Japan Part I-- Two weeks in Japan
Updated: Aug 4, 2019
In this post we'll explore the island of Japan in the time frame of two weeks. We'll Cover: Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka,Lake Kawaguchi,Kamakura,Shibu Onsen & Miyajima with optional day trips. Part I will focus on Tokyo, Kamakura, near by day trips and Shibu- Onsen. For the rest, please see " Japan Part II-- Two weeks in Japan".
Japan... an Island full of eccentric characters, on time trains, cultural values and the best sushi in the world! I can keep coming back time after time and always find something new.
Best time to travel is late Spring when skies are clear and sakura start to bloom & early Autumn when there's less rain, temperatures are mild and the colors of fall are at their deepest with beautiful shades of reds, orange and yellows.
Ok, so you booked your flight to Japan, now what? -- Check out my previous post "8 things to do before arriving in Japan" and use this guide as a check off list of things to do prior your arrival so you can maximize your time there and navigate through the town effortlessly without even knowing the language... it'll be your survival kit.
Day 1 -- Hello Tokyo
Start your morning having breakfast at the Tsukiji Fish Market-- the worlds largest fish market in the world. If you want to experience their every day tuna auction arrive by 4:45am. The auction starts at 5am and theres usually a big line. If you only want to go for breakfast and indulge in some of the freshest sushi on earth then arriving around 8/9am will do. Fresh produce is exported from here on daily bases to top restaurants around the world, this market is known for having the best quality fish meat out there so go on and eat your heart out, you won't regret it!
After breakfast head to Ginza for some upscale shopping, depatos (department stores ) and upscale cafes. In this area you'll find all the big brand name stores, make your way to the Tokyu Plaza Ginza to end your window shopping experience Tokyo style. For Lunch, Check out the "Shimbashi Yarakucho Gado- Shita" ( Restaurant district) which is under train tracks off the JR Yamanote line, best Sushi bowl ever! be sure to bring cash with you as most of these small shops are cash only. After lunch head on the Imperial Palace to visit the east gardens and the famous Nijubashi bridge. This is a good spot for Sakura ( cherry blossom ) watching during the cherry blossom season. The Imperial palace is free to visit and open to the public. They also offer free tours which you must register for a day in advance. The tour can last between 2-2.5 hours. After, make your way to the Asakusa district and visit the Senso-ji temple ( open till 5pm but the outside remains open at all times) next to Senso -Ji visit the secret garden of Dembo-in only open to the public between late march to may--there's a hack to getting in off season when doors are closed. Look for the entrance door , knock and ask for a reservation to view the garden, most visitors miss it not knowing its there. This general area is a great spot to indulge in all the local street food, you can also find gorgeous hand made craft to take back home as souvenirs. Have dinner here strolling around this area. - end of day 1
Start your day exploring the district of Akihabara, best known as the electronics and Anime district. Ever wandered what it would be like to pet or hold an owl? Japan is full of animal cafes! Theres an owl cafe, a cat cafe, a rabbit cafe, a dog cafe, a bird cafe, a snake cafe, a goat cafe...so many cafes! We opted for the owl cafe although the rabbit one sounded pretty tempting. In all honesty, as cool as this experience
was, we felt bad for these birds as they're confined to a room and have strangers every hour come in to pet and hold them.
This type of wild bird in particular does not like being pet on regular basis. As for the cats and dogs, I'm sure they're having a great time! We found these birds to be exotic wild little things. Playful yet demanding of their needs and own personal space. The place we visited was "Akiba Fukurou" and its about 2,000 Yen in cash for an hour. Online reservation is required and their hours are 11am-7pm. For lunch, head over to "Kanda Yabu Soba" ( hours: 11:30a-8:30p closed on Wednesdays) for some amazing soba noodles made from buckwheat. Spend the rest of the day exploring that area. The Tokyo anime center is open till 7pm, Super Potato and Radio Kaikan ( pop culture) are both open till 8pm. Navigate this area at your own pace depending on your personal likes. This is a video / anime / gaming heaven for all nerds out there so have fun!
After 5pm head over to the district of Shibuya and experience the busiest crossing intersection in the world "Hachiko Square"-- better viewed from one of the cafes overlooking the square so you can see hundreds of people crossing in the span of a minute, bird eye style! This is also a trendy area full of shops and a trend setter generation, stroll around and people watch for a bit. For dinner check out "Zauo" a fishing restaurant ( open from 11:30am- 11:00pm *reservations required) Ever wondered what it would be like to fish your own dinner? Well, here you can. At this spot you eat what you catch! They also have an option where they fish it for you at an additional added price but the whole vibe of this spot is to fish your own dinner, then you get to choose how you want it cooked. We chose sushi and fried style.
