Our Japan guide will help you decide when is the best time to make travel arrangements when to book your flights and accommodation, which places to visit and what essentials you may need. Don't worry, I went through the same chain of questions (and more!) and spent countless hours trying to figure out the best for my travels without an actual Japan guide. It's natural to want to have the best trip ever and planning for an upcoming holiday is the most exciting part.
In this Japan guide, I will help you prepare for your upcoming trip to the Far East. Are you ready?
Japan Guide: What you need to know before you travel - Contents
Decide when to go to Japan
Deciding when to go to Japan was a tricky task. I wanted to go during the cherry blossom season in spring but also wanted to see the koyo (autumn leaves) season in Autumn. Eventually, I booked the tickets for December, to celebrate my birthday in Japan. It's important to figure out what to expect from your trip and book the tickets to Japan accordingly. Just know that August is very hot and February tends to be the coldest. Winter is the low season so tickets will be cheaper whilst Spring attracts most tourists because of the sakura season, hence it will be the most expensive time to travel to Japan. We visited Japan every season in the last 5 years and we think Autumn and Winter are the best times to visit. Read more about when to visit Japan.
Decide what type of trip you want
Do you want to meander around traditional Japanese houses, bath in a Kyoto onsen and experience the ryokan? Do you want to live an adventure through the myriad things to do in Tokyo? Or would you rather hike, ski, or chill by the beach? The great news is that Japan has it all. You can do a little bit of everything but I believe you should find what's most important to you. This will enable you to really get the most out of your trip and have a deeper understanding of Japan. We think the best way to travel around Japan is by train.
Book flights to Japan
It's always a good idea to start looking for flights to Japan as early as possible. Keep an eye on the prices as they fluctuate and compare them to previous years. Know that prices during the cherry blossom season in April are usually more expensive than offseason (such as the middle of winter). It's all about careful planning. I booked my tickets only 2 months before December and got a very good deal on Kiwi. For Sakura season it's a good idea to start booking your holiday from Autumn.
Accommodation for your Japan holiday
Accommodation in Japan fills up pretty fast. Actually, I would recommend you looking for a hotel as soon as you know your travel dates. I found that most hotels in Japan were fully booked several months prior to the cherry blossom festival. I usually go to Booking.com, reserve my accommodation with a FREE cancellation option. This way I have something reserved, but I can change my mind or hunt for something else at a later date. You can read more about where to stay in Tokyo, where to stay in Kyoto and where to stay in Osaka.
Japan Guide Itineraries
Yaaaay! You have your flights (or at least your dates) and you reserved your accommodation. The best part is just about to begin: make an itinerary, or book your travels with a local travel tour in Japan. I suggest allocating at least 2 weeks in Japan.
Spend 7 days in Tokyo and allocated a few of days to your Kyoto itinerary.
Whilst in Japan I also took some day trips from Tokyo and some day trips from Kyoto.
Is Japan safe?
Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. It is a perfect destination for solo travellers. The Japanese leave items for sale outside their shop, knowing nobody would steal a thing.
Need more convincing? According to the 2016 Global Peace Index, Japan is the 9th safest country in the whole world, only a few points away from Switzerland, Iceland and Denmark!
Using cards in Japan
Most shops and restaurants in Japan accept cash only and just a handful of ATMs accept foreign cards. Japan is still very much a cash-oriented nation, hence you need to make sure you get plenty of money exchanged prior to arriving in the country. I ordered my yen online, from a specialized company in the UK. Don't worry about carrying cash in your wallet, as I said, Japan really is a safe country.
Buy a Japan Rail Pass
I travelled quite a lot around Japan by using the Shinkansen and several local trains. Train tickets in Japan are rather expensive and I don't think I would have been able to enjoy such freedom without my Japan Rail Pass. I ordered mine about a month prior to my arrival in Japan.
Learn a few Japanese words
Most Japanese don't speak English, thus you might have to gesticulate and point a lot. Knowing a few words in Japanese can go a long way and people really appreciate you trying.
Hello - Kon'nichiwa
Thank you - Arigatō
Please - Kudasai
Good bye - Sayōnara
Excuse me - Sumimasen
Tea - Ocha
Yes - Hai
No - Īe
Cheers - Kanpai
Learn how to eat with chopsticks
This may sound obvious, but the Japanese don't use forks, they use chopsticks. You might want to practice eating rice and noodles with your chopsticks at home, before arriving in Japan. I've seen lots of tourists struggling to eat, which can be negatively interpreted by the chef (he might think you don't like his food because you fiddle with it too much). I say ditch the fork and eat everything with chopsticks in preparation.
Buy an IC card
Having an IC Card makes perfect sense if you are planning on taking the subway a lot. Throughout the duration of my stay in Tokyo, I used my IC card extensively. When you arrive in Japan, get a Suica or a Pasmo card from any subway station (or at the airport). Top it up with the amount you want and then use it everywhere. You can also use it to buy several things from vending machines, which is really handy if you don't have change on you.
They work like an Oyster card in London.
Learn the basic Japanese customs and manners
When I first visited Japan it took me a while before I understood why and when people bow, how to behave in a Japanese restaurant and how to pay my respects when entering a shrine or temple. It will all come naturally if you pay attention to everyone around you, but I suggest learning a few basic customs and manners, just so can adhere to the Japanese way of life. It's always nice to respect other people's culture.
And finally... Keep an open mind
Ultimately you decided to visit Japan because you think it's awesome to be in a completely different country, with a different culture than what you are used to. I was always fascinated by the Japanese and their traditions but never I would have thought that Japan will become my favourite country in the world. Ask me about Japan and I will probably start rambling for hours about how much I loved this and that. I really can't wait to go back to Japan and learn even more about the Land of The Rising Sun. I urge you to allow your mind to break free from any stereotypes and soak in your environment. Eat various dishes, speak to as many Japanese as you can, visit weird places, go to remote temples, make wishes at different shrines. Just keep an open mind and say yes to everything Japanese. I can assure you that despite some initial cultural shock you will fall in love with the most awesome country on the planet.
Ready for Japan? Don't forget to check what to pack for Japan.