Planning to travel for two weeks in Japan? I’ve come up with the ultimate Japan itinerary for first-time visitors who want to see the best of the country.
Japan is like nowhere else on Earth. From the moment you land in Japan, it’s as if you’ve arrived on a different planet. Expect to be completely overwhelmed yet fascinated by the interesting mix of ancient traditions and state-of-the-art technology, futuristic fashions and centuries-old craftsmanship.
It is everything all at once: ultra modern yet traditional in its essence, and highly urbanized yet filled with nature. 500-year-old temples stand next to looming skyscrapers, while geisha teahouses are found next to cutesy animal-themed cafes. In rural parts of Japan, rice paddy fields sprawl alongside shopping boulevards, and sushi shops serve up fresh-from-the-sea food and gold-leafed icecream.
Whether you are seeking to explore Japan off the beaten path or traveling Japan with kids, you are in for a surprise. Nothing, literally nothing, can prepare you for the senses-assaulting experiences of Japan.
Table of Contents
- 2- Week Japan Itinerary
- How to Get to Japan
- How to Travel Around Japan
- When to Travel Japan
- How Long to Travel Japan?
- Where to Stay in Japan
- How to Stay Connected in Japan
- Language in Japan
- Food in Japan
- Cost of Travel in Japan
- What to Pack for Japan
- The Best Japan 2-Week Itinerary
- ITINERARY DAY 1: SEE THE HEART OF TOKYO
- ITINERARY DAY 2: EXPERIENCE QUIRKY HARAJUKU
- ITINERARY DAY 3: SEE THE TRADITIONAL SIDE OF TOKYO
- ITINERARY DAY 4: RELAX IN HAKONE
- ITINERARY DAY 5: EXPLORE THE HAKONE AREA
- ITINERARY DAY 6: UP INTO THE JAPANESE ALPS
- ITINERARY DAY 7: DAY TRIP TO TAKAYAMA
- ITINERARY DAY 8: DAY TRIP TO SHIRAKAWAGO
- ITINERARY DAY 9: FEAST ON SEAFOOD IN KANAZAWA
- ITINERARY DAY 10: EXPLORE KYOTO’S GION DISTRICT
- ITINERARY DAY 11: VISIT KYOTO’S BAMBOO GROVE
- ITINERARY DAY 12: SEE THE THOUSAND RED GATES
- ITINERARY DAY 13: DAY TRIP TO NARA
- ITINERARY DAY 14: BACK TO TOKYO!
- Other Japan Itineraries
2- Week Japan Itinerary
How to Get to Japan
The most common entry point for travelers is the Tokyo Narita Airport, about 60km from central Tokyo. The second busiest airport is the Tokyo Haneda Airport, 14km south of Tokyo train station. You can find surprisingly cheap flights to Tokyo from many major cities like Singapore, Sydney, London, and New York.
Japan Airlines is Japan’s national airline and the largest carrier to fly there. The cheapest flights from US to Japan are usually on Japan Airlines. You can find direct flights from Los Angeles to Tokyo (11 hours) from as low as $700 return. Flights from New York to Tokyo on Japan Airlines are direct (14 hours), and cost around $1500 return usually.
London is usually the main hub if you’re flying from Europe. Direct flights from London to Tokyo on Japan Airlines usually cost around US$1050 return.
How to Travel Around Japan
Japan is well known for bullet trains (shinkansen) that are ridiculously fast and efficient. I personally think taking a shinkansen is a must-try experience when in Japan! We did it on our first trip to Japan and we were blown away.
It’s actually faster to travel around Japan by bullet trains than by car. For example, it takes four hours to get from Tokyo to Kyoto by train, but it takes seven hours by car.
If you’re traveling Japan for more than a week, I suggest getting a JR Pass to get unlimited travel on JR transportation (including bullet trains, local trains, buses, monorails and ferries). A 7-day JR Pass costs around US$265 while a 14-day pass costs US$420. Getting a JR Pass will definitely save you money, as individual trains are super expensive. Kids under 6 travel for free. You can compare individual train prices with the cost of the JR Pass using the handy Japan Rail Pass Calculator.
Driving in Japan is a great way to experience the rural parts of Japan, for those who love nature. While the Japanese public transport system has an impressive coverage across the country, there are still some places (such as the Snow Monkey Park) that are only accessible by car or foot. The quaint villages and mountainous areas that we went, such as Okuhida in the Japanese Alps, happened to be my favorite parts of Japan.
