This itinerary takes you from Tokyo through Matsumoto, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Himeji to Hiroshima and all the way back to Tokyo.
JR Pass was used starting from the airport on day 1 until the day we arrived back in Tokyo. At the end, we’ve spent extra 2 days in Tokyo and had to purchase additional tickets to travel around Tokyo and to get us to the airport – if you skip Tokyo or spend less time in one of other cities we’ve visited and included in this itinerary, you can easily manage to avoid extra cost and make it to the airport before your JR Pass expires.
Day 1: NRT – Tokyo Station – Nagano – Matsumoto
We landed at Narita airport after 8am, but it took us about 30 minutes to get through immigration and over an hour to exchange our rail pass orders for actual JR Passes. If you know your exact schedule, you can book your seats on shinkansen trains at the same time, which I would recommend doing if you’re there during busy times of year. Otherwise, you can book the seats on the day of travel, or stay in non-reserved cars. The only seat we booked while exchanging our rail pass orders was for the train we were about to catch to Tokyo Station. We also got our first onigiri (rice balls), drinks and data sim card at the airport.
After all the formalities were done we were ready to start the journey. From Narita airport, we caught the N’EX train to Tokyo Station. It takes about 50 minutes and is a very convenient way to get to Tokyo.
At Tokyo Station, we transferred to shinkansen part of the station and at that point I was barely able to contain my excitement – I’m about to ride on a bullet train for the first time in my life!
There was enough time to grab a bento box before our train to Nagano departed. Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Nagano takes 1 hour and 53 minutes, so it’s good to have some food with you, otherwise, you can purchase some snacks on board. In Nagano, we transferred to a Shinano train towards Osaka and in 50 minutes we finally arrived in Matsumoto.
Our hotel – Hotel New Station Matsumoto – was about 5 minutes walk from the train. We quickly checked in, showered (after all night flight and a long journey in summer heat we really needed that), had a nap and met again for an early dinner. Our first choice was Sakura Ramen – small restaurant serving great ramen and cold beer. No one seemed to speak English, but you make your order in a machine with pictures, so communication shouldn’t be a problem. Beer didn’t have a picture on the machine, but that’s one of the words you need to learn before you come to Japan – bīru.
A walk to the Matsumoto Castle was in order after dinner and wow, Matsumoto did put a great show to welcome us. Gorgeous sunset was a perfect backdrop to the castle.
Day 2: Matsumoto Castle & Kiso Valley walk
Day 2 started with a visit to Japan’s oldest castle – the Matsumoto Castle. The ticket costs ¥610 for adults and includes admission to the city museum. On hot days, like the one we were there, it’s quite a challenge to climb all the stairs inside the castle, but the view is very rewarding.
After lunch, we jumped on a train to Yabuhara, from where we walked to Narai via the Torii Pass route (which is a part of the Nakasendo Walk). Nakasendo Highway was completed in the Edo Period (1603–1867) as a road connecting Kyoto and Edo (present day Tokyo), now it’s a popular walking track.
The part we chose was only about 5km long but due to the heat and us getting lost a few times it took longer than we expected. When we arrived in Narai, which has a beautiful street full of old houses leading to the station, we were quite hungry and all restaurants and shops were already closed after 5pm.
The thing I didn’t know before we left for the walk was that there are bears around. Few times we walked past signs saying “beware of bears” and most of the signs had bells attached to them. Later I read in a small guidebook that it is recommended to walk the Torii Pass route with a bell or something that makes noise. If you’re going for the walk, be more responsible than we were.
Dinner (this time we went for soba noodles) was at Kurekino restaurant, conveniently located at the Matsumoto Station.
Day 3: Snow Monkeys and a short visit to Nagano
When we went outside the hotel to get some coffee and breakfast it was already over 30°C and we knew we had to cancel our hiking plans. It would be unbearable and dangerous to walk in such heat. That’s why we decided to visit the monkeys.
I already wrote about the Snow Monkeys. You won’t be able to do the whole trip on JR Pass and an extra cost of ¥2900 is involved.
