JAPAN for First Timers: An Adjustable Guide

Are you planning on going to Japan for the first time?
Being all excited?
Wondering what to expect?
Having a million questions?
Well, I recently came back from my first big Japan-adventure and let me tell you: It was just overwhelming; in a good way!

Geisha with phone in Kyoto
Beautifully dressed up for Japan.

I had the chance to travel for three weeks. However, I know that not everybody has the opportunity to leave for so long. Therefore, based on my itinerary, I put together a travel guide. You can adjust it individually to your personal trip – for one, two, or three weeks in the Land of the Rising Sun.

日本へようこそ – Nihon e yōkoso – Welcome to Japan!

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TOKYO – introduction to 10 extraordinary neighborhoods

Tokyo – my first encounter with Japanese everyday life and culture – left a good impression and prepared me for more to come.

Students at Tokyo in Japan
A warm and fun welcome to Tokyo by these sweet ambassadors.

Tokyo – the first cut is the deepest. However, this one didn’t hurt at all. So let me introduce you to 10 extraordinary neighborhoods.

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KAWAGUCHIKO – taking a shot at Mount Fuji

I’ve heard that there are people travelling periodically to the region west of Tokyo just to take a good shot of Mount Fuji.

A shot of Mount Fuji seen from Kawaguchiko in Japan
This is the picture I wanted to shoot. I didn’t. The person credited below did. (Photo: Kpravin2, Mount Fuji Japan with Snow, Lakes and Surrounding Mountains, CC BY-SA 4.0)

This majestic, perfectly shaped volcano – that erupted lastly in 1707 – seems to be hiding behind clouds most of the time. Therefore, it can be a challenge – or a hobby – hunting the best view. Or at least a glimpse.

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NAGOYA – enjoy the ordinary

Tourist attraction wise, Nagoya has by far less to offer than Tokyo or let alone Kyoto.

bye:myself at Nagoya Castle in Japan
Shogun for a day.

Brands like Mitsubishi, Toyota, and even Shinkansen are all settled in Nagoya. I assume they sound more familiar than the city’s own name.

I guess that’s the reason why most foreign visitors just skip Japan’s fourth-largest city located on the Pacific coast in favor of the more glamorous metropolis.

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TAKAYAMA – a travel back in time; and a side trip to SHIRAKAWAGO

Ready for a trip back in time? To walk narrow alleys lined with old wooden merchants’ houses dating to the Edo Period? Visiting a dozen fascinating museums? For platters of Hida Beef that just melts in your mouth?
If so, Takayama, nestled between the mountains of the Gifu prefecture, is the perfect place for you.

Shirakawago view of the village and bye:myself
Once in Shirakawago, you absolutely have to walk up to the Ogimachi observation deck. There is already a photographer with a couple of props waiting for you – say cheese!

And although it might be already challenging enough to fit all the landmarks downtown Takayama into your itinerary, you should, nonetheless, by no means miss a little side trip to Shirakawago village – which even made it to the World Heritage Site list in 1995.

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KYOTO – Japan’s Treasure Box; and a side trip to NARA

Oh my God, I’m such a tourist: Visiting Japan, I had all these iconic motives in my head that I wanted to ban on….well, there is no celluloid anymore, so on a storage chip.

Geishas at Kyoto, Japan's Treasure Box
Yes, this is such a stunning sight. However, according to my experience, every Geisha under the age of 55 is prone to be a Chinese tourist in disguise. Sometimes stunning just the same.

Interestingly, quite a few of them are to be found in the former capital Kyoto, practically Japan’s Treasure Box.

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OSAKA – the commercial metropole; and a side trip to HIMEJI

Osaka has always been Japan’s economic hub – and keeps its status as the country’s major commercial center to this date. Major players like Sharp, Sanyo, and Panasonic have their headquarters in Osaka.

View of Osaka from the Umeda Building
One of the many options to see Osaka from above: At the gift shop of the Umeda Sky Building.

This busy metropole was not only briefly the imperial capital in the 7th and 8th centuries, it even outnumbered Tokyo in being Japan’s largest city in the 1930s.

Therefore, a visit to Osaka is rather about the cool’n’contemporary than the ancient’n’inherited and pulls its visitors into a whirlwind of skyscrapers, shopping malls, art exhibitions, and food….lots of food.

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HIROSHIMA – risen up from the ashes; and a side trip to MIYAJIMA

Hiroshima – one of the names inextricably connected to the first atomic attack in human history.

Dove in front of the Atomic Dome in Hiroshima Japan
A Dove of Peace spreading its wings in front of the Atom Bomb Dome.

Visiting Hiroshima, I wasn’t able to imagine an average Japanese city with a little over a million inhabitants plying their trades as if their city never had been practically erased and went down in history as one of the biggest humanitarian disasters.

What I found was a charming city – risen up from the atomic ashes of 1945.

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A night at the KAGURA

When travelling, I love to attend folkloristic spectacles – due to the language barrier preferably dance shows: In Kandy on the island of Sri Lanka, I saw a dance show, in Chang Mai in Thailand it even came with a traditional dinner and on Bali I witnessed Kecak in Uluwatu and went to see a performance every single night during my stay in Ubud.

The main character of the Kagura spectacle in action
Good against evil – a classic in performing arts.

You can imagine my excitement when I found out that on Saturdays, there is a Kagura performance at the Hiroshima Prefectural Art Museum. Saturday – perfect, I’ll be in Hiroshima on Saturday, so nothing will hold me back from spending a night at the Kagura.

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What (not) to pack for JAPAN

Yes, of course, you can just grab some suitcase, throw a hodgepodge of clothes, shoes, and cosmetics in and you’re good to go. Provided you stay within your airline’s weight limit.

bye:myself at the Hida Folk Village in Takayama in Japan
I’d found this umbrella at the Hida Folk Village in Takayama – but it was just a prop that could be used for pictures.

However, if you do a little planning when putting together your itinerary for Japan and while packing, your trip will be much more enjoyable. Take it from me as I just came back from a road trip around Honshu island.

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