We didn’t follow a standard Japan two week itinerary. We were tempted, I’ll admit, but the trouble was, nearly every Japan travel blog with a suggested two-week itinerary all seemed to point in the same direction. The ‘to do’ cities. The typical travel route that looks like this: Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima, Tokyo.
It looked a bit boring and predictable to me and you don’t want to go all the way to Japan on the trip of a lifetime only to say you’ve been there, done that and got the teeshirt.
This post contains affiliates links. If you use them we make a small commission at no extra cost to you. All of the hotels, (apart from the Airbnb in Osaka) were recommended to us by our local hosts. I am passing these recommendations onto you.
Because of our tight budget, we decided to couchsurf with the kids for the entire trip of Japan. I am a huge advocate of couch surfing, even if my daughter is not.
Couchsurfing gave us more money to spend on food and activities and – to some extent, dictated the places we visited while we were in Japan. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
We stayed with five different couch surfing hosts while in Japan and most of them lived in places we wouldn’t have ever thought about visiting. One or two of them were off the beaten track. All of them beautiful, untouristy and filled with unique things to do.
I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t particularly want to visit Japan, but my 16-year-old son has been obsessed with the Samurai and Japanese culture since he was about 9. Had I said we weren’t going I don’t think he would have ever talked to me again.
We are travelling the world for a year with our kids and Japan screamed expense. We are trying to see the world on $80 a day for four of us, so I couldn’t imagine how we could possibly afford to go there without applying to the bank for a second mortgage.
But, I had a plan.
We didn’t manage to backpack around Japan for three weeks on $80 a day – the cost of the Japanese Rail Pass took care of that, but we did succeed in travelling for three weeks in this gorgeous country, spending just $150 a day for four people, which I thought was pretty impressive.
That price included a trip to three temples, a castle, the movies, a saki tasting tour and a day at a theme park. I know. Amazing aren’t I?
Here’s how you can do it too.
The Perfect Way To See Japan – Two Week Itinerary Like a Local.
You will no doubt fly into Tokyo or Osaka. Flights to Japan can be pricey. We happened upon a really cheap flight from HongKong using Skyscanner. They are who you need to use if you want to compare dates, airports and flights to get the best deal.
We didn’t know it at the time but the flight to Japan was cheap because it was the first day of the Japan Golden Week. Sometimes it pays to do your homework. Just a little bit. But in saying that, we never make any long-term plans if we can help it and it seems to always work out better for us this way.
What to Pack for a Trip to Japan.
As little as possible.
Buying things like raincoats, umbrellas and even shoes, can be done at very little cost by shopping at one of the many ‘100- yen shops‘. The Japanese equivalent to the American Dollar store.
But a million times better.
Here you can buy everything from slippers to wellington boots. From shampoo to mosquito repellent. Honestly, don’t bother carrying a load of heavy gear with you to Japan for that ‘just in case’ moment. Buy it when you are there. We went in May and it rained just once. We did as the locals would do and bought thin rain ponchos. Perfect.
Best Apps To Get For Your Phone To Make Travelling Japan Easier.
What you must get before you set off on your trip to Japan is a couple of Apps for your phone. We couldn’t have done this trip quite so easily as we did without these apps.
Hyperdia. The essential app For Travel In Japan.
The only app you need to use if you are travelling around Japan by train. Its free for the first month and then you pay a monthly subscription, so be sure to get it just before you leave for Japan. This app gives you the best route, as well as costs (if your train isn’t included in the JR pass ticket) and times. There are loads of cool filters that you can apply to make it even more personalised. Don’t think of trying to navigate the Japanese rail system without this App. Click here to get the Hyperdia App for your phone or iPad
Yomiwa. Japanese Dictionary.
This great little App saved us so many times! It can be used to learn Japanese words but the feature that we used CONSTANTLY was the point and shoot camera to translate Japanese words. In a restaurant at the supermarket, it is invaluable. Click here to get the Yomiwa App for your phone or iPad.
