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How To Plan A Trip To Japan: 15 Essential Travel Tips (2020)

Plus sample itineraries, dos/don'ts, and mistakes to avoid.
How To Plan A Trip To Japan: 15 Essential Travel Tips (2020)
Journy Team

Here at Journy, we've planned thousands of Japan trips—building custom itineraries for first-time travelers eager to experience big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, as well as seasoned repeat visitors venturing off the beaten path to smaller cities and villages throughout the country.

As experts in all things Japan travel, we put together our ultimate list of essential tips to consider when planning to ensure you have the best travel experience possible.

Still unsure exactly where to start when it comes to planning—or just want to learn more about Journy? Schedule a call with one of our dedicated Japan experts to get advice on where to go, how long to spend in each place, and how Journy can do the heavy lifting for you.

1. Choose the season of your visit wisely, with considerations for climate, crowds, public holidays, and prices.

6-12 months out

Japan during cherry blossom season

The first step in any trip planning process (after deciding where to go) is to think about when—with considerations for weather, crowds, price, public holidays, etc.

Season:

If you’re not restricted to specific travel days due to school/work breaks, we generally advise fall as the best season to experience Japan because of the fairly mild weather that you’ll find throughout the major cities. That, plus the foliage, of course.

“Up until the end of November, you really won’t need a big jacket,” says Sarah, Journy’s resident Japan expert and trip designer. “Of course it depends each year, but it’ll typically hover around the high 50s during the day and mid-40s at night.”

Crowds:

If you’re looking to avoid crowds, April is not the right month for you to travel to Japan as it’s peak cherry blossom season. International visitors may be catching on to the beauty of the blossom in higher numbers, but domestic tourism is the real behemoth at this time of year. From specific temple gardens to entire cities, the hotspots are packed and locals plan early—very early. Add this to the limited life-span of the flowers in each area and you have yourself a recipe for booked-up buses, packed hotels, and the potential for a real Instagram vs reality kind of experience. Plus, if it’s your first (and possibly only) trip to Japan, sacrificing top spots to the masses may be too high a price to pay for petals.

This is not to say that we steer all travelers away from Japan during cherry blossom season. Because yes, visitor volume will no doubt affect transportation and accommodation—but on the other hand, cherry blossom is pure joy, and the unique atmosphere isn’t something you’ll easily find elsewhere. It’s simply a question of weighing the pros and cons—which your Journy trip designer can help you do.

Price:

During peak travel periods in Japan (primarily cherry blossom season, followed by autumn), hotels can be 50 - 100% more expensive than low season, so depending on your budget this can be a major consideration when deciding when to go.

Public holidays and celebrations

Japanese public holidays can be fun, relaxing, cultural, or spiritual, but they can also throw a wrench in your vacation plans if you encounter them unexpectedly. The major ones to keep in mind? New Year’s, Golden Week, and Obon.

New Year’s

  • What’s closed: Restaurants, stores, museums, and government/post offices will likely be closed from December 29 until January 3. Banks even sometimes shut their ATMs, though convenience store machines will still run.
  • What’s open: Hotels, convenience stores, and some restaurants. Trains will run and some major attractions like ski resorts and Disneyland will remain open.

Golden Week

This string of holidays in the spring consists of Showa Day on April 29 (honoring the birth of Japanese emperor Showa, aka Hirohito), Constitution Memorial Day on May 3, Greenery Day on May 4, and Children’s Day on May 5. With the help of an intervening weekend, many people take off one or two extra days and get a whole week off.

  • What’s closed: Many companies and offices are either closed or on a shoestring staff during Golden Week, except for those businesses in the service industry.
  • What’s open: Hotels, restaurants, and shops are all operating full bore to cater to the holidaymakers.

It’s extremely important, for this season, to make advance bookings as Golden Week reservations are often booked out six months or even a year in advance.

Obon

Obon is a festival during the summer dedicated to remembering the dead. The festival is held from the 13th to 15th of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, so in most places, this means August, though some locales use the solar calendar and thus celebrate in July.

  • What’s closed: Many offices and schools will close for a few days during obon. Family-run businesses may also close down during this time.
  • What’s open: Most stores, banks, government offices, and attractions will be open as usual.

IMPORTANT: To accommodate the 2020 summer Olympics, reduce rush hours for commuters, and avoid congestion so the athletic teams can travel with ease, Japan will be reshuffling some of its national holidays. Updated dates for the holidays affected are:

  • Marine Day: July 23 (day before the opening ceremony)
  • Sports Day: July 24 (day of the opening ceremony)
  • Mountain Day: August 10 (day after the closing ceremony)

ALSO IMPORTANT: In 2020, Respect for the Aged Day falls on September 21 and the Autumnal Equinox falls on September 23. For this reason, September 22 will also be declared a holiday, creating a “Silver Week” that only comes around every few years.

READ MORE:

2. Consider the duration of your stay when deciding how many cities to visit and how long to spend in each. And don’t try and do too much!

6-12 months out

Tokyo, Japan

The #1 piece of advice we give Journy travelers when it comes to structuring their itinerary is to not try and do too much. As a rule of thumb, Sarah recommends three full days in both Tokyo and Kyoto. And if first-timers are heading to Japan for the standard week-long trip, she generally abides by this formula:

  • 3-4 nights in Tokyo
  • 1 night in Hakone
  • 3-4 nights in Kyoto

Depending on your interests, you may want to spend more time in Tokyo rather than Kyoto, or vice-versa, which is precisely why every Journy itinerary is built from scratch (no off-the-shelf plans here!). But just be sure not to discount Kyoto as a secondary city behind Tokyo.

