Japan Guide: What you need to know before you travel

Our guide to Japan 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?

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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. 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. 

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.

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.

Kyoto onsen Japan

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 everything you need to know about the Japan Rail Pass.

Shinkansen 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.

Perfect Sushi Rice Japan

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. 

Read about the Japanese customs and manners here.

spiritual sensoji tokyo

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. 

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Subhadrika Sen

This is a great guide to read before actually going to Japan. I have personally tried to use the chopsticks many times but have always successfully failed.

Thank you. I used to be terrible with chopsticks. I learned how to use them in Denmark (against all odds). We went into a Japanese sushi bar in Copenhagen and we received plenty of sushi and nothing else but chopsticks. It was one of those situations whereby I simply had to pick up the sushi from my plate somehow... I struggled, but eventually, it worked.

This is a really great lict to check and think about before heading to Japan! Never been there but it's been on my bucket lsit ever since I was in high school. Hopefully one day I can make it there!

I'm very glad you enjoyed it. I hope you make it to Japan soon!

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Delaine

Very comprehensive and helpful guide, many things I've never thought of. Thanks for sharing.

Really glad you enjoyed it!

Thank you for sharing all these information! I plan on going in September for 2 weeks. My concern is language barrier. I only speak English, will I have trouble? I do not know any Japanese words besides hello, thank you and goodbye. We will be going to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka.

Hi Kat, the language barrier is real in Japan, I'm afraid. But worry not, with a bit of help from google translate and a lot of pointing, you can get everything done. In fact, when you enter a restaurant, say hello in Japanese and show them (with your fingers) how many people in your party. When you order, point! When they ask you something, you will usually be able to understand. If not, say sorry, they will point and you can say yes (hai) or no (iie).
All three cities are super used to foreigners and they can understand some English, they are usually quite shy to speak. If in doubt, you can always get a guide for more obscure activities such as a pub crawl, a walk in the mountains etc. We didn't speak any Japanese back in 2015 when we first visited and we did just fine. You will really enjoy it!

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Keith Carreon

I have always been a fan of Japan because of its culture, its people and mostly because of the food. I have plans on visiting Japan soon but do not have any idea on how to make the most of my time there. This blog post helps me plan out my trip especially about the commute and the accommodation. Thank you very much!

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