Japan Itinerary: The Perfect 3 Weeks in Japan

by Jan 2, 2019Itinerary, Japan

I think you’ll agree with me when I say:

It’s REALLY hard coming up with a Japan itinerary that fits everything you want to see into two or three weeks. There are just too many amazing places to see in Japan.

However, based on my experience traveling around Japan, I’ve created a Japan itinerary for three weeks. It covers a bit of everything such as the bustling city of Tokyo, the picturesque village of Shirakawa-go, the pristine mountains of the Japan Alps, historical temples of Kyoto and Takayama, the relaxing hot springs of Hakone, and many more awesome places.

You’ll also find in this 3-week Japan itinerary links to my other posts telling you EXACTLY how to prepare for your trip to Japan, what to read to get you pumped up for your trip, and a list of 25 awesome things you must do.

BONUS: I've created a FREE detailed PDF version of this 3-week Japan itinerary. The guide also includes step-by-step instructions for buying and using your Japan Rail Pass.

Click here to get lots of great tips for traveling around Asia as well as this FREE 3-week Japan itinerary guide. 

When to travel to Japan

Spring:  If you want to get the money shot during your 3 weeks in Japan, visit during the Cherry Blossom Festival, mid-March - mid-April. On the downside, it'll be crowded and accommodations will probably be pricey. You also don't have to visit right during the blossoming of the cherry trees. You can visit at the end of April and May and get perfect weather albeit not the Cherry Blossoms.

Fall: Fall is also a beautiful time to visit. The leaves changes color and the countryside is covered in reds, yellows, and oranges. The weather is also milder and thus, more enjoyable.

Summer: I went for 3 weeks to Japan in August, and if there is one thing that I am certain of in life, it's that you shouldn't go to Japan in August. It's hot. I mean it's really, really hot. Unbearably hot. Tokyo's concrete and August heat do not mix well. You also have to worry about it being typhoon season (June to October). You can get more information here on what happens when there's a major typhoon in Japan

Winter: Doing a 3-week itinerary in Japan can have its upsides and downsides. Japan gets snow in the winter in the Alps, making some destinations more difficult if not impossible to get to. But on the other hand, you can get some beautiful shots in of the snow. If you like skiing, this is a good time to go. If you like hiking, it's not. And since it's the low season, accommodations will be cheaper and tourist sights will be less crowded.

How to plan for 3 Weeks in Japan

How to plan an unforgettable trip to Japan

Are you clueless on how to prepare for your 3 weeks in Japan? Read this article to find out EVERYTHING you need to do to have a fabulous 3 weeks in Japan. You’ll learn when to buy the cheapest tickets, how to get a Japan Rail Pass, how to rent a pocket wifi, how to pick up some Japanese phrases easily, what apps to upload and much, much more.

25 Great Novels to Read Before Visiting Japan

Prepare for your trip to Japan by escaping to another time and place. Here’s a growing list of 25+ novels focusing on Japanese culture and characters. Some are set in contemporary Tokyo, while others take place before World War II.  There are also books set in the Japanese internment camps during WWII and in China during the Nanking Massacre.

Japan Itinerary: 3 Weeks

Click on each photo/place name to jump to its own detailed itinerary. 

BONUS: I've created a FREE detailed PDF version of this 3-week Japan itinerary. The guide also includes step-by-step instructions for buying and using your Japan Rail Pass.

Click here to get lots of great tips for traveling around Asia as well as this FREE 3-week Japan itinerary guide. 

Is a Japan Rail Pass Worth It?

I have a post that will show you whether a Japan Rail Pass is worth it. I break down the transportation price (based on 2020 August prices) for each of the destinations in this Japan itinerary of 3 weeks. Then I compare that to the price of a Japan Rail Pass. After that, I show where and how to purchase a Japan Rail Pass, how to activate the Pass when you get to Japan, and how to use the Pass. Just check out my article on getting a Japan Rail Pass here.

