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For our ultimate week in Japan we have picked out an itinerary that is often referred to as the Golden Route. This is a must do journey for a first-time visitor to Japan giving a real insight into this incredible country. Covering several highlights including cultural sites, historic temples, natural beauty, plus a varying range of cuisines to dazzle your taste buds. With each season offering something different this route has year-round appeal, blossoms in spring, festivals of the summer, autumn foliage and crisp dry winters. It is also a perfect opportunity to make the most of Japan’s efficient rail system, and save some money with the Japan Rail Pass as you go. We have included some links to our other relevant blogs so you can find more information on each location. So, without further ado let us begin!
Day 1-2: Tokyo
Arriving into Tokyo you are met by the biggest, brightest, and occasionally most wacky of Japan. The capital has so much to offer that you could quite easily spend a week here on its own. For a first-time visitor we recommend a couple of nights to get a feel for city life and take in the highlights.
For an introduction to Tokyo we recommend exploring the historic area of Asakusa, famous for the Sensoji temple and surrounded by great eateries. Heading across the Sumida river from here, the dizzying heights of the Skytree give expansive views of the city and on a clear day all the way to Mt Fuji. Or you can visit at dusk to watch the city light up as the sun sets in the distance. Ueno park is another city favourite, full of museums, shrines, and in the spring, beautiful avenues of cherry blossom. A great mix of city, culture and beauty for your first day.
On day two we highly recommend the incredible tours of Maricar, real life Mario Kart around the streets of Tokyo. This will give you not only one of Japan’s more unique, fun and crazy experiences, but also a great overview of the city. This can be followed by revisiting some of the places at a more leisurely pace on foot. The modern areas of the city are also worth a visit; Shibuya with its famous crossing, Shinjuku’s electronics district and Kabukicho entertainment district in the evening, and Harajuku full of new trends, anime style fashion and cat cafes! Even among the intense bustling of these areas lie hidden oasis, and you cannot pass through Harajuku without a visit to the tranquil Yoyogi Park and Meiji Jingu shrine where you can re-centre before a night out in the Roppongi district.
Day 3: Mt Fuji and Hakone
Visiting the beautiful, and spiritually significant, Mt Fuji is both a wonderful trip and a lovely break from the hustle and bustle of the cities. Visiting can be done as a day trip from Tokyo which has the benefits of tour guide, expert information, and the ability to sit back and relax. Alternatively, you can make the visit independently by catching the train to Fuji and taking a bus up, or around the mountain. There are a number of interesting geological features around Fuji including lava and ice caves, and also Fuji Q theme park.
The other option is to stop in Hakone, a huge geothermal area surrounded by hills and gorgeous countryside. Here you can see the views of Fuji from a distance, but enjoy the rest of the striking scenery too. We recommend a cruise across Lake Ashi, a ride up the Komagatake ropeway, and then enjoy a relaxing onsen at one of the many wonderful ryokan guesthouses to finish your day. Whatever your preference Mt Fuji is worth the detour, an iconic volcano surrounded by mysterious forest, gorgeous lakes and wonderful vistas.
Day 4-5: Kyoto
Kyoto is a must on every Japan itinerary and a city we love returning to. Brimming with culture, shrines and temples, as well as a beautiful Geisha district, Kyoto is the quintessential Japan of films, books and anime. With so much to see and do in this wonderful city we suggest maximising your time by switching between exploring on foot and by bike.
Starting on the north-west of Kyoto there are many temples to visit including Kinkakuji (the golden pavilion), a truly unique sight surrounded by attractive gardens, and Ryoanji a Zen buddhist temple with ornate rock gardens. Taking a break from temples the nearby Arashiyama bamboo groves are an impressive vision, towering above you with leafy tops as you amble along the pathways. Making your way back across the city you can visit Nishiki market for souvenirs, and street foods that include chocolate croquettes! For the evening head to Gion’s Pontocho alley for an array of Japanese food and drink in cosy atmospheric eateries.
For a second day in Kyoto focus on the eastern side of the city. An early visit to Fushimi Inari is a great way to begin. Admire the main shrines here before meandering up Mt Inari through the enchanting tunnels of vermillion torii gates (reportedly 10,000 plus in total). There are many shrines along the way as well as teahouses, forest and viewpoints looking back over Kyoto. From Fushimi Inari head north along the river to the Gion Geisha district. The area is characterised by traditional wooden buildings, and winding flagstone streets lined with shops and teahouses. Following a route from Gion visit Hanamikoji street, Yasaka shrine and Maruyama park. Continue along the scenic cobbles of Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka soaking in the atmosphere before popping out at Kiyomizudera temple complex. Kiyomizudera is a large wooden temple atop the hill, surrounded by smaller shrines, pagoda, and with expansive views of the city. Exploring the shrines and unique points of interest such as the love stones of Jishu Jinga and Otowa Waterfall make this a particularly memorable visit to end your stay in Kyoto.
If you can squeeze it in you could also take a day, or half day, in Nara by hopping on the train. Nara boasts one of the most impressive temples in Japan; Todaiji. Nara is also infamous for the adorable (occasionally pesky) deer that bow to visitors in return for food.
Day 6-7: Hiroshima
Heading from Kyoto to Hiroshima by train provides opportunity for an ideal stop on route to visit the UNESCO heritage site of Himeji Castle, one of only 12 original castles in the country having survived wars, and avoided fire. The sheer size of the castle, and grounds, as well as its beauty mean it is highly thought of as one of the most spectacular castles in Japan. It is also one of the most popular places to see the cherry blossom in spring (tickets can only be bought on the day and are limited so get there early if visiting in spring or summer to avoid disappointment).
Continuing from Himeji by shinkansen, Hiroshima itself is a modern and peaceful place with a turbulent past. The dropping of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima is a harrowing part of the city’s past, present, and future and the citizens are advocates for peace. An essential visit is the Peace Museum, an eye opening, sombre experience telling the stories of that fateful day. The museum is surrounded by the Peace Park, full of memorials. On the edge of the park are the distinctive remains of the Promotional Hall, also known as the Genbaku dome, left as a reminder of the destruction caused by the bombing of the 6th August 1945. Following a visit here why not spend some time reflecting in the scenery of the Shukkeien garden and Hiroshima castle.
Less than an hour by ferry from Hiroshima is the spiritual island of Miyajima (literally translating as shrine island), which makes a wonderful day trip. As you cruise into the island you pass the partly submerged Torii gate, part of the Itsukushima shrine complex, reflecting vermillion in the bright blue waters. Once on land visit the quaint township, full of traditional crafts, the Senjokaku hall and pagoda, and the Daisho-in temple. Next head to the summit of the island reached by cableway, or for the more energetic traveller a hike up Mount Misen is a serene and scenic way to pass the time. The path can be uneven and steep in places, taking around 2 hours, and passes many lovely Shinto shrines along the way, including the Kiezu no Reikado or lover’s sanctuary which is home to an eternal flame said to have been burning for 1,200 years. The peak itself is 535m above sea level offering panoramic views of the Seto Inland Sea and surrounding islands, well worth the effort! A beautiful, unforgettable ending for any visit to Japan.
We hope you enjoy your trip! This is just a small amount of what Japan can offer and can be adapted to suit longer trips, looping back to Tokyo via Osaka and Kanazawa, flying up north to Hokkaido, or by adding down-time in the tropical southern islands of Okinawa. For more tips on travel in Japan, in depth information on towns and cities, and ideas for repeat visitors, check out our other Japan blogs.