From high-rise-filled cities to small mountain villages, with thousands of temples and gardens in between, visitors often find it difficult to decide where to go in Japan. After a magnificent 3 weeks traveling this island nation by Japan rail, following geishas in the streets of Kyoto, visiting snow monkeys in the wild, sleeping in a Buddhist Monastery to exploring the bustling streets of Tokyo, we just barely scratched the surface of all that Japan has to offer. Here is our itinerary, in photos, of one of our all time favorite holiday destinations.
3 Week Japan Itinerary
Our trip started in Kyoto where we spent 6 days seeking out geishas, meandering through exquisite gardens and sampling amazing food from tiny hole in the wall restaurants. Kyoto is a fascinating city full of temples, shrines, and amazing vantage points, a photographer’s dream. Before getting lost amongst all there is to do in Kyoto, hit up the major attractions of Fushimi Inari Shrine, Arashiyama’s bamboo forest and the Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavillion.For us, the fun of any trip is the randomness you happen across while aimlessly wandering.
Between Kyoto and our next stop of Koya-San, we spent a day in Nara, the former capital of Japan, to pet the wild deer roaming the grounds outside of Todai-ji Temple. Todai-ji houses the Great Buddha in the world’s largest wooden building.
I have always had a thing for cemeteries around the world. I find it fascinating how other cultures honor their dead. Given that, a visit to Koya-San was high on my list. It takes a few trains, a cable car and a bus to reach this hilltop community, but it’s worth it. Billed as the largest graveyard in Japan, it is ridiculously beautiful. There is a collection of more than 200,000 tombstones scattered in an ancient forest. There are no bodies buried here, only headstones and memorials for all who have passed. We spent the day wandering the paths through the graveyard all the way to the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, the founder of Koya-San. One of the most memorable, moving and picturesque cemeteries I have ever visited.
Everyone knows of Hiroshima, from it’s history of being the first place where an atomic bomb was dropped. But that history overshadows an impressively vibrant and strikingly beautiful modern city. We were awestruck how much we loved Hiroshima. Riding the cable cars around, visiting painful memorials and eating what would end up being our favorite travel food of all time. Hiroshima is a must visit when in Japan.It possessed none of the vast wasteland of death and destruction our minds had come to associate with it. But the history of the city cannot be ignored. One of the most visited places here is Peace Memorial Park. The exhibits here are so eye opening, educational and hauntingly beautiful. It is a must visit on any trip to Hiroshima.
Another major draw to Hiroshima is a day trip to Miyajima Island, listed as one of Japan’s three most scenic spots. The Great Torii of Istukushima Shrine welcomes you to an island full of natural beauty, walking trails and culture.
Hiroshima also is home to our favorite travel food ever, Okonomiyaki.
Hopping the train inland, we headed to the beautifully preserved traditional town of Takayama. Few other cities in Japan retain the feel of ‘old Japan’ like Takayama. It ranks high among travelers hoping to get a feel for rural life. Besides taking photos and cruising the streets, the main attraction here is the sampling of traditional sake!For a recreated display of rural life of centuries old Japan, we headed out to the Hida Folk Village where dozens of traditional houses were rebuilt here after being dismantled throughout the region.
Getting our fill of old town Japan, we headed out to the mountains via the Shin-Hotaka Ropeway. This ropeway climbs over 3,000 feet up the side of the mountain, which includes Japan’s third highest peak. The excitement of the journey was the ride up and down the mountain in double decker gondola cars! Even being May, there was still plenty of snow on the ground and freezing cold.
Yudanaka – Jigokudani Park
Another highlight on our trip was our time in Yudanaka at the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. We had planned only one day here, but were so enamored by these beautiful creatures that we couldn’t pull ourselves away! A few hundred photos later, we managed to move on to our next destination. This is a must visit on any Japan itinerary. Want to increase your anticipation, check out the livecam.
Popping into Nagano en route to Tokyo, our main focal point was a visit to the famous Zenkoji Temple. Zenkoji is famous for housing the first Buddhist statue to come to Japan. We spent the day exploring the fascinating details around the temple, learning some of the history and just generally standing around in awe of the beauty housed within.
Without living in Tokyo, you will never get a real feel for all that exists in this massive metropolis. There is just too much to take in during a short visit. Even after 6 days here, you could spin us around and we would be lost! The must do, iconic sites like Ueno Park, Shibuya crossing, Yoyogi Park and the Tsukiji Fish Market will take up some time in any itinerary, but the best times come from just exploring the back streets, soaking up the vibe of this eclectic metropolis.
Is Japan on your bucket list? Already been, if so, what are your favorites?