If you’re visiting Japan for the first time and only have one week to experience the highlights, this day-by-day itinerary is for you. It focuses on Tokyo, Kyoto, and a couple of diversions rather than taking you on a whirlwind and superficial tour of the entire country.
For starters, we’d implore you to visit for longer than 7 days if you’re still in the planning stages of your trip and haven’t committed to travel dates, airfare, or anything else. However, we understand that not everyone has the luxury of unlimited vacation time, and a week in Japan is better than not visiting at all.
You’ll find some week-long Japan itineraries that include Tokyo, Kyoto, Mt. Fuji, Osaka, and sometimes more. To be perfectly blunt, that’s crazy. This frenzied approach doesn’t give you long enough to slow down and appreciate any of those places, and is really only good for a checklist approach to travel that allows you to say you’ve visited certain places. Suffice to say, we don’t recommend it.
Instead, we recommend focusing on Tokyo and Kyoto. These two cities are Japan’s most popular tourist destinations, and for good reason. They’re also excellent companion cities to one another, and are often described as the yin & yang of Japan. We agree wholeheartedly with that; there are a lot of great places to see in Japan if you have more time, but Kyoto and Tokyo are the unequivocal highlights.
A couple of notes from the outset. First, this 7-day Japan Itinerary does not require use of the Japan Rail Pass. While the Japan Rail Pass is normally something that we highly recommend, that’s only for itineraries that are 10 days or longer (we’ll have those soon!).
Second, this is a substantive 7-day Japan itinerary, meaning that neither travel day is taken into account. Including those bumps this up to 9 days, and that’s time you may or may not have. If you don’t have it, eliminate Day 3 followed by Day 7. If you have to eliminate Day 7, plan for a crack-of-dawn Shinkansen ride from Tokyo to Kyoto, and try to accomplish as much from Day 7 as possible the day you arrive in Kyoto…
Arrive Tokyo Narita or Haneda Airport – Arrival day is simply about landing, getting from the airport to your hotel, and crashing. If your flight lands in the morning or midday, you might try to head out to one of the more vibrant neighborhoods like Shinjuku or Akihabara for dinner. Most likely, you’re going to be exhausted and ready to crash the minute you reach the hotel.
Tokyo is home to some a ton of things to do, but there are few points of interest that are so iconic they rise to must-do status. By contrast, the essence of Tokyo is its eclectic neighborhoods, and filling your day by wandering around both halves of the city is the best approach to experiencing Tokyo.
By following our 2-Day Tokyo Highlights Itinerary, you’ll explore the neighborhoods of Harajuku, Shinjuku, Asakusa, Akihabara, and more. You’ll visit the Tsukiji & Toyosu Fish Markets, Sensoji Temple, Robot Restaurant, Tokyo SkyTree, and more…
Day 1: Western Tokyo – For most visitors, our first day in Western Tokyo will tour the familiar side of the city: Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku, and Roppongi. These are Tokyo’s biggest neighborhood names, which contain the city’s most recognizable sights and architecture.
These are places you’ve no doubt seen depicted in movies, and this definitely the more popular side of the city for tourists. Even though this is a relatively laid back itinerary, we recommend getting up early (jet lag will likely ensure that, anyway!). There’s a lot to see in Western Tokyo, and you’ll walk and shop your way through some of the city’s most vibrant and eye-catching areas.
Day 2: Eastern Tokyo – For your second day, it’s on to Tokyo’s “low city,” which is also the city’s eastern side. This area is on the delta of the Sumida River and it’s what remains of the historic Tokyo, or old Edo. A lot of Tokyo tourists will spend multiple days in Western Tokyo, and a cursory amount of time in Eastern Tokyo, which is a mistake.
This side of Tokyo includes interesting districts like Kanda, Nihonbashi, Kyobashi, Ueno, Asakusa, Honjo, Fukugawa, and Akihabara. It also has what’s arguably a better-defined list of points of interest (rather than just neighborhoods to wander), with Sensoji Temple, Tsukiji and Toyosu Fish Markets, Ueno Park’s Museum District (and zoo!), and the SkyTree.
Day 3: Tokyo DisneySea – Full disclosure: we are huge Disney and theme park fans, and spend a lot of time here. With that said, we also think Tokyo DisneySea is a compelling option for anyone who is visiting Japan, not just obsessives like us. This is the most lavishly-themed park in the world, and nothing like the familiar castle parks you’ll find at Disneyland or Walt Disney World.
Tokyo DisneySea is also one of the most authentic Japanese places you’ll visit, which might seem like a contradiction given that it’s distinctly American. However, Tokyo DisneySea is incredibly popular with locals, and most tourists skip it due to preconceptions.