After visiting the monkeys we were back in Nagano, so we’ve decided to have a look around. Unfortunately, we were defeated by the heat again and didn’t see much more than around the station and inside the shopping mall. From the air-conditioned bus, the area looked very pretty, so I’m sure it would be nice to visit in more bearable time.
Day 4: Matsumoto -> Nagoya -> Kyoto
I couldn’t wait to visit Kyoto, it was one of those places that I read about a lot and was kind of obsessing over it. So quite early we checked out from our hotel, bought onigiri and coffee for breakfast and jumped on a train to Nagoya (where we were stopping for a few hours to have a look around). It takes just over 2 hours to get from Matsumoto to Nagoya on a Shinano train.
A quick research during the train ride told us we should have unagi (grilled eel) for lunch at Sawasho restaurant. Wherever I’ve found the tip about that place was right – it was excellent. They didn’t seem like they get a lot of tourists there and the waitress didn’t even know they have an English version of the menu. But the meal – unagi on rice, miso soup and some pickles – was one of the best meals on that trip. I highly recommend this one!
Nagoya is the home of Science Museum with the world’s largest planetarium. Hubby and his brother came back few days later just to visit the museum, while I was exploring food markets in Kyoto. They said it was quite interesting but unfortunately, the English descriptions of exhibits are very basic and the guide app doesn’t help much either. The app is free, admission to the museum + planetarium costs ¥800. If you’re not in rush to get to Kyoto you may want to visit the museum on this day.
We also went shopping, then for a walk to see the Nagoya Castle, visited a random green tea (mission “find ice cream”) shop run by some lovely people and back to the station. Kyoto was waiting!
After we got situated in our apartment (Kyoto Apartment Emblem Kyomon) it started to rain heavily and was keeping us (especially me) inside. When we finally left, we went straight to the Gion district, as I read somewhere it’s best visited in the evening. Sadly, to say it was disappointing would be an understatement. Tons, TONS, of tourists on the street trying to take selfies, photos of people in front of buildings or group photos. Maybe the street was nice, but we couldn’t really see it in that crowd. Until on the way back to our apartment, we stumbled upon some smaller streets. Empty, quiet and charming. As I was on a verge of tears before, the smaller streets gave me my hope back – maybe this visit to “my Kyoto” won’t be so disappointing after all?
Day 5: trip to Nara and Fushimi Inari Shrine
Coffee and onigiri in hand, we rushed to a train. As it turned out shortly, we took a wrong one – this one was indeed going to Nara, but was called “rapid” and therefore not covered by JR Pass. The mistake cost us ¥510 each and by going by the rapid train, we saved no more than 10 minutes of the 50-minute journey.
Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital. Today it’s full of historical places and building as well as it’s dotted with temples. As we have already planned to visit some temples in Kyoto, we didn’t want to overdo it with visiting too many of them, so we skipped the ones in Nara. Instead, we went to see the famous Nara deer and check if they’re really violent when you hold the crackers.
Observation 1: they don’t smell too good. Observation 2: they’re everywhere. Observation 3: they’re not the smartest (we’ve seen one eating a map and another one munching on a plastic bag). Observation 4: yes, they will kick you hard if you don’t give them their crackers fast enough.
On a train back to Kyoto, we came up with the idea of going to the Fushimi Inari Shrine – it was still early in the afternoon and we needed something to do, so it was the perfect solution.
Fushimi Inari is famous for thousands of torii gates, that lead the way to the top of the sacred Mount Inari, which stands at 233 meters and belongs to the shrine grounds. It took us about 1.5 hours to reach the top and almost the same time to come down.
As for crowds – it was quite busy around the first torii gates but after first steep ascend it was significantly less crowded. I’m guessing it must be the case during hot summer months, who in their right mind would climb up the hill in over 30°C?
I’m usually not interested in souvenirs but buying a miniature torii gate was on my to-do list for this trip. I got one for ¥1000 from a hidden shop (others were selling exactly the same ones for about ¥1200).
