Planning a Trip to Japan | First Trip Travel Guide

crowds in front of Senso-ji Temple in Tokyo Japan
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Japan’s very much a bucket list location for many people, myself included! Planning a first-time visit to Japan can be a bit daunting because there are so many incredible places to see. This post has everything you need to know to plan your own trip to Japan


Booking a trip to Japan is something that probably gets you excited, sparks a little bit of worry and a whole lot of anticipation. I always thought of it as somewhere different. You know, the type with a capital D.

The language is tough. There’s an entire culture that’s almost impossible for an outsider to decipher. In Japan, they call it tatemae. A word almost without English translation, it’s a way of describing the Japanese way of trying not to ruffle any feathers.

I would be terrible at being Japanese.

That being said, I adore visiting Japan. I’ve spent 6 weeks in the country and barely scratched the surface.

There always seem to be more places I want to visit and more crazy things to do in Japan!

The juxtaposition of ancient and modern in Japan is absolutely fascinating, and your first visit is really only going to be enough to get a taste of this complex country.

On my first visit to Japan, the country felt very foreign to me, as I think it may well do to you. I feel as though every trip here is a chance to learn a little bit more about what makes Japanese culture so interesting.

Whether you’re just dreaming about your first visit or you’re about to book your flights, here’s everything I’ve learned about how to plan a trip to Japan. From where to go, where to stay and what to do, it’s all here!

Crowds of people in front of the red and white Senso-ji temple in Tokyo
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JAPAN ESSENTIALS

Currency: Yen ¥

Language: Japanese

Money: Cash is king, with credit cards less widely accepted, especially outside cities

Visit: in spring, fall and winter

Transport: train between cities and car to explore the countryside

Electricity: 100V with A and B plugs

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How to plan a trip to Japan


Where is Japan?

You’ll find Japan in Northeast Asia, surrounded by the Pacific Ocean.

Interestingly, Japan is actually a string of volcanic islands. The four main islands that form most of the country are Hokkaido in the north, Honshu – the biggest and the location of the capital, Tokyo – Shikoku and Kyushu in the south.

Red torii gates lead the way uphill at Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto
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Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto

Further south still are the Ryukyu islands, one of which is Okinawa. This is very much the tropical part of Japan.

If you’re of a nervous disposition, then you might want to bear in mind that Japan is one of the most geologically unstable places on the planet since it lies right above the boundaries of several of Earth’s major tectonic plates.

There are nearly 126 million people in Japan, and 14 million of those live in the city of Tokyo.

Why it’s important to plan your first trip to Japan in advance

The statistics tell us that most tourists are going to end up on the traditional Golden Route of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s what I did on my first visit, and I recommend that it’s what you do too.

You’ll get a great first taste of Japan, from the high-tech, high-rise, high-energy streets of Tokyo to the gentler pace of historic Kyoto and foodie Osaka. It’s a great 2-week itinerary for first-time visitors to the country.

The golden Kinkaku-ji temple reflected in a still pond in Kyoto Japan
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Kinkaku-ji Pavilion in Kyoto
People light incense and pray in front of Zenko-ji Temple in Nagano Japan
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Zenko-ji Temple in Nagano

Of course, the fact that it’s one of the most popular routes means it gets busy. Accommodations and activities do get booked out, especially at the most popular times of the year, like cherry blossom season.

The earlier you plan your trip to Japan, the earlier you can start booking accommodation, transport options and activities. This means you won’t miss out on something awesome, and you’ll probably save money too.

Especially on flights which, quite frankly, are eye-watering right now if you’re looking last minute. 

When is the best time to visit Japan? 

I love Japan in the winter. The skiing is amazing, the historic towns look like something out of a fairytale, and you’ll have the streets almost to yourself for much of the time. Even in Tokyo, there are noticeably fewer tourists.

Having said that, I’m aware that below-zero temperatures and winter sports aren’t for everyone, so you’ll probably want to know the best time to go to Japan month by month.

Spring in Japan | Cherry Blossom Season

This is hands down, the most popular time for tourists to visit Japan. Plum and cherry trees burst into flower as spring arrives, covering many cities in Japan with a cloak of pale pink and white.

Cherry blossom above a statue of a bull in Kyoto
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Blossom at a Kyoto temple
Sunlight on the cherry blossoms in Kanazawa Japan
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Blossom in Kanazawa

You need to plan well in advance for travel to Japan during cherry blossom season, especially for accommodation, but it’s well worth it.

In the south, the cherry blossoms may start to appear as early as late February, and in the north, the season can last until early May. For the main tourist destinations of Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo, you’re best planning your trip for the end of March and the beginning of April.

TIP | Peak cherry blossom view in Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo is usually during the last 2 weeks of March and the first two weeks of April. You can check last year’s dates here.

This is, unfortunately, the most expensive and busiest time to visit Japan, but then again, it’s a beautiful experience even with the crowds!

Delicate cherry blossom beginning to flower in Tokyo
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Cherry blossom in Tokyo

If you’re planning a slightly later visit, you need to be aware of Golden Week. This is a series of festivals within the space of a week that essentially lead to a week of public holidays. Golden Week is from 29 April to 5 May every year and should be avoided.

Summer in Japan | Typhoon Season

The summer months in Japan are hot, humid and wet. The good news is that you’ll see a very different side of the country, with far fewer tourists and lush green fields, but the humidity can be hard to handle. Typhoons and flash flooding are also a risk at this time of year.

