Perhaps nowhere in the world manages to fuse modern living with ancient traditions quite as naturally and intriguingly as Japan. The Land of the Rising Sun’s ability to seamlessly blend the ornate and the animated makes it a Holy Grail for many a traveller in the west in search of awe and confusion in equal measure. And with the success of the Rugby World Cup behind us and the Tokyo Olympics ahead of us (whenever that may be), interest in sumo, Shinto and sashimi is more noticeable than ever.
With that in mind, we headed east to discover Japan’s idiosyncrasies in a fortnight, a feat perfectly achievable given its efficient and affordable public transport. So, without further ado, here’s Part 1 of How to See Japan in Two Weeks: Tokyo and Mount Fuji.
See Part 2 of How to See Japan in Two Weeks: Osaka, Kyoto and Kanazawa here.
Japan Two Week Itinerary
- Tokyo (3 nights)
- Mount Fuji/Kawaguchiko (2 nights)
- Osaka (2 nights)
- Kyoto (3 nights)
- Kanazawa (2 nights)
- Tokyo (2 nights)
While there are some clear omissions from our itinerary (notably Hiroshima and the famed beauty of Shikoku island), our route does cover some of the country’s most esteemed sites as well as offering some contrast in culture and pace. Using Tokyo as a starting and finish point also means flights are daily and numerous.
Best Time to Visit Japan
While technically not the largest place in the world, Japan is surprisingly vast. Cold winters in Hokkaido in the North are in stark contrast to the subtropics of Okinawa in the South. What that does mean, however, is you have choices.
The months from March to May are some of the busiest when the country’s iconic sakura season (cherry blossom trees) is in full bloom. September to November is also popular, with many heading to Japan for its vivid autumnal panoramic views. During both periods, rainfall is at its lowest and temperatures are relatively mild. Though, be warned, skies change quickly in Japan.
If it is ski season you’re after, the aforementioned northern prefecture of Hokkaido is undeniably your best option from December right through to April. However, there are also areas outside of Tokyo, such as Niigata, which are only a Shinkansen (“bullet train”) journey away.
Should you be planning to head to Tokyo for the postponed summer Olympics, July 2021 is when you need to be booking for. However, if none of the above peak your interest and it’s the money saving options you’re looking for, then things are at their quietest (and generally cheapest) from mid-January and February.
Seven Things to Know Before Going to Japan
There are plenty of things we could tell you before going to Japan, but we don’t want to spoil half of the fun. However, there are some things you should consider before taking that 11 hour flight:
- Cash – cash is king in Japan and we’d estimate 95% of places don’t accept card as payment. Therefore take lots of cash with you. That’s also because Japan can get expensive – especially if you’re settled in for a session at the bar…
- Language – while Japanese people generally don’t speak English with anywhere near as much confidence as other countries, plenty will give it a go and everyone is eager to help. Well-beaten paths generally have signs in both English and Japanese and train lines are extremely English-friendly. Most restaurants have some sort of English menu and even if they don’t everything has a picture, so just point. Google Translate can be useful at times, though.
- Trains – while you could drive around the country, getting the trains and Shinkansen is strongly advised. It will save you time and arguably money too. You can also get a Japan Rail Pass, which will cover the vast majority of your journeys.
- Wi-Fi – there is Wi-Fi at plenty of bars and restaurants in Japan, while hotels will all have it. Many of the popular train lines are well covered too. However, you could easily go a day on the go without having access to any of precious interweb. Really, that leaves you with two options; 1) download Google Maps and enjoy going into the unknown; or 2) rent a pocket Wi-Fi router at the airport/train station.
- Crowds – everything worth seeing in Japan gets busy. It’s an unescapable fact, unfortunately. However, you can mitigate most of the crowds by heading to your priority sites as early as you possibly can while the other sightseers are still tucking into their breakfast rice and miso soup.
- Groups – generally speaking, Japanese bars/restaurants aren’t geared up for big groups. They can be tight at the best of times, so if you are in a group larger than 2-4 people, do some research before heading out.
- Karaoke – just do it, OK?
Tokyo Travel Guide
Being the largest metropolitan in the world, hosting over 36 million people, condensing Tokyo’s appeal and offerings into one neat package isn’t the easiest task we’ve ever undertaken. But what we can say is if it’s vibrancy of place, people and culture you’re after, Tokyo is hard to beat.
The city is Japan’s hub for pop culture, entertainment, contemporary art, shopping, drinking and eating, with more Michelin stars than any other city on the planet. And thanks to its diverse collection of neighbourhoods, no two experiences of it are ever truly the same. However, no matter where you go, it’s Tokyo’s sprawling and gigantic skyline which, for decades now, has forced visitors to look up in wonder.
