What to Visit in Japan in a Weekend: Top Spots for a Short Trip

Iconic Landmarks

A bustling cityscape with Mount Fuji in the distance, cherry blossom trees in bloom, and traditional temples and shrines scattered throughout the landscape

Several must-see locations come to mind when considering the landmarks that define Japan.

During a weekend trip, I focus on things to do in Tokyo and other places in Japan that both offer historical significance and breathtaking views.

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Shibuya Crossing is where I witness the pulse of modern Tokyo. As one of the most famous urban landmarks in the world, its sheer energy is quintessentially Japanese.

If I have limited time, I want to experience a touch of nature. I’d include the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove in Kyoto in my itinerary. The lush greenery contrasts with the urban sprawl and is a perfect locale for reflective strolls.

I won’t miss the chance to drop by the Fushimi Inari Shrine, which I’ve wanted to visit for a long time.

It’s notable for the thousands of vermilion torii gates that create a path up the mountain, each one donated by a Japanese business.

Mount Fuji and the Five LakesNo trip would be complete without seeing Mount Fuji. The Five Lakes area offers various perspectives of this iconic mountain.
Great Buddha of KamakuraIn Kamakura, I stand in awe before the monumental bronze statue of the Great Buddha, reflecting on a history that dates back to 1252.

In the Fuji Five Lakes region, Mount Fuji shares the spotlight with five distinct lakes, each offering its mountain view.

Personally, I find Lake Ashi particularly captivating for its vibrant atmosphere and the stunning reflections of Mount Fuji on its still waters.

Lake Kawaguchi provides a classic postcard-perfect vista, while Lake Yamanakako is a hub for water sports. Lake Sai offers tranquility, and Lake Shoji boasts tradition.

With so much to see and experience at each of these lakes, visitors can immerse themselves in different perspectives of Mount Fuji, making the region a must-visit destination.

If you have less than seven days in Japan, each place holds a story that I feel is essential in understanding Japan’s cultural and natural beauty.

With such a varied array of iconic landmarks, I ensure my days are well-spent and memorable.

Historical Sites

Ancient temples, traditional castles, and serene gardens in Japan

When I think of a weekend trip to Japan, historical sites like majestic castles and ancient temples come to mind. They are rich with cultural significance and provide a tangible connection to Japan’s past. 

If you have less than 7 days to visit Japan, here are some places I highly recommend you add to your Japan itinerary to ensure you have a great trip.

Castles and Temples

  • Himeji Castle: Often referred to as the White Heron Castle, this site is one of Japan’s most spectacular feudal castles. It is both a national treasure and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

  • Matsumoto Castle: Also known as Crow Castle due to its black exterior, this is one of Japan’s premier historic castles. The structure is striking against the backdrop of the Japanese Alps.

  • Sensoji Temple: This is located in Central Tokyo. It is Tokyo’s oldest temple in the Asakusa district, a popular tourist area in the city’s heart. The Kaminarimon Gate, with its giant red lantern, marks the entrance to Sensoji Temple and is an iconic landmark of Tokyo.

  • Kinkaku-ji: The Golden Pavilion in Kyoto is renowned for its stunning gold-leaf-coated exterior. It’s set against a picturesque pond, making it one of Japan’s most photographed sites.

Traditional Districts

  • Gion, Kyoto: Renowned for its traditional wooden machiya houses, Gion is Kyoto’s most iconic geisha district. Walking through its streets during a clear day feels like stepping back into old Japan, offering a timeless experience amidst the bustling modern city.

    If you’re exploring things to do in Kyoto, you must immerse yourself in the cultural richness of Gion.

  • Kanazawa’s Higashi Chaya District: This district is known for its well-preserved Edo-era teahouses and offers a less-crowded experience of traditional Japanese architecture and cultural history.

Exploring these sites, I aim to highlight the most engaging aspects of Japan’s history, showcasing not only embodiments of Japanese culture but also serving as a testimony to the architectural prowess of ancient Japan, all while allowing for some extra time to soak in the beauty and significance of each location.

Cultural Experiences

When I explore Japan over a weekend, immersing myself in cultural experiences is a priority. I focus on activities that allow me to engage deeply with traditional practices, particularly around Tokyo.

Tea Ceremonies

Location: Urasenke Foundation, Tokyo.
Experience: Authentic chado, the Way of Tea.
Duration: Approximately 1 hour.
Cost: Varies; typically around ¥2,000 – ¥5,000.

