A Two-Week Japan Itinerary for Returning Visitors

Traveling to Japan for a second time, opens the door to a realm of unexplored destinations. This itinerary is thoughtfully crafted to minimize backtracking and maximize the efficiency of travel using Japan's renowned Shinkansen network. For this itinerary, the focus is on a balanced blend of urban exploration and rural charm and includes bustling neighbourhoods less frequented by tourists in Tokyo, culturally rich towns like Kanazawa, and unique destinations such as Naoshima Island.


Day 1-2: Tokyo

a street view of Shimokitazawa, capturing its vibrant and eclectic character, with its mix of vintage shops and cozy cafes.

For returning visitors, Tokyo offers multiple lesser-known neighbourhoods. Shimokitazawa, a neighborhood with a bohemian flair, is a perfect starting point. Known for its narrow streets lined with vintage clothing stores, quaint cafes, and small independent theaters, it offers a stark contrast to the neon-lit, high-energy districts like Shibuya or Shinjuku. The area's indie music scene and laid-back atmosphere provide a different side of Tokyo's urban culture. Moving on, Koenji, another offbeat neighborhood in Tokyo, is renowned for its alternative music scene and vintage clothing shops. The streets of Koenji are a haven for those interested in subcultures and the arts.  For a change of pace, Yanaka, with its old-town charm, is characterized by narrow lanes, traditional wooden houses, and small, family-run shops. Here, visitors can enjoy a leisurely stroll, exploring the local temples and shops, and perhaps stopping by a traditional tea house.


Days 3-4: Kanazawa

aview of Kenrokuen Garden, capturing its natural beauty and serene ambiance.

The adventure to Kanazawa begins with a journey from Tokyo. The most convenient route is to board the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo Station. Depending on the specific Shinkansen service chosen, the trip can take approximately 2.5 to 3 hours.  Kanazawa, often overlooked in favor of more famous destinations, is a city where the past and present coexist harmoniously. Kanazawa's most renowned attraction is Kenrokuen Garden, considered one of the three great gardens of Japan. A stroll through Kenrokuen offers meticulously manicured landscapes that embody the essence of traditional Japanese garden design. Each season brings a different aspect of beauty to Kenrokuen, making it a year-round destination. The city's historical roots are further evident in its well-preserved samurai district. Walking through the Nagamachi area, visitors are transported back to the Edo period, with its earthen walls, narrow lanes, and traditional samurai residences.  Kanazawa is also known for its vibrant art scene, anchored by the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. This museum, with its innovative architecture and thought-provoking exhibits, showcases both local and international artists.


Days 5-6: Shirakawa-go and Takayama

the iconic view of Shirakawa-go's gassho-zukuri farmhouses, showcasing their unique architecture and the village's idyllic setting.

The journey from Kanazawa to the historic villages of Shirakawa-go and Takayama begins with a scenic bus ride that takes about 1.5 hours. This route meanders through the rural landscapes of the region. Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is famous for its traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses. Many of these farmhouses are still inhabited and well-maintained, preserving the rural lifestyle of the region. From Shirakawa-go, the next leg of the journey to Takayama involves another bus trip, typically taking about 50 minutes.  Takayama presents a charming blend of history and culture in its beautifully preserved old town. This area, known as Sanmachi Suji, features narrow streets lined with wooden merchants' houses, sake breweries, and artisan shops. Takayama retains a sense of the Edo period. The morning markets, held daily near the Miyagawa River, are a highlight, offering local craft and fresh produce.


Days 7-8: Matsumoto

Matsumoto Castle, capturing its distinctive black exterior.

To get from Takayama to Matsumoto, we can take adirect and scenic bus ride. A convenient and direct bus service connects Takayama to the Matsumoto, lasting approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes. Matsumoto's most distinguished landmark is Matsumoto Castle, one of Japan's premier historic castles. The castle's striking black exterior, earning it the nickname 'Crow Castle'. Visitors can explore the castle's multi-story interior, which has been preserved beautifully, providing insights into the architectural styles and living conditions of the samurai era. Apart from the castle, Matsumoto offers streets that are lined with galleries, museums, and craft shops. The Matsumoto City Museum of Art, known for its exhibits featuring the works of Yayoi Kusama, a renowned artist from the region, is a highlight for art enthusiasts. Matsumoto also serves as a gateway to the Japanese Alps, making it a perfect stop for those interested in Japan's natural beauty. Its location offers opportunities for day trips to nearby national parks as well as several hot spring resorts.


Days 9-11: Hiroshima and Miyajima

the Itsukushima Shrine with its torii gate at high tide, capturing the serene beauty and spiritual ambiance of Miyajima.

