HOW TO SPEND SEVENTEEN DAYS IN JAPAN: FIRST TIME ITINERARY

Japan!
Geishas. Samurais. Sumo wrestlers. Sushi.
Land of futuristic cities, traditional temples, stunning nature, and delicious food.

How to plan seventeen days in Japan to see all the major sites?

It can be done! Spending a bit more than 2 weeks in Japan is the perfect amount of time to get the taste of the land of the rising sun. At least it was for me back in April. I was there at the time of cherry blossom or Sakura.

In almost 3 weeks in Japan, you will see all the major sites, have a perfect blend of cities and nature, sleep in various accommodation types, try tons of delicious food, walk in historical alleys and neon-lined streets. From Tokyo to Kyoto, further to Hiroshima and Takayama. From deers in Nara to snow Monkeys in Yudanaka, close to Olympic Nagano.

This Japan itinerary is perfect for first-time visitors to Japan, will detail day-by-day activities and make your trip memorable. From stunning Arashiyama bamboo grove to dark Hiroshima, this is the Japan itinerary I used when celebrating my birthday in Japan.

Let’s have a look, how a perfect 17 days in Japan itinerary looks like.

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Disclosure (being transparent and honest should be fun): You know the way I run this blog. I only recommend products, experiences, hotels, etc. that I personally tried and actually own and use. And some that I am positive will be helpful for you. On this site, you will see pretty colorful links which are known as ”affiliate links”. If you click on this link and buy something you like, I’ll earn some money. I’m talking huge bucks here, like a new Tesla, yacht, and 7-bedroom mansion. Ok, honestly, most of the time it will be enough to help me buy treats for my dog and parrot, eco-friendly travel products or to help me build the time machine, and travel back in time to see the dinosaurs, do an interview of stone crafters on Easter island and have a serious chat with masterminds who ‘invented’ Maths. Thank you! Read more in Disclaimer.

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How to spend seventeen days in Japan. This is a perfect first-time travel itinerary for anyone visiting Nippon at cherry blossom or Sakura and Autumn.
How to spend seventeen days in Japan. This is a perfect first-time travel itinerary for anyone visiting Nippon at cherry blossom or Sakura and Autumn.

Breakdown of travel itinerary for Japan in 17 days

Before you start reading any further, I have to warn you that this is a jam-packed itinerary. Not a relaxed one. And in the end, it will be worth it! Especially on some days, you will need to be very prompt, but it can be done since everything in Japan is on time and works perfectly.

For this itinerary, you will need Japan Rail Pass 7 days (that will be used to the maximum). The rest of the trip will be done by busses and local trains and metros (not included in JR Pass). To be fair, this is more like a 16-day itinerary, since on Day 1 my flight from Australia landed late at night. If your flight lands in the morning or early afternoon you get a full day to explore.

For your first visit to Japan, I would recommend doing a similar route to mine. You will see all the major Japan bucket list items. And the beauty of it is that it can also be done in reverse.

I would recommend spending the first night in Tokyo (1 night). Then going to Lake Kawaguchiko (2 nights) to increase your chances of seeing Mt. Fuji, Kyoto (4 nights), Miyajima (1 night), then up to the North to Kanazawa (2 nights), Takayama (1 night), Matsumoto (1 night), Yudanaka (1 night) and back to Tokyo (3 nights).  

SHORT JAPAN ITINERARY OVERVIEW:
Day 1: Arrival in Tokyo, Japan
Day 2: Bus to Lake Kawaguchiko in Fuji Five Lakes region
Day 3: Churieto Pagoda, Mt. Fuji and Lake Kawaguchiko
Day 4: From Lake Kawaguchiko to Kyoto with Shinkansen
Day 5: Top three Kyoto attractions; Kinkaku-ji, Arashiyama & Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine
Day 6: Deers in Nara and eat everything in Osaka
Day 7: Explore historic Higashiyama and search for Geishas in Gion
Day 8: Himeji, Hiroshima and Miyajima island
Day 9: Miyajima to Kanazawa
Day 10: Explore districts and food in ‘little Kyoto’ or Kanazawa
Day 11: Kanazawa, rural Shirakawa Go and sake in Takayama
Day 12: Meet Samurai at Matsumoto castle
Day 13: Visit Olympic Nagano before ryokan in Yudanaka
Day 14: See the Snow monkeys in Yudanaka and back to Tokyo
Day 15: Tokyo Shibuya with Hachiko and Harajuku
Day 16: Tokyos’ traditional Asakusa and futuristic Akihabara
Day 17: Visit Tsukiji Market, Cooking Class and fabulous TeamLab

Here is how the itinerary looks on a map!

Map of 17 days in Japan travel itinerary.

Best time to visit Japan

From North to South, the Japanese archipelago is over 3000 km (1900 mi) long. And no point in Japan is more than 150 km (93 mi) away from the sea. This means that Japan is fairly large and has a whole array of different climate zones.

Generally speaking, the best time to visit Japan is during the springtime (March, April, May) or in the autumn months (September, October, November).

Visiting Japan in spring will give you a chance to see the cherry blossom or sakura. The weather at that time is crisp, sunny, and clear. Time of cherry blossom season is a busy season so expect higher prices on accommodation. It is also a good idea to book rail seats in advance, especially during the ‘golden week’. I visited Japan in April so feel free to ask me anything.

Autumn months are popular if you want to see Japan colored in red maple leaves colors. Expect more rain in September and cooler weather.  Every five years, in September, there is a ‘silver week’ when Japanese travel around the country. Prices during that time increase and tourist sites get crowded but less than in the spring. 

Summer months (June to August) mean hot and humid weather. Usually, a month with the highest rainfall is June, and the hottest is August. Summertime is also a typhoon season. However, if you want to climb Mount Fuji, go to Japan in July, which is one of the best months for hikers.

The least crowded months to visit in Japan are the winter months (December to February). Short days and long nights with cold temperatures attract tourists wanting to ski. Fewer visitors will mean less crowds and cheaper prices.

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Sakura at Lake Kawaguchiko overlooking Mt Fuji on a clear sunny day.
Anja on Adventure in Kinkakuji on her first time travel itinerary

How to get to Japan

The very best way to get to Japan is by air.

