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Japan Travel Guide- Everything You Need to Know

Japan travel guide golden temple in Kyoto

Japan is a beautiful country to visit. It is full of diverse experiences, from visiting centuries-old shrines to neon-lit skyscrapers. The cityscape of Tokyo is iconic, and seemingly never ending when you gaze out at the top of the Tokyo Tower. You can visit onsens (natural hot springs), traditional Japanese gardens, tea ceremonies and more. You’ll be surrounded by cutting edge technology like the high speed bullet trains and the most incredible sushi and steak you will ever eat. Below is the Japan travel guide, filled with everything you need to know before visiting Japan.

Japan Quick Links

Japan Frequently Asked Questions

Why should I travel to Japan?

There are many reasons why you should travel to Japan. If you are planning a trip to Asia, Japan is a great country to add to your trip. While you can include Japan in a multi-country trip, there is so much to do and see in Japan you could also spend weeks in Japan and not get to everything. Japan offers a unique blend of traditional charm and modern innovation.

Japan has a rich cultural heritage. There are ancient temples and shrines to traditional tea ceremonies and festivals. The culture is also very communal. It is a very safe, clean, considerate country to visit. There are no street trash cans, yet the streets stay clean because everyone carries their trash to throw it out at home.

At the same time, you are surrounded by cutting edge technology in Japan. The local and bullet trains are on time to the minute, even the toilets are high tech in Japan. Don’t mistake the high tech for low personal hospitality though. In Japan, you will experience the most polite, thoughtful hospitality you have ever experienced. Especially in the hotels, you will notice such a strong culture of hospitality and politeness.

The culinary scene in Japan is one of the top culinary experiences you’ll ever have. It’s not just the best sushi and ramen you’ll ever have either. The wagyu steak is out of this world and the best you’ll ever have. The fruit is the most flavorful you’ll ever eat, especially the strawberries and melons.

If you’re not a foodie, there are plenty of other experiences for you that are highly rated in Japan. For example, for fans of anime, manga, and pop culture Japan is a paradise, especially in Akihabara in Tokyo.

Depending on what time of year you go, you can also experience the incredible Cherry Blossom season and incredible skiing.

Easiest Way to Get to Japan

The easiest way to get to Japan is by flying. There are several international airports in Japan including Haneda and Narita near Tokyo, Kansai near Osaka and Chubu near Nagoya.

If you are starting your trip in South Korea, you also have the option to take a train (though there are no direct trains) or take a ferry which is also significantly longer than flying.

What US cities have direct flights to Tokyo, Japan?

There are many US cities that have direct flights to Tokyo including Los Angeles (LAX), San Francisco (SFO), Seattle (SEA), Chicago (ORD), Dallas/ Fort Worth (DFW), New York (JFK), Atlanta (ATL), Detroit (DTW) and Honolulu (HNL).

What cities in Asia have direct flights to Tokyo, Japan?

There are many cities in Asia that have direct flights to Tokyo, Japan including Seoul (ICN), Beijing (PEK), Shanghai (PVG), Hong Kong (HKG), Taipei (TPE), Bangkok (BKK) and Singapore (SIN).

What do I need to know before going to Japan?

Japan is a very different country, so there is a lot to know about Japan before you go. Understanding all of this will help make your travel to Japan and travel in Japan much easier.

Getting into Japan

  • Before you go, check what paperwork is required to enter. Their covid entry requirements lasted much longer than other nations.
  • Japan has a lot of restrictions on medicines you can bring in, including medicine legal in the United States like Nyquil. If you need to bring medicine with you check here at least a month ahead of time so you can get the necessary paperwork to bring the medicine with you.
  • If you’re staying for less than 90 days and traveling with a US Passport, a Visa is not required.
  • Make sure you always carry your passport as it is illegal to not carry it, and that your passport is valid at least 6 months beyond your planned departure date to not run into any issues getting into or out of Japan.
  • Immigration may ask you for proof of a return airline ticket and for proof of a hotel / other accommodation.

Language & Translation in Japan

  • The official language is Japanese and while English is taught in school, not everyone is fluent. It’s helpful to learn a few basic Japanese phrases and install Google translate on your phone.
  • Google Translate is necessary, you can point your phone at a picture / sign / menu and it’ll immediately translate it. Also helpful to tell taxis where you are going.

