21-day itinerary Japan for First-timers and Animal Lovers

~ I always been a big fan of Japan. As a teen I got interested in Japanese culture, music and their TV shows (Jdoramas). So after 10 years of dreaming I finally put this dream vacation into motion and started pointing out my itinerary~

As a big animal lover and knowing Japan has some pretty special animal spots, I had to put as many as I could into my route. This 3 weeks touring around Japan brings you to cultural must sees such as temples, castles and landmarks, as well as some relaxing spots and hectic city spots. It is a perfect mix of traditional and modern Japan, with touches of cute animals along the way.

I will first give a day by day overview. As you can see on the map one big thing is essential: TRAINS. Travelling by trains can be very expensive for Japanese people! Lucky for us foreigners there is the JAPAN RAIL PASS. I wrote a individual post about it and with all the info you need , so check it out here:

Now let’s get started!

Day 1 and 2: Tokyo

As we had a long flight to Japan (about 12 hours) we wanted to take it easy the first days. If this is also your case, you can pick an accommodation in a neighbourhood close to a JR station and explore that neighbourhood the arriving evening and the next day.

Our pick: Ryogoku View Hotel, which is  close to Akihabara. So the first night we stayed in Ryogoku and went for dinner and the next day we explored the electrical city of Akihabara and the famous Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. if you are here during Sumo season (september): Ryogoku is the place to watch some.

Sensoji Temple

Day 3 : Island of Miyajima

We wanted to do the big tour first and then finishing off in a few days in Tokyo. So after 2 days of rest (should be enough to get rid of the worst jetlag) you take the trains for the first time to the most far point: Miyajima. Leave early as possible so you can still explore a lot on that day. Starting with the famous orange Itsukushima Shrine with the Floating Great Torii gate in the water. You will also have your first encounter with animals here: Miyajima has deers running around everywhere. But the most you will see later in Nara.

Our pick: We left around 8am with a reserved Shinkansen and stayed in hotel/ryokan Sakuraya. We got in Miyajima around 15:00 and checked in and explored all we could from the island. In the evening we picked to eat the Japanese pancake-like dish Okonomiyaki at this cozy place: Kishibe

 

The Great Torii
Kishibe: Okonomiyaki

 

Day 4: To Osaka with stop in BUNNY ISLAND

Today you leave beautiful Miyajima and head for Osaka in the early morning. But not before chasing and feeding cute bunnies in Okunoshima! To get there you need to hold on tight to the schedule as you have to take irregular ferries. the route is this: Miyajima ferry –> Miyajimaguchi  –> Hiroshima –> Mihara –> Local Kure line to Tadanoumi –> walk 5 min to the port –> Take ferry to Okunoshima.  For the blog post on bunny island with more info, you will have to stay posted.

After seeing the bunnies, you move on to Osaka. As you take the Shinkansen often, I advice to pick an accommodation near the Shin-Osaka station for easy travels.

Our pick: We chose for an Airbnb apartment just 5 min from the Shin-Osaka station.

Day 5: Exploring Osaka

Today you chill around Osaka city. Cool places/famous streets to see are:

Dotonbori with the famous Glico light commercial and the huge Crab of the Kani Doraku restaurant.

Namba is close to Dotonbori and also filled with restaurants/shops/host clubs

Shinsekai and the Tsūtenkaku tower is a place where you will see some special Billiken golden baby god statues and the Fugu fish. You can also try to eat fugu there, if you dare.

Osaka Castle

Crab Restaurant

 

Shinsekai

 

Osaka Castle

 

Day 6: Day trip to Himeji

Himeji is famous for its castle. It is one of the prettiest castle of Japan, so we picked to visit this one for sure. From the JR station to the castle it takes about 20 minutes. But you won’t be bored as you pass through shopping streets that will delay your walk for sure. For the Hello kitty lovers: pass by the pink Hello Kitty Cafe.

