11 Days in Japan: From Tokyo to Osaka
As a first time visitor to Japan, planning an itinerary was a disconcerting exercise. There are innumerable experiences you can dive into. Shrines, onsens, ryokans, hikes, renown restaurants, and izakaya–the list would seem nearly endless. So when we outlined our 11-day itinerary to Japan, Maria and I were up for a monumental journey spanning over 77 miles on foot and hundreds of miles by train.
The following itinerary will act as twofold: a recounting of our adventure and notable landmarks I’d suggest for future travelers to indulge in. I’ll give tips along the way, including what to expect once you’re there, some interesting observations we made note of and fun tidbits of information to help you take it all in.
Day 1: Traveling to Shinjuku
Maria and I got into Narita airport around 1:30PM. We were exhausted, as the plane ride was approximately 12-hours. After finishing immigration and grabbing our bags, we went over to the Narita Express desk to purchase a ticket into Tokyo. I’d highly recommend purchasing this ticket, as it will take significantly longer to get from Narita to Tokyo without it. The ticket costs about 30,000 Yen which translates to nearly $30.
Once we got into Shinjuku station, we were greeted with some poor weather. It was raining, we were tired, I was still recovering from a cold and frankly, we were overwhelmed by everything around us. We hurried our way to our first AirBnB, which was near the Shinjuku-Geon station. After we dropped off our bags, showered and relaxed a while, we decided to get some Ramen. Ramen noodles are omnipresent in Tokyo–it’s readily available on almost every single corner. After dinner, we decided to go home and get some shut eye so we could wake up early to explore the shrine.
Day 2: Meji Shrine, Shibuya, Imperial Palace and Akihabara
Since we woke up so early (around 7:30AM), we decided to go to one of the only attractions open at the time: Meiji Shrine. Meji Shrine is absolutely beautiful and peaceful in the early morning. The shrine was built to honor emperor Meji, who helped Japan transition from a feudal state to a capitalist superpower. You’ll find an area with barrels of sake inscribed with prayers. These barrels are donated every so often as a tribute to Meji.
Once you’re done visiting the Meji Shrine, head towards Shibuya to experience the Shibuya Crossing. Shibuya Crossing is located near Shibuya station, where you’ll see the most amount of foot traffic in your life. After Shibuya Crossing, go get some sushi! Shibuya is not only the fashion capital of Tokyo—it also has slews of restaurants to choose from.
After you’re done with Shibuya, head towards the Imperial Palace near Tokyo Station. Here you’ll find huge stone walls, moats, pristine gardens and beautiful sights. The Imperial Palace is closed off to visitors most of the year.
At night, visit Akihabara where you’ll find arcades, anime shops, walls full of manga, cheap electronics, and corky patrons. We hung out at a vintage Nintendo arcade where they had original cartridges for sale and old-school arcades. There was a Japanese Curry shop we ate at that was incredible as well.
Maria was ill, so we went home early but I’d recommend staying in Akihabara all night.
Day 3: Asakusa, Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, and Golden Gai
In the morning, head towards Asakusa and have breakfast. Maria and I had the absolute best Ramen we’ve ever had in our lives for only $5! Once you’re done having breakfast, head towards Sensō-Ji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple. The temple is massive, with several impressive effigies. This is where you’ll see people burning incense, placing them on a large dirt mound and giving a brief prayer.
If you want to see some cool science exhibits, go to the museum of emerging science and innovation. Here you’ll find exhibits in virtual reality, CG Art and robotics with a live presentation with Asimo. It’s a bit of a trip, but I’d say it’s worth it. You’ll also find the life-size Gundam across the way with a huge mall for eats and shopping.
Golden Gai: 200+ Bars On One Block
Once you’re done with everything and the sun is setting, head towards Golden Gai. Golden Gai is a group of alleys with extremely small Izakayas, seating no more than 8 patrons per establishment. Each bar has its own character sporting eccentric decor and signature drinks. I love Golden Gai and if you love idiosyncrasies or bar culture, you’ll love it too.
We visited three bars. In each one, we met some really cool people from all around the world, most notably Switzerland, England, Holland, Canada, United States and a ton of Australians. There is no way you cannot speak to the people around you simply because the bar is so small. We would definitely recommend Araku, Rock Bar & Albatross. All we remember of the first bar was that it had a pink, furry staircase.
Day 4: Ghibli Museum, Robot Restaurant and Halloween in Shibuya
Growing up watching animated movies by Hayao Miyazaki and Ghibli studios, it was imperative that we visited the Ghibli Museum. It is further than most other attractions, settled in between a park and quaint suburban neighborhood. The museum looks similar to that of a house only an artist would live in. It has several floors, a terrace and a movie room. Each room was dedicated to one of the steps within the creative process, exhibiting various original sketches and works of art. We even were able to view a short 15-minute film that will never be released to the general public.
At night, we headed to the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku–one of Japan’s most well known and circulated attractions on the web. The general premise is this: there is a lack of premise but lots of action, theatrics, lights and crazy robotic structures in what seems to be an everlasting conflict with one another. Our Robot Restaurant experience revolved around a native world not yet inhabited by humans with modern technology and invaders who wished to settle on the planet and extract it’s resources. If you read that and thought of Pandora, don’t worry, we did too throughout the show. It was awesome nonetheless.
