So you're planning a trip to the land of the rising sun? Thanks to manga, anime, and Japanese music rising in popularity in the west, it's perhaps no wonder that traveling to Japan has found its way onto many people's bucket lists over the years.
And for a good reason!
No matter who you are or your interests, you're almost guaranteed to find something to pique your interest in Japan.
Planning a trip can get tricky, whether you're planning your first trip to Japan or have visited a few times already. The main issue that leaves people disappointed after leaving the country isn't what they did while there but what they didn't.
Sure, you can show up with your bag on your shoulder and go where the wind takes you. But unless you have plenty of time to spare, chances are that you'll miss out on many worthwhile experiences if you come unprepared.
Lucky for you, I've fallen in love with Japan over the past few visits, and I want to share my knowledge! This guide will help you make the most of your visit to Japan with some of my best tips on planning a trip to Japan.
A Note on Travel Restrictions
Unlike other countries in Asia, Japan was sluggish in opening the country back up and allowing tourists to visit after COVID.
While it's possible to enter Japan, there are still some restrictions at the time of publishing this article. These restrictions can change at a moment's notice, so check the current regulations and entry rules with your local Japanese embassy and your airline before you travel.
Now that I've touched on that crucial part of traveling to Japan, let's dive into important questions you must consider when planning your dream Japan trip!
When Should I Visit Japan?
Did you know that Japan actually has 72 seasons? No, that is not a typo. The four seasons the rest of us are more familiar with are separated into 24 sekki, characterized 節気 in Japanese, according to the traditional lunisolar calendar.
Each of these sekki are, in turn, separated into three, leaving a total of 72 shijijūni ko, 七十二侯 in the Japanese language, that last for roughly five days each.
But for the sake of this article, let's stick to the original 4 that we are all more familiar with.
When you should visit Japan depends largely on what you want to see and do while you are there. Another aspect to consider is that some of Japan's seasons are far more pleasant than others, which may or may not affect your trip to some extent.
That said, no matter what time of the year you decide to show up, you're guaranteed to find plenty of things to experience and explore while you're there. There are also plenty of festivals and activities that are unique to each season.
Japan in Spring
I'm normally an autumn girl, but nothing beats Japan in spring!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is also one of the most popular seasons to travel to Japan for tourists from abroad and the Japanese themselves. The reason for this? Cherry blossoms, or "sakura" as they are called in Japanese.
Sure, it's possible to see beautiful cherry blossoms in many other parts of the world. However, there's something extra special about watching the whole country suddenly turn pink seemingly overnight.
Let's just say that there's a reason why I have been scheduling the majority of my yearly trips to Japan to coincide with the cherry blossom season.
Whether traveling alone or with friends, don't miss the opportunity to join a "hanami," which literally translates to flower viewing, in one of Japan's many famous spots.
Japan in the spring is also an enjoyable season with mild days and slightly colder nights and evenings.
Japan in Summer
Despite the best attempts of my Japanese friends to warn me, my very first trip to Japan was in July 2011. As I stepped out of the air-conditioned airport and into the giant sauna that is Tokyo during the summer, I thought that perhaps I should've waited a few weeks.
While you can find milder temperatures up north in Hokkaido, the rest of Japan experiences high temperatures and very high humidity during the summer months.
Japan's summers can be a less than pleasant experience for those of us who aren't used to a tropical climate. There is also the added risk of suffering heat stroke if you're out and about during the day.
Summer is also the high season for "matsuri," or Japanese festivals. This is reason alone to brave the heat and stop by for a visit.
My absolute favorite festival to visit is Awa Odori, which occurs in August every year. The original festival is in Tokushima on Japan's Shikoku island. Suppose you're planning a trip to Osaka, Kobe, or Kyoto. In that case, you can easily make a day trip over to Tokushima for the festival. You won't regret it.
Smaller versions of Awa Odori can be found in other cities like Tokyo. However, nothing beats the original, where the whole humble city of Tokushima comes alive with people laughing and dancing together in the streets. It's an unforgettable experience for sure.
Aside from Awa Odori, there are, of course, many other festivals and events taking place all over the country.
Worth noting is that Japan's rainy season also occurs during the summer. During this time, strong typhoons sweep the country and leave a massacre of umbrellas in their wake.
The rainy season, or tsuyu as it's called in Japanese, starts in early summer, around May and July, depending on the region. While this usually means several weeks of rain, how much it does rain varies dramatically from year to year. Some years barely see any rain at all, whereas others are exceptionally wet.