We were surprised by how easy it is to drive in Japan. Most road signs are in both Japanese and English. We could find our way easily using Google Maps since we had a mobile WiFi dongle. It wasn’t even stressful to drive in Tokyo.
The car rental itself isn’t very expensive — it’s the other costs like toll fees and parking that make it pricey. We paid around US$565 for our two-week rental of a compact Japanese car and a child seat. Toll and parking fees cost us another US$380 and gas was around US$108 for the entire trip. I’d only recommend it if you’re traveling Japan with kids.
By Inter-City Metro
Within major cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, I would recommend taking the underground subway and buses. You would need to get the Pasmo / Suico pass. It’s a prepaid smart card that allows you to use most public transport (metro, trains, buses, monorail) in Japan.
The card also functions as an electronic wallet. You can buy things on trains, in vending machines, convenience stores and restaurants that accept the card. Suica and Pasmo cards can be purchased through ticket machines at any JR stations. More info here.
When to Travel Japan
Spring (March-May) and autumn (September-October) are the most popular months to travel Japan due to the mild weather and moderate humidity. Some spots can get overcrowded, especially during the cherry blossom season. Each year, the sakura season varies (usually around April), so make sure you check the predicted dates before you book your flights.
We traveled to Japan in late September and still found many places quite crowded, particularly Kyoto. During our trip, we experienced mostly warm days of 21-25 deg C, with some rainy days during which the temperature dipped to 15 deg C. In the mountainous areas like Takayama and Nagano prefectures, temperatures ranged around 10-15 deg C, but a light jacket was enough.
It can get really hot and extremely humid in summer (June-August), which is best avoided. Winter (December-February) is pretty cold with temperatures dipping to freezing point. But Japan has lots of great ski stations and it’s a good time to see snow monkeys in Nagano.
How Long to Travel Japan?
Japan is a big country and there’s just SO much to see and do, whether your family prefers nature, cities, culture or food. We only had five days on our first trip to Japan and it definitely left us wanting more. Subsequently we’ve returned a few more times.
Based on my experience, two weeks are enough to see the highlights of the country. Our Japan itinerary was a bit hectic, but we managed to see all that we wanted to and had a great time. Be sure to check out my detailed Tokyo itinerary for the best things to do in the city.
If you want to explore Japan off the beaten path, I suggest taking at least three or four weeks to travel Japan.
Here’s a summary of our Japan 2-week Itinerary:
- 3 Days in Tokyo — to experience all the wacky fun experiences
- 2 Days in Hakone — with a stay at a hot spring resort and water park
- 1 Day in Okuhida — to experience nature in the Japanese Alps
- 1 Day in Takayama — to wander the historical streets of Takayama
- 1 Day in Shirakawago — to visit a quaint UNESCO village
- 1 Day in Kanazawa — to eat the freshest seafood
- 3 Days in Kyoto — to immerse in Japan’s cultural hub
- 1 Day in Nara — to see the famous deers
- 1 Night in Narita — to catch our flight home
Where to Stay in Japan
Hotels in Japan get booked up quite fast, especially during the peak period (March to May). I strongly suggest booking early and confirming your hotel stay a few days before arriving in Japan. I advise against booking Airbnb as there was a recent government crackdown on the use of residential accommodation as Airbnb in Japan. This has seen many travellers left without accommodation when their Airbnb was cancelled.
Hotels in Japan
There are several modern hotel chains in Japan that are affordable and have quality facilities. APA Hotels and UNIZO have branches all over Japan and great locations. However, most of these have tiny rooms where you’ll barely have space to walk. For families, I suggest booking twin rooms or family rooms if you want to be abit more comfortable.
Recommended hotels in Tokyo:
- Luxury: Hotel Allamanda Aoyama Tokyo
- Mid-Range: APA Hotel Tokyo Nishishinjuku
- Budget: nine hours Shinjuku-North Capsule Hotel
Recommended Hotels in Kyoto:
One of the experiences I think every visitor must try in Japan is staying in a traditional ryokan. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that usually has tatami flooring, futons as beds, and an onsen (hotspring). Staying in ryokans gives you the chance to experience how the Japanese traditionally used to live. Plus, they tend to be spacious, which makes it great for those traveling Japan with kids. Here’s a review of the best ryokan we stayed at in Japan.
Keep in mind that ryokans tend to be the same price or even pricier than modern three-star hotels in Japan. We paid an average of around $80-120 per night for a room. Secondly, you sleep on thin mattresses or futons that are laid out on the tatami floor. We found it quite hard to sleep at first and had backaches after our second night. (I know we sound so spoiled!).
