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How to Plan a Trip to Japan: Ultimate Guide for First-Time Visitors

How to Plan a Trip to Japan: Ultimate Guide for First-Time Visitors

Date published: 30 September 2019
Last updated: 16 November 2020

From culturally rich history, to cutting-edge technology, to foodie-worthy cuisine; Japan truly has something for everyone. It should come as no surprise then that it is currently rated as one of the most visited countries in the world.

Until the pandemic, the number of tourists coming to Japan has grown steadily year after year, with 29 million visitors in 2017. With tourism at an all-time high, how can you prepare in advance to make the most out of your vacation to Japan?

Table of Contents
  1. Why You Should Plan Your Itinerary Ahead of Time
  2. How to Make an Itinerary
  3. Finding the Best Time of Year to Visit
  4. How to Handle Finances in Japan
  5. What to Pack For Your Trip
  6. Eat Like a Local
  7. Useful Words and Phrases
  8. What apps should I download before traveling to Japan? Check out these 8 free useful apps!

Why You Should Plan Your Itinerary Ahead of Time

Why You Should Plan Your Itinerary Ahead of Time

There are many places in the world that you can visit for one to two weeks and feel as though you have a good sense of the culture and way of life by the time you return home. Japan is not one of those places. It’s impossible to “do” Japan in a lifetime; let alone a two-week vacation. With so much to see, it’s easy to become overwhelmed once you find yourself in the middle of it all. Having a well laid-out itinerary - or at least a fairly solid idea of spots you'd like to go and when - will help to ensure that you are able to do what matters most to you during your time here.

One of the worst experiences when visiting somewhere while on a limited amount of time is to travel out of your way for something specific; be it a famous tourist attraction or a particular restaurant, only to discover that it is not open. Many attractions in Japan operate on a seasonal basis, and it is not uncommon for restaurants to be closed on certain days of the week. In order to avoid disappointment, research schedules beforehand and make reservations in advance whenever possible.

As an added benefit of researching and planning early, you can often find discounts or free admission days for many popular attractions. The money saved on tickets can then be used for other parts of your vacation. After all, who wouldn’t love a little extra money in the sushi budget?

How to Make an Itinerary

How to Make an Itinerary

The first step to creating an itinerary begins with one question; “Why did I want to visit Japan in the first place? Maybe you’re a history buff that wants to walk in the footsteps of famous figures like Oda Nobunaga. Perhaps you have a fascination with Japanese architecture and dream of visiting temples dating back over 1,300 years. Or maybe you’re in love with modern Japanese media and culture and want to see where it all began. Whatever the reason, knowing what initially drew you to Japan can make planning your perfect trip much easier. Of course it’s possible to plan a vacation as widely varied as your interests, but having a focus is helpful.

Enjoy eating?
If you love gourmet, you’ve chosen the perfect destination. Japan is a foodie’s paradise and is home to some of the top chefs in the world - plus its food culture goes back over 400 years. While many tourists tend to immediately think of sushi, Japanese cuisine is so much more diverse. Experience all of the tastes that Japan has to offer; from hole-in-the-wall ramen shops to gourmet fine dining restaurants.

Enjoy sightseeing?
From gorgeous landscapes, to ancient temples, to futuristic city streets; Japan has it all. Within Japan’s most popular tourist region, Kanto, there is no shortage of incredible places to visit. Below are some of the more popular destinations to help you start planning your sightseeing trip, all within easy reach of Tokyo:

-Sensoji Temple
As Tokyo’s oldest temple, Sensoji is a must-see for any visitor to Japan. Its towering pagoda and famous red lantern are iconic Tokyo sights that should not be missed.

-Tokyo Skytree
At 634 meters tall, the Tokyo Skytree provides the best panoramic views of the city. A visit to the top observation deck is the perfect way to take in the truly impressive scale of Tokyo.

-Tosho-gu Shrine
In Kanto’s northern prefecture of Tochigi, the town of Nikko looks like something straight out of a Studio Ghibli film. Nestled amongst the lush green mountains is a shrine by the name of Toshogu. Adorned with countless wooden carvings, its stunning decoration and serene surroundings make it one of the most beautiful temples to visit in Japan.

Nature lovers will find solace in Hakone with its abundance of rolling hills, lakes, and scenic Mount Fuji views. The town is also famous for its high quality onsens, making it the perfect spot to relax.