What to see and do for 3 Weeks in Japan 

1. Eat Sushi in Tokyo

You won’t know what good sushi is until you’ve experienced it in Tokyo. You can get sushi at conveyor belt restaurants for around $2 apiece. The taste is ok. However, to get really good sushi, you need to go to a proper sushi restaurant and spend around US$35 for a set menu of an assortment of sushi. Tsukiji Inner Fish Market has closed down and moved to Toyosu Market. There are still street vendors at Tsukiji, but most of the famous restaurants like Sushi Dai have moved to Toyosu. Click on the photo to find out where you can experience the best sushi in Tokyo. (Tokyo: Days 0-4 and 21)    ♦  READ MORE ABOUT TOKYO HERE  ♦

2. Be Dazzled By the Neon Lights of Tokyo

Perhaps you remember that seen in Lost in Translation when Scarlett Johannson and Bill Murray were strolling through the neon lights of Tokyo. That was one of the most iconic moments for me in that movie. There isn’t just one place to put yourself in that scene. You can find neon-lights in Shinjuku and Akihabara, but for me, the quintessential place for that OMG! I’m in Tokyo feeling was in Shibuya. Click the photo for more information on how to experience your own Lost in Translation! (Tokyo: Days 0-4 and 21)  ♦  CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ABOUT TOKYO  ♦

3. Hang out with the Cool Kids in Harajuku

Tokyo is about mass consumerism on a scale that I, an American, have never seen before. Whereas this hyper-materialism would seem crass in the U.S., for some reason, it’s kind of endearing. Wander the streets of Harajuku to get a glimpse of what is fashionable in Tokyo. Check out Cat Street and Takeshita Dori. Stop and grab a crepe and/or a fluffy pancake at one of the many restaurants in the area. Click on the photo to find out how you can experience the sights of Harajuku. (Tokyo: Days 0 – 4 and 21)  ♦  CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ABOUT TOKYO  ♦

4. Immerse yourself in history at Tokyo's many museums

Geishas, Samurai, Shoguns, Kabuki—most of these iconic images are lost to the past. To see them, you’ll have to visit one of the countless museums sprinkled throughout Japan.  I’ve never visited a country with so many museums: both small and big ones. My favorites were the Edo Tokyo Museum, the National Museum in Tokyo, and the Hiroshima Museum. Click on the photo to find out how you can discover the history and art of Japan. (Tokyo: Days 0 – 4 and 21)  ♦  CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ABOUT TOKYO’S MUSEUMS  ♦

5. Take part in the rituals of a Japanese shrine

Where can you purify yourself, get your fortune told, buy a charm, and make a wish? At a Japanese Shinto Shrine, of course. Visiting a shrine is not only about taking some beautiful pics, but also about experiencing the rituals of Japanese culture. To participate in them, you don’t have to be a member of the Shinto religion. Make sure to get your fortune told at Senso-ji Shrine and hang your wish under a Camphor tree at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. (Tokyo: Days 0-4 and 21; Kyoto: Days 13-16)  ♦ CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ABOUT VISITING THE MEIJI SHRINE IN TOKYO ♦

6. Escape from Reality by watching Kabuki

If your kind of entertainment includes stories of rejected lovers, bloody betrayals, and sword-wielding samurai, then Kabuki Theater is for you. You can watch this fascinating and colorful traditional Japanese drama for as little as $13 at the Kabuk-za Theater in Tokyo. Click on the photo to learn how to watch Kabuki. (Tokyo: Days 0-4 and 21) ♦  CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ABOUT WATCHING KABUKI IN TOKYO  ♦

7. Slurp on some Japanese noodles

Japanese ramen may have the same name as those 15 cent packs you ate in college, but taste-wise they’re worlds apart. You can find a ramen shop in probably every neighborhood in Japan. For the solo traveler, they’re an ideal quick and hearty meal. But Japan doesn’t have just ramen; it also has udon and soba: two noodles that represent the Japanese love of ritual. (Everywhere in Japan) 

