Planning a trip to Japan

Planning a trip to Japan

Planning a trip to Japan is one of the most exciting things because Japan is a country like no other, with bullet trains, neon lit streets, superb cherry blossoms and the most incredible food.

Get excited because you are about to discover a world full of mystery, tradition and so much culture. And of course, you will also eat a lot of delicious food. Japan is clean and minimalist on the surface, but deep down is rooted in tradition and culture. There are sumo tournaments, there are delicate geishas, talented kyūdō practitioners and traditional rituals you can partake in.

Visiting Japan is a whole new life experience and I promise, you are going to love every minute of it. Japan has the fastest and sleekest bullet trains, which travel at 320 km/h (199mp/h) making exploring Japan a breeze. The subway is incredibly well-organised and almost always on time. There is futuristic architecture like the Gate Tower Building in Osaka, Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo or the Aomori Tourist Information Centre. But you will also find authentic wooden houses and ryokans machiyas.

What is most fascinating about Japan is that even the busiest of places, like Shibuya crossing or Shinjuku train station, have an organised flow which makes the society work. Everyone respects your space, and you will even see markings on the floor to help you navigate the crowds.

This Japan travel guide is here to help you plan your Japan trip and learn all the best tips before you visit Japan for the first time. And yes, after your first trip to Japan, it's almost a given that you will want to come back again and again.

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1. Current entry requirements for Japan

There are still some restrictions in place due to Covid-19. This is subject to change, and it's always recommended that you check on the official Japanese government site for the latest news and requirements.

On the 11th of October 2022, Japan reopened its borders to international independent travellers with its normal tourist visa waiver agreement for ordinary passport holders of 68 countries. This includes visitors from UK and USA. This means citizens of these countries won't have to apply for a visa to enter Japan.

However, there are still some rules in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19. If you are triple vaccinated with two doses of AstraZeneca, Pfizer or Moderna vaccines (or one of Johnson & Johnson) and an additional booster shot from Pfizer or Moderna, then you do not require a negative PCR test before flying.

If you cannot prove you are triple-vaccinated, then you must take a PCR test within 72 hours before your flight and show a negative certificate in the approved format.

Proof of prior infection does not afford exemptions.

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2. When to visit Japan

Japan is a year round destination, and every season has something unique to offer. Generally speaking, Japan gets busiest during the cherry blossom season in April, when the whole country becomes an oasis of delicate sakura flowers.

Spring is the most popular time to visit Japan because of the sakura season. While beginning of April is the best time for hanami in major cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, note that cherry trees bloom in February in Okinawa and mid-May in Hokkaido. Spring is more crowded and usually pricier, which is why it's highly recommended that you book your accommodation well in advance.

Summer is hot and humid, with the rainy season starting from mid June until end of September. August and September are also well-known typhoon months, so it's not uncommon for tours or even trains to be delayed or cancelled because of the weather. Summers are great for tourists who wish to spend time in the Japanese alps or want to tour Hokkaido.

Autumn is the best season to visit Japan as the weather is still warm and comfortable, and the leaves turn beautiful and colourful. Japan's autumn colours are called koyo, and it's one of the country's most spectacular shows. The landscapes have a variety of red, orange and yellow hues and traditional places like Kyoto look especially superb. Overall, the best recommended month to visit Japan is November because the end of November tends to be the peak for colourful autumn leaves. It's also the time when prices are lower and there are fewer tourists in popular spots.

Winter in Japan is cold and snowy, but there are fewer crowds in popular touristic spots and prices are lower than usual. The cheapest month to travel to Japan is January, right after the December festivities and right before the snow festival in Hokkaido. Winters are ideal for tourists who wish to ski or snowboard in the Japanese alps. Places like Niseko and Hakuba are especially popular for winter sports enthusiasts.

Mount Fuji: The climbing season for Mount Fuji is from early July to early September. If you intend to make the hike, then you must visit in the summer. The best time to see Mount Fuji is during winter as there are more days with clear skies.

