I know, 2 weeks in Japan is not nearly enough for the avid traveler. It was not enough for me, I can assure you, and I plan to go back again and again until I get sick of it. I estimate that to take about a lifetime. But this is what most of us can afford in terms of time. And if you have decided to visit Japan in the fall (like I advise you to do in this post about November in Japan), you will definitely love this 2 week Japan itinerary for autumn.
I need to explain the basics regarding this itinerary. We have planned this so that we waste less time moving between accommodations. This is why this itinerary is focused on two main hubs (Tokyo and Kyoto), with just one more night in Gero to try out a traditional ryokan. You can do this in Hakone if you wish, we just wanted a more remote location.
Also, this itinerary can be used in multiple ways. You can start in Tokyo and end in Kyoto, you can do the other way around, you can come back for your returning flight at the same place. What we did was getting to Kyoto right after landing (with a detour through Hamamatsu, but that’s another story), visited the Kyoto area, then moved to Gero, and then back to Tokyo to be close to the airport.
This autumn itinerary does not contain only fall foliage watching, as you may presume. You will see plenty of nice, colorful leaves, but you will do other activities as well. I think people that would go to what is probably the end of the world for them just to see colorful leaves are not that many. Just in case, there’s something here for them as well.
And the last thing I would advise you is to be flexible. That’s why the star-shaped approach helps you. If you have three days and two day trips scheduled from a hub, you can do the day trips whenever. Unless you plan specific activities for which you NEED to be somewhere at a specific time, be creative. In the end, it’s your trip, it should suit you.
Other short tips that I will address in a planning post are the following:
- Have Wi-fi. No matter how you do this, by renting a pocket wi-fi or using a plain old SIM card, you NEED wi-fi to survive here.
- Look into the JRPass well in advance. After you set up your itinerary, you can make your calculation if the JRPass is worth it for you. More information in this detailed post about using a train in Japan.
- Always be prepared to have to pay in cash. They rarely use cards in Japan, it’s just how it is. Read here more things to know before you go to Japan for the first time.
- Estimate your budget. What you can or cannot do will ultimately depend on your budget. I have created a budget guide for a 2 week trip to Japan to help you out, and you can also get this printable PDF with entry fees to various tourist places you might want to visit.
Ready? Okay, let’s dig in!
You can see the map if you follow this link. You won’t be able to modify it, but you can make a copy and modify that for your needs. Then, just use it as it is when you get there. Convenient, right?
- GREEN – must see places
- PURPLE – recommended places
- BLUE – options for the night at a ryokan
Don’t have time to read it right now? Pin it for later!
Warm-up: Getting into Tokyo
I know you just arrived, haven’t slept in what feels like a few days, and are overwhelmed by the sensorial explosion that is Tokyo. I believe you. I was the same. That’s why I don’t even include this on the first day. You have a few simple tasks to do right after landing though, so keep these in mind:
- Get your JRPass, if you have ordered it. You don’t have to activate it now, you can just exchange it. It’s easier to find the JR office at the airport, so take this opportunity to not waste time later.
- Get your pocket wifi or SIM card from the airport. You don’t want to leave the airport without it.
- If you need it, take your suICa or ICoca card and put some money on it.
- Get to your hotel.
- Handle the jet lag. I mean it, you’re probably pumped with adrenaline, lack of sleep, and a huge jet lag. You need to shake it off quickly so you can be in your best shape from day one.
Days 1-4: Discover Tokyo
For at least three or four full days, I would recommend focusing only on Tokyo. Of course, they don’t have to be in a row, you can alternate with day trips. Especially if you plan to go to Hakone and see Mount Fuji, you can look up the weather forecast every morning, and when it looks like there are no clouds, head there for the best chance of seeing it.
Also, you can be flexible here as well. You have 6 days assigned to Tokyo, so you can do either 3 days in Tokyo and 3 day trips, or 4 days in Tokyo and 2 day trips. Also, don’t forget to include about half a day at the end of this interval that you need to move from one place to the other (the ryokan I suppose).
I recommend starting quite early, as most things close up at around 5 PM, and just going from one place to another is time-consuming, so you cannot cover more than 2-3 things in a day. Try to also get a good breakfast so you won’t have to stop for lunch if you don’t want to.
Proposed activities for the morning:
- Senso-Ji Temple – one of the most well-known temples in Tokyo, so you need to get there really early if you want to beat the crowds.
