kyoto: The Outstanding Former Capital
Something I had heard from everyone coming back from Japan and something I felt as well was “I wish I had spent more time in Kyoto instead of X, Y, Z.” My recommendation is to spend at least 3 full days in Kyoto, and skip Hiroshima, unless you absolutely want to go…
Where to Stay in Kyoto?
Kyoto is quite large and can get very un-scenic if you stray away from the historic parts of town! Unless you require some 5-star luxury accommodations, I would recommend staying in smaller boutique hotels right in the center of the historic district of Kyoto, called the Gion district.
As a rule of thumb, if you can find a decent room within 10min walking distance to the Yasaka Pagoda, which is at the heart of the historical area, you’ve succeeded! I decided to stay at the Glanz Kei Gion Shinmonzen, which was a great find because of its great location!
Top 10 Things To Do in Kyoto
Below is a map that shows where each temple, monument or park is situated in the city. As you can see, it is well spread out. If you have the means to splurge on Taxis, Kyoto is definitely a great place to do just that! Especially for those early morning excursions to the bamboo forest or sunrise on top of the Mt. Inari, you may prefer the taxi option vs. bus + train.
1. Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-Ji)
This garden alongside the Kinkaku-Ji Temple is packed with tourists, so be ready to queue up to be able to take your perfect picture of the golden temple reflecting on the lake. There is not much else to do in the park and should be in and out within an hour, which is ok because you want to spend more time in the more secluded and enjoyable parts of town!
2. Fushimi Inari Shrine
The best way to enjoy Fushimi Inari and get killer pics without the thousands of tourists in your way, is to get there early--very early! Start climbing the mountain (45min hike to the top) right before the sun starts rising and get to not only enjoy the hike up with little to no tourists, enjoy the top by yourself and even better: a LOT of photo opportunities without the hundreds of tourists in your way or in your background! I remember that as we were coming down the mountain and temple around 8am, hundreds and hundreds of tourists were starting their way up.
Do not expect anything grandiose at the top of the Mount, there is simply a shrine. Therefore, if your fitness level keeps you from reaching the top, do not worry. The goal of this hike is not the view per se, it is the walking under all those red gates and capture some great Kyoto memories.
3. Arashiyama Bamboo Forest & Tenryu-Ji Temple
Another great Kyoto memorabilia is a nice stroll under those green indestructible giants! But, as one of the most photographed places in the city – you better wake up early and get there before the sea of tourists (before 9am or earlier). It will take you 45min from downtown using public transportation or 20 minutes by taxi (make sure to read my tips on using taxis at the end of the article).
You can easily spend 2-3 hours in the area surrounding the Arashiyama Bamboo forest. The actual bamboo forest should take approximately 20-30 minutes to walk around and enjoy the scenery, then head to the park attached to the forest with great views over the mountains and river.
Finally get to the Tenryu-ji Temple ($4 to enter), with an entrance at the bottom of the main alley from the bamboo forest. The Temple is especially magnificent during the Fall. Once done, stick around for an amazing and pretty much off-the-beaten-path experience towards Otagi Temple.
4. Otagi Temple and Traditional Village
From Arashiyama Bamboo forest, head back towards the main road (lots of shops and cafes there should you need some additional retail therapy or caffeine). Although, my recommendation is to walk to Coffee Pado, as it is not only a beautiful little traditional coffee shop but also on the way to the next destination.
The Otagi Temple is rarely included in any group tours and is often unknown to foreigners, despite its splendor and calmness. This place is on my top 3 places to see in Japan.
The small park is filled with hundreds of mini buddha statues, bells, pagodas and gorgeous views. Again, this area is a must-visit during the fall to have the burgundy, purple and orange pops of color behind the flashy red walls of the temples.
Added bonus to this great stop is the walk through the traditional Japanese street either on the way up to Otagi or on the way back down, there are many tea shops and beautiful houses!
That is where we bought most of our souvenirs, with the best souvenir shop in the area – everything was made in Japan, made with traditional methods etc. We bought some great art from local artisans, incense and incense holders in the shape of the little Otagi Buddhas and even black bean tea!
5. Nishiki Market
A must-stop for some lunch carbs and very instagrammable items! The Market extends over many streets and flows into shopping alleys with great local boutiques. You can definitely spend at least 3 hours wandering the Nishiki Market area, my recommendation is to head over around lunch or anytime on a rainy day as the market street is covered!
6. Yasaka Pagoda and the Gion District
The Gion district (or the Geisha District or the historic Kyoto downtown) is a precious area of town in mint ‘traditional’ condition with its old tea houses, wooden structures, temples and Pagodas. If you are lucky you may see a Geisha walking from one building to another in a hurry avoiding nosy tourists taking pictures!
