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Our Route from Osaka to Tokyo
When we travel with our son we take a slightly slower pace than we did before we had kids. If we try to fit in too many activities in the day, it is a surefire way to overwhelm him. So, we usually head out fairly early in the morning (he’s an early riser) right after breakfast and come back to our hotel around lunch time. He’s 4 now so he doesn’t usually need a nap anymore but quiet play time still helps him to recharge his batteries. The in the late afternoon or evening we head out for a while closer to our home base.
For this Japan itinerary we visited Osaka, Koyasan, Nara, Kyoto, Tokyo and Narita. So we didn’t have to double back we flew into Osaka and out of Narita. Our visits to Koyasan, Nara and Narita were just day trips but longer overnight stays would be fantastic for longer itineraries. Our son enjoys visiting temples and traditional sites, especially if he can have ice cream! He’s also HUGE fan of technology, vehicles and robotics so this Japan itinerary was a balance between the old and the new.
Do You Need a JR PASS for Your Japan Itinerary?
Whenever there is talk about traveling to Japan people of course recommend the JR Pass. The 7, 14 or 21 day JR Pass allows visitor to ride many JR group trains, and buses but there are limitations. It is a good idea to enter your Japan itinerary route into a Japan Rail Pass Calculator like this one (there are others available online as well). We found that for our Japan itinerary we would not save any money getting the JR Pass. We also chose to take the Nozomi Shinkansen between Kyoto and Tokyo and at this time it isn’t covered under the JR Pass.
Days 1 to 3: Osaka Plus a Daytrip to Koyasan
The 5 tiered Osaka Castle is the symbol of Osaka and a must visit for anyone coming to the city.
Not only is the castle beautiful but it is surrounded by large grounds and Osaka Castle Park. It is a great place to stretch your legs after a long flight. There are also a fair number of food trucks set up inside the gates as well. You can also find people feeding the pigeons which our son thought was great.
Best seen at night, Dotonbori is Osaka’s well known downtown area. It is full of great places to shop but most people come to see the brightly colored neon billboards and quirky signs of giant sea creatures which line the canal.
It is also home to quite a few well known restaurants. The lines to get into these restaurants can be incredibly long so it is best to get there early or try your luck at one of the less known places. We ducked into a small ramen restaurant and it was great as well! There are also sometimes free concerts along the canal in the evening. The day we visited we happened to catch Kamen Joshi.
Koyasan – Day Trip from Osaka
The UNESCO world heritage site, Mount Koya is home to more than 100 temples as well as Japan’s largest cemetery Okunoin. More than 200,000 monks have found their final resting place in Okunoin. This incredibly sacred place is also hauntingly beautiful. Green moss covers the grave marker and thousand year old cedar trees tower overhead.
Koyasan is approximately 2 hours from Osaka so it is an easy day trip. In bad weather though, it is best to check that the cable car is still running. We ended up traveling during one of the heaviest snowfalls they had seen in ages and ended up with more excitement than we bargained for!
Other Fantastic Sites in Osaka to Add to a Japan Itinerary
Day 4: Nara Daytrip between Osaka and Kyoto
Nara is close enough to both Osaka and Kyoto to make it a daytrip from either location. We decided to stop over in Nara as we traveled from Osaka to Kyoto. There are places to store your bags in the train stations and at the Nara City Tourist Information Center.
The ancient city is home to some amazing sites such as Todaiji and Yakushiji temples. Nara is best known for the more than 1,200 deer that roam freely in Nara Park. I was a little worried about bringing a very excited 4 year old to see the deer but they were perfectly gentle. Vendors sell crackers that you can feed the deer but expect to get swarmed by a group of deer if you bring out a snack for one.
Days 5 to 8: Kyoto
Kinkaku-ji Golden Temple
As pretty as the Golden Temple is we felt a bit underwhelmed because there were massive crowds. We just happened to arrive exactly when several tour busses pulled up. You enter the gates and everyone must follow the same route shuffling along with the group and leaning over to take photos the best they can. It was just our luck that the sky completely clouded over when we went through. We stopped to grab some ice cream and suddenly the sky was bright blue and the crowds had cleared.
I don’t know if going back in a second time is allowed but I was able to duck back in and get a few more photos. There isn’t much else to do at the Golden Castle but it is an iconic site so worth the trip. It is best to arrive early or later in the day to avoid the crowds. Or you can try your luck waiting for a break in the tours because as quickly as they come, they are gone just as fast.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
Along with tourists to this popular site, worshipers have been visiting Fushimi Inari-Taisha since around 711. Inari is the patron of businesses and the god of rice. The shrine is well known for it’s bright orange torii (arches) and fox statues (messengers).
Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine was so much bigger than I ever expected! We arrived early and made our way to the first set of torii (the red orange arches). Everyone around us was getting frustrated trying to get a great photo. Little did we know that there are pathways all the way up to the top of the mountain with torii galore! We tried to make the two hour hike to the top of the mountain but turned back about 30 minutes from the top. We realized that we were going to have to make it back down with a 4 year old in tow and we were all getting tired. The assent is gradual though and it is easy to explore.
Gion and Geisha (Geiko)
The reason I wanted to go to Kyoto was to try to see a REAL Geisha (or Geiko as they are called in Kyoto). We were successful our second night! You can read more about how we were able to find Geisha in Kyoto here.
