Japan Itinerary: Our Two Week, Kid Friendly Japan Guide

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Japan itinerary

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

Osaka Castle

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.

Dotonbori

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

Osaka Aquarium
Universal Studios Japan
Shitennoji Buddhist Temple
Osaka Science Museum

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.

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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

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Kiyomizu-dera Buddhist Temple
Nijo Castle
Monkey Park Iwatayama

Mount Fuji

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

Odiaba

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.

Asakusa District

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

Tokyo Disneyland
Ghibli Museum
Tokyo Imperial Palace
Sanrio Puroland

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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Geisha in Kyoto, Japan: How to See a Real Geisha

Our First Night Looking for Geisha

On our most recent trip to Japan our main goal was to finally make it to Kyoto because (if we were very lucky) I wanted to see a geisha. The exact number of geisha currently working in Japan is not known but it is estimated that there are about 1,000 with the highest concentration in Kyoto. There are about 100 geisha and 100 maiko (geisha apprentice) working in Kyoto.

We booked a hotel near the Gion, Kyoto’s most famous entertainment district where most geisha in Koyoto work. My plan was to go out to the Gion each of the 4 nights we were in Kyoto to just sit and wait and hope to catch a glimpse. Unfortunately our hotel was not as close to the Gion as we had thought.

The first evening we were just too tired and we had an early morning so we didn’t end up making the trip to the Gion. The next night we were too late. Every article we had read had mentioned that we should be in the Gion area around 5:45pm if we wanted to catch a glimpse of a geisha heading to work. Our son had had a late afternoon nap though and we had been given strange walking directions to the Gion.

We found ourselves in the Shimbashi area well after 6pm. It was eerily quiet with only a handful of people walking around. As we walked through the small alleys and side streets you could hear a low murmur coming through some of the glowing doorways as patrons behind the curtained doors enjoyed their meals. On the far side of the Shirakawa river canal large windows allowed us to get a peek into some of the expensive restaurants and clubs.

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Shimbashi side street

We then made it over to Hanamikoji Dori. The famous street is less pretty than the Shimbashi area but we had been told that we would have a better chance spotting a geisha there. It was very clear when we arrived though that all the geisha were already at work. If we wanted to try to see one, we would have to wait until their parties ended later that night or try another day.  We made our way over to Yasaka Shrine and then called it a day.

Yasaka Shrine

Our Last Chance

We didn’t make it back to the Gion until our last night in Kyoto.  We took a taxi right to the intersection of Hanamikoji and Shijo Dori and started our search by around 5:20 pm. We slowly made our way down towards Gion Kobu Kaburenjo theater (Gion Corner) where visitors can take in traditional performances by maiko for a fee. Looking this way and that, we carefully checked each alleyway. There were kimonos everywhere! We knew before we arrived though that most women we saw in kimono would be tourists. Daily kimono rental is a very popular tourist activity and some places will even make you up to look just like a geisha. There was a lot of “Is she? Is she?” as we walked along. A real giesha or miako is on her way to work though when you spot them in the Gion and so they will not be on the street chatting or stopping for photos.

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NOT real geisha

When we made it down to Gion Corner we weren’t exactly sure what to do next except head back the way we came. There was a large group of tourists waiting at infront of Gion Corner and we thought maybe they were waiting there to see some geisha arrive. When their tour guide joined them though they moved along. Further down the street I saw 3 or 4 men with cameras looking down an alley. These men were not tourists. They were middle aged Japanese men wearing business casual and though they were discrete, they didn’t fit in to the fast and noisy crowds around us.

We decided to check it out. There was a middle aged woman with them. I regret that I never got her name. She spoke a little English and we started to chat about where we were from. They were also waiting for Geisha and the photographers asked through her what kind of camera I was using. I replied “Nikon D90”. They all whispered between themselves “Ah! Nikon. Nikon. Nikon.” while nodding. I felt a bit like Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade. Apparently I had “chosen wisely” and was now part of their group! The woman told us to wait there for about 5 more minutes and then we should move on to the street near the famous Ichiriki Chaya teahouse.

