When you come back from a trip. Everything is fresh and you want to pen down the amazing experiences.
First, I will start with the thought – what would I have done differently in Japan. This is my improved itinerary.
Do a round trip from Tokyo so that you can optimize your JR pass. Before you ask: JR pass is a must.
If you land in Tokyo: Narita Airport is an hour away, the express train is convenient and has good connectivity to any place in the city. You’ll be tired and jet lag. Take it easy on the first day. Sleep well and rest.
Internet: Buy an internet SIM card from the airport. Use Google Maps for navigation and train timetables.
Accommodation tip: if you book any hotel, hostel or Airbnb. Check the walking distance from the JR station.
Day 1 – Tokyo sighting (Akihabara)
- Go early in the morning to see the fish auction at the Fishmarket. You will find the best sushi there. (For vegetarians, the auction is fun to watch if you’re comfortable with the fishy smell)
- Go to Akihabara, the Mecca of electronic gadgets and anime.
- Have a coffee at the Gundam cafe, check out their cool restroom.
- Go to Sega – play video games or watch people play them. (I didn’t win anything but a great experience)
- You can shop for action figures, gadgets, and anime here. I bought a Goku action figure. Buy your favorite superhero action figure)
- Go to an animal cafe: play with cats, owls, and other cute animals. It’s fun. I spend an hour day.
- Go to a Maid cafe (didn’t go there but heard it’s a fun experience)
- You will easily spend the entire day there.
- I had dinner at T’s Tan Tan Vegan Ramen inside the Tokyo station. This is the best ramen of my life. Don’t miss it.
- I will recommend staying at K’s house hostel.
Day 2 – Tokyo’s Sighting (Senso-ji, Mario Kart, Shibuya-Ku)
- Go to Senso-ji temple. It’s nice.
- There is a market before the temple, you can buy a lot of souvenirs here. They’re cheapest here.
- I bought the name engraved chopsticks (everyone in the family loved it), magnets, purse, bookmarks. Just walk around there.
- Had lunch in the market there
- I went to do Mario Kart in the Shibu area for 2 hours. It’s a fun way to explore the city in the afternoon. I will recommend doing the 3-hour tour.
- In the evening, see the Shibuya crossing from the second floor of Starbucks. It has the best view. No need to buy anything. Walk around the Harajuku neighborhood. It’s kickass!
- Have dinner there – a lot of good food options.
- Go bar hopping in the Golden Gai area. These are small and intimate bars where you can easily interact with strangers. I met a lot of interesting people there.
Day 3 – Hakone (a day trip)
- Activate your JR pass
- Tip: JR pass doesn’t allow express Nazomi bullet train but no one checks the unreserved section once you enter the train. Always take the express train. It’ll save a lot of time.
- Left the hostel around 8 am, took Shinkansen (bullet) from Tokyo station to Odawara-Shi. Once you reach there, buy one day Hakone Tozan line pass. It’s worth the money since it covers everything cruise, train, and bus.
- The train information center in Odawara will give you a map and explain the details. Ask them that you want to visit Tenzan Onsen, they will explain the bus # from Lake Ashi to reach there.
- Tozan line is the world’s second steepest train ride, it was fun and got to see beautiful fall colors. I did Hakone Ropeway.
- I went to Owakudani that has active geothermal hot spring explosions
- Had lunch at a highly overpriced pizza place. Won’t recommend it but there aren’t many Vegetarian options to eat there.
- Next, took a cruise to Lake Ashi. You can see Mt Fuji on a clear day (unfortunately, it was foggy)
- After the cruise, took a bus to Tenzan Onsen. This was the best part of my trip. DON’T MISS IT. Japanese have re-invented the simplest form of a bath. The most relaxing thing – taking a hot spring bath. Take your own towel else you need to buy for 200 yen. Spend around 2/3 hours there. Take the timetable of the bus from the Onsen to plan accordingly. Note – you’ll be naked. Male and female are separate baths.
- I took the train back and reached Tokyo station around 9 pm. Ate again at T’s tan tan vegan ramen. Everything is great here.
Day 4 – Himeji Castle and Osaka
- Take early morning Shinkansen (bullet train) to Osaka and change train to Himeji Castle. You can store your luggage at the Osaka station. It’ll take an hour to reach there
- Take the Nazomi or Kamakura express to save time. No one checks the unreserved train section.
- Himeji Castle is the biggest and the best of Japan’s Castle. I’m a big Samurai movie fan and loved the experience of walking around the stairs where lords and Samurai used to walk. It’s a half-day trip.
- There is a lot of tasty noodle shop with veg options in front of the castle. I left Himeji after lunch and reached Osaka in the evening
- If you don’t have time then you can do Osaka castle instead of Himeji. It’s a smaller White Castle. Choose either of them.
- Walk around in Dotonbori, there are a lot of good bars. I stayed there for 2 hours and left for Kyoto in the night. I decided to stay overnight in Kyoto to save time the next morning.
- I stayed at K’s hostel in Kyoto. Highly recommend it.
Day 5 – Kyoto
- Tenryu-ji temple and garden: I walked around the beautiful zen garden, spend around an hour there. Don’t throw away the entry ticket, you’ll need for the lunch place since it’s located inside the temple. If you exit from the north gate, then you’ll enter the famous bamboo forest. Shigetsu is the name of the restaurant
- Arashiyama bamboo forest: This place has an amazing aura and sound; just walk around the forest and immerse yourself. The lane is narrow and gets crowded. It’s hard to take pictures without the crowd. Once you exit the forest, on your right side there is a okochi sanso mansion.
