Explore Japan in seven days

From the historic castle of Osaka to the skyscrapers of Tokyo, capture the many faces of Japan on this 7-day suggested itinerary. This is for first time travelers who will spend 7 days and 6 nights in Japan, arriving in Osaka’s Kansai International Airport and departing from Tokyo’s Narita International Airport.

 Getting there:

Cheapest airfare New York-Osaka and Tokyo-New York is about 780 USD with Air China (with a stopover in Beijing); London-Osaka and Tokyo-London is about 745 USD with KLM (with a stopover in Amsterdam); Hong Kong-Osaka and Tokyo-Hong Kong is about 295 USD (with a stopover in Xiamen if you choose to fly with Xiamen Airlines) or 347 USD if you choose direct flights with Hong Kong Express.
Day 1: Osaka

Let Osaka be your starting point. This city offers fascinating landmarks and historical attractions which would leave you bewildered for their striking architectural grandeur and the meticulous preservation which surrounds most of them.

After your arrival at Kansai International Airport, check in to your preferred hotel or guest house. Rest and settle in before you start the tour. Head to Osaka Castle as your first destination. It can be accessed on a number of lines; the closest JR station is Osakajokoen Station on the JR Loop Line. This castle was built by the order of Toyotomi Hideyoshi who played a significant role during the Warring State period and regarded as Japan’s second “great unifier”. The castle was built to be the center of the new and unified Japan.

Where to stay in Osaka:

Intercontinental Hotel Osaka (3-60 Ofuka-Cho Kita-Ku, Osaka 530-0011, Osaka Prefecture)
The St. Regis Osaka (3-6-12 Hommachi, Chuo-ku, Osaka 541-0053, Osaka Prefecture)
Osaka Marriott Miyako Hotel (1-1-43 Abenosuji, Abeno-ku, Osaka 545-0052, Osaka Prefecture)
The Ritz-Carlton, Osaka (2-5-25 Umeda, Kita-ku, Osaka 530-0001, Osaka Prefecture)
Hotel Universal Port (1-1-111 Sakurajima, Konohana-ku, Osaka 554-0031, Osaka Prefecture)

Travel Tip: Book a place near the city center particularly near a train station. This will give you better access to dining options and tourist attractions.

In Osaka you are also spoilt for choices when it comes to satisfying your appetite. There are a plethora of bars and restaurants where you can head out to enjoy Japanese cuisine and other intercontinental specialties. End your first day in Dotonbori district near Namba Station. This is the best place to experience Osaka’s food culture. From Michelin starred luxury restaurants to budget Takoyaki and Okonomiyaki food stalls, you name it and you will have it.

Day 2: Koyasan

Stay overnight at temple lodging at Koyasan (Mount Koya) where you can get a taste of a monk’s lifestyle. Reservations for temple stays are possible through Japanese Guest Houses, Japanican, Koyasan Shukubo Association or through Tripadvisor. Cost of an overnight stay is between 10,000 JPY – 15,000 JPY per person (80 USD – 125 USD. It sounds expensive for a temple accomodation but the experience is worth every penny). Temple lodging includes delicious vegetarian monks’ cuisine in a traditional Japanese-style tatami room. Traditional Japanese rooms are complete with Tatami (type of mat), Shoji (wooden sliding doors), cushions and futon bedding.

From Osaka Namba Station or Shin-Imamiya Station, take the Nankai Koya Line to Gokurakubashi Station (1650 JPY or about 13 USD) and then cable car to Koyasan (390 JPY or about 3.25 USD). Travel time approximately takes 90 minutes.

Travel Tip: There are numerous coin lockers at Osaka Namba Station. It is recommended to leave your luggage and just bring an overnight bag before you go to Koyasan. In addition, it will be cheaper to buy Koyasan World Heritage Ticket (2860 JPY or abour 24 USD) instead of purchasing individual tickets. This pass covers round trip ticket from Osaka to Koyasan, unlimited bus travel within Koyasan town and discounted admission to several attractions. This ticket is valid over two consecutive days and can be purchased at Osaka Namba or Shin-Imamiya station.