7. Kiyomizudera Temple
If you only visit one temple in Kyoto, make it Kiyomizudera! It is a Buddhist temple and part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage site. You can easily spend 3 hours on site, enjoying they beautiful trails around the main temple and the most stunning views over the city.
8. Try Some Kakigori
There are quite a few places in Japan where you can get a Kakigori (insane icy sweet dessert), but by far my favorite has been Tasuki Café in Kyoto, adjacent to Pass the Baton. It is situated by a scenic little river in the old part of town.
Tips: The Kakigori is enough as a shareable for 2 people, but the restaurant requires at least one order per customer (I recommend sharing a Kakigori and getting one of their teas or lemonades).
9. Dinner with a Geisha or Maiko
Seeing a Geisha or a Maiko (Geisha-in-training) in Kyoto is still quite a rare event and it is important to be respectful and not invade their privacy should you see one in the street.
But if the Geisha lifestyle and historical significance of the tea houses is of great interest to you, I highly recommend a Geisha Experience.
They tend to be quite pricey, especially if you wish to have a private appointment with entertainment (dancing, singing) and tea ceremony. A less onerous option is a semi-private session with a Geisha (maximum of 8 people meeting with a Geisha/Maiko over dinner, including beautiful performances).
You need an "in" to meet a Geisha or a Maiko. Contact WandrHop to help arrange the experience.
10. Samurai Training Experience
Sounds like a tourist trap, doesn’t it? But really, it is not!
I have to admit, it is a bit less exclusive and slightly more group-oriented than the Geisha Experience but nonetheless a top 10 to-do while in Kyoto. Modern samurais do not fill the same responsibilities as they used to in Japan but the community still exists and goes through a similar training of mastering the sword and Zen meditation principles.
You can have the opportunity to visit one of the few remaining Samurai houses in Japan and meet its disciples.
Day Trip to Kamakura
Kamakura is a seaside city, 1h south of Tokyo via train. The political center of medieval Japan, modern-day Kamakura is a beautiful resort town with dozens of Buddhist Zen temples and Shinto shrines. The most recognizable landmark there is the Great Buddha, a large bronze statue still standing after a 15th-century tsunami.
An entire day can be spent in Kamakura, although I would recommend getting here (to Kamakura station) around 9am (when most parks open) and do a walking tour temple-hopping until 1pm, grab some lunch and head back to Tokyo. I have selected the top shrines and temples to visit during your excursion below.
What To Do in Kamakura
Famous for its hydrangeas, it's also known as The Temple of Hydrangeas. The main object of worship is goddess Shō Kannon. Beautiful Zen garden with striking views of the round window, especially during autumn and spring months.
The temple is renowned for its "Great Buddha", a monumental outdoor bronze statue of Amida Buddha, which is one of the most famous icons of Japan.
Famous for its bamboo garden, it is also known as "Bamboo Temple". A statue of Gautama Buddha, called Shaka Nyorai in Japanese, in a sacred hall is the temple's principal image. You can also enjoy Japanese sweets and matcha green tea in a beautiful setting overlooking the bamboo forest.
It is the number one of Kamakura's five great Zen temples. The oldest Zen temple in Kamakura, Kencho-ji was founded by the ruling regent Hojo Tokiyori in 1253 during the Kencho Era after which it was named.
Japan Travel Tips
Taking a Taxi in the Morning
Do not expect to find any taxis before 8am, make sure to call in advance or ask your hotel to arrange transportation if needed early in the morning!
Socks and Shoes
You will be expected and required to remove your shoes in many restaurants, ryokans and hotels prior to entering the living spaces. So make sure your sock game is on point! And that you do not wear complicated shoes as you’ll need to put them on and remove them quite often.
Navigating Allergies in Japan
If you have seafood, nut, or other allergies, make sure to bring an EpiPen! I can not tell you how many times I asked servers “no fish or seafood, I am deadly allergic” only to find tuna or salmon or crab meat in my dishes…
It can get extremely frustrating but most importantly dangerous. So make sure you not only inform the server a good dozen times about your allergies and then again, ask the server to point at everything on your plate and explain what is in it.
Luggage lockers in Train Stations
Luggage lockers can be a life-saver when you're hopping from city to city to cover as much as possible. Let’s say you are in Osaka and plan to go to Kyoto around 11am, but want to visit the Osaka Castle around 9am: instead of leaving your luggage at the hotel, visiting the castle, heading back to the hotel and then to Kyoto; you can simply check-out and leave your luggage at the train station by the Castle and then straight to Kyoto.
I have not seen a single station (especially in the major cities) without those lockers (you can fit large suitcases and smaller ones of course for a small fee). That will save you a lot of time and logistics nightmares on your traveling days. Just make sure you don't forget where you put them!
Japan will enlighten you, Japan will energize you, and Japan will leave an indelible mark on your way of life.