Getting Around Japan

  • Foreigners are able to buy a discounted Japan Rail Pass who are visiting Japan under “temporary visitor” status. If you purchase on the Japan Rail Pass official site, you are able to reserve trains ahead of time online. This pass is most useful if you are using the bullet train multiple times. It’s best to calculate if it’s cheaper to buy the JR Pass or to buy individual tickets before you buy it.
  • The green car (business class) with the JR Pass is better as you can reserve seats ahead of time and the seats are roomy and comfortable.
  • If you have checked luggage and you are taking the bullet train you’ll want to reserve the seats that come with large baggage storage. They are at the back of the car. If your bags are acarry-on, they can go up top over the seats and you can reserve any seat.
  • Apple Maps gives better directions than Google Maps.
  • It is very easy to take the train within the cities and also the bullet train to get to other cities.
  • When taking the train, pay attention to the recommended exits in Maps, the train stations span many city blocks and it is directing you to the closest exit to your location.
  • Make sure you get on the right train! They trains are very prompt and the bullet trains have different lines on the same track. If you get on even 3 minutes early, you may get on the wrong train.
  • The Tokyo train cards are called Passmo and Suica – they both work. You can get a train card at any train station but you need cash.
  • Pay very close attention to times to go to things. For example, “go early” for fish market meant 5:30AM, but “go early” to a specific shrine meant go at 10AM. And, many attractions are closed on random days.

WiFi & Electricity in Japan

  • WiFi is widely available in the cities and many hotels provide free WiFi.
  • Consider renting a portable WiFi device as you’ll use WiFi frequently for translation on your phone and directions. You’ll need constant connectivity when traveling in Japan.
  • Japan uses type A and type B sockets, with a standard voltage of 100V and a frequency of 50/60Hz. I like this power adaptor best as it includes power adaptors for all countries compactly.

Cash and Credit in Japan

  • The official currency is the Japanese Yen (JPY). The Yen only has full amounts i.e. no 1.50, only 1.00. The change is a full yen or greater.
  • While credit cards are accepted in many places, some markets and smaller establishments only accept cash so it’s best to have some cash on you. Reloading Passmo in the train station also required cash.
  • Getting cash before you get to Japan is easier and cheaper, and one less thing to do when you arrive in Japan.
  • You can also exchange currency in the airport but it’ll be cheaper through your local bank

Shopping in Japan

  • There is a lot of great shopping in Japan. There are many unique things you’ll want to buy that you can only find in Japan.
  • Pack an extra bag or save room in your suitcase for the stuff you buy.
  • It is not customary to bargain and negotiate in Japan.

Cultural Etiquette in Japan

  • Japan places high importance on etiquette so it’s important to understand the basics before coming to Japan as it’s important to be respectful.
  • Bowing is a common form of greeting and shows respect in Japan.
  • Some establishments and temples will ask you to remove your shoes before coming in. Many of them provide bags or a space to leave your shoes.
  • Forming orderly queues is a common practice in Japan – you’ll see this often waiting for the train.
  • In Japan, tattoos are often associated with organized crime, and many hot springs (onsens) have policies restricting entry for individuals with tattoos or require they be covered by stickers that they provide.
  • Be aware of places that have restrictions on photography – especially in temples and shrines.
  • Japan places great important on respecting elders.

Tipping Culture in Japan

Good news if you think tipping has gotten out of control in the US. Tipping is not a common practice in Japan, and actually is often considered inappropriate in many situations. It is best to not tip in Japan and if you want to show gratitude they have have a concept called omotenashi. Instead of tipping, you can express gratitude through small gifts or tokens of appreciation. This could be something like bringing a popular candy from home and gifting it to them.

Additionally, a simple and polite “arigatou” (thank you) is always well received.

How many days should I spend in Japan?

If you have limited time, it is still better to visit Japan than not at all as it is truly an incredible country to visit. However, there is so much to do in Japan spending two weeks traveling in Japan is ideal.

Long Weekend

A long weekend with only 3-4 days in Japan is best spent in one city. Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka are all great options, though most do Tokyo if they haven’t been to Japan at all.

