If you are planning a trip to Japan then you are probably already wondering when it's the best time to visit, 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 a 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 Land of The Rising Sun. Ready? Go!
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. Then I decided to visit during summer, although I really wished to enjoy an onsen experience during February. 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.
Decide what type of trip you want
Do you want to meander around traditional Japanese houses, bath in an onsen and experience the ryokan? Do you want to live an adventure through the colorful and futuristic streets of 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 off season (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 with KLM.
Accommodation for your Japan holiday
Accommodation to 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 cancelation option. This way I have something reserved, but I can change my mind or hunt for something else on a later date.
Start making 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 a couple of days around Tokyo and a couple of days around Kyoto. Whilst in Japan I stayed a week in Tokyo, went to the Snow Monkey Park, took the Shinkansen to Kyoto and took day trips to Nara, Uji and mount Hiei, before spending another week in Tokyo. I literally spent the whole of December in Japan, and it was amazing. Try to stretch your travels around Japan for as long as you can.
Is Japan safe?
Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. It is a perfect destination for solo travelers. 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 traveled 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 noddles with your chopsticks at home, before arriving to 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 to 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 favorite 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.