Major international airport hubs are outside of Tokyo and Osaka.

Narita and Haneda airports are the ones closer to Tokyo. Narita Airport is around 1 hour with an express train ride from Tokyo. Haneda Airport is Tokyo’s city airport only half an hour away from the city. Many airlines, like Turkish Airlines, Qatar, or Emirates, fly to both.

Kansai is an international airport serving Osaka and Kyoto. It is less than an hour away from Shin-Osaka and 1h and 15 minutes from Kyoto station. 

What to do before going to Japan

Get prepared to eat a lot of sushi! And ramen! And tempura! Ok, and Japanese desserts. Jokes aside, besides planning your Japan itinerary and getting excited about your Japanese adventure, there are things you should do before going to Japan. Things you should arrange ahead.

  • ORDER A POCKET WIFI
    Pocket wifi is the best, cheapest, and most convenient option to be connected online. It is much better than getting a Japanese SIM card. With Pocket wifi, you can stay connected everywhere in Japan. And trust me, if you don’t know how to read Japanese hiragana and katakana, sometimes, you might need a little Google help when outside the public wifi area. It is a small device, like a power bank, that you carry around and charge overnight. The catch with pocket wifi is that you have to order it BEFORE you get to Japan. It is delivered to the airport or to your hotel. When you leave you simply send it back from the airport. Easy and convenient. I ordered mine here and it was delivered to my hotel in Narita.
Sakura and Fujisan
Cherry blossom or Sakura and Mt. Fuji as seen from Lake Kawaguchiko.
  • BUY JAPAN RAIL PASS
    In Japan, you are probably going to use Japan Rail system. And you should! It is always on time (always!), clean, safe, and affordable way to explore. There is 7, 14 and 21-day Rail Pass. Now, Japan Rail Pass is a bit pricey, so I would recommend calculating how many days you will actually need it. And also note, that it DOES NOT cover all the trains (like Nozomi) and buses.

    To figure out the best option for you, use this Japan Rail Pass Calculator or JR Fare Calculator. You can activate it on whichever day you want. For example; I was in Japan for 17 days, and my initial thought was, oh, I should buy a JR pass 14 days. Well, no. After calculating train tickets, I only purchased JR Pass 7 days and activate it on Day 4.

    Important! Just like with pocket wifi, you have to BUY Japan Rail Pass BEFORE you arrive in Japan. They can send it to your address or if the departure time is too close, you will get a voucher to exchange it at the rail station. 
  • DOWNLOAD HYPERDIA APP ON YOUR PHONE
    HyperDia is a website and an app available in English, Japanese and Chinese. It is great for planning your rail trip to Japan, which is especially great for JR Pass users.

    You select your departure and arrival point, and HyperDia will give you a list of train information, prices, and average journey times.

    This is great while in Japan and before getting there, to calculate the cost of single train journeys compared to the JR Pass. Do note that Japan Rail Pass is NOT valid on Nozomi trains, offered in HyperDia. 

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How to spend seventeen days in Japan. This is a perfect first-time travel itinerary for anyone visiting Nippon at cherry blossom or Sakura and Autumn.
How to spend seventeen days in Japan. This is a perfect first-time travel itinerary for anyone visiting Nippon at cherry blossom or Sakura and Autumn.

Seventeen days in Japan itinerary

DAY 1: Arrival in Tokyo, Japan

Arrive in Tokyo, Japan. You will land at Narita or Hamada international airport. They are both in close proximity to Tokyo and easily accessible by public transport. 

First day in Japan will probably be full of surprises. At first, things will seem chaotic and futuristic. But it is the opposite. Everything, as you will soon figure out, is organized to perfection. They even tell you where you have to stand in line for the train.

If you are flying to Tokyo from the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the United States or Canada, or from Europe, you will be in for a treat. This will be a hectic day spent in the company of jet lag. Japan is 7h ahead of Europe, 13h ahead of New York, and 16h ahead of Los Angeles. If you are flying to Japan from Sydney, Australia, there is only 2h time difference.

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My flight arrived at 9 pm, from Brisbane, Australia to Narita airport. I wasn’t really jet-lagged. Technically this should not even count as a day. But if your plane arrives early, you will have more time to explore your chosen Tokyo neighborhood. Since my flight landed late in the evening, I decided to stay at Narita airport.

But if you have more time I would suggest staying in Shinjuku, since this will be the ‘starting’ point of our tomorrow’s itinerary.

Where to stay in Narita, Japan:
Nine hours Narita Airport is a modern, clean and affordable, capsule hotel, right in Narita airport. It is not claustrophobic, you get Wifi in your capsule and you feel like a tiny bee. Capsules for males and females are separated.

Tiny beehive at Nine Hours Narita capsule hotel.

DAY 2: Bus to Lake Kawaguchiko in Fuji Five Lakes region

Start your day with a nice Japanese breakfast. If you haven’t done it on the previous night, collect your Pocket Wifi from your hotel reception. With Pocket wifi, you get a better and faster connection than offered on a SIM card. Plus, you can connect more than one device to it.

After your morning coffee, head up to Shinjuku. If you want to see Sakura and Mount Fuji paired together, you will want to take the trip to Lake Kawaguchiko. To increase your chances you are taking a bus from Tokyo Shinjuku station to Kawaguchiko. I booked a bus ticket online on Highway bus. Traveling by bus gives you the best balance between time and cost of the ticket. I paid less than 2000 yen and the drive was shorter than 2h, without transfers.

* You can also do this trip by train. They all cost more than 2000 yen, usually require a change of trains and the journey is longer.
** If you don’t have 2 days, you can visit Lake Kawaguchiko as a day trip from Tokyo. If you do this, choose a nice day and increase your chances of seeing the iconic Mount Fuji.

A serving of Hoto noodles at Lake Kawaguchiko.

At Lake Kawaguchiko check in to your accommodation. My plan was to visit Fuji-Q Highland amusement park. But when I arrived it was snowing. Since I arrived from tropical Cairns and didn’t have any winter clothes (surprise surprise) with me I went shopping for a sweater.