One of the ryokans we stayed at had such bad soundproofing walls that we were kept up all night because of noisy neighbors. It felt like we were staying at a hostel despite the high price we paid. So take my advice, book just 1-3 nights at a ryokan (instead of 7 nights like we did!).
Recommended Ryokans in Tokyo:
Recommended Ryokans in Kyoto:
How to Stay Connected in Japan
Free Wifi is available in many public spaces in Japan as well as in hotels and airports. It is very affordable and convenient to rent pocket WiFi router from the airport. We rented our router from GetYourGuide for US$71 that provided us unlimited WiFi for two weeks. It was the cheapest deal we found online.
It can be really useful to have WiFi to translate Japanese signs and menus, and also have conversations with people who may not speak your language. We also needed it to use Google Maps for directions when driving.
Remember that it can be very expensive to use data roaming when traveling. I once accidentally turned on my phone service for LESS THAN 2 MINUTES and got charged $150 by my phone carrier!
Language in Japan
English isn’t commonly spoken in Japan. On our first trip to Japan almost 10 years ago, it was quite challenging to travel Japan without any knowledge of Japanese as all signs on the streets, subway and public spots were shown only in Japanese. This time round, we found it much easier as most signs are now in English as well. Japan has definitely become more travel-friendly in the past decade.
Just make sure to learn some basic Japanese words, bow often and express some courtesy. Here are some useful words to learn:
- Hello = Kon’nichiwa
- Thank you = Arigatō or Arigato gozaimash ta
- Excuse me = Sumimasen
- Please = Kudasai
- How are you? = O-genki des-ka?
Food in Japan
Many people have the misconception that Japanese food is all about raw seafood and sushi. That can’t be far from the truth. The megadiverse cuisine consists of a huge array of food types: from different kinds of noodles to rice bowls, grilled meat to bubbling stews.
EVERY meal we had in Japan was great — even ramen from vending machines tasted amazing. You really can’t get bad food in Japan. My 3.5-year-old daughter, who’s usually a fussy eater, absolutely loved the food in Japan. She would snack on edamame (steamed peas) and onigiri (triangular rice balls) all the time, and slurp up udon noodles and miso soup at every meal.
Vegetarians may have a hard time eating in Japan. Even vegetable dishes are flavored with the ubiquitous dashi stock made with katsuobushi (dried skipjack tuna flakes). An exception is shōjin-ryōri, vegetarian dishes developed by Buddhist monks.
Check out my detailed Japanese food guide, including 40 Japanese dishes to try!
Cost of Travel in Japan
Let’s get this straight: Japan IS an expensive country, especially when compared to the rest of Asia. Prices in Japan are generally close to prices in Europe and United States. However, there are definitely ways to travel Japan on a budget!
The cheapest way to travel Japan with kids is to use local transport and book budget hotels. Transport was the biggest cost for us and we spent around US$1050 on our car rental, toll fees, parking and gas. You might spend less if you opt for the JR Pass.
As for accommodation, expect to pay around US$50-80 per night for a tiny 3-star hotel room and around $100-150 for a traditional ryokan room. Accommodation in small towns (e.g. Okuhida and Kanazawa) tend to be cheaper. Hostels and capsule hotels are around $20-35 per person. Food in Japan is actually quite cheap. You can get a delicious ramen for just 600-800yen ($5-7) from vending machines, and cheap bento sets from seven-eleven or Lawsons stores (which you’ll find everywhere in the country) for just 300-500 yen ($2.50-5).
Here is a breakdown of our expenses during our 2 weeks in Japan:
- Transport: $1050
- Accommodation: $1400
- WiFi rental: $100
- Food: $500
- Miscellaneous: $200
- Robot Restaurant: $64 x 2
- Harajuku Owl Cafe: $5 x 2
- MORI Digital Art Museum entrance: $28.25 x 2
- Kimono rental: $100
- Kawaii Monster Cafe: $40
- Yunessun hot spring themed park: $10
What to Pack for Japan
The biggest tip I have for those traveling Japan is to pack as light as possible. Japan is very urbanized, and most cities in Japan are busy and crowded. The subway is often packed and commuters are in a rush. Packing lightly will make getting around easier, especially if you’re taking the train around Japan.
As we only had two weeks in Japan, we traveled with just our day bags, a stroller for our kid and our Eagle Creek Gear Warrior 32 wheeled suitcase. Unlike my usual trips where I would pack outdoor gear and quick-dry stuff, I packed more urban clothes this time since we would be spending quite a lot of time in cities.
