Mad, mind-boggling, and futuristic are all words that come to mind when I think of our trip to Japan. From the Zen of the temples to the crazed sounds of a pachinko parlour, Japan is king of extremes. It topped our wish list for years, but we were always put off by the expense. We kept saving it for “a time when we had money”. But then we were invited to a wedding in Seoul, and after finding out it’d only cost £80 to add a stop in Japan, we decided the time was finally right. We wouldn’t be able to stay long, but ten days would be enough to create a “taste of Japan itinerary” and finally see the country so many people rave about.
We spent a lot of time researching our trip and planning the perfect 10-day Japan itinerary so this post is here to help you save some time when creating your Japan trip. I hope you find it useful, and do feel free to add your own Japan tips/questions in the comments.
A ten-day Japan itinerary
As readers of this blog know, we normally adopt a ‘slow travel’ approach, spending days or even months in one place, but with Japan it was different. We had waited a long time to go there and we didn’t know when we’d be back so we wanted to try and fit in as much as possible into the ten days in Japan. This was a big change for us and there were moments where it felt rushed, but looking back, I wouldn’t change it as those moments of busyness were worth it for the things we saw. We also managed to fit in many moments of calm, which helped to balance the fast-paced travel. Of course, it would have been nice to stretch the trip and spend a few days in each place to soak everything in some more, but for the time we had, our Japan itinerary worked really well.
Creating your perfect Japan itinerary
Depending on your priorities, you might like to skip some things and add extra time to some of the others, but if you’re looking for a good introduction to Japan then I recommend our trip wholeheartedly. We’ve also written a storybook version of the itinerary with lots of photos to inspire you.
Is Japan as expensive as people say?
Regarding price, Japan wasn’t as expensive as we had imagined. It’s very pricy in comparison to south-east Asia, but we live in London and the costs were comparable to there. For example, you could get a coffee for about £2.50, and an average dinner at a mid-range restaurant cost around £30 for two people without alcohol. At lunchtime, we spent as little as £6 for a curry. Our accommodation cost from £60-£150 per night for two people, sometimes including breakfast and dinner. This was on a moderate budget where we sometimes splashed out but other times stayed in a hostel or AirBnB (by the way, if you sign up with this link you’ll get £25 off your first booking). We never went full luxury as the prices were sky-high. Details of all the places we stayed are included in the Japan itinerary below.
How is Japan for vegetarians?
One of the most common questions we get is “Is Japan good for vegetarians?” and the answer is “kind of”. We ate really well in Japan, and with a bit of effort were able to find great Japanese vegetarian options, but there were also times when we struggled. Those times were the evenings when we decided to simply walk around a city and choose somewhere without any research. Unfortunately, I don’t like nori, which means our options were limited even further. On one of those nights, we ended up eating pizza and the other night, we finally found an okonomayaki only to find that the chef had covered it in fish flakes (this was despite us seeing him start to do this and reminding him we didn’t eat fish. He was adamant that fish flakes didn’t count!). I would recommend doing a little bit of research before you set out each day so you know where to find the good veggie food. All of the restaurants recommended in this itinerary are vegetarian-friendly.
Getting around Japan
We’ve added transport and accommodation info to each section of the itinerary. The days overlap for each place as we often spent the morning in one place before travelling on to the next. One top tip if you’re traveling long distances is to get a Japan Rail (JR) Pass. You have to order this before you enter Japan (there is no leeway on this) – they send you a ticket called an ‘exchange order’, which you then exchange for the pass once you’re in Japan. To work out if getting a pass is worth it, you can work out how many train journeys you’ll be taking and add up the prices using Hyperdia, which is a really useful Japanese website detailing all the transport timetables. We only saved about £40 by getting a rail pass, but some people save a lot more when they cover longer distances than we did. Another benefit of having a rail pass is that you don’t have to buy tickets for each individual train – you simply show your pass at the gate.
It’s important to note that the pass isn’t accepted on every single train in Japan – for example we couldn’t use it for the Hakone loop or for some of the private local train lines within Kyoto. There’s an option on Hyperdia where you can search for trains that are only included with the JR Pass.
