I think my obsession for Asia came from Japan. As a teenager I loved to read Japanese Manga. Japan had always been a dream and a place, I thought, it would be impossible for me to go. It seemed so foreign and so far !
When I found the internship in Vietnam and went there, then something inside me clicked. Travelling wasn't as difficult and impossible as it seemed to be. I thought that Japan was finally in reach. For the whole year in Vietnam, I did save as much as I could and this is one of my very first very detailed budget itinerary. As we travelled it, I can tell you that we were very close to it - we even spend a little less as we ate for cheaper than budgeted at times. We were student with no money then - so spending as little as possible was a must.
A few things need to be considered when you go when to go to Japan and start planning your Japan travel itinerary - last minute hotel booking and planning are not advised. Affordable options are not plenty. Also you should carefully calculate how long it is worth paying the JR Pass for: many locality pass for attractions include the nearby return train ticket from the main station nearby. (Example for Koya-san from Osaka).
In this 2 weeks japan travel itinerary, we needed to optimize the cost on travel and accommodation. We did use only the JR pass, tourist package tickets (combining attractions & transport) as well as the bus pass in Kyoto. For accommodation, we wanted a private room but we were OK sharing the bathroom. I would recommend to make good use of all the station's lockers, to avoid carrying things around on your days of travel - they are cheap and very convenient.
This is a very intense, non-stop itinerary. We didn't know at the time if we were ever going back to Asia - so this was like a once in a lifetime - I want to see all - kind of trip. Take a very good pair of shoes and be ready for long long days.
We started from Osaka, as this airport has cheaper flight and also has a train station inside it. So you can collect your JR Pass right there easily. We then went to Kyoto with the bus and started to visit all the main sights in the following days.
I can only strongly recommend to buy from the main station in Kyoto the bus pass - the buses are frequent & the bus stop easy to use. The map they provide was clear and helpful. We did all our visits by bus.
If you plan to visit the Imperial palace, it is better to get there on your first day in Kyoto to book an English guided tour in the following days. You can't visit it otherwise. The tour itself was well done and pleasant. I don't think you can book it in advance (maybe it has changed since)
In Kyoto, I particularly liked the Inari shrine. The hill is covered in these massive red doors and as you hike around ( plan at least a good 3 hours for this site) you feel small and calm. At the top of the hill, there is nice view of Kyoto. We couldn't visit Arashiyama, we didn't have enough time - it would require another half day at least.
From Kyoto we took the early morning shinkansen (included in the JR Pass) to Tokyo to visit the capital in a couple of days. The list of things to see and do in Tokyo is endless. So spend your own time online or with a guide book to isolate what is important for you. We stayed a while at Akihabara, because Alexis wanted to play arcade games. We also went to a maid café ! Did some Purikura photo (apparently this is a girl stuff, you can even rent costumes ! ) . Then we visited all main area and walked through Ueno park.
From Tokyo, we didn't know if we wanted to go to see Mt Fuji or Hakone. These are popular area to easily visit from Tokyo by train. But Alexis wanted to see the grave of the first Shogun in Nikko. Therefore we headed north and enjoyed some fresh air. Nikko sits in altitude in a leafy mountain side. The Shogun grave complex is a little walk up in a forest and is a great site to visit. The temples of the complex are colorful and quite unique in their architecture. There was not much foreign tourists, mainly Japanese tourists.
From nikko, you can take a bus (about 1 hour) up the mountain to an altitude lake with a beautiful waterfall. The bus ride itself is very scenic !
In Nikko, we enjoyed the Ginzo walk, it is a short walk along the river where Ginzo statues are aligned along the path. It shouldn't take more than an hour and is quite flat. On the way back to nikko, we stopped and visited the botanical garden. This garden is not usual, it doesn't have all the boards that explains about botanics. It is more an organized garden that seems like its wild... it is well done, in the end you are just taking a walk into a beautiful piece of nature.
From Nikko, we did a big marathon transport day to Hiroshima transiting through Tokyo. The shinkansen is great for this and very comfortable. The JR Pass was very well amortized for sure !
Hiroshima is a pleasant city to walk through - it has a small town vibe. We visited the Atomic Bomb museum which leaves you a very uneasy feeling and a pit in your stomach. It is worth visiting, they don't spare a single horrib video or photos - so you can realize the devastation and pain. The memorial park is also an interesting place to walk around.
From Hiroshima, we visited Miyajima island. Get ready for some good hiking, the place is rather small but you can walk through, small rivers, nice village pathways and temples. In a good sunny day, this is a great outing. The photo of the red arch on the water and the temple on stilts attached to it is a much visit. There was to taste barbecue (giant) oysters and the island seemed to be famous for red bean filled small cakes that tasted great.
After Hiroshima we moved through Osaka to Koya-san mountain. There we experienced a temple stay and visited the UNESCO sites. The cemetery Okuno-in is a humbling hike - there is some kind of heavy feeling there, you half expect to see a ghost. The temples themselves were beautiful to see. What is also well worth is the train ride at the side of the mountain with the view and the cable car up to the temple complex ! Finding a temple there is not difficult, however finding one that allows you to attend the 6 am ceremony isn't. we found one and were made welcome, the food is quite special. I am not sure it would be for everyone's liking, we enjoyed it.
We skipped visiting Osaka and flew out of Japan after Koya-san. Osaka was to be for another time. ( I did visit it alone on a company trip a couple of years later ).