9 Days in Japan
Take full advantage of Japan's high-speed train network and visit Kyoto, Tokyo, Nagano, Koyasan, and more, all in 9 days! Bike to temples, visit ancient cemeteries, eat at local fish markets, see snow monkeys, learn to make sushi, watch a sumo wrestling match, and more.
Jump ahead to a section below:
Tokyo Tower, a Sumo Tournament, and Shibuya Crossing
**Keep in mind when planning sightseeing in Tokyo that Tokyo is the largest city in the world. Although it has a vast network of high-speed trains throughout it, it can still take an hour to get from one part of the city to another.**
We started our trip by visiting Tokyo Tower. My friends and I thought it would be a nice way to start the trip off, to gain perspective of the city. I usually do not visit viewing towers in cities, but I made an exception for Tokyo, the largest city in the world. It’s almost impossible to grasp Tokyo's vastness, but the tower's views help. It’s worth the lines and the cost.
To get to Tokyo Tower we took a water bus (similar to a water taxi), to take in the views of Tokyo from the water as well. The schedule and routes for Tokyo Cruise are here.
Late afternoon we went to watch a sumo wrestling match at the Ryogoku Kokugikan Arena in Tokyo. (See Advanced Bookings for tips on buying tickets.). This was one of my favorite things that we did while in Japan. It was an authentic, local experience with very few other tourists. There were multiple rounds of matches that could last from 10 seconds to a couple of minutes each. Each match also has preparation rituals before starting. The goal of a match is to force your opponent to exit the ring or to touch the floor with any body part other than their feet. We loved the fun Japanese concession snacks too (waffles shaped like fish!). The event actually lasts all day, starting at 8 am, but the main matches of the top-division wrestlers start around 2 pm. Your ticket will be good for all day and you can exit and re-enter once. Book tickets here.
After watching the Sumo Tournament for a while, head to Shibuya Crossing during the evening rush hour. It is considered the most crowded intersection in the world and it is a fun experience to cross it. Afterward, buy a coffee or snack in the multi-level Starbucks at the intersection. Grab a seat by the windows and watch the craziness of the intersection for a bit.
Day Trip to Nagano: Ski or See Snow Monkeys
Nagano is 2.5 hours away via speed train. (See the Getting Around section for tips on saving money and navigating the train system). It makes for a long day traveling there and back in one day, but we thought the trip was worth it. If you have extra time in your itinerary, book an overnight in the area and experience both of the activities below.
Once in the Nagano area, we split up to do two different activities:
Ski and snowboard in Nagano on the Japanese Alps
The following ski resorts are all accessible via train from Tokyo and are 2.5 hours or less away:
Sugadaira Kogen Snow Resort (2 hours and 20 minutes from Tokyo)
Iizuna Resort Ski Area (2 hours from Tokyo)
Togakushi Ski Area (2.5 hours from Tokyo)
Mt. Norikura Snow Resort (2.5 hours from Tokyo)
Visit the wild snow monkeys in the Jigokudani Monkey Park
To visit this park from Tokyo, take the high-speed train to Yudanaka station and then take a 10-minute bus ride to Kanbayashi Onsen. From there it is a 30 to 40-minute walk/hike in the woods to reach Monkey Park. The walk will likely be snow-covered and is not paved, so I recommend wearing winter boots or hiking boots. It is a beautiful walk with snow-covered evergreens lining the trail.
The Jigokudani Monkey Park is home to Japanese Macaques (also known as snow monkeys)
Hundreds of monkeys come from the forest to relax in the warm waters of the onsens (hot springs) in the area. I spent a couple of hours walking around the park and observing the monkeys. You will likely be able to see young baby monkeys, monkeys playing around and relaxing in the onsens.
The monkeys are fed by park attendants year-round, so you would be able to see them in the onsen area outside of winter months as well. I also loved that the park’s bathrooms, which look like outhouses, have the typical Japanese heated toilet seats!
