This spring we spent three weeks in Japan, one of the top tourist destinations of the moment. If you are travelling to Japan for the first time, like us you will probably want to see as much of the country as you can, while sticking to a budget. Here is how to plan the most joyful Japan 3 week itinerary for backpacking in Japan.
How to plan a Japan 3 week itinerary
If you’re wondering how to plan a trip to Japan, the first place to start is what inspired you to visit in the first place. Are you hoping to see temples and castles, eat sensational street food, relax on beaches or in the mountains, explore its modern city life, or all of these things?
Here’s the story of what inspired our first trip to Japan. While travelling through Malaysia with my boyfriend a few years ago, we took a break from the heat at a tranquil waterfall on the beautiful Tioman Island. Here, we met a young Japanese couple and we told them how we wanted to visit their country one day. Right there on the rocks, they sketched us a map outlining their recommendations of all the best places to go in Japan. This was our first, very rudimentary, Japan travel planner.
Five years later, we finally did it. We planned our Japan backpacking route to spend 3 weeks in Japan from mid-April to May. We hoped to visit as many places as possible that our Japanese friends had suggested.
As you can see from the map, their recommendations ranged from Niigata, in the north of Honshu, Japan’s main island, all the way 1250 miles (2000 km) down south to Okinawa, the tropical islands in the East China Sea.
If like us you’re planning to spend around 21 days in Japan, you are lucky. You will have time to fly to places like Okinawa, that not as many people visit.
Still, we found that we had to make the choice between heading north or south from Tokyo, because we couldn’t fit everything in. In the end, we chose to head south and leave northern Japan for another time.
My first tip for planning a trip to Japan is to pick a few places that you really want to see, as even with Japan’s famous high speed bullet train, travelling between cities can take several hours. Read on for more tips and a sample Japan itinerary for 21 days.
This is the best (and worst) time to visit Japan
Spring is said to be the best time to visit Japan because it’s cherry blossom season. For my trip to Japan, we decided to go from mid-April to the first week of May, over the Easter holidays. However, it’s good to check with a Japan itinerary planner first. It was only after I booked our flights with ANA (All Nippon Airways) that I realised that our dates coincided with Golden Week.
At the end of April and beginning of May every year, Golden Week in Japan is a time when there are a number of national holidays. At this time of year, many transport hubs, hotels and tourist attractions across the country are much busier than normal, if not fully booked. Normally the advice for international tourists is to avoid this period. For this reason, it’s better to go to Japan in March or early April, if you want to see the cherry blossom. The mild autumn months between September and November is another good time to visit, as summer in Japan can get very hot.
For us, Golden Week in 2019 coincided with the abdication of Japan’s Emperor Akihito and the ascension to the throne of his son Naruhito, Crown Prince of Japan, ushering in a new era for the country. As well as more extended national holidays, it was a momentous time in history to visit Japan. Read on for my full Japan trip planner to help you organise the best trip to Japan.
This is by far the fastest and best way to travel in Japan
As you will be travelling long distances in a relatively short space of time, the best way to travel around Japan is by bullet train, known in Japan as the Shinkansen. It is fast, comfortable and incredibly efficient.
Buying the bullet train tickets separately can be extremely expensive, so I highly recommend buying a Japan Rail (JR) Pass. This allows you to travel on the Shinkansen as often as you want within your Japan 21 day itinerary for a fixed price. You need to order it in advance before you leave, then exchange your voucher for the pass itself at a train station when you arrive. Find out more, buy your JR Pass and get a free Japan train planner here.
A Japan train tour like this is arguably the best way to see Japan if you are there for a week or more and visiting a few places – you can also buy a JR Pass for 1 week or 2 weeks. When you are looking into how to travel around Japan, you will see there are other options, such as buses and internal flights. Buses can be useful if your Japan travel route is more off-the-beaten path as the Shinkansen mainly serves the big cities. As we were taking flights for part of our trip, to visit Okinawa, we calculated that we didn’t need a JR Pass for 3 weeks to travel through Japan; we only needed to organise a 7 day Japan Rail Pass itinerary.