That day I also discovered my new favourite Japanese beer – Kirin Galaxy Hop Session IPA. I was able to find it only in some Circle K convenience stores and it cost ¥255.
Day 6: Nishiki Market & the best coffee in Kyoto
It was my day of discovering Kyoto solo. There were only 2 things on the agenda: food & coffee. As only my husband had the data sim card in his phone, I was left without internet access, other than free wi-fi that I hoped to find somewhere in case I get lost. My solution? I memorised the map – main streets, directions and some recognisable places. To be safe, I also took a few screenshots of the maps and left ready for the adventure.
First stop: Nishiki Market. I didn’t have any trouble finding it. The market is a very long street with shops and restaurants on both sides. It is known as Kyoto Kitchen because the majority of products and services there are food related. I was in heaven. I also walked the length of the market 4 times, just to make sure I don’t miss anything.
There’s a lot of interesting food to try – like baby octopus filled with a hard boiled egg, all kinds of pickles, sweets in all shapes and sizes and cold cucumbers on sticks, which are meant to cool you down during summer heat.
After all that eating it was time for a coffee. Not just any coffee – I was on a mission to find % Arabica. Their Higashiyama shop is about 2km away from the Nishiki market and it’s a pretty interesting walk, with shops & temples around for most of the way. Most – because the last stretch of the route I’ve chosen provided me with nowhere to hide when a very sudden summer storm started. All wet, but also all happy with my coffee, I was very pleased with the day.
Day 7: bamboo forest, temples, Kyoto Station & shopping
We waited for our morning coffee until we were in Arashiyama – that’s where the second % Arabica’s shop is located. With great coffee in hand, we were on our way to one of the most photographed places in Kyoto – the bamboo forest.
There is just one path through the forest and it makes for a short, but lovely, walk. It’s nicely shaded, so even on a sunny summer day didn’t feel too hot and exhausting.
Next stop for the day – Kinkaku-ji or Golden Pavillion – another spot from the “most photographed” list. Despite the huge crowds, it somehow felt quiet and different. The temple is built by a pond and has two top floors covered with gold leaf – the whole setting makes for a stunning picture. Entrance fee: ¥400 (the ticket is one of the prettiest we’e seen in Japan).
After a short lunch & nap break (that heat really made us sleepy), we were ready to go and explore the last temple on our list – Kiyomizu-dera. Located in the hills on the east side of Kyoto, provides excellent views of the city. It’s known for the waterfall which is believed to have special powers – depending on which one of the three stream you choose to drink from, it can help you with school, love life or life longevity. Entrance fee: ¥300.
If you’re planning to go between the temples by bus, it’s good to have some change to pay your fare quickly (you pay as you exit the bus – we paid ¥230/person each time).
I managed to convince Hubby and his bro that walking back to our apartment is a good idea. That gave us a chance to grab another % Arabica coffee – their Higashiyama shop is just 10 minutes away from Kiyomizu-dera. And the area between them, the historic Higashiyama district – with its narrow streets and wooden buildings, is very charming and worth a visit.
When it comes to shopping in Kyoto, the choices are endless. Shijo Street is lined with shops and there are quite a few malls (Yodobashi, AEON, Avanti, Isetan) in and around the Kyoto Station.
Before the trip, I read that the Kyoto Station building is not only one of the most prominent stations in Japan but also a visually striking one. I remembered that when we were walking home that evening. – It’s our last evening in Kyoto, I’ve seen only one of the underground passes, which we use daily and a few platforms. Let’s go to find the stairs and see, really see the station.
“The stairs” meant the multimedia stairs with spectacular animated light shows. I found the design very interesting and was excited to explore – my companions not so much “yes it’s nice, can we go now?“. If you’re interested in architecture and design I would say the station building is a must-see in Kyoto.
Day 8: Kyoto -> Osaka
Most of the day was spent on waiting-for-our-airbnb-host drama, doing laundry and relaxing. In the late afternoon, we left our apartment to check out Dōtonbori, eat takoyaki and see the famous illuminated billboards.