Day 1-3. OSAKA. (Osaka Prefecture)
Osaka was the one place where we actually paid for accommodation. We hunted around for weeks to find a good deal and after nearly giving up we ended up with this place. It was central and cheap we stayed there for three nights just so that we could get our bearings and catch our breath after six weeks in Vietnam. I don’t know how to link to a certain property on Airbnb so I can’t give you the exact place. It is the one in the pictures that looks like something out of an Ikea showroom. And it was no more than $40. Good luck. I’ve included the link for Airbnb below in the ‘where to stay’ section.
We spent our days in Osaka wondering around the streets and visiting free parks. The one that we loved the most was Sumiyoshi park. It is the oldest park in Osaka and is beautiful. Go and sit on a bench in the shady trees and watch the Japanese people come to the fountain and exercise the ritual of drinking the water from the wooden ladle and then washing their hands. Marvel at the families whose children don’t make a sound.
Across the road from the park is a street filled with shops. Not department store shops, but individual traders selling arts and crafts. You will also find a dollar shop, in Japan, it is called the 100 yen shop. Go there to have a look. Things are incredibly cheap (naturally) I challenge you to not buy at least one item from there.
We bought house slippers to wear while staying with our hosts.I still haven’t thrown them away.
Little Tip: Don’t buy Dominoes takeaway pizza if you are on a budget in Japan. They cost a fortune.
Try these little dumplings filled with fish and served with a mayonnaise and bbq sauce. Takoyaki is served on most street corners in Osaka. They were devoured by my teenagers before I got a look in. Luckily they are cheap, so we ordered more and enjoyed wandering around the streets popping the hot little morsels into our mouths!
Things to do in Osaka on a Budget:
- Sumiyoshi Taisha. The oldest shrine in Japan.
- Wander around the little craft shops but only spend at the 100 Yen store.
- Visit the Minoh Park. It is gorgeous and free. Walk along one of the many free trails or take a packed lunch and admire the 33-metre tall waterfall.
Where to Stay in Osaka.
- If you don’t want to try Couchsurfing on this two-week itinerary of Japan then we suggest using Airbnb or Booking.com.
- Osaka is the place that we couldn’t find a host to take the four of us so we used Airbnb. We were thrilled with our place. It is small but perfectly adequate and spotless (like everywhere in Japan) Use this link, and you will receive $30 off your first booking with Airbnb.
- For an inexpensive and beautifully clean hostel, we would recommend the Raku Hostel. The hostels in Japan are probably the best in the world and this one is no exception. Book early though, this place fills up fast. Click here for prices on the Raku Hostel.
- If you are feeling flash we heard rave reviews about The City Plaza. This will be on my list for when it is just the two of us! Certainly an option for when you would like a little extra luxury. Click here for prices on The City Plaza in Osaka.
Day 4-5: TAKAMATSU (Kagawa Prefecture)
This beautiful town sits on the water’s edge surrounded by beautiful blue water. This was our first couch surfing in Japan experience, and the hosts were just lovely. They cooked us two traditional Japanese meals which we ate cross-legged on the floor and up to a very low table. I worried that my son was going to send everything flying when he attempted to cross his legs but no, all was well.
Ritsurin Gardens are one of the most famous historical gardens in Japan. The gardens are set against the dense woodland of Mt Shiun. Admission was approx 400 yen which is almost $5 – so even we could afford it.
The gardens are glorious, and the perfect place to people watch and esca[e the heat of the midday sun. There are a couple of traditional tea rooms, but we didn’t go for that. Instead, we bought an ice cream and wondered leisurely around the lakes, taking time to lay under the enormous trees and catch our breath.
Don’t look at my son on his phone. Pretend he is reading a book on Japanese culture.
We hired bikes from the railway station at Takamatsu. Outside the station, to the right, you will see an elevator. Take this down to the bottom floor, and you will come to the best little find in Takamatsu. A vast underground bicycle rental place. The people who hire the bikes are super friendly, and the instructions are all in English. You will need your passport or another form of identification, and then you are set to go!
