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October 1, 2020

21 Day Japanese Road Trip | Photo Diary and Guide

Annie miller's Japanese road trip and travel guide

Sharing all about our 21 day Japanese road trip!

Japan has been on Nate‘s travel list for as long as we have talked about traveling. We’d heard how much people love this set of islands off the east coast of mainland Asia, but we WERE NOT READY for the gem that is Japan.

At the time of our travels (March/April 2020), there was no quarantine in Japan. We flew in from Melbourne two days earlier than planned because flights were being restricted OUT OF Australia. And we didn’t want to get stuck for the foreseeable future. So much was still unknown at the time.

What we did know though, was that Japan was a go, and our road trip was still on. We followed Japanese guidelines and *almost* none of our plans were canceled, thankfully. My sister was supposed to meet us during our Japanese road trip, we would have had to risk her flights getting canceled. So that was a HUGE bummer, but also very understandable.

Before we get into the Japanese road trip itinerary, you must understand Japan as a country. It was hands-down the cleanest country I have ever been in. Nearly every restaurant or shop had a hand-washing station as you entered, there was hand sanitizer everywhere on the subways, people wear masks, and there is no trash….like, anywhere. You received hand wipes in your bag at the local 7/11.

Like, WHAT? It honestly felt like the safest place we could be during a pandemic. Who knows if that was true, but it certainly felt that way.  We were willing to be quarantined there if it came down to that. Which it didn’t (until the very end)…But we’ll get there.

After Japan we were supposed to head back down to New Zealand for a 23 day road trip, but that was canceled during our time in Japan. So, our Japanese road trip was 21 days long, with a few days in Tokyo on either end of the road trip.

Japan is larger than you might think. In 21 days it just wasn’t feasible to get up to Hokkaido and the northern regions, or down to Okinawa and some of the southern regions. So we kept it between Tokyo and Hiroshima.

You could travel faster than this for sure, but with me still having to work and us liking to travel a bit slower, this was truly the perfect itinerary.

As you’ll see in the coming blogs, it felt very much so like we had Japan to ourselves. There were still plenty of local tourists, but not many foreigners. As I said, we arrived in a twilight zone of sweetness with no restriction or quarantine.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity under unfortunate circumstances. Which you’ll see in the coming Japan blogs.

Without further ado let’s get into the itinerary + need to know details. This is a very simple breakdown and that includes the locations we stayed, hotels, and rental car services.

Japanese Road Trip – Need to Know Details

Car rental: We rented a Subaru Crosstrek through Budget at the Haneda Airport. It was just over $1,600 for 22 days plus the toll card. They picked us up via a shuttle to and from the airport to the actual car location. Customer service was great.

Tolls: We bought the scan card with our car and opted to just be charged via our rental. Tolls aren’t cheap. But you see why. The roads, signs and rest stops along the highways are NEXT LEVEL. Everything was super high quality and well ran.

Rest stops: There are tons of rest stops. Our car’s navigation told us any time there was going to be road work, what type, and where rest stops were at. These are hands down the nicest rest stops I’ve ever seen. Nothing even comes close.

Speed limits: 60km was pretty standard. Which. Is. Not. Fast. There were cameras along the highway but you know when they’re coming because there are signs. And our car told us as well. So, you do you…

Time of year: We were in Japan March/April and it was PERFECT. In avoiding “golden week” in Asia, we accidentally booked during cherry blossom season. Which turned out to be UH-MAZING. We got the best of both worlds in spring – snow in the mountains, but sunny 70 degree days elsewhere.

a car in tokyo on Japanese road trip with Annie Miller

Actual Japanese Road Trip Itinerary

Arriving in Tokyo: 3 Full Days

We flew in and out of Tokyo, because this was easiest. You could fly in and pick up your car immediately. As we had to go back to the airport from Tokyo to get our rental.

From airport to Tokyo:

We took the skyliner to JY line (4000 yen total for two people)

Stay at the Blossom Hotel

Getting to our car rental from Tokyo:

JR line to Nippori then get on the Skyliner to terminal 1 – pick up car (see above)

Drive to Nikko

Nikko – 1 Full Day

Stay at Nikko Akarinoyado Villa Revage (private onsen baths were a HUGE plus here)

Annie Miller exploring Nikko National Park on Japanese Road trip
Annie visiting temples and shrines in Nikko National Park on Japanese Road Trip

Activities: (we did all of this in our one day there – you will see soon in the Nikko Blog)

  • Walk to graveyard
  • See the red hat men
  • The red bridge across from the National Park entrance.
  • Nikko National Park – several temples and shrines

Drive around to: (see full Nikko blog post coming soon)

  • Akechidaira Ropeway (40 minutes outside of Nikko) 740 yen pp – this looks unimpressive from the bottom but that’s because you can’t see what’s at the top – Lake Chuzenji, Kegon Falls, and Mount Nantai
  • Kegon Falls (which you see from the top of the ropeway but can also go visit)
  • Japanese Alps

Drive from Nikko to Takayama:

  • Jigokudani Monkey Park on the way from Nikko to Takayama
Monkeys in Japan by Annie Miller

Takayama: 2 Full Days

Stay at Tabina Hotel

Activities:

  • Shirakawa-go (mountain town with straw roofs) 45 minutes from Takayama.
  • Kanazawa (one of three “perfect gardens” in Japan + the castle. An hour from Shirakawa-go
Annie Miller exploring in the snow in Takayama
gardens in Takayama on Japanese Road trip
snow covered roofs in Takayama

Drive Takayama to Tsumago – Less than 2 hours

Tsumago: 1 Full Day

Stay at Hotel Hanasara – due to the ‘rona, we didn’t use their hot spring, but heard good things. They also had a shuttle to and from Magome.