After dinner head over to the district of Shinjuku and experience the night life. Roam around two main street alleys that come to life after dark: Golden Gai & The Roppongi area. Favorite bar: Albatros; despite the $5 cover fee this was my favorite bar. Great cocktails with a cozy yet artsy atmosphere. Most Unique bar/ restaurant: Robot Cafe; Ive never seen anything like it anywhere else! so over the top, you're in another world ruled by neon colored robots and everything is way over the top. This place requires a reservation and an entrance fee as its mostly a show, offering entertainment, food and drinks. I recommend eating before arriving as food is just ok, you mostly go for the show. While in this area keep in mind that most places you'll find here are tourist traps and most bars will have a cover charge. — end of day 2
This is your last day to fully experience Tokyo so instead of a detailed itinerary I'll give you places to eat and optional things to do depending on your own personal preference. EAT-- Fresh sushi can be found all over Japan but we discovered two amazing spots where the locals hang out and eat. Fist stop is Uobei Sushi. Uobei is a conveyor belt sushi restaurant that's super modern, fast and very budget friendly. We loved the experience of ordering though an iPad and having our food delivered through a conveyor belt so much we had lunch here twice! If you visit don't forget to try their famous sushi donut and go early, lines can be long and wait time can range from 20min-2hr. Our second sushi spot is inside a mall...Sushi No Midori, it was the longest line we ever made waiting for a table in Japan ( and we arrived at noon when it opened ). If you are a raw salmon lover like myself, I highly recommend the salmon salad- the best I've ever had! They also have a giant sushi roll, this roll is best enjoyed by 2+ people as its 8 pieces of sushi and each piece is the size of your hand! *Tip: if there's a line and you have to wait, do what we did and find a bar inside the mall, have a beer then come back and see what number they're at or go shopping, its a mall after all ;) be sure to keep checking for your number though so you don't miss your spot. If you had to choose between the two I would recommend Uobei.
DO-- Check out sumo; you can do this at a tournament or drop in at an early practice and watch them train. You can purchase tickets online or at most 7evelens, to check out a practice, reservations most be made online ahead of time. Also attend a Tea Ceremony, nothing screams out more Japanese tradition and culture as a tea ceremony. See how its all done by the experts and enjoy a rich cup of matcha. A great place for this is Happoen Garden, reservations are required and last entry is by 3pm, this place is also closed on sat. / sun. End by revisiting your favorite spots and go souvenir shopping. --end of day 3.
Day 4-- Day trip to Kamakura
Only 1.5 hours away from Tokyo is Kamakura a great day trip to take. Kamakura is home to the Great Budha, stunning beaches overlooking Mt. Fuji and its famous 5 levels of green tea ice cream. Start your day by checking out these top temples: Hase-dera, for its giant Buddha you can climb into. Hokoku-ji for its bamboo / green tea and Tokei-ji Temple.
Kamakura is home to several sand beaches making it a popular destination among locals during summer. This beach is ideal for sunbathing, swimming and surfing. Take a stroll on the beach where id skies are clear you can spot Mt. Fuji and have an epic view you'll never forget. The official beach season is from July -August. You can also see seaweed being dried here and Hawks flying overhead so beware if eating snacks.
Finally before heading back to Tokyo, check out the downtown area near the train station. Downtown Kamakura is the perfect strip to find great street food, shops, sweets and drinks including local beers. I'm obsessed with green tea ice cream, so I went to Kamakura Cha Cha where they have 5 levels of green tea ice cream! Each level gets stronger in intensity, It was so yummy! and you can only find this type of ice cream in this area. Other Favorites: Komachi ( grapefruit juice with a little kick ;) with a full belly head back to Tokyo.
* Other day trip alternatives or add ons : Hike Mount Nokogiri-- Where you'll find beautiful buddhas craved out of stones and stunning views over looking Mt. fuji on a a clear day. Bike in Hitachi Seaside Park-- for stunning views of epic landscapes overflowing with flowers. This spot is seasonal so I recommend going to their website to see what flowers are in bloom when you visit, this will determine if this day trip is worth taking. Best Times to visit are Summer for Nemophila's and Autumn for a really epic field of Kochia "summer cypress"that turns from green to crimson, an unbelievably dramatically stunning sight.
