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Japan Winter Travel – Itinerary

 Have you been thinking about visiting Japan for your next trip? Don’t despair if you don’t feel like you have enough time to plan it– I had decided to go two weeks before my December holiday break and pulled it off without a hitch…talk about heart-pounding, trigger-pulling vacation planning mode! This isn’t your average suggested travel itinerary post– read along if you want a real account of a noodle lover eating her way through Tokyo, Osaka, Nagasaki, Fukuoka, Kyoto, and Kobe!

 

As soon as put the gears in motion, my first order of business was securing a 14-day JR Rail Pass. I knew I wanted to visit multiple cities during this trip, and the JR Pass offers excellent value to ride Japan’s comprehensive rail system. Keep in mind that certain seasons and especially oshougatsu (New Year’s) is especially busy for Japanese people. Be sure to book your reserved seating train tickets for long rides as soon as you arrive in the country (unless you don’t mind traveling in the smoker cars).

 

With limited time to plan, I focused mostly on which cities I wanted to visit and booked my stay through HostelWorld. Moving through Japan as a solo or two-person travel group is fairly easy, however coming as a group might be a bit more tricky. I had no problem finding a spot at great hostels and stayed in a variety of mixed dorms and private rooms.
Instead of pre-planning my day-to-day, I figured out which activities I wanted to do on the fly by using Time Out Tokyo, TripAdvisor, and Wikitravel. For food recommendations, I talked to friendly people I met along the way or looked for any restaurants that looked crowded. Google Maps was particularly helpful to get me on the right trains and all of my destinations. While “traveling on the fly” was fairly new to me, I discovered how much I loved this style– I had the freedom to soak in the moment, linger at any location if I chose to, and discover new experiences I had never anticipated (including watching part of a Kabuki show)!

The JR Rail Pass was my ticket to exploration anywhere in the country. Pictured here: Nagasaki

Follow along on this detailed 14-Day Japan itinerary with stops in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagasaki, Fukuoka, Kyoto, and Kobe!

 

day 1 (in the air)

  • SFO to Tokyo flight– watched the Life of Pi movie and screamed at the part when the tiger jumped out of the tented area on the boat. Successfully startled all neighbors on the plane.

day 2 (tokyo)

Lodging: Hostelworld // Khaosan Tokyo Ninja Hostel

  • Arrived in Tokyo, met a few interesting plane mates including a shoe designer and a new graduate named Eriko, who looked like a real-life anime character with big doll eyes.
  • Picked up and activated my 14-day JR Rail Pass at the airport branch. Had a bit of trouble navigating my way to the hostel (didn’t have wifi at this point) but eventually made it successfully. Tip: Print out a map and the Japanese address of your lodging to show the taxi driver.
  • Picked up my pre-delivered package holding my rental mobile hotspot immediately upon getting to the hostel. Set out to eat my first bowl of ramen.
  • First bowl of tonkotsu ramen at Kagetsu (10-minute walk from the hostel).
First order of business in Japan? A steaming bowl of ramen with a healthy slab of chashu. Restaurant: Kagetsu in Tokyo, Japan.

day 3 (tokyo)

Lodging: Hostelworld // Khaosan Tokyo Ninja Hostel

  • Woke up bright and early to see the impressive Meiji Jingu Shrine in Shibuya.
  • Paid a visit to the Hachiko Dog statue at the Shibuya Crossing; an homage to true friendship, loyalty, and fidelity. Read his story and you’ll understand why he is a beloved Japanese icon.
  • Explored Tokyo with my sweet friend Akira, whom I had met in college during her exchange program.
  • Visited her work at the Shibuya D47 Museum – revolving exhibition themes that represent Japan’s 47 prefectures. A design-centric and creative way to explore Japan on a cultural deep-dive.
  • Roppongi Hills –  an impressive 54 story tower with an observation deck. Here, you will find the Mori Art Museum, a giant spider called “Maman” by French artist Louise Bourgeoise,  luxury shopping, and dining.
  • Katsu donburi (pork cutlet cooked in egg over rice bowl) for dinner.
Had such a fun time meeting up with Akira, who showed me a few great spots in the Shibuya area.

