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Japan captured my heart from the moment I first visited. The delicious food, the rich culture, breathtaking landscapes, vibrant history, and the very friendly and polite people – it all blew my mind.

But Japan often feels impenetrable, especially to first-time visitors. While I think Japan deserves a minimum of 10 days, I get that some people might only have a week, so I wanted to write this, my ideal seven-day itinerary for Japan for a first-time visitor.

With only a week, there’s not much you can see unless you really rush it. And I don’t think you should do that.

So this itinerary only focuses on Tokyo and Kyoto (the most popular destinations) as well as some day trips from each. If you wanted to rush things a little, you could add in Osaka (more on that at the end).

Japan Itinerary Day 1: Tokyo

japan overlooking landscape
japan overlooking landscape

With all the gorgeous shrines, palaces, and temples; unique cocktail bars; and abundant shopping, you could easily spend an entire week in Tokyo. But, with only a couple of days, you’ll want to hit the highlights:

Tsukiji and Toyosu Fish Markets
Cure your jet lag with some food! In 2018, Tokyo’s main fish market moved to Toyosu. It is now twice the size of Tsukiji (the old one), making it the largest such market in the world. Here you can eat fresh sushi for breakfast, just a few feet from where it was hauled in from the sea, while marveling at the chaotic atmosphere.

You can still head to the old market in Tsukiji to eat, shop, and wander as well. I like it a lot, because there are more food options! Food and drink tours of the Tsukiji Outer Market are available for around 15,000 JPY.

Toyosu Fish Market is open Monday-Saturday 5am-5pm, though most shops don’t open until 7am. Admission is free, but you have to pick up a visitor’s pass when you enter. Tsukiji Fish Market’s hours vary by shop (usually 5am-2pm). Admission is free.

teamLab Planets
This digital art installation is a multi-sensory and immersive experience in which you become part of the artwork, walking barefoot through the four exhibition spaces and gardens as you interact with the installations’ elements in unique ways. It’s really fun! TeamLab is generally sells out in advance, so I recommend getting your tickets online ahead of time.

Take a walking tour
Walking tours are a great way to get the lay of the land while connecting with a local guide. I always go on one or two when I arrive somewhere. Tokyo Localized offers many free tours, including a classic overview and ones of both the famed Harajuku and Shinjuku neighborhoods. Its Imperial Palace tour would be the most convenient one after teamLab.

The Imperial Palace
Formerly Edo Castle, the Imperial Palace was built in the 15th century, and some of the walls and moats from that time are still in use to this day. When the emperor moved from Kyoto to Tokyo in 1869, he took Edo for his new palace and renamed it. While you can’t go inside, it is surrounded by beautiful grounds, a moat, and a park worth wandering through. You can also see the changing-of-the-guard ceremony (though it’s relatively low-key and unassuming). Admission to the grounds is free.

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
This park is over 144 acres and home to some 20,000 trees. Most of the original park was destroyed in World War II but was rebuilt and reopened in 1949. During spring, it is one of the best places to see cherry blossoms. My favorite area is the landscape garden, which has several ponds with bridges and islands. It’s a peaceful oasis away from the urban hustle and bustle.

Japan Itinerary Day 2: Tokyo

I would start your second day by checking out Asakusa. You can explore the area on a guided walking tour or on your own. Go early to avoid the crowds and see the two main temples:

Senso-ji – This is Tokyo’s most popular and famous temple. Beautifully painted, it sits in a scenic spot near a pagoda and the lovely Kaminari Gate. There’s a huge statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, inside the main hall. It’s very busy during the day, so maybe check out the grounds in the evening.
Asakusa Shrine – This nearby Shinto shrine is much more peaceful, with fewer visitors, but with people praying, meditating, or performing traditional rituals. It was built during the Edo period (1603–1868) and survived the air raids of World War II.
Afterward, head to Ueno Park. Spanning over 133 acres, Ueno Park was established in 1873 on land formerly owned by a 17th-century Buddhist temple. It gets super busy in cherry blossom season, as there are over a thousand trees here. Throughout, you’ll find various stalls and vendors selling snacks, drinks, and souvenirs. On weekends, there are usually cultural events or festivals showcasing traditional arts, music, and dance.

Four of Tokyo’s main museums are here:

Tokyo National Museum – Established in 1872 on the north end, this massive building is the oldest and largest art museum in Japan. It houses one of the world’s largest collections of art and artifacts from Asia, particularly Japan.

Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum – This museum showcases rotating exhibitions of contemporary and traditional Japanese art.

National Museum of Nature and Science – This museum features a wide range of permanent and temporary exhibitions covering natural science and history.

Tosho-gu Shrine – This beautiful 17th-century Shinto shrine has carved gold doors and other ornate carvings. It’s worth seeing up close!