If you decide to visit during the summer months, please take care not to get sunstroke while you are there. Avoid going out when the sun is at its highest, and drink plenty of water.
Japan in Autumn
Just like spring, autumn in Japan is a beautiful season with the leaves changing colors into bright reds and yellow. Like spring, it's also a season with very mild temperatures, often lasting well into November.
For better or worse, this is also a trendy season for tourism, which unfortunately does mean that prices often go up during this time of the year.
Japan in Winter
Winter is an often overlooked season for travel to Japan, which is a shame because there is still a lot to see and do. My favorite thing about Japan in winter is the illuminations you can find all over the country, particularly in the bigger cities.
While places like Tokyo or Osaka generally don't see much snowfall, the gorgeous illuminations turn the country into a sparkling winter wonderland once the sun goes down.
One of the most famous illuminations can be found in Tokyo's Roppongi district, Ginza and Tokyo Dome. But you can also find many other places, such as temples and shrines, decked out in beautiful lights as well.
Head further up north, and you can experience Hokkaido's snow festival featuring impressive sculptures made entirely from snow.
Shirakawa-go is a famous village with traditional "gassho-zukuri"—those are the houses with steep thatched roofs. It's worth a visit at any time of the year. However, the magic of this village is taken to an entirely new level during winter when the snow turns the entire village into a dreamy fairytale-like town.
There is no wonder that Shirakawa-go is a popular winter destination for the Japanese as well. Shirakawa-go is most easily reached from Nagoya or Kanazawa, but there are plenty of companies, such as Willer Express, who regularly arrange package trips to the village every winter. While many make it a day trip, it's also possible to stay overnight in one of the houses.
Times of the Year to Avoid
As I said, Japan is worth a trip at any time of the year, but I avoid two particular holidays.
One of these holidays is Golden Week which occurs in late April/early May. This holiday is made up of a series of Japanese national holidays and is a very popular time for the Japanese to travel domestically. The result is that trains, buses, and accommodation tend to not only become more expensive but also quickly sell out. Popular tourist spots such as Kyoto also tend to become extra crowded.
The second holiday I would avoid is New Year. While New Year's in Japan on its own is a fun and exciting experience, like Golden Week, it tends to get a lot busier with Japanese people traveling home to see their families.
Many businesses also tend to close for several days during this time.
For the sake of your sanity, I recommend against visiting any shrines or temples during this time, or you may have to wait in line for hours before you can even get in.
The first visit of the year to a temple or shrine is something the Japanese take very seriously, which means enormous crowds daily well into January.
How Long Should You Stay in Japan?
How much time have you got? The first time I visited Japan, I stayed for a little more than a year to study Japanese at a language school. Fast-forward 11 years, and I have spent roughly 7 years in Japan during this time. It still doesn't feel like enough!
I have a Japanese friend from Kobe who told me that you could spend a decade in a city like Kyoto, and it still wouldn't be enough time to see and experience everything it has to offer.
Obviously, taking a decade-long vacation isn't in the cards for most of us.
For a first-time visitor, I recommend spending at least 2 weeks in Japan if you can, or at least a week. This gives you enough time to travel around the country to see different parts of Japan, but it's also a great option even if you decide to stay in just one city.
Should You Get a Japanese Rail Pass?
Read any article or blog about Japan, and you're almost guaranteed to find a recommendation for the Japanese Rail Pass.
What many of these same articles and blogs fail to mention is that while the pass is great for many, it can also be a complete waste of money for many others.
Whether you should or should not get one depends mainly on your itinerary and how much you intend on traveling through the country while you are there. Contrary to popular belief, it's not always the cheapest option.
Let's say you're planning a trip to Japan where you will visit Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara. Would I recommend you get the pass? Absolutely not.
Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara are all right next to each other, which means that you can easily travel between each without spending a lot of money on a ticket!
Even the trip back and forth to Tokyo on the shinkansen wouldn't make the pass worth the price. On the contrary, you would spend more money on the Japan Rail Pass than you would if you bought each ticket directly.
Many cities in Japan, particularly the bigger cities like Osaka and Tokyo, do have their own bus and train passes that you can buy. These last for everything from a day and up to several days and can be used all throughout the region where they are issued.
Sites like Klook offer these passes at a discount. These are a great way to save money.
Another way to save money would be to book a highway bus to and from Tokyo. These highway buses cost at least half of a shinkansen ticket, often even less, and unlike in other countries, they are very comfortable and convenient.
