If you have my kind of luck searching for a relaxed itinerary for your upcoming Japan holiday, it is possible you’ve been recommended 10 or more places to visit in 15 days.
Is that a relaxed holiday? In my book, 2 weeks means 2 or 3 destinations. Savor them. Deep-dive into each city. And feel it. Does that work for you? If so, enjoy reading on.
When my wife and I finished our web search, the one Japanese city that emerged common in all the reviews was Kyoto. In fact most of the “main” pictures on the pages we reviewed were of Kyoto. So that had to be in.
Ever since I was a kid I’d marveled at the symmetry, strength and peaceful demeanor of Mt Fuji. Iconic as it is of Japan, emotionally connected to my childhood memories through postcards, that had to be in too.
And Tokyo of course. How can there be a question about it? So that became our itinerary.
Kyoto, Fujisan and Tokyo
As good things manifest, these three places are all on the same island, Honshu. That means travel is easy without flights… and what do you know… neither Tokyo nor Kyoto have airports!
What’s more, the Shinkansen (the famous bullet train) connects them directly! So once you get off at Narita airport (about 75 minutes from Tokyo by a NEX (Narita Express)) head directly to the JR line for Kyoto. It is a 3-hour high-speed trip! (see Tips to travel around Japan)
Why start with Kyoto? Two reasons… one; you finish all your long-distance travelling at one go and unpack directly in the Kyoto hotel. And two; when you finish with all your shopping, you won’t have too many transport modes to change returning from Tokyo. Makes sense? Already, with all these transfers, Day 1 is over for you!
Kyoto Day 2: Gion
Kyoto is like an overgrown temple-town which still secretly houses its old-world charm and overtly refuses to become a metropolis. To discover this, take a day-pass on any bus (600 yen) and head for Gion. That is the old town. Running through it is an amazingly picturesque stream. And surrounding it on one side is Kawaramachi, the commercial district and modern shopping paradise, and on the other side is Yasaka shrine and its forest, to keep you grounded as you explore the old and the new together.
Kyoto Day 3: Temples
Fushimi Innari; this is the name to associate with the popular picture of 1000 arches… right up to the top of Mt Innari. A JR line is the best way to get here because the station is right opposite the entrance. And thereafter, how much you walk through numerous large and small shrines on the forest trail is your choice. Usually when one feels one has got to the end, one is only half-way up… and that in my opinion is quite enough… because days are short and you want to head out to the mammoth Kiyomizudera temple and indulge in the huge market complex leading to it. By the way, don’t be perturbed if nightfalls before you reach Kiyomizudera… because it is brilliantly lit up and the market comes alive with local Japanese artifacts in the night!
Kyoto Day 4: Grand Energy
Now that you are pretty settled in, head out early to the outskirts. The destination is Kurama, a sleepy town 30 minutes north by train. You would catch it from Demachiyanagi station and enjoy a beautiful ride overseeing rural Japan and a maple forest or cherry blossoms, if you are in the train in the their seasons. Even if not, the last stop brings you within 5 minutes walking distance of the Mount Kurama, or Kuramayama, which is recognized as a center of high energy and special activity. Dr Usui, the founder of Reiki healing, attained his divination here and a walk up the mountain is supremely energizing to say the least. On your return, since Demachiyanagi is at one corner of the Imperial Palace, walk through the palace gardens and enjoy the serene and humble white and wood architecture; a hallmark of humility of Japanese royalty.
Kyoto Day 5: Power
The Shoguns ruled over Kyoto for most part. Powerful Samurai warriors and landlords, the Nijoji Castle reflects their glory. And hence, is a historic place to mark a day filled with stories of bravery, intelligence and intimidation. Follow it up in the peaceful environs of Kyoto’s tallest pagoda, the Toji Temple. It is close to the Kyoto station area, the Kyoto TV Tower and other places of general interest
Kyoto Day 6: Forests
Hidden away in the northern side of town is the Kinkakuji temple; golden in color and surrounded by a lake. A walk around it takes you through enchanting flora and blissful serenity. Not far by bus (remember your day pass?) on the west side is Arashiyama Bamboo Grove; a magnificent experience as you walk through it. And beyond it is the Katsura river, in which a boat ride will take you past the most enchanting forests (red in autumn) you will encounter anywhere. And if that type of forest isn’t stimulating for you, return to the Arashiyama tram station where a man-made ‘Kimono Forest’ will knock your shoes off with its unique design and lighting!
Kyoto/Fuji Day 7: Connections
Even though Fuji is between Kyoto and Tokyo, getting there is not the easiest directly. Why? The Shinkansen does not stop a small places along the way, so your will have to change several trains. What is better is to take a bullet train straight to Tokyo and from Shinjuku (the terminus) take a bus back to Fuji. The journey will take the better part of the day but the vistas are pleasant and well worth the time. Once in Fuji, you might choose to stay close to Fujisan station or Kawaguchiko station. The latter would be a better choice since the neighborhood there is fairly active in the evenings. Fujisan is quiet and peaceful. The bus stops at both places.
