From Sacred Shrines to Neon Lights - Japan in 12 Days
Arts & Culture
Japan, a nation of unmatched allure, beckons travelers with its extraordinary blend of tradition and innovation. This 12-day journey through Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima and Miyajima Island encapsulates the nation's rich history, captivating culture, and dynamic modernity. From ancient temples to vibrant cityscapes, this itinerary is my tried-and-tested path to experiencing the very best of Japan.
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Day 1: Arrive in Tokyo and Explore Shinjuku!
After checking into your hotel, head out to explore the electrifying district of Shinjuku. Start by seeing the iconic Godzilla Head, a unique tribute to Japan’s pop culture. Then, wander through Omoide Yokocho, also known as "Memory Lane," for a taste of old Tokyo with its tiny yakitori (grilled chicken) stalls and izakayas (Japanese pubs). As dusk falls, the neon lights of Kabukicho, Tokyo's entertainment district, offer an unforgettable sight. End your night with a visit to a local karaoke bar to belt out some tunes, Tokyo-style.
Day 2: Culture and City, All in One
Meiji Shrine & Yoyogi Park
Start your day with a visit to the tranquil Meiji Shrine, nestled in a lush, forested area. It's a peaceful haven in contrast to the bustling city. It's a great spot to appreciate Shinto architecture and might even catch a traditional wedding procession. Adjacent Yoyogi Park is perfect for a leisurely morning stroll.
Harajuku and Shibuya Adventures
In the afternoon, dive into the vibrant Harajuku, the epicenter of Tokyo's kawaii (cute) culture. Takeshita Street is perfect for quirky shopping and sweet treats. Later, head over to Shibuya to experience its famous scramble crossing and check out the Hachiko Statue, a symbol of loyalty and friendship.
Day 3: Where Heritage Meets Modern Art
Morning in Asakusa: Senso-Ji Temple and More
Begin your day in Asakusa, a district in Tokyo that feels like a time capsule of traditional Japan. Your first stop is the iconic Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo's oldest Buddhist temple, known for its majestic Kaminarimon Gate and vibrant Nakamise shopping street. Here, you can browse for unique souvenirs and sample traditional Japanese street food.
Kappabashi Kitchen Town
After exploring Senso-ji, take a short walk to Kappabashi Kitchen Town. This unique district is a treasure trove of specialized stores selling everything from Japanese knives to beautifully crafted tableware and quirky plastic food models.
Afternoon at Mori Art Museum, Roppongi
In the afternoon, shift gears to the contemporary side of Tokyo with a visit to the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi. Located in the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, this museum is at the forefront of contemporary art, offering an array of modern exhibits that are as thought-provoking as they are diverse
Day 4: Experience Kyoto's Charm
Morning: Travel From Tokyo to Kyoto
Start your day with a journey from the dynamic city of Tokyo to the historically rich Kyoto. Board a Shinkansen (bullet train) for a comfortable and swift ride. As you travel, enjoy the changing landscapes and maybe catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji on a clear day.
Afternoon: Higashiyama, Kiyomizudera and Gion
Upon arrival in Kyoto, head to the Higashiyama Distric, which is home to over 30 temples and shrines. This area provides a picturesque walk through Kyoto's history and culture. The temples here range from large and famous complexes to small, quiet corners, each offering a unique glimpse into the city's spiritual heritage.
Do include a visit to Yasaka Shrine, located at the end of the main street in Gion. This shrine, also known as Gion Shrine, is famous for its annual Gion Matsuri festival, one of the most famous festivals in Japan. It's a bustling place that beautifully contrasts with the more serene atmosphere of the surrounding temples.
Evening: Dinner With a View in Pontocho
Cap off your day in Pontocho, a charming alley known for its traditional dining spots. Choose a restaurant with a riverside view for an enchanting dining experience. Keep your eyes peeled for elegantly dressed geishas and maikos as they gracefully navigate the narrow alley.
Day 5: Natural Wonders and the Romance of the Rails
Morning: The Bamboos in Arashiyama
Begin your morning in the scenic Arashiyama district, home to the famous Bamboo Grove. Walk through the towering bamboo stalks, a truly ethereal experience, then visit the Tenryuji Temple, known for its beautiful Zen gardens.
Afternoon: Sagano Romantic Train and Arashiyama Monkey Park
In the afternoon, take a ride on the Sagano Romantic Train. This scenic journey offers breathtaking views along the Hozugawa River, especially stunning during cherry blossom season or autumn. If you have time, visit the Arashiyama Monkey Park where you can interact with wild monkeys and enjoy panoramic views of Kyoto.
Day 6: Kyoto's Cultural Treasures and Evening Shopping Spree
Morning: Nishiki Market
Begin your day at Kyoto's Nishiki Market, often referred to as "Kyoto's Kitchen." This narrow, five-block-long shopping street is lined with more than one hundred shops and restaurants. It's a fantastic place to try local specialties like pickles, Japanese sweets, fresh seafood, and Kyoto vegetables. A morning stroll here offers an authentic taste of Kyoto's culinary culture.