For dinner go in a restaurant and try Hoto noodles. This is a specialty noodles dish of the local Yamanashi region, made by stewing flat udon noodles and vegetables in miso soup. I recommend eating at Kosaku Hoto Kosaku restaurant in Kawaguchiko. The restaurant was nice and warm, they have slippers and a nice ground seating area.

Where to stay in Lake Kawaguchiko, Japan:
K’s House Mt. Fuji is a travelers’ hostel, only a short 10-minute walk from Kawaguchiko Train station and super close to the lake. They have large rooms, a huge kitchen, and a large and cozy lounge area with English books. They offer free wifi in all of their rooms.

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How to spend seventeen days in Japan. This is a perfect first-time travel itinerary for anyone visiting Nippon at cherry blossom or Sakura and Autumn.
How to spend seventeen days in Japan. This is a perfect first-time travel itinerary for anyone visiting Nippon at cherry blossom or Sakura and Autumn.

DAY 3: Churieto Pagoda, Mt. Fuji and Lake Kawaguchiko

Start your day nice and early and head back to Kawaguchiko station. Have breakfast at the hotel or grab one from shops like the Japanese do (check labels because I almost bought cat food!). At the station take the Fujikyu Railway Line to Shimoyoshida Station. JR Pass is not valid on this line. From the station to Churieto Pagoda there is a 1km walk. 

Plan to be there at the opening time. At the most photographed spot of Mt. Fuji and Churieto pagoda, you will have a limited time to take photos. And if you are not there early enough, the wait time can be long. Especially on nice and clear days. 

Return back to Kawaguchiko and walk around the lake. In springtime there will be cherry blossoming all around the lake, offering amazing photo ops for a photo with Fujisan and reflection at the lake. I suggest having lunch at Cafe Mimi. I really enjoyed my pasta carbonara and a glass of fine wine. That is what I call a lunch with a view. 

Lunch at Cafe Mimi, Lake Kawaguchiko, with Mt. Fuji in the background.

After lunch have a walk around the lake or visit an onsen for the rest of your day.

Japanese onsen is a natural hot spring bath, usually enriched with minerals from geothermal water. A natural jacuzzi. Keep in mind that onsens are in many cases separated by gender. But you can always ask if they have konyoku (mixed-gender onsen). In onsen, you must be naked.

Finish your night with a nice portion of Hoto Noodles or any other traditional dish. I loved my Hoto Noodles from Hotou Fudo restaurant, close to the Kawaguchiko station.

Do you want to travel like me?
Here are some of my favorite travel tips and resources;

FLIGHTS: I use Google Flights or Skyscanner to find the best flight deals. The destination everywhere feature is perfect to find some cheap deals!

ACCOMMODATION: Booking.com is my favorite site for finding great hotel deals.

TOURS & ACTIVITIES: I like to wander around on my own, but when I want to explore with a group I book a tour with GetYourGuide.

DAY 4: From Lake Kawaguchiko to Kyoto with Shinkansen

Travel day. A day when you test Japanese fast trains. Day one of your 7-day JR Pass.

First, you will take the bus to Shin-Fuji (Shizuoka). And then take Shinkansen to Kyoto. The ride will take from 2,5 to 3h, depending on the train. Don’t forget that the top speed of the Shinkansen can be up to 320 km/h (200 mph). Grab yourself a bento box (lunch box) from the station or from the sellers on the train. Note: If you are in Japan during cherry blossom, book your seats in advance.

There will be plenty of food courts to go to in Kyoto. Grab yourself a dinner in one of the food courts around Kyoto station, or find a restaurant serving sushi, tempura, or ramen.

On my first night in Kyoto, I ended up in one small local restaurant. It had less than 20 seats. A pleasant older lady was making okonomiyaki. Her English was as good as my Japanese. But we managed to make it work. She made the best savory Japanese pancake, that I tried in and outside of Japan up to this day.

Where to stay in Kyoto, Japan:
• Because I liked the concept of K’s House Mt. Fuji so much, I decided to stay in the same backpacker hostel group also in Kyoto. K’s House Kyoto follows the Japanese style and design. There are spacious rooms and a large common area. It is within walking distance to Kyoto station, it is a great place to meet fellow travelers and offers free wifi.

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Japanese woman making okonomiyaki
How to spend seventeen days in Japan. This is a perfect first-time travel itinerary for anyone visiting Nippon at cherry blossom or Sakura and Autumn.

DAY 5: Top three Kyoto attractions; Kinkaku-ji, Arashiyama & Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine

Kyoto! The cultural capital of Japan. Birth site of Japanese traditions, Shinto shrines, Geisha district, palaces, gardens, and castles that are a part of UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Did you know, that because of its cultural importance, Kyoto was saved from the atomic bomb attack during the Second World War? Interesting right? So, it is only fair to see the top three Kyoto attractions on your first day here.

Because of its significance, be prepared for crowds. Every tourist attraction and shrine will be full of tourists. And this will be especially true during cherry blossom season in April, at the time of the golden week, and in fall months when people will come and see autumn foliage. 

Start your day by going to the Kinkaku-ji or Golden Pavilion first. If possible be there at the opening times and have the best view of this Buddhist Zen temple in Northern Kyoto. It is located in a beautiful garden next to a pond. The top two floors of the Kinkaku-ji are completely covered in gold leaf. And in the morning, before the winds start to pick up, you can see a reflection in the pond. Golden Pavilion, officially named Rokuon-ji, will probably be one of the most crowded places you will visit in Japan. It is on the list of the 17 locations of Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto which are a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Golden temple or Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto, Japan.

After the visit, spend some time at the local stalls tasting some traditional Japanese food. I really liked wasabi-covered peanuts. Then head over to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.

You will first walk through a beautiful garden and then arrive at a bamboo grove. The place will be full of tourists so don’t get your hopes up too high of having the spot just to yourself. There will still be amazing chances for you to get a perfect photo. 

Grab some lunch here and if you feel adventurous, go across the Katsura River and visit the Iwatayama Monkey Park. It is within a walking distance to Bamboo grove. Here you can see native Japanese Macaque monkeys.