Our pick: Well I must say… by now I was missing my black cat Baron..so when I discovered Himeji has a Black Cat only cafe we had to go! It is called Nekobiyaka and I loved every second. And the mugs are so cute!

Himeji Castle

 

Black Cat Cafe: Nekobiyaka

Day 7 – 11: Kyoto with day trip to Nara

You will spend 4 nights in this beautiful cultural city. It used to be the capital before Tokyo and it’s filled with history! To move around easily in Kyoto you can get an accommodation near a JR and use day tickets for buses/metro, as there aren’t as much JR lines as Tokyo. What you want to visit in Kyoto I will leave it up to you.

Some top places to visit are:

Fushimi Inari Shrine with the hike to the top and back under the big red torii gates

Kiyomizu-dera temple with pretty views of the city

Arashiyama with the Bamboo Forest and the Togetsukyo Bridge

– Golden Temple Kinkakuji and Silver Pavilion Ginkakuji

Nijo Castle: an UNESCO flatland castle site

Gion District: it is the geisha district where you will find geisha houses, tea houses and all kinds of sweets to buy. If you want to see a live geisha perform, you can check out the Gion Corner for daily performances. I will be writing a more detailed Geisha blog later, so stay tuned. You also have the Yasaka Shrine there.

Our pick: We chose an airbnb for the 4 night stay. We picked one that offered pocket wifi and bicycles! Biking around Kyoto is much fun. If you want to visit the famous Bamboo forest and the Fushimi Inari shrines with all the red Torii gates. one tip: come as early as you can as it can get very crowded! *Both are spots for kimono rental, we picked to try out the kimonos at Arashiyama at: Akahime

 

Kinkaku-ji
Nijo Castle
Fushimi-Inari
Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama

 

Geisha performance: Gion Corner

 

Daytrip to Nara:

Pick one full day to explore Nara. You can take a JR line to Nara and then walk about 20 min to the Park. Everywhere you go there will be deers walking. If you want to feed them , you can buy the cookies they sell for 150 yen per pack. The deers will bow for a cookie, so you can show it to them and let them bow before you first.

The site has many temples, shrines, pagodas and a big park full cherry blossom trees.

 

Day 12: Kanazawa

This day you leave after your check-out time to take the THUNDERBIRD to kanazawa. the Thunderbird is a special type of rapid train/shinkansen, included in the JR rail pass. As you arrive in Kanazawa you drop your luggage at the hotel, or put it in one of the train lockers (more info about it in my train travel guide here) so you can explore kanazawa.
A perfect way to visit this Edo-period city is with the loop bus they provide. The day ticket is 500 yen and it is a hop on hop off bus. So you can stop at some interesting spots such as:

– the teahouse district Higashi Chaya Gai, you can eat soft ice cream here with golden leave as topping

– the Nagamachi samurai district with the Nomura family famous samurai house and garden.

– the ninja temple Myoryuji: Not really a ninja temple but in my opinion a must do when in Kanazawa. This Temple looks very simple from the outside, but the inside is full of hidden passages and rooms, hidden doors and floors and boobytraps.Really cool! You can reserve a spot in the private tour at the tourist office in the Kanazawa Station. They will add you to the list. The tour however is in Japanese only, but they will give you a book with English explanation.

– the Sakurabashi pink bridge with great views over the river bank, one of my favorite spots.

– the Kanazawa Castle and Kenrokuen landscape garden (one of the prettiest in Japan)

our pick: We stayed here at the MYSTAYS Hotel Kanazawa Castle. it is not so expensive and just perfect for one night, also it is very close to the JR station. We didn’t have time to visit the garden as our guide tour in the ninja temple was at 4pm, but really wanted to. it is a bit of a shame that we missed it.