Areas and Accommodation in Tokyo
So where to stay in Tokyo? Naturally, your options are endless due to its size. However, given its expanse, we’d strongly suggest you stay somewhere relatively close to a hub of activity to save endless Tokyo Metro trips. So to pinpoint a few areas:
- Shinjuku – located in the west, Shinjuku is one of the city’s largest transport hubs and there are plenty of sites to see in the area. As well as being arguably the city’s liveliest district, there are also several department stores and thousands of eating and drinking haunts.
- Shibuya – another sprawling shopping and transport hub on the west side of Tokyo, Shibuya primarily has lots of attractions, which in turn means bars and restaurants. For comparison, Shibuya is slightly less busy than Shinjuku and slightly younger in clientele.
- Tokyo Station/Marunouchi – located centrally, this area is a little quieter than Shinjuku and Shibuya but still with plenty going on thanks to its superb transport links and proximity to Ginza and Nihombashi. The area is also awash with restaurants.
- Roppongi – for those looking to live the Tokyo fast life for a week, Roppongi is where the young of the city like to eat and drink. There’s also plenty of landmarks nearby; Tokyo Tower, to name but one.
- Akihabara – found in the not-too-distant north-east of Tokyo, Akihabara is probably what most westerners would think of when they imagine the city: electronics, video games, arcades and anime. The area also has great connections to Narita airport with nearby Ueno Station offering direct trains.
During our stay in Tokyo, we called BnA STUDIO Akihabara home. The uber-modern ‘art hotel’ is all about contemporary art with respect to Japanese traditions and craftsmanship. As such, each of BnA STUDIO’s unique rooms are designed by a Japanese artist who receives a cut of the profits. The concept is unique to say the least but they’re certainly on to something; each room is as striking and pristine as the next (despite clear contrasts in styles) and has everything you’ll need with private bathrooms and a kitchenette. All in all, BnA STUDIO Akihabara offers a unique experience while still offering the comfort and convenience of a luxury abode. We’d highly recommend it.
Things to Do in Tokyo
Unsurprisingly Tokyo is packed with things to do and sites to see. In the tourist hub of Shibuya, you’ll naturally do the Shibuya Crossing but we’d also recommend getting one of the best views of the city; 229 metres up on top of Shibuya Sky. Elsewhere, Tokyo Skytree and Tokyo Tower are two of Tokyo’s most prominent landmarks and also offer visitors observation decks too.
In the colourful Shinjuku, heading to one of the many bustling izakayas (small, traditional Japanese bars which serve alcohol and grilled snacks) is a must. Omoide Yokocho, lovingly referred to as ‘Piss Alley’, is right next to the main station and will have you watered all night. The district’s Golden Gai area is also one for the boozing bucket list too, with tiny shanty-style bars, some of which look like your Nan’s living room, serving cheap and cheerful concoctions. If you can handle tourist traps, Shinjuku’s famed Robot Restaurant also needs to be experienced. The ‘pop-culture show’ has robotic monsters, dancers, lasers, Ninja Turtles and a heavy dose of camp. Authentic it is not but fun it most definitely is. Just make sure you grab a deal from one of the many affiliated sellers and do not eat the food.
If it’s tradition you’re in search of, Tokyo Imperial Palace is the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan, while Sensō-ji, Meiji Jingu and Nezu Shrine are three of the most impressive shrines in the capitals. Ueno Park is a large park with a zoo, a lake and some of Tokyo’s best museums, while Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden and Hamarikyu Gardens are also well worth a visit. If you fancy a hike, Mount Takao is out of the city and perfect for a day trip.
For shopping opportunities, Ginza is the city’s primary destination with everything from small, independent bookshops sitting next to some of the world’s most high-profile designers. Shinjuku is great for the younger crowds, while Shibuya and nearby Takeshita Street in Harajuku offer quirky fashion and ‘hipster’ paradises. Ikebukuro is a little off the beaten track but is an electronics haven, while Tsukiji Market is worth a trip too as the city’s main fish market.
Finally, Tokyo Disneyland and the Ghibli Museum are perfect for big kids or those with little ones.
Best Places to Eat and Drink in Tokyo
With 226 starred restaurants, 11 of which are three-starred, it’s fair to say Tokyo really is a foodie heaven. If it is Michelin-starred you want, Shinjuku Kappo Nakajima is perhaps Tokyo’s best-known ‘cheap Michelin’ restaurant with lunchtime set-menu options starting at just ¥880 (around £6.50). Just be prepared to queue. (As a rule, lunchtime meals are much cheaper than dinner.) Nakiryu in the outskirts of Otsuka also offers similar value and quality.