Those are the monkeys seen in iconic photos taking a bath in hot springs during winter. Besides monkeys, at the top, there is also a beautiful view of Kyoto, mountains, and river.

Finish your day by heading to Fushimi Inari Taisha. It is one of the must-visit shrines when in Kyoto. It is open 24/7 and the best time to visit is at sunset. In honor of the goddess of rice, here you will find more than 10.000 Torii gates lined perfectly alongside trails in the forest of Mountain Inari. You can walk all the way up the top of this sacred mountain, where you will be awarded with a lovely view of Kyoto.

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How to spend seventeen days in Japan. This is a perfect first-time travel itinerary for anyone visiting Nippon at cherry blossom or Sakura and Autumn.
How to spend seventeen days in Japan. This is a perfect first-time travel itinerary for anyone visiting Nippon at cherry blossom or Sakura and Autumn.

DAY 6: Deers in Nara and eat everything in Osaka

Today you are going to visit Nara. First capital of Japan. Here you will meet with famous Nara deer.

Nara deers, or sika deers, are sacred animals protected as national treasures. They are famous all across Japan. They are not shy. You can feed them but make sure to hide the food or else they will find it. In Nara, there are also three UNESCO World Heritage sites. You can roam Nara park on your own, but I decided to take Nara tour. It lasted for a half-day and visited two temples from UNESCO list; Todaiji Temple with Great Buddha and Kofukuji Temple. Tour was well worth it and I learned a lot.

Nara deer in Nara at the time of sakura.

After lunch and before returning back to JR Nara train station, make a stop at Okumura Commemorative Museum. Here you will find various exhibits. The most interesting is about the technologies and the difficulties earthquakes pose to the construction industry. There is also an earthquake simulator you can sit in and experience various levels of earthquakes happening in Japan.

Spend your late afternoon and evening in Osaka, trying to get the best shot of Glico running man. Since 1935, it is one of the most famous symbols of the city, when a neon sign was erected along the Dōtonbori Canal in Osaka. Then eat your heart out and try as many local dishes as you can handle. Everything you will taste will be DELICIOUS! Food there is insanely amazing! 

If you want to taste the best of the best and have fun with it, you might want to sign in and take a three-hour walking food tour of Osaka. I have to warn you, to get ready because you will eat a lot. You will sample 10 local dishes like Takoyaki, Okonomiyaki and Yakitori, and try local drinks. You will meet different food options, from markets, and restaurants to izakayas.

Street food in Osaka.

DAY 7: Explore historic Higashiyama and search for Geishas in Gion

This will be your final day in Kyoto, exploring the Eastern side. Here you will find traditional Japan in the historic districts of Higashiyama and Gion. You will also visit the Kiyomizudera Temple, another UNESCO World heritage site. To make your day even more special, rent a Kimono for a day.

Start your day at Kiyomizudera temple. And don’t forget to get a goshuin stamp. This is one of the most famous Buddhist temples in Kyoto. The ‘Temple of the Pure Water Spring’, has a magnificent location on the hill and an impressive viewing platform.

After Kiyomizudera temple continue your day winding the historic streets of Higashiyama District. Here you will find narrow lines, traditional shops, and old Japanese architecture with wooden buildings. Perfect place for amazing photos and souvenir shopping.

If you have the energy to learn more about the culture, there are Kodaiji Temple and Kenniji Temple you could visit. The other option is to find the nearest Pablo’s cheesecake shop. I highly recommend trying Pablo Cheesecake Tart, an authentic Japanese dessert. 

And now the best for last. Head to the traditional Gion neighborhood in the late afternoon or early evening. Gion is a famous Geisha district. A birthplace of Geisha culture, where the culture is still alive today. If you are lucky you might catch a glimpse of Geiko or Maiko.

I signed up for Night Walk in Gion. This is an amazing way to learn about Geisha District, Geisha lives, their history meaning of their culture, kimonos, trainings, makeup, tea ceremony and more. 

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How to spend seventeen days in Japan. This is a perfect first-time travel itinerary for anyone visiting Nippon at cherry blossom or Sakura and Autumn.
how to spend seventeen days in Japan

DAY 8: Himeji, Hiroshima and Miyajima island

Start your day bright and early and head on the Japan Railways Shinkansen train that stops at Himeji. Don’t worry about your luggage since you can leave it on Himeji station, safely locked, until you return back to take the train to Hiroshima.

On your way to Hiroshima stop by Himeji Castle. Himeji is the most visited and largest castle in Japan. And during sakura, it would be a shame not to visit it. This White Heron Castle is one of 12 original castles in Japan since it has never been destroyed by war or natural disaster. Himeji was also one of the first Japanese landmarks added to the UNESCO World Heritage site. As of today, there are 25 UNESCO world heritage sites in Japan, 20 of them with cultural significance and 5 natural ones.

View of Himeji castle, White Heron Castle, at sakura.

After a couple of hours head back to the Himeji station and get on Shinkansen towards Hiroshima. Grab a bento box for the way and don’t forget your luggage! If carrying your backpack is too much of a chore, you can send it to your next accommodation from Kyoto.

Heads up, Hiroshima is an intense place to visit. I was scared, excited, and frightened at the same time. It is important to learn about the history and horror that happened here. A visit is also a great reminder of the odds of survival and strength.

Give yourself time to wander around Hiroshima. Visit Atomic Bomb Dome, the building that survived, also on UNESCO list, and learn about the horror history in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Here you will learn all about the tragic August 6, 1945, and ‘Little Boy’. Later have a walk in Peace Memorial Park and visit Japanese Shukkei-en Garden. If this will be too intense, you can visit Hiroshima castle before catching the last train and ferry to Miyajima.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome), survived the atomic bomb on 6 August 1945.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome), survived the atomic bomb on 6 August 1945.

You get to Miyajima island or ‘Islands of The Gods’ at sunset. This will be a great time for stunning photos of the famous Great Torii of the Itsukushima Shrine. Those are the ‘floating’ Torii gates when, if you are lucky enough, can walk to them during low tide. Itsukushima Shinto Shrine became a part of UNESCO World Heritage in 1996. 