Weeklong Trip (7-10 days)

A weeklong trip to 10 days gives you the opportunity to cover the major attractions in Tokyo and Kyoto. If you’re very efficient, you can also add in a day trip to Osaka, and an overnight in Hakone, on the way to Kyoto from Tokyo.

Two Weeks

A classic 2 week itinerary allows for a more comprehensive trip to Japan. You can visit Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hakone and even add a day trip or two to places like Nara and Hiroshima. This amount of time allows for more time to be spent at each attraction, some time for relaxation and enable you to see more of the major attractions in most of the top area destinations.

Three Weeks

With a three week long vacation to Japan you have the flexibility to venture into less visited areas and experience different aspects of Japan. This timeline also allows for a more relaxed experience.

What is the best time of year to visit Japan?

The best time of year to visit Japan depends on your preferences, the experiences you are seeking and the regions you plan to visit. The most popular time to visit is during Cherry Blossom season in the spring. However, Japan is also well known for its skiing, baseball season, and sumo wrestling too.

Spring (March to May) Cherry Blossom Season

The most popular time to visit Japa is in the spring because of Cherry Blossom season. Known as Sakura, the cherry blossom season covers the country in shades of pink and Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima are the top destinations during this season to see the cherry blossoms. Many restaurants also have cherry blossom themed food like cherry blossom coffee. It is also the most expensive time to visit Japan as hotel prices are much higher. It’s also very important to book accommodations, activities, restaurants and transport early because of the amount of tourists visiting during this time. The best time to see the cherry blossoms vary every year as it’s dependent on weather, but late March / early April is the general timing.

Summer (June to August)

Summer is a popular time to visit Japan due to school vacations. Summer in Japan brings vibrant festivals such as Gion Matsuri in Kyoto and Nabuta Matsuri in Aomori. Expect warmer temperatures, especially in July and August. It’s also fun to attend a baseball game in the summer in Japan.

Autumn (September to November)

In autumn, you can enjoy the fall foliage, known as “koyo” in Japan. The weather is generally mild, so outdoor activities are comfortable.

Winter (December to February)

Winter is a popular time to visit Japan, especially if you enjoy skiing. Japan is known for its incredible skiing, especially in Hokkaido and the Japanese Alps. It’s less crowded in winter, making accommodations more affordable and easier to secure tickets to sightseeing and restaurant recommendations. While it is colder in the winter, and sometimes snows in the cities, it is not uncomfortably cold like Chicago and Toronto.

What is Japan famous for?

Japan is famous for a variety of cultural, technological, natural and culinary aspects. Here are some of the things that Japan is particularly renowned for:

Cuisine

  • Japan is known for the best sushi you’ll ever have. They offer sushi pieces you can’t find on menus in other countries. One of our favorites was kamotoro nigiri. This is a fatty part of the tuna that is a step above otoro.
  • Ramen is another staple in Japan. There are ramen shops that are fast food chains all the way to Michelin star ramen. Even the ramen shop chains are some of the best ramen you’ll ever eat.
  • The tempura in Japan is much more diverse. There are tempura tasting menus where you can have 17 courses, each course with a different meat, fish or vegetable.
  • When you go to Japan, you cannot miss having a steak dinner or two. It’s unlike any steak dinner you’ve eaten anywhere else.
  • Lastly, the fruit. The fruit, especially strawberries and melons are so flavorful in Japan.

Technology and Innovation

  • Japan is known for its bullet trains that travel at high speeds between cities and are a very efficient way to travel around Japan.
  • Japan has high tech toilets, many of which have heated seats and various settings.
  • Japan is the birthplace of anime and manga.

Traditional Art and Culture

  • Japan is also known for traditional art and culture including tea ceremonies, calligraphy and Ikebana.

Cherry Blossom Season

  • Japan is famous for its cherry blossom (Sakura) season, which is in the spring.
  • During cherry blossom season, many cafes and restaurants have cherry blossom specials like cherry blossom coffee.

Sports

  • Sumo wrestling is a Japanese sport with a history dating back centuries. Six tournaments are held every year: three in Tokyo (January, May and September), one in Osaka (March), Nagouya (July) and Fukuoka (November). Each tournament lasts 15 days.
  • It’s also popular to see a baseball game in Japan, with the season beginning in April and ending in a championship held in October.