day 4 (nagasaki)

Lodging: Hostelworld // Nagasaki International Hostel Akari

  • Rode the JR line from the Tokyo to Osaka station to meet up with Jun. Continued onwards to Nagasaki.
  • Tried the dessert specialty castella sponge cake (see the recipe here) and wandered into Suwa Shrine as the sun set.
  • It was Christmas day and all the rage is to eat fried chicken. We tried to place a simple order at KFC only to find out the wait was an hour and a half!!
  • Decided to get curry for dinner and ordered two pieces of fried chicken on the side.
  • Late evening, a sweet potato truck made its way down our street with a garbled ‘sweet potato song’ projecting from loudspeakers. We stopped to buy some, despite still being stuffed from dinner. I took two bites and retired to bed with a full stomach and happy heart.

 

Spending Christmas in Japan? Make sure you get a hold of some fried chicken!

 

day 5 (nagasaki / fukuoka)

Lodging: Hostelworld // Fukuoka Hana Hostel

  • Breakfast at Yoshinoya (a huge gyudon chain) and had a bowl of negi gyudon (see one of my favorite gyudon recipes here).
  • Nagasaki Ropeway to Mount Inasa for a sky-high view of the entire city and beyond.
  • Visited Nagasaki Atomic Bomb museum and memorial to consider this piece of powerful history and pay respect to those lost during World War II.
  • Tried another famous Nagasaki dish called, champon– a pork broth soup with egg noodles inspired by China. I opted for the seafood deluxe champon which was loaded with shrimp, clams, and veggies over a creamy broth and thick chewy noodles.
  • Back on the JR to travel from Nagasaki to Fukuoka.
  • Found our bowl of ramen and with a side order of gyoza at a tiny ramen-ya. While our chef appeared a bit austere and on the grumpy side, he eventually warmed up with satisfaction after seeing us finish every morsel and drop of food.

 

Negi Gyudon at Yoshinoya. Japanese eggs are perfectly safe to eat consume raw.

day 6 (fukuoka / osaka)

Lodging: Jun’s obachan’s (grandmother) home in Osaka

  • Explored the outdoor market in search of fresh mentaiko (spicy marinated pollock roe).
  • Wandered through the Canal City Hakata mall to wait for the famous Ramen Stadium to open for lunch. This is the place to go for any ramen seeker; especially for Hakata-style (check out this guide on types of ramen).
  • Used our JR Rail passes to travel from Fukuoka to Osaka.
  • Takoyaki (octopus snack) time at Yamachan.
  • Dinner at a humongous “sushi robot boat” restaurant with state of the art touch screen ordering capability and direct sushi delivery to your table. Every 10 plates eaten gave us the chance of winning a mini prize. What a brilliant concept!

The entrance to the doors of the Fukuoka, Canal City Ramen Stadium.

day 7 (kobe)

Lodging: Jun’s obachan’s (grandmother) home in Osaka

  • Took the train from Osaka to Kobe to meet up with Takahito, a friend I met in college during his study abroad program to America.
  • Enjoyed a hot bowl of wonton soup in Kobe’s China Town area.
  • Stopped in for a snack at specialty gyoza restaurant and tried unique varieties such as shiso gyoza with a plum sauce!
  • Visited one of Takahito’s favorite spots– a magic show venue with an impressive bartender who performed tricks while making cocktails.
  • Sampled a crispy Kobe beef croquette in a food arcade at the bottom floor of a mall (these places are treasure troves for great food).
  • Returned to Osaka and got lost in Obachan’s neighborhood. Note to self: Never use Apple Maps. Google Maps is always right.
Standing at the Kobe port, gazing at the heavy rain clouds.