Consult our 1-Day Tokyo DisneySea Itinerary or Tokyo Disneyland Planning Guide for more info on visiting. If you’re Disney enthusiasts or super fans, you’ll want to cut time from Tokyo or Kyoto for additional days at Tokyo Disney Resort. (That planning guide offers additional advice regarding touring strategy, on-site hotels, when to visit, how many days, etc.)
Day 4: Shinkansen to Kyoto – Taking the Shinkansen (colloquially known as the bullet train) is a quintessential experience when visiting Japan, and it’s also extremely painless. Unlike flying, you can arrive to the train station whenever, purchase tickets from a machine, and be on your way all in under 30 minutes.
Once you arrive to Kyoto and get checked into your Airbnb or hotel, we recommend going right out and immediately doing things. Some high profile options our itinerary doesn’t include are Nijo Castle and Kyoto Imperial Palace. If you’re arriving later in the afternoon, instead consider Nishiki Market, Pontocho Alley, or Gion for dinner.
Personally, my favorite thing to do on my first evening in Kyoto is Fushimi Inari Shrine After Dark (pictured below). You’ll visit later in the itinerary, but that’s for sunrise. This is our #1 thing to do in all of Japan, and it’s even better at night!
This 7-Day Japan Itinerary calls for 3 full days in Kyoto, which is less time than we personally like to spend in the city (our favorite in the world), but about perfect for most first-time visitors to Japan. For a step-by-step plan of attack, we highly recommend our 3-Day Best-of Kyoto, Japan Itinerary. That covers literally everything stop to make during your time in Kyoto.
As a general overview, this 3-day touring plan covers the highlights of Kyoto while skipping some (we think) overrated spots that are more difficult to access. It also features a ton of hidden gems and overlooked spots you’ll be able to slow down and appreciate. After all, the point of this itinerary is not simply to race around and do as much as possible. Quality, not quantity.
Day 5: Eastern Kyoto – This is our favorite day of the entire 7-day itinerary, and is essentially just a straight-line path along the foothills of Kyoto’s Higashiyama Mountains from the popular Kiyomizudera Temple in the south to the iconic Silver Pavilion in the north.
In between, you’ll cover a ton of ground, seeing the historic Higashiyama District without crowds (a rarity!), before visiting the underrated Kenninji Temple, strolling the Path of Philosophers, wandering the idyllic Honenin Temple, and making several other stops along the way.
Day 6: Western Kyoto – For this day, you’ll head to the opposite side of Kyoto to Arashiyama and Sagano district. Everyone here visits Tenryuji Temple and the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove (and you will too!), but we recommend superior highlights that are off the beaten path, like Okochi Sanso Villa and Jojakkoji Temple, among others.
You’ll also want to visit Japanese macaque monkeys in their mountainous habitat, have a traditional lunch, and see the area’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites before making your way north to the quirky and bizarre Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple.
Day 7: Central & Miscellaneous Kyoto – While the previous days in Kyoto have been temple and shrine heavy, this one takes a more balanced approach (if you’re feeling temple fatigue after Day 5, do this on Day 6 and Western Kyoto on Day 7).
You’ll still start your day with a couple of shrines and temples, doing a sunrise hike through Fushimi Inari to beat the crowds before enjoying the serenity of Tofukuji’s zen gardens, but this day also includes the Kyoto Railway Museum and Kyoto National Museum, among other things.
Depart Kansai International Airport – If it’s not cost-prohibitive, we’d highly recommend flying out of Kansai International Airport in Osaka rather than Narita or Haneda in Tokyo. Osaka is much closer to Kyoto, plus it’s a cheaper and (most importantly) direct train ride to the airport from Kyoto Station. If this isn’t an option due to cost (KIX can be a more expensive flight), you’ll want to purchase the Japan Rail Pass and use the Shinkansen to return to Tokyo.
If you have a later flight, consider exploring the area in and around Kyoto Station. There’s tons of shopping and dining within the station, so you can save that for your final morning. If you have even more time, consider visiting the nearby Toji Temple and/or Nishi & Higashi Honganji Temples, all of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. After that, you’ll head to the airport and conclude a whirlwind, but wonderful week in Japan!
If you’re planning a trip to the Japan, check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other things to do! We also recommend consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto and Ultimate Guide to Tokyo to plan.
Have you visited Japan? Which cities did you visit, and how much time did you spend in each place? What would you recommend to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? If you’re planning your trip to Japan, what do you think about these itineraries? Any questions? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!