If you’re curious what a trip with Boutique Japan looks and feels like (and wondering about the trip-planning process itself), this is the story of two travelers who graciously agreed to let us feature their experience.
In addition to reliving their Japan trip and giving you the chance to experience some of it vicariously, we’ll also take you behind the scenes and reveal some of the essentials of how we plan a bespoke Japan trip from start to finish.
Introducing Our Featured Travelers
The key to putting together the perfect custom trip is to first begin to understand each traveler’s needs, desires, and travel style.
So before we dive into the highlights of their Japan adventure, let’s meet our travelers.
Amanda-san was in her mid-20s, and especially passionate about food, history and nature. While she had traveled extensively, this was her first trip to Japan. One of her main priorities was making sure they had time to visit the Japanese countryside to experience a bit of traditional Japan.
Shahin-san was in his early 30s and also obsessed with food. He owns a business in the seafood industry, and has traveled extensively for both business and pleasure, though this was also to be his first visit to Japan. A self-described “hyper kind of guy,” his main priority was getting the “feel” of Tokyo and Kyoto in the brief amount of time they had (8 days).
As food lovers, it goes without saying that Japanese cuisine would become a major theme throughout their trip!
Designing Their Perfect Japan Itinerary
After a series of initial emails and phone conversations, our vision of what their perfect Japan itinerary would look like began to take shape. The next step was to begin outlining the itinerary in more detail.
(Learn all about our detailed trip-planning process.)
With a total of 7 nights/8 days in Japan, our mission was to help them include all of their priorities, while keeping travel time within Japan to a minimum.
For simplicity and efficiency, we suggested they fly into Tokyo to begin their trip here, and end their trip in Kyoto departing from nearby Osaka. While this certainly isn’t the best option for everyone, it ended up working perfectly for them.
Tokyo has two airports, Narita (NRT) and Haneda (HND). Kyoto itself doesn’t have any, but nearby Osaka also has two airports, Kansai (KIX) and Itami (ITM).
Based on our discussions with them, we ultimately settled on a classic and wonderful route (modeled in part on this sample 8-day Japan itinerary), beginning in modern Tokyo, followed by some time in the countryside of Hakone, and ending in historic Kyoto.
Their Custom Japan Itinerary
First, a brief summary of their Japan trip, followed by more details and highlights:￼￼￼￼￼￼
Day 1: Arrival in Tokyo | Ramen dinner
Day 2: Full day in Tokyo | Evening culinary tour
Day 3: Tsukiji Market | Travel to Hakone and ryokan stay
Day 4: Morning in Hakone | Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto
Day 5: Walking tour of charming Kyoto neighborhoods
Day 6: Kyoto cuisine | Sake tasting
Day 7: Scenic Arashiyama | Relaxation
Day 8: Morning free | Departure from Osaka
Days 1-3: Tokyo
Our travelers landed in Tokyo from the West Coast of the USA and, unsurprisingly, arrived a bit tired!
For most international travelers arriving in Japan, the first evening is usually lost in part to fatigue. But Amanda and Shahin overcame tiredness and ventured out for some ramen within walking distance of their hotel – the perfect way to begin their trip.
In Tokyo, we arranged for them to stay at the quirky and stylish CLASKA, one of Tokyo’s original boutique hotels. In addition to its unique style and charming staff, CLASKA boasts a roof deck, art spaces, and a relaxing cafe-bar. Their room here featured a King bed and charming Japanese touches including tatami floors.
These days, another wonderful Tokyo boutique hotel is TRUNK (read more about our favorite hotels in Japan).
The next morning, after a delicious Japanese-style breakfast at CLASKA, they went to nearby Shibuya, best-known for its much-photographed “scramble” crossing and its colorful youth fashions.
(Shibuya is also very near some of our favorite off-the-beaten-path Tokyo neighborhoods.)
Right underneath Shibuya Station they also had the chance to visit one of our favorite culinary destinations in the area, the mouthwatering Tokyu Food Show depachika food hall.
After some downtime (on your first full day in Japan, it’s not uncommon to get a bit drowsy come afternoon!), in the evening they went out on a private culinary tour. Their wonderful guide met them at their hotel and took them to some of Tokyo’s excellent tiny hidden bars and izakayas.
Good ones can be hard to find if you don’t speak Japanese, but this is one of the most fun and delicious ways to immerse yourself in Japanese culture and cuisine.
The next morning they woke up early for a private tour of Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Market. To cater to Shahin’s specialized seafood knowledge, one of Tokyo’s top culinary guides showed them around the market. To cap off the experience, they went to a nearby sushi shop for a memorable sushi breakfast!
