HOW TO SPEND ONE MONTH IN JAPAN

 

The Ultimate Japan Itinerary

If you're thinking of heading to Japan but know little about the country, or how best to spend your time, we're here to help. Below is a suggested itinerary for 4 weeks exploring this fantastically varied archipelago.

It's tailored to our tastes, so a good mix of city-living, a bit of culture, some good food, and rounded off with a healthy dose of nature & hiking. We tend to pack our itineraries out, so factor in some days to rest or chill somewhere you think you might like kicking-back if you want to go a little slower. The food and accommodation recommendations are a mix of budget and a little more fancy. We hope it's useful.

Perfer to make your own itinerary but still need a starting place? Have a look at our Top 30 Things Not to Miss in Japan.

Week by Week:

Week 1: Tokyo & Mt Fuji

Week 2: Kyoto, Osaka & Kumano

Week 3: Shikoku to Hiroshima

Week 4: The Japanese Alps


Week 1: Tokyo & Mt Fuji

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Tokyo

Arrive in Tokyo and set yourself up in one of the tourist friendly areas; to the East of the city Shinjuku offers an opportunity to stay in the heart of the hustle & bustle, whereas Ryoguko, Kuramae & Asakusa to the West are better for backpackers. Spend three days acclimatising to Japan, Japanese food & the Japanese.

Top Attractions in Tokyo:

- Asukusa old town
- Ueno park
- The Imperial Palace
- Shibuya crossing (Scramble crossing)
- The Meji Jingu Shrine & Gotokuji Temple
- Omoide Yokocho (or Memory Lane)
- The Tokyo Metropolitan Government city observation deck
- TeamLab digital art museum, Nezu museum, or Sumida Hokusai museum
- Tokyo Hands & Don Quijote Shopping Arcades (for the ultimate shopping experience)

There is a vast amount to see and do in Tokyo, so pick a few and take your time to see them properly.

SLEEP
Good (in Ryogoku) - Anne Hostel - Clean, comfortable, good size private doubles, free tea & coffee
Better (in Asakusa) - Bunka Hostel - Great cafe & restaurant on-site, in the heart of Asakusa, spacious dorms & private capsules.
Best (in Kuramae) - Focus Kuramae - Great bar & restaurant on-site, quiet residential area packed with independent cafes & shops, great style & compact but comfortable private rooms for a good price
Traditional (in Shinjuku): Tadaima Japan Shinjuku Ryokan - traditional ryokan in the heart of the neon city.

EAT
Recommending one place to eat in a city like Tokyo is virtually impossible unless you’re willing to part with some serious cash. Instead, we would recommend popping into an Izakaya (Japanese bbq/pub) and an Udon noodle shop to get your first authentic local food; if the sign is in Japanese and there is no English menu...you’re in the right place. Sit at the bar, order a random selection & watch them prepare it in front of you.

For more detail on what to expect in Tokyo, read our city guide here.


Fuji-Five-Lakes

KAWAGUCHIKO

A short train ride westwards will bring you to the Fuji-five-lakes area; the region surrounding the iconic Mt. Fuji volcano. Head first to Lake Kawaguchi for breathtaking views across the water.

Day 1: Hire some bikes and cycle around the lake, with good luck it'll be a clear day and Fuji will loom in the distance for the whole journey (alternatively, we walked...it took us aaaages). 

Day 2: The next day aim to get to the Chureito Pagoda early to avoid the crowds and then hike further up the mountain to enjoy continuous views of Mt. Fuji in solitude. We then opted to walk over the mountain back towards town via Mt Tenjo which provided some welcome peace & the freshest of air. Take the cable-car back down the lake if the legs are aching.

SLEEP
Good: K's place Fuji view hostel - Standardised chain of hostels across Japan. Great facilities, free tea, coffee & food for sale.
Best: Fujikawaguchiko Onsen Konanso - Luxury Ryokan Onsen on the shore of the Lake. View of Mt. Fuji.

EAT
Fuji Tempura Idaten - Tempura restaurant, good options with a choice of ramen
Tetsuyaki. - Local teppanyaki restaurant, simple & delicious, limited seating but rapid service.

LAKE YAMANAKA

From here, take a local bus and head to Lake Yamanaka to the south-east, it’s a slightly smaller town (and lake) but still has great views of Fuji & is good for a stop over. Trial your first Onsen, at Benifuji no Yu Onsen - One of our favourites with a large outdoor area overlooking Mt. Fuji (it helped that we were there in the snow). It is due to be an official host site for Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games!

