Three Weeks in Japan: A First Time Itinerary
Updated: Nov 14, 2021
A Honeymoon is a Big Deal!
Not as big of a deal as the Wedding Day itself, admittedly, but still... A pretty Big Deal. And so the decision of where to go on said honeymoon is not to be trivially made.
Tropical islands, picture-postcard white sands and endless cocktails have their own appeal. But neither Julien nor myself being members of the fly-and-flop brigade, we were going to need something a little more boots-on-the-ground and a little less bums-on-the-beach. The required cocktails notwithstanding.
And when it came down to it, Japan had been at the top of our bucket list for so long that it really was, for us, the obvious choice.
This being a special trip, we were able to dedicate a bit more time than usual to our holiday. 3 weeks in a country that neither of us had ever visited, and for which we each had a list as long as our forearms of things to do and places to see. So how to set about planning a first-timers trip to The Land of the Rising Sun?
The really great thing about having a full 21 days to throw at our trip was that we could cover the majority of highlights a newbie traveller to Japan would generally like to see, as well as throw in a couple of extras. The main question for us was how to do it without relentlessly retracing our steps. Particularly as our flights were to and from Tokyo.
Another great thing about having 3 weeks' travel time available was that we could do it all without being too rushed. This is particularly important to both of us, and is a key component of how we plan any holiday. While I can certainly understand the desire to - and have a fair few friends who like to - fit as much as possible into any trip, that does not work for us. When we go on a holiday, we feel strongly that we want to be somewhere as much as we want to be going somewhere. A holiday for us is something to return from reinvigorated and re-enthused, rather than something to recover from.
And so after many months of research, many hours spent making bookings, and what feels like half a lifetime of looking forward to it, we were finally on our way to Japan and its iconic cherry blossoms!
[A quick side-note on travelling to Japan during the hanami season: If, like us, you are planning your trip for end-March and early-April to coincide with the blooming of the sakura cherry blossoms, it is essential to get on to organising your trip as soon as possible. It is no exaggeration to say that this is a very popular time indeed in Japan.
Based on suggestions we ourselves had read before travelling, we had most of our accommodation booked by about 6 months before our departure. And that turned out to be a very good thing! As the weeks and months progressed and we got closer to our trip, the prices we'd paid came to seem like bargains. In some cases our accommodation was 50% more expensive nearer the time than what we had paid for it. Not to mention the fact that a lot of options were fully booked well in advance.
I have read that Japan is a country under-supplied by accommodation compared to the demand during peak seasons, and this being the case - make sure to plan accordingly.]
Now without further ado, our:
3 week Japan itinerary
5 days in Tokyo
No trip to Japan would be complete without a stay in the capital city. Tokyo has the glitz and the glamour of a modern Japan, and the gravitas and hushed awesomeness that comes with a 1,000 years of history.
There are areas buzzing with eye-popping only-in-Japan zaniness, and quiet traditional suburbs filled with old-school charm. It is one of the world's great 24-hour cities, which makes it a perfect place to start a trip while you get over the jet lag of that multi-hour time-zone difference.
We had earmarked a handful of days for our Tokyo introduction. Check out our 5 days in Tokyo blog post for the full lowdown on how we spent them.
4 days in magnificent Kyoto
Kyoto features at the top of many Japanese wishlists, and rightly so. Considered by many to be the cultural heart of Japan, it is a city steeped in religion and is beautiful to behold.
It also sees a huge influx of tourists annually, and accommodation can be scarce and comparatively expensive (so shop around and book early!)
We saw many things to delight and admire on our trip to Kyoto, and even so we felt like we had only scratched the surface of this mesmerising city. Read on for details of our 4 days stay in Kyoto!
Naoshima Art Island
Flush with old-school charm and culture after our time in Kyoto, we were ready for the more modern kind, and for that Naoshima Art Island would be the perfect thing!
The first step in getting from Kyoto to Naoshima is a Shinkansen bullet train to Okayama station. We decided to also take the opportunity to break up our journey in Okayama, which would allow us to visit one of Japan's Three Great Gardens: Koraku-en.
From Okayama station it is just a brief onward train ride to Uno, from where a quick ferry departed that took us to the town of Miyanoura on one-of-a-kind Naoshima Island. Here we would be staying at the Benesse House hotel - smart accommodations that felt more like an art gallery than a hotel.
Naoshima is a wonder - a gorgeous island that is packed solid with avant-garde modern art museums. There are the more formal ones of the Benesse Art Sites, including the astonishing and popular Chichu museum (for which reserving tickets in advance is highly recommended). Elsewhere there is the more experimental Art House Project, set in various indoor and outdoor venues around the town of Honmura.
And dotted here and there around the island itself are random outdoor art installations, not least of which are a couple of Yayoi Kusama's visually striking - and these days insta-famous - giant pumpkins. And all of it set against the lovely backdrop of Japan's Seto Inland Sea - other smaller islands visible off the coast and ocean views to the horizon.
While Naoshima certainly has become more popular in recent years, it still manages to pass slightly under the radar for many tourists. Our 2 days on this marvellous island were a highlight of our 3-week trip around Japan, and we think Naoshima deserves a higher place on those bucket-list Japanese itineraries.