One quick tip though: don’t eat the food. Although it’s called a Robot Restaurant, there isn’t really anything restaurant-like about the food.
Shibuya is insane during Halloween
Around 9PM we decided to go explore Shibuya. Did I mention it was Halloween night? Once we arrived to Shibuya station, we were awestruck by the sheer number of people on the street. Japan does Halloween BIG. As a generally conservative country, we were surprised to see so many liberal costumes showing so much skin. There were some people essentially half naked. You go Japan!
People were chanting on the streets, on top of cars, drinking open containers of alcohol (which is normally looked down upon) and getting wild. We found several people passed out in alley ways from too much festivities. One thing we realized that was interesting: you could always spot a group of friends by the fact they all wore the same costume. Every group had their own theme and wore the same outfit…nurses, the Joker, police officers, Trump, Pikachu, you name it.
Day 5: A Night in a Ryokan in Hakone
On the fifth day, we departed from Japan towards Hakone. Hakone is a beautiful mountainous town with large lakes and breathtaking scenery. While here, we rested from the insanity that ensued the previous nights. This is the only night we stayed at a Ryokan. You’ll definitely want to stay in a traditional Ryokan while in Japan. It’s a must.
In case you don’t know what a Ryokan is, it’s a traditional Japanese hotel. You’ll most likely sleep on very thin beds on tatami-matted floor. These inns typically have shared bathrooms and hot springs, also known as onsens. Lastly, breakfast and dinner are usually included in your stay. Ryokans typically serve Kaiseki style–a traditional Japense multi-course meal.
In Hakone, you can view the open air museum with famous sculptures. You can walk the Hakone lake and view the town. You can witness the Hakone Shrine. There’s a lot of stuff you can do that is outdoorsy, which should be refreshing after walking the streets of Japan.
Day 6: Kyoto and Jazz Bands
From Hakone, we left to Kyoto. Kyoto used to be Japan’s capital during imperial times. As such, there are dozens of historic monuments and shrines you can visit. Since the trip from Hakone to Kyoto was about 3-hours, we rested during the day and went out at night. We spent the night in the downtown portion of Kyoto, where we went to a cool Jazz Bar called “Hello Dolly”. It was pretty sweet. There was a live Jazz group made up of a pianist, saxophonist, bassist and drummer.
Here we met another person from Australia. We decided to go out and get some Ramen and talk about our different backgrounds. It was nice but a more or less quiet night.
Day 7: Kyoto and Nijo Castle
On our second day in Kyoto, we visited Nijo Castle. From a historical perspective, Nijo Castle is of monumental importance, as the beginning and the end of the Edo Period was established within the walls of the castle. Built in 1679, the castle is where shoguns established business dealings with other visitors.
Day 8: Kyoto, Bamboo Forest and Fushimi Inari Shrine
On our last day in Kyoto, we tried to see the Bamboo Forest and Fushimi Inari Shrine. It was quiet the mission, as these two areas are far apart. I would also suggest doing the inverse of our order, as the Fushimi Inari Shrine is going to take a good amount of time to experience (you’ll be climbing up a mountain side).
In the morning we traveled towards the Bamboo Forest to see what all the fuss was about. I swear, it was something out of a Samurai film. You would see an endless myriad of bamboo trees in the distance. Apart from the foot traffic from tourists, the place was peaceful and serene.
After the Bamboo Forest, we headed towards Fushimi Inaria Shrine which is also referred to as the 1,000 golden gates. When they say there are about a thousand gates, they are not exaggerating. Each gate has Japanese calligraphy carved into it’s columns, each with a unique blessing. You’ll climb up hundreds (if not thousands) of steps, walking through these shrines that were placed only about a foot from one another. It’s absolutely incredible.
Day 9: Osaka for Food
It takes about 1-hour to reach Osaka from Kyoto, so try to make sure whichever hotel or AirBnB you stay at has an early check-in policy. In Osaka, we ate as much food as we could. Osaka is often referred to as “Japan’s Kitchen”. You’ll find street vendors and delicious restaurants on almost every corner. This is where we had famous snacks like Takoyaki and unique dishes like okonomiyaki.
At night, Maria and I went to a well-known karaoke chain called Utahiro. You’ll readily recognize the place by the pink face with the microphone to it’s mouth. Unlike their American counterparts, the Japanese have individual karaoke rooms to ensure privacy. This means you can be as loud and ridiculous as you want. We had an absolute blast!
Day 10: Last Night in Shibuya
The next day we traveled back to Japan. This is more or less a 3-hour trip on the Shinkansen. Maria and I decided to stay in Shibuya, roam around and bar hop at night. We traveled to this area they call the “piss alley”, which is where several small, closely settled bars were. We reminisced our trip and took the day easy.
Day 11: Traveling Back to The States
We traveled back the next day. The airport is about 1 hour away from Tokyo, so we only had enough time to have breakfast. We traversed to the airport and prepared for our long flight. We flew with Singapore Airlines, which was a very pleasant experience. Overall, our itinerary was very open but with several “must experience” moments. I’d argue 11 days may be too short given the vastness and beauty of the country, but we still enjoyed it. We hope you enjoy it as well.