The tea ceremony, or chado, is a quintessential Japanese experience. I attend ceremonies conducted by tea masters who perform the ritual with grace and precision.

It’s not just about drinking tea but also appreciating the choreographed movements and the Zen-like atmosphere of the tea room.

Cultural Workshops

  • Kimono Wearing
    : Nishijin Textile Center, Kyoto.
    Details: Learn how to wear a kimono properly.
    Cost: From ¥2,000 and up.

  • Ikebana
    Location: Various schools across Japan.
    Details: Introduction to Japanese flower arranging.
    Cost: Starts at ¥3,000 for beginner classes.

Joining cultural workshops is one of the highlights of my experiences. I get to indulge in a hands-on experience, trying on traditional Japanese clothing like kimonos and being guided through the intricate process of donning these elegant garments.

Another favorite of mine is ikebana, where I always have the best time. There’s something truly special about immersing myself in flower arranging, focusing on form, balance, and harmony. During these workshops, I feel alive and fulfilled, cherishing every moment spent crafting beauty from nature’s gifts.

Natural Attractions

Although you can’t see much of Japan in less than 4 days, the country offers myriad options for nature enthusiasts. All these attractions are accessible within a weekend vacation. 

Below are select venues where you can immerse yourself in diverse landscapes during your limited time in Japan.

Gardens and Parks

Shinjuku Gyoen, Tokyo

  • Cherry Blossoms: Best viewed during late March to early April.
  • Greenhouse: Houses tropical and subtropical flora.

Korakuen Garden, Okayama

  • Scenic Beauty: One of the Three Great Gardens of Japan.
  • Seasonal Views: Enjoy plum and cherry blossoms, irises, and autumn leaves.

Mountain Escapes

Mount Fuji

  • Yoshida Trail: The most popular route for climbers.
  • Five Lakes Region: Perfect for viewing the mountain without the climb.

Japanese Alps, Kamikochi

  • Highland Valley: Features the Azusa River and breathtaking mountain scenery.
  • Access: Open from mid-April to November, accessible via bus from Matsumoto.

You can stay in a ryokan at night and enjoy the hot spring to relax your sore muscles after a few hours of riding a train from Tokyo using your Japan Rail Pass.

Wake up early in the morning to have enough time to see all the breathtaking views the land has to offer.

City Excursions

Busy streets, towering skyscrapers, traditional temples, bustling markets, and serene gardens in Japan

I prioritize iconic sights and unique local experiences when planning weekend city excursions whenever I go to Japan. Here are the best ways to explore Osaka in a short time before heading back to Tokyo.

Osaka Hot Spots

  • Osaka Castle: Explore the historical monument with its green moats, replicating the samurai era. The park around it is perfect for a stroll.

  • Dotonbori: Immerse yourself in this vibrant district renowned for its neon signs and incredible street food.

  • Universal Studios Japan: For families and thrill-seekers, this theme park brings Hollywood to Osaka with rides and shows.

  • Himeji Castle: A worthy day trip. It is renowned as Japan’s most spectacular castle and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tokyo Highlights

  • Tokyo Tower: Ascend this landmark for panoramic views of the sprawling city. The tower’s architecture and lights are a show in themselves.

  • Senso-ji Temple: Experience the history of Tokyo’s oldest temple. It strikingly juxtaposes against the modern Asakusa district.

  • Shibuya Crossing: Step into the organized chaos of the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing. It’s symbolic of Tokyo’s pulsing energy.

  • Oedo-Onsen-Monogatari: Soak in the hot springs at Tokyo’s largest onsen theme park, where tradition meets relaxation.

These destinations offer a slice of Japan that is both modern and steeped in history, showcasing the multifaceted allure of the country’s urban centers.

Food and Dining

One of the reasons why I love Japan so much is its food culture.

In just a weekend, I can immerse myself in a culinary adventure that tantalizes my taste buds with local flavors and vibrant street foods.

Local Cuisine Sampling

I know that to experience Japan’s gastronomic offerings truly, I must sample the local cuisine at traditional establishments.

Tokyo’s Kanda Yabu Soba is legendary. Its tradition dates back to the 1880s, and it serves classic soba noodles.

In Kyoto, dining at a ryotei provides an authentic Japanese meal in a formal setting. The menu often features multiple courses that showcase seasonal and regional specialties.

Street Food Markets

Navigating the bustling street food markets is essential to grasp the essence of Japanese casual dining.