day 8 (kyoto)

Lodging: Hostelworld // Jam Hostel Kyoto Gion

  • Rode the train from Osaka to Kyoto.
  • Visited the iconic red gates of the Fushimi Inari Shrine and hiked all the way to the top. Tip: Travel lightly if you plan on visiting here, because after 300 steps or so, every purse, backpack, and the extra layer of clothes begin to feel like a bag of bricks!
  • Rewarded ourselves with takoyaki (octopus snack) from a street vendor.
  • Dinner at a buffet restaurant boasting authentic Japanese food. While it wasn’t my personal favorite (they didn’t have many noodles), I did appreciate the opportunity to try a variety of items.
Our hostel was conveniently located on top of a sake bar. One of Kyoto’s most famous attractions are the red gates of the Fushimi Inari shrine.

 

day 9 (kyoto / osaka)

Lodging: Jun’s obachan’s (grandmother) home in Osaka

  • Explored the Gion district and ate some street mitarashi dango (dango skewered with a sweet soy sauce glaze) for breakfast. See a great recipe here!
  • Egg flower udon soup for lunch.
  • Waited in line for an hour to experience the infamous Tsujiri Honten, for the most decadent matcha ice cream and sweets parfait that I’ve ever tasted.
  • Visited the Udon Noodle History Museum (also located in Gion) and tried two different bowls of udon that featured wide and flat noodles. This is a great place for anyone looking to discover the many different varieties of noodles that can be found all over the country.
  • Rode the train from Kyoto back to Osaka.
  • Picked up a casual chirashi bento (assorted cuts of sashimi over sushi rice) for dinner along the way home.
Kyoto is an incredible place for foodies! Be sure to try some udon while you are here.
 

day 10 (wakayama)

Lodging: Jun’s obachan’s (grandmother) home in Osaka

  • Traveled about an hour via train from Osaka to Wakayama to visit Tama the Station Master Cat. Tama is a beloved calico that is celebrated for reviving ridership to the Wakayama Station. She’s affectionately known as the “Station Master Cat” and even has her own themed gift shop, cafe, and decorated train. Tip: While the original Tama passed away in 2015, her predecessor Ni Tama can still be visited according to her “working schedule.”
  • Wakayama-style ramen for lunch.
  • New Year’s Eve visit to Kimiidera temple, where I purchased my first “temple passport” book. Tip: These books are sold at most Japanese Buddhist temples and have blank pages that can be signed by a monk. If you plan on traveling throughout Japan, I encourage you to begin yours!
  • Watched a gentle sunset and said my well wishes to the past year.
  • Ate a refreshing dish of zaru soba (cold dipping noodles) and a mini negitoro-don (tuna and green onion bowl over rice) for dinner.

A monk at the Kimiidera temple takes a few minutes to sign my temple passport book.

day 11 (osaka)

Lodging: Jun’s obachan’s (grandmother) home in Osaka

  • Rang in (literally) the New Year by visiting the Fujiidera temple, and collected another signature for my “temple passport” book.
  • Tried my very first osechi ryori (traditional Japanese New Year’s food) at Obachan’s house over a steaming bowl of mochi soup.
  • Explored the Osaka Aquarium (one of the largest public aquariums in the world) to ogle at the jellies, croon over the playful penguins, and marvel at the well-manicured exhibits.
  • Home-prepared sukiyaki feast at Obachan’s house. She special-ordered the marbled beef that must have been sent from the heavens. This was an amazing meal and has since inspired me to recreate the sukiyaki experience at home with my own recipe.
Spending oshougatsu (New Year’s) with obachan and her family was the best experience I could have asked for.
 

day 12 (osaka / tokyo)

Lodging: Hostelworld //  Khaosan World Asakusa Hostel

  • Osaka is known for okonomiyaki (grilled Japanese savory pancake). We had ours Hiroshima-style with noodles in the center for lunch.
  • Boarded the bullet train from Osaka back to the labyrinth of Tokyo.
  • Uncovered a tiny restaurant run by a sweet family spanning three generations. Had chirashi for dinner.
At times it felt like I was traveling from one meal to the next.

