Where to Go?
Japan is a massive archipelago, but it only has four main islands. From north to south, they’re Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. If you only have a few days to spend in the country, you'll probably want to head to Honshu and to one or two of the three biggest cities: Tokyo, Kyoto, or Osaka. But if you have more time at your disposal, then the sky's the limit when considering where to go. The Shinkansen bullet train reaches speeds of 200 mph, meaning you can cover serious distances across the main islands in little time.
If you're lucky enough to have a couple of weeks in Japan, then you could tack on a trip to Honshu's Nihon Arupusu, known as the Japanese Alps, and target postcard-perfect villages like Shirakawago. You might also want to spend time understanding Japan's tragic war history in Hiroshima.
With three weeks on your hands, you could go further north to the island of Hokkaido, home to hot springs and rugged mountain ranges. In winter, even the most experienced skiers will be impressed by the quality of the fresh powder on the slopes. You could also take a ferry over to peaceful Shikoku, the smallest and quietest of the four main islands, or head further south to the white sand beaches of subtropical Okinawa.
Japan in Four Days
Japan’s two biggest cities may be 280 miles apart, but when you take the Shinkansen you can travel between them in only two hours. If you have four days in the country, hop on the bullet train to maximize your time and hit up both Tokyo and Kyoto.
Example Four-Day Itinerary:
Day 1: Base yourself in Asakusa, Tokyo to visit Sensō-ji. Dating back to the 7th-century, this Buddhist temple is the oldest in the capital. In the afternoon head to Ueno Park and visit major museums like Tokyo National Museum. Overnight in Tokyo.
Day 2: Head to Shinjuku, the pulsating commercial heart of Tokyo. Check out the wild teen fashions in Harajuku, then walk to Yoyogi kōen, Shintō Meiji Shrine, and the oasis that is Meiji Shrine Inner Garden. Take the bullet train to Kyoto. Overnight in Kyoto.
Day 3: Visit Fushimi Inari Taisha, where thousands of brightly-colored torii gates lead visitors up Inari Mountain. Many visitors turn around after a few hundred feet, so keep going if you want to experience a more secluded walk. Overnight in Kyoto.
Day 4: Visit Arashiyama to the west of the city. Tick off classic Japanese sights like Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and the “borrowed scenery” Zen garden at Tenryu-ji Temple. Walk alongside the Katsura River to Senkoji Temple. The uphill climb may be steep, but the peaceful ambiance and panorama of the city are worth the effort.
Japan in Seven Days
If you have a few more days in the country, then you can divide your time between Japan's two biggest cities, visiting "only in Japan" Tokyo hotspots like Oedo Onsen Monogatari, a funky theme park that is devoted entirely to the art of bathing in natural hot springs, or onsen. From Kyoto, you could take a day trip to Nara for its Buddhist temples and famous, free-roaming deer.
Only a 15-minute ride from Kyoto by Shinkansen, Osaka is the favorite city of Japan specialist Alex Kerr. According to him, it has "the best entertainment districts in Japan [and] the most lively youth neighborhoods.” Visit the Dōtonbori nightlife area, where you can find excellent street food, endless neon lights, hip karaoke joints, and a picturesque canal. You'll quickly understand why so many people fall for this lively city.
Example Seven-Day Itinerary:
Day 1: Visit Sensō-ji in Asakusa, Tokyo. In the afternoon visit Ueno Park and Tokyo National Museum. Overnight in Tokyo.
Day 2: Visit Tokyo's Shinjuku area, including Harajuku and Yoyogi kōen Park. Overnight in Tokyo.
Day 3: Spend the morning at Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Tokyo. Take the bullet train to Kyoto. Overnight in Kyoto.
Day 4: Visit Fushimi Inari Taisha. Overnight in Kyoto.
Day 5: Visit Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Tenryu-ji Temple, and Senkoji Temple. Overnight in Kyoto.
Day 6: Day trip to Nara and Nara Park. Overnight in Kyoto.
Day 7: Take the bullet train to Osaka to see Dōtonbori by night. Overnight in Osaka.
For more tips on under-the-radar sites in Nara Park, read about destinations in Japan that most people miss—but shouldn't.
Japan in Ten Days
With 10 days, you could go on a self-guided tour of the historic Nakasendo Trail, which was part of feudal Japan’s original network of highways. You'll trek this mountain path passing through the forests of Central Honshu and staying in local inns each night. The basic itinerary starts in Kyoto and ends in Tokyo.
Day 1: Arrive in Kyoto. Overnight in Kyoto.
Day 2: Sightseeing in Kyoto with a private guide. Overnight in Kyoto.
Day 3: Sightseeing in Kyoto. Overnight in Kyoto.
Day 4: Hike from Magome to Tsumago. Overnight in Tsumago.
Day 5: Hike from Tsumago to Nojiri. Overnight in Kiso-Fukushima.
Day 6: Hike from Yabuhara to Narai. Overnight in Narai.
Day 7: Hike from Narai to Hirasawa. Overnight in Karuizawa or Koromo.
Day 8: Hike from Karuizawa to Yokokawa and transfer to Tokyo. Overnight in Tokyo.
Day 9: Tokyo. Overnight in Tokyo.
Day 10: Tour ends in Tokyo.
Japan in Fourteen Days:
With 14 days, you could start by eating and drinking your way through the country on a 10-day guided tour that leads you through the culture and history of Japan. House-brewed saké, fresh sushi, and multi-course kaiseki feasts will all be on the menu.
Day 1: Arrive in Tokyo.
Day 2: Browse the stalls at Kanawaza's Omicho Market.
Day 3: Foraging in Gokayama, doburoku tasting.
Day 4: Shirakawa-go and Takayama.
Day 5: Traditional earth oven cooking in Hida Furukawa.
Day 6: Osaka and saké tasting.
Day 7: Outdoor farm-to-table cooking in Asuka.
Day 8: Awaji Island foodscape.
Day 9: Kyoto's Nishiki Market and geisha district.
Day 10: Kyoto sightseeing and kaiseki farewell dinner.
Day 11: Depart Kyoto.
With the few days that you'll have left, you'll have time to squeeze in another short trip on Honshu. Consider a trek to Nihon Arupusu or a few days in the city of Hiroshima.
Japan in Twenty-One Days:
If you have 21 days, then you can start by following the 14-day itinerary above. Then, once you’ve taken in the sites of Honshu, hop a flight to the southern islands of Okinawa. Discover a world of mangrove jungles, beaches, and psychedelic coral.