 

Sakurabashi Bridge

Samurai District
The Ninja Temple
Higashi Chaya District
Nomura samurai house garden

Day 13: Shibu Onsen and Snow Monkeys

Today you will travel to the Japanese Alps! From Kanazawa you first take the Shinkansen to Nagano. There you will have to take the rapid service to Yudanaka. As this line isn’t covered by the JR Rail Pass. It is 1260 yen per ride. In Yudanaka you can take a bus to the Monkey Park, or a taxi. The park isn’t big and you can stay there about 2 hours max just to see the monkeys play around or take a bath. For more info , visit their site. You can also see a Live Cam on the monkey bath.

The best type of hotel to stay here is the traditional Japanese Ryokan where you sleep on futons on the floor. If you book a ryokan in Yudanaka or Shibu Onsen you will see most of them offer free shuttle to the monkey park and to the station. Make use of this if you can.

our pick: we chose the ryokan Suminoyu in Shibu Onsen. We just loved Shibu Onsen. It is a super calm town with 9 healing public hot baths (onsen). You can get a key at your ryokan and do all 9! Warning: you will have to enter naked and you are not allowed to have tattoos! But if you pick a nice ryokan, they usually have their own private onsen.  If you stay in a ryokan here I suggest to take the half-board option just this one night. They offer you traditional Kaiseki dinner here: all small portion dinner. We enjoyed ours very much! The same goes for the breakfast. But I will be writing a full blog on this wonderful destination later on as well.

Day 14: Sendai

After check- out you can take the rapid train back around 11 am to Nagano. There you will take the Shinkansen all the way to Sendai. Sendai is a vivid city, the capital of Miyagi prefecture. It will be your hub to Cat Island. In Sendai city you can find the big white statue of the protective Daikannon. Inside the statue there are many buddha. That’s a cool thing to visit, but if you are a bit tired from traveling you can just chill around Sendai Station, like we did.

Oh and if you are up to try local specialties: Sendai Station has a Gyutan Street where you can try the famous Sendai beef tongue dishes.

Our pick: We stayed at a hotel across Sendai Station: Daiwa Roynet Hotel Sendai. Under it you have a 7 eleven (with ATM), which is also very practical

Grilled beef tongue, beef tongue curry and beef tongue stew

 

Day 15: Cat island

Getting to cat island involves the next steps:
First you will need to take the train from Sendai to Ishinomaki. There you can take a bus or a taxi to the port. If the weather is fine and you prefer walking: it’s a 30 minutes walk through the town, and Manga street but also through areas affected by the Tsunami of 2011. Getting at the port you have to take the ferry to Tashirojima. Checking the ferry hours is very important as you only have a few a day. And taking the last one back from the island is necessary if you don’t want to get stuck there until morning.

There is an option to stay at the island in the cat lodges of Manga Island. You have to reserve it online by filling in a form on the Ishinomaki site. For more detailed information and times, I will be posting a blog for Cat Island soon.

our pick: We manage to reserve a cat lodge and decided to stay on the island. a tip: Bring food for yourself and not only cat food like we did. Our instant noodles wasn’t really filling and we needed more. The problem is: the island is 90% abandoned and there is only one store run by a really old lady. She only sell a few snacks and drinks and no proper food. So think about dinner and breakfast and all the food you think you need before coming to the island. Also bringing towels to shower will be easier for you.

If you are not staying on Cat island, just book an extra night in Sendai, or take an evening train back to Tokyo if you don’t mind arriving late.

 

the only store on the island

Cat Shrine
Manga Island with cat lodges

Day 16: Back to Tokyo

Today you will return to the start point: the capital Tokyo! After you check in you can relax around your district our do some evening shopping, as most of shops are open till 9 pm r even 10 pm!

Day 17 – 21: Tokyo and day trips

So if you didn’t know, now you know: Tokyo is HUGE. There are so many things to do. I don’t want to say where you have to go or what you have to do. It is better if you point out the things you want to see for yourself. But I would like to give some ideas and share what we did.

I will divide in districts and in day trips away from Tokyo. Moving around Tokyo is easy by JR and discovering a district is best done by foot. So pick a district or maybe two a day to explore.