The passes are available for 7, 14 or 21 days and you can get an ordinary pass or a green pass, which allows first-class travel. We went for the ordinary one, which cost ¥38,880 (£230) for seven days. We now know you can get a pass for less money by booking through this website; for example our pass costs around £201 with them.
Also remember to accurately time the day you activate your JR Pass so that you can make the most of it. Because we had a 10-day trip and only a 7-day pass, we activated it on day 4. This worked well as our first three days were in Tokyo where we could buy a subway ticket instead.
Our Japan itinerary
Tokyo is one of the most fascinating cities we’ve ever been to and the kind of place you could spend a lifetime getting to know. We had three nights there so tried to pack in as many “Tokyo experiences” as possible into that time.
We stayed in Shibuya, which was an ideal place from which to explore the city. It’s one of Tokyo’s most iconic areas of the city and is filled with bars, malls, restaurants, karaoke bars, and a hell of a lot of neon. It’s also home to the world’s busiest intersection, which tells you a bit about how buzzing Shibuya can be.
We also explored Akihabara, which is the centre of the city’s otaku culture and home to lots of amusement arcades and cheap tech shops. This is also where you go if you want to experience a maid café, which we decided was a step too odd for us and likely to enrage my feminist instincts.
Other areas we explored were the shopping district of Ginza (where we bought A LOT of stationery in Itoya); Jimbocho, which is home to streets of bookstores; the beautiful YoYogi Park in Harajuku; Shinjuku, the crazy entertainment district where we went to the Robot Café (which did enrage said feminist instincts); Golden Gai, which is an area with rows of tiny little bars, perfect for an evening drink; and Ebisu, an upmarket hipster area with lots of lovely boutiques and restaurants. We tried to go to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, which looked beautiful but was closed when we went there on a Monday. We also went to an owl café, which I’ll write more about in a separate post – I’m still not sure if it’s a good idea ethically and need to investigate more.
Accommodation in Tokyo
We stayed in an AirBnB apartment in Shibuya. It was a tiny but clean apartment and perfectly located for our stay, less than 5-minutes from Shibuya station. It cost ¥8,600 (£51) per night, and included a mobile wi-fi device, which was very useful (this seems quite standard in Japanese AirBnBs). Remember to sign up to AirBnB with this link to get £25 off your first booking.
Food and drink in Tokyo
We ate really well in Tokyo and it was easy as vegetarians. One top tip if you’re looking for a budget eat is to look for one of the many curry shops, which nearly always have a vegetarian option. We tried one in Shinjuku (モンスナック) and another in Jimbocho (Bondi) – both were delicious. Other highlights were a tofu restaurant in Shibuya called Tofu Ryori Sorano (where they made fresh tofu at your table); 板蕎麦 香り家, a soba restaurant in Ebisu; traditional vegetarian temple cuisine at Komaki Shokudo, a little restaurant in a Whole Foods style market called Chabara. We also spent one evening in an izakaya, which is a traditional Japanese bar serving tapas-style dishes – there are tons of these in Shibuya.
For drinks, one evening we went to the Mandarin Oriental. It’s pricey but worth if for the incredible view across the city. And we also did karaoke in Shibuya, which was surprisingly brilliant (you pay per hour for a booth and the menu is in English as well as Japanese).
A top coffee recommendation is Café de l’Ambre in Ginza, which is a charming traditional coffee shop.
Getting to and around Tokyo
We bought a prepaid IC card to get around Tokyo – these are available in the subway stations and you simply add credit like you do with an Oyster card in London. There are two types, Pasmo or Sucia, and we used the Suica one. They are valid on both the subway and JR lines. However, if you’re travelling a lot in one day, it might be cheaper to get a one-day pass, which start at about ¥600. The problem with these is that they’re only valid on certain lines. There’s a lot of useful info about this in this post.
