This post is Part 2 of the Series: Planning your trip to Japan focusing on where to stay in Japan, which cities and towns to visit, and what to see.
Click on below links to read other parts of the series (opens in new tab).
Part 1: When to visit and how to travel
Part 2: Where to stay and what to see
Part 3: What to eat in Japan
Part 4: What to pack (and not to pack)
Part 5: Twelve cultural must-knows
While travelling through Japan, Google Maps and Google Translate will be you two best friends. Get a SIM card either prior to arrival, or at the airport. It will help you keep your journey rather flexible without planning every detail of the trip. I bought a SIM card for 30$ that lasts for 16 days from Japan Experience.
Where you want to travel in Japan depends on what you want to see, experience and the time of the year you want to travel. I decided to travel during autumn, and I wanted to cover both big cities and small towns. I also wanted to experience both modern and traditional culture, as well as visit the historical sites. My itinerary covered Tokyo, Hakone, Takayama, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara and Hiroshima over 3 weeks.
If you are planning to visit these places, in this post I have highlighted some ‘must-visit’ points of interest and experiences. I have created a shared Google Maps link with all my saved places . If you would like to download it, click here.
Where to stay:
While travelling in Japan, I chose to stay in a mix of different accommodation types, from hostels and hotels to temples, capsules and ryokans. My experience overall was great in all the accommodation types – they were super clean, people were nice, and I chose places which had access to convenience stores and train stations. While choosing an accommodation, I would recommend to stay in a hostel/ hotel in big cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, experience temple stay and night in a Ryokan in smaller towns like Takayama and Hakone, and do a night stay in a capsule hotel just for the thrill of it (maybe towards the end of the journey).
You can book hostels in any of the hostel booking sites (HostelWorld, HostelBookers, Agoda….). I recommend staying at the Khaosan Hostels Group which have hostels in all major cities across Japan. I particularly liked the Origami Hostel from Khaosan in Tokyo which is located right next to Senso-Ji and Nakamise shopping street.
- Capsule hotels
There is more space in the capsules than you might think. I did not find them claustrophobic at all, and overall liked the experience of sleeping in the capsule. However, I would recommend it only for 1-2 nights. I really like the capsules from 9h nine hours. They are these ultra-modern sleeping pods with lockers to store your luggage. The pods have charging stations, light controls, and also music/ radio station. The capsule hotel also provides towels, slippers and basic toiletries. The bathrooms and showers are shared and extremely clean.
- Ryokan (inn)
These are traditional Japanese inns with Tatami-matted rooms where visitors enjoy Japanese hospitality. You can book these on Japanican or Booking.com.
Temples have similar experiences like Ryokans (sleeping on tatami, etc.) but within a temple, mainly a Buddhist temple. I stayed at the Zenko-Ji Temple Hotel in Takayama, but you can find similar temples in other towns and villages. Usually the temples also offer a morning meditation class, and some are located close to onsens.