By chance, we stumbled upon an opening night of a dragon water show – lots of people, cameras and tv crews watched the performance. Our vantage point wasn’t the best, that’s probably why we left underwhelmed.
Day 9: Street racers, aquarium & castle
– How was your night? Did you hear the noise? – our morning conversation started differently that day. – I’m pretty sure someone was racing right next to our windows.
Quick google search confirmed my suspicions. Kanjozoku are Osaka’s street racers. The name comes from Kanjo Loop – an elevated section of the Hanshin Expressway that circles the center of Osaka. Interesting, but the noise was too much for me to sleep comfortably.
For Osaka Aquarium and transport for the day I’ve found Osaka Kaiyu Ticket (one day pass) to offer the best value. It costs ¥2550 (aquarium admission fee itself is ¥2300) and includes: entry to the aquarium, unlimited rides on Osaka municipal transportation network (metro/trams/buses in Osaka City) and unlimited train rides. Plus it gives a discount on other attractions. Our tickets, bought from a station master at a random metro station, came only with a flyer in Japanese, so it’s better to do a research before you buy it.
The Aquarium is big and well organised. It shows various forms of life (not only fish but also reptiles, birds and mammals) inhabiting the Pacific Rim. As we were there on Sunday, it was extremely crowded, especially around otters, seals and other cute animals. The line to buy tickets was also huge – another plus of buying the day pass at a metro station.
In the late afternoon, we went for a walk around Osaka Castle. It is surrounded by a beautiful garden and provides great city views. The castle is illuminated by giant lights at night and looks really spectacular. I highly recommend a stroll around the gardens – especially in the early evening, if you’re there in summer, as the temperature will be more bearable.
Day 10: Minoo Park, yuzu ice cream and museum
Minoo Park is a forested valley with a beautiful waterfall only half an hour away from Osaka. We wanted to escape the city for a while, so a stroll in a green area sounded like a great idea.
To go there faster and without transferring between buses, we jumped on a private rail. We couldn’t use our JR Pass there but the ticket to Mino-O Station was only ¥270.
The trail from the station to the waterfall is very easy and mostly flat. There are many shops and cafes near the beginning of the trail and most of them specialise in selling yuzu goods. I opted for yuzu ice cream – it was a vanilla soft serve with yuzu sauce. Oh my, I still have trouble deciding the winner between this one and matcha ice cream! Get on it if you have a chance.
Another local specialty – maple leaf cookies (momiji tempura). Have you ever tried deep fried leaves? It was my first time and it was quite interesting.
On the way back to the station we stopped for a light lunch, beers and coffees at a lovely cafe Hashimototey. Great coffee and very friendly service.
Back in Osaka, we had one more place we wanted to visit – Museum of Housing and Living. It’s a life-size model of a city (buildings and streets) from Edo Period. For a small fee you can rent a kimono and walk around in it feeling awesome 🙂 But to do so, you need to be there early as the number of daily kimonos is limited, and they usually run out of them by lunch time. Every 20 minutes the “sky” (the city is in a big warehouse-like space) turns dark, street lights turn on and first you experience sunset, then fireworks, storm and night. Very, very cool experience for ¥600.
Day 11: Osaka -> Himeji (via Nagoya, what?!)
When you love something, you make an extra effort to get it… – Let’s go to Nagoya for breakfast today. – Hubby came up with this great idea. – Since we have the JR Passes, we should use them more.
Nagoya is 50 minutes (by shinkansen) away from Osaka. We went there that morning just to buy Gontran Cherrier’s croissants & pastries and to do the whole trip again plus more. We were heading to Himeji. The ride instead of being roughly 30 minutes took us extra 2 hours. For the love of great French pastries – yes, you can call us crazy.
The castle is very impressive and with its bright white exterior visible from afar. We stared at it while walking all the way from the station (about 15 minutes walk) and the closer we were, the more excited we were getting. We all agreed the castle should be on everyone’s must see in Japan list.
Inside, the steep stairs to the 6th floor may be too much for some people, especially on a hot summer day. Entrance fee is ¥1000.