Seeing Geiko and Maiko

I don’t know where she came from but suddenly she appeared! I wasn’t exactly sure what to do. There are signs throughout the Gion reminding visitors to respect and to give the geisha working there space. Some locals in the community even volunteer to patrol the Gion to watch that overly enthusiastic visitors do not act like paparazzi.

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Sign in the Gion

I stayed well back until our guide said “Get in there!” and nudged me to the front of our group. The beautiful geisha in front of us stopped only for a second, looked directly at us, gave a small smile and then as quickly as she appeared, she was gone. “Is she a real one?” I asked. “Yes” our guide replied, “a geiko”.  While “geisha” is the more commonly used term internationally and in Tokyo, geiko is the term used in Kyoto and other parts of western Japan.  I didn’t cry when we saw her but I was embarrassingly close to it and in awe. She was dignified and beautiful!


We quickly headed down the street to wait near the historic 300 year old Ichiriki Chaya tea house.  A menacing looking doorman stood in front. Entry is by invitation only and if the doorman doesn’t know you, you’re not getting in. Our guide instructed us to watch for people who were delivering food to the tea house.  If you see food being delivered you know that there is going to be a party there that night. More food likely means bigger party. The guests arrived in advance and would be listening to musicians playing before the geiko and maiko would arrive about 10 minutes before 6 o’clock.  We looked every which way and peeked in every taxi going by but we were informed that if they did come by taxi, it would only be in the black ones.

Ichiriki Chaya tea house

Unexpectedly in the alleyway across the street down the side of Ichiriki Chaya a maiko appeared. Taking tiny quick steps she made her way down the walkway…and then disappeared! I was looking right at her. I don’t think I even blinked a moment but right in front of my eyes she completely disappeared. Our guide explained that the maiko I had just spotted had arrived early and so she was hiding until she could make a more appropriately timed entrance to the party.

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It was now very clear to us who were geiko and maiko and who were just tourists in costume. The kimono of a geiko costs thousands of dollars. Some are even worth an entire year’s salary! Even from a distance you can see the difference in quality. The kimono of a maiko is colorful, elaborately patterned and has long sleeves. A geiko’s kimono is simpler. Maiko style their natural hair and wear beautiful hairpins whereas geiko wear wigs. Maiko usually have some skin on the back of their necks that remains without makeup but geikos usually wear makeup right to their hairline. The collar of a maiko’s kimono is red but a geiko’s is white. And so on.

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Maiko with her assistant


Around 5:45pm there were suddenly maiko appearing regularly. While we waited we saw two taxis with several maiko in them go by but resisted the urge to chase them down. We saw about 5 maiko in total go into Ichiriki Chaya. The maiko who had disappeared in the alleyway also suddenly reappeared out of nowhere and made her way to the tea house. They all moved so quickly. In the changing light conditions of the dark street with lamps I would just get my camera set when she would move to another area. They were all exceptionally hard to photograph! Some would give a small glance towards the camera but most didn’t.


Since we visited in February there weren’t as many tourists on the streets as there are during more busy seasons. We luckily didn’t see anyone swarming or harassing the maiko as they made their way down the streets. There were two tourists in Kimono who stood in the alleyway taking photos with their cell phones as a maiko made her way towards us. The photographers who we were with chastised them for getting in the way of the “real” photographers and for bothering the maiko with their cellphones. I also have a series of photos where you can see two men trying to take a selfie of themselves with a maiko and her assistant in the background. When they pass the men you can then see the men in the next few photos following and giggling like school girls. The look foolish but nothing paparazzi like.

Then suddenly at 6pm on the dot the action stopped. Our guide though told us to wait around a bit longer. If more food was seen being brought into the teahouse around 6:30pm it would mean that there would be more guests and more geiko and maiko arriving around 7pm. This was not the case that night. Shortly after 6:30 we all said our goodbyes and each person seemed to go in a separate direction. I’m not sure exactly who that woman was but she was a wealth of knowledge. The photographers with her took me under their wing. I should have asked but I was just so excited about the moment. With their help though and a whole lot of luck, our Kyoto dreams of seeing a geiko came true.

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