Weeklong Itinerary of Japan
Updated: Mar 27, 2021
I've mentioned this before but my first international trip was to Tokyo, Japan a few years ago. I was going there to present some of my research at a conference so I was beyond excited/nervous. With that said, I think we can all agree that any trip to Japan is a trip of a lifetime so I wanted to make the most of it and explore not only Tokyo but other cities as well. Here's my week-long itinerary for Japan which started in Tokyo, then Kyoto, back to Tokyo up into the hills of Nagano and back to Tokyo. We did a lot but saw so much of the country in a small amount of time.
We live in Los Angeles so we flew from LAX into Narita international airport (Haneda airport is also an option if flying into Tokyo) with a flight time of about 9 hours (not too bad). We left in the morning/early afternoon and arrived the next day at night. We were also traveling in November (because of my conference) which is the best time to visit besides springtime. When we stepped off the plane I couldn't believe I was there! Next, we went through customs and got our bags. Before getting on the train and into the city we had to stop at an office just outside of baggage claim to exchange our JR Rail pass vouchers for the actual rail pass. We could then use our rail passes to board the Narita airport express into Tokyo station (about 35-40 minutes). We were actually staying in Odaiba which is a man-made island in Tokyo so we had to get off at Tokyo station and hop another train into Odaiba but all in all a super quick and easy experience! Side note: Odaiba was great to explore and stay in but I was there for my conference, if I go back I would stay somewhere a bit more central inside Tokyo as the train to and from Tokyo ---> Odaiba adds about 20-25 mins (not hard to navigate but somewhat time consuming).
So here you have it, day 1 or should I say night 1 found us in Tokyo (Odaiba to be exact). Accessed via the Rainbow Bridge or the futuristic Yurikamome train, Odaiba is a high-tech entertainment hub on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay. Be sure to head to the beach at Seaside Park, enjoy views of Mt. Fuji from the Daikanransha Ferris wheel and check out the malls inside Aqua City and the Venice-themed Venus Fort. Also not to miss is the life-sized Gundam Wing figurine and the Miraikan science museum which houses some of the most realistic and life-like robots and androids (this is actually where my conference was being held which was so great)! There are plenty of extremely nice hotels to stay at like the Grand Nikko Hotel but we chose the Hotel Trusty Tokyo Bayside (it seemed trustworthy ha ha) and it was beyond nice and had a great mixture of western and traditional eastern/Japanese accommodations including a fabulous futuristic toilet and Japanese pj's. It was also about a block from the train station so was extremely convenient getting around.
Morning and Afternoon:
I can't really describe the feeling of waking up in a foreign country for the first time. The absolute excitement was beyond imagination! After getting a good rest, we decided to explore Tokyo proper. We decided to go into Shibuya and visit the commercial and financial district, which houses the two busiest railway stations in the world (Shinjuku and Shibuya Station). We were first greeted by the famous statue of Hachiko an Akita dog born on a farm near the city of Ōdate, Akita Prefecture, Japan. He is remembered for his remarkable loyalty to his owner, Hidesaburō Ueno, for whom he continued to wait for over nine years following his death. Next we braved the famous Shibuya crossing which is a mass-movement of pedestrians crossing a street that looks like times square. After a great lunch we spent a few hours shopping around and exploring the great Japanese fashion and department stores before returning back to our hotel for some rest.
Since it was our first day in Japan and jet lag is real we went back into Odaiba to rest and get ready for our trip back into Shinjuku to take in a show at Robot Restaurant. This was one of the top things I wanted to do when planning a trip to Japan and have to say it is a MUST. If you're looking for weird and quirky pop culture this is where you need to go. Located in Shinjuku, Robot Restaurant, is a themed bar that features fantastic shows with robotic monsters, scantily clad dancers, electronic dinosaurs and yes lots and lots of lasers. I don't want to say too much more and ruin the surprise but trust me it's crazy and cool. Pro Tip: this is a popular show so make sure to get tickets in advance. Also, give yourself plenty of time to get there and explore the bar and decor. We were running a little late and didn't get to check it out as much as we would have liked. Then once the show is over be sure to get some photos with the giant robot chairs outside!
Day 3: Tokyo ---> Kyoto for the day then back to Tokyo
On our second but technically third day we decided to take a day trip to Kyoto. Because we had our JR rail passes we were able to easily book tickets on the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo Station into Kyoto (about a 2.5 hour ride). The bullet trains are amazing, extremely spacious, clean and comfortable with food and drink carts throughout. One of the best surprises on this ride was the sudden view of Mt. Fuji out of our right window (a sign of good luck).
We only had the day in Kyoto as I had to get back to Tokyo the next day to give a talk at my conference so I would recommend at least 1 or 2 nights there (there's always next time for me)! I really wanted to visit Kyoto because I'm obsessed with geishas and one of their city districts (Gion) is where geishas come from. You can actually spend some time getting a professional makeover with traditional makeup and dress if you have time! Beyond that one of the must-sees I had to go to was Fushimi Inari Taisha which is the head shrine of the god Inari (the shinto god of rice). I'm sure many of you have seen the famous vermillion colored torii gates that families can sponsor to honor their ancestors. This place deserves a few hours to just lose yourself walking through the various shrines and up into the mountain a bit. Just absolutely beautiful and awe-inspiring.
Other must-sees while in Kyoto are the Arashiyama bamboo forest, the Kinkaku-ji (golden) and Ginkaku-ji (silver) pavillion, Gion geisha district, Philosopher's path (especially nice in spring when the cherry blossoms trees are ripe) and Nishiki Market. Honestly there are so many more beautiful places and temples in Kyoto I can't name them all here!