Meiji Jingu Shrine, Harajuku, and an Arcade
Visit the Meiji Jingu Shrine
It is a shrine dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife. The area surrounding the shrine has numerous walking paths and is connected to the forested Yoyogi Park. The shrine also has a large installation of sake barrels that are intended to honor the gods.
Wonder around Harajuku
After exploring the shrine and park, walk to the nearby Harajuku neighborhood. It is a neighborhood known for its colorful art, its street vendors that serve fun and colorful food, and the fashion of the youth in the area. The main area for shopping, eating, and people-watching is Takeshita Street and the side streets off of it. We tried ice cream-filled crepes while in the area, but there are many interesting foods to try.
Also explore the nearby Omotesando Street, a tree-lined avenue known as Tokyo’s Champs-Elysees. It has high-end shopping with worldwide brands, cafes, and restaurants. We found a sushi-train restaurant for lunch along Omotesando.
Visit an Arcade
In the evening I recommend visiting one of Tokyo’s famous arcades. Going to arcades is a popular local activity. The arcades are very different from what we are accustomed to in the States, they are often 5+ floors tall, with each floor packed with various arcade games (video games, claw machines, dancing games, and lots more). Some arcades have decor themes throughout them as well. Pick one that is convenient to where you are staying or where you end up at night.
Day Trip to View Mt Fuji and the Fuji 5 Lakes
We wanted to see closer views of Mt. Fuji, and visit the 5 Lakes area outside of Tokyo. Discover Japan Tours offers private tours where that will drive you around the Yamanashi area. It is a 2-hour drive each way, so we were able to spend 4-5 hours exploring.
The five lakes at the base of Mt. Fuji include Yamana, Kawaguchi, Saiko, Shoji, and Motosu Lakes; they were all formed by eruptions from Mt. Fuji. Our guide took us to photo ops around the lakes, and to a shrine on the foot of Mt. Fuji, with crystal-clear ponds of Fuji water. They also took us to a local noodle shop for lunch (which ended up being one of my favorite meals of the trip). It was nice to not only see and experience Mt. Fuji up closer but also to experience a local shrine and a smaller town.
That evening we visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in the Shinjuku neighborhood. You can visit its observation deck on its top floor for free. Go at sunset or in the evening to experience golden hour views or nighttime city lights.
Fish Markets, Travel to Koyasan, and Visit Mount Kōya Temple
In the morning we visited the Tsukiji Fish Market. This market used to have a wholesale fish market with a tuna auction in the early morning hours. The wholesale vendors and tuna auction have now moved to the Toyosu Market, a more modern area. It lacks the character of the old Tsukiji Market, so if you have time, try to visit both. Start at the Toyosu market in the early morning hours (5 am-6 am) to watch the tuna auction and then head over to the Tsukiji market to enjoy a breakfast of the freshest sushi you will ever have in your life. The outer market of Tsukiji has numerous small sushi restaurants that all serve fresh fish caught daily.
In the afternoon we traveled in a high-speed train to the Koyasan Fudoin Temple in Koyasan. It was a 4-hour train ride.
The Fudoin Temple is a Japanese monastery that offers lodging and meals in the traditional ryokan style. The guest rooms are traditional Japanese rooms with painted sliding doors, slippers to wear inside, and sleeping mats on tatami-matted floors. There are no TVs, mini-fridges, or beds.
They only serve vegetarian food, but they include numerous dishes in each meal, all artfully presented. We loved the food. The whole experience was spiritual, meditative, and relaxing after the rush of Tokyo.
Once we checked into our room and toured the property, we went to walk around the local temples in the area before dinner. You don’t need a car or taxi to explore, the area is all walkable.
Mount Kōya is the name of the entire temple settlement in the area. There are numerous temples and sites to see, all within walking distance. I recommend downloading a walking map of the area for exploring. Of few of my favorite spots were:
Koyasan Daimon Gate- a large red gate considered the town's entrance.
Konpon Daito-A Bright red 50m tall pagoda at the entrance to town.