Where to stay in Miyajima, Japan:
Miyajima Guest House Mikuniya is a lovely guest house, offering Japanese-style accommodation, with tatami and traditional futon mattress. There is a small garden with a stunning view and a cozy, common area. Here you can learn how to do origami paper cranes, other crafts, learn about food and Japanese culture. They have free wifi.

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How to spend seventeen days in Japan. This is a perfect first-time travel itinerary for anyone visiting Nippon at cherry blossom or Sakura and Autumn.
How to spend seventeen days in Japan. This is a perfect first-time travel itinerary for anyone visiting Nippon at cherry blossom or Sakura and Autumn.

DAY 9: Miyajima to Kanazawa

Wake up bright and early. This will be your last chance to visit Miyajima island before the longest transfer of this Japan itinerary. You will conquer more than 600 km (370 miles) in less than 6h (without longer stops) or more if you add stops on the way.

If you haven’t done it the day before, visit the famous ‘floating’ Giant Torii gate. Take a look at UNESCO World Heritage Site Shinto Itsukushima Shrine. You can also visit the Five. storied pagoda or simply walk around the island, meet with wild deers and try their local desert. It is a buckwheat and rice cake treat, called Momiji manjū, and shaped like a Japanese maple leaf.

Momiji manjū, local desert from Miyajima island, shaped like a Japanese maple leaf.
Momiji manjū, local desert from Miyajima island, shaped like a Japanese maple leaf.

After browsing the island, it is time to take a long journey all the way up north to Kanazawa. After Kyoto, this is one of the most well-preserved and historical cities in Japan. It is famous for geisha and samurai districts. It will feel like a smaller version of Kyoto, thus the nickname ‘Little Kyoto’ but with fewer tourists.  

First, make your way to the ferry and then take the train to Hiroshima. From Hiroshima to Kanazawa the fastest way is to take Shinkansen Sakura Exp. to Shin-Osaka. This ride will take around 90 min. You can also take the one to Shin-Kobe, which will add an extra train ride to Kyoto. Depending on your timetable and if you will add some extra stops on your route, from Shin-Osaka or from Kyoto you then have to take Ltd. Exp. Thunderbird. The train ride will take from 2 to 2,5h. I was using Hyperdia to schedule all my train rides and to calculate the price of each route.

After your arrival, indulge your taste buds in some of the best seafood dishes in Japan. Visit one of those cute conveyor-belt sushi restaurants, and try tempura, pork curry or gyoza. 

Where to stay in Kanazawa, Japan:
Guest House Pongyi is one of the friendliest guest houses I stayed in Japan. You will find Pongyi a short walk from JR train station, in a traditional Japanese house that was once used as a kimono shop. Staff is super friendly and helpful, willing to tell you all about the best places to eat, culture, food, religion, show you how to write, do origami or other traditional crafts. It is a small guesthouse that can only accommodate 10 people, so book in advance.

Delicious three-course seafood meal in Kanzawa, Japan.
Delicious three-course seafood meal in Kanazawa, Japan.

DAY 10: Explore districts and food in ‘little Kyoto’ or Kanazawa

Today you are going to discover the beautiful town of Kanazawa, also known as ‘Little Kyoto’. You can go on a city discovery tour on your own, or go on a tour with a local guide.

Start your Kanazawa adventure in the most famous of the Three Great Gardens in Japan, Kenroku-en. This is an old private garden combining six garden attributes: seclusion, antiquity, spaciousness, human ingenuity, water and scenic views. It is stunning and you can spend a day wandering down pathways and admiring ponds.

When garden zen fills your soul, head to Kanazawa Castle and visit Kanazawa Castle Park. In this reconstructed castle, it burned down several times, you can learn a lot about Japanese architecture and history. When finished, go to the Omicho Market. You will be amazed by the selection of bento boxes, sushi restaurants, and food displayed at “Kanazawa’s Kitchen”.

Kenroku-en garden Kanazawa
Beautiful veduta in Kenroku-en garden in Kanazawa, Japan.

For the best and most delicious deals, choose a restaurant where local go and order what they are having. Many times in Japan I had no idea what I was eating 😀 all I do know is that it was delicious.

Spend your afternoon exploring Higashi Chaya District. This is the largest (and most famous) of the three Geisha districts in Kanazawa. Here you will find rice shops, teahouses, and gold leaf galleries. Here you can try Kanawaza famous gold leaf ice cream. If time permits, visit an old geisha house, Ochaya Shima.

Enjoy your evening exploring the streets of Kanazawa or, if you still have the energy, visit Nagamachi Bukeyashiki District. This is where middle-class samurai families used to live. If not, give it your best shot and try as many delicious seafood dishes as possible. I had too much sushi, tried the best tempuras, bought 3 bento boxes, gold leaf ice cream and would still eat if I could. You can also sign up for a Private Food Tasting Walking Tour, where you will enjoy in 6 food tastings and a drink.

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Seventeen days in Japan, kanazawa gold leaf ice cream
itinerary for japan 17 days

DAY 11: Kanazawa, rural Shirakawa Go and sake in Takayama

Start your day early. Your Japan Rail Pass is not valid anymore OR on this route. You are going to hop on a bus from Kanazawa to Takayama with a stop at Shirakawa-go in the Japanese Alps. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site, where you can still find traditional farmhouses with thatched, gassho-zukuri, roofs.

This is a popular day tour trip from Kanazawa or Takayama, so if you can, book your bus ticket and reserve your seat in advance. Also, you will have to book TWO separate bus tickets; one for Kanazawa – Shirakawa-go (1,5h) and the second one Shirakawa-go – Takayama (1h). Get yourself a couple of hours between both rides. You can book your tickets HERE. Don’t forget that all the public transport in Japan leaves on time. So if you miss it, it’s your fault. 

Shirakawa-go traditional house at sakura
Shirakawa-go traditional house with thatched roof at cherry blossom.

A highlight of today is the visit to the little village, with traditional farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old. Have a walk around the Ogimachi village, where gassho-zukuri farmhouses are very well preserved.

Back in the day, the main source of income here was the cultivation of mulberry trees and the rearing of silkworms. Picture-perfect architecture with steeply-pitched thatched roofs is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After lunch and a souvenir shopping market visit, take on the bus to Takayama, a lovely city in the Japanese Alps, famous for quality sake, delicious Hida beef, timber, and traditional buildings.

