It’s easy to travel for 3 weeks in Japan without getting bored. You need three weeks just to visit the highlights. We traveled around Japan for slightly over 3 weeks and when we were planning our Japan trip, we found it difficult to choose what to do. This is our 3 week Japan itinerary that we came up with in the end. We will share the good and bad things about our Japan trip itinerary along with the best travel tips, the best must-sees and some suggestions for nice hotels. We hope this will help you to plan your own best itinerary for Japan. If you have only 2 weeks in Japan, take a look at our 14 day Japan itinerary.
Read also: Japan Rail Pass, is it worth it.
Our 3 weeks in Japan
Day 1-4: Tokyo
Things to do in Tokyo
Tokyo is a logical starting point for your trip around Japan as there is a good chance that you will land on one of Tokyo’s two busy airports. What to see in Tokyo?
We were here during the cherry blossom season so we visited several different places to witness this beautiful spectacle. Our tips about the best places to see the cherry blossoms are in this separate article. But you will have no problem to fill up these 4 days, even if you are not here during the cherry blossom season.
We visited the busiest intersection in the world at Shibuya as well as the Imperial Palace, Yoyogi park, the Sensoji temple, Harajuku, Asakusa, the neighborhood around the Skytree and much more. Here you will find more information about the best places in Tokyo to visit.
If you are looking for a detailed itinerary for the best of Tokyo in 4 days, take a look here.
Where to stay in Tokyo
The Tokyo Hilton is situated in the lively neighborhood of Shinjuku. It’s about a 15-minutes walk to Shinjuku train station but you can also make use of the free shuttle service offered by the hotel. The shuttle runs every 20 minutes. The airport limousine bus has a stop at this hotel. There’re multiple restaurants and supermarkets in this area. Last but not least, after a busy day exploring this vibrant city you can relax in the indoor pool or sauna. Highly recommended if you are looking for a good hotel in the vicinity of public transport.
Day 5: Matsumoto
Things to do in Matsumoto
During our 3 weeks in Japan, we also paid a quick visit to Matsumoto. The main reason for this being the Samurai Castle. There are still a lot of Samurai castles everywhere throughout Japan and it’s a must see but most of these are reconstructions. In Matsumoto, you can visit one of the few remaining original castles. The reason for this: this castle was never under attack.
Several official guides are available who will be happy to guide you around the castle for free. They can tell you more about how life used to be in the castle and the different wars that prevailed over Japan. The guides are located in a cabin right after the entrance of the castle.
Did you know that the inspiration for the helmet of Darth Vader comes from the Samurais?
Where to stay in Matsumoto
This hotel more than exceeded our expectations. Hotel Kagetsu is situated 20-minutes by foot from the train station and really close to Matsumoto Castle and the small but picturesque old town. The hotel offers free bicycles to explore the area. The hotel also has a good restaurant but you will also find other restaurants within walking distance. You get a comfortable and spacious room, certainly by Japanese standards, and your Yukata and slippers will be waiting in your room if you want to use the onsen. A great option in this charming city.
Day 6-7: Yudanaka
Things to do in Yudanaka
During our three week Japan itinerary we also went to Yudanaka to see the snow monkeys and, just like the monkeys, we also took some time ourselves to relax in one of the many local onsens.
We spend about half a day with the monkeys. Not because the park was that big, but it was very cute to see the monkey’s doing their thing.
The best time to visit the snow monkeys is, of course, the winter. During other periods it’s best to head to the park very early when it’s not yet too warm. The colder it is, the more likely you will see the monkeys warming themselves in the water.
You should go to Shibu onsen in the evening to relax in the onsen. This is a village a few minutes’ walk from Yudanaka. In the picturesque car-free high street you will find 9 public onsens that are supplied by the hot springs. You can wander from one bathhouse to another in your Yukata and on your traditional wooden sandals.
Where to stay in Yudanaka
This is not a hotel that we typically would recommend. To start with it’s not a hotel but a Ryokan which is more like a B&B. The rooms are very simple, typical for a Ryokan, and look a bit dated. But the hospitable owners of this Ryokan made up for all of this. The owner picked us up at the train station, offered us a ride to the monkey park and back and gave us tons to tips about all the places we would visit next during our trip. Sleeping in a traditional ryokan is something you should do at least once when you’re in Japan, so why not do it here with these friendly hospitable owners.
Day 8: Kanazawa
Things to do in Kanazawa
Kanazawa charmed us enormously and we had the impression that this city was less touristy than other places we visited.
A visit to Kanazawa is not complete without a visit to the Kenrokuen Garden. Especially if, like us, you would be here during the cherry blossom season. The garden is regarded as one of the most beautiful in Japan. The weather was a bit disappointing during our visit so we couldn’t fully appreciate the park. We certainly thought it was beautiful, but not better than what we already saw in Tokyo. Still, we could not get enough of the cherry blossoms.
Right next to the Kenrokuen garden is the reconstructed Kanazawa castle. You can visit is for free and it can easily be combined with a visit to the Kenrokuen Garden.
The main reason for our visit to Kanazawa was the Kenrokuen Garden but another absolute must in Kanazawa is the old Geisha district Higashi Chaya, often just called: “Old Town”. The old town of Takayama is more often mentioned but we found the old city in Kanazawa to be much more charming. Besides, it was also a lot less crowded. You could take a quiet stroll, look around and enjoy the beautiful old houses. A walk through the geisha district in the evening, where you learn more about the mysteries and intrigues of this old neighborhood, was an unforgettable experience.
We also went to take a look in Nagamachi, the old Samurai district. There’re some really spectacular villas in this district, but Higashi Chaya impressed us more.
You can enjoy a nice meal, both lunch or dinner, in the Omicho market.
Where to stay in Kanazawa
Holiday Inn ANA Kanazawa Sky
The Holiday Inn ANA Kanazawa Sky is centrally located within walking distance of the station and just across the Omicho fish market. The Kanazawa castle and Kenrokuen Garden are just a few minutes’ walks away. You have spectacular views on Kanazawa from the lobby and the restaurant. A perfect choice for your stay in Kanazawa.
Day 9: Takayama
In the train on the way to Takayama, we witnessed some of the most spectacular sceneries of our trip to Japan. As our train squeaked through the bends in the road and made its way from one tunnel to the other it reminded me of the train trips to the ski resorts in Switzerland I used to make when I was a child.
Things to do in Takayama
In Takayama, we visited the Hida Folk Village. The village consists of 24 traditional houses. They’re all very well preserved and at each house, you will find information panels. To take a look inside the houses you have to wear slippers. They’re provided at the entrance of the houses. Best is to wear shoes that you can easily take off and put on if you want to visit the houses.
It was extremely and uncomfortably busy in the old town of Takayama. We noticed that most of the crowd just visit the part of the old town situated to the right of Kajibasi Bridge. So luckily we could escape the crowd by crossing the main road and continuing our way towards the Yoshijima Heritage House. As you cross the main road you will notice that in this section historical houses alternate with restored or modern houses. It’s less authentic than the other section but at least you can enjoy the houses without the masses. But as we already said before, Kanazawa has our preference.
Takayama is known for its beef, so if you like meat you should definitely try Hida Beef a variety of the famous wagyu beef.
Where to stay in Takayama
Best Western Takayama
The Best Western Takayama is located near the train station within walking distance of Takayama’s old town. The hotel offers a free Handy telephone, something we really got to appreciate during our vacation in Japan. We covered the Handy telephone in this article with tips about Japan.
Day 10: Ise
In Ise, you will find the Ise Shrines, the most sacred Shinto Shrines of Japan. According to Shinto tradition, these are completely rebuilt every 20 years. We had imagined there would be something special about this place, but it let us down. The Shrines here are not any different from any of the shrines we had seen before. In addition, the shrines in Ise can only be seen from the outside. In our opinion, it’s better to go to other Shrines during your three weeks in Japan. In retrospect, we didn’t think Ise was worth the detour.
Day 11-14: Osaka
In Osaka, we are once again in a metropolis. We did not get bored here.
Things to do in Osaka
We took an evening stroll in the Namba district. The least you can say about this is that it is simply spectacular. We also went to the Osaka Castle. This is a restored castle. The castle is also a very good spot to witness the beauty of the cherry blossoms. From here we took a walk along the river to the Kema Sakuranomiya Park, another beautiful park with lots of cherry trees.
Shinsekai is also a district you have to visit and we attended a cooking class in Osaka.
We also did a side trip to Nara from Osaka. Here in the Todaiji Temple, you will find the largest wooden building in the world, the Daibutsuden (“big Buddha hall”). As its name says inside the building you will find a gigantic Buddha. Don’t limit yourself to this temple only. Venture up the mountain to “Nigatsu-do” for a breathtaking view. Nara was the original capital of Japan but once Buddhism became too powerful in the country the government decided to move the capital. You can still see traces of this as Nara is literally littered with temples. Lastly, a visit to Nara is also fun because of the deer that roam freely in the park and no doubt will come begging for cookies.
Here you can read our complete 2 day Osaka itinerary.
Where to stay in Osaka
Holiday Inn Osaka Namba
This Holiday Inn is close to Namba station and just a few minutes by foot from the famous Glico bridge, probably the most famous sight in Dotonbori. This neighborhood is alive day and night and as a result, the rooms can be somewhat noisy at night. The rooms offer all comfort but are rather small. The biggest asset of this hotel is its superb location.
Day 15: Koyasan (Mount Koya)
Koyasan is a remote place in the mountains. A trip to Koyasan is a true expedition during your three weeks in Japan. After 2 train rides, we got onto a funicular and then a bus to finally reach our temple. The last 2 rides with the train were very nice, and once again reminded me of Switzerland. Koyasan is the center of the Shingon Buddhism and we had booked a Temple stay of 1 night.
Things to do in Koyasan
At least 50 temples in Koyasan offer temple stays and probably there’re even more. You literally walk from temple to temple. It rained that day and we got soaked very quickly so we just retired to our room. The rooms are very much like a room in a Ryokan. At 5 p.m., it was time for dinner. A vegetarian dinner with a variety of different flavors, which showed that vegetarian food, can be just as delicious as the regular food. At the end of the day, we hadn’t seen any monks, not even in our temple. Probably we didn’t recognize them as they were walking around in day-to-day clothing. This took away a lot of the charm as we didn’t get the feeling that we were in a temple.
The next day, we got off to an early start for the morning prayers. I hoped this was going to change our experience and we would witness 1 of the daily rituals of the monks. When entering the prayer room it turned out our that the prayers were led by 3 monks and except for these only about 25 tourists were present. It felt more like a show that was performed for tourists than an authentic experience.
After prayer and breakfast, we went to the enormous cemetery of Koyasan. It looks like this cemetery is as big or even bigger than the town itself. With many of its Shrines, altars, and gravestones overgrown, this place radiates a special atmosphere. It would be the perfect place for a Halloween walk. After what felt like a never-ending walk, we reached the mausoleum of Kobo, the founder of the Shingon Buddhism.
This cemetery was without a doubt the highlight of our trip to Koyasan. Is it worth a detour? I am not sure. I would skip Koyasan if you are short on time. If you would like to stay overnight in a temple, there are other places where you can do that.
Day 16-18: Kyoto
The first evening we went to explore the Gion neighborhood together with Guenda, from HihiGuide. This is the oldest Geisha district and a pleasant neighborhood to explore at night. Here you can read the story of our evening walk in the Gion district.
In Kyoto, we also went to take a look at the Inari Shrines where you find thousands of Torii gates. Very touristy, but it’s enough to move further away from the entrance, higher up the mountain, to escape the crowds.
And of course, we also took a stroll along the philosopher’s path. You come across plenty of temples along the path. Unlike Tokyo where all temples are free, there is an entrance fee for all temples in Kyoto. Most of them are however not that different from temples that you will find elsewhere in Japan.
