With just under three weeks to go (!) before we get on a plane bound for Tokyo, Tony & I figured it was probably a good idea to finally decide on some kind of an itinerary for Japan. I know many travel veterans subscribe to the whole “don’t plan too much” school of trip-taking, and indeed, my last post was all about the pitfalls associated with making definite plans, but bear with me: we are still new to flying by the seat of our pants, and at this point, I really haven’t wrapped my brain around the whole concept of NOT heavily researching destinations. In theory, I am all for opening ourselves up to the unknown and letting fortune favor us with the unexpected, but in practice, I just don’t know how to do that. Not yet. Check back with me in September after a month of traveling and we will see how I’ve progressed. But for now, I need to have some kind of plan lest I succumb to blind panic.

Here is how we are planning to break down our trip:

Aug 9 – 13: On the evening of the 9th, we will touch down in Tokyo, so this major metropolis made the natural starting point for our time in Japan. In a city of this size, I doubt the time we have there will be enough to scratch the surface (especially when you consider that we will likely be battling a wicked case of jet lag), but on the plus side, no matter where we turn, we will likely find plenty to entertain us and boggle the mind. We mostly want to use this time to try to decompress (probably impossible in Tokyo), but a few things we will make a priority are: dining on some of the freshest sushi in the world for breakfast at Tsukiji Fish Market, visiting the Imperial Palace, and witnessing the world’s busiest road crossing (Shibuya Crossing). We have heard that Tokyo is a great city to just wander (and wonder?!?), so perhaps if things get dire on the 12 hour flight over from L.A. we’ll make more concrete plans, but for now, this will do. On Aug 13, we do plan to take a day trip to Kamakura, which is nice little temple town and home to a very large bronze Buddha statue.

Aug 14: We will then head to Nikko, which has several UNESCO world heritage shrines, including the most lavish Japanese temple (read: so not very Japanese in style at all), Toshogu. It also is the birthplace of the “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil” monkeys! There is a lot of natural beauty around Nikko as well, as the town sits at the edge of a national park, filled with hiking trails and hot springs.

Aug 15 – 16: Upon leaving Nikko, we will activate our 14-day Japan Rail Pass, and head farther North to the city of Sendai, which we will be using as our base to explore the Tohoku region. We will spend one day in Matsushima, which is known for its beautiful coastline (considered one of Japan’s top three most scenic views, even following the 2011 tsunami). As we will be traveling in Japan during Obon, we chose to visit Matsushima in order to observe the impressive fireworks show as well as an ethereal lantern ritual in which families write the names of ancestors on lit paper lanterns and send them out to sea! The next day we will explore Yamadera, climbing 1000 stairs to reach this scenic mountaintop temple.

Aug 17: Although most people would rank Himeji as Japan’s best castle, we discovered that it is currently undergoing renovations, so we are instead heading to Matsumoto to spend a day in one of Japan’s best castle towns.

Aug 18 – 19: In order to save some time, we are going to take the bus to get to Takayama (though we have heard that the bus ride is incredibly scenic as it passes through the mountains). Takayama is known for its historic old town, where the Edo-style architecture has been preserved, so this will be our chance to step back into the past and get a sense of “Old Japan”. We may also take a half-day trip to the nearby Hida Folk Village, which is an open-air museum that has been constructed to look like a traditional mountain village, complete with authentic wooden houses that are famous for their distinctive thatched roofs.

Aug 20 – 21: Then it is off to Kanazawa, another historic Japanese city, considered by many to be full of as many cultural and historic jewels as the more famous Kyoto. It is often overlooked by foreign tourists, and features yet another “top 3” Japan attraction: Kenroku-en Garden. In addition to simply wandering around Kanazawa’s streets, there are several temples that could  be worth a visit, including Ninja Temple (and yes, there are trapdoors!). Also, in exciting news, we just received confirmation that we will be Couchsurfing with a local while in town, which should add another amazing cultural dimension to our stay here!

Aug 22 – 23: Jumping on the bullet train, we will hurtle to Hiroshima in order to experience a different kind of Japanese history. We plan to devote the day to the Memorial Peace Park and all its various attractions. The next day, we will visit Miyajima island, considered one of Japan’s crown jewels. It is also known as Shrine island, due to the high number of shrines and is considered a very holy place. We will take in the famous floating torii, and see what other unexpected pleasures (like eating—or making—momiji manju… little cakes in the shape of maple leaves!) this place holds.

Aug 24 – 31: This week is our “Kyoto and surrounding environs”  portion of the trip. If Tokyo is all about the modern, Kyoto is the heart of Japanese culture and history. Highlights will involve seeing the Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) and perhaps its sister temple as well Ginkakuji (temple that looks like it is covered in silver leaf), walking through the geisha district of Gion, trying to reach enlightenment at Ryoanji Temple, having our own “Memoirs of a Geisha” moment as we marvel our way through the hundreds of torii on our way to Fushimi Inari, and visiting the Arashiyama area of Kyoto so that we can stroll through the Bamboo Grove, see the monkey park, and visit Nenbutsuji Temple. We also plan to take some day trips from the city to Nara (to see the famous deer park as well as Todaiji Temple), Iga-Ueno (a town known for its Ninja history), and Kurama & Kibune (to do some light hiking, get some water fortunes, and eat nagashi somen).