Historic Temples and Shrines

  • Japan is famous for it’s historic temples and shrines, especially in Kyoto and Nara.

Natural Beauty

  • Japan is famous for it’s natural beauty, such as zen gardens which are designed to facilitate meditation.
  • Mount Fuij is an iconic volcano and Japan’s highest peak. If you don’t have a chance to go there, it can be seen from the bullet train as you’re traveling between Tokyo and Kyoto / Osaka.
  • Onsens are also famous in Japan. They are natural hot spring baths that are popular for relaxation and heath benefits.

What are the best things to do in Japan?

There are so many incredible things to do when you’re in Japan, it’s hard to summarize them all in a paragraph. So, we’ve created additional lists for the best things to do in Tokyo, the best things to do in Kyoto, the best things to do in Osaka and the best things to do in Hakone.

Besides exploring each of the major cities, you can experience a traditional tea ceremony, see the cherry blossoms (Sakura) if you’re visiting in the spring, attend a sumo wrestling match, go to a baseball game, go skiing, visit temples and gardens, eat some of the best food you’ll ever eat and more.

Is Japan Safe?

Japan is considered a very safe destination for travelers. Japan has a low crime rate and is known for its safety, cleanliness and strong sense of public order. As you’re walking around, you’ll notice many small signs of this such as nobody locks up their bike. They leave their bike there, and no one takes it. If you happen to lose something, there is a good chance it will be turned over to the local authorities or lost and found. The culture places a high value on honesty, and it is a very respectful society.

The public transportation is also known to be incredibly reliable, punctual and safe.

If you do need emergency services, the emergency number in Japan is 110 for police, fire and ambulance services.

Japan is prone to earthquakes. Most buildings and public spaces have clear earthquake safety instructions.

What is the best area to stay in Japan?

The best area to stay in Japan depends on your interests, preferences and the purpose of your visit. Each city and regions offer a unique experience and have different attractions. There are many great areas to visit when you visit Japan.

If you haven’t been to Japan before, the top two areas to stay are in Tokyo and Kyoto. If you have a little more time, the next two are Osaka and Hakone, where you can enjoy a bit of the countryside and relax in an onsen (hot springs). Day trips to Nara, Hiroshima are also popular. If you are going to Japan to ski Niseko and Hakuba are both very popular. As Japan is huge, here are the best areas to stay in Tokyo, the best areas to stay in Kyoto and the best areas to stay in Osaka.

Driving in Japan

The transportation system is so good in Japan, you really don’t need to rent a car to explore Japan. The bullet train can get you to other cities faster than driving would, and is more convenient. The trains can frequently be faster within the cities as well, especially Tokyo during rush hour. If you prefer a car, Ubers and Taxis are plentiful, and your hotel can give you a piece of paper for the taxis that you give them when you want to be taken back to your hotel. This is written in Japanese, as not all taxi drivers speak fluent English.

If you do choose to drive in Japan, vehicles drive on the left side of the road. U.S. citizens, along with citizens of many other countries, are required to have an international driving permit (IDP) to drive in Japan, and this must be shown along with your regular valid driver’s license.

How to save money traveling in Japan?

Traveling in Japan can be as expensive or as cheap as you want it to be. It is possible to only take public transportation using your Passmo or Suica card and Japan Rail Pass, and never need to pay for taxis because their public transportation is so extensive.

Accommodations range from budget friendly accommodations like hostels or capsule hotels all the way to some of the most luxurious hotels in the world. Staying in less touristy areas can also help reduce your accommodation costs. Major US chains like Marriott and Hyatt are in Japan and you can save money by using points for your stays.

You can save on meals by getting food at 7-11 (yes, this is a great option and you should check out 7-11 even if you’re not trying to save money on food), eating at an incredible chain ramen restaurant and eating at the fish markets. There are even incredible markets within many of the train station, and especially the main train stations.

There are also plenty of incredible free attractions like parks, shrines and temples.

In conclusion, Japan’s great culture, culinary scene, technology and innovation, shrines and temples and more are unlike any other. Visiting the temples in Kyoto, the fish market and Osaka Castle in Osaka, the onsens in Hakone and the many neighborhoods in Tokyo make for an iconic trip to Japan that you will talk about for decades.

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