Updated with new information! (January 2014)
I've been asked a few times for suggestions for first time visits to Japan. It's actually a reasonably inexpensive destination, especially considering the low cost fares now available from the region. Below is a suggested short itinerary to give you a taste of the country. It shouldn't be considered a definitive list as the country has so much to offer and even after nine visits I still feel like I have so much left to see and experience. However, a mistake that I think a lot of tourists make is to restrict themselves to the big cities, such as Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto. They are fascinating places in their own right, but can be overwhelming for the new visitor.
If on a short introductory stay in Japan I would suggest either Osaka or Kyoto as your port of entrance and departure over Tokyo (there are direct trains to both from Kansai International Airport) as they are more compact and closer to the other suggested sights. That said, they are only 3 hours away by Shinkansen train, which is an experience in itself.
As for when to go, cherry blossom season in early April is absolutely magical, as will be Autumn with its multicoloured foliage. Early June can also be pleasant, but avoid later in Summer (eg September) when it is hot and muggy. Perhaps Winter is also nice, but I've never visited then.
|Kiyamachi street, Kyoto|
Jetstar flights arrive late in the evening and it takes an hour or so to get into Osaka, by which time most places are shutting down for the night. I suggest staying in the south of the city, around the Namba or Shinsaibashi area and catching the amazing private Nankai Rapi:t Express (not covered by the JR Pass, but pretty cheap) into Namba station. This is where you will find the neon canyons and lots of shopping. The alternative, if you are catching a train early the next day, is around Shin-Osaka, which means catching the
JR Haruka. The area around Shin-Osaka is pretty dead.
The train ride up from Nagoya (some trains leave direct from Shin-Osaka) to Takayama is very scenic, winding up along a river and into the Japanese Alps. Takayama has a beautifully preserved old town which is lovely for a stroll. There are many small shops selling local crafts and food stuffs. Indeed, the local cuisine is a reason to visit, especially the Hida Beef. Grilled skewers cost about A$5, but it's worth grilling your own or trying shabu-shabu in a restaurant. Hoba miso, beef and local vegetables with miso wrapped in a magnolia leaf and grilled over a small charcoal fire is also wonderful.
|Old Takayama street|
The scenic train ride continues from Takayama to Toyama. From there, change trains for Kanazawa, one of the prettiest cities in Japan. Kanazawa's greatest attraction is the Kenroku-en gardens, probably the best in Japan. The preserved Nagamachi samurai district is also good for a stroll around, with canals of gushing water, and old houses of the wealthy. The Nomura Family's home is worth visiting with an amazing garden condensed into such a small space. The Museum for Local Arts and Crafts, near Kenroku-en, contains beautiful examples of regional pottery, lacquerware, silk dyeing and other crafts. The pottery is fairly expensive, but makes for a gorgeous souvenir of Japan, as do some of the other local crafts. The castle area and the Higashi geisha district are also pleasant places to walk around.
|Nomura family home|
|Higashi geisha district|
Trains run direct from Kanazawa to Kyoto, an old capital of Japan. Kyoto can be a little difficult to get around by public transport as the buses are slow and many places are not well served by the metro system, but it's absolutely worth a visit. There are many more sights than can be done in a single trip.
If you time is limited then I would recommend skipping the famous Kinkakuji golden temple and Roanji zen garden. Instead, take a walk through the Gion district, up past the old shops of Chawan-zawa to Kiyomizu-dera temple, then back past the old shops of Sanen and Ninen-zaka. Basically this trip. If you have another day, try Arashiyama with its famous bamboo forest and many pretty temples.
From Kyoto you can return direct to Kansai Airport on the Haruka Express, or you could visit...
Hiroshima and Miyajima Island
Visiting Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park and Museum is a truly moving experience of the horrors of the atom bomb. Miyajima Island may be a bit more touristy, but the gorgeous temples, scenery and funny deer make for a very enjoyable trip. We managed to combine the two (and a visit to Okayama's gardens along the way) as a Shinkansen day trip from Osaka.