Sept 1 – 2: Throughout our time in Japan, we expect to eat a lot of wonderful things, but our two days in Osaka will be all about kuidaore, an Osakan way of life meaning “eat yourself into ruin”. We intend to feast on takoyaki and okinomiyaki and anything else that strikes our fancy. If we can manage to walk after stuffing ourselves silly, we will definitely make it a priority to visit Kaiyukan, which is one of the world’s largest aquariums.

Sept 3 – 4: Our last excursion in Japan will be Mount Koya, which is one of Japan’s Buddhist epicenters and many practicing monks can be found here. For our last night in Japan, we hope to stay at an operating temple and greet the morning with prayers at dawn. Should be a memorable way to end our trip!

When Tony and I first began speaking about visiting Japan on this trip, we initially felt that we would have to limit our visit to a 2-week maximum for the sake of our budget. At one point we also discussed (albeit, briefly) scrapping Japan entirely because of the expenses involved, but it has long been one of Tony’s dream destinations, and if this trip is about living our dreams, then Japan had to be a part of it. As you can see, in the end, our final plan is to spend 27 days in Japan! We think that this will give us enough time to widely sample a country that has long fascinated us and which is so culturally rich and geographically diverse. We have tried to use this as an opportunity to travel a bit farther from the traditional tourist trail and catch a glimpse of parts of Japan that may be less well known to foreigners… Even still, we know we are just barely scratching the surface of this mesmerizing island nation, but as a first visit, we are quite happy with what we have planned.

And yes, we do have our exit tickets booked, but for now we’re keeping those under wraps! No need to get too far ahead of ourselves and we have to keep some surprises for future posts! 😉

Tell us: Have you ever visited Japan? If so, what were some of your favorite experiences? Never been but want to go? Tell us what you think can’t be missed in Japan!

Written by: Stephenie Harrison


In another life, I moved from Toronto, Canada to Nashville, TN to pursue my doctoral degree in Psychology. That chapter of my life is now finished, but I did earn the right to demand you call me Dr. Steph (though I respond just as well to plain old Steph). I am an avid reader whose book collection is rivaled only by my many pairs of cute shoes. I also like to knit, hold impromptu karaoke parties, and try new and unusual foods. Generally not all at the same time. I also really love to learn languages, which may explain why I took 3 years of Latin in highschool. I'm turning over a new leaf, so instead of looking forward, I'm going to work on enjoying the present, so the country I'm most looking forward to is whichever one we're in right now!

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Read comments (20)

  1. July 20, 2012 at 10:13 pm
    Jul. 20, '12

    Love it! It sounds perfect guys. You know I will be following along as we will be following closely on your heels – definitely some overlap in our itineraries…too bad the time didn’t overlap too! Travel safe!
    Gillian @OneGiantStep recently posted..Struck From My Not-A-Bucket List: Hiking In Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

    • July 21, 2012 at 5:07 pm
      Jul. 21, '12

      Your itinerary definitely inspired us to get off the beaten path and see some parts of Japan that many don’t get to see! Would have been nice if we had been able to overlap a bit timing wise, but perhaps our paths will cross in some other part of the world!

  2. July 21, 2012 at 8:34 am
    Jul. 21, '12

    Sounds wonderful! I have never been, but can’t wait to go vicariously with you guys!!!
    rhapsodyinbooks recently posted..Kid Konnection – Review of “Redwoods” by Jason Chin

    • July 21, 2012 at 5:07 pm
      Jul. 21, '12

      Yes, at this point the waiting is getting painful! With nothing but time on our hands, I find myself looking for things to stress out about! Will be good when we are finally just out there in the world doing this thing and sharing it with you!

  3. July 21, 2012 at 11:51 am
    Jul. 21, '12

    Oh my goodness! Y’all certainly seem to have your stuff together!! I set off on my indefinite RTW trip in May of this year, (far less prepared,lol) and I’ve just found your blog through Sarah Somewhere, so I look forward to following along as you guys embark on your new adventure!! Congrats and best of luck!!

    • July 21, 2012 at 5:19 pm
      Jul. 21, '12

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Tiffany! I am sure to those out there on the road, Tony & I probably seem overprepared, but this is probably the least planned a trip I have ever taken… despite having been dreaming and researching and reading blogs for 3 years, it seems like all too soon we’ll be thrown out in the world and I’ll have no idea what to do!

  4. July 21, 2012 at 1:40 pm
    Jul. 21, '12

    Wow! I’ve never had any desire to visit Japan, until now. 😀 You guys have some wonderful stuff planned, and I can’t wait to hear about your adventures!!

