Japan is a fascinating place. It’s a country thriving on contradictions. Being an island that was closed to foreigners for many years, it is like a cultural Galapagos. Japan might be part of Asia, but it is worlds apart from many Asian countries. The Land of the Rising Sun has a completely unique culture and simply cannot be compared to any other Nation.
In Japan ancient history and socially ingrained traditions live alongside space-age technology and high-tech development. Whilst Nikon is a thoroughly modern country, it looks nothing like Western society. The Japanese have cultivated a strong national identity that is only enhanced by their modern technology. From ancient temples and shrines, incredibly elegant Geishas to high-speed trains and maid cafes — a trip to Japan is an assault to the senses.
It’s a wonderful destination for all types of travellers. Its culture, its ancient temples, Mount Fuji and its booming food tourism industry are all great reasons to visit Japan. The country also has an advanced transportation infrastructure that makes navigating a cinch. We visited for the first time in 2015. After many years of travel, we stood under Tokyo’s towering skyline and felt a wave of culture shock wash over us. It’s not like any place we have visited before. Japan will astonish and fascinate even the most seasoned of travellers.
Japan is a small country and the high-speed train system allows you to navigate from top to bottom in a flash. There’s a lot to see, however, and each area has its own vibe. You can explore the highlights in just a one- or two-week trip or to try to spend longer in each city to get under the skin and understand the culture of each place. We found it took a few days just to overcome the overwhelm and learn how everything works. The Japanese love systems, so from ordering your food to navigating their trains, there’s a precise system and you’ll need to figure it out!
Here is some advice to help you plan your own trip to Japan. The tips below are notes from our own adventure:
WHEN TO VISIT JAPAN
Unless you are incredibly keen on witnessing the cherry blossom and autumn foliage displays, I would advise against travelling to Japan in the high season (from the end of March through to August). Instead try to opt for one of the shoulder seasons (June, July and September – December) or the low season from January to March. We visited Japan in September and the weather was nice and warm with a couple of rainy days in between.
THE LENGTH OF YOUR TRIP
Japan might seem quite small on the World map, especially in comparison to some of the bigshots, but there is certainly a lot to see and do in this country. To be honest, two weeks is probably a very meagre amount of time to allocate to a trip to Japan – especially if you want to tour the country.
However unless you are a Digital Nomad, recent graduate, on your honeymoon or just filthy rich, two weeks is probably the maximum amount of time you can allocate to this trip. If you have a couple of extra weeks spare, it should be easy to extend your journey by another week or two.
A SUGGESTED ITINERARY FOR JAPAN
Whether you’re staying for one week, two weeks, three weeks or potentially a month, your general route will stay the same. You will start your Journey in Tokyo, then travel to Takayama, Hiroshima and Kyoto. These four cities will form the base of your itinerary. You can then add as little or as many supplementary side-trips – to locations such as Hakone, Kamakura, Nikko, Shirakawago, Mijayima Island and Nara – as you like.
We spent two weeks in Japan and visited these places in the following order: 1. Tokyo – 2. Hakone – 3. Kamakura – 4. Takayama – 5.Shirakawago – 6. Hiroshima– 7. Miyajima Island – 8. Kyoto – 9. Nara
Japan can be an expensive country to visit, in fact, it has the unfortunate reputation of being unaffordable. It is true that Japan isn’t cheap, but it certainly isn’t more expensive than London and probably comparable cost-wise to most other first world countries.
I truly believe you can adapt your travel budget to the size of your bank account. There are plenty of ways to save money. But in general, do your budget research so you are comfortable spending a bit of money to enjoy the sights and food. You can save food costs by grabbing snacks at the convenience stores, but you’ll likely also want to sample all the delicious soups, sushi, and foods of Japan.
We happened to visit Japan as its economy was in the down-low. The cost of our accommodation and flights were probably a little cheaper than usual. We also saved money by booking our accommodation in Tokyo in combination with our Flights and picking one of the special deals from Expedia.
I would suggest you budget at least 1500£ per person for two weeks in Japan. I have written a detailed Post about traveling to Japan on a Budget. For now, this is a rough summary of what we spent (per person).
|Flights + Hotel||700£|
|Sightseeing and Daytrips||350£|
NOTE: I highly recommend you book and pay your Hotel and Flights in advance. Despite its highly futuristic image, Japan can be quite old-fashioned when it comes to payment options. Very few places will accept card payments and only a restricted amount of ATMs work with foreign debit cards. My advice would be to bring enough cash to cover all your additional expenses.
