Japan is one of my favorite countries in the world. It has so much to offer, from delicious cuisine and atmospheric temples to some of the nicest people you will meet. If you are visiting for the first time, you will need at least two weeks in Japan to do it justice. And if you are hoping to catch the famed cherry blossoms or autumn foliage, you’ll want a two-week window to increase your odds. The state of the trees depends heavily on the weather. One fluke snowstorm or heat wave can have a big impact on when the seasons reach their peak.
So what’s the best way to spend two weeks in Japan? I’ve traveled there many times over the years and this is the itinerary I would recommend for first time visitors – even if the country’s astounding displays of nature aren’t your primary reason for going.
Osaka – 2 Days
Japan’s third largest city has a personality all its own. Over-the-top signs advertise Osaka’s many delicacies, including takoyaki (octopus dough balls) and okonomiyaki (pancakes stuffed with cabbage and seafood), as eateries vie for attention. If you see a queue outside one of them, you’d be wise to join. Osaka is known as Japan’s food capital for a reason! You can burn off the extra calories by sightseeing at Osaka Castle and Osaka Kaiyukan (Aquarium), or shopping on Kitchen Street. To read my full city guide, click here.
Nara – 1 Day
Nara is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including one of Japan’s most important Buddhist temples, Todai-ji. It holds the Great Buddha, which dates to the eighth century AD and is one of the largest bronze statues in the world. To reach Nara’s historic temples and shrines, you will pass through a large park where hundreds of deer roam free. Once considered messengers of the gods, these cute residents are tame and eager to be fed the special deer biscuits on offer. Nara’s close proximity to Osaka makes it an ideal day trip destination. Read my detailed guide here.
Himeji – 1 Day
Himeji-jo is considered to be the best castle in Japan. It was built in 1580 and is one of the country’s few original castles left standing. Impressive stone walls surround the main keep, which is mostly made of wood. Thanks to its lustrous white exterior and lofty perch, Himeji is also known as “White Egret Castle.” Don’t miss the stunning gardens and samurai quarters located across the moat. This peaceful oasis once belonged to the samurai warriors who protected the castle and its warlord owner. Himeji is a one-hour train journey from Osaka Station and absolutely worth the time commitment. You can find my guide to Himeji Castle here.
Kyoto – 4 Days
The old capital of Japan was spared during WWII and retains much of its historic charm. Four days in Kyoto may seem like a lot, but trust me when I say you will barely scratch the surface of everything it has to offer. From the hillside views of Kiyomizu-dera and kimono-clad geishas in Gion, to golden reflections at Kinkaku-ji and forest bathing in Arashiyama, the diversity of things to do in Kyoto will leave you breathless. The city is also a shopper’s paradise so be sure to leave yourself some browsing time! I may have needed to buy an extra bag to get all my souvenirs home. Check out my itinerary for three days in Kyoto.
Nagoya – 1 Day
Despite its location on the train line connecting Kyoto and Tokyo, Nagoya is well and truly off the beaten path. A visit here will provide a glimpse of authentic Japanese life. The city has invested millions of yen into restoring its castle, which is just as lovely as Osaka’s but much less crowded. After spending a morning admiring Nagoya Castle, head to the Tokoname suburb to walk the Pottery Footpath and do some shopping. For dinner, grab a heaping plate of local specialty miso-katsu, a fried pork cutlet topped with sweet and tangy miso sauce. Don’t be surprised if friendly locals wave and say hello! You can read my Nagoya guide here.
Tokyo – 3 Days
The capital of Japan is a sprawling megalopolis and I find it a little overwhelming, if I’m honest. The vast train network can be confusing and the crowds mind boggling. But Tokyo is a fun and exciting place to explore and a trip to Japan would hardly be complete without it. Three days in Tokyo is enough for major attractions like Senso-ji, Meiji Shrine, Tsukiji Market, and the Tokyo Skytree, as well as for wandering through Ueno Park and the famously busy Shibuya Crossing. If you are short on time, check out how I’d spend 36 hours in Tokyo.
Nikko – 1 Day
I visited Nikko the first time I went to Japan back in 2005 and for me it remains one of the country’s most memorable destinations. The centerpiece of the UNESCO-listed temple complex is Tosho-gu, the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, first Shogun of the Edo dynasty that ruled Japan for over 250 years. Tosho-gu was constructed in the 17th century, but many of the surrounding shrines are much older. They are set amid a peaceful cedar forest in mountains about two hours north of Tokyo. From the Nikko train station, a tourist bus runs to the entrance of the park. When I was there, packs of monkeys prowled the park and snatched food; shop-keepers chased them off with firecrackers. If you have been more recently, I’d love to know if that method is still in use!
How would you spend two weeks in Japan?
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