Planning to use a 21-day JR Pass? Searching for inspiration on where to go? Here’s our suggested 21-day itinerary, making full use of the Japan Rail Pass. We’ll be visiting Kanto, Kansai and Kyushu.
This is a round trip starting and returning in Tokyo, with stops on the way. We’ll give you a suggested amount of days to stay in each location with flexibility in mind and to accommodate different types of traveler. For instance, someone interested in contemporary Japan may want to spend a little more time in Tokyo while if you are intrigued by older Japan you may want to lingerie in Kyoto.
The Kanto area, including Greater Tokyo is where we start. Narita (NRT) and Haneda (HND) are the arrival gateways for nearly all foreign visitors in the region and the Japan Rail Pass can used right away from either airport.
(Suggested 3-5 days)
Tokyo is the capital of modern Japan, a metropolis by design it boasts a near, endless variety of possibilities. Getting the best out of Tokyo requires a bit of tactical planning beforehand. For easy access Tokyo can be split into roughly 4 parts- Northern, Western, Southern and Outer Tokyo. To save time and money on transport, a day trip to each area is recommended.
Northern Tokyo is the oldest part of town. Here you’ll find more laid back parts of Tokyo, such as Asakusa, Ginza and the Imperial palace.
Asakusa fondly referred to by locals as downtown, Asakusa has traditionally been a place where traders stayed with their ships. It never really caught up to modern Tokyo and still resembles life of decades past. By far the most famous sight is Sensoji Temple, surrounded by numerous tourist shops, as well as the big Kaminarimon or Thundergate.
Akihabara is the district for everything geek chic. Think anime, computers, electronics, gadgets, manga and everything net culture related. A must see for any fan but even without interest it is worth a stop. You’ll not find anything like Akihabara elsewhere in Japan.
Tsukiji Fish market.
Tsukiji Market is the largest fish market in Japan. Every morning the latest catch is brought in and auctioned at around 4am. The fish auction is a hot spot for tourists and visiting numbers are limited to 200. Our advice, stay in bed a little longer and walk the market around breakfast time. It will be a lot quieter and you can eat the freshest sashimi and sushi ever!
Ueno, is one of the older parts of Tokyo. It is great for budget eating and shopping, the best area for this is Ameyoko, just outside of Ueno station. A visit to Ueno would not be complete without visiting Ueno Park. Pleasant to just stroll through and visit many possible destinations like the Tokyo National museum, National science museum (great for kids!), Ueno Zoo and Kiyomizu Kannon Temple.
Other worthwhile sites around Northern Tokyo:
Tokyo Skytree: The world’s tallest tower at 634 meters with an amazing view with Fuji in the distance. Great on a clear day and after dark.
Sumida river cruise: The Sumida river runs through Asakusa. Hop onto one of the cruises to see the river and Tokyo bay from a different angle.
Edo-Tokyo Museum. Simply said the best museum about Tokyo’s history. Showing daily life from centuries ago when Tokyo was called Edo, to how the city became the modern metropolis it is today.
Western Tokyo is all about the latest fashion, trends and business.
Shibuya. The district where dining, shopping, and entertainment come together. Shibuya is well known for all of them and very basy as a result. Just in front of Shibuya station you’ll find the world’s busiest crossing. From there you’ll walk right into the middle of it all.
Shinjuku is the modern business district of Tokyo with skyscrapers seemingly occupying every part of the skyline. One such tower is the Metropolitan Government Office that offers free entrance to the 45th floor, perfect for your Instagram. Once business hours are over, it’s time for some entertainment and Shinjuku does not disappoint. The streets of Kabukicho and Golden Gai are famous for all kinds of entertainment, including adult. Walking around is a great experience but be sure to say no to anything that’s offered to you on the street.
Harajuku is often described as the centre for radical youth culture, where styles like gothic, lolita and cosplay come together. There’s a ton of fashion shopping to be done, the closeby Omotesando avenue is perfect for uptown shopping. The nearby Meiji Shrine, dedicated to the Japanese emperors is also not to be missed on any visit to Harajuku.
Southern Tokyo encompasses Tokyo bay, as well as the districts of Odaiba, Roppongi and the Shinagawa. It is also home to Tokyo Tower.
Odaiba, build on land recently reclaimed from the sea, Odaiba is ultra modern. Getting there alone is worth it, as you’ll ride the Yurikamome, a driverless monorail. Sit in the front for some amazing views. Odaiba itself has various shopping malls and a ferris wheel with a good view over Tokyo Bay. The area is considered romantic and a great choice to spend some quality time with a loved one.