Our prime motivation for going to Hakone was to catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji – a definite Japan highlight. It was a gamble as the mountain spends a lot of time hidden behind clouds, but we were willing to risk it, plus we also liked the idea of spending some time in Japan’s countryside. It was definitely worth it as we did get to see Mount Fuji, which was a truly spectacular sight, and even without that, I think the trip would have been worth it for the magnificence of all the scenery and the peaceful break away from the city. We did the Hakone Loop (see transport section below) and mostly concentrated on enjoying the gorgeous sights. We also went to the Hakone Open Air Museum, which is a world-class sculpture park and gallery featuring works by artists such as Picasso and Henry Moore. Sadly, the sculpture I wanted to see the most – the Forest of Net– was closed due to safety problems, but the other sculptures made up for that. If we’d had more time, I’d have liked to go to the Museum of The Little Prince too. Our hotel stay in Hakone was also a highlight (see below).
Accommodation in Hakone
We stayed at a ryokan called Mount View Hakone, which was our first ryokan experience. Our room was exactly as I imagined a ryokan to be – peaceful, sparse and calming. As with all ryokans, there were public onsens available for guests (one for men and one for women), but one of the highlights of Mount View Hakone was the private onsen that you could hire for an hour. This meant that Steve and I could go in there together. The onsen was outside and looked out onto a beautiful bamboo forest, illuminated by green light. For me, being in warm water in a cold climate is one of the most refreshing experiences I can think of – it took me back to the saunas of Finland.
Another highlight at Mount View Hakone was the food. It was our first multi-dish Japanese meal and we loved the adventure of it, especially safe in the knowledge that everything was vegetarian. The food was an eclectic mixture of Japanese and Western food, including ramen, potato wedges, and vegetables that we grilled ourselves at the table. It sounds odd, but it worked! Meals are served in a large dining room along with the other guests.
The hotel is right next to the Little Prince Museum.
Rooms cost from £100 per night, which includes breakfast and dinner.
Food in Hakone
The main food we ate in Hakone was at the ryokan, but on day one, we had lunch at a little restaurant near the pirate boat stop. The vegetarian choice was slim but we ate some tempura and soba noodles. There is also a really cute coffee shop inside an airstream caravan at the top of the ropeway. We enjoyed some delicious hot chocolate and a cake up there.
Getting to and around Hakone
Hakone is a popular day/weekend trip from Tokyo and it only takes about an hour to get there on the shinkansen. The classic thing to do there is the ‘Hakone Loop’, a journey around the area that takes you on five types of transport: bus, train, pirate boat(!), ropeway and cable car. If you leave early enough, you can do the whole loop in a daytrip from Tokyo, but we split the journey into two days. You buy a pass called the Hakone Free Pass, which allows you to go on all the different transports in the loop over 2 or 3 days, depending which one you buy. The 2-day pass costs ¥4000, or ¥5,140 including the train from Shinjuku.
Our hotel was about ¾ of the way around the loop so we went in an anti-clockwise direction and did the first ¾ on day one, and the remaining quarter the next morning. This worked well as it meant we could be finished in Hakone by about 11am and make the most of our next destination. However, our journey around Hakone was definitely the most rushed part of our Japan trip and I wish we could have added an extra day or at least a few more hours.
One key thing to bear in mind is that the ropeway sometimes closes early. On the day we went, it closed at about 3pm, just as we arrived. They wouldn’t let us on, which meant we missed that part of the trip and had to take a bus up the mountain instead. This was a big disappointment as it’s from the ropeway that you get the best views of Mount Fuji. Had we known this before, we would simply have left Tokyo earlier in the morning. Don’t make the same mistake!
Shibu Onsen and the Snow Monkeys
Shibu Onsen was not a convenient stop on our Japan itinerary, and it would have made much more sense to go straight to Kyoto on the high-speed shinkansen from Tokyo, but we were fixated on going there so we decided to make it work. The main motivation for our trip there was to see the snow monkeys, which were made famous in the movie, Baraka. These monkeys have overtaken an outdoor onsen in the mountains of Nagano and spend their days taking respite from the cold and bathing in the warm water while grooming each other. It’s like a little monkey spa. Despite our past run-ins with monkeys, we were desperate to see these creatures for ourselves and, for us, it was worth it. The monkeys were much more peaceful than the ones we encountered in Bali (I think because people weren’t feeding them) and it was fascinating seeing how human-like their behaviour was in the onsen. Many people complain about how touristy it is and there are certainly a lot of people taking photos, but we still enjoyed it and were pleased we made the trip.
