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Planning a Trip to Japan

Japan has been a popular destination for tourism for many decades and continues to draw curious travelers from all over the world. One reason is that the country has a special quality created from a magical mixture of nature, history, and modernity.

No matter what it is that draws people to Japan, the country and culture always leave lasting impressions on those who visit.

While Japan is a top choice destination for many travelers, it can also be slightly daunting to prepare for a holiday there. There is so much information about where to go and what to see, that it can be difficult to find out about the nitty-gritty details of traveling in this beautiful country.

In this article, we’ll explain everything you need to know for planning a trip to Japan, including why you should visit, when you should visit, our favorite destinations, where to stay, what to eat, how to get around, and more.

Highlights

  • The top reasons to travel to Japan include its culture and ancient history, world-class cuisine, and quality of service.
  • You can visit Japan at any time of year though there are positives and negatives of each season. Spring is the high season, with the most beautiful weather, but largest crowds.
  • There is plenty to see everywhere in Japan but our favorite cities include Tokyo, Kyoto, Hakone, Nara, Takayama, Sapporo, and Uji. Some of these are large and modern, while others exhibit a rural and more natural version of Japan.
  • We suggest staying in a ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) for a relaxing experience, or staying in a hotel conveniently situated for public transport in the larger cities.
  • The food in Japan is incredible and some must-tries include sushi, ramen, wagashi, and a kaiseki meal.
  • The cheapest and best way to travel in Japanese cities or from city to city is by using public transport.
  • The cost of traveling in Japan will be similar to that of traveling in a western country, though there are some ways to help you save money.
  • Citizens of 68 countries can obtain a 90-day visa on arrival in Japan, simply by presenting their passport and proof of return ticket.

Why visit Japan

Japan is an all-around great destination for every type of traveler. Its unique mixture of ancient culture and modern technology means that people of all ages will find something incredible to enjoy in Japan.

It is difficult to visit Japan and not enjoy your time there. Our favorite reasons for visiting include exploring the incredible culture and history, trying the world-class cuisine, and the high quality of service.

Rich culture and ancient history

Japan offers a chance to immerse yourself in a new culture, because here you can not only visit incredible ancient castles and temples, but can also become involved personally in different aspects of the culture.

In Tokyo, guests can learn the ins and outs of making sushi or wagashi by attending cooking classes. If you want to focus on ancient Japan you can explore the temples in the countryside around Kyoto, or discover the origins of Uji tea.

If you are interested in geisha (hostesses trained to entertain men with conversation, dance, and song) you can spot them on the streets of Kyoto, or even participate in a tea ceremony with a geisha as your host.

Japan is a country where learning about culture is a hands-on and immersive experience.

World-class cuisine

The best way to describe Japanese cuisine is to say that it is fresh, high-quality, and innovative. With 519 restaurants and 119 hotels with Michelin stars, Japan offers plenty of opportunities for enjoying a world-class dining experience.

Whether you are eating in a fine restaurant or at a ramen stall on the streets of Tokyo, you will be able to taste the freshness and quality of ingredients used in your food.

If you are a foodie, then you'll fall in love with Japan's variety of delicious foods as well as its focus on the quality and seasonality of everything that is served.

High quality of service

Showing respect towards customers or guests is very important in Japanese culture. The Japanese service industry is simply unsurpassed. Whether you are in a ryokan hotel or in a restaurant, you will receive excellent service.

Japanese people like to focus on the convenience and happiness of customers and will, therefore, make everything as enjoyable and easy for them as possible.

When to visit Japan

Japan can be visited year-round, though there are benefits and drawbacks of every season. There are also some events such as the blooming of the cherry blossoms that can be only experienced during certain times of year.

Spring

Spring is one of the most popular times to visit Japan because of the beautiful, comfortable weather and the arrival of the cherry blossoms. The blooming of cherry blossoms or sakura has been a major part of Japanese culture for over 1,000 years and can only be experienced in the spring.

