Japan’s Golden Route: Experience the Best of Japan

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If you are a traveler enticed by the multitude of amazing sights that this fabulous country has to offer, then the renowned Japan Golden Route is definitely for you. Perfect for first-time visitors to Japan and seasoned travelers alike, the route runs from Tokyo to Kyoto and passes through modern cities, centuries-old historic sites, incredible scenery and much more. Following this incredible route really does promise to be the holiday of a lifetime. To help you make the most of your time in the country, here's all the info you need to plan a perfect Golden Route Japan trip!

Where does the route go?

Following the old Tokaido road which runs between Tokyo and Kyoto, the Golden Route has been used for centuries by merchants, samurais and pilgrims to get from one city to the other. Nowadays it is a very popular tourist route due to all of the amazing sights that line the way. It really is the best route to follow if you want to see all of Japan's most impressive cities, scenery, and attractions in one go.

While the exact itinerary and start/end location depend on each individual's preference and interest, there is a list of core places that are almost always included. Here’s the list of must-visit places from the classic Japan Golden Route and the order in which best to see them!

1. Tokyo

The Japan Golden Route covers Tokyo as it is the top attraction of Japan.
Walk Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo to experience the world's busiest intersection
Tokyo Sky-tree is the tallest tower in Japan and provides the best view.
Head to the top of Tokyo's Sky-tree and enjoy the panoramic view of the city below

Covering a staggering 13,500 square kilometers and with a population of over 38 million people, the Greater Tokyo Area is home to the second largest metropolitan area in the world. As such, it really does have something for everyone to enjoy, whether it’s history and culture, arts and entertainment or fine dining and shopping. There are many different sides to Japan's sprawling capital where towering skyscrapers and futuristic neon-lit buildings lie side-by-side with ancient Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. This vibrant city really is a must-see when in Japan and the only question is where to begin!

Highlights:

  • Stroll around Ueno park and snap photos of the cherry blossom trees.
  • Head to the top of the gigantic Tokyo Skytree – the largest tower in the world – and bask in the awe-inspiring views of the capital. 
  • Home to most Michelin star restaurants in the world, sampling some of Tokyo's delicious cuisine is simply a must! If you want a glimpse of the future then head to the famous robot restaurant and enjoy an exhilarating show that you won't forget anytime soon.
  • Take a Tokyo tour and visit incredible sights like the temples at Asakusa, the Imperial Palace, and the renowned Meiji shrine.

2. Mount Fuji

The Japan Golden Route also covers the prominent Mount Fuji since it is the tallest active volcano in Japan.
Put on your hiking shoes and hit the trails of Mount Fuji, the tallest mountain in Japan

A fabulous UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mount Fuji is one of the most recognizable symbols of Japan and is a must-visit when in the country. The huge stratovolcano towers dramatically over its surroundings and the view from the top is simply spellbinding. Popular amongst both locals and tourists alike, Mount Fuji receives thousands of sightseers and climbers every day. 

Highlights:

  • Climb Mount Fuji and arrive at the summit at dawn to bask in the breathtaking sunrise views
  • Cruise on Lake Kawaguchiko and admire Mount Fuji rising up in the distance
  • Visit Arakurayama Sengen Park and gaze at the impressive view of snow-covered Mount Fuji with the park's delightful cherry blossoms and charming pagoda in the foreground
  • Visit the Fujisan World Heritage Centre to learn all that there is to know about Mount Fuji

3. Hakone

There are three ships in Lake Ashi that replicates a pirate ship in Hakone.
Take a cruise in a pirate ship and enjoy the best views of Lake Ashi 
Mount Komagatake, a holy mountain in Hakone is also visited if you opt to take the Japan Golden Route.
Hike to the peak of Mount Komagate and pay your respects at the Hakone shrine

Located to the south of Mount Fuji, the mountainous area of Hakone is known for the fantastic views it offers of the famous volcano. The area is also home to the glimmering Lake Ashi and the Great Boiling Valley, which is dotted with sulphurous hot springs. A popular tourist destination, Hakone is also home to the ages-old Hakone shrine and brilliant Hakone open air museum, which are just some of the main sights it boasts.