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3. How long to spend in Japan

The optimum amount of time to spend in Japan for first time visitors is 2 weeks. This allows you enough time to see Tokyo and Kyoto but also be able to take day trips to one or two cities as well as see several UNESCO World Heritage sites.

A week is the minimum amount of time recommended visiting Japan. Most people fall in love with Japan and come back year after year, or decide to visit for a longer period of time on their second visit.

A great way to enjoy this amazing country at a more relaxed pace is to book accommodation in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka and take day trips from these three bases. In doing so, you can spend most time exploring the cities but also have the chance to see incredible places like Nikko, Nara, Yoshino, Hiroshima, Nagano for the snow monkeys and more!

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4. Accommodation in Japan

Japan has an array of accommodation options to suit all travelers and budgets. Ranging from western style hotels, to authentic ryokans with onsen, this wonderful country is surprising even when it comes to lodging.

Hotels - Generally speaking, most tourists will stay in a western style hotel on their first visit. Hotels are ranging from 2 stars to luxury options. Hotels are very clean, but rooms are usually tiny. This is often a cultural shock for those who travel to Japan for the first time. Double beds are often larger singles and the hotel room itself is small with little to no space for the luggage. This is especially normal in Tokyo, where real estate is expensive and scarce. Luxury hotels come with larger rooms and some offer premium rooms with a view at a higher floor. This often cost a significant amount per night.

Ryokans - A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that usually has tatami floors. Some ryokans come with private or shared onsen. An onsen is a natural hot spring. Older ryokans have shared bathrooms so it's best to check and make sure you are comfortable with this before booking. Ryokans are especially prevalent in Kyoto and in the mountains. Ryokans can be expensive, but they are recommended for at least a couple of nights to experience Japanese hospitality. Dinner and breakfast are typically included in the price.

Capsule hotels - Capsule hotels are also known as pod hotels and is an original Japanese design. This type of hotel was developed to save precious real estate in Tokyo but still offer decent rooms for smaller prices. The capsule hotel has a shipping container type architecture and each pod has a comfortable bed, small television, air conditioning, an electronic console, and power sockets. Bathrooms are shared, and some capsule hotels come with public baths and sauna.

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5. How to plan a trip to Japan

Start planning a trip to Japan as early as possible. Japan is a popular tourist destination, and even shoulder season tends to be fairly busy.

  • Flights - Book your flights as early as possible, ideally 6-12 months in advance. Cheapest months to fly to Japan according to Kayak and Skyscanner are November, September and October in this order.
  • Accommodation - Book your accommodation as soon as you have your flights. Ideally, you will book your hotel around 6-12 months in advance, especially if you wish to visit Japan during the sakura season. We recommend or agoda for the best hotel prices. The reviews on these websites are especially useful for first time travellers to Japan.
  • Itinerary - Draft your complete itinerary and make sure to include any day trips and special activities.
  • Travel insurance - Purchase your travel insurance as soon as you have the trip planned. Ensure you purchase insurance that covers cancellations and curtailment, as well as medical. Pay extra attention to add-ons for winter sports if you're planning any.
  • Japanese language - Many tourists assume that Japanese people speak good English, but in reality there is still a language barrier. That's not to say that you can't communicate with people in Japan. Many try to accommodate tourist, so don't be afraid to try. However, you should practice a few Japanese phrases.
  • JR Pass - Book your JR Pass 1-3 months in before your trip. A Japan Rail Pass is a an economical way for tourists to enjoy unlimited travel around Japan. A JR Pass is only available for tourists and can be purchased for 7, 14 or 21 days. Travel dates must be consecutive for the duration of the pass. A JR Pass is especially useful for those who plan on traveling extensively around Japan. The pass can be used on the bullet train (shinkansen) as well as other public transportation.
  • Passport and travel documents - Check your travel documents and ensure your passport is still valid. Apply for a passport as soon as you can, and remember that many countries have a longer passport processing time than usual.
  • Wifi - Order a pocket wifi to be able to stay connected to the internet at all times. While many establishments offer free wifi, you will want to be able to have access to your google maps and google translate on the go.
  • Activities - Book your desired activities in advance and remember that many book well in advance. Immerse yourself in local culture and try a traditional tea ceremony, dress up in a kimono and go watch sumo practice. All Japan experiences are authentic and so unique, they really are worth your while.
  • Pack - Start packing at least one week before your trip and make sure to purchase any last minute items you need. Don't fret if you forget something, Japan is a wonder world full of convenience stores and vending machines at every corner, so you'll never be too far from a shopping opportunity.
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6. How much does a trip to Japan cost