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June heralds the start of the rains and humidity, and this weather sticks around until September. If you’re a dedicated off-season traveller, you can find great deals, but you might be best off focusing on beachside, higher altitude or northern destinations where it’ll be significantly cooler.

Having said all that, July and August are the best time to climb Mount Fuji, hang out on Japan’s beaches and experience some beautiful festivals in Japan.

Autumn in Japan | Fall Foliage

This is probably the second most popular time to visit Japan as the beautiful fall foliage begins to blanket the country. Japanese maples are everywhere, and they turn brilliant shades of red and orange. 

There are Autumn festivals held throughout the country, and you should definitely try to experience one if you’re planning a trip at this time of year. Festivals are popular with the Japanese too, so book your accommodation as soon as you’ve found a festival you’d like to attend.

Winter in Japan | Ski Season

I think winter is a great time to visit Japan.

The skiing is fabulous, with some of the best powder in the world. I’ve skied in both Hakuba and Niseko and absolutely loved them. One of the best things about the ski areas is that most of them are located near hot springs, so you can ski and onsen all on the same day.

A ski lodge in Niseko Japan
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The snow starts in late November and usually sticks around until March, with peak ski season in late January and February. A later trip in mid-March can still provide excellent snow conditions with the added bonus of a possible appearance of cherry blossom at the end of your visit.

Between Christmas and New Year, most of Japan is on holiday, so it can be hard to organise activities or eat out at this time. Transportation will also be packed with locals heading off on their own holidays.

A chair lift in Hakuba Japan
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Mount Fuji as seen from the Shibuya Sky in Tokyo Japan
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For the best chance of seeing the peak of Mount Fuji, this is the time to visit, with a 77% chance of clear skies in the winter months. I, of course, showed up on one of the days when she was shrouded in fog, but it’s a good excuse for yet another trip!

Do you need a visa to visit Japan?

If you’re a citizen of these 68 countries (the UK, USA, Canada, NZ, Australia and most of Europe included), then you won’t need to obtain a visa prior to arrival in Japan. You’ll be issued a visa on arrival at passport control. This will be valid for tourism purposes for up to 90 days.

If your nationality isn’t on the above list, you’ll need to look here to see what’s required prior to travelling to Japan.

Regardless of whether you need to get a visa in advance, you need at least 6 months of validity remaining on your passport from the time of your arrival in Japan.

By law, foreigners in Japan are required to carry their passports with them at all times. It’s a super safe country, so you shouldn’t worry. Make a hard copy and take a photo of the ID page of your passport and relevant visas to have on your phone and in your hotel room.

How to Plan your Japan Itinerary

I know that creating your own itinerary for Japan can seem totally overwhelming. You can totally use one of my Japan itineraries, but if you want to create your own, here are some pointers.

Why do you want to visit Japan?

I’m sure you’ve got a reason why you want to go to Japan. For me, it was skiing and the promise of authentic Japanese food. For you, it’s probably something completely different.

First of all, decide if there’s something or somewhere that you’ve been dreaming of seeing. If you’re desperate to see the cherry blossom, you won’t be happy unless you plan your trip for late March to mid-April. 

Crowds of people at Shibuya Scramble Crossing in Tokyo Japan
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Shibuya Scramble Crossing in Tokyo

If you hate crowds and love history, you’ll probably want to create a trip outside peak season that focuses more on the ancient cities of Japan.

Whether the draw is anime and cosplay or temples and shrines, you really can create an itinerary that’s perfect for you if you take a little bit of time to research.

What’s your budget for a trip to Japan?

Not to be a dick, but can you actually afford the trip you want to have in Japan? 

It’s possible to visit Japan on a strict budget, but you’ll almost certainly have to make some compromises with your accommodation and activities.

I truly don’t think it’s worth going to Japan if you have to miss out on things you’re desperate to do. It’ll mean you get home slightly unsatisfied and wondering why.

A baby Japanese macaque monkey on the side of the hot spring at Jigokudani monkey park in Japan
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Jigokudani Monkey Park
A man walks through Takayama's historic Sanmachi Suji district in Japan
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Takayama’s Old Town

Work out what your “must-see” and “must-do” experiences are and find out how much they cost. Then factor in accommodation and transport costs and ask yourself if you’d be better off saving a little longer to have the trip you really want rather than the one you can have right now.

It’s almost always better to wait.

As a rough idea, here’s what you need depending on your style of travel:

  • Budget: under ¥8000 daily (approx US$60)
  • Mid-range: ¥8000 to ¥18000 per day (US$60-$125)
  • High-end: over ¥18000 daily (US$125)

Free time

One of the most common things I see when people are planning a trip to Japan is that they fill their itinerary with activities. 

Rushing from one place to another without allowing time for any flexibility means you’re going to come home from your holiday feeling like you need another holiday to recover!

How many days in Japan?

I’ve seen Japan visits that are a mere 6 days. That’s really not much time, and my honest opinion is that it’s impossible to truly get under the skin of a country in such a short visit. I think most people would find that’s not enough time to see everything they want anyway.

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Praying at the temple
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Shrine statues

You could get a tiny taste of Japan in 10 days, but I think that 14 day Japan itinerary is really the minimum for a decent first-time visit.

For me, anything less than 3 nights in one place is pushing it in terms of my enjoyment since I don’t like having to pack and unpack constantly. 