Because of the opportunity to witness sakura and the beautiful weather throughout the country, spring is high season in Japan, the time of year with most crowds and highest cost. If traveling to Japan in spring, it will be important to book flights and hotels well in advance.

Summer

Summer is the festival season in Japan, offering visitors an opportunity to experience multiple holidays and firework-shows in another country. Crowds are smaller in Japan in the summer, which means that standard prices for accommodation and flights are often lower.

Many people, however, choose not to visit Japan in the summer due to the high heat and humidity. Though almost every new building is air-conditioned, you can expect to experience average temperatures of 32 degrees Celsius (90 F) outside, and air that is heavy and sticky.

Fall

Although not as busy as spring, fall is the second most popular time to travel to Japan. In the fall, the weather cools down and the lower humidity allows for more comfortable traveling outdoors.

Many people choose to visit Japan in the fall due to the changing colors of the leaves, turning brilliant orange and red, in the countryside near Kyoto and Tokyo. Autumn is also the best time to visit some of Japan's best national parks, such as Mount Fuji and the Five Lakes.

Although autumn isn't as busy as spring, it is still important to book well in advance.

Winter

During winter, especially at the north of the Japanese islands, there are icy winds from Siberia often accompanied by heavy snows. This makes for great opportunities to participate in winter sports, such as skiing, in some of the many famous resorts and mountains.

Winter in Japan is also the best time to stay in a ryokan, with a natural hot spring. Nothing beats bathing in the hot pools surrounded by snow and quiet forests. In Yudanaka, visitors can watch monkeys bathe in the hot springs of the national parks.

Where to Go and What to See

With our experience traveling in Japan, we know it can be difficult to narrow down where you want to visit, in a place that has so many incredible destinations. Below are some of our favorite destinations according to our experience of traveling and planning holidays in Japan.

Tokyo

As the booming and modern capital city, Tokyo has a lot to offer by way of food, culture, and history. After landing in Japan, most people spend a few days there, to begin experiencing the bustling city life, like that at the famous Shibuya Crossing.

Tokyo is a great place to begin sampling Japanese cuisine, and a great place to start is the Tsukiji Outer Market, full of stalls selling all kinds of popular Japanese food, from sushi to eggrolls. The market is one of the best places in the city for seafood, delivered fresh to the restaurants daily.

Having seen the modern side of this incredible city, visitors can explore the ancient side by visiting some of its many historic sites, such as the Meiji Jingu Shrine.

Hakone

Known all over the country for its picturesque beauty and natural hot springs, Hakone is one of the most popular destinations in Japan. It is not only breathtakingly beautiful, but also provides the perfect break for visitors from the bustling streets of Tokyo.

If you go to Hakone, you have to visit the famous hot springs, as this small town is one of Japan's most famous hot-spring spots.

The Hakone region has more than a dozen springs that provide natural hot water. These springs are surrounded by ryokans where visitors can stay, eat delicious kaiseki meals, and bathe in the healing waters.

When not luxuriating in the relaxing hot springs, visitors can explore this sleepy undeveloped town located on the shores of Lake Ashinoko, with Mount Fuji in the background.

Kyoto

While Tokyo is the large, booming city that defines modern Japan, Kyoto is smaller and has a more prominent ancient and historical side to explore.

Kyoto is home to the striking Fushimi Inari Shrine, which featured in the film Memoirs of a Geisha and is famous for its countless vermilion torii gates.

If you want some incredible food and an opportunity to see a geisha making her way to a tea house, you can head to the Gion or Pontocho districts. Walking around there, along lantern-lined cobblestone streets, will make you feel like you are on a trip back in time.

In Kyoto, visitors are never too far from the natural side of Japan. In fact, the city has multiple famous places for viewing the sakura, the blooming of the cherry trees. Our favorite places for experiencing this beautiful event are the Philosopher's Walk in the city and Arashiyama just outside the city.

