Japan & South Korea in 16 Days

Chinese style gate in front of a temple

Visiting Tokyo, Kyoto, Seoul, Matsumoto, Takayama and Nara.

Animated calendar

Duration: 14 Days

Animated paper and calculator

Cost: £3000 for 2

Animated head with pencil

Author: Paul Brighton

So, I had always wanted to visit Japan but whenever I had checked the prices in the past, it always seemed far too expensive. From £800 flights to £80 a night hotel rooms, I thought it was one of those places you need to save for a special occasion and far too expensive for a solo traveller.

Then, in 2014, I was checking some flights and found return flights to Tokyo for just over £500, I then checked the hotels and found that good business hotels can be sought for around £50 a night and as now travelling as a couple with my wife, Thais, this was now seeming like a viable travel option.

I booked the flights and 4 nights in Shinjuku, Tokyo, in a business hotel, nothing special but did come with the famous Japanese toilet then we started looking into the places we wanted to visit. Although I had visited South Korea in 2002, Thais had never been, so we decided to tag on a short 3-day trip to Seoul. We also decided that we wanted to visit the Fuji Five Lakes, the Japanese Alps, Nara and Kyoto, wow, all this in 14 days, well, keep reading and I’ll show you how we did it.

Day 1

So, we flew with Air France from Manchester and arrived in Tokyo around 6:00, got the subway to Shinjuku and a short taxi ride to the hotel. It turned out we were far too early to check in, so we dropped the bag in the hotel and decided to go and explore Shinjuku for a couple of hours.

We managed to get tickets for the Robot Restaurant - where better to get into the Japanese craziness. It’s one of the most out there shows you’ll ever see and also comes with food; we went for the Grilled Beef Dinner Box.

Day 2

No trip to Japan would be complete without getting as close to Mount Fuji as possible so we headed by bus to Kawaguchi and then hired a car for the day so we could visit the Five Lakes that are situated around Fuji. We did ask for an English satnav but after trying it out, it only wanted to speak in Chinese. Luckily, it’s not hard to navigate around the Five Lakes so it was a stress free and amazing day seeing Fuji from many different angles.

Day 3

A free day to checkout Tokyo using the Metro system. We managed to see Harajuku where the young Japanese like to hang out with all their funky and weird dressing styles and we also went to nearby Yoyogi Park and got a glimpse of a Shinto Wedding in Meiji Jingu Shrine.

We then headed to the famous crossing in Shibuya and went to eat some food, today it was Tonkatsu on the menu.

That night, we decided to explore the hotel neighbourhood for some street photography and got to meet some cool Japanese guy (Keita) that decided to have a few beers with us and tell us all about Japan’s love for beer! This was a long night…

Harajuku is situated between Shinjuku and Shibuya and is on the Yamanote Metro Line. It's also within walking distance of Yoyogi Park and the Meiji Jingu Shrine.

Shinto priests in a Tokyo shrine

Day 4

Thanks to a typhoon, our plans to go to Nikko didn’t go ahead. We had to spend another day in and around the hotel in Shinjuku.

We found a nice Indian restaurant for lunch and by night we visited the tallest building in the area – the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (free admission) - for a view of the Tokyo skyline.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
Photo by Charles Postiaux on Unsplash

Day 5

Checked out of hotel and went to the airport for our flight to Seoul, South Korea. After landing in Seoul, we headed to Hongdae by the Airport Railroad Express (AREX) where we had booked an Airbnb.

After checking in and experiencing the underfloor heating, we shared a bottle of Soju and decided to go out for some of the famous Korean BBQ with all the trimmings and more Soju, yummy.

Hongdae is a good place to stay in Seoul, there are lots of bars and cheap places to eat as it's close to Hongik University.

Bottle of Soju - Korean rice drink
Photo by Eiliv-Sonas Aceron on Unsplash

Day 6

On our first full day in Seoul, we visited the Gyeongbokgung Palace for the change of guards ceremony, and from there we decided to visit the nearby National Palace Museum of Korea and strolled through Bukchon Hanok Village and Insadong.