The usual check in time for temple stay is 1:00 pm. After checking in, you are free to explore Koyasan’s sacred sites such as Danjo Garan, Banryutei and Okunoin. Be prepared to walk around more than 200,000 gravestones, monuments and memorials. There are so many things to see along the way such as Shinto torii gates, side paths and thick forests.

Okunoin Cemetery at Mount Koya, Japan
Okunoin Cemetery at Mount Koya

After dinner, feel free to relax and take a bath at a communal onsen or public bath. Most temple lodging does not have any private baths or toilets – all washroom facilities are shared. This added to the sense of communal living which exists among the monks at the temple. Evening stroll around the graveyard is also highly recommended. The path is lit by stone lanterns and overhead lights so it is not spooky at all!

Day 3: Koyasan-Osaka-Kyoto

Start your day early at Koyasan by participating in morning prayers which typically start around 6:00 am, last for about 30-45 minutes and are followed by breakfast around 7:00 am. Although you might not understand the choral chanting performed by the monks, the experience is truly wonderful. Before you check out at 10 am, take a morning stroll around Koyasan.

Travel back to Osaka Namba Station and get your luggage. Head to your next hotel or guest house at Kyoto. From Osaka Namba Station, take the Osaka City Subway Midosuji Line to Umeda Station then transfer to JR Special Rapid Service to Kyoto (800 JPY or about 7 USD). Travel time approximately takes 50 minutes.

Where to stay in Kyoto:

The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto (Kamogawa Nijo-Ohashi Hotori, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto 604-0902, Kyoto Prefecture)
Hotel Anteroom Kyoto (7 Aketacho Higashikujo Minami-ku, Kyoto 601-8044 , Kyoto Prefecture)
Sawaya Honten (25, Kawahara-cho, Shogoin, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto 606-8397, Kyoto Prefecture)
Traditional Kyoto Inn serving Kyoto cuisine IZUYASU (272 Sasaya-cho, Higashino Toin, Shimo-juzuyamachi agaru, Shimokyo-ku, Kyoto 600-8156, Kyoto Prefecture)
Almont Hotel Kyoto (26-1 Nishi-iwamotocho, Higashikujo, Minami-ku, Kyoto 601-8005, Kyoto Prefecture)

Have lunch at Nishiki Market, known as the Kitchen of Kyoto. It is a long and narrow arcade lined by over a hundred shops and restaurants. This market is a dream for foodies as you can sample and taste Japanese traditional food products. In addition, the merchants of Nishiki are very friendly which makes the tour more enjoyable.

Nishiki Market, Kyoto
Japanese shop keeper prepares products in the shop for customer, Nishiki Market, Kyoto

After your gastronomic tour of Nishiki Market, walk or take a bus to the nearby Nijo Castle. This castle is built by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period. An interesting feature of this castle is Nightingale floor which is a type of flooring system in Ancient Japan made to detect ninjas. Its purpose is to creak and sing when somebody walks upon thus it is an effective way to detect intruders. Yes, Ninjas (Shinobi) are real in ancient Japan. They were used as spies, bodyguards and assassins for hire.

Travel Tip: Get a Kyoto city all day bus pass (500 JPY or about 4.20 USD) which can be purchased from any convenience stores, pharmacies, Kyoto Station or from the bus driver directly. With this pass, you can take buses as many times as you need in one day. Without the pass, you will pay JPY 230 or about 2 USD (minimum) each time. In the evening you can stroll around the famous Gion district. Gion is the setting of the famous film “Memoirs of a Geisha” so expect to encounter many tourists, both locals and foreign. If you are lucky enough, you might even spot a full pledged geisha on her way to work! Alternatively, you can try the old school way to meet a geisha by booking yourself an evening at an Ochaya (tea house).

