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Planning the perfect itinerary for your first trip to Japan (summer)


 

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The land of the rising sun; home to ancient traditions, fascinating modern technology, stunning natural beauty, delectable cuisine, and kind people. Japan has something for anyone and everyone. I (Reeka), visited Japan in June-July with my sister, and I can honestly say that a single trip is not enough and I would definitely love to visit again. That said, a 9-12 day trip is perfect for your first visit and gives you ample time to cover the most well-known cities.


Planning your itinerary

For your first visit to Japan, you would definitely want to include the most popular cities, i.e. Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. It is also important to consider the length of your overall trip. Based on our experience, including the days spent moving between cities, you should spend at least 3 days at each location.


Our itinerary for 12 Days in Japan:


3 Days in Sapporo; 3 Days in Tokyo; 3 Days in Kyoto; 3 Days in Osaka

Since we had enough time on this trip, we wanted to include the Hokkaido region, and decided to add Sapporo as a destination. As you can see from the map, this formed a nice route from the North to the South of the country and worked especially well as we found affordable flights to Sapporo, Hokkaido, and out of Osaka. This route would also work well in reverse, starting in Osaka and ending in Sapporo.


Hand-drawn map of japan with Sapporo, Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka labelled

Note: Because Hokkaido is located considerably further from the other cities, we would only recommend including it in your trip if you intend to spend at least 3 days in the region. If not, it would be more time and cost-efficient to dedicate a separate trip just to Hokkaido!


Here are some other possible itineraries you can consider for shorter trips:


9 Days in Japan:


3 Days in Tokyo; 3 Days in Kyoto; 3 Days in Osaka

This is just a nice amount of time to cover each of the three main cities comfortably. It may also give you time to add in a day trip or two in the Kansai region, such as to Nara or Kobe.


6 Days in Japan:


3 Days in Tokyo; 3 Days in either Kyoto/Osaka, with a day trip to the other

For a shorter trip to Japan, it may be difficult to stay in both Kyoto and Osaka. Fortunately, both these cities are very close to each other and it is possible to do a day trip from one to the other. While there is more to do during the day in Kyoto, the nightlife is better in Osaka, so choosing your base city would depend on personal preferences.


More about these cities...


Sapporo, Hokkaido

Sapporo Tower
Sapporo Tower

While Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island, is highly popular as a skiing destination in the winter, it can make for a rather enjoyable visit in the Summer months as well. The bustling city of Sapporo is the capital of the Hokkaido Prefecture, and where we chose to stay for our first 4 nights. We spent one day exploring Sapporo city, and took day trips to the lovely cities of Otaru and Furano on the other days. We went during the early Lavender season and got to visit a lovely Lavender farm in Furano.




Tokyo

Shibuya Crossing
Shibuya Crossing

The vibrant capital city is a must-visit on your trip to Japan and can be done as a week-long trip of its own! From serene gardens to beautifully chaotic nightlife, Tokyo certainly has a lot to offer. One of its most popular attractions is Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea, the latter of which is the only one of its kind in the world. We spent 2 nights in Tokyo, and unfortunately lost the majority of a day due to unexpected flight delays. As we spent our only full day at Disneyland, we would have appreciated more time in this city.



Kyoto, Kansai

Fushimi Inari Taisha - Red tori gates
Fushimi Inari Taisha

This beautiful city with an old charm, located in the Kansai region, was my personal favourite on this trip. It holds a rich history and heritage, and is home to several traditional Japanese arts. Here you can visit several stunning shrines, the popular Arashiyama bamboo forest, as well as learn about Geisha culture in the Gion district. We spent 3 nights here.





Osaka, Kansai

Kuromon Market
Kuromon Market

Osaka, known as the “Kitchen of Japan”, is a must-visit for its food and nightlife. The famous Dotonbori district lights up at night and is a hub for entertainment and shopping. Osaka is also home to Universal Studios Japan (USJ), which features Super Nintendo World and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, among others. We spent 3 nights in Osaka, and we took a day trip to the nearby city Nara, famous for its bowing deer.