I enjoy wandering the streets of a place to get a feel for it, usually have a list of cultural experiences and foodie spots to last me several weeks, and I simply significantly prefer slow travel.

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Shibuya Scramble in Tokyo

If you can spare more time, then 3 or more weeks will mean that you can explore from north to south and also have time to get off the beaten path to some lesser-explored areas of Japan!

Where to go in Japan

While I thoroughly recommend getting off the beaten track, Japan can be daunting for the first-time visitor. The culture is very different to what many of us are used to, and the language barrier is real.

The major cities in Japan are more adapted for foreign tourism, and you’ll find them easier to navigate, especially if it’s your first visit and you’re exploring independently.

Equally, some of the smaller cities and towns offer a totally different experience. 

Wooden fronted house and shop fronts in the historic heart of Kanazawa in Japan
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Kanazawa Historic District

Sleepy morning streets that come alive with music in the evenings to serenade workers returning home. Amazing onsen (hot springs) to relax in while the snow tumbles down around you. Sake festivals and some of the world’s best beer.

History lessons that should never be forgotten.

Here are some of my recommendations for a first-time trip to Japan:

Tokyo

Obviously, I’m not going to leave the capital off the list, and neither should you!

Tokyo is vast, vibrant and fun. There are so many things to do in Japan’s biggest city. Home to 40 million people, it’s the biggest metropolis on Earth!

A red and white radio tower surrounded by skyscrapers in Tokyo Japan
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The Tokyo Tower
Crowds of people fill Takeshita Street in Harajuku Tokyo Japan
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Harajuku Japan

You’ll find Senso-ji (Japan’s oldest temple in the historic Asakusa district), Harajuku (the cosplay capital), Yoyogi park (amazing cherry blossoms) and the best sushi restaurant I’ve ever been to in my life. And that’s just the beginning.

There are several great day trips that you can take from Tokyo, including Hakone and Mount Fuji (no explanation needed), Kawagoe and Kamakura (great for history lovers) and Nagano (where you’ll find the snow monkeys).

A Japanese macaque aka snow monkey bathing in the hot springs at Jigokudani monkey park in Nagano Japan
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A snow monkey bathing in the hot pools at Jigokudani

Osaka

The undisputed foodie capital of Japan is a fabulous place to sample all things Japanese food with a side of culture. Head to the Dotonburi district to try takoyaki octopus balls, okonomiyaki savoury pancakes or the famous fugu puffer fish.

A man frying takoyaki octopus balls at a street stall in Osaka Japan
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Takoyaki stall in Osaka
A massive red octopus hangs over a takoyaki stall in Osaka Japan
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Octopus on the menu in Osaka

Once you’ve eaten yourself to a standstill, you can visit temples and shrines or take a couple of day trips outside the city. It’s easy to get to both Nara, the ancient capital more famous for its deer park, Hiroshima and Miyajima from Osaka.

Kyoto

The ancient capital of Japan is possibly the closest you’ll come to the country’s spiritual heartland. Almost a third of Japan’s population visits Kyoto every year

It’s here you’ll find the famous Fushimi Inari shrine, the Gion geisha district, beautiful Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) and enough temples to keep you busy for days. Kyoto is an amazing city to experience Japan’s cultural heritage.

People wander the streets of Gion in Kyoto Japan
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The streets of Gion in Kyoto

From Kyoto, it’s easy to take day trips to Nara, the ancient Himeji castle or Arashiyama, where you’ll find that Insta-famous bamboo grove and the Iwatayama monkey park.

Hiroshima & Miyajima

One of the most moving places in Japan, if not the world, I really think that Hiroshima deserves a spot on every first-time Japan itinerary. The Peace Memorial Park and Museum aren’t easy places to visit, but I truly believe that the more people that experience them, the less likely we are to repeat the mistakes of the past.

A large concrete memorial arch with a statue of a child on the top at Hiroshima's Children's Memorial
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Hiroshima Children’s Memorial
A deer peeks around the corner of a flight of stairs in Miyajima Japan
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Cheeky deer at Miyajima

Miyajima makes a lighter counterpoint to the intensity of Hiroshima, with cute map-eating deer and the beautiful floating Torii gate.

TIP | Make sure to visit Miyajima at high tide around sunset for the best experience.

Takayama

Hands down one of my favourite places in Japan; there’s a whole host of things to do in Takayama. The historic Sanmachi Suji district is glorious, there are cool museums, a great morning market and an annual sake festival.

Grass roofed houses next to a lake in the Hida Folk Village near Takayama Japan
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Hida Folk Village near Takayama

Just on the outskirts of the city, you’ll find the fascinating Hida folk village, a collection of historic houses that have been relocated here from all over the region.

It’s a particularly special place to visit if you’re planning a Japan trip over the winter months.

Kanazawa

Boasting 3 beautifully preserved Edo-period districts, Kanazawa definitely deserves serious consideration on your Japan itinerary. You’ll find amazing seafood, incredible history and fabulous modern art museums in the city.

A wooden street front in Kanazawa Japan
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Kanazawa
Trees reflected in a pond a Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa Japan
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Kenrokuen Garden

There’s the stunning Kenrokuen garden, considered one of the finest in Japan. You can wander the samurai district, visiting historic residences before exploring the fascinating Ninja Temple, where you’ll see ingenious defences and secret passages.

Sapporo

This city in Hokkaido doesn’t often make it onto the itinerary of first-time visitors to Japan, but if you’re a skier and planning a winter visit to Niseko, spending some time in Sapporo is a must. 