    • July 21, 2012 at 5:20 pm
      Jul. 21, '12

      I can’t wait for us to get out there so that we can change your mind completely about Japan! By the time we’re done, I want to boost it to the top of your dream travel list! 😉

  5. Laura
    July 22, 2012 at 6:53 am
    Jul. 22, '12

    Hey Guys,
    It was great seeing you two and getting to catch up and chat about Japan! All this Japan talk has made me want to return so the Japan Trip Summer 2013 savings have begun! (Oh and you’ve also inspired me to get off my butt and organize all of my RTW trip photos!). Have a safe drive through the states and flight out to Japan. I can’t wait to hear about all of your adventures!

    • July 23, 2012 at 9:26 am
      Jul. 23, '12

      L’Ell! It was so great to see you too – definitely one of our highlights while back in Toronto! We loved getting to FINALLY see your condo, and we are SO grateful for the time you took to advise us on our Japan leg! I highly doubt it will be the case, but maybe Tony and I will see or do something even you haven’t discovered and you’ll add it to your 2013 travel plans… And we look forward to seeing more of your *organized* RTW photos when we get back from our own trip! 😉

  6. July 23, 2012 at 6:02 am
    Jul. 23, '12

    Great itinerary. Personally, I’ve never been further north than Nikko, so I have no idea what to expect up there aside from beautiful mountain scenery (as if that’s not enough).

    If you have time between Hiroshima and the Kansai area (Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe) you could make a stop in Himeji. It’s located right on the main train line between the two and is home to Japan’s most impressive castle. I just hopped off my train from Hiroshima and took two hours to check it out, then jumped on another train and continued on to Kyoto. Well worth it if you can squeeze it in.
    Daniel McBane recently posted..Disappear Into a Sewer in Medan, Indonesia

    • July 23, 2012 at 9:30 am
      Jul. 23, '12

      Hi Daniel! Thanks for commenting and leaving us some feedback on our itinerary!

      Originally we were planning to stop at Himeji for a day trip, but we discovered that it is undergoing extensive renovations for the next two years, so we worried it might not actually be looking its best. This is why we decided to visit Matsumoto instead… of course, since we will have the rail pass, we can always hop off the train on the way to Kyoto, as you suggest, and have a look and see what is happening. Definitely something to consider!

  7. July 23, 2012 at 10:32 am
    Jul. 23, '12

    Oh my gosh, just looking at this itinerary makes me excited, and gleeful for you! It sounds like you have a lot of stuff planned and that you are going to make the most of your time there, which is wonderful! I am so excited for you, and would love to see photos of everything, if you have the energy to post them all. Have fun, you two 🙂
    zibilee recently posted..The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey — Audiobook Review

    • July 23, 2012 at 12:12 pm
      Jul. 23, '12

      Fear not! We are absolutely planning to make time to blog and upload plenty of pictures while we are on the road… we want to keep this blog as current and up-to-date as possible so those of you at home can follow along!

  8. July 23, 2012 at 11:57 pm
    Jul. 23, '12

    So so exciting to see your itinerary. Lost in Translation is what made me want to go to Japan. One day…

    I seriously cannot wait for you guys to get out there, so we can see you out in the world.
    jenn aka the picky girl recently posted..Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Imperative by Eric Van Lustbader

    • July 25, 2012 at 7:02 pm
      Jul. 25, '12

      I have no idea if you are a fan of sushi, but if so, watch the movie “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”… it will absolutely add fuel to the fire to travel to Japan. Then again, I am one of those people who plans trips around all the things I want to eat…

      Only 2 weeks to go!

  9. August 7, 2012 at 10:35 am
    Aug. 7, '12

    SOOO exciting!! I can’t believe you guys are leaving already!! We leave for Japan on Sept 15 so we’ll definitely be devouring all your Japan posts and looking for all sorts of tips and advice! A full month in Japan sounds awesome and I’m sure you will see a ton — we’re thinking of limiting our time to 2 weeks so we won’t be able to see everything you guys will but are hoping to see a lot as well! Too bad our time there won’t overlap! Hoping to meet you guys somewhere else in Asia though! Have a safe flight tomorrow and best of luck!
    Vicky recently posted..Interview Series: Johnny From OneStep4Ward

    • August 7, 2012 at 1:38 pm
      Aug. 7, '12

      We will do our best to help give you ideas for what to do when you touch down in September. Thankfully wifi seems not to be an issue in Japan, and keeping the blog updated will definitely be a priority.

      And I’m confident we will find some corner of Asia where we can meet up!

  10. August 7, 2012 at 5:57 pm
    Aug. 7, '12

    Hi Dr. Steph! My Budget Hubby and myself have not yet been to Japan, but intend going one day. Our 21 y.o. son is planning to go next year. Like Tony, he too has always been fascinated by Japan. He is currently studying the language so he knows a little before he goes. His motivation is Anime!
    jan recently posted..Coffee, Art, Food – The Sweatshop

  11. Laura Hilden
    March 1, 2018 at 5:59 am
    Mar. 1, '18

    Hi, where did you stay in Nikko? Did you find a nice place with an onsen?
    Greetings from Denmark.

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