So many articles promise to give you the top 10 things to see or do in Japan, in Tokyo, in Kyoto. Or maybe it’s the 10 most instagrammable places or 10 Japanese foods you must eat.
It can be tempting to note down particularly attractive looking places and add them to your itinerary. Some places get mentioned in list after list (looking at you, bamboo grove). When a place keeps getting listed as a top 10 or must see, then it’s easy to assume it’s something you can’t miss, you have to see it. And so it gets added to your own list. At the end of all this note-taking and list-making, you try and connect all these places into an itinerary and fit it into the amount of time available. The end result can be a very disjointed itinerary with a lot of time spent getting from A to B, and less time for enjoying the places themselves.
How can you manage your sightseeing wish list?
Follow your dreams
There are sights and activities that inspired you to come to Japan in the first place. Make doing these things you always dreamed of a priority, and allow enough time to experience them. It can be easy to lose sight of these if you’re trying to fit many other things in so you can “do it all”. Consciously spend more time on what’s important to you, instead of rushing to the next place.
Once you have allocated time to the really important sights and activities, then you can look at how fill the remaining time.
Check the season
Some things may be better at certain times of the year, and you may not be visiting at the optimum time. Gardens may be famous for particular seasonal flowers or foliage. There’s a better chance of seeing Mt Fuji in the crisp clear conditions of winter than on hazy summer days. Outside activities can be hot and tiring in the Kyoto summer and you might want to balance these with rest periods or cool indoor activities. Taking seasonal factors into account can help you sort through the list and decide what to leave off your sightseeing schedule.
Ask whether it’s really a “must see”
Some lists include unusual, out-of-the-way and obscure places, as writers search for something different and novel. Check review sites such as TripAdvisor, Yelp, or Google Maps to see what other people say about it. See if you can find it in other articles, blogs or lists. This can reveal useful information. I decided against the Kyoto café selling cat-themed parfait after I learned that diners were getting there at opening time and then waiting 2 hours for one of the limited number of parfaits produced each day. Getting more information can really help you check whether the place will add to your holiday experience or not.
Group sights together
It’s sensible to group sights in the same general area together, so you aren’t zigzagging all over the place. While Japanese public transport is good, it can take time, as much as 30 or 40 minutes, to travel across larger cities (to check travel times, look at Hyperdia which gives information for subway trips in cities). Concentrating on one area at a time maximises sightseeing time. When you’re looking at grouping sights together, refer to a map of the area as you do this, possibly Google Maps or a map on the local tourist office website.
If you find that some places on your list seem a bit far from everything else, think about how keen you really are to see that particular place. Is it worth travelling across town for? If you decide it is, then see if you can find other interesting things in the same area. For example, if you have the Arashiyama bamboo grove on your list and nothing else in that area, you could add one of the temples, the monkey park, scenic boat ride, scenic train ride, or simply walking along the local shopping street and having a good meal there.
Consider an itinerary that is less wide-ranging
Travelling to several regions can involve long distances and time-consuming travel. An itinerary that focusses on one or two particular regions can give you a varied and interesting experience and maximise your sightseeing time. Often this will include some very interesting and worthwhile sights that are overlooked by many visitors following “Top 10” type lists.
If you only have a week, trying to fit in Tokyo, Kyoto, Hakone and the snow monkeys will involve travelling most days with less hours for sightseeing. Spending that week based in either Tokyo or Kyoto and exploring the surrounding regions will give you greater sightseeing time.
Finally, keep in mind what you want from your trip overall and make sure that your selection of sights will contribute to this. If you haven’t yet thought about what your dream trip would look like, here are some ideas to get you started.
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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.