To hire four bikes for the day cost us $8 and it was money well spent. We cycled all over the city weaving in and out of the calm traffic of the city streets. Marvelling at how courteous the drivers were. We bought sandwiches from the 7- Eleven and cycled out to a school, spending an hour or so in the shade watching the high school kids practising their baseball skills – just like locals.
There is a fabulous lighthouse in Takamatsu. It was the worlds first glass lighthouse to be constructed.
Make sure you cycle out to it as the sun is about to set as we did. You can buy a can of whiskey and soda from the seven eleven and some snacks for about $5. Take it and watch the sunset over the sparkling water and sit alongside the Japanese workers in their suits.
Things to do in Takamatsu:
- Ritsurin Gardens
- Spend a couple of hours at the redeveloped Sunport district outside of the station. It’s a great place to people watch.
- Take a look at Takamatsu castle. One of the few Japanese castles to have been built along the waterfront.
Where to Stay in Takamatsu
We recommend The Dormy Inn in Takamatsu.
It is a chain but they are always consistently good and you can get fabulous deals.
This inn was the top choice of our hosts because of the rooftop onsen. What a perfect way to spend the evening after exploring Takamatsu. Click here to check prices for The Dormy Inn.
Day 5: Hiroshima (Hiroshima Prefecture)
Hiroshima needs no introduction. Even if I was never that keen on spending time in Japan, a visit to this 1942 nuclear victim had always been on my places in the world to see.
The first thing that will strike you about this city is that how upbeat it is. And why wouldn’t it be? I don’t know; I was expecting everyone to be walking around with a sad look on their faces and for the city to feel barren and desolate. The reality is a trendy city centre filled with wine bars and restaurants.
We took a tour for a few hours in Hiroshima with Get my Guide because we were only there for the day and we couldn’t be bothered to try and navigate everything. I recommend you do the same. Something as special as Hiroshima is so much better with a local who knows all the facts and stories.
If you are strapped for cash, (I understand, honestly, I do!) you can see the exhibition in the foyer for free. It’s awe-inspiring and to be honest, the bit that you pay for is just more of what you can see for free. There was also a huge high school group up there which made the place busy.
Things to do in Hiroshima.
- If you want to do a tour of the city we absolutely loved this tour from Get My Guide. It is aptly called ‘Hiroshima like a local’ and is the best tour out there. Fabulous price too.
Where to stay in Hiroshima:
The Hiroshima Hostel En is located close to the station so it serves as a central base for everything you will want to see. The rooms are spacious and the owners are lovely.
This hostel got rave reviews from our local hosts and is a fabulous price. Remember what I told you though, book early to avoid disappointment! Click here to check prices for The Hiroshima Hostel En.
Day 5-7: Obama City. (Fukui Prefecture.)
Of all the places we visited in Japan, the village of Nakai, a picturesque hamlet deep in the forest in the Fukui Prefecture just north of Obama city was our best place by far.
Obama (which means ‘small beach’ in Japanese) City is steeped in incredible history. It has been one of the port towns on the sea of Japan side since ancient times and has been the entrance from the continent to Japan since the 7 century.
Once in Obama, visit the Sanchomachi district. This area is crammed with delightfully preserved old buildings and houses. In medieval times this area was a red light district, now there are a couple of Japanese restaurants that have Geisha girls. If you walk along the windy streets, you may be lucky enough to hear the Geisha girls singing.
We took a local bus from Nakia into the town of Obama but you can stay in Obama City itself and visit the village for the day. Please remember that this area of Japan is not yet set up for English speaking tourists. The locals try their hardest to converse but you may need to put google translate on your phone.
Take a look at this video that my son – Sonny, made. You’ll see why we loved it so much.
Obama is the largest exporter of chopsticks throughout Japan, producing 80% of Japan’s eating utensils. While in Obama, you can visit the fabulous chopstick factory and make your very own chopsticks!
We were there for an hour or so choosing the colour and then getting to play on the hazardous fast spinning thing. If you are in Japan with kids try and take them to the chopstick factory. My teenagers loved it. There is also a lovely shop attached to the factory where you can buy special gifts. The entrance price includes a cup of green tea too!
What to do in Obama City
- Visit the chopstick factory.
