When I first listed all the things I wanted to see and do during my first trip to Japan, I thought there was no way I’d be able to check them all off my list in a few weeks (let alone one). I was right, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider Japan as a great place for a short trip.
Many people consider Japan to be such a vast, complicated, and even intense place and therefore assume it’s not worth visiting for anything less than a couple of weeks. While they’d be correct in assuming that Japan is a place rich with sights and activities, they’d be wrong to assume that you can’t have a great time there for a week. By planning ahead, and choosing sights that appeal to you personally, you can have a fantastic short break anywhere in Japan. You just have to shake off the worry that you’re going to miss out by not seeing everything.
We’re going to look at whether it’s worth visiting Japan for a week, ways you can plan your trip, and give you an example itinerary too!
Is it worth going to Japan for a week?
There could be any number of reasons that you’ve asked that question: perhaps you’ve heard how intense Japan’s cities can be, rich with things to do. Maybe you’ve heard about the diverse scenery that’s available in Japan, and think you’ll need a lot of time to see all the different aspects of the country. Or maybe it’s just a really long way to go from where you live. Whatever the reason, you’re definitely not alone in asking.
It’s true – you’re definitely not going to get to see everything in a week. The truth is, though, you could stay in certain parts of Japan for months and still not get to see everything. A day or two in Tokyo will make that strikingly clear, especially if you have that realization from the top of Tokyo Skytree as I did. Japan is not only vast, but its cities are densely populated. Tokyo itself has fourteen different districts, each with a hundred different things to do and see. And that’s just one city!
Instead of letting this put you off, you should see it as a positive, because what Japan offers more than anything else is choice. There are so many different things to see and do that you’ll undoubtedly find a list of sights that pique your own personal interest. What’s more – Japan has excellent transport links across the whole country, and the main rail operators run like literal clockwork, making travel easy and reliable. You might struggle in some of the more rural parts of the country of course, but it’s efficient where it counts.
Hopefully, knowing that there’s so much for you to see and do in Japan will help ease a little anxiety you might have in planning a shorter trip (either that or it’s given you serious FOMO, in which case I sincerely apologize). No, you won’t see everything, and yes it might be a long way to travel, but Japan is so rich with sights and activities that any amount of time you spend there will be worth it.
How can I plan a week in Japan?
When presented with so much choice, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. There’s no perfect trip for anyone, so any recommendations we offer are pretty general, but there are ways you can maximize your own enjoyment when planning your ideal break.
Firstly, you can choose a category of sights that appeal to you the most, and then choose what you’d like to see out of that category. For example, perhaps you’re most interested in seeing the natural side of Japan, in which case you could choose rural parts of Japan near the sea, the forests, or the snowy island of Hokkaido. Or maybe you’re more interested in architecture, in which case the cities, and in particular, Kyoto (with its mix of modern and classical architecture) could be the perfect base for your trip. There are plenty of “categories” to choose from: art, nature, technology, gaming (or anything that would deem you an otaku), religion, tradition, food, and of course anything stereotypically Japanese.
If you don’t like the idea of boxing yourself into one category, a great tip somebody gave me was to pick something from every category and plan your trip around that! The great news is that you could do this by trekking across the country, or you could stick to one city and easily see something from every category since Japan’s major cities are incredibly diverse. Kyoto, in particular, offers an interesting balance in the modern and traditional, and it is close enough to major cities like Osaka and Hiroshima that you can venture out for a day or two as well.
There really is no right or wrong answer, though. The only real key is planning. Sure, you could completely wing your entire trip, and I’m confident you’d have a great time. Some of our best meals were the ones at restaurants we’d just stumbled upon, and there are great experiences to be had if you leave it to chance. That being said, some of our absolute best days were the ones we had planned well in advance (bunny island, Raku Ichi Soba, basically the ones in more rural parts of the country). With that in mind, planning could be the key to enjoying a shorter trip to Japan.
Once you’ve chosen the things that you’d like to see most, my best tip to you would be the way we planned out our first trip – get a map (digital is fine, but paper is more fun), and mark where your ideal locations are. Then plan a route to see if it’s feasible in the amount of time you have. We did this for our first big trip, and I can honestly say it is my favorite way to plan a trip. Not only does it help you figure out where to look for accommodation, and plan your train journeys between different stations, it’s an exciting reminder of your upcoming adventure! Once you’ve got the main events planned, you can either add other things to your itinerary or leave the extra time blank to allow for some freeform exploring.
Is it worth doing Japan in a week on a budget?
