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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.