To keep clear of the crowds while still seeing the can’t-miss sights, set up a Japan Rail Pass. With seven-, 14-, or 21-day vouchers (exchanged for cards upon your arrival), explore the JR train, bus, and ferry network from end to end along these five themed itineraries, custom-made by our expert. (Explore this epic three-day itinerary of Tokyo.)
Take in the poetic “Three Views”
In 1643, shogunate scholar Hayashi Gahō named the “Three Best Views of Japan”: Matsushima Bay’s pine-covered islands; Hiroshima’s floating Itsukushima Shrine; and Kyoto’s sandy land bridge, Amanohashidate. Immortalized in the work of poet Matsuo Bashō, they’ve since become a legendary tourism loop.
Plan an autumn trip to see these vistas at their best—and make sure to complement your sightseeing with a hearty appetite. In Matsushima, try the grilled scallops, then stop for beef tongue in Sendai before savoring Kyoto’s delicate, traditional kaiseki cuisine and finishing off in Hiroshima with okonomiyaki, an iconic post-war dish.
The three views route: Tokyo > Sendai > Matsushima > Sendai > Tokyo > Kyoto > Amanohashidate > Kyoto > Osaka > Hiroshima > Miyajima> Hiroshima > Osaka > Tokyo
Walk through history
Japan’s newest Emperor, Naruhito, presides over the world’s oldest continuous monarchy. Though his reign marks several breaks with tradition, there’s no better a time to explore Japan’s millennia of rich history.
From Tokyo, ride the bullet train to Kanazawa, whose Edo-era buildings were spared from WWII bombing. Visit the eastern tea district and the old Ninja Temple. Then take the limited express train to Kyoto to pass through the ancient trail of torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine, drink the sacred waters of Kiyomizu Temple, and explore 17th-century Nijo Castle before continuing to Nagasaki. The only city to have remained open to foreigners during Japan’s 214-year isolation, Nagasaki hosts historic eateries and centuries-old festivals influenced by outside cultures. It’s also home to a hidden Christian population whose villages and churches have been named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The history route: Tokyo> Kanazawa > Kyoto> Shin-Osaka> Hakata > Nagasaki
Savor the seasons
Winter and summer offer their own adventures, but the real show happens during the spring and fall. Two Japanese pastimes—hanami, or flower viewing, and koyo, or colorful leaf viewing—bring the countryside to life with pink blossoms around April and fiery foliage in late September and early October.
In spring, Kanazawa’s cherry tree–adorned Kenrokuen Gardens and Castle are free and open to the public day and night. In the fall, take a bus from Toyama or Kanazawa to UNESCO-recognized Shirakawa-Go to see the famous Gassho-style houses set against the landscape’s autumnal hues.
The spring route: Tokyo > Takao > Otsuki > Mt Fuji > Otsuki > Takao > Tokyo > Kyoto > Shin-Osaka > Okayama > Oku > Setouchi Islands > Oku > Okayama > Shin-Osaka > Kanazawa> Tokyo
The autumn route: Tokyo > Kyoto >Tokyo > Omiya > Utsunomiya > Nikko > Utsunomiya > Omiya > Toyama > Tokyo
Make a ramen pilgrimage
Noodles. All of the noodles. Start in Tokyo at Michelin-rated Konjiki Hototogisu, then hop on the bullet train to sip on Osaka’s Ichimen Ramen after a stroll along Dōtonbori’s canals. At Fukuoka’s Hakata Issou, savor the creamy bone broth and thin straight noodles.
Ask for mountain-side seats on the train back to Tokyo for sweeping views of Mount Fuji before trying the light yuzu citrus broth and vegan options at Afuri Ramen. Cap it all off with a ride to chilly, northern Sapporo for a warm bowl of miso ramen after the February Snow Festival. Don’t forget to slurp—it’s polite.
The ramen route: Tokyo > Osaka > Hakata/Fukuoka > Tokyo > Shin Aomori > Shin Hakodate > Sapporo > Shin Hakodate > Shin Aomori >Tokyo
Soak in the hot springs
This bullet train–light route may be a little slower, but it passes through breathtakingly beautiful landscapes on the way to some of Japan’s best onsens, or hot springs. In Hakone, discover a ryokan (traditional inn) with its own private onsen before traveling on to Dogo-Onsen, one of the country’s oldest, and Tamatsukuri-Onsen, where the Shinto gods themselves are said to have bathed. Return north by way of Tokyo to reach Aizuwakamatsu, where you can enjoy a hot bath alongside a waterfall at Shousuke No Yado Takinoyu.
The onsen route: Tokyo > Odawara > Hakone > Odawara > Tokyo >Okayama > Matsuyama > Dogo Onsen > Matsuyama > Okayama > Tamatsukuri Onsen> Okayama > Tokyo > Koriyama > Aizuwakamatsu > Koriyama > Tokyo
- Nat Geo Expeditions