In short – yes! I write in a little more detail here about whether you can see Japan on a budget, but for the purposes of this article, let me reassure you that seeing Japan for a week can be done on a budget. Again, you’ll absolutely need to plan ahead a little, because Japan caters to all kinds of budgets, and you wouldn’t want to spend your precious time searching for affordable dining or accommodation.
So, what if you’ve read through all that information and you’re still not sure where to start? We’re going to share a few itinerary ideas that can be used as a template, or as a complete plan if they really take your fancy. We’ll look at a way you can see amazing things throughout Japan, and then a couple of plans within the major cities. To make things easier for everyone (a.k.a. me), we’re going to assume the following things:
- You are able to fly to any of the major cities in Japan (if you can’t you’ll have to add on a little travel time).
- You arrive in Japan before the 7 days start (since your flight could arrive at any point in the 24-hour day, it makes sense to start our plan from the following day).
- You’ve bought a 7-day Japan Rail Pass (this is a big assumption, but it’s logical that you’d make use of Japan’s best gift to tourists – the JR pass – since it makes travel so incredibly easy and is much cheaper than paying for individual bullet trains).
One week in Japan – Osaka to Tokyo
Day one – arrive in Osaka and do some exploring
Osaka is a great place to fly into, and an excellent city to start your trip with. Get an early start by heading to Osaka Castle, which is an impressive sight year-round, and absolutely breathtaking when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. Osaka has fantastic food (as does everywhere in Japan), and you should be able to pick up something delicious anywhere in the city. Osaka is known for mouth-watering Takoyaki so if you’re going to eat it while you’re in Japan, look for a Takoyaki stand here. After seeing the castle, why not head over to Abeno Harukas, which has a museum and the best observatory in the city.
In the evening head to Dotōnbori, which is Osaka’s most popular nightlife district. You’ll find fantastic food suitable for all budgets, as well as theatre, shops, and other eccentric offerings.
Here are some of the best places to stay in Osaka:
- Karaksa Hotel Grande – A great hotel that won’t cut into your travelling budget too much.
- Dormy Inn Premium Osaka Kitahama – A little more of an apartment/Airbnb style option for those who like the option of cooking for themselves.
Day two – head to Kyoto for some history
You can take an express train to Kyoto using your JR pass (it will take less than an hour) and drop your bags at your accommodation. Most places will allow you to drop your bags off early, even if you can’t access your room yet, but double-check before you book that this is an option. There’s so much to see in Kyoto that’s it’s hard to choose, but you can buy a bus card for 500 yen that will allow you to hit more sights. You can start your day west in the Arashiyama area, which showcases the old town and is home to the infamous Arashiyama bamboo grove. The bamboo grove is a must-see while you’re in Kyoto, so try not to miss it. Grab lunch anywhere that takes your fancy, and then head to Kameyama-Koen Park to see the monkeys, or you can hang out with them after climbing Mt Arashiyama.
If monkeys aren’t your thing, you could head north by bus to see the infamous Golden Temple. It’s always busy so expect a crowd, but nothing really beats seeing it at sunset, so we think the crowds are worth it. In the evening you can take a walk along Pontocho Alley, where you might even see some actual geishas.
Here are some of the best places to stay in Kyoto:
- Tune Stay Kyoto – A gorgeous option for those who’d like a bit of luxury at a lower price.
- The Pocket Hotel – This hotel’s proximity to the Kyoto International Manga Museum will make it ideal for any otakus out there.
Day three – head to Hakone and enjoy Mt. Fuji
After the hustle and bustle of the city, Hakone is the perfect place to experience the natural side of Japan, and the traditional accommodation. Stay in one of the many ryokans on offer, many of which have actual onsen inside! If you purchase a Hakone free pass, you can use local transportation to get around, since the JR pass will only cover you to Odawara station.
You should enjoy the calmness of Hakone and make time to relax as much as you can, preferably in an onsen. Try to be free with your time here, because you’ll appreciate the serenity when you’re in the thick of it in Tokyo. And of course, the main attraction of Hakone? Mount Fuji. You can use your Hakone free pass to take the cable car and get a good view of the gorgeous mountain. If you’re adventurous, you could even climb it, but that would definitely take a whole day (if you’re fit and healthy that is) so be sure to factor that in.
Here are some of the best ryokans in Hakone:
Hakone Ashinoko Hanaori – A luxurious ryokan with breathtaking views of Lake Ashi.