Since it was September and the weather was still warm, I packed mostly t-shirts, thin pants, dresses, and leggings. I also had a cardigan and a thin leather jacket for chilly days. For Kaleya, it was the same — mostly long-sleeved tshirts, a few dresses and jeans.
The Best Japan 2-Week Itinerary
Keep in mind that this Japan itinerary is designed to help those of you who want to get an overview of Japan in a short time. I packed a lot into this itinerary and it definitely lets you experience the best of Japan at a rather fast pace. To slow things down a bit, check other my last section with other Japan travel itinerary ideas.
ITINERARY DAY 1: SEE THE HEART OF TOKYO
You’ll most probably start your journey from Tokyo’s Narita Airport. See my detailed Tokyo itinerary here.
To get to the city, the train is probably the best option: Narita Express can get you to the city centre in just 30 minutes. It’s not cheap though, at 3000 Yen ($27) for a one-way ticket and 4000 Yen ($36) for a round-trip ticket.
See the Shibuya Crossing
As crazy and busy as Tokyo can be, it makes for a great introduction to Japan. It’s quirky, weird, vibrant and definitely different from any other cities in the world. I’m not usually a fan of big cities, but I have a soft spot for Tokyo.
First order of the day: head straight to Shibuya Crossing, the world’s biggest traffic intersection! There’s an excellent viewpoint that not many people seem to know (at least when we were there): the rooftop terrace at Mag’s Park, on the top floor of the Shibuya 109 building, has excellent views of the Shibuya Crossing and it’s free to enter! It’s much less crowded than the famous Starbucks and the views from here are much better.
Go to the Robot Restaurant
From there, head over to the Robot Restaurant for one of the craziest and loudest entertainment shows you’ll ever see. The show is over-the-top, chaotic and downright bizarre but it encapsulates the multi-faceted nature of Tokyo. We’re not usually the kinda people who like shows, but we were absolutely blown away by the Robot Restaurant. Even our 4-year-old liked it despite the loud noises. It’s not cheap though (around US$60 at the counter), so book online in advance for cheaper prices. Food comes at an extra charge (and it ain’t great).
Eat at: Piss Alley
For dinner, check out Memory Lane (Omoide Yokocho in Japanese) or Piss Alley, a labyrinth of tiny, casual izakayas (bars) where warm sake are sold alongside yakitori meat skewers. The area has managed to retain an old and gritty atmosphere despite being surrounded by tall, modern malls and office buildings. It’s a great spot to try some yakitori, one of the best Japanese foods to try.
Stay at: APA Hotel Tokyo Nishishinjuku
We stayed at this modern three-star APA Hotel centrally located in Nishishinjuku and steps from a subway station. It had good quality facilities, including an onsen (hot spring) and rooftop swimming pool, but our small double room was tiny. Don’t fret though, the hotel has twin rooms and suites that are much bigger. If you’re on a budget and want a central location in Tokyo, this is a great option!
ITINERARY DAY 2: EXPERIENCE QUIRKY HARAJUKU
Soak in Greenery in Yoyogi Park
Start your morning with a stroll in the green lungs of the city, Yoyogi Park in Shibuya. The lush greenery provides a relaxing escape from the rush of the city. It’s particularly attractive during the cherry blossom season (though expect to be jostling with the crowds!)
Walk all the way to Meiji Jingu, a Shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Meji, located right in the park. Don’t be surprised to find lots of sake barrels here — they are offered every year to the deities by sake brewers around Japan.
Go Crazy on Takeshita Street
From there, continue to Harajuku to find a very different side to Japan. Harajuku is Tokyo’s wacky playground for those who love alternative stuff and Takeshita Street is its palpitating heart. The pedestrianised Takeshita street (or Jingumae) is flanked by cutesy Japanese fashion stalls, animal cafes and lots of interesting little shops. Prepare to spend the whole afternoon scouring through the endless row of quirky shops and restaurants.
Try Multi-Colored Food
At Takeshita Street, you’ll find the famous Totti Cotton Factory, well known for its eye-catching rainbow-colored cotton candy. On the street across Totti is Le Shinier, a simple shack selling psychedelic snacks. We tried the neon-colored rainbow grilled cheese sandwich, which was definitely not as tasty as it looked.
We also went to the famous Kawaii Monster Cafe — though I wouldn’t recommend going as it’s overpriced. The interiors are bright, psychedelic and over-the-top. The entry fee is only 500 yen (US$4.40), but you have to order at least 1 food and 1 drink per person. We ended up spending around $40 for the 3 of us. Check out other Tokyo food experiences.