8. Savor the most decadent beef on the planet

The United States might be the home of the burger and steak, but Japan has it beat by a mile when it comes to the main ingredient of those dishes: beef.  The beef in Japan is sooooo good! Maybe their cows are just happier.  There are many different varieties of wagyu beef: Kobe, Hida, Shiraoi, Shinshu, and 250 more. And you don’t have to rob a bank to try some. (Takayama: Days 5 – 6) ♦ CLICK HERE TO READ ABOUT WHERE TO EAT HIDA BEEF ♦

9. Hike through the Japan Alps

You’ve heard of the Swiss Alps? Of course. French Alps? Ditto! The Austrian Alps? The Sound of Music, so of course. The Japan Alps? Probably not! Most people have never heard of the Japan Alps, but they do exist, and they’re pretty impressive. There’s a reason that Japan has held the winter Olympics twice. They have lots of gorgeous mountains! And with Japan’s impressive public transportation system, they are accessible to even those without a car. (Kamikochi: Day 7) ♦ CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE ABOUT KAMIKOCHI ♦

10. Enter a fairytale at Shirakawa-go

Do you remember the story of Hansel and Gretel? Two children lost in the woods who come upon a house made of cakes and sugar only to fall into the evil grasp of a wicked witch. Shirakawago sort of reminds me of that place but without the wicked witch. It’s a picture-perfect rustic village nestled in the Japan Alps. The region is famous for its traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses. The houses have these beautiful thatched roofs that resemble a person’s hands in prayer. (Shirakawa-go: Day 8) ♦ CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ABOUT SHIRAKAWAGO ♦

11. Transport yourself to the World of Geishas and Samurai

Ever wonder what it’s like being a geisha? How about the life of a samurai? Step back in time and wander around the beautifully preserved geisha quarters of Kyoto and Kanazawa and the samurai quarter in Kanazawa. Kanazawa has two restored geisha houses that you can enter and explore. If you’re lucky in Kyoto, you can spot a geisha on her way to meet a patron. Or you can transform yourself into a geisha at the Maika Geisha Costume shop in Kyoto. (Kanazawa: Days 19-10 and Kyoto: Days 13-16) ♦ CLICK HERE TO GET A KANAZAWA ITINERARY ♦

12. Hike among the clouds

Forget about taking an old boring bus or train to travel from one place to another. Instead, do something a bit unique and travel along the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route by cable car, trolley, and ropeway. Along the route, you can get out and hike to the peaks of mountains that are over 3,000 meters. If you don’t feel like exercise, relax at a hot spring. (Alpine Route: Day 11) ♦ CLICK HERE TO GET AN ALPINE ROUTE ITINERARY ♦

13. Storm a Castle in Matsumoto

Japan had over 3,000 castles; however, most of these castles were destroyed in the 1800s in Japan’s drive to modernize.  Only twelve have their original structure. Four of these structures are considered National Treasures. Matsumoto Castle is one of them. You can wander the interior of the castle, and as you look out its windows, you can imagine yourself a samurai warrior defending the keep. (Matsumoto: Day 12) ♦ CLICK HERE TO GET AN ITINERARY FOR MATSUMOTO ♦

14. Discover the unique architecture of Japan

The Japanese belief in harmony with nature can best be seen in Japan’s unique architectural styles. Go to Matsumoto and stroll around the old merchant district of Nakamachi to see the white lattice-decorated storehouses that have now been turned into trendy shops and cafes. When visiting Kyoto, take time to appreciate its carved wooden temples and traditional townhouses called machiya. Finally, gaze up at Japan’s modern wonders: the skyscrapers in Tokyo. (Kyoto, Matsumoto, Takayama, Kanazawa, Shirakawa-go, and Tokyo♦ CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT ARCHITECTURE IN MATSUMOTO ♦

15. Get into your Zen at Kyoto’s numerous temples

I’m sure you could spend a year in Kyoto and still not see all of its temples. However, make sure you visit at least one or two temples with a Japanese garden like Tenryu-ji, Shoren-in, and Ryoanji. Take some time out from taking photos. Sit down on a tatami mat or a veranda, gaze at the Japanese garden, and clear your mind of all its worries. (Kyoto: Days 13-16) ♦ CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE ABOUT KYOTO ♦