Hakone Airu – The rooms in this ryokan have private, balcony onsen baths… need I say more?
Day four – Get one last look of Mt. Fuji before heading to Tokyo
Spend your morning taking one last look at Mt. Fuji (you won’t regret it). If you can handle a little kitsch then you could even take the boat ride on Lake Ashi, which is included with your Hakone pass. Yes, it’s a very cheesy experience, but it’s worth it for the view. If you can’t handle the cheesiness, you can get off at the first stop (Hakone-machi Port) and wander through to the beautiful forest of cedar trees.
In the afternoon, head to Odawara and get the JR line into Tokyo. You can use your JR pass to get to any of the districts, although you might need to use the local metro to get right to your accommodation. Drop your bags and start exploring this amazing city! Where you’re staying will probably dictate where you spend the evening, especially since you’ve done so much traveling already today. You can’t go wrong with any of the districts, although since you’re here for such a short period you might be better off staying in Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ginza, Roppongi, or Marunouchi.
To find out more about the different districts and our accommodation recommendations head here.
Days five and six – explore this enormous city
If you can face the early morning, then you should absolutely check out the Tsukiji fish market. Book a tour so you can really get the most out of this awesome experience. You can also treat yourself to a sushi breakfast, with some of the freshest fish you’ll ever eat. With a belly full of sushi, you could then head up to Asakusa using the metro and visit the Senso-ji temple, which is Tokyo’s oldest temple. After you’ve seen the temple, you can spend some time in nearby Ueno, which has a variety of different attractions – Ueno Park, the Tokyo National Museum, Ueno Zoo, and plenty of great restaurants. You’d also be remiss if you didn’t see the “Electric City”, so why not take the 5-minute train ride from Ueno station and spend the evening in Akihabara? Even if gaming is not your thing, you’ll enjoy the spectacle.
Start day six with another historic and religious landmark by visiting Meiji-jinggū in Harajuku. After seeing the Shintō shrine, spend some time in Harajuku! Omotesandō will serve all your luxury shopping needs, while also treating you to some fantastic architecture. Grab some lunch, and then head over to Shibuya. This massive hub of modern-day Tokyo will likely be familiar to you since the Shibuya crossing is such an iconic image. It’s worth the journey just to see the hustle in person, although if (like me) you prefer to stand back from the chaos there’s a building directly facing the crossing itself where you can get a coffee and watch everything unfold.
For the evening, head over to Roppongi, which is one of the most vibrant nightlife areas in Japan. The restaurants and bars here have a wide variety of patrons, both foreign and local, and you’ll have plenty of choices. Roppongi is also known for being pretty beautiful at night, so it will be a fitting final evening for your time in Japan.
Day seven – last-minute dash and head home
Depending on when you fly home, you might have time for a few last-minute sights! If you’d like to dash around a few more places but don’t want to carry your bags there are stores that offer bag service (and are also a convenient place to pick up a few gifts) like shopping metropolis Don Quijote. If you have time, check out the Ginza area for high-end shopping and restaurants, or head to the Imperial Palace for one last infusion of history. If you’re into coffee, there’s a fantastic independent coffee shop just a 15-minute walk away from the Imperial Castle – it’s called Glitch coffee, and it’s well worth the walk. If you’ve got time for one last meal, it’s only a 25-minute journey to Unagi Hashimoto, who offer their Michelin-starred eel at a reduced price in the afternoon.
And there you have it! Proof that you really can have a great time in Japan for one week. Of course, just because it can be done, doesn’t mean it’s the best option for you.
Should I visit Japan for longer than a week?
Even though our example itinerary shows that you can see a great balance of sights in Japan in a short period of time, for a lot of people it will be too intense a trip. You do a lot of travelling between the cities, so unless you have a backpacker’s mindset, you might not enjoy that much time on public transport. I’ve trekked from one end of Japan to the other using my JR pass, and in all honesty found it very enjoyable – the trains are efficient, clean, and fast, and it’s a great way to see the countryside. But, I did it over a longer period of time, so the travelling did not outweigh the time I spent within individual cities. It really comes down to your travelling style, and as we discussed earlier there’s so much to see in Japan that you’ll have plenty to do and see if you decided you want to stay for two weeks, or even three.
If you really can’t wangle any more than a week off work, but you don’t like the idea of trekking across the country, is it worth it to visit Japan? Absolutely. Stay in any of the major cities and you’ll have more than enough to keep you busy for seven days. More than likely, your small taste of Japan will leave you wanting more, and you’ll be booking a longer trip in no time!