“People sometimes think they should spend far more time in Tokyo than Kyoto, but it’s hard to do Kyoto in just two nights since a lot of the sites are spread out,” explains Sarah. “Unless you’re okay just getting a taste of it, you need to spend more time.”

When considering how to structure your itinerary, also keep in mind that certain cities can be experienced as day trips from both Tokyo and Kyoto:

From Tokyo:

  • Kamakura
    This small beach town on the coast boasts what Sarah calls “a combo of surfer vibes but also notable temples.”
  • Hakone
    Although the home of Mount Fuji can be done as a day trip from Tokyo, it will be a long day (1.5 hours from Tokyo, followed by transit within the city). That’s why some opt to stay overnight, especially when there’s the opportunity to experience a traditional ryokan (Japanese inn) with a view of Mt. Fuji.
  • Nikko
    This small town in the mountains north of Tokyo is famous for Toshogu, the Shinto shrine established as a memorial for Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founding ruler during the Edo period.

From Kyoto:

  • Osaka
    Historically a merchant city, the Osaka of today bustles with fantastic street food and great nightlife, all while being more laid-back and approachable than its siblings to the east.
  • Nara
    A beautiful, traditional Japanese city with many temples and shrines, Nara is the birthplace of Buddhism in Japan and is steeped in history and tradition, including the art of calligraphy (shuji).
  • Uji
    This small city that sits just 20-minutes by train south of Kyoto is famous for its green team (matcha).
  • Naoshima
    Serious art aficionados should consider a day trip to Naoshima Art Island, although be aware that the day would start at 5AM and get you back to Kyoto around 10PM. If you can avoid the splurge, we recommend travelers stay overnight at Benesse House.

While planning, make sure major construction projects won’t impact a key attraction on your itinerary. For example, Hiroshima’s picture-perfect orange Torii gates on Miyajima island are undergoing construction through August 2020, but there are another set of gates in Hakone for travelers to visit instead.

If you’re not limited to one week, Sarah recommends 14 days as an adequate amount of time for travelers to sufficiently experience the best of Japan.

READ MORE:

Looking for a sample Japan itinerary suited to first-timers? Here is a travel guide with two options for how to spend 10 days.

Overwhelmed by how to start planning and don't want to leave your vacation to chance? Trust the experts at Journy to build the perfect itinerary for you.

3. Don’t forget to research the different neighborhoods before deciding where to stay.

2-12 months out

Harajuku

Now that you know when you’re traveling and what cities you want to visit, it’s time to consider accommodations—and what neighborhoods are best suited to your preferences and budget in each city. This is primarily a consideration for Tokyo, as the hotels in Kyoto and Osaka are more centrally located.

Here’s what you need to know about the best Tokyo neighborhoods to stay:

  • Ginza
    Because this neighborhood is close to Tokyo Station, it has the highest concentration of hotels and is convenient for anyone who needs to easily get in and out of the city (e.g., if you’re staying in Tokyo before heading somewhere else). In addition to its proximity to a main transport hub, it’s also close to a flurry of restaurants (including high-end sushi omakase spots), whiskey/cocktail bars, and shops. Keep in mind, though, that many of the shops are international, big name department stores as opposed to smaller boutiques, which means it doesn’t offer as much character as other neighborhoods.
  • Shibuya
    This central neighborhood is one of Tokyo’s most well known because of Shibuya Crossing, the intersection that was made famous by the movie, “Lost in Translation.” Home to young Japanese creatives and tons of quirky shops, restaurants, and bars, it’s a great option to stay if you’re looking for a trendier vibe. It’s here where you’ll find Trunk Tokyo, a boutique hotel nestled on a quiet street about 10 minutes away from the colorful frenzy of Harajuku and Omotesando (essentially a youth-driven Fifth Avenue).  
  • Shinjuku
    This dense district is home to Tokyo’s business centers, entertainment complexes, red light and gay neighborhoods—not to mention the world’s busiest railway station. But if you’re not bothered by crowds, it’s a great place to stay because of how centrally located it is. There are no shortage of hotels here (including the Park Hyatt where “Lost in Translation” was filmed), as well as shops and entertainment/nightlife spots.

Options for accommodation in Japan:

  • Hotels
    Various Western-style hotels (both international and Japanese chains) can be found throughout the major cities.
    Average price: $70 - $450/room
  • Capsule Hotels
    At capsule hotels, guests are provided with a bed that sits in a pod-like structure—and that’s pretty much it. Bathrooms are communal, and floors are generally separated by gender. The concept was originally born to accommodate businessmen who went out to drink late at night and missed the last midnight train back home. Remnants of that tradition still remain, which make it a potentially uncomfortable experience for female travelers.
    Average price: $27 - $36/person
  • Ryokans
    Ryokan (the word is both singular and plural) are Japanese-style traditional inns, known predominantly for their tatami (straw mat) floors and paper sliding doors, called fusuma. A part of Japanese culture since the start of the Nara period in the early 8th century, a ryokan is one of the most authentic kinds of accommodation you can find anywhere in the world today.
    Average price: $55 - $375/person
  • Airbnbs
    We generally advise against Airbnbs in Japan (especially Tokyo) due to their questionable legality. In 2018, in an effort to protect the hotel industry, strict regulations were introduced restricting the amount of time owners can rent out their homes per year to 180 days, with additional local regulations stipulated by cities (e.g., in Kyoto, hosts can only operate from mid-January to mid-March). As a result, the inventory of available Airbnbs has plummeted—and what is available has surged in price. Plus, as Sarah points out, Japanese apartments don’t hold the same charm and draw as, say a Parisian apartment. “Tokyo is just not a very good city for Airbnb,” she says. “You don’t really want to stay in a Tokyo apartment. They’re tiny and the bathrooms are so small.”

READ MORE: How Trunk Tokyo Borrowed The Concept Of A Boutique Hotel And Made It Better

4. Carve out time during your stay for relaxation at a traditional ryokan in order to experience true Japanese hospitality.

2-12 months out

Hoshinoya Tokyo

Although you may be tempted to jam-pack your itinerary from morning to evening in order to squeeze the most out of your trip as possible, make sure to leave time for relaxation at a traditional ryokan—which travelers should consider less as a pure accommodation and more so as an experience in and of itself.

As explained above, ryokans are traditional Japanese inns known for their architecture, decor, amenities, cuisine, fashion, and extreme hospitality (aka omotenashi). Together, these factors make for an experience unlike any you’d find at a hotel, no matter how luxurious.

Your guest room:

Ryokan guest rooms are spacious and low to the ground. Rather than the elevated couches, tables, and chairs you’re likely accustomed to in the West, your room will be outfitted with floor cushions and/or legless chairs. Because it’s traditional to spend more time sitting low than standing up, the interior of the room is designed to be best viewed from ground level.

Dining:

More closely related to a Western bed and breakfast than a traditional hotel, ryokan are known for their excellent dining. Your ryokan may allow you to purchase different dining packages (à la carte, breakfast included, or breakfast and dinner included), or have one standard practice. Regardless, many ryokan guests enjoy their meals at the property, rather than leaving to go out to eat.

You’ll likely have the option of eating in an on-site dining room or being served directly in your room. The cuisine will be very traditional and local to the specific region you’re staying in; don’t expect sushi or ramen so much as kaiseki-style fresh meats and fish, and, of course, plenty of rice.

Onsens:

Perhaps the biggest draw of staying at a ryokan might be an on-site or nearby onsen. Onsens are public (think: similar to the pools and jacuzzis in a spa) or private (think: a plunge/soaking pool or tub in your room) open-air baths, heated to deliciously high temperatures by nearby natural hot springs. Ryokan and onsens go hand-in-hand, and the majority of ryokan are built next to or nearby local hot springs.

READ MORE:

5. Don’t leave dining to chance. Outline a plan for which restaurants you want to visit, and make reservations ASAP.

1-6+ months out

At this stage in the planning process, it’s important to consider what types of dining experiences you’d like to have. In Japan, it truly runs the gamut from inexpensive street food to fine dining sushi omakase/kaiseki. Whether you fall on one side or the other, squarely in between, or are looking for a combination of everything, it pays to start planning several months out—with the following considerations in mind:

Most restaurants in Japan require reservations

Restaurants in Japan can be tiny (we’re talking 10-seater hole-in-the-walls), which means they fill up quickly. Dinner reservations are absolutely necessary and, for the most part, set in stone. Many establishments will charge cancellation fees equivalent to the cost of the meal—sometimes the cutoff is 24 hours, other times up to five days.

“Japanese culture is very orderly,” explains Sarah. “Nothing really happens haphazardly. There's a culture in general of making advance plans or appointments and respecting them, which includes restaurants.”

Reservations are primarily only accepted by phone, which presents two main challenges for foreign travelers:

  1. Time difference
    The window when most restaurants accept reservations is often during the middle of the night in the US.
  2. Language barrier
    Even if you do manage to get through on the phone, odds are the person on the other end won’t speak English.

And, more likely, no one will pick up at all since many establishments only accept reservations from a local Japanese number. And sometimes they don’t even field calls from third party travel agents at all.

If you do stroll into a restaurant without a reservation, don’t expect to be put on a waiting list. Even if there’s a spot open in two hours, you won’t be asked for your name and phone number. You’ll simply be turned away.

The best way to secure a reservation is to work with your hotel concierge or, of course, to travel with Journy. We work with a dedicated Japanese reservationist to snag those hard-to-get spots at the best restaurants, which is when we also double check to ensure that any and all dietary accommodations and/or allergies can be accommodated.  

Not every restaurant allows kids

Japan presents a few more challenges than other cities when it comes to traveling with the little ones—dining included. High-end sushi omakase and kaiseki restaurants generally don’t allow kids, so you’ll need to plan meals in advance to find spots that do keep in mind that certain restaurants still allow smoking inside, which doesn’t create the best environment for the little ones. A trustworthy resource to reference to find restaurants that welcome children is Tabelog, which is essentially the Japanese version of Yelp.

If you’d still like to experience a high-end meal, there are several excellent babysitting services available typically through your hotel—although this is something Journy would be happy to arrange for you.  