16. Walk through the endless arcade of torii gates at Fushimi-inari

Even if you’re not crazy about temples, Fushimi-inari shrine in Kyoto is a Must-See. To walk through the never-ending vermilion torii gates as you climb the mountain behind the main shrine is unforgettable. Pay attention to the fox spirit statues dotted throughout the arcades. What does she have in her mouth? For a creepy experience, go at sunset. (Kyoto: Days 13 – 16) ♦ CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ABOUT FUSHIMI INARI SHRINE ♦

17. Enter the sublime paradise of Kyoto's Bamboo Forest

There’s a reason that the Bamboo Forest in Kyoto is one of the most photographed sites in Kyoto. It is simply sublime—but only if you go in the early morning when the hoards of selfie-stick-carrying tourists have not arrived yet. Only then can you fully appreciate the calmness that emanates from the trees and the wonderful sound that the bamboo makes as it sways in the wind. (Kyoto: Days 13-16) ♦ CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE ABOUT HOW TO SEE THE BAMBOO FOREST ♦

18. Matcha, Matcha, Matcha, and more Matcha

Matcha is everywhere in Japan. First, it’s in the green tea that you can get at a tea house. Try the tea house at Kenroku-en Garden in Kanazawa or at Okochi Sanso in Kyoto. However, it’s not only in tea; you can also try matcha ice cream (make sure to try it with honey or together with sake flavor), matcha tiramisu (actually not that good), a matcha smores Frappucino at Starbucks (surprisingly good), and on and on. ♦ CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE ABOUT HOW TO GET YOUR MATCHA FIX IN KYOTO ♦

19. Behold the Magnificence of the Great Buddha of Nara

An hour-train ride outside of Kyoto sits the most impressive temple of them all: the Todai Ji temple. Inside the temple grounds is the largest wooden structure in the world, the Daibutsu-den Hall. In case you’re still not impressed, inside the hall sits one of the largest bronze statues in the world: the Great Buddha of Nara. Make sure to visit the other temples around Nara. (Nara: Day 17) ♦ CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ABOUT NARA ♦

20. Experience the wildlife of Nara

Not only does Nara have grand temples, but it also has the cutest and friendliest deer I’ve ever seen. And as you walk around the city, you’ll be swarmed by them. You can buy some deer snack food and feed them yourself. They also make for the perfect addition to your selfie. Just avoid the deer poop that’s everywhere. (Nara: Day 17) ♦ CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ABOUT NARA ♦

21. Get a dose of reality in Hiroshima

Should you forget our present-day reality, Hiroshima and its cruel history are here to remind you. This is not the most cheerful stop on your 3-week Japan itinerary, but it is probably the most important. Hiroshima was the site of one of two atomic bombs that the U.S. dropped on Japan. Visit the Atomic Bomb Dome, walk through the Peace Memorial Park, before stopping at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. (Hiroshima: Day 18) ♦ CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ABOUT HIROSHIMA ♦

22. Try Japanese "Pancakes"

Many cultures have their version of a “pancake.” Japan is no exception. The good news is that Japan has two versions of “pancakes.” One is their fluffy pancakes really and truly based on the western version of pancakes that you can find all over Harajuku in Tokyo. The other version is a traditional dish called okonomiyaki, a fried “pancake” consisting of noodles, bean sprouts, and assorted kinds of seafood. Some even come with cheese. Make sure to try okonomiyaki in Hiroshima. (Hiroshima: Day 18) ♦ CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ABOUT EATING OKONOMIYAKI IN HIROSHIMA ♦

23. Take a ferry ride to Miyajima

Before ending your 3-week itinerary in Japan, make sure to get in your tiny dose of the island of Miyajima, a 30-minute train ride from Hiroshima, a 5-minute walk to the ferry, and then a pleasant 15-minute ferry ride to the island. People come here for one main purpose and that is to see the floating vermillion torii gate of the temple Itsukushima-jinja. Just try to go when it’s high tide so that you can actually take photos of the torii gate surrounded by water. (Hiroshima and Miyajima: Day 18) ♦ CLICK HERE TO READ ABOUT MIYAJIMA ♦

