If you want to experience all the eye-widening intellectual havoc of culture shock, with none of the physical discomfort, visit Japan. A trip here delivers plenty of topsy-turvy difference, from the food to the etiquette to the way residents shop and consume—but in an atmosphere that’s hyper-civilized. Everything in Japan is spotlessly clean. The cuisine is exquisite (and not just the sushi; they do everything well). Crime is pretty much unheard of. Personal interactions can be baffling, but the Japanese are ultimately friendly and eager to show you their country. Their culture seems like our own in many ways, but beneath the surface you’ll realize it’s very, very different—in ways that are a joy to discover. 

The itinerary here is one we typically use for clients on their first trip to Japan. It includes the main highlights, but it’s also infinitely adaptable, and there are plenty of add-ons not shown here. Use it as an inspiration and foundation for your own trip. As always, our advisors are happy to help you plan your exploration!

By Sarah Marcantonio
Photo by Shutterstock

TOKYO

WHY GO

Tokyo is the world’s most populous metropolitan area, and it’s as kinetic and thronged as you’d expect. But it at the same time, it’s beautiful, peaceful and exceedingly gracious. (Case in point: There are frequent traffic jams, but no one honks their horn.) Plan to spend at least four days exploring the capital’s spiritual shrines, historical and contemporary museums and sushi bars. And leave time to visit the major retail districts, of which there are many: Shopping really is the national pastime. 

DAY 1: WELCOME TO TOKYO

Tsukiji Market On your first morning in Japan, you’ll likely wake up at the crack of dawn. Use the jet lag to your advantage and visit Tsukiji, the largest fish and seafood market in the world. In the early morning, it’s buzzing with vendors, buyers and visitors gawking at an astonishing array of sea creatures bound for dinner plates around the world. Skylark will arrange your tour and ensure you witness the famous tuna auction. 

Omotesando and Harajuku On your first afternoon, take a crash course in Japanese culture and fashion. These adjacent districts in Shibuya contain Tokyo’s weirdest and most wonderful shopping, from the Prada store with its quilted-glass facade and the luxury label–packed Omotesando Hills mall, to the kitschy Kiddy Land toy store and the souvenirs and antiques of Oriental Bazaar. The surrounding streets are chockablock with boutiques, cafés and ramen shops. 

Meiji Jingu Just across from Harajuku Station, the busy sounds of Shibuya are overtaken by a soothing, tranquil forest as you enter the park where the Meiji Jingu shrine is located. Dedicated to the Emperor Meiji, who died in 1912, the cypress and copper structure is surrounded by 100,000 trees donated from regions across the country, as well as an iris garden that winds along a gentle stream.

Harajuku
Photo by Pixabay

DAY 2: ART & HISTORY

Nezu Museum Appreciating Japan’s art scene takes several days, but you’ll want to begin with this star in Shibuya. The private collection of pre-modern Asian art includes traditional folding screens, elegant ceramics and intricate calligraphy.

Watari Museum of Contemporary Art This boutique institution, in a building designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta, exhibits contemporary works by artists from Japan and around the world—a fascinating contrast to the classical works at Nezu. 

Nezu Museum
Photo by Shutterstock
Odaiba
Photo by Pixabay

DAY 3: TRENDY & STYLISH

Odaiba A manmade island in Tokyo Bay, and one of the few places in the city where you can access the shore, Odaiba is a popular spot for a day out, with everything from Ferris wheels to hot springs to a science museum. And of course, shopping: Venus Fort is a Venice-themed shopping mall. There’s even a giant replica of the Statue of Liberty.

Ginza Tokyo’s most famous shopping, dining and entertainment district is full of department stores, boutiques and art galleries. Our favorite stops include Wako, for jewelry, watches and porcelain; the historic Mitsukoshi (est. 1673) for women’s and men’s clothing; and Ginza Six, a massive new complex with outlets of the major luxury brands, plus art installations and even a Noh theatre for traditional Japanese drama. All the big stores have an incredible array of food for sale in their basement levels. 

Senso-ji
Photo by Pixabay

DAY 4: ARTISTIC FINALE

Senso-ji Tokyo’s oldest and most significant Buddhist temple, Senso-ji is an imposing complex festooned with orange, green and gold detailing. It’s also enormously popular, drawing 30 million visitors annually to its location in Asakusa—go early on a weekday morning for the smallest crowds. The approach to the temple is lined with dozens of stalls selling fans, kimonos, and all manner of souvenirs. 