After you have planned your JR Pass Itinerary, you will need to book the individual tickets for the journeys at the train station. Then, the only thing you will need to worry about is getting on and off the train in time, as they only allow around one minute at each station, before speeding off to the next stop.
Tokyo – 5-6 nights
When deciding on your best itinerary for Japan, Tokyo is a must-stop on your list. You will probably fly in or out of Japan’s capital city at some point and there is so much to see and do here.
The lowdown on how long to spend in Tokyo
If you’re wondering how many days to spend in Tokyo, it depends on the priorities for your trip and how much you like city life. We met a couple who were spending a whole month in Tokyo, taking in the city’s many highlights, because they love it so much. On a Japan travel itinerary of 3 weeks, around 5 days in Tokyo should be enough, depending on your flight schedule. We flew in and out of Tokyo so we spent a few nights here at the beginning and end of our trip.
The super SIM card to buy for your 3 week trip to Japan
If you land at Tokyo’s Haneda airport, like us, make sure you head to the Bic Camera store on the third floor of arrivals and buy a B-Mobile 21 Days Visitor SIM.
This SIM card is perfect for a 3 week trip to Japan: mobile internet access done in one. The only thing you need to keep in mind is it doesn’t allow you to make calls.
Top ways to travel to and from the airport
Haneda airport is around 10 miles (16 km) from Tokyo city centre. The city’s other international airport, Narita, is around 40 miles (64 km) away. Rather than tackle the public transport from Haneda airport, we took a taxi to our accommodation as we were tired from our long-haul flight from Europe.
Be sure to take a print-out of the name and address of your accommodation in Japanese kanji characters, as some taxi drivers will not understand the names if they are written in the English alphabet. We liked how clean the taxis were and the lace seat covers. Some of them even have passenger doors that automatically open and close for you.
There are limousine shuttle buses operating between some areas of Tokyo and the city’s two main airports. This is a comfortable and cost-effective way to travel with all your luggage while backpacking through Japan. This is what we ended up doing for the rest of our trip when we were catching flights. Ask at the airport information desk, your hotel’s reception or click here for more information on locations and timetables.
For this first stop in our Japan travel itinerary, we stayed in a central part of Tokyo called Akasaka. This part of Tokyo is close to tourist attractions and parks, as well as being a convenient location to get around the city, as there are a couple of metro stations nearby.
In Akasaka you’ll find the peaceful Hie Shrine which is well worth a visit. This is known as Tokyo’s hidden shrine and has a numerous red torii gates marking its entrance. We saw local business people come here to pray and make offerings in this shrine, which is an oasis among the modern skyscrapers.
There are also a large number of great restaurants in Akasaka, so you will have plenty of choice of places to eat every day. Keep in mind that the menus may not be in English and the staff may not speak English either so you may have to point at a picture and hope for the best. We were lucky that a friendly local guy at the next table gave us his recommendations of the best dishes, so we were off to a good start.
A beautiful place for brunch in Akasaka is the Aoyama Flower Market teahouse. Located at the base of the Akasaka Business Tower, here you can dine on creative and tasty breakfast options, surrounded by stunning plants and flowers, as you sip their special tea of the day. Such a treat.
Tokyo backpackers guide to brilliant budget accommodation
Accommodation in Tokyo is relatively expensive and the rooms are smaller than usual Western hotel standards. Our favourite budget hotel in Tokyo was the Super Hotel Lohas Akasaka which has friendly staff and is in an ideal location with a 7-11 supermarket right next door. The hotel even its own onsen public bath, with specific times for men and women, which is dreamy and incredibly relaxing. Perfect after a long day of sightseeing.
The nearby top-rated Kaisu hostel is a brilliant choice for backpackers as it is clean, friendly and quiet, with a tasty free breakfast served daily in its cafe-bar. It offers the choice of mixed or female-only dorm rooms, as well as private rooms.