24. Snap a picture of Japan's most iconic image: Mount Fuji

There is no image more iconic of Japan than that of Mount Fuji. You can climb Mount Fuji during the summer months, but if you’re like me and you have knee issues, then climbing isn’t going to work. You can, though, take photos of it from the distance. If you’re lucky and the sky is clear, you can see it from the Tokyo Sky Tree or from Hakone. Better yet, you can visit one of the smaller cities around Mount Fuji to get a great view. ♦ CLICK HERE TO READ ABOUT HAKONE ♦

25. Get a Taste of World Class Art at Hakone Open-Air Museum

Nestled in the mountains around Hakone, the Hakone Open-Air Museum is one of the best contemporary art museums I’ve visited. The number one reason to visit is for some of the most interesting and coolest art sculptures and number two for its beautiful mountain scenery surrounding the museum. The museum has both Japanese and Western 19th and 20th-century art including an impressive permanent Picasso exhibit. (Hakone: Day 19-20) ♦ CLICK HERE TO READ ABOUT HAKONE ♦

26. Experience blissful relaxation at a Japanese hot spring

There are literally over a thousand onsen (natural hot spring baths) scattered all over Japan for you to choose from. For the ultimate experience, splurge on a ryokan, a traditional Japanese style inn, somewhere in Hakone or in the Japanese Alps that has its own private hot spring. Usually, the inn will serve you a sumptuous multi-course meal in your room. In this way, you can take your time and experience pure bliss as many times as you want. ♦ CLICK HERE TO READ ABOUT HAKONE ♦

Pin it for later

a chozubashi at a Japanese Shinto Shrine
discover the magic of Japan 3 week itinerary
Plan your next adventure Japan

I spent 19 days in Japan to be exact, and I felt a bit rushed. I also got hurt, so I had to take a day off to rest. If I’d had a couple of more days, it would have been perfect. Japan is hot in the summer. If you can, go in the spring or fall when the temperatures are more pleasant than the summer. I’ve been all over Southeast Asia and lived for many years in Asia, but Japan was unbearably hot for me. Are you planning on going to Japan? If so, what are your plans? What else do you want to know?

If you find this information useful, please share on social media! ♥

BONUS: I've created a FREE detailed PDF version of this 3-week Japan itinerary. The guide also includes step-by-step instructions for buying and using your Japan Rail Pass.

Click here to get lots of great tips for traveling around Asia as well as this FREE 3-week Japan itinerary guide. 

25 Comments

  1. Thank you so much! What a great itinerary! I want to try those pancakes and visit the Hakone open air art museum. And well everything. I need to get back to Japan.

    Reply
    • Your welcome! There is so much to see in Japan that you can never do it all. The Hakone Open Air Museum was probably the best part of Hakone–probably the coolest art museum I’ve been to.

      Reply
  2. Haven’t been to Japan yet, but it seems awesome! 😍

    Reply
    • It is! I hope you get a chance soon!

      Reply
  3. Love this guide, so detailed and this simply looks like the perfect itinerary! I haven’t visited Japan, but it is high on my list to visit soon. Definitely will pin this for later.

    Reply
    • I hope you get a chance soon! Honestly, I can’t believe I myself waited so long. It was much, much better than I expected.

      Reply
  4. This is so useful. I will be saving this link for a future planning to Japan. Thank you so much for the detailed blog!

    Reply
    • You’re welcome!

      Reply
  5. Wow, this is an incredible post!!! Japan is #1 on my bucket list, and this is a perfect itinerary! Though I would love to go to Osaka, too.

    Reply
    • I’m hoping I can go to Osaka next time. I hear the food is really good.

      Reply
      • Just found this! Have booked 22 days in March – April. Right now I have only booked the flights to Tokyo and back. So excited to read your itinerary!