Mori Art Museum The well curated temporary exhibits—Southeast Asian contemporary art; Argentine conceptual artist Leandro Ehrlich—are only part of the draw of the Mori Art Museum, which occupies two high floors of the Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills. The vistas are incredible from up here, and there’s a bar, café and restaurant on hand to help you enjoy the view.

Photo by Park Hyatt

WHERE TO STAY IN TOKYO

Park Hyatt Tokyo Stay at this landmark skyscraper in Shinjuku and you’ll understand why Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray never wanted to leave. The hotel where Lost in Translation was filmed is located on the top floors of a 52-story skyscraper, so incredible views are guaranteed from all 177 rooms. Service is top-notch and the New York Bar is perhaps Tokyo’s most atmospheric. The slightly remote location is the only real con. 

Palace Hotel Tokyo The 290 contemporary and stylish rooms in this iconic Marunouchi tower were recently overhauled with the hotel’s natural setting in mind—it sits just across from the renowned Imperial Palace Gardens. Many have balconies, a rare treat in this often-shut-tight city. Service is discreet and there are 10 restaurants, including a vast breakfast spread.

Mandarin Oriental Tokyo Not for acrophobes, the Mandarin occupies the upper floors of a glass skyscraper and provides astounding views—from the spa, the fitness center and all 179 rooms and suites—all the way to Mt. Fuji. The restaurant options (Cantonese, French, molecular gastronomy and more) are exceptional. But the surrounding Nihonbashi neighborhood, one of Tokyo’s oldest, is lined with venerable eateries and craftsmen's workshops.

See our other hotel options in Tokyo


WHERE TO EAT IN TOKYO

Sushisho Masa A seven-seat sushi bar hidden in the basement of an unremarkable building in Roppongi, Sushisho is informative, laid-back and even playful compared to the hushed tone of most sushi temples. Highly recommended by Marley Gibbons, Skylark’s lead travel advisor.

Yukimura Kaiseki cuisine (an exquisitely presented series of small dishes, representing the best of the season) in Minato from a chef who trained at Wakuden in Kyoto. One of the toughest tables to book in Tokyo.

Sushi Shin Michelin-starred spot near Roppongi run by Shintaro Suzuki, a master sushi chef dedicated to the craft. 

Sushi Kyubey A Japanese institution serving higher-end Edo-style (more traditional) sushi in Ginza. 

Namiki Yabusoba In Asakusa, near the Senso-ji temple, Namiki is a small and unassuming soba restaurant where the noodles are made by hand and served by a staff of older ladies. Worth the short wait you’ll sometimes encounter.

7-chome Kyoboshi Yes, tempura can be so good that it deserves three Michelin stars. Don’t believe us? Book a spot at the counter here and sample the quiveringly fresh ingredients fried in a gossamer-thin batter.

Harajuku Gyoza Lou Some of Tokyo’s best dumplings are at this bare-bones stand just off Omotesando. The options are limited—basically, steamed or pan-fried—but the gyoza are delicious (and very inexpensive). 

Shirube This izakaya (Japanese pub) in Shimokitazawa, the Williamsburg of Tokyo, has an all-you-can-drink set menu featuring delicious, creative Japanese bar food (think honey & cream cheese flavored tofu on bread). 

Bar Track A hidden-away bar in Tokyo with hundreds of types of whiskey and scotch and an even greater record collection played on a 1970s stereo system. The atmosphere is reserved but wonderful. 

Mount Fuji from Hakone
Photo by Pixabay

Hakone

WHY GO

A relaxed and scenic spa town between Tokyo and Kyoto, Hakone makes for an ideal stop for some R&R between the two major cities. Plan a morning departure from Tokyo (the train takes around 1½ hours) so you can spend a full day relaxing, enjoy a unique overnight stay in a traditional inn, and then head to Kyoto (three hours by rail) the next day.

DAY 5: BATHING AND BOATING

Hot Springs Soaking in piping-hot water is a time-honored ritual in Japan, and the communal thermal baths in Hakone are a great way to dip your toe in (gingerly—it’s hot!). Hakone has more than a dozen different onsen (as the springs are called), many of them with traditional Japanese architecture and views of Mt. Fuji. If you want more privacy, ask your hotel to arrange a family room in one of the bath houses.

Open-Air Outdoor Museum Opened in 1969, Hakone’s playful Open-Air Museum includes sculptures by Picasso, Moore, Rodin, Miró and others—all with views of the countryside. 