Afternoon: Fushimi Inari Shrine
After exploring the market, head to the Fushimi Inari Shrine. Known for its thousands of vermilions torii gates, this shrine is one of Kyoto's most iconic and photographed sites. The walk through the torii gate pathway up the mountain is both mesmerizing and peaceful, offering great views of Kyoto from the summit.
Evening: Shopping in Downtown Kyoto
As evening sets in, it's time for some shopping in downtown Kyoto. Head to the main streets like Shijo-dori and Sanjo-dori, which are bustling with stores and boutiques. These streets offer a variety of shopping experiences, from traditional crafts to modern fashion and souvenirs. The area also has many cafes and restaurants where you can relax and enjoy a meal after shopping.
Day 7: Discover Osaka's Highlights
Morning: Travel to Osaka
In the morning, prepare for your journey to Osaka, Japan's culinary capital. The trip from Kyoto to Osaka is quick and easy, taking about 30 minutes by train. Upon arrival, check into your hotel and get ready to explore the vibrant city.
Afternoon: Osaka Castle
Spend your afternoon visiting the iconic Osaka Castle. The castle is a symbol of Osaka and offers a glimpse into Japan's rich history, surrounded by a moat and park with hundreds of cherry blossom trees.
Evening: Dōtonbori District
Explore the famous Dōtonbori district in the evening. This area is known for its bright neon lights, extravagant signage, and an array of street food vendors – the perfect place to indulge in Osaka's famous takoyaki (octopus' balls) and okonomiyaki (savory pancake).
Day 8: Osaka's Aquatic and Urban Wonders
Morning: Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan
Start your day with a visit to the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, one of the largest public aquariums in the world. It's a fantastic place to see a variety of marine life, including the impressive whale shark.
Afternoon: Umeda Sky Building
In the afternoon, head to the Umeda district and visit the Umeda Sky Building. The building's Floating Garden Observatory offers a stunning 360-degree view of Osaka, making it a great spot for panoramic photos.
Evening: Shinsaibashi Shopping
Finish your day with a shopping spree in the Shinsaibashi area, known for its wide range of stores and boutiques. This shopping arcade is perfect for picking up both high-end and affordable goods.
Day 9: A Journey through History in Hiroshima
Morning: Travel to Hiroshima
Depart from Osaka to Hiroshima in the morning. This journey by Shinkansen will take you through some picturesque countryside and urban landscapes. Upon arrival in Hiroshima, head to your accommodation to drop off your luggage.
Afternoon: Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum
Spend your afternoon visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum. These sites are dedicated to the memories of the victims of the atomic bomb in 1945. They offer a sobering reminder of the atrocities of war and the importance of peace.
Evening: Hiroshima City
Explore Hiroshima city in the evening. The city, once devastated, is now vibrant and bustling. Enjoy local delicacies like Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, a unique take on the classic Japanese savory pancake.
Day 10: Miyajima Island
Morning: Ferry to Miyajima Island
Embark on a ferry ride to Miyajima Island, a place of scenic beauty and cultural significance. The island is renowned for the iconic Itsukushima Shrine with its "floating" torii gate, a truly picturesque sight, especially at high tide.
Explore Itsukushima Shrine
Spend your morning exploring Itsukushima Shrine. This UNESCO World Heritage site is unique for its construction over water, creating a serene and almost mystical atmosphere.
Afternoon: Mount Misen Hike
In the afternoon, consider hiking up Mount Misen, the highest point on the island. You can also take the Miyajima Ropeway for part of the journey. The summit offers breathtaking views of the Seto Inland Sea and a chance to visit ancient temples and shrines along the way.
Evening: Stroll Through Miyajima’s Streets
End your day with a leisurely stroll through Miyajima's charming streets. Enjoy local delicacies and shop for unique souvenirs, such as wooden rice scoops (shamoji), a Miyajima specialty.
Day 11: Return to Tokyo and Leisure Time
Morning: Travel Back to Tokyo
In the morning, take the ferry back to Hiroshima, followed by a Shinkansen ride to Tokyo. This is your chance to relax and reflect on your journey as you travel back to Japan's capital city.
Afternoon: Free Time in Tokyo
Upon arrival in Tokyo, enjoy some leisure time. This could be your chance to visit any places you missed earlier or revisit your favorite spots. Consider exploring neighborhoods like Ginza for upscale shopping or Akihabara for anime and electronics.
Evening: Last Night in Tokyo
Spend your last evening in Tokyo indulging in activities of your choice. Enjoy a final night of dining out in a district like Roppongi or Shinjuku, or perhaps catch a late-night view of the city from Tokyo Tower or the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.
Day 12: Farewell for Now!
Final Morning in Tokyo
Use your final morning for any last-minute activities or shopping. Take a peaceful walk in one of Tokyo's beautiful parks, like Ueno or Yoyogi, or simply enjoy a leisurely breakfast at your hotel.
Need to Know
Looking for more travel inspiration? Check out my guide, Beyond the Gloss: Singapore's Hidden Gems and Local Favorites.
This guide is part of our ongoing series on travel to Japan.
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