-Sankeien Garden
Just slightly south of Tokyo, the city of Yokohama is home to many sights that are worth visiting during your time in Japan. One such destination is Sankeien Garden. In addition to the picturesque flowers and bamboo groves, Sankeien is perhaps most famous for its architecture. Historical buildings from around Japan, including a massive three-story pagoda from Kyoto, have been painstakingly relocated from their original location to their new home in the garden. It’s an amazing opportunity to explore classical architecture of many of Japan’s regions all in one area.

Enjoy historical places?
Japan is a country filled with rich, historical experiences. In Tokyo, the Imperial Palace is a popular destination among tourists, as is the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Ryogoku, in the eastern part of the city. For travelers who cannot make it to Kyoto, the historical area of Kamakura (and especially the Daibutsu, its Great Buddha) makes for the perfect day trip away from Tokyo. Other historical areas in the nation include the cultural capital of Kyoto, and ancient area of Nara.

Love shopping?
Shopaholics will find everything they can dream of and more in Japan. Visit the Ginza area in Tokyo to browse some of the best high-end clothing and accessory retailers in the world. In nearby Yokohama, Akarenga is a trendy shopping center right on the water, located in a renovated red brick warehouse. Those looking for a more traditional Japanese market experience in Japan's western region will find it in Kyoto’s Nishiki Market, where you can find everything from fresh fish, to handmade lanterns, and so much more.

How Long Should You Stay
Once you have an idea of what you would like to see, you should next determine how much time to spend in each area. It’s a terrible feeling to leave somewhere feeling as though you missed out on essential experiences. Likewise, staying in one location for too long to the point where you become bored with your surroundings is a waste of time which could have been better spent exploring new areas.

Thankfully, the internet is filled with reviews for any place that you are likely to visit; from quiet countryside villages to bustling Tokyo neighborhoods. Make a list of “must-do” activities for each area of Japan to which you intend to travel, and research what fellow travelers have to say about their experiences there. Knowing how long it takes to visit or travel between certain attractions can help you to make the most efficient use of your time.

Based on data from the Japan National Tourism Organization, most American tourists spend between 7 to 13 days traveling throughout Japan. During that time, the most visited locations tend to be Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. Of course there is no one-size-fits-all approach to travel, especially in a country as diverse as Japan, so consider this data more of a suggestion rather than a firm guideline.

Planning Your Route
The next step in putting together a successful itinerary is figuring out how you will get from place to place. When it comes to Japan; a country famed for its incredibly well-connected railway system, the train will be your most likely means of day to day transportation. However, it’s important to plot a carefully thought-out route. While it’s possible to travel across the country by train, this will often require switching to different railway lines along the way. As you will come to find, these changes can only be done at certain train stations that act as hubs. When deciding in which order you will visit each destination, first consult a railway map to ensure your route doesn’t require you to needlessly double back.

When planning a route, you should also take ticket prices into consideration. In Japan, train fare is based on the distance you are travelling. If you intend to spend most of your time in one area, this most likely won’t be an issue for you, but if you are planning to take the train often or travel across the country, purchasing a rail pass may be in your best interest.

Within Tokyo, day passes may be purchased which will give you unlimited access to JR Line or Tokyo Metro trains for a 24 hour period at one fixed price. If you intend to do a great deal of sightseeing around the city, purchasing one of these passes might be in your best interest.

While these passes cover only the Tokyo area, an additional option for travelers is the Japan Rail Pass, which allows for unlimited travel throughout the country on the Japan Railway network in blocks of 7, 14, or 21 days. These passes are not cheap; starting at around ¥29,110 (about $260 USD), but they do grant you access to shinkansen lines as well; Japan’s ultra-fast bullet trains. If you are planning to travel long distances; from Tokyo, to Kyoto, and beyond for instance, this pass could be well-worth the investment. Be aware however, that these passes can only be purchased from outside of Japan, so be sure to purchase it well in advance of your trip to ensure you receive it in time.

Finding the Best Time of Year to Visit

Finding the Best Time of Year to Visit

When it comes to choosing what time of year you should visit Japan, there is no one correct answer. Sure, there are more popular seasons when tourism tends to be at its highest, but each season comes with its own positive and negative aspects. Decide what factors are most important when it comes to your vacation before booking your trip.

・Excellent beach weather. Summer in Japan often means sunny days and high heat; the perfect conditions for a day out by the water in locations like Okinawa.
・It is the most active time of year for events and art exhibits.
Summer is matsuri (festival) time. There is perhaps no better way to experience Japanese culture than at a traditional matsuri. Enjoy games and delicious street food and watch as the locals carry mikoshi; portable shrines carried like a parade float, through the streets.
・Cities are slightly less crowded this time of year as locals tend to go on vacation to other countries or more remote parts of Japan.
・Many popular attractions will offer summer discounts, helping you to stretch your vacation budget a little further.
Summer in Japan is infamous for its heat and oppressive humidity. As it stands, 2018 has seen some of the highest temperatures in Tokyo in recorded history. When the heat is at its peak, outdoor activities can be become unenjoyable to downright impossible.
・Though cities in general tend to be less crowded with locals gone on vacation, tourism is still high this time of year, meaning you can expect larger than average crowd sizes at the most popular tourist attractions.