A quick 35-minute bullet train west from Okayama is Hiroshima, from where it is an easy local train ride onwards to Miyajima-guchi station. There we hopped on the Miyajima ferry (included in the JR Pass) and 10 minutes later we were coming into port via our first views of Miyajima's most famous site: the Itsukushima Floating Torii Gate.
Floating only during high tide, mind you, so you may have to hang around for a bit if you are after that traditional photo shot of this magnificent red torii with its feet submerged.
We spent our afternoon meandering along the island, discovering sites like the Itsukushima Shrine and the Tahoto Pagoda. We wandered up the mountainside and took in the dramatic views over the bays, and sat in a glade of falling cherry blossoms at Momobayashi park. We ambled around the old town and along the canal that cuts it in two, while snacking on Japanese treats from the local street vendors.
And at the end of the day, as the sun sank towards the horizon, we boarded the ferry for our journey back and our 1 night spent in Hiroshima city.
The furthest west we would travel along Japan's main island of Honshu, and also the briefest of our stops, Hiroshima was nevertheless a revelation. Despite being over 75 years ago now that the Enola Gay dropped the infamous 'Little Boy' bomb over Hiroshima, the telling of those events has lost none of its impact.
We spent the morning walking the museums, installations, parks and historic sites of the Peace Memorial - a part of central Hiroshima dedicated to preserving the memory of those terrible events, and that aims to serve as a continuing reminder of the horrific costs of war. Lest we forget.
The harrowing testimonies of the survivors, the displays of the victims' belongings, letters from loved ones to those they have lost, and photographs depicting the carnage, or thousands of origami paper cranes sent by children from across the world to the Children's Peace Monument each year - all were vivid and moving reminders of events that we can only hope will never again be repeated.
5 days in Osaka
Back in the heart of Japan, we based ourselves in the modern city of Osaka for the next 5 days. Just a stone's throw from Kyoto, Osaka nevertheless makes a more convenient base for exploring the surrounding areas, thanks to cheaper accommodation, some of the best restaurants in Japan and superior nightlife options.
We spent our days discovering what Osaka had to offer, including historical sites like Osaka-jo Castle and the lovely Sumiyoshi Taisha shrine. We ambled along the riverbanks of the many waterways criss-crossing the city, rested our feet together with the locals in one of the trendy coffee shops overlooking the rivers, and ate in first-rate restaurants. We ascended the Umeda Sky Building for the fantastic views, and shopped in the department stores of the surrounding Umeda area.
And at night we made our way to the Dotonbori canal - the main tourist hub of the city - an area aglitter with neon lights and abuzz with other revellers out for the evening.
We also made the most of Osaka's great location to do a few day trips, hopping on quick trains to discover the likes of Himeji and its immaculate ivory castle, or Nara for its deer interactions and that giant Buddha, as well as the modern city of Kobe and the historic charm of Kurashiki's bikan old town.
Koya-san - A night in a Buddhist monastery
By now our 3-week trip around Japan was nearing its end, but we still had a couple of special highlights awaiting us. And certainly one of the more unique Japanese experiences we had was our overnight stay in the Eko-in Buddhist monastery in Koyasan.
Koyasan - a mystical mountain south of Osaka in Japan's Wakayama district - is a wonder-filled place, filled with sacred Buddhist sites as well as the incomparable Okuno-in, Japan's largest cemetery. We came away inspired and truly enchanted by our all-too-brief 1-night temple stay in Koyasan.
Hakone - Onsen hot springs and ryokan stays
What more could a body tired from gallivanting around the Japanese countryside need than a soak in a steaming hot spring bath? So to finish off our 3 week adventure, we booked ourselves into the superlative Gora Hanaougi ryokan in Hakone, for 2 blissful days of relaxation set in beautiful countryside surroundings.
We spent our days following the sites along the Hakone Loop tourist route, and our evenings submerged in dreamy onsen baths followed by delicious kaiseki meals served up by the Hanaougi staff.
Of all the hotels we stayed in around Japan, Gora Hanaougi was our favourite, and whenever we find ourselves back in Japan again we will be sure to put aside some time to revisit this amazing traditional ryokan.
All good things come to an end, or at least that's the case with holidays, and so back we were in Tokyo for one last night, on site and ready to make our way back to the airport the following day for our flight home.
It was with a little bit of sadness, a ton of new memories, and no small amount of thankfulness that we waved goodbye to Japan after what had been the 21 day trip of a lifetime.
There can be nowhere else in the world quite like Japan, with its millennia-old temples and its modern cities, its graceful peoples and unique experiences. The land of the rising sun, of sumo wrestlers, singing toilets and sake, had given us experiences to cherish that we would carry with us forever.
3 weeks in Japan - what we would do differently
The above itinerary was our best effort to fit in as much of our bucket-list Japanese items as practical, and it worked very well for us. With the benefit of hindsight, we did think there were a couple of small things we would change, and these are:
We found 5 days in Osaka slightly more than we needed, and 4 days in Kyoto not quite enough - we would reallocate 1 night between them.
We opted to stay on Naoshima Island itself for our 2 night visit there. However, we thought that the on-site Benesse accommodation was overly expensive and not really necessary. Naoshima is easily reachable from the mainland, and we would recommend staying somewhere convenient and visiting for a day trip.
Additional resources: For more inspiration, take a look at the wonderful Japan Starts Here website - it is a super blog filled with hands-on personal experiences and information that we found invaluable in planning our trip to Japan.