DAYS 5 & 6 --
Over night stay in Lake Kawaguchi
Lake Kawaguchi is about a 3 hour trip from Tokyo with some fascinating stops along the way, so instead of making it a day trip, I recommend staying over night. Lake Kawaguchi is part of the Fuji Five Lakes and its at the base of Mt. Fuji so the views can be stunning from this spot. Keep in mind that Mt. Fuji is not always visible because of clouds. Best times to see Mt. Fuji are early morning ( before 9am )and during the late afternoon. Lake Kawaguchiko is the most accessible of the five lakes via train / bus and is also a hot spring resort town full of activities.
Before arriving in Lake Kawaguchi make a stop to hike the Chureito Pagoda ( Akura Sengen Shrine ). This Pagoda is easily accessible via train and the rest by foot. Once at the top you can see one of Japan's most Iconic shots of the pagoda with Mt. Fuji in the background. It was too cloudy for us that day so we couldn't see her completely... she's hiding behind those clouds "Fuji-San is a lady and that lady is shy" Honestly we tried three different times and never got a clear view as she only comes completely out approximately 80 days of the year.
You must be lucky to spot this beauty. We only saw her once completely from the train window on our way to the hike. After your hike its time to get back on the train and head to Lake Kawaguchi. If you have extra time before the train arrives, I recommend grabbing a bite at the train station, they have a small cafe with really yummy soba noodles. Once in Lake Kawaguchi the town is very easy to navigate via a hop on hop off bus. Get a map of the town so you can check out all the activities it has o offer.
In the town there are hot spring baths "Onsen", different Festivals offered through out the seasons, the Fuji Q amusement park, boat tours and the museum of art. Lake Kawaguchi is a great base to climb Mt. Fuji if that was on your list. Near by you'll also find Aokigara also known as the sea of trees or suicide forest and different caves systems to explore.
Days 7 & 8 --
Overnight Stay in Shibu Onsen
Our journey to Shibu Onsen was perhaps the most complicated yet relaxing of them all. Not too far from Tokyo lies the Japanese Alps and in the Alps the small charming town of Shibu Onsen. Shibu Onsen is a hot spring town in Yamanochi full of ryokans, culture and tradition; Its also just a couple of bus stops away from the snow monkey park making this town the perfect spot for a weekend getaway.
Getting here is not that difficult but still requires planning as you must take a Shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagano, followed by a train to Yudanaka and a local bus to Shibu Onsen. Despite the travel, I highly recommend this journey. We stayed at the ryokan "Kokuya" and had the best stay of our entire trip! At the entrance of Kokuya you are greeted by a bamboo basket filled with eggs, soaked in the towns hot spring water and an amazing staff.
Staying here can be a bit pricey at around $500 a night, but that gets you a Traditional Japanese room ( the size of a loft ) with tatami floor mat, your own private onsen on the patio over looking a koi pond. Dinner and breakfast ( 8+ courses each ) and the key to all the Onsens in town as you need a special key to enter even the public ones.The town has 9 pubic onsens and you can get a stamp on your towel for each one you visit, the goal is to collect all 9 stamps.
Soaking in an Onsen — an onsen is a Japanese hot spring. As an volcanic active country Japan has thousands of onsen. We loved relaxing in these naturally extremely hot waters sometimes way too hot for our comfort zone! but after 45 min of slowly soaking in, we got the hang of it... To enter an onsen brush up on proper etiquette as onsen bathing is part of Japanese culture and tradition. You must be fully naked, completely scrubbed down and tattoos are not allowed in public onsen. Most public onsen are gender separated.
Visiting the snow monkey park in Jigokudani -- There's nothing like it, I've never seen a more expressive animal than this one, with a simple glance you can tell what they're feeling and what they want. These are wild monkeys that during winter gather at an onsen ( hot spring ) in Jigokudani ( near the onsen town Shibu Onsen ) to relax, warm up and pick out each others flees. Talk about team work!
If visiting from Shibu Onsen simply take a local bus from the town and the park is just 10 min away. Once there there's a hike before finding these little guys. As I said before, they're wild monkeys and you're entering their space so be aware of not petting them and giving them room as they can become aggressive if felt threatened.
Things to do in Shibu Onsen :
* Stay at a Ryokan
*Go sake tasting in town -free!
*Take a soba noodle cooking class
*Visit all 9 public baths w/ key
*Visit the Snow Monkey Park
*Visit Kaminari daki ( waterfall )
This ends our Japan part I adventure! This could be a 3-10 day itinerary with all the add ons. Up next we're heading south on our Japan part II blog covering Kyoto, Osaka & Miyajima with additional add ons!