Roppongi is where the party is at, at least for expats and visitors to Japan. There’s a large international community that revolves all around nightlife. Here you’ll also find Roppongi Hills. An indoor building complex that’s almost a city of its own with stores, offices, apartments, art museums and much more.
Tokyo Tower one of the most iconic sights of the Tokyo skyline, the red Tokyo Tower stands out as a beacon. At nights this effect is amplified with scenic lighting. Visitors can go up the tower, we recommend going just before dark. You’ll see the skyline change against the night sky.
Greater Tokyo is more than the 23 wards that make up the city and contains Yokohama, parts of Yamanashi and Chiba too. Most notably you’ll also find the Ghibli museum, Tokyo Disney resort and Takao-san.
Getting around Tokyo using the Japan Rail Pass:
Tokyo has an extensive network of JR lines. The JR Pass covers the entire JR Network around Tokyo, as well as the Tokyo Monorail. The network includes lines like the JR Yamanote loop line and JR Chuo central which serve all major stations in Tokyo. Having a look at a Tokyo railway map can be confusing, so we advise becoming familiar with these two lines as most of Tokyo will then lay at your fingertips. Once you start intercity travel, go to Tokyo station. This is the one hub where all Shinkansen depart from, servicing Japan from north to south.
The Kansai area
Kansai is home the big cities of Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe and smaller towns like Nara, Himeji and Wakayama. Historically it is the birthplace of Japanese culture, resulting in an abundant mix of shrines, temples, castles and other highlights. Many of which have become UNESCO World Heritage sites.
(suggested 3-4 days)
Kyoto has been a cultural and traditional hub for centuries and it shows! The city is dotted with countless temples, shrines and museums. Unlike Tokyo, there’s no skyscraper to be found. Sights are found all around Kyoto, to travel around efficiently, we grouped central and east Kyoto together. Additionally, the south and west of Kyoto go together nicely due to connecting JR lines.
The center is a mix between the old and new. Large stores and brands are represented on the main streets of Shijo and Kurasuma-dori, while the streets of Kawara-machi have countless small shops that sell a great variety of items. It’s easy to get lost here for hours.
Nishiki Market within Kawaramachi, you’ll also find Nishiki Market sometimes referred to as Kyoto’s Kitchen. Here, hundreds of stands and stores sell anything and everything related to food. It’s a great place to try some of the local delicacies.
From Kawaramachi, hop over the Kamo river and you are right into Gion, the Geisha quarter. While Geisha can be hard to find, it is worth walking around the district ,looking nearly the same as it did 300 years ago.
Kiyomizu-dera and Higashiyama. If you visit just one temple in Kyoto, it would be Kiyomizu-dera. Founded in the year 780 on the slopes of the mountains, it is famous for its wooden structure and the beautiful view over Kyoto.The temple has a different face with each season because of the surrounding woods and is especially beautiful during the Sakura and autumn seasons. Walking up to the temple you’ll come through the historic district of Higashiyama. The meandering streets are filled with shops catering to tourists and pilgrims alike. Selling various souvenirs, good luck keepsakes, sweets and local crafts.
Yasaka temple and pagoda. The temple complex is within walkable distance from Kiyomizu-dera and is a pleasant stroll. Of special note is the Yasaka pagoda, visitors can climb to the top and view the interior. Most pagoda’s can only be viewed from the outside.
Ginkaku-ji, the silver pavilion.Ginkaku-ji was built in 1482. The Zen temple is part of the Shokoku-ji branch of Rinzai Zen. While the name may suggest otherwise, the temple is not covered in silver. Access is granted to the temple and surrounding Zen garden. The garden alone is worth visiting. Take a moment and sit down to experience the Zen atmosphere surrounding the garden.
The west of Kyoto could take a full day on its own, as there’s a great variety of sights to see and experiences to be had.
Arashiyama is a historic and tourist district, yet pleasant and even a bit magical to walk around. The local bamboo groves are iconic, closely followed by the Togetsukyo Bridge, and surrounding park area as a must-see. There’s also a monkey park after a small hike up to Arashiyama mountain. The best time to visit is during the Sakura and autumn leaf seasons but Arashiyama is enjoyable all year round.
The Sagano Scenic Railway is a scenic old-fashioned railway ride following the Hozugawa river. The ride is about 25 minutes long on an old stretch of railway that is no longer used by commuter trains. The cost is 620 yen one way. The JR Pass unfortunately does not include the Sagano Railway.
Kinkaku-ji, the golden pavilion.