Shibuya

So Shibuya is famous for the Shibuya Crossing. And I am not gonna lie: it is cool to see so many people crossing at once in all directions AND the people trying to photograph it. So funny. Our airbnb was very close to the crossing and we never got tired of it.

This district is great for shopping and eating yakiniku (Japanese bbq). It was here where we tried the delicious Kobe beef, one of the best of the wagyu special breed cow beef. You have to try it, it is a bit more up-priced, but you will not be disappointed.

Shibuya Crossing

Harajuku

Harajuku is super nice for shopping and eating sweets such as the famous sweet pancakes filled with all kinds of filling such as custard, fruits, cakes, ice cream, whip cream, … It is the place where you will find the most strange and cool street styles.

We have been to Harajuku 3 times, as it was close to Shibuya (just one stop by JR line). If you heard of the Kawaii Monster Cafe, it is in Harajuku. if you didn’t hear: it’s a cafe that the inside make you feel like you are Alice in Wonderland. It has different parts  that you can sit in, and get a cocktail or mocktail and some dishes to eat, like colored spaghetti and cute ice cream desserts.

Shinjuku

Shinjuku is also a fun and busy place full with shops, restaurants, play centers and video arcades like Taito Station, 100 yen stores, … If you want to visit the crazy Robot Restaurant, it is in this district. But try to plan upfront and make reservations.

Roppongi

Tokyo has many high building where you will have a nice view of the city. I didn’t pick the Skytree as it was too high for me and a bit overrated. I didn’t want to do the Tokyo tower, because I wanted to see the Tokyo tower from afar, so the solution was Roppongi Hills.

When you leave the JR station and head for the building you will see this big spider! The ten metre bronze sculpture called Maman is the work of French artist Louise Bourgeois who passed away in 2010. If you look closely, the spider is carrying eggs, that is way it is called mother.

Maman
View from Roppongi Hills

Close to the JR station you can find the hedgehog cafe Hary. We went inside for an half hour. As the minimum is 30 minutes. It was my first time holding a hedgehog (even if I wanted one for years as a pet). I liked the cafe, and I had a difficult one that didnt want to get touched, but I respected that.

Owls cafe or other exotic cafes is really nothing for me, as I heard bad stories about them. I am not sure if they also do something to the hedgehogs but these are special breed kind that can be kept as pets, they are not like the wild forest hedgehogs.

Some daytrips tips from Tokyo:

– Nikko: old temple town, about an hour and half away from Tokyo.

Kamakura: temples and famous for the big Buddha

Mount Fuji: There are different places to go see the mountain Fuji. The Fuji Five Lakes are the most visited, specially the famous Chureito Pagoda where you have the perfect Japanese picture: a red pagoda and Fuji-san on the background… well if he is not hiding…

Disney Land and/or DisneySea: we chose to go visit Disneyland. It has been a while since I’ve been to one (I was 11 in Disneyland Paris) therefore I wanted to visit again, besides… STAR WARS (nerd alert).

 

~ Those 21 days flew by so fast, but I had the greatest times in this amazing country. I can’t wait to go back! I hope you enjoyed this itinerary and hopefully it gives you tons of ideas to do and to plan in your own. Keep posted for more detailed blog posts or let me know what you want to hear more about! You can ask me anything about my Japan Trip at the Contact me form. ~ Sayonara

2 Replies to “21-day itinerary Japan for First-timers and Animal Lovers”

  1. This is an amazing 21 day blog and will be very beneficial to myself as I am travelling late July for 21 days, I am spending 5 nights in Kyoto, would you suggest staying in Downtown Kyoto, I was also told my girlfriend from Hong Kong that Air bnb is illegal in Japan, I am hoping to use Airbnb in Kyoto?

    1. it is illegal? We did air BnB in Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo and all went well.. you could stay anywhere in kyoto really.. it is all very nice. but just make sure you are close to a JR station!

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge