5 Day Ultimate Japan Itinerary to Tokyo and Kyoto
Japan is a beautiful country that has preserved its rich culture without much outside influence. I visited the country for work and we had to rely on translators more so than most countries I’ve worked in. Japan has been protective of its culture, including its language, which is part of what makes it so unique to visit. The people are kind and polite, the food is delicious, scenery is gorgeous and the rituals are beautiful. What more could you wish?! All of these details are included in my Japan itinerary below.
Where to stay:
- In Tokyo, I stayed in the Shibuya area which I’d recommend. It’s close to parks, great restaurants and monuments and you can easily hop on public transport to go further.
- In Kyoto, I stayed northeast of the train station in Northern Higashiyama which was a beautiful area. It was about a 20-minute taxi ride north of the train station and close to restaurants.
- The summertime months (Jun-Aug) are hot and humid so may not be the best time to visit. Springtime and fall are ideal for regular sightseeing, whereas wintertime would allow you to add on time to ski. I visited in June and while it was hot, it was also totally doable.
- Fewer people speak English than you may be used to in other countries. Learn a few basic Japanese phrases to show respect.
- Shaking hands is not common in Japan. Instead, a head bow is more typical.
- Gift giving is part of the culture so it may be nice to bring something small from your country (e.g. special treat from your country, small trinket unique to where you’re from) to thank a guide/host. The correct way to hand it to a local is with both hands and a slight head bow.
- You’ll need to remove your shoes before entering homes, temples, etc. so maybe bring a pair of slippers or socks to slip on if you don’t want to go barefoot.
- You may meet some local school children while you’re out exploring who are keen to practice English with you – take the time to do so! They are so sweet and it’s a great way to interact with locals.
- In general, the Japanese are very respectful and considerate. Be extra respectful and thoughtful of your behavior here and how it affects everyone else.
- The Japan Rail pass is a great and economical pass to get around Japan. If you plan to visit Kyoto as suggested below, it’s worth it because the return trip cost of Tokyo-Kyoto-Tokyo is the same price as the pass and you’ll get the rest of the 7-day period to travel around Tokyo for free.
- The Japan itinerary below is a consolidated version of activities I did around my work trip (with my Mom along for the ride!). I would recommend an extra day or two in each location if you can.
Day One: Tokyo to Kyoto
After landing in Tokyo, collect your bags, take out some cash from the cash machine/ATM and head for the train station. You’ll take the express train into Tokyo (Tokyo Station). This fare is included in the Japan Rail pass if you chose to purchase that. Otherwise, you can buy a ticket from a machine.
Buy tickets either from a machine or from someone at a desk to Kyoto at Tokyo Station. You have a few options:
- First, the Nozomi is the fastest option bullet train you can take from here to Kyoto.
- Secondly, The Hikari is included in the Japan Rail pass if you choose to buy this and is only 20 minutes longer.
- Lastly, there’s a third and longer option that I wouldn’t recommend. The price will be around $120-150 for a one-way ticket, if you aren’t using the Japan Pass on the Hikari.
After arriving into Kyoto station, get settled at your accommodation. We opted for an Airbnb and had a great experience staying in a local accommodation with beautiful views of Kyoto. Perhaps you’ve heard the bathrooms in Japan are high tech and our Airbnb was no exception! The bathroom was a wet room and the toilets had heated seats plus played music.
If you’re up for dinner, check out Ippudo. It’s a hugely popular ramen restaurant and would be a very delicious and satisfying way to start your trip!
Day Two: Kyoto
If breakfast is not included in your accommodation, go to Coffee Club for breakfast. It’s a small shop owned by a very sweet older gentleman who makes your breakfast right after you order it.
Next, set out to explore some of Kyoto’s amazing sites on the Western side of the city. You can take trains around the city. From breakfast at the Coffee Club, you can walk to Keage Station to take the Tozai Line; transfer at Randen-Tenjingawa to the Randen line to get to Arashiyama. Google Maps is very helpful in mapping out train rides. This morning:
- Explore the Tenryuji Temple
- Walk through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
- Hike through Kameyama-koen
- Walk along the Katsura River
After your walk, grab lunch along the river at Kameyamaya. Other options are Kumahiko and Arashiyama Yoshimura. Kameyamaya was closed when we went (hours are 11am-3pm), so we ate at Kotokikichaya which was good. The latest reviews on it aren’t as great but it’s a nice spot for a good lunch with great views.
Next, consider a boat ride on the Katsura River (there is a destination point along the river by Kameyamaya). Afterwards, shop along Road 29 (the one that connects to the bridge to cross the river). You’ll see stands selling Green Tea ice cream – I’d highly recommend indulging in one!
To get home from Arashiyama Station, you can take the San-In line tio Emmachi Station and then grab the bus to Kinkakujimichi bus stop. This will be near the Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion where you can spend the rest of the day exploring. The buses are a little trickier to navigate than the trains but just keep up your Google Maps and you should be fine. To get back to Eastern Kyoto, there are a few bus options you can take or else grab a taxi if you’re feeling tired.
Tonight, enjoy a walk along the Kamo River en route to dinner. Consider Sugarhill Kyoto, Nishiki Warai (walking along Nishiki Market) or Yoshikawa Tempura. We ended up at Gyoza no Ohsho Sanjo after we saw a bunch of locals trickling in there. Typically, this is a fun way to find an off-the-radar local restaurant. However, this place was a Chinese restaurant – joke was on us! Rest up tonight, as tomorrow will be another full day in Kyoto as you’ll see in this Japan itinerary.
Day Three: Kyoto to Tokyo
After breakfast (consider Cafe Roji-Usagi or Lorimer Kyoto), head back out for more exploring today in Kyoto. Due to limited time, we decided to go with a guide so we could learn more about the culture of Kyoto along the. A great way to find a personal guide for the day is on TripAdvisor or Google, so you can read reviews of what others have to say.
To pack a lot in today, we started very early in the morning. If you have the time, I’d split this into two or even three days. Here’s where we went on our day tour:
- North Higashiyama: Ginkakuji Silver Pavilion, Honen-In & Nanzenji temples, Philosopher’s Path
- Traditional Tea break at Yojiya Café Ginkakuji. You could also look into the Tea Ceremony Experience Gen-An not too far away.
- Central: Kyoto Imperial Palace, Nijo Castle
- South Higashiyama: Yasaka & Jishu-Jinja Shrines, Chion-In & Kyomizudera Temples, Ninenzaka – Sannenzaka & Ishibe Koji historical streets. Gion Corner (Geisha District).
- Kenninji or Tofukuji Zen temples / Fushimi Inari Shrine
After a very tiring day, grab dinner near the ending point of the tour (Tempura Endo Yasaka?) or near your hotel. If you still have energy, wander around Nishiki Market until it closes at 6pm.
We had to take the train back to Tokyo this evening, which is doable. However, it would be more relaxing for your Japan itinerary to include one more night in Kyoto before taking the bullet train back.
After arriving in Tokyo, we took a taxi to our hotel in Shuibuya. Taxi drivers wear white gloves typically in Tokyo and many drive Toyota Crowns – old style Toyota taxi cars. The drivers also have a button to open the back door for you.
Day Four: Tokyo
After enjoying breakfast at your accommodation, head over (via metro or taxi) to the Taito region to explore Asakusa and Senso-ji Temples. After exploring the temples, we enjoyed snacks and shopping from vendors that were selling various items outside of the temples. We also stocked up on some sweets from Kameju, not far from the temples.
For lunch, try Tendon Tenya, a delicious and inexpensive tempura restaurant. Just down the street enjoy dessert at Asakusa Naniwaya (浅草浪花家 • アサクサナニワヤ). You may need to type in the Japanese way of writing to find the spot. It has delicious shaved ice and fish-shaped pancakes with delicious bean fillings.
Next, grab the train to Akihabara Station so you can walk around Akihabara (Chiyoda) – the Anime/Electronics district. It’s a good place to grab some cheap electronic accessories if you need any.
After that sensory overload, grab the train to Shibuya to enjoy the calming Meiji Jingu forest walk in Shibuya. It closes at 6pm. This was a highlight for me of this Japan itinerary.
For dinner, enjoy sushi at Sushi No Midori – and be prepared to wait in a queue. It’s worth it!
Day Five: Tokyo
Start your day bright and early at the Tsukiji Market (closed Wednesdays and Sundays) and enjoy some fresh fish for breakfast before walking around the shops. The historically famous fish auction part of this market has moved to Toyosu but the shops and restaurants are still here.
I enjoyed breakfast sushi from Edomae Sushi. You could also visit the Toyosu market this morning if you’d like to experience the auction before coming back to Tsukiji for breakfast (about a 30 min walk between the two markets).
From the market, take the train to the Imperial Palace (closed Mondays and Fridays) to walk around.
Next, head to Shibuya station and grab revolving sushi for lunch not too far from the station at Katsumidori Seibu. From here, walk the Shibuya Pedestrian Scramble en route to Takeshita Street and ultimately up to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. There are many shops and opportunities to stop along the way!
Tonight, head over near the Tokyo Tower. It’s a fun spot to watch the sun set as the tower lights come on. Some great dinner options include Tokyo Shiba Toufuya Ukai and Tsuru Ton Tan (delicious udon).
After dinner, check out a baseball game tonight. As an American, I really enjoyed observing the similarities and differences between American and Japanese baseball games and the fans were the best part. They were so kind and polite and we enjoyed their enthusiastic cheering and songs! This was another highlight of our Japan itinerary!
This was our last night in Tokyo. You could easily add on more time to see other parts of this beautiful country in your own Japan itinerary!