Afterward, walk down to Akihabara to explore the video game parlors, arcades, and anime shops. This very buzzy area is ground zero for all things electronic, and it’s fun to play many of the games. This is where you’ll find the famous maid cafés, where servers dress up as maids and serve you food and drinks. These range from big touristy ones to holes-in-the-wall (the girls on the street are promoting the latter, which are a lot more culturally fun). They aren’t cheap, though, as you have to buy drink packages and pay a fee, but they’re kitschy and fun.

In the evening, visit Shinjuku and then drink in Golden Gai. In Shinjuku, you’ll find a plethora of cool bars, bright lights, and tiny hole-in-the-wall eateries. Be sure to wander down Memory Lane for tiny izakaya joints and bars. Afterward, head over to Golden Gai, a warren of narrow alleyways with a bit of a red-light-district feel, flanked by diminutive backstreet bars. It’s quite touristy but also a lot of fun. I’ve had some wild nights here!

With Arigato Tours, you’ll learn about the neighborhood while stopping to sample Japanese classics like sushi, yakitori, and ramen. The 23,900 JPY cost includes a drink and dishes at four stops.

Japan Itinerary Day 3: Tokyo

tokyo japan downtown crosswalk people crossing 2
tokyo japan downtown crosswalk people crossing

Here you can see a 13-meter (43-foot) bronze statue of Buddha that was built in 1252. It was initially constructed within Kotoku-in Temple, but that has since been washed away by several storms, so it now sits in the open air. Admission to enter the temple grounds is 300 JPY, while it’s 20 JPY to go inside the statue. The journey there — around an hour — is free with a Japan Rail Pass.

Tokyo Disneyland
I’m a sucker for Disney. You’ll find many of the same classic rides from Disney World here, like Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, The Haunted Mansion, and everyone’s favorite teacup ride, The Mad Tea Party. But there are several unique attractions as well, like Pooh’s Hunny Hunt and Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Ticket prices vary depending on the day and time, but full-day admission begins at 7,900 JPY for adults and 4,400-6,200 JPY for children. It’s best to book in advance.

Mount Fuji
Mount Fuji is located an hour outside of Tokyo. An active stratovolcano (which last erupted in 1708) and covered in snow for almost half of the year, it stands an impressive 3,776 meters (12,389 feet) and provides one of the most iconic views in the country. One of the Three Holy Mountains of Japan, Mount Fuji is both a Special Place of Scenic Beauty and a UNESCO Cultural Site. In the summer, the mountain is open to hikers, who take 5-12 hours to reach the summit (traditionally, they depart at night to arrive at the top for the sunrise).

If you don’t want to hike, you can simply visit on a day trip. There are buses that can take you partway up, where you’ll be offered sweeping vistas of the surrounding area. Guided day tours from the city cost around 12,000 JPY.

Japan Itinerary Day 4: Kyoto

Home to 1.5 million people and nestled in the mountains, Kyoto is one of the most beautiful cities in Japan. It’s filled with traditional-style buildings, bamboo forests, countless Zen gardens, and ancient Buddhist and Shinto temples. It’s best to divide the city into half, as attractions are sort of clumped together and getting across town takes a long time. Today, you should do the western half:

Wander the Bamboo Forest
For a relaxing break, head to Arashiyama and let the dense and towering stands of bamboo envelop you. Located near the famous Tenryu-ji temple, it’s one of the most beautiful places in the entire country. It’s not that big, but there are some hidden areas to explore. Just make sure to arrive early if you want to enjoy it without the crowds (it fills up fast after sunrise).

While there, I would also recommend visiting the Okochi Sanso Garden, which (along with the home) belonged to the famous Japanese actor Denjir? ?k?chi (1898–1962). It’s not free (it’s 1,000 JPY), but it’s really nice and has some wonderful views.

Visit the Golden Pavilion
Originally built in the late 14th century as a retirement villa for the shogun (military governor), this iconic structure was later converted into a Zen Buddhist temple. The present-day edifice dates only to the 1950s, however, when a monk attempting to kill himself burned the historic original to the ground. The rebuilt temple is covered in brilliant gold leaf, symbolizing purity and enlightenment. Each of the three stories exhibits a different architectural style. Completing the scene are the serene reflecting pool and traditional Japanese gardens that contain lush foliage, manicured trees, and scenic walking paths.

Admire Ryoan-ji Temple
This is my favorite temple in Kyoto. Originally established in 1450 as a residence for a high-ranking samurai, it was soon converted into a Zen temple and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a mausoleum that houses the remains of seven emperors. Its traditional rock and sand garden is considered one of the best in the country. There’s also a teahouse where you can experience the traditional Japanese tea ceremony (chanoyu) as you overlook the Kyoyochi reflecting pool.

There are other temples in the area to check out as well:

  • Daitoku-ji Temple – This massive complex dating back to 1315 covers almost 60 acres. It contains several dozen temples and is a good place to see a variety of Zen gardens and architectural styles. It’s also deeply linked to the Japanese tea ceremony, as several of the country’s most noteworthy masters studied here.
  • Toji Temple – This is home to Japan’s tallest pagoda (five stories high). Founded in 796, just after Kyoto became the capital, it was one of only three Buddhist temples allowed in the city.