 

day 13 (tokyo)

Lodging: Hostelworld //  Khaosan World Asakusa Hostel

  • I got up at 5:00 am to see if I could catch a glimpse of the Tsukiji fish market auction area, but quickly realized it was closed for the holidays (if you want to visit the market, do check the schedule beforehand). Undeterred, I continued exploring and found a lovely shrine called the Namiyoke Inari Shrine nearby with wooden dragon statues.
  • Visited the Tsukiji Hongan-ji temple to say a prayer of thanks.
  • Saw my first kabuki act at the Kabukiza Theater. Tip: Instead of watching an entire performance, pay 2000¥ to catch just the first act, which lasts about 20-minutes.
  • Enjoyed sushi at Sushizanmai (also in the Tsukiji area) for lunch.
  • Caught a special Charlie Brown exhibit honoring the work of Charles Schulz in Roppongi at the Mori Art Museum.
  • Stopped at the Ebisu Station for a quick walk and peek at the many restaurants in that area (including world-renowned Chef Joël Robuchon’s restaurant and pastry shop).
  • Nabemono (hot pot dish) for dinner. I’ll be the first to admit this was not among my favorite Japanese dishes, as I found the soup tasted a bit bland. Will need to try this one again!
  • One of my hostel dorm mates and I struck up a conversation. We were both leaving the next day and decided we had to experience a night out in Tokyo! After chatting with a few folks in the Shibuya area, we ducked into Club Camelot and danced all night.
  • Worked up quite the appetite dancing, and inhaled a bowl of piping hot tonkotsu ramen at 4:00 am. We caught the first train from Shibuya back to our hostel in Asakusa. Tip: A night out in Tokyo means taking the midnight (last train) to your destination and staying out all night until the 5:00am (first train).

 

One of my favorite shrines in Japan– the Namiyoke Inari near the Tsukiji fish market area.

day 14 (tokyo / homeward)

  • Hangover breakfast with a warm bowl of spicy kimchi gyudon (thinly sliced beef bowl) at Matsuya.
  • Asakusa to visit the Sensoji Temple. This is a vibrant area with lots of street vendors and tiny pop up shops!
  • Serendipitously stumbled upon a Masudaya Toy Exhibit which held an impressive collection of Masudaya’s vintage metal toys.
  • Quietly wandered through the Tokyo station museum gallery and enjoyed its extensive collection of fossils.
  • Simple nigiri and sashimi sushi dinner, where I traded a bit of conversation with a fellow diner.
  • Made a point to stop for one last look of Tokyo in the evening. My pick? The glowing Akihabara station  (a mecca for gaming and all things arcade).
  • Midnight flight from Tokyo back to home to San Francisco in California.

Tokyo is one of those cities that can keep you eternally entertained. Every neighborhood has a different vibe and there are always things to do!

This was my first international solo trip, and I found the experience entirely amazing. It was nice to ease into it by meeting up and staying with friends for a portion of the time, and I would highly recommend Japan as a fantastic place for female solo travelers or noodle enthusiasts. If you plan on visiting during the holiday season, be sure to check museum and landmark schedules, as many places close for several days for the New Year holiday.


Travel the Country: JR Rail Pass

Tokyo’s Most Famous Dog: Hachiko, Shibuya

A Full View of Nagasaki: Mount Inasa via Nagasaki Ropeway

Ramen Wonderland: Ramen Stadium inside of the Canal City Hakata, Fukuoka

The Best Green Tea Parfait on the Planet: Tsujiri Honten, Kyoto

Real-Life Stationmaster Cat: Tama and Ni-Tama, Wakayama

Try This: Okonomiyaki in Osaka

A Glimpse in Kabuki: Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo


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