“What would you like to experience?” Jennifer, the PR who helped me plan our Japan trip asked me over the phone. My mind started racing but in the back of my mind I had been crafting a rough draft of my first trip to Japan for the past 20 years. “Cities, food and nature, maybe some snow?”, I replied and Jennifer took those few words and turned them into the best itinerary anyone could ask for.

And because I loved my 10 days in Japan so much I will map out our exact itinerary for you and hopefully inspire you to draft out your own in the not so distant future.

 

Day 1-3: TOKYO!

What could be a better place to start off your Japan adventure than the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, a megacity of 9.3 million, with over 6000 people per square kilometer ranking it among the world’s most densely populated cities. Tokyo can feel pretty overwhelming so I recommend resisting the urge to go as central as possible with your accommodation.

We stayed at the Hilton hotel in a part of town called Odaiba which features a few cool attractions including the 2 iconic digital art museums by teamlab and a highly instagrammable big wheel, but it’s across the bridge from central Tokyo which in our case meant bigger hotel rooms for less money and some lovely, quiet views across the river. Public transportation is reliable and affordable so we happy commuting everywhere.

Here are my to-do’s for Tokyo:

*have conveyer belt sushi at Uobei

4500 google reviews couldn’t be wrong: this place is a great spot to enjoy super tasty sushi on a budget. You sit on long-stretching tables and each chair gets it’s own tablet from which you choose your food and drink that will then be sent to you on the conveyer belt. It’s fun, convenient, cheap and tasty and who doesn’t love that combo! To avoid waiting in the often very long line come here outside of the main meal times. We turned up at 4.30 and were seated immediately.

*immerse yourself inside teamlab borderless and planets!

A huge point on my my list was to visit the digital art museum so many had been raving about and boy, did they not exaggerate. I would easily list the experience of visiting the planets teamlab museum among my favorite things I did in Japan and cannot wait to back and visit the borderless one as well. It#s hard to describe, but it’s unlike any art installation or museum you’ve been to before. Do. Not. Miss.!

*check out Robot Restaurant

We all know Japan has its quirks and I was here for them. That is exactly why I did not hesitate to book my son and I seats at Robot Restaurant, a performing arts theatre which is so weird and wonderful it could only come from Japan. It’s very loud and bright and eating there is never a good idea but to see the show is a cool experience I can wholeheartedly recommend.

* slurp some delicious ramen at the world’s first soup kitchen to receive a Michelin star

We were just roaming to find a good spot for lunch when trusty google informed me of a nearby ramen place with good ratings. I was confused about the queue at 3pm but 30 minutes but quickly realised this wasn’t just any old lunch spot – it was actually Ichiran, the first ramen shop to ever win a Michelin star! Needless to say it was delicious and the mill amounted to an incredible 18€ for 2 people.

Day 4-7: Kyoto and Osaka

Prior to our arrival in Japan we had booked a 7-day rail pass which allows for unlimited travel on most, if not all trains within Japan. We hopped on the world’s fastest train to Kyoto and arrived there within less than 3 hours which is pretty convenient! Hot tip: allow for time to buy yourself some food and drinks at the train station to bring on the trip as options to buy something on the train are limited.

In Kyoto we stayed right next to the central train station in an incredible hotel called The Thousand which I enthusiastically recommend. It’s not only incredible value, it effortlessly manages to bridge Japanese customs and aesthetics with a western idea of comfort and I absolutely loved our 3 nights here. Do book breakfast and at least once choose the Japanese breakfast restaurant over the Western one – you will be delighted!

Must do’s for Kyoto:

* head to Nishiki Market

Many adventurous foods and novelties await as you stroll through this 1500m long market. What used to be an open air fish market is now a great indoor market to easily spend a few hours in. Highly recommended: letting yourself get lost in the countless side streets and exploring all the different little shops these have on offer. I found various vintage shops, interesting bars and even the city’s first all you can drink Sake bar!

*join a cooking class

I love cooking classes, especially when I am in a country that has such excellent cuisine as Japan does. Even though I am by no means a stranger to the wonderful art of sushi making, I still was keen to see how the local chefs do it. I was not let down! Made my own sushi and had a blast while doing it. Check out more options for cooking classes here.

*admire traditionally dressed couples in Gion

I had read that Gion would be a hotspot and I was really happy I found time to go there. There were lots of couples and groups of girlfriends dressed in layers of beautiful traditional Japanese Kimonos and luckily the ones I asked were happy to have their picture taken. Aside from the people it’s nice strolling along Shijo-Dori with all its adorable shops and the many foods waiting to be tried. At the end of it is Yasaka Shrine, which is especially magical at night.

* visit Japanese temples at your heart’s content

I am not really the type to put touristy Sightseeing at the top of my Agenda but I made an exception in Kyoto and booked myself a seat on one of those hop-on, hop-of buses. In Kyoto those strongly focus on driving you around to see all the temples and if this is your thing, the bus can be a convenient option to letting your explore a few or even all of them. I knew I wanted to see some temples, after all they are a magnificent part of Japanese culture and ended up visiting the Yasaka Shrine in Gion as well as the Heian Jungu shrine. Other popular spots of interest are the Kinka-kuji temple and the Kyoto Imperial palace which I would love to visit another time.

*hop on the short train ride to Osaka’s Universal Studios

We did not have time to visit Osaka itself, but traveling with a 5-year old, a visit to the Universal Studios was simply something I knew I couldn’t miss. Sure enough it became the one day that he considers the most memorable of the whole trip! I must say, I had more fun than I thought I would but I also strongly recommend only coming here on a weekday and preferably in an off-season month. We were here on a Thursday in December and by the time it was 3pm, the place was PACKED. Long lines for rides are the result, so do all the rides you are most keen on in the morning and keep the less interesting ones for later.

 

Day 8/9: Yudanaka Onsen in Nagano

Little did I know that we had saved the best for last. Everyone who visits Japan outside the cities raves about Japanese nature, so I knew this was something I needed to witness for myself. We were booked to stay at the Masuya Ryokan, a high-caliber traditional guest house in an area called Yamanouchi which was a true experience and unlike anything I had previously experienced. I’m planning on writing a separate blogpost on this, because it was so special, so look out for that. The special thing about Yudanaka Onsen are the many public baths, 9 of them, which can be accessed through a general key given out the guests of the surrounding ryokans (guesthouses). Not too far is the famous snow-monkey park which is quite an experience, since during winter days the monkeys can be seen up-close swimming in the onsen and having a jolly good spa day. It might be a tourist draw but it really is a unique experience for all ages!

Day 10: Tokyo

We eventually went back to Tokyo for our last night, spending it at an airport hotel so we would catch our 9am flight with ease. That said, before checking in we spent the whole day in Tokyo, strolling, exploring, shopping for souvenirs (literally 3 plastic bags full of sweet treats!) and enjoying one last conveyer belt sushi.

My first trip to Japan was definitely my highlight of 2019 and I am already wondering when I will go back to see a whole lot more, especially now that I know that so many of my previous prejudice towards Japan had turned out untrue (I wrote more about that here!). Next time I would love to explore the summer in this weird and wonderful country and when I do, rest assured I will share my experiences with you here!

*Disclosure: I was kindly invited on this trip by the Japanese Tourism Board. All opinions are 100% my own.