Itinerary: One Week in Japan

If you are interested in visiting the land of the rising sun for the very first time, then I think you need to have at least two weeks to spare. But what if you don’t have that much time?

Here’s an idea for a one-week, seven night journey in Japan that covers all of the important sites. We’ll assume that you will land at Narita Airport, which is the main International airport for Tokyo.

Day 0: You read it correctly… at least if you’re coming from or via North America. I like to call this Day Zero because on this day, well, you’re pretty much a zero in all aspects. All you do is spend the time sitting on the plane. The date will advance to tomorrow as you pass the Earth’s International Date Line. So, for all intents and purposes, this day really should not count. If you can survive the ride inside the pressurized metal tube, you’ll be treated to a reward unlike any other… Japan itself.

Day 1: Touchdown at Narita Airport. You’ll have to go through the disembarkation procedures (outlined in an earlier article). Once you arrive in Tokyo, and have checked into your room, you’ll probably be exhausted. This is the moment to take a shower, change up your clothes a bit, and perhaps take a brief nap. Then there’s the question of dinner… if you feel like your brain is already cooked from the trip then you might want to consider a fast food restaurant that you are familiar with, such as McDonald’s or KFC. But more importantly, take a moment to stop, take a deep breath, and take in your surroundings. Walk around the block for example, or if you feel inclined for a little jaunt, take the train over to Shibuya and marvel at the crowds going through the world’s busiest pedestrian intersection, known as the “Scramble Crossing”. You’ll find the crossing to the east of Shibuya station, and you can get a nice view of it out of a window that is part of the access ramp to the Keio Inokashira train line.

Day 2: Your first full day in Japan. As you arise and have breakfast, I suggest a full day’s worth of walking that I call “Classic Tokyo, Modern Tokyo.” This itinerary, which is available in great detail on the Wikitravel site, more or less retraces the foot steps that I took on my first full day in the country, in June of 2004. Starting from Tokyo Station, walk west to the grounds of the Imperial Palace. (If you’re lucky you may be able to make an advance reservation for a guided tour, which I did not opt for. The tour is in Japanese but English language materials are provided.) Next, take the train to Asakusa and walk through the shopping arcade to Sensoji Temple, the oldest buddhist temple in Tokyo. Return to the Asakusa train station after catching a glimpse of the “Golden Turd”, or what is supposed to be beer froth, from the top of the Asahi Beer building across the river. Head on down to the Yurikamome Light Rail train for a spectacular ride to Tokyo’s entertainment paradise of Odaiba. Add a meal anywhere in between and you’re set for the day. These three locations – Imperial Palace, Sensoji temple, and Odaiba – allows tourists to enjoy different aspects of Japan, from the past to the present.

Day 3: On your second full day in Tokyo, I suggest a visit to a Japanese Department Store. And more specifically, the opening of a department store for the day. Many department stores are located all across Tokyo, especially near the major train stations. But my recommendation for a department store opening is the Mitsukoshi Department Store’s flagship branch in Nihombashi. The subway exit for the Mitsukoshi Deparment Store is, appropriately, “Mitsukoshi-mae” – literally, “Near Mitsukoshi”. The A4/A5 subway exit will position you in front of the main doors of the “Honkan”, the main building. So what exactly happens when those doors swing open at 10 AM? Well beforehand, two pretty attendants come out and make announcements about the store. Most stores announce only in Japanese, but at least from my experience in visiting Mitsukoshi last year, there was also an announcement in English. Then the doors promptly fly open, and the employees stand at full attention in the aisle, bowing as you pass on by. Walk through a little further and you may get lucky to hear an organ played in the store’s massive atrium. While at Mitsukoshi, as well as any major department store, be sure to visit the basement, where a wide variety of food and confectionary stalls are available to pick at your Japanese culinary curiosity.

