Japan is probably on the bucket list of a lot of travelers. The county is big, but with the fast Shinkransen bullet train you can see a lot in a short period.
Train tickets in Japan can be expensive. For tourist they created a JR pass which you can use most of the Shinkansen trains. The JRpass is only available for tourist and you have to buy it in advance. This pass is valid for 7/14/21 following days. If you wanna know is this pass would be fitted for you, you can use the converter at this website. It will calculate your route and see if you actually need this pass.
My husband and I didn’t buy the JR pass, as we would rent a car for 48 hours (in 3 days) and we would travel to places which you cannot use the railway pass and we should have bought the extra train tickets anyway. In my blog about travel budget in Japan you can read if I miscalculated or if we made the right choice about not buying the JR pass.
Normally I will not plan and book a lot ahead, but for Japan I planned well in advance, trying to find the best 2 weeks ultimate Japan itinerary. For me this was a perfect blend of cities and nature, museums and temples.
To save time, I can recommend taking different flights inbound and outbound in Japan. In this itinerary I started in Osaka airport (KIX airport) and would return from Tokyo Narita airport. This will save time and money, even if you have to pay a little extra for this flight.
We spend 1 night in Koyasan, 4 nights in Kyoto, 1 night in Magome, 2 nights in Takayama, 2 nights in Kawaguchiko and 3 nights in Tokyo. Except for the night in Koyasan I booked all the accommodation via booking.com. I bought the Lonely Planet Japan to get around the places and to have more information about the sights and activities in each place.
I think this itinerary is perfect if you want to have a mix of history, nature and cities.
Arrival in Osaka KIX airport. Take the direct bus from outside the terminal to Koyasan. This bus will depart at 11.30 AM and will take you there in about 1.5 hours.
Koyasan is an old settlement and nowadays it’s still the center of Shinbone Buddhism. In this town you will find many temples were you actually can stay and merge in with the monks. In the morning you can join the morning prayers in some temples.
The town has many sights like temples and you can follow a 2 km footpath which passes through a cemetery to get to the site of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum.
Koyasan is a perfect place to start your 2 week holiday. It is serene and quiet and there is a lot to see. But try to avoid the weekend as it can get crowed with day trippers from Kyoto and Osaka.
Accommodation: Kamon Inn Akitsuki, Kyoto
From Koyasan it will take about 2 hours to get to Osaka Namba station. As Osaka is a very busy city, you can either stay one night to soak all the neon light at night, or you can spend the day and take a train to Kyoto in the evening.
I spend the day in Osaka and for me it was enough to see some highlights. I visited the Kuromon Itchiba market, did a part of a walking tour and visited the castle of Osaka, which also gives a view of the city.
For food Osaka is the right place! Try Kobe beef, which supposed to be the best beef in the world or try Tako-yaki, which are cream filled balls with octopus. Those are delicious!
In the early evening we left for our accommodation in Kyoto.
Accommodation: Kamon Inn Akitsuki
There are many things to see and do in this city, so I would suggest staying as many nights as your itinerary would allow you.
With 4 nights you will have 3 full days to explore the city. Better plan it wisely!
The first day is a good day to visit the area Gion. Maybe you can spot a Geisha here! This old area is good to have a few hours to stroll.
After that you can go to the Nishiki market and buy yourself fresh sushi and visit the Imperial Palace. But make sure to check the opening hours as it can close during different days, like we had.
The next day you can visit Fushimi-Inari Shrine. This site is famous for the many Tori gates. Try to go early in the morning, as it can get crowded. The further you will continue on the path, it will be more quiet. In the afternoon you will have enough time to visit the temple Zenzoji. Especially in the autumn, this temple is very famous for the Autumn colors.
My recommendations are Kyoto Bamboo forest, which can also be combined with the Golden Temple. It is not exactly on the same route, but it will be in the same directions. (Eastern Kyoto) The Kyoto metro pass is not valid on the last train track, so you need to buy a separate ticket.
Accomodation: Kamon Inn Akitsuki
As we were traveling mid November, the hiking season in the Japanese Alps was already closed this season. But I really wanted to do some walking. Soon I found out there is a hiking from Magome to Tsugano (or visa verse) which is a hiking on the former Nakasendo. This route would run along the Kiso Valley and connect Kyoto with Tokyo in the Edo Period. The trail leads trough the country side with houses and their fields, forest and sometimes it will cross the main roads for cars which also connects the 2 villages. The trail is about 8 kilometers and it is an easy 2 hour hike.
There is a bus which connects the 2 villages, but it will only run a few times a day, so make sure you will not miss the last bus! There is also a baggage forwarding service available trough the towns’ tourist information centers.
To make your stay more pleasant there are a few Ryokan traditions houses were you can spend the night. Meals are including in the price so you can get a taste of the local food. I highly recommend staying one night in either Magome or Tsugano!
Accommodation: Tajimaya Minshuki guesthouse, Magome
There are multiple ways to get from Magome to Takayama. You can either head back to Nagoya and take a train to Takayama from there, or you can continue to Matsumoto and take a bus.
The 3th option we took was to rent a car from Matsumoto. This would give us an opportunity to drive at the foot of the Japanese Alps and we would have a car to get around Takayama.
To make sure we would not have to rush to pick up the car, I made a reservation for 1PM at Toyota car rental. If you arrive early in Matsumoto, you can go and see the castle, which also has a nice park around the castle. It will not be far from the train station, there are coin lockers to leave your luggage at the train station.
The drive from Matsumoto to Takayama will take about 1.45 hours. This route is beautiful! And if you have enough time you can take a bath at the onsen of Hirayu hot spring, which is about half way the route to Takayama.