The Sapporo beer factory in Japan - a red brick building with green roof in the snow
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Sapporo Brewery

There’s a beer factory, a chocolate factory, a Ferris wheel on the roof of a department store and one of the most incredible ice sculpture exhibitions in the world. You’ll also find Sapporo’s very own Fushimi Inari shrine in the city.

Take a day trip to Noboribetsu, aka Hell Valley, and see what fun the devils have soaking in some of the best onsens in Japan.

A smiling stone devil statue warning of hot steam in Noboribetsu Onsen Japan
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A little devil in Noboribetsu Onsen
Red, ochre and green sulphur stained hills covered in snow in Noboribetsu Onsen Japan
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Hell Valley in Noboribetsu Onsen

First day in Japan

I like to use my first day to orient myself to a new place, and my favourite way to do this is by taking either a food tour or a walking tour of the city. 

Obviously, this only works if your first day involves a morning or lunchtime arrival.

Small plates of food prepared for a multi-course Kaiseki meal in Japan
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Kaiseki meal at a traditional Japanese ryokan

Bear in mind that most accommodation in Japan only guarantees a 3 pm check-in, but almost all hotels will hold your luggage until then. That allows you to have almost a full day of exploring luggage-free before your official first day!

If you’re arriving in Japan in the afternoon or evening, then it’s likely to be relatively late by the time you get to your accommodation. I advise finding a restaurant near your hotel that takes reservations so you don’t need to wander around. Then get a good night’s sleep before making an early start the following day.

Getting to Japan

Once you’ve decided which areas and cities you want to visit, you can work out how to get to Japan.

Options will vary – the United States and Europe tend to have limited options for direct flights, with Oceania and Asia giving more choices. 

Arriving in Tokyo by taxi with a view of the Tokyo Skytower through the front windshield
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The Tokyo Skytree
The back of a taxi in Kyoto with an orange sunset sky
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Sunset in Kyoto

Although it can be tempting to look for the best deal, I really recommend flying direct to Japan if at all possible. This isn’t always possible, depending on your point of origin, but the most direct flight is always best.

You’re looking at around a 10-hour direct flight to Toyko from LA, Sydney and Auckland.

From NYC and London, it’s closer to 14 hours.

Which airport should you choose?

There are several international airports in Japan, and you may have more than one choice of direct flight.

It’s also worth considering flying into one city and out of another so that you can maximise your time in Japan.

Tokyo airports

As the capital, Tokyo does tend to receive the highest number of international flights. You’ve got a choice of 2 airports for your arrival – Narita and Haneda.

Arriving in Japan to views over the city
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The Tokyo Skytree towers over the Tokyo Skyline

Haneda airport is considerably closer to downtown Tokyo so, in my opinion, the better option if available.

If you’re transiting through Tokyo on your way to another location in Japan, then be aware that

  1. The 2 different airports in Tokyo are FAR away from each other. It’s 80km between Narita and Haneda airports, and it’ll take a minimum of an hour to transfer.
  2. You’ll need to collect your luggage and clear customs prior to boarding your domestic flight in Japan

Budget your transit time accordingly. Even at the same airport, you may find that it’s a considerable distance between terminals.

I’d allow at least 3 hours with the current state of air travel for a domestic transfer at the same airport. Add 90 minutes for a connecting flight across the city.

Osaka & Kyoto airports

If you’re planning a trip starting or ending in Osaka or Kyoto, then you want to see what’s available at Kansai airport on the outskirts of Osaka.

Nagoya

Chubu International Airport outside Nagoya is also a good option for a Golden Route (Tokyo-Osaka-Kyoto) loop trip. Virtually all the cities mentioned above have a rail link through Nagoya, making it an easy hub to start and return to.

Sapporo

On the northernmost island of Hokkaido is Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport. It’s your best bet if you’re planning a winter visit for skiing in Niseko.

Southern Japan

If you’re really wanting to do something different, then it’s worth considering a trip to Japan’s south. There’s Kyushu, the southernmost of the main islands of Japan and Okinawa, a cluster of islands sitting between Japan and Taiwan in the East China Sea.

Fukuoka airport on Kyushu primarily connects the island with other Asian hubs such as Singapore, Seoul, Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai. Naha International on Okinawa also connects the islands with mainland Asia.

How to get around Japan

The best way to travel in Japan, hands down, is by using public transport. It’s punctual and easy to use. The bullet train (shinkansen) is an incredible machine that covers long distances at up to 320km/h. They’re a great way to travel.

The Japan Rail Pass

If you’re planning a first visit to Japan, then you’ve almost certainly read about the JR pass. It’s essentially a pre-paid train voucher that you can use for travel on the vast majority of Japan Rail trains.

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I’ve found that it works out to be more cost-effective than purchasing individual tickets for all the itineraries in Japan that I’ve taken. However, there are some things to consider before deciding if the JR pass is worth it for you.

The pass comes in 7, 14, and 21-day validities, with a fixed price for each duration. Once it’s activated and used for the first train trip, that validity starts and is for consecutive days.

Try to group your travel into a 7-day or 14-day window once you activate the pass, or you’ll have to purchase individual tickets anyway.

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You need to buy the pass in advance, and a voucher gets delivered to your home. You then activate it once in Japan by visiting the JR counter at the train station. 