After visiting the castle, we wandered around the lovely Himeji city (most tourists come and go in the same day, we stayed for the night). Everyone there seemed very friendly. We even became Himeji-famous when a local musician spotted us in the crowd during his performance and had a little chat with us in between the songs.
I had my afternoon coffee at Hello Kitty Cafe. I just had to. Other than the cafe and being kawaii, the coffee was unfortunately very average.
Day 12: Himeji -> Hiroshima
It was sad to leave Himeji, the city with the cutest mascot in Japan and the place where I quickly felt at home, but there was more waiting for us on this trip.
Hiroshima is only 1 hour away by shinkansen from Himeji. Not every shinkansen stops in Himeji, so I would recommend checking the schedule before you rush to the station.
Depending on the location of your accommodation in Hiroshima, you may want to buy a Streetcar Pass (one day pass ¥600) or if it’s near any of the major tourist spots you can use your JR Pass on the Hiroshima Sightseeing Loop Bus.
We were greeted at the station by one of the volunteers. Very kind lady – Rei, spotted us right away and guided us through the crowd to the right streetcar stop, gave us maps & advice and helped to buy our tickets. If you want to save time at the station, this is definitely a great way to do so.
70 years have passed since the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. As we arrived there one day before the big official ceremony, the city, especially in the Peace Memorial area, was extremally crowded.
After checking-in at our Airbnb apartment, we went to the Peace Memorial Museum. To say it was jam-packed would be an understatement. It wasn’t easy to go around but at least, we’ve had a lot of time to read all the descriptions. Some of the displayed items are quite upsetting or at least, they were so to me. Being in the crowd didn’t allow me to escape them – another reason not to visit the museum near the anniversary date.
Early dinner that day happened at Okonomimura. Hiroshima style okonomiyaki from Humichan (2F) hit the spot and we all agreed it was much better than Osaka style.
Day 13: Miyajima Island
Right after breakfast we jumped on a streetcar towards Miyajima-guchi. From there, using our JR Passes, we took a JR ferry to Miyajima Island.
Miyajima is a small island close to Hiroshima city. It’s most famous for its big torii gate standing in the water. If you missed the deer in Nara, you can meet some at Miyajima too.
The main thing we had planned for that day was hiking Mt. Misen – the highest mountain on Miyajima (535m). It was a huge mistake to go there on a humid day, with temperature over 30°C and just one big bottle of water for 3 people. We were sweaty, wet, tired and well, we cursed a lot. But we kept going. At the top, the view was incredible. It was worth every single drop of sweat and the reward beer (which we bought after almost running down the mountain) never tasted better.
We didn’t stay long on the island, we had dinner plans with our Airbnb host, and we all needed a solid shower after that hiking workout. I definitely want to go there again next time and explore the area more.
In the evening, we’ve had a very Japanese experience of dining with locals at Riva. Our host and his friends showed us this lovely restaurant, which I would highly recommend to everyone visiting Hiroshima. Their menu is based on local & seasonal ingredients, which is a great way to discover a different side to Japanese cuisine.
After dinner, we went to see the Lantern Floating Ceremony. Anyone is welcome to write messages of peace & love on the lanterns, which are then set afloat down the river. The experience of watching in almost perfect silence the lights of thousands of lanterns as they float in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome is one of a kind and hard to describe.
Day 14: Hiroshima -> Tokyo
Breakfast in Hiroshima, lunch in Tokyo. It takes just 4h to travel from Hiroshima to Tokyo on shinkansen. If you’re lucky, you can have great views of Mt Fuji from the train (we didn’t see it, there was a huge cloud).
Depending on when you’ll be departing from Japan, you have a few options. Stop for a few hours in Tokyo and then travel to the airport on your JR Pass. If you have an early flight, change trains at Tokyo Station and head straight for the airport. Or option 3, the one we chose, stay in Tokyo for a few days (this one requires an additional ticket to get to the airport if you’re on a 14 day JR Pass).
If you have any questions about travelling to & around Japan feel free to email me at [email protected] or leave them in the comments section below.