These are the top attractions in Tokyo
One of the reasons it’s good to spend a few days in Tokyo is because the city is larger and takes longer to travel around than you may think. One of the closest attractions to Akasaka is the Tokyo Tower, but it still takes 20-30 minutes to reach by public transport or on foot.
If it’s your birthday – like it was for me – they will give you a special package with free entry to ride to the top of Tokyo Tower and a complimentary drink or snack. From the summit there are incredible views over the city, so you can see for yourself how large it is.
Not far from Tokyo Tower – and by that I mean only 30 minutes on the metro – is Shibuya. Here you will find great shopping and the famous Shibuya Crossing, said to be the world’s busiest intersection. That said, it is incredibly well organised. Many people go for a coffee in the Starbucks in order to take photos from the window of all the people down below, scuttling across the road. Even though it’s only a pedestrian crossing, it’s quite the spectacle and a lot of fun, with people posing for shots along the way.
If you are a fan of Nintendo, you can book a tour where you don a onesie and drive in a convoy of go-karts around the city, Mario Kart-style. We saw one of these groups go past in Shibuya. A Super Nintendo World theme park is set to open in the nearby city of Osaka (see below) next year, to tie in with the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Following our Japanese friends’ recommendation, we visited Akihabara, a shopping hub full of electronics retailers, manga memorabilia shops and the Tokyo Anime Center. This was one of my favourite areas of Tokyo as it’s so colourful and lively. It is 30 minutes north of Akasaka via the city’s metro system.
Here we stopped for a drink and a cuddle with the cats at the MoCHA cat cafe. You can buy treats to attract the cats to eat from your hand. So cute!
In nearby Asakusa – still 20 minutes away by public transport – you can visit Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple which dates back to 645. Be warned, it gets incredibly crowded here, as it’s one of Tokyo’s most popular tourist attractions.
Around 25 minutes east of Sensō-ji is a much smaller Shinto temple called the Kameido Tenjin Shrine. This is a perfect place to go if you’re visiting Japan in the spring, as during a few short weeks there is a special festival when the gardens bloom with hundreds of wisteria. They hang over a tranquil turtle pond with cute bridges, paths and wisteria tunnels you can walk through. It was also crowded here when we came, but with more Japanese rather than international tourists.
A 15 minute walk from this temple is another of the city’s famous towers, the Tokyo Skytree. At 634 metres (over 2,000 feet) tall, it is hard to miss. In fact, it is the tallest tower in the world and there is a whole complex of restaurants inside. When we visited, we found it to be overwhelmingly busy so we didn’t ascend to the top.
If you’re a foodie, a great place to visit is Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market, around 20-30 minutes east of Akasaka, where you can find all kinds of local delicacies for sale.
Mount Fuji – the most fabulous day trip from Tokyo
About 1.5 hours from central Tokyo by train or bus is the famous Mount Fuji. This special place is well worth a day trip to enjoy the views. We were very fortunate to have perfect weather to see this magnificent mountain as often the summit is obscured by clouds.
From Kawaguchiko Station rent a bicycle or take the Red Line bus to Oishi Park. This route is usually not as busy as some of the others, so it won’t be so crowded when you get there. The gardens, flowers and lake provide a beautiful foreground for your Mount Fuji photos. The blueberry ice cream from the cafe at the nearby Kawaguchiko Natural Living Center will make your experience even sweeter.
Okinawa – 4-5 nights
The next destination in our backpacking Japan itinerary was Okinawa, as recommended by our Japanese friends in Malaysia. Located hundreds of miles south of the main Japanese islands in the Pacific Ocean, the Okinawa islands have a subtropical climate, with average temperatures above 20°C all year round.
Known as Japan’s best-kept secret, the islands have quiet sandy beaches, as well as an aquarium that was once the world’s largest. We took a domestic ANA flight from Tokyo for the three hour journey and took a limousine bus from the airport to our accommodation.