Kinkakuji, or the Golden temple, is one temple that you should not miss when you’re in Kyoto. This is probably the most beautiful temple we saw in Japan. (Kinkakuji is not situated along the philosopher’s path.)
We also made a trip to Arashiyama, a district at the outskirts of Kyoto that is well known for its bamboo forests. Expect a big crowd! Fortunately, it immediately becomes a lot quieter as soon as you make your way away from the center. We discovered some charming quiet spots in Arashiyama. You can go to the park around the Jojakkoji temple from where you have a stunning view. From there, you can walk further north to the Saga-Toriimoto Street. This is a picturesque street lined with preserved, traditional houses. Best of all, we had the street to ourselves while we were wandering through it. When you reach the end of the street, you will reach the Adashino Nenbutsuji Temple and adjacent you will find a bamboo forest that is just as beautiful as the one close to the center where all the tourists are.
When we just got off the train and ended up in the crowd, we were afraid it would be an unpleasant day because of the bustle. But in the end, we did have a really enjoyable day as we have discovered some pleasant quiet spots in and around Arashiyama. The bus tours seem to limit their visit to the Togetsukyo bridge and the nearby Tenryuji temple and bamboo groves. Other places were not nearly as crowded.
Where to stay in Kyoto
According to the statistics, Kyoto is the most touristic city in Japan. And by looking at the prices for a hotel room that might be right. We stayed in the in the Marriott lake Biwa, a nice hotel that is located 20 minutes outside Kyoto by train, but it meant a serious difference to our wallet.
Marriott Lake Biwa
This Marriott hotel is located alongside the coast of beautiful Lake Biwa, an ideal setting if you want to escape busy Kyoto at night. The hotel offers a free shuttle service to the train station where you can catch the train to Kyoto station. As Marriott Rewards Platinum members we enjoyed an upgrade to a suite with a private onsen and a fabulous view of the lake. As platinum members, we also had access to a lounge area in the lobby where we could enjoy free breakfast, snacks, cocktails and a small buffet in the evening. The only drawback of this hotel is that you have to take into account the schedule of the shuttle which only runs once every hour. But considering what we got in return and the tremendous difference in price this is no big deal.
Check prices and availability: BOOKING
Royal Park hotel Kyoto
The Royal Park Hotel Kyoto is a good choice for those who are looking for a hotel in the center of Kyoto. It is within walking distance of the Gion district, two metro stations, and various temples. The rooms are neat and the bathroom is fully equipped. You can enjoy a nice breakfast at the bakery next to the hotel.
Day 19: Hiroshima
Things to do in Hiroshima
Hiroshima undoubtedly rings a bell with most of you. We visited the peace park and made a small detour to take a peek at the castle. In the peace park, you will find an interesting museum about the atomic bomb and touching stories about how the survivors had to rebuild their city and their lives.
If you have a Japan Rail Pass, you can make free use of the hop-on-hop-off bus operated by JR. When you arrive at the station, just drop in with the tourist office. They have route maps of the buses and will be able to explain to you which bus to take and which stop to get off to get to your hotel.
Where to stay in Hiroshima
ANA Crowne Plaza Hiroshima
The Ana Crowne Plaza is within walking distance of the peace park and near shops and restaurants. The rooms are not too big but clean and fully equipped. The staff also speak good English.
Day 20: Miyajima
We opted to spend the night in Miyajima but you could just as well make it a side trip from Hiroshima. You can get from Hiroshima to Miyajima in about half an hour both by tram or by JR train. The latter is, of course, the cheapest option if you have a Japan Rail Pass. Once you arrive at the train station in Miyajima, it is nothing more but a short 5-minute walk to the harbor where you then take the ferry to Miyajima island.
You can choose from 2 ferries, one is operated by JR. The JR ferry is also free to use for the owners of a Japan Rail Pass.