Compared to other major tourist spots, the cultural perception of “vegetarian” is quite loose in Japan

Eating meat was actually prohibited in Japan for more than a thousand years prior to 1868. In fact, it was only when beef prices started to drop in the early 1990s did the consumption of meat in the country spike.

So yes, going meat-free as a vegetarian in Japan is feasible. But avoiding fish? That’s trickier, especially because the cultural understanding of “vegetarian” is quite loose. Despite boasting a dizzying array of plant-based foods—from vegetables to legumes—many dishes are cooked in fish broth (dashi) or sprinkled with dried, fermented flakes of skipjack tuna (bonito or katsuobushi).

What’s more, many ramen joints have turned to machine-processed ordering, so you may not have the chance to interact with a server at all. And on the off-chance that you do (and that the language barrier doesn’t get in the way), it’s best not to request menu alterations like one would in other countries. It’s a decidedly un-Japanese practice that would likely be met with confusion.

But all hope is not lost for vegetarians in Japan. Far from it, actually. There are a variety of traditional Japanese foods safe for vegetarians to eat, as well as vegetarian-friendly cafés and restaurants popping up around the country. Again, Tabelog is the way to go when researching.

READ MORE:

1-2 months out

teamLab Borderless | @teamlab_borderless

Museums:

  • Ghibli Museum
    Purchase online through Lawson on the 10th of the month prior to the month you want to visit. Check early that morning, as the tickets sell out quickly—especially during peak tourist season.
    If you’re going to be in Japan for an extended period of time, you can purchase a ticket in-person at a Lawson Loppi machine (same timing—the 10th of the month prior). The bright red machines are usually located near the cashier.
  • Yayoi Kusama Museum
    Tickets for the Yayoi Kusama Museum go on sale on the official website at 10AM Japan time on the first day of each month for entry in the month after next. For example, tickets for entry from May 1 to May 31 go on sale March 1. Door tickets are never available.
    The museum is only open from Thursday to Sunday, with six, 90-minute time slots offered per day (50 tickets per time slot): 11AM, noon, 1PM, 2PM, 3PM, and 4PM.
  • teamLab Borderless Digital Art Museum
    You can purchase tickets in advance for the immersive teamLab Borderless Digital Art Museum directly on their website. Although there’s not a strict timeline for purchasing these tickets (this fall/winter, tickets haven’t been selling out and travelers have been able to purchase them day-of at the museum), during high season they do tend to sell out about a week in advance.
  • Chichu Art Museum on Naoshima
    Depending on the season, you may be able to purchase tickets day-of, but not during peak travel season. And because the tickets are timed in 15-minute intervals, it’s best to purchase in advance on the Benesse Art Site Naoshima official website to secure the time that works best for you.

Temples/Palaces:

  • Imperial Palace
    Although touring the Imperial Palace is free, it does require advance reservations (which can be made through the Imperial Household Agency) to secure your spot since the size of the group and frequency of tours are limited. The outdoor parks and gardens do not require reservations.
  • Saiho-ji Moss Temple
    Reservations for the Saiho-ji Moss Temple are made by mail, not online. Here’s how it works:
  1. Send a postcard to the temple with your name, the exact date that you’d like to visit, the number of people in your group, and the name/address of your “group representative” (essentially a point person, which can be you).
  2. Also send a self-addressed stamped postcard to be returned to you as confirmation of your visit (postcards can only be sent to Japan addresses).
  3. Bring the postcard with you on the day of your visit—this will serve as your ticket.

Entertainment:

  • Sumo Tournament (aka basho)
    We advise travelers to purchase tickets to a sumo tournament well in advance via Ticket Oosumo—the most reliable way to secure a spot at this quintessential Japanese experience. Tickets purchased online can be picked up at the box office in front of the stadium (using the large, white machines close to the ticketing office).
  • Robot Restaurant Show
    To secure your tickets to the show that Anthony Bourdain called “the greatest on Earth,” we advise booking well in advance through Get Your Guide.  Depending on the season (and how set you are on a specific day/time), you can book as far out as two-three months, and as close as two days prior.
  • Baseball Game
    Baseball, which was imported from the US in the late 1800s, is one of Japan’s most popular sports. As such, tickets sell out well in advance—especially if one of the country’s most popular teams are playing (Hanshin Tigers or Yomiuri Giants). To purchase tickets, head to the English version of the respective team’s website.

Food and drink

  • Toyosu Tuna Auction
    Visitors can experience the tuna auction at the Toyosu fish market from either the upper or lower observation deck. While the upper floor does not require advance sign-ups (you just need to arrive by around 5:30AM to snag a good spot), the lower floor does since it offers a more intimate experience with the ability to not only see what’s happening, but hear as well.
    Applications can be submitted via their official site, with English translations available at the bottom of the page. Because it works as a lottery system, applying does not guarantee you a spot.
    Application periods vary by the month in which you’re hoping to visit:

To visit in March → apply between February 4 and February 11
To visit in April → apply between March 4 and March 15
To visit in May and beyond → application dates may vary and will be announced in early April

  • Yamazaki Suntory Whisky Distillery
    There are two ways to enjoy the Yamazaki Suntory Whisky Distillery:
  1. A general museum viewing, which does not offer access to the production process.
    *Free but does require a reservation made directly through their official site.
  2. A distillery tour and whisky tasting
    *1000 yen per person, with bookings opening up two months prior to the month of your intended visit. For example, reservations for March 2020 open on 9:30AM January 8, 2020.

