If Japan is on your bucket list, it’s common to think you need three weeks off to explore the country properly and make the long journey feel “worth it.” And while a long expanse of time is a vacation gold standard for obvious reasons, it’s still possible to have a fantastic and varied trip in a single week. All it takes is some smart planning to make the most of your seven days.
Here’s a quick sketch of how you might carve out your time between cities, especially if it’s your first trip to Japan (you can vary your exploration with more far-flung locations on trips two, three and four!) Overall, for your maiden voyage, consider Tokyo and Kyoto as your key destinations.
Step 1: Begin in Tokyo
With Tokyo Narita or Haneda airports as the country’s most popular international hubs, Tokyo is probably the best starting point for your Japan immersion. It is, after all, described by Conde Nast Traveller magazine as “the best city in the world.” Try booking a nonstop flight to avoid the extra fatigue factor.
Step 2: Spend four nights in Tokyo
Establish your home base in Tokyo’s city center and book a hotel that’s near the subway line so that you can explore every corner without skipping a beat. The city’s bustling Shibuya neighborhood is one area to consider for lodging because it’s in the middle of the action — think Harajuku — and accessible to public transit.
Make sure you experience both the traditional and modern influences that make Tokyo such a fascinating place. Visit the historic Meiji Shrine and Imperial Palace, and snag some tickets in advance to the teamLab Borderless experiential art exhibition, a spellbinding digital museum that’s sure to rack up the Instagram likes.
You can also sample Tokyo’s old and new aspects through your taste buds. The city is known for its endless food options, from old-school noodle shops to modern sushi and Parisian-inspired pastries that look way more like contemporary art than your average sweets. After dinner, dip into the city’s vibrant music and cocktail cultures.
Step 3: Spend two nights in Kyoto
The city of Kyoto is a well-preserved homage to pre-digital Japan. Tokyo may be Japan’s capital, but Kyoto once held the title and reigns as a cultural stronghold to this day.
Among the standouts of Kyoto are its over 2,000 stunning temples and shrines. Though you won’t be able to experience all of them during your stay, if you plan correctly, you can begin in west Kyoto and head east, stopping as you please. There are some that you should not miss, like the Kinkakuji Temple, often referred to as the Golden Pavilion for its gold leaf-covered facade. Bike rentals are everywhere and serve as an easy method for zipping between historic sites.
As far as lodging goes, it’s not essential that you stay in the city center, as much of the beauty of the city revolves around outdoor destinations. Map out your interests and find convenient lodging nearby. One caveat: ryokans (traditional Japanese-style inns) are a special way to experience this particular city — and dip into one of their onsen (natural hot spring baths).
While you’ll be hustling from one lush landscape to the next, take a break at a Kyoto teahouse, as the city is the birthplace of tea ceremony in Japan. (One famous shop, Ippodo, was founded in 1717. It produces its own fine green teas and offers a tea-making workshop.) Serving drinks both hot and cold, you will be able to recharge while enjoying an authentic Japanese experience.
At this point, your jetlag will have settled. Explore the Gion District, the city’s entertainment, shopping and dining hub which comes to life in the evenings with everything from quiet sake bars to buzzing, pub-like izakayas. Winding stone streets and lantern-lit wooden teahouses glow to create an unforgettable atmosphere. You may even see a geisha (a traditional, elegantly clad hostess) walking on her way to work.
Step 4: Head back to Tokyo for your final night
You will want to sleep in Tokyo for your last night in order to catch the flight back home the following day. Staying in close proximity to transportation back to the airport is always a smart approach, and buses and trains are generally preferred. For your final hurrah, sample one of Japan’s gifts to the world, karaoke, or try your luck at Tokyo’s latest craze, live-band karaoke, which challenges its singers to follow the tempo and style of the musicians providing the music.
If you’re still itching for more by the time you board the plane home, make a list for your next one-week stay, and be sure to look into those small, off-the-beaten-path cities. You’ll be an expert by the time you come back for round three!