Nara

Nara is an ancient Japanese city less than an hour from Kyoto and Osaka. In Nara, visitors can see the Todaiji Temple, one of the most historically significant temples in Japan. Todaiji is one of the earliest centers of Buddhism in the country, and houses one of the country's largest bronze Buddha statues.

Nara Park is another favorite with visitors to the area, with over 1,000 acres of beautiful land, including Japanese gardens, a museum, and a sake brewery. Often referred to by locals as Deer Park, it is home to over a thousand free-roaming deer which can be seen throughout the park and even fed in some areas.

Uji

Uji is a small traditional town near Kyoto, world-famous for its green tea. It has been known for its high-quality tea since the 1100s, and is a great place to visit for an authentic view of tea production in Japan.

Here you can learn about the tea-making process from the growing of the plant to the kneading and drying process, to the final taste testing and quality checks. Here you can also participate in a traditional tea ceremony, or stroll through the picturesque Japanese village while sampling tea from local shops.

Takayama and Shirakawa-go

Takayama is a city in the mountainous Hida region of the country, a great place for escaping from the country's larger cities and relaxing for a few days in the rural countryside. When arriving in Takayama, most guests like to visit the local Miyagawa Market, to buy some local crafts and farm products and to observe the local people.

Takayama is also famous for Takayama Jinya, which was a local government office during the Edo period (1603-1868) and is now a museum open to the public. After visiting the museum, many guests enjoy stopping at the local sake brewery, renowned nation-wide thanks to the clear water in the surrounding area.

After exploring Takayama, many visitors like to go to Shirakawa-go to see its near-perfectly preserved Old Town, still looking just as it did during the Edo period. The Old Town is famous for its traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old.

The southern half of the Old Town is particularly fun to explore, as it contains many old homes, shops, coffee houses, and sake breweries. Some of the businesses here have been operating for centuries.

Kanazawa

Kanazawa is an ancient Japanese city that during the Edo period used to be home to one of the most powerful clans in the country. Today, Kanazawa is a great place to visit for anyone interested in the ancient culture of the country.

Because Kanazawa wasn’t destroyed by air raids during WWII, it’s one of the few areas left with so many surviving ancient districts. Parts of the old castle, the samurai district, and Chava entertainment district have all survived.

When arriving in Kanazawa, most visitors like to start by exploring the Kenroku-en Garden, one of Japan’s top three gardens, including not only beautiful plants and trees but also many shrines near the path. Near the garden, there is also the Kagayuzen Kaikan where visitors can watch demonstrations of ancient silk-painting techniques.

After exploring the garden area, you can head to the Nagamachi Samurai district for a closer look into what life as a samurai (a member of the Japanese warrior caste) used to be like.

Kanazawa also has many geisha districts. The Higashi Chaya District is the largest and most interesting, with many shops and cages lining the main street.

Sapporo

Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido province and is Japan's fifth largest city, as well as one of its youngest. It is well known for its wonderful weather and snowfall in winter, making it the perfect place for winter sports. In fact, the 1972 Winter Olympics were hosted here.

Besides the incredible winter scenery and numerous sporting resorts, one thing that draws people to Sapporo is the annual Snow Festival. This is normally a week-long event in February. It attracts more than two million visitors every year and is famous around the world for its incredible ice sculptures.

Where to stay

While there is plenty of accommodation available in Japan, with different standards, our favorite is the ryokan. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that will make you feel simultaneously comfortable and relaxed. Its floors are usually made of rice- or bamboo-straw. You sleep on traditional mattresses on the floor, and eat fresh kaiseki-style dinners.

Ryokans are the essence of comfort. Members of staff are often dressed in kimonos, they provide excellent service, the food is top-tier, and many ryokans are located on natural hot springs that have waters with healing properties.

Our favorite ryokan is the Kowakien Tenyu in Hakone, with its Japanese western-style rooms and atmosphere of total peace and harmony. Kowakien Tenyu also provides access to onsens, or hot spring baths, to its guests. These are a great way to relax, before or after sightseeing. Hakone hot springs are particularly famous for their long history and high-quality water.