Specialized Activities:

For unique, authentically Japanese experiences that Journy has access to (e.g., sushi class, sake tasting, cooking in a local’s home, kid-friendly cooking classes, etc), you’ll absolutely need to reserve in advance. If you’re traveling with Journy on the FULL plan, your trip designer will take care of this for you.

7. For cost-effective transportation throughout Japan, consider purchasing the Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass).

1-3 months out

Bullet trains, or shinkansen, are by far the fastest and most convenient way to travel between cities in Japan. Many of Japan's small towns are also reachable by bullet train, though there are limited cases in which a bus might be necessary. Unless you're traveling far north to Hokkaido or far south to Okinawa, we don't recommend flying between cities.

If you're visiting multiple cities in Japan, a JR Rail Pass may be a smart choice for convenience (with the exception of the Nozomi trains, you can take any train without an advance booking, so there are no issues if you ever miss a train—you can just hop on the next one). You can also make seat reservations at no extra cost if you like having a specific train time scheduled for peace of mind. As a general rule of thumb, if you'll be traveling round-trip between Tokyo and Kyoto or Osaka within a week period, the seven-day JR Pass is worth it.

The JR Pass is only available to foreigners traveling in Japan and must be purchased well BEFORE you leave via jrpass.com. You should order it at least 10 days before you leave for Japan, as they ship a voucher to your international address. While you can get one in Japan, it's harder and more expensive to do so. (If you travel with Journy, your trip designer can take care of this for you.)

You will need to activate your pass once you arrive in Japan at Tokyo Station or at another exchange point in the city. Pay attention to which day you'd like your pass to start—for example, if you're traveling in Japan for 10 days but will only be traveling by train for seven days, you'll want your pass to become active on the day of your first train trip.

If the JR Pass doesn't make economical sense for your itinerary, you can purchase individual bullet train tickets upon arrival. Outside of major holiday periods (Golden Week in May; Obon Week in August; New Years), there's no need to reserve these tickets in advance. Trains run very often (several times an hour between Tokyo and Kyoto, for instance), so there's rarely a risk that you won't be able to travel on your desired day and time.

8. Plan your train routes using HyperDia and SUICA

1-3 months out

Japanguide.com

HyperDia is a website and iOS/Android app that’s our preferred tool when planning transportation routes throughout pretty much any city, town, and village in Japan. It provides:

  • Up-to-date timetables
  • Trip duration
  • Trip distance
  • Departure and arrival track
  • Number of transfers
  • Seat fare to and from your destination
  • Useful links (e.g., car rental services, close by restaurants, hotels, etc)

It’s particularly helpful for travelers who have opted to purchase the JR Pass, as it’ll tell you which routes are and are not valid with the pass—with the option to exclude Nozomi and Mizuhu trains.

9. Take note of these souvenirs that you shouldn’t leave Japan without

1-3 months in advance

Thrillz.

From Tokyo:

  • DIY Bonsai Set
    From Tokyo’s most famous souvenir shop, Oriental Bazaar in Omotesando (it comes with seeds, soil, and a pot).
  • Edo Kiriko Glass
    This would make for the perfect gift alongside a bottle of your favorite sake.
  • Kyukyodo Incense
    There are stores in Ginza, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, and Soramachi.
  • Traditional Japanese crafts in Asakusa
    e.g., wooden umbrellas and combs
  • Tokyo Tamago Gomatamago
    White chocolate-covered cakes filled with black sesame (kuro goma) bean paste
  • Isshin-do Kabuki Sheet Masks
    Which can be found in many beauty/drug stores around the city.

From Kyoto:

  • Limited-edition Kyoto Kit-Kats
    The Houji-cha (roasted green tea) Kit-Kat is a collaboration between Japan's well-known shop, Itoh Kyuemon and Nestle.
  • Japanese knife
    Manufactured in the same way as swords, Japanese knives are celebrated as collectors’ items for their beauty. In Kyoto in particular, there are several famous blacksmiths, including Aritsugu, the blacksmith for the oldest imperial palace in Kyoto.  
  • Kyoto doll
    Kyoto is a hotbed of doll production, with many on display (some of which sport elaborate kimonos) at the Kyoto Handicraft Center.

From Hakone:

  • Black eggs
    Also known as kuro tamago, these unique eggs—which are believed to add seven years to your life if you eat up to (but not more than) two and a half—are boiled for about an hour in 176°F spring water from Owakudani hot springs before transferred to a pot of 212° F water for another 15 minutes. Because of the chemical reaction between the geothermal heat and volcanic gas, the egg shells turn black.
  • Onsen manju
    These adzuki bean paste-filled buns are steamed with water from the onsen, making them  a unique treat from Hakone. They can be found in souvenir shops throughout the city.
  • Egg-based Hakone pudding
    Hakone’s signature pudding is made with fresh, local eggs and served out of a mini plastic egg—making it an easy souvenir to bring back home for friends and family.
  • Kokeshi Dolls
    These little wooden dolls sporting chubby faces and barrel-shaped bodies hail from the Edo Era and once symbolized the good health of the child who was playing with it. Today, they’ve become a symbol of traditional culture throughout Japan—and especially in Hakone. Although many today are mass produced, travelers can still find handmade dolls at Rokuro-Kobo-Katase.