If you are flying to Japan, you’ll likely want to arrive either in Haneda or Narita airport. There is a very good selection of flights to Japan. We flew with one of the cheaper airlines – Turkish Airways – and were pretty pleased.
Japan has an extensive and effective rail network and it’s most likely how you will be travelling from city to city. Download the Hyperdia app before you leave and use it to find the best train routes throughout the country — this app is detailed and highly accurate. When in doubt, use a ticket agent to book travel as they can usually find someone behind the counter who knows a bit of English.
In addition to your JR Pass (see below), you’ll want to buy a Suica card from a vending machine or ticket agent. You pre-load this card with money to easily to pay for local rail/subway lines, and it also works at the vending machines.
Whether you plan to stay a week or two in Japan, my top tip is to buy a Japan RailPass before you go. The JR Pass is the VIP of all train tickets. Your Japan Railpass gives you unlimited access to all JR Trains (including certain bullet trains). You only need to travel three times on a Shinkansen Train to cover the cost of the pass. If you plan to follow my suggested itinerary, the JR Pass will definitely be money well spent.
In order to save some money, my Partner and I bought a one-week JR Pass for our two week trip in Japan. I will be writing a detailed guide about the Japan Railpass in the near future. But, for now, you can book your ticket at jrpass.com.
Please note that you must buy one before you enter the country. This pass is only for tourists and cannot be bought once you arrive.
> Read my Guide to the Japan Railpass
ACCOMMODATION IN JAPAN
Accommodation is one of the most expensive parts of traveling in Japan. There are no truly budget options.
Japan does however offers a wide range of accommodation types in both Japanese and Western styles. Rates per night range from less than 2,000 yen per person (currently 10£) in a dormitory to over 50,000 yen per person (currently 270£) in a first class Hotel or Ryokan.
Ryokans (and their budget versions, called, minshuku) are the traditional Japanese guesthouses and are the best spot to learn about the cultural traditions related to food and hospitality. If you can, plan at least a couple of nights in one of these. Japan also has the quirky capsule, or pod, hotels where you essentially sleep in a high-tech cupboard.
I highly recommend AirBnB if you are in any city for a few days — this is a great way to lower costs and have a lot of amenities included in the price of your stay.
For backpackers, Hostelworld is perfect for pre-booking hostels; in high season, the things book up fast. If you’re visiting during Cherry Blossom season you need to book many months in advance. Also, consider finding good mid-range options on Agoda. If none of these will do, check out my detailed guide to finding good places to stay.
My partner and I decided to stay in mid-range hotels. Our daily rate averaged at 3750 yen per person (currently 20£). Most of our Hotels had two or three stars and we always booked a semi-double room. I have written a very detailed breakdown of our travel budget for Japan that you are welcome to read.
Semi-Double Rooms are a specific category of Bedrooms available in Japan. Most Japanese Hotels will offer both semi-double and double bedrooms, with the doubles being a larger room and usually having a larger bed. Typically the semi-double classification is applied to a very large single room that can be shared by two people. The bed width usually ranged from 120 to 140 cm, depending on the Hotel. In my opinion, 140 centimetres is perfectly adequate for two adults. 120 centimetres, on the other hand, can be a bit tight. You should be able to find the dimensions of the bed online in you search hard enough. Alternatively, you can email the Hotel or post the question on a Forum such as Tripadvisor. Someone will usually answer the question. I admit that I was a little worried at first about our decision to book semi-double bedrooms. But we had a good night’s sleep in every Hotel we booked.
The following is a list of Hotels we stayed at during our Trip to Japan:
TOKYO – 7 Nights – Hotel Grand Arc Hanzomon
TAKAYAMA – 2 Nights, included Breakfast (but not paricularly good) – Hida Takayama Washington Hotel Plaza
HIROSHIMA – 2 Nights – Chisun Hotel Hiroshima
KYOTO – 2 Nights – Urban Hotel Kyoto
TOKYO – 1 Night – Hotel Grand Arc Hanzomon
> Read more my Japan Hotel Reviews
Japanese cuisine (和食) has to be one of the best in the world! It offers a huge variety of gastronomical delights with a boundless variety of regional and seasonal dishes. Restaurants range from mobile food stands to centuries old ryotei, atmospheric drinking places, seasonally erected terraces over rivers, cheap chain shops and unique theme restaurants about ninja and robots.