Japan is an expensive country, but there are many things you can do to minimise the cost. Generally, flights, accommodation, and transportation are the most expensive aspects of your trip. Contrary to common belief, food in Japan is not actually expensive. A delicious bowl of ramen costs around 1200 yen ($8) and tipping is not expected. At the end of the evening, most convenience stores run discounts on fresh food, and it's easy to get a whole tray of sushi for as little as 800 yen ($5).

Once in Japan, most mid-range travelers tend to spend 15000-18000 yen per day ($100 - 120) which include the cost of accommodation, food and other expenses.

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7. Etiquette for Japan (dos and donts)

To further help you with your Japan trip planning, we put together some important travel tips to be able to experience the real Japan.

  • Acknowledge someone's bow - Many Japanese people greet each other by bowing. While you are not expected to know the full extent of the bowing etiquette, it's always polite to return a bow. You don't need to bow when you enter a restaurant or a department store, although it's always nice to give a gentle nod.
  • Eat all the food - Japan is a fascinating country with an amalgam of cuisines. Every region has its own specialities and when visiting Japan it's a must that you try as many different dishes as possible. Try ramen, sushi and mochi but also get out of your comfort zone and explore unusual sashimi, grilled yakitori (chicken skin, soft bone, chicken kidney and more) or sea urchin. Local restaurants usually specialise on one type of food.
  • Try cultural activities - See a sumo tournament or at least visit a sumo stable for their morning practice. Go on an adventure with a local guide and explore unusual sights you wouldn't otherwise discover on your own. Partake in tea ceremonies, traditional archery and learn how to make mochi with an expert.
  • Enjoy an onsen - Onsen are especially intimidating for foreign tourists because in Japan, these activities is done completely naked. However, it is not an awkward experience at all. Many Japanese do it to socialise and nobody stares at your body in any way. If you feel uncomfortable about this, book a ryokan with a private onsen.
  • Travel around the whole country - Visiting Tokyo is incredible but there is so much more beyond the capital city. Explore Japan's old capitals like Kyoto or Nara or venture to Nikko to see the unbelievable Kegon Falls. Explore Osaka's streets for the best street food in the country and visit the floating gate on Miyajima island.
  • Take cash out - There are many places in Japan which still rely on cash transactions. Make sure to purchase some yen before coming to Japan. Don't worry, most restaurants and establishments will take debit cards, but it's still best to have some cash with you. Taking cash in Japan is not as easy. You can do so in some 7/11 stores, which have the international card signs on the ATMs.
  • Wander off the beaten path - Japan is a wonderful place and it's so well connected with shinkansen, local trains and even speedy buses. Visit off the beaten path locations like Kobe known for its ten million dollar view, see Nagoya and eat their special red miso, venture to Takayama and see the wooden merchant houses dating to the Edo period.
  • Consider safety - Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, and it's perfectly safe for tourists and travelers from all around the world. Solo women travelers usually have nothing to worry about. Although it is recommended that they travel on the designated women carriages at night or during peak hours.
  • Get hot tea everywhere - One of the coolest things about Japan is that there are over 4 million vending machines in the country. That's a LOT. And this is great news because you will never go thirsty with these around you. Vending machine sell delicious hot and cold beverages available at almost every corner.
  • Use heat patches - Japan is so remarkable, there are inventions that pop up all the time. Our all-time favourite? The heat patches you can buy from virtually any shop. Simply peel off the protective sheet and stick these heat warmers to your base layer. They keep you warm and nice for several hours and are especially brilliant when visiting Japan in the winter.
  • See temples and shrines - Japanese spirituality is very different from other countries with the most common religions being Buddhism and Shinto. Some of the most Buddhist temples in the country are Senso-ji, The Golden Pavilion and Kiyomizu-dera. The most popular Shinto Shrine is Fushimi Inari Shrine located on the mount Inari.