Essentially, ramen and katsu curry are everywhere in Tokyo and you can find a decent, well-priced meal wherever you are. For hubs, try depachika, which are underground department store food halls nearly always found at large train stations, or any food hall/market nearby, where you’ll find street food and sashimi by the bucketful.
If you do stay nearby BnA STUDIO Akihabara, Kikanbo was arguably the best ramen we had in Japan with the restaurant’s unique coriander and spiced broth more than making up for the short 15 minutes wait to get a seat.
For craft beer enthusiasts, the always popular Popeye in Ryōgoku is a Tokyo craft beer OG and serves over 70 beers on tap; a record for our two week trip. You also get served a free dish when you order certain beers, which can never be a bad thing. Goodbeer Faucets in Shibuya is also western in feel and has a great range, while Baird Beer Taproom in Harajuku and Hitachino Brewing Lab in Akihabara are two of your best Tokyo taprooms. The latter is also perfect for beers by the rivers – something you can sometimes struggle to find in Japan.
Mount Fuji Travel Guide
Very few places in the world have a site quite as synonymous and iconic as Mount Fuji. Dominating the vistas of central Japan, it’s visible for miles in the right conditions and you could catch more than a glimpse of Fuji-san if you’re city-hopping the country by train. But we think getting out of the city is always the best way to see a country, and given Japan’s turbulent weather, a short stay near Fuji is well worth the effort – even if it does just increase your chances of seeing the snow-capped peak.
There are plenty of options if you do want a rural retreat, with the likes of Hakone to the south of Fuji known for its mountain vistas, onsen hot springs and Shinto temples. However, we’ll be talking about the Fuji Five Lakes region to the north and specifically Kawaguchiko.
Accommodation in Kawaguchiko
Thanks to its picture perfect views, rail connections and plethora of amenities, Kawaguchiko on Lake Kawaguchiko is an ideal base for exploring Fuji and the Five Lakes. That means there are plenty of options when it comes to accommodation, ranging from ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) and cheap hostels, to onsen hotels and luxury houses.
During our short stop in Kawaguchiko, we stayed at K’s House Fuji View Backpackers Hostel, courtesy of Hostelworld. With views of Mount Fuji from your bedroom window, the hostel offers Japanese style private rooms and modern style dormitory rooms with a scenic lounge on the roof top. There’s a spacious lounge downstairs too and fully equipped kitchen where guests can enjoy cooking and meeting new people while looking at the superb panorama of the symbol of Japan. We can’t recommend this hostel enough basically. Superb customer service and a unique experience you won’t forget in a hurry.
Things to Do in Kawaguchiko
Naturally, it’s all about Fuji in Kawaguchiko, so pray for good weather. If you do get the rays, we can’t implore you enough to take the hour walk to Chureito Pagoda at Arakurayama Sengen Park. Simply put, it’s one of the most beautiful sites we’ve ever seen in our lives and something that will stay with us until our dying days. Head out as early as you can muster, however, because like everything in Japan, it can get busy.
Renting a bike and cycling around Lake Kawaguchiko was one of the highlights of fortnight too. You can rent bikes from basically anywhere in Kawaguchiko, with hostels often offering the best bargains. Oishi Park offers the best views of Fuji from the lake, while Yagizaki Park is also ideal for a break.
Elsewhere, Mt. Fuji Panoramic Ropeway and Kawaguchiko Tenjozan Park offer brilliant views of Fuji, as does the Fuji Yurari Hot Spring. The aforementioned onsen offers free shuttle buses from Kawaguchiko Station if you ring the number an hour in advance and is a brilliantly authentic Japanese experience. Just be warned that no tattoos are allowed (even if they’re covered) due to their association with the yakuza and onsen baths are separated by gender. Getting naked is a requirement too. You can get private baths, however.
Best Places to Eat and Drink in Kawaguchiko
Kawaguchiko may not offer the diversity of a city stay but there are still gems to be found. High Spirits is an izakaya ran by a friendly, young Japanese chef with a thick American accent which serves an ever changing menu of sashimi, stews and all the sake you can handle, while 38KAWAGUCHIKO is one of the more modern eateries in the town. Fuji Tempura Idaten is also worth a visit and if it’s time for some western grub Pizzeria Onda is a winner.
On the booze front, Ide Sake Brewery is great for learning more about the Japanese rice wine, while オスクーロ (one of the few places we couldn’t find a translation for) is one of the most interesting bars we’ve ever been to anywhere. Located through a secret door up the stairs in between a French restaurant and standard Thai haunt, an ornate wooden bar top and earnest cocktail master is the last thing you’d expect from this quiet town. Just go.
See Part 2 of How to See Japan in Two Weeks: Osaka, Kyoto and Kanazawa here.
*Please note: all content was written before the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. There are currently major travel disruptions to all countries, including Japan. Find official government advice about travelling to Japan here.