Things to do in Miyajima
On the island or rather just in front you will find the photogenic Torii gate which seems to float on water during high tide. The times of high and low tide are signposted at the entrance of the ferry terminal. The Torii gate is the tourist attraction of the island, but also the colorful Daisyoin Temple is worth a visit. We took the time to wander around this temple and it seemed like we found a hidden gem on this island.
Day 21-22: Nagasaki
Nagasaki is where the 2nd bomb fell in Japan. Just like in Hiroshima, you will find a peace park with a museum and many commemorative statues. The city treated us to some very pretty views.
Things to do in Nagasaki
First, we walked along the harbor and the cozy Dejima wharf where we waved at a cruise ship that just had left.
From there we continued our walk to the top of Mt. Inasa. It was quite a tough hike but the sunset we enjoyed from the top more than made up for it. We used the cable car on our way back. Of course, you can go up and down with the cable car, but the walk up was actually quite worthwhile.
The day after, we explored the other parts of Nagasaki.
We did find some Dutch history at the old trading post-Dejima and the Dutch Slope. The houses didn’t look very Dutch to us. They rather reminded us of houses you would find in Aruba or Curaçao.
We walked through China town and took the funicular and elevator to the Glover Garden from where you also have a nice view of the city and the harbor. From here we went down again to the Nagasaki Cathedral which brings you back close to the harbor.
We found Nagasaki to be a very pleasant city and moreover, it felt completely different than Kyoto or Osaka.
We didn’t visit Battleship Island but fans of old industrial places should definitely consider booking a cruise to this Island that was also featured in the James Bond Movie Skyfall.
Where to stay in Nagasaki
JR Kyushu Hotel Nagasaki
The JR Kyushu hotel is located near the station and within walking distance of shops and restaurants. The staff speaks sufficient English. The rooms are pretty spacious according to Japanese standards. Only the breakfast could be better because there is not much choice. The main reason we would recommend this hotel is its good location.
Day 23-24: Tokyo
At the end of our trip, we end up in Tokyo again. This time we visit the Akihabara district as we’re here on a Sunday.
The main street that runs through the Akihabara district is closed for cars on Sundays. This makes a visit to Akihabara much more fun. Foresee enough time. Browsing through the shops like Mandarake is what makes a visit to Akihabara worthwhile but you will quickly spend several hours snooping around these stores, looking at all the curiosities.
The last day we chose to have a relaxing day in Tokyo DisneySea. Next to Tokyo DisneySea is Tokyo Disneyland but we chose DisneySea because Disneyland is a sort of replica of all the other Disneyland Parks in the world. And above all, DisneySea won an award for its design. Our visit fell in the golden week so we knew in advance that it would be very busy. We loved the design of the park and there were some great attractions. It was also fun to see how some Japanese completely dress-up in the Disney-magic. It was a nice way to end our trip around Japan.
We enjoyed every minute of our 3 weeks in Japan. The major cities kept us busy exploring from early morning until late at night. Japan certainly has more to offer than what we have described in this itinerary but this route will bring you passed all the highlights. We missed some nature during our trip and would have preferred to do a side trip to Okinawa but this was not the right season. If we would ever come back during another season we would certainly spend a week or more on this island.
Tips when traveling to Japan
A local SIM card comes in handy. We have often used Google Maps to find our way around major cities.
When you’re traveling by train it’s also a good idea to forward your baggage. You can read these tips and much more in our separate article about traveling to Japan for the first time.
We traveled around Japan by train and could save a few bucks by buying a Japan Rail Pass in advance.
Public transport is very well organized in Japan but can seem quite complicated at first. That’s why I’ve compiled a first-timers guide to Tokyo’s public transportation. We already had to pay a supplement on the first train we boarded upon arrival at the airport. I hope my complete guide will save you from paying any such supplements.
Wondering what to wear in Japan? Take a look at our complete Japan packing list.
For more Japan tips, take a look at our Japan Travel Guide.
Last but not least… As you might expect health care in Japan is excellent but it comes at a high cost. Make sure you have some sort of insurance before you leave for Japan. We never had anything serious happen on any of our journeys around the world but you know what they say, better safe than sorry…
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