⇒ Browse seasonal articles on Summer in Japan

・Once the summer heat breaks, the temperatures in fall are very comfortable.
・Areas such as Hokkaido and Tochigi are renowned for their beautiful fall foliage.
・As the seasons change, so does the cuisine, with seasonal favorites like sweet potato and kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) taking center stage. It’s a great time of year to sample dishes that are less widely known outside of Japan.
・The changing temperatures from summer to autumn is the catalyst for typhoon season in Japan. High winds and torrential rain are not uncommon at the start of fall.
・The unpredictable weather can make it difficult to pack for your trip.

⇒ Browse seasonal articles on Autumn in Japan

・Japan is home to some of the best skiing and snowboarding terrain in the world due to its amazing powdery snow quality.
・Japan’s outdoor hot springs, known as onsen, are much more enjoyable in cold weather with the added aesthetic of falling snow.
・As the holiday season approaches, many cities across Japan decorate with spectacular LED light displays known simply as illuminations. No two displays are alike and many decorate with a specific theme each year.
・Though the Kanto region and all areas south rarely see snow, winters in Japan tend to be incredibly dry, which comes with its own series of discomforts like dry skin and chapped lips.
・Daylight hours are much shorter in winter, with the sun typically setting by 4:30 PM.
・Travel tends to get quite congested at the end of the year with many people heading home for the New Year’s holiday.

⇒ Browse seasonal articles on Winter in Japan

Spring is the time for cherry and plum blossom viewing; one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Japan.
・Japan’s gorgeous countryside is at its most lush and full this time of year.
・Much like fall, temperatures tend to be on the comfortably warm side throughout the season.
・Late spring, after cherry blossom season has passed, often sees less tourism, so crowds at shrines and other popular attractions are much smaller on average.
・Due to the high number of visitors who want to see the cherry and plum blossoms, early spring is by far the busiest and therefore most expensive time of year to travel to Japan. Expect the price of flights and accommodations to be much higher than normal.
・With the blossoming flowers comes an overwhelming wave of pollen. If you are an allergy sufferer, prepare to be congested.
・Japan’s rainy season takes place in late spring. During this time, high humidity and unexpected downpours are the norm.

⇒ Browse seasonal articles on Spring in Japan

It’s hard to go wrong visiting Japan at any time of year, but by selecting the season that most closely aligns with your interests, it can help to make your vacation as enjoyable as possible.

How to Handle Finances in Japan

How to Handle Finances in Japan

As technologically advanced as Japan is, it has a tendency to cling to certain old-world methodologies, as is evident in their inexplicable love of the fax machine. In the same regard, cash is still king in the Japanese economy. While many restaurants in bigger cities will accept credit cards, it is not uncommon to come across businesses, especially those in more remote areas of the country, which deal only in cash. That being the case, you should never go out without some paper money at the ready.

The Best Ways to Handle Your Money
When it comes to having access to physical yen, you have a few options at your disposal. You can exchange a certain amount of money with your bank back home before traveling to Japan, use local ATMs to withdraw yen, or use one of the many currency exchange offices located throughout Japan. The latter is by far the least cost effective option of the three, so I recommend not using this method unless absolutely necessary. Instead, let’s examine the first two.

Exchange Your Money Before Leaving
Many banks offer very competitive currency exchange rates if you are an account holder. This is not a bad route to take, as you will have cash at your disposal from the moment your plane touches down in Japan. The only drawback to this solution however is that you will be travelling with a large amount of physical money. Despite the fact that Japan has been rated as one of the 10 safest countries in the world, it’s never a good idea to carry excessive cash with you while traveling. Unlike debit or credit cards, once it’s lost, it’s lost for good.

Withdraw Cash in Japan
Rather than bringing your entire vacation budget with you in cash, you could instead opt to withdraw cash while in Japan. Many ATMs in convenience stores and post offices throughout the country accept foreign debit and credit cards for a small fee. Be aware though that your bank will typically charge a global transaction fee (usually 3-5% of the amount withdrawn) on top of this. The fees tend to add up over time, but the added security may be worth the cost. If you decide to use this option, be sure to contact your bank before you leave to inquire about their rates as well as to notify them that you will be using your card overseas. Otherwise, your bank will most likely flag the transaction as fraud and will lock your account, leaving you without access to money.

