Japan is a dream destination. Images of prestigious Mt. Fuji, fields of cherry blossom trees, and glittering shots of Japan’s modern metropolises have shaped the island nation’s image worldwide. Our expectations were high for the exclusive destination in the Far East. Looking back, Japan didn’t fail to amaze.
During our time in Japan, we toured from Osaka to Tokyo, stopping in Kyoto and Hakone along the way. While 9 days doesn’t sound like a lot, we got to immerse ourselves with both modern and traditional Japan, mixing big city life with more serene areas.
We wandered through extensive temple grounds, savored extremely fresh sushi, and flew across the countryside aboard Japan’s famous bullet train. It is never too early to plan a trip to Japan – read along and start building your perfect itinerary.
Balanced 9-Day Japan Itinerary
day 1 | Welcome to Osaka
After a brief flight from Berlin to Munich‘s renowned airport, Lufthansa’s flagship A350 awaited us on-time for the 11-hour trip to Osaka. Regardless of the long duration, the flight itself was a pleasant affair (apart from a lightning strike during final descent). A little bit tired yet overly excited for what was to come, it was early morning local time when we set foot on Japanese ground.
As we had only one night in Osaka, we wanted to soak up as much of the city’s vibe as possible. Hence, we opted for a hotel in the heart of Osaka’s entertainment district. Hotel The Flag Shinsaibash impressed us right away with its stylish and minimalist design, upbeat staff, and impeccable rooms.
After a brief rest and a hot shower, we felt ready to take on Osaka. Leaving the hotel, we roamed the small alleys that make up the Shinsaibashi district. Our first mission was to find a quick bite for lunch. And a little bit later we found ourselves in front of a deliciously looking bowl of fresh ramen.
In order to get the steaming soup, we first observed the locals and then somehow managed to follow the necessary steps – signing up on a sheet of paper hanging at the door, ordering and paying your order at a machine outside, waiting your turn and hoping you will be able to hear and understand your name when called, handing the receipt to a waiter, and, finally, manage to eat and slurp that soup equipped with chop sticks. The efforts were worth it.
Where we tired? Yes! But with ever sip of that strong broth we felt we regained our strengths. It was time to mix and mingle with the local crowd. Just a few steps further south, we crossed the Tombori River and ended up in the busy Dotonbori district. Osaka is the place in Japan for street food and the lively shopping street along the riverfront provided ample opportunity for further tasting and snacking.
Naturally, we had to try one of Osaka‘s most famous dishes: Tako-yaki. Taco what? Tako-yaki are small pieces of octopus fried in a savory batter and topped with a dark sweet & sour sauce. Sitting by the river with a freshly baked bowl of Tako-yaki in my hand, I felt like I had found my place in busy Osaka.
Apart from the enormous selection of fresh food, a short cruise on the Tombori River, a Ferris wheel looming over the waterfront, as well as numerous arcade halls and 100-Yen-shops will definitely keep you busy. Still not convinced? Dotonbori is also home to several big music clubs.
| Japan’s Old Capitals Kyoto & Nara
The next morning, it was already time to move on to our next destination. This time, by means of the local train. Japan knows a variety of different train companies that link the metropolitan areas – and that make the country’s train system so efficient.
The 30-minute ride to Kyoto (560 YEN / 4.5 €) was a breeze. Don’t worry about complicated schedules! HyperDia is extremely helpful in finding up-to-date information on train connections, schedules, and fares.
Located in the Kansai region and having served as the nation’s capital until the end of the 19th century, Kyoto is a city laden with historical significance. An abundance of temples and shrines give Kyoto a very special feel. Rightfully so, the city and its cultural heritage has been listed as UNESCO world heritage.
In order to be close to several sights, we chose Hotel Keihan Kyoto Hachijoguchi as our base. The modern hotel is centrally located and in walking distance to Kyoto’s Main Station — which ensures quick access to various points of interest.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is one of Kyoto’s most famous, and likely most photographed sights. Located in western Kyoto, a short 15-minute ride on the JR line from Kyoto’s Main Station will bring you to Arashiyama Station. From there, it is just a short walk to the forest, which can be accessed and explored all day. Wandering through the towering bamboo stems was an impressive experience – don’t miss it!
In the afternoon, we decided to round off the day with a visit to Fushimi Inari Shrine. Easily accessible by a 5-minute ride from Kyoto Main Station, the temple’s main draw several hundred red gates. Sound familiar? If you are currently planning a trip to Japan, chances are you have very likely encountered images of Fushimi Inari’s torii gates.
Once you step through the enormous entrance gate and pass the temple’s main hall, you will enter a guided path leading up the Inari Mountain. More than 1,000 torii gates line the circular trail. At the top, we were rewarded with a walk through the empty Ichi-no-mine Shrine – a humbling experience!