Go on a sake brewery tour
Kyoto has a sake (rice wine) brewing tradition going back 400 years and is known for some of the best in the world, due to using the area’s pure natural spring water in the brewing process. There is an excellent three-hour tour of Fushimi (the brewing district) for 23,320 JPY, including stops at several breweries, a guided tour of the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum, and tastings.

Japan Itinerary Day 5: Kyoto

See the Fushimi Inari Shrine
This mountainside Shinto shrine, dating back to 711, is dedicated to Inari, the god of rice and prosperity. It’s known for its thousands of vibrant orange torii gates that form a network of trails leading up Mount Inari. You can hike the trails on your own while enjoying panoramic views of Kyoto below or join a guided hiking tour, on which you’ll get off the paved paths and into hidden bamboo groves. Get here as early as possible to avoid the crowds.

68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho, +81756417331, Open 24/7. Admission is free.

Walk around Higashiyama
Spend an afternoon walking along the narrow streets of one of the oldest and best preserved districts on your own or on a walking tour. The traditional machiya buildings (traditional wooden townhouses) are filled with small shops selling local specialties and handicrafts, as well as restaurants and teahouses. It’s a popular area in which to participate in a tea ceremony. Another nice place to stroll in this neighborhood is the Philosopher’s Path, which follows a cherry-tree-lined canal that’s beautiful and meditative even when the blossoms aren’t in season.

Visit Kiyomizu-dera
One of a number of UNESCO sites in ancient Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera (meaning “pure water temple”) is located in the foothills of Mount Otowa in the eastern part of the city. It’s one of the most famous temples in all of Japan. It was established in 778, but most of the existing buildings date to the 17th century. There’s not a single nail used in the construction, which becomes all the more impressive once you see how large the temple is, which is best known for its wooden terrace that juts out over the hillside. The temple’s name comes from the nearby waterfall whose waters (from which you can still drink today) are said to have wish-granting and healing powers.

Explore Shorin-ji Temple
This small temple dates back to the 16th century. What makes it worth visiting is its meditation classes. You’ll get to tour the temple and then be instructed in zazen, the Japanese style of meditation. It’s a very unique experience and something that I think will add a lot of depth and nuance to your visit (especially if you’ve seen a lot of temples). Just make sure to dress comfortably.

Wander the Nishiki Market
Nishiki Ichiba is now one of the biggest indoor markets in town. Known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen” and spanning over five blocks, it is full of vendors selling traditional dishes from the region, classic Kyoto souvenirs, and really just about anything else. There are over a hundred stalls here, many of which have been in the same family for generations. Opening hours depend on the shop but are typically from 9am to 6pm.

To dive deeper into Japanese food culture, you can take a food tour of the market. It’s the best way to learn about all the food you’ll see, as well as the market’s history.

Explore Gion
Gion, the historic geisha district, is renowned as being one of the most iconic and atmospheric areas of town. It’s known for its traditional wooden machiya houses, narrow alleyways, cobblestone streets, and preservation of geisha (known locally as geiko) culture. Lining the main street are ochayas (teahouses where geishas entertain), small shops, and many restaurants, ranging from upscale kaiseki restaurants serving traditional Kyoto cuisine to casual eateries.

To really learn more about this amazing party of town and its past, take a walking tour of Gion. You’ll learn a ton and get a lot of context. They cost around 1,800 JPY.

At night, go to the Pontocho Row, a narrow street lined with restaurants, hole-in-the-wall bars, and jazz clubs. It’s one of the more lively areas in Kyoto.

Japan Itinerary Day 6: Nara

Many travelers visit Nara on a day trip from Kyoto. While that’s perfectly fine, I recommend spending a night. After the tourists head back to the big city in the late afternoon, you’ll see this small, charming destination empty out and feel like you have it a bit to yourself, along with the locals.

Nara was the capital of Japan in the eighth century, so there are lots of buildings and temples here that are upwards of a thousand years old (which is rare in Japan, due to the prevalence of fires and earthquakes, as well as World War II). Some things to do:

  • Frolic with deer – The real draw in Nara are the deer. Since the 17th century, those in and around the city have been considered sacred. You can buy crackers to feed them or just watch them stroll around carefree.
  • See the Buddha – Don’t miss a visit to Todai-ji, the world’s largest wooden building, home to a 16-meter (52-foot) Buddha statue. It was built in 738 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Take a walking tour – This guided half-day walking tour for 11,500 JPY includes all of Nara’s highlights as well as a traditional lunch.

Japan Itinerary Day 7: Tokyo

It’s time to wrap things up and head back to Tokyo for your flight home (or onward). If you have more time to spend, this post here will list tons of things to see and do on your last. However, one thing I would really recommend trying to do is watch a Sumo match.

Ryogoku Kokugikan, Japan’s most famous sumo wrestling arena, hosts tournaments three times each year, in January, May, and September. Tickets sell out quickly, so book online in advance. Prices vary but start around 3,200 JPY for arena seats.

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