  • 11km hike from Nagiso to Tsumago to Magome
exploring Tsumago on Japanese Road trip
Moody day exploring Tsumago on Japanese Road trip

Drive Tsumago to Kyoto

Kyoto: 4 Full Days

Icoca card 2000 yen pp

Stay at Aoi Hotel Kyoto (4 star hotel)

Annie Miller in Aoi Hotel Kyoto on Japanese Road trip

Activities:

  • See ALL. THE. TEMPLES.
  • Tenryuji Garden, Bamboo Forest World Cultural Heritage Site
  • Kichi kichi Omurice – Rice omelet
Image of city views of Kyoto Japan
Annie Miller exploring temples in Japan
Exploring Tenryuji Garden on Japanese Road trip
image of amazing architecture in Kyoto
beautiful gardens and temples in Japan by Annie Miller
Temples and cherry blossoms in Japan by Annie Miller

Drive from Kyoto to Hiroshima:

  • Stop at Osaka Castle
  • Pablo Cheesecake & Rikuro’s Cheesecake
  • Kobe beef in Kobe at Ishida
  • Stop at Himeji Castle

Hiroshima: 2 Full Days

Stay at the Grand Prince Hotel

  • Hassai for a fried noodle experience.
  • Walk to the Atomic Dome and Museum (it was closed when we were there but we heard it’s amazing).
  • Then to the Hiroshima castle.
  • Itsukushima Shrine + Miyajima Ropeway cable car
  • View point to the left off the rope way, but then a 14-30 minute hike to Misen Summit – one way.

Drive to Nara:

  • Kousanji Temples, cave, The Hill of Hope marble mountain
  • Kirosan Observatory Deck & Bridges
Annie Miller at Kousanji Temples on Japanese Road Trip
Annie Miller inside the cave at Annie Miller at Kousanji Temples on Japanese Road Trip
Hill of Hope Marble Mountain by Annie Miller
Annie Miller on Kirosan Observatory Deck & Bridges on Japanese Road Trip

Nara: 2 Full Days

Stay at Piazza Hotel, Nara – wonderful location and hotel

  • See the bowing deer and all of Nara Park
Annie Miller with the deer in Nara Park on Japanese Road Trip
Exploring Nara Park on Japanese Road Trip
gorgeous views in Nara Park on Japanese road trip

Drive from Nara to Hakone

Hakone: 3 Full Days

(three days was too much – but we also must consider that things were starting to close at this point)

Stay at Hakone Hotelhaving a lake a Mt Fuji view room did not suck. Highly suggest if you can swing it.

Activities:

  • Mt. Fuji Panoramic Ropeway 900 yen pp – Mt Fuji view.
  • Chureito Pagoda closed
  • Komagatake ropeway – view of the lake in Hakone, all the way to the ocean on two sides, and Mt. Fuji on the other.
view of Mt fuji on japanese road trip by annie miller
Mt. Fuji Panoramic Ropeway on Japanese road trip
Annie Miller viewing Mt Fuji on Japanese road trip
Annie Miller exploring on Japanese road trip
gorgeous views of Japan by annie Miller

That’s it! Back to Tokyo!

When we got back to Tokyo, they had entered a quarantine. It was like a completely different city from when we left. So we promptly caught early flights back to the states. Our travels were cut short, but we figured we’d much rather quarantine at home with friends and family than in Japan even though it might just be our favorite country ever.

We can’t say what it’s like during a normal cherry blossom season (when we were there), but even with millions of tourists, I imagine it’s just as charming.

Japan has the most pleasant mix of new and old. 5g and cutting edge technology AND beautifully maintained temples and shrines dating back thousands of years. Add in the natural beauty, from islands to mountains, with the cleanest, and LARGEST cities you’ve probably seen…there’s nowhere like it (to my knowledge). Oh, and the people and food are both AMAZING.

We were so fortunate to see this gem in a perfect sliver of time.

Can’t wait to share the rest with you.

Would you ever do a Japanese road trip? If so, pin this post for later.

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I'm an adventurous introvert from Vancouver, Washington who lives on sleep + "me time." I'm a lover of lifting weights, dinosaurs, real talk and traveling with my husband. I am here to help you move better, lift more, bust the myths of the fitness industry, and inspire you to love the process.

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