Yatai food stalls are perfect for me because they offer quick and delicious bites like takoyaki (octopus balls) or yakitori (grilled chicken skewers).

In Osaka, known as the nation’s kitchen, I find Dotonbori’s street market irresistible. There, I can try out savories like okonomiyaki (a Japanese savory pancake) amid the city’s neon-lit vibrancy.

Shopping Destinations

If you still have time, try shopping in Japan. It is a unique experience that combines both traditional and modern elements.

Whether you’re looking for the latest gadgets or handcrafted art, the country’s shopping districts cater to all tastes.

Electronics and Pop Culture

Akihabara, Tokyo’s mecca for electronics and anime, is my first stop for the latest devices and pop culture goods. You’ll find multi-story buildings like Yodobashi Camera that offer a vast selection of electronics.

For manga and anime fans, Mandarake houses a treasure trove of collectibles and comics. The streets here buzz with colorful shops and themed cafés that embrace Japan’s otaku culture.

Crafts and Souvenirs

I always visit Kyoto for traditional crafts and unique souvenirs.

The city’s Nishiki Market provides an array of artisanal goods like Kyoto fabrics (Nishijin-ori), delicate ceramics, and yatsuhashi (a local sweet).

Another must-see is the iconic Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine, where nearby stalls sell omamori (protective amulets) and fox-themed souvenirs, symbolic of the shrine’s messengers.

These products hold a piece of the culture perfect for memorabilia or gifts.

Entertainment and Nightlife

I recommend exploring Japan’s vibrant nightlife during a weekend visit. Japanese entertainment after dark is extensive and caters to all tastes and interests.

Izakayas: Social Hubs

In traditional izakayas, enjoying a meal is as sociable as having drinks. They are perfect for experiencing Japan’s gastropub culture, where you share delicious small plates with friends or colleagues.

Clubs and Bars: Diverse Scenes

For those keen on dancing, Shibuya in Tokyo is home to some of the best clubs.

Alternatively, Osaka’s Amerikamura district offers trendy bars and lively streets. Music ranges from J-Pop to the latest international hits and techno.

Cultural Experiences: Bar Tours

Joining a bar or pub tour can introduce you to hidden gems and provide insights into local customs.

Tours in cities like Osaka can offer a great overview of the area, including temples and shrines, amid the bustling nightlife.

Kyoto’s Pontocho: Atmospheric Dining

Pontocho in Kyoto captivates me with its atmospheric dining street. Traditional establishments here provide serene riverside dinner settings juxtaposed with the nighttime buzz.

Roppongi in Tokyo and Namba in Osaka are also worth visiting for upscale and heart-of-the-city entertainment experiences, respectively. Here is a quick guide:

RoppongiUpscale nightclubs
NambaLive entertainment
PontochoAtmospheric dining
AmerikamuraTrendy bars

Whether you prefer a quiet meal or a night of dancing, Japan’s entertainment scene offers something memorable for every visitor.

Frequently Asked Questions

A bustling cityscape with iconic Japanese landmarks like temples, cherry blossom trees, and bustling streets filled with food vendors and tourists

When planning a weekend trip in Japan, having the right information to ensure an enriching experience is crucial. Here, I’ve compiled answers to common questions that can help streamline your visit.

What are the top weekend getaway destinations near Tokyo?

Near Tokyo, Hakone offers hot springs and views of Mount Fuji. Nikko, with its UNESCO World Heritage shrines and natural beauty, is also a prime choice.

What are some unique cultural experiences to enjoy in Japan over a weekend?

Attend a traditional tea ceremony or visit a sumo wrestling match to immerse yourself in Japan’s unique cultural offerings.

How can I maximize a short weekend trip in Japan?

Prioritize locations close together and use Japan’s efficient public transportation. A JR Pass can be invaluable for extensive travel outside Tokyo.

Which historic landmarks are a must-see on a short trip to Japan?

In Kyoto, the Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) and the Fushimi Inari Shrine are iconic. Similarly, the historic village of Shirakawa-go showcases traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses.

Where can I find the most authentic Japanese cuisine on a weekend in Japan?

Ryokan (traditional inns) typically offer regional cuisine. Tsukiji Market in Tokyo is renowned for fresh sushi and street food.

What are the best strategies for exploring Japan on a tight budget over a weekend?

Stay in capsule hotels or hostels and take advantage of convenience store meals and free attractions like parks and temples.