My Two Week Trip to Japan
If you follow me on Instagram, you know I got to visit Japan for two weeks in May! I promised I’d go into more detail about my trip in a blog post, so here we go! Read on for my itinerary, favorite places, and travel tips!
We spent three nights and two days in Tokyo after arriving via a direct flight to Narita Airport from Chicago. We stayed in a hotel very close to Shinjuku Station, which ended up being a great choice because it allowed us to use our Japan Rail Passes (which must be purchased before you enter Japan!) to travel all over the city. We visited a ton of sights every day, but some of the highlights were Tsukiji Fish Market, an outdoor street market with all sorts of unique foods, having matcha in a teahouse built on a pond in Hama-Rikyu Gardens, and eating sushi at a stand-up sushi restaurant where the cook prepared the sushi as you ordered it!
We took a train, and then another train, and then a very scary bus ride to the town of Kamikochi in the Japanese alps! I always try to plan something outdoorsy during our long trips since those are usually Rob’s favorite parts, and it’s nice to get a break from the go-go-go of the city. Kamikochi was WAY nicer than I thought it would be, I highly recommend it! It turned out to be a mostly Japanese vacation destination, which was interesting unto itself. Still, we had no problem getting around without knowing Japanese. The town is basically a group of lodges centered around the river and bridge in the third photo above, with a few little shops and restaurants. The hotel we stayed in, Shirakabaso, provided breakfast and dinner, which made things easy! There are beautiful hiking and walking trails all around Kamikochi, and we even got to see monkeys in the forest— some of them got quite close to us!
After Kamikochi, we stopped in Matsumoto for a night, basically just as a layover between trains! We saw the famous Matsumoto-jo castle and had some tasty ramen, but that was pretty much it! Just a word of warning if you end up there, we had a really hard time finding dinner in Matsumoto. A lot of places were completely full or had signs saying the restaurant was for Japanese-speakers only. Between that and the 90 degree weather, we weren’t too sad to head to Kyoto the next day!
If you like temples, you’ll like Kyoto. We spent three nights and two and a half days there, and I have never seen so many places of worship in my life. Supposedly Kyoto has over 1,600 temples! According to my notes, we saw 9 and it felt like WAY more. The golden temple, Kinkaku-Ji was so crowded that I would honestly recommend skipping it and spending time somewhere else, like Fushimi Inari, the temple with the endless orange gates. We were super rushed there and I wish we had had more time! One of my most memorable experiences from the whole trip was at Tainai-Meguri, which is just before the entrance of Kyomizu-Dera Temple. My guidebook only described it as one of the oddest sights in Japan, so obviously we had to check it out. In fact, it was probably the most terrifying two minutes of my life, though like I said, memorable. Basically, you are entering into this pitch black tunnel, and I mean PITCH BLACK. You cannot see your hand in front of your face. You hold onto this rope made of big wooden beads and you shuffle along in the tunnel in complete darkness until you reach a faint glowing light. As you get closer you see it’s a big stone with things engraved on it. It’s supposed to symbolize walking into the womb of a female bodhisattva and then being reborn when you take another tunnel back out. Yours truly had to take a serious breather and had a panic attack later in the day, but again, memorable! It was also kind of hard to find dinner in Kyoto. We found out that you need to get your hotel to make dinner reservations for you, but we were staying in a AirBNB so that wasn’t an option. We happened upon a Japanese barbecue place one night, and that was a lot of fun! You order the different dishes and then you grill them yourself over a personal grill at your table. As far as AirBNBs in Japan go, it’s an extremely economical option and there are plenty in convenient areas, but you are giving up some of the conveniences a hotel can offer, such as making those dinner reservations or having an in-hotel restaurant— finding three meals a day for yourself can get a little tiring after two weeks! We did find an absolutely delightful coffee shop that we went to twice by our AirBNB called Ichikawaya— you MUST go if you’re ever in Kyoto.
Kinosaki Onsen was both my husband and I’s favorite part of the trip! Kinosaki Onsen is a town built on hot springs, and it revolves around the seven onsens (Japanese bath houses) that were built there. We stayed in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, where you sleep in a traditional tatami room and they prepare elaborate breakfasts and dinners for you in your room. We spent our day there bopping from onsen to onsen (they provide you with special robes called yukatas and shoes to do so) and stopping for treats in between! I couldn’t take any pictures of the bath themselves (the first photo is from visitkinosaki.com) to respect everyone’s privacy, but they were so neat! Many had both indoor and outdoor baths, and one was even in a cave! Even if you don’t make it to Kinosaki Onsen specifically, I highly recommend visiting an onsen if you ever go to Japan.
After Kinosaki Onsen, we made the long train trip back to Tokyo and stayed a night in a hotel airport before heading home! Before wrapping up, a few tips and items (may include affiliate links) that were very useful to me:
We saved SO much time and money by purchasing Japan Rail passes. You need to purchase it online before you enter Japan and they will mail you a confirmation. At the airport, you exchange the confirmation for the physical JR Pass, which allows you to take both local JR trains and bullet trains throughout the country. There are some limitations (there are many local trains that are NOT JR trains, and in Kyoto we just took the bus because it was the most convenient), but in our case it was well worth it.
We rented a pocket wifi device (I booked it ahead of time but you can also just do it at the airport, it looked like) and picked it up at the airport. Being able to look up directions, restaurants, and translations at all times made our lives SO much easier. I definitely recommend renting one, they’re quite small (can literally fit in your pocket) and I think came out to about $10/day.
Rob and I both got new travel pillows and we used them so much! We both used them on the flight by placing them on the tray table and then putting our head face down on it or sideways. I wear noise-cancelling headphones on flights, and the huge ear covering fit perfectly in the neck pillow hole. We also used them on the long bullet train rides and even at the AirBNB, which only had one very flat pillow per person.
I used Lonely Planet Japan to plan my trip and also used it to read up on each area and pick what sights to see as we traveled.
If you have any more Japan questions, let me know in the comments! Happy travels!