japan itinerary: how to get the best out of japan in 15 days

Having recently returned home from my fourth holiday in Japan, I feel that I've really nailed the creation of a great Japan itinerary. It's essentially just following one simple rule: quality over quantity. Don't rush through the country trying to tick off every major city, accept that you won't be able to see everything and fully immerse yourself into the places you do go.

This, of course, applies to basically every travel itinerary you'll ever need to create, but feel it's worth repeating whenever I write about creating an itinerary!

My itinerary could definitely be used by anyone hoping to get a taste of Japan: immersing yourself in the craziness of Tokyo, wandering through old forests in the hills outside of Osaka, and eating the freshest (and most delicious) sushi you can imagine in the seaside city of Kanazawa. Add two days either end of your itinerary for traveling, and you've got yourself a solid itinerary.


6 days

Tokyo is beyond describing. It's the most wonderful city in the world, and no matter what experience you're looking for, you'll find it here. In 6 days you can see the best bits without rushing around too much: here are my favourite things to do in Tokyo. Mix and match with what best suits you!

What to do

  • Shopping in Shibuya and Harajuku - my favourite spots are along Meiji Dori, Cat Street, and Omotesandō. 
  • Have a picnic at Shinjuku Gyoen
  • Wander through the enormous trees at Meiji-jingu Gyoen and never stop exclaiming "I can't believe we're in the middle of Tokyo and I can't hear any traffic noise!"
  • Visit Shinjuku and night and eat in one of the many tiny yakitori spots in Piss Alley
  • Catch a train to Shimokitazawa and spend a few hours checking out the cute shops and cafes dotted around the suburb
  • Spirit yourself away to the gorgeous Studio Ghibli museum (having pre-purchased your tickets before you go to Japan, of course)
  • Immerse yourself at the Nezu Museum, and whatever you do, don't miss the incredible Japanese garden attached to the museum
  • Jump on the Yamanote line to Akihabara, which may be heaven or hell to you, depending on your tolerance for anime and otaku (geek) culture (hint: I can spend hours here)
  • Visit a cat cafe. You know you want to

Where to stay

Whenever I go to Tokyo I stay in either Shibuya, Harajuku, or Shinjuku. All centrally located, all near train stations that connect to the airport, all near good restaurants and shopping. Most recently, I stayed in an AirBnB in Harajuku. Staying in Harajuku was so much fun, and ensured that we had crepes on the way home every night.

What to eat

It goes without saying that you're absolutely spoiled for choice for food in Tokyo. Every time I visit I usually find a place that I spend the next year raving about to anyone who'll listen. Last time I went to Tokyo that place was the Baird Beer taproom in Harajuku: great food and an incredible selection of beer. This time around it was Tonki, and it was basically a religious experience. They only do one thing, tonkatsu (cutlets of breaded, deep-fried pork) and it. was. amazing. If you take nothing away from this entire post other than this recommendation, I'll be happy. 

Other great food places include Genki Sushi (a sushi train in Shibuya, where you order your sushi on a screen at your table), Takashimaya (a shopping centre with an EPIC food hall on the basement level - perfect picnic food!), Angel Heart Crepes (Harajuku's best crepes), Piss Alley (cheap and cheerful yakitori stands), and Bake Cheese Tarts (delicious cheesecake-like tarts that I still dream about).


2 days

Kanazawa, while definitely not an unknown city, is somewhat off the beaten track when it comes to the main spots on a Japan itinerary. However, now that the Shinkansen connects directly from there to Tokyo, it's an incredibly easy place to spend some time. Not to mention the train journey is stunning: you go through the snowy alps and arrive out the other side by the ocean.

What to do

There are some truly gorgeous places to see in Kanazawa. The Higashi Chaya District is part of the old town that rivals Kyoto's Gion district, and indeed is the geisha district of Kanazawa. Its cobblestone streets and lattice lined houses are an awe-inspiring site to see. There are several former geisha homes where you can visit for a fee.

Kenrokuen Garden is also a must-visit, a beautiful manicured Japanese garden that you could spend hours wandering through, admiring the sites. Nearby are two other fantastic attractions: the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (where you've surely seen photos of their trippy pool exhibit), and Kanazawa Castle (worth a walk through).

Where to stay

Kanazawa is a great place to try out a ryokan, or traditional Japanese guest house. There's quite a few available for a whole range of budgets - being on a somewhat limited budget I stayed at Ryokan Yamamuro which I highly recommend. It was within walking distance of most of Kanazawa's attractions, and the staff were incredibly friendly. You'll also have a chance to try a traditional Japanese breakfast, which is carefully prepared for guests every morning.

What to eat

I ate one of the best meals of my life in Kanazawa at a small sushi restaurant called Kourin Sushi. It ended up being a little on the expensive side (about ¥8,500 per person), but it was well worth it. It was the most carefully and delicately prepared seafood I've ever eaten, and I honestly dream about going back there one day. If you're after something more casual (with some great beer), also check out Oriental Brewing. The staff behind the bar are amazing, and have the best taste in music - they were excited to hear I was from Australia because they love Tame Impala!


5 days

On this holiday in Japan I swapped my usual visit to Kyoto with Osaka. While Kyoto is very deserving of your time, if you've been before I'd recommend staying in nearby Osaka to change things up.

What to do

I've got to be honest, a lot of my time in Osaka was based around food and shopping. There were just so many good options for both! Food, of course, was based largely around the famous Dōtonbori area that runs alongside the Dōtonbori-gawa canal. You must pay this area a visit at night, it's almost beyond explanation. Enormous dragons, octopus, and crabs are displayed above restaurants, making the whole street feel like something out of a Miyazaki film.

As you cross from Dōtonbori to the Shinsaibashi shopping area, you'll come face to face with the famous Glico running man sign (amongst many others), which is basically like stepping onto the set of Blade Runner.

Outside of this central hub a trip to Osaka Castle (Osakajo) is well worth your time. The walk up to the castle offers a gorgeous view of it, however, you don't truly realise how imposing it is until you reach the top. The ornate gold details speak to me on a deep personal level.

Finally, while I do think the famous Osaka aquarium is worth a visit, I thought I should point out that I definitely confused this with Churaumi Aquarium in Okinawa. While I was super excited to see a whale shark in person, it was in a decidedly less epic-looking environment than the one located at Churaumi Aquarium.

Where to stay

I stayed in a very cute AirBnB in the Namba (central) area. It was perfectly located - a 10-minute walk from Namba station and Dōtonbori. There's an abundance of good quality and inexpensive AirBnBs in Osaka, I highly recommend it if you'd like to stay somewhere central.

What to eat

Head to Dōtonbori and don't look back - you're guaranteed a good meal anywhere along here!

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