- Take a local cruise (book it through your hotel or buy tickets directly from the fisherman’s market) so see the Sotomo caves. A cheap and relaxing way to spend the afternoon.
- Obama Food Cultural Centre. If you are a foodie this will interest you. It is a free museum showcasing Japan’s food history. There are also traditional Japanese games that will keep the kids happy while you look around.
Where to Stay in Obama City
If you would like to experience a traditional Japanese Hotel in Obama, we would recommend the Itaya Hotel.
It is excellent value for money and in a fabulous location. I haven’t eaten there but am told by our hosts that the reputation of the restaurant is said to be amazing. Click here for prices on The Itaya Hotel.
Day 7-8: YOSHINOYAMA. (Nara Prefecture).
If you are coming to Yoshinoyama via Osaka then the journey is approx 90 minutes but note that not all of the journey is covered by the JR Pass.
Sakura is the Japanese word for cherry blossom and Mt Yoshino in the Nara prefecture holds the title for having ‘a thousand sakura in one view’.
In spring, hoards of visitors flock to witness the masses of trees that adorn the mountainside ladened with pink cherry blossom. But know that it is extremely beautiful (and wonderfully quiet) in the months following.
We visited just a few weeks or so after the blossoms had finished. Although this meant that we never got to see the trees in all of their splendour, it did mean that there were no tourists and the leaves of the trees were a beautiful vibrant green.
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You can take a train from the town of Yoshino (8 mins) and it will take you directly to the cable car station. Or you can do as we did and walk. I warn you though, it’s along a road so take care. If you do choose the road you can admire the Japanese homes along the way.
You can take the cable car from Yoshino station up the hill to the small town. It is a 3-minute ride and is said to be beautiful. When we visited the lift was closed. This cable car is said to be the oldest aerial lift in Japan and acts not only as a tourist sightseeing line to the mountain but also as a commuter line for the residents of the area.
If you are eager to get some exercise (or are too tight to pay the $5 a person), do as we did and walk. It is a beautiful climb, the smell of the trees and the wildflowers that carpet the banks make the climb all the easier.
The little town at the base of the mountain is in the Shimo Senbon area and is like something off a chocolate box. The cobblestone streets are lined with trees and pretty window displays. There are restaurants and stalls selling food but as you can imagine they were expensive. Certainly out of our price range, we had brought a packed lunch with us from the supermarket down in the town.
Climb to the top of the hill to where all the signs are pointing to. and go to the graveyard on your left. Kepp walking through until you see the raised bank at the end. Sit there and enjoy not only the view of the beautiful trees but also the Japanese tourists parking their cars calmly and quietly in a very orderly fashion. What can I say? I enjoy the small pleasures in life!
Things to do in Yoshinoyama
- If you are lucky enough to be visiting in cherry blossom season then sit back, breathe and enjoy the view
- Walk through the beautiful historic town of Yoshino
- Spend the day visiting the many temples and shrines.
Where to stay in Yoshinoyama
- The Ryokan Kato Hotel was recommended to us by the host that we were staying with. It is an ideal location and includes breakfast which is served in a wooden cabin overlooking the forest! How amazing would that be?!
Day 8-10: Nagoya (Aichi Prefecture)
There are heaps of things to do in Nagoya, especially if you have kids, but we spent our time at the Nagashima Spaland Amusement Park.
It is a huge resort with gardens, a shopping mall, a waterpark with Onsens and more importantly for us an amusements park with the longest rollercoaster and tallest wooden roller coaster in the world. Even if you don’t have kids this place is worth every penny.
And if you are a thrill fanatic then you are in for a treat. I have never been thrown around at such high speeds in all my life. Of course, this is Japan so everything feels very safe and proper. My kids thought they had died and gone to heaven. I thought I was going to be sick and die.
Things to do in Nagoya
- Nagoya Public Aquarium
- Zoo and Botanical gardens
- Nagoya Castle
- Walk along the beautiful Yamazaki River and admire the cherry trees. Beautiful spots for photographs.