Fuji Day 8: Lakes
As you encounter the tourism outlets around Fuji the two options that will come screaming at you are 2-day bus passes for either the Yamanakako lake area or the Kawaguchiko lake area. I’d pick Yamanaka. Why? Because it is more rural, less touristy, wide open and facing Fuji. A great place to go boating in. And if it’s on, go Kaba-ing! A Kaba is a car-boat that runs in the forest and dives into the water (with a huge splash!). A unique experience! Kawaguchi on the other hand is walking distance from the station and one can always take a local bus to the other nearby lake Saiko (and its bird sanctuary; there are 5 beautiful lakes around Fuji!) and walk about to explore more. Simply walking around Kawaguchi town is greatly enjoyable. On a clear day the Fuji view from the top of the nearby Mt Tenjo ropeway is a delight too.
Fuji/Tokyo Day 9: Transitions
Depending on what you did the previous day, you might want to start early or late from Fuji, to catch up on all you’re missing. There is a massive adventure park for the roller-coaster-friendly crowd. And plenty of hiking trails for the hikers (for which your pit stop is the “5th Station”). Reaching Shinjuku is a 2-hour bus ride and it will be a great idea to simply explore Shinjuku for all its glitz, malls, nightlife and restaurants.
Tokyo Day 10: Core Japan
Asakusa is the shrine (with an exciting marketplace attached) and Skytree is the tower that we can identify the core of Japan with – Oriental and Technological extremes within two kilometers of each other. These give you enough meat to spend more than an entire day actually… but plan it out as you like. These are must-visits. Going up the tower is about USD 200… but perhaps the views are better from the other (older) Tokyo Tower, which is more central in the city and less expensive. Nevertheless, there’s heaps to explore around the Skytree complex.
Tokyo Day 11: Diverse Energy
The practical way to move around Tokyo is by buying a 3-day metro pass. For 1500 Yen it connects you to almost every place. And it is easily available for people with foreign passports at the Tourist Information Centers and BIC Camera Stores that abound Tokyo (Japan Travel Tips here). Hopping into a metro, any of the 3 stations around Tokyo Tower can be your first stop on a bright morning. While you can supposedly spot Fuji from above, the haze might get in the way. You will surely see the Zojoji temple however, which is right below and a must-step-inside place. Zojoji has very special energy which you will do well to fill yourself with, before you move forward in the day to explore Harajuku, the youthful shopping district and the Shibuya crossing; arguably the busiest pedestrian intersection anywhere in the world!
Tokyo Day 12: Contemplation
This is the day to practice what the Japanese are so disciplined with: meditation. Be in awareness while you walk through the Meiji forest, admiring its gigantic arches. And soaking in the intimidating simplicity of the Meiji Temple structures, built with just wood, metal and stone. Zip across to the Imperial Palace after you’ve had your fill of fresh forest air… and continue the appreciation of Japanese landscaping and architecture. The Palace is next to Tokyo downtown, station area, and that’s a great place to explore the nuances of contemporary Japanese design.
Tokyo Day 13: Excitement
Since most of the animation the world views on its TV sets emanates from Tokyo, it is indeed an eye-opening experience to walk into Akihabara. Merely to window-shop the wide variety of products that thrive in the animation industry. If that is your game, you could spend the whole day there. If not, you will be pleasantly educated. Later you could head over to Rippongi Midtown, Shindome or Oidaba shopping districts – each of which have some of the classiest malls, garments and products you could lay your eyes upon!
Tokyo Day 14: Parks
If you love nature, you love the intrinsic character of Japan. Yanaka, an old town preserved in the midst of Tokyo, is home to a huge cemetery and a very interesting private museum of sculpture. In it, you also find several temples in regular use and parks to picnic in. And then, there are the Yoyogi Park and Shinjuku Gyoen which, with their water bodies and trappings of fabulous flora, are quintessential Japanese gardens. Mind you, if it’s the autumn-November or the cherry blossom-March that you’re visiting in, whoopee… pics of these places are the best memories you will carry home with you!
Tokyo Day 15: Narita
Depending on what time your flight is, on this day you would be heading for Narita. Either NEX, or the metro that connects from Skytree are good ways to go. If you have more than 4 hours on hand, an exploration of Narita’s surrounding little towns is a great way to spend time. Tours are pre-planned by airport vendors and you can be sure of Japanese precision in everything. On this last day, you will be saying goodbye to a country of extremely civic-minded people; unimaginably helpful, courteous and clean. Always remember to keep their country the way you found it. Add to its youthful spirit if every way you can. Enjoy!*****
Tips to travel around Japan
- Book ‘Unreserved’ on JR; hop in the first 3 coaches
- JR pass is cheaper for 10+ hours of train rides
- Use Metro pass for Tokyo – buy at Tourist Center
- Use 600-Yen Bus pass for Kyoto – buy from driver
- Use Taxis consciously – each km is 400 Yen
Note: JR passes are issued only to foreigners only by courier BEFORE they enter Japan. They are value-for-money if a lot of sporadic travel of over 10 hours is planned (not so in the case of this itinerary).