Exit Mitsukoshi through the “Shinkan” (new building) and nearby you will see the bridge of the Tokyo Expressway… ironically, underneath of which is Japan’s most historical bridge, the Nihombashi bridge. It’s luster is sort of overshadowed these days by the expressway overhead; nevertheless this bridge is the reference point used to measure all distances in Japan. Though I hear that one of these days, engineers may undo their, um, “mistake” and move the Tokyo Expressway underground at the site of this bridge.

The rest of the day is free for exploration. Though when it comes time to eat you’ll want to try something Japanese for a change. Don’t be afraid even if your understanding of the language is a little flawed. Plunge in and have some fun!

Day 4: Today I would recommend ONE of the following two day trips: Nikko OR Hakone. Nikko, located northeast of Tokyo, is a world heritage site where you can find the mausoleum of the famous shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, as well as a shinto shrine that dates back over 12 centuries. Hakone, west of Tokyo, is a town located withn Fuji-Izu-Hakone national park, filled with hot springs and gaseous geysers. It’s really hard for me to make a choice between the two, since both Nikko and Hakone are two places that are very important and significant to the history of Japan. Transportation wise, though, I would give the nod to Hakone. Their English pamphlets are easy to follow as you make the circuitous loop around the area.

Day 5 and 6: On Day 5 I suggest that you make the trip by bullet train to Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto, for two nights. I would suggest that you spend one of these two days taking advantage of the renowned English tour of old Kyoto, “Walk in Tokyo, Talk in English” given by Hajime Hirooka, who calls himself “Johnnie Hillwalker” (not to be confused with Johnnie Walker). It’s an inexpensive, full day walking tour that is operated three times a week except during the winter and holidays. Note that because of the tour’s starting time, you’ll have to leave Tokyo on an early train if you intend to take this tour on Day 5. 

The tour finishes near Kiyomizu-dera, a buddhist temple that is officially a national treasure. Enter the complex and marvel at the vistas and treasures. A popular spot is a waterfall from which three water channels fall into a pond. It is said that wisdom, health and longevity will be conferred to you by drinking out of these three channels of water. In the evening, return to Kyoto Station, a marvel in itself – the new train station building was completed in 1997. On the ground floor of Kyoto Station is a very popular rotating sushi bar restaurant that I highly recommend.

On the day that you don’t take the walking tour, I would suggest one of the following sites near Kyoto: Nijo Castle, the Philosopher’s Walk, and the park located near Demachi-Yanagi station in the Sakyo district that overlooks the Kamo river (an excellent location for people-watching). At night, head over to the Gion District of Tokyo and see if you’re lucky to find authentic Geisha walking to their nightly assignments…. if you feel inclined, walking lectures of Gion called “Kyoto Sights and Nights” are given at dusk at a respectable cost. Tours are given by Peter MacIntosh, a Canadian who moved to Kyoto over 15 years ago and is now an expert in Geisha culture. If you’re willing to put up some more Yen for the VIP service, you can attend an engagement where you can meet a real Geisha (the term “Geiko” is preferred) and/or an apprentice known as a “Maiko”.

Day 7: Return to Tokyo by bullet train in the morning for your final day in Japan. Today I suggest some shopping so that you can bring some momentos back with you… one area that you should definitely visit today is the mecca of electronics in Tokyo, Akihabara (or Akiba for short). Take some time to peruse every store, every alley, and every nook and cranny in this very popular shopping district. If you feel so inclined, maybe try one of those infamous maid cafes while you’re at it! Then at the end of the day, finish your trip to Japan with a trip to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government buildings, located west of Shinjuku station. These “twin towers” of Tokyo stretch up 50 stories, and there are observation decks located at the top… one or both decks are open every day except during the New Year’s holiday. And best of all, the admission is free. Marvel at the vistas below as day turns to night, and your trip to Japan comes to a close.

Day 8: Departure day. Return to Narita Airport and re-enter that pressurized metal tube called an Airplane, remembering your experiences from the past week.