In the afternoon, also depending on your bus-time schedule, try to squeeze in a visit to Hida Folk Village. After a visit of Shirakawa-go, this might not be as impressive, but it is a nice open-air museum showcasing traditional architecture and farmhouses.

hida beef
Hida beef in Takayama.

Take your time in the evening for some sake tasting and try one of the finest quality varieties of beef, Hida beef. The price of beef steak all around Japan is determined by the amount of marbling, the determining factor in the quality, and yield rank.

Where to stay in Takayama, Japan:
• Based on my previous experiences with K’s Houses in Lake Kawaguchiko and Kyoto, I decided to stay K’s House Takayama [1st K’s Hostel] as well. They have a great central location. I booked a single room this time with an ensuite. They have double rooms and family rooms. Just like other K’s House’s they follow Japanese style and design. They offer free Wifi, coffee and tea and have a rental bikes available. 

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suggested itinerary for japan 17 days
suggested itinerary for japan 17 days

DAY 12: Meet Samurai at Matsumoto castle

In the morning, have a stroll on the Takayama morning market. Here you can interact with locals shopping for fruits, flowers, vegetables or souvenirs. Grab some snacks or take your time to enjoy in breakfast and matcha tea.

Then take a bus to Matsumoto. There are 4 buses from Takayama to Matsumoto. The ride is around 2,5h and it costs around ¥ 3,500. I chose the one leaving Takayama at 11:50.  You can look at the bus schedule HERE or HERE. You could also take the train, but the route is longer and more expensive.

After arriving to black castle and samurai famous Matsumoto check-in to your hotel. Spend your afternoon exploring Matsumoto Castle, also named “Crow Castle” because of the black color. This is one of the 12 original castles (not reconstructed like the one in Kanazawa) in Japan. Besides the moat, the special characteristic are the structures from two different eras, working as one. Here you can learn about samurai culture and maybe you will even see one.

Samurai and Geisha at MAtsumoto castle
When I almost stole katana from a Samurai, when posing with Geisha at Matsumoto castle.

Spend your evening tasting one or more traditional Matsumoto dishes. I tried Toji Soba, which are buckwheat noodles that you heat up in a broth, and eat with vegetables. After noodles, you should also try Matsumoto’s famous fried chicken Sanzoku-yaki, which truly has a unique (but good!) taste.

After dinner, walk back to the castle and catch a reflection of the illuminated castle in the moat. 

Where to stay in Matsumoto, Japan;
Matsumoto BackPackers is a lovely hostel in an old house with a small garden. Short walk away from the JR station and bus terminal. It is around 10 minute walk from Matsumoto castle. They offer futon-styled rooms, free Wifi, and some toiletries. 

Matsumoto castle at night
Matsumoto castle at night.

DAY 13: Visit Olympic Nagano before ryokan in Yudanaka

Get yourself a nice breakfast and make your way to the train station. The journey today will take you all the way to Yudanaka, famous because of Japanese Macaques, or Snow Monkeys. This will be a two-legged journey, with a stopover in Olympic Nagano.

From Matsumoto train station, take the Limited Express train to Nagano. It will take around 50 minutes to get there. Store your luggage in Nagano station in one of the coin lockers.

Nagano was the host of the Winter Olympic games in 1998. You could book a private Nagano tour with a local or explore on your own. Besides the Nagano Olympic Stadium, most visited attraction is buddhist Zenko-ji Temple. Because of this temple, Nagano was formed around it as a temple town. Zenko-ji, dating back to 7th century, is one of Japan’s oldest temples.

Nagano and Zenko-ji
Signs in Olympic Nagano from XVIII Olympic games and yours truly in front of Zenko-ji temple.

After some delicious lunch, head back to the station and take a bus or a train to Yudanaka.

Since it was my birthday, I splurged a little bit on accommodation and stayed in ryokan. Ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn. They have tatami rooms, futon beds, they might provide Yukata and some even have onsens and offer local cuisine. ‘My’ ryokan picked me up from the Yudanaka Station and made me delicious kaiseki, a multi-course dinner. 

Where to stay in Yudanaka, Japan;
Yudanaka Yasuragi is a small traditional Japanese ryokan, with spacious and clean rooms. They have two private onsens, which can be reserved for private use. They offer kaiseki, a multi-course Japanese dinner, where you will be treated with delicacies from fish, seafood and meat varieties. It was delicious and I had no idea what I was eating. They offer free transport to Yudanaka Train Station and free Wifi.

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travel itinerary for japan
Snow monkeys in Yudanaka

DAY 14: See the Snow monkeys in Yudanaka and back to Tokyo

Wake up nice and early. Have a good breakfast and get on your way to Jigokudani Monkey Park. I am not gonna lie, this might be quite an exhausting day! Ryokan owner where I stayed the previous night drove me to Snow park. It is good to be there as soon as it opens.

The walk up to the entrance of the park (from the bus station) is from 30-45 minutes. From the entrance to the hot springs, there is a 15-20 min walk. So wear good shoes! Especially in winter when the path might be muddy and slippery. Plan 2-3 hours for the park (including the walk to and from the park).

Jigokudani Monkey Park is one of the famous destinations in Japan. It is well known for the population of Japanese macaques or even more because of the photos of Snow Monkeys taking a bath during winter. Well, if you visit anytime outside winter, the image might be slightly different.

When I was there, end of April, there were monkeys but no snow. Monkeys walked around us, and close to the spring but none went inside the pool. Also, the experience didn’t feel as ‘natural’ as I hoped it would.

Snow monkeys or Japanese macaques in Jigokudani Monkey Park.

After seeing the Japanese macaques, return back to the bus station and go back to Tokyo. The fastest way will take around 3 hours. Getting a bus from Jigokudani Monkey Park to Nagano, and then Shinkansen to Tokyo. Another option is to take a local bus to Yudanaka train station, a train from Yudanaka to Nagano, and then Shinkansen to Tokyo. 