Onsens are a truly wonderful experience. If you are shy or want to share with family then you can often have a private bath at ryokans with onsen facilities. It's worth the extra expense, if just for a night. During our sole onsen ryokan experience the food was wonderful as well. Some cheap Super Hotels and Dormy Inns have shared onsens. Even if you can't make it into an onsen, the foot baths are very pleasant. There are plenty of onsen towns across Japan.
For a very different onsen experience, visit the steaming hells of Beppu, in Kyushu. It's actually a lot of fun.
|Doesn't look so hellish|
Try to visit a real castle with a wooden interior rather than a concrete reconstruction, like the externally impressive Osaka Castle. Apparently, the greatest old castle in Japan, Himeji, is currently undergoing a reconstruction. Instead you could visit the black castle at Matsumoto - especially beautiful in cherry blossom season and a day trip from Tokyo. The castle at Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku is also very good, plus the city has the famous Dogo onsen. Take the time to visit the lovely Ritsuen garden in Takamatsu on the way back.
Tokyo is definitely another world. There is so much to see and do, but it can be confronting if you are not used to Japan. In Tokyo we always try to stay in Shinjuku, near the world's busiest train station (it is served by some Narita Express train from the airport, but not Shinkansens). This is where you will see the famous neon canyons that are so unlike anything in Australia, and where you will find so much shopping. For the nearest fix of older Japan, visit Asakusa, but beware it is busy on weekends!
If you are going to confine your stay to a single city then there are still plenty of interesting day trips that you can do. Thanks to Japan's high speed rail network it's possible to do many major city pairs as a day trip. It is often cheap however to use private railway lines (not covered by the JR Pass) for interesting and scenic day trips to smaller locations.
If you are just going to stay in Tokyo, but want to see more of Japan consider pretty Kamakura with it's Enoden trams, temples and woodland walks, or beautiful Nikko with its famous temples and bridge, or even old Kawagoe. A day trip up to the castle city of Matsumoto is also possible.
|Daibatsu in Kamakura|
If you want to catch a Shinkansen pass then Okayama has a pretty strolling garden and reconstructed castle and Hiroshima and Miyajima have been discussed above. Himeji's castle is supposed to be the most impressive in Japan, but is currently under maintenance. A much less impressive, but still pretty castle, garden and museum can be found overlooking Lake Biwa at Hikone. Kyoto and Osaka are close by and travelling on private lines between them is more scenic than the JR line. The old capital of Nara is a must see for its many grand temples and bowing deer. The ride up to the Buddhist complex of Koya-san from Osaka's Namba station is astonishingly scenic, while the destination itself is beautiful for strolling around.
|Korakuen gardens in Okayama|
Even if your trip to Japan consists only of a stopover at Narita Airport you can still make it worthwhile. It takes only 10 minutes or so by the Keisei private line to get to Narita city. Take a walk down the old shops of Omote-Sando to the Narita-san temple with its fabulous gardens. It's worth a visit in its own right.
Shinkansens (bullet trains) run between Osaka and Kyoto to Tokyo taking about three hours. They are fast and very comfortable. Don't worry that your railpass doesn't cover the fastest of them - there isn't that much difference between the different types. Try to sit on the left hand side if going from Osaka to Tokyo, or the right if going in the opposite direction. You may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of venerated Mt Fuji. On a clear day it is spectacular.
Whilst everyone gets excited about the super fast super comfortable Shinkansens, I have fallen in love with the slower lines. The scenery can be quite spectacular on these and you get a real sense of local Japan as you chug away in a small train. Pick a line, any line, and you might be surprised. I usually am. It can often be quite cost effective and convenient to use one of the many Japanese rail passes.
I hope that I've inspired you to see this wonderful country. Please also take a look at falling in love with Japan.