Lake Cruise Lake Ashi is scenic crater lake with spectacular views of Fuji and the mountains surrounding Hakone, and picturesque shrines dotting the wooded shoreline. A late afternoon cruise, particularly in one of the vintage warship-style boats, is a perfect way to end the day. 

Lake Ashi
Photo by Shutterstock

WHERE TO STAY IN HAKONE

Gora Kadan The former retreat of the Japanese imperial family is now a top-of-the-line ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn. The 39 guest rooms are minimalist and quiet; you’ll sleep on a futon and enjoy a peerless nine-course kaiseki dinner in your own room. Each room has a soaking tub, some of them open-air.

Skyline
Photo by Shutterstock

KYOTO

WHY GO

Japan’s historic capital has been resurrected more than once—after fires, wars, and the Emperor’s move to Tokyo in 1869. Fortunately, the city was mostly spared in World War II, which means many imperial-era structures remain. The city is booming now, with a population close to 1.5 million, but it’s the city’s spiritual side—embodied in its temples, shrines and gardens—that make it an essential counterpart to Tokyo. 

DAY 6: HISTORIC KYOTO

Heian Shrine The Heian Shrine is a fitting introduction to the city. Built in 1895 (and rebuilt after a 1976 fire), its architecture is based on a former imperial palace, and has some of Kyoto’s most picturesque gardens—particularly in cherry blossom season. A huge vermillion torii gate stands sentry out front. 

Philosopher's Path Spend the rest of your first day in Kyoto wandering the beautiful Philosopher’s Path, in the Higashiyama district. It begins at Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion, stunning, albeit crowded) and ends near Nanzen-ji, an enormous Zen Buddhist temple complex. 

Heian Shrine
Photo by Shutterstock
Ryoan-Ji Rock Garden
Photo by Shutterstock

DAY 7: SPIRITUAL KYOTO

Ryoan-ji One of Japan’s most famous and beloved rock gardens is the one at the Ryoan-ji temple. First designed in the late 15th century, it is a series of 15 rocks surrounded by smooth pebbles and carefully arranged so that all but one rock can be seen from any vantage point. Only when one reaches enlightenment can one see all 15 rocks at once. Give it a shot—but arrive early in the morning, before too many visitors arrive to tarnish the mood.

Golden Pavilion Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion, is a former samurai’s residence turned Zen Buddhist temple. You can’t visit the inside, but the shimmering exterior, covered almost entirely in gold leaf and reflected in the surrounding lake, is worth a visit. 

Nijo Castle The 17th-century Nijo, or Shogun’s, Castle was the official residence of Japan’s shoguns (military dictators) for over 300 years. An afternoon visit offers insights into the country’s royal history and a glimpse of the rulers’ lavish lifestyle—reflected in the ornately painted interiors. 

DAY 8: NATURAL KYOTO

Arashiyama Spend most of the day in this district about 30 minutes from central Kyoto, at the base of the Arashiyama Mountains. It’s filled with temples such as Tenryu-ji, whose gardens may be the most beautiful in Kyoto. But the principal attractions are Monkey Park Iwatayama, where hundreds of friendly macaques roam free, and the scenic Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, whose sky-high bamboo stalks have captured by a thousand Instagrams.

Fushimi Inari Finish your day with a trip to this picturesque shrine, where a path of thousands of orange torii gates leads to the entrance—Christo’s inspiration for The Gates in Central Park and the man-made equivalent of the bamboo grove you just saw. 

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Photo by Pixabay
Photo by Four Seasons

WHERE TO STAY IN KYOTO

Ritz-Carlton The Ritz’s riverside location is convenient to the popular neighborhoods of Gion, Pontocho and Kawaramachi. The design, inspired by traditional ryokans, includes screens, calligraphy and washi paper works crafted by local artisans, but the 134 rooms also have a contemporary feel.

Four Seasons Hotel The new (2016) Four Seasons is centered around an 800-year-old ikeniwa, or pond garden—although the tea house, reached by a glass footbridge, is a showstopper as well. In the 123 rooms and suites, you’ll find washi-paper lamps, fusuma screens and lacquerware, all made by locals. 


WHERE TO EAT IN KYOTO

Sushi Iwa Skylark can set up an exclusive sushi experience at Iwa, a tiny place that’s one of Kyoto’s best-known sushi restaurants (Steve Jobs used to eat here).

Sumibi-Kappo Ifuki Seasonal Kyoto ingredients grilled over binchotan (traditional Japanese charcoal) and served kaiseki-style, with seriousness and grace.

Yonemura Kaiseki cuisine in Gion with small Western touches, such as wine pairings in addition to sake and beer.