Now, Tokyo is BIG! It has almost 14 million people so no matter how long you are staying here, there will always be something for you to see. There are many districts where you can stay. I chose to spend my last days in Japan in a centrally located Shibuya and use public transport to explore other parts of Tokyo.

Where to stay in Tokyo, Japan;
Mustard Hotel Shibuya has a great location for exploring Tokyo. Close to everything, but not to close to feel noisy. Amazing breakfast in hotel restaurant, spacious rooms, bar, free bikes and free Wifi. Rooms are spacious and clean.

Tokyo at night dressed in neon lights
Tokyo at night dressed in neon lights.

DAY 15: Tokyo Shibuya with Hachiko and Harajuku

Start your day in Shibuya. Make sure to walk across the busiest and iconic Shibuya crossing. After getting lost in a sea of people in the busiest pedestrian crossing, head over to Starbucks and get a view from above. If that is too busy, head across to L’Occitane cafe and get a lovely meal. For the kickass view from above visit Deck at Magnet by Shibuya109!

To add a bit more adventure to your itinerary, sign up for Go-Kart Tour and buzz through Shibuya, Shinjuku and Harajuku like a Super Mario.

After take a stop at Hachiko, the faithful dog, statue. It is just outside the Shibuya station. When done with sightseeing, walk around as Shibuya is one of the biggest shopping places in Tokyo. I may have bought too many things to fit in my carry-on.

Shibuya crossing from Deck at Magnet by Shibuya109.
Shibuya crossing from Deck at Magnet by Shibuya109.

Spend the afternoon in a cool and vibrant fashion district Harajuku. Walk around, enjoy people-watching and window shopping in fashion boutiques. When your legs will start to get tired, stop in one of the themed cafes. There are MANY themed cafes in Tokyo; from Snake cafes, Penguin bars, Pokemon, Kawaii … if you can think of it, Tokyo has it.

I visited Hedgehog cafe which got me questioning how ethical it is. It was not crowded, only locals really, plus they had some strict rules on how to handle hedgehogs. I love animals so I liked it experience.

Don’t forget to try Harajuku crepe. You can choose from hundreds of sweet or savory fillings. Since you will already be in Harajuku, grab your dinner here and stop on one of many karaoke bars and experience a different aspect of Japanese culture.

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Hengehog cafe
How to spend seventeen days in Japan. This is a perfect first-time travel itinerary for anyone visiting Nippon at cherry blossom or Sakura and Autumn.

DAY 16: Tokyos’ traditional Asakusa and futuristic Akihabara

This day will be filled with contrasts and cultural shocks. Start your day heading to Asakusa, visiting a traditional Sensoji temple. If your feet are a bit sore from yesterday, opt in for Asakusa Rickshaw Tour, and explore this Tokyo’s historic district in a more traditional way.

After Tokyo’s oldest temple visit, head on to Ueno park. Wander around in one of Japan’s five oldest public parks. If you are visiting in the spring, you might be awarded with a beautiful cherry blossom. It is free to visit and is more known for Ueno Zoo and museums. 

After Asakusa and Ueno, head to futuristic Akihabara. It is the opposite of the traditional Asakusa. Akihabara is the mecca for anyone who likes video games, anime, pop culture, manga, and electronics. Sign up for Anime & Gaming Adventure Tour. This is the Tokyo you imagined before coming to Japan. In Akihabara, you will have plenty of options to play arcade games, find your favorite comic book store or experience a very Japanese-styled Maid cafe.

Besides coplay, manga and comic books, Akihabara district is famous for tonkatsu (pork cutlet) restaurants. So if you are a fan of pork, this is the place to eat it.

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17 days in Japan itinerary
How to spend seventeen days in Japan. This is a perfect first-time travel itinerary for anyone visiting Nippon at cherry blossom or Sakura and Autumn.

DAY 17: Visit Tsukiji Market, Cooking Class and fabulous TeamLab

Start off your final morning in Tokyo by heading to Tsukiji fish market. Since this is one of the biggest fish markets in Japan, with more than 400 shops, I recommend signing in for a tour. If you didn’t have breakfast at your accommodation, I recommend THIS one.

To learn the most about Tsukiji and Japanese cuisine, sign in for Tsukiji Market Walking Tour & Rolled Sushi Class. You will prepare traditional Japanese dishes and be finished by lunchtime.

If your flight is in the evening hours, like mine was, spend your afternoon in one of the coolest, interactive art exhibitions on the planet. Visit TeamLab Planets or TeamLab Borderless. Dress in white for the best photos with art installations.

I visited TeamLab Borderless and absolutely loved it. Their exhibitions are unifying art, nature, science, technology, and visitors. You are a part of the exhibition and installation dynamics in it. *TeamLab Borderless closed on August 31, 2022, and will be reopened in a new location in 2023.

Until reopening, I highly recommend visiting TeamLab Planets, since this truly is one of the things you really shouldn’t miss when in Japan before they end it. Tickets are selling like hot buns so get yours before selling out. In TeamLab Planets you will experience walking through water, and being one of the flowers in the garden. The concept will blow your mind off. Guaranteed!

At the end of your last day, fully filled with memories, adventures and experiences, head back to the airport and say ‘Dewa Mata ne’ (see you soon).

TeamLab Borderless
Art installations from TeamLab Borderless.

How to spend 17 days in Japan, in a nutshell

This seventeen days Japan itinerary is perfect for any first-time visitor to Nippon, the land of the rising sun. It is a perfect blend of nature, culture, history, and food tastings. You will see enough but at the same time just right, to taste what Japan has to offer and will want to return and explore some more.

17 days in Japan will be plenty of time for you to experience the differences between futuristic Tokyo and traditional Kyoto. To learn about the shrines and temples, and hopefully see Japan’s sacred symbol Mount Fuji. There will be lakes, mountains, parks, rivers, ocean, and Japanese Alps.

You will have plenty of options to taste various culinary delicacies Japan has to offer; from sushi and tempura to gyozas and ramen, okonomiyaki to noodles. Tasting sake, whiskey, and gin but still learn a lot visiting 7 UNESCO World Heritage sites. You will walk in Geisha and Samurai districts in Gion and Kanazawa, and travel back in time in Shirakawa-go.