TIP | Don’t forget your voucher or lose your JR pass once it’s activated. You’ll have to purchase new tickets regardless of whether you have receipts and proof of purchase. And yes, this is the voice of experience.

This isn’t everything you need to know about purchasing a JR pass, but a quick step-by-step summary to help you if you’re planning your own itinerary:

  1. Establish what Japanese cities you want to visit
  2. Check what train routes are available to you – some will take longer than others and may require more changes, so pick the best option for you.
  3. Write down the cost
  4. Add the cost up and then compare to the JR pass options, which are as follows: 7, 14 and 21-day passes. Check the current prices here.
  5. Make sure that travel includes only routes that are included in the JR pass – as a first-time visitor, the only lines that might catch you out are the Nozomi or Mizuho superfast trains, which are not included.
  6. Most importantly, if you do decide that you want to use one, order it well in advance, as it will get delivered to your home.
  7. If your suitcase has combined dimensions of >160cm, then you need to reserve a seat in advance in the oversized baggage area of the train. This is included in the price of your pass.

It’s also worth familiarising yourself with some of the private rail lines where your JR pass won’t be valid. You can easily purchase single fares for these local trains for an extra cost at the station.

Transport within Japanese cities

There’s fantastic public transport in all the major cities in Japan. You usually have a choice of metro (subway), tram and bus. You can purchase individual tickets, but my advice is to buy an IC card when you arrive if you’re planning to use public transport.

TIP | The tap-and-go system you’re used to with your credit cards in the UK, USA, Australia, NZ and many other parts of the world uses an EMV-compatible chip. In Japan, they primarily use FeliCa, which is Japan-only and means your card chip won’t register.

The IC cards have different names in different cities, but they all do basically the same thing. You put down a deposit (usually ¥500) and preload the card with a certain amount which gets gradually deducted as you use it.

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There are tourist versions of the cards available in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto that don’t usually require a deposit. You can read all about IC cards here. Buy them at all subway and train stations in the city and reload them as needed.

Car hire in Japan

Japan is a country where I don’t automatically start looking for a rental car at the time of planning my trip. Unless you want to head out into rural areas, there’s really no need to drive. 

Most of the country is very well connected with public transportation links, and a little bit of advance planning is all you need to ensure that you don’t need a car.

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My general advice for every country is not to drive in major cities unless you live there or it’s absolutely unavoidable. Cities are usually the most stressful places for tourists to drive, and you significantly increase your risks of receiving a fine or getting into an accident.

If you do decide to drive in Japan, you’ll need to have an International Driving Permit issued before you travel. If your driving licence is from Belgium, France, Germany, Monaco, Switzerland or Taiwan, you must get your license translated into Japanese at a Japanese Auto (JAF) centre.

Navigating in Japan

Google maps is honestly all you’re going to need. Not only will you get all the transport options with route breakdowns, but also the price range for your trip. This can be really helpful in deciding whether the JR pass is an investment you should make.

Types of Accommodation in Japan

There are some quirks when it comes to accommodation in Japan that it’s a good idea to know about. 

The major one is regarding non-smoking rooms. Particularly in smaller business hotels, it’s not uncommon for your non-smoking room to have been a smoking room for the previous guest.

Unless you really enjoy the smell of stale cigarettes permeating everything you own, make sure that the entire hotel is non-smoking.

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I recommend booking your accommodation in Japan as soon as you’ve mapped out your itinerary. This will ensure you get the best deals and the widest choice. 

Other things to bear in mind:

  • Rooms are likely to be significantly smaller than you might be used to, especially in cities and even with brands you know well. 
  • Some accommodation charges a per-guest fee rather than a per-room fee, so make sure you know which you’re getting. 
  • Expect to be charged an onsen tax in accommodation that provides use of onsen facilities
  • Traditional accommodations may not have private bathrooms, and you’ll be using shared facilities. In my experience, these are single-sex.
  • Many smaller establishments will only take cash payments on-site. Check in advance and withdraw cash in bigger centres prior to your arrival
  • It’s fairly common for hotels to be able to make arrangements to forward your luggage to your next destination. Great for ski season!

Japan is a place where it pays to know what your options are, and you should always, always read the reviews.

Ryokans

My absolute favourite of all the accommodation options in Japan. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, often family-run, and a great place to get a taste of the more historical side of Japan. 

TIP | Ryokans usually charge per person and are less likely than chain hotels to have English-speaking staff. I’ve never found this to be an issue since you can always use a translation app to communicate.

There will often be a Japanese-style kaiseki multi-course breakfast and dinner provided, full of interesting flavours. You’ll usually get to experience futon-style sleeping, shared bathing Japanese style or onsen hot pools, and they’re full of locals.

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Ryokans are, for me, the best place to stay in Japan, and I’d base my entire visit around staying in them if my budget allowed!

TIP | If you have back or mobility problems, then this is not a good option for you since the sleeping mats are on the floor and dining is often done in your room at a low table with seats or cushions on the floor.

You may also come across minshuku, which are sort of like a budget hotel version of a ryokan’s high-end. You’ll get similar accommodation and breakfast, but there’s usually no onsen, and you’ll share bathing and dining facilities.

Shukubo

These are lodgings in temples and shrines around the country. You’ll sleep Japanese-style, and usually, vegetarian food is included with your room. You can usually join prayer time and meditations, regardless of your faith.

Although not always situated in the most convenient places, shukubo are one of the really unique experiences to have in Japan.