Another must see place in Kyoto is Pontocho alley. Same with Gion, it is one of Kyoto’s geisha districts.It is a narrow alley home to many machiya (traditional wooden merchant houses) that have been preserved through the years. Other common structures here are Ochaya (teahouses) where geisha and maiko entertain guests, and ryokan (!inns) that usually serve traditional multi-course Kaiseki meals.

Day 4: Temples and palaces of Kyoto

While times may have changed and some traditions may have already been touted as passé, still, a lot of historical attractions in Kyoto remain to be the most-sought after ones.

On your fourth day, consider Fushimi Inari as your first destination. Fushimi Inari Shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto God of Rice. The place is famous for its thousand vermilion torii gates along the trail that leads to the forest of the sacred Mount Inari. The best way to access Fushimi inari is by taking JR Nara Line from Kyoto Station to JR Inari station (140 JRY or about 1.20 USD). Travel approximately takes 5 minutes.

Another place that you definitely should go to is Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) which is among the many UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto. It is a Zen temple with two floors completely covered in gold leaf. It was formerly a retirement villa for the family of Ashikaga Shogunate until 1408. Yes, this has been around for more than 600 years. The best way to access Kinkakuji is by going back to Kyoto Station following the same route then take Kyoto City Bus number 101 or 205. Travel approximately takes 40 minutes and admission is JPY 400 or about 3.40 USD.

The Golden Pavilion at Kinkakuji Temple
The Golden Pavilion at Kinkakuji Temple

End your fourth day at Kiyomizudera which is one of the famous Buddhist temples of Japan. This temple is popular among tourists during spring and autumn because of its wooden stage that offers a fantastic view of the numerous cherry blossom and maple trees below. There is no train connection between Kinkakuji and Kiyomizudera, it is best to take a bus which requires one transfer along the way. Since the two temples are located at opposite ends of Kyoto, travel approximately takes 60 minutes.

Travel Tip: Same with your third day, get a Kyoto city all day bus pass (500 JPY or about 4.20 USD).

Day 5: Tokyo

Travel from Kyoto to Tokyo via Shinkansen (the famouse Bullet Train). Nozomi, the fastest Shinkansen costs 14,110 JPY (120 USD) one way from Kyoto Station to Tokyo Station and travel approximately takes 2 hours and 20 minutes. Hikari, which is slightly cheaper at 13,800 JPY (114 USD) one way, takes a little longer at 2 hours and 40 minutes. The slowest Shinkansen, Kodama costs 13,500 JPY (112 USD), reaches Tokyo in about 3 hours and 50 minutes.

Air travel is also an option; however Kyoto does not have an airport so you have to go back to Kansai International Airport in Osaka (3,170 JRY or about 25 USD one way). Budget airlines such as Jetstar and Peach have promo fares every so often and prices start at 4,590 JPY – 5,000 JPY (40 USD42 USD). Travel approximately takes 5 hours including airport transfers.

Where to stay in Tokyo:

Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo (2-1-1 Nihonbashi Muromachi, Chuo 103-8328, Tokyo Prefecture)
Park Hyatt Tokyo (3-7-1-2 Nishi Shinjuku, Shinjuku 163-1055, Tokyo Prefecture)
The Tokyo Station Hotel (1-9-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda 100-0005, Tokyo Prefecture)
Shangri-La Hotel, Tokyo (1-8-3 Marunouchi | Marunouchi Trust Tower Main, Chiyoda 100-8283, Tokyo Prefecture)
The Edo Sakura (3-2-13 Shitaya, Taito 110-0004, Tokyo Prefecture)
THE GATE HOTEL Asakusa Kaminarimon by HULIC (2-16-11 Kaminarimon, Taito 111-0034, Tokyo Prefecture)

Tokyo, Japan at night
Tokyo Tower at night as seen from Roppongi Hills observation deck

Lunch at Ichiran Ramen in Shinjuku is a great way to start your Tokyo trip. This Ramen house is one of the top rated restaurants in Tokyo. Like most Ramen houses, you will have to select your order and pay at a vending machine. Grab your ticket and go to your designated seat. Once seated, the attendant will give you a piece of paper where you can decide on how you want your ramen to be done (thickness, oiliness etc.). Expect to queue during mealtimes as the place is pretty popular among the Japanese.