We also read reviews beforehand saying that the location was disappointing and it’s true that the immediate surrounding area is quite dishevelled and resembles a building site, but the 30-minute walk to the snow monkey area is beautiful, through a deep pine forest. People say the walk can be treacherous, but it felt very safe to me (and I am terrified of heights and cliffs). That said, it was only snowing lightly when we went, and in icy conditions, the path would probably be dangerous as, despite being wide, it does have a big drop on one side.
Aside from the snow monkey park, our trip to the region was also made worth it for our time in Shibu Onsen, a little spa-town, about 15 minutes away from the snow monkey park. There are nine onsens in the town and it’s said to bring good luck if you visit every one. Only one of the onsens is open to the public, but you are given a key to the other eight if you stay in one of the ryokans in Shibu Onsen, which we did.
Steve and I had an amazing evening, walking around the town in the snow, dressed in our robes and wooden clogs, visiting all of the nine onsens. They are split into male and female rooms and we both encountered plenty of villagers taking their evening bath and giggling at us as we struggled with the high temperatures of the baths. Each onsen has a stamp that you can print on a towel provided by your ryokan. Traditionally, you’re supposed to offer this towel to the temple in Shibu Onsen, but we couldn’t resist keeping ours as a souvenir!
Accommodation in Shibu Onsen
We stayed in a traditional ryokan in Shibu Onsen called Sakaeya. We opted for one of the newer rooms, which came with a kotatsu, which is essentially a table with a blanket table cloth and a heater underneath – it’s wonderfully cosy and perfect for the cold weather. We also had a balcony that looked out over the town.
Food at Sakaeya was served in a private dining room, just for Steve and I, which felt extra special. The food here was of a higher quality than at Mount View Hakone and entirely Japanese. We tried a lot of things we’d never seen before and loved the variety of flavours. We told the hotel we were vegetarian beforehand, and they were happy to accommodate us. The only thing we couldn’t stomach was a raw egg that came with our breakfast!
Food in Shibu Onsen
We only ate at our hotel but there are a few little restaurants in Shibu Onsen too.
Getting to and around to Shibu Onsen
As we said before, Shibu Onsen was an out-of-the-way stop on our trip. To get there from Hakone, we had to take a train back to Tokyo from Odawara station (80 minutes); a shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagano (100 minutes); a train from Nagano to Yudanka (50 minutes); and a bus from Yudanka to Shibu Onsen (10 minutes). It took about four hours in total.
Getting to and around to Shibu Onsen
As we said before, Shibu Onsen was an out-of-the-way stop on our trip in Japan. To get there from Hakone, we had to take a train back to Tokyo from Odawara station (80 minutes); a shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagano (100 minutes); a train from Nagano to Yudanka (50 minutes); and a bus from Yudanka to Shibu Onsen (10 minutes). It took about four hours in total.
If Tokyo is Japan’s futuristic centre then Kyoto is its ancient heart. The city is filled with thousands of temples, shrines and gardens, and , if you’re lucky, you’ll see some geisha walking to their secret rendezvous through the atmospheric cobbled streets. We only had two nights there and one full-day so we had to heavily prioritise what we wanted to see. You could easily spend weeks in Kyoto, exploring all the sights, and it’s a must for any Japan itinerary.
The things we chose to see were: Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Golden Pavillion; Kiyomizu-dera, a temple with a balcony that overlooks the city and is the perfect place for sunset; and Fushimi Inari Shrine, a place you’ve likely seen photos of with its iconic paths lined with red tori gates. We also stayed in Higashiyama, which is filled with charming wooden buildings and picturesque streets. It’s also next to Gion, the famous geisha district and home to the Yasaka Shrine, which we strolled through on our first night. It’s not guaranteed that you’ll see any geisha, but we did see a few throughout our trip. We didn’t take photos as this is frowned upon in the city. We did, however, take photos of the many Japanese tourists who come to Kyoto on a historical pilgrimage and dress up in traditional costumes for the day. There are lot of shops offering this service, and as such a lot of colourfully-dressed people, around the Kiyomizu-dera temple. Another good spot was the Nishiki Market.