SLEEP
Good: Guesthouse Murabito is a quirky little hostel with great hosts, not far from the lake. Japanese style rooms & doors are both available.

EAT
Tom Dog Izayaka Restaurant - Local BBQ restaurant serving Saga beef. Great atmosphere though service can be slow - grab a few beers and relax into it.

The infamous egg…

The infamous egg…

HAKONE

The next day take another local bus to Hakone for a few days (one leaves just outside Guesthouse Murabito), further south-east. A popular tourist trail (i.e. crowded) is called the Hakone Loop. It includes a trip up and over a sulphur belching volcano fieldin a cable car, down to the lakeside, a trip on the cheesiest fake pirate ship in existence and a bus back to town. A famous Hakone snack is a hard-boiled-egg boiled in the volcanic sulphur pools - the shell comes out black! Apparently eating one will extend your life…

Alternatively, make your own plan and try and include the Open-Air Art Gallery & Museum (including an impressive collection of pieces from Picasso), the Hakone Shrine, the Old Tokkaido Highway and the Amazake Chaya Tea-house. There are also a few famous Onsens that are popular. 

SLEEP
Good: K's House Hakone
Better:
Guesthouse Azito  

EAT
There are few seriously fancy restaurants in Hakone that cater to the flash-pack traveller (i.e. Itoh Dining by Nobu & Gora Brewery & Grill - both are highly recommended). You’ll still be able to find a good Izakaya & Ramen restaurant on the Main Street. Fair warning, during the off-season (Pre-May) closing times are surprisingly early.

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ODAWARA

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Finish off the week in Odawara; it's a small non-touristy town with a nice castle, a samurai exhibition and a busy street full of VERY traditional Izakaya and Ramen shops. Especially nice during Sakura season, where the castle grounds are spectacularly laden with blossom.

SLEEP
If you haven't stayed at a Ryokan yet (a traditional japanese guesthouse) we found the most traditional Ryokan of the trip in Odawara, a little place called Hinode Ryokan. The host introduced himself as King Kong and told us our names were now 'Jonny' and 'Betty'. Excellent.

EAT
小田原おでん本陣 - (Odawara Oden Honjin - but it doesn’t have English Signage - sorry). From the train station, you can find this place by turning immediately left & heading down towards the river.

We tried our first bowl of Oden in Odawara, a traditional winter fish soup. It is possible the oddest thing we ate on the trip with some pretty ambiguous floating ingredients - but surprisingly delicious & a must try - check out this fairly amusing & more detailed breakdown of the dish here. If you need to balance out all the unknowns, this place also does an excellent line in hash-browns…

Take a bullet train from Odawara straight to Kyoto and remember to buy a bento box for lunch at the huge food hall underneath the station. Oishi!


Week 2: Kyoto, Osaka & THE Kii Peninsular

Kyoto

The ancient capital of Kyoto, where the emperors reigned since the 8th century, is chock full of traditional Japanese culture. Plan to stay at least 3 days.

Spend an afternoon exploring the Imperial Gardens at the heart of city and then head to nearby Nijo castle; an original Edo fortification. In the South of the city you will find Fushimi Inari-Taisha, the iconic & uncountable vermillion torii gates. The next day head West to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and South to the Golden Pavilion temple. Two tips for avoiding the crowds at all sights; go early and always walk further from the main entrances, you can usually find a little more solitude. 

Kyoto's also a good place to book a tea ceremony and splurge on a Kaiseki Restaurant, like Itoh Dining by Nobu (£££).

SLEEP

Good: Hostel Haruya - A hostel in a traditional style ryokan in the heart of town.
Better: Material - A relatively new hostel around a 10 minute walk from Gion. Great downstairs bar, rooftop terrace & comfortable rooms with their own bathrooms.
Best: The Screen - A boutique hotel in the the centre of Kyoto - Great location, great size rooms (often a challenge in Japan) & seriously stylish.

EAT
Good: We caved in Kyoto & ended up breaking our streak of ‘only Japanese food while in Japan’. Fortunately it was worth it at one of the best burger bars we’ve found on our trip: 58Diner
Better: Den Shichi out in the west of the city is a super spot for sushi & more approachable than some of the more “closed” sushi bars. in the centre (i.e you need an intro to get in)
Best: Itoh Dining by Nobu offers the opportunity to try the famous Kobe Steak in stunning surroundings. Opt for one of the premium menus & you may luck out with a private dining experience overlooking the canals. Ask your hotel to book on your behalf.