The most interesting area to stay in Okinawa
Okinawa has a large international cultural influence, notably that of the U.S., which has a large military base there. We stayed on the main Okinawa Island in Chatan, close to American Village.
This colourfully-lit area feels like a mini-Vegas which is totally in contrast to the rest of Japan. It is full of restaurants, shops and entertainment venues with an American touch.
This is a truly fabulous hotel in Okinawa
Our hotel was the gorgeous new Doubletree by Hilton Okinawa Chatan resort overlooking the sea, a short walk from American Village. We decided to spend more money on accommodation here than we would normally because it was for my birthday. It was well worth it.
Our large room included two double beds and a wet room with an absolutely blissful rain shower head.
This contemporary hotel is stylish with great facilities, including a cafe/shop, and the staff are incredibly friendly and helpful.
I would recommend choosing an ocean-facing room because the sunset views are absolutely stunning. We sat on our balcony and looked out over the ocean as much as we could. I’ve never stayed in a hotel like this that was so close to the coast.
Unique things to eat and drink in Okinawa
There are many unique dishes in Okinawa, thanks to its many international influences. These include taco rice, a Japanese-American fusion inspired by the nearby U.S. military base.
Our favourite restaurant discovery was a semi-hidden restaurant called Oshino. Here, each table is fixed with its own teppanyaki grill, where your food is cooked in front of you. They even give you a special spatula to cut and serve your meal onto your plate. The restaurant specialises in original versions of teppanyaki dishes.
Everything we ate here was good but my favourite was a Tex-Mex take on Japan’s famous okonomiyaki savoury pancake dish, which you won’t find anywhere else in the country.
In the wake of World War II, Spam, the famous U.S. tinned pork brand, was one of the few sources of meat for the islanders and fit is still popular today. In the American Village’s huge Aeon supermarket, you can find many flavours of Spam.
A popular breakfast for Okinawa residents is a Spam sushi sandwich. This breakfast sushi sandwich is rice covered with nori seaweed and filled with egg, Spam and tomato ketchup. It is surprisingly tasty.
The famous Japanese dish of tempura – battered and deep fried seafood and vegetables – was in fact inspired by a meat-free, deep-fried recipe from Portuguese traders arriving in Japan’s historic port city of Nagasaki (see below) during the 16th century. The best place to find it in Okinawa is at the Oshiro tempura shop on the tiny Oishi island, just off the south of Okinawa island.
In Okinawa, they use local ingredients in their tempura, including goya bitter melon and benimo, the purple sweet potatoes Okinawans love to use in both savoury and sweet dishes.
A popular souvenir from Okinawa is the region’s famous sweet potato tarts. At the airport, you will find many examples of these bright purple treats to pick up as a unique gift.
Okinawa has its own brand of American-style beer, called Orion. It has been widely consumed on the island for the last 60 years. You can visit the Orion Happy Park in Nago, around 45 north of Chatan, and tour the factory where Orion beer is brewed.
The best way to get around Okinawa
There isn’t yet a good public transport infrastructure in Okinawa and taxis are expensive, so the best way to travel around in Okinawa is by car. The fantastic staff at our hotel helped us hire a car from a local rental shop to explore the island.
In Japan, people drive on the left and the roads have a relatively low speed limit. For this reason, even with a car, we found it took longer than expected to visit places. However, in general the local drivers are calm and polite which makes driving here quite pleasant, even if you are not used to driving on the left.
These are the most important attractions in Okinawa
The Battle of Okinawa was World War II’s last major battle. This year marked the 75 year anniversary of when over 180,000 American troops invaded Okinawa island, as part of their strategy to defeat Japan.
Okinawa’s Peace Memorial Park, a 40 minute drive from Chatan, is a vast and thought-provoking place. Here, you can walk around the various sites and pay your respects to the many lives lost on both sides of the battle. There is also a museum where you can discover the devastating impact of the war on Okinawa and its people.
