Designing your first Japanese itinerary

I’ve been reading lots of travel and food blogs related to Japan so it seems like everyone in the world knows everything about Japan, Japanese food and especially Japanese travel.

I had to remind myself that when I started travelling to Japan in recent years, several friends asked for a copy of my itinerary. With all the resoures available on the Internet, they still were unsure where to go. It is especially hard when you’ve never been to Japan!

So I thought I’d share the classic Japanese itinerary we followed on our 2009 visit. It will give you the taste of what’s best in Japan – a tour of cultural and historic highlights and some of the best natural scenery.

10-14 DAYS IMAGINARY ITENERARY

Day 1. Arrive in Tokyo. I already mention that the best place to stay in Tokyo is Ginza – it will give you an amazing access to the most interesting parts of Tokyo.

Day 2-5. Explore Tokyo. You’d want good 5 days in Tokyo, believe me. At least. Better a week. Tokyo has everything you’ve imagined about Japan, and more. There are countless guide books written on the subject  and indeed one could write a whole book devoted to what to do in Tokyo alone. I will write a post devoted to Tokyo later – let’s move on to where to next.

Day 6. A day trip out of Tokyo. Here’s another bonus of staying in Tokyo longer – a number of exciting places are a mere 1-2 hours away. Again, just listing all the places where one could go could take a long time, and tourist guides usually cover the choices pretty well. One place to look into is Hakone. Hakone is part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, less than 100 kilometers from Tokyo. Hakone is quite a spectacular area stretching across remains of a collapsed volcano, complete with numerous hot springs and steam vents, including a tranquil lake Ashi that affords the views of Mt Fuji on a clear day. Local transport is part of the attraction. Once in Hakone, the area is explored by increasingly fun transport options – first on a mountain train that climbes through steep forest-covered hills, then a cable car, then a jaw-dropping ride on a ropeway above the steaming remains of the volcano and finally, a boat across the lake Ashi. All transport modes are covered by one Hakone Free Pass.

Hakone can become an easy introduction to the world of Japanese hot springs, onsen. We chose to use one in Hakone Green Plaza hotel, and were rewarded with beautiful outdoor pools with views of Mt Fuji and free sake on tap. The best part was that the hotel was convinitently located enroute to Lake Ashi, just off Ubako station on the Hakone Ropeway. Actually, I have so many things to tell about Hakone, I might do a special post.

From official Takayama websiteDay 7. Get out of Tokyo for good and go to Takayama. Takayama is the secret jewel of Honshu. It is a small Edo town hidden in the Japanese Alps, reached by a scenic ride across mountains and rivers on a train with large windows. Give your JR pass a workout and ride a Shinkansen to Nagoya, where you will change onto the Hida Wide View Express.  In Takayama, stay in a ryokan in the foothills of the mountains – you will still be able to walk everywhere in this picteresque town. We stayed in an absolute gem of ryokan Hakuun – the room had a spacious veranda with the views of the town and surrounding mountains, a luxurious private sypress bath, and the ryokan had in-house onsens.

Besides onsens and ryokans, the other attractions of Takayama are superb local Hida beef that rivals Kobe’s, sake breweries offering free tasting, a delightful quarter of old merchant houses converted into museums or stores selling traditional craft and food, and an open air museum in a form of a folk village displaying unique thatched roof (“gassho-zukuri”) houses that had been transported there from surrounding valleys. Just noticed that I list beef and sake first – that says a lot of the type of travel I love. Fear not, the architectural, historic and natural charms of this old town lost in a far away valley would appeal to absolutely everyone, not just foodies.

Day 8-12. Kyoto and Nara. Now, you have to be smart about how you use the rest of your time. I should mention that a popular route from Takayama to Kyoto is not going back to Nagoya on the Hida Wide View Express and then changing onto the Shinkansen. If you have more time, take a bus to Shokawa Valley, where the gassho-zukuri houses are displayed in their natural mountanous habitat and actually lived in, and then continue with the same bus company to Kanazawa. Kanazawa has plenty of attractions in itself, besides being a point of chaning to a train to Kyoto. But if time is of value, as it would be on a 10-14 day journey, go straight to Kyoto.

Kyoto needs no introduction. If possible at all, try and stay in a hotel around Kyoto station – a great point for hopping on sightseeing buses. 3 or even 4 days are not enough to see everything in Kyoto. Simlar to Tokyo, it is very well covered by guide books, which usually have mammoth sections devoted to this magestic city. Allocate at least 2 full days to seeing temples, and remember that seeing more than 3 in a day could be a stretch. Temples are dispersed, walking from one to another is beautiful but takes time, and temple sightseeing takes time. You will be lucky to cover only the highlights in a couple of days. Then, of course, there is Gion and maiko – see why I suggest skipping Kanazawa on this short trip?

Nara, the cradle of Japanese Buddhism, is an absolute must do as a day trip. It is a short 45 minute ride on the JR line or 35 minutes on the Kintetsu line. At Nara train station, there is a delightful information window, where a lady who spoke excellent English gave us all maps we needed for the day of exploring the awe-inducing Todai-ji temple with its giant Buddha, the museum of Buddhist arts, the sprawling park polulated with tame deer, all against the tranquil backdrop of mountains.

Day 13. Return to manic Tokyo! After a week of serenity, you will be ready for more action. Stepping back into Tokyo is like being propelled a hundred years into the future. Make sure to go out in style and book a spectacular dinner on your last night. My suggestion is the Michelin-star Molecular Tapas Bar at Mandarin Oriental. Only 8 guests are seated at the counter where two chefs create a feast of 20 imaginative courses before your eyes, with the vertiginous views stretching to Shinjuku behind you. Later, you can relax in the cocktail lounge on the 38th floor with a Molecular cocktail – just as we did. (Tip – ask for 8 pm seating for a more relaxed dinner)

Day 14….Home (sad face). Japan is one country where I never look forward to returning home. I’ve promised myself I will live there again, and I can’t wait! Make sure to have a twirl around Narita airport as there are plentiful restaurants, souvenier shops selling large arrays of Japanese mochi (traditional sweets), sake and other reasonabily priced souvenirs.

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