After yet another good night’s sleep at Hotel Keihan Kyoto Hachijoguchi, we found that last night’s visit to Fushimi Inari Shrine had fueled our hunger for Japanese culture even further. Hence, a visit to Kiyomizu-dera, a significant Buddhist temple complex dating back to the 7th century, seemed like an adequate plan for the day.
On the way (and on foot!), we walked through Kyoto’s famous Geisha district (Gion), boasting authentic wooden buildings and traditional entertainment venues, and the hilly Higashiyama district, whose alleys lead up to Kiyomizu-dera. Admission to the temple of "pure water" will cost you 400 YEN (3.5 €). In return, you will get to marvel at the impressive wooden main hall plus several adjacent pagodas.
In the afternoon, it was time to hit Kyoto Nishiki Market — the city’s largest food market and a haven for connoisseurs of cultural and culinary delights. Located west of Gion, visitors get to try everything from spiced meat skewers, to oysters, green tea-infused ice-cream, fresh sushi, and sweet rice cakes.
After having done some proper overthinking, we opted for another local delicacy. Everywhere we looked, we spotted herds of small red octopuses on a stick. We simply had to try. What can I say? The sugary glaze, the texture of the octopus plus the hidden egg made for an interesting yet tasty mix — don’t let that appearance scare you.
Naturally, we could’ve easily spent another week in Kyoto – but we also couldn’t escape Nara‘s call! Nara served as the first permanent capital of Japan during the 8th century and has an impressive cultural heritage. Located 45 minutes south of Kyoto (by train), Nara’s biggest draw is an extensive park inhabited by hundreds of free-roaming deers.
During the capital era, deer were believed to be sacred messengers – and enjoyed a privileged lifestyle ever since. The peaceful coexistence of humans and animals in Nara is an impressive sight in itself. The deer themselves seemed very calm and approachable – and accustomed to the curious guests.
Besides Nara Park, there were two more things that we wanted to see while in the ancient capital. One of them was Todaj-ji, one of the most important Buddhist temples in Japan, that can be accessed for 500 YEN (4 €). The main hall is not only the biggest wooden building in the world but further contains one of the largest Buddha statues made of bronze, measuring a towering 15 meters in height.
At the other end of Nara Park lies the Shinto Shrine Kasuga Taisha. Get ready for even more dazzling traditional architecture, several thousand lanterns carved out of stone and the occasional deer accompanying you on your explorations.
day 6 | Hakone – The Gateway to Mt. Fuji
On our last morning in Kyoto, we woke with a particular feeling of excitement. A day earlier, we had reserved tickets on the northbound Shinkansen, Japan’s famous high-speed train.
Without much surprise, our train left Kyoto Main Station the minute the clock struck our designated departure time. Less than 2 hours later and 400 kilometers further north, we stepped off at Odawara Station. From there, it was just a short ride on a local train to our next destination: Hakone.
No trip to Japan is complete without (trying to get) a glance at the nation’s most important elevation: Mt. Fuji. Roughly measuring 3,800 meters in height, the mountain has permeated Japanese culture for centuries. BUT, getting a clear view of Mt. Fuji requires a decent portion of luck as the mountain is wrapped in thick clouds on many days.
Chances to see the national icon are highest in autumn and winter and rather low during the humid months from April to August. As we found ourselves in Japan in June, this post is devoid of a picture of Mt. Fuji. The need to return someday appears self-evident.
However, we were prepared for exactly this scenario — and had opted for Hakone as our stopover destination on our way from Osaka to Tokyo. Hakone is a hot spring resort town in close vicinity to Mt. Fuji. Besides the viewpoints, the city’s biggest draw are the many natural hot springs found in the region.
If you want to dive into Japanese bathing culture and feel like relaxing in a traditional onsen bath, Hakone is the place to go. What you also don’t want to miss during your stay in Hakone is a trip to beautiful Lake Ashinoko, west of the city.
On a clear day, lucky travelers will have a picture-perfect shot of the lake with Mt. Fuji in the background. Embarking on a sightseeing cruise will provide you with an even better angle. We, however, had to compensate the absence of the mountain with a delicious bento-style lunch right at the waterfront.
The impressive torii gate of Hakone Shrine sitting right at the lakeshore as well as a corresponding gate at the top of the Komagatake Hill (accessible by ropeway) further made our trip to Lake Ashinoko the rewarding experience it was.
Always trying to maximize our cultural immersion while abroad, we wanted to combine our stay in a more rural region of Japan with another experience on our list — staying at a traditional ryokan house. And Irori Guest House Tenmaku provided the full experience.
Sleeping in one of the traditional Japanese-style rooms equipped with tatami (straw mats), sliding doors with translucent paper windows (shoji) as well as futon beds on the floor was an experience we wouldn’t want to have missed!
