Map Legend: places – green (day trip), dark blue (3+ nights), light blue (2 nights), turquoise (1 night); lines – yellow (Willer bus pass), green (Japan Railway train), light blue (local night bus), black (night ferry)
I started off in Tokyo with a Willer Express Bus Pass (15’000 yen for 5 non consecutive days) and no actual plan on where to go or stay. The itinerary was put together randomly (sometimes just by looking for available accommodation in a whole area), but it turned out to be really great! In Fukuoka I decided to buy a Northern Kyushu JR Pass (7’000 yen for 3 consecutive days).
Total time: 28 days
Zurich -> Tokyo (4 nights) -> Nagoya -> Osaka (1 night) -> Kyoto (3 nights) -> Matsuyama (2 nights) -> Kokura -> Fukuoka (1 night) -> Nagasaki (1 night) -> Aso -> Beppu (1 night) -> Yufuin -> Fukuoka -> Hiroshima (2 nights) -> Osaka -> Kobe -> Osaka (1 night) -> Nara -> Osaka -> Tokyo -> Yokohama -> Kamakura (2 nights) -> Tokyo (4 nights)
Suggestions on traveling around Japan
There are different ways of traveling through Japan:
– Day/ Overnight busses: the cheapest option (especially if you ride overnight and save on accommodation), but be prepared to long rides if you want to travel through the whole country. Flexibility: medium since you have to book in advance and busses are pretty busy during holiday seasons. Other travelers: didn’t see any foreigners, only locals traveling. Also keep in mind that night busses arrive very early in the morning (usually about 5-6-7am) and you’ll have to wait for shops to open and first trains to ride (& vice versa for the departure late in the evening, around 11-12 pm)
– Trains: if you opt for the bullet trains they are by far the most comfortable, fast and expensive way to travel the country. Best option is the JR Pass, which you can only book from your home country. Without the pass the faster the trains are, the more expensive they will be. Flexibility: very high since you can hop on and off whenever and wherever you want. Other travelers: the most common way of traveling through Japan so the highest chance of meeting other foreigners.
– Ferries: second-cheapest way of traveling (especially overnight), but be prepared to be surrounded only by locals. Night ferries have different options of rooms, ranging from Futons on the floor to private rooms.
My suggestion is to choose a combination of a bus pass and JR pass. I would suggest starting in Tokyo and exploring the city & surroundings for a couple of days, then take an overnight bus to Kyoto or Osaka and explore the area around there (Kobe, Nara) since it’s very cheap to travel in that area by train (way cheaper than the daily cost of a JR Pass). Once you’ve had enough of that area start the JR Pass and travel south/ north as long as you wish (Osaka/ Kyoto are located centrally and are perfect as a hub from where to start traveling north/ south). Use the JR Pass until the last day and in the end take the bus back to Tokyo. Transportation will be by far the biggest expense in Japan – so think well about your budget before leaving!
For such a trip it’s best to plan in advance. I would recommend to plan the whole trip before leaving or doing so in the first couple of days. Nice hostels are usually fully booked a couple of weeks in advance (a call might get you a bed in the staff room). If you don’t want to plan too much, be sure to book at least the weekends and national holidays (& festivals in summer!!), since that’s the time when locals travel and hostels are booked out even earlier. And believe me, you don’t want to end up in a crappy hostel – I’ve seen places which where far worse than SE Asia. Another advice is to travel with a small backpack (I used a 35l Deuter backpack) if you’re planning on doing stop-overs since you’ll save on coin lockers (300-500 Yen per day, depending on the size).