Although we loved Kyoto, one thing we found quite surprising was how seedy it felt at night. At one point, we were walking through Gion at around 7pm when we suddenly noticed that there were lots of women walking around and disappearing into buildings. It soon dawned on us that these were hostesses on their way to their hostess bar for the night. This was a recurring element of our time in Japan; although futuristic in many senses, its attitude towards women is often uncomfortable and difficult to comprehend – from the culture of hostess bars to the maid cafes in Tokyo, and the common tendency to infantilise women – it feels like a country that could do with some feminism.
One thing we wished we could have seen in Kyoto bit didn’t have time to visit is the bamboo forest. Next time!
Accommodation in Kyoto
We stayed in a studio apartment in Kyoto that we found through Booking.com. It was inside a building filled with apartments set up for business travellers with a small kitchen, washing machine and bathroom. It wasn’t anything special, but it was clean, well located and reasonably priced for Kyoto. As with our apartment in Tokyo, we were simply given a code to enter and didn’t meet the owners at all. We were also given a mobile wi-fi device.
A studio apartment costs around 11,000 Yen per night (£66).
Food in Kyoto
Kyoto is famous for its kaiseki-ryori cusine, which is unfortunately not vegetarian-friendly. However, you can also find lots of shojin-ryori food, which is traditional Buddhist temple food and entirely vegetarian. Because we’d already tried some in Tokyo and would be eating more in Koyasan, we didn’t try any in Kyoto, but we heard good things about Shigetsu, which is in the Tenruji temple in the Arashiyama neighbourhood (also home to the bamboo forest).
Places we can recommend in Kyoto include: おかるcurry in Gion; deserts at Nana’s Green Tea; and the street food snacks around Fushimi Inari Shrine. There was a vegetarian modern izakaya called Onikai that we would have loved to try, but it was fully booked during our stay. We also ate at a tiny little vegetarian restaurant called Hale in the Nishiki Market, which was atmospheric and cosy but the tofu-skin dish was a little slimy for our taste. The menu changes daily so I’d still recommend going there. We also ate good pizza one night at Pizza Salvatore, which was a nice little break from all the Japanese food.
We found an amazing, cosy cocktail bar in Kyoto called The Sodoh, which is next to a fancy Italian restaurant of the same name. It was a great place to try some Japanese whiskey and they made an excellent Old Fashioned. It was our perfect type of bar – intimate, quiet and serving amazing drinks.
Simon and Erin at Never Ending Voyage have a good guide to vegetarian restaurants in Kyoto.
Getting to and around Kyoto
We got to Kyoto from Shibu Onsen by following the same route back to Nagano and then getting a train from there to Kanazawa (90 minutes) and another train from there to Kyoto (130 minutes). A train directly from Tokyo to Kyoto takes 140 minutes.
Once in Kyoto, our JR pass worked on some trains, but for the two subway lines – Tozai and Karasuma – you need a different ticket. If you buy a ticket for one, it can’t be used on the other, unless you buy a day pass. The bus network is also good and useful forgetting to places such as the Kinkaku-ji Temple.
Passes for both the bus and subway cost ¥1,200 for one day and ¥2,00 for two days.
Nara / Kōya-san
Nara and Kyosan were another two stops on our trip to Japan that required a bit of effort and planning to get to, but they were at the top of our list of “must sees” so we managed to fit them into our Japan itinerary.
Nara was Japan’s first capital and is home to lots of temples and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We had our eyes set on one temple in particular – Tōdai-ji, which houses Daibutsu, a giant statue of Buddha. Because we were short on time, we only stopped in Nara for a couple of hours en route to Kōya-san and headed straight to Tōdai-ji. The temple is in a beautiful park filled with tame deer, which unfortunately seem to have become reliant on the tourists for food.
