This itinerary is particularly good in February and early March, when there is still snow in the Japan Alps, but plum trees start blossoming, hinting at spring. These destinations have sights that are interesting year round, although outside of the plum blossom season, you may like to drop Mito.
Day 1 Tokyo to Shibu Onsen
Take a morning shinkansen to Nagano, where you can connect to Shibu Onsen by Nagaden train or by bus. Note that the JR Pass doesn’t cover travel between Nagano and Shibu Onsen. You should be there by early afternoon, which will give you enough time to visit the Jigokudani monkey park.
Shibu Onsen is an old-style onsen village with bath houses scattered through it. A walk through its atmospheric streets visiting the bath houses is a great way to spend the evening.
Day 2 Shibu Onsen to Matsumoto
Start by going back to Nagano, where you can visit Zenkoji temple. From Nagano, it’s a quick train trip to Matsumoto.
Depending on what time you get there, you could visit Matsumoto castle in the afternoon. From the top floor, you can see the mountains surrounding Matsumoto. The castle is lit up in the evening.
Day 3 Matsumoto to Kyoto
You may want to spend the morning in Matsumoto, visiting the castle if you didn’t get there the day before, exploring the traditional shopping streets, or seeing the Yayoi Kusama collection at the city art museum.
Once you’ve finished sightseeing, head to Kyoto, first taking the Shinano Express to Nagoya. This will take about 2 hours as it winds through the mountains. At Nagoya, it is 50 minutes by shinkansen to Kyoto.
Days 4-6 Kyoto
You have three days for sightseeing in and around Kyoto. Your JR Pass is not useful for Kyoto buses and subways, but you could use it for a day trip to Nara or Osaka. Look for places where you can see plum blossom, including Kitano Tenmangu shrine, Nijo castle, the Imperial Palace gardens and Osaka castle.
Day 7 Kyoto to Mito to Tokyo
This is the final day for using the JR Pass and covers a fair distance, first by shinkansen to Tokyo, then changing to a limited express train to Mito. Shinagawa station will probably be the best place to change trains, but check Hyperdia for exact details. Kyoto to Mito takes about 4 hours, and you should have enough time in the afternoon to see Kairakuen which has over 3000 plum trees. It is one of Japan’s three great landscape gardens. Take the train back to Tokyo in the evening – by express it is 70 to 80 minutes..
The important details
A 7 day JR Pass costs 29,650 yen and includes free reservations. The fares for Tokyo-Nagano, Nagano-Matsumoto, Matsumoto-Kyoto, and Kyoto-Mito-Tokyo add up to over 40,000 yen for reserved seats. A day trip to Nara and/or Osaka would add another 1500 yen of train fares.
There’s conflicting advice out there about the JR Pass, with some people saying you have to get one, while others say it’s a waste of money. As I’ve said previously, it can be very worthwhile if used in the right way. There is the temptation with a JR Pass to make as many trips as possible to ‘make it pay’. This can mean spending a lot of time travelling and staying in a new place every night. This itinerary is not only cost-effective, it also gives you time to sightsee without being a slave to the pass.
Is this itinerary not quite you? Take a look at other itinerary ideas.
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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, and other stores.