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Osaka

Osaka is just an hour away from Kyoto by train & a great city to explore for a couple of days. Visit Osaka Castle, and at enjoy a nightime wander over to the Dotonburi - try not to be overwhelmed by the neon lights and crowds (think the trippy hypnotic scene in Willy Wonka). We found a cool Yakiniku restaurant where we grilled our own meat at the table, and tried out a Sake bar, the locals were keen to give us reccomendations on the best tipples.

The next day, take a train to Nara (1hr), and spend the morning playing with the tame deer and seeing the spectacular shine & giant buddha. That evening, head to the Osaka Dome for a local baseball game (this will require some pre-planning though). Even if you know nothing about baseball (like us), you'll be swooped up by the enthusiasm of the diehard fans, making for an unforgettable evening.

SLEEP
Good: DORM Hostel - great communal library space, small kitchenette & free tea & coffee around 10 minute walk to Dotonburi
Better:
Imano Osaka Hostel -One of our favourite hostel chains in Japan (they have a version in Tokyo too) - great bar & restaurant on site, private capsules in dorms, quiet kind-of ‘hipster’ part of town that is also packed with independent shops, cafes & bars.
Best: MOXY Osaka - Boutique version of an international hotel. Good size rooms, clean designs & artistic communal spaces.

EAT
As with Tokyo, it is virtually impossible to pick a restaurant to recommend. All of the streets leading north from Dotombori are packed with Ramen, Izakayas & Yakiniki restaurants. Pick one that looks busy and dive right in.

If you’re not feeling Japanese food, there is a famed Mexican Restaurant that does a good line in home-made tacos: Mexican Ola Tacos… Just sayin’.


Kii Peninsular

Head into the mountains of the Kii peninsular south of Osaka for a nature re-charge after Kyoto and Osaka. Pick from either Koya-san for it’s famous monasteries, or head down to Hongu and do some day treks on the ancient Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes. We actually chose to stay longer in the peninsular, and challenged ourself to complete the 5 day UNESCO Kumano Kodo pilgrimage hike from West to East: A highlight of our trip which you can read more about here.

SLEEP
Kota-San: Koyasan Guesthouse Kokuu - Modern space & innovative design guesthouse with private capsules. This is quite an open plan set-up so if you’re al light sleeper… bring ear plugs.
Hongu: J-Hoppers Yunomine hostel - A very well appointed hostel with private capsules, great communal space, free rice in the evenings & rice porridge in the mornings. It also has 3 private onsens onsite in one of Japan's oldest Onsen towns.

EAT:
Wakayama seafood Ramen is a regional speciality, and seek out some Meharizushi (rice stuffed leaves drenched in soy) with a sashimi platter.

Head back to Osaka and take a ferry to Tokushima on the island of Shikoku.

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Week 3: Shikoku to Hiroshima

Shikoku

This island to the South of Honshu is the fourth largest island in the archipelago but as rich in natural grandeur as its neighbours. Some of the most un-spoilt parts of Japan can be found in the central Iwa Valley & Oboke Gorge, cut by one of the last remaining ‘wild’ rivers in Japan. Inland Shikoku is a land of rich flavours, onsens & adventure.

TOKUSHIMA

Tokushima may not look all that different to other large Japanese towns you’ve come across but just off it’s shore-line are some incredible natural phenomena known as the Naruto Whirlpools. These vast & incredibly powerful eddies of water are caused by water moving between the Pacific & the Inland Sea over a unique underwater geography. Take a walk out to Uzu no Michi walkway to get a closer look.

SLEEP:
Guest House 017 Reina - Spotlessly clean, relatively basic Japanese style guest-house. You can opt for either Japanese style rooms or ones with beds.

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OBOKE

The next day take the train into the heartland of the island to see the Oboke gorge and the Iya valley; some of most unspoiled parts of Japan.

You do have an option to take an exceptionally beautiful & very grow-up site-seeing train into the Valley that stops at key destinations along the way for you to explore, though your itinerary will be slightly more dictated by their schedule. You must book tickets in advance.

If you choose to DIY It is worth staying two nights so you can see both the Iwa Valley Vine Bridge & the Oku-Iya wedded vine bridges & spent a day relaxing in Onsens & trying local dishes.

SLEEP
Good: YOKI Guest House - The adorable guest house is outside of Oboke but reachable by local bus, not far from the zip-wire centre. They offer Japanese style rooms & a cafe on-site (note that they are only open in the summer)
Better:
Iya Onsen - This beautiful hotel & Onsen is the perfect place to recover from a day of hiking, or just take some time out of a busy itinerary.