If you book a night bus, you can save money on accommodation for the night as well. Willer Express and Kosoku Bus are great options for finding and buying tickets for highway buses all over Japan.
So when should you get a Japan Rail Pass?
If you intend to travel all over the country with many stops along the way, get yourself the pass. This is the only situation where it would save you money.
If you're unsure, I recommend sitting down with Google Maps and looking up the directions between each city you plan to visit during your trip. Here you can see how much each individual trip would cost you, and you can calculate if the pass is worth it or not.
Do note though, that if you want to get the pass, you'll have to book it in advance BEFORE arriving in Japan. These are only available for purchase outside the country.
What is the Cost of Traveling in Japan?
Many, unfortunately, put off traveling to Japan because it is infamously expensive. However, it doesn't have to be if you do your homework.
My jaw drops every time I see or hear a fellow traveler describe how they've spent thousands of dollars in Japan on just a short vacation. Contrary to popular posts on Instagram, you don't have to rob a bank or sell your kidney to afford a visit to Japan. There are plenty of ways to save money without feeling deprived!
If you plan on sticking around for a month or longer, I'd recommend getting a room in a shared house. Occasionally, you can book them for as little as a week or two, but you save more money if you stick around for a month or longer.
Even in big cities like Tokyo or Osaka, it's possible to find share houses for as little as $500/month or even less if you're okay with staying in a suburb. This isn't precisely luxury accommodations, but you don't plan on spending all your time in your room anyway, do you?
If you only need a place to sleep and store your luggage, share houses are a great option. As a bonus, it's also a great place to meet new people, whether travelers like yourself or locals happy to give tips or show you around.
You can save even more money if you cook most of your food yourself instead of eating out every day.
Not a fan of cooking? Japanese supermarkets and convenience stores offer a wide selection of bento boxes that are both cheap and delicious. Depending on the contents, you can often find bentos for as little as $2-3.
Another great option is street food. You often find street food stalls at popular tourist spots or at festivals, but there are also hidden gems known only to the locals. Why not ask your new Japanese housemate for recommendations?
How Early Should You Book Your Trip to Japan?
It depends. When buying tickets or booking accommodation to most destinations worldwide, the general rule is "the earlier, the better" if you are looking to save money. And, of course, Japan is no different in this regard.
Aside from saving money, how early you should book also largely depends on what you want to do during your trip. Some activities need to be booked at least several weeks in advance, and others more.
If, for example, you want to visit the Awa Odori festival in Tokushima, I recommend getting your booking done as early as possible if you intend to stay the whole week.
Suppose you only intend on staying a day. In that case, it's totally fine if you just show up in the morning and leave in the evening after the festivities are done for the day. However, if you plan on spending the whole week or more than a day, being last minute with your plans to see the Awa Odori festival won't work!
This festival is one of the most popular ones domestically, and practically all forms of accommodations actually start getting booked up as early as a year in advance. In other words… if you snooze, you lose.
I was planning on spending the whole festival in Tokushima in August 2020 and went online at the start of November 2019 to look for hotels, but they were already all sold out. The closest I could find that still had beds available for the week was a hostel in Takamatsu. I checked again two weeks later, and it was all sold out.
To be fair, this is an extreme example, and most of the time, you don't have to book that far in advance. Personally, I start looking at accommodation and tickets somewhere around 1-2 months in advance at the very latest.
Should You Learn Some Basic Japanese?
While you can often get by in English alone, particularly in the big cities, learning a few simple phrases before you go will benefit you in several ways.
While Japanese people do learn some basic English in school, most are very hesitant to use the little English that they do know. That is unless you take them out drinking because as soon as they get a couple of beers in them, they'll be fluent in any language you can think of.
While you don't have to become fluent in Japanese before your trip, knowing how to say simple things can help! The two simplest being:
- Thank you = arigatou gozaimasu
- Excuse me = sumimasen
Learning the basics will make a big difference in your experience with Japanese people. Even if your pronunciation is off, they'll appreciate that you are making an effort.
What Do I Need to Know About Japanese Etiquette?
Anyone visiting Japan will quickly notice that there is a correct way of doing things, whether it is how you hold your chopsticks or how deep you bow to someone.
Let's get one thing out of the way right away: despite your very best efforts, you're guaranteed to break a rule and offend someone unknowingly in Japan. We've all been there so don't let that fact scare you away from going.
Japanese society is made up of so many rules that you're only really aware of if you grow up there. With this in mind, a foreigner is likely to get a "free pass" for not knowing these unspoken rules.
