Japan lives up to its hype. I travelled the island solo for 24 days in the autumn of 2017 and I enjoyed every moment. I’ve pulled together a few very practical things that might be helpful for you to know before your trip.
Tokyo — 8 nights (staying in Ginza for 5 nights, and Shinjuku for 3 nights)
Day trips to Hakone, Yokohama, and Nikko
Nara — 2 nights
Osaka — 3 nights
Day trip to Himeji
Kyoto — 5 nights
Tokyo — 4 nights (staying in Shinjuku)
These spots have been highly recommended, and are on my list for when I return someday
Naoshima — the art island
Miyajima Island — reachable by ferry from Hiroshima
Walking Tsumago to Magome — this is supposed to be a beautiful trail
A few notes
Nara could easily be done as a day trip from Kyoto if you are staying near the JR (Japan Rail) line and get an early start. Alternatively, a single night would be fine.
I didn’t end up seeing much of Osaka, since a typhoon came through! It would be possible to see Osaka as a day trip from Kyoto, or just skip it if you want to see Miyajima or Naoshima.
I used Lonely Planet Japan and it was perfect.
Travel from Tokyo Haneda airport (HND) into central Tokyo is easy by train or bus. It was recommended over Narita, which is located a bit farther from the centre.
I stayed in western style hotels. Expect the rooms to be tiny and pack light. I travelled with a single cabin size piece of luggage, and was very glad I did. Most western style hotels seemed to have coin laundry, and some had washers in the rooms. Check out Tokyu Stay or Fresa Inn hotels for reliable budget accommodation.
For a more authentic style experience, consider staying in a traditional ryokan for at least a few nights.
RAIL PASS & SIM CARD
I activated my rail pass at the Tokyo airport when I arrived. Depending on your itinerary, you may want to wait a few days to activate the rail pass, and use an Pasmo or Suica card for metro travel in Tokyo (see IC Card below). If you do decide to wait, the queues for rail pass activation at the station can get busy, so plan time to wait just in case.
PLANNING RAIL TRAVEL
Download the Navitime app to plan train travel when you're there: https://www.navitime.co.jp/pcstorage/html/japan_travel/english/
The app will help you find JR routes covered with the rail pass. It usually displays the platform number for the train.
GETTING AROUND TOKYO
You can use your rail pass for the JR lines in Tokyo, including the green Yamanote Line which loops around the city, and the red Chuo Line which runs crosstown express. Staying at a hotel along the Yamanote line is a good idea.
For local travel, get an IC Card, the equivalent of a London Oyster Card or NYC Metrocard. The card can be used for travel on city metro lines, some regional rail lines, and most buses. If you purchase it in Tokyo, it will be called a Pasmo or Suica card. You can purchase one and do top-ups at ticket machines in the metro stations. The same card can be used in multiple regions throughout Japan, so you don’t have to buy a new card in each city. See the link above for more info. The cards can also be used to get drinks from vending machines in the stations.
Regional rail travel (non-JR) can be very reasonable. There were times when it was much quicker to use the local rail and pay a bit (£2 to £8) to get between destinations instead of using the rail pass and going through a major station. It’s worth checking as time can be valuable on holiday, and the small stations can bring less stress. If in doubt, travel by JR Line.
Enjoy your trip!