Highlights:

  • Cruise in one of the replica pirate ships that sail around Lake Ashi and marvel at the ship’s ornate craftsmanship and towering masts while you take in the beautiful views all around you.
  • Hike to the top of Mount Komagatake for the incredible views it offers and the magnificent Shinto shrine at its summit
  • Wallow in the warm waters of Hakone's famous hot springs at one of the traditional onsen resorts.

4. Nara

The classic Japan Golden Route also covers Nara, a beautiful place filled with freely roaming deer.
Visit Nara park and feed the freely roaming deer throughout the park

Take a break from the hustle and bustle of Japan's larger cities with a trip to the serene and temple-filled city of Nara. Spend a day exploring the Buddhist and Shinto shrines throughout the cty and get close and personal with Nara's friednly four-legged locals. From giant statues to charming cobbled side streets, you'll find plenty to do in this cozy and compact city.

Highlights:

  • Get close to nature in Nara Park, where you can feed the town’s famous friendly deer and snap some great pics along the way!
  • Visit Nara’s famous Todai-Ji Temple and pay your respects to the stunning 16-meter statue of the Buddha that lives within.
  • Discover Nara’s renown Shinto temple, Kasuga Taisha, for a gorgeous cultural experience. Plan your trip during the Mantoro festivals in February or August to see all 3000 of the beautiful stone lanterns on the grounds lit up at once!

5. Osaka

The Japan Golden Route also takes you to Osaka palace, a true beauty of Osaka.
Osaka Castle is one of Japan's most famous landmarks

The third largest city in the country, Osaka is located on the banks of the Yodo River, which runs through the heart of the teeming metropolis. The city itself isn’t the most attractive sight, but it is an oasis for food lovers. Featuring the best places to eat, drink and go out in the whole of Japan, Osaka is not to be missed on your Japan travel route. Honestly, its wide range of restaurants, shops and interesting museums could keep you occupied for weeks. 

Highlights:

  • Head to Osaka castle and snap photos of its towering walls surrounded by cherry blossoms.
  • Visit the popular Kani Doraku and indulge in seafood dishes. With a huge mechanical crab attached to the front of the restaurant, Kani Doraku is hard to miss and will certainly have you coming back for more!
  • Wander around the fantastic open-air Osaka Museum of Housing and Living to get a feel for what life in Japan used to be like in the Edo period.
  • Go to the top of the Umeda Sky building and take in the astounding panoramas of Osaka from its floating garden observatory. 

Insider tip: Kansai, the west-central part of Honshu island, is my favorite region in Japan—and the incredible hiking here is a big reason why! One of my favorite things to do in Osaka, for example, is to take an overnight or weekend excursion into Wakayama prefecture. If you have one night, you can hike up to the top of holy Mt. Koya, which involves riding the train to Kudoyama and trekking 5-7 hours to the top, where a shukubo temple stay awaits. If you have a weekend or even longer, you might continue deeper into Wakayama, hiking the ancient Kumano Kodo pilgrimage for 2-3 days.  Robert from Japan Starts Here

6. Kyoto

When you take the Japan Golden Route, you will visit Kinkakuji an iconic temple overlooking a huge pond in Kyoto.
Also known as the Golden Pavilion, the Kinkakuji temple in Kyoto is coated in gold leaf. Photo by: Floyd Manzano [ CC by 2.0 ]

Widely considered to be the most beautiful city in the country, the former capital of Japan is a wealth of amazing historical and cultural sites. With more than two thousand temples and shrines dotted around the city, Kyoto is sure to keep you busy and mesmerized. Throw in a great mix of bars, cafes and restaurants, and the city is the perfect mix of old and new. 