My boyfriend is a picky eater, who will not touch vegetables, fruit, seafood and many types of meat. I was a little worried and feared we would be spending way too much time in American Fast Food Chains. Food is a huge deal for me and one of my favourite ways of exploring a different Culture and Country. I had nightmares that we would be fighting over where to eat. This was not the case. Japan has such a large variety of dishes, that there really is something to eat for everyone, even the pickiest of eaters. Many restaurants are however specialized in a single type of dish and we did sometimes have to eat in two different restaurants to satisfy both of our appetites.
Dishes we tasted included Sushi, Sashimi, Kaisen Don, Tempura, Katsu Curry, Udon, Soba, Ramen, Yakitura and a lot of rice. Japnese Rice taste a whole lot better than in Europe. It is Japan’s most important crop and has been cultivated across the country for over 2000 years. It is the primary staple food of the Japanese diet and it is said that no Japanese Meal is deemed complete without a Bowl of Rice.
Food Considerations: If you are a vegetarian, travelling to Japan might be a little tricky for you. The concept is not widely understood. You will need good translations and research ahead of time to suss out what you can eat. Happy Cow has great vegetarian restaurant recommendations for cities across Japan.
LUGGAGE IN JAPAN
Whether you stay a week or two in Japan, you will want to pack lightly. Most Hotel Rooms will be very small and won’t have enough space for two large suitcases. If you are planning to travel about, you want to bear in mind that most trains do not provide space for bulky luggage. Also, even though the accessibility situation at stations has improved considerably over recent years, some platforms are still not equipped with escalators or elevators or you might have to make a detour to get to one. You also need to remember that most Hotels do not allow you to check-in until 2 PM. Some Hotels will hold on to your luggage in the meantime, but this is by no way guaranteed.
Gary and I packed very light. We shared an average sized suitcase. Additionally we had a very small carry-on suitcase and two backpacks for our daily journeys. This made use mobile and ready for any situations. I will definitely include a guide to packing your suitacse for Japan in one of the alter posts of the series.
> Read more about packing for Japan
JAPAN IN A NUTSHELL
Currency: Japanese Yen (JPY) (current exchange rate)
Electricity: 100V/50-60Hz (North American plug; usually two prong, without the ground. Often has both flat pins the same size. You may need an adapter.)
Primary Airports: Tokyo’s Narita Airport (NRT). Tokyo’s Haneda Airport (HND). Osaka’s Kansai Airport (KIX).
Water: Safe. Bring a water bottle and fill from the tap as you travel.
Internet Situation: Japan has excellent internet; it’s among the fastest in the world. No matter where you travel, you can essentially count on easy internet access. Many guesthouses offer WiFi for free.
Local SIM: I highly recommend you secure a SIM card or pocket wifi once you land. Although it’s not cheap, it is handy. Outside of the touristy areas, English signage and penetration is very low. Having access to the internet will allow you to easily navigate the trains, check routes, and translate on the fly. Though you can sometimes secure a SIM at the airport, their tariffs are often steep. We rented a pocket wifi from Global Advanced Communications. It was sent to our Hotel in Tokyo, and overall we were very pleased with it.
Visas: Citizens of North America, UK, and Europe do not need a visa to enter for 90 days. Longer extensions are available for some of these countries, and most outside of these regions will need to apply ahead of time. Full visa requirements here.
Festivals of Note: Hanami, or rather Cherry Blossom season is a popular time to visit (end of March through early April). Sapporo Snow Festival (February). Fuji Rock Festival (July). Tokushima’s Awa Odori Festival (August). Golden Week (April 29 – May 5 — it’s nearly impossible to find accommodation during this week.)
Safety: Japan is incredibly safe. Crazy safe. The culture runs to a rigid set of rules and citizens adhere to these cultural norms. Very young children ride the subways alone. Scams are rare, if not non-existent. Though crowded, pickpocketing and petty crimes just don’t happen outside of, perhaps, the airport area. Anything that befalls you will be accidental. There are some reports of a sleazy behaviour from men on the trains, but it’s rare. Even with Japan’s safety, insurance is about more than destination safety. Nevertheless, I am a firm advocate of securing travel insurance for every trip.
If you are planning a trip to Japan, you might want to consider buying one of the following guidebooks. All of these books are ones that we used ourselves on our trip and that I highly recommend. The links below are affiliate links and will leads you on to Amazon. If you purchase one of the books, I will receive a small commission – at no extra expense to you. This will help us fund our travels and create more content for you. Thank you!