- Ueno Park – a perfect place to have your breakfast and coffee if you bought them from the grocery shop.
- Meiji Shrine – a more peaceful worship place that’s in the middle of a forested area, so you have the best of both worlds here.
- East Gardens of the Imperial Palace – they are beautiful and should not be missed, but you need to make a reservation beforehand. Check out this site for reservations.
- Do a walking tour – there’s something nice in taking a tour with a local while being in Tokyo. Or, if you’d like, choose one of the many tours available here.
- Yasukuni Shrine – a memorial shrine for all who died in the service of Japan.
- Hie Shrine – a very popular shrine for locals, as its summer festival is one of the three great Japanese festivals held annually.
Also, try to not schedule too many temples and shrines on the same day, as you may get “templed out” pretty fast. And this is only the beginning, you also have Kyoto on the list so…make your list accordingly.
Proposed activities for the evening:
- Visit the free observation decks from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, and try to make it in time for sunset. Also, if you can make it on a clear day, you can see Mount Fuji from here.
- Visit the Digital Art Museum. I cannot stress this enough. After we saw it, we prepared a list of all the other similar museums in the world and we’re planning to see them if we get in any of those places.
- Have dinner or drinks at the Robot Restaurant. It will be like the Digital Art Museum, but more concentrated and maybe hallucinating after.
- Visit some of the neighborhoods: Akihabara, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ginza, Asakusa. It’s a good way to try and absorb Japan’s modern culture.
What can you buy from Tokyo:
- kitchen knives – there’s a whole street dedicated to kitchenware in Kappabashi-Dori.
- electronics – you can find plenty of options in Akihabara.
- make-up – for any passionate make-up artist, Tokyo is like heaven on steroids.
- any kind of shopping, actually – from clothes and shoes to luxury items and unexpected souvenirs.
And since this is a Japan itinerary for autumn, here are some parks, gardens, and forests in the Tokyo area where you can go fall foliage hunting.
Parks, gardens, and forests:
- Rikugien Gardens
- Yoyogi Koen Park
- Koishikawa Botanical Garden
- Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
- Tonmori Yato Forest Garden
Days 5-6: Day trips from Tokyo
As I said, Tokyo can also be used as a hub for day trips. While the options are virtually unlimited, here are a few suggestions for your day trips.
Of course, if you manage to get an early start and come back to Tokyo early, you’ll have time for an evening activity after the day trips as well. Just, don’t count on this, as it may be that you will just want to get yourself in bed after waking up early and walking 20.000 steps in Hakone.
- Hakone – especially if you’re not going to spend a night here in a ryokan, you should visit Hakone for plenty of reasons, seeing Mount Fuji being just one of them.
- Nikko – the Shrines and Temples of Nikko are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, and they look beautiful in autumn.
- Fuji Five Lakes – there are plenty of opportunities here for photographs, but you can also enjoy hot springs, temples and shrines, hiking, and even a museum dedicated to worshiping and climbing Mount Fuji.
- Yokohama – the old and new combined can be seen here, as this former small fishing village was one of the first to open to foreign trade.
- Kamakura – you can visit plenty of temples and shrines here, including a huge Buddha statue, but you can also head to the beach if you feel you can enjoy a few hours to just hear the waves.
- Mito – for a beautiful natural landscape, including one of the three best landscape gardens in Japan (Kairakuen Garden).
- Nagano – you can do almost everything here, from visiting temples to enjoying hot springs to going skiing, and I’m not even over yet: you can also see snow monkeys here if the weather is cold enough for them to want to bathe in a hot spring.
- Matsumoto – you can visit the Matsumoto castle, one of the very few original ones, and even a wasabi farm if you feel brave enough.
Day 7: Spend a night at a ryokan
Spending a night in a traditional ryokan is one of the must-do activities you have to do in Japan. You get to stay in a traditional room with tatami mats, sleep on a futon bed, enjoy a multi-course traditional meal, and soak in a hot spring that will take all your muscle pain away. I added this night right in the middle for a few reasons:
- You get a chance to relax after almost a week of early mornings and late nights, with plenty of visiting in between.
- You can choose a hot spring town right between Tokyo and Kyoto, thus making it easily accessible and splitting the trip between the two in two parts.
- You don’t waste much time changing accommodations, as you don’t even have to unpack for just one evening.