As far as transportation options go: You can easily go for the Japan Rail Pass for 7 days in Standard Class… it will prove to be a good value for the itinerary provided here. The pass should run from Day 2 to Day 8, which means the pass covers your return journey to the Airport using the Narita Express. On Day 1, arrival day, you can travel from Narita to Tokyo any way you wish (again, see my article on Narita Airport for your options). Depending on where you’re staying, I think a good deal is the 3,500 yen Suica+N’EX ticket sold by JR. It gives you a discounted one-way ride on the Narita Express to ANY JR station within central Tokyo, and a Suica card worth 1,500 yen that can be used for train travel, food purchases, etc. Suica can be used on just about ANY local train service in the Tokyo region; it’ll be especially useful if you need to take the Tokyo subways, which are not covered by the Japan Rail Pass. Note that if you need to recharge the Suica card, you must do so at a JR station.

On Day 4, your travel options to Nikko or Hakone, depending on what you decide:

HAKONE: You’ll want to pay for the Hakone Free Pass which includes all of the major transportation in the Hakone area. The main starting point for the trip is Odawara; with a Japan Rail Pass you can travel on the Tokaido Line from Tokyo to Odawara – a few trains also go from Shinjuku too. For a faster ride you can even take the Tokaido Shinkansen “Kodama” train which leaves Tokyo and Shinagawa twice every hour and cuts the travel time down quickly… yes, the Japan Rail Pass covers all of these. From Odawara purchase the Hakone Free Pass for 3,900 yen. The pass entitles you to unlimited travel from Odawara into the Hakone region for 2 consecutive days, though you’ll only need it for one. At the end of your day, return to Odawara and take the bullet train or Tokaido Line back to Tokyo.

NIKKO: A little more complicated. You have the option of using JR to travel up to Nikko, or the private Tobu Railway line that operates out of Asakusa station (near Sensoji and the ‘golden froth’). The Tobu Railway’s World Heritage Pass for 3,600 yen includes round-trip train travel on a local Tobu Railway service, the Tobu bus to the world heritage sites, and admission to said world heritage sites: Tokugawa Ieyasu Mausoleum (or Tosho-gu), Futarasan Shrine and Rinnoji Temple. For an additional cost you can travel in the limited express trains known as “Spacia”. This will speed up your trip and is a recommended addition to the World Heritage Pass ticket. World Heritage Passes can be bought online, and Tobu offers a 20% discount on the Spacia fare when it is purchased with the pass at the same time. The total cost, then, is approximately 5,700 yen. Travel time from Asakusa to Nikko is about 2 hours – you may have to change to a shuttle train at Shimo-Imaichi station for the final run to Nikko.

You can use the Japan Rail Pass to travel into Nikko at no charge; take a bullet train on the Tohoku Shinkansen line to Utsunomiya station, then take the JR Nikko line to Nikko. The JR Nikko station is located a little bit south of the Tobu Nikko train station. The drawback is that you will have to pay separately for the Tobu Bus to the world heritage sites, and then pay the combination ticket for the three sites when you get there… which may or may not be all that bad. The travel time from Tokyo station to JR Nikko via this method is between 1:45 and 2 hours depending on the timing of the connection. A day pass for Tobu Bus costs 500 yen and the combination ticket costs 1,000 yen. You can optionally decide to walk the 40 minutes to the heritage sites and get up close and personal with the area. Just follow the signs which will count down the distance as you get closer to the sites. At the halfway point is a tourist information center where you can stop to get a sip of water from a ladle-drawn waterfall.

JR and Tobu also run a joint service from Shinjuku and Ikebukuro stations. The trip from Shinjuku to Tobu-Nikko takes about 2 hours and normally costs 3,900 yen each way. Japan Rail Pass holders must pay a surcharge of 1,560 yen each way, as part of the trip is over the Tobu line, which is not covered under the Japan Rail Pass. Again, buses in Nikko and heritage site admissions are not included, and like the Tobu option you may have to change to a shuttle train for the final leg of your journey by train.

You see? Japan is a large country, but there is still so much that you can cover in just a week! I guarantee that after you try an itinerary like this, you’ll be yearning for more!

Thanks for reading, and remember… this itinerary is provided subject to the disclaimer at the top of the page. 🙂

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