Spending a week or two in one city and doing day trips really appeals to some people. They like the idea of settling in to their accommodation, unpacking once, and coming back to a familiar area each night. They plan their sightseeing itinerary around doing day trips, rather than journeys from place to place. Does this sound like your preferred travel style? If this is your first trip to Japan, you are probably thinking about which city or cities to base yourself in.
How to choose a base city?
The first question is, how long is your trip? If you have two weeks to spend in Japan, you may be tempted to stay in Tokyo for the whole two weeks. I recommend splitting your time between Tokyo and another city. This will enable you to see more of Japan with less time spent travelling, making the overall trip much more comfortable. If you have longer than two weeks, aiming for a week in each city is a reasonable estimate.
The next question is, which cities to stay in? Ideally you want cities with enough sightseeing to be worthwhile destinations in their own right, plus interesting destinations that are a reasonable day trip away, without spending hours getting there and back.
Here are some cities to consider as bases.
Tokyo obviously has many interesting sights to see within the city. Possible day trips include Nikko or Kamakura for temples and shrines, Hakone or Kawaguchiko for views of Mt Fuji, Kawagoe for the historic streetscape, or Yokohama.
Some visitors think of doing day trips to Kyoto and Osaka from Tokyo, which I don’t recommend unless time is short and you are unlikely to return to Japan. Osaka and Kyoto are both large cities with many sights, so you need to factor in travel time within the city as well as getting there.
Kyoto or Osaka
Kyoto and Osaka are 30-60 minutes apart by train, depending on the line you take. For visitors who like to settle in one place, it makes sense to choose either Kyoto or Osaka, which saves moving hotels. You can easily visit Osaka from Kyoto and vice versa.
Day trip options vary from peaceful rural destinations to other large cities. Himeji castle, Kobe, Mt Koya, Nara, or Lake Biwa are all within easy reach. Hiroshima is possible as a day trip if you plan well and start early.
While Okayama is easy to get to from Kyoto or Osaka, and many visitors make a day trip there to visit Korakuen garden, it makes an excellent base city because it is a major railway junction.
Okayama gives easy access to Himeji, Kobe, Naoshima and the other art islands, Takamatsu, and even Hiroshima if you don’t want to stay there. Nearby Kurashiki is worth visiting too.
Overlooked by many, Nagoya has sights including the Toyota factory and museum, Legoland, Nagoya castle and the railway museum.
There are great day trip options to some more traditional corners of Japan, including Takayama, the Kiso valley, Ise Shima, or Gero Onsen.
Home to Togakushi shrine, Zenkoji temple and a ninja museum, the surrounding area has some great day trips. The most famous is Jigokudani monkey park, where the snow monkeys live. Other options in the area include Matsumoto with its beautiful castle, Nozawa Onsen, and Obuse, a pretty historic town associated with the famous artist Hokusai.
If you want to venture further afield, Fukuoka is an obvious base for Kyushu, and Sapporo for Hokkaido.
Tips for day trips
Do check sources such as Hyperdia to ensure that your planned day trips do not involve too much travel. This will definitely impact on the relaxing aspect of your trip!
Check the weather before you set out. One of the advantages of having a base city is that it’s easy to swap around days. In the event of bad weather, you can stay in the city and visit museums and other indoor sights, and save trips away for when the weather improves.
Visit the local tourist information centre when you arrive in the city. They can tell you about any special events and festivals that are on, and suggest some interesting and lesser-known sights. Travelling at a slower pace means you have time to do a bit more in each place.
Do you have any questions about travelling around Japan? Please feel free to contact me.
Would you like to receive my quarterly newsletter with the latest news for visitors, plus useful seasonal information? Receive a trip planning timeline when you sign up!
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, and other stores.