While ryokans are the perfect places to stay in Hakone and other scenic and rural areas of Japan, when staying in the larger cities such as Tokyo or Kyoto, it's often best to choose hotels according to comfort, combined with location and convenience.

We think hotels near the main city train stations are best for travelers, so it’s easy to explore the city. Two of our favorites are Hotel Gracery Shinjuku and Mitsui Garden Kyoto Sanjo.

What to eat

Japanese cuisine focuses on quality ingredients and balance of flavor that is likely to leave all visitors excited and entranced. Whether it’s the sheer depth of flavor and variety of ramen throughout the country, or the precision that goes into creating sushi and wagashi, Japanese cuisine is as exciting as it is tasty.

When arriving in Japan, most visitors start with ramen, the perfect dish for any time of day. Ramen broth can taste very different depending on the region. Overall there are 3 main types, including shoyu which is soy-sauce-based, miso which is mostly served in northern Japan, and tonkotsu which is pork-based.

For a more hands-on experience of Japanese cuisine, you could sign up for a cooking class. Many classes are available in Tokyo and Kyoto, including sushi classes and wagashi-making classes. Wagashi are traditional Japanese sweets, a great option for those who are vegetarian or don’t like fish.

For those looking for more of a fine-dining experience, we recommend kaiseki, a traditional Japanese dinner with many courses. This is considered an art, searching for the perfect balance of taste, texture, appearance, and color. Kaiseki only uses fresh seasonal locally-sourced ingredients, meaning that at any one restaurant, the dishes might be different every night.

How to get around

One important reason why traveling is easy in Japan is the country's convenient and reliable public transportation. It is covered in a network of train, subway, and bus lines, which makes it possible to get wherever you need to go with ease and comfort.

From city to city

The famous Japanese bullet train, or shinkansen, provides an easy and quick way to travel across the whole country, without the risk of delays or the hassle of getting to an airport. Each shinkansen line has different types of train, which customers can choose from.

For example, for travelers in a rush it’s possible to choose the Hikari train, which stops at only larger stations. It is also possible to choose trains that make only direct trips to larger cities, saving travelers quite a bit of time.

For travelers who want to get from Tokyo to Kyoto, or vice versa, shinkansen trains are the best bet. The journey only takes about 140 minutes.

If you think you will be using trains a lot in Japan, you can purchase a JR (Japan Rail) pass, which is relatively cheap and gives travelers access to all JR lines across the country. A 7-day JR pass is typically enough for most travelers, and costs around 29,110 yen (about $260).

It is also possible to fly between cities in Japan, though with the comfort and availability of trains, most travelers decide to skip the airport hassle.

The one downside of traveling by train is that there is often little space for luggage larger than a carry-on suitcase. Many hotels do, however, provide the service of sending your luggage on to your next hotel.

Tokyo

The booming metropolis of Tokyo is covered in subway, train, and bus lines, making it easy to explore and traverse. When traveling through central Tokyo, the JR East and subway lines are most convenient.

In total, the city has 13 subway lines along with train lines, connecting at the city's 6 major stations: Tokyo, Ueno, Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Shinagawa.

The two busiest and biggest stations in Japan are Shinjuku and Shibuya. Shinjuku station serves as the main hub between inner city rail, commuter rail, and metro lines. It is used by around 3.6 million people every day. From Shinjuku, you can catch the Express to Narita Airport or get to Hakone by using the Romance car.

Shibuya station is another important and bustling station in Tokyo. The station itself and its pedestrian exits have made Shibuya world-famous. On average, 2.4 million passengers use the station every day. It mostly handles traffic from the city to southern and western suburbs.

Kyoto

Compared to Tokyo, public transportation in Kyoto is less developed, with only two subway lines, several railway companies, and an extensive network of bus lines. Most places in the city, however, can still be reached using Kyoto's public transportation.