We have chosen Gero for this purpose, as we didn’t want to go to Hakone and be surrounded by other tourists and no locals. This was a very local place, as we could see from most people not speaking even a bit of English. But the place was great, the train trip was amazing going through the mountains, and we got to enjoy a very peaceful evening here.
A few ideas for places where you could spend this beautiful, traditional Japanese evening:
- Hakone, as I said. You can try to score a ryokan with private a onsen (hot spring) with a view of Mount Fuji.
- Gero, Gifu – we enjoyed our evening here and would recommend the place.
- Fuji Kawaguchiko Onsen area – another option to consider if you’d like to have a chance on spotting Mount Fuji while you’re enjoying your hot bath.
- Yunomine Onsen, Wakayama – one of the oldest hot springs in Japan, and you can enjoy a bit of rural Japan on your way there.
- Arima, Kobe – one of the best hot spring resorts in Western Japan. You can also try to Kobe beef, while you’re here, so why not?
You can look for your accommodation using the buttons below. As to which one to choose, it’s up to you. For Asia, I can recommend Agoda, as it always returned lower prices for us compared to Booking, but you can choose whichever you think it’s easier to use.
And a few etiquette rules you must follow when enjoying a hot spring in Japan:
- If you have tattoos, choose your place wisely. Most onsens do not allow people with tattoos as they used to represent the Japanese mafia a long time ago. You might have an option to cover it with a plaster if it’s not very big but look into it nonetheless, to be sure you’re on the safe side.
- Put your hair up. Your hair must not touch the hot spring’s water, so do something about it before entering.
- Take a deep cleaning shower before you enter an onsen. You don’t get in a hot spring to clean yourself, you clean outside and only soak in the onsen. When we had our Gero evening, there was one lady that cleaned herself so persistently that her skin turned red. And then got into a hot spring. That must have hurt!
- Don’t wear a bathing suit while in an onsen. This is mostly due to the onsen having to stay clean, and your bathing suit may have bacteria and whatnot on it. Only your freshly cleaned skin is clean enough. Don’t worry, most of them are gender-separated anyway, and no one cares about your body (and no one has cared for centuries, in fact).
- You’ll have a piece of cloth like a small towel to use when you clean yourself. After you use it, you have to take it in the water with you, but you cannot PUT it in the water. Confusing, right? Well, not if you watch the locals. Just wrap it up nicely and put it on your head, as they do. You can even soak it in cold water before, so you’ll enjoy the refreshing addition to your hot bath.
Days 8-11: Discover Kyoto
Kyoto has been, for me, the Japan that I wanted to see. It was the only place where I could find a bit of the old Japan, the one that I know from movies and books. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a huge city, especially since it’s a big tourist place, but you could still find that vibe of the old, traditional Japan.
And I also know there are plenty of other smaller towns where you could see traditional Japan, but I would head over to these on a second trip. The first one has to be dedicated to Kyoto.
And why, you ask? Because it used to be Japan’s capital city. The name itself means “Capital”. You have here thousands of years of history and culture to immerse yourself into. You just have to go to Kyoto on your first trip to Japan.
What you need to see in Kyoto:
- Fushimi Inari Shrine – the most important shrine dedicated to the Shinto God of rice, also known as “the one with plenty of torii gates you see in all travel videos”; I urge you to get there with the first train in the morning if you want pictures without crowds in them.
- Golden Temple (Kinkaku-Ji Temple) – this is a Zen temple built as a retirement villa for a shogun, and it is truly covered in gold (only the top two floors though).
- Silver Pavilion (Ginkaku-Ji Temple) – this is another Zen temple, built by the grandson of the shogun mentioned above, and is not covered in silver as you may think.
- Nijo Castle – one of the few castles that are still in their original form and featuring all adjacent buildings; it’s well worth a visit, especially if you don’t plan to visit the Himeji Castle.
- Imperial Palace – the place where the Imperial Family used to live before they moved to Tokyo in 1868; it’s a beautiful place, but keep in mind that you need to make a reservation here.
- Kiyomizu-Dera – a Buddhist Temple placed in a beautiful natural area, the place to be if you want to see a great temple and fall foliage at the same time.
What you need to do in Kyoto:
- Enjoy a free walking tour – what better way to get you started with everything there is to know about Kyoto? We used this resource to find a tour.