Japan has all ranges of hotels – some cities are more expensive than others. In particular, Tokyo and Kyoto are the most expensive, so you might look at hostel options. Hotels in Japan are minimalistic – most have small rooms, small bathrooms, and limited storage space. Location of the hotel is most important in my opinion as the rooms are not so luxurious although super clean. I would recommend to choose a hotel close to the city centre or major train station no matter which travel booking you use (Momondo, Booking, Skyscanner, Expedia, Kayak…)
Where to visit in Japan:
Tokyo (3-6 days) – Capital
Tokyo has several districts, and each district has specialties in terms of what they offer from sights, modern culture, food, history, etc. Below are some of the main districts that you should check out –
1. Asakusa district (old town)
- Senso-Ji Temple for visiting Tokyo’s oldest temple with beautiful designs
- Nakamise shopping street, also known as ‘Orange Street’ has the best souvenirs in all of Tokyo
- Tokyo Skytree for amazing panaromic views of the city from the world’s tallest freestanding broadcasting tower
2. Harajuku district (pop culture)
- Takeshita street for shopping, and sight seeing Japan’s pop culture along this popular pedestrian street
- Yoyogi park for a nature break with lakes and forested areas
- Meiji-Jingu shrine to visit this popular Shinto shrine, located next to the Yoyogi Park
3. Shibuya district (commercial district)
- Shibuya Pedestrian crossing to experience the busy Japanese city life
- Maidreamin’ Shibuya in case you want to visit a Maid Cafe (recommended for a one time visit)
4. Akihabara district (electric town)
- Sega VR centre for video arcades and games
- Hundreds of electric goods stores and brands for shopping
5. Tsukiji district
- Tsukiji Fish Market to experience the wholesale fish market and tuna auctions
- Tsukiji-Cooking for a sushi making class (requires reservations)
6. Shinjuku district (commercial district and nightlife)
- Piss alley (Golden Gai) to eat at tiny food stalls and yakotiri bars that host 4-6 people
- Robot restaurant for a pop-culture show with lasers, robots, ninjas, dragons and more (watch out for the Godzilla creeping out of a building next to this restaurant)
- Tokyo Metropolitan Building for city views from its free observation deck
7. Ginza district (luxury shopping)
- Fashion brands and department stores all across this shopping district
8. Marunouchi district (business district)
- Imperial Palace and gardens to visit the main residence of the emperor of Japan
9. Tokyo Disneyland
- Theme Park for a day trip
Hakone (1-2 days) – Mountainous town via Nagoya
- Lake Ashi offering views of Mt Fuji
- Mt Fuji viewing with a pirate ship cruise
Takayama (1-2 days) – Unesco World Heritage
- Old town for a nice walk along old merchant houses, restaurants and sake tasting bars
- Miyagawa Morning market for a Japanese breakfast ‘on-the-go’ of street food bites
- Temple stay at Zenkoji temple
- Onsen (hot spring) at the Takayama Green Hotel
Kyoto (3-4 days) – traditional city
Day Trips in/around Kyoto:
- Golden Pavillon temple (Kinkaku-ji) to visit this World Heritage Site
- Fushimi Inari Shrine to visit this mountainous Shinto shrine and its hundreds of traditional gates
- Arashiyama bamboo forest for a nice hike along the bamboo forest and up the Monkey Mountain
Kyoto in-city visits:
- Gion to visit Kyoto’s geisha district
- Zen gardens at Ryoan-ji for a calming and relaxed afternoon in this stone garden
- Heian shrine for a traditional Shinto shrine experience
- Kendo class Bushido in Hall of Fame Dojo for a class on Kendo, a traditional Japanese martial art
- Kiyomizu temple and Jishu shrine for experiencing more traditional Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine
- Nishiki market to experience Japanese street food in this 400 year old market
- Yasaka shrine for a beautiful shrine experience especially at night
- Karaoke experience at BarCode
Osaka (2-4 days) – commercial city
- Dotombori to explore the entertainment district and a food tour
- Shinsaibashi shopping district for some tax-free shopping
- Osaka castle for the ornate views of the castle
- Universal Studios Japan for a day trip to the theme park
Nara (1 day) (Day trip from Osaka)
- Nara Deer Park for a visit to this public park where thousands of tame deer roam freely in the city
- Todai-ji temple to see the largest bronze Buddha statue inside this Buddhist temple
- Kofuku-Ji for the Buddhist temple halls and pagodas
- Kasuga Taisha for this bright and calm Shinto shrine surrounded by greenery
- Heijo palace for this historic imperial palace that looks magnificent in the evening
Hiroshima (1-2 days) – Historical site
- Peace memorial park and museum as a memorial to the atomic bomb victims during WWII
- Atomic Bomb Dome to see the war memorial and reflect on the tragic part of Japan’s history
This ends Part 2 of the Series: Planning your trip to Japan!
Continue reading Part 3: What to eat in Japan
If you would like to see a glimpse of what Japan has to offer (under 4 minutes), check out the video below 🙂