What to Pack For Your Trip

What to Pack For Your Trip

With any vacation, people often struggle with what to pack. With such varied weather and activities, putting together a packing list for Japan can be a daunting task. Thankfully, it doesn’t need to be as complicated as it seems.

After reviewing the pros and cons of each season above, you should have a better idea of what time of year you will be visiting Japan. Other than the extreme heat of summer, temperatures in Japan are mild overall, so you can plan to leave the extreme weather gear behind unless your planned activities call for it. A lightweight jacket or sweatshirt will typically suffice in spring and fall, and a slightly warmer jacket or layers should be fine for winter. As far as style, typical Japanese fashion could be described as casual chic, so don’t feel pressured to dress to impress.

If you are reading this from the United States, you are in luck; outlets in Japan are the same as in the US. Three-pronged outlets are not common however, so you may want to pack a three prong to two prong adapter. While the outlets are the same, the voltage they supply is different, with 100 volts in Japan compared to 120 volts in the United States. However, most modern chargers for cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices will have a built-in convertor to automatically adjust the power as needed.

To be safe, always make sure to check the label on the charger to determine the voltage range it can handle. If the device is not rated for 100 volts, a voltage adapter will be needed. For those travelling from countries with different outlets, inexpensive universal plug adapters can be purchased online or from most electronic stores.

When it comes to toiletries, there is no need to panic and overpack no matter how long you intend to stay. Japan is home to some of the top beauty and personal care brands in the world, so you are almost certain to find the same brands or suitable alternatives to the ones you use at home. For the sake of convenient packing, always opt for travel-sized versions of your favorite toiletries and replace them as needed while on the go.

Eat Like a Local

Eat Like a Local

When asked to picture Japanese food, most people will instinctively picture sushi, and understandably so. This iconic and colorful staple of Japanese cuisine is a globally recognizable (albeit often locally modified) dish. Upon visiting Japan however, you will come to find that Japanese cuisine is much more widely varied than is often represented abroad.

Signature Dishes
In order to get a true taste of the local flavor, the following foods are a great representation of traditional Japanese foods that are still easy on more westernized palettes.

Udon and soba noodles are very common in the Japanese diet and can be found in most restaurants. Udon is the thicker of the two and tends to have a nice chewy texture with a very mild taste. Soba is thinner; similar to a flat spaghetti noodle, and usually has a richer, nutty taste. Both can be served hot in soups, but are more commonly served chilled with a broth for dipping on the side. This is a great summer option to help beat the heat.

Equally at home at both street festivals and fancy restaurants, okonomiyaki is a traditional Japanese dish that is great for sharing with friends. At its most basic level, okonomiyaki is essentially a large, savory pancake filled with your choice of an assortment of ingredients and topped with a sweet and salty sauce. For the full experience, visit a dedicated okonomiyaki restaurant where you can cook your own on a hibachi grill built into your table.

Literally translated as “grilled meat”, the premise of yakiniku is a simple one, but the delivery and atmosphere are what make the experience special. Rather than ordering a meal which is then cooked by the kitchen, in yakiniku restaurants, you order cuts of meat which you then cook for yourself at your table. This may seem like a lot of extra work to many visiting foreigners not familiar with the concept, but the cookout atmosphere it creates makes for a great experience to be shared with friends. In most yakiniku restaurants, items can be ordered à la carte, or tabehoudai style, which is all you can eat for a fixed amount of time.

A favorite amongst sumo wrestlers, nabe is a hearty soup often eaten in the colder winter months. Nabe is a great dish to experiment with, as there is no strictly defined recipe and many restaurants will serve their own signature style. Typically, a variety of meats, fish and vegetables are placed in a broth and cooked in a large clay or porcelain pot. Once heated, the cooked ingredients are picked out and eaten. The remaining broth is then finished with udon noodles or poured over rice to make a rich, flavorful porridge.

Food allergies in Japan can be slightly difficult to navigate in a foreign language, so if there are any foods you absolutely must avoid, it’s recommended that you find the Japanese name and have it printed on a card that you can present to your server.

Useful Words and Phrases

Useful Words and Phrases

Outside of major cities, finding people who can speak English becomes a major challenge for many visitors. Even in major metropolises like Tokyo, many locals won’t be able to communicate in English beyond a handful of basic phrases. While no one would expect visiting tourists to be fluent in Japanese, having a few commonly used Japanese phrases at the ready will go a long way in helping you to communicate while here.

