With just five days in Japan, it’s time to hustle. The wealth of offerings means there’s no shortage of customizable itineraries, but one that allows a look into both the traditional history and modern oddities of Japan is Osaka-Kyoto-Nara-Tokyo. This route is also a good compromise for those who want a balance between urban and outdoor settings as well as modern sites to temper the overwhelming number of temples and shrines.
Day 1: Get accustomed in Osaka
Osaka is excellent starting point to a Japanese adventure. The city is busy but safe, and although the train lines are complicated, the streets are not. The Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Noodle Museum is a fun, family-friendly adventure, and visitors can even make a cup of instant ramen with freeze-dried toppings of their choosing to take home. In the afternoon, it’s time for some culture in the form of Osaka Castle, which now operates as a museum and is especially breathtaking in cherry blossom season, and Shitenno-ji, a Buddhist temple built in 593.
Dotonburi is the best neighborhood for nightlife. Tons of bars, some barely big enough for the bar and six stools, crowd the streets. Fill up on takoyaki (grilled octopus balls) while wandering up and down the streets and mentally mapping out which bars to hit.
Day 2: Temples, shrines and palaces in Kyoto
[Also see our travel article “Traveling to the Historic Zen Temples of Kyoto“]
Kyoto’s long and varied history can be seen at the plethora of shrines and temples dotting the city, and that’s just the tip. The Golden Temple, Kinkaku-ji, and Silver Temple, Ginkaku-ji, are two must-sees, as is the ridiculously impressive Imperial Palace. Palace tours require advance booking, but just walking around the park is enough to bliss out.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple, founded in 778, remains a feat of architecture, as the massive wooden main hall and stage were built without the aid of nails. Visitors can also see if wishes really do come true when they take a drink from one of the three streams that flow down from the nearby Otowa Waterfall. The streams represent longevity, a full love life and success at school. Choose carefully, since drinking from all three is considered greedy.
At the train station, get a map and a day pass for the city buses. The chances of getting off-course are high, but that’s also a must. Walking along the river until accidentally finding yourself surrounded by traditional wooden houses, visitors dressed as geishas and a few actual ones in Gion is a lovely way to find your course.
Day 3: Deer and more temples in Nara
Nara is a quick, sweet day trip. The town’s famed deer in Nara Park are ready to make friends with visitors who buy bags of biscuits from vendors. From there, the paths are well-marked, and travelers can pick and choose from a plethora of sites. Todai-ji, a Buddhist temple, looms over visitors, a marked reminder of Nara’s past as Japan’s first permanent capital. Kasuga Taisha is a color-soaked Shinto shrine, and Yoshikien Gardens feature three distinct Japanese gardens. It’s not necessary to put much planning into a day in Nara: with its organized paths and easy-going vibe, it’s ideal to just wander, sit and wander some more.
Days 4 and 5: A race around Tokyo
[Also see our “Travel Guide to Tokyo and its Attractions“]
At last, it’s time to enjoy Tokyo with the added bonus of having kind of figured out the train lines in Osaka. Those who take the night bus (rather than the bullet train) will arrive in Tokyo just in time to enjoy a leisurely breakfast in Tokyo Station and a gander around the neighborhood before heading over to the Imperial Palace, which opens at 9 a.m. Try to arrive a few minutes beforehand to get an advantage on the tour groups. The palace is home to the Imperial Family, and is surrounded by huge park-like grounds, most of which visitors are free to explore.
After the palace, time-travel back to the present in Harajuku, Tokyo’s famed shopping avenue. Seeing girls and women dressed in their best Lolita, yama girl and mori girl outfits is not as popular as it once was, and it seems more tourists than locals dress up on Sundays. Even so, Harajuku is just as vibrant as ever and offers more than just crazy clothing. B-side Label sells psychedelic stickers, posters and magnets that are cool, quirky souvenirs and the young ladies who run it are always up for practicing their English. Across the street, a two-story vintage shop sells retro dresses as well as second-hand kimonos and obis.
Nearby Shibuya is also a famed fashion district, and it’s also home to Tokyo’s most famous street crossing. In between these two shopping havens, take a breather in huge Yoyogi Park, which features the Meiji shrine. The park also hosts a large flea market every Sunday. End the day with just a bit more shopping in Akihabara, where fanboys and girls geek out at the shops and malls filled with electronics, toys, games and more.
The last day in Tokyo starts with, yes, another temple. Sensu-ji is Tokyo’s largest and lies in the district of Asakusa. The bustling district features a large open-air market leading up to the shrine that sells everything from homemade snacks to children’s toys. This is the time to splurge, as many shops sell kabuki prints, silks, original art, food and more. After shopping and paying respects, follow the shouts of servers to the restaurants that line the nearby narrow roads. And after that, a walk around the surrounding, much quieter blocks is a good way to start winding down after a whirlwind trip. If your legs are up for it, spend the last yen on Sun Road, a covered street containing tons of shops and a used electronics bazaar, and is part of the incredibly popular Kichijoji neighborhood.