This, however, doesn't mean that you shouldn't make an effort.
Just like with speaking some basic Japanese, making an effort to be polite will show respect to the locals and will win you favors in the long run. You'll also avoid the risk of watching other foreigners shuffle away and distance themselves from you in public. It sounds harsh, but neither of us wants to be associated with "that guy."
A quick google search will give you plenty of hits on what to do and what not to do in Japan, but some basic ones to keep in mind include:
- Don't eat or be loud on public transport, including talking loudly.
- When eating, don't put your chopsticks pointing straight up in your rice (this is associated with burial rituals and is simply just bad taste).
- Don't use your chopsticks to pass food from person to person.
- Always take your shoes off when entering a temple, shrine, or someone's home.
If you decide to visit an onsen or public bathhouse, which I highly recommend, there's a whole set of etiquette rules you should follow as well! The two most basics rules are:
- Wash yourself off properly BEFORE entering the bath
- Don't wear a swimsuit or trunks
Another thing to note is that there's still a stigma surrounding tattoos in Japan, unlike in the west. While it is getting better, there are still situations where having visible tattoos might inconvenience you.
Onsens and public bathhouses are notorious for turning you away if you have any visible tattoos. If the tattoo in question is small and can be easily covered, then that can be an easy fix to the problem in most situations.
However, if your tattoo is on the larger side or you have many of them, your best bet would be to look up either private options or to ask beforehand if the place in question accepts tattoos or not.
Websites like tattoo-friendly allow you to search for tattoo-friendly establishments all over Japan.
Tips for Japan on A Budget
I still remember the first time I visited Japan over a decade ago. While it's still amazing all these years later, I can't think of anything that beats that very first time you step out of the airport and get to explore and experience this wonderful country for the first time.
Japan is perhaps infamous for being expensive, and compared to other Asian countries, it definitely is. But there are many ways that you can cut down on costs and still have a great trip, even if you are on a budget.
One of the biggest regrets people have when visiting Japan isn't what they did but what they didn't do while there. So here are my best tips to enjoy your time and ensure you don't break the bank!
Track Your Flights Early
I've already mentioned that intelligent planning for your trip to Japan includes starting to organize early. This is true of flights. If you don't have set dates yet, that's even better!
I recommend looking 8 - 10 months before your estimated travel dates. Then find the cheapest days to fly—maybe that's a Tuesday instead of a Friday night. Then start monitoring their price until you buy it a bit closer to the trip date.
If you're still looking at flights for your trip to Japan, make sure you're booking the cheapest flights available on the market with SkyScanner!
By using comparison sites like SkyScanner, you find the cheapest flights available so that you wouldn't have to pay more for flight tickets and save that money for more things to do or food to eat!
Search for Non-Touristy Spots
Don't just look at the tourist spots in the city/cities you plan to visit, but also look up what local events or festivals that are taking place while you are there.
Japan Cheapo is a great guide for finding information about what is going on right now all over Japan!
Take the scenic route!
What I mean by this is you should be bold, take detours outside of the bigger cities, and explore lesser-known locations in Japan. While Tokyo and Kyoto are both beautiful cities, many more are just waiting to be explored.
Save Money on Accommodations
Don't waste your money on unnecessary fluff like luxury accommodation. You won't be spending all your time in your room anyway, right?
Even if you don't like the idea of share houses, there are many other affordable options. Think of stays like hostels, capsule hotels, or even working for your room! And, if you're traveling as a group, Airbnb is still a great option to split costs between your travel mates.
Spend your money on exploring delicious foods and fun activities instead. These are the things that will take your trip from average to awesome.
Talk to Locals
As long as you take my advice on learning basic language skills and etiquette in Japan, most locals are very friendly to tourists. Feel free to ask for help or recommendations from the locals.
While Japanese people tend to struggle with English, they're some of the sweetest and most helpful people you'll come across. And most of them, particularly if you meet them in a share house or hostel, are more than happy to give you tips or show you around.
Learn Japanese Basics
I've mentioned this before, but it's so crucial that I want to repeat it again. Try to learn a few phrases of Japanese before you go! You don't have to become fluent, but being able to say at least simple words and terms will make a great impression on the locals.
Plan Your Trip to Japan With the Help of Pilot
Traveling to Japan is unlike many other places you can visit. And it will be an experience that you will remember fondly for a very long time. Perhaps you'll, like me, "catch the bug" and find yourself coming back repeatedly.
Whether this is your first trip or not, Pilot can help you make planning your trip to Japan a breeze.
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