After a long day, we found a Korean Fried Chicken restaurant to recharge the batteries then hit the bars for more Soju and had our first ever game of Beer Pong.

Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul

Day 7

On day two in Seoul, we decided to see the city using the Seoul Metro System - it’s cheap and covers most of the main sites.

We managed to cram in Changdeokgung Palace and Huwon with its astonishing gardens, Gwangjang Market and Myeongdong for some mandu (Korean dumplings).

We then finished the day at a Bulgogi restaurant for more tasty food and Soju.

Food market in Seoul
Image by tragrpx from Pixabay

Day 8

We flew back to Tokyo, picked up our Japan Rail Pass (cost: £200 for a week) and headed for Matsumoto in the Japanese Alps where we stayed in a traditional Ryokan (Inn) with futon beds and the most advanced toilet I’ve ever seen.

The Japan Rail Pass is a good way to make travel by train cheaper, there are a few options but the one we got covered the whole of Japan and also lets you use the bullet trains.

Traditional Japanese bedroom

Day 9

We picked up the hire car then went to visit Matsumoto Castle before we set off to Takayama. We stopped at Kamikochi at the Chubu Sangaku National Park for some mild hiking and to enjoy the mountain scenery. We arrived in Takayama around 18:00 only to find that all restaurants close at 17:00 so it was 7 Eleven for supper.

Matsumoto Castle is open from 8:30 till 17:00, entry costs ¥610 and is really worth a visit.

Matsumoto Castle in Matsumoto, Japan

Day 10

We strolled through Sanmachi Suji historic district visiting sake merchants and stopping for some green tea ice-cream. After having Hida beef for lunch, we headed to Hida Minzoka Mura Folk Village (Hida no Sato).

Hida Folk Village is an open air museum displaying around thirty traditional houses from the Hida region, the mountainous area around Takayama.

Hida Minzoka Mura Folk Village in Takayama, Japan

Day 11

We drove back to Matsumoto avoiding the toll road to stop at viewing points in the winding part of the road on route 158 to enjoy koyo – the autumn foliage. We dropped the car off and headed to Kyoto by Shinkansen (Bullet Train).

When we arrived in Kyoto, we checked in to Guesthouse Ga-Jyun. As it’s not cheap in Kyoto, we opted for a room with bunk beds but still a private bathroom at a cost of £50 a night.

Japanese bullet train
Image by tikisada from Pixabay

Day 12

Day trip to Nara by train: got to see the friendly deer that are all over the city and in Nara Park. We also did some sightseeing of the historical temples such as Kofukuji and its five storey pagoda, and the amazing Tōdai-ji temple and the Daibutsuden.

Nara is definitely a place you should try to get to if time and cost permit it.

We probably missed loads while we were there so checkout the Nara page on www.japan-guide.com to see where you want to visit.

Tōdai-ji temple in Nara, Japan

Day 13

Full day getting to know Kyoto, we started the day by heading to Kiyomizu-dera Temple via Higashiyama District where we bought some pottery and snacks.

From there we headed to Higashiyama Jisho-ji (the Silver Pavillion) and then walked back to our guest house which was located near the Heian Shrine while stopping at the nearby temples. We visited Hōnen-in Temple, Anrakuji Temple and walked the Philosoper’s path heading to Kōunji Temple, Kumano Nyakuōji Shrine and Eikando Temple. You have to love Kyoto.

Small temple in Kyoto
Image by Michelle Maria from Pixabay

Day 14

Checked out of guesthouse at 11:00 but left the backpack while we went to explore Kyoto for one last time. We managed to see the Kyoto Jidai Matsuri festival that was paraded through the streets and ended at the Heian Shrine where we enjoyed a stroll in the garden before we headed for the train station to get the Shinkansen to Narita, Tokyo.

On arrival to the airport hotel, we threw our bags in the room and headed for the Chinese restaurant for Noodles and Mapo Tofu before heading to bed as we had an early flight home in the morning.

Chinese food on a table