From Ichiran Ramen in Shinjuku, head to Meiji Jingu, a shrine dedicated to the Meiji Emperor and his Empress. Despited being situated in the busy area of Harajuku, all the hustle and bustle were cut off the moment you turn right and cross over the 40-foot giant torii gate. The walk through the forest to get to the shrine is very relaxing. Travel from Shinjuku Station of JR Yamanote Line to Harajuku Station approximately takes 5 minutes (140 JPY or about 1.20 USD). Meiji Shrine is open sunrise to sunset and is free admission.

Portal of Meiji Jingu Shrine. Tokyo, Japan.
Portal of Meiji Jingu Shrine. Tokyo, Japan

End your day at Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building back in Shinjuku where you can get a glimpse of Mount Fuji under favorable weather conditions. This is also a perfect place for sunset viewing where you can get a panoramic view of Tokyo and beyond.

Day 6: Tokyo’s funky neighbourhoods

Start an early tour of Tsukiji Market the largest wholesale seafood market in the world. You can also get a fresh sushi breakfast at one of the local restaurants. From the market, make your way over to the Imperial Palace complex for a little serenity. The Imperial Palace itself, still home to Japan’s emperor, is off limits to tourists, but the surrounding gardens and grounds are incredibly well kept, tranquil, and open to visitors.

Just before lunch time, head to Akihabara, the center of Japan’s otaku (diehard fan) culture. There are so many shops and establishments devoted to anime and manga in this area. Truly an anime fan paradise!

From the famous attractions of central Tokyo, you can now proceed to western Tokyo focusing on Harajuku and Shibuya. Harajuku is the center of Japan’s extreme teenage culture. On a Sunday, many young people gather around Harajuku Station and engage in cosplay. Just a short walk from Harajuku, Omotesando is a shopping district catering to older and wealthier customers.

You can spend the rest of the day at Shibuya. Familiar with the loyal and loving dog Hachiko? Hachiko belonged to Professor Ueno of the University of Tokyo. Hachi always went to see his master off and wait for his return at the Shibuya station everyday even in terrible weather. After the Professor’s death, Hachi continued to wait at the station for his master’s return. A statue was dedicated to Hachiko which until this day a famous attraction in Shibuya.
From Shibuya Station’s Hachiko Exit, another prominent landmark is the large intersection. Each time the crossing light turns green, the intersection gets flooded by pedestrian thus this is known as “The Scramble”.

Day 7: Japaness stuff

You can spend a few hours shopping before your scheduled time of departure. If your hotel or guest house is anywhere near Shibuya or Shinjuku, you can try Donki (short for Don Quijote). It is one of Tokyo’s cheapest supermarkets selling a huge variety of goods. Buy some Japanese snacks like Tokyo Banana, Japanese Rice Cake Mochi Daifuku and Kitkat Maccha (Gren Tea) flavor to take home for your friends and family.There are several options when it comes to travelling from Tokyo to Narita International Airport. The most trouble free way is the Narita Express. The regular price costs 3,190 JPY (26.60 USD) and travel is approximately 90 minutes. A cheaper alternative is Keisei Limited Express which requires one train transfer. From Shinjuku, take JR Yamanote line to Nippori Station (20 minutes, 230 JPY or about 2 USD) then transfer to Keisei Limited Express to Narita Airport (about 75 minutes, JPY 1030 or about 8.60 USD).

Don Quijote shopping center, Tokyo
Don Quijote shopping center. Don Quijote is a Japanese shopping chain selling general goods at discounted prices

So, this is the end of our 7-day suggested itinerary. Welcome to Japan!

Tip: Check Hyperdia.com to check specific train times and routes.

Have you been to Tokyo, Osaka Kyoto or anywhere else in Japan? Do you have any tips or suggestions to share? If so, you can leave your comments below.

backpacking, City exploring, Culture, History, japan

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