Japan is high on the must-visit list of many travelers, whether they’re drawn by the excitement of contemporary Tokyo, the age-old temples and shrines of Kyoto and smaller towns, or natural wonders like Mount Fuji and Lake Ashino-ko.
With a population of 19 million in the larger metropolitan area, Osaka ranks among the world’s most populous cities. As one of the commercial centers of the country, it has the bustle of new restaurants and shopping, but there are also a number of historic sites, from Osaka Castle to some of Japan’s most important temples.
There’s too much to see in only one day, and an early arrival is strongly recommended. However long your stay is in Osaka, the castle is a good place to start. You can see this magnificent structure from points throughout the city and, conversely, when you climb to the upper floors, you’ll have views of Osaka below you.
Residents of Osaka think of themselves as less stuffy than their counterparts in Tokyo, and this extends to the dining scene. While the city doesn’t lack in fine dining options, you’ll find an abundance of budget-friendly, no-attitude options, from humble noodle stands to hamburger joints.
You’ll wake up early this morning for your journey by train to Koyasan, or Mount Koya, where a quintessential Japan experience awaits: a temple stay. From the bustle of Osaka to the serenity of a centuries-old temple, you’ll have seen two extremes of Japanese life and culture, and all within your first two days here.
Board a bullet train to Hiroshima. The city’s name is known around the world because of the events of August 6, 1945, when tens of thousands of residents died after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The Hiroshima Peace and Park Memorial is dedicated to all who died that day and encourages visitors to become advocates for peace. The centerpiece of the memorial is the haunting dome of the former Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, the only building to have withstood the blast. It’s a place not only to remember what happened, but commit to ensuring it never happens again. You may also want to visit Hiroshima Castle, a contemporary recreation of a 16th-century complex of buildings. Just east of the castle, Shukkeien is a masterpiece of Japanese garden design from the 17th century, with a landscape of valleys and peaks, though all scaled down to garden-sized versions.
You will head out today on an excursion to gorgeous Miyajima Island. Once you disembark from your ferry, start your free time exploring the island with a visit to the Itsukushima Shrine. The iconic torii gate that sits in the water just off the island is the symbolic entrance to the shrine and, like the gate, itsvarious halls and temples were built above the water and are connected by boardwalks. As you make your way along the trails that cross the island, you’ll see the ubiquitous deer—there are around 1,000 of them. For centuries, it has been a crime to harm any of these sacred animals, which has made them fearless when it comes to approaching humans.
You’ll board another bullet train this morning and continue on to the cultural and traditional heart of Japan: Kyoto. It was the country’s capital for more than 1,000 years, until 1868, and its temples and palaces celebrate traditional Japanese aesthetics, spirituality, and crafts. The city can boast 17 different historic sites that are collectively recognized as the Historic Monuments of Kyoto by UNESCO on its list of World Heritage Sites.
It’s time to board another bullet train—by this point, you’ll qualify as an expert in all things related to JapanRail. Today, you are headed to the town of Hakone, famous for its hot springs. You’ll start with a boat ride on Lake Ashino-ko, surrounded by wooded hills and with iconic views of Japan’s most famous natural landmark, Mt. Fuji (at least on clear days). The city boasts 17 natural onsen, or hot springs, and is near Fuji Hakone Izu, Japan’s most-visited national park. Sitting on the road from Kyoto to Edo (today’s Tokyo) Hakone also has a long history, reflected in its many temples and shrines, as well as a former imperial palace, now open to the public.
Riding high after its successful bid to host the 2020 Olympics, the capital city formerly known as Edo is a sprawling megalopolis characterized by a blend of ancient tradition and modern luxury. Greater Tokyo boasts a resume like that of an anime superhero—it has the largest urban population on Earth, an ultra-efficient public transportation system, more Michelin-starred restaurants than Paris and New York combined, a high level of public safety, and four distinct seasons in which to enjoy it all. Combine this with zany, only-in-Japan attractions and entertainment, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for what is arguably the globe’s greatest city.