        Reply
        • Thank you! 22 days in Japan is going to be awesome. You’re going to love Japan!

          Reply
  6. Great itinerary thanks! I’ve been to Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and Hiroshima, and loved them all. Next time I’ll be adding some hiking and Shirakawago from your itinerary. I love fairytale villages and Shirakawago looks oh so pretty!

    Reply
    • If you have a chance to go back, definitely visit Northern Japan Alps region! It’s beautiful, and the towns are a bit like a smaller version of Kyoto.

      Reply
  7. Wow I love how in depth this guide is and it’s honestly really cool how you can click on different things throughout for more info. It is so helpful! I need to get to Japan!

    Reply
    • Thanks! I never had much interest in Japan before, but then I suddenly wanted to go. I was surprised how amazing it was and could kick myself for waiting so long to go!

      Reply
  8. Hi Julie! Just curious, out of your 21 day trip, were there any areas where you wished you had stayed a bit longer? I have the flexibility to stay longer than 21 days. Thanks!

    Reply
  9. Good question, Rachel. I could have stayed one day longer in Tokyo because there were some neighborhoods I didn’t get to see. I would have stayed in Nara or Kyoto one more day as well for Nara’s history and for doing some hiking outside of Kyoto. I could have also stayed longer in the Japan Alps and stayed at a onsen resort outside of Takayama. On the other hand, I wish I had made it to Nikko or Kamakura outside of Tokyo. What are you interested in seeing more of?

    Reply
  10. Hi, how much was your rough cost of this trip excluding flights and did you get the JR rail pass?

    Reply
    • Hi Jason,
      I got the JR Pass for 14 days. I’d say, excluding the JR Pass and flight, around $2300 total. Sometimes I stayed in hostels and sometimes nice hotels, so the daily. I spent around $1300 on accommodations and $1000 on food, ticket prices, souvenirs, transportation around cities, and buses between cities. I also ended up having to go to the hospital while there. This added to my spending but only by around $55 for doctor and medicine and then transportation another $30 to the hospital and back. I could have done it for less if I hadn’t splurged on staying in a ryokan with onsen or five nights at a nice hotel in Kyoto. – Julie

      Reply
  11. Great Itinerary! Very helpful and informative. Did you go to Mount Fuji? I know you mention taking a picture but I am a little confused where that happened along the way. Thank you for clarifying. Also cant wait to read your recommended novels!

    Reply
    • Hi Erin, Thank you! I didn’t make it to Mount Fuji on my last trip, but I’m going back to Japan this August and have plans to visit Kawaguchi-ko/Mount Fuji area. – Julie

      Reply
  12. Hi Julie. Great itinerary found it a big help.

    Having trouble opening the Kanazawa page mind. Wondering I’m going to Japan for 16 Nights wondering if you could help in regards of Kanazawa- Takayama and Matsumoto.

    Im torn between having two nights in Kanazawa and 1 night in both Takayama and Matsumoto? wondering if I would prefer to add the Kamikochi day trip in if it would make more sense to have 2 nights in Takayama and 1 in Kanazawa and Matsumoto. Thanks

    Once again great site.
    Morgan

    Reply
    • Hi Morgan,

      Thanks! I haven’t finished the Kanazawa article yet. Two days in Takayama or two days in Kanazawa is a hard decision. If I were coming from Tokyo (5 hours by train), I’d arrive in Takayama at noon and have half a day to see the old part of the city. The next day I’d go to Kamikochi or Shirakawa-go so that I’d have a chance to see the Japan Alps and get out in nature. Then I’d head to Kanazawa by bus, which is 2 or 3 hours away. I’d spend the rest of the day exploring the geisha district, visiting the garden, and walking through the samurai district. Then onto Matsumoto. Kanazawa is nice, but I liked the small-town-feel of Takayama and the beautiful scenery of the area.

      Julie

      Reply
  13. Hey! This itinerary is amazing and one I will probably follow next year!

    Did you find that the JR Pass was beneficial for this route or did you just pay for tickets individually? 🙂

    Reply

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