Japan had been on our travel list for several years. It was the runner-up, if you will, for our vacation destination in 2013, when we ultimately opted for New Zealand. My interest in visiting Japan began much earlier, however, in second grade when I entered and placed in my school’s social studies fair with an exhibit about the country. A family friend had spent time there and loaned me photos and souvenirs from his travels. I was captivated.
Planning our Itinerary
Once we settled on Japan, deciding where to focus our time was no easy task. Between the primary northern and southern islands of Hokkaido and Kyushu, and the “mainland” in between, Japan is richly diverse. Tokyo and Kyoto were locks; it was the rest of the trip that was up for debate. We each made our arguments for the outlying islands of our preference – Kyushu for me and Hokkaido for Derek – but sadly, we soon realized this trip wouldn’t afford us time enough to venture that far. We considered and dismissed other locales: the Fuji Five Lake region (mixed reviews from friends who have visited/low probability of actually seeing Mount Fuji); the Jigokudani Monkey Park (wrong season to see monkeys in the hot springs/out of the way from other areas of interest); and Hiroshima (single-attraction location*/out of the way from other areas of interest), among others. Finally, we selected the Japanese Alps area, which allowed us to fulfill several interests, including multi-day hiking and a stay at a luxury onsen ryokan.
As per usual, time constraints and our desire to experience the areas we visit as opposed to simply passing through dictated a compact itinerary. Despite the rather small geographic area in which we remained, we were on the move quite often.
Our final itinerary was as follows:
- Day 1: Arrive in Tokyo
- Days 2 – 4: Tokyo
- Day 4: Koyasan
- Days 5 – 8: Kyoto
- Day 9: Kanazawa
- Day 10: Takayama
- Day 11: Fukuji Onsen
- Days 12 – 13: Kamikochi
- Day 14: Depart from Tokyo
Note: This map is not a perfect representation of our travels, as it depicts directions for driving vs. public transportation. Also, I was unable to show a route to/from Kamikochi, so the nearby onsen town of Hirayu is shown instead.
There is no set formula for how to develop your itinerary, but trusting your travel preferences is key. In some cases, we subjugated our own established priorities in favor of the universal cries of “you MUST see/do this” with disappointing results.
We are not “box checkers.” In our travels, we often eschew major attractions in favor of experiences, which we find more rewarding and revealing. In our trips to London and Rome, we haven’t visited the Tower of London or the Coliseum. We have attended a garden party in Islington, had afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason and gathered the ingredients for a perfect caprese salad and charcuterie plate at a local farmers’ market.
With this in mind, it’s with a heavy heart that I admit I just did not enjoy particular parts of our trip, namely the primary attractions of Kyoto. I will address this more in the Kyoto recap, but suffice to say that overall I was disappointed with the city. There were things I liked, and in fact, we had our best meal in Kyoto and enjoyed a couple of unique excursions. But would I devote four days there if I could redo the trip? No. Instead, I would perhaps allot two days.
This is in contrast to the majority of recommendations one will find on travel forums, where I frequently read recommendations from others suggesting that a week be spent in Kyoto. Again, it comes down to your personal preferences and how you like to travel. My suggestion is to trust your instincts.
*I fully understand that a museum dedicated to the dropping of an atomic bomb is not an “attraction” as we typically think of such and certainly mean no disrespect.