I loved Sefa-Utaki, a sacred space with an enormous spiritual significance for Okinawa. It is 50 minutes from Chatan by car. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the main sites where for thousands of years people have come to worship in Okinawa’s native Ryukyuan religion. This religion values paying respects to our ancestors, as well as the gods and spirits of the natural world.
According to Ryukyuan texts, Sefa-Utaki was the spot where Amamikyu, the goddess of creation, first manifested and set foot on Okinawa. Kings and priestesses would make pilgrimages here to conduct important ceremonies and pray for the prosperity of the kingdom and its harvests. Winding staircases and footpaths lead through lush jungle surroundings to shrine areas and notable rock formations. The last place you reach is the most sacred. Here, two huge rocks lean against each other, forming a triangle-shaped space, like a natural cathedral.
Beautiful beaches and scuba diving in Okinawa
There are beautiful beaches in Okinawa with hardly a soul on them. One of the best is Oodomari beach on the remote Ikei Island. It can be reached by car – one hour from Chatan – thanks to a series of bridges from Okinawa island. You will need to pay a small fee to the beach’s owners and you can enjoy the area almost to yourself. The sea is ideal for swimming – clear, clean and full of fish. There are basic showers where you can wash off the sand afterwards.
If you are feeling adventurous, there are many scuba-diving sites around Okinawa. The islands are surrounded by coral reefs. We headed towards the neighbouring island’s Kerama National Park on our scuba-diving trip.
For your perfect three week Japan itinerary, you may prefer to leave Okinawa until the end of your trip so you can relax on the beaches after all the city sightseeing.
Nagasaki – 1-2 nights
After Okinawa, we were looking for the most convenient direct flight back to the south of Japan’s main islands. We discovered an affordable price for a flight to the city of Nagasaki, taking just 1.5 hours, so we went ahead and booked it as the next stop on our Japan trip itinerary.
We had only heard of Nagasaki because of the devastating atomic bomb attack the city suffered during World War II at the hand of the United States. But the place has a fascinating history that started long before this tragedy befell it.
Today a city of over 425,000 people, Nagasaki began as a small fishing village. In the mid-16th century, Portuguese explorers landed here and over the years it became a popular port city for traders from China and countries across Europe.
On our walk from Nagasaki station to our accommodation, we were surprised to see a Christian church: the Nakamachi Catholic Church. It turns out, the arrival of the Europeans in the 16th century brought Christianity to Japan and the religion gained popularity in Nagasaki and beyond. However, Christianity was soon suppressed by the Japanese rulers of the time, who persecuted anyone declaring themselves a Christian. Japan was then officially secluded from international influence for two centuries, until the 1850s. Nagasaki’s ‘Hidden Christian Sites’ are now on the UNESCO World Heritage List as they tell the story of how the religion was revived when Japan opened its doors again in the 19th century.
Where to stay at a traditional ryokan in Nagasaki
Here in Nagasaki, we stayed in a traditional Japanese ryokan, called Fujiwara Ryokan, where the floors are covered with tatami straw mats and the futon bedding is folded up in the corner.
The host is Isamu Fujiwara-san, a delightful older man whose English is limited, but who is incredibly kind and welcoming His partner prepares a delicious traditional Japanese breakfast for guests. When you arrive, you will find yukata robes to wear and a fresh pot of green tea to help you re-hydrate after your journey.
Just a a 9-minute walk from Nagasaki train station, Fujiwara Ryokan is conveniently located and has five rooms. At first glance, it is basic accommodation, but there is free Wi-Fi, air-conditioning and flat-screen TVs in each room. It was a unique, traditional experience – with modern conveniences – for our three week Japan itinerary, which was very special.
Make a stop here for melt-in-the-mouth yakitori
Isamu Fujiwara-san at Fujiwara Ryokan gave us a map of recommended local restaurants. Thanks to him, we discovered a restaurant called Yakitori Torimasa Ebisu, where we ate heavenly yakitori – chargrilled meats, seafood and veg on skewers. Seriously, it all tasted so good and simply melted in our mouths.