EAT
The buckwheat soba noodles from Shikoku are a regionally speciality, we had them with wild boar at Keikoku no Kakure Yado Lya Bikin -The restaurant attached to a hot-spring inn on the road up to the Iya-Valley vine-bridge. This place has a spectacular back-terrace over-looking the gorge that you can enjoy while slurping your noodles.


NAOSHIMA

Next, head up to Takamatsu and take a ferry to the island of Naoshima, famous for it's art installations. Once a season the islands opens it’s doors to showcase a special ‘Art-House’ project, where empty houses in the villages are transformed into architectural & interior design master-pieces. Explore the island on foot (nothing is longer than a 40 minute walk away) which gives you the chance to pop down to some of the beautiful beached. Visit Burnesse House in the South to see works from Warhol, Hockney, Yukinori Yanagi & Jennifer Bartlett. Head to Chichu Art Museum, a glorious subterranean gallery, to marvel at Monet - For Chichu you must book tickets in advance.

SLEEP
Hoshikuzu
Yado Seven Beach. 

EAT
Whilst there, find a restaurant serving Japanese curry; its like UK chipshop curry - but even better - and not out of a tub - outrageously tasty.

This leg is a bit of a logistical pain but… ferry yourself back to Takamatsu, take a train over to Matsuyama, and connect with a ferry to Hiroshima (can you tell we quite like ferries; they're a nice alternative to the constant trains & buses). Alternatively, take the ferry across to Uno from Naoshima, get a train to Osaka, and then bullet train to Hiroshima.

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HIROSHIMA & MIYAJIMA

Spend one day visiting the Atomic Bomb Dome, the Cenotaph for Atomic Bomb Victims and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum to understand more about this historic location.

The next day take a ferry to Miyajima to see the floating shrine and giant Torii gate scenically placed in the water. There is an excellent hike up to the summit of Mt. Misen. Get yourself up early to see the sunrise over the Inland sea.

SLEEP
For Hiroshima, stay at Hiroshima Hostel EN, a 20min walk from the peace park
If you stay the night book into Miyajima Guest House Mikuniya.

EAT
Hiroshima is famous for it's okonomiyaki, a savoury pancake with noodles and seafood.

Himeji and Kobe

Take the train from Hiroshima to Himeji, and jump off to take a look at Himeji castle, a pictoresque well preserved white feudal castle, with large complex castle grounds. That afteroon, take another train to Kobe and check into for the night. 

SLEEP:
Good: Anchorage Hostel - Bright, fun, and very reasonably. prices hostel in the centre of Kobe. Offers dormitories & single rooms. Shared bathrooms.
Better: Brenza hotel - Boutique, very stylish & wonderfully minimal hotel. A little pricier, but if you're already in the mood to drop some cash on steak, you may not blink any eye…

EAT
You're only in Kobe for one reason, ask for a steak restaurant reccomendation and relish your world famous Kobe beef. Aragawa is the only michelin 2-starred restaurant in Kobe and Mouriya has been open since 1885 (and as you'd expect, its pricey). It's a mouth-wateringly delicious end to a busy week! (apologies in advance to all you vegetarians and vegans).


Week 4: The Japanese Alps

Kanazawa

Take the train from Kobe to Kanazawa (via Osaka & another bento box) on the north west of central Honshu. Spend 2 days in Kanazawa to explore large swathes of town reminiscent of pre-war Japan. Kenroku-en garden is widely considered one of the most beautiful gardens in the country & is worth exploring. During golden-week (April) they often open the park late & light the lakes & trees, adding even more magic.

Kanazawa is perhaps most famous for the three Geisha districts and the samurai district. It is worth going early to beat the crowds.

Dinner at Itaru Honten is worth the need to book in advance, and beers before (or afterwards) at Tri-Star craft beer house up the road are delicious (if a little expensive)

STAY
Good: Kanazawa, K's house in clean, quiet and the staff are fantastically helpful.
Best: the square hotel KANAZAWA modern, clean, good facilities including onsen.

EAT
Pick up some tasty street food at the Omicho market (again, go early!). Taiyaki and Takiyaki are our street food favourites; both grilled batter, one has a custard filling, the other raw octopus! Don't be put off though, they're so good! 

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Shirakawa-Go

Next head into the mountains to see the UNESCO listed, traditional alpine villages of Gokayama and Shirakawa-go. Take the bus from Kanazawa station (in busy seasons, you'll need to reserve a place on this bus), jump off at Gokayama first. These sites are famous for their traditional thatched roofs, densely forested hills and snowy peaks. If you go in Winter, prepare for Snow!