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Capsule hotels

These can be great if you’re on a budget but are less good if you’ve got a lot of luggage. They’re exactly what they sound like, little capsule bedroom areas that are separated by curtains or screens. The degree of soundproofing can vary, but I’ve always found the sleeping areas to be extremely quiet in the evenings.

Capsule hotels are great for solo travelers and a lot of them offer really great value for money when you consider the location.

Business hotels

These are intended to cater for Japanese business travelers, usually men. My experience in them hasn’t been great. Although they tend to be a good option for price, their non-smoking policy is often non-existent, and many of those I’ve stayed in have reeked of stale smoke.

I’m not saying avoid them entirely; they’re often in great locations right beside major train stations, but do your research before you book. Rooms are usually small but offer Western-style bedding, private bathrooms and often have a restaurant attached. 

Hostels

These are great for budget travelers, particularly if you’re traveling Japan as a solo female, as there are many women-only hostels in Japan. Others are segregated by floors. Some are more similar in theme to capsule hotels, with little cubicles you separate off with a curtain.

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The amount of privacy you get varies, as with any hostel, but they’re usually very clean, more consideration is given to privacy, and they’re extremely affordable.

Large hotels

Every city in Japan, regardless of size, will usually have some sort of chain hotel, be it local or international. All the major brands have a presence here. These are where you can be certain of Western-style beds, private bathrooms and breakfasts catering for the tastes you’re used to.

Some of these hotels do retain a little more Japanese flavour with the possibility of using shared bathhouse facilities, onsen and traditional Japanese breakfast foods.

Things to do on your First Visit to Japan

Let your imagination run wild – if you can think of it, Japan can probably deliver it. Whether it’s a pilgrimage to ancient Buddhist monasteries or a visit to a robot hotel, there’s a multitude of things to do in Japan.

Here’s a quick sample of just some of the popular experiences you can have in Japan:

Traditional Japanese Experiences

  • Stay in a traditional ryokan
  • Bathe in an onsen
  • Watch a sumo match
  • Participate in a tea ceremony
  • Make your own gold leaf chopsticks
  • Do a sake tasting
  • Embark on a traditional pilgrimage route
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Modern Japanese Experiences

  • Stay in a robot hotel
  • Visit teamLab PLANETS
  • Watch the mesmerising dance of the Shibuya crossing
  • Travel through Japan using the high-speed, high-tech bullet train
  • Go up the Tokyo Skytree
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Nature Experiences in Japan

  • Visit the snow monkeys
  • Watch the migrating cranes in snow-covered Hokkaido
  • Visit Mt. Fuji
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NOTE | If you decide that you’d like to visit an animal cafe in Japan, I highly recommend making sure that there is a neutering and adoption policy in place at your chosen venue. Remember that wild animals aren’t meant to be kept for our entertainment when you’re reading about owl or hedgehog cafes. I strongly recommend avoiding these.

Tickets you should buy in advance

Apart from the JR pass, there are a few other activities that you should purchase your tickets for in advance. Some because they allow you to skip the line, some because you get a better deal and some because you can only purchase them before you arrive in Japan.

I recommend buying tickets to the following as soon as possible:

Universal Studios | Just outside Osaka, this is a great stop if you’re a fan of theme parks and/or Harry Potter! It’s usually busy with long queues, so I recommend purchasing an Express Pass so that you can skip all those lines.

Sumo Wrestling Tournaments | Nationwide

These happen every other month, starting in January, and they’re one of the most popular things to do in Japan, both for tourists and locals. You can check the schedule here to see if there’s one taking place during your visit and when the tickets go on sale.

If you can’t make it to a tournament (they’re insanely popular and sell out almost immediately), then you can buy tickets to see training sessions. These happen daily in Tokyo and are a unique experience enabling you to see these athletes up close.

Food Tour | Osaka

Osaka is the undisputed food capital of Japan, so there’s really no better place to go on a food tour. This option includes 10 local food samples, local craft beer, and a visit to the neighbourhoods and hidden gems of Osaka that you’d simply never get to see otherwise. Highly recommended.

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Tea Ceremony | Kyoto

If you want to experience a full Japanese tea ceremony, then this activity in Kyoto is what you should book. There’s also an option for you to wear the traditional kimono, which makes for an even more authentic experience. 

Japanese cooking class | Tokyo

Sato’s cooking class is hosted in his own apartment, and you’ll be cooking food that’s what he makes and eats day to day. This is an incredible opportunity to learn about Japanese cuisine with a local and one of the best activities in Tokyo for foodies!

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teamLab Planets | Tokyo

From the same digital design team as teamLab Borderless, this immersive art experience will take you through waterfalls of fire, lakes of colour and gardens full of 3D flowers. It’s an incredible place to visit and will be open through the end of 2023. Note that the original Borderless exhibition has now closed.

Shibuya Sky | Tokyo

If you’ve heard of it, then you might be wondering where the best place to see the Shibuya Crossing is. This is definitely one of them. Built over several floors with observation galleries and incredible views over the Tokyo skyline, the Shibuya Sky sells out in advance, so it’s worth booking once you know your dates.

Japanese food

I think that trying local food specialities is one of the best ways to learn things about a culture. The Japanese kaiseki method of serving a meal with multiple small courses is one of my favourite ways to eat. 

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You’ll probably be familiar with sushi and ramen, but there’s a huge variety of other food and drink you should try while you’re there. One of the best ways to sample lots of different foods in a short space of time is by taking a food tour, and I try to do one early in my visit to a new country.

