10 Perfect Days in Japan
For those who’ve never stepped foot in Asia or are apprehensive to do so, I have a destination for you. Not only is Japan a juxtaposition of centuries-old traditions and cutting-edge technology, but the cuisine is a gourmand’s paradise—with more Michelin star restaurants in Tokyo than anywhere in the world—the public transportation effortless, the streets safe and spotless, and the scenery spectacular. It’s a place that’s welcoming to Westerners and will leave an imprint on more than just your passport.
Stay your first three nights at one of Tokyo’s newer properties: The Centurion Classic Akasaka. Centrally located and sited next to popular attractions, the well-designed space provides all the creature comforts of home and an abundance of amenities. Directly opposite the hotel is one of the most authentic spots to slurp down a soul-soothing bowl of ramen. Look for the yellow facade and slip into one of the uniquely Japanese wooden booths at Akasaka Ittenbari—a shop that’s been in business for over 35 years and has the art of making ramen down pat. After polishing off the spicy miso variety and an order of chewy, fresh-made dumplings, you’ll be in an official food coma and ready to snooze your jet lag away.
Lace up your comfiest pair of shoes and start the day on foot with a visit to Hikawa Shrine, whose red “torii” gates are visible from the hotel. Arriving in the early morn means the grounds are especially spiritual. Continue on foot to the Imperial Palace, an expansive park-like area surrounded by a water-filled moat and home to gardens galore and palaces aplenty. Other must-see areas—all easily accessible via the easy-to-navigate, efficient trains—include Harajuku (the city’s pop culture and fashion-forward hub whose side streets are scattered with upmarket boutiques and cozy cafés) and neon-splashed Shibuya (home to the famed “Shibuya Crossing,” which is rumored to be the busiest intersection in the world). After a bit of downtime, it’s time to make delicious memories with an All Star Arigato Food Tour. The three-hour walking experience takes you through the sights, sounds, and tastes of Tokyo most tourists miss. Learn more about the local’s lifestyle as you dig into seasonal dishes at five different stops and see a whole new side of the city.
Though there’s plenty to do in Tokyo proper, sometimes a day away—especially when it involves snow monkeys swimming in hot springs—provides even more perspective to a place. Located about two hours via Japan Rail, a trip to Nagano and seeing the aforementioned monkeys, is well worth the early morning wake-up call. Though doable on your own, I advise booking a one-day tour courtesy of Snow Monkey Resorts. A professional guide will greet you at the train station and take you on a fun-filled journey to Jigokudani Park for some up close and personal “monkeying” around with the wild Japanese macaques (the most northerly living non-human primates), followed by a hearty lunch, visit to Zenkoji Temple, and sake tasting—all while ensuring you don’t get lost and providing interesting insight into the country’s culture.
Spend the morning exploring the impressive wholesale market, Toyosa Market, where you can have sushi for breakfast, shop for souvenirs, and meander through three main buildings (two for seafood; one for fruits and veggies). Really early risers can even catch the tuna auction between 5:30-6:30 a.m. Another must-do early morning adventure is a trip to the Arashio Beya Sumo Stable where, on select days, you can witness the aspiring wrestlers in action.
After seafood and sumo, hop on the bullet train for a two-hour, 20-minute trip to Japan’s original capital, Kyoto—a much quieter, slower-paced city in comparison to Tokyo. The 10-room Arashiyama Benkei, a traditional Japanese inn known as a ryokan, delivers personalized and unparalleled service from kimono-clad staff. Tradition weaves its way through every nook and cranny here, including the delectable multi-course dinner (kaiseki) that’s eaten in-room while wearing a yukata, tatami-mat beds, and open-air hot spring baths (onsens) that’ll whisk all your worries away.
After waking up to another mouthwatering meal, explore the surrounding Arashiyama district—a nationally designated Historic Site and Place of Scenic Beauty that’s full of old-style shops and sited along the gently rolling Hozu River. Must-see activities include the Bamboo Forest, a serene, tree-filled grove whose swaying stalks will calm even the most militant minds; Tenryu-ji, a UNESCO World Heritage Site said to be one of Kyoto's five great Zen temples; and going for a ride on a traditional rickshaw. Once you’ve had your fill of green tea things (it’s abundant in this area), head to neighboring Kyoto City. The best way to get your bearings—while getting full-sized food samplings and a bit of exercise—is to take the Kyoto Food Night Tour with Ninja Food Tours. After experiencing the city’s tucked-away restaurants and izakayas (bars) and wandering the lantern-lit streets, you’ll be a Kyoto (and cuisine) ninja!