Danjo Garan- This is a temple area with a smaller bright red pagoda
Miedo- The Great Portrait Hall
Saito-A wooden pagoda
Rokkaku-Kyozo-A Hexagonal Pagoda
Okunoin Cemetery, Travel to Kyoto, and Sushi-Making Class
In the morning we participated in the monk’s morning prayer ceremony.
Afterward, we walked to explore the nearby Okunoin Cemetery. The cemetery is the largest one in Japan. It is nestled in a forest of 500-year-old cedar trees and has tombstones and monuments covered in green mosses. Visiting it is a very spiritual experience. There is a 2km path that leads you through the whole cemetery. At the end of the path is the mausoleum of Kobo-Daishi, and Torodo Hall (the Hall of Lanterns). The hall has more than 10,000 lanterns that are always lit. Below the hall is a room with thousands of small Buddha statues.
In the afternoon we took a 3.5-hour high-speed train to Kyoto
On our first night in Kyoto, we took a sushi-making class from a Japanese mother in her home. She bought fresh fish from the market that day and taught us the entire process of making sushi rolls. It was a fun and intimate experience, plus a great dinner. The cooking classes can be booked here.
Bike to Temples and Nabana No Sato Winter Illumination
We rented bicycles at this shop to explore the temples in Kyoto. Bikes allowed us to see more than we would’ve been able to on foot, and we were able to explore small streets and neighborhoods we would’ve missed on a train or bus. They now offer an option for e-bike rentals as well.
Start your morning early to allow plenty of time to hike Fushimi Inari Shrine and see other temples as well. Below is a list of the stops we made with our bike rentals:
Fushimi Inari Shrine is one of Japan’s more famous temples. The grounds of the temple have thousands of bright torii gates that follow along a trail in the woods to a mountain summit. There are multiple shrines and small restaurants along the hike to the top. To hike to the top and back will take 2-3 hours total and it is largely an uphill climb to the top. About halfway to the top, there is a spot called the Yotsutsuji Intersection, which offers panoramic views of Kyoto. You can easily turn around at any point if you don’t want to complete the full hike, we thought the full trail was worth it though!
Tofuku-ji- It is considered one of the five great temples in Kyoto. Be sure to find the Tofuku stairs in the woods leading up to a shrine at the site.
Chion-in- The largest wooden gate in Japan is at the entrance to this Temple area
Shigeharu Knife Shop- This knife shop has been around since between 1190-1333. They sell traditional Kyoto, Hamono, (which refers to most cutting tools, knives, scissors, and even nail clippers). Expect to spend at least $100 on a knife there, but even if you don’t want to buy one, it’s worth visiting just to look! My friend bought a knife for his Mom at this shop, and to this day she says it is the best gift he’s ever given her.
Kinkaku-ji Temple- We, unfortunately, didn’t make it to this one, but if I ever go back it is on my list. It is a golden temple that reflects into the ponds below it. It is also a world heritage site.
In the evening we took a 2-hour high-speed train to Nabano No Sato to experience a Japanese Winter Light Festival. The Spectacular Winter Illumination at Nabano No Sato may seem like a similar concept to the holiday light festivals in the United States, but Japanese light festivals should be in a category of their own. Nabano No Sato is a botanic garden in Kuwana City and has one of the largest winter illuminations in Japan. It has 7 main light installation areas, a main area with a new theme annually, a green river of lights (120m long), 2 light tunnels, both over 100m long, and a replica Mt. Fuji that changes color and patterns to the music playing outside. There is a restaurant onsite and an onsen if you want to relax after walking through the gardens. It is open until 9 pm.
The Bamboo Grove in Arashiyama and Karaoke
From central Kyoto, it is a 15-30 minute high-speed train ride to the Arashiyama area of Kyoto. It is famous for its bamboo grove. Walking through the magical bamboo forest will take an hour to an hour and a half, depending on how often you stop for photos or stop to take them in. After visiting the Bamboo Grove, we stopped for a ramen lunch near the Togetsukyo Bridge, the central landmark of the city. The Arashiyama area is also popular for its cherry blossoms in the spring.