Helpfully, the restaurant has an English menu and the chef can also recommend dishes for you, before cooking them right in front of you. He told us he has been making yakitori like this for ten years. Our favorite dishes included the miso pork belly. Highly recommended – one of our favourite dining experiences in Japan.
The most memorable and moving things to do in Nagasaki
Why not walk off dinner with an evening stroll just over a mile (2 km) to Fuchi Shrine Station. From here you can catch the half-hourly Nagasaki Ropeway up to the scenic Mount Inasayama Observatory and viewing platform, which sits of 333 metres (1,093 ft) above the city.
The panoramic sights from up here of Nagasaki’s ’10 Million Dollar Night View’ of the city’s many twinkling lights, mountains and reflective river ranks as one of the world’s top 3 night view spots, alongside Monaco and Hong Kong.
Every evening shortly before closing time at 10pm, the three large TV and radio station transmitters light up in a special colourful display.
A short tram ride from Nagasaki’s main station is the Nagasaki Peace Park. Even the trams themselves have a cute retro style.
In Nagasaki Peace Park, you will find the ‘hypocenter’, the exact spot where the atomic bomb landed on the city in 1945, destroying the north of the city and killing 35,000 people in less than a second.
Nearby you can see a remnant of a church that was one of the area’s only buildings left standing. You can also find a preserved part of the ground, exactly as it was after the bombing. Tools and teacups show the sheer devastation at ground level and the lives that were lost here.
As you walk through Nagasaki Peace Park, you will find a number of moving statues dedicated to the people of Nagasaki and calling for world peace, including the striking Peace Statue. A very emotional experience.
Hiroshima and Miyajima island – 2-3 nights
From Nagasaki, it’s a four hour train journey to Hiroshima, with a transfer at Hakata station, which we had paid for in advance thanks to our JR Passes. Here we stayed at the fabulous Rihga Royal Hotel Hiroshima.
At Hiroshima, you can visit the Atomic Bomb Dome and Peace Memorial Museum and Park.
We also took a trip to the nearby picturesque Miyajima Island, where deer roam fearlessly among the tourists. Its ‘floating’ Great Torii Gate is a popular spot for photos. It marks the entrance to the 12th-century Itsukushima Shrine.
Osaka and Kyoto – 4 nights
From Hiroshima, it’s a 2.5 hour high speed train journey to Osaka. This was our base for the next four nights. Home to 19 million people, Osaka is a huge port city known for its modern architecture and nightlife. Its primary historical landmark is the 16th-century Osaka Castle, which is surrounded by a moat and park with plum, peach and cherry-blossom trees, as well as the third-century Sumiyoshi Taisha, one of Japan’s oldest Shinto shrines. The city is renowned for its tasty street food so, as guided by the notes on our rudimentary map, we tried okonomiyaki – Japanese savoury pancakes – and takoyaki, stuffed batter balls topped with sauce.
Osaka is just a 15-minute bullet train from Kyoto and accommodation is cheaper, meaning it’s a great base to see the two cities. Once the capital of Japan, Kyoto is famous for its 2,000 beautifully preserved religious places, including 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, as well as imperial palaces, gardens and traditional wooden architecture, making it a popular tourist destination. The historic monuments of ancient Kyoto are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the setting for the acclaimed 1997 novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, which tells the story of a fictional female traditional entertainer working in the city around the time of World War II.
Embarking on a Japan 3 week itinerary
While we had almost a full 21 days in Japan, it still didn’t feel like enough time. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to visit the final two places on our Japanese friends’ map. Niigata is a port city said to produce the world’s finest sake, Japan’s famous rice wine, while Nagano is a ski resort famous for the snow monkeys bathing in the hot springs of Jigokudani Monkey Park. We will have to return to explore northern Japan, which is said to be full of fascinating places to see, including the cherry blossom festival in Aomori’s Hirosaki Park.
Whatever happens, you are sure to have an incredible time on a Japan 3 weeks itinerary, to eat and experience everything this unique country has to offer.