It takes a lot of patience though so we made sure to allot several nights to exploring the Gion which is Kyoto’s famous entertainment district. Even without Geisha, the Gion has many beautiful old buildings and is very atmospheric at night especially in the Shimbashi area.
Kyoto Train Museum
The Kyoto Train Museum is the largest railway museum in Japan with a stock of 53 trains and train cars. It is a 3 story museum with lots of interactive displays and hands on exhibits.
It also has Japan’s largest collection of steam locomotives and for an additional fee you can take a 10 minute ride on one! It is by far the most memorable museum we have visited in Japan.
Other Fantastic Sites in Kyoto to Add to a Japan Itinerary
On past trips to Japan we had seen Mount Fuji from a distance on clear days in Tokyo but we wanted to see it more closely. We also had no desire to climb it and how long can you spend looking at Mount Fuji with a 4 year old really? We found the perfect solution! The Nozomi Shinkansen which we had also been wanting to experience goes right past Mount Fuji on the way from Kyoto to Tokyo. You can see Mount Fuji for about half of the trip and the train passes by closely enough that you can get a pretty decent photo.
Days 9 to 13: Tokyo
We love Odaiba! During our visit to Tokyo we visited nearly every day. The Odiaiba area of Tokyo is a man made island which has been developed as a shopping and leisure destination. The Yurikamone elevated train ride across to the island is quite fun itself as there is great views of the harbor and Rainbow Bridge as the train track loops over the water. If you are really lucky, try to get the first seat in the first car for a drivers view!
Once in Odaiba there is plenty to keep you busy for days. Odiaba is perhaps most well known for being the home of the life sized Gundam statue which was taken down on March 5th 2017. A new one will be erected in the fall of 2017 but until then there is still plenty to do and see on the island. At Decks Tokyo Beach you can find a Legoland Discovery Center and Madam Tussauds wax museum. Toyota Mega Web is a Toyota showroom, and museum with attractions including test drives.
Right next door is one of the world’s biggest Ferris Wheels. The National Museum of Emerging Science (Miraikan) where the robot Asimo puts on daily displays is also in Odaiba. The list goes on and on so click here to read more!
Tsukiji Fish Market
The Tsukiji Fish Market really isn’t kid friendly. It’s a busy and active wholesale market and it really isn’t set up for tourists. The famous tuna auctions happen very early in the morning and are limited to 120 people per day who have applied in advance. Danny is a chef though and wanted to at least check it out. After 10 am when the majority of the sales have been finished the public is allowed to enter into the wholesale seafood area. By noon though most vendors have packed up and gone home leaving a very short window of time to visit.
I’m glad we went just to be able to say we have been. The vendors were very nice to us and we were given some free samples as they were cleaning up for the day. The area is wet, messy and there are forklifts and such rushing about so we opted to carry our son on our shoulders. The outdoor market is open to the public any time and is easier to navigate with little ones.
Nakamise shopping street lines the way through the Asakusa district of Tokyo to Sensoji Temple (Asakusa Kannon Temple). The shopping street is primarily made up of souvenir shops and little snack places. This is where we ended up trying black sesame ice cream! The dark grey color was awesome and the taste OK but it’s not going to end up being on my top 5 list.
At the end of Nakamise shopping street you’ll find Asakusa temple which was built in the 7th century. Kaminarimon (Kaminari Gate) is probably the best known image of this temple with its giant lantern. This is a very popular site so during holidays and weekends it gets incredibly busy. Kannonura Street in Asakusa is also one of the few areas where you may be lucky to spot a Geisha in Tokyo. If luck is not on your side when you visit, Konnonura Street is still a beautiful and historic area.
Tokyo Tower or Tokyo Skytree
There are two towers in Tokyo which you can visit to get a great view of the city. The original bright orange Tokyo Tower is 333 meters high and is the tallest self-supported steel tower in the world with observation decks at 150 meters and 250 meters. The newer (2012) Tokyo Skytree is 634 meters tall and has observation decks at 350 meters and 450 meters.
We chose to visit Tokyo Tower. Though the views at the Skytree are of course more impressive it was the cost that made us decide to visit the original Tokyo Tower instead. To visit the first observation deck at Tokyo Tower it only cost us about $8 USD each, whereas the Skytree was going to cost us about $18 USD each.
JAXA Tsukuba Space Center – Half Day Trip From Tokyo
About a 45 minuet train ride from Tokyo is JAXA Tsukuba Space Center in Tsukuba city. You can join a tour of the KIBO (the Japanese science module for the International Space Station) Flight Control Room and the astronaut training facility. Advanced reservations for English speaking tours are recommended.
There is also a nice Space Dome museum on site. It is small but it has some nice mock-ups of real space equipment.
Other Fantastic Sites in Tokyo to Add to a Japan Itinerary
Day 14: Narita
Narita Omotesando and Naritasan Temple
A lot of people go to Narita only for the airport. Just by chance we stayed at a hotel one night a bit away from the airport because we had an early flight. Bored and wanting to just get out and walk a bit we were suddenly walking along Narita Omotesando (path leading to a temple).
The narrow one kilometer street is lined with old buildings now housing souvenir shops including traditional foods and handicrafts, and restaurants. It twists and turns until it reaches Naritasan Temple (Narita-san Shinsho-ji ). Built around 940 the temple is and grounds are quite large and very popular. It’s a great place to spend a few hours before your flight!
Check out our other Japan Guide on the best places to find cars, trains, robots and rockets here!
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