Sitting in a plush seat while shooting at 200 miles per hour across beautiful countryside, Japan is truly an impressive place! After spending a few weeks in Tokyo we knew that many other great places in this country needed to be explored. We bought ourselves rail-passes (more info on these at the bottom of this post) and compiled our list of things we wanted to hit!
Japan takes great pride in their Shinkansen trains. They were the 1st country to build dedicated rails for high-speed trains and introduced them in 1964 for the Tokyo Olympics. They were a marvel far ahead of their time and a joy to experience today. Our rail-passes allowed for unlimited bullet rides for 1 week, so precise planning was a must. Here’s our guide for enjoying the highlights of Japan (leaving from Tokyo) on a 1 week timeline.
Stop 1 – Nagano
A few hours northwest of Tokyo will land you in an animal experience that’s truly unique to Japan, the hot spring snow monkeys of Nagano. These adorable little Japanese Macaque monkeys have thick fur, red faces, and to beat the cold of the winter days have found a natural hot spring to make their own spa. These monkeys will get too chilly up in the mountains, climb down, and hop right into this hot spring. Watch as they groom each other, swim around, or just take a nap. Getting to see this felt like we had snuck into a natural geographic shoot. Appreciating these bathing fur balls up close was such a joy.
Tip: There’s a round-trip bus that takes you from the station to the monkey area (and back) for $12 USD. No need to pre-book this, just head to the bus station attached to the Nagano Train Station when you arrive.
Stop 2 – Mt Fuji
Next stop is one of the most iconic mountains in the world – Mt Fuji! Beautifully snow capped in the winter, the best place to take in it’s vast size is from Lake Kawaguchi (in the town of Fujikawaguchiko). Here you can do a beautiful 2 hour walk around the lake with Mt. Fuji looming over you. After the loop, take the ropeway car up to a higher vantage point and enjoy the view with a snack. This natural beauty is definitely something to not miss!
Tips: This stop is not on the direct route of the Shinkansen trains, so a few smaller trains/buses are necessary to get here. This town doesn’t have a ton of places to stay and can pack up quickly, so be sure to look ahead of time. We ended up staying at a 1 room school with no heat or shower on Airbnb (an experience for sure).
Stop 3 – Kyoto (2 days)
Kyoto is a city with some pretty incredible sights. In addition to enjoying the downtown, we explored two things right outside the city.
1) The infinity tunnel of red Torri Gates (Fushimi Inari-taisha). This comprises of 10,000 tori gates leading up a mountain to a shrine (2 hour hike to the top). Definitely bring your camera for this.
2) The Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is a beautiful path through a canopy of deep green bamboo trees. Walking through here feels out of this world (plus not to mention another great spot for photos). Kyoto also has a geisha district, so be sure to at least walk through that as well.
Stop 4 – Osaka (2 days)
Osaka felt like a mini Tokyo to us, with a really great food scene and fun downtown to walk through. We’d suggest trying two iconic Japanese meals here. First meal to try is Shabu Shabu. This dish is thinly sliced meats/veggies that you dunk into a boiling hotpot. Each bite is cooked seconds before you pop it into your mouth making is super fresh! We also suggest trying the famed Yakiniku (Japanese BBQ). These tender pieces of sliced beef are dipped into different sauces and literally melt in your mouth.
Tip: If you have limited time in Japan, we’d suggest only a pitstop in Osaka.
Stop 5 – Hiroshima
This stop gave us a deeper understanding of the history of Japan. In 1945 the first atomic bomb ever dropped on a city was released over Hiroshima. This blast killed 60,000 people instantly and another 60,000 from radiation/burns afterwards. The core of the city was completely flattened leaving only one standing building in the hypocenter. The dilapidated Genbaku Dome has been left up and still stands today as a symbol. Japan now leads the call for a nuclear weapons free world and encourages global leaders to visit this site (Obama came in 2016, his speech). Going to the Museum, the Dome, and the Peace memorial park all took us about 5 hours. This is a heavy experience, but seeing and learning about these things is important. We also met a man who is an “in vintro survivor” (his mother was pregnant with him and in Hiroshima at the time of the bomb drop). Here’s his blog.
The Japan Rail Pass
- These passes cannot be purchased by Japanese residence (only visitors)
- They come in 7 day ($250 USD), 14 day ($400 USD), and 21 day ($510 USD) options.
- You can ride either in the reserved sections (you have assigned seats and have to pre-book) or show up 30 minutes early for a non-reserved car.
- There are many online businesses where you can buy them. The passes are then shipped to your address (even your hotel if already in Japan) and activated when you take them to the station. We went with japan-rail-pass.com.
- Map out your entire trip (especially if you only do a week), and pre-book all of your tickets at your first station at the customer service desk. We went over christmas and many trains were all booked up. You can wait in the unreserved section but that can be unnerving because theres not a guarantee you’ll get on the train. You bought the golden ticket, use it’s power and pre-book the whole thing and relax. If your plans change, you can go into a station and switch your tickets at no charge.
- Get to the station on time for your travel, Japanese are very timely and these trains proudly leave ON TIME.
- The trains don’t have wifi, but phones get pretty solid service throughout most of Japan.
Our Fav Treats: Mochi and Matcha
Mochi ice cream
Small little balls of joy – consisting of a soft sticky rice cake layer (mochi) molded around an ice cream filling. Convenience stores typically have them in little two packs in a variety of flavors.
Matcha is finely ground powder of a special type of green tea. This flavor is very popular in Japan and can be seen in many desserts and drinks. Our favorite kind was the matcha latte! They can be purchased anywhere from high end coffee shops ($6 USD) to self serve stations at corner stores ($1 USD).