- Tea ceremony – you have to do this activity if you want to feel you’re part of the amazing Japanese culture. Here are a few places where you can enjoy the tea ceremony:
- Geisha experience – another must do, there’s nothing that can beat this, and it’s the only place in the world you can see something like this. Take a look at this post about enjoying the geisha culture in Japan for detailed information on how to do this.
- Stroll through the Gion area in the evening – you can not only find great restaurants to end your day in a hospitable manner, but you can also see a geisha or maiko on her way to work. Just remember to be respectful and to not bother them in any way, please.
What can you buy from Kyoto:
- silk fans – this is a very traditional accessory for any Japanese lady, as it used to be a must in the hot, humid summer. It makes for a very nice gift for the ladies in your life.
- kimono – wearing a traditional kimono is something that still happens in Japan, as you will see on your trip. Beautiful kimonos can be found at traditional shops and you can buy even gently used ones of a higher quality than you might expect.
- calligraphy sets – for the most meticulous friends of yours (or yourself, why not?), this would make a special gift with a unique twist.
- chopsticks – manually crafted and painted chopsticks can be a great souvenir, and you can use them while on your trip to not produce so much waste with the single-use ones.
- ceramic tea sets – you can buy delicate tea sets, including matcha tea and you can do a theme day at home where you apply what you have learned at the tea ceremony.
Parks, gardens, and forests in the Kyoto area to highlight your autumn itinerary:
- Arashiyama Bamboo Forest – the most well-known bamboo groves in the area (get here early if you want to have the full place for yourself), but all of Arashiyama gets beautifully colored in late November.
- Tofukuji Temple – a temple particularly known for the spectacular autumn colors developed in mid-November.
- Eikando Temple – a villa that was donated to a priest so it became a temple, so the garden is spectacular for Koyo (colorful leaves watching).
- Takao – an area in the mountains located one hour north of Kyoto by bus that has its peak earlier in November that most of the other places in Kyoto.
Days 12-14: Day trips from Kyoto
There are plenty of nice places where you could go on a day trip from Kyoto, and you can even combine some of the options below if you’re moving faster than we were (you can combine the Himeji castle with Hiroshima or with Nara if you’d like), but here are a few options I can recommend.
- Hiroshima – it may not be the cup of tea for many people, but Hiroshima is a powerful symbol for all humankind. There are so many reasons to be seen, and this is why it has been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
- Himeji Castle – one of the few castles still standing in its original form, it must be seen, especially if you will not visit the Nijo castle. This is also part of the UNESCO World Heritage List.
- Nara – this used to be the Capital of Japan at one point, and you have plenty of things to see here, including cute deer roaming around free (don’t feed them though). Again, UNESCO agrees with this place as well.
- Osaka – some people are using Osaka as a hub and doing Kyoto as a day trip, but we considered it to be too similar to Tokyo so we decided on Kyoto instead. You can read a great traditional Osaka one day guide here, and you can see this itinerary on the map below. It was written by me on a fellow traveler’s blog and it has great tips. You can also read plenty of helpful information about what to do in Dotonbori, Osaka here.
- Kobe – you can visit a few sake breweries and enjoy the famous Kobe beef here.
- Kanazawa – a traditional small town where you can still see old tea houses and the second bigger geisha district in Japan after Kyoto.
- Hikone – a place where you can find 4 (yes, I said FOUR) original castles still standing there, waiting to tell their stories.
This is the traditional Osaka itinerary I was telling you about. It’ll be a full day, but you can definitely make it work.
Key takeaway for the best 2 week Japan itinerary for autumn
God this was intense! I don’t mean the writing, I mean the actual trip. The itinerary is jam-packed and I know you’ll feel like you’re rushing through things. That’s why I advise you to take this itinerary and make it your own: add stuff to it, take stuff out, or even move things around.
Also, don’t forget to take into account the time required to move around to and from the airport and between major cities. While the Japanese transport system is state of the art, your trips between cities will be still long, so try to focus on maximizing what you see instead of running around in so many places you spend most of your time on a train.
I hope you’ll find this two week Japan itinerary for autumn helpful. I spent more than a month researching this before our trip and I wanted to offer you everything you need in only one place.
And I have a surprise for you! I have gathered all this cool information in this printable 2 week itinerary for Japan PDF. I hope it helps you plan and I hope you’ll love it! Enjoy your trip!