Eat at: Sakura Tei
For lunch, try making your own okonomiyaki (savory and thick pancake made up of octopus, meat and cabbage) at the popular Sakura Tei. It’s a restaurant chain that has a few branches around Tokyo. The one in Harajuku is casual, funky and filled with character. Prices here are also really good, at around US$8-12 for a meal. Check my guide on the best places to eat in Japan.
ITINERARY DAY 3: SEE THE TRADITIONAL SIDE OF TOKYO
For your last day in Tokyo, explore eastern Tokyo to visit the historical Asakusa area and the edgy Akihabara district.
Visit Sensoji Temple
This was definitely our favorite spot in Tokyo on our first trip to Japan. Sensoji Temple (also known as Asakusa Kannon Temple) is one of the biggest and most important temples in Tokyo.
Legend says that in the year 628, two brothers fished a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, out of the Sumida River. Even though they put the statue back into the river, it always returned to them. Consequently, Sensoji was built nearby for the goddess of Kannon. The temple was completed in 645, making it Tokyo’s oldest temple.
Try Sushi near Famous Tsukiji Market
Sadly the famous Tsukiji market that used to be one of the biggest attractions in Tokyo has closed. Still, the sushi restaurants surrounding the market are some of the best in Tokyo and definitely worth visiting. Sushi Dai is indisputably one of the best places to enjoy sushi in Tokyo. You’ll get an affordable taste of the freshest and finest seafood for only a fraction of the price of upmarket sushi restaurants.
Visit the TeamLab Borderless Digital Museum
The newly opened TeamLab Borderless Digital Museum is a huge sensation and is extremely popular with both locals and tourists. In a three-dimensional 10,000 square meter space, artworks created by computers move in and out of the rooms freely, creating magical formations. It provides lots of interactive experiences and photography opportunities.
Be sure to book your tickets way in advance and get here in the afternoon around 3pm when there are less people. We waited in line for 30 minutes, even though we had tickets. It didn’t disappoint though. Personally, I think it’s an absolute MUST when in Tokyo, especially if you’re traveling with kids. Read reviews and tips here!
Wander Around Electronic Town Akihabara
To end your time in Tokyo, head over to Akihabara, also known as Electronic Town. Akihabara is an eclectic technology district with lots of robotic shops, game arcades, and shops selling anime figures and cartoon merchandise. We had a ball here, I think this was definitely Kaleya’s favorite area. You can also book an anime tour that’ll show you the otaku and anime culture of Akihbara.
Eat at: Kisoji Shinjuku
For dinner, our Japanese friend brought us to this shabu-shabu (hotpot) restaurant and we had some of the best wagyu beef I’ve had. They offer great shabu-shabu sets for couples or groups of 4, plus private rooms where you sit on tatami floor. Excellent culinary and cultural experience! They have a few locations around Tokyo — you can book a tatami room and cook the shabu-shabu or sukiyaki yourself.
Tip: 3 days are definitely not enough to see all of Tokyo. If it’s your first time in Japan, I recommend spending at least 5 days in Tokyo to see it at a leisurely pace. For those with more time, consider taking a trip to Mount Fuji from Tokyo.
ITINERARY DAY 4: RELAX IN HAKONE
After a few hectic days in Tokyo, it’s time to slow down and relax in the mountain region of Hakone. It’s just a 1.5-hour drive from Tokyo (an hour by train), and a popular day trip for locals. The area is mountainous and extremely rich in nature. The landscapes are packed full of tall cypress trees and dotted with shrines, temples and hot springs.
Explore Hakone Town
Hakone Town itself, perched at the foothills of the mountains, is a quaint little town with atmospheric narrow alleys and historical wooden buildings. Historically, Hakone was a post station on the Tokaido highway connecting Tokyo to Kyoto, but nowadays it’s more of a getaway spot for those who live in Tokyo.
Soak in the Hot Springs
Upon checking in at our hot spring resort, we chose to spend the day in our hot springs and enjoying the beautiful hotel. Hakone Kowakien Tenyu has two gorgeous onsens (hot spring pools) for guests: one is an infinity pool perched on a rooftop and another is fed by a hot spring waterfall on the ground floor. We even had an outdoor stone bath in our balcony that we could fill with natural hot spring water. Read my detailed review of the best ryokan in Hakone.
Tip: It is not allowed to use an onsen with any bathing suit — you are supposed to enter the baths completely naked. You’ll need to scrub yourself completely clean using the showers in the onsen before entering the bath!