One of the biggest decisions for your trip is where to go. If you already know your arrival city or you are visiting Japan for business or family reasons, your itinerary is already partly determined. Otherwise, developing your itinerary means first working out the places you’d like to visit. You may already have noted some places you are really keen to visit, and these will be the start of your itinerary.
How many places could you visit?
Two or three places a week is a reasonable estimate to start with, which could be added to later if necessary. You could easily spend a week in major cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto, or if you plan on skiing or hiking, you may spend a week doing that. Some smaller places may only need a day to see the major sights. If you’ve been dreaming about Japan for a while, you may have enough places to fill your itinerary already. On the other hand, you may have room to include more places.
Where to go?
There are many ways of getting inspiration. Sample itineraries of varying lengths can be found on the Japan Guide and JNTO websites. These include nationwide itineraries starting in either Tokyo or Osaka, and regional itineraries. The advantage of a sample itinerary is that it gives you an idea of the best order to visit your chosen places. If there is something in the sample itinerary that you really don’t like, just leave it out. The itineraries are best used as a guide, not an obligatory tour.
You may also have seen itineraries in travel brochures and guidebooks, and these are usually realistic. Itineraries in magazine articles and blogs vary in how realistic and practical they are, but if the author seems to have similar tastes to you, they can be useful for inspiration.
Unfortunately some travel articles and blogs are poor quality or actually misleading. They appear to have been written by someone who has spent very little time in Japan, or possibly not been there at all. Sometimes it is promotion for a particular product or destination and other times it written more for entertainment than to give actual travel information. It pays to check that any suggested itinerary is practical and doesn’t involve impossible amounts of travel.
Breaking away from the “Golden Route”
Many itineraries follow what is known as the “Golden Route”, a tour of Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto and sometimes Hiroshima. These destinations are often the first that spring to mind for first-time visitors. As a result, they are popular and often crowded. Breaking away from this route, even just a little way, can be very rewarding.
If you know you are going to a specific region of Japan, local tourism websites give very useful information on their area, including sights that don’t make it into the more general travel guides. Some regions or towns don’t even get covered in the major commercial travel guides, despite having some interesting sights or activities. Researching regional tourism websites can be a good way to make your trip a bit different and more interesting.
If you are keen to see a particular type of thing or do a particular activity, both Japan Guide and JNTO websites list places and activities by interest, which makes for easier browsing than a geographical or itinerary based listing.
Linking it all together
When you have a high-level itinerary with up to three places per week, it’s time to start thinking about how realistic the itinerary is. It can be tempting to try and fit as many places in as possible, however this can mean a lot of time is spent travelling rather than seeing and experiencing Japan. Too many one night stays in different places can be tiring.
Japan has an extensive rail network and the shinkansen (bullet train) is well-known around the world for its speed. One popular misconception is that the shinkansen goes everywhere. It only travels major routes, and many towns and cities in Japan are served by limited express and local trains, meaning that travel can take longer than you might expect. Train routes and travel times can be checked on Hyperdia.
Once you have identified transport options and travel times, look at how much time is spent travelling compared to time spent seeing and experiencing Japan. If you are spending more than a quarter of your total daytime hours in Japan travelling, you may want to look at reducing this, either by travelling shorter distances, using faster transport, eliminating some places or by staying an extra night in some places. Give yourself the opportunity to experience and enjoy Japan, rather than “doing” places and ticking them off a list.
While travel can take some time to smaller places served by buses and slower trains, or which may require transfers, these are often interesting places to visit that will be a memorable experience, and you may want to keep them in your itinerary. A good rule of thumb is to ensure that the amount of time you spend somewhere is at least equal to and preferably twice the time taken to get there.
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For further information, the ebook Japan Just for You is a practical step-by-step guide to planning your trip to Japan, starting with developing your own personal trip concept. It’s now available on Apple, Amazon and Kobo, with other ebook stores to come soon.