In the evening we went to a Karaoke Bar, an experience I highly recommend during a trip to Japan. The one we visited was multiple floors of private rooms for you to karaoke with only your group of friends. Each room has a TV screen, couches, and tables for lounging and eating. They had a large food menu to order delivery to your karaoke room, and a wide selection of karaoke songs to sing. Karaoke room rentals similar to this are all over Japan, so pick one that is convenient for you on your trip!
Return to Tokyo, Site see, and Fly out
We took a high-speed train from Kyoto to Tokyo in the morning and flew out of Tokyo that day.
Advanced Bookings for Japan
You will need to book your lodging in advance and sumo tickets should be bought months in advance as well, especially for the larger tournaments in Tokyo.
Building an Itinerary with a Stop in Japan
Tokyo is the main hub for many airlines, so it is easy to add a Tokyo stop to almost anywhere in Asia or Australia.
What to Wear and Pack for Japan
What to Wear
Winter boots or hiking boots
A ski jacket and ski pants
A swimsuit for the onsens
What to Pack
A daypack that is easy for carrying items while biking
What to Eat in Japan
Sushi- Hopefully this goes without saying, but eat lots of sushi while in Japan! Note that they typically put wasabi inside the sushi and don’t offer it as a side.
Tonkatsu- A fried breaded pork cutlet that is a common dinner dish.
Saki- Japanese rice wine, usually served warm. I recommend going to a sake bar to do a sake tasting while in Tokyo!
Ramen- Ramen is well known worldwide now, but it originally came from Japan, so be sure to eat lots of it while there! I especially loved the spicy/red ramen variations.
Udon Noodles- A thicker wheat noodle that is served similarly to ramen, in a bowl with broth and other meat and/or vegetables.
Soba Noodles- Thin buckwheat noodles that are typically served cold. (are you catching the pattern to eat lots of noodles in Japan?)
Gyoza- Pork-filled dumplings, usually served as a dinner appetizer.
Hi-Chew- A chewy candy, similar to a starburst, sold in convenience stores in lots of various flavors.
Pocky Sticks- A snack that can be found in convenience stores all over Japan and now all over the world. It is a biscuit cookie in the shape of a stick dipped in chocolate or other flavorings. There are numerous fun flavors to try in Japan that you can’t easily find elsewhere.
Royce Chocolates-These chocolates are originally from Northern Japan but can be bought in major cities worldwide now too. They are known for their Nama chocolates, and small square bites of creamy ganache. We bought multiple boxes at the airport to bring home as gifts.
Where to Eat in Japan
Sushi train restaurant- There are sushi train restaurants all throughout Japan, so be sure to experience one. If you have never been to one before, small plates of sushi are on a motorized conveyor belt that goes around to all of the tables or bar seating. You can take plates of whatever you want as it comes by.
Happy Pancake Kyoto- This is a casual spot to try Japanese fluffy pancakes at. They are taller than most other pancakes and have more egg flavor, we liked the savory pancakes here too!
Lodging in Japan
We stayed in a mix of Airbnbs and hotels for this trip. I highly recommend at least one night in a traditional ryokan style lodging as well.
Getting around Japan
Trains were our main mode of transit while in Japan. Traveling on the high-speed train network in Japan is an experience in itself. The trains are clean, on time, and boarded in an orderly fashion. For this itinerary, we used high-speed trains to jump from city to city and for day trips. If you plan to travel a lot between cities, I recommend buying the Japan Rail Pass. It is a pass only offered to foreign travelers that is good for 21 days.
For local travel within cities, I recommend using Google Maps to plan your route via trains. The Tokyo train maps look like the New York Subway Map placed over itself 20 times, it’s very hard to read.
When to Go to Japan
You can visit Japan year-round. Their winters are mild compared to what I am accustomed to in Chicago. It was never too cold to walk around and sightsee. This itinerary focuses on many of the well-known winter activities in Japan, but spring is also a very popular time to visit because of the cherry blossoms.
Trip Dates: January 2014
Article Updated: May 2023
*Some links in this article are affiliate links that I receive a small commission for at no cost to you.