Accommodation:Sakura guesthouse, Takayama
When I heard people talking about Takayama and saying it would be like Kyoto only smaller I definitely wanted to go to this place!
Takayama is a mountain town of the Japanese Alps and has an old center which including a few streets with old wooden houses. As the solid grounds of this place are volcanic, there are few hot spring foot baths which you can use free of charge. You only have to bring a towel so you can dry your feet after soaking in the hot water.
The main reason for me to come to Takayama was to see the town of Shirakawago. This town is about 30 kilometers from Takayama. This village is on the UNESCO World Heritage listed as traditional wooden houses with specific thatched roofs. Even we came on a busy weekend day, this was one of my favorite places to go! I really liked the building style of the houses and it was interesting to see the interior in one of the houses, which where opened for public. Those are listed as a museum and usually they ask for a small entrance fee.
You can either return your rental car in Takayama or head back to Matsumoto and return it there. We drove 1.45 minutes back to Matsumoto in the morning. We spend an hour or so at the Hirayu hot spring, which had about 8 onsen with hot spring mineral water. A great way to start your day! Hirayu is about 45 minutes from Takayama and in the direction of Matsumoto.
Matsumoto doesn’t have an old city center like other places, but it does have a nice Castle! After you have finished exploring the castle, you can take the train too Daio Wasabi Farm. It will take about half an hour by train and from there it is about half an hour walk or 15 minutes on a rental bike to get there. Another option is to rent a bike from Matsumoto and get there on a bike.
Of course, I know wasabi, but had no clue it is made from the roots of the wasabi plant and it will take about 2 years to get a full grown plant to harvest! Very interesting and worth a trip.
Accommodation: Hotel New Station, Matsumoto
To get from Matsumoto to Kawaguchiko it will take several trains to get there. This town is settled on lake Kawaguchiko and it has several activities to do. In Summer you can actually climb Mount Fuji. But even if you don’t want to climb a mountain there are tons of things to do like renting a boat, boat rides, water cycles, visit Oshi Park, which is best to visit in Spring during flower season, Momiji tunnel, which is best visited in Autumn because of the Maple tree corridor and Mt. Fuji Panoramic Ropeway.
As it takes about 3 hours to get from Matsumoto to Kawaguchiko, you probably have an afternoon to explore the town. And if you are lucky and there are no clouds you can get a glimpse of the peak of Mount Fuji.
Accommodation: Sawa hotel, Kawaguchiko
With 2 nights in Kawaguchiko this means you’ll have a full day to explore the town and surrounding. There are several bus routs around the lake and to other 1 of the other 5 lakes. This includes the blue and red line. In November there will be an Autumn festival, which is on the Red line route. Unfortunately we found too late and we had to miss this festival.
If you wake up and you have clear sky like we had, another option is to go to Chureito pagoda, which is about half an hour by train. This pagoda is set on a mountain hill and it has spectacular view over mount Fuji. It is a pleasant walk to get to the pagoda and the viewpoint. I absolutely loved this place, even it was slightly crowded, but not as busy as I would expect on a Sunny day like this.
Accommodation: Sawa hotel, Kawaguchiko
To get from Kawaguchiko to Tokyo you either can take a train, which you need to change trains a few times or you can take a bus which takes you directly to Shinjuku station. As the last option was much cheaper and faster we opted for a bus this time. The bus would take about 2 hours. From Shinjuku you can take a metro to your accommodation.
As Shinjuku is only a few metro stops from the most famous Shibuya cross roads we decided to go there directly and leave our luggage in coin lockers at the metro station. After visiting the district Shibuya, we headed to district Harajuku with the famous cat street.
Accommodation: Sotestu Fresa Inn Tokyo-Toyocho
In the (very early) morning around 2 PM you can try to get to the action of tuna fish at the Tjukiji fish market. If you think this is too early, you can get a sushi breakfast at the market. Unfortunately it was closed due to a national holiday so we missed this opportunity.
Visit the Tokyo National Museum and National museum of Nature & Science in the district Uneo. If you are coming from metro Uneo, you can get to the museums with a pleasant stroll trough the park. During the walk you can take a look at Pagoda Benten-Do,Gojoten-Jinja and Uneo Tosho-Gu.
Tokyo National museum has a lot of historical and national treasures. It will take some time to see all the floor levels.
Close to Tokyo National Museum you’ll find National Museum of Nature and Science. In this museum you’ll find different floors with exhibit from outer space and dinosaurs to the unique ecosystems of the islands of Japan. I think this museum is great to visit with children!
Accommodation: Sotetsu Fresa Inn Tokyo-Toyocho
To have a nice view over the city you can head to district Asakusa where you’ll find Tokyo Sky tree. Before you visit this iconic sight you better go to see Senso-ji temple, which are really close to each other. Senso-ji is probably the most visited temple of Tokyo. If you arrive early, you might have a change to avoid the most busy crowds. Try your luck with the lucky papers and see what future is ahead of you.
In the afternoon, you can head to district Akihabara. This is the electronic district of Tokyo. You’ll find huge shops selling all kind of electronic and gadget stuff you might wanna need. Of course my husband really wanted to stroll around to try to find a noise canceling headphone and he couldn’t resist taking a look at the huge televisions. I wanted to see some expensive camera lenses, which I only can dream of to buy one day.
Accommodation: Totetsu Fresa Inn Tokyo-Toyocho
Disclaimer; This itinerary I planned and booked by myself! There are affiliate links in this article. You won't have to pay extra, but it will give me a small fee. Thank you for using those links!