The golden pavilion is perhaps the sight most illustrated on postcards and guidebooks about Kyoto. The temple is covered in gold leaf, which in a clear day casts a beautiful reflection on the surrounding pond. Entrance to the temple costs 400yen, which also gives access to the temple grounds and garden.
Toei Kyoto Studio Park, or Eigamura in Japanese, is a small village about film and and traditional Japan. Watch Ninja performances, enjoy the 3D theater or run the Ninja maze. Visitors can also dress up like a Geisha, Ninja or Samurai. It’s a great day out for the whole family. The official page can be found here.
Kyoto Railway museum Great for train fans but interesting for all. Japan has been a railway country since the 19th century. The museum shows the dawn of the railway to modern maglev trains. The museum operates its own steam train. We have a full blog post here
The south of Kyoto is mostly residential but there are some sights not to to be missed on any visit.
Fushimi Inari Taisha Known as Fushimi Inari Shrine in english, or simply Fushimi, is dedicated to Inari the god of rice. The shrine is famous for the thousands of red Tori gates on the paths going up the mountain. The area is well suited for making light hikes and visitors can walk to the top in about 45-60 minutes, from where there’s a beautiful view of the Kyoto skyline. Access to Fushimi is easy and only a 5min train ride away from Kyoto station.
Uji more like a small town in itself, Uji is famous for the locally grown green tea and the Byodoin Temple. There are many tea houses around and it is one of the better spots to get acquainted with Japanese green tea. Byodoin Temple is a Buddhist temple and minted on the back of every 10 yen coin. The temple is an enjoyable visit, especially the inner phoenix hall.
Travel around Kyoto.
Unlike other big cities in Japan, Kyoto only has limited JR lines which mostly cover the southern and western parts. Instead, Kyoto has an extensive bus system. A single bus ride costs 230 yen and there are day tickets available from the bus driver that cost 500 yen and are valid for the day of issue. Kyoto station is on the Tokaido Shinkansen for direct access to Tokyo and Osaka.
(Suggested 2-4 days)
Osaka is the 2nd largest metropolis of Japan, after Tokyo, and has historically been Japan’s business hub. The city has its own atmosphere that can be described as “rough” and “hands on” compared to the rest of Japan. People from Osaka are often more direct and won’t shy away from telling you their thoughts. What’s for sure is that Osaka is very lively and authentic in its own right. Osaka can be split into two for easy travel. North and South Osaka.
The north of Osaka, locally referred to as Umeda, is the modern part of the city with skyscrapers, upscale shopping malls and many business avenues. It is also the major transport hub, where both Osaka and Shin-Osaka are located.
The Umeda Sky building and gardens is a high observatory from where you can see the modern skyline. It is especially beautiful after dark to see nighttime skylights. For the best view, arrive just before sunset to see both day and night.
While in the area, be sure to spend some time exploring Osaka station. The front of the modern building looks like a gateway into the future. Osaka station boasts many shops you can visit at the higher levels of the station from where you can also see trains come and go.
There are countless department stores around Osaka station. It is a great place for shopping or just browsing around.
The southern part of Osaka, locally named Namba, is the downtown area. It is the area you go to for entertainment, dining, drinking and nightlife. There’s also tons of shopping to be had, from the small shops in the shopping arcades of Shinsaibashi to the big brands that are available on the high street just around the corner. After dark the city really comes to life and is the perfect time to soak in the real vibe of Osaka.
This is the heart of Osaka, there’s always so much going on, people going out to enjoy themselves. It’s great to walk around, try some of the local sweets sold by street vendors, look around the many items on display and mix in some famous sights too. The most famous of which is the Glico man right in the middle of Dotonbori. Then when evening sets in, go for dinner at one of the many local establishments.
Sort of the Akihabara of Osaka, the part of the city that specializes in anime and electronics. Where Akihabara has become very touristy, Den Den town caters more to locals. It is well worth a visit to experience part of Japanese Otaku culture. It is an easy walk from Namba and the close by Shinsekai.
Shinsekai translates to “New World”. This part of town was built in the 1940s as a futuristic setting but then never updated. Visiting Shinsekai now let’s you go back in time and see what people thought the future would look like. It is now a sort of a retro-futuristic setting. In the middle stands Tsutenkaku Tower, a 103 meter tall tower from where you can see the surrounding city.
Getting around Osaka
Osaka has an extensive JR Network with local trains running throughout the city. Of particular note is the Osaka circle loop line. The city is served by the Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka station.
Hiroshima and Miyajima
(Suggested 1-2 days)
The atomic bombing of Hiroshima in WWII changed the city forever. The city was tirelessly rebuilt and today is one of Japan’s largest cities.