Japanese Food on the Go

One of the most important things you need to know before you start grabbing a to-go meal is that, in Japan, you don’t eat and walk.

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Food is something to be savoured, chopsticks are the main utensil, and even if you’re having street food, there’s always somewhere to sit. Embrace the slow life and snack like the Japanese – at a little stool watching the world go by.

Convenience Stores

If you’re in a hurry or just want to grab something small, then you might be surprised to learn that convenience stores are one of the best places in Japan to grab a quick bite. They’re all over the place, and you’ll find really good sushi and other snack food.

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They’re reasonably priced, great if you’re on a budget, and you can always find a coffee. Although I don’t vouch for the quality. In my opinion, 7-Eleven has the best (worst) coffee, with Family Mart and Lawson being on a (sub)par.

Vending Machines

Again, they’re everywhere, and they stock everything. Hamburgers, eggs, ramen, bread, fish or bananas – find them in a vending machine.

I wouldn’t plan your entire meal around them, but it’s a fun novelty to be able to get your mid-morning snack from a machine on the street. Obviously, there are loads that just dispense drinks too.

You’ll usually find a bench next to any that supplies food because, see above, we don’t walk and eat.

Bento Boxes

If you’re taking the train, then you simply must try ekiben bento boxes. They’re a special train bento box that’s specifically created to showcase regional specialities. You can only purchase them at train stations across the country, and they’re something really unique to each area of Japan.

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If you’re worried that you might miss out because you’re not visiting that many regions, don’t panic. Just head to Ekiben-ya Matsuri at Tokyo station, where you’ll find ekiben from all over the country.

They’ve even got self-heating bento boxes!

Food to try in Japan

Many of these will be familiar, but you’ll probably find that the Japanese version is radically different to what you’ve tried previously. Unless you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with Japanese ex-pats who’ve opened a restaurant. 

In which case, please drop me a line!

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Things you should definitely eat in Japan are:

  • Sushi in all its forms
  • Ramen, especially in the winter months where a bowl of ramen is like a hug in a bowl
  • Okonomiyaki savoury pancakes will be cooked on a hotplate as you watch and served steaming
  • Tempura anything. Until you’ve tried tempura in Japan, you don’t know how light something deep-fried can truly be.

There are other specialities that require a slightly more adventurous palate, such as the takoyaki octopus balls and beef sushi. Basically, google regional specialities and then seek them out!

Staying connected in Japan

In my experience, it’s far better to get a local SIM card in Japan than rely on your home plan. On my most recent trip, I bought a SIM at the airport and was connected for my entire visit, whereas the friend I was travelling with never got reception on her home plan.

The best place to get a SIM is on arrival at the airport. You’ll easily find kiosks selling tourist SIM cards, and they’ll help you to get everything set up before you even leave the building.

If you’ve got a compatible phone, then it’s well worth taking a look at eSIM options. I’ve recently started using these instead, and they’re a game changer. I’ve used Holafly, which was great, and have also heard really good things about Airalo.

You can also pre-purchase a pocket wifi which is what I did on my first trip to Japan. It’s great if you’re travelling with other people (or even if you’re wanting to work on the trains) since you can connect multiple devices to a single hotspot.

Electricity in Japan

Japan works on 100V electricity which is similar to the United States and about half of what most of the rest of the world uses. 

In real terms, this means that almost every appliance from the US will work fine in Japan, but you may need to be more careful with electronics from elsewhere.

The vast majority of what you’ll take as a tourist (camera/phone/laptop) will be multi-voltage compatible and, therefore, fine. If you want to take hair straighteners or a hairdryer, check the plug – if it doesn’t say 100-240V and instead is only 220-240V, it won’t work, and you’re better off buying when you arrive if you really can’t do without!

As an aside, Akihabara is the best district in Tokyo for electronics stores.

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Money in Japan

I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but for a technologically forward-thinking country, Japan has been pretty resistant to getting rid of its cash culture!

Carry Cash in Japan

Cash is absolutely king in many places in Japan, especially outside the big cities. Whilst it’s possible that this will change post-pandemic, I wouldn’t count on it.

You should either bring Yen (¥) with you or withdraw it as soon as possible from an ATM when you arrive. I have a multi-currency card, but you may wish to use a fee-free debit card from your own bank.

Avoid the exchange booths at the airport, as the rates are usually fairly terrible, and wait until you get into the city. You shouldn’t need cash for anything prior to your arrival at your initial hotel.

When paying with cash, you’ll see a small tray next to the till. Place your payment on the tray, and the attendant will pick it up. Take your change with both hands and usually a little head nod of thanks too.

Credit Cards in Japan

Most larger stores and hotels in cities will accept credit cards, as will many tourist-oriented activities. Importantly, American Express is often not accepted in Japan, so make sure you have a MasterCard or Visa as a backup if this is your main credit card.

TIP | Don’t choose to pay in your home currency if given the option, as you’ll usually get hit with a massive fee.

It’s worth knowing that even in stores that do take cards, there’s often a minimum spend which may be a lot more than you expect.

Tipping in Japan

There’s no tipping culture in Japan, and it’s not recommended. People are more likely to think you forgot to take your change than anything else. 

There are very few exceptions to this tipping rule. 

The first is if you’re going to stay in a ryokan with personal attendants. These are similar to a personal butler, and it’s customary to tip on arrival (not departure) with an envelope containing ¥1000 per guest.

