Planning a trip to Japan was one of the most exciting times of my life. I had no idea what to expect from this destination, but after spending a little over 2 weeks in Japan, I quickly became addicted to the country. I loved the epic street food in Tokyo and absolutely adored the quirks of this island nation. Tokyo is incredibly vibrant, sophisticated and fun. The Japanese capital has been voted the number 1 travel destination in 2017, hence you should put it on your travel bucket list right away. So here is everything you need to know to start planning a trip to Japan.
Table of Contents
Planning a trip to Japan - Packing
Don't forget that part of planning a trip to Japan also involves a well-packed suitcase. You can check what to pack for Japan and learn what outfits to bring with you in order to stay fashion all year round.
Planning a trip to Japan - Getting to Tokyo
There are frequent flights to Tokyo from all major cities in the world. I flew from London Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda, with a 4 hours stop in Beijing. This year, we will be flying from Bristol via Amsterdam, to Tokyo Narita.
We use a variety of companies to check the best flight prices before we commit to any dates.
Check for cheap flights to Japan
I strongly advise booking your tickets to Japan as early as possible. This is because booking accommodation can be tricky if you leave it for too late. Most hotels tend to fill up pretty quickly, especially during key seasons such as the cherry blossom festival.
Before you make any travel arrangements, please be sure to check if you require a visa either to Japan or to your transiting territory.
If you are from America, Australia, UK, Canada or EU, you do not need to apply for a visa to visit Japan. You will get granted a 90 days tourist visa at the Japanese border.
Planning a trip to Japan: Booking your hotels
The first thing you need to remember about booking hotels in Japan is that they go fast! I booked my hotels with months in advance to ensure I get reasonable prices. The longer you leave it, the more expensive they will get. Tokyo has various neighbourhoods, some better than others depending on your needs. You can check our guide on where to stay in Tokyo for first-time visitors.
Things to look out for: make sure your accommodation is close to a subway station. As long as you have access to the metro line, it doesn't really matter where you are in Tokyo, as the subway is relatively cheap and incredibly reliable. You can check how to use the Tokyo subway map.
Book our favourite hotels in Japan
Park Hyatt Tokyo
Osaka Marriott Miyako Hotel
Hotel Sunroute Kyoto
Grids Akihabara Tokyo
Airport to Tokyo
There are two main airports in Tokyo: Haneda and Narita. Narita is the main airport which serves international flights and Haneda is used mostly for domestic flights although there is an increasing number of international flights arriving there too. We were lucky and arrived at Haneda which is cheaper and easier to get into Tokyo from.
Narita Airport to Tokyo
JR Narita Express (NEX) - This is one of the best ways of getting into Tokyo as the journey takes an hour and it costs ¥3000 per person, however, it is covered by the Japan Rail Pass, JR East Pass and JR Tokyo Wide Pass. If you don't have a Japan Rail Pass, remember you can get your return ticket for ¥4000 which discounted for foreign travellers. The round trip has to be done within two weeks.
JR Sobu Line - A direct line which costs ¥1320, but the train leaves every hour.
Keisei Skyliner - This requires a transfer and it takes just under an hour to get into Tokyo. It costs ¥2630 per person and it departs every 20-40 minutes.
Keisei Limited Express - One transfer, the trip takes 90 minutes and it cost ¥1190 per person. Keisei Limited Express departs every 20 minutes.
Limousine bus - A direct line to Tokyo, takes just over an hour and a half and it cost ¥3100 per person. A discounted round-trip ticket costs ¥4500 and it is only available to foreign tourists.
Tokyo Shuttle bus - Direct journey, takes roughly an hour and a half and it costs ¥1000 per person. Departs every 20 minutes. Please note that it costs ¥2000 if you take the Tokyo Shuttle bus late at night or very early in the morning. If you buy your ticket online, in advance, you only pay ¥900.
The Access Narita bus - Direct journey, takes an hour and a half and it costs ¥1000 per person.
Haneda Airport to Tokyo
Tokyo Monorail - It takes 30 minutes and it requires you to change trains at Hamamatsucho Station. From there, take the JR Yamanote to the Tokyo Station. The total cost is ¥650 per person. Please remember that your first arrival is at 5:29 am and the last one is at 0:01. This means that you need to take a taxi if leaving/arriving during the night.
Taxi - We had our flights back very early in the morning so we had to be at the airport at around 4 am. We took a taxi which cost us ¥12000 including the booking fee. To book your taxi to the airport, just ask your receptionist at the hotel and tell them the exact date and time when you wish to be picked up. Although quite pricey, it was totally worth it. Being driven around Tokyo in the middle of the night is probably one of the coolest experiences ever. The roads are empty, the city is quiet, but Tokyo is still fully awake in its unique way. It felt as if we were in a dream or better yet, in a Murakami book. I don't think we had said "wow" so many times!