Traditional houses in Higashiyama district in Kyoto, Japan.

In terms of alternations; you can skip the night at Lake Kawaguchiko and only do Mt. Fuji Full-Day Sightseeing Trip from Tokyo. I spent 2 days in Lake Kawaguchiko since I really wanted to see Fujisan. It turned out that this was a good decision. On my first day there it was snowing and on the second day, it was the most perfect day I could ever wish for. 

When in Kyoto you can easily swap the days. On Day 8, you can skip the Himeji castle and go directly to Hiroshima, to spend more time there. You can also do a half-day Miyajima tour from Hiroshima.

You can skip on the snow monkeys in Yudanaka, and exchange this day for an extra day in other places; Kyoto or Tokyo if you prefer city life more. Or even Kanazawa or Takayama. Maybe spend one more day in Osaka or do a day trip to Nikko from Tokyo or explore central Tokyo. 

Fushimi inari
Enjoying the sun in Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, among 10.000 Torri gates.

If you don’t have 17 days to spare in Japan and are wondering how many days in Japan is enough for best itinerary for Japan? I would say, the more the merrier but try to get at least 12. Omit Kanazawa or Takayama, and do a day trip to Hiroshima from Kyoto. It will be rushed but enough to give you that feeling of wanting more.

Regardless of how many days in Japan you have planned, make sure that you savor every moment eating sushi, watching beautiful torii gates and pagodas in a country where futuristic and traditional live in harmony.

Dewa mata ne,
Anja

If you have been to Japan, how did your itinerary look like?
Let me know in the comments!

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Anja on Adventure in Kinkakuji on her first time travel itinerary
Sakura at Lake Kawaguchiko overlooking Mt Fuji on a clear sunny day.

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Interested in Travel tips?
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Do you want to travel like me?
Here are some of my favorite travel tips and resources;

FLIGHTS: I use Google Flights or Skyscanner to find the best flight deals. The destination everywhere feature is perfect to find some cheap deals!

ACCOMMODATION: Booking.com is my favorite site for finding great hotel deals.

TOURS & ACTIVITIES: I like to wander around on my own, but when I want to explore with a group I book a tour with GetYourGuide.


Skipped to the good part? Here is the gist

This seventeen days in Japan itinerary will give you an idea of how to best spend 17 days in Nippon, the land of the rising sun. This will be a blend of exploring futuristic Tokyo, traditional Kyoto, mixed with Buddhist temples and torii gates. There will be nature and snow monkeys, history, and 7 UNESCO World heritage sites. All connected with a perfect combination that will give you time to taste what Japan has to offer, beyond sushi and sake, and make you want to return and explore some more.

I hope this helped you to plan your perfect Japan itinerary.

If you found this blog helpful, follow me on Instagram and Pinterest. Or you can subscribe to my YouTube channel. Here you will find a lot of travel tips, itineraries, and packing hacks completely for free. If you want to see more of it and would like to encourage me to post even more, you can say thanks and buy me a coffee.


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About Anja On Adventure

anja on Adventure

Anja On Adventure is a travel blog, a collection of insider tips and information on destinations, that I visited as a solo female traveler, tour guide, teacher, yacht stewardess, and Survivor challenge tester.

Anja, is a thirty-something adventure-seeking, sun chasing, beach hopping, gin-loving, tropics enthusiast with a creative mind and sarcastic spirit, who loves coconut and mango but doesn’t like chocolate and sweets. I am passionate about all things travel, maps, and puzzles. Click here to learn more About me.

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10 thoughts on “HOW TO SPEND SEVENTEEN DAYS IN JAPAN: FIRST TIME ITINERARY”

  1. Wow! What a great itinerary with so much packed into 17 days. I’m planning to visit Japan before long and I’ll save your itinerary for later. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Thank you! It is packed but I wanted to see as much as possible! I have no idea when will be the next time I will go that far, so … Let me know if you need any help or advice!

      Reply
  2. This is fully packed! I’m visiting Japan next year so I’m starting to prepare my itinerary, I can’t decide yet between 2 and 3 weeks I guess somewhere in between… Anyways, this itinerary seems perfect and truly helpful and I’m glad you included Nara! I’ve heard wonders about it from many people and even locals. Thank you for sharing this! ☺️

    Reply
    • Thank you! Yes, you can do this itinerary in 2 weeks, by leaving out Yudanaka and snow monkeys or even Matsumoto. Or you can also do it in 3 weeks by adding extra days in Tokyo. I loved Nara, it is special to see those deers. they bow for you. But be careful when feeding them, I got bitten in my bum several times. Deers are really impatient if they see you have food and don’t want to give it to them! 😀 Let me know if you need and help planning.

      Reply
  3. Goodness, this itinerary looks amazing, but sooo exhausting! You really crammed in sooo much travel for those 17 days! I used to live in Nara, so I do love the places you chose, I would probably just choose fewer stops and spend a little longer in each place.

    For anyone with FOMO, this is such a great itinerary…I love that you included things like cooking classes as well as temples, shrine, good food and mountains. 🙂

    Reply
    • Thank you Josy. It is a packed itinerary but it wasn’t exhausting. I guess it helps that everything in Japan is on time, so you can really plan ahead and follow the timeline to the second. Plus, they are really convenient and make things super easy for you. I don’t think I would be able to follow this itinerary in any other country (without the delays). So yeah, maybe not for everyone but it can be done 😀

      Yeah, I would love to spend more time in Kanazawa and Takayama, or even Kyoto and Tokyo. But by the time I came back to Tokyo I had enough of all the temples so was trying to include different things into an itinerary. That is why all the food tastings and cooking classes, villages and mountains.

      Reply
  4. I’m planning a trip to Japan right now so this is SO helpful! I love the tips about the pocket wifi and how to maximize the JP Rail Pass. Thank you for putting this together so comprehensively!

    Reply
  5. Oh my goodness I’d soooo love to get to Japan, but it just hasn’t been in the cards for me yet. You’ve laid out a lot of incredible details for a trip. I’m saving for the future – thanks!

    Reply
    • Thank you so much! Japan is definitely one of those destinations anyone needs to visit. It is just SO different than anything we know in the western world.

      Reply

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