After a surprisingly good sleep on the futon bed, we departed Hakone for our next and last big destination in Japan — the capital. From Odawara, you will have the choice between another ride on the Shinkansen (30 minutes/3,500 YEN/29 €) or on a slower yet more affordable transfer on local rapid trains (90-120 minutes/1,200-2,300 YEN/10-19 €).
We opted for the latter and reached Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station on a warm and clear afternoon. In fact, Shinjuku is the world’s busiest train station, handling about 2 million passengers per day. Don’t let the number intimidate you, the station — like Japanese public transportation in general — is superbly organized. Plus, it was fascinating to see how rigorously people respect each other’s private spaces.
We’ve all heard the rumors — accommodation in Japan’s capital cost a fortune. However, there’s a number of hotels that typically cater to Japanese businesspeople. These hotels offer clean and comfortable rooms with a more practical interior AND very competitive rates. Sun Members Tokyo Shinjuku offered just that. Even more important, it is conveniently located minutes away from Shinjuku Station, which guarantees easy access to all lines of Tokyo’s expansive transportation network.
After having slightly acclimated to capital life, we set out to roam the streets of busy Shinjuku. Shinjuku is what you will have most likely associated with Tokyo — high-rise buildings, flashy billboards, busy streets, and something new to see wherever you look. We spent a full evening roaming this lively district.
The next morning, we wanted to take a look at Tokyo from above. Minutes away from Sun Members Shinjuku, the Metropolitan Government Building offers visitors stunning 360 degree views from its observatory on the 45th floor. The best part: access is free of charge.
Equipped with a better feeling for the city, we made our way to another famous district located south of Shinjuku. On the way, we stopped at the Meiji Shrine, which is named after the country’s first modern Emperor and located in Yoyogi Park.
South of Yoyogi Park lies Shibuya, which draws its global fame from a heavily-frequented street crossing. During rush hour, several thousand people traverse the street at Shibuya Crossing. Naturally, we mingled with the local crowd and crossed the intersection several times. Bordering Harajuku provides anime and manga fans with ample opportunity for shopping.
On our last morning in Tokyo, the agenda for the day was still packed. We started with a brief tour through the expansive collection of Tokyo’s National Museum(620 YEN / 5 €). After that, we headed south to Old Tokyo for a walk through Ginza, one of the capital’s oldest and most-established shopping districts.
At its southern end lies Tsukiji Fish Market, famous for its tuna auctions, which a small number of curious travelers (cueing up for the limited seats is likely) can observe each morning. As we arrived during midday, we didn’t get to see the selling of the large fish but jumped right ahead to a fresh plate of delicious sushi.
In the afternoon, we had something special on our list. Sitting on Odaiba, a large artificial island in Tokyo Bay, teamLab Borderless awaits with an interactive digital art exhibition that, as I understood, is unrivaled in the world. Within the exhibition halls, the projected works are free-floating and ever-changing. Though tickets are a bit pricey (3,200 YEN / 26 €), you will be rewarded with a very immersive museum experience that will be hard to forget.
When we regained our feeling for time and space, we headed to Odaiba’s northern shoreline. From the beach, we enjoyed unobstructed views of Rainbow Bridge, which connects the island with the city center and lit up just in time for sunset — an adequate end to a fascinating tour through Japan.
Getting There: Star Alliance offers numerous connections from various European hubs. We opted for an outbound-flight with Lufthansa via Munich (MUC) and returned on equally comfortable Austrian Airlines via Vienna (VIE). For this excellent connection we paid 550 € per ticket.
Getting Around: If you are planning on visiting several geographical dispersed places on your trip through Japan, purchasing a Japan Rail Pass, allowing unlimited travel on most Shinkansen trains, might be a good option. As our route only demanded one leg on the Shinkansen network (Kyoto-Odawara/12,000 YEN/100 €), we purchased individual tickets for regional and local trains, which amounted to 70 € per person. HyperDia is extremely helpful for planning train travel.
The Grand Total: In total, we paid 1,028 € in fixed costs for our 9-day trip across Japan.
Japan in a Nutshell
Is 9 days enough to cover the island nation in the Far East? Definitely not. Nevertheless, our trip across Japan has allowed us to look beyond the surface of this fascinating country. What we found were modern cities rooted in a rich history and culture, overly respectful people, and a very efficiently organized public life. The preference for orderly processes manifests itself not only in spotless and safe inner cities but also in a rich food culture, that is guided by an appreciation for clearly-structured dishes.
Taken together, these impressions have sparked an amazement for Japan. While travelers might shy away from a trip to Japan due to the comparatively higher costs for travel and lodging compared to other destinations in the region, I encourage you to take that step. There is so much to see and try that even a detailed trip report will fail to fully grasp and transport. So go, and find out for yourself.