From Hiroshima:

  • Moshio of Kaito (seaweed salt)
    Hiroshima’s signature seaweed salt from the Seto Inland Sea is prized throughout Japan for its savory taste.
  • Oyster crackers
    This Akitsu specialty, which can be found throughout Hiroshima at train stations, department stores, and the airport, is made with potatoes and whole oysters—the perfect pairing for sake and beer.
  • Hassaku Jelly
    Hassaku Jelly is made with a fresh citrus fruit by the same name grown in Hiroshima’s Innoshima island.
  • Hiroshima Carp Goods
    Attention all baseball fans! Hiroshima is home to one of Japan’s best professional teams—Hiroshima Carp. So while you’re there, be sure to pick up branded jerseys and hats.

From Osaka:

  • Anything Takoyaki-flavored
    Made with a wheat flour-based batter that’s cooked in a molded pan and filled with anything from diced octopus to pickled ginger, Takoyaki is commonly thought of as the national street food of Osaka. As such, many Japanese snack companies have created their version of the city’s favorite treat—from potato sticks to prawn crackers.
  • Anything Okonomiyaki-flavored
    Another popular street food in Osaka is okonomiyaki, a cabbage or noodle-based savory pancake that translates to “how you like it” (and is almost always made to order). Keep an eye out for snacks mimicking the flavor of this traditional street food, such as rice crackers topped with freeze-dried okonomiyaki toppings.
  • Bâton d'or
    These sweet sticks are made with dough that’s kneaded together with butter and flavored with everything from chocolate to matcha, coffee to cinnamon. Although you can find similar treats around the world, the rare Bâton d’or can only be found in Osaka.
  • Osaka Petite Banana
    For another sweet souvenir, stock up on Osaka’s beloved Petit Banana, which are fluffy and light cakes filled with custard cream and, as the name suggests, bananas.

READ MORE: The Best Souvenirs You Can Only Buy In Japan

10. Plan your days with geographical proximity in mind, keeping note of select out-of-the-way activities.

1-3 months out

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

Tokyo and Kyoto are both large cities, so you’ll want to plan your days with geographic proximity in mind to avoid spending hours on public transportation criss-crossing the city for meals, activities, and other sightseeing.

In Tokyo, for example, it’ll take you about 45 minutes to get from Ginza, where you may be staying, to Shinjuku or Shibuya. And then there are other, smaller neighborhoods (e.g., Shimokitazawa, Rikugi-en Garden, and Old Tokyo in the Yanesen district), which are a bit out of the way—so travel time should be factored into your daily plan as well.

In Kyoto, the more remote neighborhoods and attractions include the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Ryōan-ji/Kinkaku-ji temple in the northwest corner of the city, and the Fushimi Inari shrine recognizable around the world with its bright orange torii gates.

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11. Master these cultural do’s and don’ts and brush up on key Japanese phrases

1-2 months out

Sanjusangendo Temple | @sunles

Japan is an incredibly polite and manners-driven country, so much so that there are campaigns in the subways emphasizing the importance of good manners. Some things to keep in mind:

Cultural Etiquette Tips

  • Riding an escalator
    In Tokyo, people stand on the left side of the escalator and leave the right side open for those walking, while in the Kansai region (Kyoto and Osaka), people stand on the right side and leave the left side open. This is an important custom to observe. Even if there's no one else on the escalator you're on, if someone on the escalator across from you sees you standing on the wrong side, you may be frowned upon.
  • Smoking
    Smoking is very common in Japan, and although many restaurants and bars have non-smoking sections, many still don’t. Be prepared that many izakayas (late-night casual eateries) and bars may be filled with smoke.
  • On the subway
    It's best to keep your voice down when riding the subway. In general, speaking loudly or boisterously in most settings is frowned upon (nights out being an exception!).
  • Temples/Shrines
    As with all places of worship, it's best to be calm and respectful when visiting. While there aren't strict dress codes, relatively modest clothing is recommended. You'll often be asked to remove your shoes before entering temples.
  • Sushi
    In Japan, you will pretty much never find a California roll or a crazy roll. The sushi at restaurants here is primarily nigiri, which means a piece of fish (called the neta) placed on top of a piece of vinegar-seasoned sushi rice (called the shari). Sushi is actually much more about the rice than the fish (the word neta actually means seasoning, so in this case it's simply seasoning for the rice). At the end of a sushi omakase meal, however, the chef may make a maki hand roll. Typically, these are simple rolls with seaweed, rice and one to two ingredients, max (you'll see tuna, or negi-toro and scallion, or oshinko— a type of pickled gourd—or mackerel with shiso leaf, as is customary in Kyoto).
  • Ryokan rules
    Ryokans come with their own etiquette guidelines, and while you're not expected to follow them to a T as a foreigner, it's best to go in armed with a little knowledge about what to expect. More on that here.  

Cultural do’s

  • Bow to show greet or show gratitude
    It's customary to greet another person by bowing in Japan, even if just a small nod of the head. When addressing someone or showing gratitude, bowing is a very important way to show respect. The longer and lower one bows, the more important the other person is shown to be. If giving or receiving a business card, accept with both hands.
  • Ask before taking a photo
    Even though you've seen countless photos online of Japanese people and food in restaurants, it's not common in Japan for people to be photographed at random. In fact, on Tabelog, the Japanese version of Yelp, people's faces are typically blurred out. If you're at a formal omakase restaurant sitting in front of the chef and you'd like to take a photo of the sushi, it's polite to first ask, "Sashin o totte mo ii desuka?" (May I take a photo?). You'll be in the chef's good graces with your kind manners for sure. And while photographing a geisha in Gion is on many visitors' lists of Japan to-dos, be cognizant that they are often on their way to work. The best way to photograph a geisha is by signing up to see a performance at a local ryokan.
  • Wait by the entrance when entering a restaurant or cocktail bar
    While not necessary for casual, street-food type establishments, when entering a restaurant or bar, it's generally best to wait politely by the entrance for someone to wave you in. When we showed up to a famous Tokyo bar recently, there were two Americans in front of us who barged in and tried to take the empty seats at the bar—which happened to be reserved—and they were promptly told that the bar had no availability for the rest of the night. We walked in and waited by the door, and the host told us to come back in 45 minutes and he would have seats for us. It pays to always err on the side of being polite!
  • Arrive on time
    Reservations are taken very seriously in Japan, in part due to the small size of many Japanese restaurants (some have 10 seats or less). It's vital that you arrive on time for your reservation or cancel well in advance if you won't be able to make it. Some restaurants—particularly high-end sushi omakase and kaiseki restaurants—charge 100 percent cancellation fees for no-shows or cancellations less than 24 hours in advance. Some even charge fees for cancellations less than five days in advance, so pay attention to the specific restaurant's policy.
  • Slurp
    Slurping is polite—Japaneseramen and soba is designed so that it tastes better with a bit of aeration. You're encouraged to slurp and get some air with your noodles to maximize flavor intake. Really.
  • Always finish your food
    Japan is very serious about minimize waste of all kinds (they have a recycling system that requires residents to sort their trash into more than 20 categories). This also applies to food. In some ramen shops, you'll be asked if you'd like a small, medium or large portion of noodles. Beware! If you order the large, you'll have to finish them, and it's considered rude if you don't. The same goes at kaiseki and sushi omakase restaurants—particularly because the chef is right in front of you. For this reason, we don't recommend kaiseki dining if you're not an adventurous eater.

Cultural don’ts

  • Put ginger on your sushi
    Whatever you do, do NOT put ginger on top of your fish. Also, when eating at the counter at a sushi omakase restaurant, the chef will dress all your sushi pieces for you directly—you can let him know if you have a preference for more or less wasabi, or more or less soy sauce.
  • Wear perfume
    Avoid wearing perfume or cologne, particularly to high-end dinners. The belief is that the smell will interfere with your palate and the more subtle flavors in the food.
  • Walk and eat
    Eating while walking is considered rude in Japan (ice cream cones being the exception). You'll also notice few trash cans in public for this reason.

Key phrases to know before your trip to Japan:

  • Hello – Konnichiwa (kon-nee-chee-WAH)
  • Nice to meet you – Hajimemashite (hah-jee-meh-MOSH-teh)
  • Please (request) – Onegai shimasu (oh-neh-gigh shee-moss)
  • Please (offer) – Dozo (DOH-zo)
  • Thank you – Arigatou (ah-ree-GAH-toh)
  • Thank you very much – Dōmo arigatō [gozaimashita]. (doh-moh ah-ree-GAH-toh [go-zai-mash-tah])
  • You're welcome – Dou itashi mashite (doh EE-tah-shee mosh-teh)
  • Yes – Hai (HIGH)
  • No – Iie (EE-eh)
  • Good morning – Ohayou gozaimasu (o-HAI-yo go-zai-MASS)
  • Good afternoon – Konnichiwa (kon-nee-chee-WAH)
  • Good evening – Konbanwa (Kon-ban-WAH)
  • Good-bye – Sayounara (Sai-YO-nah-rah)
  • Excuse me – Sumimasen (suh-MEE-mah-sen)
  • Where is....? – ....Doko desu ka? (doh-koh dess KAH?)
  • Where is the toilet? – Toilet wa doko desu ka? (Toy-ray WA doh-koh dess KAH?)

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12. Don’t forget these essentials when packing for your trip to Japan (including pocket WiFi)

1 month out

Depending on what time of year you'll be in Japan and where you're visiting, you'll want to pack accordingly.

  • Winter
    From December through February, Tokyo gets quite cold, with temperatures ranging from lows of 35 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit to highs of 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Meanwhile, in the southern areas of Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima, it's slightly warmer. On a recent visit to Kyoto in December, we were fine some days in jeans, a T-shirt and a light jacket at night, but as most travelers will be flying in through Tokyo and spending time there, you'll want to be sure to pack a warm coat. If traveling to Hokkaido, the ski season starts around the end of November or early December and extends through May, so expect it to be cold for quite a long time.
  • Spring
    March through May is one of the most popular times to visit Japan, as cherry blossom season typically hits in mid-April, and temperatures range from lows of 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit to highs of 55 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. There's a greater chance of rain during these months (an average of eight or nine days), but there's no need to pack an umbrella, as you can purchase one in Japan easily at convenience stores. Also, the new Olympics taxis are also equipped with clear umbrellas for passengers to take when it's raining.
  • Summer
    June through August in Japan is hot and humid, as the 600-plus islands are mostly sub-tropical. In Tokyo, expect lows of 66 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit and highs of 78 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit, and eight to 11 days of rain per month. In the south, it gets warmer with highs above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, especially in August.
  • Fall
    September is peak rainy season in Japan, with an average of 12 days of rain, and the beginning of the month is still hot and humid. Temperatures drop in October and November with highs of just 62 to 71 degrees Fahrenheit and lows of 50 to 58 degrees Fahrenheit. It's a perfect time to visit and check out the fall foliage.