Where to stay in Nagoya:
For those of you travelling without kids, there really is no other place to recommend in Nagoya other than the fabulous Kyoya Ryokan.
A Ryokan is a traditional Japanese Inn and this one is something of a gem in Nagoya. The only downside it is is for adults only so no little children I’m afraid.
Day 10 – 12 SHIMOSUWA (Nagano Prefecture)
We headed up North from Nagoya to Shimosuwa. Here we stayed by the fabulous Suwa lake. It is a peaceful town with a population not much more than 20,000. If you come here you will truly feel that you are in Japan.
Apart from the beautiful lake that has a softened tarmac walkway running around its perimeter for joggers and pram pushers, there is a train station, parks and some lovely restaurants. It was here that we ate the best ramen noodles we have ever tasted.
Using Shimosuwa as a base you will be able to take full advantage of your Japanese Rail Pass and visit the beautiful mountain City of Matsumoto. Here you will find a 16th-century castle nicknamed the ‘Crow Castle’ because of its distinctive black walls. Do not miss a trip to Nakamachi Street which is lined with old merchant houses from a bygone Japan.
You are never far away from the stunning view of the Japanese snow-capped Alps. This area is simply stunning and I urge you not to miss it.
What to do in Shimosuwa
- Walk around the lake and admire the breathtaking scenery
- Take an Onsen with the locals
- Eat Ramen noodles at the restaurant opposite the lake!
- Take day trips to Matsumoto. Don’t worry about the length of the train journey, you will no doubt have the train to yourself and the view every bit of the way is gorgeous.
Where to stay in Shimosuwa:
We were told about the Kamisuwa Onsen Aburaya Ryokan by our hosts who have lived in this area for fifty years.
It’s right on the water’s edge so the views are lovely. It’s a little more expensive than I would expect, but the locals say it is worth it. Click here to check out the prices of Kamisuwa Onsen Aburaya Ryokan
Day 12 – 14 Shizuoka (Shizuoka Prefecture)
I know it is going to be difficult for me to convince you not to stay in Tokyo but I’ll give it a go.
Shizuko is a city just 40 mins from Tokyo, and this is why we chose it. There were no Couchsurfing hosts that could take a family of four, so we had to look further afield. If you have the JR Pass it doesn’t really matter where you are staying.
From Shizuko, you can be in the centre of Tokyo in less than an hour. Probably the same amount of time you will spend standing in line for the elevator to arrive on the eighth floor of your hotel in Tokyo.
You could just use Shizuko as a base for Tokyo which is what we did for a couple of days, or if you are really not into big cities and neon you could explore what this city has to offer.
First of all, let me tell you that Mt Fuji is ever present when you are in the City of Shizuko. I was desperate to see this beautiful mountain. I live in Taranaki in New Zealand where we also have a mountain. Mt Taranaki was used as Mt Fujis body double in the Tom Cruise’s film The Last Samurai. A little bit of added movie trivia for you.
Go to Miho no Matsubara. a wild black sand beach fringed by highly scented pine trees and offering wonderful views of the mountain.
Things to do in Shizuoka
- Find the best spots to take photos of Mt Fuji
- Pop into the Shizuoka City Museum of Art while you wait an hour for your train. It’s located just across from the railway station. Not massive but interesting displays of both modern and cultural Japanese art.
- Take the train to Toyko. Sit and watch how polite everyone is to one another. Even in Tokyo!
Where to stay in Shizuoka:
It’s pretty swanky but if you feel like pushing the boat out for your last night then you could stay at the Nippondaira Hotel. The rooms are luxurious and the service is said to be top notch. We had friends who stayed here for a week while they explored this part of Japan and they raved about it.
So, that is our own version of a Japan two week itinerary! As you can see it’s quite full on but then I think you have to make the most of every day you have in Japan. You can always rest on the trains, they are like hotels in themselves.
If it really does look too full on then you could always miss Nagoya and spend an extra day relaxing in Obama City.
And don’t forget to buy a Japanese Rail Pass. Yes, they are very expensive but they make your trip so much more enjoyable. You are going to LOVE Japan. I promise. Leave me a comment and let me know how it went!