Welcome to the land where everything just works. The land of convenience, the land of delicious food, paradox, naked strangers, and where respect permeates through every part of society and culture. In Japan the food can be described as clean and minimalist, but never simple, which probably sums up Japan as a whole. It’s a place that both lives up to, and out does, any expectation you have upon arrival.
They have the fastest, sleekest, most efficient trains (ever!), but they still have paper posters pegged up on their Tokyo subway. Yeah, they have amazing futuristic architecture, but they also have countless traditional wooden buildings in amongst it all.
Yes, they have the busiest people crossing in the world (Shibuya), but at no point is it ever chaotic, no need for anyone to bang on a cab screaming, “Hey, I’m walking here!”.
Yes, they have scores of scarily trendy, funkily clad young people who like to cosplay on weekends, but they also have evening family outings to sentos (public bathhouses).
In this post, we’ll help you make sense of it all and share our best tips for planning a trip to Japan.
We’ve visited Japan in all four seasons and don’t think there’s a bad time to go.
In winter, it’s chilly but crowds are lower, you’ll find great deals on accommodation, and you’ll really appreciate those onsens (hot springs). You can also go skiing or snowboarding and have the best chance of seeing snow-capped Mount Fuji.
In summer, it can be steaming hot and humid, but there are fewer foreign tourists around and lots of local festivals to enjoy. It’s also the best time to visit the many beaches and the only time you can climb Mount Fuji.
The most popular and best overall times to visit Japan are spring (March-April) and autumn (October – early December). This is when you can enjoy the gorgeous cherry blossoms (sakura) or autumn leaves (koyo). It’s more crowded and expensive, but the weather can be ideal and it is just stunning.
Shoulder seasons May and late-September/early October are also good times to visit with warm weather and lower crowds.
See our guide to visiting the Kyoto cherry blossoms for more information on the popular sakura season.
Before Your Japan Trip:
- Practice even rudimentary Japanese—numbers are very useful! The Pimsleur Japanese audio course is good for learning the basics.
- Get an International Driving Permit. You’ll need this for go-karting on the real Tokyo roads dressed as your favorite character. Insanity but one of the most fun things we’ve done in Japan.
- Buy travel insurance. Healthcare is expensive in Japan, so make sure you are covered in case the worst happens. We use and recommend Heymondo and SafetyWing (both available worldwide).
- Make sure your phone is unlocked so you can buy a data SIM card in Japan (we got a Umobile SIM from a vending machine at Tokyo Narita Airport). Having access to maps and Google Translate makes life so much easier.
- Read our guide on the best places to visit in Japan to decide where interests you most and come up with an itinerary. You’ll find some suggestions below and also see the video above.
General Dos and Don’ts in Japan
- Get a Japanese Rail Pass. There’s no way around this, it’s a bloody fortune ($430/£327 per person for a 2-week pass), but one that more than pays you back. The luxury of shinkansen (bullet train) hopping is exhilarating. No need to book seats in advance, just choose a train, wave your pass and hop on. Be warned, though, decide now whether to get one or not. You can’t get these babies inside the country. Yes, that’s right. They’re magic passes that are only available to foreigners and you need to order online from JRailPass.com. Read our guide to whether a Japan Rail Pass is worth it for everything you need to know (in some cases it works out cheaper to pay as you go).
- Bow if you are being bowed to. If you can manage it too, don’t turn your back upon exit. Don’t overdo it though or you’ll be a total gaijin, no need to bow to the supermarket checkout person!
- Say “moshi moshi” when you ring someone on the telephone. It’s the Japanese version of the Chinese “wai” which all roughly translates as…hello! I don’t know why, us Asians just have a separate hello for the phone!
- Pre-book accommodation. Wise anyway as the more affordable accommodation fills up fast, but also in line with the whole respect thing, Japanese people like to be prepared for your arrival. So don’t just randomly rock up at a ryokan for the night! Booking.com is our favourite site for finding hotels and guesthouses, and we also use Vrbo find apartments in the big cities (which are often cheaper than hotels). See our Japan accommodation guide for recommendations.
- Go onsening! You might want to skip this in summer as hot doesn’t even come close to describing the water temperatures! But soaking in a hot spring is one of the most typical things to do in Japan and is ultra relaxing once you get over your fears of public nudity (yep, no clothes allowed!). Best of all, visit an onsen town where you can onsen-hop dressed in a kimono. See our Kinosaki Onsen travel guide for details on this lovely onsen town as well as hot spring etiquette.
- Open the door if taking a taxi. They are either automated or the white-gloved drive will open it for you. It’s also a good idea to have your destination’s address written down in Japanese to show the driver as most don’t speak English (although Kyoto Station now has a foreigner-friendly taxi queue).
- Eat non-Japanese. We only tried this once in Fukuoka. We had an Indian curry craving, but after that experience we went straight back to Japanese. (Erin: We have eaten some delicious Indian and Italian food in Japan, but I agree that the local cuisine is so incredible that why risk it?)
- Be impatient. Things will get sorted for you. The good thing about Japan though is that you probably won’t ever find yourself getting impatient anyway, everything, smoooootthhhhh as.
- Forget to check opening hours – Japanese restaurants aren’t usually open all day and both restaurants and attractions usually have a last order/entry 30 to 60 minutes before closing.
- Go whizzing around the country too much. I wish we had had more time to stay longer in certain places. It can save energy to base yourself in one place and take day trips as we did in Kyoto and Okayama.
- Wear holey socks. You’ll only be embarrassing yourself when you take your shoes on/ off constantly!
- Go into an onsen without washing first, that’s just dirty dude! Also, don’t go into the bathing area with a towel wrapped around you, you’ll just look stupid. Embrace the nudity! Everyone’s naked so no-one cares.