Read more about Tokyo’s best sushi shops.
Sadly, this marked the end of their stay in Tokyo, and it was time to leave for the countryside and a taste of traditional Japan. (Naturally, they could have spent more time here, but with 3 nights it is possible to get a good introduction to the city.)
Their next stop was Tokyo Station, where they would board the shinkansen (bullet train) to their following destination: Hakone National Park.
Days 3-4: Hakone Ryokan and Onsen
For their first bullet train trip, they arrived at Tokyo Station early enough to pick up bentos and sake for the ride. In Japan, bentos are taken seriously, and you can find beautiful seasonal bento options throughout the station.
To make their travel as effortless as possible, we had them send their suitcases directly from their Tokyo hotel to their Kyoto hotel, bypassing Hakone. For short ryokan stays you don’t need much aside from a small overnight bag, and traveling with large luggage in Japan can be a pain. Thankfully, Japan’s luggage forwarding is safe, affordable and reliable.
Their first shinkansen journey, from Tokyo to Odawara (gateway to Hakone National Park), was so quick that they accidentally missed their stop! Fortunately, everything was fine: they got off at the next station and station staff were happy to assist them.
See our comprehensive guide to train travel in Japan.
Hakone is famous for many reasons, including its beautiful landscapes and wealth of onsen (hot springs). On particularly clear days, if you’re lucky you may also catch stunning views of the nearby Mount Fuji.
Some people travel to Hakone as a day trip from Tokyo, but if you’re visiting we recommend at least a night or two at one of its many ryokans.
Staying at a traditional ryokan (Japanese-style inn) is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in traditional Japanese culture and hospitality. Highlights of a ryokan stay include blissful soaking in rejuvenating onsen, and gorgeous kaiseki meals featuring course after course of local and seasonal specialties.
Hakone is blessed with many luxurious ryokans, and Amanda and Shahin selected a room with a private hot springs at Yamanochaya. Their quaint Japanese-style room had its own private balcony and rotenburo (open-air hot spring bath).
After a day and night of utter relaxation, the time came to pull themselves away to their next destination, Kyoto.
Days 4-8: Kyoto
The straightforward trip from Hakone to Kyoto takes a couple of hours by shinkansen, the perfect amount of time to enjoy a bento, or nap as the landscape speeds by.
Most travelers arriving at Kyoto Station for the first time are surprised to see that, at least on the surface, it looks like an ordinary city. At first glance there’s no sign of the Kyoto most people imagine, and only after exploring Kyoto further does this first impression begin to fade away.
In Kyoto, Amanda and Shahin stayed at the “practical” and very well-located Royal Park Hotel Kyoto Sanjo, just steps from the uber-central Sanjo-Kawaramachi intersection.
Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over a thousand years, and while much of the city today is modern in appearance, several neighborhoods feel as if they haven’t changed for hundreds of years. One of the best areas in which to immerse yourself in old Kyoto is the Higashiyama district.
The Higashiyama (“Eastern Mountain”) is located on the slope of Kyoto’s picturesque eastern mountains, and Amanda and Shahin fell in love with this expansive district. During crowded times, the area can become packed with visitors, but despite the tourists it’s easy to slip into backstreets where you can feel transported back in time.
Kyoto is also a culinary destination, and a stroll through the long and narrow Nishiki Market is a must. Up and down Nishiki you’ll find colorful food stalls selling everything from seafood to dry goods and one of the city’s specialties, tsukemono (pickles).
Another memorable experience from their time in Kyoto was sampling sake with a local nihonshu (sake) expert. Kyoto is home to several excellent sake bars, not to mention izakayas specializing in sake paired with local cuisine. (The nearby Fushimi area is also home to many standout sake breweries.)
As they visited during a slightly less crowded time of year, Amanda and Shahin were also fortunate to experience one of Kyoto’s most popular areas almost all to themselves.
Arashiyama is a scenic historic district in the western outskirts of the city. Even when it’s crowded, it can feel worlds apart from central Kyoto. They were lucky to experience very few other tourists, even while meandering through Arashiyama’s iconic bamboo forest.
As their trip came to a close, Amanda and Shahin celebrated their last night in Japan at a lively izakaya near their hotel.
On their final morning, they made the easy journey from Kyoto to nearby Osaka for their international departure. Sadly, their first trip to Japan had come to an end.
But they experienced so much in 8 days, and we’re thrilled to report that they fell in love with Japan – and left wanting to visit again.
A special thanks to Amanda and Shahin for generously sharing their experience!
Where Will Your Japan Adventure Take You?
We would love to help you curate your perfect Japan itinerary.