Power adaptors Japanese plugs deliver 100V instead of the US's 110V, but the lower voltage won't be an issue—you'll still be able to plug in your devices without needing a voltage adapter.

However, the built-in wall plugs typically don't work with US multi-pronged plugs (the ones where one side is wider than the other, or the ones with three prongs), so you'll need to bring a plug adapter. If you're staying in a four- or five-star hotel, you can ask the front desk to borrow one for the duration of your stay.

Pocket Wifi: We highly recommend travelers rent pocket Wifi for their time in Japan, which can either be pre-ordered online or rented once you arrive at the airport. Keep in mind, though, that during busy periods, airport vendors may sell out.

13. Double check to make sure you don’t need a visa (US travelers don’t)

1-3 months out

US citizens don’t need a visa (and neither do citizens of 67 other countries, including Canada, UK, almost all European nations, Australia, and New Zealand). You'll essentially be issued a no-fee, 90-day visitor visa when you arrive. Just make sure your passport is valid (not expired) for the entire duration of your trip, as well as your flight back. For more information, refer to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan website.

14. Decide before you leave how you want to get from the airport to your hotel—and make proper arrangements, if necessary.

1-2 months out

Tokyo Tower

In Tokyo...

Tokyo has two airports: Narita and Haneda. Most international flights arrive and depart from Narita International Airport, which is the larger international airport, and is 37 miles from central Tokyo. Some international flights land in Haneda Airport, though it mostly handles domestic flights. It is 16 miles from central Tokyo. Tokyo Station is the city's largest hub for shinkansen, or bullet train, travel.

The fastest and easiest way to travel to central Tokyo from Narita is via the Narita Airport Express (N'EX). This train departs from Narita every half an hour and takes about an hour to reach Tokyo Station. It's not necessary to purchase tickets in advance, though we do recommend buying a round-trip ticket on arrival if you'll also be departing from Narita, as it's more cost-effective (3,020 yen each way, or 4,000 yen per adult round-trip). The Narita Express diverges at Tokyo Station to either Yokohama or Shinjuku. If you're staying in either Shinjuku or Shibuya, be sure to catch a N'EX train bound for Shinjuku Station.

If you’re flying into Haneda, you can take the Tokyo Monorail to connect with the JR Yamanote line to travel between the airport and central Tokyo. Flat-rate taxis are also available at Haneda to certain parts of Tokyo, and start at about 5,900 yen.

In Kyoto...

All travelers to Kyoto will come through Kyoto Station, the city's only major train station. Kyoto doesn't have its own airport, so the nearest airports are Osaka's Kansai (60 miles away) and Itami (30 miles away) airports.

From Kansai, catch the JR Haruka limited express train, which bypasses Osaka Station and stops only at Shin-Osaka Station and then Kyoto Station. Trains depart every 30 minutes and cost 2,850 yen for a non-reserved seat and 3,500 yen for a reserved seat. The trip takes an hour and 10 minutes. If you’re unable to stand for that long, purchasing the reserved seat ticket is recommended, as this train can be crowded.

If you’re flying into Osaka's domestic airport, Itami (formally known as Osaka International Airport), airport buses are the most direct option. The limousine buses connect Itami with Kyoto Station and take about 1 hour, costing 1,310 yen each way.

15. Make sure you have cash handy, as well as a debit card that’s compatible with Japanese ATMs.

1 month out

In general, it's best to keep lots of cash handy when traveling to Japan. Despite how modern the country is, many small shops, ramen joints, and even some higher-end sushi places are cash-only and don't accept credit cards. We recommend that travelers withdraw money directly from an ATM to save on any exchange fees. In Japan, you can withdraw money from ATMs in convenience stores like Lawson or 7-Eleven, which are on practically every other corner. Some visitors have had trouble with the ATMs in Lawsons, but the 7-Eleven ATMs work without fail and are just as ubiquitous.

While the exchange rate fluctuates, a good rule of thumb is to think of 100 yen as $1. So when you're at a sushi restaurant and the price is listed as 20,000 yen, that's about $200.

If you open a Charles Schwab brokerage account before your trip (there's no fee to do this, and the brokerage account has no minimum deposit or fees), you can get a Charles Schwab debit card, which offers unlimited fee rebates from any ATM worldwide, no minimum-balance requirement and no foreign transaction fees.


Want to hear what real Journy travelers had to say about their experience in Japan? Meet Sukhjeet, who experienced Japan with his wife and 16-month-old-son, Sarah, who went on a family reunion (with toddlers!) to Japan, and  Jasmine, who traveled to Japan for one very important reason: to eat.

inspiration
3 January 2020
33 min read

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