A pleasant afternoon can be spent exploring the streets lined with wooden-houses, hiking up to the look-out point at Tenshukakau Observatory (about a 20 minute walk), and sampling some of the street-food.

You can opt to stay overnight, or head straight on to the larger town to Takayama.

SLEEP:
Shirakawago Guest House Kei - A light, minimalist, and very beautiful guesthouse in the centre of Shirakawa-go. Comfortable dorm beds with curtains are available.


Takayama

Take another bus to Takayama and spend another two days exploring this Edo city in the heart of Japan's mountainous Gifu Prefecture.

Stroll through the well preserved Sanmachi Suji district along the river in the town centre, and got up early to visit the Takayama Miyagawa morning market by the river which has been running for 300years. It was early, but that didnt stop us from buying a Hida Beef croquette (known as a Korokke) and bizarrely a coffee in an edible cookie cup that we found tasty and hilarious. Spend the afternoon walking the Higashiyama Walkway along the east of the city for a nature re-charge.  The 3.5km scenic walking course through temples and shrines can be done in 2 hours, and provides a good view over the city.

SLEEP
We loved the quiet cafe at Tomarotto hostel. Comfortable & clean private rooms (ours had a bunk-bed though), good facilities & super friendly owner. Free coffee in the morning & a glass of sake on arrival. The best home-made muffins we’ve ever eaten also did the trick after a long day sight-seeing.

EAT
Head to the Traveller Coffee House, a short distance from the main tourist street. They have a gold-mine of maps, restaurant recommendations & top-tips for the city (and some excellent coffee). Also a great place to practice your Japanese with the English speaking locals who run the place.
Head over to Asahimachi, the area of the city across the river from the morning market. There is a labyrinth of excellent ramen, soba & Izakaya restaurants crisscrossing about 2 blocks.

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Kamikochi (to hike)

Kamikochi is famous as the alpine trekking heart of the alps, and is 40km east of Takayama, reachable by bus (and only open from April to November for snowy reasons). The simplest and flattest day hike is a 2hrs along the Azusa river; from Taisho pond to Myojin bridge, but more challenging and steeper hikes are easy to find! 

Stay for the mountain views in Kamikochi at Nakao Kogen Hotel Kazaguruma, and ensure to refuel post-hike with Gyoza and Karaage fried chicken.


Matsumoto

Take an early bus to Matsumoto (2hrs) and leave your bags in the station luggae lockers. Stroll up to see Matsumoto Castle, another beautifully preserved Edo period castle in black (compare with the white Himeji castle), built around 1600. A tour inside is worth the small fee and will provide an insight into the castle defenses against samurai attacks.s

Spend the afternoon walking the adorable Frog street, running parallel to the river - a pedestrian-only alley of small, traditional-style buildings containing shops & cafes. Find some tempura for your last street food snack before heading back to the station via Nakamatsu Street - a whole lane of artisanal cafes, craft-shops & boutiques - great to pick up a beautiful souvenir.

If inclined, pop into the nearby City Art Museum, to see permanent exhibitions by Kusama Yayoi - ‘Obsessed with Polker Dots’ defines the galleries facade.

Take the last train from Matsumoto back to Shinjuku (2hrs30), and celebrate your last night with a Sushi meal and Sakes. Afterwards find a Kareoke bar for a memorable last night in the land of the rising sun.

SLEEP (again): 
Good (in Ryogoku) - Anne Hostel - Clean, comfortable, good size private doubles, free tea & coffee
Better (in Asakusa) - Bunka Hostel - Great cafe & restaurant on-site, in the heart of Asakusa, spacious dorms & private capsules.
Best (in Kuramae) - Focus Kuramae - Great bar & restaurant on-site, quiet residential area packed with independent cafes & shops, great style & compact but comfortable private rooms for a good price
Traditional (in Shinjuku): Tadaima Japan Shinjuku Ryokan - traditional ryokan in the heart of the neon city.

 
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This itinerary will take you all over the central two islands:

  1. Honshu

  2. Shikoku

Each week is coded in a separate colour.

Week 1: Blue

Week 2: Red

Week 3: Yellow

Week 4: Green


Congratulations, you've survived a jam-packed 1 month schedule of Japan. By now you'll be an expert on Japanese cuisine, have mastered the basic phrases (or more!), and gotten beneath the various skins of this mythical island nation.

We loved every second of our trip (ok, not every second...some food experiments went wrong, and we probably spend too many nights on futons), but all in all, it was amazing - we’d stay another 4 months if we could.

Let us know what you think (or what we’ve missed) in the comments!


We have lots of content for Japan, and are always writing more. Check out some other top ideas to help you plan your trip.