Highlights:

  • Visit the traditional district of Gion and stop off at a teahouse for a delicious brew served up by a Geisha.
  • Wander around the peaceful gardens at the Imperial Palace and admire all the amazing architecture on show.
  • Explore the incredible Kinkakuji temple and be in awe of the glimmering Golden Pavilion
  • Head to one of the old sento – traditional public baths – and experience Japanese bathing culture for yourself.

How long does the route take?

While one could obviously spend months exploring all of the fascinating sights that Japan's Golden Route has to offer up, it is possible to see all of its main historical sites, cultural landmarks and breathtaking scenic spots in a much shorter period of time. 

We recommend 10 days to 2 weeks to explore all of the wonderful sights and locations. If you're short on time, the route can be attempted in just 1 week if you skip a few places and focus on the main highlights, but it would be a bit rushed!

Best time to visit

The Golden Route is great to travel all year round, and each season in Japan has its highlights. However, in our opinion, the very best time of year is undoubtedly in the months of April and May, when the cherry blossoms are out and the temperature is pleasant.

How to get around on the route

When traveling through Japan Golden Route, you’ll almost certainly end up taking a mix of trains, buses and metros, depending on where you’re trying to get to. Fortunately, the country has a very efficient and user-friendly public transport system.

The quickest and the most efficient way to get around these Japanese cities is to take a ride in a  Shinkansen bullet train which shoots around the country at a speed of up to 320 kilometers per hour. It is expensive and costs around USD 125* to travel from one city to another. But due to the large distances involved, it is undoubtedly the best option to get between Tokyo and Kyoto or Osaka.

Shinkansen trains are full-speed railways that connect the cities in Japan.
Also referred to as bullet trains, traveling via a Shinkansen train is the fastest way to get around Japan. Photo by: Doug Bowman [ CC by 2.0]

If you’re traveling on a budget, you may want to consider investing in a Japan Rail Pass which covers not only transport on the bullet trains but also buses, ferries and normal trains throughout the country. This is the most cost-efficient way to travel. Visitors can apply for a 7, 14 or 21-day pass, which cost between USD 270 to USD 550 depending on which duration you select. You do however need to apply for the Japan Rail Pass before you arrive in the country.

Another option is to simply buy public transport tickets as you go, as local buses and trains are not very expensive.

If navigating Japan's cities, public transport system and attractions by yourself sounds a bit overwhelming, then you may want to consider taking a Japan Golden Route tour. With a knowledgeable guide on hand you'll get to visit all of the main sights on the route without having to worry about how to get to Mount Fuji, explore Tokyo or reach Hakone castle.

This Golden Route tour runs during the cherry blossom season, allowing you to experience the very best of Japan. Accompanied by a Japanese-speaking tour leader, you'll get to delve into Japan's rich history and cultural heritage while visiting a vast array of incredible sights. Over seven action-packed days, you can expect to visit Hakone's hot springs and Kyoto's geisha district amongst many other attractions.

Quick tips

  • Download Japan Navi — a great app, which not only helps you to navigate your way around the country (in English!) but also helps you find sightseeing spots and local restaurants
  • Make sure you have enough time to see everything you wish. It may even be worth dropping a visit or two to certain places if it means you can enjoy other attractions more.
  • Pack clothes for all scenarios as the weather in mountainous parts of the journey can change very quickly.
  • Use the Google Translate app to take photos of anything you come across written in Japanese and translate it into English. 
  • Make sure to book travel insurance so you don't have to worry about losing anything or missing your train or flight.
  • Pick your accommodations closer to the attractions you want to visit, so as to not waste too much time in travel.

With vibrant cities, ancient shrines and historic temples at every turn, a single trip to Japan may not be enough to pack in all of its magical sites. However, for those seeking to make it happen, Japan’s Golden Route just might do the trick! Connect with our top travel expert in Japan to make the most out of your upcoming Japan trip.

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    Katrina Cao
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