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A private dinner with a geisha begins from the moment the first drink is poured and the toast given. At this point, it’s customary to give your envelope containing the tip (both hands!), which is usually ¥3000 per guest.

In all other situations, a token of appreciation, such as a thoughtful gift from your home or purchasing and sharing a drink or meal with your guide, might be more appreciated.

Culture & Etiquette in Japan

Most things are just common sense, but there are a few things you might encounter in Japan that are unfamiliar. They were to me on my first trip anyway!

Behaviour

By and large, being calm and polite is a way of life in Japan. Yelling will get you absolutely nowhere. Honestly, I can’t think of a situation I’ve ever encountered where it’s been necessary anyway.

Even when I was on a train that crashed into a car that had parked on the tracks, the several hundred people who turned up to sort it out never spoke in anything other than hushed tones. Possibly this is worse than shouting, but I’ve not yet found a Japanese local to confirm!

Be prepared to have people bow to you. A lot. You’ll probably start doing it back. It’s just a fact of life in Japan that takes a little getting used to.

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Taking your shoes off is very much expected when you enter a house. Traditional tatami mats are delicate, so you wear slippers inside to protect them. You’ll get used to it, but wear decent socks!

Japanese Toilets

I know, I know, you’re wondering if I’ve lost my mind. Why on earth would I be telling you about toilets?! Well, my friends, because the Japanese have Western-style toilets, but not as you know them.

They’re so much better.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been somewhere that’s reliably below zero and needed to sit on a toilet seat. It’s a bum-numbingly unpleasant experience. Not in Japan. In Japan, the toilet seats are heated.

And they clean your bum for you.

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The latter can be a bit of a shock if you’re not expecting it, and many toilets come with a remote control that’s frankly terrifying. If you don’t know what’s going on, then there’s usually toilet paper for the uninitiated.

For everyone else, though, there are little water sprouts for the front and back and even a dryer so that you don’t have to get your hands dirty at all.

It’ll revolutionise the way you think about going to the bathroom. I’m a total weirdo, but honestly, Japanese toilets are one of my favourite things about visiting. So now you know my dark secret.

Speaking Japanese

Obviously, you’re in Japan. They speak Japanese here. In some places, mostly in large tourist centres or where the staff are younger, you’ll be able to get by with English, although the standard is very variable.

TIP | Take a card from your hotel to show any drivers if you think you might need to get a taxi back since they’ll be able to read Japanese but not necessarily the English that will appear on your maps app!

The onus is, therefore, on you, the visitor, to work out how to make yourself understood beyond the language barrier!

Useful Japanese phrases:

  • Hello – Konichiwa
  • Excuse me – Sumimasen
  • Thank you – Arigatou gozaimasu
  • Do you speak English – Eigo ga hanasemasu ka

The best piece of advice I can give is to get yourself a translation app like Google Translate and use it whenever you need to. Japanese is pretty tricky, and even a little effort is better than nothing!

I’ve been to hotels where every piece of communication was done via the app, and it was absolutely fine.

What to pack for Japan

Packing for Japan is dependent on the season you’re travelling in. It gets very cold in winter and very hot in summer, so I’m sure you’ll work out the bulk of your wardrobe!

The streets are well maintained, with most being asphalt, so a suitcase with wheels will be fine.

As always, wear comfortable shoes because you’ll likely be walking a lot. I recommend layers no matter what season you’re travelling in.

Bring plug adaptors and leave your 22-240V only appliances at home.

Don’t forget your JR Pass!

Travel Insurance for Japan

Even if you’ve never been sick a day in your life, travel insurance is a must. Purchase it as soon as you book your tickets, and you’ll be covered if any part of your trip gets cancelled.

I’ve used it for lost luggage, heatstroke, that time someone drove their car onto the train tracks and got stuck, and we got delayed for hours and missed our flights… You really can’t predict what the world is going to throw at you!

Should you take an organised tour in Japan?

This really is a personal preference. 

I’m very much an “independent travel with a few small group tours” kind of girl.

If, however, the thought of calculating a budget, working out your itinerary and dealing with the language barrier totally freaks you out, then an organised tour may well be for you.

I always advise small group tours focusing on hiring local operators and working on sustainable travel practices. Check out G Adventures and Intrepid Travel.

Hopefully, this has answered any and all questions that you might have about planning your trip to Japan, but feel free to reach out in the comments, on social media or by email if you’d like any further advice or clarification.

Planning A Trip To Japan?

With stunning colour country-wide in spring and autumn, incredible skiing in winter, and a perfect blend of traditional and modern culture, Japan is one of my favourite destinations.

Check out these essential guides, travel tips, and more to help you plan your trip:

THINGS TO DO | Great Things To Do in Takayama

TRAVEL INSURANCE | Don’t go anywhere without it! I use and recommend Safety Wing.

THOUGHTFUL TRAVEL | No matter where you go, try to always be aware of the fact that travel impacts the place and people that live there. Being a thoughtful traveller is more important than ever. Here are my top tips to make your trip a mindful one.

PHOTOGRAPHY | Love my photos and want to know how to take better shots on your own trips? Then my photography guide is for you. Here’s all the photography gear I use too. Want to buy one of my images? Head to the Print Store.

ESSENTIAL GEAR | You’ll find my travel essentials here, and a complete guide to all my hiking gear here.

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