The main train station is Kyoto Station, receiving JR bullet trains from Tokyo and other major cities. The station is also a hub for many ordinary trains coming into Kyoto, as well as for subway and bus lines.

From Tokyo to Kyoto, Hikari trains take about 140 minutes and ordinary trains take about 4 hours. Buying a JR pass is a good way to make this journey, but some companies offer special deals for foreign travelers; such as Japanican, which offers a round trip from Tokyo to Kyoto plus a bus pass for only 21,000 yen (about $185).

Kyoto’s bus system is quite convenient for travelers to get around the city and is the best way to reach many of the city’s main attractions. Tourist offices in Kyoto provide useful English maps to help travelers navigate the web of bus lines. In order to use all trains and buses in Kyoto, travelers can purchase an IC card or a 1-day pass, which allows access to buses and metro.

How to budget for a trip to Japan

Although Japan is one of the most expensive countries in Asia to visit, you still don't need to bust your budget to enjoy your experience here.

Costs of travel in Japan are quite similar to those in western countries. Typically a 3-star package tour starts from about $600 USD per person per day, including public transportation, full-day itinerary, a private guide, tickets for attractions, and a local 3-star hotel.

Intimate experience afforded by traveling in private

Purchasing a travel package for visiting Japan has many benefits for travelers, especially because having a private guide and an itinerary allows visitors not only to see as many attractions as possible, but also to learn about them from a local.

We like to arrange itineraries according to the goals of the traveler, the must-see sites, and the chances of experiencing authentic local culture.

Having a local guide on your journey through Japan can be incredibly important. Guides know the local language and which areas and attractions are being visited. They can arrange for deals and activities that people traveling alone would not know how to organize.

Guides can also teach travelers about important features of visiting Japan, such as how to navigate public transportation in order to see every attraction you wish to see, which can be complicated in large crowded cities like Tokyo and Kyoto.

If you are concerned about stretching your budget too thin, it may be a good idea to travel in a group or to have a half-independent half-guided itinerary.

Make your money go further

While in Japan, you can use plenty of tips and tricks for saving money.

The first and foremost is to take public transport and to buy a pre-loaded card, such as the SUICA, PASMO, or ICOCA cards, that can be used for underground metros.

Not only is public transport typically very convenient in Japan, it is also much cheaper than the average $1,000 a day needed to rent a private car with driver.

Our second money-saving tip is to stay in a local 3-star hotel near a major subway station. Local hotels will be much cheaper than international chains, and being near a subway station will allow you to use public transport easily, saving even more.

Local 3-star hotels usually start from US $160 per room per night. Our favorites include the Citadines Central Shinjuku in Tokyo and the Hotel Gracery Kyoto Sanjo.

Some other tips for saving money in Japan include eating cheap sometimes by grabbing a quick bite at a ramen stall or even a local convenience store. You can also eat at a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant, which is not only fun and high-tech but cheap as well.

Visa information

Another benefit of traveling to Japan is that citizens of 68 countries, including most western countries, can enter for 90 days without a visa. Only a valid passport and proof of return ticket is required, and travelers can receive tourist visas upon entry.

The 68 countries that qualify for visa-on-arrival (tanki-taizai) include Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Singapore, the US, the UK, and almost all other European nations.

All visitors are routinely fingerprinted and photographed when entering Japan. For official advice, please contact your local Japanese embassy or consulate.

How to fly to Japan

Most flights from international starting points such as Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand, land at Narita International Airport in Tokyo or Kansai International Airport in Osaka. These airports are conveniently close to their corresponding cities and are international hubs for some of Japan’s leading airlines.

Besides these two major airports, there is also the New Chitose Airport in Sapporo, the Chubu Centrair International Airport in Nagoya, and the Naha Airport in Okinawa. It's a good idea to consider ticket prices to different airports, as well as your travel itinerary, when deciding which city you would like to fly in to.

For the best prices, we advise buying tickets at least 6 weeks in advance. Good websites to visit for cheap tickets include expedia.com and skyscanner.com.

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