Peace Memorial Museum and park. Before the bombing this area was the commercial and political center of Hiroshima. After the war it was decided not to rebuild here and the Peace Memorial Museum was created together with the 120,000 square meter park. The museum documents Hiroshima during and after the atomic bomb blast. A stark reminder of a history that should never be repeated a visit may leave you unable to speak for a while. After walk around the peace memorial park to take a moment to ponder the poignant experience.
Miyajima is a small island island in the bay of Hiroshima. It is famous for the huge Tori gate standing in the water, which is part of the Itsukushima Shrine. It is considered one of Japan’s top 3 most scenic sights and it is truly magical to see the sun set there. Miyajima island is great for hiking for some amazing views. It is also possible to use the the local rope-way up the Miyajima mountain range. Miyajima can be reached by local JR line and the JR ferry from Hiroshima station.
Getting around Hiroshima.
Hiroshima has a couple of JR lines running around the Hiroshima bay. Useful to visit Miyajima. Within Hiroshima there are two tourist city loop buses, stopping at many sightseeing places. The JR Pass covers both buses – enough to access most of the city. Alternatively the city can be explored by trams, these are not included in the JR Pass.
Kyushu: the land of Fire and Water.
Kyushu, is Japan’s 3rd largest island and lies south of Honshu. Historically it has been important due to the port city of Nagasaki. These days Kyushu offers a wide range of options from its capital, the modern city of Fukuoka, to traditional onsen towns like Yufuin and Beppu. Not to forget the volcano’s like Mt. Aso and Sakura Jima. Because of its distance from Tokyo, it is often too far to fit within a 2 week itinerary but works perfectly with a 21 day JR Pass.
(Suggested 1-2 days)
Fukuoka is the capital city of Kyusgu, it is like Tokyo in that it has every kind of shop, restaurant and entertainment venue but does it in its own style. To begin with, the overall atmosphere is much more relaxed. Fukuoka is thus a great stop to enjoy city life, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy some shopping. For tourism, a side trip to temple complex of Dazaifu is highly recommended. After dark, stop by Fukuoka tower for an breathtaking nightscape of the city skyline.
(Suggested 2 days)
During the Edo period, Nagasaki was the only port open to Chinese and Western traders and played an instrumental role introducing Japan to the world. No foreigners were allowed to set foot on Japanese soil without special permission, instead they had to live on small island of Dejima in the Nagasaki bay. These days, Dejima is open to public to relive old encounters between Japan and the West. In addition to Dejima, there are many historical treasures in Nagasaki, such as samurai dwellings and temples.
The Nagasaki peace park is a reminder of more recent history commemorating the atomic bombing at the end of World War II.
A now famous side trip from Nagasaki is to the abandoned island of Gunkanjima, or Battle ship island. Used for mining up to the 50’s, it was suddenly abandoned and became a ghost town.
Yufuin & Beppu
(Suggested 1-2 day)
When you visit Kyushu, a visit to an onsen is almost mandatory. Both Yufuin and Beppu are famous onsen retreats. Beppu is a coastal city with a romantic atmosphere that recalls the 60s, with neon lights and narrow alleyways. There are different public baths scattered around the town. Beppu is also great on a low budget. In comparison Yufuin is a more exclusive onsen resort town. Tucked away in the Kyushu inland mountains, here you can totally relax and enjoy the freedom of your own private onsen.
Making your way back to Tokyo
Going back from Kyushu to Tokyo takes about 6 hours by Shinkansen. It can be done in one go but it is the perfect excuse to make a stop or two on the way back to Tokyo. A practical stop is somewhere in Kansai such as Osaka and Kyoto. You can split up your stay in Kansai in two parts. For instance, by staying in Kyoto on the way south to Kyushu and in Osaka on the way back to Tokyo.
Hakone and Fuji
(Suggested 1-2 days)
Before returning to the busy metropolitan scene of Tokyo, a short stay in Hakone is highly recommend. The Hakone region has much to offer, ride the cable car up Mt. Hakone, then a gondola over the active volcanic crater of Mt. Hakone, to be followed up by a lake cruise over lake Ashi. Finish the day with a traditional stay at a Japanese inn with an onsen bath, all with an amazing view of Mt. Fuji. Sounds perfect right? The catch is that you need a bit of luck with the weather and accommodation prices are on the high side.
That’s it, all good things in life come to an end and so does your visit to Japan. Before going home, it can be nice to spend a couple more days in Tokyo. Do your last minute shopping and prepare for departure.
Written by Daniel-san.