Limousine Bus - Takes about 30-80 minutes, it costs between ¥680 and ¥2000 depending on where you take the bus from. It offers cool connections to major hotels and several prefectures. Remember, the first bus leaves at 4:30 am and the last one stops at 1 am. It's a better option for the night travellers than the Tokyo monorail, but I still encourage you to pay extra for the taxi to experience the dreamy Tokyo at night.
Travelling around Japan
The best (and cheapest) way to travel through most Japanese cities is by subway. When you first pick up the map, you are guaranteed to feel a little intimidated. Once you wrap your head around it though, you will find it logical, awesome and intuitive. Used to the subway prices in London, we expected Tokyo to be crazy expensive. Instead, it was very reasonably priced, fast and reliable.
Tip: You should get the Tokyo map app. It's free to download on iPhone and Android.
A great way to travel around Japan is by Shinkansen (Japanese high-speed train). You need to remember that you can use them for free if you have purchased your Japan Rail Pass in advance.
You can walk and also rent a cycle for travelling around cities and smaller towns. Note that you won't have many street signs in Japan, hence it might be a little difficult to figure out where you are, without the use of a map service. I advise that you get a data sim card for Japan. We will cover this below.
IC Cards for Japan
One of the main things you should remember when you are planning a trip to Japan is the mighty IC card. IC cards are rechargeable and can be used to pay for public transportation as well as train tickets and various goods from shops and vending machines. IC cards are essentially your best-pre-paid card to use when travelling around Japanese cities.
You can buy one at the airport or pretty much any subway station. You are required to put down ¥500 fully refundable deposit. You can also personalise your card free of charge, in which case you won't be able to return your card and recover your deposit, but it will become a fun little memory from Tokyo. At the airports, you can get a Special Edition Pasmo Card, designed especially for foreign tourists.
Check the IC card machines and change the language to English. Simply follow the instructions to load your card with the desired amount. To use it, tap the card at the subway gates upon entrance and exit. Should you run out of money upon exit, you will always find fare adjustment machines (norikoshi seisanki) around where you can charge your card before getting out of the underground.
Internet Access in Japan
Having the internet on our phones whilst in Japan, sure made our lives much easier. We found it very useful to be able to quickly search for translations, points of interest and navigate through the subway. Tokyo does not have many visible street names, which can make it very difficult to navigate without knowing the city very well or having access to online maps.
The most cost-effective option is to pre-order a data sim card prior to your arrival. Once you have your hotel booked, send them an email and ask if they are ok to receive the data sim card on your behalf. I can't imagine any hotel saying no, but you should let them know regardless.
Once you get the go ahead, visit this website and order your sim or wifi device. Unfortunately, there is no way of getting this data sim card delivered outside of Japan.
Japanese laws are strict about voice plans sim cards and require residency status, thus, your only option is to get a data only card for the duration of your stay. A way around it is to use apps such as whatsup, hangouts, ringo and viber.
Travelling outside of Tokyo
Tokyo is a big city and there is so much awaiting to be discovered. However, it is understandable that you might want to leave the neon lights behind, in favour of rural Japan. Beautiful tea fields, wonderful mountains, postcard-perfect beaches and a much slower pace of life, Japan countryside has it all. Getting out of Tokyo into a smaller city can make you feel like a time traveller. Forget the playful Tokyo, its flashing colours and youthful fashion and instead, welcome the sounds of nature, the sounds of zen. We travelled around the island of Honshu for several days and loved every part of it. You can find out more about the three destinations we would recommend outside of Tokyo. Do you have more time to spend in Japan? Check out this handy guide on what to do in Japan.
Travelling through Japan can be quite expensive, but as a foreign tourist, you can get a Japan Rail Pass. If you decide to buy a JR Pass, please remember you can only get one prior to your arrival. You can get a JR Pass for 7, 14 or 21 days depending on how much you plan to travel around Japan. You should order it several weeks before your trip to ensure it has plenty of time to get at your doorstep.
Once you are in Japan, simply take your voucher to the JR Line counters either at the airport or main train station, present your passport for identification to get your JR Pass.
There are few things I would like to point out in regards to the JR Pass. Before travelling through Japan, you should go to the JR line counter and reserve your seat. This doesn't cost extra.
Remember to carry your JR Pass with you when you wish to travel.
You can't use your JR Pass on the subway.
You can use your JR Pass for the Shinkansen (except Nozomi and Mizuho), limited express trains, express, rapid and local trains too. There are some remote trains which are not covered by the JR Pass. Best thing is to always check at the counter when reserving your seat. You can read more about everything there is to know about the Japan Rail Pass.
The Japanese Etiquette
As with any new culture, it is advisable that you take some time to familiarise with the rules and etiquette for that country. It is especially important that you pay attention to how to behave in a Japanese restaurant for example, as you could end up seriously offending someone.
You can learn a few words in Japanese. For example:
Hello - Kon'nichiwa
Thank you - Arigatō
Please - Kudasai
Goodbye - Sayōnara
Excuse me - Sumimasen
You are now ready to start planning a trip to Japan and enjoy the coolest, most vibrant country on Earth. Do you have any suggestions or questions about planning a trip to Japan? Please let me know in the comments section below!