Rise and shine and get ready to tackle the temple-laden town via two wheels. With its bike-friendly, mostly flat streets and various rental companies (Cycle Kyoto offers numerous guided tours and affordable rental options), it’s the easiest and fastest way to explore your surrounds without being confined to a car. Though dotted with historic shrines, temples, and other structures at every turn (there’s more than 2,000), I recommend stops at Tofukuji Temple, the famed (and often photographed) Fushimi Inari Shrine, and Kiyomizu-dera. End the evening strolling through Nishiki Market and the geisha-filled Gion district before devouring handmade, bite-sized dumplings from Gyoza Hohei and expertly crafted cocktails from Bar Sloth.
Catch the futuristic, white-nosed bullet train for a detour to Hakone, a mountainous town home to hot springs, views of Mount Fuji, and an abundance of natural beauty.
A stay at the ultra plush Hakone Kowakien Ten-yu means bathing in mineral-rich waters at either your in-room onsen or the public baths (one of which boasts an infinity pool and magnificent mountain views); modern, minimalistic rooms that still hold tight to tradition; and artful, multi-course meals prepared with hyper-local ingredients that are almost too pretty to eat. With nearby hikes, morning yoga, easy access to nearby attractions, and the aforementioned baths, leaving here is the hardest part. For those seeking a hotel that's high-end without being hoity-toity, a stay here is well worth the splurge.
When in Hakone, one must avail of the money-saving Hakone Free Pass, which provides unlimited use of buses, trains, boats, cable cars, and ropeways in the Hakone region, in addition to discounted admission to select tourist attractions. From Ten-yu, start your journey at Lake Ashi where you can witness the majestic Hakone Shrine before boarding the Hakone Sightseeing Cruise (“pirate ship”) and—on clear days—catch a glimpse of mighty Mount Fuji. After disembarking, hop on the Hakone Ropeway for a 30-minute aerial journey above the region’s violent volcanic fumes. At the final stop, stretch your legs and—if you’re brave—try a famed “black egg,” which is rumored to add seven years to your life. Following a ride on Japan’s only and oldest mountain railway, you’ll arrive at Gora where you can stop for lunch, check out the Hakone Open-Air Museum, and eventually continue on the “Romancecar” to Tokyo.
For your final two nights in the “land of the rising sun,” I suggest snoozing at one of Tokyo’s most stylish “social apartments”: Hotel Graphy Nezu. Tucked away from the hustle and bustle, the hotel-hostel hybrid is a short walk to Ueno Park, some of the city’s best museums, and plenty of under-the-radar shops and eateries. The property itself boasts features like a communal kitchen, cozy cafe-bar that makes a mean matcha latte, and rental bikes. Don’t expect too many bells and whistles here, however—just clean, comfy surrounds with friendly staff and plenty of perks like free smartphones, laundry, and an adult beverage each evening.
Last days are always bittersweet, especially when you’re in a place as jaw-dropping as Japan. To end the trip on an especially unforgettable note, check out the area known for its riverside views and rich tradition, Asakusa, and hop over to the Asahi Beer Headquarters where you can sip on suds from 22 floors up while taking in magical views of the skyline and Sumida River. Nearby is one of Tokyo’s most popular attractions, Sensoji Temple, a massive (and the city’s oldest) Buddhist temple that dates back to 645. Leading up to the gates is a colorful pedestrian path filled with snacks and souvenir stalls, so you can make any final purchases before saying sayounara.
As anyone who’s been to Japan can attest, it’s a country that surprises, delights, and inspires—a place that’s easy to love and will have you longing to return.
For more information and assistance in planning your own journey, visit japan.travel/en.
By Megan Wiskus
• Order a 7-Day Japan Rail (JR) Pass before you leave the states and activate it upon arrival at the airport. It’s also beneficial to purchase a PASMO Card, which allows you to travel on all other modes of transit. Loading it with approximately $40 USD is enough to get you through 10 days doing the activities above.
• All subway signs and stops—in addition to most menus—are in both Japanese and English; what’s more, the locals are always happy to help, so don’t be afraid to ask.
• Direct flights to Tokyo abound from SFO; if you’d rather depart from Sacramento, look at flying into LAX and hopping on a direct flight from there (in my case, this option was actually cheaper).