Stay in the world's oldest hotel - The Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan has been in business since 705 A.D and it's the oldest hotel in the world. It has its entry in the Guiness World Records and has been in the same family for the past 52 generations. This hotel is amazing too and comes with an onsen and on a half board basis. To get to this hotel, you will want to rent a car as otherwise, a trip here from Tokyo can take up to 5 hours.

There are, however a few things you shouldn't do while you are in Japan.

  • Don't point with chopsticks - Don't point with your chopsticks or use them in any other way than intended. Don't use them as drumsticks and don't leave them standing in your rice as this is only done at funerals in Japan. Don't rub your chopsticks together either as that could indicate that you don't like the quality of the wood. When you finish eating, place your chopsticks back in the foil they came in or place them on the holder provided.
  • Don't be loud - Japanese people are very quiet and considerate. Even the downtown of Tokyo is quiet at night. People don't speak on their phone on the public transport and generally, when they do talk, the Japanese are soft spoken. Respect this as well. There are some exceptions to this rule as well, like pubs, izakayas and party bars.
  • Don't be impatient - If someone is trying to help, allow them to. Don't rush anyone, especially if they are trying to speak English. If someone doesn't know how to speak English, just offer them a gentle smile or small bow and move on. Don't scream or get impatient with someone who can't communicate in your language.
  • Don't tip - Service charge is usually included in your bill and if it's not, you still don't have to tip. Tipping tells the waiter you don't think they are paid enough, and it can be seen as insulting. On the bright side, what you see on the final bill is what you need to pay.
  • Don't put money in someone's hands - If you spot a small money tray near the cashier, always place the money there. Don't put money directly into someone's hands as it's very rude. Don't count your change either, as typically the change is dispersed automatically.
  • Don't use an onsen with a tattoo—Tattoos are still seen as taboo in Japan and widely associated with the Japanese mafia. Always check with the onsen owner if tattoos are acceptable. If not, don't be offended. A way around this is to book a room with a private onsen.
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8. Top destinations to include in your plan

There are many wonderful places to visit in Japan but to get you started here are the top destinations to include when planning a trip to japan.

Tokyo - This is the best of modern Japan. Tokyo is incredible with skyscrappers, neon lights, jumbo ads and busy pedestrian crossings. Exploring Tokyo feels like a futuristic cyberpunk movie with all its crazy and wonderful attractions. There's cute Harajuku with colourful desserts and the bustling Shinjuku with its yokocho alleys.

Kyoto - The old Japanese capital is known for its traditional narrow alleyways lined with wooden town houses, geishas, and cherry blossom parks. See Fushimi Inari Shrine and go to the beautiful Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. Stay in a ryokan and try traditional Japanese food on Shijo-Dori.

Nikko - Add it to your itinerary as a day trip from Tokyo. One of the most impressive locations with forest trails, stunning Unesco World Heritage temples and superb Kegon falls.

Miyajima - One of the most beautiful and serene places in Japan, Miyajima island is known for its floating torii gate. Can be easily accessed from Hiroshima, by ferry. Make sure to eat a Momiji Manju which is a maple leaf shaped cake with delicious filling.

Mount Fuji - The iconic volcano of Japan, many come from all over the world to see it and climb it. But neither is as easy as it sounds. Climbing Mt. Fuji can only be done in the summer while seeing the elusive volcano is quite hard as it's often covered in clouds. Top tip: Go to Omohara Forest on top of the Tokuy Plaza where you can see the tip of Mount Fuji on a clear day.

Yoshino - Yoshino is considered the most famous cherry blossom viewing spot in the whole of Japan. There are over 200 kinds of cherry trees here and over 30,000 individual trees which look absolutely incredible. Yoshino is also fantastic during the autumn for the koyo viewing.

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