- Okochi Sanso: This used to be a mansion of a celebrity who acted in a lot of samurai movies. It’s a beautiful house, there are several short trails. You’ll get to see one of the best fall colors here. Hold on to the ticket, they give you free matcha tea.
- Lunch: This restaurant is within the compound of Tenryuji. It’s a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant and one of the best food in Kyoto. DON’T MISS IT. A Michelin Star food for $35 per person. The food was delicious. I took a train and a bus to reach kinkaju temple, if you’re running short of time then take a cab.
- Kinkajou temple: it has a golden pavilion with a perfect reflection. I spend around 1.5 hours here. After the temple, I took a cab to see Daikaku-ji Temple but was late since it closes around 4ish. Try to hurry up if you can.
- Downtown: It was a tiring day, I went to momoteki vegan restaurant near Nishiki market for dinner. Again, the food was delicious. Try their tiramisu. I went to bed early at around 10.30 pm.
Day 6 – Kyoto
- Temple hopping in Gion district: Ginkaku-ji, philosopher’s path, Daikaku ji, Shoren-in: Had breakfast and started early morning around 8 am. I had rented a half-day cycle from my hostel and went to Gion district where most of the temples are located. I got lucky and saw a geisha. Went to Kiyomizu-dera temple, this is a really big temple with a massive dragon statue. The complex is huge and had an amazing view of Kyoto city. There is a market before the temple, I did buy a few things but later realized those things were cheaper in the Nishiki market so don’t shop from there. Spend around 1.5 hours here. Then I went to a few other temples like Shoren-ji and daikaku. After a while, most of the temples look the same. My advice would be to cover the main ones only.
- Lunch – Omen. This is the best noddle shop in Japan with tasty veg options. They have another location in Gion district. Highly recommend the place.
- Fushimi Inari-taisha: It takes a while to reach there, JR pass will cover the journey. The tori gates are awesome, the initial gates have a lot of crowds. Walk a little to find empty tori gates. I hiked to the top of the Mount Inari. There isn’t any view and won’t recommend climbing the summit to anyone. Save time and energy, do the halfway and take more pictures. Witness the sunset at the halfway point. You’ll know the place as most of the people hang out there. Sunset is really good here. You can buy a tori gate souvenir in front of the temple, it’s cheaper there. I went again to the mumokuteki vegan restaurant for dinner. I like the place but will recommend exploring more food options.
Day 7 – Nara and shopping Nishiki market
- I did a half-day trip to Nara: I will recommend spending a half-day there. You’ll see a lot of free-roaming sacred deers. You can feed biscuits to the deer in the deer park. They sell the deer biscuits everywhere. Be careful since they’re wild deers. There is a huge Buddha statue called Daibutsu. Spend around 3/4 hours there. Had kaiseki lunch at a restaurant in the market, there are a lot of vegetarian-friendly places.
- The famous Mochi Pounding at Nakatanidou’s pride and claim to fame is their dramatic mochi-pounding process. It’s present in the main square and hard to miss.
- Nishiki market – spend the rest of the day shopping in the Nishiki market. I got customized name enraged chopstick, Aritsugu knife – these are customized name engraved stainless steel knives. This a 300-year-old shop, they used to make samurai swords. The same technique used to make the knife. It will cost around $150. I bought one for my sister with my nephew’s name engraved on the blade. I will highly recommend buying one. They accept only cash.
- Dinner: ate at a falafel place in the market. I will recommend exploring the market and try different food. Less vegetarian options here.
- Stayed at a Japanese hotel called Ryokan Yamasaki. Choose a garden facing view room. It’s cheap compared to another ryokan. It’s 30 mins away from Kyoto in the suburbs. Accordingly to the owner, I was the 3rd Indian staying there.
Day 8 – Hiroshima and Miyajima island
DON’T SKIP IT. It’s worth the journey, the bullet train network is really good. Took 8 am Nizomi express train and reached Hiroshima by 9.30 am.
- Hiroshima peace memorial, children memorial, eternal flame, A dome site: Hiroshima loop bus (covered by JR pass) will drop you at the Atomic bomb site. Everything is walkable from here. Spend around 2.5 hours here.
- Okonomiyaki Lunch: don’t miss it. Okonomiyaki is cabbage and noodles, there is a 5 story mall with dozens of vendor. Just ask anyone about Okonomiyaki village, they have veg options there. They cook in front of you while you drink sake and talk to your neighbor. It’s a cool experience. Pick any vendor, they all are the same!
- Miyajima Island: Take the JR ferry to Miyajima island. There is a famous floating tori gate. When I reached there, it was low tide so I could walk up to the gate and even touch it. There are several short trails, I walked around and ate matcha ice cream in the market. After 1.5 hours, there was high tide and water half covered the tori gate. It was a beautiful sunset.
- I went back to Hiroshima and took the bullet train back to Kyoto. Reached by 10 pm. It was a bit hectic but worth it.
Day 9 – Fly out of the Tokyo
More options in Kyoto
- Rent a bike and explore the cool neighborhood
More Tokyo day trip options:
- Kamakura Buddhist statue
P.S. – I spend a day in Kobe city hanging out with a school friend. There is a nice waterfront there.