Day 4: Tokyo
On day four I gave my research talk at my conference at the Miraikan museum in Odaiba (which you should definitely spend time exploring) but afterwards in the afternoon we unleashed our inner nerd and decided to go into the Akhibara district to explore the vast electronics shops. We had lunch in a great shop specializing in fried pork cutlets with brown curry and rice then checked out all the old video games and gaming consoles of our childhood. There are also tons of arcades where you could literally spend hours in. That night was the conferences official banquet and it was beyond amazing, held at the Meiji Kinenkan Shrine a beautiful place to hold events or have an upscale meal.
Day 5: Tokyo
On day five we spent more time exploring Odaiba, walking through the Venetian inspired malls and standing next to the life-sized Gundam Wing statue. Then we went to a bucket-list favorite: The Harajuku district to check out the crazy Japanese-school girl fashions (which is about a block from the metro station- again so easy to get around) and also near the famous Meiji shrine. This was a great time...if you want quirky, unique souvenirs and fashion this is the place to get it although be prepared to spend a bit of money as some of the items aren't exactly cheap. Be sure to check out the crepe stands and go inside some of the shops and mini-malls to catch a Japanese pop performance!
Once we were done there we met back up with friends and went to a traditional Japanese Izakaya (a bar/restaurant) to get some great dinner and have a few drinks. This was also our 'let's go out and party night' so we decided to head on over to the Golden Gai district which is a small alleyway consisting of tiny 4-6 person bars. This is a great experience as you pay a small admission fee but usually get a small snack or pot of soup and really feel immersed in the culture. We were lucky though because a few of my co-workers spoke a bit of Japanese so this helped us order our drinks. We hopped from bar to bar and drank more whiskey than I care to remember ha ha! An absolutely great time. We stayed out a bit too late and missed the metro which closed at midnight so we had to take a cab all the way back to Odaiba.
Day 6: Tokyo ---> Nagano (to see the snow monkeys of Yamanouchi)
Day six had us waking up early with a bit of a headache from our Golden Gai night ;) to take the Shinkansen from Tokyo station to Nagano then onto the town of Yamanouchi to see the famed macaque snow monkeys of Northern Japan (read more about what to know and how to get there in another post here). Our entire trip to Japan was amazing but I have to say this was one of our favorite days. We arrived in the early afternoon and checked into our Ryokan (a small, traditional, family-run inn). This really allowed us to experience traditional Japanese culture from the tea ceremony we received upon check in, the onsite natural hot spring onsen and the surprisingly comfortable tatami mats that served as our beds. This ryokan was just amazing!
We then spent the majority of the afternoon hiking up into the mountains to see these beautiful monkeys bathing themselves in natural hot springs at the Jingokudani monkey park. This was really great because this isn't a zoo, there are no cages you are right up front and close to the monkeys as they run around. Afterwards we went back to our ryokan and enjoyed a private soak in our attached, on-site onsen!!! In a traditional ryokan you can have dinner onsite or go out on your own. We decided to venture out on the town and found a great Thai restaurant down the street. On top of the great food the hostess also had a Karaoke machine so we got to check off another Japanese bucket list item while having dinner! Going back to the ryokan and relaxing for the night was truly magical after the hectic but amazing week we had in Tokyo and day-trip to Kyoto. Pro tip: try to plan on having a relaxed or 'chill' day perhaps towards the end of your trip to re-charge, you want to get a lot done but you don't want to exhaust yourself :)
Day 7: Nagano ---> Tokyo
On day 7 we leisurely woke up, took another soak in our ryokan's onsen and separate gender steam bathrooms and took the Shinkansen back to Tokyo by way of Nagano and the Snow Monkey Express in Yamanouchi (about a 3 hour ride). We were originally going to stop in the city of Nikko for the day before heading back to Tokyo but we were just too tired. This was a great travel lesson for me: I wanted to pack in so much and had planned everything but sometimes you have to change plans when things happen or you're just too tired. It's not worth exhausting yourself to try to check off everything on your list...sometimes you just have to make another trip :)
Instead of going back to Odaiba we stayed in a hotel near the center of Tokyo to get around. Once checking in we decided to get some dinner and rest before heading out for the night. My boyfriend Ben is a muscician and loves to go to live shows. Being in Tokyo he knew there would be something great so on our last night we braved the underground club scene (check out resident advisor to find shows in cities all over the world) and had a great time dancing the night away!
Day 8: Tokyo ---> LAX
On our last day we woke up and got ready to head home (sob!!!!!). We took the train back into Tokyo station and found lockers for our luggage. Pro Tip: Most major train stations have lockers for rent that are big enough to fit large suitcases, great if you want to stop over for a few hours and don't want to cart your luggage around. Once doing that we had a few more hours to explore Tokyo proper and made the best use of our last few hours there. Towards the afternoon we went back to Tokyo station and caught the express train back to Narita airport for our return flight home.
This is just an example itinerary for our week-long trip to Japan. I've tried to be as detailed as possible to help you plan your next trip but would love to hear about any of your travels as well. I'm proud of myself for getting to experience so much of this beautiful country in such a short amount of time but of course you could double or triple your time in each of these places and still not see it all! This was a great travel lesson for me as I tend to want to do everything at the expense of just relaxing and now experience what I can with the time I have. I want to express my gratitude for the country and people of Japan, we had an absolutely amazing time and I for one can't wait to go back!