To embark on this next leg of the journey, travellers initially take a local or limited express train from Matsumoto to Nagoya, a segment of the trip that lasts about 2 hours. Upon arriving in Nagoya, a transfer to the Shinkansen bound for Hiroshima is required. This high-speed train journey takes approximately 2.5 to 3 hours. Hiroshima, known worldwide for the tragic events of 1945, today stands as a symbol of peace and resilience. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, located at the epicenter of the atomic blast, is a reminder of the destructive power of war and the enduring hope for peace. The park houses several memorials, including the Atomic Bomb Dome, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Peace Memorial Museum, which offers an impactful narrative of the events and aftermath of the atomic bombing. A short ferry ride from Hiroshima is the island of Miyajima, famous for Itsukushima Shrine, known for its iconic "floating" torii gate that appears to rise from the waters during high tide.


Day 12: Okayama

Okayama Castle in the background, illustrating the harmony between natural beauty and historical architecture.

Departing from Hiroshima, the Shinkansen ride to Okayama is a brief and comfortable experience, typically taking about 40 to 50 minutes. In Okayama, Korakuen Garden stands out as a primary attraction. Recognized as one of Japan's three great gardens, Korakuen offers a landscape of meticulous design and serene beauty. This expansive garden features traditional Japanese elements such as ponds, streams, and tea houses, set against the backdrop of Okayama Castle. The garden serves as a living canvas, changing colors and textures with the seasons, from the vibrant hues of cherry blossoms in spring to the fiery tones of maple leaves in autumn. Okayama Castle provides a historical counterpoint to the natural elegance of Korakuen Garden. The castle's reconstructed main keep offers exhibits and displays that narrate the history and culture of the region.


Days 13-14: Naoshima Island

a shot of one of Naoshima's iconic outdoor sculptures, Yayoi Kusama's yellow pumpkin, positioned against the backdrop of the island's picturesque coast.

The journey to Naoshima Island begins with a short train ride from Okayama Station to Uno Port, which usually takes about an hour. From Uno Port, a ferry ride of approximately 20 minutes across the Seto Inland Sea brings visitors to Naoshima Island. Naoshima, often referred to as Japan's 'art island', has gained international recognition for its contemporary art museums, installations, and sculptures seamlessly integrated into the island's natural landscape. Naoshima represents a novel concept where art is not confined to the walls of a museum but is instead spread across the island. The island's most notable features include the Benesse House Museum, the Chichu Art Museum, and the Art House Project. These institutions are not only showcases for art but are themselves architectural marvels, designed to complement the island's serene setting. The Benesse House Museum, designed by renowned architect Tadao Ando, is both a museum and a hotel, offering an opportunity to stay amidst extraordinary artworks. The Chichu Art Museum, also designed by Ando, is built mostly underground to avoid disrupting the natural scenery. It houses works by artists such as James Turrell and Claude Monet. The Art House Project in Naoshima's Honmura district transforms traditional houses, temples, and shrines into venues for contemporary art, bridging the gap between the old and the new.


Day 14-15: Yokohama

the Minato Mirai 21 skyline, highlighting Yokohama's blend of modern and traditional elements.

Leaving behind the rural charm of Naoshima and Okayama, travelers begin their journey back by taking a Shinkansen from Okayama to Shin-Yokohama Station. This leg of the trip, covering a significant distance across Japan, typically takes about 3 to 4 hours. Upon arrival in Shin-Yokohama, a short local train or subway ride will bring visitors into the heart of Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest city. A key attraction is the Minato Mirai 21 area, a futuristic waterfront district featuring the Landmark Tower, one of Japan's tallest skyscrapers, offering panoramic views of the city and beyond. The area also includes an array of shopping centers, restaurants, and the Yokohama Cosmo World amusement park, known for its giant Ferris wheel. History enthusiasts will appreciate the Yamate district, home to beautifully preserved Western-style houses from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, showcasing Yokohama's history as one of the first Japanese ports opened to foreign trade.  Yokohama's Chinatown, the largest in Japan, is filled with shops, restaurants, and street food stalls, offering authentic Chinese cuisine and a lively atmosphere.


Day 16: Return to Tokyo

The cityscape of Tokyo in the background with railway lines going through it.

Returning to Tokyo from Yokohama is both simple and fast: the shinkansen ride, starting from Shin-Yokohama Station and arriving at Tokyo Station takes approximately 15 to 20 minutes to reach its destination. The final day of the itinerary marks the return to Tokyo, bringing the journey to its end.