Getting around these cities


While planning your trip to Japan, it is crucial to familiarize yourself at least a little bit with their transport system. As there is so much to cover, we’ve dedicated an entire blog post to navigating Japan’s transport system. This will cover a number of things from the different passes and cards you should consider, to how to actually book your train tickets.


Here is a brief overview of some of the best transport options on our route.


New Chitose Airport to Sapporo:

We flew into New Chitose Airport, Hokkaido, and hopped onboard the JR Rapid Airport service which took us to Sapporo in about 40 minutes.


Sapporo to Tokyo:

While it is possible to get from Sapporo to Tokyo by train, the total journey takes more than 7 hours, and includes a change at Hakodate. Fortunately, there are several affordable domestic flights that can get you there within 1 hour and 40 minutes, which is what we chose to do. We flew Jetstar from New Chitose Airport to Tokyo Narita Airport.


Tokyo to Kyoto:

The Tokaido Shinkansen line runs a few services from Tokyo to Kyoto, and onwards to Shin-Osaka. There are three bullet trains that you can take: Nozomi (2 hours 20 mins), Hikari (2 hours 40 mins) and Kodama (3 hours 40 mins). At the time of our trip, the JR Pass only covered the Hikari and the Kodama, so we took the Hikari train. However, the new JR Pass from October 2023 is said to cover the Nozomi as well, for an upgrade.


Kyoto to Osaka:

Osaka has two major stations: Shin-Osaka Station, and Osaka Station. If you plan to go to Shin-Osaka station, you can take the same bullet trains mentioned above on the Tokaido Shinkansen line (Nozomi, Hikari and Kodama), which will take you only around 12 minutes. However, if you want to arrive at Osaka station, you will have to take the Special Rapid service on the JR Kyoto line instead of the Tokaido Shinkansen line, which will take you around 28 minutes. We happened to take the Haruka Express, which is actually a service to the Kansai International Airport, which made an en-route stop at Osaka. You can also get to other stations in Osaka using the Keihan line and the Hankyu line, which are not covered by the JR Pass.


Osaka to Kansai International Airport:

The fastest way to get from Osaka to the Kansai International Airport is by the Haruka Express, which you can take from Shin-Osaka Station (50 mins), Osaka Station, Namba Station or Tennoji Station (35 mins). There is also the Kansai Airport Rapid train, which takes 15 minutes longer than the Haruka Express. Both these trains are covered by the JR Pass. The third option is the Nankai Rapi:t trains which go to Namba Station, which are slightly cheaper, but not covered by the JR Pass.


Note: Namba and Tennoji Stations are both located in Osaka city and are accessible by the metro service and the Osaka loop line.


Some things to look into before your visit

  • Do your research on culture and customs. Certain things are considered frowned upon in Japan, such as talking loudly on public transport or walking while eating food. Read more here.

  • Plan your itinerary and transport options in advance, to avoid last-minute stress and confusion. It is helpful to briefly familiarize yourself with the names of important stations and routes beforehand so that you can follow signs and directions more easily.

  • We were surprised by the difficulty in accessing elevators and escalators in the transport system. Not to say that they did not exist, but people generally prefer the staircases, and escalators and lifts are a bit harder to locate and often quite out of the way. Because of this, we were often lugging our suitcases up several flights of stairs. When we did choose to use elevators, we found that our travel time nearly doubled.

  • Linking to the above, don’t pack too heavy, and try to limit yourself to one suitcase per person, as you may need to carry it up stairs. It is also difficult to find spaces on some metro trains during office hours, and having suitcases only adds to this.

  • Alternatively, consider luggage forwarding services, where you can send your luggage to your next location. This can often be arranged from the hotel itself, so do check with your accommodation. Read more here.

  • Bring enough cash, as Japan is still not entirely cash-free and you will need it, especially in smaller restaurants, markets and ticketing machines. Larger stores and restaurants in shopping malls are more likely to accept card payments.


I hope this article is helpful in getting you started on planning your trip. Do stay tuned for our more detailed posts about each city (featuring must-see attractions and food recommendations), and another longer post about the transport system. For the latest updates, please subscribe to our blog!

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Very useful!!

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