Pronounced sue-me-mah-sen. This is a very common phrase in Japanese vocabulary and translates to “excuse me” or “pardon me”. This is helpful to use when you are trying to get someone’s attention or if you bump into a stranger on the train.
Gomen Nasai
Pronounced go-men-nuh-sigh. Sometimes used interchangeably with sumimasen, gomen nasai means “I’m sorry”, and should be used for situations where you have accidentally done something rude such as spilling a drink or blocking someone on the sidewalk.
Arigatou Gozaimasu
Pronounced ah-ree-gah-toe-go-zigh-ee-moss. This is a phrase you will hear often when in shops in restaurants, meaning “thank you very much”. If memorizing the full phrase is proving to be a bit difficult, a simple “arigatou” will suffice, though it is considered much more polite to use the whole phrase.
Pronounced co-knee-chi-wah. This is the most basic greeting used in Japanese. While technically intended to be used during the afternoon hours, it can be said as a basic polite greeting at any time of day.

While this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to useful words and phrases in Japanese, they will serve as a great starting point for your daily interactions with locals. When in doubt, speak slowly and use a lot of gestures. Charades is a great way to communicate with people from all over the world.

What apps should I download before traveling to Japan? Check out these 8 free useful apps!

What apps should I download before traveling to Japan? Check out these 8 free useful apps!

Modern technology has made it easier than ever before to visit locations where you don’t speak the language. By using a local sim card or a data plan that allows for international roaming, the following apps will help to ensure that your trip goes as smoothly as possible.

1. Google Translate
By far one of the most helpful apps when it comes to international travel, Google Translate makes reading menus or railway maps a breeze. It’s most useful feature is undoubtedly its ability to translate from a photo or live feed from your smartphone’s camera. With this, making sense of Japanese characters needs not be an overwhelming task. Be sure to download the Japanese language pack before you leave to avoid any sort of service interruption.

2. Google Maps
When used in tandem with Google Translate, Google Maps is guaranteed to get you where you need to go. This app works particularly well with trains as well, listing departure and arrival times, as well as platform numbers when available.

3. Currency Converter
As the Japanese yen typically deals in much bigger numbers than those who use US dollars or euros are accustomed to seeing, it’s a good idea to download a currency convertor. This way, you can be confident in the amount of money you are spending and can avoid paying too much in certain situations.

4. Line
When it comes to digital communication in Japan, Line is the undisputed champion. As the most commonly used VoIP service in the country, Line gives you the ability to message and call other Line users for free. This is immensely helpful in the event that you need to contact a local person (Airbnb host, etc.) or just keep in touch with family and friends back home without paying expensive international roaming fees.

5. Gurunavi
It’s almost impossible to be bored in Japan. With so much to see and do, it can often be difficult to sort through it all and find something that appeals directly to your interests. Gurunavi helps to alleviate that stress by finding events, restaurants, attractions and more throughout Japan, and filtering the results to present you the ones you are most likely to enjoy.

6. Japan Official Travel App
As the official app of the Japan National Tourism Organization, this app is packed with helpful information from travel articles, to train schedules, to general rules regarding manners and much more. The app is available in English, Chinese, and Korean, and offers assistance both on and off-line.

7. Smart EX
With the Smart EX app by JR, you can reserve Shinkansen tickets while you're on the go. And when reserving at least 3 days in advance, you will even receive a discount on certain lines! Check the website below for details.

8. Yurekuru
Earthquakes are a common part of Japanese life, but for visitors, they are often a jarring experience. Yurekuru is a helpful app that can better prepare you by issuing a warning when an earthquake has been detected. Though the window of time between detection and feeling the effects of the earthquake is relatively small, having any amount of forewarning can make the experience a bit less scary.

With a bit of preparation and planning, you will be well on your way to a fantastic vacation in Japan. Have a schedule you can follow, but be sure to leave yourself open to all the wonderful and unexpected experiences Japan has to offer as well.

Written by:

Matt Vachon

Matt Vachon

Matt Vachon is a content creator in Tokyo who enjoys exploring off the beaten path locations around Japan. Graduated from the University of Massachusetts before moving to Japan. Since that time, he has created content for numerous tourism focused publications including The Japan National Tourism Organization, Tsunagu Japan, and Tokyo Localized. Holds a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is passionate about filmmaking and has been working on documentaries about Japan. During his downtime, he's often indulging his inner foodie by trying out some of the best hidden gem restaurants in Tokyo. Website: https://mattvachon.com. Instagram: @mattvachonphoto.

*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.

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