From Nara, we made our way to Kōya-san, the centre of Shingon Buddhism. It’s a small town situated on the sacred Mount Koya and is filled with more than 100 temples, many of which offer lodging for the night. It’s a magical place to spend some time in the company of monks while exploring the sacred sites. A highlight is the atmospheric graveyard, situated in a huge forest lit by lanterns. The graveyard also houses Oku-no-in, the mausoleum of Kukai who started Shingon Buddhism. We arrived in Kōya-san in the late afternoon and left at midday so didn’t have a huge amount of time to explore, but we loved soaking in the atmosphere, walking through the cemetery, and seeing some of the temples, including Garan, the town’s central temple complex.
Accommodation in Koya-san
We stayed in Shojoshin-In temple which was a beautiful experience, getting an insight into the life of the Buddhist monks. The temples in Kōya-san vary in quality and Shojoshin-In was one of the most beautiful we saw. As such, it was a little more pricey than some of the others, but for us, it was worth it. The temple is also right next to the cemetery, which is convenient for an evening walk. Our room was clean, warm and comfortbale with a balcony looking onto the mountain. Dinner and breakfast was included and everything was vegetarian as the temples only serve shojin-ryori (Buddhist vegetarian) food. A highlight was the early-morning service where we woke up around 5:30am to listen to the monks chanting.
Food in Koya-san
In Kōya-san Kōya-san we ate at our temple lodging (detailed above), and in Nara we grabbed a quick snack at the Mos Burger in the train station, which luckily had a veggie option.
Getting to and around Koya-san
There are trains to Nara from Kyoto that take round an hour. To get to Tōdai-ji from the station, we took a taxi as we were short on time, but there are also regular buses.
We knew we would be passing back through Nara on our way back from Kōya-san so we left most of our luggage in the train station lockers so we wouldn’t have to carry so much to Kōya-san (we bought a lot of stuff in Japan!).
We got a train from Nara to Hashimoto (90 minutes) and a train from there to Gokurakubashi, which is a beautiful scenic journey through the mountain valley. From there, you get a little funicular train up to Kōya-san, which is also a lovely ride up the side of the mountain. There are three bus networks in the town and you can pick up a map at the bus station at the top of the funicular. We got a bus straight to the temple we were staying at.
We were only in Osaka for an afternoon/evening so we didn’t get to see much of Japan’s third largest city, but it’s a worthwhile stop on a Japan itinerary. We mostly just did some last-minute shopping in the Umeda area. We were specifically looking for the pottery and the famed flavoured Kit Kats. Unfortunately the shop that used to sell all the flavours in Namba station no longer stocks Kit Kats so it was a bit of a wild goose chase. In the end, we just got some multipacks in a local supermarket. We also went to the Namba area in the evening, which was bustling and neon-filled like Tokyo. We did one last night of karaoke there.
Accommodation in Osaka
We stayed in a private room in a great retro-style hostel called Hostel 64 Osaka. The staff are really friendly and the hostel has put together useful guides to Osaka, including where to find the best food and shops. It was a five-minute walk from Shinsaibashi Station.
Food in Osaka
We had curry for lunch at a little place called Camp, which was at the bottom of a department store in Umeda. For dinner, we tried to find an okonomiyaki, but it was served with fish flakes despite our protests (see vegetarian section above)! Let us know if you ever find a purely vegetarian one!
Getting to and around Osaka
From Koya-san, we took the same route back to Nara and got a train from there to Shinimamiya (37 minutes) and from there into Osaka (15 minutes).
Osaka has a good subway system made up of eight lines. We were only there for a short amount of time so just bought single tickets for our journeys, but you can also buy an IC card like in Tokyo. We got to the airport via a train from Namba, which took about 35 minutes.
Top travel tips for Japan
The best way to save money travelling around Japan is to get a Japan Rail Pass. You can buy yours here.
I travelled with the Samsonite Spark suitcase and a small Case Logic backpack, which had enough room for everything I needed. Steve used the same suitcase and a ThinkTank Shapeshifter Backpack for all his camera equipment.
We’ve also written a storybook version of this itinerary with lots more photos from the trip.
And check out more of our detailed itinerary posts here.